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Caribbean cruise

By Ellen SteeseTravel editor of The Christian Science Monitor / January 14, 1983

Port Everglades, Fla.

The sounds on the deck of a cruise ship departing from a southern port on a winter night are the sounds of New Year's Eve. Over the strenuous bubbling hurray-for-us roar of voices, the band is working hard on ''The Saints''; shouts of excited laughter are echoed somewhere in the distance, and a man salutes his friends: ''We made it!'' he exclaims.

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Many of the hundreds of merrymakers on the deck are waving frantically to some dozen people standing about on the dock. Pink, yellow, and blue streamers waft slowly against the ship's pure white side, and a sprightly gray-haired lady joyfully flings a peach one to join its fellows. The gay yellow and red pennants that, in the daytime, arch back over the ship from bow to the flying bridge to the stack to the stern, are replaced by small, festive, white lights, celebrating a temporary escape from winter, large decisions, and other hardships for all on board.

Slowly, the Royal Viking Star edges out of the harbor. It's an operation of military precision, navigating such a big ship: 28,000 tons, consuming approximately 464 gallons of fuel per hour at 16.2 knots, with a crew of 370. It almost seems an astonishing amount of effort to take 640 people on a six-day pleasure outing.

A little over a year ago, the Royal Viking Star spent three months in drydock undergoing an unusual expansion: She was cut in half and a new ''middle'' inserted. As Royal Viking's Torbj/orn Soetre said with a deep Norwegian chuckle and a swash of a bushy eyebrow, ''The little baby grew up.''

The ship cost $22 million originally in 1972; the insert, which increases passenger capacity from 500 to 725, cost $100 million. Her sister ship, the Royal Viking Sky, has just undergone the same process; while the Royal Viking Sea goes into drydock in March. The result: the equivalent of a fourth ship, for about $100 million less than it would cost to build one.

You can get around the Caribbean for a lot less than this trip costs. What your extra dollars buy you is space. There is only one seating at dinner, so you sail into the dining room whenever you please; on most other ships you must remember the rights of the person waiting hungrily for your spot at the table. Here you never find yourself contending for the last deck chair; there's usually a sort of forest of them around the pools. Select one, lie down, let the warm air pour over you.

Once in a while though, even the most ship-loving passenger must explore a port or two. Our first stop was St. Thomas, very much on the beaten track for cruise ships. A beautiful and reliable harbor of turquoise water joins the white and pastel town of Charlotte Amalie. By the harbor are old warehouses now picturesquely renovated and divided into expensive little shops selling pearls from Japan, perfume from Paris, etc. The hand embroidered linens seemed a good deal.

St. Thomas is in the path of the trade winds from Portugal - ''That's perhaps why Columbus sailed here,'' said John Bender, our shore excursion manager. We hit St. Thomas on a rare day of rain; our trip out to the underwater marine observatory Coral World was in an open air taxi, and when we arrived there the multicolored and exotic fish were no wetter than our good-humored group.

The history of the Caribbean in the 16th and 17th centuries is a dramatic one: The great powers of the day fought out their rivalries here, and these tiny dots of green land were once ablaze with cannons and burning buildings. The fortifications of the harbor of San Juan, our second stop, are relics of that time. The most spectacular of these, El Morro, built in 1540, proved itself against no less an old sea warrior than Sir Francis Drake. Puerto Rico was then the link between Spain and its Latin American empire; money from Mexico paid for the building of El Morro.

Ms. Velasquez, a friendly young Park Ranger, gave me a tour of the fortress - all dramatic orange stone in the hot sun; we trotted past gundecks, down long slippery stairways and ramps, toured terraces overlooking the gleaming blue harbor. When the US annexed the island in 1898, all the old Spanish texts in the library were simply thrown out, she said. Under the main plaza is a cistern that could contain enough water for the fort for one year.