THE afternoon sun spreads sequins on the tranquil Caribbean sea. A few passengers along the rail watch the outline of the island of Mustique fade like a mirage into the pink and purple horizon. Others read. Some doze. Hal Porter, a builder from Santa Cruz, Calif., floats contentedly in the gently rocking saltwater pool. Mr. Porter, a world traveler and veteran sailor, is smiling. Quietly, he says to no one in particular, ``This is as good as it gets.'' Our voyage is four days old, and since everyone on board Sea Goddess II has been reduced to searching for superlatives, Porter's summation is so accurate it becomes the official theme for the rest of the cruise.
Cruising on Sea Goddess I or II re-creates life on the high seas the way it used to be. There are no theme nights, no hidden costs, no canned entertainment. What is offered is glamour, quiet luxury, refined cuisine, and service par excellence. ``We tell our staff that whatever they do, it can never be enough,'' emphasizes Jim Lillas, the Sea Goddess social director. ``Life on the Sea Goddesses is different from any other travel experience, and we mean to keep it that way.''
Sea Goddess embarkation, called the ``30-second check-in,'' is the first of many efficiencies that passengers encounter. If it takes longer, it is only because first-time guests tend to pause frequently - almost in surprise at the beauty of each public space - the glistening brass, the atrium with an ebony Steinway at the bottom, the abundance of fresh flowers, the paintings.
On board, the Norwegian maritime crew led by Captain Sven-Erik Peddersson, always smartly attired in starched whites, mingles easily with passengers. The mostly Austrian housekeeping staff cheerily calls guests by name.
All accommodations, 58 outside suites with large windows, are decorated in softest pastels, pinks and white, or pale blues and greens, complemented by bleached Scandinavian oak. Tucked out of sight is a personal wall safe, refrigerator, television set, videocassette recorder, and radio. Cupboards hold rock crystal glasses. There is fresh fruit. Ample closet space hides behind full-length mirrored doors. The bathroom, with tub, shower, and rose-colored terry robes, is restocked with stacks of fresh towels three times a day.
Breakfast and lunch are served at the outdoor caf'e, and dinner (which is often black-tie and always coat and tie) in the mirrored dining room between 8 and 10 o'clock each evening. There is no assigned seating; guests wander in anytime they choose and dine at tables for two or more. Want to order something special? The maitre d' is happy to arrange your request. ``We consider each meal a happening,'' Chef Franz Zagler says seriously. ``We want passengers to enjoy taste as well as presentation.'' At least two waiters hover at each table to ensure perfect cadence. Whether it's poached oysters in delicate fennel sauce or angel-hair pasta with crab meat, followed by Caesar salad, broiled lobster, and chocolate cake, dining is leisurely perfection.
If you don't feel like dressing for dinner, 24-hour room service will serve candlelight and roses as well as your meal. Feel hungry at 3 a.m.? The night chef is ready to ship up anything from filet mignon to ``the world's best cheeseburger.'' Want to place a standing order for Beluga caviar every evening at 6:30? It will be there.
Public spaces are small but elegant. One lounge is a glorious room of peach and beige tones. Hung with oil paintings, it is the dignified meeting spot for after-dinner music around the mirrored baby grand. The main lounge, done in soft grays, is steps away from the Oriental-carpeted lobby. The library is a hushed, well-stocked room of books and international periodicals, as well as shelves of current and favorite old films.
In warm weather, the pool area on Deck 3 is one of the most popular gathering places on the ship. A cleverly designed bleached-wood deck embraces the rectangularly shaped oval seawater pool and elevated round whirlpool. Navy and white chaise longues, tables, and chairs are grouped invitingly to encourage conversation or ensure private contemplation. When the ship is at anchor, an ingenious platform unfolds from stern to sea level for easy access to swimming, snorkeling, windsurfing, water-skiing, or sailing. All sports equipment, including two sailboats, two speedboats, windsurfers, and snorkeling gear, is provided free.
With a 14-foot draft, the Sea Goddesses are able to explore ports and tiny harbors that defy huge ocean liners. We were lured by the wondrous grottoes of Virgin Gorda and the untouched-by-civilization feel of Terre de Haut. This, the most intriguing of the eight ^Iles Des Saintes Islands in the French West Indies, is six miles off the coast of Guadaloupe. We stroll along the one paved road, following luscious scents of garlic and escargots, greeted at every turn by blond, blue-eyed native descendants of 17th-century Breton and Norman settlers.
From a distance Tobago Cay looks isolated. White half-moons of sand are fringed with waving palms. Upon closer scrutiny we spot a few doorless palm huts and a handful of brightly painted rowboats resting idly near mountains of conch shells. Before passengers are cleared for landing, the crew is installed on the beach. We follow on speedy rubber zodiacs, just after cloth-clovered tables have been laid with fried chicken, refreshments, and stacks of towels. Long-stemmed glasses brimming with icy fruit juices reflect on silver trays. ``Welcome to Paradise,'' the waiters smile as we wade through the surf.
We shop at Philipsburg on the Dutch side of Sint Maarten and prowl around the crowded streets of St. Barts. Each port of call is interesting and unusual, and would normally represent an irresistible destination. But our fellow passengers are curiously ambivalent. They want to explore new places, but are reluctant to leave the ship. ``I've only got a week on the Sea Goddess,'' one of them explains, ``and I'm not getting off a moment before I have to.''
Sea Goddess passenger lists read like an International Who's Who, representing an amazingly well-traveled, sophisticated, but friendly clientele. Some, like Lady Vivian Duffield, of Britain, chartered one of the ships for a two-week birthday celebration; others are not embarrassed to confess they saved for a Sea Goddess holiday. There are some who wouldn't be caught poolside without a couple of diamond bracelets and a ruby necklace or two. Others, like the businessman from Columbus, Ohio, prefer the understated chic of favorite old clothes. ``Trappings aside,'' says Mr. Lillas, the social director, ``our passengers are unique because they're so interesting and interested. Everyone has to know what your business is within the first 24 hours. Friendships are formed and future bookings are made before the voyage is over.''
The real payoff is that at the moment, the Sea Goddesses offer cruising without peer. With rates that range from $4,400 per person per week, double occupancy, passengers expect and get the best of everything. Practical information:
For further information contact your travel agent or Cunard-Sea Goddess Ltd., 555 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10017. Telephone 800-458-9000.