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Three Memorable Cruises

If I could somehow isolate the best elements of the three memorable cruises, I think I would sell my Sony Trinitron and spend the rest of my days at sea. For gorgeous scenery there was the midsummer cruise on the Royal Viking Sky to the Norwegian fjords. For a rare journey into antiquity there was the week on the Epirotiki's Jason that got me to both King Tut's tomb in Egypt and the ancient red city of Petra in Jordan. And for oceanic travel in the grandest tradition, with an injection of upbeat comtemporaneity, there was the New York-Southampton crossing on the QE2.

* Three memorable cruises

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None of the three cruises was, of course, perfect in itself. Sun-seekers would find the fjords and the North Atlantic uncooperative, and slugabeds would not put up with the 6 a.m. awakening on the Jason to allow for a 3 1/2-hour bus ride to the Nile Valley. Yet in a booming business with more than 50 cruise lines and 150 ships to choose from, there is probably a cruise for every taste.

Two of the most important considerations in choosing a cruise -- for me, anyway -- are where the ships sails and what sights can be visited on shore. Of my "top three," each sailed into waters I was longing to see, and each provided that peculiar chemistry that always finds expression on the bounding main no matter how stuffy your dining companions may seem at the outset.

My friend the Royal Viking Sky (like its sister ships the Star and Sea) meanders all the way from Odessa to Pago Pago, but it is most at home cruising the fjords of Norway's west coast. Its customers are mostly American, but the ship's desing, its crew and officers are Norwegian Modern. The Sky is a mere yacht next to the 1,000-foot leviathans of yore; it is clean, sleek, efficient, and not yet 10 years old.

Sailing out of Copenhagen in that endless summer night, the Sky called almost daily in remote ports on Norway's 2,500-mile west coast. Every arrival seemed as important to the 500 passengers as to the townsfolk themselves, cut off through the long dark winter. Banks struck up a welcome on the quay, fishing boats and pleasure craft followed the big white whale in and out of port, and on some evenings cannons saluted her departure, the racket volleying across the steep-sided inlets.

One shining June day in Andalsnes we boarded a bus and circled high above a green valley floor until suddenly the seasons shifted and snow lay everywhere. Next day the Sky probed the bottle-green Nordfjord and dropped us at the twin towns of Loen and Olden where we caught a bus through a flowering valley, then switched to horse-drawn carts on the ascent to Briksdal Glacier, a towering bluish ice cube.

On the good ship Jason we were deprived of some of the Sky's comforts -- movie theater, daily newslester -- but there were compensations: an easy informality among passengers and crew and the remarkable antiquities we struggled to get to. Epirotiki, a busy Greek line, is not sending the Jason into the Red Sea this year, but its cozy little Argonaut -- on loan to the Raymond & Whitcomb travel agency of New York City -- will take its place. Aboard the Jason was a healthy mix of nationalities: French, English, a few Greeks, a couple from Los Angeles, a family from Wayzata, Minn., and the trend-setting Italians with their cool gliding ways, their cashmere sweaters looped over their shoulders in all weather.

Instead of a daily newsletter, we had the veteran cruise director George Guisi barking fragments of news over the ship's intercom. It was his voice that awakened us at 6 o'clock one morning as we lay in the port of Safaga. It was our longest day: a 3 1/2-hour bus trip to and from the Luxor-Karnak-Tut district. It was perhaps more than any traveler should attempt in a day, and yet the travail all seemed worthwhile when we awakened, two days later, to see Israel and Jordan out the porthole and knew that the wondrous Petra was two hours away by bus.

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When is a cruise not a cruise? When it's a transatlantic crossing on the QE2 . One never refers to a five-day New York-Southampton crossing as a cruise (although the Queen does spend part of the year cruising from port to port in the Caribbean, Pacific, and elsewhere). From April to December she is practically the only liner on this Western ocean, steaming back and forth between the US and >Please turn to Page B8> >Continued from Page B2> England with occasional stops at Cherbourg, carrying 1,300 to 1,600 well-diverted passengers.

One can do as little as sleep, eat, and lie beneath a blue Cunard blanket on deck. Or you can throw yourself into the QE2's "Festival of Life," an umbrella of unceasing activities. There are illustrious lecturers on board to share their expertise in speeches or informal talks -- perhaps Isaac Asimov, Milton Friedman, Gahan Wilson, George Gallup, Maureen Stapleton: there are classes in martial arts, cooking and bridge; shopping in the red-carpeted arcade; movies, golf and tennis lessons, trapshooting and quoits, arts and crafts for children.

Eric Mason, the QE2's physical fitness director, keeps anyone who wishes active and well-flexed, starting with a daily 10 a.m. jog on deck. He also gives exercise and yoga classes and swimming lessons, all of which you need badly on the Atlantic's longest floating smorgasbord.

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