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Sailing the Caribbean.

THEY BLEND THE ROMANCE OF a private yacht with the space and luxuries of a cruise ship. Four new masted cruise ships are plying the clear, warm waters of the Caribbean, paying visits to lightly inhabited ports of call, remote harbors, and quiet islands inaccessible to larger ships.

These sailing ships offer pools, bars, and restaurants but take advantage of their shallow drafts and electronically controlled sails to cruise at an average speed of 8 to 12 knots. In strong tradewinds, three ship--Club Med 1, and sister ships Wind Star and Wind Spirit--can cruise as fast as 11 knots; the Star Flyer, modeled after the sleek clipper ships of yerteryear, can reach 15 knots. (Standard cruise ships average 20 knots.)

When the winds falter, specially muffled electric or diesel engines add power. Like larger cruise ships, these boats use stabilizers to help keep them upright and reduce motion. Sails are raised day or night, whenever there is enough wind.

While the ship is moored, you can go ashore, or (on all but the Star Flyer), boat off the "sports platform," which is lowered from the stern or midships. Each ship has a fleet of sailing craft and water-ski boats. Plenty of snorkeling gear is on hand, as is scuba gear for certified divers.

Passenger capacity ranges from 148 to 386--far fewer than the thousandplus you find on some cruise ships. As on a private yacht, the atmosphere is relaxed and dress is casual, with fewer planned activities than on conventional cruise ships.

A smaller passenger load often brings more personal attention, and more adventurous cuisine. When possible, fresh seafood and fruit bought at ports of call are served.

Costs are higher than on conventional cruises, ranging from $1,000 to $2,700 per person for a seven-day cruise, excluding air fare. Discounts are available (except for Club Med 1) for bookings made at least four months before departure. All three companies have special rates on air transportation and optional hotel accommodations. None encourages bringing younger children.

Fare listed here are per person, with double occupancy.

Club Med 1. The largest and most luxurious ship of its kind. Club Med 1 is 617 feet long and has five masts, eight decks, and a draft of only 16 1/2 feet. Capacity is 386 passengers; about half are usually from outside the United States.

Seven-day "southern route" cruises depart from Martinique and travel to St. Lucia, Bequia, Barbados, Tobago Cays, Mayreau, and Carriacou.

Two "northern route" itineraries are from Martinique to Les Saintes, St. Barthelemy, Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke, St. Thomas, and St. Kitts; and Martinique to Marie Galante, Nevis, Virgin Gorda, St. Martin, Tintamarre, and Dominica.

Cost ranges from $1,750 to $2,690. A one-time initiation fee of $30 per family and a $50 per person annual membership fee are also charged.

Club Med, 40 W. 57th St., New York 10019; (800) 258-2633.

Wind Star, Wind Spirit. These four-masted sister ships, each 440 feet long, can carry a maximum of 148 passengers; premium on service, relaxation.

Seven-day cruises go from Barbados to the Windward Islands (Tobago Cays, Grenada, Carriacou, Bequi, St. Lucia, Martinique) and Leeward Islands (St. Lucia, Les Saintes, St. Maarten, St. Barthelemy, St. Kitts).

Cost ranges from $1,995 to $2,695 for seven days. Special longer voyages are also offered.

Windstar Cruises, 300 Elliott Ave. W., Seattle 98119; (206) 281-3535.

Star Flyer. This 360-foot-long four-masted vessel is modeled after the classic clipper ships.

It carries a maximum of 180 passengers on seven-day cruises from St. Martin to the Virgin Islands (stop-offs may be Virgin Gorda, St. Thomas, St. John, Tortola, Jost Van Dyke, and Peter Island) or the Leeward Islands (among them, St. Barts, St. Barthelemy, St. Kitts, Montserrat, Antigua, Nevis, Statia, St. Eustatius, Saba, and Barbuda).

Facilities include two seawater pools and four tenders for shore visits. Side lights illuminate surrounding water so passengers can see coral beds and schools of fish. Cost of a seven-day cruise ranges from $995 to $2,495. The lower-priced, smaller rooms tend to attract younger passengers to the ship.

Star Clippers, Inc., 2833 Bird Ave., Miami 33133; (800) 442-0551.
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Date:Oct 1, 1991
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