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If you're at sea over which cruise to take, pick a theme

The premise behind theme cruising is simple: If it can be done on land, it can be done at sea. Take theater, for example. "Theater at Sea" is tailored by the prestigious Theater Guild for the Cunard Line. By day, travelers aboard the Cunard's Vistafjord climb the slopes of Mount Vesuvius in Italy or traipse among the pyramids of Egypt. At night it's showtime on board, with a cast that includes actors Christopher Plummer and Lynn Redgrave.

Or consider cooking, a popular and very portable _ and very cruise-like _ pastime. On the waterways between Fort Lauderdale and St. Thomas recently, cruisers learned the art of making a Grand Marnier truffle in between dips topside in the swimming pool of the Star Princess.

A theme is whatever the cruise line wants it to be. Filling up the cabins in the proliferating number of cruise ships is an art form unto itself, and attracting passengers with concepts is a tried and true method ("How to Market Cruises" might not be a bad theme). An increasingly popular scheme is to stock the ship with celebrities _ sports stars, movie stars, rock stars _ to attract business.

Current offerings for 1990 include the following. Except where noted, all prices quoted are per person, double occupancy.

A sports schmooze cruise: Isn't that Los Angeles Laker Byron Scott slam-dunking into the pool? If it's June, and the ship is the Norwegian Cruise Line's Norway, it might well be. The fourth annual Basketball Hall of Fame cruise sails June 23-30 following the NBA's championship series. The starting lineup for this summer includes Scott, Dennis Johnson of the Boston Celtics, Thurl Bailey of Utah Jazz, Kelly Tripuka of the Charlotte Hornets and more to come. The Norway sails from Miami with calls at St. Maarten, St. John and St. Thomas. Passengers get all kinds of NBA souvenirs as well as the chance for a one-on-one _ perhaps on the sun deck _ with their heroes. Fares range from $1,145 to $1,650, including air fare. Call (800) 227-1166. Norwegian features other celebrity "Sports Afloat" packages this year. For information call (800) 327-7030.

No smoking in the fjords: The theme here is "clean": Cebu minicruises, which originate in Seattle, are off-limits to smokers; don't even think about sneaking a butt on land, and no liquor is permitted on board. For vacationers who partake of Cebu's sailing through the scenic fjords of western Canada, this makes for ideal conditions.

Events focus on wildlife, anthropology, exploration of the rugged terrain. The small Cebu accommodates only eight guests in four staterooms and sails on itineraries of eight and 11 days. Rates are $1,005 and $1,320 respectively, without air fare to Seattle.

Taking notes at sea: There may be faster ways to leave Genoa, but probably none more romantic than standing at the rail of the MTS Odysseus as the Bern Philharmonic plays a Mozart symphony _ live, on the deck. Epirotiki Lines' seven-day "Festival of Music" cruise provides a romantic classical soundtrack for its passengers: on-board concerts and recitals plus musical performances in Sicilian amphitheaters, Greek forts and at a country house in Corfu.

Rates for the cruise, which begins May 5 in Genoa and concludes in Venice (no encores), range from $1,395 to $2,245, no air fare.

Cunard's Vistafjord becomes a floating symphony hall for a series of four exotic cruises between now and April 10. Itineraries include Australia, the Far East, a Mombasa-Rio leg and the "finale," from Rio to Fort Lauderdale. Among the artists scheduled to perform during the cruises are violinist Eugene Fodor, pianists Leonard Pennario and Vladimir Feltsman and soprano Shirley Love.

Fares range from $3,080 to $14,130, depending on length of cruise and cabin location, and include air fare from the United States to embarkation points. For details call Cunard, (800) 221-4770.

The material turns a bit more contemporary aboard Commodore's Caribe during a series of week-long oldies-goodies cruises that are distinctively do-wop. Cruises will feature such hearty rock "n' rollers as Jan and Dean, Ronnie Spector, the Temptations and Sha Na Na. The Caribe sails the Caribbean out of Miami, with fares starting at $975, including round-trip air fare from New York.

In the mood: The best of the big bands is the focus of Holland America's MS Noordam's cruises this fall. Singers Helen O'Connell and Don Cornell and entertainer Kay Starr are among the roster of talent scheduled to perform on some of the Noordam's 10-day cruises of the southern Caribbean, beginning Oct. 13. Among the ports of call are St. John's, St. Thomas, Martinique and Caracas.

Fares start at $949 a person, including air fare. Call a travel agent for additional information.

France is a country, but it's also a theme: Who says you need an ocean to enjoy a cruise? Rivers will do very nicely, especially rivers that flow through the French cityside and countryside.

The two fully equipped vessels of the French Cruise Lines _ and we're talking modern luxury ships, not canal barges _ sail on seven-night programs through the Provence and Burgundy regions, as well as through Normandy (from Paris) on a six-night cruise. Both the Arlene and the Normandie accommodate 100 passengers and feature French gastronomy (plus full American breakfasts). Fares range from $1,350 to $1,550. Schedules run from early April through the end of October. Call (800) 222-8664.

Smart cruising: "Discovery Cruises," designed by staff members at the American Museum of Natural History visit the ends of the Earth _ from Japan to Antarctica. Passengers on the museum's extensive whale cruise, "Baja: In the Wake of the Great Whales," sail in the 80-passenger Polaris in search of fin whales, gray whales and blue whales. Other itineraries are offered through spring and summer at prices ranging from $3,000 to $11,000 a person, including excursions and lectures.

The steward did it! If a good mystery book doesn't do it for you during a cruise, a real-life version might. On four Dolphin Line cruises this year, "Solve the Crime" dramas are performed by professional actors. Clues are provided along with boarding passes.

The events are offered on two three-night cruises out of Miami on Sept. 3 and 7 aboard the S.S. Dolphin. The two seven-night mystery cruises on the S.S. SeaBreeze are scheduled May 6 and Dec. 16, with stops in Nassau, San Juan, Montego and other ports.

Fares begin at $405 for three nights and $895 for a seven-night cruise, including air fare to Miami. In some cases a 90-day advance booking can reduce fares by $100 a couple. Call (800) 222-1003.

Summer down under: Way down under: Antarctica. Polar cap cruises (as well as the Amazon, Iceland, Indonesia and other exotic routes) are offered by Society Expeditions out of Seattle aboard its World Discoverer and Society Explorer vessels. The Antarctic voyages depart from various Chilean ports, usually with naturalists, lecturers or historians aboard. These trips feature hands-on experiences, although the company emphasizes that the journeys qualify as pleasure travel as well.

Voyages range from 15 to 22 days, fares from $6,390 to more than $10,000, plus $900 for round-trip air fare from Miami to Chile. Society recommends booking now for late 1990 to early 1991. Call (800) 426-7794.

Celebrity cruising: Vistafjord's 13-day "Theater at Sea" package embarks May 12 from Naples, calling at ports in Sicily, Egypt, Israel, Greece and Turkey. Passengers are joined by such actors as Christopher Plummer, Gena Rowlands, Zoe Caldwell and others for several theatrical evenings composed of readings, skits and vignettes from well-known plays.

Rates begin at $3,400 a person, including air fare (to Italy, and return from Greece).

If you're more into 60 Minutes than Masterpiece Theater, a trip to consider is one of the Royal Viking Sky's "Newsmaker" cruises of the Mediterranean and northern Europe from April 23 to Aug. 1. On hand to dispatch advice and criticism will be broadcast stalwarts Douglas Edwards, Bernard Kalb and Virginia Graham.

Fares start at $2,990 a person double, including round-trip air fare from the East Coast. Ports of call include Lisbon, Casablanca, Barcelona, Gdansk and Leningrad.