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Ship's spa is a cruise to fitness

If just the thought of shipboard pizzas, ice cream sundaes, tempting pastries and creamy rich pastas puts inches on your hips, not to worry. It is possible to take a cruise without waddling down the gangplank when the voyage ends. Especially if you happen to be sailing on Princess Cruises' new Star Princess. While calories are dished out shamelessly on this 63,524-ton megaship, you still can have your cake and eat it, thanks to the ship's top-notch Images at Sea Spa program.

All you have to do is head down to the lowest public deck, stop in the locker room for a quick change into workout clothes and jump into an aerobics or body-toning class, work out in the state-of-the-art weight center _ where you can exercise your options on Kaiser 300 equipment, Bally life cycles or free weights _ swim laps in the oversized pool and jog or race walk around the massive deck.

If you need a little nudge getting you going, Princess' Cruisercise staff will help get you off on the right foot (or forearm). The fitness staff will guide you through a weight-training program, demonstrate proper walking or jogging techniques, organize vigorous volleyball games and keep

your body toned and trimmed with high- and low-impact workouts.

To reward yourself afterward you can relax in the complimentary muscle-soothing sauna or steam bath or treat yourself to a day of salubrious pampering at Images. Operated by Coiffeur Transocean, an international company that provides concessions on 42 ships throughout the world, the salon rivals some of the best landside facilities anywhere. (Of which this writer is a self-professed expert, having experienced such primal pleasures at spas and salons throughout the world.)

The best way to experience the program is by booking one of Image's Introductory Programs. Your session starts with a sauna or steam. Then a technician takes you in hand and leads you to the "sea scrub" room. As you lay supine on a comfortable massage table, she rubs a solution of plant extracts all over your skin which exfoliates dead cells and leaves your body feeling soft and silky. Next comes the Thalgomine Body Contouring treatment, which according to Tina Wignall, spa supervisor, "can actually take inches off the body if you take three or more treatments."

The technician applies a protein extract over hips and thighs that's supposed to plump up muscle fiber, strengthen capillaries and give a firming effect. Then you are sealed in a seaweed mask (micronized marine algae) and left to perspire out toxins and excess fluids.

This is followed by a rejuvenating "02 Marine Facial" that uses sea extracts and vitamin rich oils and gives the complexion a baby-soft texture. From here it's off to a super relaxing hour-long massage.

Then after a pick-me-up from the juice bar, you're given a manicure and pedicure, followed by a complete hair-styling session. The tab for all this pampering is $180. Not cheap, but an investment well spent. You also can have treatments a la carte.

The exercise program, however, is complimentary. And there's a frequent-fitness incentive that earns passengers Cruisercise SM coins for each class taken and are redeemable for T-shirts, visors, gym bags and Princess towels.

If you participate in the Cruisercise program regularly, you could walk off the ship in better shape than you started. Of course, it helps to go easy on dessert and keep an eye on excess calories.

To help you out, Princess features spa cuisine on all its menus, or you can request special salt-free, low cholesterol or lighter diets beforehand.

One last tip, take the stairs and skip the elevator. Now this may be easier said than done on this 13-story mega-ship. However, I regularly scaled the 99 steps from my Aloha deck cabin to and from the spa. And my hips and thighs thanked me for it at the end of the cruise. Yours will, too.

The Star Princess took its bow last March in the Caribbean, spent the summer sailing north to Alaska from San Francisco and headed through the Panama Canal on Sept. 15 to begin its second Caribbean season. The 13-story high vessel can tote 1,500 passengers in 735 staterooms. The piece de resistance, if you can afford the tab, are the luxurious suites that boast 100 square feet, overwater balconies, sitting room, complimentary mini-bar, queen-size bed, two televisions, large bathroom with tub and separate shower and other amenities, including free limo service to and from the airport. There are 15 of these accommodations, which according to a Princess' spokesperson "sell out rapidly." There are also 36 mini suites with balconies, 516 outside cabins and 165 inside, as well as 10 staterooms designed to accommodate wheelchairs. All cabins are spacious and tastefully decorated.

Snorkel or scuba devotees don't have to bother packing any gear; a number of excellent shore excursions to top diving areas include all equipment. This is also a great way to burn up even more calories.

Patti Covello Pietschmann is a free-lance writer who lives in Los Angeles.