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Rare bargain buys ticket to ride with queen for a few days

If everything has its season, as they say, this postwar spring of 1991 could well be called the "Season of the Happy Traveler." If there is one thing travelers love almost as much as travel itself, it is a travel bargain, and this year the bargains have been blooming profusely. Having gone to the Far East on a delightfully slim shoestring in March, our cup ran over once again in April when a relative pittance got us a date with a legendary queen. "Seize the moment" is the philosophy of many of us who have joined the 70-something set, so that's what I was doing as I parked on a pier in Fort Lauderdale and prepared to board the ship that is the nearest thing to a legend we have these days. I'm referring to the huge and beautiful Queen Elizabeth 2.

No proper Briton would use the term "two for one," but the fare reductions brought about by wartime cancellations and available on a now-or-never basis came close to that. Suddenly, for one all-too-brief week, the unaffordable became affordable even for those of us who do our own income tax returns.

When you have bunk beds in the cheapest cabin on the ship, you need a wife who is a good sport, so I was lucky there. For myself, I probably would have agreed to wash dishes just to be aboard the QE2.

Yes, a few other cruise ships of equal size boast atriums and cabins with "terraces," but they are mostly new and lacking in history. They have plastic where the QE2 has rare wood. They have glitz, but the Queen has glamour. They are designed for the easygoing Caribbean life, whereas the QE2 is designed for speed on the storm-tossed North Atlantic. While their top speeds run around 21 or 22 knots, the big Queen will do 32.5 knots. How else can you sail from New York to Southampton in five days?

There were unexpected glitches. The major one was that a generator fire made us nine hours late leaving Fort Lauderdale and meant we would not be able to call at Martinique, an island I very much wanted to see. The minor one was that despite our hard-working travel agent's prompting, my birthday cake and its accompanying serenade were forgotten. In addition, our two regular waiters, both very friendly fellows, were the most inept I've encountered on a cruise ship.

Actually, the Queen is only a semi-cruise ship, since it still makes many transatlantic passenger runs in the average year and gets to the Caribbean only now and then. It also has gone to war (remember the Falklands fracas?) and presumably would be ready to do so again.

Everything else came up pluses, and I'm sure it's the pluses we'll remember as the years go by. They include the big public rooms and lounges, the many sports, hobby and crafts activities available, and interesting lectures on everything from creating an Irish garden to former ABC White House reporter Bob Clark's reminiscences of six presidents he has covered.

There were three orchestras and well-done floor shows with a headliner or two I have heard of before. Our celebrity passenger was movie actress Susan George, who was interviewed on the ship's closed-circuit television. I caught one brief glimpse of her in person.

Yet the real mystique of the great ship probably came from the people who weren't there, the ones I saw in my mind's eye _ the movie stars and tycoons, the presidents and politicians, the famous and the infamous who have thronged the ship's gangways since its launching in the late 1960s.

I'm old enough to remember when the great superliners were not only the most gracious way but also the only way to cross the Atlantic. I remember movie newsreels of great superliners arriving in New York, filled with the "beautiful people" of the time. And here I was sailing on the last of the breed.

As I luxuriated in the legendary, the islands we visited became almost an afterthought, although I must admit that going ashore by tender in St. Maarten amid very rough swells did get my attention. Somehow, whether tied at a pier or anchored in the harbor, the ship itself was always the most beautiful thing in sight.

First on our itinerary was St. Maarten, an attractive little island that is half French and half Dutch. The wartime cancellations that made our voyage possible had taken a heavy toll there, and several big resorts were shuttered, hoping to reopen before too long, I was told.

Barbados, which came next, was our favorite _ very British, with its own Trafalgar Square and statue of Lord Nelson, and with strikingly beautiful views from the restored signal station atop Gun Hill. Also, the 50-acre forest of flowers and the eerie beauty of the many limestone caverns in Harrison's cave were great picture and memory material.

Our day in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgins almost brought a tear or two. I first saw that little island in 1959, when it abounded in both beauty and duty-free bargains. I saw it next in 1979 and noticed that it was getting crowded. In 1991 it can be described only as dying from tourist pollution.

With eight or more ships in port that day, the place was just overwhelmed. Drake's Seat overlook, which looks down on beautiful Megan's Bay, was full of bus and van drivers arguing over scarce parking space and actually making the stop a minus.

New on the island is Coral World, with its undersea observatory, which allows us non-scuba types to experience underwater life and views. In the shopping district, serious overload had set in with sidewalk space at a premium and browser jams everywhere. After a couple of small purchases, we beat a retreat. Too bad, I reflected, as we tendered back to the ship.

So the days went by with afternoon tea and, one night, truffle soup, escargot and crepes, all in the same meal. I still think about them as I munch my lunchtime bologna sandwich.

Harrod's, the famous London department store, has a branch on the QE2. Great for browsing, but I'll leave the buying to the people in the higher tax brackets. We did load up on souvenirs, though, not expecting to ever pass that way again. It was a moment I would have regretted not seizing, and the afterglow of the experience still lingers.

Someone once said that a peasant can look at a king. Sometimes, if the price and the time are just right, he can even sail aboard a queen.

James Pettican is a retired journalist who lives in Palm Harbor.

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