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Cruising has come a long way since the days of bingo, shuffleboard, and even the delusional Love Boat. Whether you prefer megaships with rock-climbing walls or a smaller, less elaborate ship that just sails you to your destination, a floating vacation can be a very enticing option for people traveling to South Florida. The proximity to the Caribbean makes 3-, 4-, 6-, 7-, or 9-day cruises an excellent diversion from the hustle and bustle of the big city.

If you want to catch a weekend in the Caribbean while you're in South Florida but aren't enthralled with the idea of boat travel, there are a number of air packages available as well. Travel to Cuba is severely restricted from Miami (or anywhere in the United States) for all but those who have obtained licenses from the U.S. State Department (visit www.destinationcuba.com/whocanvisit.htm), although many people choose to go there from Mexico, Jamaica, or the Bahamas.

The following sections aren't intended to be detailed descriptions of the cruising and package options available out of Miami and the Keys -- that would fill up an entire book on its own -- but they will give you a good overview of the cruising and package picture. At press time, there were deep discounts on all cruise lines, with prices as low as, and sometimes lower than, $50 a day, so be sure to check carefully and get the best deal out there.

Cruises

The Port of Miami is the world's busiest cruise-ship port, with a passenger load of close to three million annually. The popularity of these cruises shows no sign of tapering off, and the trend in ships is toward bigger, more luxurious liners. Usually all-inclusive, cruises offer value and simplicity compared to other vacation options. Most of the Caribbean-bound cruise ships sail weekly out of the Port of Miami. They are relatively inexpensive, can be booked without advance notice, and make for an excellent excursion.

The Port of Miami is very close to downtown Miami, but the most popular pre- and postcruise destination in Miami is South Beach (about a 10-min. ride from the port), because of its proximity to the port and the fact that it's a relatively small (and walkable) area full of nightlife, beaches, hotels, and restaurants. If you're just looking for a quick overnight stay, your best bet may be one of the downtown-area hotels, which are closest to the port. The only two in the immediate area that I'd recommend, however, are The Hotel Inter-Continental Miami, which is literally up the block from the port, or the Biscayne Bay Marriott, located about 5 minutes away. For food and shopping, Bayside Marketplace is within walking distance of the port. Cabs are abundant at the port. A ride to the airport should cost about $25 and a ride to South Beach should be about $10.

All the shorter cruises (3 and 4 days) are well equipped for gambling. Their casinos open as soon as the ship clears U.S. waters -- typically 45 minutes after leaving port. Usually, four full-size meals are served daily, with portions so huge they're impossible to finish. Games, movies, and other onboard activities ensure you're always busy. Passengers can board up to 2 hours before departure for meals, games, and cocktails.

There are dozens of cruises from which to choose -- from 1-day excursions to a trip around the world. You can get a full list of options from the Metro-Dade Seaport Department, 1015 N. America Way, Miami, FL 33132 (tel. 305/371-7678). It's open Monday through Friday from 8am to 5pm.

The cruise lines and ships listed below offer 3-, 4-, and 7-night cruises to the Caribbean, Key West, and other longer itineraries that often change. If you want more information, contact the individual line, or, for Bahamas cruises, call the Bahamas Tourist Office, 1200 S. Pine Island, Suite 750, Plantation, FL 33234 (tel. 954/236-9292; www.bahamas.com). All passengers must travel with a passport or proof of citizenship for reentry into the United States.

For detailed information on Caribbean cruises, pick up a copy of Frommer's Caribbean Cruises & Ports of Call.

Carnival Cruise Lines (tel. 800/327-9501 or 305/599-2200; www.carnival.com) has 3-, 4-, and 6-day cruises to Key West and the Caribbean as well as 7- and 9-day excursions that include stops in Mexico, Jamaica, and the Cayman Islands. Carnival's ships are appropriately known as Fun Ships, catering to a young, party-hearty crowd. There's also a smoke-free ship called the Paradise. Cruises usually depart from Miami Friday through Monday. Prices range from $400 to $3,000 (lower rates are usually available, depending on season), not including port charges, which can be as high as $200 per person.

Cunard (tel. 800/528-6273 or 305/463-3000; www.cunardline.com), which moved here in late 1997, is known for its Old World elegance and caters to an older, sophisticated crowd. If you're looking for Internet cafes and ice-skating rinks, Cunard isn't for you. This line's Miami ships include the legendary throwback from the halcyon days of the mighty luxe ocean liner Queen Elizabeth II, as well as the Queen Mary II. Itineraries are usually at least 10 days long, though there are some that last 6 days, such as the jazz, fine arts, and big-band cruises. Prices start at $3,300 per person.

Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) (tel. 800/327-7030 or 305/436-0866; www.ncl.com) has four ships based in Miami during the winter months and usually one in the summer. NCL is known for having the most flexible dining setup at sea, with open seating and casual dress codes. A mixture of young and older crowds can be found on their ships. Ships go to Key West, the Bahamas, and the Western Caribbean. Its shortest cruises are 3 days; the longest -- from Miami to France -- is 15 days. Rates range from $42 per person for an inside cabin on the shortest cruises to $4,500 per person for the very best cabin on the transcontinental journey.

Royal Caribbean International (RCI) (tel. 800/327-6700 or 305/539-6000; www.royalcaribbean.com), one of the premier lines in Miami, has about half a dozen ships departing Miami at any given time. The Port of Miami actually had to renovate three cruise terminals in 1999 -- at a price of $60 million -- to accommodate Royal Caribbean's 142,000-ton ship Voyager of the Seas, which boasts an ice-skating rink and a rock-climbing wall, among other theme-park-like diversions. Mariner of the Seas, Navigator of the Seas, Explorer of the Seas, and Adventure of the Seas are the line's four other theme parks at sea, totaling to five Voyager-class ships also featuring extreme sports and an assortment of high-tech activities. As a result, RCI caters to a young and old(er), active crowd as well as families with children. The line mostly offers Caribbean cruises and some Bahamas destinations. The Legend of the Seas and the Splendor of the Seas offer 3- and 4-night Bahamas trips for as low as $100 per person, per day, to as high as $7,500 per person for an 11-night cruise through the Caribbean.

Flights & Weekend Packages

For those who want a quick getaway to the Caribbean without the experience of cruising, many airlines and hotels team up to offer extremely affordable weekend packages.

For example, the Bahamas' most entertaining and family-friendly resort, the Atlantis on Paradise Island (tel. 888/528-7155; www.atlantis.com), is a tropical theme park offering extensive watersports plus an active casino. Reasonably priced 3-day packages start at about $390, depending on departure date. (It's generally cheaper to fly midweek.) Flights on Continental Airlines (tel. 800/786-7202) depart at least twice daily from Miami International. You can also choose to stay in the company's other luxurious resorts: the Paradise Beach Resort or the Ocean Club. Book package deals through Paradise Island Vacations (tel. 800/722-7466).

Other groups that arrange competitively priced packages include American Flyaway Vacations, operated by American Airlines (tel. 800/321-2121); Bahamas Air (tel. 800/222-4262); and Chalks Ocean Airways (tel. 305/371-8628). Call for rates, since they vary dramatically throughout the year and also depend on what type of accommodations you choose. Keep your eye on the travel section of the Miami Herald, as well, as special deals and packages are almost always advertised.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.