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Mention the word cruise and an image of a big white ship sailing majestically toward some palm tree-fringed isle of paradise automatically pops up. It makes perfect sense: the Caribbean is close by, sunny year-round (more or less) and loaded with beaches. Better yet, you can get there from more North American ports that ever, including three in the New York area alone.

For 2006, among the biggest news for the Caribbean region is the debut of Royal Caribbean's newest ship, Freedom of the Seas, in May. At 160,000 tons, the ship will carry 3,600 passengers double occupancy and assume the title of largest cruise ship in the world. With such amazing features on board, from a surfing simulator to a water park, ice-skating rink and rock-climbing wall, the ship is a destination itself. Freedom will sail round-trip out of Miami year-round on seven-night western Caribbean cruises, but you may so busy working out in the massive gym that offers more than 75 machines or sampling the dozens of restaurants, shops and entertainment lounges, you'll barely notice where the ship is headed.

Other brand new ships bound for the Caribbean this year include the 2,974-passenger Carnival Liberty, Holland America's 1,848-passenger Noordam and Princess's brand-new 3,100-passenger Crown Princess. All three offer multiple dining outlets, plenty of entertainment options, and good kids and teen facilities.

When it comes to cruise fares, several travel agent sources say Caribbean cruise rates for 2006 are steady so far, if not slightly higher, than the past few years. Still, that doesn't mean there aren't discounts.

"Cruise lines seem to be trying to use value-added perks such as ship board credits to get the bookings rather than dropping the price," says Charlie Funk, co-owner of Nashville-based Just Cruisin' Plus (tel. 800/888-0922; www.justcruisinplus.com).

Traditionally, the lowest cruise fares are offered in the fall months, when kids have just returned to school after the summer break and when hurricane season is in full swing. Officially, hurricane season extends between June 1 and November 30. After last year's Katrina and Wilma, who could forget?

"Hurricanes and bad weather are on people's minds," says Funk, who adds that they expect the last two weeks of August through the middle of October of this year to be a tough patch for cruise bookings given the horrific storms of 2005.

Agreeing that the cruise lines will be wheeling and dealing this fall, Sherry Kennedy, president of Satellite, Florida-based Vacation Shoppe (tel. 866/727-8473; www.vacationshoppe.com), gives us some sample group rates:

  • Three-night Bahamas cruise on Carnival's Fantasy, departing Sept. 7, roundtrip from Pt. Canaveral; category 4A inside cabin is going for $160 per person (plus port charges and taxes of $122).
  • Seven-night eastern Caribbean cruise aboard the Carnival Glory, roundtrip from Pt. Canaveral on Sept. 30; category 4A inside cabin going for $320 per person (plus $206 for port charges and tax).

While there will surely be deals out there for this fall, Kennedy points out that if you're on a ship and a hurricane blows into the region, the ship will move to avoid the storm, but many or all of your scheduled port calls could be canceled. You could wind up spending seven days at sea.

If you aren't feeling so lucky, she adds, pick a cruise heading down to Aruba and CuraƧao; chances are you will be out of the path of a hurricane in the far southern reaches of the Caribbean.

Head to our Cruise Message Boards to join in the discussions with fellow Frommer's travelers.