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On my first cruises to the Caribbean more than a decade ago, the islands seemed exotic, even rugged. Back in the early 1990s, ships were half the size they are today and, not surprisingly, ports were less crowded and less developed. Those were the days when ships anchored offshore at appealingly gritty places like Cozumel. Passengers tendered ashore to a one-horse town and bee-lined it to some hole-in-the-wall called Carlos'n Charlies for a taste of some local flavor that came poured into a foot long glass.

These days ships dock at any of Cozumel's three giant piers and there's a new Carlos'n Charlies beer joint that looks like a TGI Friday's alongside tons of spiffy shops that could be found in any suburban mall.

While some of the rustic character of the islands has vanished in the name of progress, the upside is improved tourism infrastructure (more piers, less tendering), new ports (like Grand Turk and Costa Maya) and an increased variety of ships and itineraries. Loaded with cool gimmicks like surfing machines, bowling alleys and giant poolside video screens, the newest Caribbean-bound mega ships are embarking from ports all along the U.S. coast, from Manhattan and Brooklyn, to Charleston, S.C., New Orleans, and of course southern Florida.

If nothing else, what smacks of nostalgia these days are the low low fares for Caribbean cruises.

"For the remainder of 2006 and again in the fourth quarter of 2007, rates can be ridiculously low, reminiscent of 2002," says Sherry Laskin Kennedy, president of Vacation Shoppe in Satellite Beach, Florida, adding, "If anyone is thinking of a cruise within the next twelve months, now is the time to book."

Though Caribbean fares are super low right now, cruise prices rise up and drift down like the tides of the sea.

"The drop in Caribbean cruise prices is directly attributable to high gasoline costs following Katrina and dire hurricane season predictions that were issued in April 2006," says Charlie Funk, co-owner of Just Cruisin' Plus (tel. 800/888-0922; www.justcruisinplus.com), a full service agency in Nashville that specializes in cruises. "Recent drops in fuel cost, a mild hurricane season, and a bottoming out, if not a modest increase in call volume at the end of September, may signal a return to more normal pricing."

But no matter the reason, the good news is that right now Caribbean cruises are cheap.

At press time, for example, on Carnival's website (tel. 800/327-9501; www.carnival.com), four- and five-night Mexico cruises on the Fantasy, one of the line's older ships, were as low as $279 per person. Just Cruisin' Plus was advertising seven-night cruises for $399 per person on the Norwegian Sun out of New Orleans on October 22 (which is just receiving cruise passengers again a year after the wrath of Katrina), Norwegian Dawn from New York on October 29, and Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas round-trip out of New Orleans on December 2. You do the math. These fares are a steal.

The newest ship plying the Caribbean when it debuts next month will be the 92,100-ton, 2,384 passenger Norwegian Pearl. Always innovative NCL (tel. 866/234-0292; www.ncl.com) is equipping the ship with not only ten restaurants, giant Garden Villa suites and cool Courtyard Villa suites that share a private pool and sunbathing area, but a full-size, four-lane bowling alley. The ship's doing five- and nine-night Caribbean cruises out of Miami through May. A year from now, in late 2007, sister Norwegian Gem will be introduced and homeported in New York year-round, offering seven-night Florida and Bahamas, ten- and eleven-night southern Caribbean sailings, and seven-night Bermuda and Bahamas voyages. At the same time, the Dawn will leave the Big Apple and be based out of Miami. Beginning this month, the Norwegian Sun returns to New Orleans to do weeklong western Caribbean itineraries; in November 2007, the Norwegian Spirit will replace the Sun in The Big Easy.

No less cutting edge is Royal Caribbean (tel. 866/562-7625; www.royalcaribbean.com) and it's 160,000-ton, 3,634-passenger Freedom of the Seas which debuted last April with eye-popping features ranging from a top-deck water park, to full-sized boxing ring, giant hot tubs built out over the sides of the ship and a surfing machine that challenges riders with a surge of 30,000 gallons of water a minute. The jumbo cruiser sails year-round from Miami on seven-night western Caribbean cruises to Labadee, Jamaica, Grand Cayman and Cozumel until May when it begins offering alternating eastern and western itineraries. Sister Liberty of the Seas is due in May and will ply alternating eastern and western Caribbean routes from Miami. Grandeur of the Seas will mark Royal Caribbean's re-entry into New Orleans in December of this year, with seven nighters to the western Caribbean. In 2007, all but one of Royal Caribbean's 20 ships will spend at least some of the year cruising in the Caribbean or Bahamas.

Along the same lines, all but three of Carnival's 21 ships will be deployed in the islands for 2007, most of them year-round. Its newest ship, the Carnival Freedom, will come on line in February. The fifth ship in the Conquest class, the 110,000 tonner will carry 2,974 passengers double occupancy while it plies seven night routes out Miami year-round after the spending the summer in Europe. Starting October 26, Carnival returns to New Orleans, putting the Fantasy on four- and five-night Mexico cruises from The Big Easy; beginning September 2, 2007, Carnival will base a second ship in New Orleans year-round, with the Carnival Triumph doing seven-night Caribbean runs.

Princess (tel. 800/PRINCESS; www.princess.com) isn't resting on its laurels either, with the introduction of the 3,110-passenger Emerald Princess slated for May, a little less than a year after older sister Crown Princess debuted in New York. Among its many diversions, each has a new area called the Sanctuary, a patch of private outdoor deck area, where for a cover of $15 you can sunbath, have a massage or enjoy a light meal in serene surroundings. The Crown sails from San Juan this winter on seven- and 14-night Caribbean sailings. Starting in October, 2007, Emerald Princess will do alternating ten-night southern and eastern Caribbean cruises out of Ft. Lauderdale.

Also out of the Big Apple, Holland America's (tel. 877/SAIL-HAL; www.hollandamerica.com) Noordam, launched last February, is doing ten- and eleven-night Caribbean cruises round-trip out of New York City through April. Carrying 1,918 passengers double occupancy, the ship stands out for its cool internet café and for a culinary arts center where guest chefs host cooking demos.

On the small side of things, SeaDream Yacht Club (tel. 800/707-4911; www.seadreamyachtclub.com) will be sending it's pair of posh 110-passenger mini cruisers to a handful of new ports in the Caribbean in 2007, according to Claudius Docekal, Senior Director of Land Adventures and Hotel Development for SeaDream. There will be Anegada, a small coral island in the British Virgin Islands, and Barbuda, both with amazing beaches. The Puerto Rican islands of Vieques and Culebrita, known for their unspoiled beaches and pristine nature, will also be on 2007 routes for the first time.

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