Couples planning first cruise should keep it short and consult a good agent first

Q: We are three couples planning a cruise to the Caribbean islands in January -- probably on Carnival line or something similar. This is our first cruise, and we plan on going to at least three islands.

Can you tell us what clothes are best to wear? (We are men and women in our 60s). And also, which cruise ship is best for not requiring formal wear? We are people who enjoy quiet evenings at home with company. We are not big on loud bands or bars and not too hot on gambling. We want something to keep us busy our way.


A: First-time cruisers are smart to pick a short cruise to see how it goes. Many first-timers, in fact, choose to sail for only three or four days.

I have learned not to recommend a specific ship, because my mail tells me that a ship some readers rave about is hated by


others. I will say that, given your preference for quiet evenings without loud bands, bars and gambling, Carnival Cruises might not be your best choice. Carnival's Ecstasy, Celebration and Holiday, sailing from Miami, call themselves the "fun ships" and feature glitzy entertainment decks loaded with bars, discos, show rooms and casinos.

My advice is to go to a good travel agent you trust, one who books a lot of cruises. Good agents have inspected most of the ships and checked out everything from cabins to food to ambience. Explain to the agent what kind of cruise you want.

If you have friends who cruise, get their opinions on ships. Word of mouth is the best advertising, provided you talk to people whose tastes are compatible with your own.

Seven-day ships routinely call on at least three Caribbean ports, or one in the Bahamas and two in the Caribbean. You'll have a choice of sailing east to places like St. Maarten, St. Thomas, Dominican Republic, San Juan and Nassau, or on a westerly cruise to Mexican ports. Either route might include Jamaica. Some ships have developed their own private resorts on small islands in the Bahamas or elsewhere, where passengers spend a day on the beach. Since this will be your first cruise, every island will be new to you, so you should enjoy seeing them all. You'll be offered shore excursions at every port, but if you want, you can just walk and browse. With six in your party, you can probably negotiate with a waiting van driver for a tailor-made tour of your choice, perhaps for less than the excursions offered by the ship.

If you like to shop, skip the excursion in St. Thomas, a good shopping port, and head downtown, not far from the dock. In Nassau, you'll dock in the middle of downtown (but shopping is no bargain in the Bahamas). St. Maarten also has good shopping.

Clothes should include T-shirts, sport shirts, blouses, slacks and shorts. Passengers who like to spend at-sea days in the pool or sunbathing can stay in beach wear and have a buffet lunch on deck. Agents know which ships are likely to suggest formal wear at evening events.

Caribbean ships on one-week cruises tend to be quite informal. For the most festive evening, men need a tie and sports coat; women, dressy pantsuits or any dress they'd wear out to dinner at home. Don't do a lot of precruise clothes shopping because you'll find nice garments in shops along the way.

Q: My wife and I would like to fly to Ireland, rent a car and stay at private homes. As we are both retired, we would like to explore "on the cheap" as both of us have pensions. Do you have any suggestions?


A: Several companies offer "Home and Car" tours, providing a rental car and vouchers for accommodations at the travelers' choice of hundreds of farmhouses and town or country inns. Reservations can be made as you go, so the itinerary is flexible.

Check these: All-Ireland Car Rentals, (800) 241-3228; Lismore Tours, 106 E. 31st St., New York, N.Y. 10016, (800) Lismore; Destination Ireland, 250 W. 57th St., Suite 2511, New York, N.Y. 10107, (800) 832-1848; CIE Tours, (800) CIE-TOUR. Hertz, Avis, Budget and other big chains also may offer home stays along with their rentals.

Delta, which flies Atlanta-Ireland, and Aer Lingus out of New York also have tour desks that offer various Ireland tours to their passengers.

Or you can just rent a car, take off on your own and look for B&B; signs. When you're ready to stop, ask local tourist offices to find you a B&B;, or get a list of places that accepts guests.

Be aware that age 70 is the limit for renting from some companies.

Q: You wrote about an Amtrak train that will run from Los Angeles to Miami and said the start-up date would be October. I haven't heard anything since. Can you tell me when that train will begin running?


A: Amtrak was overly optimistic, since a lot of work was required on the rails and stations along the new portions of the Sunset Limited's route, between New Orleans and Jacksonville. Florida's Department of Transportation is paying for some of the track improvements.

The new firm date is April 4, 1993. Amtrak spokeswoman Patricia Kelly said the Sunset Limited will run three times a week in each direction. A train starting from Miami will stop at Florida east coast stations where other Amtrak trains now stop, as far north as Jacksonville. Then it will turn west through Tallahassee and Mobile to New Orleans, and head along the present Limited route west through Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, Tucson, Phoenix and on to Los Angeles.