POINTE-A-PITRE, Guadeloupe — "If you travel much on cruise ships," James Thurber once wrote, "you are bound, sooner or later, to run into Mrs. Abigail Pritchard. She is not one woman, but many; I have encountered at least 15 of her."
We didn't encounter any of her incarnations during a recent voyage aboard the Club Med I, but we had to wonder what she would have thought of the the vessel.
What, for instance, would she have made of its lack of a dress code?
What would her reaction have been to learn that all prices are in francs?
And, most interesting of all, what would she have thought about all the topless sunbathers?
Probably, she would have locked herself in her cabin, which, aboard this new, 442-passenger cruise ship, might have suited her just fine.
Of the 191 regular cabins on the 610-foot, 9,000-ton Club Med I, 168 have twin beds that can be converted to queen size and 23 have a third fold-down berth.
There's plenty of storage space and excellent lighting, mirrored walls, mahogany furniture, high-tech modular bathrooms with shower and teak floor, a dresser/desk with one chair, refrigerator/mini-bar and a color-TV set that plays films, most of them in French, all day long on three channels.
In addition, all cabins have portholes instead of windows. For passengers needing more space, there are also two suites and four large inside cabins.
What more could Mrs. Pritchard want?
Well, for one thing, perhaps a professional cruise staff--those silver-haired, deferential gentlemen in navy blazers and white slacks.
Instead, what we found were 64 energetic gentils organisateurs or "congenial organizers," who, although not always congenial, usually seemed to be having more fun than the passengers.
Take the captain's welcome cocktail party, for instance. Usually, this sort of affair means shaking hands with the captain, accepting a drink from a nearby waiter and exchanging small talk for an hour or so.
On the Club Med I, we stood around empty-handed while the gentils organisateurs performed a musical number about cocktails reminiscent of the shows Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney used to put on in grandpa's barn in old MGM movies.
No doubt there are people who enjoy this sort of thing.
In fact, the whole shipboard experience is rather like summer camp, Club Med-style, except that the famous pop beads have been exchanged for a plastic credit card, and the price per passenger, double occupancy, per day, hovers from $250-to-$300 range.
Billed as the world's largest sailing ship, the Club Med I unfortunately spends most of its daylight hours in port, sails furled. While in port, the ship's duty-free shop remains open--a cruise line first.
Meals are served in an a la carte restaurant called La Louisiane and in an informal restaurant called Odyssey, where buffets are set up for breakfast and lunch, with fixed-menu steak-and-lobster dinners by reservation at no extra charge in the evenings.
The cooking is continental rather than nouvelle, rich in cream and butter sauces, with a large serve-yourself salad buffet at lunchtime. Wine is included with lunch and dinner.
Restaurant and cabin stewards are from Mauritius, the officers French and Italian. The ship's registry, however, is Bahamian rather than French.
For night owls, there is a small casino and a glittering disco.
Some pluses: spacious teak decks and indoor/outdoor lounges in tropical and nautical colors, a great gym with glass walls facing the sea on two sides and top-quality equipment, two good-size swimming pools, telescopes mounted on an outdoor deck to view passing ships or a nearby island, a large water-sports platform that is left lowered all day as conditions permit when the ship is at anchor--for scuba-diving, snorkeling, water skiing and sailing, two elevators, no tipping and no port charges.
Some drawbacks: no designated nonsmoking areas, a chaotic and confusing lifeboat drill without ship's officers in evidence, unusually high bar prices (highballs $4 and cocktails $6.35), and something that's on no other ship--room service charges on everything but a cabin continental breakfasts.
Fares in the Caribbean this spring are from $275 to $304 per person, double occupancy, per day, for the standard cabins, $506 for suites.
Fall Caribbean cruises and summer Mediterranean sailings are somewhat lower, about$240 a day per person for standard cabins.
Children must be 12 years and older. Three people sharing a cabin pay $220 per person, per day, in the Caribbean, about $160 in the Mediterranean.
In the Caribbean, the ship anchors off Iles des Saintes, St. Martin, Virgin Gorda, St. Thomas and St. Barts, and docks in San Juan.
While the accent is on water sports, passengers are also offered shopping opportunities, car rentals and shore excursions.
Club Med I will continue its Caribbean itinerary through April 21, then will sail the Atlantic Ocean on a budget-priced 19-day crossing ($2,280 to $2,480 per person, double occupancy) before beginning a series of seven-day sailings in the Mediterranean.