THE QUESTION is: Do you cruise for the sake of the cruise or do you cruise to get from place to place? If you're an ocean person, happy just bundled up in any kind of a deck chair in any kind of weather on any kind of cruise ship, you know you can spend endless hours watching the waves, hoping to sight a whale or a Nessie or even an albatross, just being glad you're away from telephones, TVs and, in fact, the world.

(On the other hand, if you're a mountain person, you can take a cruise to -- around the Greek Islands, for example. You'll have the best of both worlds.)

We've been on only two cruises, the first about 20 years ago 2 and the second about four years ago.

Two cruises, an authority certainly does not make, but we came away from each with definite strategies for making the most of it. And we'd happily repeat either experience.

In each case we were on one-class ships. If there was a Captain's table we never saw it (much less got invited to it.) In fact, I suppose there must have been a captain, but we never saw him at all.

Twenty years ago, having parked our kids with amenable grandparents, we cruised to Nassau. It was winter and colder than we had expected. "Tomorrow it will be warm," somebody promised every day. "Tomorrow" was probably warmer somewhere, but not on our cruise ship. Even Nassau was cold. Too cold to swim. We sat on the beach on the only afternoon we had there and shivered. A group of mysterious wraith-like creatures and some no-very-attentive male companions who had piqued the curiosity of everybody on board turned out to be a clutch of models for a rum advertisement. You think we were cold. They were being photographed in the surf.

Nevertheless, a cruise is a quite special experience. In the first place, it is almost obscenely luxurious. One learns very quickly to enjoy being waited upon. And even when it's too cold to swim, a brisk walk topside, a cup of bouillon and a blanketed deck chair will do more to relax you than any mantra. And then it's time for lunch. . .

Liquor is incredibly cheap and the bars are always open and always busy.

At night there are dances. Believe me, people do things on cruises they would never dream of doing on the mainland: like learning new dance steps in public. . .

Neither of our cruises had any enforced "mixing," although cruise directors wandered around wondering what they could do for you and presumably helped people who wanted to meet people. But we're not talking Love Boat, here, after all.

Topside on an ocean liner you can more or less tell which way is which. Below decks, even people who normally point north lose their directional finders. People who lose their cars in shopping malls have less trouble finding their stateroom. I don't know why this is true, but it is.

Shopping. It's your only chance to buybuybuybuybuybuybuy. . . liquor and straw things, mostly in those days. And of course in free ports, watches, cameras, binoculars, perfumes, assorted jewelry--anything lmported.

Then the next night back on the ship you try to find someone who paid more for something than you did. Otherwise it's not worth it. In fact, this sort of thing can positively ruin a trip.

Cruise ships that stop at St. Thomas (ours didn't) disgorge hordes bent on shopping. It looks, somebody said, like the Oklahoma landrush. They transform the shop-lined streets of Charlotte Amalie into busy ant colonies of shoving, pushing, jostling, hustling . . . People who live on St. Thomas know precisely how many cruise ships will be docked at any given moment and how many shoppers will be coming ashore -- and plan their own downtown trips accordingly.

From the outside, crowds of cruisers are beneath contempt.

Of course, it's all different when you're one of them.

We met a nice couple on the cruise to Nassau. Honeymooners, but with 11 children between them from the previous marriages of each.

In those pre-blow-dryer days, the self-coif was accomplished with curlers and portable hair dryers -- those things with elasticized hoods that took hours to work and nothing good came out of it anyway because there was too much salt in the air. Nevermind. We spent a couple of hours every afternoon playing bridge while we women dried our hair under those idiotic contraptions, all the while partaking of frivolites, provided obligingly (and at-no-extra cost) by a tail-coated steward. With a pot of tea. (They were, in fact, a delectable variety of assorted cream puffs, cookies, tea-cakes. . .)

Eating. Early sitting or late. Late, of course. And of course you never got to know anybody on the early sitting. When you weren't eating, they were. And vice-versa. Besides, people at early sittings tend to be, well, stuffy.

There was a couple at our table (they were early sitting types trying to pass) who were determined to have everything they were entitled to and then some. A dentist and his wife from the Midwest.

The first night they demanded escargots.

No escargots. "We are sorry M'sieu/M'dame, but there are not zee escargot tonight."

Same thing next night.

By the third night the dentist and his wife were determined to make it a shooting war.

The waiter shrugged.

The fourth night they got their snails, all done up with garlic and butter and shells. Dr. and Mrs. Tooth ate them with relish.

We spent the rest of the trip trying to figure out where they came from -- the escargots, I mean. We had not, after all, docked anywhere. We were, after all, on relatively high seas.

Our snidest guess: Scraped from the hull. Our conclusion: They deserved it.

If you get seasick, you probably should not go on any kind of a cruise. Most of the medicines ease the sickness by putting you to sleep. That's no fun either. So if you know that you're seriously sea-sick prone, you'd probably better fly. I never saw anyone who was really seasick get better, but there are a few hours of obligatory queasiness for almost everyone. Personally I love ships, and I'd rather walk than fly. The only time you feel a little like a cast of extras in a filming of the Titanic is during the one inevitable fire drill. Whenever there's a blip in the engine, though, you remember that you can't fall out of the sky in a ship. It's a nice, reassuring feeling.

The Aegean Greek Island cruise is something else.

Oh sure, we were a bit disconcerted to discover that the principal owner of the line we were on was Marriott -- but there was nary a trace of a hamburger, and plenty of elegant ethnic cooking, so we got over it.

This is a let-me-entertain-educate-coddle-you cruise that, despite the stern-to-bow crowds, left no moment unaccounted for. Crew members became Zorba-like dancers every night. Guides lectured on the islands before you got there (optional, of course, and not as popular as they deserved to be) and spoon-fed history and myth and art and archeology.

Oh sure, we were the hordes of tourists to be scorned and badgered the moment we left the safe confines of the Stella Oceanis, but we left in well-organized cadres.

Bus groups on islands like Rhodes and Crete were divided into languages, plus a group called the "Peter Paul Achievement Bus." It took us several days to determine that this was not a religious sect as we first thought, but a select group of salesmen and distributors and their families being rewarded for top performance by the "sometimes-you-feel-like-a-nut" candy people.

Things to do when you get on a cruise ship:

* Make sure all your baggage gets to your stateroom.

* Sign up for your dining room sitting.

* Stake out a deck chair. The idea is to figure out which side will be shady (or sunny) in the morning or afternoon, whenever you think you might be there, and sign up accordingly. The ship was pointed the wrong way so we picked wrong both times, but it doesn't really matter. The Aegean sun is so strong you can't (shouldn't) get too much anyway.

* Give yourself a tour of the ship before it leaves port so you won't get lost later. You will anyway, but learn the important things: The best way to get from stateroom to dining room. The best way to get grom stateroom to swimming pool. That sort of thing. Priorities on a cruise ship are amazing.

You don't gain weight on this cruise -- not because the food isn't delectable but because the Greek Islands, remember, are volcanos. We even hiked to the top of Santorini, finding the steps more agreeable than the backs of those downtrodden-looking ponies.

And practically everything worth seeing in the islands is at the top of a mountain or a flight of stairs or many flights of stairs.

The shore tours on this cruise are exceptionally fine. Greek tour guides, for one thing, are all graduate archeologists, and their knowledge of and feeling for their subjects is moving as well as informative.

We were on what is called the "middle" cruise: six days with visits to Hydra, Mykonos, Santorini, Crete, Rhodes and a brief foray into Turkey to see the extraordinary ruins of the town of Ephesus. (The Greek guides don't go into Turkey.)

The "long" cruise (about 10 days) goes all the way to Istanbul. The "short" one hits only the islands closest to the port of Piraeus.

There are often several ships at any island's harbor.

People are always getting on the wrong one.

We never did. . . just . . . almost.

Tipping. This is a pain -- not so much the doing it as the figuring out how much. On the cruise to Nassau we worked out something we thought was okay with our frivolit'e partners.

On the Stella, they simply told us. Much smarter. No mutual humiliation.

They also distributed Art Buchwald's now-classic "Prayer for Tourists," without, however, giving him credit.)

With credit, we quote:

". . . Give us the wisdom to tip correctly in currencies we do not understand. Forgive us for undertipping out of ignorance and overtipping out of fear. Make the natives love us for what we are, and not for what we can contribute to their worldly goods . . .

". . . And when our voyage is over, and we return to our loved ones, grant us the favor of finding someone who will look at our home movies and listen to our stories, so our lives as tourists will not have been in vain. This we ask you in the name of Conrad Hilton, Thomas Cook and the American Express. Amen."

Add Marriott, and you've got it