THE COMMON CRUISE and "Love Boat" are barely kissing cousins, although the TV sitcom does generate that sheer excitement of sailing away, the romance of being at sea, and the ambiance aboard ship. But over the years I have been aboard cruise ships, I have yet to see any captain in short pants (a good thing since Gavin McLeod's legs are hard to beat), and most officers are far too busy to clown around. Should the local "Doc" become infatuated with some lovely young thing, he would have to finesse rather more than is suggested on the small screen.

Yes, cruise directors are a breed unto themselves and the less said about them, the better. True, as captive on a floating resort, one does tend to become friendly with the crew in the course of a week or so and it's not unusual to keep in touch (or even make a repeat cruise). And the average passenger probably can spot his very own "Isaac" without much effort, for those who tend the many watering holes aboard ship indeed are understanding, helpful and even can save the day.

IT WAS PAUL who saved my first day aboard the Sagafjord a few years ago. I had embarked the evening before, in the calm waters of Acapulco, and my stomach was not cooperating that morning as we sailed through the Pacific Ocean toward the Panama Canal. It was barely 10 a.m. as I staggered out on deck and saw a steward setting up the poolside bar.

"What you need is a stabilizer," he said and deftly poured equal parts of port and brandy into a wine glass. I drank as instructed -- in three big sips. YUK! It was a dreadful combination, especially at that hour, but it worked like magic. In minutes I was ready for a fun-filled day at sea. Others may pop Dramamine, take shots or even put patches behind their ears, but I plan to stick with Paul's recipe whenever my stomach needs stabilizing.

The Sagafjord, just voted Cruise Ship of the Year by the World Ocean and Cruise Liner Society, has a charming Norwegian captain named Kai Julsen whose winning smile is most endearing to passengers.

Julsen likes to mingle with discretion, and decided wisely that every passenger should dine at least once at his table during the three-month world cruise last year. So he planned a special meal and printed a memen-to menu, then began the evening ritual. However, what Julsen forgot to consider was that HE remained at the table; the result, he says, was that subsequently he ate the same dinner every night for 90 days!

FINE WEATHER certainly can be ordered -- but taking delivery is another matter. During the inaugural cruise of the Lindblad Polaris around Scandinavia last spring, it rained every day but one. That was the day we arrived in Helsinki to find snow falling heavily from the sky. Nonetheless, 60 Intrepid Club members joined the master of travel himself, Lars-Eric Lindblad and wife Cary, for a taste of Balic seaports and islands in early May.

Despite the cold and wet, we all managed to lunch at the former studio of Finnish architect Saarinen, walk through the lovely medieval town of Visby, be treated to real Russian caviar and vodka in Tallinn (Estonia), and brave the elements in motorized rubber Zodiacs to visit an island called Stora Karlso -- where guillemots can be sighted in good weather.

HAH! Some of us retreated quickly to the only shelter available, and an open fire. At our next stop, a local Swedish newspaper announced the arrival of a new cruise ship "filled with American millionaires." A warming thought, anyway...

OCEANS HAVE THEIR place in the world of excitement, but the waterways of Europe offer the most delightful way to see the countryside, meet the townfolk, and revel in the most glorious food possible. Along the canals and rivers of England, France, Holland and Belgium, there are former working barges converted into comfortable floating hotels that can accommodate eight to 24 passengers each, with a spacious lounge and sundeck atop, a minibus (one barge boasts two Daimlers) for daily excursions, and a cordon bleu cook to two to provide nonstop sustenance.

A most memorable barge trip last fall was the Trois Glorieuses Cruise aboard the Janine from Lyon to Dijon, via the River Soane and Canal du Bourgogne, with special excursions to the famous annual wine auction at the Hospices de Beaune and a multicourse banquet in the Chambre du Roi.

Our indoctrination to the riches of what the French call the "Cote d'Or" was a wine-tasting in the cellars of Chateau de la Tour, one of Burgundy's most prestigious vineyards. Proprietress Jacqueline Labet had selected some fine vintages and made a batch of Gougere -- a light puff flavored with gruyere cheese and eaten to cleanse the palate between wines. Local luminary Jean-Michel Lafond, gastronomy professor and lecturer-at-large, explained the ritual of a true tasting (the swirling, the smelling, the rolling on the tongue) and placed some buckets around the room.

We were well into judging the first wine when one of the passengers said, "My God! This stuff sells for $50 a bottle at home and he expects us to SPIT IT OUT?"

I sat there with my hand frozen on my mouth, not knowing whether to swallow or spit, when I saw Labet walk to a nearby bucket and most elegantly expectorate. Everyone followed suit. A few days later, one of Labet's white burgundies (Corton Charlemagne) sold at auction for the equivalent of $56 a bottle wholesale.

Along Belgium's lovely River Lys is a small hotel barge of the same name that cruises serenely among Bruges and Ghent and Antwerp. The cities are historic and full of beautiful buildings, the countryside is pastoral, and the people are very friendly. One of the lock keepers outside Bruges told our captain to slow down because he had to pedal to the next lock to let us through -- which he did, chattering all the way.

The Lys is Belgium's first hotel barge, and it's a great experience to wake up in the middle of Ghent and savor the famous Guild Houses facades while eating breakfast. At night, the old port area is lit and small boats full of tourists run up and down the river.

Father Thames has his share of hotel barges too, much to the disdain of Sunday fishermen who line the banks. The 24-passenger Thames Princess began weekly cruises last season, between Tower Bridge and Henley -- home of the famous annual regatta. The British are an amusing lot and they do love their pubs, the older the better.

On one of the most idyllic stretches of the Thames, we stopped in Hurley just to visit Ye Olde Bell Hotel, which claims existence since 1135 and possibly could be the oldest inn in the land (although a few others also vie for that honor). The Old Bell was worth the detour, but fellow bargers were more enchanted by a document tacked to the door of a Saxon church nearby. Titled "17th Century Nun's Prayer" (source unknown), it says:

"Lord, thou knowest better than I know myself that I am growing older and will someday be old..." and ends "... Keep me reasonably sweet; I do not want to be a Saint -- some of them are so hard to live with -- bit a sour old person is one of the crowning works of the devil. Give me the ability to see good things in unexpected places, and talents in unexpected people. And, give me, O Lord the grace to tell them so. AMEN."

NORMAN VINCENT Peale loves the Queen Elizabeth 2 and sings for his supper by speaking positively once or twice during his voyage. He can tell you exactly how many days and hours he's been alive and what he plans for tomorrow. But his favorite line, when teased by fellow passengers if he were going to walk on water, is "Not in these shoes."

He and Mrs. Peale were among 1,700-plus passengers aboard the "re-inaugural" crossing of the vessel following her tour of duty in the Falkland Islands. It was an exciting send-off from Southampton last August, with marching bands on the pier and toasts from the local mayoress and chairman of the shipline.

During the crossing, the most popular show aboard was Capt. Jackson's personal narrative as master of a ship shrouded in secrecy and hellbent for a war zone. Needless to say, the 1,200 crew members were delighted to see paying passengers again and many had their own tales to tell of the South Atlantic duty. Our wine steward had his own version, as he served the officers in the Queen's Grill... "They polished off some fine clarets... finished all the Cuban cigars, too!"

THE GREEK ISLANDS were made for cruises and the Aegean is most delightful in May. This is Homer's "wine dark sea" and the cradle of Western Civilization. The mixture of awesome monuments, great food and wines, inspiring vistas and terrific shopping make excellent value for one's dollars.

But, Greek cruises tend to be somewhat strenuous because there is so much to see and do. First port of call for the Stella Solaris from Piraeus is Dikili, a tiny fishing village on the edge of Asia Minor and just a 35-minute bus ride from the clasical ruins of Pergamum. There was an early wake-up that first morning and most of the passengers were subdued, when a Texas drawl sliced the air, "We don't get up at 7 a.m. in Dallas," said someone to her neighbor, "So WHY are we doing it here?"

Esphesus is truly the highlight of an Greek cruise experience, but one also can count on memories of a harrowing donkey ride to the top of Santorini, the Street of Knights in Rhodes, the Palace of Knossos on Crete, the man who sells dirty postcards in Istanbul's Old Custom House (where your ship docks), and the $25 hand-woven sweaters across from Antonini's in Mykonos.

A SMALL ISLAND just 600 miles southeast of New York harbor is a popular cruise destination from April to October, and it's amazing what is packed into its 21 square miles. Bermuda is a picture-postcard place with sparkling beaches, emerald waters, colorful limestone cottages with names and not numbers, strong traditions, and traffic on the left.

The new Atlantic made her debut on the Bermuda run last year; she berths right on Front Street in Hamilton, from early Monday morning until Thursday afternoon each week during the "season." The Atlantic is $100-million modern and combines the best of all worlds. Service aboard this vessel already is a legend and the dining room is full of familiar faces from the former Doric. Waiters are super-attentive and room stewards keep your cabin so spotless that one colleague suggested that passengers pack some extra cash, because the crew is so deserving!

THE NORWAY IS an island unto itself. The former flagship of the French Line is a regal giant which berths along two piers in Miami, instead of the usual one. Although she can carry up to 2,000 passengers, there is no feeling of crowds aboard this Norwegian Caribbean Lines' vessel.

There are many beautiful lounges, especially the Club Internationale -- the former first-class smoking room of the France -- where one can dream of the elegant bottoms parked here during the good old days of transatlantic travel. Spacious minisuites with picture windows have been made from previous promenades, and offer those who can afford them the ultimate in romance and glamor.

The vast open decks are a jogger's dream (but not before 8 a.m. please) and the daily fitness-at-sea program is extensive. Broadway and Hollywood are on display during the evening, with a full-length "My Fair Lady," a "Sea Legs Revue" and Rita Moreno in person, on a recent cruise. Not bad for the largest ship afloat.

BEING SMALL HAS its advantages, too. The Veracruz is one of the few passenger vessels small enough to transit the Cape Cod Canal and it's a wonderful sight to sail through this passage, heralded by vacationing New Englanders.

The Veracruz sails between New York and Montreal all summer, on an itinerary that features the history and beauty of our own Northeast.

The Whaling Museum at New Bedford, the restored fortress at Louisburg, and the old part of Quebec City still are vivid, but the highlight of this cruise has to be the slow journey up the Saguenay River with the whales chasing the ship and making catcalls to all aboard. That day "messing about on the river" always will remain as one of my most favorite. Setting Sail

ATLANTIC -- Saturdays from April 16 through Oct. 15, New York to Hamilton, Bermuda. $855 to $1,855. Home Lines, One World Trade Center, New York City 10048.

JANINE -- Wednesdays from April 28 through Oct. 19, Lyon to Dijon or vice versa. $1,495. Trois Glorieuses Cruise, Nov. 16. $1,870. Floating Through Europe, 271 Madison Ave., New York City 10016.

LINBLAD POLARIS -- May 28, June 25, July 23, Aug. 20, Stockholm to Baltic ports (15 days). $3,525 to $7,425. Salen Lindblad Cruising, 133 East 55th St., New York City 10022.

LYS -- Saturdays from May 7 through Sept. 24, Antwerp to Bruges or vice versa. $1,195. Floating Through Europe (address above).

NORWAY -- Saturdays from Miami to St. Thomas and Bahamas, year-round. $960 to $4,620. Norwegian Caribbean Lines, One Biscayne Tower, Miami 33131.

QE2 -- 24 translantic sailings in 1983, beginning April 16. From a low of $1,185 (thrift season) to a high of $6,185 (high season), which includes one-way free via British Airways). Cunard Line, 555 Fifth Ave., New York City 10017.

SAGAFJORD -- Alternate Sundays, June 19 through Aug. 14, from San Francisco to Canada and Alaska. $2,890 to $10,260 (includes air). Norwegian American Cruises, 29 Broadway, New York City 10006.

STELLA SOLARIS -- Alternate Mondays from May 9 through October, from Piraeus to Greek Islands. $995 to $2,050. Sun Line, One Rockefeller Plaza, New York City 10020.

THAMES PRINCESS -- Mondays from April 4 through Nov. 6, Tower Bridge to Henley-on-Thames. $1,280 or $1,380. Continental Waterways, 11 Beacon St., Boston 02108.

VERA CRUZ I -- Fridays from June 10 through Sept. 23, New York to Montreal or vice versa. $795 to $1,065. Bahama Cruise Line, 61 Broadway, New York City 10006.

NB: Rates quoted are per person, double occupancy.