As soon as I walked into the New York City Passenger Ship Terminal, my attention was taken by a young man whose pecs suggested a close relationship with a Nautilus machine and who stood serene amidst the confused scramble of elated voyagers. But what intrigued me was the young man's baggage: two huge steamer trunks and a two-story cage, the lower story housing 12 tranquil and indistinguishable doves, the upper a self-complacent white duck. The young man was Mark, a magician; the duck was Max. Mark, Max and the doves had entertained the passengers on three cruise ships and were waiting to board their fourth.

I had come to the terminal to begin a shank's mare and armchair journey through staterooms, which is what cabins are called in these days of classless floating resorts. Since Mark was obviously a magician of experience, I began by asking him what he thought of the staterooms he had stayed in. Each of them, he said, was "really nice."

I have since toured four ships and consumed a small hill of public relations materials. I've learned that staterooms -- like magical doves -- tend to look alike. And I've learned that Mark the magician summed it up astutely: Staterooms are nice. I mean it. They really are nice.

Staterooms look alike partly because ships look alike, all being long and narrow with three or four decks of diminishing size stacked on top like layers on a wedding cake.

The upper decks have windows, the lower ones portholes. The staterooms are crowded into the great metal hulls, laid out long and narrow like rows of dominoes so as many as possible have a porthole at one end. The same four floor plans are used on almost all the ships because they make good use of the space.

One arrangement puts two sofa beds catty-cornered; with upholstered chairs, the space makes a sitting room by day. At night, stewards convert the sofas to beds. These rooms are functionally ample, but beds placed in an L-shaped configuration do not facilitate the cruising activity celebrated on "Love Boat."

An alternative arrangement places twin beds parallel to each other with a bureau in-between -- more awkward for sitting, but allowing lovers to at least gaze longingly across the gap. In the more deluxe cabins the beds are back near the window and can be closed off with a curtain or screen to make a sitting area in front. The cheapest rooms contain a single bed and pull-down upper berth.

Staterooms look like what they are: a cross between an up-scale dormitory and a middle-scale motel. Whatever the size, they have all the necessary and some unnecessary amenities: good beds, air conditioning, wall-to-wall carpeting, makeup table/desk with lights, a print or painting that matches the color scheme, piped-in music, private bathrooms with tubs or showers, an upholstered sofa or chairs, closets and bureaus. The portholes are always curtained with the sort of cheerful, not-too-high-toned print you might find in a motor inn or even on a decorator tissue box.

The furniture is always modern. There are two basic "looks": pleasant plastic and pleasanter plastic. Without exception, the rooms are comfortable, agreeable and bland. None below the suite category or above the bottom of the line would mitigate the pleasures of anyone's cruise, nor add to them noticeably.

Yes, staterooms really are nice. I would certainly be happy to cross a high sea in any one of the four ships I toured at dockside recently in New York.

The first was the 30,000-ton Atlantic (Home Lines). Like most of the ships built since getting somewhere became primarily a winged business, it was designed specifically for cruising, not crossing.

The design plan is as rational as a factory's: All 14 categories of rooms, except the suites, have the same basic decor with different colorations for every deck. The standard cabin uses the L-shaped arrangement -- a tweed couch on one side and a single bed at right angles to it. The walls are covered with wood paneling finished (as was all the paneling in all the ships I saw) with some kind of fireproof and waterproof sealant that gives it the look and feel of plastic.

The Atlantic's six suites, wide rooms with two pairs of double windows, constitute a small and lavish territory of their own. They look like hotel, not motel, rooms -- the sort a corporation might keep for the convenience of traveling executives: rosy beige rug, two oversize soft leather couches with matching chair, sleek finished wood desks and cabinets, TV, stereo, refrigerator, porcelain lamps, nubby linen curtains, twin beds behind a wood-paneled partition. There are also a walk-in closet and a blue-porcelain-bideted bathroom.

On the Atlantic, and on all cruise ships, outside cabins are more expensive than inside; the price goes up with size, and cabins on the lowest deck, closest to the engine's agitations, are the cheapest. But other factors in the classification systems are mysterious and vary from line to line.

Before choosing a cabin, it is wise to know your own preferences and reserve through an agent who is familiar with the boat and can suggest the most suitable room. How much time will you spend in the stateroom? A basic cabin will be fine if you expect to use the room only to change and sleep. If you will want to have breakfast and afternoon drinks in your room rather than a public space, a more agreeable one might be worth the extra expense. Is the size of a space important to you? Room size varies not only within each ship but from ship to ship. Do you care about a double bed? Do you think soaking in a warm tub of water in the middle of the rolling ocean would be a delicious experience or do you never take baths anyway?

You may find that a feature you like is standard on some ships, deluxe on others. Bidets are universally assigned the highest status where they are assigned at all. But bathtubs, while reserved for expensive rooms on some vessels, are distributed with a generous hand on others, including the Atlantic.

Location and light are also evaluated differently by both cruise managers and clients. As a committed window-watcher, I know I would always prefer a cabin on one of the smaller upper decks that have good-sized square windows instead of portholes, and the inside rooms seem to me dreadfully oppressive. But to many passengers, windows and proximity to unconditioned air are less important than easy access to dining, shopping and recreational areas.

The Bermuda Star (Bahama Cruise Lines) takes account of such unaccountable differences in taste by offering a category of rooms called "Large Inside," which provide various amenities, including bathtubs and floor space, in exchange for the lack of celestial light. A smaller boat than the Atlantic (373 rooms to the latter's 543), the Bermuda has 10 categories of rooms and light is not expensive. All the cabins on the smallest and highest deck have excellent fenestration, but most are a lowly category 6. The cheapest rooms are on the lowest deck.

The walls of the Bermuda's cabins are some sort of textured gray plastic or coated wallpaper. The standard outside cabin has the twin beds with bureau in-between configuration. The higher categories are a bit wider, with two portholes, beds in back, curtained-off sitting area with pull-down berths in front. A few of the roomy deluxes have bunk beds in back instead of twins. These have serious-looking metal ladders, and kids would probably love them. There is also a whole category, 24 rooms in all, with double beds. Bathtubs are a relatively scarce commodity on the Bermuda.

The Atlantic and the Bermuda are typical cruising ships -- floating resorts, as they are called. The Queen Elizabeth 2 is a different sort of vessel altogether. It is a giant, 934-room "floating city" built to carry on the tradition of ocean crossings, though now used extensively for recreational cruising as well. The style of the public spaces is Common Market flash, but an aroma of clubbiness and a clipped-vowel sense of propriety remain.

A floating city has a wider range of residences than a floating resort: 19 categories of doubles, five of singles. At the top are the two AA duplex suites ($15,410 per person for eight days, compared with $1,805 for seven days in an Atlantic suite) and two AA doubles with verandas. These and one of the two A luxury doubles are located on the highest deck, far away from everything else.

The suites are small, self-sufficient split-level apartments with two bedrooms, two baths, two patios and a sitting room on a raised platform. The luxury doubles, however, are not very large; the passengers sleep on Murphy beds, which are folded up into the wall during the day. These rooms are modern with a few low-key period accents, a bit busy, subdued and elegant; the materials are rich.

Before the AAs and As were built, the most luxurious cabins were what are now Grade B deluxe on decks one and two. These are large, spare rooms with a horizontal oval window, blond wood paneling (again that lamination), two oversize leather chairs, a blue carpet, twin beds pushed together to form a double, a walk-in Edwardian dressing cabinet and a real feeling of spaciousness. The B deluxes have a noticeably English character and a slighty dated dignity, which acknowledges the traditions of the crossing in a way the relentlessly modern suites do not.

The QE2 is so big that it's refurbished in segments, but after returning from the Falkland Islands, it received a general overhaul. Most of the cabins from Grade D down now resemble each other. They are better plastic, and wood and fabric panels alternate on the walls. The cabins are expensive for their size -- but a ship built to rule the oceans is of course included in the price.

The fourth vessel I toured was the Veracruz (Bahama Cruise Lines). Like the QE2, this is an unusual boat, but because it is very small. The ship has 363 rooms to the Bermuda's 373 but is less than half the size. The cabins are all 10-feet-6-inches square; the pricing system is simple: Outside rooms are more expensive, higher decks more pricey. Brochures describe the Veracruz as "yacht-like" and "intimate."

The cabins are definitely cramped. They are also the least plastic I saw. The walls, white with metal edges, feel like the sides of a heavy trunk. There is a yellow-and-orange-plaid sofa bed by the porthole -- not especially pretty and definitely not slick, but rather grandmotherly; opposite is a large wide mirror with a formica shelf underneath that opens to make a second bed. Small neat cabinets of unfinished wood are hung on the walls wherever there is a bit of space. For ornament there is a bit of Mayan fabric, an Indian cutout or primitive painting, encased in painted wood frames. No doubt these samples of folk art were bought by lot, but each one has so much vital character they seem individually chosen. The tiny bathrooms, shower only, are painted with bravado colors: chartreuse and yellow, fire-engine red and orange. The Veracruz also has two suites, each consisting of two joined 10-foot-6 cabins paneled in dark wood.

Judging from the hand-out photographs, cabins on most cruise ships are variations of those I saw on the Bermuda and Atlantic, similarly appointed with pleasant, nondescript modern furniture.

The Norway (Norwegian Caribbean), formerly the France, is a striking exception. The standard cabins are smart and simple, upper-class tech. The ship's Royal Suite is the only one I've seen in a period style rather than late-'70s plush. It's early 20th century with balloon curtains, an Art Nouveau mirror, a stately Art Deco leather couch and Tiffany lamps, the space carefully orchestrated to suggest expanse and motion. The accommmodations on Cunard's Vistafjord and Sagafjord are not as distinguished as the Norway's, but are far more stylish than those of the other Cunard ships and reputed to be exceptionally comfortable as well.

All the staterooms I looked at, even the loveliest, struck me as sadly anonymous. The anonymity has its attraction: It encourages the same feeling of passage one experiences in chain motel rooms, the sense of being at the location-less intersection point of uncounted lives.

But I had been looking forward to a stronger feeling of location, more of a sense of being on a ship a thin skin away from the sea. Instead, the cruise ships seem to have a mild case of hydrophobia. I had the impression they were designed to suggest the abstract idea of being at sea while encouraging the passengers to forget they are actually in a floating metal barrel.

There may be anchors on the room partitions and a nautical jauntiness to the metal banisters on the lobby stairs, but there is air conditioning to keep out the sea air, canned music to cover the sound of the waves and curtains to mask the porthole and imply a landlocked picture window. The public spaces offer amusement-park reproductions of ports of call: Rio de Janiero nightclubs, Hollywood shopping centers, , Deauville casinos. The lounges look out at the sea through glass, so the elements become a view instead of an environment.

As for the open and closed promenades that used to circle the deck, they've gotten smaller and smaller. Even Carnival Cruise Lines ("The Fun Ships"), which has been bringing them back, is ocean-shy: Their newest ship will have a wide promenade simulating a brick boulevard with teak sidewalks and a parked vintage bus.

There's an obvious reason for all this, of course. Cruise lines sensibly want their clients to feel at home, and however romantic a wild sea may be, it is not always a comfortable or homely place for a terrestial species. The lines want to give their clients fantasy and license; the ocean can be nastily real and constricting. But don't people go on cruises at least in part to wonder at the smell and roll and endless metamorphoses of water? To be on a ship? Even for a salt-edged whiff of danger and unease?

Of course they do, and wonder is what you get on a cruise -- very comfortable wonder. After watching Mark the magician release a caged domestic duck by sleight of hand, you have only to take an elevator, open a door, and presto! Before you there is a pulsating vastness punctuated perhaps by a lean and sharp-eyed gull.

You can dance under glass, champagne protected from unruly breezes, but just beyond the dome there's moonlight skimming over the sleek gray surface of the ocean. And you always know you're in a ship at night, they say, when you turn out the light and find the sea sweeping in from a thousand miles away to sway and rock your single, double, upper or lower really nice bed.