This Winter, A Cut Rate Caribbean

If the recession has you among the many thinking about forgoing a midwinter tropical break, think again. With the area's vacation trade off about 30%, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization, there are empty rooms aplenty throughout the islands. So resorts and cruise ships are offering discounts, two-for-one deals, and other incentives.

Last-minute planners--or those who may be avoiding Europe because of terrorism fears--will find some of the biggest bargains in the U. S. Virgin Islands, which bore the brunt of Hurricane Hugo in 1989, and Jamaica, whose depressed economy desperately needs tourist dollars. Stouffer Grand Beach Resort in St. Thomas has teamed up with American Airlines on a deal that includes a seven-night stay and free round-trip airfare from New York, Boston, and other Northern cities. The $895-per-person price tag is equal to the regular seven-night room rate alone.

Some resorts have even begun to advertise off-season prices. With an occupancy rate of only 50% this winter, vs. more than 70% a year ago, The Mariners resort (800 848-7938) in Sandy Ground, Anguilla (just east of the Virgin Islands) will charge summer rates, 45% below those in the high season, in March.

SHIP AHOY. If cruising is your fancy, you're in luck. Despite a 15% rise in airfares since August, most operators are holding the line on air-and-cruise packages. Princess Cruises offers a two-for-one deal: 14 nights from San Juan to Rio de Janeiro for $3,650, including airfare from many U. S. cities to San Juan and an outside cabin.

For the best deals, try the older boats. Carnival Cruise Line's newest ship, the Fantasy, is nearly sold out at $615 per person, double occupancy, for four-night trips in February and March. But its two oldest ships, the Mardi Gras and Carnivale, have plenty of space. The latter is offering a $499 package that includes a three-night cruise, four nights at Walt Disney World, and car rental.

Even resorts that don't advertise discounts may be willing to bargain on prices. If you're not a haggler, you can dial Fastbreak Vacations' $1-a-minute, 24-hour hot line (900 990-3335). It lists last-minute discount packages in the Caribbean and other destinations.

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