- The Washington Times - Friday, November 7, 2003

GALVESTON, Texas — A tropical mood takes over, a band plays island music, and waiters hand out rum fruit drinks as the cruise ship pulls away from shore.

The setting, though, is definitely Texas Gulf Coast. Sticky heat hangs in the air. Oil refineries dot the horizon. Throughout the evening, the ship sails amid brightly lighted offshore drilling rigs and past big tankers.

A question lingers: Can this really turn into a Caribbean vacation?

By day two, an answer arrives as the brownish-green tint of the shallower water near shore gives way to the deep blue of the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.

Soon, the scene is Key West, the Cayman Islands and Cozumel, Mexico. You’re hanging out at one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite haunts or snorkeling beside colorful fish along a coral reef.

More than 267,000 cruise passengers headed to Caribbean hot spots from Galveston in 2002, a 79 percent increase from 2001. For many, getting aboard a Texas-based ship requires only a car trip or a quick flight.

That’s a plus for passengers in the post-September 11 era who worry about international trips or don’t want to deal with tighter airport security. It also means vacationers don’t have to waste a day of their precious time off traveling somewhere else before boarding.

Cruise lines see the demand and are happy to oblige.

“Texas is one of the highest-ranked states, based on our research, for people with a propensity to cruise,” says Jennifer de la Cruz, spokeswoman for Carnival Cruise Lines. She attributes that to a variety of factors, including the accessibility and appeal of Galveston, a historic island town on the Texas coast.

Over the past three years, Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean Cruises have begun offering trips departing from Galveston. Norwegian Cruise Line, which started service from Texas in 1997, is resuming operations out of Houston this month after a hiatus.

Most passengers are Texans, the companies say, but some come from other states.

Carnival offers four- and five-day cruises, and its Princess Cruises is starting weeklong trips in the fall. Royal Caribbean also offers a seven-day cruise, and Norwegian will this fall.

The ships sail into the western Caribbean, but with slightly different itineraries.

On Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas, a ship that departs from Galveston every Sunday, most of the initial 48 hours is spent at sea until the first stop, at Key West.

This funky town at the southernmost tip of Florida is known for its spectacular sunset views from Mallory Square. Walking tours take visitors to Hemingway’s house, former President Harry S. Truman’s “Little White House” and a winter retreat owned by poet Robert Frost.

Key West nightlife is anchored by bustling Duval Street, with famous bars and restaurants such as Sloppy Joe’s — a tavern Ernest Hemingway frequented in the 1930s — and Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Cafe. On nearby Greene Street is Captain Tony’s, where Sloppy Joe’s was first located. Business cards and underwear are the decor. Guitar-strumming musicians, some playing the tunes of Texas songwriters, lure large crowds.

A little detour off the main tourist path brings pleasant surprises, such as the Green Parrot, a lively, gritty bar favored by locals. An ice-cold mug of beer costs $1 during an early-evening special.

Not far away is Blue Heaven, a top-notch restaurant in an old house with an outdoor cabana bar and rustic courtyard where chickens prance around. An elegant yet unpretentious dinner indoors featured yellowtail snapper so fresh it must have just arrived from the fishing boat.

Back at sea, the ship skirted around western Cuba for a full day. Mountains were faintly visible miles in the distance.

At Grand Cayman Island and Cozumel the next two days, the vacation reached its peak.

In Georgetown, Grand Cayman, cruise passengers can relax on Seven Mile Beach, tour a sea-turtle farm and indulge in shopping for jewelry, but a Grand Cayman must-do, if you’re up to it physically, is a swim with stingrays.

Locally operated boats take visitors to a sandbar off the island where stingrays glide through the clear Caribbean waters. The initial apprehension quickly subsides as swimmers watch, touch and even hold the satin-skinned creatures. It’s guaranteed to temporarily erase real-world worries.

In Cozumel, world-renowned snorkeling and scuba diving are main attractions, though shopping and dining are readily available. On a side boat trip, travelers also can reach the Yucatan mainland to view Mayan ruins at the seaside site of Tulum.

A delightful option for the day in Cozumel is Chankanaab, a pristine national park along a shore of the island lined by coral reefs, where brilliant fish and underwater plants abound. Floating and swimming in the clear salt water is almost effortless.

Snorkeling equipment can be rented and underwater cameras purchased along the beach. A well-maintained bathhouse allows for an easy cleanup after the water adventure. Beach-side restaurants serve tasty nachos and chilled Carta Blanca beer.

Chankanaab Park is covered with lush, well-maintained tropical gardens where native iguanas crawl near the sidewalks. A few small gift shops along a secluded path sell black coral jewelry, T-shirts and exquisite Mexican vanilla extract.

Central to a cruise vacation, of course, is the ship itself.

Rhapsody of the Seas carries more than 2,000 passengers, who can lounge beside two pools or gaze at the sea on a sparsely populated part of the ship’s deck. They can take in live comedy or music shows, gamble at a casino, purchase art at an auction or play bingo.

Then there’s the food, served abundantly and almost constantly and included in the price of the cruise ticket. Chocolate desserts get particularly high praise.

Fortunately, for those so inclined, there are exercise facilities.

After the Caribbean leg of the trip is complete, the full-day sail back across the Gulf of Mexico might seem like a letdown at first.

However, the gulf’s shimmering waters are pleasing. A clear night shows off a sky full of stars, streaked by the Milky Way.

Even those lighted offshore oil platforms that begin to reappear on the final night have a feeling of familiarity, as if to say Texas is not too far away.


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