- Associated Press - Monday, January 30, 2017

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - After spending two consecutive, glorious winters in the desert and mountains of arid Arizona, my wife Gina and I decided to weather the third winter of our retirement in sunny Florida, and for good reason: Lots of cruise ships are based in the Sunshine State.

Yes, we’re cruise fanatics.

As veterans of previous cruises to the Caribbean, Alaska, Hawaii, the Mexican Riviera and transit through the Panama Canal, we are solidly hooked on cruise vacations. Motoring our recreational vehicle to the Tampa, Florida, area provided the perfect chance to otherwise avoid airfares from our home in South Dakota, not to mention the additional cost of lodging, meals and incidentals because of our customary practice of arriving a day or two early at a cruise port.

And we were not surprised that many of the other snowbirds we met in Florida also take advantage of convenient cruise opportunities. After all, Florida has cruise ports in Tampa, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, Port Canaveral and Jacksonville.

Retired for seven years and sailing out of Tampa on a Royal Caribbean International cruise ship, Dale and Jan Leinberger of Au Gres, Michigan, were among 25 snowbird couples from a Sarasota, Florida, condominium complex. The Leinbergers have wintered since 2010 in Florida, and were eager to also use the occasion to go on a cruise.

“We were dropped off at the port and didn’t even have to worry about parking,” Dale Leinberger told me as he relaxed on the deck of Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas. “We saved what would have been extra airfare, and everything just worked out right.”

Cruise line officials are well aware of snowbirds’ penchant for combining their annual winter stays in Florida with trips on ships, said Vanessa Picariello, senior director of public relations for Norwegian Cruise Line.

“While Norwegian ships are deployed in many domestic markets year-round, including New York in the north, we do have guests who tell us that beyond the milder weather and abundant sunshine, staying in Florida for part of the year offers added convenience and opportunity to cruise more often during the winter season,” Picariello said.

Shortly after we returned from our winter cruise to Caribbean ports in Belize, Honduras and Mexico, our next-door snowbird neighbors at Indian Rocks Travel Park in Largo, Florida, Lawrence and Teresa Allan of Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, left on a week-long cruise. The Allans joined three other snowbird couples, driving across the heart of Florida to Fort Lauderdale, for a Princess Cruises’ ship plying ports in the Eastern Caribbean.

“We love the entertainment and food and beaches,” said Teresa Allan.

“This was a good opportunity for us,” added Lawrence Allan. “It’s hard to beat just relaxing on a cruise ship.”

Wintering in Florida makes it easy and more affordable to hop aboard the state’s many cruise offerings, he said.

“On our first cruise from home in Canada several years ago, we had to fly to San Juan (Puerto Rico),” Lawrence Allan said. “That was an expensive trip. It’s nicer to be able to go on a cruise when we’re already here. I know there are others in this park who will grab a quick three- or four-day cruise, and I wouldn’t mind doing that, too.”

For me and Gina, we had the ease of a short drive to the cruise terminal’s parking garage in Tampa. We ferried our luggage only a short distance and were aboard our ship in almost no time. Being able to combine our 10th ocean cruise with our annual snowbirding in Florida capped off a perfect winter for us - without extra travel and expenses.

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