GALVESTON, TEXAS As the cruise ship pulls away from shore, a tropical mood takes over with a band playing island music and waiters handing out rum fruit drinks.
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 lit offshore drilling rigs and past big tankers.
A question lingers: Can this really turn into a Caribbean vacation?
By day two, an answer arrives.
Only the sea and clouds are in sight. 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. The ship has reached its exotic destination.
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-Sept. 11 era who worry about international trips or who 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," said Jennifer de la Cruz, spokesperson 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 following 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, with slightly different itineraries.
On Royal Caribbean's "Rhap-sody 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, President Harry Truman's "Little White House" and a winter retreat of poet Robert Frost.
The Key West nightlife is anchored by bustling Duval Street with its famous bars and restaurants like Sloppy Joe's _ a tavern Hemingway frequented in the 1930s _ and Jimmy Buffet'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 in crowds.
A little detour off the main tourist path brings pleasant surprises, like 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. A neighborhood cat, Martha, sat on a bar stool people-watching.
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 or 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 can also 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. Beachside 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 cruise vacation, of course, is the ship itself.
On Rhapsody of the Seas, which transports more than 2,000 people, passengers lounge beside two pools or gaze at the sea on a sparsely populated part of the ship's deck. They take in live comedy or music shows, gamble at a casino, purchase art at an auction or play bingo for big bucks.
Then there's the food, served abundantly 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.
But 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.
If you go:
n GETTING THERE: Galveston is 50 miles south of Houston on Interstate 45 and is accessible by car. Major airlines fly into Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport north of the city and Hobby Airport closer to downtown.
n BOOKING IT: Do it early, especially if you desire a balcony stateroom. They're also more expensive than regular ocean-view rooms or interior rooms with no window. A travel agent can help find good deals.
n CONTACT: Carnival Cruise Lines: www.carnivalcruises.com or (800) CARNIVAL. Royal Carib-bean Cruises: www.royalcarib bean.com (800) 327-6700. Norw-egian Cruise Line: www.ncl.com or (800) 327-7030. Princess Cruises: www.princess.com or (800) 421-0522.
EXCURSIONS: Cruise ships offer onshore excursions, but some can be costly. Arranging shore activities through the ship's excursion desk works well for complex side trips. But if you are heading to a beach or snorkeling site, consider grabbing a cab and getting there on your own.
CHILDREN: Many cruise lines offer kids' activities and child care. Check for availability.
FOOD: If intimate fine dining is your thing, make the most of shore stops by finding nice restaurants on land. On the ship most meals are served for hundreds or thousands of people en masse, whether in the dining room or buffet-style.
HIDDEN COSTS: Most meals come with the price of the cruise. Alcohol and soft drinks, however, are extra. Also, it's customary on some ships to tip the room steward, waiter and bus boy at the end of the cruise.
PHONING HOME: Look for phone banks at ports for routine calls to the United States. The prices are more affordable than calling from the ship's phones. Cellular phones, even if they work at a foreign port, can be costly depending on your contract.
HEALTH AND HYGIENE: On board, good hygiene is emphasized in restrooms and dining rooms in the wake of intestinal illnesses popping up on some cruises.
DOCUMENTS: A passport or birth certificate along with a driver's license are required to board the ship.
GALVESTON: There's lots to do in this historic island town before and after a cruise. For more information check out www.galveston.com.
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