For once, Southern California is not starting a fad but instead is following the East Coast leader.
The S.S. Azure Seas is emulating an example set in the Bahamas by Florida cruise lines with new three- and four-night cruises from the West Coast to Ensenada, Mexico, 204 miles south of Los Angeles, including a gambling casino and all the no-extra-charge features usually associated with cruise ships.
A bonus air-sea package, in collaboration with Western Airlines, provides low-cost air fare "add-ons" from 15 western gateway cities (from Washington, D.C., the round-trip coach fare is $290 and permits a free stopover at Las Vegas on the return trip). The package includes round-trip transfers from L.A. airport to the San Pedro pier, 30 miles south of the city, and baggage handling at the pier, but is available only with the four-night cruise. Cost of the cruise is additional.
Various land packages are also offered with both cruises to enable passengers to visit Los Angeles, Disneyland, San Francisco or Las Vegas, and broaden the vacation experience.
The Azure Seas of Western Cruise Lines is not super-luxurious -- but neither are her prices. Both are comfortable. Built in 1955 as the Southern Cross, rebuilt in 1975 as the Calypso and refurbished in 1979, the 20,000-ton vessel can carry a total of 780 passengers in 390 staterooms. Cruise fare alone for the three-night trip ranges from $315 to $495 per person, double occupancy.
If you're flying in, a bus meets passengers at the Los Angeles airport. Fare to the ship is $7 (unless you bought the prepaid package). If you drive to the port, parking is available at a nearby lot for $2 a day.
A nice touch is a huge tray of canape's in each cabin for a snack prior to sailing and the buffet dinner. It serves as an in-room cocktail party snack if friends are saying bon voyage.
The three-night weekend cruise leaves the port at San Pedro at 8 p.m. Friday. Next morning you're in Ensenada. Cabs with some English-speaking drivers are on the dock; the tab to go to town is 75 cents per person for about a mile ride.
And what do you find when you get there? Shops with cloned merchandise. Mexican shirts, dresses, jewelry, papier mache' flowers and other items for home decor, and painted tiles to put under casseroles (made in Italy). The shop owners are very low key. There are no high-pressure sales tactics and some are agreeable to bargaining. Some elegant shops sell Mexican silver, one the exclusive representative for artist Sergio Bustamente.
There are, at this writing, no ship-sponsored tours of Ensenada. Cruise director Charles Gibson refers passengers to a tour bus operator in town, who will take passengers on a three-hour, non-air-conditioned bus ride of the area for around $12.
If you're a golfer and pack your clubs, Bajamar is a world-class course highly praised by Australian members of the crew. That's where they spend their day in Ensenada.
If you opt not to lunch on the ship, you can choose one of the Chinese restaurants in town -- also a French restaurant, El Rey Sol, whose owner and head chef was graduated from Paris' Cordon Bleu. You can't go wrong. It's safe to drink the water there, but tempting though the street vendors' food appears, don't touch it unless you like gambling with "turista" rather than in the ship's casino. The vessel leaves Ensenada Sunday morning.
On my recent cruise, the food was plentiful but not for gourmet tastes. (Word is that the menu is being revised.)
If there is any fault to be found with the accommodations, it's the size of the lightbulbs. Neither the one on the bureau nor the two-headed lamp between the beds throws off enough illumination to put on makeup or read oneself to sleep.
Gamblers can play roulette, the wheel of fortune and even bingo. Members of the cruise staff conduct exercises, set up card games and host a singles get-together. Movies are screened at 3 p.m. and 10 p.m., and there's dancing and other entertainment nightly. When the ship is docked at Ensenada, local dancers come aboard to perform a folkloric show.
You can play shuffleboard, try skeetshooting or join a grandmothers' get-together (be aware that, with only one elevator, there are stairs to climb).
Each night wraps up with a midnight buffet, and at 8 a.m. Monday the ship is clearing customs. Passengers are off no later than 10.
The four-night cruise is more of the same, with an extra day. The ship departs Los Angeles at 5 p.m. Monday and goes much more slowly down the Pacific, arriving in Ensenada Wednesday morning. It leaves Thursday at 1 a.m. and is back in Los Angeles Friday morning at 8.
Ensenadans, encouraged by the rush of souvenir-seeking tourists, are now studying English. Shop owners estimate their business has increased almost 50 percent since Azure Seas has been bringing hundreds of visitors ashore twice weekly.
Silden is a free-lance writer. She lives in Los Angeles.