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Yucatan Holiday: short sailings from Mobile to Mexico aboard Carnival Cruise Lines' classic "Fun Ship".

A year-round slate of twice-weekly sailings to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula onboard Carnival Cruise Line's oldest and smallest ship is creating the latest buzz in Mobile, Alabama, the Deep South's new cruise port. Introduced last October, four- and five-day Western Caribbean jaunts on the 1,452-passenger Holiday are selling like hotcakes, drawing a largely regional crowd. Folks feel fight at home heating conversations peppered with "y'all" and "over yonder."

Some 26 million people live within an eight-hour radius of Mobile, and most of them drive to the spanking-new Alabama Cruise Terminal, according to Al St. Clair, Mobile's director of waterfront cruise development and special projects. The spiffy, spacious complex on the Mobile River, complete with a massive parking garage, was built just for the Holiday and plays a big part in the ongoing renaissance of downtown Mobile. Thrilled with the economic impact, local officials say their ship has come in.

"We've never seen a city so supportive and so excited to have us," said Vance Gulliksen, a spokesman for Carnival Cruise Lines, which now counts 30 U.S. cities as home ports, a reflection of travelers' desire to drive to their ship. "Mobile has welcomed the Holiday with open arms."

The Holiday, which entered service in 1985, previously opened markets for Carnival in Los Angeles, Tampa, and San Juan. Because this is the only cruise ship sailing out of Mobile, passengers feel they're getting the red-carpet treatment, an experience enhanced by the hospitality that just comes naturally in this part of the country. (Curiously, Delta Queen Steamboat Company's historic paddlewheeler, the Delta Queen, was docked right next to the Holiday the day we boarded in February; she was in the middle of the New Orleans-Pensacola itinerary.)

The Holiday's five-night cruises, departing Mondays and Saturdays, visit Cozumel and Costa Maya or Calic/Playa del Carmen, all known for outstanding beaches and crystal-clear turquoise waters that attract scuba divers and snorkelers from around the world. Ours was the four-night Thursday cruise that calls only at Cozumel, the largest island (30 miles long and 10 miles wide) in the Mexican Caribbean.

Mobile was experiencing chillier than normal February weather, so we needed a coat out ondeck the first afternoon and a sweatshirt the next morning at sea. Many sunbathers, determined to get some tropical rays despite overcast skies, braved the cool breezes and snuggled under beach towels as the Holiday cut across the Gulf of Mexico on a straight north-south shot from Mobile to Cozumel, a distance of 640 nautical miles. One lady wrapped herself in her bed linens, including comforter. Few ventured into the pools, and the waterslide was closed the first morning. Things warmed up as we approached the Yucatan but never got superhot, a blessing in our minds.

While the 20-year-old Holiday does not have all the bells and whistles of a 21st century megaship, she's in remarkably good shape--you have to look hard to find blemishes and rust spots. The decor--glass, chrome, mirrors, neon--is a bit dated, and you won't find a multi-deck atrium lobby with glass elevators. But we were comfortable and felt as if we were on a ship, not a floating high-rise requiring long jaunts from top to bottom and end to end.

For passengers with just a few days to get acclimated (many sailing from Mobile are first-time cruisers), the ship is the perfect size and imparts a hint of nostalgia for those of us who remember smaller ships (not that the 46,052-gross-register-ton Holiday is intimate by any means).

The Holiday has all the "Fun Ship" flash we're accustomed to. Expect karaoke craziness, art auctions, and poolside festivities like "The Hairy Chest Contest." In the two-level Americana Lounge, with its star-spangled decor, we enjoyed everything from bingo and "Game Show Mania" to Vegas-style revues and a French foot juggler. Unfortunately, poles obstruct views from many of the couches and theater-style seats.

Doc Holidays--a country & western lounge with fake cactus, Navajo-pattern rugs, log tables, stone walls, and mounted cattle horns--anchors the aft end of Broadway, a "Little Old New York" streetscape that stretches along Promenade Deck from the Americana Lounge's balcony level forward. You can saddle up to the bar on hand-tooled leather saddles or relax in cowskin-upholstered chairs.

In between these two true, American gathering spots are the casino and smaller lounges. The Bus Stop Bar, next to the casino, has bar stools and yellow-and-white checked tables next to a traffic light, street lamp, and an antique bus headed to "Coney Island." By the windows across the way, black-and-yellow taxi chairs provide prime spots for people-watching and looking out to sea. Elevator banks on this level are marked "Times Square" and "Broadway."

Other hotspots on the indoor promenade include Cappuccino's, a sidewalk cafe for relaxing over coffee or cocktails, and the adjacent Tahiti Lounge, a Polynesian-themed tiki bar with carved wooden totems and masks, cane furniture, and bamboo rafters. A spiral metal staircase from the casino leads down to Rick's Care American, an Admiral Deck piano bar inspired by the watering hole in the classic movie Casa blanca. Sand-colored stucco arches, ceiling fans, mirrors etched with camels, and a grand piano ringed by bar stools set the tone in this "casbah" hideaway.

Neighboring Rick's are the Carnegie Library, popular with card players and internet users, and the Four Winds Dining Room, one of two main restaurants. Our booth was in the aft Seven Seas Dining Room, where we enjoyed dinner entrees like prime rib of beef, New Zealand lamb, broiled lobster tail, and whole roasted quail with herb stuffing. Among our favorite soups were the West Indies roasted pumpkin, blended with chicken broth and a touch of cream, and chilled strawberry bisque with fresh mint.

For convenience, we ate breakfast and lunch every day at the informal Wharf Bar & Grill, a large nautically themed buffet restaurant up on Lido Deck. We especially liked the omelet station at breakfast and the 24-hour pizzeria, which served calzones and caesar salad as well. The New York Deli counter offered corned beef and other sandwiches. Cheeseburgers hot off the grill--with a sesame seed bun and all the fixin's--really hit the spot and remain one of our all-time favorite cruise-ship foods.

The "Taste of the Nations" hot buffet one day featured Indian specialties like chicken tikka masala, spicy kebabs, potato-and-pea samosas, naan bread, crispy papadams, chutneys, and mulligatawny (lentil) soup. Beverage stations (iced tea, lemonade, coffee) and a soft-serve ice-cream machine dispensed refreshment at all hours.

Staterooms on Carnival ships tend to be a bit larger than average, and the Holiday is no exception. Only the 10 penthouse suites on Verandah Deck sport a balcony. New bathrooms and wall paneling were installed last fall in all cabins. During drydock this September, refurbishments will include new carpeting, curtains, and upholstery in guest quarters and public areas.

Even before the Holiday left Mobile, cruise director Greg Hutson gave a travel talk in the Americana Lounge and described the 30-some shore-excursion options in Cozumel, located 12 miles east of the Yucatan coast. He led off by advising us not to rent mopeds because of local vendors' questionable maintenance practices.

Active travelers can mingle with tropical fish, sting rays, and turtles on a variety of snorkel and dive outings to Cozumel's famous coral reef. Anyone can explore the underwater world on Atlantis submarine tides that dive 60 to 100 feet below the ocean's surface at Chankanaab National Park, part of the world's second largest system of coral reefs. Holiday passengers can even sign up to swim with dolphins in a protected setting or go deep-sea fishing. Hiking, biking, Jeep, and ATV (all-terrain vehicle) expeditions penetrate the island's thick mangrove jungles and spotlight unexcavated Mayan Indian ruins.

We took the lazy route and paid $75 each for the "Passion Island Adventure," a barefoot experience on a private island covered in soft white sand. After a 30-minute bus ride and 10-minute boat shuttle, we had three hours to relax in lounge chairs next to crashing waves or snooze in hammocks under the pines. In a large thatched shelter we feasted on barbecued chicken, fish, rice, salads, fresh pineapple and papaya, and tortilla chips with guacamole. Passion Island guests can have as many Corona beers, margaritas, or yellow birds as they want.

After our shore excursion ended, we still had two hours in San Miguel, the island's only town, for strolling among shops filled with diamond bracelets, T-shirts, onyx chess sets, papier-mache parrots, and bottles of Kahlua, tequila, and vanilla extract. Hand-lettered signs seen in one jewelry store window: "Broken English Spoken Perfectly," "Cheaper Than Wal-Mart," and "Free Shot Of Tequila." At the main square, a block from the waterfront, we paused for a snack of thinly sliced fried plantains.

San Miguel, the most important cruise port-of-call in the Western Caribbean, has all the color of a typical Mexican village yet feels slickly American because of the tourist shops and familiar restaurants like McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and Hard Rock Cafe. Luckily for us, the Holiday was able to berth at the modern Punta Langosta Pier, just a short walk and escalator ride from the thick of things. Getting to the heart of town from Cozumel's other cruise-ship terminals requires a short taxi ride--or a long walk.

Carnival offers tours of Mobile on the morning of debarkation. Top attractions in this genteel Southern city include the USS Alabama, a valiant battleship that saw action against Japan during World War II, and Bellingrath Gardens & Home, ablaze with flowers every season. Antebellum mansions like Oakleigh and Bragg-Mitchell are especially popular in spring when azaleas paint Mobile (nicknamed the "Azalea City") in shades of red and pink.

The new Mobile Carnival Museum showcases the city's Mardi Gras traditions, displaying lavish costumes worn by past kings and queens in the pre-Lenten parades and balls that fill the Carnival-season calendar in the 12 days leading up to Mardi Gras, or "Fat Tuesday" (on February 28 next year). Mobilians like to boast that Mardi Gras fetes in America began in 1704 in Mobile, 144 years before New Orleans adopted the celebration.

Had we been in town just a few days before our Holiday cruise in February, we would have gone from one Carnival to another. Mardi Gras celebrants and Mexico-bound "Fun Ship" cruisers know how to have a good time. (Carnival offers pre- and post' cruise land packages at the Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa in nearby Point Clear, Alabama.)

For more information on Holiday cruises from Mobile to Mexico, contact your travel agent or Carnival Cruise Lines (Cruise Travel Magazine), 3655 NW 87th Ave., Miami, FL 33178; or log on to www. Information on Mobile-area sightseeing and "BAYcation" hotel packages is also available from your travel agent, or contact the Mobile Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau (Cruise Travel Magazine), P.O. Box 204, Mobile, AL 36601; or log on to
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Title Annotation:GULF GETAWAY
Author:Mink, Randy; Mink, Karen
Publication:Cruise Travel
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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