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A weekend's taste of cruise life: Santa Barbara and Ensenada, Mexico

A last-minute deal puts her and her sibs on a weekend cruise to Santa Barbara and Ensenada

My siblings, my husband and I went to Santa Barbara for a long weekend — and to Ensenada. As the trip planner of the family, I had none of the stress of driving to either. Instead, we were transported, literally and figuratively, on a short-hop cruise that not only gave us a change of scenery but also cost me and my siblings less than $400 a person. The price included our meals and transportation plus a place to stay — money we easily could have blown in one night on a hotel and dinner in Santa Barbara. On our four-day Coastal Sampler aboard the Crown Princess, we sailed from Los Angeles on a Friday evening, spent a day in Santa Barbara, a day at sea and a day in Ensenada before returning home. So what if a cold, rainy day made Santa Barbara feel more like Alaska? It was an adventure to take a tender on choppy whitecaps to Stearns Wharf.

The bed

Our balcony room on the 11th deck of the Crown Princess had a queen-size bed and more than enough closet space (provided you aren't traveling with steamer trunks). I called Princess a week before the departure date and received a "drop-and-go-deal" price of $374 a person, including tax and fees. I also booked a second cabin with twin beds for my siblings and asked for the less-expensive ocean-view stateroom. The total came to $304 a person, including tax and fees. (Prices are based on double occupancy.) We boarded the ship and discovered my siblings had been upgraded to a balcony room next door to ours. Sweet! Only additional fees: $11.50 per day per person for gratuities.

The meal

Gourmands may "dis" buffet fare, but it worked perfectly for us. I'm vegetarian, so I could chow down on fresh greens and vegetables for lunch and dinner, or heap my plate with hot veggie dishes of Swiss chard and onions or an Indian-style lentil casserole. My sister Louise loved the Alaska rockfish fillet, broiled salmon and baked codfish, and we all enjoyed coconut custard mini pies, cheesecake, red velvet cupcakes and so on for dessert. Coffee, tea, iced tea and water were free, but you'll be charged for soft drinks, wine, beer and cocktails.

Menus at the ship's specialty restaurants such as the fancier Crown Grill ($25 per person for dinner) didn't tempt us because we liked the variety — especially for my vegetarian palate — of the buffet. We also chose any-time dining, which meant maximum flexibility when it came time to eat.

The find

In Santa Barbara: Despite heavy rain, my sis and I took a 50-cent shuttle ride from the ship landing to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art at 1130 State St. to see the ongoing "Degas to Chagall: Important Loans From the Armand Hammer Foundation" exhibition. While waiting for the museum to open, my husband, Tom, directed us to the perfect find: a turtle fountain in front of Cielito restaurant in La Arcada walkway behind the museum. The red-eared sliders are big and real — and reminded Louise and me of our childhood pastime catching turtles in the Connecticut lake we lived on. What other turtle fountain gets a thumbs-up on TripAdvisor?

In Ensenada: My sister fulfilled her lifelong dream of horseback riding on the beach. She got to trot and gallop (a little) on soft sand just outside the city although she had not ridden for decades. We all went to see the landmark La Bufadora (which means "buffalo snort"), the blow hole that shoots water — and occasionally soaks visitors who get too close — and then shopped for souvenirs. The half-day bus tour from Ensenada to La Bufadora cost $15 each, including guide and transportation; Louise paid $35 to ride the horse. These weren't shore excursions organized by Princess but tours we picked up after the ship docked.

At sea: The most astonishing "find" was that the cruise wasn't a party boat, with over-imbibers cluttering the decks in the wee hours. Instead, I met people who were out to have a casual cruise vacation, sometimes with family, sometimes on their own.

One night seniors Fred and Selma invited us to play on their trivia team (which we did) at the Wheelhouse Bar; another night, Louise and I danced at the Skywalkers Nightclub, which was mobbed with young people. (We were oblivious to the fact we were crashing an 18- to 20-year-old DJ event.) My favorite mixer: Princess' 50th-year party in the ship's atrium. Toddlers and seniors boogied to the beat of the Emperor Penguins until a New Year's Eve-style balloon drop at 11 p.m.

The lesson learned

When it came time to disembark, I was sure I could fly through customs with my Global Entry card. Not so. What works like a charm in airports doesn't carry any weight at the Port of Los Angeles. I stood in the hourlong line like everyone else, showing my passport, handing over my U.S. Customs declaration, etc.

***

If you go

Princess Cruises ([800] 774-6237, http://www.princess.com) offers three- to four-night cruises from Los Angeles to Mexico in March and April and in the fall.

Carnival Cruises ([800] 764-7419, http://www.carnival.com) offers similar Mexico short cruises year round from L.A. and Long Beach.

Norwegian Cruise Line ([866] 234-7350, http://www.ncl.com) operates five-day and longer cruises from L.A. to Mexico in the spring.

travel@latimes.com

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