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Discounts, Characters Enliven Weekend Trips

A secretary from Encino was dancing old-time rock ‘n’ roll with the Frankenstein monster on the rain-wet deck, while a startled senior citizen in billed cap was whirled onto the dance floor by a Marilyn Monroe look-alike in gold lame. During the dancing, a fuzzy Woody Woodpecker with a yellow plastic beak and a Groucho Marx imitator with waggling eyebrows and cigar mingled with the passengers.

Despite a wet, chilly Friday evening in March, the 733 passengers aboard the three-day sailing of Norwegian Cruise Line’s Southward were ready for fun. The costumed characters were from Universal Studios, part of an arrangement in which movie-themed characters and activities entertain aboard NCL ships during certain sailings.

What with the dancers, the costumes and the brightly colored streamers flung toward shore by the exuberant passengers--mostly young and first-time cruisers--it could have been a scene from TV’s “The Love Boat.”

“They want the Love Boat,” hotel director Maggie Sitto said, so NCL gives them streamers, baked Alaska parades and lavish midnight buffets, just like on TV.

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Sitto estimated that about half of her passengers are cruising for the first time. The largest age group on this sailing is between 31 and 40, with the average passenger 37 years, she said.

And these short, affordable cruises are cheaper than ever right now, thanks to two programs NCL has introduced--a discount of up to 44% off NCL brochure prices for California residents, and a “Cruising in Pairs” program in which the second occupant in a cabin sails free on certain sailings. (Both offers are limited to a certain number of cabins on each sailing.)

Californians must provide proof of residency (a driver’s license or original telephone or electricity bill) to get up to 38% off an air/sea package aboard the Southward during 1991. Cruise-only passengers (those not needing air tickets) can get up to 44% off brochure prices.

“Cruising in Pairs” enables the second passenger in a cabin to sail free on certain sailings on a cruise-only arrangement--or that second passenger can deduct 50% on air/sea packages.

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Dates for the “Cruising in Pairs” programs on the Southward’s three-day weekend cruises to Ensenada are good through the departure of May 10. On the four-day midweek sailings, the program is good April 8 through June 17 and Oct. 14 through Dec. 16. The offer cannot be combined with any other discount.

With people taking advantage of both these money-saving offers, it’s not surprising the ship was full on our weekend cruise.

And the Universal Studios’ characters provided a delightful bonus. Giggling passengers posed for pictures with the Frankenstein monster; Woody Woodpecker and Andy Panda turned up to help children with their projects in a crafts class, and the Marilyn Monroe and Groucho Marx look-alikes livened up bingo games.

Most people compared the three-day cruise to other weekend getaways, such as to Palm Springs or Las Vegas.

Some passengers found it a chance to relax by stretching out on deck in the sun with a book. Others lived it up in spring-break style, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day by dancing on the tables in an Ensenada bar.

The three-day cruises, which offer Saturday in Catalina and Sunday in Ensenada, usually attract a younger, more party-oriented crowd than the four-day sailings, which add a day in San Diego to the Catalina and Ensenada calls.

One of the Southward’s most popular options is the Dive-in Program, which offers snorkeling (not diving) programs in Catalina ($30) and Ensenada ($45) that include transportation from the ship and equipment--wet suit, hood, gloves and booties. For another $12, you can rent an underwater camera with a 24-exposure roll of film. With the special vests used for the program, even non-swimmers can snorkel safely.

The Southward offers a typical cruise experience, and if a passenger can book one of the new discount programs, it’s a bargain.

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The ship is clean and well-kept with serviceable rather than glamorous furnishings, and the multinational crew is cheerful and efficient.

While the food was not particularly exciting or innovative, there was plenty of it and the passengers seemed happy. Breakfast and lunch could be eaten in the dining room or at a self-service cafe on the pool deck, with hot dogs, hamburgers and tacos supplementing the buffet items. Teatime sandwiches, pastries and cookies were available in late afternoon.

Dinner menus always offered five main-dish choices--steak or prime rib, fish or lobster, duck or chicken, veal and pork or lamb, plus a low-calorie selection (Thai beef salad or seafood salad) along with a choice of hot and cold appetizers, several soups, a salad and several desserts.

The casino and shops are open only while the ship is at sea, and entertainment included stand-up comedy (one a very funny comedienne named Susie Loucks), and a show with costumed dancers, a pair of singers and a magician.

Three recent films are screened in the ship’s theater during the cruise. Our choices were “Memphis Belle,” “Presumed Innocent” and “Die Hard II.”

Except for a handful of fairly spacious suites, cabins range from compact to small--not a problem for most people on a cruise this short. And since there are no TV sets in the cabins, passengers are less inclined to spend time there.

While the fares vary from deck to deck--the lower the deck, the lower the price--cabin sizes are virtually the same on each level, with outside cabins (those with windows or portholes) slightly larger than inside cabins. Many of the inside cabins have a double bed with a third overhead berth. In some cabins, twin beds can be arranged as a double bed.

The lowest-priced inside cabins cost $525 to $575 per person, double occupancy, for the three-day cruises, depending on time of sailing, and $545 to $635 for four-day cruises. Los Angeles-area passengers can deduct $150 for not using the round-trip air transportation.

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Our cabin (at $715 for each of us) was one of the more expensive outside doubles, with two windows and twin beds separated by a small table. It had no chairs, and if we sat on the beds facing each other, our knees bumped. A built-in desk/dresser with mirror above and drawers and stool below was on one side, and on the other was a hanging closet and drawers. The bathroom was basic, with shower, sink, toilet and two narrow shelves.

Instead of booking shore excursions, we elected to walk around in port. A taxi from the ship into Ensenada cost $2 per person, but the return ride back to the ship cost only $1.

If space is important, suites are available from $930 to $1,175 per person, double occupancy. The suite has a sitting room with sofa, chairs, table and mini-refrigerator, bedroom with twin or queen-size bed, bath with tub/shower combination, and complimentary champagne and fresh fruit.

Singles can book a four-berth cabin called a quad, with two upper and two lower berths, for a flat rate of $295 for weekend sailings, $395 for midweek cruises. These prices do not include air fare, port charges or tax. Bear in mind that with four berths, the small cabins offer limited storage and lounging space. The line will assign same-sex roommates on the quad programs.

The recommended tips aboard the Southward are $3 per person per day to the cabin steward and the dining room waiter, $1.50 per person per day to the bus boy.

The clothing we took for the three-day sailing included casual outfits for Friday night (a few passengers opted for the suggested ‘50s or ‘60s look), dressy outfits for formal night on Saturday (about a third of the male passengers wore tuxedos, the rest suits or sport coats), and fairly dressy outfits for Sunday night, when most men wore jackets, some with and some without ties.

Shore excursions include a 3 3/4-hour tour of Catalina for $19.50, a 45-minute glass-bottom boat ride in Catalina for $5, a four-hour Calafia Valley (Mexico) winery tour and tasting for $30, and a two-hour Ensenada sightseeing tour for $14.


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