Last-Minute Holiday Getaways

Don't you wish that for once somebody else could trim the tree and cook the holiday feast?

For many of us, December means crowded holiday airports and highways, the stress of last-minute shopping, a calendar filled with too many insignificant occasions.

One great escape is an easy, no-fly, three- or four-night cruise from Los Angeles aboard one of two resident year-round mini-cruise ships, Carnival's Holiday or Royal Caribbean Cruise Line's Viking Serenade.

During December and through early January, each ship offers 10 different sailings. You don't have to fly anywhere. Just drive to San Pedro, leave your car in the big parking lot and take a shuttle bus to the ship's departure lounge. And when you return, arms laden with souvenirs from Mexico, you get in your car and drive home.

RCCL's 1,512-passenger Viking Serenade runs a normal schedule of two sailings a week year-round, departing every Friday and Monday. During the holidays, two four-night cruises, departing Dec. 23 and Dec. 30, are scheduled, with a surcharge of $75 per passenger added onto the usual fare.

The Viking Serenade's Christmas trees and decorations are erected on a single day in early December, and a holiday feast supplements the usual lavish cruise ship menus. Santa Claus is aboard with a small gift for each child sailing, and a gala champagne party is on tap for New Year's Eve.

The four-night cruise from Viking Serenade sails at 4:45 every Monday afternoon, calls at Catalina Island on Tuesdays for an all-day visit, then docks in Ensenada for an all-day stopover every Wednesday. During the holidays, Thursday is spent at sea, but beginning with the cruise departing Jan. 27, the ship will once again call at San Diego.

The revision in the itinerary is largely because of the enactment of new national legislation overriding a 1992 state ban on gambling in California waters. The Viking Serenade had terminated its midweek San Diego calls to allow more hours for its casino to be open.

The four-night cruise returns to San Pedro, the port of Los Angeles, at 8 a.m. every Friday. If you'd rather opt for a three-night weekend getaway, you can expect to sail on Friday afternoons at 6:30 p.m., spend all day Saturday in Ensenada, then have a leisurely Sunday at sea cruising back to Los Angeles, arriving at 8 a.m. on Monday.

Fares for the three-night sailings range from $529 to $1,629 per person, double occupancy. For the four-night holiday sailings, prices range from $654 to $1,754 per person, double occupancy, including the surcharge. Non-holiday four-night sailings without air fare range from $579 to $1,679 per person, double occupancy.

Carnival's Holiday offers similar three- and four-night cruises year-round. During the holidays, departures on Dec. 23, 27 and 30 carry a $50 per person surcharge, making the fare for a Los Angeles-area passenger not needing air fare from $679 to $1,169 per person, double occupancy, for four-night cruises, $569 to $1,099 for three-night cruises.

The Holiday sails Friday afternoons at 5:30 p.m., spending Saturday in Ensenada and Sunday at sea before arriving back in San Pedro at 8 a.m.; the four-night cruise departs at 5:30 p.m. Mondays, spends Tuesdays in Catalina and Wednesdays in Ensenada, then has a full day at sea on Thursday before returning Friday morning at 8 a.m.

The ships' on-board lifestyle is somewhat different. The Holiday emphasizes its Las Vegas-style entertainment, while Viking Serenade touts its ShipShape exercise programs, live music for dancing and glittering production shows.

For more information, see a travel agent (who may be able to negotiate prices lower than published brochure rates) or call the line toll-free at (800) 327-6700 for RCCL, (800) 327-9501 for Carnival.

Slater and Basch travel as guests of the cruise lines. Cruise Views appears the first and third week of every month.

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