— As the cruise ship pulls away from shore, a tropical mood takes over with a band playing island music and waiters handing out rum fruit drinks.
The setting, though, is definitely Texas Gulf Coast. Sticky heat hangs in the air. Oil refineries dot the horizon. Throughout the evening the ship sails amid brightly lit offshore drilling rigs and past big tankers.
A question lingers: Can this really turn into a Caribbean vacation?
By Day Two an answer arrives.
Only the sea and clouds are in sight. The brownish-green tint of the shallower water near shore gives way to the deep blue of the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.
Soon, the scene is Key West, the Cayman Islands and Cozumel, Mexico. You're hanging out at one of Ernest Hemingway's favorite haunts or snorkeling beside colorful fish along a coral reef. The ship has reached its exotic destination.
A Car Trip Away
More than 267,000 cruise passengers headed to Caribbean hot spots from Galveston in 2002, a 79 percent increase from 2001. For many, getting aboard a Texas-based ship requires only a car trip or a quick flight. That's a plus for passengers in the post-Sept. 11 era who worry about international trips or who don't want to deal with tighter airport security. It also means vacationers don't have to waste a day of their precious time off traveling somewhere else before boarding.
Cruise lines see the demand and are happy to oblige.
"Texas is one of the highest-ranked states, based on our research, for people with a propensity to cruise," said Jennifer de la Cruz, spokeswoman for Carnival Cruise Lines. She attributes that to a variety of factors, including the accessibility and appeal of Galveston, a historic island town on the Texas coast.
Over the past three years, Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean Cruises have begun offering trips departing from Galveston. Norwegian Cruise Line, which started service from Texas in 1997, is resuming operations out of Houston this month following a hiatus.
Most passengers are Texans, the companies say, but some come from other states.
Carnival offers four- and five-day cruises, and its Princess Cruises is starting weeklong trips in the fall. Royal Caribbean also offers a seven-day cruise, and Norwegian will this fall.
The ships sail into the western Caribbean, with slightly different itineraries.
Sunsets, Hemingway Light Up Key West
On Royal Caribbean's Rhapsody of the Seas, a ship that departs from Galveston every Sunday, most of the initial 48 hours is spent at sea until the first stop at Key West.
This funky town at the southernmost tip of Florida is known for its spectacular sunset views from Mallory Square. Walking tours take visitors to Hemingway's house, President Harry Truman's "Little White House" and a winter retreat of poet Robert Frost.
The Key West nightlife is anchored by bustling Duval Street with its famous bars and restaurants like Sloppy Joe's — a tavern Hemingway frequented in the 1930s — and Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville Cafe. On nearby Greene Street is Captain Tony's, where Sloppy Joe's was first located. Business cards and underwear are the decor. Guitar-strumming musicians, some playing the tunes of Texas songwriters, lure in crowds.
A little detour off the main tourist path brings pleasant surprises, like the Green Parrot, a lively, gritty bar favored by locals. An ice cold mug of beer costs $1 during an early evening special.