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Honeymooners Gaze Starward on Mexico Voyage : Norwegian Cruise Line vessel, now en route from Caribbean to Los Angeles, involves younger passengers in sports and shore excursions.


Had we not known better, we would have thought we were on the Love Boat. More than one-fourth of all the passengers aboard Norwegian Cruise Line's 758-passenger Starward on our southern Caribbean cruise in May were honeymooners--103 couples, to be exact.

But while the true Love Boat label belongs to Princess Cruises, NCL prefers to be known as the official cruise line of both the National Football League and Universal Studios Hollywood and Florida. That means passengers can expect to hobnob with characters such as Frankenstein and Woody Woodpecker, as well as athletes like Stacy Dillard, a defensive tackle for the New York Giants who was on our cruise.

The Starward is scheduled to set out today from San Juan, Puerto Rico, en route to its new home port of Los Angeles, where it will offer weekly seven-day cruises to the Mexican Riviera, July 4-Dec. 19.

One of NCL's fleet of "white ships," so-called for the color of their hulls (in contrast to the dark blue hull of the line's flagship Norway), the Starward was built in Germany in 1968. It's a trim, very clean vesseldespite its quarter-century age, with housekeeping, food and service that can rival many of its costlier competitors.

The dress code aboard, except for two nights on which men are requested to wear formal wear, is fairly casual; shorts are not allowed in the public areas after 6 p.m.

On the down side, however, the cabins are quite small, with walls thin enough to allow conversations to seep through from next door.

Still, our cheery honeymooners seemed to have a wonderful time strolling around the ship holding hands, and wrestling over which shore and snorkeling excursions to join at the daily ports of call.

On the Mexican Riviera, unlike in the Caribbean, passengers will be aboard for three days at sea since the itinerary offers only three ports of call--Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta. Those extra days at sea will call for more on-board activities such as volleyball, basketball, trapshooting and bingo.

One of NCL's major draws for its younger-than-average passengers is an active sports program. It includes the popular learn-to-snorkel "Dive-In" program and visits with current or former NFL players, who let passengers chime in like Monday morning quarterbacks on every cruise.

While final plans are still being set for the Mexico itineraries, assistant cruise director David Schumacher said shore excursions are expected to include a novice snorkeling program off Lovers Beach at Cabo San Lucas, as well as fishing, a glass-bottom boat ride that includes a beach visit, and boat rides out to the cape.

In Mazatlan, a half-day Sierra Madre countryside tour and a half-day city and shopping tour will be offered, as well as an advanced snorkeling "Dive-In" off a boat. In Puerto Vallarta, a snorkeling excursion will likely be offered from a catamaran near Mismaloya Beach, in addition to a city bus tour and perhaps a trip to a secluded jungle restaurant for lunch, Schumacher said.

Shore excursion prices currently range from about $20 for a general three-hour sightseeing tour to as much as $70 for an all-day catamaran tour with swimming, snorkeling and lunch included.

We noted a couple of adjustments that would improve the voyage for the Starward's new West Coast cruisers: adding designated nonsmoking areas in several of the lounges that presently offer none, and expanding the limited seating space (only 60 chairs) in the self-service cafe for breakfast and lunch.

The ship's fitness area was crowded with high-quality exercise machines on our cruise, but the space seemed inadequate for the demand.

The casino is medium-sized, with one roulette wheel, two Caribbean stud tables and three blackjack tables, plus about 60 slot machines. A comfortable movie theater screens recent film releases twice daily.

The Starward's top-deck Topsiders Bar is reminiscent of a treehouse with lots of greenery, ceiling fans and rattan furniture. It overlooks a sheltered swimming amidships; there's a larger open-pool aft, and both are complemented by whirlpool spas.

In the show lounge, sight lines are blocked at intervals with large columns that help support the fairly low ceiling; the stage doubles as a dance floor. Many of the on-board entertainers are Los Angeles-based: a comedy juggling team called Howie & Bert on the Edge (who offered a free juggling class to passengers on our cruise one day), comedienne Susie Loucks and singer Donna Theodore. In addition, the Jean Ann Ryan Dancers provide two production shows during the seven-day sailings.

Despite the large complement of honeymooners, most of the tables in the dining room were for four, six, eight or 10 passengers. Only two tables for two were available, and they were set so close together that they could almost be a table for four.

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