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OC SPOTLIGHT : SEA RATIONS : Water With Dinner? You Can Eat Aboard Anything From a Gondola to an Ocean Liner

July 29, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

When I got the assignment to do a story about dining at venues that literally float on water, I immediately became queasy. It isn't that I get seasick. During my misspent youth, I labored, briefly, as a waiter aboard a Norwegian-based ocean liner.

Passengers on these ships pay princely sums to take away memories of exotic ports of call; Rio's Sugarloaf Mountain, Hong Kong at night, Curacao in the mist. What I recall are sharks at a feeding frenzy: people eating their way through cabin breakfasts, deck lunches, six-course dinners and midnight snacks that lasted until sunup.

The Orange County area has lots of places for dining on the water, and it isn't even necessary to pack a suitcase. I've recently been out on Newport Harbor in a chartered yacht, lolled sound asleep on a boat moored off Lido Isle, and dined among friends in a stately wood-paneled room aboard the Queen Mary. Now I can finally say it with authority: The passengers have a better time.

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Worldwide Boat and Breakfast: At first, the idea of paying to sleep on someone else's yacht may strike you as a bit daffy. Chances are you'll feel differently once aboard.

A plucky woman named Vili Boyadjiev recently had the bright idea to lease luxury crafts moored off Lido Isle, freshen them up and turn them into individual bed-and-breakfast inns. Most of these boats are big and luxuriously appointed; prices (for one night, double occupancy) range from $95 to around $400, including breakfast. So far, business is booming.

Once you step aboard, sometime in the late afternoon (usually around 3 p.m.), the boat is yours until approximately 11 a.m., roughly the same as check-out time in your average hotel. The rules are few: no smoking, no cooking and no bringing unregistered guests aboard for the night. Apart from that, and taking the boat out for a joy ride (this is a stationary rental, remember), you can do virtually anything you wish.

I like just relaxing on deck, watching the sun go down. In the morning, Boyadjiev or one of her crew brings you a basket full of fruit, freshly baked pastries from a local bakery and assorted other goodies. Just order your breakfast the way you would in a hotel, specifying the time.

All Boyadjiev's yachts come equipped with a coffee machine and various hot-beverage fixings, a working marine radio, TVs, VCRs, towels, toiletries and at least one well-appointed stateroom. I slept like a baby on a 37-footer called Thunderbird, a cozy all-wood beauty just under Delaney's Wharf. That boat goes for $150 a night; $325 gets you aboard Genesis, a 58-foot motor yacht with two large aft decks, a flybridge perfect for sunning, and a spectacular view of the harbor.

Boyadjiev will allow you to share the larger boats for an additional charge of $25 per person. She will also arrange floral bouquets, fruit and wine baskets and other amenities, at varying costs.

3400 Via Oporto, Suite 103 in Newport Beach. Rates: approximately $95 to $350 per night for two people; tax and gratuities extra. For information, call (800) BOAT-BED.

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Hornblower Yacht Cruises: The Hornblower Co. provides the only nightly a la carte dinner cruises in Orange County. Five years ago, this was a relatively small operation. Today, it is an industry giant, with a fleet of five boats sailing out of Newport, San Diego, Marina del Rey and Long Beach.

The format is simple: You board a boat such as the Lord Hornblower about 7 p.m. to set sail at 7:30. Cruises, primarily around Newport Harbor, last 2 1/2 hours. On busy evenings, there are up to 300 passengers, so it feels like being on a real ocean liner. Service begins almost immediately after the boat sets sail--a three-course dinner consisting of a salad, a duet of filet mignon and poached salmon, and a dessert (chocolate cake or something equally non-controversial).

Because of the number of people, the management has simplified the a la carte service here, both to increase efficiency and to appeal to a broader customer base. When I sailed a few years back, I sampled dishes such as salmon with baby clams, chicken with morels, and tenderloin of beef in a pastry crust with fresh rosemary. There is nothing nearly as imaginative at the moment, but a change in chefs is due to be announced soon.

The entertainment, however, is quite a bit more elaborate than the last time I sailed, when mostly recorded music or the occasional three-piece combo was featured. On Aug. 1, cruises will begin offering "Broadway Off the Menu," an interactive show featuring four musical comedy artists. Audience members get a ballot of songs, then choose what they want to hear by vote. Other options after dinner include strolling the deck or watching the captain navigate the narrow canal from the Point to Lido Marina.

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