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Bye-Bye, Love Boat

The iconic ship that lured millions to the seas and boosted the industry will set sail this autumn on its final voyage


NEW YORK — Striding up the gangway, I knew I was boarding the original Love Boat of television fame--the Pacific Princess, that gently aging, exceedingly diminutive (at least by today's standards) ship that had been instrumental in popularizing cruising a quarter-century ago.

On the other hand, I knew I wasn't doing any such thing. I knew Capt. Merrill Stubing (played by Gavin MacLeod, who remains a Princess Cruises spokesman) wouldn't be at the gangway to greet me as I boarded. Like much else on "The Love Boat," the weekly TV series that for a decade brought the romance of cruising into the living rooms of millions of American landlubbers, this ritual bore little relation to real life. I also knew that my fellow passengers wouldn't all be beautiful people questing for romance.

But I knew this too: The Pacific Princess was a woman with a past and an intriguing one at that. She has a shippy profile that you would never mistake for an apartment building, and--at a passenger capacity of 640 (638 on our cruise)--an intimacy and coziness that is all but lost in contemporary cruising. And even before I pulled on the midnight blue T-shirt I would purchase in the ship's boutique, the one that read "Pacific Princess, 1972-2002, the Farewell Season," I knew it was this summer or never to sail aboard the Love Boat. On Oct. 27, when the Pacific Princess' lines are slipped at New York City's Passenger Ship Terminal one last time and the ship sails for Civitavecchia, Italy, an important early chapter in the annals of cruising will close.

Even as my wife, Laurel, and I boarded on a Sunday last month in New York for a seven-day cruise to Bermuda, this ship had been promised elsewhere--sold to an Italian company for charter. Under terms of the purchase, the ship must sail under another name, with no references to her past. We wondered what we would find aboard the stalwart vessel whose longtime owner now found it obsolete. Its twin, Island Princess, which had shared the distinction of being "the original Love Boat," was sold in 1999.

When I called to book our Bermuda cruise, the reservation agent had been upbeat but full of caveats--scripted, no doubt--to prevent complaints after the fact. "You do know that this ship has no balcony cabins?" she asked, an apology lurking in her voice. "And that the 'Anytime Dining' option is not available--just the traditional two seatings with assigned tables in the dining room?" I assured her that those weren't concerns, and we settled on booking a "guarantee" at a rate of a little more than $1,000 apiece, one level above the minimum for an outside cabin. This left us eligible for an upgrade.

On board, our first impressions were favorable. Our mini-suite aft on the Promenade Deck was spacious, bright and airy, with twin beds, sofa, round coffee table with three easy chairs, credenza, vanity and a bathroom with tub. The layout and built-in furniture appeared to be original, but the curtains, upholstery and carpets seemed recently renewed. The public rooms were well appointed if decidedly modest--some might even say dowdy--by present-day cruise-ship standards (though, we were told, carpeting throughout the public areas was new). The two-deck central lobby, for instance, with the winding "Love Boat stairs," a favorite spot for photos, is a nice design but looks dated compared with the soaring atriums in newer ships. We found ample open deck space--surfaced in teak, as decks are meant to be--with chairs oriented for leisurely contemplation of the sea.

When we gathered at our muster station, the Pacific Lounge, for our pre-sailing boat drill, Vicki Smith, one of the cruise staff and a dancer in the engaging production shows, was killing time waiting for the recorded safety announcement from the bridge. She asked who had cruised with Princess before, and about a third of us raised hands. Then another question:

"How many of you expected that this ship would be bigger?" she asked--there was that note of apology again--and a smattering of hands went up, though not ours. Its size was a major reason we were there, that and curiosity about an icon of popular culture.

Sailing is always great theater, and New York Harbor remains one of its preeminent stages. We were squeezed in at Berth 5 behind Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Sea. With a capacity of 1,518 passengers, the Sea is a midsize player in today's cruise game--as is Royal Caribbean International's Nordic Empress, at 2,020 passengers, which was berthed opposite us. By comparison, RCI's Voyager of the Seas, one of the world's largest cruise ships, can carry 3,114. Still, these ships towered over the Pacific Princess.

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