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It may be one of those "well-kept travel secrets" abroad, but in Cuba and Caribbean Mexico, The Boat is almost inevitable. Tell somebody you flew to Havana and you end up having to explain yourself: "Why didn't you take The Boat?" People ask about your new girlfriend and you get nods of full comprehension when you say, "I met her on The Boat." Local travel agencies advertise it as the "Crucero a La Habana", but everyone on the Mayan Riviera knows what The Boat is.

Except that what exactly The Boat is depends a lot on who you are and what you're all about. If you're a tourist on a Cancun beach, it appears as a pretty mini-ocean liner that mysteriously anchors off shore then disappears. If you're a Cancun tourist who is looking for a new pastime after doing the sunburning, ruin visiting, nightlifing, dolphin molesting, and eco-touring, it's the ultimate side-trip: a cruise to an exotic and slightly disreputable destination. If you're a traveler, it represents the best, most fun, and cheapest way to get to Cuba. If you're a businessman, or somebody's Man In Havana, you "take The Boat" as the ultimate alternative to a red-eye special. If you collect cruises, this has got to be the cheapest one in the world, and one of the most unique. If you just want to hole up for three days with an unlimited open bar and buffet, sundeck and TV movies, it'll be that for you, too. If you're a smuggler, it's a golden opportunity.

The Boat itself is neutral on the topic. It's of moderate size at 130 meters and 10.000 tons, and much more in the cozy old "ocean liner" mold than today's "floating office building" mode of Princess-class monstrosities. Compared to the glass box designs it looks smooth, sporty, and well...shipshape. It is given to round lines (even the disco and pool are round) and takes a pretty good stab at that feeling without going overboard on needless luxury. The interior has been described as a glorified ferryboat. Low ceilings look like aluminum siding and some of the larger salons resemble a VFW bingo hall in a double-wide mobile home. But there is nevertheless some class about the layout. There might be Formica and fairly cheesy carpeting, but there is also brass and polished hardwood. Electrical and plumbing fixtures are fist rate and in good repair. Cabins are cozy, and the beds are soft and comfy, with simple linens--a sort of Norwegian look. Sparkling white baths have little soaps and shampoo and cool little showers with lots of very hot water and nice thick fluffy towels. The cabins don't look like hotel rooms because nobody saw any reason to make them look that way. They look like cabins on a ship. They have portholes, marine plumbing, bunk beds, clever little drawers and closets and foldaways. Denial is pointless: you're on a ship, not the 34th floor of a Howard Johnson's. The point is this: you aren't on a cheap version of a cruise ship, you're on a very luxurious ferryboat...

Which is one way to look at The Boat--as one of the major portals into Cuba. Any given trip has a large contingent of "I'm a traveler not a tourist" types, business people, visiting families, This diversity of motives on The Boat create an interesting cross-section of passengers and make it a fun place to meet people. International roadwarriors with "hostel bum" written all over them loll in the unaccustomed luxury and get wide-eyed over the showers rub backpacks with junketeers from Cancun who are essentially treating their kids to a sort of floating Disneyland. Retirees discussing grander cruises of years past with jaded businessmen whiling away their nteenth crossing with unlimited drinks in the piano bar. Cuban-Mexican families look askance at the sprinkling of retro-commies hauling in medical goods for Solidarity, unaware of the bureaucratic nightmare they are about to step into. MTV Spring Breakers going over for a week or two, intent on music/dance, international politics, cheap sex, and punching an envied "I been there" ticket end up sharing dinner tables or jacuzzis with "their parents" who are chatting about cigars and deals on paintings for their rumpus rooms. At my table in the second meal seating: a ballerina from Philadelphia going over to learn Spanish, an Irish family just trying to do something totally-unIrish, a permanently traveling Argentine trio speaking every known language without accents, two busty American blondes who spent the whole trip on the sundeck in bikini bottoms and fragrant marinade and didn't really seem to have a very good grasp of where they were heading or why. In fact, they didn't even go ashore in Havana, just sunned themselves, nursed hangovers, and got completely drunk all over again. The motto of The Boat could well be "To Each His Own".

But even judged as a cruise, The Boat stands out as an amazing bargain. For under two hundred dollars (plus $45 port tax for those reconstructed communists) You get two days and two nights at sea, plus the port call in Havana. That includes all you can eat and drink, 24 hour closed-circuit movies in your cabin, pool and sundeck, jacuzzis, sauna, two Cuban floor shows, casino gambling, duty-free store, and a round of activities ranging from nitwit games to music lessons with the dancers and band. It wouldn't take much imagination to see the trip as a return to the glory days of liners from Miami to Old Havana. Take in the rumba show, then go play some roulette and picture the guy over at the blackjack table as Ernest Hemingway running guns to rebels for the Mob.

But whoever you are and whatever your reasons for boarding The Boat, there is a universal bottom line: you get a hell of a lot for your money. With Havana thrown in.

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