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In the wake of the Love Boat

Drop by the passenger terminal at the Port of Los Angeles any Sunday afternoon and it appears that cruising is booming in Southern California. Down by Pier 93, a row of multistory cruise ships, gleaming white against the blue Pacific sky, are lined up nose to tail, taking on passengers and supplies.

The numbers are impressive. Last year, cruise ships made 230 calls at the port and more than 947,000 cruise passengers arrived there. But after 33 years of champagne toasts to bon voyage here, the Mexican Riviera is still pretty much the only cruise game in town.

True, a few passengers are embarking on a west-to-east cruise through the Panama Canal. A sprinkling are joining an around-the-world sailing. Some are booked on three-day party cruises to Ensenada, Mexico, and to Catalina Island.

But most passengers are cruising the "Love Boat" route, sailing south along Mexico's west coast with calls at Ensenada, Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas. On the longer 10- and 14-day cruises, the port stops may also include Acapulco, Zihuatanejo and Huatulco.

Awaiting the passengers are Spanish colonial towns and spicy aromas, warm days and boogie nights, the essence of what Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz says is Mexico's enduring charm:

"People love these towns because they have the four elements required for a great port of call,'" she says. "Distinct cultural diversity, gorgeous beaches, great shopping and fun dining."'

Cliches, in short. So let's go back to Pier 93. At the head of the fleet is the new ship in town, Carnival's Elation, a 2,040-passenger behemoth with banners rippling in the breeze. Thirteen decks high and a study in hotel pampering and nautical wizardry, the Elation is dedicated to mass-market entertainment for the average cruise passenger. Definitely designed to titillate.

Docked behind the Elation is Carnival's 1,452-passenger Holiday, 13 years old but still ready to party. Behind that ship is Royal Caribbean International's Viking Serenade and the Song Of America. The Viking Serenade was formerly the Stardancer and before that, a car ferry in the Baltic Sea. Refitted a few years back for passenger cruising, the 1,800-passenger Serenade still sports a reinforced bow, a vestigial reminder of icy climes.

The Song Of America, a classic cruise ship built for 1,402 passengers, sails on Sunday- to-Sunday sailings from Nov. 15 through March 28. But the ship has been sold to an Indonesian company, Aero Tours, which is likely to re-position the ship overseas.

Finally, Princess Cruise's elegant Crown Princess, a 1,590-passenger liner, sails on 10-day, one-way itineraries from Los Angeles, stopping in Cabo San Lucas, Acapulco, Zihuatenejo, Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan.

And there are others, depending on the day and week: Holland America's Westerdam, Maasdam, Statendam and Nieuw Amsterdam. Celebrity Cruise's Galaxy and Mercury.

With so many ships, why are most going to Mexico? Geography is the answer. The ports on Mexico's West Coast _ and Catalina Island _ are the only destinations close enough to Los Angeles to include in a one-week cruise.

Consider the Elation, which sails the standard route. As the sun angles west and the crew cranks up the gangplank (now a posh covered sidewalk), an onboard mariachi band strikes up a tune, the horn blasts farewell and the ship slips down the channel, across San Pedro Bay and into the open ocean's rolling swells.

For the next 2{ days, the vessel will be sailing 1,500 miles south, to Puerto Vallarta. Then Elation turns north, to call at Mazatlan for a day, then at Cabo San Lucas, on the tip of Baja California. Then it sails back to Pier 93.

Although Spanish and English explorers explored and mapped America's west coast more than four centuries ago, it was only recently that pleasure cruising appeared, introduced by Seattle businessman Stan McDonald. He leased a large ferry from the Canadian Pacific Railway, renamed it the Princess Patricia and inaugurated cruises to Mexico.

Well-to-do Mexicans were already vacationing in seaside homes above the beach in fishing villages such as Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta. But the sudden arrival of hundreds of cruise passengers, eager to sightsee and ready to spend, fostered an instant tourist industry. Because Mexico's sandy bays, groves of palms, cobblestone streets and red-roofed houses recalled the Mediterranean, they dubbed the route the Mexican Riviera.

By the time the television series The Love Boat began its nine-year run in 1977, there were enough cruise vacationers from California to fill three Princess cruise ships, all sailing to Cabo and points south. But within a year, the TV show had created a national appetite for cruising to Mexico's seaside villages. It is also credited with inspiring the boom in cruising from Florida's ports _ now by far the world's leader in embarking cruise passengers.

Shore tours in Mexican ports are only as good as your guide. So for most visitors, the real fun is in experiencing Mexico's "fiesta meets Third-World" atmosphere, a melange of tropical flowers, beach cafes, battered trucks, noisy street vendors and mangy dogs.

To sample this, you can take a cab into town from the port _ rarely more than $5 _ to explore, shop for ceramics or silver jewelry, spend the day on the beach or try the margaritas in bars and cafes that cater to tourists. Another popular option is to take a morning tour, then spend the afternoon at one of the upscale beach hotel pools. Most hotels welcome non-guests as long as they're dressed neatly and spend money on drinks or food.

Occasionally chance pairs a great guide with a good tour itinerary. This was our luck recently in Mazatlan, where we signed up for a day tour into the Sierra Madre Mountains. Our guide, Jean-Paul Valtorta Palffy, a college graduate and English teacher, was also an amateur historian.

As we drove toward the colonial village of Copala, Palffy mixed history with a running commentary on daily life, pointing out the hills where Francis Drake hid his ships from the Spanish, showing us factories where shrimp and tuna were processed, and explaining the use of the machete, a universal tool in Mexico: "To a Mexican, it's like a pocket knife," he said.

We also learned that a nearby village, Choix, was settled by blond, blue-eyed Frenchmen who immigrated during the Napoleonic era. And the soldiers wielding automatic rifles on the roadside were spot-checking trucks for drugs. In colonial Concordia, founded in 1565, Valtorta Palffy led us through the cathedral and several craft shops where workers were building pine furniture and decorating ceramic tile.

Each year, the shore tours get a little better, the passenger loads a little larger.

"Historically, our passengers have come from California and the Southwest,'" says Carnival's de la Cruz. "But now we're drawing people nationally and from Canada, repeat cruisers who are looking for an alternative to the Caribbean. It's a whole new kind of Love Boat these days."'

Anne Z. Cooke and Steven Haggerty are freelance writers who live in Marina del Rey, Calif.

If you go

Lowest rates for Mexican Riviera Cruises and three- and four-day cruises start at about $127 per person per night, based on double occupancy. Careful shoppers can often find far better rates.

Most cruise lines prefer that passengers book through a travel agent. For information and brochures call the following cruise lines: Carnival (800) 327-9501; Celebrity Cruises (800) 437-3111; Holland America (800) 426-0327; Royal Caribbean (800) 327-6700.