The sounds were unmistakable: cards shuffling, coins jingling, chips clacking; one-armed bandits whirring and buzzing; waitresses shrilling, “Cocktails, cocktails!”; and customers murmuring as they hovered in front of slot machines or crowded around dealers at card tables. Every five minutes or so, the happy shouts of a winner broke through the din. Anyone who has ever gambled would recognize the cacophony of a casino at full tilt. But this wasn’t Las Vegas or Atlantic City. These sounds were emanating from the main deck of Le Mistral, a 257-foot passenger ship making one of its first cruises to nowhere a few miles from the glittering lights of South Padre Island.
While a blue norther whipped the waves into whitecaps, almost two hundred passengers jammed into the two rooms of Le Mistral’s Lone Star Casino to take advantage of a legal loophole that made it possible to wager a bet less than fifteen miles from Texas soil. Most risked relatively small amounts—25 cents to $5—to play one of the 125 slot, electronic-poker, and blackjack machines aboard. Others, like the silent, bearded gent in a black Western hat, purposefully pushed chips worth $3 apiece (the maximum single bet is $200) to dealers conducting higher-stakes games of bacarat, roulette, craps, blackjack, and poker.
Those who could resist the lure of gambling were stuffing their faces at the all-you-can-eat buffet included in the price of the six-hour cruise, getting a shot of salt air on the sun deck, dancing to a band in the Compass Lounge, or enjoying a quiet drink in the Panorama Bar, where an organ player serenaded them with renditions of old standards.
Le Mistral is the latest example of the extremes to which Texans will go to make a bet. Gambling cruises have become a shipping-industry staple in states like Florida, California, and Mississippi. But until now, stringent laws thwarted similar efforts in Texas. It is illegal to gamble on a ship departing from a Texas port, even in international waters beyond the twelve-mile limit, unless the ship calls at a foreign port before returning to Texas. At first, Le Mistral’s owners planned to sidestep that technicality by contacting customs officials 46 nautical miles south, at the fishing village of Mezquital, Mexico. The necessary formalities, however, are now achieved by establishing radio communication with Mexico’s customs, and Le Mistral spends the entire cruise circling within sight of South Padre. (Pride Cruise Lines, which wants to start same-day cruises in Galveston, is lobbying the Legislature to rescind the foreign-port requirement.)
The 550-passenger-capacity Le Mistral arrived at Port Isabel from its former home in the Aegean Sea on November 17 and made its maiden Gulf voyage that night. When word of the cruises reached me, I was gripped by the sensation of loose coins burning a hole in my pocket. I couldn’t wait. Four days after making reservations by phone (800-292-7022), I drove to Port Isabel and pulled into the strip-mall offices of Islander Cruises, where I paid $59.95 for a ticket (daytime cruises are $10 to $15 cheaper; children’s tickets are $24.95, though children under seven are not allowed). At the boarding platform on the docks I paid the $3 parking fee and had a souvenir photo snapped by a uniformed young man with a British accent. A diverse group of passengers boarded with me, a cross between the folks who frequent Caesar’s Palace and the group I had once encountered at eight in the morning at a truck-stop casino on the Utah-Nevada border. A sizable contingent of silver-haired winter Texans, most of whom appeared to be curious tourists rather than inveterate gamblers, boarded, along with a sprinkling of grizzled men fresh off the ranch, wearing straw hats, jeans, and boots; some younger middle-class couples spending a novel night on the town; a few well-heeled Mexican nationals in coats and ties; and more than a few cocky guys with glazed looks, drooling in anticipation of paying their money and taking their chances.
The ship’s interior reminded me of a fifties suburban country club sans chandeliers. Because the staterooms were no longer being used due to the short duration of the cruises, the boat was in the midst of a make-over and identity crisis. The large lounge where the show band would play and where a magician was presently sticking a sword through the neck of a volunteer, was listed as the Fiesta Room in the brochure, but the sign at the door called it the Compass Lounge. The brochure described the dining room as the Captain’s Galley, but it was called the Mykonos Restaurant on the boat. The piano bar also had conflicting names. I found out later that the names on the boat would prevail. Good, I thought. At least that, plus the maps of Greece and the Mediterranean Sea in the hallways, would make it seem like we were actually going somewhere instead of puttering around a few miles beyond the last sandbar.
But before we went anywhere, I was reminded that the laws of the sea are different from the laws of the land. While waiting for the last passengers to board, I ordered a beer at one of the bars. The waitress informed me that since Le Mistral had not yet obtained the necessary state permits, alcohol could not be served until we reached international waters. That was also when the casino, which is operated by O.M. Consultants, a Florida-based gaming and entertainment cruise-ship concessionaire, would open. At last a loud blast from the smokestack announced that we were ready to leave. From the top deck, I watched a pilot boat lead the ship between the blinking lights that marked the channel.
When we cleared the jetties and hit the open sea some forty minutes later, small swells began to rock the boat gently, which made me a touch queasy and sent some passengers to hang their heads over the side. The clerk at the concession stand downstairs offered little help.