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. “If you didn’t take anything before we left, it’s too late,” she said. “Dramamine takes about thirty minutes to kick in.”
I forgot about the roller-coaster sensation of the waves an hour after departure, when the casino doors were thrown open. In an instant the joint was jumping. Sticking to my instinct that no run of luck would ever change my nonexistent gambling skills, I stayed with the 25-cent electronic blackjack and poker games. Down twenty bucks in 45 minutes, I decided to ignore the tall elderly man beside me, whose bucket of coins kept getting fuller; I took a break. There wasn’t a line at the buffet, so I indulged in the cruise-ship tradition of overeating, wolfing down half a pound of cold boiled shrimp and a linebacker’s portion of rare roast beef. Then I visited the dessert line twice for cheesecake and German chocolate cake. The spread was extensive and tasty but would not be confused with the Queen Elizabeth 2’s. I found no captain’s table or captain to dine with, so I sat across from a middle-aged couple who were on their first cruise. I didn’t see much of the wife, though. “She hasn’t gotten her sea legs yet,” her husband explained discreetly.
I strolled outside, stepping over a college-aged couple wrapped in blankets by the door leading to the sun deck, and chatted with a white-haired man in uniform who looked like he could command the ship. He asserted that staying within sight of South Padre was reassuring for many passengers who had never been on an ocean liner before. Then for a while I just leaned on the rail and watched the lights. When I tired of that, I stopped in at the Panorama Bar, where the organ man was accompanying himself on trumpet while he played “Bill Bailey.” Finally I returned to the den of iniquity to fritter away the rest of my money. By the time the casino shut down four hours after it opened, the place was nearly empty and my wallet was $55 lighter. The hour-long ride back to port was the longest part of the evening, since the casino was closed, the liquor cabinets were locked, and most passengers were tired and broke. By one in the morning, Le Mistral was within a few feet of the dock, but the captain couldn’t quite get the exit aligned with the boarding platform. The natives grew restless.
“Throw your body down so we can step across it,” a gangly youth called to the female passenger agent standing by the door.
“Can’t you hurry?” moaned a small woman wearing a gray sweatshirt. “We’ve been waiting here for twenty minutes. It’s late. We want to go home.”
The passenger agent replied in slow, measured tones, “We have a very, very good captain. He knows what he is doing. Strong winds are making it difficult to line up with the dock.”
“I could do better,” the college kid piped up.
“Do you think you could?” the agent asked icily. Then she countered with her own comeback. “Did you win big tonight?”
The face of the college kid reddened as he sheepishly told her about his string of bad luck.
That only made the woman in the sweatshirt madder. “Oh, shut up,” she hissed at the agent.
The agent got tough. “I don’t have to listen to this,” she said.
“I want to go home,” the sweatshirt lady whined.
We finally docked, and as I looked back, I saw the lady in the sweatshirt laughing with a friend, saying, “Great trip, wasn’t it?”
I had to agree. In spite of the rough seas and some rough edges in the operation, I had a good time. Granted, it might have been smarter to wait until summer, when the inevitable kinks would be ironed out and better weather would make strolling on the deck a pleasure instead of a survival tactic. But summer would also mean crowds, as Le Mistral needs four-hundred-plus passengers per trip to make the venture profitable. I had a hard enough time as it was, working a blackjack slot machine sandwiched between an elderly couple who kept talking across my head. Interest in the cruises may increase this spring, when Islander Cruises begins allowing passengers to bet on sporting events. At that time, the company also expects to add a second ship, which will make two- to seven-day cruises to Tampico, Veracruz, and eventually Cancún. For now, though, there’s plenty of room at Le Mistral’s gaming tables, as long as you have money to spend. And if you don’t, at least the view is better than Vegas’ or Atlantic City’s. By a long shot.