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Trip Report: Mexican Riviera Poker Cruise

Lou KriegerBy Lou Krieger, Card Player Magazine Strategy Columnist and author of Poker for Dummies, Hold'em Excellence, and More Hold'em Excellence. Lou Krieger is one of many professional poker players and authors who join Card Player Cruises voyages as participants and seminar speakers.

It's Friday, December 1, not yet 7:15 in the morning, and while most North Americans are shivering somewhere in the early winter chill, about to step gingerly out of bed in hopes that the a day brings a hint of sunshine and warmth, I've got a dive bag full of snorkeling gear and a bathing suit on. My hand trails along in the Sea of Cortez, creating the smallest of wakes, as the water-taxi "Zigi" beats a path from the dock in Cabo San Lucas to a remote spot called Lover's Beach.

The sun's already come over the horizon, but hasn't yet climbed up over the mountains that rim Cabo, so the dawn is cast in the muted colors or indirect light. Later on, when the sun breaks over the top of the bare, rocky hills, the sky will turn deep blue, the day will grow much warmer, and the sea will become almost transparent when the sun shines down on it.

There are three of us, plus the driver, in this water taxi. My companions are two dealers from the Muckleshoot Casino in Auburn, Washington: Janie, who is dealing on this cruise, and David, who won the cruise at a cardroom and who is known to one and all as "David, the Fun Guy." We were not only fun, we were fast. And ready. When the Carnival cruise ship, the Elation, anchored at Cabo, we boarded the day's first tender, which ferried us from the ships anchorage to the pier at Cabo. From there we quickly negotiated a deal with Zigi, and were now on our way -- snorkel gear at the ready -- to Lover's Beach.

The guys at the ship's snorkel desk touted Lover's Beach as the best snorkeling spot of the week, and it's a wondrous place even without the snorkeling. No roads lead there. It is reachable only by water taxi, and is one of the few spots in the world with two beachfronts. On one side faces the Pacific Ocean, where the tides are high and the current strong, and it's far too turbulent for good snorkeling. But a walk of less than one fourth of a mile across the sands brings the visitor to the other side of the beach, which faces the placid Sea of Cortez.

Rocky outcroppings stand like pillars anchoring each side of the Sea of Cortez beachfront. The rock formations serve as roosts for the pelicans that live there. Pelicans are not dummies. They know where the food is, and the sight of pelicans is an assurance that there are plenty of small fish nearby.

There's no dock at Lover's Beach. You hop out of the boat and into the surf at calf-depth, after first heaving your gear onto the shore. We were the only folks on the beach, except, of course, for a few T-Shirt and silver jewelry vendors who must have arrived before sunrise to set out their wares for the tourists that would soon be arriving.

Two and a half hours in the water, looking at schools of fish -- bright, vertically striped black and yellow Sergeant Majors, small, narrow, translucent purple fish, big fish, mid-sized fish I didn't recognize, and watching the well-nourished pelicans dive and grab a beak full of breakfast -- went by all too fast, and finally the three of us, thoroughly waterlogged, climbed back on the beach to buy the obligatory T-shirts and await the arrival of Zigi, who had promised to return for us at 10:30 a.m.

By the time we finally hauled ourselves out of the water and dried off, we were amazed to look at our surroundings. Far from having the beach all to ourselves as we did when we arrived, Lover's Beach was packed. The three of us were certainly not the only ones who took water taxis out to the best snorkeling of the week, only the earliest.

After two hours in the water, the sun felt good. It had long since crested the hills, and I could feel it warm my skin as I stretched out on a beach towel and basked in the thought that right then, right at that moment, I was where most of North America would prefer to be -- if they even knew this place existed and could miraculously transport themselves here. I may be a Southern Californian of long standing, but I'll always be enough of an easterner at heart to count my blessings anytime I can go snorkeling in December.

How did I do this? How did I come by this wonderful opportunity? I took a cruise; that's what I did. And not just any cruise, either: it was a Card Player Cruises vacation on the Elation. A 70,000-ton behemoth with a dozen decks, shops, discos, a trio that played Mozart and Vivaldi each evening in the central atrium, a free sushi bar, and all the other amenities that are standard fare on modern cruise ships, the Elation is one of Carnival's newer ships -- and one of the largest too. Card Player Cruises has made this trip before; it's their almost-annual Mexican Riviera cruise, which leaves from San Pedro and sails to Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, and Cabo San Lucas.

This was a weeklong jaunt, which began with two days at sea. The ship steamed around the tip of Baja California to its furthest destination, Puerto Vallarta, a spot made famous by Richard Burton and Liz Taylor -- who partied and fought so hard and long during the time they filmed Night of the Iguana there -- that the town itself experienced a boom of unabated proportions that continue on to this day.

When we docked at Puerto Vallarta, a group of poker cruisers headed for a chartered catamaran, for a trip to Los Arcos, a bunch of rocky arches that rise up out of the water a few miles from town. It was supposed to be a snorkeling trip. But snorkeling was only an incidental. The main attraction was salsa dancing, beer drinking, fun, frivolity, sun, and water, that began the minute the boat left the dock and didn't end until the last of us staggered off -- tired, salt-encrusted, and hungry.

Most of the catamaraners scampered down a two-lane highway on a chartered bus to Chico's Paradise, a local restaurant of some renown. It's perched on rocks, open to the air and elements, with a Palapa roof, a bunch of parrots that have run of the place, and a fine view of the river -- complete with waterfall -- that runs right alongside the restaurant.

One can, in fact, venture down to the rocks and dip into the water while waiting for the main course to arrive. But I wouldn't tarry too long if I were you; you might miss the main course. And believe me, you don't want to miss this one. Everyone who had been there on previous cruises touted one particular dish: an enormous portion of jumbo prawns, shrimp, fish, lobster tail, crab, and other seafood delights, plus rice and tortillas. It was served on something that dwarfed most serving platters, and one dish was enough for two people, or perhaps three or four, depending on whether they had normal appetites or were poker players.

The next day found us slightly south of Puerto Vallarta, in Mazatlan, a rapidly growing city that's fast becoming a popular resort destination in its own right. It is also the home of a place called Señor Frog's. More about that later.

I had never been to Mazatlan, so I opted for a tour of the city to orient myself to its charms. The tour began in the old part of the city, which has what the guidebooks refer to as "colonial architecture." But if that phrase has no meaning for you, tell yourself this: It looks a lot like the French Quarter in New Orleans. Houses and shops are protected from the sun by overhanging balconies, the streets are narrow, and the houses are built to the lot line in the Creole fashion and open to the elements.

There's no air conditioning; instead the natives keep cool by the extensive use of clay or adobe as building materials, and the walls are very thick. We toured a number of places in the old part of the city, including an artist's home that also serves as his studio. The tour continued northward, toward the newer sections of Mazatlan, including the Golden Zone, an area along the beach with modern hotels and beach facilities. Like Acapulco, Mazatlan also has cliff divers, which is not a way I'd want to make a living. The youngest diver is 16; the oldest is 60, and if these guys have beat stories, they're probably not around to tell them.

Mazatlan has a Señor Frog's gift shop downtown, and another at Señor Frog's itself. To call it a party bar is an understatement. And although I bought a Señor Frog's T-shirt, I did not go inside Señor Frog's; I swear it to you. I had a seminar to give that evening, and did not relish the thought of having to be dragged up from under some table, carried back to the cruise ship, and thrust on stage, microphone in hand, with part of me trying to remember what to say while the other part was wondering how to tell that guy inside my head to stop his hammering for a few minutes so I could get my bearings. I was responsible and sober, and although I lost one of my favorite ball caps that blew off in the open-air pulmonaria that took me back to the cruise ship, I was ready for the seminar. Maybe next time I'll get to while away an afternoon at the good señor's, but I rationalized my sobriety by telling myself that even if I had gone, I probably wouldn't have remembered any more about it than some of the cruisers who did visit Señor Frog's but were, to say the least, rather hazy about the details of their day.

My poker seminar was similar to the one I'd given on the Caribbean cruise a month and a half earlier, but I tweaked it somewhat. I had to strike a fine line in preparing my material, since some of those in attendance were beginners, while others were experienced, sophisticated players. A question and answer session -- a time for the cruisers to ask questions of Linda Johnson, Jan Fisher, and me -- was held the following day, and that that lasted another hour.

The next day we arrived in Cabo, which is where you, dear reader, came in. But there was more to the cruise than ports of call. There was poker every minute the ship was at sea. There were $1-$2 games for beginners, and games as high as $20-$40. Linda Johnson taught a beginner's class, and there were tournaments too, though I did not play in any of them. I'm in the midst of writing another book, Gambling For Dummies, which deals with all casino games -- not just poker -- and I promised myself that I would write each morning in order to keep up with the tight editorial deadlines that publishers are fond of inflicting on writers. And I did, too.

It made for a nice routine at sea. Get up, go to breakfast, come back to a clean cabin where I could sit in solitude and write to my heart's content. I'd have lunch at about 1:00; play poker until dinnertime, whereupon I'd commence my nightly ritual of overeating. And I'd wash that sin away with more poker, or a show. The next day was either more of the same, or a port of call. Cruises are supposed to be relaxing; at least that's what they say in the brochures. But I always find more to do than time to do it in, and it's hard to pass on all the fun just waiting to be had, simply because your body is crying for sleep.

Right now I'm home, where it's cold -- at least by Southern California standards-- and my feet are tucked beneath me as I type this. I can hear them talking too. My feet are telling me they wish they were back in some clear, turquoise and azure-hued warm water where the reefs, sea birds, and tropical fish reside. "And isn't that the best way," they're saying, "to while away the winter."

Lou Krieger
December 2000

Visit Lou Krieger's website at to read more of his poker articles or to order his books.

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