A Mother Time, a Mother Place

Desert Princess, Pleasant Harbor Marina, Lake Pleasant, 230-7600. Hours: Lunch cruise, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, noon to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner cruise, Friday, 7 to 9:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 5 to 7:30 p.m.

Flower-shop owners look forward to Valentine's Day. The airline industry can't wait for the day before Thanksgiving. Retailers grab their calendars and circle the day after Christmas. And restaurant owners polish the silverware and spruce up the joint on Mother's Day--the single-busiest eating-out day of the year.

Mom is genetically programmed to love you no matter where you take her, but I suspect she'll be particularly grateful if you treat her to an invigorating mealtime cruise on Lake Pleasant, aboard the Desert Princess. On the other hand, her love will be sorely tested if you book a holiday brunch at Pinon Grill.

Make sure the family comes armed with lots of fascinating conversational nuggets for the trip to Lake Pleasant. It's going to be a long day.

The drive up I-17 and along Carefree Highway is routine enough. But traffic backs up big-time at the entrance to the marina, where you must pay a $5 parking fee. For a while, I thought I was at a toll plaza on the George Washington Bridge, trying to drive into Manhattan at rush hour.

Follow the signs to the Desert Princess parking lot, where you'll stand around waiting for a shuttle bus to haul you to the pier. When the vehicle comes, chances are you won't get on. That's because it has only about 15 seats, which don't make much of a dent in the waiting hordes. We finally boarded on its third parking-lot pass.

The bus deposits you at a ramp about a quarter of a mile from the boat. Mom probably won't mind the walk, but if she does, she can wait for a golf cart to take her on the final leg of the journey.

Eventually, you stand before the Desert Princess: 86 feet long and 20 feet wide, with two decks and room for more than 100 diners. The Princess has been roaming these waters since the end of 1994.

Inside, the air-conditioned vessel looks good with its rosewood-stained woodwork, carpeting and big picture windows. Peach-colored linen, cloth napkins and decently hefty silverware line the tables, as do vases, each sporting a fresh red rose.

Mom will also appreciate the comfortably upholstered stack chairs, as well as the fully stocked bar. Should she wish to wander in the fresh air, she can make her way to the front of the boat and get slapped by the desert breeze and Lake Pleasant spray.

If your party isn't large, expect to share a table with others. And when you make your reservations, it pays to specify which deck you prefer to be seated on. Downstairs is totally enclosed, while the rear section of the top deck is covered by a canopy, but otherwise is open to the elements.

Cruises last two and a half hours, and they're great fun. The lake is filled with picturesque sailboats, racing motorboats and jet skiers zipping through the water. The stark, saguaro-dotted landscape provides quite a startling visual contrast. And, while you won't see any sea gulls wheeling and screeching through the sky, you may be lucky enough to spot gliding bald eagles, whose nesting grounds are nearby.

And if for some reason you tire of the view, you can turn your attention to Flash Covington, an entertaining magician who stops at every table to perform a few magic tricks. (My advice: Do not hand this man your wallet.) I wish, however, he could have made the dreadfully sappy piped-in piano music disappear.

The Desert Princess has special sailings (and special prices) scheduled for Mother's Day: a champagne brunch at 10:30 a.m., a champagne buffet at 2 p.m., and a sunset dinner at 6 p.m. But judging by the meal we had on the regular noon-Sunday cruise, the family shouldn't have too many complaints about missing Mom's home cooking for one day.

Naturally, no one will mistake the food here for the fare aboard the QE2. It's not possible, since just about everything has to be prepared in advance, and reheated onboard. Still, that doesn't excuse the basket of past-their-prime dinner rolls that greeted us. Surely, somebody in the Valley could supply the galley with bread made on the same day it's due to be served.

On the other hand, the first course, a pseudocaesar salad, is a decent effort. It brings together chilled romaine, shredded cheese and croutons, bound by a creamy dressing.

Cruisers get a choice of two entrees. Maybe my expectations were unconsciously pitched way low, but I was pleased with both. Chicken is an ample portion of boneless breast, lightly covered with a layer of cheese and a bit of sauce. The steak is even better, a big piece of very tender, almost gristle-free beef, moistened in onion gravy.

I unnecessarily girded myself against the expected side dish: a microwaved baked potato. Instead, the galley fooled me by serving a nifty helping of tortellini, a much better option. I wish I felt the same way about the veggies--jawbreaking stalks of broccoli and tough baby carrots that seem to have jumped directly from field to plate, bypassing the cooking process.

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