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Friday, May 26, 2000

Casino ship has long history

Texas Treasure will dock at Harbor Island in early July

By Andrea Jares

Contributed photo
The casino ship that will dock at Harbor Island is called the Island Dawn, for now. Soon to be renamed Texas Treasure, the ship was launched in 1968 as a ferry and was converted to a casino ship in 1990. The 419-foot ship has cruised across both the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. Last year, it operated from Port Isabel under the name Casino Del Mar.
For years, the Island Dawn has been a place where people put their earnings and their trust in a roll of the dice.
   It also has carried thousands of passengers on cruises across the Mediterranean Sea and to Caribbean destinations.
   Now the Island Dawn is expected to dock at Harbor Island this summer as the vehicle for Las Vegas-based Viva Gaming and Resorts' casino operations.
   The 419-foot-long ship is currently docked in Freeport, Bahamas, the home of its flag. By the first week of July, it is expected to sail into the Corpus Christi Ship Channel.
   This isn't the first time for the ship to make its way to South Texas. Earlier this year, it was in Port Isabel, where some 70,000 passengers spent time on the ship, said Robert Cornelison, director at the Port Isabel Navigation District.
   Few changes will be made to the ship when it comes to Florida next month, said Capt. Tim Lenensaler, whose company, Sophlex Ship Management, is overseeing the operations and hiring for the ship.
   A Texas treasure
   The ship already has three restaurants for 380 guests and a show lounge that can seat 185 guests. There is a pool and two casino rooms already on the ship, according to the ship's documents.
   The decisions on how the casino will ultimately look will depend on the corporate officials at Viva Gaming and Resorts, but it is not likely to stray too far from how it looks now, Lenensaler said.
Source: Island Dawn Web page

   "It's in very, very nice shape," he said.
   The ship will be in Florida for a month while the crew is trained and the Coast Guard makes inspections on the ship, he said. Some more slot machines and gaming tables also will be added.
   And the name will change to the Texas Treasure, he said.
   The Island Dawn was in good shape in January, when the ship was running off the barrier island to the south, Cornelison said.
   "She's a good ship," he said. "She's never lost a cruise because of engine trouble. The air conditioning is cold. And she's fast."
   The ship has a top cruising speed of 21 knots, which can get the Island Dawn out into international waters, where gambling is legal, in less than an hour.
   The cruises were popular with visitors, who would dress casually - much in the style of South Padre Island, where city ordinance forbids neckties. The visitors came mainly from the Valley, but there were others from Monterrey, the Midwest as well as winter Texans who came to ride the ship.
   Spend or socialize
   "There were many days when we put 1,000 people on it," he said. Some came to gamble, others to socialize and look around. It is a big ship, and there were many forms of entertainment to keep them occupied, he said.
   "Many people were on many cruises without seeing the whole ship," he said.
   Those who didn't come to gamble, came to eat. The ship had a buffet, he said, and restaurants that served lobster, leg of lamb and steak dishes. Passengers also were entertained by local bands and traveling comedians and magicians.
   International traveling
   The Island Dawn operated twice-daily cruises from Port Isabel from October to January for the company Casino Del Mar. The company stopped the day cruises after the price of fuel doubled. Sometimes the seas were too severe for day cruises, Cornelison said.
   The ship hasn't always been a place for gambling.
   The ship is a former British passenger ferry christened in 1968 as the St. George. This was the first of several names the ship has operated under during its career, in which it has cruised from Italy to Greece and from Florida to the Bahamas, according to Mike Santos, a Rio Hondo resident who has dedicated a web site to the history of the ship. His web site is
   In 1990, the ship was converted from a passenger ferry to a casino ship.
   The ship spent the last part of the 1990s running day cruises between Miami and the Bahamas, said Niels-Erik Lund, president of the ship's management company, International Shipping Partners.
   The ship, owned by Discovery Cruise Lines, would take passengers between the two countries for day cruises, Lund said. Passengers could stay in either destination for as long as they wanted, he said. While making the journey, they could gamble at the casinos on board.

Business writer Andrea Jares can be reached at 886-3678 or by e-mail at

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