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All cruises leave from somewhere, and that somewhere might be more or less fascinating, but for most people (me included), the process of getting to and aboard ship is not the jolliest part of a vacation. Depending on your ship, your status, and the alignment of the stars at the time you board, you may spend hours in the port terminal waiting to get aboard, rendering everything that happens before you hit the gangway just a long blur of hurry-up-and-wait.

With that in mind, how about a little history lesson to accompany your thumb-twiddling and toe-tapping? A little background might make the difference between a completely intolerable wait and an almost completely intolerable rate -- or at least it might give you a fun fact or two to throw around in the hot tub.

First the big picture: According to the Cruise Lines International Association (www.cruising.org), the cruise industry's main collective marketing group), nearly 9 million cruise passengers began their cruises from U.S. ports in 2008, the last year for which figures are currently available. If we add in Vancouver, one of the two main southerly ports for Alaska cruises, that figure jumps to about 10 million, of which about 8 million left from the top 10 ports -- and 6 million just from the top five, which I'm going to profile for you right now in order of popularity, with a selection of random facts and tidbits. I'll cover the rest of the top 10 in another article next time.

1. Miami, FL

Passengers departing from Miami in 2008: 2,109,000

Miami is the spiritual and actual home of the U.S. cruise biz, the place where the modern industry started in the swingin' 1960s and still the undisputed heavyweight home port champ. It's the most Latin city in the U.S., with a hot club scene and more palm fronds, glittering hotels, red sports cars, and tanned beach babes/hunks than anywhere outside Monte Carlo and Rio.

Located on Dodge Island in Biscayne Bay and connected to downtown by a causeway, the Port of Miami began through a fluke: In the early 1900s, a major hurricane hit Miami, knocking out a piece of land at the southern end of Miami Beach and creating a new, navigable channel that became known as Government Cut. The channel was subsequently dredged to make it even more usable, and the spoils from that dredging were deposited on the channel's southern side, creating three small islands. In 1960, the Dade County Board of Commissioners approved construction of a modern seaport, and as part of that effort, further landfill was created to join the small islands into the Dodge Island we know today. In December 1966, the 530-passenger Sunward of the new Norwegian Cruise Line became the first ship to offer regular cruise service from the new port.

In addition to its cruising operation, the Port of Miami is also the largest container cargo port in Florida, adding about $14 billion annually to the Florida economy.

2. Port Canaveral, FL

Passengers departing from Port Canaveral in 2008: 1,226,000

Port Canaveral -- between Kennedy Space Center and the 72-mile stretch of beaches along the Cape Canaveral/Cocoa Beach/Melbourne coast -- lacks the glitzy reputation of Miami but has one immeasurably valuable asset: its proximity to the theme parks of Orlando, which lie only about 45 miles to the west. The port offers many 3- and 4-night cruise options (many of which are sold as packages with pre- or post-cruise visits to the Orlando resorts) as well as weeklong itineraries. It also serves as a port of call for some ships sailing southbound from New York and other ports, allowing day-trip access to the Orlando parks.

Outside the port area, Cape Canaveral is no Miami. Highways, strip malls, chain stores, and tracts of suburban homes predominate from the port area south into Cocoa Beach, home to most of the hotels, restaurants, and beaches. The central areas of Cocoa Beach are mildly more interesting, with some great 1950s and 1960s condo and hotel architecture, but stylish they're not. In the other direction lies the Kennedy Space Center with its amazing visitor facilities. Much of the land around the center is set aside as the Canaveral National Seashore and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (www.nbbd.com/godo/minwr), a prime destination for nature lovers.

A port was first proposed at the site in the 1880s, but actual work wasn't done on it until the early 1950s. It opened officially on November 4, 1953. Cruises first departed from the port in 1964, aboard Yarmouth Cruise Lines' Yarmouth Castle -- an ill-fated ship that burned at sea in 1965, killing 91 passengers and crew. Few other cruises departed from the port until the 1980s, but things gradually picked up from there, with budget line Premier Cruises using the port as the home base for its "Big Red Boat" cruises, which at the time were the official cruise tie-ins to Disney World. When Disney started its own line in 1998, it also chose Port Canaveral as the home port for its two ships.

In addition to cruising, the port is also a major naval and cargo port, with the latter operation seeing a lot of trade in petroleum and cement.

3. Port Everglades/Fort Lauderdale, FL

Passengers departing from Port Everglades in 2008: 1,293,000

Broward County's Port Everglades boasts the deepest harbor on the Eastern seaboard south of Norfolk, VA, but for cruisers its big draw is that it's less than a 10-minute drive from the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. You can see the ships as you're landing.

The port got its start in 1911, when a Florida resolution called for creation of a deepwater port on the site to allow Florida farmers to ship their produce more easily to the north and west. In the years that followed, a section of the Florida East Coast Canal System called Lake Mabel was enlarged and connected to the sea via the aptly named New River. Projects to allow passage by larger ships followed, and on February 22, 1928, Broward County celebrated what was billed as the "Wedding of the Waters," in which a rock barrier would be blown up, finally connecting the sea to the new harbor. President Calvin Coolidge was supposed to press a button in the White House that would set off the explosion, but whether he did or not, the big boom never happened, and the barrier had to be removed later (in a less ceremonious manner).

In 1929, the port welcomed its first cargo and military ships, the 385-foot SS Vogtland and the USS Antares, respectively. Its first cruise ships began arriving in the 1950s, when it served as a port of call for ships on world cruises. That's when residents who live alongside the shipping channel began their decades-long tradition of bidding ships bon voyage by waving flags, ringing bells, and blowing horns. The port claims a couple of cruise records: most cruise passengers transiting through in a single day (52,000-plus, on March 20 of this year) and most cruise ships in port at one time (15, on December 21, 2003).

In addition to cruise, Port Everglades is South Florida's biggest bulk cargo port, and also hosts major petroleum storage and distribution operations. All told, some 5,300 ships pass through the port over the course of the year.

4. Vancouver, BC

Passengers departing from Vancouver in 2008: 850,000

Situated in the extreme southwestern corner of British Columbia, Vancouver is a near perfect mixture of cosmopolitan and natural, the glass-and-steel high-rises of its downtown peninsula reflecting the waters that surround it on three sides, the mountains that rise in the near distance, and the huge sky overhead. The city has a tremendous international character, with a huge Asian population mixing with many Europeans and (naturally) real live Canadians. There's a youthfulness, too, a certain Pacific chic that consists of equal parts movie-biz buzz (the city has been a setting for so many movies that it's sometimes called Hollywood North) and pure wonderment over living in such a beautiful, vibrant place. The city's main cruise port, Canada Place, is right at the heart of downtown, poking out into Burrard Inlet and designed to resemble a sailing ship, with five teflon "sails" on its roof looking perpetually ready to catch the wind. Next door is the city's new Convention Center, whose remarkable 6-acre green roof is planted with indigenous plants and grasses that capture usable rainwater, reduce building heat, and clean the downtown air by trapping dust and creating oxygen. A walkway allows you to walk the Convention Center's sea-facing perimeter, and connects with the lovely Coal Harbour Seawalk, a mile-long stretch of park, boat harbors, and public art installations flanked by Burrard inlet and a strip of ritzy high-rise condos. At its end is Stanley Park, the city's green and beating heart.

Though Seattle has usurped the title of No. 1 Alaska home port over the past few years, Vancouver is still a close second, and occasionally serves as a port of call as well.

People started talking about Vancouver as a major seaport as far back as 1792, when Captain George Vancouver "discovered" the place and noted its naturally deep waters. In 1864, the vessel Ellen Lewis became the first ship to leave Burrard Inlet with a load of export cargo, sailing to Australia with a load of lumber, pickets, and railway ties. According to the port's official history, it took two months to load the ship. In 1927, Pier BC opened on the site now occupied by Canada Place, handling Canada Pacific ships carrying mail, passengers, and cargo between BC and Asia. Canada Place itself opened in 1986 to serve the growing Alaska cruise market.

Besides cruising, the Port of Vancouver (whose official name these days is Port Metro Vancouver) handles automobile shipping, bulk cargo, container shipping, and breakbulk cargo (that is, goods that must be loaded individually, not in containers). All told, it has 28 deepwater terminals, and also hosts ship repair and building businesses.

5. Los Angeles, CA

Passengers departing from Los Angeles in 2008: 599,000

Los Angeles isn't a city or even a county; it's a whole planet unto itself, its nation-states linked by dozens of superhighways that turn into slow-motion performance art at rush hour. The place is just as sunny, smoggy, rich, poor, sybaritic, hard-boiled, movie-happy, New Agey, and unreal as the movies make it seem.

The city's port is also a whole planet unto itself, occupying 7,500 acres along a full 43 miles of waterfront on San Pedro Bay, about 20 miles south of downtown L.A. It's the busiest container port in the U.S., and has got its own police force -- the largest dedicated port force in the country -- to try and keep things on the up-and-up. Some years ago, I took a wrong turn out there and was lost for ages in its labyrinth of roads, docks, container yards, and other industrial confusions. For just those kinds of reasons, the port has been irresistible to Hollywood, which has filmed innumerable scenes here, for TV shows like 24 and movies like The Usual Suspects.

The harbor was first "discovered" by Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in October 1542, and was used as a trading post by Spanish missionary monks in the 1800s. In the early 20th century, L.A. created a board of commissioners to come up with growth plans for the harbor, and the Port of Los Angeles officially came into being, by name, in December 1907. By 1912, dredging and widening of the main channel allowed the port to begin bringing in larger vessels, which was a major boon once the Panama Canal opened two years later, transforming L.A. instantly into a major port. Princess Cruises began offering Mexican Riviera cruises from here aboard the old Princess Patricia in 1965, marking the port's emergence into the modern cruise world. In the 1970s, The Love Boat was depicted as sailing from the Port of L.A. -- as the Princess vessels used for the show's exteriors actually did.

Beyond cruise, the Port of Los Angeles is the No. 1 port by container volume and cargo value in the United States, generating more than $39 billion in annual wages and tax revenues. As befits its west coast location, the port's top trading partners are all across the western pond: China, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, and South Korea.

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