Friday, March 6, 2015

Almost an Island

As usual, Greg & I waited until pretty much the last minute to plan our recent vacation. We typically take our longer trips every year in the spring and fall, targeting the shoulder season of whatever destination we have chosen. In 2014, we spent two weeks in northern England and Scotland in May, but then couldn't decide on something for later in the year so just didn't take another vacation. Of course, once January rolled around we were ready for a break!
somewhere in the Pacific Ocean
We both agreed we didn't want a super active vacation, nor did we want to just lie on a beach for a week. A nice cruise is always a fallback option for us and that definitely seemed to most align with our desires. We've had a Panama Canal transit on our "to do" list for the past few years, and that was what we researched first. The full transit cruises typically run around 14 nights from east to west coast or vice versa. We narrowed our options down to a few preferred dates, cruise lines, and itineraries and then Greg checked with his boss to see if he could take those days off of work. Unfortunately, his department was going to be short-staffed most of February and March, and he couldn't overlap when his coworkers would also be absent. Very quickly we realized the only dates we could travel were in early/mid February.
February in San Francisco (and Portland) usually means fog & rain but we got lucky.
We started over with our planning. We originally didn't have an issue with flying to the east coast to cruise out of Ft. Lauderdale or that vicinity. But with a shorter window to work with, we didn't want to spend the time or money for a day of travel on each end. So we looked at cruises departing from the west coast and quickly found one that would work well for us.
Star Princess at anchor in Loreto
On January 7, exactly one month before our departure date, we booked a 10-night cruise on the Star Princess. We were excited to try a new-to-us cruise line, as it was the only premium line, besides Holland America and Celebrity, that I haven't experienced. The itinerary was also intriguing. Round-trip from San Francisco, the first two days were at sea, followed by successive port calls at Cabo San Lucas, Loreto, La Paz and Puerto Vallarta, then ending with three more days at sea. We felt this was a good balance of active and relaxing, and all of the port calls were places we had not visited before.
We celebrated Valentine's Day at sea.
Once booked, we spent the next four weeks researching and preparing for the trip. We still like to do things independently, so we had to figure out what to see and do in the ports outside of a guided tour. I always check the Cruise Critic boards for tips on everything from how to take public transit, where to get cheap beer and free wifi, and what are the best excursions. We ultimately decided to go whale watching & snorkeling in Cabo, wander around on our own on foot in tiny Loreto, swim with whale sharks in La Paz, and explore old town Puerto Vallarta using public transit and on foot.
Research for me includes finding all the local breweries.
We travel with carry-on luggage, so packing for a 10-night cruise can be a bit challenging, especially when you are going from a cooler climate to a much warmer one. We have a standard cruise packing list that I created years ago and it is still our go-to list. We just modify it for the destination as needed. One of the main areas we scale back on is formal wear. This cruise had two formal nights with many people wearing tuxes and evening gowns. Greg got by just fine with dress pants, a button-down shirt and dress shoes, while I have several nice, packable dresses that work perfectly.
This is everything we brought - Greg is wearing his REI backpack and man purse; that's my red carry-on suitcase and backpack for electronics.
Instead of writing up what we did everyday, I'll focus on some of the highlights and our overall impressions of the cruise.

The Star Princess, built in 2002 and refurbished in 2008, is a large ship, one of the biggest I've ever been on. It holds 2600 passengers and 1100 crew. This is not by any means a true mega ship; that honor goes to Royal Caribbean, which has multiple ships holding over 6,000 passengers. I am not a fan of the big ships, and the Star Princess was no exception. I found the layout to be confusing, with too many open spaces and not enough quiet areas to read & relax. That being said, it does offer a lot of venues for various activities, and I appreciated that the atmosphere wasn't a 24-hour party like it was on our Norwegian cruise and what Carnival is well-known for. Nor did it ever really feel like I was on a ship with 2600 other passengers.
Trying to show the scale of the ship. We're standing on Deck 16. That's downtown San Francisco in the background.
Considering the size of the ship, our stateroom was relatively small (listed as 168 sq ft but didn't feel that way) and the bathroom was the smallest I've ever experienced on a cruise ship (less than 4 ft by 3 ft not including the tiny shower stall). We were only in the room to sleep and shower, so size is not critical for us. It was comfortable enough and well insulated (read: quiet) except on the couple of mornings when they lowered the tender that was hanging outside our window.
Cabin E628
On previous cruises, we have sometimes been overwhelmed with all of the activities that we wanted to attend (lectures, shows, cooking demonstrations, etc.). Every night when we received our Princess Patter newsletter, we were always surprised when we only found one or two things to highlight. Activities were focused on jewelry seminars, art auctions & seminars, and free health seminars (all of which are designed to get you to buy something), as well as dance lessons, game show-themed contests, gambling, and movies. Also catering to the older crowd which is the predominant passenger on most Princess cruises, there was daily bingo, bridge, mah jongg, sudoku, etc. As we are interested in none of these things, on days at sea we would relax by the pool or somewhere outdoors with a book, then would try to find some live music to listen to in the early evening, eat dinner in the formal dining room at our scheduled (preferred) time of 5:30 p.m., then hope to catch a show. Once again, this was a disappointment on multiple evenings, as we would arrive about 10 minutes before showtime and all seats were taken, or the shows started too late and we would already be winding down and ready to go to bed.
gambling on the ponies
The food was definitely a highlight. From simple things like eating fresh pineapple every day to the gourmet multi-course meals served in the formal dining rooms, we were pleasantly surprised with almost everything we tried. The low to mid-range cruise lines inevitably serve food so salty that it is almost inedible, but we did not run into that a single time on Princess. While the food in the buffet was good, it did not offer the same selection as in the formal dining rooms. However there was something for everyone, with a large variety of ethnic dishes to satisfy the large number of Asians on our cruise. The quality was outstanding and I would cruise Princess again just for the food (although Holland America and Celebrity are on the same level).
carving up some lobster & shrimp
Service was unfortunately hit or miss. There was a lack of attention to detail throughout the ship, from dirty dishes and glassware left for hours in the common areas and poolside, to our stateroom not always being thoroughly cleaned or stocked, to waitstaff in the bar ignoring us for an hour. No one walked around the pool areas offering water or lemonade (or even alcoholic beverages). Sometimes buffet staff were overly attentive, insisting that they get our drinks, silverware, etc. At other times, no one was around to clear our table. We brought one bottle of wine each on board during embarkation (the only time it's allowed without a surcharge) which was inventoried and noted on our room file, but even after three nights our room attendant had not given us wine glasses or a corkscrew.
not complaining about free champagne
Consistency in communication was also lacking. Prior to our departure, I called the cruise line to verify if they would provide complimentary transportation to downtown La Paz as the ship actually docks in Pichilingue, 11 miles away. The agent told me they did not. Of course, when we arrived in port there were plentiful and comfortable coach buses running frequently to & from town at no charge. When we booked the cruise we requested a table for two in the formal dining room. On the first night, we arrived at our assigned table to find it was a six-top. The dining room staff told us to go to the front desk to request the change. The front desk told us to call the on board reservation line. The reservations people told us to talk to the maitre d. The maitre d at lunch told us to talk to the maitre d at dinner, who wrote down our information and said he would do his best to work something out. Five days into the cruise we received a letter in our stateroom informing us that a new table for two had been arranged for us in a different dining room. Finally, the in-room TV always listed the incorrect local port time, which could easily have caused confusion if we weren't paying attention to printed materials and our trip research notes.
in the Portofino dining room where we were originally assigned; we eventually were moved to the Capri dining room
The ports were all interesting and easy enough to do on our own and we thoroughly enjoyed our time on shore. Below I will specifically mention the two shore excursions we had booked.

Cabo is still recovering from the damage caused by Hurricane Odile in September, 2014. Many waterfront businesses were skeletons of their former selves and there was evidence of construction everywhere. In spite of this, the town still offered everything you need to enjoy a day at port. Our excursion was on a boat named Oceanus. We boarded just before the 10:30 a.m. departure time and were immediately offered complimentary adult beverages. We sailed past the famous rock formations at the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula and shortly thereafter spotted some humpback whales. The whales were abundant and active and we never spent more than a few minutes without seeing some. We eventually made it to the snorkeling spot at Chileno Reef where the fish were plentiful and not at all shy. Back on board, we enjoyed a delicious lunch and free flowing beverages as we sailed back to the harbor. We then walked through town to have a beer at Cabo Wabo Cantina before returning to the tender dock to reboard the Star Princess.
El Arco
Our La Paz adventure was one that intimidated me at first. Greg chose the "swimming with the whale sharks" excursion and I initially said I would probably just stay in the boat. The largest fish in the sea, whale sharks can grow up to 40 ft in length. Their favorite meal is plankton and, being quite docile, they do not pose a threat to humans. I'm not a big fan of swimming in open water, especially with a creature of that size. However, when our small boat actually arrived where the whale sharks were feeding, Adventurous Alethea couldn't resist jumping in. On my first swim, I was just behind the tail of the whale shark most of the time, swimming aggressively to match its speed. I eventually drew parallel to it, but never reached its head before it was time to swap out with the next group of swimmers. On the second try, with a different whale shark, the water was clearer and the fish was moving more slowly. I was able to swim alongside its entire body and head, mostly by myself, for what seemed like an eternity but was probably only about 5-10 minutes. It was an amazing experience and I'm so glad I did it. I just wish I had some photos to prove it! I wasn't as thrilled with the excursion operator, Marlin Adventures, for various reasons, which I will write up in a separate online review.
Photo credit: Natural Habitat Adventures. This is the closest thing I could find that accurately depicts my experience.
I think this gives you a decent idea of our Mexican cruise vacation. As always there are pros & cons, but the good outweighed the bad. It was a nice getaway overall for a reasonable price (see below). I am willing to give Princess another try, preferably on one of their smaller ships. I am still a loyal Holland America fan, and will be cruising on the Zaandam again this May on a 7-night Alaska cruise with my extended family. I also look forward to another Celebrity cruise and hopefully someday a cruise on one of the luxury lines (Crystal, Regent, Silversea, Seabourn) just for the sake of comparison.
sunrise at Pichilingue
We paid $1708 for two people in an obstructed ocean view room on deck 8, which was the cheapest cabin available when I booked ($709 cruise fare reduced from $1299+ brochure price; $145 port taxes & fees). The additional standard gratuity was $11.50 per person per day. Our round-trip flights from PDX-SFO cost $232.40 total for two people. We took public transit and walked everywhere, to & from the airports, all over San Francisco, and at the ports of call. We saved money by booking two independent shore excursions (for less than half the price of the same excursion if booked through the ship), had a few drinks while in port but ate all meals on board with the exception of one meal on each of the two days we were in San Francisco, did not purchase anything other than alcohol and two pair of earrings from a crafts market, did laundry in the self-service laundromats on board, and only, with a couple of exceptions, purchased drinks on board during happy hour (buy one get one free). The total cost of the trip, all miscellaneous expenses included, was $2735.39. For 11 full days, that equates to $124 per person per day.
Happy Hour! 2-for-1 Grey Goose martinis
For more information on what to expect on a Princess Cruise, this is a good overview of the line as a whole:

Highlights photos from our 10-night cruise can be found online here (you do not need a Facebook account to view them):
San Francisco
At Sea
Cabo San Lucas
La Paz
Puerto Vallarta

Thanks to Bruce Berger for the title of this blog post. His book, Almost An Island: Travels in Baja California, kept me entertained during the many days at sea on our recent cruise vacation.