Story last updated at 4/29/2009 - 11:16 am
Next year when you plan a winter escape from the freezing weather of Juneau, where will you go? For approximately $100 per person per day, a cruise can be an economical way to take a vacation. Once on board, your $100 gets you transported by ship to multiple locations, room and room service, four or more meals a day and shipboard entertainment. You unpack once and you don't have the hassle of checking in and out or finding rental cars, restaurants, baby sitters, etc.
When the Alaska PFDs came out in October, my two friends and I purchased our cruise tickets for the Mexican Riviera. When deciding when to go, I voted for the first two weeks of February, because they are historically the worst two weeks of winter.
This is the third time I have left Juneau for warmer climates in the midst of a February freeze, And I'm not talking 40-degree Las Vegas weather - I tried that one year. From now on I'm heading further south where the temperatures range from 60 to 80 degrees in February - to go where the Alaskan tour ships go when it's freezing in Alaska.
After we embarked the ship in sunny San Diego, we headed straight down to our southern-most destination, Puerto Vallarta. This gave us two days to get the feel for the ship, enjoy shipboard activities and work on our tans. A daily schedule advised us of activities on board, and an additional "In Port" flyer provided us with maps and a list of activities we could do ashore.
My first shipboard activity was Bingo. (I was tempted by the promise that they gave cruises away as prizes - though not this particular game). When they didn't provide enough entry forms for their "dam" dollars special drawing and rushed the drawing before everyone could get their names in, it made for a dual of canes in the aisle. Holland refers to all of their ships as "dam" ships because their names end with "dam." For the whole 10 days it was funny to hear senior citizens "cussing" about how proud they were to be on a "dam ship!"
My next shipboard activity was a course presented by the Culinary Arts Center. Some of the classes offered are were cooking, wine tasting, mixology classes, vegetable carving, flower arranging, flamed coffee demos, chocolate lovers meet, marzipan chocolate and cake decorating. I took part in the vegetable carving, flamed coffee demo and making animals out of towels.
In addition to the day-time mini courses, there was usually a nightly movie and some kind of live entertainment in the Vermeer Show Lounge. The smaller lounges alternated between activities like Karaoke, Name that Tune, etc.
But it's not all fun and games. Little things can ruin your fun, such as my friend's bag getting run over by the baggage handlers when we boarded. They were extremely sorry it happened and assured us they would take care of it; we are still awaiting the outcome.
On a previous Hawaiian cruise we had to wait almost three hours to get our cabin and longer for our suitcases. No one wants to be strapped with carry-on when the pool is calling your name. Find out when you board how soon you will 1) get your room and 2) get your luggage. Do not check bags with cameras, glasses, etc. If they are lost or damaged from the dock to your room it is your loss. Unlike the Pride of Hawaii, which carries 3,200 passengers, the Ryndam carries around 12,00. The larger ship in Hawaii made for long lines at brunch, loading and unloading, at each port, etc. But the smaller ships have their advantages, they are just as nice but you get quicker service. We got access to our cabin as soon as we boarded.
Happy hour began at different time at different bars, so if you tend to have a high bar tab on vacation, figure out those happy hour times and save some money. I was happy with a two-for-one Piña Colada for $6, and those who didn't get a chance to bring cigarettes on board bragged about paying $27 a carton, duty free. This ship also had a casino with slot machines and card games.
Each evening we had our choice of four different venues for dinner. The pool-side bar was good for tacos, hot dogs and hamburgers in the early afternoon when you returned to the ship. The Lito deck offered buffet dinner, then there was fine dining in the main dining room or you could pay extra for the Pinnacle Grill. We opted for the less restrictive open seating in the main dining room.
The first day aboard the ship, I thought I spied the captain and introduced myself to Security Officer Mike Metrokin by mistake. Metrokin, a former Alaska State Trooper, has spent several years on the Ryndam. Metrokin's work as a Trooper took him from Sitka to Anchorage, Valdez, Cordova, Fairbanks, Glennallen and Kodiak. It was a joy to have a fellow Alaskan onboard who could reminisce about home.
We spent a lot of time on the stern of the ship. Here we saw the coastline of Baja, along with an occasional whale, dolphin or sea lion as we traversed some 30 or so miles out to sea. The Crow's Nest was the best bar to move to in the evening, when the temperatures dipped and the sun no longer offered a tan. With a 180-degree view, it was the place to be for watching the sunset.
After two days at sea we pulled into sunny Puerto Vallarta.
After walking the Malecon - Spanish for maritime corridor or walkway - I took photos of the many different statutes that Puerta Vallarta is famous for.
Using the In Port map, provided by the ship I went in search of a Jade gift shop described as a museum-like shop, with replicas of Mayan masks and other ancient Mayan artistry. Only the map was wrong and I wandered aimlessly for 45 minutes unable to ever find it. The time you spend in a port is precious, so try and figure out where you are going beforehand.
The cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose interior was adorned in gold leaf was impressive. In fact, most of the other villages on this tour had similar cathedrals, where you could stand in awe at the workmanship that went into these cathedrals, some of which were hundreds of years old.
A little open-topped taxi called pulmonías transported us from the ship into town. Here we checked out the local markets, including a large meat market, whose stench drove us back out into the open aired market again. With only five hours to spend, we did a quick walk through town, and then headed to the shore to see the famous cliff divers. I set my camera to videotape. When the diver looked like he was ready, I hit record on my camera - yet I was jostled by someone selling bracelets and missed the actual dive. We waited another 10 minutes and a new diver was ready to dive. Yet about a minute later when my camera had captured his 60 seconds of poses, the camera shut off - and then the diver dove. I gave up trying to capture the dive and we flagged down another pulmonía to take us to the Acuario Mazatlán, an aquarium with more than 300 species plus a small zoo and botanical garden. Here I filmed a sea lion dancing the Macarena and we marveled at the saltwater and fresh water aquarium. With 2:00 approaching we jumped into another pulmonía to return to the ship. I want to tell you, some of my best photos were taken at 55 mph, including one of the Mazatlan fountains. Unlike our previous cabs, which all lacked seat belts, this one also lacked doors as well and required hanging on with both hands!
LaPaz, the Capital of Baja Sur, was founded in 1535. California once ranged from the tip of Baja California up to San Francisco. The tour ship provided free shuttles to town and a neighboring beach. Thank goodness. After clocking 2 - 4 miles on my feet every day, I came to realize why tourists wear deck shoes. It's the blisters caused from so much walking. Cheap deck shoes won't rub on your delicate spots.
LaPaz was a pretty little laid back town, where my cultural experience was limited. When planning your cruise, check out how much time you will have in each port. Though we were able to get off the ship most days by 9 a.m. and return after 5 p.m., Mazatlan and LaPaz allowed us limited time, which in turn limited our shore-side activities. Before taking this cruise, I perused each city's web site, to figure out what arts, cultural or tourism related activities I could do once I got there. Unfortunately the magazine I ordered for LaPaz never came and I didn't research this city before disembarking, so I didn't know where to dine, I missed the Cathedral, the City Theatre, the Government Palace, Legislative Palace and notable galleries.
I took a city bus tour in LaPaz for $15 which was well worth it. We drove up and down the Malecon taking photos of statues. We toured a pottery factory and viewed unique architecture; unfortunately I missed out on a blanket factory. Afterwards I visited the Anthropology museum on my own, where I viewed dioramas of life from the 1800s back to cave drawings and fossils of sea life and mastodons.
This is what I came here for. A quaint little town with history. Loreto was the site of the first mission and capital of Spanish California. Colorful blankets, pottery and Mexican goods lined the commercial corridor. A Mexican dance troupe performed in the city square and trees trained for years to arch over the street shaded our walk as we wandered from vendor to vendor in this laid back town.
The Loretto harbor was a tourist attraction in itself, home to hundreds of pelicans, and those pelicans have turned the harbored boats white with guano. Each evening as we returned to the ship we were required to put our hands under the little space-age dispenser that shoots out disinfectant. Each evening, the crew diligently cleaned all handles and shampooed the carpets to keep any bird poo that may have been tracked in at bay - thus eliminating any health threats from compromising our vacation.
Skip the Plantation Hacienda tours and take a taxi to Los Mochis. This city of 500,000 has lots to see and a taxi can show you more than an expensive tour. You can gamble in their local casino, enjoy the chapel and surrounding square/garden and you can see the nearby Botanical Gardens for free. Weigh for yourself whether you want to spend $60 or more on one shore-side activity, or whether you could use that money for a taxi, bus or shuttle to see more sites.
CABO SAN LUCAS
They saved the best port for last. For $10 each, we took a glass bottom boat tour for 45 minutes where I took my most beautiful photos. Later we discovered the submarine tour for an hour was only $25 each. I regretted not taking it, especially given the opportunity to see the sea lions under water
As we pulled into the Los Arcos Cove five minutes from the harbor, we spied dozens of sea lions basking and barking on their rock. I realized that Alaskans have been wintering in Mexico since the dawn of civilization - Alaskan mammals anyway. When I spied my fellow Alaskans basking in the sun, I thought to myself, "What took me so long to figure out what the birds and mammals and other non-humans have known for thousands of year s? When it's freezing in Alaska, head south for the winter."
Later we enjoyed two for one beer at a local shrimp house, where we dined on scrumptious fish tacos, one filled with shrimp and the other with scallops.
Unfortunately, we didn't have much time in this port either, so we couldn't explore San Jose 20 miles away, as we would have liked.
YOU TOO CAN AFFORD A CRUISE
Juneau depends on tour ships for a major part of its economy, and here's a way for you and your family to help. The lowest price of a 7-day cruise aboard the Ryndam, this summer was selling for $445 ( for two) on March 7, on a recent web site. Keep in mind on this HAL ship, but not all tour ships, there is an $11/per person per day fee not included in your fair. So the actual price is closer to $665 plus taxes, or less than $100/day. The $11 per day covers the room stewards, wait staff, pantry helpers, etc.
If you have family who want to come to Alaska this summer, tell them to book a cruise. Unfortunately they can only spend a day with you in Juneau, but if they are your spouse's parents that may be a good thing.
When I met with the captain I suggested that the Ryndam have a luncheon and invite Juneauites on board to spur sales by allowing you to kick the tires - see the ship and book a cruise. He said that they are already doing that in Vancouver, and again it would have to be a corporate decision. If you would like to book a cruise, but want to see a ship first, email HAL at firstname.lastname@example.org and ask HAL for a Juneau open house.
When deciding where to go, sign up to receive email specials from http://vacationstogo.com. I've been receiving emails for as low as $75/day, and the last minute sales offer the deepest discounts. You should also consider Alaska Airlines for cruises, as you will also receive air miles for the money you spend.
If you want to review what others had to say about your anticipated ports of call, check out cruise.com.
And if you want a job on a cruise ship? They are always looking for engineers and engine room staff.