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Cruising the Mexican Riviera & Baja: A Guide to the Ships & Ports of Call [MultiFormat]
eBook by Larry H. Ludmer

eBook Category: Travel
eBook Description: The author tells how to find bargain rates, when to book and makes you aware of considerations for disabled travellers, solo cruisers and being aboard with young children. And it's not just the big boats. Walking tours at each port of call are supplemented by detailed port maps Ports of call include: Acapulco, Cabo San Lucas, Catalina Island, Ensenada, Ixtapa & Zihuatanejo, La Paz, Loreto, Manzanillo, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Santa Rosalia. Embarkation cities (such as San Francisco, Monterey, San Diego, Long Beach and more) are included.

eBook Publisher: Hunter Publishing, Inc./Hunter Publishing, Published: US, 2005
Fictionwise Release Date: December 2008




I read the appropriate chapter before each port of call. The author gives you hints on problems you may face as well as encouraging you to see the important sights. I felt that with his guidance we didn't miss anything, and enjoyed the vacation spots much more.--Judith Orlopp This is a very quick book to read about the ports you will be visiting. I read it on the airplane on the way to my cruise. It made my trip to the Mexican Riviera a pleasant experience with many helpful hints included.--Paula Down This book is a fine guide to cruising the Mexican Riviera and Baja California. It describes the main cruise ships, especially those on the Carnival, Celebrity, Holland-American, Norwegian, Princess, and Royal Caribbean lines. There's advice on climate, what to wear, both in port and on the ship, and the costs involved. And there are good descriptions of the ports. If you are thinking of taking such a cruise, get this book!--Jill Malter I just returned from a Mexican Riviera cruise. We followed the walking and taxi tours recommended by the author(actually tore out the pages for each port and took them with us) and had a wonderful time. We saw so many sights that our fellow cruisers missed. The author provides detailed information, along the lines of, "Exit the ship, turn left, walk two blocks... skip Museum A in favor of Museum B" etc. including advice regarding when to take a cab vs. walking to certain attractions. I found the directions to be very accurate for Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Cabo, and Zihuatanejo, although the map for Acapulco was not sufficiently detailed, so I suggest you pick up a city map if you're planning on walking there. Unfortunately this book does not have any restaurant recommendations, but we ate at several of the "authentic" local restaurants mentioned in the book "Mexico's Beach Resorts for Dummies" and were very happy with our choices. Finally, the author provides some useful information about cruising in general, including a checklist of items to take, and since this was my first cruise, I found this to be very helpful.--S. Beady My wife and I are experienced cruisers. We are cruising the Mexican Riveria in February. Mr. Ludmer's comments about cruising, in general and preparing for a cruise are right on the mark. The reason we bought the book is for the information on the ports. It is all right there, in an easy to read, easy to find format. Of course we haven't been on the cruise yet. We always take a travel writer's opinions with a grain of salt, but we'd never criticise their observations. Everyone's likes are too subjective. Nonetheless, having the input of someone who's been there is very valuable. That's the way I feel about this book, a fun read, with information that, I'm sure, is well worth the price.--F. McGuiliguddy


The Cruise Lines & Ships

W hile there are fewer cruise lines and ships sailing the Pacific coast of Mexico than the Caribbean, the choice is still extensive and is growing each year. Until recently, the Mexican Riviera and Baja were step-children as far as the types of ships utilized on these itineraries were concerned. The newest, biggest and best ships were almost always sent to the Caribbean or even Alaska, but not to western Mexico. This began to change a couple of years ago and now several cruise operators have added top-of-the-line vessels on these routes. The number of ships has also increased, as has the average size of the vessels. This increased capacity is likely to mean heavy competition and good prices for the consumer for several years to come. In addition, those lines that haven't upgraded their Mexican fleet will likely have to do so in order to compete, since many cruise travelers want to sail on the latest and greatest ships. Still smaller and more traditional vessels can still be found on Mexican routes, for those who prefer them.

Types of Cruises

C ruises to Baja and the Mexican Riviera can be classified in two major ways--by their destination or their duration.

Destination

T he typical cruise from southern California includes one port on the Baja Peninsula (almost invariably Cabo San Lucas) and usually two on the Riviera. There are also cruises that concentrate solely on one or the other. Cruises that sail only along the Mexican Riviera are usually one-way trips, either embarking or disembarking at Acapulco at one end, with the other gateway port in California. Some one-way itineraries begin from farther away than southern California--in San Francisco for example. However, most of the cruises are round-trips from either Los Angeles or San Diego. Many cruises that originate in Florida or Puerto Rico traverse the Panama Canal and then cruise up along the entire Pacific coast of Mexico before typically ending in California. Some of these are year-round but the majority are "repositioning" cruises that are designed to eventually get ships to Alaska for the summer season. Repositioning cruises can often be had at much lower rates for cruises of comparable length in seasonal or year-round markets.

Duration

W hile the typical Baja-Mexican Riviera "combination" cruise is one week long (seven nights) and runs from Saturday to Saturday or Sunday to Sunday, there are other cruises both longer and shorter. There are both three-day and four-day cruises from Los Angeles or San Diego that go only as far south as Baja's Ensenada. The four-day cruises include a port call at Catalina Island, while the three-day versions do not. Cruises of anywhere from eight to 14 nights are also available and these typically stop at a greater number of ports along the Mexican Riviera and Baja. Itineraries originating in San Francisco or other ports farther from southern California can be anywhere from seven to 11 nights. Panama Canal cruises with Mexican ports of call can run from 11 to 16 nights.

Style

A third possible means of classification is by the style of cruise. This involves the degree of luxury and the degree of formality. The mass market lines don't vary a great deal in this regard. It's only when you get into the upscale lines such as Crystal that there is a significant difference. Read more about this on page 66ff.

Cruise Lines with Baja & Mexican Riviera Itineraries

T he primary cruise lines operating in Baja and the Mexican Riviera are Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess and Royal Caribbean. This list includes the biggest cruise lines in the industry, names almost all American travelers are familiar with. Carnival and Royal Caribbean are the only lines that offer three- and four-night Baja cruises year-round. They, along with the four other lines, also offer itineraries covering the Mexican Riviera from the fall through the spring and lasting a minimum of one week. All six lines have trans-Panama Canal cruises. Sometimes these are offered on a regular basis, but in many cases they are repositioning cruises, with one departure per ship in each direction annually. Complete details on these lines and their ships, along with some information on other operators, is given in the section that follows. For other cruise lines serving Mexico, see page 66.

The Mass Market Lines & Their Ships

The term "mass market" isn't meant to be derogatory in any sense. It simply means that these cruise lines appeal to the broadest section of the traveling public because they offer choice and luxury at an affordable price. They are also the lines that have the most ships in service on Mexican routes. The largest lines are innovative in terms of onboard activities and services and are also known for having many new ships, including some of the largest that can be found operating in any part of the world. Each of the major lines will be profiled in depth prior to a ship-by-ship description of their vessels. Only those ships serving the Mexican Riviera and Baja will be fully described. Vessels visiting Mexico via trans-Panama Canal itineraries only will have more limited descriptions.

Some things apply to all ships of a given cruise line. For example, cuisine and entertainment policy won't vary much at all from one ship to another on the same line. Thus, general information that is given in the cruise line profile won't be repeated in the individual ship descriptions unless it significantly differs in some way.

Statistical information for the cruise lines and individual ships is mostly self-explanatory. However, a few items should be clarified. The number of ships shown under the Fleet heading is the total vessels in service as of January, 2005. This includes all of the ships of that line and isn't limited to the number serving the Mexican Riviera and Baja. The figure for Under Construction includes projects currently in the shipyards and firm order commitments. Individual ship description details are listed below.

Year Built: The year of the ship's maiden voyage. The year of any major refurbishment will be indicated in brackets for any ship built in 1995 or earlier.

Passengers: Indicates the number of passengers the ship will carry based on double occupancy of all staterooms. I use this basis because it is the most commonly accepted method in the cruise industry. You might well see other numbers given in various sources of information on any particular ship. These may include additional persons in the rooms. A ship that is fully booked will almost certainly be carrying far more people than the double occupancy figure.

Passenger/Crew Ratio: The number of passengers divided by the number of crew members, expressed as a ratio, such as 2.4:1. In theory, the lower the number, the better the service. While the luxury lines are the only ones that have ratios of less than 2:1, I have yet to find any reliable correlation to minor variances in the ratio. I have been on ships with a 2.7:1 ratio where the service was better than on a ship with a 2.2:1 ratio. The ratio is a general indication of service only.

Stateroom Size: Rooms on ships are a lot smaller than what you will find in a hotel, or even in most inexpensive motels for that matter. This is important to keep in mind if you have never sailed before. The measurements are in square feet and the range shows the smallest to the largest accommodation, including suites. Measurements are for the room only--that is, they do not include the balcony in cases where one exists.

Space Ratio: A measure of how "roomy" the ship is. It is calculated by dividing the Gross Registered Tonnage by the number of passengers. The higher the number, the more space you have per passenger, at least in theory. Some cruise experts consider this figure almost as gospel. While I agree that it does provide some indication of available space, there is no way to mathematically account for the "feel" the ship has. The design layout (including traffic flow) is a more important indicator of how much space you have than a simple number. Take this figure with a grain of salt. Extremely low space ratios, however, should be a warning.

One fact that I've deliberately omitted for each ship or line is the nationality of the crew (that is, non-officers). Although in the past it was the norm for each line to draw its crew from mainly one national or ethnic group, this is no longer the standard practice. It is not uncommon for crew members who directly serve passengers to encompass 40 or more different nationalities. In effect, every ship is a United Nations and that adds a lot of flavor to your experience. A few lines still emphasize one or two nationalities. Holland America crews, for instance, are dominated by Indonesian or Filipino men and women.

carnival cruise lines

tel. (800) 227-6482

www.carnival.com

Officers: Bridge officers are Italian, but others may be international.

Ships' Registry: The Bahamas for most of the fleet, but a few ships are registered in Panama.

Fleet: 21 ships; 1 under construction.

The world's largest cruise line has played a major role in making cruising affordable. While Princess' "Love Boats" caught the imagination of the public on television back in the 1960s, it was the newly established Carnival line that introduced more new ships and more ideas back then. Then and now they offer excellent value and a casual, mostly informal experience on their self-proclaimed "fun ships." The entire Carnival fleet features a striking all-white exterior, except for the mostly red-and-blue Carnival logo and their distinctive funnel--which is shaped like the tail of a jet airplane. This feature adds a graceful flair to all of their ships. One of the most notable features of any Carnival cruise ship is its large main showroom, which puts an emphasis on lavish Vegas-style entertainment. Glitz is evident in more than just the production shows. Interior décor places an emphasis on eye-popping features and tries to dazzle you with the "wow" factor. This is especially true in Carnival's famous large atriums and the public areas surrounding them. Those who prefer a more refined atmosphere may need sunglasses! Activities are geared much more toward the fun side than to cultural enrichment. In fact, entertainment is so important at Carnival that toward the end of dinner in the main dining room your waitstaff will put on a brief song and dance act that differs each night of the cruise--it's a lot of fun and many passengers get involved.

Speaking of dinner, Carnival vessels offer a wide variety of dining choices and their newest ships even have elegant supper clubs. Although Carnival doesn't break much culinary ground, they always provide excellent meals that are colorfully presented by a friendly waitstaff and that get high marks from most passengers. You won't, however, get the white glove treatment. The buffets are excellent and feature many stations, including an excellent deli on their larger and newer vessels. Midnight buffets are big at Carnival but their once-per-cruise Midnight Gala Buffet is an experience to remember. Concentrating on sweets, it's such a visual spectacle that guests are invited to view it an hour before it opens just for picture-taking! Carnival's handling of the Captain's cocktail reception is also something special, as practically an entire deck becomes a walk-through feast of hors d'oeuvres and colorful exotic drinks. A 24-hour pizzeria and ice-cream bar are other popular features with ever-hungry cruise passengers. Children's activities and facilities are always extensive but the bigger the ship, the more it has.

In general, Carnival provides a cruising experience that is equally good for couples and families with children. Carnival is one of the great innovators and was a pioneer in the mega-ship category for contemporary cruising.

Carnival Pride/Carnival Spirit

Year Built: 2002/2001

Gross Tonnage: 88,500

Length: 963 feet

Beam: 106 feet

Passengers: 2,124

Passenger Decks: 12

Crew Size: 930

Passenger/Crew Ratio: 2.3:1

Stateroom Size: 160-388 sq ft

Space Ratio: 41.7

The Spirit-class vessels are no longer Carnival's largest, but I still give them the nod as the most beautiful ships in what is a fabulous fleet. (The larger Conquest-class is not represented in Carnival's Mexican itineraries.) The public facilities and layout of these two ships are the same, although the décor varies. The description that follows applies to the even more gorgeous interior details found on the Pride because the Spirit visits Mexico somewhat less frequently. The Pride features one of the most spectacular décors of any ship on the high seas. Ornate and opulent, even by Carnival standards, the primary theme is the art of the Renaissance and nowhere is this more in evidence than in the eight-deck-high atrium with its fabulous murals. The main showroom is a three-deck affair with the look and feel of an elegant European opera house. There are many other lounges and entertainment facilities of varying sizes.

The two-level main dining room is simply gorgeous. However, because of its size some people might feel that the noise level is too high. Aside from the buffet, alternative dining takes the form of the extra-fee David's Supper Club. Located high atop the ship and connected to the Lido deck by a glass staircase suspended above the atrium (those prone to vertigo might wish to take the elevator or inside stairs to get there), the centerpiece is a full-sized replica of Michaelangelo's masterpiece. The angled and rose-colored glass ceiling over the club lends a special atmosphere during the day. The glass dome, by the way, appears to be part of the funnel from the outside. If you go up to the very top of the ship on the outside, you can look down into the club!

A two-level disco, wedding chapel and a gently curving "shopping street" are other important public areas. Although the promenade doesn't wrap around the entire outside of the ship (at the bow end), it is wrap-around if you go inside and walk through the exotically decorated Sunset Garden. This beautiful spot isn't used by a lot of people so it provides a nice place to get away from it all for a drink or just to relax. The Pride has plenty of recreational facilities, including its two large main pools, water slide, gymnasium and full-service spa.

Accommodations are also excellent as even the smallest rooms are fairly spacious by cruise ship standards. The décor is pleasant and the functionality is just fine. If you've been on other Carnival ships, you'll notice a similarity in style, with the probable major difference being that these rooms are larger than on older Carnival vessels. Except for a few somewhat smaller cabins, the interior rooms are generally the same size as outside rooms minus the balcony. This makes them an especially good value. The majority of outside rooms do have private balconies.

Paradise

Year Built: 1998

Gross Tonnage: 70,367

Length: 855 feet

Beam: 103 feet

Passengers: 2,052

Passenger Decks: 10

Crew Size: 920

Passenger/Crew Ratio: 2.2:1

Stateroom Size: 173-410 sq ft

Space Ratio: 34.3

Paradise is one of eight sisters in the Fantasy class, making it the largest class of ships regardless of line. This class, along with the original "Love Boat" from Princess, is responsible to a large degree for the popularity of cruising. The Fantasy-class ships ushered in a new era of both size (i.e., more facilities) and glitzy luxury that appeals to so many people. Paradise was the last ship of its class that was built so it's quite a bit younge r than many other Fantasy-class vessels. Some readers with past cruise experience may remember that it was once a totally non-smoking ship, the only one if its kind in the world of cruising. However, that practice has ended and it now has the same smoking restrictions as any other ship in the fleet. Serving the three- and four-day runs, Paradise traded places with the Ecstasy, which had been on this route for many years.

The ship generally has an easy-to-navigate layout of public rooms, which begins four decks above the lowest deck with cabins. An attractive and glitzy atrium rises five decks and provides a focal point for most public areas. There are two dining rooms separated from one another by the galley. This arrangement means each room is somewhat more intimate than if they had been combined into a single room. The dining room at the stern can be the most confusing part of the ship to get to since you have to use the stern elevators or stairs--no access is available from the front section of the deck it's on. Paradise has a very attractive two-level main theater, as well as many colorful bars and lounges concentrated on the Promenade Deck. The piano bar adjacent to the aft lounge is a beautiful spot to relax. As far as other facilities go, Paradise has all of the usual things one would expect on a large ship, but sometimes on a smaller scale. The sports deck has excellent gym and spa facilities, along with a jogging track on the very top public deck.

Accommodations are quite spacious (a common strength on most Carnival vessels). While standard staterooms aren't luxurious, you'll find pleasant color schemes and a well-planned layout. Corridors on stateroom decks tend to be long and straight, which means you shouldn't have much trouble locating your room when you come back late at night!

Celebrity Cruises

tel. (800) 437-3111

www.celebritycruises.com

Officers: Greek

Ships' Registry: Liberia, except for Mercury, which is registered in Panama

Fleet: 9 ships

Celebrity's ships, like most other cruise line fleets, have certain distinguishing exterior characteristics that make them easily recognizable. Their vessels feature a mostly white upper superstructure with large broad bands of dark blue across the bottom section of the hull and additional blue trim on the superstructure. Their hallmark funnels are marked with a slanted huge white letter "X." The overall effect may not be as beautiful as the more common all-white exterior, but there is no denying that Celebrity vessels are both striking and sleek.

Celebrity is perhaps best known for its outstanding level of service. It is consistently rated as one of the best cruise lines in the world by experienced cruisers. This shouldn't come as a surprise when you consider that Celebrity ships have 300 to 600 fewer passengers than ships of equal size on many other mass market lines. The cruise experience on Celebrity is refined. There are sommeliers to help you choose the right wine, wine classes, cooking workshops, lectures on many interesting topics, as well as educational programs concerning the area of the world you're visiting. Beautiful works of art from the masters to modern grace all Celebrity vessels.

Excellent cuisine is certainly another Celebrity hallmark, and the sophistication of the food preparation, presentation and service is higher than most of the mass-market lines. Dining flexibility is not as great as on some lines because many of the ships aren't as large, although it varies quite a bit from one ship to another. Their larger ships offer plenty of choices, while the smaller ones do not. The Cova Café Milano is a wonderful feature of all their vessels. Here you can select from a wide variety of specialty coffees while treating yourself to a delectable European pastry. All Celebrity ships have the usual array of amenities and facilities, but their AquaSpa by Elemis is a Celebrity feature that warrants special attention. Their spa facilities may well be the best anywhere on the sea and, in addition to the usual exercise equipment and beauty treatments, they have sauna, steam, aroma-therapy and other goodies for those who appreciate the finer things. Gymnasium patrons can even avail themselves of a certified personal trainer.

Celebrity caters to adults, but they have incorporated additional facilities for children in order to extend the appeal of Celebrity beyond just couples. These facilities are sometimes divided into four age groups (during peak sailing periods) but most of the time all children are grouped together regardless of age. Celebrity offers "adults only" (minimum age of 21) cruises to most of its destinations, including Mexico. There are limited sailing dates for these trips.

You 'll find first-rate accommodations throughout the fleet, featuring tastefully appointed rooms that are generally larger than industry averages. Finer quality towels, robes and linens are standard. "Concierge Class" is an upgraded status where you get little extras. However, the added cost isn't justified, in my opinion, since the room size is the same. Once you get into the suite category on Celebrity, the extra luxuries offered really start to pile up.

Infinity/Summit

Year Built: 2000/2001

Gross Tonnage: 91,000

Length: 965 feet

Beam: 106 feet

Passengers: 1,950

Passenger Decks: 11

Crew Size: 1,000

Passenger/Crew Ratio: 1.9:1

Stateroom Size: 170-1,432 sq ft

Space Ratio: 46.7

Trans-Panama Canal itineraries only. Along with its sister ships of the Millennium class, these are the largest vessels in the Celebrity fleet and it shows that a mega-sized ship and top-notch quality are not conflicting concepts. While Celebrity has always been known for its fine and elegant facilities, it takes a ship of this size to offer the full range of activities that today's cruise traveler has come to expect. The three-level Grand Foyer is gorgeous, yet understated. There's more drama in the outside glass elevators that ascend 10 decks above the sea. Despite the large size of the ship, the main dining room is not so overwhelming as to be distracting and it is simply beautiful. Infinity and Summit have a wide range of shopping options, bars and lounges, plus fabulous recreational facilities. The Constellation Lounge at the bow near the top of the ship is a wonderful multi-purpose venue for entertainment, dancing, lectures, or just taking in the view. When it comes to big shows, this class of ship provides more extravagance since the large stage in its beautiful three-level theater is of Broadway quality. All staterooms include bathrobes of Egyptian cotton, mini-bar, safe and a host of other amenities in spacious and attractive surroundings.

Mercury

Year Built: 1997

Gross Tonnage: 77,713

Length: 866 feet

Beam: 106 feet

Passengers: 1,870

Passenger Decks: 10

Crew Size: 909

Passenger/Crew Ratio: 2.1:1

Stateroom Size: 171-1,514 sq ft

Space Ratio: 41.6

From the beautiful two-level Manhattan Restaurant and its adjoining foyer and champagne bar to the showroom with its European-style opera house balcony boxes, the interior décor is delightful. The four-deck Grand Foyer is visually appealing with its understated elegance. Especially worthy of note is the Navigator Club, a multi-purpose facility with wrap-around windows and seating at different levels that makes this an ideal spot for gazing at the sea or the passing scenery. The colorful and cheerful décor maintains a mostly informal look despite its feel of luxury and elegance.

The buffet is called the Palm Springs Café and is especially nice. Besides having a great selection of excellent food (much better than most buffet food), the eight bay-type windows provide a degree of privacy and views that are not usually part of shipboard buffet dining. Even though Mercury isn't nearly as large as many of the ships now being put into service in Mexico, it has just about all the features and facilities of its bigger competition. It even boasts the latest in onboard recreation--a golf course simulator. The shopping arcade is surprisingly large and varied.

Staterooms are exceptionally spacious and well furnished. They're among the most comfortable of any ship. Little amenities are numerous, even in the lower-priced categories, and include things like private mini-bar, hair dryer, personal safe and interactive television. Choosing a room on Mercury can be somewhat easier than on many other ships because the number of room categories isn't as great. The lowest-priced suite category (Sky Suites) are mostly located on upper decks. There are even some inside rooms on these levels. This is an option that is not available on many of the newest ships where the top two or three decks are often devoted exclusively to public facilities.

I should also re-emphasize that the service onboard Mercury is consistent with the high standards that have been established on all Celebrity ships.

Holland America Line

tel. (800) 426-0327

www.hollandamerica.com

Officers: Dutch

Ships' Registry: The Netherlands. One ship (not sailing in Mexico) is Bahama registered

Fleet: 12 ships; 1 under construction

With almost 140 years of sailing experience, it's little wonder that traditions are very important at Holland America. Although they've adapted to the modern world of cruising, HAL is still, in many ways, an old-fashioned and traditional cruise line that appeals to a large segment of the sailing public. It starts with the basic exterior design and features such as their conservative midnight blue hull, as well as the color trim on the white superstructure. All of the public areas (including those ships with atriums) tend toward a classy styling that features understated elegance rather than a deliberate attempt to "wow" you. The result is a fine setting for a sophisticated cruise experience.

Works of art, including paintings and sculpture, are a big part of HAL ships, and sometimes these vessels seem like floating art galleries. The art work is mainly themed to Dutch nautical traditions. There is always a wrap-around promenade deck; you can walk around the entire ship without going inside. This is another way that all Holland America vessels keep older cruising traditions alive. Not that the new world of cruising hasn't had an affect on HAL ship design and décor. Their new and fabulous Vista-class vessels have some of the splashiness and eye-catching glitz that is so popular elsewhere. However, even these ships do it in Holland American style. Fortunately, beginning with the 2004-2005 Mexican season, HAL has assigned this class of vessel to their Mexican routes. Ships of this size allow for better shows, produced by top figures in the entertainment industry.

Holland America has a well-deserved reputation for fine food, outstanding personalized service and a host of onboard activities. Like Celebrity, it is always one of the highest-rated lines. They do a good job of combining fun with culturally enriching activities. Informative lectures and discussions on the ports of call are one of HAL's strong points. Also in this vein, HAL is one of the most active lines when it comes to "theme" cruises. The themes can be on just about anything but might, for example, concentrate on a particular type of music during the course of a cruise.

Accommodations are quite varied, especially when it comes to size. This depends largely on whether it's a newer ship since HAL's older vessels have some room categories where the square-footage is very low. Many amenities are a feature of HAL staterooms but this is especially true when you enter the upgraded suite categories. These include personal concierge service and an invitation to the Rijstaffel (literal translation is "rice table"), a traditional and extravagant Dutch-Indonesian buffet lunch hosted by the Captain. Unfortunately, it is no longer HAL's practice to have the Rijstaffel as a feature for all guests.

A few final notes about Holland America. Note that tipping is no longer included in the basic cruise fare. Social hosts, that is dancing or dining partners for unescorted female guests, are available. This is something that used to be a common practice in the cruise industry. HAL and Celebrity are the only mainstream cruise lines that offer this feature. HAL is also the only line that offers cruises concentrating on the Sea of Cortés.

THE VIEW FROM THE CROW'S NEST

One of the pleasures of cruising has always been to enjoy the view from a special interior spot where you could sit and gaze out upon the water or the passing scenery without getting blown away by the wind. Fortunately, Holland America has retained one of the most enduring institutions in the cruise industry and that is the Crow's Nest--their observation lounge. The name comes from an even older nautical tradition: a lookout high up on the ship's tallest mast. But on HAL you don't have to climb a rope or ladder to get there. An elevator will whisk you to a beautiful lounge on the top or next-to-the-top deck, with unobstructed views on three sides. The Crow's Nest also has a small dance floor, so there is often entertainment. It is a common venue for lectures and other shipboard events. If you sail on Holland America, be sure to spend some time at the top.

Oosterdam

Year Built: 2003

Gross Tonnage: 85,000

Length: 951 feet

Beam: 106 feet

Passengers: 1,848

Passenger Decks: 11

Crew Size: 842

Passenger/Crew Ratio: 2.2:1

Stateroom Size: 154-1,343 sq ft

Space Ratio: 46.0

Not that HAL would ever say so, but the debut of this vessel on the Mexican Riviera for the 2004-2005 season was, in my opinion, a response to the introduction of ever-more extravagant ships on this run by other lines, especially by Carnival and Princess.

The second of Holland America's four magnificent new Vista-class vessels, the Oosterdam (pronounced OH-STER-DAHM) represents a dramatic departure from HAL's typical ship. Not only is it significantly larger than most of the other ships of this line, but it has a dazzling, colorful and often extravagant style. In fact, the change was so great that they toned down the décor on the three subsequent ships in this class because some of HAL's more tradition-oriented guests found the Oosterdam a bit too much! I have to say that I like the lively appearance and feel of this ship. Moreover, despite the unusual degree of glitz, the décor doesn't detract from the fine service and overall classy experience that a Holland America cruise always offers.

Perhaps it is just as important to emphasize how this ship follows the traditions of HAL. That begins with the full wrap-around promenade deck, the three-level atrium and the Crow's Nest Lounge. The latter has an open observation area above it. The Oosterdam features extensive use of glass and curved, flowing lines to create a dramatic and airy atmosphere. This is most evident in the two-level main dining room and the magnificent tri-level main showroom called the Vista Lounge. There's also an alternative theater and more dining options than on other Holland America ships. The recreational facilities are larger and more extensive than on any other class of ship in the fleet. Among the options are a golf s imulator and tennis and basketball courts. Spa facilities are among the largest and most sophisticated at sea. There are separate facilities for small children and teens, respectively called the Kid Zone and Wave Runner. While these will be welcomed by parents, HAL still is not the best choice for families.

When it comes to accommodations the Oosterdam raises the bar a few notches compared to this line's more traditional ships. This begins with the higher percentage of outside rooms that have private balconies. Spaciousness is generally also the order of the day, with most rooms being larger than cruise industry norms. However, be careful when booking inside rooms. HAL's brochures shows 185 square feet but this refers to large inside rooms. Those that are standard measure in at 154 square feet, which isn't bad but is a far cry from what you would be led to believe. While the décor isn't much different from other ships of the HAL fleet, there is a generally more cheerful color scheme that gives the rooms an airier look. The Oosterdam offers bathtubs in all but the lowest-priced stateroom categories.

Ryndam/Veendam

Year Built: 1994 [refurbished in 1998]/1996

Gross Tonnage: 55,451

Length: 720 feet

Beam: 101 feet

Passengers: 1,258

Passenger Decks: 10

Crew Size: 602

Passenger/Crew Ratio: 2.1:1

Stateroom Size: 156-1,126 sq ft

Space Ratio: 44.0

Although these are identical vessels from a deck-plan point of view and are quite similar as to the interior details, this description applies to the Ryndam since the Veendam visits Mexico only as part of its trans-Panama Canal itineraries. One of HAL's smaller "S"-class ships, the Ryndam definitely fits the more typical description of what most people expect from this line. As one of the finest cruise lines in the world, with a well deserved reputation for excellence in all categories, you can't say that the Ryndam is bad in any important way. However, if you're looking for a mega-ship, this one isn't it. It offers a distinguished and refined cruising experience in keeping with the older traditions of this line.

The Ryndam is exclusively sailing Holland America's "Sea of Cortés" itinerary (round the tip of Baja and then north to La Paz, Loreto and Santa Rosalia) so it provides quite a different experience than most other ships that visit Baja. In fact, HAL is the only major cruise line offering this kind of itinerary and that by itself may be an important factor for some travelers, especially those who have already taken the standard Mexican Riviera run.

The stern reflects the traditional raked design, with terraced levels affording lots of outdoor space and great views. The Lido buffet is unusually large given the overall size of the ship and passenger count. The interior is beautifully designed and exudes the luxury that is associated with Holland America. Public areas display a generous use of teak wood, many works of art, and beautiful fresh flowers. Interior architectural highlights include a multi-story atrium, and both the main dining room and showroom also span two decks. There's also a cinema. As always, the Crow's Nest Lounge is a great place to watch the passing scenery.

This was one of the first ships to have a retractable glass dome over one of its pools so any unexpected bad weather won't spoil your time in the water. All of the staterooms feature easy-on-the-eyes pastel tones and comfortable, tasteful furnishings. While most ships require significant upgrading to go from shower to bathtub, the Ryndam offers tubs in all categories except inside staterooms. Almost all rooms (including the majority of inside cabins) are at least 182 square feet, making them exceptionally spacious. However, the two lowest-priced inside categories are the smallest rooms on the ship and a tad too small for most people's tastes.

Volendam/Zaandam

Year Built: 1999/2000

Gross Tonnage: 63,000

Length: 780 feet

Beam: 106 feet

Passengers: 1,440

Passenger Decks: 10

Crew Size: 561

Passenger/Crew Ratio: 2.6:1

Stateroom Size: 113-1,125 sq ft

Space Ratio: 43.8

Trans-Panama Canal itineraries only. These very attractive sister ships are similar in size, layout and facilities to HAL's more famous Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Both are traditionally designed vessels with an older look, although the public areas show the influence of more recent trends in ship design. The attractive three-deck atrium serves as a focal point for many public facilities and that's a plus because some areas of these ships are not as easy to navigate as they could be. However, you'll quickly get used to the peculiarities of the layout. The main two-level dining room is an elaborate and luxurious facility. In fact, just about everything on theses vessels has the rich feel that makes Holland America so popular with a large segment of the cruising population. There is one potential problem that you should be careful to avoid. While the overwhelming majority of staterooms on these ships are comparable in size to HAL's usual larger standards (i.e., beginning at around 180 square feet), the lowest price category is so small and cramped that it is likely to spoil your cruise. Fortunately, there are only a few rooms in this category.

Norwegian Cruise Line

tel. (800) 327-7030

www.ncl.com

Officers: Norwegian

Ships' Registry: The Bahamas or Panama, except for some American registered ships. See the discussion below.

Fleet: 12 ships; 2 under construction

The 2004-2005 sailing season was the first time that Norwegian offered a round-trip Mexican Riviera itinerary from southern California. Previously, if you wanted to go by NCL to Mexico it had to be via a trans-Canal cruise. This addition is good news for the cruising public, since it adds even more options.

The beautiful ships of NCL mostly feature an all-white exterior, except for the graceful dark blue trademark funnel that is placed far to the stern. A few of their newest and biggest ships have introduced a flashy and unique design on the fore section of the hull--colorfully painted "ribbons" that lend a festive atmosphere. The response from the public seems to be positive and I wouldn't be surprised if this becomes standard throughout their fleet. In general, the ships of NCL have a nice combination of both traditional and modern styling that is pleasing to the eye. Norwegian has a reputation for efficient and friendly service that is not particularly fancy or intruding. Their food hasn't earned special honors but it would have to take a very fussy gourmet to find anything significant to complain about. Norwegian is justly popular with both young couples and families as much for their casual and fun approach to cruising as for their relatively low prices.

If I have one complaint about NCL (and this even applies to their newest and best ships) it is that many staterooms are smaller than those on most competing lines. It is not uncommon for cabins to be only about 135 square feet. Make sure you upgrade enough to a somewhat larger room if size matters to you. When it comes to other facilities, Norwegian's vessels have everything that big ships can offer, including extensive children's programs (divided into three age groups), top-notch entertainment that varies from Broadway- to Las Vegas-style, and full-service spas.

It's also the degree of flexibility offered by NCL that attracts many passengers. A trend that began in earnest perhaps five or six years ago and continues unabated today is to offer much greater freedom of choice when it comes to where and when you dine, how you dress, and other things. NCL has been a pioneer in this with their Freestyle cruising. Although other lines have followed suit, Norwegian's Freestyle offers passengers the greatest degree of flexibility.

Depending upon the ship, there can be up to 10 restaurants representing a wide variety of cuisines and styles. There is a fee for some of the specialty restaurants. Dining times and seating arrangements are completely flexible (open seating from about 5:30 pm to as late as 10 pm). This even applies in the more traditional "main" dining room. Regardless of where you eat, you can dress as you wish (within reason--beachwear, for example, is taboo in dining establishments). Even in the most formal restaurant you can go casual if you wish. Of course, you can dress up as much as you want and many people still do. Formal nights are designated in various restaurants, but that just means it's dress-up time if you want it to be. Freestyle is also applied to activities, although every cruise line allows you a big choice in this area. NCL also has flexible disembarkation procedures that allow you to spend more time on board. But be warned that this feature might cost you some extra money.

Norwegian has heavily promoted its "Homeland" cruising program and cruises to the Mexican Riviera are part of this. The line is the first to embark on a program of renovating and building vessels all or mostly in the United States. As a result, they will soon have three ships that are US-flagged, something that hasn't been seen in this country for a long time. Because of legal and financial considerations, these ships will operate under the label of "NCL America," but there will be little difference of significance to guests except that the crews will be largely American. There doesn't seem to be any rush by other lines to copy this strategy. For the time being, ships of NCL going to Mexico are not part of the NCL America program. This could change in the future, especially on repositioning cruises through the Panama Canal.

Norwegian Star

Year Built: 2001

Gross Tonnage: 91,000

Length: 965 feet

Beam: 105 feet

Passengers: 2,240

Passenger Decks: 11

Crew Size: 1,100

Passenger/Crew Ratio: 2.0:1

Stateroom Size: 142-5,350 sq ft

Space Ratio: 40.6

Originally assigned to cruising the islands of Hawaii, Norwegian Star has been chosen to be NCL's first ship regularly on a Mexican Riviera run. Lucky for would-be Mexico cruise passengers because this beautiful ship is one of the best in their fleet. It was the first NCL vessel that was truly designed around their Freestyle cruising program. As such, it offers an extraordinary array of dining options. In fact, there are no fewer than 10 different dining choices, including Soho (fusion cuisine); Ginza (Asian); Aqua (contemporary); and Le Bistro (French and Mediterranean). There are many other more casual options--you'll even find a beer garden! If you want to opt for a more traditional "main" dining room, then the beautiful Versailles Room fits the bill. Speaking of décor, there are a variety of styles in the dining venues commensurate with the variety of cuisines, but thoughtful attention to detail is a hallmark throughout. Both the food and the service are just fine. NCL has been improving their staff ratios in recent years and the result is a level of service that is considerably better than what would have been expected from a budget-oriented line just a few years ago.

The ship's other public facilities are no less varied or beautiful, beginning with a host of bars and lounges of all sizes, from intimate places to the large Spinnaker Lounge high up on Deck 12 and affording great views from three sides. The tri-level Stardust Theater handles production shows that are among the most elaborate at sea. A nightclub and cinema are some of the other entertainment options. The tapas bar is an unusual feature and provides a more grown-up alternative to burgers and hot dogs when the urge for a snack arises.

There are extensive recreational facilities, including a large spa with accompanying full-service fitness center. You'll find plenty of deck space for lying in the sun, although the ship could use some more swimming pools given its size. The Norwegian Star offers a full children's program separated by age group.

Turning now to the accommodations, Norwegian Star is generally above the level you'll find on most ships of this line. Even the smallest of the outside rooms are of a nice size with or without a balcony. The décor is colorful and attractive and the design is functional. My major complaint concerns inside accommodations which, at only 142 square feet, are quite small for today's biggest ships. At the other end of the scale, most suites are in the 300-800-square-foot range, but the two huge 5,350-square-foot Garden Villas are a surprise since NCL isn't usually considered by travelers looking for that kind of luxury. The villas, which are the biggest suites at sea, have five rooms plus a private garden with hot tub and come with a butler and concierge service. The tab of roughly $12,000 per week isn't likely to appeal to most travelers but, if you have a few couples sharing it, the cost per person does come down quite a bit.

Norwegian Star received a minor makeover in 2004 that changed some of the interior décor. But perhaps the most notable change is outside where the hull now features large and colorful flowing "ribbons" painted on the otherwise snow-white ship. NCL began this with some of their ships in Hawaii and the reaction from the public seems to be mostly favorable. Of course, I don't think anyone will select their cruise ship based on whether or not it has ribbons!

Norwegian Sun

Year Built: 2001

Gross Tonnage: 78,309

Length: 848 feet

Beam: 108 feet

Passengers: 1,936

Passenger Decks: 10

Crew Size: 950

Passenger/Crew Ratio: 2.0:1

Stateroom Size: 121-459 sq ft

Space Ratio: 40.4

Trans-Panama Canal itineraries only. The Norwegian Sun is typical of many ships of this line with similar statistics. For a short time it was the biggest ship in the fleet, but it has been surpassed by a number of other vessels in the past three years. The ship has a rather broad beam for its length, but still it has graceful lines. The Sun has been configured for Freestyle cruising and has nine restaurants. There is a rounded three-deck atrium and a two-level showroom at the stern, a somewhat unusual location for modern ships. (Not that it makes any difference if you watch a show at the front or rear of the vessel.) The main drawback is that if you want to save money by going for lower-priced accommodations, then you will have to accept rooms that are far too small to be comfortable. Oceanview staterooms on the two highest decks have private balconies and are much larger.

Norwegian Wind

Year Built: 1993 [refurbished 1998]

Gross Tonnage: 50,760

Length: 754 feet

Beam: 94 feet

Passengers: 2,183

Passenger Decks: 10

Crew Size: 614

Passenger/Crew Ratio: 3.5:1

Stateroom Size: 140-350 sq ft

Space Ratio: 23.3

Trans-Panama Canal itineraries only. The best features of this sleek-looking ship are its beautiful and spacious public areas, including wide decks. Freestyle options aren't as extensive on the Wind as they are on other Norwegian vessels for two reasons. First, as a somewhat older ship, it was designed before the advent of this policy (although modifications have increased the choices to include, for instance, a bistro café). Second, the ship isn't one of the bigger ones in the fleet and that limits design flexibility. However, the main dining room (The Terraces Restaurant) is a gorgeous facility with Norwegian's usual competent service and good food. On the entertainment side, the Stardust Lounge is an excellent showroom, while the Observatory Lounge is used for less formal productions. It's also a good place to go during the daytime when you want to have a drink while watching the scenery. A higher percentage of the thoughtfully designed and pleasantly decorated staterooms are pleasantly sized compared to many other ships in the NCL fleet, although you still have to watch for a tight fit in the lowest price categories.

Princess Cruises

tel. (800) 774-6237

www.princess.com

Officers: British or Italian

Ships' Registry: Britain or Bermuda

Fleet: 13 ships; 1 under construction

Princess, of Love Boat fame, can be said to have started the current popularity of cruising as a result of the television series that featured a Princess vessel. While the original Love Boat is no longer in service, the tradition continues with newer and better vessels. When the mega-ship Grand Princess was introduced in 1998 it began a revolution in cruise ship-building that opened up a whole new world to the cruising public. It was called "Grand Class" and meant not only that you were on a ship with grand proportions, but you had a grand variety of onboard options. The public response was so positive that Princess extended the concept of Grand Class in one form or another to the entire fleet. Ships that were too small to accommodate the changes were phased out. "Grand Class" as a style of cruising has been renamed by the Madison Avenue ad executives and now goes under the moniker of Personal Choice cruising, obviously meant to compete with Norwegian's freestyle. One thing it encompasses is their so-called "anytime dining," which allows you to choose between specialty restaurants without fixed seating arrangements and traditional fixed dining in the main restaurant. The buffet becomes a late-night bistro so you can have a light or even a full meal at two in the morning if you want. This feature has replaced the traditional midnight buffet on Princess vessels. The newer and bigger the ship, the more "personal choice" there is to select from.

The modern and rapidly growing Princess fleet features all-white exteriors with generally graceful lines and gentle curves. The cuisine is excellent, falling somewhere between Carnival and Celebrity in sophistication. The same applies to the service. Entertainment is some of the most lavish and spectacular at sea and ranges from Broadway to Vegas. There are numerous lounges in addition to the showroom where all types of entertainment take place--even karaoke.

Princess' vessels have become increasingly popular with families and programs for children are extensive. They are grouped by ages (three or four groups depending upon the ship). Other features are the Asian-style Lotus Spa, varied recreational opportunities, including a putting green, and extensive personal enrichment programs. The latter is known as the Scholarship@Sea program and it is safe to say that Princess has developed this more than any other cruise line. Also on the cultural side is the art gallery that is part of every ship in the fleet. This is in addition to works of art that are displayed throughout the ship. A dedicated concierge staff is available to all guests and provides a convenient way of making reservations for dining and other "personal choice" services.

Stateroom facilities on Princess are uniformly excellent with very few cabins that I would consider sub-par (these are limited to the very lowest categories on some of their older vessels). When it comes to accommodations, Princess boasts balconies, balconies, and more balconies. They were among the first to promote this as a feature and their ships are designed to have a majority of rooms with balconies. This is all very nice, no doubt, but do keep in mind that such rooms do cost more. Don't fall into the trap of cruise line advertising (certainly not limited to Princess)--you can have just as wonderful a trip without a balcony!

Princess has, and continues to introduce, wonderful new ships on their Mexican routes.

Coral Princess

Year Built: 2003

Gross Tonnage: 88,000

Length: 965

Beam: 106 feet

Passengers: 1,970

Passenger Decks: 11

Crew Size: 900

Passenger/Crew Ratio: 2.2:1

Stateroom Size: 156-470 sq ft

Space Ratio: 44.7

Trans-Panama Canal itineraries only. The Coral Princess and a sister-ship form a new sub-class of Princess vessels designed to have the amenities and facilities of the largest Grand-class ships but carrying considerably fewer passengers. The result is a fabulous ship that has everything you could want but isn't so big that it might scare away people who are turned off by the thought of sharing their cruise with between 2,500 and 3,000 other people! Except for the missing nightclub on the upper aft-section, Coral Princess' exterior profile is similar to the gem-class vessels, including the "jet eng ines" (see the Diamond/

Sapphire descriptions below). Somewhat unusual is the arrangement of the ship's "Lido" deck--the Horizon Court (buffet and 24-hour bistro) is at the bow-end, rather than amidships. This gives passengers views on three sides while dining. The stern section has the fabulous Lotus Spa and accompanying fitness center. These facilities are very extensive on all of the newer and bigger Princess ships but, given Coral's overall size, they are even larger, practically making this a "spa" ship. Accommodations are first-rate and feature plenty of room, comfort and lovely décor in all categories, with top-notch luxury in the highest categories.

Dawn Princess

Year Built: 1995

Gross Tonnage: 77,000

Length: 856 feet

Beam: 106 feet

Passengers: 1,950

Passenger Decks: 10

Crew Size: 900

Passenger/Crew Ratio: 2.2:1

Stateroom Size: 135-695 sq ft

Space Ratio: 39.5

When this ship hit the waves in 1995 a lot of people thought it was the ultimate in cruising for a long time to come. How wrong they were. It's still a beautiful ship that should please just about everyone, but it already seems somewhat dated compared to the upgraded part of the Princess fleet that the line is currently sending to Mexico. There's little doubt that this was the ship that set the stage for all of Princess' Grand-class vessels and the whole concept of "Grand" cruising that has evolved into their "Personal Choice" program.

The beautiful exterior was one of the first to feature the more modern design with the superstructure moved toward the bow. However, it retains a degree of traditional grace by having this section gently raked. On the other hand, the stern is less raked, with the result that there is little terracing effect.

The main interior feature is the lovely Atrium Court, spanning four decks and featuring graceful curving staircases, lots of rich woods offset by brass, towering palm trees and glass elevators, all topped by a colorful Tiffany stained-glass ceiling. Numerous shops surround one level of the atrium. The one-deck main theater is not particularly impressive in itself, but it's a good facility that is capable of hosting Princess' most extravagant shows. At the opposite end of the ship is the almost-as-large Vista Lounge. This multi-purpose entertainment venue is eye-catching and a great place to watch more informal shows or to go dancing. There's also a rather large casino with a spiral staircase in the middle that connects it with the deck below where you'll find the ship's lovely wrap-around promenade.

The Dawn Princess has two main dining rooms. They are exactly on top of one another and are of the same size and layout but somewhat different decoration. The two rooms are not connected by a staircase within the rooms, so each is a single deck high and is more to the liking of those who prefer smaller dining rooms. On the other hand, this makes them somewhat less visually impressive. Other dining options include the forward-facing buffet/bistro and a patisserie, where you can purchase mouth-watering cakes and pastries to go with your specialty coffee.

The Dawn Princess has an exceptional amount of open deck space so you should never feel crowded when trying to soak up the sun. There aren't that many pools but it does have lots of hot tubs. This was one of the first ships to feature Princess Links--a mini-golf facility. When it comes to children's facilities this ship doesn't come close to what's available on the newer and larger vessels in the fleet. However, this isn't necessarily a reason not to take children on the ship. There is a good childcare staff. Likewise, while the spa and fitness facilities are more than adequate, they are a notch or two below what Princess guests have come to expect on their newer ships.

All of this ship's staterooms boast beautiful décor and warm color schemes that are typically Princess. Where they fall somewhat short is in size. All interior rooms are less than 150 square feet and even the lower-priced outside categories can be between 135 and 155 square feet. So, if having a lot of space is important to you and you don't want to upgrade to much more expensive accommodations, be sure to verify how big the room is at the time you book and don't hesitate to ask for a larger room. Some may be available at little difference in price.

Diamond Princess/Sapphire Princess

Year Built: 2004/2004

Gross Tonnage: 113,000

Length: 952 feet

Beam: 123 feet

Passengers: 2,670

Passenger Decks: 13

Crew Size: 1,133

Passenger/Crew Ratio: 2.3:1

Stateroom Size: 168-1,329 sq ft

Space Ratio: 42.3

These ships are a newer and slightly altered version of Princess' unbelievable Grand-class ships. Their introduction into Mexican Riviera service (along with one of Carnival's Spirit-class ships) definitely raised the bar on mega-sized luxury vessels in this market. Ship competition being extremely fierce, it's likely that these ships will result in other lines improving the quality of their fleet assigned to Mexican runs. Although these are Grand-class ships, they have been tweaked quite a bit and Princess refers to them as their "Gem"-class. Indeed, they are beautiful gems that have just enough differences from the original class of ships to make them a distinct entity.

The Diamond and Sapphire Princess are virtually identical. Their exterior presents an impressive and beautiful all-white profile. If you have ever traveled on one of the original Grand-class vessels, you are familiar with the rather bulky looking stern section of the ship resulting from the Skywalkers nightclub being perched atop the highest part of the aft. On Gem-class ships the club is located slightly forward of that point, resulting in a much more pleasant appearance. In fact, despite the ship's immense size, it is the epitome of grace. (Do go into Skywalkers during the day for a wonderful view of the ship looking forward. An opposite view is available from the open deck above the bridge.) An unusual exterior feature are the "jet engines" perched above the decorative grillwork that surrounds the funnels. Well, many people are convinced that they're jet engines. In reality, they are also just decorative features that have become something of a conversation piece in the Princess fleet.

Dining on Gem-class ships is a wonderful experience. Passengers choose from traditional dining or alternative dining options. The "traditional" means you have fixed seating in the so-called main dining room. I refer to it that way because this attractive restaurant is rather small and intimate compared to what you see on most ships of this size. That's because a large number of guests opt for the alternative dining program. Each evening you can select from one of four specialty restaurants--Oriental, Italian, Southwestern or a steak house. They feature the full main dining room menu plus a number of specialty items from the cuisine that is each restaurant's specialty. It is best to make reservations so you don't have a long wait. If you choose the traditional dining it is still possible to sample the specialty restaurants on a space-available basis. In addition to these wonderful dinner choices there is Sabatini's, a popular upscale Italian trattoria, at an additional charge. The fine service is a seemingly endless parade of well-prepared favorites, along with unusual items. The buffet option is also available for dinner, as well as for breakfast and lunch. After-hours, the buffet turns into a late-night bistro where you can choose from a variety of delectable treats. There is table service.

Public areas are spacious and appealing, beginning with the three-level atrium. It isn't the biggest at sea, but is certainly one of the most beautiful with its abundance of white marble and exquisite detailing. Those seeking recreation will find an abundance of activities, including tennis and basketball courts, mini-golf at Princess Links and cybergolf simulators where you can select from dozens of famous courses throughout the world. The Lotus Spa and its adjacent aerobics room and gymnasium is one of the largest and most beautiful facilities of its type at sea. There are plenty of pools and hot tubs, including the fabulous Conservatory, with its retractable roof. It features beautiful tile work with colorful fish. The balcony surrounding the Calypso Reef pool hosts many activities and events.

The variety of entertainment is equally astounding. Among the larger lounges are the wild, Egyptian-themed Explorers Lounge (a popular feature on many new Princess ships) and the multi-purpose Club Fusion. The more traditional Wheelhouse Bar is another great place, but Skywalkers late-night disco (14 decks above the sea) is the undisputed hot spot. There are also several smaller and more intimate places to have a drink or chat. The main theater is rather plain and disappointing visually, but you still get those elaborate Broadway-style shows for which Princess is known. There is an extensive children's program with three separate facilities catering to separate age groups.

Staterooms occupy five consecutive decks that have no public facilities. A large percentage have balconies. There are also a large number of mini-suites that provide an opportunity to upgrade to a more luxurious level without getting into stratospheric prices. But you may not care to upgrade much at all since even the smallest rooms on these Princesses are a nice size and feature easy-on-the-eyes pastel shades with rich wood trim and beautiful fabrics.

Royal Caribbean International

tel. (800) 327-6700

www.royalcaribbean.com

Officers: Primarily Scandinavian or Italian with some international for non-bridge positions

Ships' Registry: The Bahamas or Norway

Fleet: 19 ships; 1 under construction

This is the second-biggest cruise line in terms of the number of ships, trailing only Carnival by a small margin. That gives you an idea of how successful they are and what a good product they deliver at affordable prices. Although Royal Caribbean has a good number of ships serving Pacific Mexico in one way or another, the selection is not as great as it could be considering what they have in their inventory. The Radiance-class ships (the first two listed below) are just dandy and are among the stars of the cruising world. Unfortunately, they sail to Mexico only as part of repositioning trans-Panama Canal cruises. The ships that ply both the Riviera and Baja (the Monarch of the Seas and Vision of the Seas) are not among their top ships, although Monarch has been nicely refurbished, while the somewhat newer Vision didn't need to be. Unfortunately, the almost unbelievable Voyager-class ships aren't likely to enter the Mexican market because they're too big to get through the Panama Canal and Royal Caribbean isn't likely to send them around Cape Horn at South America's tip. On the other hand, competition being what it is, you never know. (Do see the sidebar on Voyager-class ships.) However, with both Carnival and Princess having upgraded the ships going to Mexico, one has to believe that Royal Caribbean won't be far behind.

The almost all-white exteriors of Royal Caribbean's vessels are an appealing part of this line's impressive fleet. The easily recognizable Royal Caribbean funnel with its dark blue crowned anchor symbol is generally placed fairly far back on the vessel. All of their newer ships (those built since 1995) are definitely in the mega-liner category. Royal Caribbean has been an innovator in ship design and it is reflected in their exceptional size and varied facilities as well as in the brilliance of their architecture. Among their innovations were new recreational ideas such as a rock climbing wall. This feature first appeared on their giant new ships and proved so popular that it has been extended to almost the entire fleet.

They also realized that a ship's eye-appeal is part of the cruise experience. They were among the first to incorporate an atrium into their ship designs. They call it the Centrum and it is always something spectacular. Royal Caribbean ships also feature the Viking Crown lounge high atop the vessel. Similar to Holland America's Crow's Nest, this makes for a great place to socialize while enjoying the passing view.

Royal Caribbean offers excellent food and friendly service. They are on the same level as Carnival in terms of formality and quality. While the majority of Royal Caribbean ships feature numerous alternative dining options, many do impose an a dditional fee. The entertainment and onboard activities are extremely varied and cater to those seeking a fun time, as opposed to the more culturally oriented programs found on the sophisticated luxury lines. This line also boasts one of the most extensive children's programs at sea. Called Adventure Ocean, it features five different age groups. For parents who want a romantic evening by themselves now and then, the children's activities include dining separately with their friends at least one evening per cruise. They also have a kids' menu in the main dining room, which should delight them and make parents a whole lot more comfortable.

Brilliance of the Seas/Radiance of the Seas

Year Built: 2002/2003

Gross Tonnage: 90,000

Length: 962 feet

Beam: 106 feet

Passengers: 2,501

Passenger Decks: 12

Crew Size: 859

Passenger/Crew Ratio: 2.9:1

Stateroom Size: 166-584 sq ft

Space Ratio: 36.0

Trans-Panama Canal itineraries only. The Radiance-class vessels are second only in size in the Royal Caribbean fleet to the Voyager-class (which aren't used on any Mexican itinerary). Second-biggest, yes; but definitely not second-class because these are gorgeous ships with a host of wonderful features and facilities. The ships are identical except for the names of some public areas. Extensive use of glass and open spaces give these ships an even more spacious feel. In addition to the usual recreational facilities, you'll find a golf simulator, separate swimming pool for teens (thank you!), and a rock-climbing wall. The fitness center and spa facilities are first-rate. The Viking Crown Club, a Royal Caribbean feature, goes well beyond what this facility usually offers in terms of both size and eye appeal. There's also a spectacular central atrium with glass-enclosed elevators running almost the entire vertical span of the ship. Called the Centrum, this visually stunning area provides convenient access to most public facilities. There are a good variety of entertainment venues, including a first-rate three-level main theater. The two-tiered main dining room has a gorgeous grand staircase, exquisite color schemes and graceful tall columns to go with a huge central chandelier. There are also alternative dining options in addition to the buffet. There aren't any bad accommodations on Radiance-class vessels either.

Legend of the Seas

Year Built: 1995 [refurbished 1997]

Gross Tonnage: 70,000

Length: 867 feet

Beam: 105 feet

Passengers: 2,076

Passenger Decks: 10

Crew Size: 720

Passenger/Crew Ratio: 2.9:1

Stateroom Size: 138-1,148 sq ft

Space Ratio: 33.7

A big ship, but not huge by Royal Caribbean standards, Legend was one of the first vessels to introduce many features that are now considered standard and are almost taken for granted. These include the miniature golf course called "Legend of the Links", the canopy-covered Solarium and pool area, and an extensive children's activity area. They even have a video arcade and you know how those electronic baby-sitters can come in quite handy. Legend maintains Royal Caribbean's Centrum atrium. It's quite attractive but isn't as large (and, therefore, somewhat less impressive) than on many other ships of the fleet.

The two-level main dining room is very appealing and the food and service are both just fine. Where Legend does lack something is in its limited alternative dining options. There's the buffet (which isn't one of Royal Caribbean's better buffets), but little else. One thing you certainly won't have trouble finding is a cocktail, as there is an abundance of attractive bars. The That's Entertainment Theater is only on one deck so the sight-lines aren't as good as on most newer ships, but the shows themselves certainly live up to the name. The Anchors Aweigh Lounge is the primary venue for less formal entertainment and it's a good facility where something is always happening. The ship has plenty of recreational facilities and lots of open deck space on the upper decks. There's a forward observatory area in addition to the standard Viking Crown Lounge.

The layout is simple and the ship doesn't feel crowded despite the relatively large number of passengers for its size. Some decks are devoted solely to accommodations, or nearly so. Legend avoids having a seemingly endless maze of corridors with inside rooms tucked into every nook and cranny, a somewhat unpleasant reality on some of this line's ships built before the new millennium. Stateroom sizes are generally adequate, although beneath the junior suite level you won't find anything especially noteworthy. Only the lowest two classes are likely to have you wishing that you had more room. The arrangement of the rooms is highly functional and the décor is pleasant. A large number of outside staterooms have private balconies, another feature of this ship that paved the way for what was to come afterward in the world of cruise-ship design.

Monarch of the Seas

Year Built: 1991 [refurbished 1997]

Gross Tonnage: 73,941

Length: 880 feet

Beam: 106 feet

Passengers: 2,744

Passenger Decks: 11

Crew Size: 822

Passenger/Crew Ratio: 3.3:1

Stateroom Size: 120-441 sq ft

Space Ratio: 26.9

Monarch has a mostly traditional profile featuring clean lines. This was among the first ships to have a large atrium design. The Centrum on Monarch spans four decks and is quite attractive. The great majority of interior public facilities are located off the Centrum, which makes finding things easy. In fact, the layout of this particular ship is among the simplest that you are likely to find on ships of similar size.

All but the top two decks contain staterooms. Likewise, there are only two decks that don't have public areas. This tends to eliminate overly long corridors and provides a cozy feel but, depending upon your sleep habits, you might do well to avoid rooms that are near some of the lounges.

The ship has two main dining rooms stacked one on top of the other. However, because there are no connecting stairways within them, they are completely separate rather than being like a two-tiered facility. The buffet provides the major alternative dining option on this ship. The primary showrooms are fairly big for a vessel of this size and both span two levels. There are also two other major lounge facilities so you have a great variety of entertainment to choose from and should never feel crowded.

When it comes to recreational facilities you'll find much to choose from, including two pools and a complete fitness center. Children's areas are somewhat more limited compared to most of the newest ships but are still adequate. There's also a cinema.

Staterooms are attractive and generally comfortable, although you have to select carefully because of the large number of tiny rooms. Most outside rooms have portholes rather than large windows and there are no balconies unless you choose the highest non-suite category or above. Perhaps the only real negative on this vessel is that the lower-priced staterooms are simply too small. This applies to all interior rooms and even the first four categories of outside staterooms. Thus, if you want a decent-sized room you won't find any bargain prices on Monarch of the Seas. Overall, although this ship isn't the best in the fleet, it provides an enjoyable cruising experience.

Vision of the Seas

Year Built: 1998

Gross Tonnage: 78,491

Length: 915 feet

Beam: 106 feet

Passengers: 2,435

Passenger Decks: 10

Crew Size: 775

Passenger/Crew Ratio: 3.1:1

Stateroom Size: 149-1,059 sq ft

Space Ratio: 32.2

Vision of the Seas is the third sister in its class and it brought with it a new standard of size and luxury to the world of cruising. Regarding that, it's almost unimaginable what has followed in only a few years since this ship made its debut! It's clear that the popularity of many features on this and similar ships was translated into the Radiance-class that followed Vision. Perhaps because of its impressive size, Vision avoids having a cramped feeling, despite a space ratio that is lower than most of the competition. Another reason for this is the extensive use of glass throughout the ship. Entire walls are made of glass and it almost always seems that you're actually out on the open seas while on board. Views are best from Royal Caribbean's trademark Viking Crown Lounge and the more quiet observatory directly beneath it. Many other public areas also provide great viewing and this even extends to the large and well-equipped gym. The latter is on the sports- and view-oriented Compass Deck, which features a large retractable canopy. Vision has an excellent art collection and you'll encounter paintings in just about every nook and cranny of the ship.

The extensive public areas are designed to dazzle you from top to bottom and from bow to stern, but especially impressive is the stunning décor of the two-tiered Masquerade Theater. Not only is this a first-rate facility, but the shows are top-notch. For other entertainment options the Some Enchanted Evening lounge at the ship's stern is another good spot. The ship boasts many facilities that are almost mandatory in today's cruise vessels, including an excellent spa/fitness center and separate programs and areas for teens and younger children. This was one of the first ships to do that.

Although you can't go wrong in the highly decorative two-level Aquarius Dining Room or the Windjammer Café buffet, Vision of the Seas did come out before the trend toward a wider choice in alternative dining. Consequently, there isn't much else available. Some of the older ships in the Royal Caribbean fleet are being done over to expand dining choices. This ship isn't quite ready for a major retrofit but, if it does get one, more restaurants are sure to be at the top of the agenda.

In general, nicely sized staterooms are a hallmark of this class of ship. The most common type of cabin has 153 square feet, which barely exceeds what I consider to be a minimum requirement for comfort. But it is nicely decorated and well-equipped. Colorful curtains add an informal touch of home and are also used to separate the sleeping area from the living area. The majority of outside rooms have private balconies. I do suggest avoiding the small number of staterooms that measure less than 150 square feet.

NOW THAT'S A BIG SHIP!

When Cunard's Queen Mary II made its maiden voyage in early 2004 it created a stir in the cruise world that I've never seen. Certainly a part of this was because it was the world's largest cruise ship in terms of length, height and some other measures. Yet, it isn't that much bigger than Royal Caribbean's Voyager-class vessels, which were first introduced in 1999 and now number five sisters, with the final ship in the class having been delivered in 2004. In fact, they each hold more passengers than the Queen Mary II and are the biggest ships in the world in that regard.

Other Lines

These lines mostly serve Mexico through their trans-Panama Canal itineraries, although some have a few Pacific Mexican-only itineraries. Perhaps an even more important distinction for the average traveler is that all are more luxury-oriented than the lines previously described. They feature smaller ships with more intimate and personalized service. Of course, they are considerably more expensive than any of the mass market lines, often as much as three times the price or greater. I am not trying to discourage people who have the financial means or a strong desire to travel in this style from doing so. However, because most people won't want to spend the money for this type of experience, I haven't included ship-by-ship descriptions for any of these lines.

The roster of such lines in Mexico includes:

Crystal Cruises: tel. (800) 446-6620; www.crystalcruises.

com. Crystal is one of the most honored of all cruise lines and people looking for luxury will certainly not go wrong by traveling with them. What makes Crystal different from the other stratosphere-priced lines is their ships. While the high-budget lines such as Radisson, Silversea and Seabourn are almost exclusively small-ship operators (generally under 500 passengers and sometimes considerably fewer than that), Crystal's ships have a capacity of about 1,000. As such, their ships have the amenities of the large mass-market vessels, such as a big showroom. This is attractive to many people and gives Crystal a niche in the market. Its passengers have the best of both worlds. That's if you can handle the fare. In addition to trans-Canal itineraries, Crystal's Mexican cruises last anywhere from 10 to 14 days and are roundtrip from Los Angeles. There are limited departure dates. Because of the longer cruise length these itineraries include more ports of call than the typical week-long Mexican Riviera trip.

Oceania Cruises: tel. (800) 531-5658; www.oceaniacruises.

com. Oceania is the new kid on the block, having begun operations in the latter part of 2003. They acquired two very nice "R" ships from the former Renaissance Cruise Line that went bankrupt. (Apparently this type of mid-sized ship was quite in demand since almost all of the Renaissance fleet was bought by other cruise lines, including Princess.) They are not as high-priced as Crystal or Radisson but definitely more than the mass-market lines. Their Pacific Mexican itinerary is limited as to number of sailings but has an interesting route from Puerto Caldera in Costa Rica to Los Angeles or the reverse.

Radisson Seven Seas Cruses: tel. (866) 314-3212; www.rssc.com. This upscale line is considered one of the best in the world if you are a member of the Condé Naste set. Their fleet has about a half-dozen ships--all quite small and personalized service is the name of the game. All of their staterooms are suites so you'll always have plenty of room to spread out. Their Mexican itineraries are quite limited as to the number of departures, but they do have a good selection of ports, including some of the less-visited places.

Royal Olympia Cruises: tel. (800) 872-6400; www.

royalolympia.com. This old Greek line has, historically, sent a couple of ships over to the Caribbean during the winter and they've made a few trans-Canal runs with stops along the Mexican Riviera and Baja. However, ROC is in bankruptcy and, although they are still operating a limited schedule in Europe with some of their oldest ships, it doesn't appear that they will be a factor in the Mexican market. Their telephone number is included for reference purposes should the current situation change. Unfortunately, their newest and best ships, which were used in North America, were reclaimed by the finance company.

If you look quickly at cruise line brochures you will probably find some other upscale cruise lines that might say they go to Mexico. However, these serve only Mexico's Caribbean-side ports of call. On occasion they may also offer an itinerary or two that covers the Pacific side of Mexico, but not on a regular scheduled basis. At most they would be repositioning cruises. On the other hand, if you are interested in traveling in a more upscale mode, it always pays to get brochures when you're ready to go because schedules do change frequently and a line may decide to add an itinerary where you want to go. In this category are Seabourn, Silversea and Cunard. The latter isn't in the "yacht" class but is somewhere between the Holland Americas of the cruise-line world and Crystal.

WHO'S WHO IN THE CRUISE BUSINESS

There are literally dozens of cruise lines throughout the world, many of them completely unknown to the American traveler because they don't cater to this market. But even if you limit yourself to North America there are more than a dozen major lines. At least in name. Consolidation, so common in every industry, is also a trend in this business. There are relatively few cruise companies if you consolidate brands by their corporate banner. Here's the lineup:

Carnival: Besides Carnival, this industry behemoth owns Holland America and Princess, as well as world-famous Cunard, Costa Cruises, Windstar and Seabourn.

Royal Caribbean: The Royal Caribbean brand is, by itself, the second-largest cruise line after Carnival. That goes for the group as well because RC also owns Celebrity Cruises.

It is the practice of Carnival and Royal Caribbean to let each line operate independently, thereby allowing for more variation in cruise style. Despite the consolidation there has yet to be any upward trend in prices although now that Carnival has acquired Princess (in 2003) there is some concern that this could happen. On the positive side, the cruise lines will (with lots of restrictions) give you credit for traveling on a sister line. For instance, you can get past-guest treatment and prices on a Carnival Cruise if you sailed in Europe on Costa or Cunard. As far as the rest of the industry is concerned, most of the remaining lines are independent. Norwegian Cruise Line is owned by a large Asian-based cruise company called Star Cruises. But NCL also largely operates according to its own style on a day-to-day basis.

Setting Priorities
Selecting Your Dream Cruise

W ith so many options for cruising the Mexican Riviera and Baja in terms of different cruise lines, different ships and even different itineraries, it can be a somewhat difficult (although fun) task to select the right cruise for you. So, how do you go about selecting the best cruise? Begin by defining "best"--what is best for one person will not be the best for another. People have different priorities. Let's take a look at some of the major factors that will determine which cruise is going to be your dream cruise come true.

The Cruise Line

As you have just read, each line has a distinctive style or personality that is reflected throughout its fleet. Do you want a sophisticated luxury experience or a more fun-oriented cruise? Do you like refined elegance in the ship's public areas or is glitz more your style? Is this a romantic getaway for two or a family affair? Formal or informal? More or fewer dining choices? These and many other questions can help narrow down which cruise lines are in the running for your dollars. To a large degree, your available budget will also help determine what line or lines to consider. Crystal is, for example, a lot more expensive than Carnival. You have to judge how much certain features of a cruise line (and the ship) are worth to you.

The Ship

Many ship features are determined by the line that owns them. However, even within specific cruise lines, there can be a great variation in the age, size, and facilities of different ships. The newer and larger ships are likely to have the most diverse facilities, dining choices and activities. But larger doesn't always mean better since a lot of experienced travelers prefer a somewhat smaller vessel. Within the major lines there is often a big difference in the size of their largest ship compared to their smallest. Even when limiting the list just to ships with Mexican itineraries, as I did in the preceding section, the choices still reveal many differing types of ships.

The Ports of Call

Look for an itinerary that hits more of the places you want to see. There will be more information on this in the next section, which will serve as your guide to evaluating itineraries.

Wrapping it all up and weighing the relative merits of these and other factors isn't always easy. Keep in mind that cruising to Mexico is different than cruising to, for example, Alaska. There, people usually take a cruise because you can't get to many of the places of interest by any other means. European cruising, on the other hand, has some of the great cities of the world as a draw in addition to the cruise experience. Mexican cruises have much similarity to Caribbean cruises. While the ports undoubtedly have their own unique charms and have plenty that is worth seeing, a large percentage of cruise ship visitors come for the cruising experience itself. Therefore, when choosing a Mexican Riviera cruise, the ship itself will be a more important factor.

Information Sources

T here are many sources for general information on the cruise lines and on cruising itself. The cruise line brochures are a necessary piece of literature before you make any decision, but I cannot emphasize enough that these are marketing tools for the cruise lines. As a result, they're often far from objective. The same, of course, can be said about the extensive websites that each and every cruise line has. There are also more general sites about cruise ships but, here too, many are run by travel agencies looking for business or feature only certain cruise lines. The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) is an industry organization composed of all the major cruise lines and many smaller ones. Their website, www.cruising.org, also paints the experience in a purely positive light, as you might expect. Despite this, it is a useful site because it contains a wealth of information, both statistical and otherwise. You can also call CLIA at tel. (212) 921-0066.

In addition to CLIA, I recommend that web surfers check out the following sites before making any final decision on their cruise:

www.cruise2.com www.cruisecritic.com www.cruisemates.com www.cruiseopinion.com www.cruisereviews.com www.sealetter.com

The primary feature of most of these sites is unbiased reviews submitted by travelers like you. In fact, you can send in a review of any ship you've cruised on and it will be added to their database. Because the people sending in the reviews are not affiliated with the cruise industry, they are generally more objective. Of course, you have to read the reviews carefully. Some people can get ticked off at one little thing and then decide to knock everything else about their cruise experience. Cruise2.com is a little different in that it offers a wealth of statistical and other information for all cruise lines and ships. Sealetter.com, too, is a more comprehensive site and is one of the best sources of information. It is similar in some ways to the website that is described below in the sidebar.

A CRUISE FANATIC'S ULTIMATE WEBSITE

For people who just can't learn enough and read enough about what's going on in the world of cruising, there's Cruise News Daily, which can be accessed on the Internet at www.cruisenewsdaily.com. It is written in newspaper fashion with timely reports on everything from new ships to itineraries that are being altered because of current weather conditions. Their staff has inside access to what is going on at the cruise lines and you can often find out things at Cruise News Daily well before they become generally known. I look at it every day. That's the good part. The bad part is that what you get on their free website is just a synopsis of the full articles. You can see the full article only if you subscribe to their service. Subscription rates begin at about $20 for a month although there are discounted rates for longer subscriptions and new subscribers. You receive the full text via e-mail either on a daily or weekly basis--the option is yours. The free site does offer access to some of their other features, including photos of ships under construction and a complete rundown on what ships are being built in the yards. It's a fascinating site but only for the dedicated cruise-aholic!

Evaluating Ship Itineraries

I n some of my previous cruising guides I listed the actual itineraries for each ship and evaluated them on a case-by-case basis. I find that I can no longer do that because the cruise lines seem to change itineraries so often that it's impossible to keep the information timely in a book that comes out only occasionally. Moreover, Mexican itineraries tend to be much more similar in nature than in the Caribbean or the Mediterranean where the number of ports is much higher and the combination of possible ports of call is almost endless. The greater similarities in Mexican cruising do make things easier to discuss in general terms. You should always check itineraries in the most current cruise line brochures. However, in the last year or so I've seen an increasing number of instances where the cruise lines will change itineraries (or ships) prior to the printed expiration date of the brochure. Often you can find more up-to-date itineraries on the cruise lines' websites. Regardless, you should always check at the time you book to make sure that you're getting the itinerary you want.

Baja Itineraries

These are three- or four-night trips from either Los Angeles or San Diego. The shorter version inevitably calls on Ensenada, while the longer one adds Catalina Island. One day is always spent at sea. Both Carnival and Royal Caribbean offer these two itineraries in exactly the same form so there is no edge that either line has in the itinerary itself. If you opt for this trip, then it should be based solely on the line and/or ship that you prefer. Cabo San Lucas is also in Baja but it's much farther and, hence, isn't a part of any of these short Baja itineraries. The other ports in Baja are La Paz, Loreto and Santa Rosalía (all on the Sea of Cortés), all offered only by Holland America on nine- or 10-night cruises. They also include a couple of Mexican Riviera ports.

One-Week Roundtrip Mexican Riviera Itineraries

Whether they leave from Los Angeles or San Diego, the typical seven-night Mexican Riviera cruise will stop at Cabo San Lucas in Baja and Puerto Vallarta and Mazátlan on the Riviera. In fact, this itinerary is so standardized (except for the order of ports and small variations in the number of hours spent at each) that it is quite difficult to find any other one-week Mexican Riviera cruise from southern California. A few lines are now offering an eight-night trip that adds Acapulco. Some of these run on a regular basis while others are scheduled only on a few dates, mostly around holiday periods.

Other Itineraries

Except for the trans-Panama Canal itineraries--which can vary quite a bit in point of embarkation/disembarkation, duration and ports of call--other itineraries are usually longer versions of the Mexican Riviera. They may be longer because they originate at a more distant port (such as San Francisco) or because they add one or more ports of call. These would most likely be Manzanillo and/or Acapulco, depending upon just how long the cruise is. There are also cruises that originate or end in Acapulco at one end and a southern California port at the other end. Because these one-way cruises have less time at sea than a round-trip cruise, you can usually count on a minimum of four ports on such trips. You might even get five but this means a cruise of longer than a week except for a few of the fastest ships.

If the ports of call are a very important part of your selection process then the right itinerary for you will be the one that visits the most ports that are of interest. However, that is not always the full story. So, as you peruse itineraries in the brochures, keep in mind the following when making a decision:

* Does the itinerary visit the ports that you are most interested in? While no cruise is likely to include every port that you want to visit (since you are not designing a custom itinerary), if it stops at most of what you consider the desirable ports then that is a good first step.

* How much time is allotted in each port? Is it enough for you to see most of the sights that are important to you? The answer to the last question should be easy enough because the port descriptions that follow later in this book will give you a good idea of what can be done in one day. Of course, if you are going to be taking organized shore excursions, you will know in advance exactly what you will be seeing.

* Even if the number of hours allowed is sufficient, what about the hours of the visit? Some ships may spend a significant number of hours in a port but arrive late in the day, leaving little time for sightseeing before attractions close. This is alright if the types of activities you are most interested in aren't restricted to certain hours or if they fit into the time the ship will be in port. Just be sure that you factor this into your evaluation.

* Compare the amount of time at sea versus that spent in port. Depending upon the itinerary, a one-week cruise may have anywhere from one day at sea to four and stop at as few as two ports or as many as four or five. Typically, week-long cruises spend two full days at sea. The relative importance of this will depend upon the primary purpose of your cruise. Many days at sea are fine if you are most interested in the cruise experience. However, if you want a port-intensive vacation you will not be well served by an itinerary that spends three or more days at sea.

* If other activities such as shopping and watersports are as important or more important than sightseeing, then look to visit ports where those activities are considered best. Again, the port descriptions will help you with this aspect of itinerary selection. In general, all of the Mexican Riviera ports are great for watersports. Although there are a couple of ports where such activities are the main event, none of the cruise lines have recreation-oriented "private islands" such as in the Caribbean.


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