Only a few more installments to go in our multi-part series cataloging the lesser-known, family-owned, mom-and-pop, historic, adventurous, and otherwise niche segments of the otherwise monolithic cruise industry. Move over, Carnival and Royal Caribbean, and let the little guy have his day.
In previous installments, we dealt with small-ship options in Alaska, sailing-ship options in the Caribbean, and the small ships that sail in New England and Eastern Canada. Today's topic takes us from the upper right corner of North America to the lower left, where we look into who's sailing Mexico's western coasts, from the Baja Peninsula all the way down to Central America.
The first stop geographically is Cabo San Lucas, a party-oriented town at the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Sea of Cortés on the other. Think beaches, beer, and bikinis, with thatched palapa bars providing some regional character. Cabo is a big destination for the megaships that stop here en route between California's cities and the Mexican Riviera ports: They come, they down some tequila, and they move on. Small ships, on the other hand, will often spend an entire week exploring this region, which is sometimes referred to as Mexico's Galapagos for its rugged, arid scenery and its remarkable wildlife, which includes gray whales in winter. Small-ship itineraries typically mix stops at Sea of Cortés islands like Espiritu Santo, Los Islotes, and Santa Catalina (all part of a protected biosphere reserve) with visits to cities and towns like La Paz (the capital city of Baja California Sur) and Loreto (the peninsula's first Spanish settlement, established in 1697). Many also offer overland excursions to the Pacific coast's Bahia Magdalena, a famed site for viewing Pacific gray whales, which spend winter in the region giving birth and fattening up their calves so they're ready for their spring migration north to the Bering and Chukchi Seas. Most lines also offer pre- and/or post-cruise tours on the other side of the Sea of CortÃ©s to the huge Copper Canyon, which is four times larger than the United States' Grand Canyon, and up to 1,000 feet deep.
Small-ship Baja California cruises typically sail from Cabo or La Paz, with the heaviest traffic between December and April.
Southeast of Baja California, the so-called Mexican Riviera is the West Coast's version of the Caribbean: a string of sunny ports within proximate sailing distance of San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Its ports, which include Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlán, Acapulco, Ixtapa, and Manzanillo, are visited mostly by megaships but also attract a handful of small luxury vessels -- a situation that really works for the region's competing mythologies: on the one hand the mass-market Love Boat of the 1970s, on the other the Hollywood royalty who "discovered" the region on their private yachts forty years before. Today, the attractions are much as they were during the region's jet-set 1960s heyday: white-sand beaches, deep-sea fishing, golf, and watersports, with some history thrown in for good measure.
South of Mexico, Central America is a fairly major small-ship market, though most cruises concentrate on the region's eastern side, where it meets the Caribbean. A few, however, operate cruises that troll the region's Pacific coast, concentrating primarily on Costa Rica and the Panama Canal region. Attractions there include Costa Rica's extensive national parks and Panama's wildlife-rich Darien Jungle.
Here's a rundown of the small-ship lines that operate here, with some details on their itineraries for 2010. Most if not all will be repeating these cruises for winter 2010-2011 as well.
American Safari Cruises (www.amsafari.com): This company's three ships -- the 12-passenger Safari Spirit, 22-passenger Safari Quest, and 36-passenger Safari Explorer -- are honest-to-God yachts offering a "luxe meets adventure" experience. Fares are all-inclusive, covering off-vessel excursions as well as all drinks and etc. Days might be spent kayaking in the wilderness, fishing right off the side of the yachts, and visiting small ports of call, where the boats sometimes dock overnight to give passengers a taste of the local nightlife. Beginning November 21, 2009, and running through March 2010, Safari Spirit will be sailing 7-night round-trip Sea of Cortés cruises from La Paz, visiting Isla Partida, Isla San Joses, and Los Islotes, with two days of whale watching and a third that includes a mule trail ride into the peninsula's arroyos. Per-person prices start at $6,995, double occupancy.
Baja Expeditions (www.bajaex.com): Founded in 1974 by onetime Colorado River guide Tim Means, Baja Expeditions offers environmentally conscious small-ship cruises focused on education and preservation. The 7-night "Whales and Wildlife: Cruising to Land's End" cruises sail round-trip from La Paz, following a flexible itinerary that winds south to the tip of Baja, visiting Los Islotes, Los Frailes, Punta Gorda, and Cabo San Lucas for an overnight stay. Departures are available throughout January and February. The 7-night "Sea of Cortez Wildlife Voyages" sail between La Paz and Loreto, visiting islands like Isla Catalana, Isla San Francisco, Isla Santa Cruz, Agua Verde, Isla San Jose, Isla Espiritu Santo, and Los Islotes. Frequent anchorings allow for swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, and hiking. Departures run from late February through late April 2010, though at this writing only the April 4, 11, and 18 sailings still have space. The venue for both cruises is the 16-passenger Don Jose, built especially for the line in 1978. Rates (again, for both cruises) are $1,995 per person for standard cabins and $2,195 per person for deluxe, and include a one-night post-cruise hotel stay. The line also offers a number of research-oriented cruises during the year, as well as others devoted to learning scuba diving.
Cruise West (www.cruisewest.com): The most high-profile of America's small-ship lines, Cruise West has been the preeminent small-ship line in Alaska for decades, but over the past decade it's also branched out to more far-flung destinations. The majority of its cruises are casual, relaxed, port-to-port trips in which passengers watch nature from the deck rather than trekking out into it -- on most of its trips, a quick excursion by inflatable launch is as active as it gets. Most of the line's itineraries, including those in Baja California and Central America, are geared to older, well-traveled, intellectually curious passengers. From December 2009 to March 2010, the line's 7-night Baja "Whales & Wildlife" cruise sails round-trip from Cabo San Lucas, visiting Isla Espirito Santo, Loreto, Los Islotes , Isla Partida, La Paz, and other islands and towns, and includes a day of whale watching -- either in Bahia Magdalena or elsewhere. Rates start at $1,999, and sailings are aboard the 102-passenger Spirit of Endeavour. Between October 2009 and March 2010, the line also offers several different cruises in Central America cruises, most notably the 9-night "Between Two Seas" cruise that sails from Panama City, through the Panama Canal, and along most of Panama's and Costa Rica's Pacific coast. Per person rates start at $3,995, and sailings are aboard the 100-passenger Pacific Explorer.
Panama Marine Adventures (www.pmatours.net): Founded in 2003, Panama Marine Adventures does two completely different things, offering day tours of the Panama Canal from Panama City as well as 6-night "Journey Between the Seas" cruises that sail between Panama City on the Pacific side of the Canal and the town of Portobelo on the Caribbean side, along the way spending a day with the Embera Indians in the Darien Jungle; snorkeling, swimming, and kayaking off the Pearl Islands; making a full transit of the Canal and spending a night in Gatun Lake; exploring the lake's Barro Colorado Island; and visiting Fort San Lorenzo at the mouth of the Chagres River. Cruises are offered aboard the 24-passenger catamaran Discovery, and prices start at $3,450 per person. Cruises are available in February, March, May, June, and September 2010.
Seabourn (www.seabourn.com): The most luxurious ships in this overview are operated by the company that likes to call itself "The Yachts of Seabourn." This upper-crust line was established in 1987 when recently deceased luxury-cruise patriarch Warren Titus and Norwegian shipping mogul Atle Brynestad commissioned a trio of ultra-upscale 10,000-ton vessels from a north German shipyard. They sold the line to industry giant Carnival Corporation in 1991, but their aesthetic remains: quiet, precise, genteel, and all-inclusive, offering personalized service, fine food and wine, and the ability to venture into exotic harbors where megaships can't go. Between November 2009 and February 2010, the 208-passenger Seabourn Legend will be offering seven 14-night Central America/Panama Canal cruises sailing from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica, or the reverse. The southbound voyage visits Belize City and Hunting Cay (Belize), Isla De Roatan (Honduras), and Puerto Moin (Costa Rica) on the Caribbean side, then transits the Panama Canal and makes stops in Fuerte Amador (Panama), Puerto Quepos (Costa Rica), and San Juan Del Sur (Nicaragua) on the Pacific side. Per person fares start from $3,999.
Searcher Natural History Tours (www.bajawhale.com): Down Baja California ways, the 95-foot, 28-passenger Searcher offers 11-night whalewatching cruises that sail from San Diego south all the way to Cabo San Lucas (a rare exploration of Baja's Pacific coast), then up into the Sea of Cortés for a further four days, ending back in Cabo. The trips include gray and humpback whale watching in the bays of the Pacific coast; watching for blue, humpback, fin, and sperm whales on the peninsula's eastern side; hiking on the Sea of Cortés's protected offshore islands; and snorkeling in a variety of locations. Four cruises depart between February 7 and April 9, 2010, though at this writing only the April 9 cruise still has availability, priced at $3,450 per person. The ship also a 2-night Memorial Day weekend cruise focused on blue whales, sailing May 29?31 ($450 per person) and a 4-night offshore birdwatching trip departing September 6, 2010 ($1,075 per person).
Windstar Cruises (www.windstarcruises.com): Owned, for better or worse, by Ambassadors International (the company that so badly botched the now-defunct Majestic America Cruises, in the process ending the run of the legendary Delta Queen ships), Windstar remains a wonderful product, mixing an always-casual onboard vibe with beyond-the-norm itineraries and first-class service and cuisine. Its three ships are technically motor-sail vessels, combining 19th-century sailing-ship technology with modern engineering, adding up to ships that are huge by sailing-ship standards, with at least 21,489 square feet of computer-controlled staysails that furl and unfurl at the touch of a button. (The ships are able to travel at upward of 12 knots under sail power alone, though usually the sails operate more as a fuel-saving aid to the diesel engines.) On board, stained teak, brass details, and lots of navy blue fabrics and carpeting lend a traditional nautical ambience, and cabins and public rooms are more what you'd expect on a medium-sized cruise ship than on a sailing ship. This winter, the four-masted, 148-passenger Wind Star will be sailing sixteen 7-night Central America cruises between December 5, 2009, and March 20, 2010, all round-trip from Puerto Caldera on Costa Rica's Pacific coast. Cruises visit Playas Del Cocos, Quepos, Bahia Drake, Tortuga Island, and the Curu Reserve (Costa Rica) and San Juan Del Sur (Nicaragua), and rates start from $2,149.00 per person.