As if pockets of trigger- and machete-happy drug gangs and infamy as the cradle of swine flu weren’t enough, Mexico is now losing half of its “Love Boat” cruises.
Princess Cruises practically invented the Mexican Riviera — and is credited with jump-starting the modern cruise industry — by starring in the hugely popular TV series. But in the 2010-2011 winter cruise season, Princess will pull out 15 of its 32 cruises in order to beef up Hawaii cruise offerings and add two Pacific crossings between California and Sydney. Though Pacific Mexico will remain a part of Princess’ mix, a spokeswoman said passengers were asking for longer, destination-focused Pacific itineraries.
It’s not as bad for Mexico’s tourism industry — or for cruise aficionados — as it sounds. Though Princess’ “Love Boat” legacy endowed it with the highest profile, numerous other lines eagerly jumped on board. Princess’ pullout is more of a brake on the major expansion in Mexican Riviera cruises that has been building for several years. Two other major players, Carnival and Royal Caribbean, have ramped up their itineraries, and Disney Cruise Line has announced plans to base its 1,750-passenger Disney Wonder in Los Angeles to cruise the Mexican Riviera for at least two years starting in 2011.
The rise of the Mexican Riviera
I confess to a preference for modest hotels and travel closer to the ground, so I asked The Chronicle’s veteran cruise reporter and newly seated travel editor, Spud Hilton, for some background on cruising in Mexico.
“There was a glut of cruise ships during the late ’90s and early this century. It used to be that cruise lines would bring ships over here for the summer for Alaska trips and then take them back to the Caribbean,” Hilton said. The Mexican Riviera gained ground as a place for repositioning cruises, then ships started cruising half the year and hopping along the Mexican Riviera the other half. “There was a big increase in the years leading up to 9/11, then a dropoff, and then another increase.”
A better choice of ports helped fuel recent years’ expansion. Carnival developed its new Long Beach terminal near the Queen Mary, and an increasing number of ships are leaving from San Diego’s spiffy downtown port, which saves time and is more appealing than Long Beach or the Port of Los Angeles at San Pedro. Norwegian and Princess also run longer cruises out of San Francisco.
Hilton noted that cruise lines have started putting its bigger, newer ships on the Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Carnival moved its newest and biggest ship, the 2,794-passenger Carnival Splendor, to Long Beach for weekly seven-night Mexican Riviera cruises throughout the winter season. Royal Caribbean deployed the 3,114-passenger Marriner of the Seas, the largest regularly cruising the West Coast, to Los Angeles for a similar schedule.
The 2009-10 lineup
Choosing a cruise, frankly, depends more on the kind of shipboard experience you’re looking for than what you want to see of Mexico. Each line has its own personality, ranging from party boats that would put a frat house to shame to high-minded cruises that are the waterborne equivalent of a Starwood hotel. Here’s what’s available now through May 2010. Prices are for the lowest-grade cabin as of this week and can change in the blink of an eye. Except for noted limited departures, itineraries are available throughout the season.
Carnival Cruise Lines: Big-fun, mostly blue-collar oriented trips; a little cheaper than others but lots of nickel-and-diming. The biggest source of short, cheap cruises. Sticks to the most popular ports, except for one stop at La Paz.
-3 nights ($159-$179 per person) out of San Diego or Long Beach, visiting Ensenada
-4 nights ($239-$389) out of Long Beach or San Diego visiting Catalina and Ensenada or out of San Diego visiting Cabo San Lucas
-5 nights ($219-$259) out of San Diego visiting Ensenada and Cabo San Lucas
-6 nights ($289) out of San Diego visiting Ensenada and Cabo; two departures in January and March
-7 nights ($309-$529); weekly departures September through May out of Long Beach visiting Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta; one departure out of San Diego visting Cabo San Lucas, La Paz and Mazatlán.
-8 nights ($409-$499) out of San Diego; weekly departures October through March visiting Manzanillo, Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo and Acapulco
Royal Caribbean International: Longer itineraries costing a little more per night than Carnival; more emphasis on activities such as rock-climbing walls, Broadway shows and gourmet cooking classes than destinations.
-4 nights ($247-$331) out of San Diego visiting Cabo San Lucas; three departures in September, October and November
-5 nights ($239) out of San Diego visiting Ensenada and Cabo San Lucas
-7 nights ($299-$497); weekly departures through May out of Los Angeles visiting Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta; one departing out of San Diego in March
-9 nights ($639) out of San Diego visiting Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo and Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo
-10 nights ($599) out of San Diego visiting Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta, Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo and Acapulco
-11 nights ($627-$696) out of San Diego visiting Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo, Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo and Acapulco
-12 nights ($1,299) out of San Diego visiting Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo, Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo and Acapulco; one departure in December
Norwegian Cruise Line: Known for “freestyle cruising” with a wide array of dining, tipping and dress code choices and a relaxed atmosphere. Some cruises call at Topolobampo, not exactly a staple on most itineraries.
-6 nights ($449) out of Los Angeles visiting Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta; one departure in April
-7 nights ($299-$549) out of Los Angeles visiting Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta
-11 nights ($499) out of San Francisco visiting La Paz, Topolobampo, Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas; two departures in October
Princess Cruises: Once offered the most Pacific Mexico cruises of any line; currently occupies a niche somewhere between Carnival and Royal Caribbean, appealing to newlyweds, middle-class families and older travelers.
-4 nights ($399) out of Los Angeles visiting Santa Barbara, Calif., and Ensenada; one departure in December
-7 nights ($349) out of Los Angeles visiting Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta
-10 nights ($999) out of San Francisco visiting Catalina, Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta
Holland America Line: Top-rated intermediate-price line; longer itineraries, calling at some ports not among the usual suspects. All but one sails from San Diego.
-6 nights ($599) visiting Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta; two December departures
-7 nights ($399-$449) visting Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta
-8 nights ($1,099) visiting Cabo San Lucas, La Paz, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta; one December departure
-9 nights ($899) visiting Cabo San Lucas, Loreto, Topolobampo, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta; one March departure
-10 nights ($899-$1,099); one February departure visiting Loreto, Guaymas, Topolobampo, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta, and one April departure substituting La Paz for Guaymas
-11 nights ($799-$1,199); one January departure visiting Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco and Huatulco, and one March departure visiting Cabo San Lucas, La Paz, Loreto, Guaymas, Topolobampo, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta
-12 nights ($999) out of Vancouver visiting Astoria, Ore., Catalina, San Diego, Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta, returning to San Diego; one departure Sept. 27
-14 nights ($1,099) visiting Cabo San Lucas, La Paz, Loreto, Topolobampo, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta, Victoria, B.C. and ending in Vancouver; one April departure.
Oceania Cruises: Relative newcomer running ships previously owned by bankrupt Renaissance Cruises; mid-range prices sampling both mainstream and luxury cruising. Just one guest appearance in the Mexican Riviera, in January.
-10 nights ($1,898) out of Los Angeles visiting Cabo San Lucas, Guaymas, Topolobampo, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta
Silversea Cruises: One of the highest-rated luxury lines, offering intimate ships and dignified atmosphere; only three Mexican Riviera cruises this season (September departure already sailed.)
-9 nights ($3,297) out of Los Angeles visiting Ensenada, Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo; one October departure
10 nights ($4,398) out of Acapulco, a segment of the brand-new Silver Spirit’s Grand Inaugural cruise, visiting Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo, Manzanillo, Mazatlán, Cabo San Lucas, Ensenada and ending in Los Angeles; one March departure
A great romantic getaway is waiting anyone who gets on board any of the cruise ships out of San Diego California to a number of Mexican islands.