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Itinerary: Los Angeles - Puerto Vallarta - Mazatlan - Cabo San Lucas - Los Angeles
February 19 - 26, 2005
Our cruise on Diamond Princess marked a number of ?firsts? for us. Although we have been cruising for 15 years, this was our first time on Princess, our first visit to the Mexican Riviera, and our first cabin with a private balcony. So, we were looking forward to our holiday with great anticipation.
Overall, we rate our Mexican Riviera cruise on Diamond Princess among the best of any cruises we?ve taken. A lot of thought went into the Excellent ratings noted above as no cruise is perfect, yet this one excelled in all of the major categories -- service, entertainment, dining, comfort, activities, shore excursions, and the ship itself. To be fair, it is possible that that the fact that we had Traditional Dining influenced this score to a great degree. Still, we came to relax and visit new places, and in those respects our cruise was highly successful in exceeding our expectations.
GETTING THERE. Every leg of our trip went very smoothly. We booked air, pre-cruise hotel, and transfers independently, which I highly recommend for the flexibility and pricing. We flew AmericaWest non-stop from Boston to LAX, and our return flight nine days later included a one-hour layover in Phoenix. Thanks to several recommendations, we booked ExecuCar for our transfers to and from LAX. ExecuCar was most professional, and I liked the convenience of booking online and providing credit card information in advance. We stayed two nights at the glorious Queen Mary Hotel (which could have a review of its own) and took a metered taxi on Sunday morning for the short trip to the cruise terminal in San Pedro.
CHECK-IN AND EMBARKATION. This was about the smoothest we have had. We entered the cruise terminal at 12:55 and were onboard by 1:15. We had completed our embarkation paperwork online several weeks before leaving, so we were directed to an Express Check-In line, but I don?t know if that helped. Once onboard, I do not recall if we were escorted to our cabin, but I do know that we were escorted into the central elevators, which was a good thing as the size of the ship was somewhat overwhelming to me at first. One of our four bags was already waiting for us outside our cabin door when we arrived, and the other three were delivered by 1:45.
CABIN. We selected cabin C531, a category BA on Caribe Deck 10, amidships. The cabin had everything a family of three would need, and I appreciated the separate dressing and sleeping areas.
Upon entering the cabin, the dressing area was on the immediate right. The closet was large, running almost the entire width of the cabin, and came equipped with approximately 40 clothes hangers. Against the wall was a full-length mirror concealing another closet, which contained six shelves (some of which were taken up by lifevests) and a programmable safe. Also in this area was the entry to the small, yet functional, bathroom, which had sufficient storage with three small shelves and a small space on the counter top.
In the main cabin area, a double bed was positioned under a mirrored headboard, flanked by two nightstands, each with a small shelf and two drawers. The bedside lamps had dimmer switches -- very nice touch. The desk/vanity provided additional storage via three drawers, and also featured another large mirror and wall-mounted hair dryer. A desk chair and armchair were adjacent. In the corner opposite the vanity was a wedge-shaped floor-to-ceiling cabinet housing a refrigerator, shelf, and on top, a TV. An upper berth was kept out of sight inside a ceiling panel over the bed, yet we did not use this as our 11-year-old preferred to sleep on the floor in his Sponge Bob Square Pants sleeping bag.
The balcony -- our first -- accommodated a small plastic dining table, three chairs, and two padded lounging chairs. As we were on Caribe Deck, our balcony was partially covered by the balconies of the Baja Deck cabins above. If we leaned over our railing, we could see the balconies of the Dolphin Deck mini-suites below. I wasn?t bothered by this at all, and found that neighbors pretty much left everyone alone. I used the balcony quite a bit, most often for writing, enjoying a cup of tea, or letting my hair dry naturally outdoors. I?ve heard that once you have a balcony, it?s hard to ?go back to? a non-balcony cabin. We will find out this summer if this theory applies to us, as we have a standard outside cabin booked on another ship.
PUBLIC AREAS. Diamond Princess is a large ship (115,000 gross registered tons), yet it very rarely felt crowded. Passenger flow was smooth on nearly every deck (with the exception of Deck 7, on which the galley cut off access to the International Dining Room, aft). Even in the photo gallery, I did not have to contend with mobs of passengers. The atrium appeared much taller than its three levels, perhaps due to the decorative elevators, curved staircases, and spacious sitting area on the ground level. The only time it felt crowded was during the Champagne Waterfall on the second formal night.
My favorite hangouts were Skywalkers Disco and the Wheelhouse Bar. Skywalkers Disco was located way atop ship on Deck 18. While disco by night, this is a peaceful room by day, offering panoramic views of the ocean. The Wheelhouse Bar is a gorgeous paneled room with wingback chairs, leather sofas, and a nautical motif. We often came to this room in the evenings. The band was good, and we enjoyed watching people do the waltz and other dances I hope to master someday.
The gym was a decent size and offered a number of equipment. I did my weight circuit on the machines and free weights, and also used the elliptical machines. Treadmills were always available when I went, although a sign-up sheet was posted for the busier times.
I?ve often said that my favorite ship feature is an outdoor promenade, and Diamond Princess did not disappoint. Finding a lounger on this deck was easy, and I enjoyed bundling up and sitting here on the cooler sea days. I also used this deck for my daily ?walk-a-mile.? Two times around equals one-half mile (not knowing this, I did three laps my first time, and wondered why it seemed so long). One peculiarity of the promenade is that in order to complete a circuit, one must ascend a staircase to the deck above at the bow, walk the arc about the bow, and then descend to Promenade Deck by identical staircase on the port side. It just adds another dimension to the morning walk.
DINING. Shipboard dining is fairly important to us, and we value good service and the variety, presentation, and quality of the food. Diamond Princess excelled in all of these areas.
International Dining Room.
We requested, and received, traditional early seating, which started at 6:15 each evening in the International Dining Room. The one-level room was nicely decorated with paintings of various major world cities adorning the tan-colored walls. The food was superb. Generally, I ordered a fruit appetizer, consomm?, fish or steak, and either a cheese platter or the sugar-free suggestion for dessert. Highlights included zander (a new variety of fish for me), mahi mahi, beef Wellington, prime rib, and escargot. We were also able to order from the Anytime Dining restaurants on a rotating basis, and my husband gave high marks to the sushi appetizer and duck entr?e from the Pacific Moon menu. We also enjoyed several breakfasts and lunches in the International Dining Room, which were offered every day, including sea days.
We visited Horizon Court on Lido Deck several times during the cruise, which was easy to do as it never closed. The buffet offered a wide variety of selections. Among the items I tried during breakfast hours were grits and mueseli, both of which were excellent. The lunch menu changed every day, and I enjoyed the Asian soups that were regularly offered. There wasn?t a buffet line, so to speak, but groups of stations in a small area. I had read that this arrangement was confusing, yet I found it convenient to head over to the station I wanted rather to stand in a long line when all I wanted was one item.
SERVICE. Service on Diamond Princess was near impeccable. This started with the quick embarkation and extended nearly flawlessly throughout the cruise. Although tipping is now done via automatic deductions from passenger accounts, I found no evidence that service levels are minimal or sub-par as a result.
Our cabin steward, May, was a real gem. She quickly learned our schedule our schedule was lightning fast with servicing the cabin wile we were out. One evening, as I returned alone to the cabin, May was outside and asked for my key card so that she could open the cabin door for me. These little things may seem trivial, yet are nice touches that show one?s pride in his or her work.
Our assistant waitress, Zelda, exemplified the main reason we enjoy an assigned tale in the dining room. After the first evening, she knew I enjoyed a cup of Earl Grey after the main course at dinner, and dessert would begin with Zelda stopping by with a pot of hot water and teabag and asking, ?Would you care for your Earl Grey now, Mrs. Lisa63??
Our waiter was also very attentive. One of our tablemates, a sweet 9-year-old, loved eating sliced tomatoes, and our waiter made sure to bring him a plate every evening. One night, when the young man asked politely for green olives in addition, the waiter at first stated that the kitchen had only black olives, but he then realized that the bars might have green olives on hand. Within minutes, he returned with a bowl filled with green olives, a ritual that continued nightly thereafter.
The only lapse in service was around the swimming pools, where those on duty seemed to ignore the unruly and unaccompanied children who were disobeying the posted rules and making it a dangerous environment for themselves and others. Unfortunately, the crew told us there was nothing they could do to stop the behavior permanently. I understand it?s a tough call for the crew -- they don?t want to offend the ?parents? -- yet because of these antics, my son could not use the pool when these hooligan children were around as I deemed it unsafe. (I wouldn?t dream of bringing him to the adult pool.) We, however, did not let this mar our vacation. We simply found something else to do, and returned to the pools in the early morning hours, before these kids were turned loose by their ?parents.?
DAYTIME ACTIVITIES / SEA DAYS. With three sea days, one of our objectives was to do nothing. And we spent a lot of time doing just that. My husband and son and I used the pools as much as we could. My men also played basketball and miniature golf while I read/wrote/napped in a lounge chair one deck above the covered pool. (This is a great place to sit -- always a choice of chairs available.)
Princess offered many daytime activities, ranging from the sedate (wine historian lectures) to the zany (pool games). We did try out a few organized activities on an impromptu basis, however.
I joined a ship tour at 2:30 on embarkation day -- informative for me as I had not been on this class of vessel previously. Although it included a stop outside the spa, there was no pressure to go inside and book treatments or entice us to book. It was exactly as advertised -- an orientation tour of the ship.
Afternoon tea was held daily in one of the Anytime Dining Rooms (Pacific Moon), yet I went just once. Rather than an open seating, waiters gave each group its own table, making it hard for singles to meet new people. The scones were very good (cream and jam on the side), as was the variety of the sandwiches.
I also enjoyed a ?Meet the Captain? session held in Club Fusion on our last sea day. It began with a prepared Q&A by cruise director Billy Hygate, in which we learned how Captain Yeomans was inspired to work at sea, and how he eventually ended up with P&O as a crew member in the 1970s. One of the passengers had the gall to ask what a captain earns, and he quickly responded, ?Not as much as you might think, and not as much as my wife thinks.?
EVENING ACTIVITIES AND ENTERTAINMENT. Evening entertainment was excellent, in our opinion. The two main production shows -- ?Piano Man? and ?Undercover? were highly entertaining, and each had an encore performance during the week for those who had missed it or (like us) wanted to see it again. There were also a variety of alternative activities run every evening.
?Piano Man? featured the music of Billy Joel (not enough), Neil Sedaka (very well done), Liberace (beautiful -- black/white costumes represented piano keys in one number), Barry Manilow (very good), and Elton John (excellent mix). I wish they had somehow incorporated the entire song ?Piano Man,? otherwise, it was an excellent show.
?Undercover? had an espionage theme. Highlights included a colorful depiction of ?Green Hornet? which was done in neon-colored costumes against a black backdrop, ?Clue,? in which singers played the roles of Professor Plum, Colonel Mustard, Miss White, and Mrs. Peacock as each recounted their versions of the crime, and a very long and comical sequence on ?Austin Powers.? Yet the true star was the set designer. I have never seen such elaborate sets change so frequently during a performance. Platforms emerged from the stage floor, Maxwell Smart appeared to walk through doorways of light before descending in the phone booth, and black and white panels formed a perfect backdrop for ?Spy versus Spy.?
Comedian/juggler Dan Bennett was entertaining and I enjoyed the banter that preceded his juggling routines. I wasn?t as impressed with the performer in the American Songbook as he constantly hyped his accomplishments, although several of the medleys (particularly the one of Harold Arlen-composed songs) were good.
Unlike the last ship we were on, there were plenty of choices in entertainment if one did not wish to see the main show. We spent time listening to various styles of music in the variety of lounges onboard. We danced to hits of the 1960s, jazz, as well as ballads. There was also an excellent comedian in the Explorer?s Lounge one evening.
We also enjoyed ?Princess Idol,? the Princess version of the popular U.S. television show in which passengers volunteered to be contestants. Some passengers were comically dreadful, while others showcased amazing talent. A gentleman from Tennessee won the grand prize with his fabulous performance of ?That?s Life.? As the players change every week, I encourage passengers to see this show if they can. It was held in Club Fusion throughout the cruise, with the finals held on the last evening.
The Captain?s Welcome Aboard party was held in the atrium. This was quite nice and a welcomed alternative to the parties held in crowded show lounges. While we did not get to pose for photos with the captain, the roominess and brightness of the space more than compensated. Captain Tony Yeomans addressed the gathering from one of the tiers overlooking the atrium.
RENEWAL OF VOWS CEREMONY. To celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary, I surprised my husband with a renewal of our marriage vows. (I let him in on the secret once we boarded.) It was a most wonderful experience. The wedding coordinator contacted me the first full day of the cruise (a sea day), gave us the date and time, and then asked a number of questions in order to personalize our ceremony. Our ceremony was held in the chapel on the second formal night and the Captain presided. Princess provided a lovely orchid bouquet and boutonniere, and the chapel was beautifully decorated with candles and more flowers. Everyone was wonderful and treated us like royalty. They even blocked off the hallway outside the chapel so that there could be no passersby. One of our friends served as official witness. A copy of our vows, along with the official certificate signed by the Captain and our witness, were delivered to our cabin later that evening. We also received a bottle of Moet & Chandon with two glasses that, thankfully, made the trip home unscathed. We also received a cake from the Captain in the dining room that evening, and a framed 8x10 photo of our choosing.
ITINERARY AND SHORE EXCURSIONS. As this was our first visit to western Mexico, we opted for a Princess tour in each of our three ports. Each was organized and run very well, providing seamless transfers from ship to tour. We were also highly impressed by the handicrafts -- in all our cruises, this is probably the most number of items we?ve purchased, although we spent very little money.
Additionally, one of the highlights of this itinerary was viewing the marine life off the Baja coast. One day, while I was doing my morning walk, I spotted a group of dolphins -- at least a dozen -- making their graceful dives through the ocean. My husband told me he saw a whale, and I heard similar stories of varied marine life from other passengers.
- Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco -
As a first-time visitor, we opted for the City and Coastal Drive tour. From our bus, we saw the location where ?Night of the Iguana? was filmed, and much of the Malecon, a picturesque promenade by the ocean dotted with many statues. We stopped to take photographs of the most important statue -- a seahorse with a child on its back, which is the symbol of the village. We also stopped at la Iglesia de nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, a beautiful cathedral, and we then drove a bit outside town to refreshment stop adjacent to a crafts market, where we bought three small colorful ceramic figurines. While at times the tour felt like a pitch for some of the hotels, I think that this is a good tour for a first-time visitor who wants to learn about the brief history and the culture of PV. Next time we visit, I would like to see more of the town -- perhaps a more comprehensive excursion, or simply a walk along the Malecon to get a closer look at the interesting statues. - Mazatlan, Sinaloa -
This turned out to be a major highlight for us. The approach to Mazatlan was beautiful and serene. It was early in the morning, and the sun was just starting to rise. As we passed a small village at the foot of a mountain, I heard roosters waking up the town. We docked a ways down, in an industrial area, and a free open-air bus was provided to take us to the shopping bazaar set up on the other side of the large parking lot.
We met our bus and our guide Carmen and driver Jose at about 8:15 am for our Colonial Villages tour. Our first stop was a brick-making yard. We watched as a man made the mixture, folded it into a grid-like wooden mold, and as another man stacked the bricks that had dried. According to Carmen, drying takes about a day, and the bricks may be used in about a week. From there, we made the long drive to the village of Malpica, where we saw artisans create floor tiles ($2 each -- we bought five) and where we stopped by a bakery for wonderful treats made in their brick ovens. Then, it was on to Concordia, where we saw cedar furniture being made in a large hut. Adjacent was an artisans? market, where we spent another $10 on carved wood figurines -- both were incredibly detailed. Further into Concordia, we had a drink at a restaurant (which had a nice courtyard and colorful interior) and walked about the town square. Then it was back on the bus for the scenic 50-minute drive back to Mazatlan.
Once in Mazatlan, we were treated to a performance by the Papantla Flyers, a group of five men who learned this ritual as children. There is numerology involved, as each of four men makes 13 revolution from a rope suspended from a pole (total of 52 represents the number of weeks in the year), and some other combination adds up to 365. The fifth man kept a beat with a drum and flute. Watching these men spiral downward from a 75-foot pole was breathtaking.
- Cabo San Lucas, Baja Peninsula Sur -
As our time in this port was very limited, it was an early day for us. We awoke by 5:30 AM in order to make a 6:50 tour that combined a beach visit with a boat trip to the impressive Los Arcos rock formations. The tour was excellent. After tendering to shore with our tour group, we boarded a large catamaran -- Cabo Rey -- and had a 45-minute cruise around Los Arcos. During this tour there were a few seals in sight, some frolicking in the water, others basking in the sun. After returning to the mainland, we were driven to the Hotel Hacienda Beach Club, where we stayed from approximately 9:00 to 11:00. Our son spent nearly all that time playing in the sea. Even in that short span -- and with 35 SPF sunscreen -- we got a lot of sun that day.
DISEMBARKATION. Disembarkation from Diamond Princess seemed very organized, yet the process slowed once we left the ship. We waited in the nearly empty Princess Theatre for our group to be called. Passengers were assigned debarkation colors based upon flight times, whether they had Princess transfers to LAX, and then by deck. The first group of passengers was called by 8:30. We were in the third group and were called at 9:10. While this was seamless, we had no inkling that we were in for a 45-minute wait outside the ship to pass through Immigration. Having a passport did not expedite the process. Thankfully, our driver from ExecuCar waited for us, we left the pier at 10:00, and arrived at LAX at 10:30. We were through security and waiting at our gate by 11:00, ample time for our 12:45 flight. Still, I will no longer gripe about the Immigration procedure that occurs aboard ship. At least in that case, one is not standing on concrete with all one?s carry-on bags. Still, this was not a major issue, and I mention it only so that future cruisers out of San Pedro on any cruise line will be prepared.
FINAL THOUGHTS. This small-ship fan was won over by the 18-deck, 115K GRT Diamond Princess. We would definitely return to this ship, or consider one of her sisters or near-sisters, for a future cruise. We also liked the people and culture of western Mexico and would love to return to all three ports someday. It would also be great to explore further on the coast by cruising south to Acapulco or up to the Sea of Cortez. Our first Princess cruise will not be our last.