Adios, Australia! It’s the worst of pandemic times when I fly to San Diego to board a cruise bound for Mexico. As I tell friends and family my plans (over the phone, because I’m isolating in order to board my flight), I imagine raised eyebrows. You’re cruising? Really?
Yet as I queue to board Holland America’s ship MS Koningsdam, with negative test results in hand (passengers can also test at the terminal), a feeling of calm finally washes over me. I’m about to enter what feels like a safe little bubble for a week – and I can’t wait.
Travelling feels brand new again – and that includes new cruising protocols. In the Lido Market (buffet area) are machines that resemble a mini-carwash. Another passenger and I laugh as we insert our hands for cleaning. It’s ticklish and fun: he says he’ll be back to use it 20 times a day.
Other things, such as the thrill of a sunset sail-away, haven’t changed at all. I stroll to the stern as we farewell San Diego, bound for a trio of ports strung out along the Mexican Riviera. The sky is ember-orange where the sun’s sinking into the ocean; behind the city skyscrapers is a wash of pastel pinks and purples. Below, the odd seal frolics. At eye level, seabirds shepherd us out of the bay. I forgot how good this feels.
Set sail for adventure
Spirits are high on night one. I explore the Music Walk, where you can tune in to a rock band, duelling pianists and soul music at venues so close you simply hop from one to the other. Some couples are kicking up their heels, but the cruise director pounces on anyone who forgets to mask up. He does it in a light-hearted way, though, dancing up a storm with the person left on the dance floor until their masked-up partner returns. It’s somewhat surreal – but this is cruising in 2022. Health and safety are of utmost importance but protocols are implemented in ways that don’t dampen the holiday vibe.
MS Koningsdam is one of the cruise line’s larger-capacity Pinnacle-class ships that can carry up to about 2,650 passengers (add another 500 if it’s in maximum family mode). On this cruise, only a handful of kids are aboard. As I’m about to discover, these ships best suit cruisers who love good food, good wine and good times.
First, though, I must book my shore excursions (this can be done through the Navigator app, but I prefer to visit the excursion desk). Water-based activities abound in vibrant Cabo San Lucas, a resort city on the toe of the Baja California Peninsula, but I opt for a trip to Todos Santos. We zip past the region’s iconic cardon cactuses to reach the oasis town.
Lunch is at the Hotel California – spruiked as the place that inspired the song. Sadly that isn’t the case but regardless, the town oozes charm. It has an intriguing history as an 18th-century mission and boasts architectural gems such as the Teatro Manuel Marquez de Leon movie theatre. I duck into Oystera – a grand new building built to resemble a crumbling ruin. Inside the light-filled, gorgeously tiled atrium is an oyster bar where I spy almeja chocolata – chocolate clams – on ice. I wish I’d slurped these local delicacies (and a glass of bubbles) for my lunch. Returning to the ship, we catch sight – from our bus seats – of whales breaching offshore.
At Mazatlan, I also skip town in favour of visiting three mountain villages in the Sierra Madre ranges. In Malpica, I try a flaky sugar-stuffed pastry called coyota (female coyote). In Concordia, I wish I had a few pesos in my pocket to join the cops flocking to a food cart offering tacos dorados de camaron (crispy tacos with prawns). After lunch in the jungle hideaway of Copala, I steal away from my group to admire colourful memorials in the cemetery.
Tour de force
My favourite excursion is in Puerto Vallarta. Billed as “hidden beaches by speedboat with horseback ride”, our small-group tour starts with boarding an inflatable speedboat to reach Yelapa, where we splash through a river on horseback and back again before visiting Horsetail Falls. The cascade isn’t that remarkable but the day improves with a quick snorkel before reaching a beach that feels truly hidden (perhaps it’s the absence of hawkers asking if I’d like to pose with their iguana). As we bounce back across the bay, nearby humpbacks put on a whale of a show. I can’t stop grinning at how magical it all feels.
Puerto Vallarta’s Hollywood love nest awaits you
Sixty years ago, two screen legends arrived in Puerto Vallarta. Richard Burton was starring in the John Huston drama, The Night of the Iguana. His Cleopatra co-star Elizabeth Taylor came along because the lovebirds couldn’t bear to be apart.
Both were married to other people; their affair was scandalous. Burton arranged for Taylor to stay in Casa Kimberly – a casita (little house) across from his own (pictured right).
To avoid prying eyes he built an arched bridge, modelled on Venice’s Bridge of Sighs, between them. In 1964, he gifted Casa Kimberly to his violet-eyed love for her birthday, just weeks before they married. Today, this famed love nest in the city’s charming Zona Romantica neighbourhood is a nine-suite hotel with a restaurant and tequila bar. Astonishingly, you can pop inside and stroll over the romantic bridge – known as Puente del Amor – even if you’re not a guest.
Holland America offers an excursion that includes a peep at Puente del Amor in the residential area nicknamed Gringo Gulch. The ship spends about 12 hours in Puerto Vallarta and, if I had my time over, I’d book an early dinner here (available from 5pm) or pop in for a tequila martini. I’d also love to see Huston’s 1964 classic screened aboard the ship.
I now have two sea days to fill. Cue ticking off all the ship’s specialty restaurants. My favourite dish is the flavoursome and amusing clothesline candied bacon (the strips arrive dangling from hooks like laundry) in the Pinnacle Grill steakhouse. In the Italian restaurant, Canaletto, loved-up couples enjoy their lasagne and spaghetti alle vongole at tables for two but there’s always the opportunity to make new friends if you’re feeling sociable. When I’m not in the mood for formal restaurants, the poolside wood-fired pizza becomes my go-to.
My stateroom is several floors below the gym and spa but the only way I work off these calories is to always take the stairs. That’s how I notice the tempting sea-day spa specials. Before I know it, my teeth are whitened, my body massaged and my face slathered with scented potions. I also squeeze in two Mexican cultural classes, learning how to make paper flowers and papel picado – paper banners featuring decorative cut-outs. I’m not ready to go – not by a long shot – when we slide back into San Diego. I didn’t even find time for the wine-blending class. As I trundle towards the exit, another passenger wonders out loud, “Where’s the table offering grief counselling?” We swap sad smiles. Amigo, I’m not ready either.
Katrina Lobley was a guest of Holland America Line.