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Baja cruise details

Lifestyle and LeisureMexicoCookingPersonal ServiceRoyal Caribbean InternationalThe Spirit (movie)

THE CRUISE: "Baja Whales & Wildlife," by Cruise-West; (888) 851-8133, www.cruisewest.com. Or see your travel agent. Eight days, seven nights round-trip from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, up the Gulf of California along the Baja Peninsula. Stops in La Paz, Loreto and several islands, plus a motor coach drive across the peninsula to the Pacific side for whale-watching. Offered late December 2007 through early March 2008.

PRICES: From $2,399 per person, shared cabin; most in the $3,049 to $3,549 range. Prices vary by room choice and timing. Alcoholic beverages extra, but not much else. A no-tipping policy is in place; many guests tipped favored crew members anyway.

THE PASSENGERS: On this cruise, probably 80% were 60 or older, most of them active participants in such water sports as kayaking and snorkeling. This is not acruise for the passive or sedated. Also not recommended for children, especially small ones ("There's not a lot for them to do, frankly," said Capt. Rob Earle), and not recommended for people with serious mobility issues (many steps, no elevator, multiple transfers to and from bobbing boats, etc.). But assistance is plentiful for the slightly wobbly.

THE SHIP: The Spirit of Endeavour, our ship on this cruise, is 217 feet long with acapacity of 102 passengers; in overall style and decor, if it were a car, it would be a Buick. It is being replaced next season by the similar but slightly longer Spirit of Yorktown: 257 feet long, 138 passengers. (Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas, for the sake of comparison: 1,112 feet long, 3,634 passengers.)

Expect standard staterooms to be well-appointed and comfortable, smallish but not claustrophobic. All have a window or porthole; there are no inside cabins. (There will be eight somewhat larger "deluxe" staterooms on the Yorktown, vs. three on the Endeavour.) Bathrooms on this class of ship are acceptably snug. No verandas, spa, running/walking track or exercise room; limited deck seating but plenty of room to stroll, gaze at the moon or watch for porpoises. In-cabin TV (closed-circuit movies) with built-in VCR (free movie library onboard, or BYO). Convivial all-American crew. During our week, a calm one weather-wise, the ship experienced virtually no rocking at sea and little engine noise.

Handsome, roomy lounge for cocktails, mid-day reading and relaxing, pre-dinner "social hour" and evening briefings by staff. Perfunctory gift shop. No laundry service (bring quick-dry washables). No room service.

A welcome extra: Each stateroom is equipped with two sets of full-size binoculars for sea and land use. Nonetheless, if you have compact binoculars, bring them. Trust me.

ACTIVITIES AND EXCURSIONS: Included: Two days each of kayaking and snorkeling (instruction and all equipment — wetsuits included — provided). Guided desert nature walks. "Swimming with sea lions" opportunity; alternatively, observing the sea lions from small inflatable boats. One dedicated whale-watching day (other whales, dolphins, etc., as they occur). Escorted cultural experiences (food, music) in Loreto and La Paz, and ample, independent time in both towns. Four extra-cost excursions: "Ceviche by the Sea" (making tortillas and ceviche), $16, including lunch, in Loreto; San Javier Tour (daylong motor-coach drive to observe villages, desert-mountain scenery, rock paintings and the namesake 1758 mission), from Loreto, $95; a La Paz shopping tour (which got excellent reviews), $40; and a visit to a reptile center, also in La Paz, $45.

EVENING ENTERTAINMENT: Aside from a "To Tell the Truth" contest featuring crew members (which was hilarious), evenings are reserved for briefings on the next day's activities, followed by casual socializing; the bar is open as long as there are customers. No shows, no casino, no discos, no midnight buffet.

DINING: All meals included, though one–at Bahia Magdalena–was lunch at a Puerto Lopez Mateos restaurant, which might have been the week's best meal of any kind (among the choices: local lobster). Additionally, many passengerschose to lunch independently in Loreto and La Paz.

Onboard, one unrushed seating for each meal; no assigned seats or tables, and most everyone changed dining companions nightly for the fun of it. Casual dress; no formal nights. Some guests stayed with shorts and sandals even at dinner, though most did not.

Dinners typically featured four special entrees, including one vegetarian, plus steaks and chicken available nightly. Lunch specials, supported by daily burgers and hot dogs; full, freshly cooked breakfasts daily (no breakfast buffets, apart from an "early bird" selection) or lighter options.

Food was mostly OK, with a few choices on either side of that. At dinner especially, preparations were ambitious but often spotty: A "seared tuna" wasn't seared (i.e., flash-grilled, leaving a rare center) but cooked to gray all the way through; a "veal saltimbocca" was not veal saltimbocca; etc. But a beef tenderloin one night was extraordinary, and a deck-top barbecue lunch (grilled flank steak, marlin, chicken, salads and sides) was wonderful. Adequate wine list.

Don't expect Mexican favorites onboard; aside from some breakfast specials, any hint of Baja flavors was inadvertent.

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