Baja’s Whale Bounty - Sea of Cortez
By Ken Montgomery, Irvine, CA - Feb 2014
This 7-day "Un-Cruise" left from Cabo San Lucas on Jan. 25, 2014. In short, it was a great cruise with a great crew, packed with lots of activities, amazing whale watching, many nature and photography talks and sunny warm weather. Un-Cruise Adventures is a new company that seems dedicated to providing great cruises with a staff of "naturalists" that are wonderful, smart, well-educated people. I'll provide lots of details in this review to help the reader get prepared for the cruise.
Embarkation - An Un-Cruise agent met passengers at the Cabo Airport and drove us about 25 minutes to the Hilton Hotel in the "hotel zone" between Cabo San Lucas and San Juan del Cabo. There we checked in our bags with an agent in a conference room. The room had couches and chairs and beverages. We had full use of the Hilton's amazing pool and beach front. At 4:45 pm, they loaded the 40 or so passengers onto a nice bus for a 20-minute ride to the port in San Jose del Cabo to board Voyager. A few passengers went straight to the ship from the airport. Once we boarded, we went to our cabins, did the safety drill and then we pushed off.
Itinerary - The staff explained that the itinerary in the brochure was tentative and that the actual itinerary depended on weather and other factors. We did manage to do all the major activities listed in the brochure, but the islands we visited changed somewhat, which was really not significant.
Activities - We were always on the lookout for marine animals and the ship would detour to watch whales or dolphins or even jumping rays. On 4 of the 6 days we snorkeled; took small boat rides to get close to sea lions or birds or something interesting like a sunrise photo shoot; hikes, both easy ones along the beach, or up the hillside a ways for some great views. There was a Burro ride one morning, a beach fire one night after dinner, and many nature and photography talks.
Whale Watching - This was the #1 thing people were interested in, so we had two days devoted to that. On Tuesday, we did the cross-Baja trip to the bay of Magdalena to watch the grey whales up close and personal. Passengers were divided into about five boats and went out for two hours into the bay. The whales came close, but not close enough to touch (so we'll have to go back). The whales would stick their heads out of the water to look at us.
The last day of the cruise was spent cruising the southern part of the Sea of Cortez looking for whales and we saw dozens of them. Most of them were a distance away, but we saw many breaches and fluke and tail slapping. It lasted all day until we had no more light. A great day for everybody, even though we didn’t snorkel, hike or kayak. Each cabin was supplied with a large pair of binoculars (7x50), and they were vital for whale watching. We brought an extra pair in our luggage so we both could watch.
Cabins - We were in cabin 204, one of the best cabins. It had a double bed, a flat screen TV and a DVD player. Not all cabins had the TVs. Some nights the activities were done by 9pm, so it was nice to watch some DVDs. We brought our own. The ship's DVD and book library was rather slim at this point. The ship was just put in service in December and they are still adding amenities. There were no iPhone docking stations in the room for music as was advertised. The storage in the cabin was adequate and the bathroom had a roomy shower. The mattress and the sheets were very good. The beds are built in and cannot be reconfigured into singles, nor can the rooms with singles be pushed together into a double, so make sure you know your room’s configuration. The A/C units gave nice cold air, but no warm air. We just turned off the A/C unit and the room warmed up. There were plenty if hooks for hanging clothes for drying out, although damp clothes did take a couple days to dry.
Food & Beverages - The day started with the early riser breakfast in the bar at 6:30, full breakfast at 7:30, lunch at 12:30, snacks and happy hour at 5:30 and dinner at 6:30. All drinks, mixed drinks, wine, soft drinks were included. Frequently they would leave a bottle of Kahlua next to the self-serve coffee. There was a mixed-drink special creation everyday. The food ranged from good to very good. Portions were small, so you didn't overeat like most cruises. You could have a second helping if requested. Choices were limited at lunch to the special of the day or a vegetarian variant of the special. At dinner, you had three choices, a meat, seafood or veggie entree. Excellent wines were served with all meals.
Scenery - The Sea of Cortez has many uninhibited, craggy islands and is quite beautiful, if somewhat similar to the last island. These islands make for great sunrises and sunsets. We saw very little boat traffic and no other cruise ships during our 7 days.
Weather - It hardly ever rains here in the winter. We had one day of clouds and some light rain, which made for our best sunset. The rest of the time, the highs were in the 70's, with lows in 50's. As soon as the sun dropped below the mountains, it was time for a sweater. The wind was the main weather variable, which dictated if kayaking was offered.
Snorkeling - The ship provided everyone with full wetsuits and excellent snorkeling gear. Each room has two mesh bags with room numbers on them for hanging wet snorkel gear on the back of Deck 2. You also hang your wet suit on room identified hangers, so you don't have to bring them into the rooms. You receive a sport Personal Flotation Device at the beginning of the cruise and you store them in lockers, so you always have the same PFD. The water was a little cold, high 60s I would guess, so the wet suit was necessary. The snorkeling spots were not the best I've ever seen, but we did snorkel with sea lions and rays one day, so that was memorable, to say the least.
Kayaking - The kayaks were the "sit on top" versions, very easy to operate. All the launches were from shore. We always kayaked in protected coves, so there were no waves to deal with.
Hiking - Some of the hikes were steep with some good vertical elements. Good hiking shoes were important here. Most of the beach landings were a little wet, so wear your water shoes on the skiff and then change shoes on shore. You can leave your water shoes and PFD's at the beach. There are always crew members to make sure they are safe. They also bring water, sodas and beer to enjoy after your hike, kayak or snorkel. They also bring beach towels and camp stools, a really well-run beach program. The beach walks were fun and included some tide-pooling. Make sure you have thicker-soled shoes for these walks, lots of rocks and loose sand.
Photography - This cruise had a professional photographer on board, Peter West Carey, from Seattle. Peter gave photography talks and took thousands of pictures. Many of his pictures, along with a couple hundred taken by the rest of the crew, were shown to us at the end of the cruise. Each cabin received a thumb drive with these pictures on it, a wonderful thing that all the Un-Cruise cruises do.
Clothes - Casual clothing is the order of the day. Wear pants that you don't mind getting a little wet. Bring some sweatshirts and a light jacket as it does get cool in evening. I recommend three swim suits as they do take a while to dry. There is no laundry service on these small boats.The sun can get pretty intense while sitting on deck looking for whales, so bring some lightweight cover ups to prevent burning. The ship provides sun block. They also put two aluminum water bottles in each room for taking on hikes.
The Voyager - This 1983 vessel was refitted in 2013 in Columbia. The crew is still fine tuning things. Little things go wrong now and then and the crew makes repairs while underway. We did have one rough night at sea when we were headed northbound from Cabo to La Paz. The ship was comfortable at all other times. There are four pieces of cardio equipment on the upper deck for working out: two stationary bikes and two elliptical machines. There are no weights to work out with.
Wi-Fi - There is no wi-fi on the ship. On the trip to Magdalena Bay, there was a bathroom break in a hotel in the middle of Baja. They had free wi-fi. The password was posted at the small registration desk. This stop takes about 30 minutes, so you can get some emails downloaded and respond to some.
Passengers - There was only one child and only one person in their 20's on the boat. Most passengers were between 50 and 80 and were quite capable of hiking, kayaking, and snorkeling with sea lions. All passengers spoke English. All passengers were very easy to talk to and were very nice. About half the passengers were from the UK.
Tipping - The suggested tipping rate is 10% of the total price of the cruise. This is a lot of money, but the crew provides such great service, that they are worth it.
Disembarkation - Bags outside by 7:30am, then breakfast, board the bus at 8:30 for the ride to the Hilton, bags were brought into the Un-Cruise waiting room. People were transferred to the airport at 10:30 or 12:30. We used the pool again and then changed into our airplane clothes and finalized the suitcases. The United check-in was mobbed, a huge line. We were in the Premier line, which still took 20 minutes to check the bags. The flight to LA was full, so everyone in line must have made it through the long line on time.
Conclusion - No cruise is perfect and every time you decide to take a cruise, you have to juggle many factors before picking one. The pluses for this cruise far outweighed the few minuses. Small boat cruising is significantly different from big boat cruising and it's not for everyone. It's definitely for active people. There is no ship doctor, so bring meds in case you catch a cold or a cough. The cabins are usually smaller than those on large cruise ships. Un-Cruise is a wonderful company and I hope they can continue this cruise concept as the passengers on this cruise sure seemed to love it.