Baja Whales & Wildlife with Wild Encounters
Whale Watching Excursion to Bahîa Magdalena
During the Peak of the Migration
One week cruising to the ports of Cabo San Lucas, Loreto, Mulegé,
and La Paz on The Spirit of Endeavor with Cruise West.
January 18-26, 2002
Tom and I have just returned from a wonderful week's cruise on the Spirit of Endeavor, a small ship operated by Cruise West. She holds only 100 persons. We started in Cabo San Lucas, Baja Mexico and cruised in the Sea of Cortes. We spent time at deserted island beaches on Espiritu Santos, Isla Partida island, and Isla Guapa in Bahia de Conception, snorkeling, kayaking and bird watching. The Blue Footed Boobies really do have blue feet! Surprise! Surprise! At least for me, why? Who knows?
We visited 2 of the Jesuit missions on the California trail at Loreto and Mulege. We had lunch at the Governor's Mansion in La Paz, a private Mexican Fiesta just for Cruise West guests - us. I highly recommend this "soft" adventure type of cruise for those of you who like nature and exploring along with good food and comfort. No activity was particularly strenuous. The inflatable boats have seats. There was an occasional "wet" landing, meaning your feet may get wet if you can’t jump very far! Several passengers who walked with a cane were able to land without any problem.
However, I would not recommend this cruise for people in wheelchairs or for those of you who want Broadway shows at night and casino gambling on your cruise. We instead had 2 naturalists onboard and educational programs about the flora, fauna, and wildlife of the region, such as whales, etc. The highlight for me was the visit to Bahia Magdalena bay where we set out in panga boats from Puerto Lopez Mateos. Here we found many Gray whales with newborn calves swimming under and up to our boats, close enough to touch. One mother whale did a "spy-hop" to check us out. That’s a special and rare sight, half of a breach, which is extremely rare to see. This is one area on the Baja west coast, where the Grey whales come to breed and to give birth after migrating 6,000 miles from the Bering Sea, where they return to feed in the summer.
We saw Sei, Blue, and Fin whales, also bottle nosed dolphins in the Sea of Cortes. Cruise West cruises the Sea of Cortes only in the winter. You will find their ships in Alaska in the summer.
Last December I sailed on the Spirit of '98 for a weekend in the California wine country. That was especially fun. Every day we visited 3 wineries and were treated to a special lunch at one of them. We had a memorable experience at Couvaision Winery, dining in the cave cellars at a long table lit only by candelabras. Our cruise also included a wine expert onboard and a Blue Grass Band. This ship has an elevator and is well suited for people who have trouble walking up and down stairs. She also cruises from Seattle to Alaska in the summer. See a separate review for this cruise.
The Cruise West philosophy in a nutshell: With other cruise lines, one chooses the ship for its decor, for the shows, the casino, the spa, the food, or the amenities. With Cruise West it is the itinerary that counts. In all instances the exposure to nature is breathtaking.
Picture awesome scenery and wildlife, and you'll understand why most cruise high points happen outside, rather than inside the ship. That's exactly the way Cruise West planned it. You just can't get any closer to nature than standing 15 feet above water level in the bow of a small ship. Itineraries are flexible, allowing the captain to maneuver the ship into position for the best possible outdoor experience - be it running with 100 leaping dolphins in Baja or cruising close to a colossal, calving glacier in Alaska. No two cruises are ever the same, and the ship attracts a loyal following of repeat passengers who eagerly anticipate each of Mother Nature's new adventures.
All shore excursions are well run and designed to maximize the experience in each location and except for in Alaska are all included. It is amazing to arrive and be the only ship in port, and with no crowds you fit in with the locals. Port excursions with Cruise West are small, personal well organized and value for the money. As fun as the ports are, the high point of the trip is the days at sea cruising on the ship.
Alaska Sightseeing is a wholly owned subsidiary of Cruise West and operates the Alaska tours. Motor coaches are small and accommodate 36 passengers maximum per vehicles.
Here are the details of our Baja Cruise:
Tom and I flew to Cabo San Lucas a day early to be sure we wouldn’t miss the ship. I always recommend flying at least one day early sometimes more depending on how far you have to travel and over how many time zones. It’s so nice to rest up before a cruise and be sure to get the luggage and to get there on time. I followed my own advise and left the day before the cruise departed to be sure the airline could get us there on time, with the baggage. I recommend traveling light, taking only a carry-on bag if at all possible.
We used Alaska Airlines from Seattle and had to arrive at 5:00 am for a 7:37 am departure with the new security procedures in force at SeaTac. We had a stop in Phoenix, where everyone had to get off the plane with all their belongings, even though we would continue on the same plane in the same seats to Cabo. Last time I took a similar flight, we were not allowed to get off the plane during the stop. I can’t figure it out? We didn’t know that the airports would be having new baggage regulations go into effect on Jan. 18, 2002 when we booked, which complicated the check-in procedure even more. We arrived in Cabo San Lucas on time at 3:00 pm local time.
We decided to take the shuttle bus to the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar hotel for $13.00 per person, when we heard that the taxi fare is set at $75.00! Los Cabos is expensive even though you get 9 pesos for a $1.00. The hotel is on Barco Varado Beach next to Punta Cabeza De Ballena in Cabo del Sol, between San Jose and Cabo San Lucas in the Corridor.
We walked the beach that afternoon and spotted a big fish jump high out of the water, I don’t know if was a marling, sailfish, dorado or something else. What a treat! Many new hotels have been built since we were here almost 4 years ago, the Hacienda del Mar among them. The rooms at the Hacienda del Mar are nice and big. The rooms open up into the jetted tub in the bathroom, which is bigger than most cruise cabins. However, the walls are thin. Jack Nicklaus designed the Cabo Sel Sol golf course, where we saw former VP Dan Quayle play golf with his son the next morning. We ate at the Girasoles Mexican restaurant on the property and the food was very good and the music was excellent too.
JAN 19 – SATURDAY: Sail away
This morning, from our balcony we saw dolphins playing in the ocean in front of the hotel. After an early morning beachwalk, we checked out of the Sheraton and took a taxi to the Finistera Hotel on the Pacific Ocean side of Cabo San Lucas. Cruise West representatives always meet all flights and transfer you to your hotel or the ship. Since we arrived the day before the cruise and did not use the pre-cruise hotel stay offered by Cruise West, we were on our own to get to the Finistera Hotel and join the group there. We could spend the day around the pool, or simply get to the ship by 5:00 pm.
A little bit about our ship and area of cruising for the next week:
Spirit of Endeavour
A Cruise West Ship
217 feet in length
95 gross tons
Launched in 1983/renovated in 1997
Cruising speed of 13 knots
Registered in the United States
All American officers and crew
VCR in each cabin
All cabins feature full facilities
Captain Dave Kay, Chief Mate Jeff Coxwell, second mate John Miller
Interpretive guides Molly Eisenberger and KevinJames Kuprienko
Hotel Mgr. Greg Hallock, Chef Nate Henstra, Head Waiter James McGuire
Less than 100 miles from America’s southwest border there begins a vast and enchanting sea. Though explored by Europeans nearly 500 years ago, this sea and the lands that surround it comprise one of the least-known places on earth. This is the Sea of Cortés—youngest of all seas—born fifteen million years ago of a fracture on the San Andreas Fault. This is a region of extreme contrasts unique in the entire world—and therefore, a most engaging destination for the traveler who seeks an uncommon journey. Here you will experience an oasis of ancient cultures, exotic wildlife, pristine beaches and blue water as far as your eyes can see. We would spend the days leisurely skirting the Baja Peninsula, discovering unspoiled towns of cobblestone streets and charming plazas where the lazy afternoon is interrupted only by the melodic chime of mission bells in Loreto, Mulegé, and La Paz. These are not the tourist-clogged cities of the Mexican Riviera. Throughout the cruise, every day is an adventure: guided nature walks, a whale-watching excursion and snorkel trips get us closer to our surroundings than we ever thought possible.
Our naturalists and tour guides for the coming week, Molly and KevinJames checked us in at the Cruise West hospitality desk at the hotel. The rest of the day is free to explore, sit by the pool, rest or take a tour.
are building like crazy here on the beach, what a shock! We had time to take a
long walk, past the Terasol and the Solmar properties and over the hill, along
the entire harbor, with all the fishing boats and pelicans.
At 5:00 pm we were escorted to the ship for departure. No lines, no crowds, just a small group of well traveled, educated, friendly people eager to get to know each other. The bags were already in our cabins.
We were all wearing our Cruise West nametags with just the first name and state where we were from on it. I don’t remember names too well anymore, so this is a welcome help. We settled into our comfortable stateroom and joined our fellow travelers for dinner as the Spirit of Endeavour sailed from Cabo’s inner harbor to the Sea of Cortés. Before dinner, everyone checked out his or her own personal snorkel gear to keep all week. It’s so easy to feel right at home. Cruise West makes it so easy.
Social hour is at 6:00 pm every night. Jason, the bartender remembered us from the Wine Country Cruise on the Spirit of ’98. Several other crew members also were on that cruise and they also said “hello, where do I know you from?” I think that is impressive, since that was only a weekend cruise and we spent the days touring wineries. It’s nice to be remembered. This is a small family, emphasized by the fact that there are no locks on the cabin doors. The crew is 5 stars all around and everyone has numerous jobs. Your waiter is also the cabin steward, cleaning your cabin and knows how to lower the tenders. People work on this ship because they enjoy it. The staff is all energetic young people who become family within the first day of the cruise.
A “take a book, leave a book” section is in a windowsill. Binoculars are provided for every person in the cabins and in the lounge.
Resolution Dining Room: Dinner is served at 7:30 pm in the Resolution Dining Room, located on the lower deck. Meals are served at a single open seating so each meal gives you the opportunity to sit with and meet new people up close and personal each evening. Sun light streams in through two window-lined walls. The young wait staff, which double as the cabin crew does an admirable job of serving everyone at once, despite the fact that there is little room to move between the round and oblong tables for six and eight.
The food is well prepared and varied, well above the 4 stars claimed by Cruise West itself. Fresh baked bread is served at every meal. The chef prepares standard breakfast fare. Lunch is on the light side - soup, choice of a salad, sandwich, hamburger and desert. The fish was always fresh and purchased locally. The Filet mignon and the Prime rib meats were also fabulous, and if nothing on the menu appealed, there is always New York steak available. We especially enjoyed chef Nate every evening at 7:00 pm in the Explorer Lounge when he would go over the menu and what the preparations entailed. He features a soup, salad and four entrées, usually fresh local fish, meat, a pasta dish and a vegetarian dish. He described the preparation of the soup in such a way it actually tasted better. He got many ooohs and aaahs every night. It was part of the entertainment. Nobody wanted to miss it. Wine, mostly from Washington, Oregon and California, costs $11 to $66 a bottle.
Public Rooms: The Explorer Lounge, located forward on deck 2, is the gathering place for nature talks, as well as continental breakfast and afternoon cocktail snacks. Picture windows line three sides of the lounge. It is furnished with an eclectic assortment of tables, chairs, sofas and booths, all of which fill quickly when the ship is carrying 90 to 100 passengers. Everyone likes to be here to socialize. Evening presentations by the onboard naturalist guides that get you ready for the next day's adventure take place in the Explorer Lounge immediately after dinner. If you feel like retiring early, the talks can be tuned in on your in-cabin speaker.
A book and video library occupies one rear corner of the room. There is a complimentary tea and coffee set-up in the opposite corner next to the bar.
Two teak-floored sun decks equipped with plastic tables and lounge chairs are located at the rear of decks 3 and 4. Both are popular spots for reading and fair weather wildlife viewing. There are no elevators or self-service laundry facilities. There is no room service, but chips and candy bars are always on hand in the lounge.
Cabins: There are four cabin categories, ranging from approximately 100 to 150 square feet. Room keys are not issued, a tribute to the ship's family-style ambience that I mentioned before. All cabins have a large picture window, except for four lower deck cabins near the bow that have two portholes. The cabins are small, but comfortable. Attractive floral patterned duvets covers brighten the fixed twin or double beds. A reading lamp is well placed above the beds. Most cabins have 2 single beds, a closet with lots of drawers for storing everything brought onboard. There is a desk and a chair. The small bathroom has a shower, a small sink and a toilet. Everything is kept clean.
Deck 3 cabins open directly onto the outdoor walkway, great for whale watching, but not for privacy. Amenities include a phone, TV/VCR, binoculars and umbrellas. Three Deluxe cabins have a mini-fridge. Bring your own hair dryer. There are several 110-volt outlets with American plugs, so charging camera batteries is easy.
JAN 20 – SUNDAY: Beach day at Espiritu Santo, a wildlife sanctuary
Today we have a day at secluded beaches for island explorations. A wakeup call comes softly over the intercom at 7:00 am. It’s Molly who wants us to awaken to the blue waters and desert landscapes of Baja. Breakfast is served at 7:30 am in the Resolution Dining room. We cruise along the eastern shores of the peninsula, taking in the scenery. The Spirit of Endeavour anchors off the isolated Isla Espiritu Santo, a short DIB, durable inflatable boat, ride away from Bonanza Beach. Here we can choose to swim, snorkel or kayak in the clear waters searching for colorful fish and other aquatic life or simply sit back and enjoy the relaxed pace. KevinJames and Molly offer a guided, interpreted nature walk several times throughout the day. They teach us about the unique flora and fauna of the Sonoran desert landscape that is Baja Mexico.
We took a 2-hour beach walk this morning and observed a couple of oyster catchers following us. A BBQ lunch is served on Sun Deck today. No food is allowed on these islands as the crumbs left behind could upset the natural environment. We observed and learned about many different types of cacti: Cardon is the name of the big cactus you see in all the photos, a unique plant in the world. Other cacti include: Candelabra, Sour & Sweet types of Pitaya, Choyas, Jojoba, Agave, also Nightshade, Mariola, Damania, Chinese Lantern, Torchwood aka the tourist tree because it’s red and peeling, ha!ha!ha!, and the Elephant Tree, Torote Colorado, which smells like turpentine.
This evening we listen to an informative presentation by our Cruise West Naturalist -Interpretive Guides Molly and KevinJames describing tomorrow’s activities in Loreto and it’s culture and history. This makes it much more interesting.
JAN 21 - MONDAY: Loreto
Early this morning we find the ship tied up at Puerto
Escondido. Local Mexican guides meet us here for a short drive along a scenic
road to Loreto, the oldest town in Baja Sur. Views of Isla del Carmen, Isla
Danzante and Islas Coronados surrounded by the deep blue water are impressive. Founded
as a mission over 300 years ago in 1697 by the Jesuit Father Juan Marie
Salvatierra, Loreto remains an attractive seaside community offering a quiet
waterfront malecon and shaded avenues. Surrounded by the breathtaking scenery of
the Sierra la Giganta mountain range, the desert, and the Sea of Cortes,
Loreto’s stark beauty and tranquil village setting make it stand out from
other Baja tourist centers. We were treated to the historic walking tour of
Loreto, including a visit to the oldest mission church in Mexico, Mision de
Nuestra Senora de Loreto and admission to the town’s museum. Afterwards
we explored this Spanish- influenced town and browsed the shops. It was fun to
simply sit at the central plaza and people-watch.
We opted for the only optional excursion
offered on this cruise, which included lunch, called “Ceviche by the Sea” at
a local restaurant. We learned how to make tortillas and salsa and how to
marinate fish in lime juice to make ceviche, marinated raw fish. Then we ate it
JAN 22 - TUESDAY: Bahía Concepción and Mulegé
This morning we drop anchor at Playa Santispac in beautiful Bahia de Conception. DIB tours are offered around Isla Guapa, the islets and bird rookeries of Bahía Concepción. Here we saw the Blue Footed Boobies, Yellow footed Gulls, colorful Brown Pelicans in mating “attire”, Ospreys nesting, Brown Spotted Sandpipers, Oyster Catchers in pairs, Frigate Birds in flight mostly, black Turkey Vultures with their red heads, Terns, and other birds I couldn’t identify.
also kayaked around Isla Barga and saw lots of fish in the clear water, Sergeant
Major, King Angelfish, Yellowtail Surgeonfish, Giant Damselfish, and Cornet
fish. Lunch was served onboard.
23 - WEDNESDAY: Watching
for Whales and Marine Life
JAN 24 - THURSDAY: Island Cruising
On this morning we find the waters a bit rough. I’m wearing my sea-bands. Captain Dave tried to navigate the Spirit of Endeavour up-close at Los Islotes, a tiny island preserve and bird sanctuary. This island is home to a noisy and playful colony of California sea lions. This did not go as planned. The seas were high this morning and trying to turn into Los Islotes was not possible. The Coromuel winds from the south caused the problem. A big swell cleaned off the counters and tables on the entire ship everywhere and all the breakfast dishes went crashing to the floor, so we had to skip trying to view the sea lions. The crew seemed to take it all in stride, but I’m sure there was some cursing in private behind the scene. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. Breakfast was served a bit late this morning; I think the chef had to start over in the kitchen. Snorkeling with the sea lions had to be cancelled. But Captain Dave had plan B ready to go. He found a perfect island beach in a sheltered cove called Ensenada Grande (I think) on Isla Partida.
Sea Lion was anchored in a different cove the
American Safari Spirit was looking for shelter as well. Here we spent the
morning scrambling and hiking over the loose volcanic rocks to the top of the
hill for a great view. It was too windy for kayaking today. We saw the Great
Blue Heron, Red-tailed Hawk, and more pelicans here. After lunch we left for La
Paz cruising the Bahia de La Paz, taking it easy to avoid the big waves caused
by the strong winds. We spotted several whales in the bay. Bahia de La Paz is
considered the world’s largest fish trap, home to over 800 species of fish and
2,000 species of invertebrates. Pearls were discovered here in 1616 and La Paz
became a pearl diving center for the Spanish explorers.
Our speaker Joe Cummings, author of the Moon Publication "Baja, Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas" cancelled his engagement for our cruise in the last minute, which was disappointing for everyone. As an apologetic gesture, Cruise West credited everyone’s shipboard account with $25.00 and promised to send a $50.00 cruise credit per person for a future cruise valid until the end of 2003, signed Janice Walker with her phone number. I heard not one single complaint about the way this was handled. Well done. Everyone seemed happy. Sunsets in La Paz are the most beautiful anywhere blending sky, land, and sea.
JAN 25 – FRIDAY: La Paz
Today we are still docked right on the expansive shaded Malecón promenade of leisurely La Paz. This delightful low-rise city is Baja California Sur’s state capital. La Paz is also considered to be Baja’s eco-tourism center. Its natural attractions draw birdwatchers, scuba divers, kayakers, fishermen, snorkelers, hikers, and beach lovers. Tom has dived with the hammerhead sharks, giant manta rays, and the massive whale sharks off the sea mounds 100 feet below the surface beyond Los Islotes on a different trip here. We also snorkeled with the sea lions at that time. We stayed at La Concha Resort then, at Pichilingue on Playa el Caimancito and we wondered what the important compound next door was all about. It was so well guarded at all times. Well, it’s the Governor’s Mansion and that is where Cruise West had arranged for our Mexican Fiesta lunch today. What a special treat?
But first: Our included tour visits the Ibarra’s pottery studio run by Mr. and Mrs. Julio Ibarra. Each piece is individually hand painted on a white glaze fired at high temperatures on the premises. They make beautiful tableware, tea sets, mugs, vases, and picture frames. They did good business with our group. Then we stopped at an authentic weaving shop that I wish I could remember the name of. They still make everything by hand here, the “old-fashioned” way. I purchased a beautiful carpet here and a shoulder bag. Then we were off to El Serpentario Reptile House, looking at snakes, lizards and cacti before the Fiesta luncheon. All the indigenous species of snakes and insects found on the Baja Peninsula are represented here. Their influence and importance were explained, which was very interesting and we were invited to touch many of them.
At the governor's mansion, we were given a guided to tour of the building and what goes on there before our Fiesta luncheon down on the beach. We were treated to Mexican dances performed by some very talented youngsters. They were very enthusiastic and their costumes so colorful. It was an unforgettable experience. Well done again, Cruise West.
JAN 26 - SATURDAY: Arrive Cabo, Flight Home
Our cruise draws to a close but not before we cruise past the awe-inspiring Los Arcos, a cluster of rocks at the mouth of the Cabo San Lucas harbor. Cruise West allowed us plenty of time here this morning to view the Arc and the sea lions that live here, since we had missed them at Los Islotes.
It’s early in the morning and hundreds of fishing boats are heading out to sea. It’s an amazing sight. I stayed out on deck until we passed by Playa d’Amour, a perfect beach for romantics. It’s not reachable on foot, unless you scramble over some very sharp rocks by the Solmar hotel on the other side, a difficult climb.
Now I had a choice: eat breakfast or pack, get the bag ready? Having already gained 5 pounds, the choice was easy. Our flight was not ‘til 3:00 pm, so we spent a few hours at the Hotel Finistera walking up and down the beach one last time before heading off for our transfer to the airport and snowy Seattle. Cruise West includes the transportation to the airport for everyone catching a flight that day. They make several runs, so you won’t have to wait at the airport all day for a late departure. Our Alaska Airlines flight 227 departs at 3:03 pm. This is a non-stop flight offered on Saturdays in the high season. We arrive in Seattle around 6:30 pm. Shock! There is snow on the ground in Seattle! Who needs this? We ask ourselves. Mexico seems so far away all of a sudden.
Thank you Cruise West for another nice vacation.
Unfortunately, we were not able to continue on with the dramatic Copper Canyon train adventure tour offered by Cruise West. A must, if you have the time.