Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Which Cruise Lines Are Best for Which Elements?

There are 7 big cruise lines that are the major industry players, and which (if you're into the cruise world) you've probably heard of. These are Carnival Cruise Lines, Celebrity Cruises, Costa Cruises, Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, and Royal Caribbean International. So, which is best?

I have to admit that I haven't been on all of them (yet!), so I'll refer to the Berlitz 2009 Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships to answer this question. Each line has its own specialty, so which is "best" will depend on what you're looking for.

Carnival Cruise Line

Carnival is known for "all-round fun, activities, and casinos for the lively youth market" though the guide book points out that many of their passengers are over 45.

Celebrity Cruises

These guys are said to have the best food and the most elegant ships and spas. All that considered, the guidebook considers them under-priced.

Costa Cruises

Costa Cruises features a European style with multi-national passengers and a lively ambiance, so if you're looking to escape your countrymen, this may be the place to see folks from different cultures.

Holland America Line

These guys are popular with seniors and retirees, thanks to their "smiling service staff, lots of flowers, traditions of the past, good cooking demonstrations, and alternative grill rooms."

Norwegian Cruise Line

NCL is known for affordability and is often recommended to first-time cruisers. They have a good choice of dining experiences and solid entertainment.

Princess Cruises

The book says Princess has "consistent product delivery" (I'm not sure how much of an accolade that is!) and informs us that the decor tends to be bland and the passengers older.

Royal Caribbean International

These guys specialize in the Caribbean (no surprise there) and offer a good experience for first-time cruises and families. They have a good variety of entertainment and children's programs that will keep the young-uns busy.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Last Minute Cruises to the Carribbean Save You Money This Summer

I'm fortunate enough to work from home and be able to take vacations without giving anyone notice, so I love booking last minute cruises. If you're retired, self-employed, or just able to get away on short notice, you can save quite a bit booking last minute. Cruise ships don't like to sail with empty cabins, so they will slash rates in the weeks leading up to the departure date to ensure as many money-spending passengers are on board as possible. And the Caribbean is a fantastic destination (and a great place to find deals, especially in the summer).

Taking Advantage of Cheap Last Minute Cruises to the Caribbean This Summer

Summer is a great time to take a vacation, especially if you have kids you want to take along, and the Caribbean islands are lovely to sail around. Rates are often great for a couple of reasons:
  • Fewer people choose to vacation in the Caribbean during the summer -- We're often looking to beat the heat in the summer, and choose cooler vacation spots such as Alaska or Northern Europe, but the Caribbean is a lot like Hawaii in that it may actually be cooler and more pleasant (i.e. "perfect year around") in the summer than say Texas, Georgia, the Midwest, etc. Tropical climates rarely get above the 80s, making the temperature perfect even in July and August.
  • People are concerned about hurricanes -- Folks know summer as the beginning of hurricane season, but it doesn't really kick into full gear until September or so, so there's little reason to worry about cruising the Caribbean in the summer. Even if there is a hurricane, a ship has a lot easier time steering clear of the weather than a hotel on land! And if you're booking your vacation last minute, you will probably already have an idea of what the weather is going to be like, as tropical storms can be predicted quite a ways in advance.
  • People have the kids and don't think cruises are good family vacations -- In the summer, you have kids out of school, and a lot of folks assume cruises are just for romantic getaways for mom and dad or retired couples, but in truth, you can find kids of all ages on cruise ships. All the big mainstream ships have great kids' spaces which can include skating rinks, teen computer rooms, pools with slides, and other amenities for children, so you can indeed take the kids on a Caribbean cruise, and you can count on them having a good time.
All of these misconceptions about cruising the Caribbean in the summer serve to our advantage, because we're presented with great rates as cruise lines seek to attract folks. Add the deals you get when booking last minute on top of that and you can get a fantastically affordable vacation (and, for the record, "last minute" can mean a few weeks in advance--the prices start to drop as far out as a couple months, so you don't literally have to be packed and ready to go at a moment's notice).

How to Find Last Minute Cruises

I just keep an eye on sites such as Travelocity, where bookings (prices and what cabins are left open) are up-to-the-minute for all the major cruise lines. Prices can change from day to day, so it pays to check back frequently.

Also, if you have a favorite cruise line, signing up for their newsletter can also keep you appraised of last minute deals.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

European River Cruise Ideas

So far I've only taken cruises on the ocean, but I'm definitely planning to try some river cruises in the near future. After we do Alaska this summer, that is!

Europe has some great rivers, and there are a number of cruise options if you'd prefer to see the inland areas by boat rather than by tour bus or train. Technically I've been on a "European river cruise" since our Rick Steves tour sailed the Rhine for about an hour after some castle hopping. The cruise ideas I'm going to list below are a little longer than an hour though. You can find lots of multiple day river cruises that can be a part of your vacation or the cornerstone. Let's take a look at some options:

European Rhine River Cruise

Lots of outfits send ships up and down this famous European river, and you can book sailings for anything from a couple of hours to two weeks or more.

The Amsterdam to Strasbourg run is a popular one, and you can book with Euro River Cruises for just about any week during the primary tourist season (April through October). As with ocean-going cruises, prices include most of your room, board, and transportation expenses: "Full board cruise from dinner of the first day to the lunch of the last day in a double cabin with shower and toilets, welcome drink, entertainment, the Captain's Evening, the assistance of our hostess on board, and port taxes."

Click the link above for an itinerary and more information.

Black Sea & Ukraine River Cruise

If you've never been to Eastern Europe, then a cruise through Ukraine to the Black Sea would be a unique experience. Visit the Land of the Kosacks by river boat.

Smart Tours offers Ukraine cruises with prices starting at $1400 (including air fare from New York) for 11-nights aboard the MS Dnieper Princess cruise boat in an outside cabin on the Lower Deck, with private bath. "The first class MS Dnieper Princess was built for cruising the Ukrainian Waterways and can accommodate 240 guests. All cabins are river facing and cozy, with two lower beds and a private bath/shower."

Visit their site to see a sample itinerary.

Holiday River Cruise Along the Danube

While you may think of cruises as something to be done in the warm weather of late spring and summer, this particular cruise, put on by Viking River Cruises, departs later in the year.

"Celebrate a variety of Central European countries in just 8 days, and mingle with locals as they prepare for the holidays during this refreshing cruise along the storied Danube. Get a taste of Germany in beautiful Passau. Cruise through Austria, stopping in riverside towns along the way, and enjoy a full-day excursion to picture-perfect Salzburg. Experience the Old World capitals of Budapest, Hungary and Bratislava, Slovakia."

14-Day European River Cruise That Visits Multiple Waterways

Here's a vacation for those who don't want to settle for one river. Hosted by Avalon Waterways, this vacation hits four countries, three rivers, and the Main Danube Canal.

"Start in Zürich, Switzerland, then enjoy guided sightseeing in the cities of Strasbourg, Würzburg, Nuremberg, and Vienna. There’s an excursion to Heidelberg with its imposing castle ruins, and a visit to the beautiful Benedictine Abbey of Melk. Guided walks of the smaller towns show you their highlights, and there’s a chance to sample some of Germany’s famous beers on this Rhine river cruise vacation."

As I write this, prices run about $3500 for 2010 sailings (airfare not included).

Are there any other European river cruise destinations that should be mentioned here?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Mexico Cruises on Hold or Diverted Due to Swine Flu

If you've got an upcoming cruise to Mexico, it may be canceled due to the Swine Flu breakout down there. If only some of the ports of call are in Mexico, you may be diverted to other ports (such as San Diego or Santa Catalina).

According to an article in the LA Times, Carnival, Royal Caribbean Cruises, Princess Cruises and Holland America--all major cruise lines--are all making this decision.

If you have a Mexico cruise scheduled for the next few weeks (or a Caribbean/Panama Canal cruise that is visiting one or more Mexican ports as part of its itinerary), you'll have to check with your specific cruise line to find out what their policy is going to be for cancellations, postponements, rerouting, etc.

More information:

Saturday, April 11, 2009

What Is a Cruise Tour?

If you search for cruises at Travelocity or other sites that let you book cruises, you may see something called a "cruise tour" advertised in addition to regular ocean-going vacation packages. So, what's the deal? What is a cruise tour?

Cruise Tours

A cruise tour is a vacation package that combines a ship-board cruise with an escorted land-based tour.

For example, you might book an Alaska cruise tour which would start on a ship in Vancouver or Seattle, sailing north past those stunning glaciers and stopping in several coastal ports. Then after perhaps 7 days, you'd leave the ship in Anchorage and travel by train or bus to inland sights such as the Denali National Park, the historic town of Dawson, and the city of Fairbanks.

Cruise tours are generally longer than plain old cruises, starting at 10 days or so (at least for the Alaska area) and being as long as two weeks.

For the land portion, many of your meals are included, but you'll be eating at restaurants and such instead of in a dining room that travels with you, and some meals will not be included. Lodgings and transportation are all included though, so it's still a pretty economical way to see the world.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Luxury Cruise in the South Pacific Visits Bora Bora

We've talked quite a bit about how affordable cruises can be, but if luxury is more your style, there are lots of great opportunities to get away from it all in an exclusive setting. If you like the idea of a tropical and warm destination, but find Hawaii and the Caribbean a little too passé, then consider a cruise in the South Pacific.

Bora Bora

Most people have heard of the Tahiti Polynesian island of Bora Bora, but few have visited. Its remoteness makes it less accessible from the U.S., but that remoteness also offers a lot of seclusion you can no longer find in spots such as Hawaii.

You'll find all your favorite relaxation and/or adventure activities here though: scuba diving, swimming, snorkeling, surfing, parasailing, and safari excursions to name a few. And of course you may just want to get a massage, settle into a lounge chair by the beach, or hit a few tennis balls too.

Luxury Bora Bora Cruises

As far as cruises go, you can find multi-week South Pacific cruises that leave from the mainland and include Bora Bora as one of a handful of stops, but if you'd prefer the yacht-sized experience of a luxury cruise line, you may want to check into Nomade yachting by Bora Bora Cruises.

Founded in 2003 by a young Polynesian woman with a love for her country's seas and lagoons, Nomade yachting sails weekly around four of the Leeward Islands: Bora Bora: The Supreme Island, Taha'a: The Orchid Island, Raiatea: The Sacred Island, and Huahine: The Island of Bards. For the small boutique vacation experience, choose from its two custom-built luxury super yachts, and be prepared for a unique South Pacific vacation.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cost of Shore Excursions?

Shore excursions aren't included in the price of your cruise vacation, so you'll have to pay extra if you want to partake. You may be wondering if it's worth signing up for shore excursions or if the cost makes it better to explore on your own.

Costs vary quite a bit depending on the area you're cruising and the expedition you want to take.

In the Caribbean, for example, shore excursions are quite affordable with half-day tours averaging $25-$35. In Alaska similar tours cost twice as much.

Overall, adventure tours are more expensive than sight-seeing excursions. This is because the groups are smaller, so the tours cost more per person to operate.

Full-day shore excursions can run as much as $75 to $150 a person with pricy helicopter tours costing $200 and up. If you're paying for the whole family to go, these types of excursions can get expensive quickly!

Whether or not you should go it on your own depends, of course, on your preferences and to some extent on the port. In some places, there are lots of things to see and do right by where the ship docks. In other places, most of the sites are inland or otherwise far from the port. When you add in the cost of getting a cab and the aggravation of arranging things yourself, you may find the shore excursion option worth the money.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Cruise Deals That Include "on board" Credits Can Save You Money

If there's anything good about a bad economy, it's that the cruise lines are offering lots of cruise deals to entice people to book vacations.

Chances are you want to take a trip anyway, and right now, if you shop around, it's possible to get much better deals than you could a year or two ago.

One way cruise lines sweeten the pot is with "on board credits."

But is this really a good deal? Or is it like frequent flyer miles (something you'll never be able to use)? Let's take a closer look:

First off...

What Are on Board Credits?

On board credits are basically dollars that you can use while you're on the ship.

As we've talked about before, cruises are all-inclusive in that they include lodging, meals, entertainment, and of course travel to your cruise destinations, but you'll pay for extras. Extras include everything from alcohol to shore excursions to spa treatments to casino gambling to merchandise at the shops. If you partake heavily in the extras, you can end up with a pretty big bill at the end of the trip. Even if you mostly take advantage of the free stuff, you'll probably still end up spending money on some of the little things.

Because virtually everyone spends a bit of money on the ship, on board credits are likely to be used by anyone. This makes them a pretty good deal as far as cruise deal perks. There usually aren't a lot of restrictions, and there are plenty of ways to spend those on board credits.

How to Find Cruise Deals That Offer on Board Credits

As I've mentioned before, I like to watch Travelocity for cruise deals (they'll often have at least one cruise line doing a promotion that includes goodies such as free airfare or on board credits), but there are other places to find deals too.

  • "Junk mail" mailings from cruise lines -- If you've cruised with a line before, chances are you're on their mailing list. Don't be so quick to throw their flyers away though, especially if you're planning another trip. You'll probably find information on their current cruise deals inside.
  • Email newsletters -- The e version of junk mail. Again, being on the cruise line's mailing list can be a back door to cruise deals such as on board credits and other perks.
  • Booking your next cruise while on board the first -- Cruise lines almost always offer on board credits for folks who book again while they're still on vacation. You don't have to commit to a time or a place, just to a cruise, and you've usually got a year or more to solidify your sailing.
  • Ask the bigger travel agencies -- While I'm a Travelocity fan, it never hurts to ask a travel agent what's out there. Larger agencies and those that belong to major Travel Industry Consortia often have shipboard credits on select ships and sailing dates.
  • Airline rewards programs -- I've never gotten much out of the frequent flyer deals, but I've read that some can include on board credits for affiliated cruise lines, so if you fly a lot, it may be worth looking into.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Hawaii Shore Excursion Ideas for Cruisers

When I cruised the Hawaiian Islands last year, the shore excursions were definitely my favorite part. Just being on a cruise ship is already a great vacation, but it's hard to beat the Hawaiian weather and all the activities you can partake in while visiting the islands.

Today I'll talk about a few shore excursions you may want to check out if you book a trip to the islands (a couple of these I did personally and the others are on my for-next-time list since folks I talked to on the ship had a great time doing them). Here's the list:

Hawaii Shore Excursion Ideas

Helicopter Tours

The fact that the islands were formed by volcanic activity makes for a diverse topography that is truly inspiring. The helicopter tours are expensive ($200+ per person), so if you're trying to save money on your cruise, you may not want to fork over that kind of cash for the whole family, but I think it's definitely worth doing once.

You can take a helicopter tour on different islands, but most of the folks I talked to recommended signing up for the one in Kauai, and that's just what I did.

You get to see the Waimea Canyon, which is a fantastic lush and tropical version of the Grand Canyon. It's 10 miles long, one mile wide, and more than 3,500 feet deep, and it's truly majestic. The Kauai helicopter tour also takes in the impressive NaPali Coast, much of which is inaccessible by land because of the vast cliffs with their sheer drops of thousands of feet (you'll go by them on the cruise ship if you're visiting this island, but they're even better by air!). Lastly, I think Kauai is the island to take a helicopter tour on because so much of it is undeveloped and uninhabited. You won't be looking down on housing developments here.

A note on the helicopter tours... if you get even mildly car sick you probably get helicopter sick (I'm usually fine on airplanes, but this was the air version of driving along a twisty mountain road!). Take some Dramamine before you go. ;)

Zip Line Adventure Tours

If you're an athletic adventurous type (who isn't afraid of heights!), you'll enjoy the zip line adventures. All of them involve getting into a harness and sliding down a rope at top speed, through jungle canopies and the like. Some of them also have you climbing, swimming, and enjoying other adventures while you're at it.

One of the great things about the rigorous adventure tours is a lot fewer people go on them than the more sedentary sight seeing tours. (While cruises appeal to folks of all ages and lifestyles, physically fit adventure-seeking types are on the rarer side.) You won't have to wait for head counts and slow pokes, and the transportation isn't likely to be crowded.

Zip line adventures are common cruise shore excursions, but the beauty of Hawaii's treetops make it a particularly spectacular place for this type of adventure.

Volcano Hikes & Sight Seeing Tours

One of the unique things about Hawaii (as opposed to other popular cruise destinations) is not only that the islands were formed from volcanic eruptions but that land is actually increasing each year because the lava continues to flow!

There are quite a few shore excursion opportunities that allow you to hike out to the edge and see live lava plopping into the ocean.

Distances vary, so find a hike that's just at your level. There are opportunities for just about everyone to get up close and personal with the lava.

Kona Coffee Tours

Hawaii likes to boast about its Kona coffee, and if you're a fan of the stuff (or you're just looking for an alternative to all these "active" tours), then you'll enjoy touring the coffee plantations.

An example shore excursion takes you to the Holualoa Kona Coffee Estate where you can wander the grounds, tour the processing facility, watch (and smell) the coffee being roasted, and--of course!--sample the products.

Packages of Kona coffee also make nice gifts to bring home to the coffee fans in your life.

If you're looking for other island foods to see in their original growing habitat, look into pineapple plantation tours (Oahu) and the Hawaiian Vanilla Company (the vanilla farm is often packaged with the Holualoa coffee tour).

That's all I have time to write about right now. Some other Hawaii classics you may want to look into are surfing (duh!), snorkeling, and the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu.

If you've already visited Hawaii, feel free to list some of your favorite spots in the comments below!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Is Cruising Only for the Wealthy?

Before I took my first cruise, I had the notion in my head that cruising was a real luxury vacation (AKA something only wealthy and/or retired folks can afford). I'd heard of months-long around-the-world cruises and didn't know about all the very affordable week-long (and sometimes even shorter) cruise options there are.

There are even two-week and longer cruises that aren't out of the realm of affordability for many of us (of course, it can be harder to get away for more than a week when you're a regular, working stiff).

What I've since learned is that cruising can be a very affordable vacation, and it can actually cost a lot less than many other excursions. Certainly there are luxury cruise lines that cater to higher paying clientele (these ships are less crowded and less commercialized and mainstream), and if that's what you can afford and what you want, enjoy it!

But if you're just looking for a low-stress way to get a vacation, a cruise on one of the mainstream ships can be just the ticket. We had a bowling team cruising together on my last trip. It doesn't get any more "Middle America" than that. Maybe I should say "Middle Globe" because, depending on where you're traveling, you'll often be hanging out with guests from numerous countries.

Because meals, room and board, and transportation are all included, cruises make quite affordable vacations. In fact, the cruise lines are banking on you spending extra money on things that aren't included (alcohol, gambling in the casino, art auctions, exotic shore excursions, etc.), but if you don't go crazy on the extras, your trip can stay affordable.

Getting the best deals on cruises

While there are still travel agents who can help you book cruises, you can get great deals just by browsing about online. I booked my first cruise with a travel agent, but have since just used Travelocity. The last time I booked with them (late 2008), their rates ran about $30 cheaper per person than the rates posted on the cruise line's site (you can book online with your specific cruise line too).

The downside is that they didn't offer to create a package linking my flight, cruise, and transportation to and from the airport (something an agent will do for you). It's more of a barebones situation where you get to piece things together yourself. Still, it's possible to get exactly what you want this way (my parents did a package deal cruise to Hawaii and ended up with a layover halfway the opposite direction across the U.S., so it was a really long flight).

You can browse Travelocity for cruises more than a year out (though if you can get away "last minute," that can be a great way to get deals):

Visit Travelocity for Cruise Deals

Friday, January 9, 2009

Where to Cruise in the Winter: Three Warm Cruise Destinations

For those of us who live in the northern latitudes, winter is upon us, and all that snow and rain can be quite dreary. And let's not forget the short days. It's pitch black outside as I write this at 5:30 pm. Ick.

A cruise to some place warm can be a great way to beat the winter blues--just last month, I took a cruise of the Mexican Riviera. The seven days of sun were fantastic--I just wish I were still down there.

If you're reading this in the winter months, you might be thinking to yourself that it's too late to book a cruise for this year. But you'd be wrong. As I've written about before, last minute sailings are not only a possibility, but booking a cruise last minute can even save you money. So, it's not too late to get yourself on board a ship sailing some place warm!

Here are three cruise destinations you might want to visit this winter:

Australia & New Zealand Cruises

If you don't mind the idea of a long plane ride, winter (in the northern hemisphere) can be a great time to visit the southern hemisphere, since it's summer down there!

While it's possible to find cruises that visit just one of these places, combination cruises that check out both countries are most common, and they can last anywhere from a week to four weeks, with 12-14 days being pretty common. I know I'd want to stay for more than a week if I flew all the way down there!

While itineraries change depending on the length of the cruise, some of the destinations you might visit are the Great Barrier Reef, Fjordland National Park, and beautiful Sydney, Australia.

Wondering just how warm it is down there during our dreary winters? Average summer (December 1st through February) temperatures in Sydney run around 26°C (79°F).

The Caribbean Islands

If you live in the United States, especially if you're on the east coast, it's not far at all to fly down to the Carribean Islands. Winter is past the hurricane season, so it can be a fabulous time to enjoy the tropical climate.

Cruises typically leave out of Florida, but it's possible to find other ports of call in Texas and up and down the Atlantic Coast. (Personally, I'd rather fly to some place that's already sunny and warm than have to sail a day or two to get to that weather.)

Typically, you'll sign up for an Eastern, Western, or Southern Caribbean cruise, which will spend about a week focusing on islands in their respective areas. The Southern Islands, such as Aruba, tend to be less overrun with tourists, since they're farther away (it's typical for a cruise of the southern Carribean to leave from an island instead of one of the states).

While week long cruises are pretty standard, you can also find longer and shorter sailings. You can even take 3- or 4- day "weekend" cruises leaving from Florida.

South America

For the same reason as Australia (it lies in the Southern Hemisphere), South America is a warm spot to visit when it's winter for all of us up north.

This can be a fabulous cruise experience if you've ever dreamed of seeing Inca ruins or traipsing through a real jungle (don't worry: I hear the machetes are provided). You can even find a ship that will take you down to see the scientifically important Galapagos Islands.

What to do?

"See the tallest waterfall in the world in Venezuela, take a tango lesson in Buenos Aires, visit the disputed Falkland Islands, follow in the path of famous explorers as you round Cape Horn." And, yes, there are some great beaches for lounging in the sun too.

Just check the different itineraries, because South America is a big place! Figure out where you want to go, and then find the cruise that will take you there.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

7-Day "Mexican Riviera" Cruise to Mexico, Definitely Recommended

A few weeks ago, my mom and I took a 7-day cruise to Mexico. It was with the Norwegian Cruise Lines and left out of Los Angeles, sailing to Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, and Puerto Vallarta.

Yes, those are all the tourist spots, and I'm not sure how much of an authentic Mexican vacation we got, but it sure was nice to leave the rainy Pacific Northwest winter behind for some sun.

We've both cruised before, but for the first time we sprung for a balcony room, and it was marvelous. Actually, it wasn't that much of a "spring" because we were doing a last minute cruise, and the prices were very affordable. Also airfare from SeaTac wasn't that expensive since it was only a flight of a couple hours (we were also thinking of the Caribbean as a destination but that entails a longer--and more expensive--flight).

Sitting out on the balcony in the sun, while sipping a margarita and reading a good book is great. Neither of us are big into the crowds that you can find around the pool and dining areas on a cruise ship, so we definitely dug our private balcony.

Our first stop was Cabo San Lucas where we kayaked across the bay (there were way more kayaks and boats and swimmers out there than you can see in this picture!), checked out the sea lion colony (warning: don't get downwind of those sea lions... they do their jobs on the rocks), and snorkeled around Neptune's Finger (a big finger-looking chunk of rock sticking out of the water). We saw a great variety of colorful tropical fish in the shadows of that big finger.

In Mazatlan I couldn't convince my mom to go zip-lining through the jungle canopy, so we did a boat ride bird sanctuary tour through the canals and mangroves. They have huge birds down there (the one in the picture is a Mexican Frigate). We saw herons of several colors. Now we have herons in Seattle, but they aren't nearly as big as those Mexican ones. I guess lots of available fish and sun to warm your feathers is a recipe to grow big. There were lots of birds that we don't have at home too, and those were fun to see (again, lots of big birds heh).

As a part of that tour, we also rode through a coconut plantation and up a long beach to a classic (think of the stuff you see in the movies) Mexican resort area with thatch umbrellas in the sand where you could lounge and look out at the brilliant Pacific Ocean. We had a Mexican-style lunch (your choice of chicken or seafood) and margaritas, of course, before heading back.

In Puerto Vallarta, we headed up into the hills to tour a tiny family-run tequila distillery on an old Hacienda. It was neat driving through the countryside and seeing real homes, not just touristy hotels.

After five sample shots of the local stuff, we were--of course!--ready to buy some. I came home with some authentic (no English on the label kind of authentic) bottles of tequila, a gold and a "peach" tequilia that I've been using as a marinade for grilling.

After the tequila sampling, my memory is a bit fuzzy for some reason... but I remember having a great dinner and sitting outside for dinner and a show. The show included music and several dance acts (including a dancing horse) interspersed with tequila drinking competitions (we had had enough at that point so passed on that front) and a chance to win prizes (hand-crafted goods from local merchants).

Overall, all of our shore excursions were fun, and I'd definitely recommend the Mexican Riviera cruise to anyone. It's particularly nice for us West Coast folks who don't want to fly across the country for some winter warmth.

The weather was sunny and perfect (we were there the first week of December), prices were affordable, and the ship itself was a pleasure to cruise on. Next time I visit Mexico, however, I do want to check out some of the out-of-the-way. less-touristy towns!