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!