Cruising the Mexican Riviera with Holland America Line

Holland America Line sent a major vote of confidence to the Mexican Riviera this winter, when it deployed the 1,916-guest Westerdam on the run to Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta from San Diego.

This is the first year in many that the line has had a reasonably-full winter season in the Mexican Riviera, and the first time in many years that a Vista Class ship has been placed back in the region.

Holland America’s Westerdam, at anchor off Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

In the past, Holland America’s Oosterdam (sister-ship to Westerdam) was a staple of the Mexican Riviera run. That all changed with the downturn and withdrawal of ships by nearly every cruise line in the wake of increasing gang violence. Much of it was overblown and over-hyped in the media, but the damage was done.

Over the past week, I sailed aboard Westerdam to see what Holland America Line is doing in the region this season, and to check on how the Mexican Riviera in general is doing now that tourists (and tourist dollars) are slowly returning.

I was pleased at what I discovered on both fronts. Here’s why you’re going to love the Mexican Riviera with Holland America.

A Classic Itinerary From A Convenient Port

Sailing out of San Diego is a dream come true, thanks to the short distance between the airport and the cruise port. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Holland America has homeported Westerdam in San Diego, California for this season and next, and it doesn’t get any easier to get on your cruise.

San Diego’s B-Street Cruise Terminal is located about five minutes by taxi from San Diego International Airport. My taxi cost me $11, plus tip, and had me at the pier by 11:37 am. It was early enough to get in on the first wave of check-ins, and I was stepping onboard Westerdam just 30 minutes later.

This is the “classic” Mexican Riviera itinerary; one that Holland America has seen no reason to tinker with from past years, except for a few arrival and departure times. It starts off with a full day at sea, followed by an afternoon call on Cabo San Lucas. Day-long port calls in Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta follow, and the itinerary concludes with two relaxing days at sea.

A Kinder, Gentler Mexico

Guests sailing with Holland America to the Mexican Riviera can elect to take an excursion to the quaint town of Todos Santos, near Cabo San Lucas. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

I’ve always enjoyed the Mexican Riviera, but I found this to be an even kinder, gentler experience than on past cruises.

Gone are the days when guests were hassled endlessly coming ashore (which, to be frank, was never as bad as many of the Caribbean islands – but still). Instead, cruise ship visitors are welcomed with open arms by locals who know the value that tourism brings, having experienced its absence.

The streets of Mazatlan’s Centro Historico. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

In Mazatlán, the city has employed volunteers from the United States and Canada who winter there to act as tourism ambassadors. You’ll see them frequently in all the major attractions in the city’s gorgeous Centro Historico, or Historic District. They’re there to answer questions and offer recommendations. It’s a brilliant strategy that really takes the intimidation factor down for the first-time visitor who may be unfamiliar with Mexican Spanish, or afraid to ask the locals for their opinions.

Puerto Vallarta’s Malecon promenade. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

These ports are also exceedingly safe. Last year on another cruise, I walked six kilometres from the picturesque Malecon to the cruise pier in Puerto Vallarta. Here’s the lowdown: other than running the risk of dehydration and sunburn in the scorching heat of June, I didn’t have a single issue on my 60-minute walk. In fact, the one local who stopped me in the street said I looked thirsty, and would I like a Pacifico? Turns out yes, I did want one.

Like any major city, you should keep an eye on your wallet and exercise caution – but you’re more likely to get caught up in gang violence in Chicago or Detroit at the moment.

New Immersive Onboard Features

Westerdam’s onboard Mexican Ambassadors. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

I remember sailing to the Mexican Riviera back in 2007 on another line, looking incredulously at the roast beef, gravy and mashed potatoes that was to consist of lunch as we dropped anchor in Cabo San Lucas. Holland America is changing all that, with authentic Mexican specialties worked into menus in the Vista Dining Room and the Lido Marketplace buffet. There’s also a Mexican-themed on-deck buffet on one night of the voyage, and Mexican appetizers and drinks on offer during sail-away from San Diego.

Westerdam also features a group of local Mexican Ambassadors on each voyage, who delight guests with folkloric dances, lectures on the history of Mexico and the Mexican Riviera, and who even offer dance classes, Spanish language lessons, and demonstrations on how to make traditional Mexican crafts.

This is a huge win for Holland America, and I hope the line continues the program. It really sets them apart from any other line, and mimics the level of immersion the line typically provides to guests on its Alaska cruises and cruisetours.

The Westerdam

Westerdam’s classy, three-story atrium. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the Westerdam here. Even now, while she’s still in something of a state of flux before her spring 2017 refit that will see some fairly substantial changes to her public room layout and her staterooms and suites, she’s a gorgeous and welcoming ship.

She’s cozier than most of today’s megaships, with plenty of tucked-away corners that heighten the sense of discovery when you first step aboard her. Few people realize, for example, that the Ocean Bar on Deck 3 spans both sides of the atrium, or that you can bypass the Queen’s Lounge and its attractive windowed corridor by hanging a left and following a curving walkway along to the Northern Lights Disco. Fewer still realize that the lights in this corridor are motion-sensitive, and turn on and off overhead as you walk through.

Greenhouse Spa Hydrotherapy Pool, Deck 9 forward. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Westerdam will only get better next year, when she goes into drydock in the spring. She’ll receive new Verandah staterooms, updated fabrics and furnishings in suites and staterooms, and new public rooms that include the Gallery Bar, which will take the place of the rarely-used Northern Lights Disco on Deck 2.

Her Piano Bar, Sports Bar, and the starboard side of the Casino on Deck 2 forward will also be removed to make way for the line’s new Billboard Onboard music venue. I saw this transformation earlier this year aboard Eurodam, and it’s a real winner that opens up this formerly closed-off space and modernizes it in the process.

And early next year, Westerdam’s Crow’s Nest will be transformed into the new Explorations Central, an interactive and immersive area where guests can learn more about the history and culture of their ports of call, and plan their journeys ashore.

As she gets ready to celebrate 13 years on the waves, Westerdam is every bit as gracious as she was when she set sail back in 2004. Now, with the new Music Walk venues, B.B. King’s Blues Club, and updated furniture and décor, she’s arguably a better utilised ship than she’s been at any other point in her career.

The Mexican Riviera may just be coming back to what it once was, but after a week in the area aboard Westerdam, it is coming back better than ever.

Cliff Divers, Mazatlan. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Join the Conversation

Jodi Lien says:

Expertly and thoughtfully written, as always, Aaron. Your report provides important and valuable information to encourage travelers to return to the beautiful Mexican Riviera. Bravo to Holland America Line for embracing this iconic itinerary. My hope is that someday Acapulco can once again be included as the dazzling jewel in this region.

Aaron Saunders says:

Thanks very much for the kind words, Jodi. Your hope that Acapulco will once again work its way onto the itinerary is also my hope; I’d also love to see a return to the Sea of Cortes cruises and calls that include the Copper Canyon rail journey.

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