4-day West Coast Getaway
March 31, 2014 | The usual suspects boarded the Sapphire Princess last Thursday for a 4-day cruise with stops in Santa Barbara and Ensenada.
In the case of Princess Lines, "4 days" means "4 nights" with disembarkation in the early morning of the 5th day.
We left my house at 10am, but we had not yet reached the main road when Ken began bewailing his missing sunglasses. Sophie made a quick, and highly illegal U-turn, and we returned to search the driveway, garage, and house for the missing sunglasses. They were not to be found.
Out in the driveway, Ken searched his bags, again to no avail. "Have you checked your pockets?" "They're not in my pockets, I never put my sunglasses in my pockets." "Well, I see some lumps in your pockets. Maybe you should check anyway." The sunglasses were found — in a pants pocket — and we set off a second time.
Arriving at San Pedro harbor, we easily found parking and schlepped our bags to the check-in gate. Check-in was very quick and we were off to put our bags through the scanners. That also went quickly because it seems that Princess really didn't care about whether or not anyone obeyed their "750 ml wine or champagne" rule. We were assigned to boarding group 13 and feared it would take forever. Surprise! It all went quite quickly and we soon found ourselves on the gangway having our security picture taken and on the way to our staterooms to drop off the bags.
The ship, relatively new and refurbished only two years ago, is best described as elegant and tasteful. Our cabins, while smallish, were well appointed. In contrast to other cruises, the beds were properly configured as twins. There was a huge hanging closet with space for suitcases on the floor. The bathroom had plenty of storage space, a terrific shower head, and plenty of instantly hot water. To be sure, the shower was a cruise-ship shower: get in and don't plan on turning around!
We each brought a bottle of champagne, and it would become our custom to assemble on the balcony for the champagne hour before dinner. Four bottles of champagne, four champagne hours, four nights — how easy is that?
While we were at dinner that first night, the ship "let go her mooring lines at 17:39" and set sail for Santa Barbara where we would arrive 13 hours later.
We were not taking any organized shore excursion, so we had a leisurely breakfast before going down to take a tender into the pier. And this is where it started to get strange: Although the signs said the security level was "normal" the extremely heavy security presence said "something's up." There were at least 50 security people of one sort or another: harbor security, Homeland Security, Immigration, rent-a-cops, etc — all stationed every few feet as we moved over the pier. Before leaving the ship we had noticed an officer constantly on the bridge scanning with his binoculars; he was still there in the afternoon when we reboarded and remained through the night. That afternoon, military helicopters circled the ship.
Our plan for Santa Barbara had been to go out to Old Mission Santa Barbara, but when the trolly dropped us off on State Street the driver mentioned that the old Courthouse was only two blocks to our right. Since Angela had raved about what an interesting thing it was to see, we decided to have a look. It is truly amazing, all the more so because it is still in active use as a courthouse. We went up to the top of the bell tower to have a panoramic view, and on the way down the stairs passed by the clock room where an ancient mechanism was counting off the seconds to the next pealing of the bells. The Mural Room was awesome with every square inch of the walls covered by murals depicting the building and history of the courthouse.
We quickly decided to skip the Mission and simply walk back down the hill to the ship, stopping first at a coffee shop kitty-corner from the courthouse. The coffee was good and the people-watching was "interesting." To my left was a woman seated on a banquette with her legs up on the seat. She appeared to be wearing nothing at all except a man's shirt and was making the close acquaintance of a man sitting on a chair at the table. Trust me, it was not a pretty sight.
Near the foot of State Street we stopped at a small bistro for lunch before making our way out to the end of Stearn's Wharf and eventually back over to the dock to catch the tender back to the ship.
The next day would be a "luxurious day at sea." It began with a visit from a pod of porpoises who came to play next to the ship. They put on a terrific show, leaping into the air and diving back under the water. They would race up to the side of the ship, then swim right by the front of it. At one point, six of them swam side-by-side and jumped in unison. It is very hard to take pictures of leaping porpoises: by the time you see them breach the surface and click your shutter, they've already submerged to prepare the next act of their show. If you do manage to get a photo, it is for the most part an accident.
Ken and Bob missed the porpoise show because they were slugabeds that morning.
At mid-morning the Executive Chef and the Maitre d'Hotel put on a cooking demonstration in which they prepared a three-course meal with an appetizer, main course, and dessert. For the dessert, they were assisted by Bruno the head pastry chef. At one point, Francisco, the maitre d'hotel, added brandy to the dish he was cooking "because I like it" to which Raggie, the Executive Chef, said, "You know I disapprove of that." Egos on display!
After the cooking demonstration we were all led down into the kitchen of the International Dining Room for a tour. We did see people toasting bread for club sandwiches and grilling hamburgers, but for the most part I think we were kept out of where the main action was. It just wasn't busy enough for a place that prepares 11,000 meals a day.
In the afternoon we attended a wine seminar where we tasted six different wines and sampled canapes selected to enhance the flavors of the wine. I confess that when winos go on about "the blackberry entry open[ing] up into a delicious mouthful of wild berries, black olive, sage, and cassis framed by warm mocha, toasted bread and a touch of granitic meneralogy" my mind shuts down and calls it all hokum. I know when I like a wine but all this stuff about hints of this fruit or that spice leaves me cold. It's a lot like looking at constellations in the sky — fine if someone draws the lines but just a bunch of lights otherwise.
This would be a good point to discuss some of the other passengers on the ship. While there was generally a good mix of people on the cruise, some stand out:
There is considerable overlap, especially of the first two groups!
As we sailed into Mexican waters, fighter jets and helicopters again made sorties to fly by and around the ship. After the show of overwhelming security in Santa Barbara, this was just a little unnerving. Did we declare war on someone? Had pirates threatened to hijack the ship?
Having enjoyed it so much the first time we visited Ensenada, we again signed up for the shore excursion to the LA Cetto and Doña Lupe wineries. LA Cetto (Luis Augusto, not Los Angeles) is one of Mexico's largest wineries, but you see relatively little: where the grapes are dumped from the field, where the grapes are crushed, where the wine is aged in barrels. Perhaps if one visited during harvest one would see more, but we have been there only in February and March. They do have you taste five wines or so, ranging from sparkling to white to red. And, at the end of the tour, they give you a bottle of wine to take home. It's not great wine, nor is it awful.
Doña Lupe's is the gem of the tour. It is a small winery/restaurant where things are hand crafted. Instead of a plate of bread, cheese, and olives, they make different kinds of pizzas for you to sample along with the wines. It is a kind of small-plates lunch! This visit there were four wines to sample, ending with one that was almost like Sangria. I rather liked it, but others didn't care for it. As the French say, Chacun à son goût (everyone to his own taste).
But more than anything, we were looking forward to visiting the liquor department in La Doña's store so we could replenish our supply of creamy liqueurs, the coconut and agave liqueurs we bought last year having been consumed long ago. This time there were new flavors to choose from. I came home with macademia nut and chocolate liqueurs while others made other choices. In all, we brought back 8 bottles of liqueurs. Party time!
The Sapphire Princess returned to San Pedro harbor early Monday morning. By 7am she was "all fast alongside."
We went up for breakfast, and by the time we got back to the cabin, the steward had already cleaned the place and changed the bedding, ready for the next occupants. The only thing he had not done was change the towels in the bathroom and wipe-down the counter. Talk about efficient!
Departure from the ship was organized to a fare-thee-well. Those who were carrying their own luggage were divided into 25 "walk off" groups, while those preferring to walk off empty-handed were assigned to one of nine color-coded groups. We were in Walk Off #4 and were to report to Club Fusion at 8:00am for disembarkation. Since our rooms were already set for the next passengers, we went down early, and this is when the Dowager Dont-Stand-In-Front-Of-Me objected to our riding in her elevator.
In the lounge they could have used more staff members with cattle prods to deal with The Oblivious who would enter and stand in the aisle with their bags, or just leave them in the aisle and go in search of coffee. But once our group was called (groups were scheduled at 10-minute intervals), things really got going. Out on the pier, Princess staff went up and down the line telling people what to do and what to have in their hot little hands. When we got inside there was no line for immigration and customs (nobody paid duty and I don't think he even looked at my declaration). They scanned our passports and we were back out on the street. This was my fourth cruise and this was by far the best-organized disembarkation.
Last updated on May 12, 2016