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CRUISING OUT OF SAN DIEGO: Oosterdam offers big experience along Mexican Riviera


Many California residents have a distinct advantage when it comes time to try out a cruise vacation -- they can drive right to the dock. With frequent departures from San Diego and Los Angeles, there's no need to invest a lot of time or money flying cross-country to reach your ship.

This is the ideal scenario for the first-timecruiser who wants a no-muss, no-fuss way to test the cruise waters. Our recent cruise on Holland-America out of San Diego was an excellent example — a 45-minute drive from our suburban San Diego home and we were ready to board our ship to the Mexican Riviera.

Longtime cruisers will tell you that ships and itineraries each have their own set of demographics, and often — mainly because of school vacations -- the customer age range changes according to time of year. Some routes are all about the ports while other routes such as the Mexican Riviera tend to attract vacationers more focused on the ship itself.

And then each cruise line has its own particular niche. With Holland America Line, the niche is "premium" — what the line suggests is a more elegant cruise, but not so formal that travelers feel out of place. Holland America likes to compare its level of service to that of a Westin or Four Seasons hotel.

"Premium means you'll pay about $100 more," said Noel DeChambeau, director of marketing for the line's Alaska route. "But it will be worth it."

Holland America is now experimenting with using larger ships on the San Diego-Mexican Riviera route that we sampled — an itinerary that includes Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta. Our ship was the Oosterdam, one of Holland America's newest and largest and only in service since 2003. While this was not our first cruise, it did seem to us the Oosterdam's odyssey along the Mexican coast would be an excellent, reasonably priced way for Californians to sample big-time cruising.

In San Diego, we parked our car less than 100 yards from the ship and began the high-tech boarding process. Each passenger presented identification and then digital photos were taken. From that point forward, each time the passenger presented his new Holland-America card to leave or re-board the ship, the photo appeared on a computer screen, giving the crew a visual confirmation that the card indeed matched the passenger.

This process took us about an hour, but was relatively painless when you consider the Oosterdam was boarding the equivalent of two small towns like the one we grew up in -- about 1800 passengers and 800 crew members.

That passenger-crew ratio provided an ample degree of personal service throughout the seven-day cruise. The smiles and warm welcomes we received from crew members upon boarding the ship were just the beginning of a non-stop effort by cabin stewards, waiters, cruise directors and many other crew members to pamper each one of us for our entire stay on board the ship. Whether it was just a cheerful "good morning" or a brief conversation about the day's activities, encounters with crew members were always warm, and the staff seemed genuinely interested in making sure we had a great vacation.

Holland America likes to boast the line's average stateroom is about 25 percent larger than the competition and, based on our personal experience, that seems accurate. The room we had — a Deluxe Verandah Outside — was much more spacious than we remembered from earlier experiences on other lines. About 67 percent of the rooms on this ship had verandahs.

The verandah proved useful on our trip — we would often sit out there and read or watch the scenery go by, lulled by the gentle ocean waves splashing against the ship's hull. Inside our stateroom, space was used quite efficiently: our room included a king size bed, a pull-out daveno/bed, bathroom with full bathtub, several closets and a desk area. Satellite TV beamed in CNN and several movie channels as well as TV camera views from the bow and stern of the ship. Just down one floor was the Internet Center where, for 40 to 75 cents a minute, passengers could keep in constant touch with the outside world through email and the internet.

In addition to our three port days, this particular itinerary included three days "at sea." The Oosterdam is like a floating 10-story grand hotel with several fine and varied restaurants, pools and fitness facilities, a spa, shops, nightclubs, bars and countless nooks and crannies. The ship has been carefully designed for maximum comfort and painstakingly decorated to be bright, colorful and airy, while maintaining a feel of tasteful elegance. Whether in port or at sea, each day had a list of activities that ran the gamut — from ping pong tournaments to art shows, from Catholic mass to classic rock happy hours, from yoga to wine classes.

There's so much to do on a ship like the Oosterdam that we actually began feeling a little guilty for just wanting to relax. But not that guilty — we were in total control of our vacation and, on any given day, did just as much or as little as we pleased.

Since we had a 5-year-old with us, our activities often involved the Lido Deck swimming pool where the kids on this cruise loved to congregate. Our cruise, we were told, was somewhat unusual for Holland America — there were a total of about 180 children on board, a higher number than usual. The Holland America Line in general has a little older, more upscale demographic. But again, that can change according to ship, time of year and cruise itinerary.

A real convenience for parents is a relatively new addition to the ship's services called Club Hal. We were able to leave our daughter at Club Hal for hours at a time if we needed to. The Club Hal people teach the kids arts and crafts, or play games with them in an elaborate facility jam-packed with games, toys, movies and just about anything else kids could want. Of course the proof is in the pudding: our daughter couldn't wait to go back the next day.

It will come as no surprise that a major shipboard activity is eating. There's no way to get around it — a cruise like this one on the Oosterdam will tempt you morning, day and night with a wide variety of dining options ranging from casual to elegant. In addition to sit-down restaurant style dining for all meals, the Oosterdam features an area on the Lido Deck that offers several cafeteria-style or deli-style stations where you can order breakfast and lunch. Menus change daily so there is always a wide variety of American dishes as well as Italian, Asian and many other offerings. An upscale restaurant, the Pinnacle, is available for a small additional charge.

Dinner on board was always a festive occasion, Whether it was one of the casual dress nights or the two formal (jacket and tie for men) nights, our dinner seating always gave us the chance to compare notes with other passengers seated at our table.

On this particular cruise there was plenty of time in port and we enjoyed spending shore time in the three sunny destinations. Cabo San Lucas, while hot, was charming and picturesque. In Mazatlan, we spent time in a primitive fishing village with a wide, almost deserted beach. And, of course, Puerto Vallarta is one of the most popular seaside destinations in all of Mexico and we enjoyed soaking up local culture by shopping and listening to well-played flamenco music over drinks and Mexican food.

But once our week at sea reached its all-too-swift conclusion, we realized the ports of call were really just fun diversions and not the meat of this particular trip. We were among those who felt the real destination on this trip was the ship itself. As Cruise Director Jason Venner put it: "Every person who sails on it, loves the Oosterdam."