Our cruise along the Pacific coast isn't what you'd consider a mainstream trip. It doesn't call at the oft-overpopulated ports of Alaska or the Mexican Riviera -- the two itineraries that often include stops along this part of the Golden State. Instead, it's the rough equivalent of a transatlantic repositioning, moving Celebrity's Mercury from its summertime home in Alaska to its wintertime base in the Mexican Riviera. Other lines cruise this route too, for the same purpose of repositioning between seasons.
The itinerary -- a little bit of Pacific Northwest, a little bit of sunny southern California -- was a fun and exotic mix, and our eight-night cruise included calls at places like Seattle (our embarkation port), British Columbia's Victoria, southern California's Catalina Island, and Ensenada, Mexico (where we disembarked). In between? The true highlights were our out-of-the-way ports: Nanaimo, a little-visited town on Vancouver Island's mid coast, and Oregon's quaint Astoria. While San Francisco isn't exactly "off the beaten path," it isn't a typical cruise stop either -- and the long day there (arriving at dawn and leaving near midnight) was an extra-special treat for us.
While other cruise lines moving ships from Alaska southward offer similar themes, we were particularly intrigued by Mercury. Having enjoyed the line's Millennium-class ships, I was quite intrigued to experience a vessel that represented an earlier era at Celebrity.
If you overlook the drizzly weather (in just about any season) that's a hallmark of Seattle, the city is otherwise a fantastic starting point for any cruise. No way was I -- or my shopping-savvy daughter Zahava, on a rare and much-needed break from her busy job -- going to miss a visit here, so we flew in a day early. Big recommendation: Definitely book a hotel in the city center! We walked just about everywhere, from Pier 66 to the fabulous original Nordstrom, and our hotel room proffered a glorious view of Seattle's Space Needle.
One extra day was not even enough. Even as we boarded Mercury at mid-day, time was ticking. We dropped our bags, took a quick look around at our cabin (a standard balcony that seemed small, though we've been in cozier cabins so it was no big deal) and then headed back out to explore more of Seattle. Pike Place Market, Seattle's famed food market, was a quick 15-minute walk away and after picking up some fresh flowers, we sipped a cappuccino macchiato at the very first Starbucks, another classic Seattle original, and checked out some fabulous dining destinations -- anything with Tom Douglas's name on it, like Etta's, Lola or the Dahlia Bakery.
Back onboard, we prepared to sail away and from our south-facing balcony, we watched the ship glide through the many islands of Puget Sound. As dusk gave way to darkness, our seagoing path glittered with lights from the homes along the straits. Soon enough, we were in open seas, on our way to Victoria.
Our First Day and Night Onboard
Mercury is smaller and cozier than the Millennium-class ships, and while there is no Spa Cafe or alternative restaurant, there are attributes that make the ship special. The ambience is quietly elegant, and although we might have enjoyed using the Thalassotherapy pool without having to pay $90 for the week (we chose not to), we certainly appreciated the Palm Springs pool area, missing on the Millennium-class vessels but here is enclosed at the aft of the ship. We especially appreciated the intimacy of the Cova Cafe Milano, Celebrity's signature coffee and wine bar, which on Mercury is smaller, prettier and more appealing than on the larger ships.
As we sailed away into the darkness and relaxed with the realization that our cruise had indeed begun, we were drawn to Cova Cafe Milano for both a pre-dinner drink and to take in the fabulous classical music being played at its center. The cafe serves sundry coffee concoctions, offered with a little almond cookie, and all manner of wine and cocktails. In the evening, complimentary hors d'oeuvres are brought around by the waitstaff. With the classical trio or pianist adding to the ambience, and with candlelit tables and "olde-world" decor, it was the most attractive and most relaxing spot onboard. It's got a great position on the ship as well, lining the small atrium area, which makes it a superb spot for people watching.
Our late-seating dinner at Mercury's Manhattan Restaurant provided one of the most enjoyable aspects of our journey. Seated at large table with only two other women -- girlfriends who took one vacation a year together, leaving husbands and family to fend for themselves -- we ended up so chummy with them that we were sharing entrees (a great solution to the tough choices and wide variety on the menu).
While the cuisine was fine that night and others that followed, ultimately a disappointment was the lack of regional offerings on the menu: Coho salmon, Dungeness crab, San Francisco cioppino. Pity; it would have extended the magnificent northwest ambience into the ship itself.
Ye Olde Victoria
Victoria, a regular port of call on Alaska-bound trips from Vancouver and Seattle, enjoys a few distinctions: it's got the most moderate climate in Canada, and because of that is the nation's retirement capital. The city's other distinction? Although it was founded in 1843 as a trading outpost by The Hudson Bay Company, the city was named for Queen Victoria, was populated by Brits as a Crown Colony, and still bears the distinct influence of that period. Union Jacks line the more touristy roads; many shops sell British, Irish and Scottish items; and there are plenty of pubs and taverns to carry the theme.
While still a small, quiet capital city (it's the capital of British Columbia), Victoria had grown substantially since my last visit 20-some years ago. The harbor is rimmed with new and modern hotels, the downtown area features several "Festival Marketplace"-type pubs and eateries, and it has become the gateway for exploration of the wilder and much more sparsely populated west coast of Vancouver Island, with several tour operators facilitating the trips.
Even still, there are a couple of musts on a visit here. Don't miss a taste of Rogers' Chocolates, the creamy concoction served in chunky patties wrapped in signature pink plaid paper that have been a Victoria institution for over 120 years. British high tea at the classic Empress is an experience in British manners, with little finger sandwiches, scones and clotted cream, and silver tea service. It's very refined and genteel, having tea while sitting in the lobby or a nook somewhere in this fabulous castle-like hotel built by the Canadian National Railroad at the turn of the last century. And a visit to a pub, any pub in the downtown area flying the Union Jack, is practically a requirement. You can get Guinness on tap, try a "bubble and squeak" or "bangers and mash" for lunch, and even play darts, just as in Ye Olde England.
When the weather is good, a visit to Butchart Gardens is positively soul-soothing. The award-winning botanical showplace highlights northwest species amid winding paths and water features. It's most glorious in spring, when azaleas, rhododendrons, tulips and daffodils are all abloom.
And when the weather is unpleasant, as it was on the day we visited, the Royal BC Museum, just across from the Empress, is a fantastic place to spend an afternoon. Exhibits include artifacts from the region's First Nations, including totems, hand-hewn canoes, original carvings and artwork. The exhibits on the logging industry are eye-opening.
Icky weather might keep you from your whale-watching excursion (as it did me and my daughter), or a visit to Butchart Gardens, but all is not lost: You can shop in the morning, have lunch in a pub, go to the museum and end the day with tea at the Empress.
Ahhh, A Restful Sea Day
Or maybe a not-so-restful day at sea! Either way, it's wonderful to have the whole day free on Mercury.
My daughter came rushing back to our cabin from her workout at the gym to tell me to go outside and look. A whale spotting -- two on our side of the ship and one on the starboard side! We learned that they were gray whales, starting their migration to birth their young in the warm waters along the Mexican Riviera. Here's a tip: On this type of southbound cruise, pick a cabin that faces east -- we loved seeing the lights from the occasional towns that dotted the coast along the way. We also saw plenty of dolphins as they bounced in the wake at the side of the ship.
Our sea day alternated between lazy and luxurious (for me) and active and enriching (for Zahava). I read on the balcony or near the Palm Springs pool; my daughter took classes ("napkin folding" might seem like a stretch for a 20-something, but she's an interior architect so the intricacies intrigued her, and she positively crowed about her perfectly-executed "Bishop's Hat"). She also tried line dancing. Together, we played blackjack in the casino (we won, we lost, we got silly, we laughed a lot and ultimately we came out a little bit ahead).
We also enjoyed our lunch at the Palm Springs Cafe; on this day, the sandwich station was featuring Reubens, which were surprisingly good. I love Reubens and consider myself a Reuben aficionado, so I was quite pleased that they measured up.
Nanaimo and the Inside Passage
One of the nicest things about our cruise taking us north of Victoria is that the route between the mainland of British Columbia and Vancouver Island actually comprises part of the Inside Passage. Two regrets: Most of our journey was after dark, and if we had been there in July we might have been able to watch the world-famous Nanaimo Bathtub Races!
Nanaimo (pronounced na-NYE-mo), is located mid-Vancouver Island in a protected harbor setting, and is the gateway to some fascinating scenic and cultural opportunities. The burgeoning Cowichan Valley wine country and First Nations compounds are just south of the city, exquisite dive sites and world-class salmon fishing opportunities just north, and hiking, rock-climbing and bird-watching inland and to the west. It's a great port addition to Alaska itineraries.
We were tendered to a dock in the middle of the busy, vibrant marina area, just a block from downtown shops and restaurants. The marina itself is lovely, with boutiques and coffee houses and the Harbourside Walkway, which extends over four kilometers along the waterfront. It was a gorgeous sunny day, a little bit chilly, but a perfect day for walking and exploring ... and shopping.
Most of the shops at the dock sell touristy trinkets (totes, magnets, shot glasses) but we walked just two blocks up from the port area and found some wonderful shops within a very short radius. We particularly enjoyed Carpe Diem on Commercial Street, which sells unique home and garden items at very reasonable prices. We wandered around the square above the marina, too, where a craft market had been set up, and at 12 noon on the dot, a cannon was fired after a ceremony by some people in Scottish kilts. We never found out exactly what the ceremony was, but apparently it takes place every day.
We ended our day by sitting outside at one of the cafes along the marina, each with a scrumptious cappuccino and a Nanaimo Bar, a gooey concoction made with chocolate, coconut, walnuts, graham crackers and custard (I learned how to make them under the name "Flanigan's Fancies" many years ago).
Returning to Astoria, Oregon
Many years ago, on my first visit here (a camping trip with my daughter when we were both much younger), I decided that I'd like to retire in Astoria, live in a cozy cottage, go out crabbing in the morning and nest by a fire in the evening fog. As Mercury pulled into port, I felt that yearning come rushing back at the sight of the red-gold of the fall maples; the narrow Victorian houses painted in tones of mustard, moss and vermillion dotting the hillsides; and the gigantic bridge across the sound where the mighty Columbia River flows into the Pacific. This little city, with its backdrop of towering trees, Victorian architecture and 19th-century boom-town history, feels quintessentially northwest.
Astoria has been the backdrop for several movies, most notably "Kindergarten Cop" (starring the current governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger), "Short Circuit," and "Goonies." You can see the filming locations for these movies (perhaps you'll recognize the 4.1-mile bridge that was featured in each of them as well as in "Free Willy"). The Astoria Column, the second significant landmark, which towers over the town and offers a viewing platform, was featured in most of these movies as well.
The main shopping area, Commercial Street, is filled with little boutiques and antique shops. Flavel House, the mansion of an 1800's lumber baron, serves high tea in the afternoons, an experience that transports you back to Edwardian times.
Although it's quite hilly, most of the town is walkable from the port. There is a shuttle that goes to the center of the city, a better option for less mobile cruisers.
Because it was a Sunday, not everything was open. We grabbed a coffee on Commercial Street and window-shopped for awhile, returning to the port where, despite the cold weather, some enterprising craftspeople had set up booths and were exhibiting their wares. There were a couple of bands that played for the cruise guests, too; really quite enjoyable.
The rain and chill finally drove us back onboard, to our favorite "outdoor" spot, the Palm Springs Pool (though covered with a magradome, it's not technically outdoors -- a plus for this itinerary, actually). Surrounded by windows and a glorious view, we had easy access to the bar, the open aft deck and the all-day pizza and pasta. We grabbed our books and cocooned there as the wind got stronger and the rain more steady. All we lacked was a fireplace to go with the hot chocolate that was available at the self-serve coffee bar opposite the pizza and pasta station.
That San Francisco was on the itinerary is one of the reasons we chose this particular cruise; Zahava and I had spent many days walking through the city when she was younger, and approaching it from the harbor would provide a unique thrill for us. Indeed, we went under the Golden Gate Bridge at dawn; I woke Zahava and we shivered on the balcony watching as our ship passed Alcatraz and headed into the city. Lights sparkled on its hills, and (although my daughter said I was crazy) I was sure I could see the outlines of Lombard Street, the "crookedest street in the world," from our verandah vantage point.
Just steps from the port is the area that most tourists find compelling: the strip of bayfront that comprises Fisherman's Wharf. This includes Pier 39, a touristy mix of shops, the San Francisco Aquarium and a handful of restaurants. A bit further on is the actual wharf where the fishing boats come in with their daily catch. The entire area is vibrant, with lots of shops and, in good weather, street performers. Lunch (calamari, clams and Dungeness crabs) at one of the many outdoor kiosks is practically requisite.
With just one day in port, we had to decide: Shopping at Union Square? Visiting City Lights Bookstore in North Beach (now Little Italy)? Dim sum in China Town? Brunch at the Fairmont Hotel, with its revolving restaurant that offers a true 360-degree view of the city, the bay, the bridges and the hills? Or a visit to one of the exhibits at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which is within walking distance of the port?
In the end, we hung out around Fisherman's Wharf, walked to the Buena Vista Cafe for "the original" Irish Coffee, and stopped at Ghirardelli Square for some chocolate shopping on our way back to the ship.
If we had been more ambitious, we could have taken the trolley that stops by Ghirardelli and goes up Knob Hill to Union Square. And from there we could have walked to almost all "downtown" sights, including the arts scene in SoMa (South of Market), the business district near the Embarcadero, the theater district and Chinatown.
The best bet for newcomers, though, is to take one of the "hop-on, hop-off" trolleys, which you can catch across the street from the ship dock. It costs about $18 and covers the major attractions in the city with a narrated tour.
26 Miles Across the Sea: Santa Catalina Island
Just off the coast from the urban sprawl of Southern California, Santa Catalina Island, surrounded by placid blue-green water, comes as somewhat of a shock. Rugged mountains jut upwards, and the little town of Avalon rises from the harbor that surrounds it, looking like a mini-Portofino in an incongruous location. After San Francisco, it was amazing to find ourselves in this subtropical -- and hot! -- climate.
Another ship, Norwegian Spirit, was at anchor off Catalina Island when we arrived. There are two tender docks, and they got the one that's smack in the middle of the town. Ours was off to the side, about an eighth of a mile from the "bustling" core of Avalon, a charmingly romantic and small city, where everything can be done on foot. The walkway along the waterfront is filled with benches and flower-filled planters, seafood restaurants and burger joints. An ice cream and saltwater taffy shop appears on every corner, and the shops along that harborfront road sell souvenirs and tchotchkes with a predominantly nautical theme. Hint: Walk along some of the roads that are perpendicular to the waterfront; the shops are less expensive and the items for sale more varied.
We shopped (purchasing some terrific wind chimes) and then had lunch at a restaurant overlooking a roped-off beach in the center of town with a resting platform moored in the water; there were several kids playing there, seemingly enjoying every minute. Every few hours, you can see the hydrofoil coming in from and returning to San Pedro, the port of Los Angeles.
Although the town is where most of the activities take place, the wild interior of the island -- the accessible portion, anyway -- has its own charms. Zahava had gone there on a camping trip with the Girl Scouts when she was younger, and came home with scary tales of marauding hordes of wild boars. Golf cart rentals are available pierside, with maps of the interior roads and an itinerary to follow; the photo ops from the cliffs above Avalon are fantastic. You can rent boats, snorkeling equipment and dive gear right at the pier as well.
The Sprint From Ensenada to San Diego
The strangest part of this voyage was the fact that we actually were required -- due to an arcane provision in the 1820's-era Jones Act that requires passengers picked up in the United States to disembark in a foreign port -- to get off the ship in Ensenada, just over the border in Mexico, and then be bused north to San Diego. The transfers were handled admirably by Celebrity, although staffers were apologetic about it and encouraged us to contact our Congresspersons to change the provision. After a quick stop at the U.S./Mexico border, we were back on the buses and en route to the San Diego airport.
This cruise, which offered several stops that are not typical tourist havens (Nanaimo and Astoria are both certainly less kitschy than Ketchikan, for example, and offer a nearly-equal stunning backdrop of beauty), was a perfect antidote to end-of-summer restlessness. The portion of the itinerary that goes from Victoria to Nanaimo is part of the Inside Passage, a nice treat without doing an entire Alaska cruise. Going under the Golden Gate Bridge at dawn was awe-inspiring, and then going from the chill and drizzle of the northwest to the sunny warmth of Catalina Island in one trip was fantastic.
We've been on bigger, glitzier ships, with more activities, alternate dining spots and fancier staterooms, but Mercury's mid-size and casually elegant atmosphere appealed to me. The ship was built when a large number of balconied staterooms were still a rarity, and although our room itself was, in my opinion, poorly configured, having the balcony was a luxury.
My daughter probably would have enjoyed a bit more vibrant nightlife and more people her own age, but this cruise lends itself more to the older, calmer crowd. For me, it was ideal. Although there were disco nights and rock 'n' roll evenings, they were rather poorly attended. The classical pianist and trio got more attention.
The ship is easily navigated, well laid out, and pretty rather than garish or bright, with an undertone of blues and classic dark woods. The carpeting had been recently refurbished in the public areas, apparent because of the swirly pattern that is the hallmark of Celebrity and Royal Caribbean ships.
And as for ambience in general, we sure felt pampered by Mercury's staff -- or "the Celebrity family," as they call it. This was a quiet cruise with few kids and relaxed activities. The staff made us feel at home, and while it was our first time on Mercury, it felt comfortable and familiar, as though we had been here before.
--By Jana Jones, Cruise Critic contributor.
Photo of Mercury in Nanaimo appears courtesy of the Nanaimo Port Authority. Photo of Victoria appears courtesy of Tourism Victoria. Image of Catalina Island appears courtesy of the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce.