We woke up early (see my comments about noise in stateroom), had breakfast, and got to shore before the big rush. The ship does not dock in Catalina- you have to take a tender from the ship to shore. There are VERY long lines to wait for the tender throughout the day, but if you time it right it’s not so bad. We went a little earlier than most, but after the initial rush for the first couple of tender runs. Maybe around 9am we just walked right on the boat. Later in the day, the lines spiraled up the staircase from deck 3 to deck 10 so we’re glad we missed that. When the tender arrives, the line goes down quickly as the boat fills up all at once. But if you’re several flights of stairs up the line, you may have to wait for a few tenders to fill up before you get there.
The problem with going early to avoid the tender line is that the town really doesn’t wake up until about 11am, so a lot of the shops are closed. But we weren’t looking to spend a lot of time in town anyway, and didn’t do any excursions here, so it was fine for us. We enjoyed the downtown area for a bit, then headed back to enjoy the empty ship, since everyone else was headed ashore (well, not empty, but a whole lot less crowded, which was really nice). This was our general strategy for both ports this time.
I travel regularly to Ensenada on business. It’s a great town and it was fun visiting as a tourist for a change. The advantage of my frequent visits is that I knew where to go for lunch. Whenever I visit, there are a few favorite restaurants that the guys at the local office always take us to. One of them is right downtown so we could walk there. There is a great Birria restaurant right off the main tourist street (Lopez Mateos). Turn on Macheros St., in the direction away from the water. The Birria restaurant is about ½ block up the street on the right hand side, called “Birrieria La Guadalajara”. Since this is a little off the beaten path, we were the only cruise passengers there. The rest were locals and a few off-duty staff that we recognized from the ship. This is one of my favorite places & highly recommend it for some authentic Mexican cuisine and atmosphere. I usually get the lamb birria, but they also have beef, chicken, & goat.
Another tip for Ensenada- when you come out of the cruise terminal, there will be a line of shuttles and taxis offering to take you to the “main shopping area” of town. You don’t need to do that. The “main shopping area” is within easy walking distance. Just turn left when you get off the ship and walk down the sidewalk to the main road. If you hang a hard left right out of the turnstiles, you can bypass the shops and shuttles, and avoid some of the hard sales pitch you will get there. The main tourist shopping street is First Street, AKA Avenue Adolpho Lopez Mateos, which is one block inland, running parallel to the shore. So when you get to the main road that runs along the shore, just cross the street and go back one block away from the shoreline, then turn left. It will be fairly obvious when you get there. There are several bars, restaurants, and shops along this street. Prepare to be approached constantly by vendors trying to talk you into buying their stuff- most of the “stuff” is exactly the same at every street vendor. Don’t pay asking price for anything and don’t feel pressured or guilted into buying stuff.
There are also a few nice little cafes and restaurants along the street with free WiFi if you need it. I resisted the urge and left my iPad on the ship.
While I had no interest in taking those shuttles at the cruise terminal, others might want to take try them. I think the shopping area they take you to is just at the far end of the shopping district, so some of the shops that get less foot traffic can get some customers. I get that… Also they will try to sell you on their own shore excursions. The cruise line will try to scare you away from the local excursions because they are not backed with their guarantee. But the local excursions are a whole lot cheaper than the ones you book on the ship. There are more opportunities for local excursions as you walk into town. If you are adventurous, you may consider it. I’m sure there may be some risk involved, but we've done it this way several times on other trips in this and other ports, and always had a good experience. To be safe, we've always used the more reputable looking ones that have direct access to the terminal with nicer looking buses, and not the grizzly looking shuttles and taxis that will hit you up in town.