Pre-cruise: We stayed at the Crowne Plaza in San Pedro for one night pre-cruise. The Crowne Plaza is about a 20-25 minute ride from the Long Beach airport, but the hotel doesn't offer an airport shuttle. However, we had reserved space on-line in advance for the four of us with Prime Time Shuttle service for $42 total. The shuttle was ready and waiting when we arrived!
The Crowne Plaza itself is a very popular pre-cruise hotel. Though we arrived to the hotel at 11 a.m., and check-in was not until 3 p.m., our two rooms were ready for us. The concierge was the highlight of our stay, welcoming us warmly upon arrival and promptly giving me his business card and offering up his area recommendations (which I did use). After unpacking and quickly settling in, the concierge arranged a driver for us who would first take us to In-N-Out Burger, wait while we nibbled, take us to the Queen Mary back in Long Beach, then pick us up at the end of the day and drive us back to the Crowne Plaza in San Pedro. He promptly offered a driver who would do all of this for $65 total. What a bargain! With tip, we ended up paying $80 (or $20 per person) for this service.
The Queen Mary tour is something I highly recommend for anyone interested in ghost stories or the paranormal. While the ship itself really has not been well-maintained, i.e. stained carpets, mildew smell in certain areas, paint chipped from walls, scrapes and marks on walls, and a basic look of a once-beautiful ship just kept for tours, it does offer a fun and engaging look at the ghosts and legends that make up her history. We opted for the "Haunted Encounters Passport" which entitled us to the self-guided tour (beware that if you are not good with directions, your feet will become weary from losing your way in the bowels of the ship), the "Ghosts and Legends" tour and the "Haunted Encounters" tour for a cost of $27.95 per person. The fee was well worth the tours of areas not open to the public for general browsing, as we were exposed to a doorway where a crew member had been crushed and has been known to still visit the space, the boiler room where a young girl's spirit visits on occasion, and various cabins where passengers had died - and have "come back to life" - over the course of Queen Mary's life on the seas. Dedicate 3-4 hours to ensure you have time to join in the guided tours as they do fill up fast!
Once back to the Crowne Plaza, we asked the concierge for a good recommendation for dinner. He made no hesitation in recommending Raffaello's Ristorante in San Pedro. The valet drove us in a complimentary hotel van to dinner, where we were promptly seated simply by mentioning the name of our concierge (though we had no reservations and the place was packed!). The Italian food was very, very good with the mozzarella sticks being the table favorite! They really weren't "sticks" per se - they were really more like flattened pieces of cheese that had been lightly breaded and baked, and swimming in a very good marinara sauce. None of us finished our huge meals, probably because the chef sent us a couple of appetizers "on the house". After the meal, we ventured back to the Crowne Plaza, only a 4 block walk.
The morning of disembarkation, we leisurely made our way to the lobby where we caught the Crowne Plaza's free cruise shuttle just before noon (the shuttle actually begins at 10:30 a.m.) and arrived to the port by 12:05 p.m. As easy as pie.
Embarkation: Upon arrival, porters collected our luggage and we made our way through the check-in process. The check-in line was about 25-30 people deep, but moved swiftly. We were at the check-in counter within 10 minutes, proceeded through security, posed for our Welcome Aboard photographs, and stepped onto the ship by 12:45 p.m.
Cabin: We booked an Inside cabin (#4461), midship, Category K, just down the hall from the Champagne Bar. The great thing about the location of this cabin was that it is located in a corridor as opposed to a main hallway. The result is absolute quietness from passersby, though we did hear the occasional footsteps from those above us in the casino. The size of the cabin was much larger than we were expecting, providing ample storage and closet space with a mini couch to sit and lounge without feeling cramped or claustrophobic. Be warned though that there was no mini fridge in this cabin. While not a big deal, it was a surprise.
To see a tour of this cabin, click this link or copy and paste it into your browser: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHOpnIHBIbU
The Ship: Royal Caribbean really knows how to create a flow-positive ship that promotes ease of progression from one space to the next. Vision of the Seas is no exception. From the beautiful Centrum, to the public spaces such as the Schooner Bar, the Champagne Lounge, or the adults-only Solarium, Vision was filled with many spaces for simple relaxation - and that is exactly what we did. With three sea days, we found ourselves first exploring the nooks and crannies of the ship, then settling in to comfy lounge chairs from 10 a.m. until about 6 p.m. each night on Days 6 and 7, only taking breaks for a zip through the Windjammer Buffet, the Solarium Cafe, the hot tub or the restroom. The ship really lends itself to rest and relaxation, but also offers the fun stand-bys such as the Sexy Legs Contest and the Belly Flop Contest. Even in 65 degrees and an overcast sky, men will still dawn their hairy bellies and fall straight into the pool in order to win a ribbon.
Being that this was a New Year's cruise embarking on December 28th, many holiday decorations adorned the Centrum, the hallways, and most public spaces. An elaborate gingerbread neighborhood filled the lower Centrum area in front of the waterfall, and Hanukkah banners hung from the upper decks. By Day 4, many of the decorations were removed in favor of New Year's decorations. New Year's was celebrated with a variety of entertainment options throughout the ship. We chose to ring in the New Year on the pool deck, alongside other partiers enjoying complimentary champagne and dancing to the sounds of Heat Wave, the ship's own calypso band who played Bob Marley tunes most of the night. Just before midnight, a countdown erupted and at the moment the clock turned to 2009, the captain blew the ship's horn for all to enjoy. It was truly a fun and party-like atmosphere that reminded me of the reason we wanted to be at sea to welcome 2009 - no need for a designated driver!
Food: I must say that the food was the most disappointing aspect of this cruise. While I do not expect 5-star dining, I do expect flavorful food each evening in the Main Dining Room. The first two evenings, the four of us independently chose menu options that looked appealing based on the description. By the third evening, we were asking our fabulous Head Waiter - Rudolpho - what he did NOT recommend on the menu, as it appeared we were just making the wrong choices. No matter what we ordered from evening to evening, we were disappointed in bland-tasting food. The only love we truly had was for the garlic shrimp, the lobster, and the chicken with herbs. None of the pasta dishes were cooked correctly, the Asian tofu was extremely bland, the prime rib was overcooked and tough, and the Indian paneer was tasteless. We are all lovers of food, and not overly picky (though I'm a vegetarian, so I rely on the palates of my cruise mates for additional feedback) so it felt really unusual for all four of us to be so disappointed in the food.
Vision of the Seas offers a few good options in the Solarium Cafe - Caesar salad, club sandwich, roast beef on focaccia, pizza options, whole fruit and fruit salad, hamburgers, hot dogs, and French fries. Being a lover of pizza, my husband rates Vision's pizza somewhere between Sapphire Princess' and Carnival's (really just cheese on an English muffin). Additionally, soft serve ice cream can be had at the main pool deck, but it seemed as if they were running out of vanilla early on most days.
Cafe Lattetudes offers a coffee card where you get a punch for each specialty coffee purchase, and after seven purchases, you receive one free specialty coffee. Additionally, as on many Royal Caribbean ships, with each specialty coffee purchase, you receive your choice of one of any of the pastries in the case. I had earned my free coffee by Day 5 and was still living the coffee high beyond that day. Next to Cafe Lattetudes is Ben & Jerry's offering a delectable array of milkshakes, sundaes, and simple scoops for a premium price. My husband highly recommends the Phish Food Milkshake for lovers of that dessert genre.
Entertainment: We are not connoisseurs of big production shows and lean toward comedians, hypnotists, and magicians. We went to see Darrell Joyce, performing his late-night adult comedy, and wow was he funny! His story-telling could relate to most of the audience as he makes fun of everyday life experiences in a hilarious and "adult" context. The other comedian was good and the ventriloquist was a lot of fun. Due to a scheduling conflict we didn't see the magician, but we did see his assistant dress up as a call-girl on formal night.
While my husband and I did not watch any, the selection of movies was pretty good: Wall-E, Indiana Jones, Get Smart, Batman and others. However, our friends said that the projector couldn't handle the compression rate of the movie, and the action sequences were very choppy. If you wanted to watch one of the movies in your cabin, you could do so in Spanish, French, German, or Italian, but not English.
Ports of Call:
Cabo San Lucas - We took a cab to Medano Beach and asked to be dropped off at Mango Deck, a bar/restaurant with service right there on the beach. Our early arrival to this port gave us the opportunity to find a good spot under a palapa with four chairs for our lounging. In no time at all, the loud thumping of music and obnoxious voice over a microphone was inviting beach-goers to drop trough for a shot of tequila, drop bathing suit tops for a shot of tequila, change bathing suit bottoms with the opposite sex for a shot of tequila, dance in a conga line for a shot of tequila, anything remotely embarrassing for a shot of tequila. And after joining the conga line, my husband found out that it was tequila and fruit punch. We quickly felt like we were in the middle of Spring Break festivities though it was late December and there were families with children present, alongside those aged 20-50. While we found this type of entertainment to be humorous, we didn't plan on such a loud and party-like atmosphere, and anyone with children should be warned about the profanity shouted repeatedly over the microphone. I am a former party girl myself, but this was over the top, and now being over 40, I guess I sound more like a grandparent than a fun-loving adult. Nevertheless, know what you're getting into, and if it's not for you, head next door to Billygan's where you get to enjoy Medano Beach without walking on the wild side.
From Medano Beach, we cabbed over to Cabo Wabo to check out all the fuss about Sammy Hagar's nightclub. The club itself was extremely quiet, as it was only about 3 p.m. Only a few diners were nibbling on appetizers and drinking, and it was clear that the place runs on name alone. Service was shoddy with waiters hard to come by, and the food was overpriced. Don't plan on a free soda refill as you will be charged for each soda you order. The nightclub portion of Cabo Wabo is full of photographs of Sammy with various other musicians over the years ranging from Tommy Lee, Kid Rock, Van Halen, Iggy Pop and many others. I can easily see why this small venue would be ideal or even GREAT for a concert, but not for a remotely good dining experience. Visit it once, maybe take in a late-night gig, but don't expect much during the day.
Mazatlan - We grabbed a cab from the pier and asked to be driven to Hotel Playa Mazatlan in the Golden Zone. Our plan was to again just lounge in the sun under a palapa and eat, drink, and cool off in the water all day. Our cab driver started driving us toward the Golden Zone, but passed the hotel and said he needed to turn around. When we arrived to our "destination", or so we thought, we found he had taken us to Diamonds International. We knew the drill at that point and simply walked straight through the building, making no eye contact, and out the other side about a half block from our true destination. We made it to the sand, but had to walk the equivalent of about two more blocks before we found any palapas or lounge chairs or beach service. We ultimately landed at Los Sabalos which is located at Hotel Sabalos, now part of the Ramada chain. The food here was the best! The drinks were strong, the guacamole was fresh, the tacos were flavorful, and the quesadillas were plentiful. The beach service started at 1 p.m. so we spent the first two hours just sunning our Pacific Northwest bodies until we could order some food and beverage. Once we did, we had wished we could place "to go" orders and show the Chef in the Main Dining Room on Vision some great examples of excellent food. I highly recommend this beach, and will return here next time we are in Mazatlan.
Puerto Vallarta - We grabbed a taxi and headed to Los Muertos beach and the area next to Blue Chairs, now called Blue Seas. The restaurant adjacent to this area of the beach has changed ownership and unfortunately the food was simply awful. Our love of this beach day was the comfort of the chairs here. Look for the beige umbrellas and the mesh-like lounge chairs. Not only were the chairs ultra comfortable, but because they were made of mesh, the sand from your body would just fall through the ground rather than sticking to your skin. This is the best beach in Puerto Vallarta for people-watching, so if you'd like to relax with a good book, cool off in relatively warm water, and do it all over again and again and again with a diverse crowd, this is the beach for you!
Disembarkation: Following two sea days at the end of the itinerary, we landed on disembarkation day. We opted for self disembarkation since our flight from Long Beach to Seattle was scheduled to leave at 11 a.m. Royal Caribbean has a new self disembark policy which enables all passengers (who are walking off the ship with their own luggage) to meet in the Centrum, Deck 4, at 7:15 a.m. and simply walk off the ship. The Centrum itself became tightly packed with virtually no where to stand, and disembarkation began about 10 minutes later than scheduled. After a halting of the process after about 20 passengers were allowed to disembark, Customs boarded the ship and had some conversations with crew that delayed us about another 10 minutes. Finally, we were able to disembark at close to 7:45 a.m. and were quickly off the ship and grabbed a waiting van. The sign next to the cab line indicated that the fare from the pier to Long Beach airport was a flat $45. When we arrived to the airport, the cab driver tried to charge us $48 and told us the $45 was just an "estimate". "No way" I said, and we gave him $50 allowing him to decide if his tip would be $5 or $2. We were nearly three hours early for our flight and headed home to snowy Seattle.
In Summary: While this ship was smaller than other ships we have enjoyed sailing in the past, Vision of the Sea's layout, the hospitality of the staff, the ease of traffic flow from forward to aft, and the beauty of the ship itself, lead me to recommend this ship for short or long itineraries where relaxing is your number one goal. Get out there and enjoy!