Yesterday was our final sea day. Unlike the others, which were somewhat on the laidback side, it was filled with activities, from enrichment lectures to a blackjack tournament. At midday there was a special Asian lunch spread set up poolside, including both sushi and sashimi as well as cooked choices. At noon there was also a special "Musical Mystery Trivia Contest", in which assistant cruise director Dionne Lochner read an ersatz Sherlock Holmes mystery story, pausing at the end of certain sentences, at which point pianist Jordan Heppner played a few notes from a familiar tune that fit the context of the story. Prize tokens were awarded to the team with the most correct song titles. A second trivia game took place during the regular 4:00 p.m. tea, which yesterday included a huge "chocoholic" buffet, piled high with mousses, Sacher tortes, chocolate creme pies, devil's-food and opera cakes, and a huge assortment of petits fours and French pastries. And the trivia quiz? Why, it was based on questions about chocolate, of course.
Prior to dinner, Captain Guillou hosted a farewell party. Mariner's master has a sharp wit and a warm sense of humor, and, though his midday dispatches from the bridge tend to be brief, no-nonsense and right to the point, in these in-person public appearances he seems unabashedly emotional when it comes to his ship, crew and passengers. There was one "nuts and bolts" issue to be tackled while he still had the microphone: the logistics of our port call at San Diego. We would be arriving at noon today, three hours later than originally scheduled, though the port call would be extended for four hours to 11:00 p.m. Once docked, the ship would be boarded by U.S. immigration officials, and all passengers would have to present themselves to clear immigration. This step was required as San Diego would be our port of entry into the United States. On the positive side, though this immigration check would cut into our port time in San Diego, it would make our debarkation in Los Angeles quicker since the ship would be cleared sooner and all that would be left would be to grab our luggage and pass through the customs checkpoint.
Following that announcement, three of the four vocalists from the ship's production company began one of those musical presentations which have become almost de rigueur on ships nowadays, with representatives of all the ship's departments parading up on stage and joining the singing. After that we filed out for dinner in the Compass Rose.
For dinner we had been invited to join hotel director Marcel Gademan and concierge Kiley Farrell for dinner. This was the third time this trip we had been invited to join officers at their dinner tables, and I asked Kiley whether that was typical or special treatment. As I suspected, it is policy to try and invite as many passengers as possible to sit at a hosted table at least once per cruise, whether that table is hosted by the captain, chief engineer, onboard lecturer, chief purser or whatever. Kiley also stated that in putting together the invitation list they give high priority to single passengers traveling alone. A nice touch, methinks.
After dinner we attended the final production show (or three), this one based on the music of the Beatles (a great and under-utilized subject for shipboard reviews), but we felt this one was the weakest of Mariner's production shows, hampered in part by the loss of one dancer (during the production show three nights previous, there was an ankle-breaking fall) and of one of the four lead singers, the baritone (due to a ship-wide epidemic of the common cold).
When we woke up this morning we sighted two things on the horizon, one far more welcome than the other. On the plus side, we were flanked by one of the largest pods of dolphins I have ever seen, seemingly numbering in the hundreds. On the flip side, the horizon had now taken on a distinctly brown cast: smog. We were evidently getting close to Southern California.
By 11:30 a.m. we had picked up our harbor pilot and two coast guard vessels, a large cutter which hung a few hundred yards off to our port, and another smaller cabin cruiser which continually circled us at close range as we made our way toward the inner harbor. As we rounded a bend, the downtown San Diego waterfront appeared with a backdrop of the city's skyscrapers, creating a spectacular tableau.
By noon we had slipped into our dock, and, after a lunch in Compass Rose, we heard the announcement that immigration procedures were beginning. The whole process took about 45 minutes, and, as with end-of-cruise immigration clearance, there were a handful of cabins, paged on the P.A. system over and over again, that by failing to present themselves in a timely manner held up the entire ship.
Having lived in the past in Los Angeles, I was very familiar with San Diego, having visited there many times. One idea intrigued me: Several years ago San Diego built a light rail system which would not only serve the city of San Diego proper, but would have a spur that ran all the way down to the border with Tijuana, granting easy access to the bustling border town. My previous visits to Tijuana all dated from my college days in the early 60s, and I recalled a seedy, dusty, somewhat-short-of-reputable town whose main American clientele came from San Diego's naval base. A few years back, I had heard that the new "Tijuana Trolley," as the light rail system was nicknamed, had increased commerce and tourism (of a legitimate sort), with the end result that Tijuana had been upgraded significantly. As such, curiosity led me to plan a little trolley ride and border crossing.
The trolley -- not to be confused with the San Diego Sightseeing "trolley," which is really a bus modified to look like an old time trolley car -- is actually a bright red multi-car surface transit system. It is clean, remarkably graffiti-free and easily accessible from the cruise port. There are two stations within a two-block walk of the pier, one at American Plaza and the other at the old Santa Fe railroad station, a familiar landmark to all those who have called at San Diego. It was a snap to get our tickets from the automated machine at the trolley stop; a roundtrip ticket for the 35-minute ride to Tijuana ran $5 each.
Looking out the windows afforded us a continually changing view as we passed through central San Diego, sharing the streets with lunch-hour automobile traffic, then along railroad right-of-ways through the industrial outskirts, passing close to the Pacific coast with its shipyards and the huge naval base and finally through dusty suburbs that stretched to the border.
At the border we -- disembarked? detrained? de-trolleyed? -- and followed the mass of people walking briskly up a series of ramps and bridges that crisscrossed ever higher, but always toward the stories-tall, brightly polished chrome arch and giant Mexican flag that marked the center of Tijuana. After having passed high above the highway border checkpoint, we descended to ground level, through a clanking, metal rotating gate to a small open square with an information office, and, to its right, the sidewalk that you would take to make the 15- or 20-minute walk into downtown Tijuana. To the left was a taxi stand, with a number of clean, well-kept taxis and their bilingual drivers. Though taxi fares are "negotiable," the going rate is $5.00 to be driven to the heart of Tijuana at the base of the arch. We opted for the cab.
Fifteen minutes later we were dropped off at the base of the arch on Ave. Revolucion, Tijuana's main drag. If the town has seen an upgrade it wasn't apparent to me, though, to be fair, there are other sections away from the central area which may be more picturesque. The main difference I noted is that where there used to be a seedy bar at every corner and every other mid-block storefront, now their places were taken by pharmacies. I had forgotten that this border town is a popular destination for U.S. citizens to bring their prescriptions to be filled at rates much lower than those at pharmacies north of the border. And, in front of each pharmacy, a white-jacketed pharmacist hawks his wares the same as if he were pitching silver jewelry or leather boots. Thinking back to the bulk of unwanted email I receive, it was hard not to think of the street as "spam on the hoof."
Further down the street we did find a number of shops offering an excellent selection of leather goods at prices far below those you'd find in a typical cruise port, but, not in a shopping mood, we opted to stop in at Tia Juana Tillie's, a well-known watering hole in the shadow of the Jai Alai Stadium, for margaritas ("Two for one, Senor! Happy hour!").
It was a snap to find a taxi to take us back (they're at every corner), and shortly we were dropped off at the Mexican side of the U.S. border. We strode about 100 yards to the Customs and Immigration building, where we were whisked through without hesitation, and out to the trolley station at the other side.
We returned to the ship after dark, and, doing what little packing remained, we had a late dinner and early retirement in preparation for our morning arrival and debarkation at Los Angeles tomorrow.