Wines of Washington Cruise Onboard HAL's Zaandam
About the Virtual Cruise
Cruise Critic Editor Carolyn Spencer Brown ventured from East Coast to West for a three-night repositioning voyage on Holland America's Zaandam. Why the long trek for so few nights? A Wine of Washington theme program was definitely one attraction. Another? Even though the cruise stops at no ports at all, Spencer Brown loves both the port of embarkation -- San Diego -- and the port of debarkation -- Vancouver.
Spencer Brown's daily reports chronicle her trip from San Diego to Canada's British Columbia -- and the many sips along the way. In addition to the usual at-sea activities, special events included workshops, receptions, cooking demonstrations, tastings, and food and wine pairings.
Day 1: Monday, Pre-Cruise Stay in San Diego/Embarkation
How crazy is it to squash yourself into a next-to-the-bathroom back row seat in the equivalent of a Boeing 737 tin can -- for six excruciating hours -- just to take a three-day cruise that doesn't even stop at any ports?
It certainly seemed pretty insane to me while crammed onto that airplane from New York to San Diego, but to be honest most of the folks I've met onboard this three-night repositioning cruise so far hail from points more convenient (in fact everybody I've met is from the West Coast). No regrets, though.
"Left" coasters are lucky when it comes to seasonal repositionings -- when cruise ships are moving between Mexican Riviera and Panama Canal (winter) and Alaska (spring to fall), or reverse. The itineraries are simply more interesting and varied than those offered by East Coast ships migrating north (from the Caribbean to Canada/New England); most often you start off in south Florida or San Juan, hit the Bahamas on the way up, and then debark in New York, Philadelphia, Norfolk or Boston.
The West Coast, by and large, is infinitely more dramatic. Ports of call on these wayward repositionings could include California's Catalina, Monterey and San Francisco; Oregon's Astoria and Portland; Washington's Seattle; and British Columbia's Victoria and Vancouver. All are places with magnetic appeal. You can definitely have a great adventure on one of these trips, usually ideal for long weekend getaways (and, if you come from the East Coast with time to spare, there's a chance to spend a few days pre- or post-cruise in fabulous ports of call).
Even my own no-nonsense cruise, meant to reposition the ship from San Diego to Canada's British Columbia for its biannual dry-dock refurbishment as efficiently as possible, has appeal beyond the prospect of "just cruising." That's because food and wine folks at the cruise line created a "Wines of Washington" theme that proved to be a major draw for a lot of travelers. In addition to the usual at-sea activities, those who booked the theme package, which combined a cruise fare with special events geared to wine, were able to attend workshops, receptions, cooking demonstrations, tastings, and food and wine pairing events.
It seems like a lot to cram into three days.
San Diego is an increasingly popular jumping-off point for cruises to Hawaii and the Mexican Riviera, and I've done my share of pre-cruise overnights here. The weather is just about perfect -- warm, dry, not too hot most days -- and for most of us who stay downtown the massively refurbished center city is clean, safe and colorful.
But during past visits the city's Disney-like sheen has left me a bit unsettled. There's little history here for tourists aside from the much-hyped and uber-preserved Gaslamp District and the museums tucked away in Balboa Park. Most of what draws people to this sunny place are the natural pursuits (surfing, golf, kayaking, cycling, beach bumming) or the contemporary urban attractions, such as shopping malls and, in season, watching the San Diego Padres play baseball.
It seemed to me that with all its pleasantness, there wasn't much of a feeling of soul about San Diego. I was looking for that intriguing character that exudes from homeports like New York, Vancouver, Boston, San Francisco, Baltimore and New Orleans.
Was San Diego simply a soullessly restored city?
With only the usual one night pre-cruise stay to find out, this trip I got out of the urban core and, still hanging around within the city limits, honed in on its neighborhoods. The Britt Scripps Inn on Banker's Hill was my first stop; this incredibly romantic, late-19th-century Queen Anne's manse, now a bed and breakfast, is literally an island of antiquity amongst the contemporary office buildings and condo complexes that surround it.
Truly, it was an oasis. Arriving after 10 p.m., tired and disheveled, the inn staff had set out some antipasti and a bottle of wine. A little of each, along with a bubble bath in a Victorian clawfoot tub (aided by absolutely fabulous Penhaligon's soap suds) and a night's sleep in a vast bed made up with 1,000-thread-count sheets tucked in between two windows that let in the soft night air ... and I was ready to abandon the cruise and just stay here. To spend a few days sitting in the lush herb garden that wrapped itself around the house, or curl up with a book on the big covered porch was so tempting.
But there were neighborhoods to explore. To start, Banker’s Hill, even as it was in the shadow of downtown (San Diego's gleaming glass skyscrapers very much part of the area's vista), featured lots of Mission-style cottages with over-ebullient gardens of bougainvillea. Planes literally thundered a mere hundreds of feet overhead as they made their approach to the nearby airport. The mighty Balboa Park was two blocks away. As late as the 1980's, San Diego was a moldering, peeling, crime-plagued metropolis; the city's rather miraculous about-face, as is gradually happening on Banker's Hill, is now stretching around the park into neighborhoods like North Park (with its reputation for art galleries and antique stores that attract the "cultured hipster," according to a local resident), South Park (an "edgy version of Manhattan's West Village"), Hillcrest and Little Italy.
With just a half-day to explore, I opted to check out the latter two. Hillcrest, a destination for hipsters and, frankly, a very pleasant place to live for locals, has experienced a transformation credited in part to San Diego's gay and lesbian citizens. It's not the kind of place from which you'd send a Sea World postcard saying "Look, ma, whales! What do you think?" Its appeal is quiet and, for the traveler, more about its eating (and drinking) places than anything else. Bread & Cie is a must-stop; this pastry and sandwich shop, owned by a Belgian, is absolutely decadent (try the pistachio cupcake with saffron pear buttercream or the chocolate cupcake with lavender buttercream or the granola shots). The coffee is marvelous, too. Nab an outdoor cafe table and watch San Diegans pass by; it's a real shot of local reality.
You can try the Kobe beef burrito at Ortega's Mexican bistro; wait in line for a seat at La Vache, a casual French bistro where the escargot and the like are the "usual"; or party, from lunch until almost breakfast the next day, at the legendary Mo's.
If you have more time, you can shop for wacky, trendy shoes or secondhand books (the neighborhood's latest nod to success is a new Whole Foods). It's an authentic experience.
Little Italy, another of those recently rediscovered neighborhoods just outside the city core, was another story. Sure, there are a handful of rustic, traditional delis and such but it seemed a bit too gussied up to be authentic for this Baltimore girl -- Little Italy in my hometown is still a pretty provincial place. On the other hand, who cares? This neighborhood, which like so many places in San Diego is a rather slick 20th-century interpretation (in this case of an Italian community), offers some delightful restaurants -- try Buon Appetito for lunch or perhaps Sogna di Vino for tapas and wine. There are also a handful of Pine Street boutiques for fashion-forward clothing, accessories and home decor.
The neighborhood is trying to position itself as an artsy destination, and though there's a monthly "artwalk" to showcase its galleries it all seemed a bit ... early in the revolution.
Back at Banker's Hill I retrieved my suitcase from the inn to head off for Holland America's Zaandam; I could spot the ship parked at its pier from my lofty perch, and it occurred to me that San Diego, like Los Angeles (another southern California city comprised of disparate parts mixed in with Disney-like effects), has a personality that's hard to pin down. There's no easily identifiable tone, as you'd find with an East Coast city -- or even a more northern West Coast one. It's like each different part of San Diego, and again I equate this with Los Angeles to some extent, has its own story, its own vibe. The big difference for these two southern California towns is that the vibes don't necessarily correspond to a cohesive whole.
Having never sailed on Holland America's Zaandam, I felt a bit suspicious as I boarded and explored it for the first time. This is the ship after all that was the first in the fleet to target -- albeit superficially -- a younger-than-usual passenger for a line beloved by mature travelers. For example: The artistic theme varied from the line's more typical classic approach to one that highlighted rock and roll artifacts. And its godmothers were Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen (remember the pint-sized stars of "Full House"?), who are more known now for their party-hearty habits as chronicled by the Star and Us Magazine.
I rest my case.
On the other hand, this ship, launched in 1999, was ultimately spawned from Holland America's Statendam class -- which includes, frankly, some of the nicest vessels at sea.
Zaandam has been significantly refurbished since then, and it pleasantly blends new amenities and features -- such as the line's new Explorations Cafe (a coffee bar, library and Internet center all in one) and the best-in-cruising culinary arts facility -- with traditionally elegant pool areas, highlighted by wicker-ish furnishings, colorful mosaics and sculptures of sea life.
Just walking down the corridor to my cabin I relaxed. The ship is neither huge nor cozy. It's just ... right.
Only two decks offer cabins with balconies, so they're premium priced, but on this trip -- consistently frigid and rainy -- the verandahs were unused anyway. All staterooms have Signature of Excellence upgrades such as flat-screen televisions, DVD players (you can rent them for $3 a day; suite holders get 'em free) and deliciously decadent bedding.
Our first Wines of Washington (WOW) event was a reception held in the top-deck Crow's Nest. The ship rocked and rolled in the tumultuous waters but we all managed to hold our glasses upright. The four participating wineries -- Chateau St. Michelle, L'Ecole, Hedges Family Estates and Gordon Brothers Family Vineyards -- all poured liberally, from riesling to cabernet sauvignon. A huge range of boutique Pacific Northwest cheeses -- provided by Kurt Beecher, who runs a cheese emporium at Seattle's famed Pike Place Market -- offered an antidote.
Despite the libations, the participating WOW cruise travelers tended to stick to familiar groups of two or four.
The cool thing about a theme like this one? You can bet that the variety of social events will break the, uh, ice.