"When the van door shuts, I can say, 'Welcome to Mexico,' " said guide Armando Cruz, as six passengers from the cruise ship Norwegian Bliss piled into a tour vehicle built for 17.
Social-distancing protocols established, we headed east out of Puerto Vallarta into the lush, green hills of the Sierra Madre Mountains on this, the first stop on the ship's return to week-long cruises along the Mexican Riviera cruise from Los Angeles.
After two full days at sea, we were ready to stretch our legs on terra firma. And Cruz and his cohorts at Vallarta Adventures were delighted to assist.
"To see the pier this busy is just wonderful," he said. "You people make us happy."
Indeed. As in many harbors worldwide, ships are gradually returning to the fabled Mexican Riviera, whose mainstay ports include our three stops, Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlán and Cabo San Lucas.
Like our tour van, Norwegian Cruise Line’s 4,000-passenger Bliss was carrying less than a full complement of passengers. For now, the line is capping occupancy at 50 to 60 percent, depending on the ship. Our sailing, part of what Norwegian has dubbed The Great Cruise Comeback, carried 2,200 passengers (plus a full crew of 1,700). The ship will sail Pacific Mexico itineraries through mid-April 2022, and again starting in October 2022.
My takeaway after a week onboard: Now is an ideal time to sail, particularly on lines like Norwegian that require all passengers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Though the ship was far from empty, gone were waits for elevators, lines at the buffet, competition for restaurant reservations, seats in the main theater, prime spots poolside or in the ship’s popular Observation Lounge.
A bonus: The crew seemed genuinely delighted to welcome the first passengers onboard Bliss in 18 months. Yes, cheerful accommodation is in their job description, but these sentiments seemed particularly heartfelt. They’d been onboard about a month to prepare for the first returning guests, and there wasn’t a hint of burnout.
The Great Cruise Comeback
Bliss’s Oct. 24 sailing trip from Los Angeles marked the return of NCL’s seventh ship in the COVID era, and the second to the West Coast. (Norwegian Encore resumed voyages to Alaska from Seattle in August.)
With 19 dining options, 20 bars and lounges, a two-level go-cart racetrack, laser tag, water slide, etc. etc., diversions are hardly lacking. Plus, SIX the Musical, now playing on Broadway and in London’s West End, premiered on Bliss with stunning performances by its six stars. A fellow passenger and former cruise director with 40 years of cruising under his belt declared it the best production he’s ever seen at sea.
Another entertainment highlight: The Beatles Experience, a tribute band whose dead-on mimicry of the Fab Four (you’d never guess they’re from Argentina) had the ship’s Cavern Club at capacity during their shows.
Bliss debuted in 2019 with a rousing six-week coming-out party, starting with the trans-Atlantic crossing from its German shipyard to its christening in Seattle. Until March 2020, it was hailed as one of the line’s most successful ship ever launched.
"We were off to a flying start," said Bliss captain Staffan Bengtesson.
Of course, the pandemic dropped anchor on that.
Interesting backstory: When cruising ceased in March 2020, the crew of 1,700 was stuck on the ship for about four months, Bengtesson said. Bliss had been sailing from New York to the Caribbean, but ultimately ended up waiting things out in Norfolk, Va. The crew couldn’t set foot on U.S. soil. Eventually, though, a lone officer was allowed out twice weekly to check the mooring lines.
An eager crew boarded Bliss in late September to prepare the ship for its return to sailing. Though still diverse (59 nationalities!), their makeup has changed, due to COVID-era visa difficulties. About 1,100 of the 1,700 onboard now are from the Philippines.
Crew stationed outside the Garden Café cheerfully reminded passengers to detour to the row of sinks at the entrance for required hand-washing. While early sailings on Norwegian's ships after the pandemic featured a served buffet, the Bliss sailing had returned to self-serve, with food behind glass partitions with shared tongs. You could even toast your own bread.
The enforced hand washing was one of the more overt cleanliness measures in effect, but plenty goes on behind the scenes in an effort to reboot the cruise industry. Onboard our sailing were two members of SailSAFE, an NCL-branded program aimed at keeping the virus at bay, while impressing on customers the lengths to which the company has gone to avoid onboard outbreaks.
Because of NCL's vaccine mandate, passengers aren’' required to wear masks onboard, though the crew is. Nor do passengers need to travel together in a "bubble" when off the ship (unless required to do so by local authorities).
And though we received ship-administered antigen tests just prior to embarkation, no such measures were required when returning to the Los Angeles cruise terminal, though many of us were headed to the airport for flights home. (Had we flown home directly from Mexico, a negative test would have been necessary before boarding. Go figure.)
Bienvenidos a México
If the Bliss crew was happy to see passengers, so, it appeared, were people in port.
In Puerto Vallarta, mariachis serenaded, and pirates posed for photos
Some tour operators, like Vallarta Adventures, re-opened as early as July of 2020, but business was slow. "It was mind blowing to go from 17 people in a van to two," said Cruz, the tour guide. We were heading inland to an organic coffee/agave farm and, later, to a lunch of molé, fried chapulines (grasshoppers) and raicilla, a potent local spirit, at a roadside outpost Hacienda Don Lalín.
Back in Puerto Vallarta at a commercial enclave next to the cruise port, Alejandro Olgin, owner of a stand hawking $5 straw hats among other souvenirs, was reminiscing about pre-COVID times when, on a good day, four ships might be docked. Still, he's been in business 19 years, long enough to gain loyal customers who buy things even if they don't need them "just to support us," he said.
In Mazatlán, our second port call, guide Irene Osuna led our group into the city’s 19th century neoclassic and baroque cathedral. The first COVID-era cruise ship arrived in late August to this at-once gritty shrimp boat port and elegant Spanish Colonial city. Domestic tourists have been trickling in, and gradually, ‘things are getting better,” she said.
At least one local entrepreneur is banking on that prospect. The city’s long-abandoned clifftop observatory has been reimagined as a comprehensive tourist attraction featuring spectacular views and a fascinating history. Dubbed Observatorio Mazatlán 1873, it sports a funicular, house museum, rooftop bar, aviary, and cactus garden. Future features: a zipline connecting the observatory to Mazatlán’s 1879 lighthouse, and a restaurant.
If our two initial stops seemed slower and sleepier than in visits past, Cabo San Lucas was revving into action by 8 a.m., when Bliss, the first of four ships to call that day, unleashed its first passengers.
On the tender dock, guides held signs denoting gathering spots for ship-booked tours – Baja Highlights, Chileno Bay Snorkeling, 4x4 Off-Road Adventure. Beyond them, strollers along the marina ran a gauntlet of glass-bottom-boat-tour pitchmen, and farther along, kiosks touting Razor tours, parasailing trips and, oddly enough, camel rides.
At his post at one of the stands, Arturo Alvarado remained circumspect, despite the heavy foot traffic. He's been at this trade since 1997 and has weathered ups and downs before. For much of 2020, restaurants and excursions shut down.
Today, the waters around the rocky arc of Land’s End roiled with the wake of dozens of tour boats. Marina restaurants touting "You catch it, we cook it" come-ons were, if not full, at least occupied.
"It’s not bad," said Alvarado surveying the scene. "Or at least it’s picking up."