How Holland America is changing the Mexican Riviera and itself

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hollandamericafrontSometimes, a good cruise is like a visit from an old friend.

That’s the case for me this week as I cruise aboard Holland America Line’s gracious 1,916-guest Westerdam to the splendid Mexican Riviera on Mexico’s Pacific Coast.

I’ve been cruising to the Mexican Riviera for over a decade now. I’ve also been sailing with Holland America for the past eleven years, having amassed two-star Mariner status with the line long before I’d ever begun writing about cruising and cruise ships as a career. Both line and destination have changed in the intervening years. Fortunately, that change has been for the better.

A decade ago, the Mexican Riviera was overloaded with cruise ships. It wasn’t uncommon to have three – sometimes four – ships calling on Puerto Vallarta on a single day. Prices were low, the weather was hot, and for many cruisers on the West Coast, a voyage to the Mexican Riviera was one of the most cost-effective cruises they could take.

And then one day, the music stopped. Reports of tourists caught in the crossfire of the drug trade made the news. It was largely overblown and hugely political (check the stats on how many folks are shot each year in Chicago to see what I mean), but the damage was done: the cruise lines pulled out, and by 2012, the Mexican Riviera was a ghost town.

That’s all changing now. Carnival Cruise Line was one of the first to commit to a full season of Mexican Riviera sailings last year, and now its upmarket sister company is doing likewise, deploying the 2004-built Westerdam on a short season that will last until February.

While Holland America has had a handful of sailings here in the past couple years, they’ve been few and far between. This year marks the first season that the line has deployed one of its larger Vista Class ships on voyages out of San Diego for the better part of the winter season. It’s a huge commitment that will no doubt please cruisers who know and love this region, and give those that haven’t had the pleasure the chance to experience it for themselves.

Westerdam’s weeklong cruises to the Mexican Riviera depart Saturdays from San Diego, California. Each voyage includes three relaxing days at sea, along with calls on the ‘Big Three’ ports of the Mexican Riviera: Cabo San Lucas; Mazatlán, and Puerto Vallarta. I’ve long appreciated all three ports for their history, culture and friendly locals, but on this voyage, I see a marked change from past cruises, and it’s for the better.

Appreciative of the business that the cruise ships bring, tour guides, locals and vendors in every town have been nothing but hospitable. The hassling and haggling has gone down substantially in most areas from what it was a decade ago, and the city of Mazatlán even employs Canadian and American residents living in the city for the winter to act as tourism ambassadors to visiting guests. It’s a lovely touch that really adds to the friendly atmosphere of that great city, and takes some of the intimidation out for the first-time visitor to Mexico.

As the Mexican Riviera has changed, so too has Holland America. In recent months, the line has rolled out a new logo; a new tagline (“Savor the Journey”), and a new ship, the elegant ms Koningsdam. It has also carved out partnerships with America’s Test Kitchen, BBC Earth, and B.B. King’s All-Stars Band, playing some of the best jazz I’ve heard at sea onboard.

The line is also embarking on a major refurbishment program, which Westerdam will receive the full benefits of in her spring drydock. This refit will see the line’s new music venues, like the Lincoln Center Stage and Billboard Onboard added to the vessel, along with new verandah staterooms and upgraded suite furnishings.

In many ways, Westerdam is the perfect ship for the Mexican Riviera run. At 935 feet in length, she’s big enough to have 10 bars and lounges, eight restaurants and cafes, two outdoor swimming pools (plus a third hydrotherapy pool that is available as part of the Greenhouse Spa’s Thermal Suite), and a wonderful wraparound promenade deck book-ended amidships by two sets of glass elevators that race up the ship’s 11 passenger decks.

Most ships of this size would carry nearly 3,000 guests, but Westerdam holds a little more than half that amount. That means fewer lines and more choice.

Holland America is also taking a more cultural approach to its Mexican Riviera sailings. On my voyage, we have a group of ‘Mexican Ambassadors’ that have been delighting guests with traditional folkloric dances by the pool deck, dance classes, and locally-inspired arts and craft lessons. Guests could also take part in a Spanish-language class that focuses on how to learn to order food and beverages ashore (probably the thing most of us will want to do), or enjoy authentic Mexican cuisine at special buffets out by the Sea View Pool.

While many changes have come to Holland America, one thing has stayed the same: the line’s fantastic Indonesian and Filipino crewmembers provide a level of service that’s quickly slipping away from many big-ship lines.

If you’re ready to go cruising, Westerdam sails to the Mexican Riviera every Saturday between now and the end of February. Next year, she returns for another winter season that begins on November 24 and runs through February of 2018.

You can also hop aboard sister-ship Oosterdam in San Diego for a handful of fall voyages to the Mexican Riviera, including a special 12-day voyage that departs from Vancouver’s Canada Place Cruise Terminal on September 25, 2017.

Happy cruising.

Source: O Canada