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Take me to the Riviera

Jane Archer boards Carnival Cruises’ new ship Carnival Panorama for a sailing south from Long Beach to the magnificent Mexican Riviera – a destination that is worth getting to know

New cruise ships invariably enter service on favourite routes in the Caribbean or Mediterranean so it was quite a gamble for Carnival Cruise Line to deploy Carnival Panorama on the Mexican Riviera when it launched last December.

Or was it? If the passengers I spoke to on its inaugural one-week cruise from California’s Long Beach to Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta in Mexico are anything to go by, it was a guaranteed hit.

Everyone of them, all Americans, was so loyal to Carnival that if the company had a new ship, they were going to be on it, no matter where it went and no matter that they had been down Mexico way several times before.

This itinerary is not a big seller in the UK but really should be. The ports are great, you can tack on a few nights in LA or nearby San Diego, and if you go in winter, as me and my husband did, you get a welcome dose of winter sun.

Carnival’s vice-president international sales Iain Baillie is keen for agents to get to know the Mexican Riviera better. “It’s important that we educate agents to make them aware of what this region offers.” The company’s agent sales team offers face-to-face training, while the Loyalty Rocks Club is a fun way to learn.

Carnival Panorama docks in Long Beach, just behind Queen Mary, the 1934-built ocean liner that was once the pride of the Cunard-White Star Line, but the two could not be more different. Where Queen Mary was loved by the rich (and often famous) for its posh formality, Carnival Panorama is party central, dedicated to Fun – with a capital F – for all ages. 

Mexico, Mazatlan, Colorful old city streets in historic city center

There are kids’ and teen clubs, an indoor trampoline park for youngsters with basketball, dodgeball and a small climbing wall (a new feature for Carnival that costs $12 for an hour), and an aquapark with jets, fountains and a bucket that sloshes gallons of water on anyone below.

There are also two water slides – I tried both and they are Fun (of course) and furious – as well as a ropes course with high wires and swinging beams, and recumbent bikes that those with a head for heights (they are 45 metres above the ocean) can pedal around an 800-foot track at the top of the ship.

Extraordinarily given a ship this size, the only queues we saw the entire week were for the waterslides, bikes and guest services, although there were often a lot of frustrated people trying to use the lifts. Carnival has opted for a new system where you choose your deck and are then directed to a specific car but it was so slow it was usually quicker to walk.

This itinerary includes three sea days (one heading to Mexico, another two getting back to Long Beach) so there is plenty of time to try the activities, sample the entertainment – comedians, live bands, lavish production shows and more – and relax with a cocktail or two in one of the many bars.

And then there are all the places to eat. Burgers, burritos, tacos and pizzas by the pool, lunchtime Pasta Bar and Mongolian Wok, a self-service buffet and large dining room.

All those are complimentary. The other dining costs extra – brisket. smoked chicken and the like in the Pig and Anchor, sushi, a teppanyaki grill, Italian Cucino del Capitano – but prices are reasonable. JiJi, one of the best Asian restaurants at sea, is just $15 per person, while Fahrenheit 555, the steakhouse, costs $38, which is excellent value for the quality of the food and service.

I’m pretty sure many people didn’t get off during the port visits as there is so much to do on board; some also worried that it was not safe. A US Homeland Security warning issued at each port (be vigilant, don’t take valuables, watch out for crime) didn’t help; neither did the Chinese whispers circulating around the ship.

“You have to stay inside the blue line around the city because it’s not safe there,” one passenger told us as we were sailing to Mazatlan.

He was way off the mark. In fact helpful residents have painted a blue line on the roads to guide passengers from the cruise port to the historical centre. Also, retired Canadians who have moved south to Mexico’s sunnier climes were stationed along the way to offer suggestions of what to see and were amused when I suggested it was a dangerous place to choose to live.

After our experience, I can see why. We never felt threatened and the locals we met were charming and certainly not trying to rip us off, as another of the Chinese whispers suggested.

Mazatlan was my favourite port because it felt like the real thing. The colonial-style buildings have a faded elegance about them, there’s a market that’s probably too authentic for some (weak stomachs need to look away in the meat section) and the cathedral, billed as the town’s top attraction, was doing a roaring trade in tourists and locals alike.

We found our way through the back streets to the ocean, where a dare-devil diver risked life and limb going head first into a rocky bay for a $1 tip from each of the on-lookers, then strolled back to Machado Square to bolster our liquid levels. It might have been the week before Christmas but in Mexico that means 80-degree temperatures.

“Where are you from,” the young waiter asked. If the number of Britons on the ship is anything to go by – just 15 out of the total 4,610 passengers – English accents are indeed a rarity here. While talking of number, almost 900 on our cruise were minors (US speak for under 18s). That’s family-friendly for you.

Carnival offers excursions in all ports – everything from pirate boats to golf and whale-watching. We chose a boat trip in Cabo San Lucas to see a rocky arch said to mark the point where the Pacific meets the Sea of Cortez – very picturesque and the commentary was interesting – but we bade the group a hasty farewell when, back on land, the guide took us to a shopping mall.

Instead we strolled back to the tender port on the other side of a marina packed with millions of dollars worth of yachts and lined with restaurants and bars. It could have been the South of France, except for the tacos on the menus, and more affordable prices.

Last stop was Puerto Vallarta, where we skipped tours promising dancing horses and tequila and instead walked into town to seek out the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the historical Casa Kimberley, a hotel opened in the homes of star-crossed lovers Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who bought houses there in the 1960s, and join the crowds strolling the malecon, a promenade with quirky statues and views out to sea.

All good stuff but still the most memorable moments of the day was finding an evil-looking crocodile hiding in a creek as we veered off the main road to get to the beach.

I’d honestly thought the signs we’d spotted warning of crocodiles were a joke. After all, the Chinese whispers hadn’t warned us about them.

THREE MEXICAN CRUISES

Mexican Riviera

Norwegian Cruise Line – Norwegian Bliss
Los Angeles (round-trip) December 20, 2020
From £1,056pp (cruise only)

The glamour of LA and charm of Mexico await on this seven-night Christmas cruise to Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta.

Mexican Riviera

Holland America Line – Koningsdam
San Diego (round-trip) November 21, 2020
From £709pp (cruise only)

Tequila tasting, the Sierra Madre mountains, bird-watching and salsa dancing are among excursions on this seven-night cruise to Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas.

Baja Peninsula and Sea of Cortez

Princess Cruises – Emerald Princess
Los Angeles (round-trip) October 31, 2020
From £749pp (cruise only)

La Paz and Loreto join the port line up on this 10-day cruise on Emerald Princess, which includes an overnight in Cabo San Lucas, a day in Puerto Vallarta and three days at sea.

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