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September 1, 2020

“Searching for the Sea of Cortez” Cruise

“Searching for the Sea of Cortez” Cruise

By Elysa Leonard.

When I signed up for Windstar’s “Searching for the Sea of Cortez” cruise aboard the Star Legend  last October, from San Diego, California to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I knew it meant white-sand beaches, crystal blue waters, gorgeous sunsets, snorkeling with sea lions and tropical fish — and if I was lucky, some scuba diving.

Cabo San Lucas in the Sea of Cortez

The iconic arch of Cabo San Lucas in Baja California, Mexico, on the Sea of Cortez. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

Windstar is known for a diverse range of itineraries. Their ships are small and this gives them the flexibility to visit ports that the big ships can’t get to and in turn, enables them to develop creative itineraries that please loyal customers who keep coming back for more.

Star Pride pre stretch

Pre-stretch, the 212-passenger Star Legend in Loreto. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

NOTE: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Windstar has paused all of its cruises through year-end 2020.

San Diego to Puerto Vallarta via The Sea of Cortez

The 7-night Sea of Cortez cruise began in San Diego, and started with two sea days, followed by a day in each port — Cabo San Lucas, La Paz, and Loreto. There  was one last day at sea before the cruise ended in Puerto Vallarta. (For 2021, Windstar’s Sea of Cortez cruise route will be 10 nights and include two additional ports, Mazatlan and Ensenada.)

 Sea of Cortez cruise map

The 10-night Sea of Cortez cruise itinerary. * Photo: Windstar

Our trip was part of a long repositioning cruise for Star Legend as it made its way back to Italy for an extensive renovation and to be stretched. In the cruise ship world, stretching has become a fairly common way to “insert” new life into smaller, older ships.

The ship is literally cut in half and a new section, which was separately fabricated, is slipped into the middle section of the ship, like a puzzle piece. The new and improved Star Legend will have more suites, more dining options, a waterfall pool, more deck space, and overall updated modern feel throughout.

It will carry 312 passengers when it’s re-launched sometime in 2021.

(Due to the COVID-19 situation and subsequent shipyard delays, the stretching schedule has been pushed out; originally the Legend was to have re-launched in summer 2020. Currently the Star Breeze’s stretch and renovation is slated for a Q4 2020 completion, the Star Legend in first quarter 2021, and the Star Pride in Q2 2021.  Stay tuned for updates.)

You can read more about Windstar’s stretching plans for its trio of 212-passenger ex-Seabourn mini cruisers built in the 1990s in a great article by Anne Kalosh, below. (And we look forward to sharing articles about the Legend and her sisters post-stretch.)

RELATED: How Windstar Plans to Stretch 3 Ships.  by Anne Kalosh

While the interior will be vastly changed from what I experienced in October (2019) once Star Legend emerges from dry dock, I jumped at the opportunity to sample the Windstar experience. And so this article focuses on the Star Legend’s overall vibe; its food, service and the quality and nature of Windstar’s shore excursions, which have always been considered top-end.

A Recipe for Relaxation

Having the first two days at sea gave us time to explore the ship and bond with the crew and our fellow passengers. It also helped us get acclimated to our new day job… relaxing. As the ship’s Internet connection was weak while at sea, we took it as a sign to unplug and explore our new home for the week.

Windstar’s Star Legend had exactly the right ingredients for a relaxing small-ship cruise — large and luxurious suites with sliding glass doors, huge bathrooms and walk-in closets.

There were multiple dining venues, including outdoor options on deck, plus a spa, gym, small exercise pool and two hot tubs, perfect for sunset gazing.

The ship had 206 passengers onboard and there was never a moment that felt crowded, never a line to wait in, or a search for a deck chair.

In fact, sometimes you wondered where all the people were.

Below, a video tour of the Star Legend.

The Food — Plenty of Options

The dining options included the formal main dining restaurant, Amphora, where we enjoyed multi-course dinners made to order and paired with wine.

Veranda was a more casual option serving buffet-style breakfast and off-the-menu items for lunch. The Veranda transformed into a reservation-only Steakhouse restaurant called Candles in the evening.

Sea of Cortez Star Legend

Elysa & Bria enjoying Candles Sunset Dinner.

Room service had a good variety of options for breakfast, lunch or dinner and was available 24 hours a day.

On sea days, for those who wanted to dine al fresco (us!), lunch was served out on deck with live music. Delish dishes included Indian curry with rice, a Mexican taco bar with fresh salsa and guacamole, and a burger bar with steak fries and all the best picnic sides.

Sea of Cortez dinner

The James Beard Seared Scallops. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

BBQ Deck Party

Many of the passengers we met were Windstar alumni. They had been on several Windstar cruises all over the world and always looked forward to the famous deck BBQ offered on each cruise. The entire expanse of the lovely teakwood Deck 7 would be laid out for the event with table after table of salads, grills, seafood, hot plates, and saute’ stations.

crab legs served at deck party

Heaps of crab legs served at the deck party. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

There was also live music and dancing on deck.

The crew went to great lengths to make it special, including carving cute whimsical characters made out of vegetables, no detail was spared.

(Note, in the COVID-19 era, food at the BBQ deck party will now be plated and served by the crew.)

Vibrant Cabo San Lucas

Our Sea of Cortez cruise included three Mexican ports on the Baja Peninsula side of the Sea of Cortez, each with its own special vibe. Cabo San Lucas is a vibrant seaport surrounded by many open-air restaurants and bars, and even more luxury yachts and fishing boats.

My friend Bria went on a Windstar snorkeling and fishing excursion (highlighted in my video further on in the article). For me, I couldn’t resist going underwater for some scuba time. I booked a private tour with a highly recommended dive operator, Cabo Private Guide. A private boat with a captain and a dive master catered just to me!

We explored two famous dive sites, Pelican Rock and Neptune’s Fingers, in the waters surrounding El Arco. This famous rocky arch is a landmark at the tip of the Baja Peninsula, where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez.

Arch in Cabo on a Sea of Cortez cruise

The classic Arch in Cabo. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

My tour guide for the day, Adrian, pointed out the beach on the Atlantic side of the rocks was called “Lover’s beach.” The water was calm and perfect for swimming. However, on the Pacific Ocean side, the beach was called “Divorce Beach,” because of its dangerous undertows, rip tides and large waves.

We stayed on the “Lover’s Beach” side for our diving and enjoyed calm seas, beautiful corals and fish.

Sea of Cortez beach stops in Cabo

One of Cabo’s dreamy beaches. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

The World’s aquarium

Jaques Cousteau called the Sea of Cortez, the world’s aquarium, and now I know why.

The two dive sites were only a few minutes boat ride from each other, they were pristine and the amount of fish and sea life was remarkable. We saw more than 50 species of tropical fish, which is more than I have ever seen in one day of diving.

Just to name a handful, we saw pacific trumpetfish, reef cornetfish, leopard groupers, Cortez rainbow wrasse, panamic green morays, jeweled morays, giant hawkfish, moorish idol, yellowtail surgeonfish, finescale triggerfish, three banded butterflyfish, black nose butterflyfish, guineafowl pufferfish, sharp nose pufferfish, Mexican goatfish, porcupinefish, Cortez round rays and golden cownose rays.

The environment was healthy with many baby pufferfish and eels thriving in the corals.

Here is just a small sampling of the fish we saw:

Snorkeling, Sunbathing & Exploring in La Paz

Our second stop was in La Paz, which means peaceful, and it was completely opposite from our first day in Cabo. This small, sleepy Mexican town was much more traditional. We were greeted by a mariachi band and escorted to our small boat for a tour of the area and a stop at a small island to laze around on Balandra beach and  snorkel with sea lions.

There were also blue footed booby birds; yes the same cool birds you can see in the Galapagos Islands — they migrate to Mexico in the winter.  

Beautiful Beach on a Sea of Cortez cruise

Beautiful Balanga Beach in La Paz. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

This Windstar excursion was well executed; the tour operators were great and the tour wasn’t over-crowded. 

We returned to the ship by lunchtime and decided to go out and explore La Paz. We found a small boutique hotel with a restaurant that had a view of the turquoise blue water.

La Paz stop on Sea of Cortez cruise

A view of the sea from this lovely hotel restaurant. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

They served fresh raw ahi tuna with spicy cucumber relish on homemade tostadas.

It was the best of both worlds, a morning excursion and then just enough time to do a little more exploring and get a “taste” of the town. 

Raw Ahi Tuna Tostada in La Paz

Our delicious raw ahi tuna tostada. * Photo: Bria Lloyd

Loreto’s Coronado Island & the Sea Lions!

One of the most exciting things that I thought I would check off my bucket list on this trip was snorkeling with whale sharks. Unfortunately, the Mexican government squashed that dream for now.

We were in Loreto just a few weeks too early and there were not enough whale sharks in the area for the government to open the National Park for the season, so sadly the excursion was canceled.

Instead, we joined a trip to Coronado Island which was 10 miles off the coast of Loreto.

Loreto on a Sea of Cortez cruise

Lovely Coronado Island. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

This was by far my favorite excursion besides my diving trip in Cabo. It was well planned out and included multiple stops and cool things to do.

We started out snorkeling on the edge of the island and then hopped back into the boat and headed to another outcropping of rock formations that was home to a colony of very friendly sea lions.

Sea lions colony, Loreto, Mexico

California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) sunbathing on a rock near Loreto. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

We hopped back into the water and got to swim with them. They were very curious and came within a few feet of us. What an experience!

Here’s a peek:

Once back in the boat, we enjoyed views of the stunning  volcanic rock formations that rimmed this uninhabited island.

We then turned the corner of the island and the captain asked us if we liked dolphins. Just as we all said yes, a large pod of dolphins started swimming alongside our boat, as if on cue. They jumped out of the water to greet us.

He slowed down and let us take photos and enjoy them before heading to an uninhabited sandy beach. There, we spent time sunning, snorkeling and enjoying a feast complete with a grilled freshly-caught grouper.

The fish was served with tortillas, fresh salsa, and guacamole — a lovely lunch. Afterwards, we still had some time to stroll into town and do some shopping.

Below, enjoy this overview of our Windstar excursions: 

We returned to the ship for our last two evenings, with one more full day at sea as we crossed the Sea of Cortez to the mainland of Mexico for our final stop in Puerto Vallarta. Our flight home left early so unfortunately there was no time for a tour of this city, just a taxi ride from our port to the airport.

Windstar’s Loyal Fans

Small-ship cruises tend to have very loyal passengers, as the experience is more intimate and the destinations are special and often off-the-beaten-path. Happy passengers come back again and again to recapture the experience with new destinations.

But the extreme loyalty that we saw with Windstar was quite special. It wasn’t passengers taking two or three cruises with this line, it was 10 to 20 or even more. People were taking multiple trips a year, staying on for more than one week back-to-back and they gushed as they shared stories about past Windstar cruises. 

Don’t just take my word for it, you can listen below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mkGQwDfAyRc

Since returning from the trip, I have spoken to some new passenger friends who have already booked another Windstar cruise. It’s clear Windstar has figured out a secret recipe for success.

They know how to make their passengers feel like the ship is their ship, with a welcoming crew that becomes part of the passengers’ extended family. Imagine traveling the world with a crew that makes you feel safe and relaxed, and knows you like your martini shaken not stirred. 

Why would I cruise with Windstar again? They have the right mix of casual fun and luxury. The small size means interesting destinations and unique excursions.

2021 Windstar Cruise Schedule

(Note, Windstar has paused all of its cruises through year-end 2020.)

The 312-guest Star Breeze (the first to emerge from the lengthening/renovation) is slated to debut in the Caribbean on January 2, 2021. It will sail on several Caribbean itineraries and then through the canal/up the coast of Mexico and the U.S. West Coast before it heads to Alaska for the summer. Here’s a link to Windstar’s Sea of Cortez cruise options for 2021.
The 148-passenger Wind Spirit is to resume sailing in Tahiti starting January 7, 2021.

The 148-passenger Wind Star will restart sailing Jan. 16, 2021, with Costa Rica and Panama Canal sailings and then head to the Mediterranean in April 2021.

The 312-guest Star Legend begins sailing April 7, 2021 in the Mediterranean and then Northern Europe.

The 312-guest Star Pride will begin sailing July 25, 2021 in Northern Europe.

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All Feature Articles, Coastal Feature Articles, Mexico/Pacific Coast, Scuba & Snorkeling


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