A week-long cruise—particularly in the dead of winter—can make the working world seem as far away as Jose Cuervo does that worm at the bottom of the bottle. But if you choose a sea-bound adventure for your vacation, be sure to pick one with intriguing ports of call.
While all cruises offer onboard activities—live entertainment, nightly gambling, and, regrettably, karaoke—whenever the ship pulls into port, most passengers disembark for a variety of onshore excursions. The trips (offered for an extra fee) can be highly rewarding experiences: climbing a Costa Rican volcano, touring Mexican ruins, or splashing beneath Jamaican waterfalls.
We’ve taken many cruises, and each provided moments to remember—some with a grin and others with a wince. We’ve survived stormy seas without needing a barf bag and endured dinner at the captain’s table with similar fortitude. We’ve been treated to a wild night at a Port-au-Prince discothèque during one trip and had to abandon ship during another. But those stories will have to wait.
This particular misadventure occurred during a short cruise out of Los Angeles. In five days, you can barely get your sea legs, let alone forget your cares and woes. Still, we gave it the old junior college try.
On a brief cruise like this, popular with the swinging senior set, you can’t expect shore excursions as vigorous as climbing a volcano or walking to town. So at the first port of call, we decided to pass up the trolley tour and venture into the wilds of Old Town San Diego on our own.
On our way to Mexico, however, we had a full day at sea, and perhaps that lull contributed to our lapse in judgment. We broke down and signed up for a shore excursion in Ensenada. In all fairness, we didn’t know the city, so it seemed smart to let someone else show us around. Our logic was infallible; our discernment was not.
We chose an adventure grounded in the familiar—a trip to a vineyard. We knew a little about wine and a lot about drinking. What we didn’t know couldn’t hurt us . . . or could it?
You may be surprised to learn flourishing vineyards exist in Mexico. Maybe you know your wines, but have never heard of a Mexican varietal. Maybe you know nothing about wine, but still can’t imagine a Mexican winery. Maybe the only Mexican wine you’ve heard of is Corona. We felt the same way at first, as if tasting a Mexican vintage was like trying Greek BBQ. But we were way too sober to refuse.
It took us an hour to reach the vineyard by bus, rolling through the mountains outside the city. The winery tour featured the usual stops: grapes, harvest, de-stemming, fermentation, and casks. As we approached the tasting room, optimism burst out of us like the cork out of a bottle of 1996 Dom Pérignon Rosé.
Then we tasted the wines. Cabernet. Petit Sirah. Zinfindel. The classics. How would they measure up?
When evaluating a glass of wine, you look for certain characteristics: legs, aroma, and opacity, for example. When evaluating Mexican wine, we learned, you look for something more tangible: the exit.
We left empty-handed, foregoing even the Vintner’s Select bottles that were “so good,” they wouldn’t even let us taste them. We learned later that Europe was the biggest market for the vineyard’s products. Italians, in particular, loved these wines. Surprised? We were too, until we learned that Italy’s connoisseurs use Mexican wines for cooking.
Lessons Learned: There’s more to avoid in Mexico than the water. You want alcohol? Have a cerveza. Want something else? Try a margarita. Just stay the hell away from Mexico’s finest vintage.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 3
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 1/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Ensenada Airport
Native Population: 260,000
Normal Attractions: The Blowhole, one of the largest geysers in the world; the Baja off-road races; the La Primera shopping district; also surfing, windsurfing, and whale-watching.
Final Point of Interest: About 90 percent of Mexico’s wines are produced in the region surrounding Ensenada. Try the tequila instead; it’s excellent.