Sailing the Sea of Cortez with American Safari

| June 23, 2008
Story and photos by Diana Lambdin Meyer

Ultra-personalized service, plush accommodations and detailed amenities have appealed to the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

A journey with American Safari Cruises is not your every day cruise experience. On a vessel with a capacity for no more than 21 guests and a crew of nine, the ultra-personalized service, plush accommodations and detailed amenities have appealed to the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

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Sommellier   Safari Quest   Snorkel and Kayak

Equally unusual is the loosely defined itinerary in the Gulf of California, located between mainland Mexico and the Baja Peninsula. The Safari Quest sails from Loreto, located at the elbow of the gulf, to La Paz on the Mexican mainland and back, a distance of roughly 110 miles. The route and stops vary based on the movements of marine life and other natural conditions.

Although our map bears the official name "Gulf of California," much of the seafaring community we encounter still use the historical name Sea of Cortez in honor of Hernando Cortez, the Spanish explorer who crossed the sea and established a colony at La Paz in 1535.

The setting is one that even the world's most experienced travelers recognize as life-altering and not to be taken for granted. Jacque Cousteau called the Sea of Cortez "the world's aquarium."

John Steinbeck, who immortalized the primitive fishing boat "Western Flyer" with his exploration of the Sea in the spring of 1940, wrote of his "search for that principle which keys us deeply into the pattern of all life." Sixty-six years later, I am enjoying the luxurious Safari Quest, a piece of the American Safari fleet that sails seasonally from California's Baja to Alaska's Glacier Bay, and numerous exotic and charming ports in between.

Wildlife Encounters

The sound was overwhelming in Mexico's Sea of Cortez, as we anchored near the island of Los Islotes within arms' reach of dozens, maybe hundreds of California Galapagos sea lions enjoying the tropical sun.

It seemed they all had something to say, from "who are you and what are you looking at" to "hey, I'm the king of this rock." We responded with squeals of delight, pointing and bouncing around as our rubber skiff bobbed in the beguiling blue water.

While much of our leisurely cruise along the Sea of Cortez was in relative isolation from other boats, we had company this morning at Los Islotes. From small private sailing vessels to larger yachts similar to ours, the flags of many nations dotted the blue sky above each anchor.

Sea Lions   A Large Pod of Dolphins   Pelican in Flight

The lower rocks of the tiny island were filled with more than 100 barking sea lions of all sizes and ages, begging for attention and announcing their superiority to the world. The huge creatures, some as much as 800 pounds, flopped into the water to get a closer look at our skiff and the other humans snorkeling and kayaking nearby.

Pelicans, gulls and the endemic blue footed boobys filled the air and Sally Lightfoot crabs crawled on the rocks, occasionally sneaking in a pinch on sleeping sea lions.

Culinary Delights

After we had our fill of the mirth of the sea lions, or they had their fill of us, we returned to the Safari Quest dining room for a fabulous ahi tuna salad and rosemary mint shortcake. This is where a cruise on American Safari truly exceeds the culinary excess of a major cruise line.

Chef Dave Van Gelder and assistant Amy Lou provide culinary delights ranging from rack of lamb, prime rib or a Mexican fajita buffet to duck, prawns and grouper. The intimate dining room, with an unfettered view of the sea, is the setting for first-class service and attention to detail.

"The food is absolutely incredible," said Donna Young of Overland Park, Kansas, who had traveled with her husband Stephen and their good friends Mark and Mimi Comfort on the American Safari California Wine Country cruise in November 2004. "The variety of choices and what they put together is simply amazing, and it is presented with such flair and grace."

Incredible Lobster Dinner   Dining Room   After Dinner Relaxation

Indeed, a choice of surf or turf at each evening meal accompanies a well-chosen wine from the Napa wineries of the company's wine country cruises. Chef's assistant Amy Lou is notorious for her breads and baked goods that accent each meal. In the afternoons, she emerges from the galley with an incredible array of warm cookies or other treats.

The company of a number of equally intriguing seasoned travelers from New York, Miami, Texas and Seattle was equally delectable. Those who had traveled with American Safari on their Wine Country or Alaskan cruises were greeted by the crew like old friends.

Included in the group were Dennis and Patty Foster of Lexington, Kentucky, vacationing with his daughter's family and their pre-teen children. "We like a little adventure with a little education when traveling with the grandkids, and this is the perfect family setting," he said.

Onboard Amenities

The highlight of these small ship cruises is the service. With only 21 guests and nine crewmembers, the staff already knows everyone by name the first day. I was the only one traveling alone so I enjoyed a little extra attention from the staff, but all the passengers were friendly from the children to the grandparents. It truly felt like one big happy family.

To be perfectly accurate, vessels this size are usually referred to as yachts. The term "small ship cruises" is popular for such adventure cruises, but in reality American Safari's vessels are even smaller than those of companies with the word "yacht" in their name, such as The Yachts of Seabourn or The Seadream Yacht Club. Those vessels hold as many as 100 people or more.

The obvious advantage to these small but modern yachts is the ease of access to everything the vessel provides. The food arrives hot and fresh and there are no lines for anything. The entire passenger contingent can be in the skiffs and ready to mingle with nature within minutes. If you need something from your cabin it is always just a few steps away.

Naturally, a boat this size can't provide all the amenities of a large cruise ship. There is no casino, floor show or medical center. The staterooms are generally a bit smaller than on ships, but they aren't any less comfortable. After you unpack into the several drawers and a closet for storage the crew takes your empty luggage and stows it during the voyage. The beds come as a pair of twins or a single queen, with king-size beds available in the suites on the upper decks.

The floor space is a little tight for two people in a cabin, but you aren't in your stateroom to dance. There is a night table and a television with a DVD player. The library upstairs has DVD movies you can borrow for night time entertainment. The upper deck cabins have expansive windows and sliding glass doors for fresh air, while the lower deck staterooms have portholes to let in light.

The bathrooms are as adequate as most cruise ships, with the generously-sized showers spouting surprisingly good water pressure. The counter space and sink area are limited, so it is best to bring a traveling cosmetic kit you can hang from a hook.

Upstairs is the "salon" living space with a large screen television the staff uses for onboard presentations about local history and wildlife. There is also a bar in this room and alcohol is included in the cruise fare. The dining room is adjacent with tables for two or six with open seating every night. Wine is included with dinner. Overall, American Safari's contemporary yachts are plush with sleek modern lines and all the features one would expect in a brand new boat.

Another Day of Nature

Indeed, those children could not have been happier the next afternoon when just as the aroma of peanut butter cookies floated from the galley we found our boat near blue and humpback whales. Everyone was on deck immediately with cameras and binoculars, scanning the horizon for the telltale blows. And again, we were not disappointed. A "ginormous" (as the kids would say) humpback whale broke the surface just off our bow before splashing hard with his big tail and diving under for a snack of his own.

As we continued to scan the horizon for another Moby Dick, we noticed what appeared to be a large wave or wake of some sort approaching the yacht. As it moved closer, we were delighted to find ourselves surrounded by a super pod of more than 300 frolicking saddleback dolphins. Back into the skiff we flew and spent the better part of the next two hours at fin level with cousins to Flipper, our childhood hero.

Flipper, as we learned from our naturalist Kevin, was a bottlenose dolphin. The next morning another long sojourn in the skiff brought us nose to nose with dozens of them as they chased their breakfast and investigated our toes dangling in the water. As our cameras clicked we marveled again at the magnificence of Mother Nature.

And so it was for seven amazing days of sea lions and dolphins and whales. Snorkeling with puffer fish, scouring the beaches for geodes and seashells and investigating coral and cacti in the warmth of the tropical sun.

Mule Ride   Dolphin Sighting   Local Jewelry

We even took a burrow ride one afternoon and a hike the next. Because the Baja receives less than seven inches of rain a year, you'll not encounter many bad weather days. However, June and July are considered hurricane season and the summer temperatures often exceed 100-degrees.

But this was still March, so we spent our evenings under the star filled heavens in the hot tub with a fine glass of Chardonnay. On lazy afternoons we chose between a kayak excursion around the inlets or working on a tan and a pitcher of margaritas on the gracious top deck lounge chairs.

John Steinbeck wrote in his book, Log of the Sea of Cortes, "The real picture of how it had been there and how we had been there was in our minds, bright with sun and wet with sea water and blue or burned, the whole while crusted over with exploring thoughts."

Anchored for the Night   Yachtswing for Embarking   Sunset

While Steinbeck's experiences were life defining and introspective in his time, he did not have the advantages of retrospect on his words that we enjoyed on our cruise. With his works available to us in the well-stocked library, and his words included in the daily cruise notes, we further appreciated our isolated week on the Sea of Cortez in the company of good friends and gracious surroundings. It is, indeed, the material of great prose and memories of a lifetime.


American Safari Cruises also offers three separate itineraries within (roundtrip Juneau) Alaska, as well as cruises of the Pacific Northwest, the Columbia and Snake Rivers, Mexico's Sea of Cortez and new cruises in Hawaii starting this december, 2008. Some cruises are designated as "Kids in Nature" cruises to appeal to families. The yachts are available for private charter as well.

American Safari Cruises 3826 - 18th Avenue West Seattle, WA 98119 888-862-8881

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