After several wonderful river and ocean cruises in Europe, we needed a break from costly and exhausting international travel getting to and from European ports. A California Coastal cruise had been on my radar several years. When we found the right deal and itinerary for a seven-day round-trip Los Angeles Princess cruise, husband Rob and I grabbed it. With 3,000 passengers and 1,200 crew members, the Crown Princess is the largest ship on which we have sailed.
The Crown Princess atmosphere is embodied in the Piazza. More than a multi-deck atrium, something is always happening in this European-inspired dining and entertainment venue. On the first formal night, the champagne flowed freely during the Captain's gala welcome reception.
Dozens of works of art depicting European and Mediterranean scenes enhance the Crown's beautiful interior. Along with customary large-ship features, the Crown has three pools and a large outdoor screen for movies, videos and sports events.
Crown Princess provides a bevy of tempting dining options. For lunch we favoured the International Café's specialty salads, quiche and European-style pastries. We chose "Anytime Dining" for dinner and shared tables with Canadians, Brits, Asians, Californians, Arizonans plus other Americans. Many tablemates were Princess regulars enjoying their loyalty perks.
A culinary highlight was a dinner at Sabatini's, the ship's upscale Italian restaurant ($25 per person). Francesco, our skilled Italian waiter, made food and wine recommendations. The grilled zucchini and eggplant appetizers were perfectly done. Our artichoke soufflés were smooth and delicious. For our main course, I had lobster, while Rob indulged in an improvised surf-and–turf lobster and grilled lamb.
After a relaxing day at sea, the Crown called on three California ports.
PHOTO BY PAT WOODS - In San Francisco, the Crown Princess docked within easy walking distance of Pier 39, the Aquarium on the Bay as well as the Fisherman's Warf tour operators, attractions and delightful aromas.
In San Francisco, the Crown docked within easy walking distance of the Aquarium on the Bay, Pier 39's shops and photo ops, as well as the many sightseeing options, sounds and aromas of bustling Fisherman's Wharf.
We chose three of City Sightseeing's hop on/off tours (www.citysightseeingsanfrancisco). During our lively downtown tour, Zelda, our seasoned guide, shared factoids, trivia and colourful yarns about San Francisco's history and current happenings.
Next we headed to Sausalito on another City Sightseeing open-top bus. Sally, our cheerful and articulate driver, shared tips on where to find free chocolate samples as well as space on crowded cable cars. After stopping for photos north of the Golden Gate Bridge, she said Sausalito's housing prices are as stellar as the gorgeous scenery.
Following a short Sausalito visit, we rode a third City Sightseeing bus to Muir Woods. Our driver skillfully navigated the serpentine road while dispensing fascinating local information. We thoroughly enjoyed inhaling the fresh piney scent of the giant redwoods and other greenery while hiking Muir Woods trails. The heavenly scent of bay trees and coastal redwoods will linger in our memory bank.
We ended our San Francisco port day at the beautiful Aquarium of the Bay on Pier 39 studying up-close views of our favorite sea critters.
PHOTO BY PAT WOODS - This scene (shot from a City Sightseeing vehicle) near Sausalito, California is one many visual treats north of San Francisco.
Local volunteers warmly welcomed us to Santa Barbara. An early morning trolley tour took us through this lush green city where palm trees sway and colourful flowers bloom on terraces and medians. Spanish Colonial architecture dominates here with countless red-roofed white stucco buildings.
The trolley driver told us many old talkie movies were shot in Santa Barbara before production studios moved to Hollywood. Today this beautiful city still is favoured by the rich and famous. Prices for even tiny modest houses range upward from $1 million. With 500 restaurants, Santa Barbara is a diner's paradise. Paved walking/running/skating trails run for kilometres, and beach volleyball began here.
The trolley stopped at Old Santa Barbara Mission, which continues as an active Catholic parish with daily and Sunday Masses. Sadly, the church interior was not open during the 20-minute trolley stop.
Back at the waterfront, we walked out a long wood pier to Sterns Wharf. At Ty Warner Sea Center, we watched school groups interact with sea critters in touch tanks. We caught a shuttle bus (Just 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for seniors, but crowded with a big ship in port) to the courthouse. An elevator took us to the fourth-floor outdoor observation area, a favorite spot to enjoy the view and catch a cool breeze.
PHOTO BY PAT WOODS - Filled with gorgeous blooming flowers and plants, the Botanical Building in San Diego's Balboa park is a treat for the senses. Balboa Park is one of 11 stops made by Old Town Trolley Tours.
The Crown conveniently docked at a prime spot on San Diego's waterfront. This beautiful port city had an earlier life as a tuna-canning center. When the tuna supply was depleted, the waterfront morphed into today's attractive tourist center.
As we did in earlier visits, we opted for the Old World Trolley Tour that travels a two-hour, 40-kilometre route through the city making 11 scheduled hop on/hop off stops (www.trolleytours.com). Before each stop, well-versed drivers provide witty anecdotes, fun facts, and fascinating tales and weave history with current information on what to expect. Recorded theme music adds to the fun atmosphere.
We got off the trolley at some of the most popular stops. At Coronado Island we walked through the grounds and lobby of the world-famous Hotel del Coronado. We could have spent the entire day at Balboa Park, the nation's largest urban culture park, home to 15 museums, beautiful gardens, the San Diego Zoo and more (www.balboapark.org).
In the afternoon we enjoyed a Hornblower north harbour cruise narrated by a ship officer who pointed out numerous military vessels in the harbour: a nuclear fuelled submarine, carriers, plus several support vessels as well as dry dock facilities. More information: 619-686-8715 or (www.hornblower.com/home/sd)
All three California port cities warmly welcome cruisers, have moderate climates and gorgeous natural scenery. How else can one unpack just once and experience four Pacific coast cities in a week? The trolley and/or hop on/hop off tours we took all were interesting, economical and enjoyable.
The Crown Princess made a final port call to Ensenada, Mexico. We choose to remain on the ship where we enjoyed the pools and other onboard amenities. It was fun to have a birds' eye view of port activities while we ate a leisurely lunch.
The California Coastal itinerary is a great option for first-time cruisers or anyone wanting to avoid the stress, fatigue and expense of international travel. Next year we will search for another "closer to home" cruise. For Princess cruise information, call 800-774-6237 or visit www.princess.com.