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Seeing the Sea of Cortez in style

March 13, 2013

The name Baja California has an exotic ring to it, and the peninsula stands out on a map, but in fact it is just a long finger of under-populated, mostly scrubby land stretching from San Diego down to Cabo San Lucas, where a recent rush of expensive hotels has transformed the party town invented by Canadians on the cheap.

It was here not so long ago that I met a French chef ready to quit a posh hotel because the new crowd in town, wealthy Americans, only wanted sandwiches and their idea of Mexican food. As he said, there must be better places.

There are, mon ami, there are.

Like a boat on the Sea of Cortez, just around the corner.

In the meantime Cabo has a shiny new airport terminal, although the best part of it is a makeshift bar outside, where we have cold beers and hot dogs before the bus transfer to La Paz and the Safari Endeavour of Un-Cruise, our home for the next week.

Sadly there was no time to explore La Paz, which captivated John Steinbeck 90 years ago when he recalled its glory days as the best place in the world to find black pearls. He wrote that the “robes of the Spanish kings and the stoles of the bishops of Rome were stiff with pearls from La Paz.”

These days the descendants of the pearl divers work in the tourism industry, the new jewel of the Sea of Cortez, which started just after the war when surplus DC-3s flew sports fishermen to remote resorts. It was a west coast alternative to Hemingway’s Cuba and it attracted romantics and writers like Steinbeck, although he was more interested in marine biology than catching fish.

And so were we, for that was the focus of this week on the Safari Endeavour, one of the former Cruise West fleet and the right ship for the job. The new Seattle-based company has modified the vessel to carry 86 passengers in great comfort, a good concept in that there is a market for outdoors people who want to live well.

I’d recommend the upper deck cabins, not the most expensive, as doors open on to the outside teak passageway which means that at the slap of a whale’s tail you can be outside with your camera in an instant.

As in any decent ship, it has a deck going all the way around, and this is it. A few steps either way and you can be fore or aft, on the other side, and when the mood takes you, into a hot tub at the stern, perhaps sipping one of Jenn’s bracing drinks, such as hot chocolate with tequila.

As all drinks and wines are included, Jenn the bartender was maybe the hardest working of the women who ran the ship – the captain, chief mate, hotel manager and head steward. Only male top dog on board was the chef, who got my approval for producing a good Thai curry on request.

So we had all the ingredients for the perfect cruise, other than the weather. As luck would have it, El Norte was blowing hard, but when we awoke on the first morning it was in a sheltered cove.

Nevertheless many passengers got into wetsuits, and came back smiling, while a man in an NRA cap watched the low-flying pelicans with a practised eye. I knew what was on his mind, but my thoughts were no more upright. A rod, a rod, my kingdom for a rod …

Next day we got ashore for a walk among cardons, the giant cactus unique to the Baja, and poked among the shells littering the beaches for big, blue-tinted oyster shells. Others took to kayaks, launched and retrieved effortlessly with the help of a nifty stern-mounted cradle.

Conditions were less than ideal, but nobody complained. This bunch was used to being outside, they were dressed for it, and Jenn was always waiting.

I read a lot, of Steinbeck’s adventures here, of a young family which replicated Steinbeck’s journey on a small boat, and of earlier travelers from Hernan Cortez onwards. Cortez was here in the early 16th century but it was not until 1697 that the Spaniards got their first foothold on the Baja with a mission at Loreto. English pirates also lurked in the coves waiting for the galleons carrying riches from Manila to Acapulco.

Our boats were nimble, rubber Zodiacs, perfect for wet or dry landings and also catering to passengers who enjoyed mini-cruises with their cameras.  A popular excursion was also offered to the other side of the Baja, at Magdalena Bay, where an exhilarating day was spent communing with mother and baby whales.

We visited the still functioning mission at Loreto, lunched well on local lobster, and had a stroll on the handsome Malecon, at one point passing a car with Alberta plates scuttling into a side street.

Indeed Loreto is worth more time, as is La Paz, starting with the Perla hotel, an old timer still looking good on the Malecon there, and a wonderful place to watch the sunset. If you do this trip, it’s an idea to fly into La Paz and linger for a few days.

Our tally for the week: 43 marine specimens including gray and humpback whales, and 56 birds such as pelicans, boobies, frigates and ospreys.

Safari Endeavour’s nifty kayak handling system

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