UnCruise Baja is small-boat cruising designed to get you off the boat and into nature. Baja California’s Sea of Cortez is nature’s aquarium and one of Earth’s most biologically diverse bodies of water. Not surprisingly UnCruising the Baja is a bucket list adventure for anybody who loves nature and the outdoors.
This Concierge review of UnCruise’s Baja California Whale and Sealife cruise explores if the company lives up to its stated mission –
“To provide our guests an enriching adventure travel experience and inspire an appreciation of local cultures and the natural world.”
We take a first-hand look throughout an entire cruise to check if they “actively promote environmental protection through education, actions, and initiatives that promote responsible travel?” Finally, we review the service and experience of the cruise from top to bottom so you can decide if Un-Cruising the Baja is for you.
The Ship – Safari Voyager
UnCruise’s Safari Voyager operates around Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama. She’s a seamless extension of the places she sails with a sleek design and Latin American artwork and accents. There were even a couple of Latin-themed meals on the voyage as well.
The Safari Voyager measures 174′ in length with a 54′ beam and a 10.3 mph cruising speed. These measurements are about 20% of the size of an average 5th-generation cruise ship and about 1/3 of the max speed. The ship sizing is proportional to passengers, with The Safari Voyager accommodating up to 66 guests in 34 guest cabins, whereas a 5th-generation cruise ship has about 3,000 guests. What I really appreciated was the 2.2:1 guest-to-crew ratio, 50% higher than mega cruise ships.
The Safari Voyager has four decks: Sun, Bridge, Cabin, and Main. The Sun Deck (or as I like to call it ‘the Fun Deck’) has exercise equipment, wetsuits, and lounge chairs on the sunning deck. The Bridge Deck has a shaded sitting area (aka the Muster Deck), an air-conditioned lounge, two classes of cabins (Admiral and Pathfinder), and, of course, the Bridge. On Cabin Deck, there was an aft shower area where I rinsed off after beach days and an off-limit platform full of kayaks and paddle boards that magically appeared in the water for playtime. There were also the Trailblazer and Single cabins as well as the Jr Commodores and Commodore suites and a bow viewing area. The Main Deck held the galley, the dining room, and the kayak and skiff launch platform. There were also the Navigator cabins and crew quarters.
There are enough common areas for everybody to gather and enough nooks and crannies for your alone time. I particularly loved retreating to the library for a little ‘me time.’
Based on my reservation, I stayed in a Trailblazer cabin configured with a queen bed that could have been split into two twin beds. There was an end table and closet which held everything I packed and enough room under the bed to store my empty luggage. It was large enough to be functional with a TV and DVD player (with movies available in the library), but I much preferred being in the common areas. After all, I didn’t take a Baja cruise to hang out in my cabin.
Every cabin does have a private bathroom with potable water and a hot water shower. I loved that UnCruise stocked the bathroom with Raw Botanical organic and reef-safe toiletries from Costa Rica in reusable packaging. There was even a hairdryer and refillable water bottle. Even though the tap water was potable, the ultra-purified water in the lounge was delicious.
Instead of a traditional mega cruise 1,300-mile loop that includes port calls at Cabo, Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlán, Loreto, and La Paz, UnCruise follows a small ship Sea of Cortez cruise route from La Paz to Loreto and back. At first glance, it might seem like you’re not doing as much on a boutique cruise, but just because you travel farther doesn’t mean you see as much.
The Safari Voyager is a discrete and stealthy ship that can weave in and out of the islands, islets, and coastal areas containing 39% of the world’s total marine mammal species and a third of the world’s total number of marine cetacean (whales and dolphin) species. Jacques Cousteau calls this region the ‘aquarium of the world,’ and UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site based on its biodiversity.
The ‘ideal’ itinerary is a 400-mile loop to Loreto and back, but more often than not, the captain reads the weather and uses their discretion to find the calmest water and sheltered bays.
There are three cornerstone activities that almost always anchor the UnCruise Baja itinerary: whale shark/ gray whale tours, swimming with baby sea lions, and mule rides on Agua Verde with the Romero Family.
Baja whale watching is extraordinary because you can see gray whales up close in their winter birthing lagoons. How close? Close enough to kiss. Now, these lagoons are on the Pacific side, but you can reach them with a 2-hour bus ride. On the Gulf side, you can see blue and humpback whales. We watched one dance by the ship for almost 10 minutes one night. Gray whales are winter visitors, so UnCruise shifts this activity to whale shark tours during summer sails.
Snorkeling with baby sea lions was amazing because they were like playful puppies of the ocean. I wasn’t sure about the mule rides, but UnCruise partners with a local ranchero family who treats their animals with absolute respect. The experience of interacting with the rancher’s family and the views from the ridge made this one of my favorite activities.
When comparing UnCruise to traditional cruises, the itinerary is vastly different. You’ll experience more of the Baja and Gulf of California sailing through 400 miles of littoral waters than 1,300 miles of open ocean interrupted by the occasional port-of-call, especially when over half that distance isn’t even in the Gulf of California and 40% of the ports aren’t in Baja at all. Plus, think of all that fuel you’ll be saving!
UnCruise claims they’re for explorers, curiosity seekers, and anybody with an ineffable spirit of adventure. They claim they want you off the boat and out into nature.
We found this to be true. Not only were all the activities included, but there were no casinos or shops on board the ship. Everybody did four activities (although you could always choose to sit one out): whale watching, snorkeling with sea lions (or photographing from the boat), and an obligatory ‘check out’ snorkeling trip if you plan on snorkeling with the sea lions.
Whale watching, along with the bus ride across the Baja peninsula, was an all-day affair. The other days, you had a ‘choose your own adventure’ format where you did morning and afternoon activities. You could choose from hiking, kayaking, SUPing, or skiff tours with the occasional snorkeling or mule riding option.
These adventures were all guided and ranged from aggressive hikes that challenged some of the competitive athletes on board to passive skiff rides where you focused on your photography. No matter which one you chose, you were not only exploring but learning about the incredible life in the Baja and Sea of Cortez.
Do you remember UnCruise’s stated mission from the introduction of this piece – “actively promote environmental protection through education, actions, and initiatives that promote responsible travel?” One of the ways they do this is through their night-time activities.
There weren’t any shows or casinos on board. Instead, every night had a magnificent dinner followed by an hour-long presentation about what you just saw or were going to experience the next day. We learned how the gray whale migration was the longest animal migration on Earth and why they did it. We spent an evening stargazing on the deck underneath the pitch-black Baja sky. It wasn’t the glitz and glamor of a floating Vegas, but more like a lecture series at the local college, except you were in nature’s classroom.
The activities deepened my appreciation of the world I was experiencing. When I was an instructor at the Girl Scouts high ropes course in San Diego, we used the activities paired with an experiential learning cycle to reach the girls. The reflection stage of the learning cycle was critically important to help the girls process their experiences. It was equally important in the foreign and exotic waters of the Baja, and I left with a deeper appreciation of the world that surrounded me.
UnCruise claims they serve fresh, hand-crafted cuisine with ingredients sourced from local farms. I can’t speak to the origins of their ingredients (I did not have the opportunity to visit the farm), but the food on board was one (of many) highlights from the trip.
Breakfast always featured fresh fruit and freshly baked goodies from the onboard pastry chef – Amanda. I’m not a morning person, so I went straight for the gourmet coffee, but the other guests couldn’t stop gushing about the cinnamon rolls. Breakfast was also where we put in our orders for lunch and dinner, which I appreciated because it really cut down on food waste.
Lunches and dinners were sit-down affairs, with dinner being a little fancier with wine service. You could pick a surf, turf, or vegetarian option or go half and half. Amanda’s fresh bread with infused butter with dinner was always delicious, and the desserts were off the hook. I loved the Chicken teriyaki lunch, and the Captain’s Dinner with lobster and prime rib was unforgettable.
It’s a good thing that there were two daily activities because the food was absolutely delicious, and I have yet to mention the daily cocktails and cookie hour. Bronson, the ship’s bartender, made a specialty cocktail daily for an afternoon toast. His salted watermelon special with blanco tequila, fresh watermelon juice, and sea salt we gathered from a hike was super creative, but his Baja espresso martini was epic. Amanda’s sugar cookies might have been the best I’ve ever tasted.
Special Accommodations / Fitness
UnCruise makes this accommodation promise – “It’s our business to make sure your adventure not only matches your needs and expectations but surpasses them.” That’s a lofty goal, and one that might be hard to realize in the middle of the Gulf of California, but time and time again, my expectations were exceeded on my Baja UnCruise.
You know how much I loved Chef Amanda’s cookies. A couple of people on my cruise were strict vegans, and at least one was gluten intolerant. Every day, they had specially prepared cookies set aside for them. The vegetarian meal options were fully vegan and delicious enough that I tried a couple during the voyage. The galley crew said they would do the same for allergies like nuts or lactose.
UnCruise strived to make activities inclusive, offering extra help on hikes to those who need it (including hiking poles on board) and morning stretching routines for those looking for more exercise. There was even a special dessert one of the evenings for people celebrating important dates like anniversaries and birthdays.
Captain and Crew
UnCruise claims to hire the best crew in the industry. Their stated policy is to select individuals not just for hard skills like knowledge and safety but for softer skills like customer service with an enthusiastic personality. I was a corporate trainer and learning coach for Ritz Carlton. One of the things that set them apart is their 6th Diamond Service Point – Mystique, which anticipated the guest’s spoken and unspoken needs. Let’s just say I am a harsh critic of customer service.
The captain was Andrea Kosto, a female captain from Alaska. As it turns out, UnCruise employs female captains 300% more than industry standards. Katherine, our Expedition Leader, and Lead Guide, Louis, were from Costa Rica, where the Sea Voyager sails during the summer, which makes them local guides for half of the year. Terra and Christian (the super hiker) from Washington and Nicole and Gabriel from California were our other guides.
Not only was the entire staff knowledgeable and friendly, but Captain Dan Blanchard, the owner & CEO of UnCruise, was also on my voyage. I can confidently say that the unique corporate culture starts at the top with an undeniable feeling of family throughout. Dan told us stories about paddling his kayak out into the wilderness to meet boats unannounced to say hi and hang out for a few days.
If I had to pick one CEO to spend a week in the wilderness with, it would be Dan. Not only would he keep me from dying, but he’d keep me entertained as well! There could be a future reality TV show here…