Wheelchair Accessible Cruising the Sea of Cortez on Holland America (HAL) Ryndam
by Kathleen Dunn 2004

Kathleen Dunn, who frequently shares her travel insights, shares a recent cruise along the Mexican Riviera with her parents.

March 2004
For those looking for a little different experience than the usual large ship Mexican Riviera cruise experience, this may be a good option. My parents and I sailed on the Holland America (HAL) Ryndam from San Diego on a 7-day cruise to the Sea of Cortez. Ports included Loreto, La Paz, and Cabo San Lucas.

The Ryndam is an older HAL ship that accommodates about 1200 passengers, and we were already familiar with her, having cruised on her on a South American/Cape Horn trip in 2001. We had the same cabin (7109) we had on that trip, although it has been redecorated and improved since that time.

On this ship there are only 2 fully accessible cabins (7104 is the other cabin) that will sleep 3 (with a roll-away bed). Some Ryndam cabins that are "accessible" have a tub and are quite a bit smaller, while we need a roll-in shower, and these cabins will not accommodate a third person either. We needed a cabin that would allow us to have not only a roll-in shower, but also use our portable travel lift and take both my mother's power and manual wheelchair. Our only complaint was that the bathroom was quite small, and there is not sufficient room to turn the wheelchair in a complete 360 degree circle. The wheelchair only fit under the sink by removing my mother's feet from the foot pedals as well. Although these cabins are quite a ways from the elevators on HAL,they do not use service carts for the room stewards, so we did not have to worry about them blocking the hallways in the morning or early evening as often occurs on other ships.

Embarkation was a little scary as the portable elevator at the port in San Diego was broken, requiring the use of a very steep and scary ramp. Once we were aboard, we were assisted to our cabin, made sure the room was set up as needed, and then headed up to the Lido deck for lunch.

The buffet on the Lido readily accommodates a wheelchair, and staff are willing to help by carrying the tray for the person using a wheelchair. The path of travel is well set up to enable you to reach all stations and all seating areas. After checking out our assigned life boat station, we made sure to arrive there well ahead of the announced drill time to allow us to use the elevator and avoid the usual crowds when the drill is officially announced. The departure from the port of San Diego was lovely and occurred just at sundown accompanied by a nice sunset.

The first two full days were sea days. We enjoy these as they are less frantic than port days, but we did not see the sun at all the first day, and only after noon on the second day. We attended a few movies (free hot popcorn!) and took part in Team Trivia (winning a couple of times), as well as catching up on our reading and watching for whales and other ships.

About noon on the second day, we rounded but did not stop at Cabo San Lucas. The captain brought the ship in close to shore to allow us to see the beautiful coastline and get some fine photos. After rounding the cape, we traveled up the east coast of the Baja peninsula inside the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California), with whales spouting all around us as well as in the distance. The sea was noticeably calmer here. About 4 p.m. the ship stopped and sent a tender out to check on an object that the captain feared was an overturned boat. It was actually a dead whale, but it did give us the opportunity to see the crew in action on a possible rescue mission.

HAL ships have traditional dining, and we were very happy with the service we received in the dining room. We prefer eating all three meals in the dining room when possible due to the better service, but did eat some meals at the Lido or the snack-bar (hamburgers, hot dogs, fajitas and tacos). We were seated at dinner with another couple traveling with their adult daughter, and we became great friends. As usual, our waiter quickly learned our preferences, always took care to set up the table for the wheelchair and cut my mother's food for her after requesting this on the first night. The food was generally good with a few exceptions, although not terribly creative. The music in the bars was very good, and we enjoyed watching the dancing before and after dinner. We attended most of the shows. While there is no reserved seating for wheelchair users, by arriving early we were able to find decent seating together for every show we attended as the chairs can easily be rearranged. We prefer this to the "theater" type seating on some ships, which relegate wheelchair users to a small area in the back of the room where it is often difficult to see or hear the performers, and where you may not be able to sit with the AB members of your party.

The third day we were anchored off the port of Loreto. Loreto is the oldest continuously occupied community on the Baja peninsula and has the oldest surviving mission building. It is a quiet and beautifully located town, with the Baja mountains in the background and lovely and very empty beaches right in front of the town. This was a tender port. We used the tender lift on the Ryndam for my mother in her wheelchair. This lift is similar to a stair lift. They will only accommodate manual wheelchairs of 18" width or less (no power chairs, no scooters), and will not allow anyone other than the person in the wheelchair to board at the tender lift exit. We had to walk to the other end of the ship and get on this tender at the regular gangway. It did work well, and it was easy to get off the tender at the town pier as well. The Malecon (beach-side walkway) is wheelchair accessible with curb cuts, unlike many Mexican Riviera towns. The streets in the tourist areas (the old downtown) are cobblestones and brick and can be real teeth-rattlers, but we were able to get into most buildings and shops, including the old mission church. The town sponsored a mariachi band in the town square, with traditional dancers to entertain their visitors, and the shops and cafes were welcoming and mostly accessible. There is an Internet cafe on the town square for those who want to avoid the high prices for Internet access on the ship. We did not find any accessible bathrooms though, but fortunately did not need this for our short trip ashore.

Returning to the ship, we found that the seas had grown, and there were large waves on the side of the ship with the tender lift. The captain actually tried moving the ship, so it was on the more protected side, but the waves were still too rough. My father and I were required to get off the tender leaving my mother all alone with the crew, many of whom did not speak English. After 45 minutes of bobbing around in the swells, they decided to lift the entire tender up to the ship and get my mother off this way. After the entire crew put on their life jackets but did not offer one to her, she grew a little concerned (and was already a little seasick). We watched from a distance as they lifted the tender up on the divots to the level of the promenade deck only to discover that the tender's door did not match the opening in the deck rail. This resulted in the crew having to lift and tilt the wheelchair with my mother inside to get it onto the deck. Quite a hair-raising experience for all involved, and probably needs some better planning on the part of the crew for a contingency such as this.

The next day we were in La Paz. The port here is at a pier about 10 miles from the town of La Paz. Since no wheelchair accessible transportation is available here, we only went ashore to the pier where there were many small booths selling crafts and other souvenirs. My father took the provided free shuttle bus into town in the morning, and I did the same in the afternoon. The town of La Paz is easy to walk and has a nice promenade along its Malecon as well as an old historic church and many more shops. There were no crowds, although this is a popular resort and living area for many American ex-pats. Many people went snorkeling in the nearby waters at this port.

The next day we arrived once more at Cabo San Lucas. This was also a tender port, but it is not our favorite port (too crowded, too touristy), and we have been here several times before, so my mother and I stayed on the ship and lounged around the pool while my father went ashore and explored the port and town. There were three other cruise ships in the port while we were there, so we also got a good opportunity to check out some other ships. It was warm in all the ports, and we had no rain the entire trip.

Our final full day was at sea, traveling north along the western Baja coast. We arrived back in San Diego the next morning, and were able to drive home to the Los Angeles area without any of the hassle of flying, which made it a very relaxing trip for us.

I would recommend this trip to cruisers who may have already done the more traditional Mexican Riviera ports and are looking for something different. It is not a trip for die-hard shoppers, but we had no problem finding small gifts for everyone on our list.

Enjoy Dunn's other cruises on the following pages.

Alaska: A Regal Princess Cruise

Trans-Pacific Crystal Harmony Cruise

South America: Holland America Ryndam Cruise

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