I am a big fan of small ship cruising, especially for families, but I recognize that it’s not for every family. If you need swimming pools and Las Vegas-style shows to be entertained, UnCruise isn't for you. If you live for city tours and shopping at different ports of call, UnCruise isn’t for you. And if you delight in sending your kids off to spend the day at the kids’ club or teen lounge so that you can lounge and read a book, UnCruise definitely isn't for you.
UnCruise is an ideal vacation for families that want to spend time sharing one-of-kind experiences together. It’s for families that have a true love and curiosity about the natural world. And it’s for families who aren’t afraid to mix with the older crowd that often populates these ships. Don’t get me wrong; UnCruise is definitely family-friendly, but the majority of your shipmates will likely be over the age of 50. For my kids, ages 14 and 17, it’s not an issue.
As experienced small ship cruisers, my family and I recently sailed on UnCruise’s Safari Endeavor, a ship that accommodates 84 passengers (though only 76 were on board, including seven kids between the ages of 6 and 17) and 35 crew members. Yes, the passenger-to-crew ratio is your first clue that the service on UnCruise is extremely attentive from the steward who remembers your drink order at dinner to the expeditions leader who’s willing to tailor an excursion just for your family. You’d be hard-pressed to find a higher level of customer service on any cruise line.
KidTripster Tip: Technically, kids are supposed to be at least 8 years old to sail. However, exceptions can be made in advance with UnCruise approval. There’s a $500 discount per child on the fare, excluding holiday departures. UnCruise also has private charter cruises, where kids of any age can sail; however, there’s no child discount on those boats.
KidTripster Tip: If being on a ship with a greater number of kids is important to your family, consider one of UnCruise’s Alaskan voyages during the summer.
As for our destination, conservationist Jacques Cousteau once referred to the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California or the Vermilion Sea) as “the aquarium of the world” because of the extraordinary diversity of marine life, including whales that come here to birth their calves. In mid-January through early March, the cruise includes excursions to find gray whales in Bahía Magdalena; in November through mid-January and again in March, passengers have the opportunity to swim with whale sharks off the coast of La Paz. Swimming with whale sharks was a huge selling point for my boys and ended up being the highlight of our voyage!
KidTripster Tip: The Sea of Cortez is also nicknamed “the Galápagos of the North.” I’ve had the good fortune to cruise the Galápagos Islands and can say with a high degree of certainty that it's the holy grail of intimate, nature encounters. That being said, the Sea of Cortez has a lot to offer, plus it’s far more accessible and affordable than a trip to the Galápagos.
Where to stay?
The Safari Endeavor is a well-equipped, 232-foot-long vessel that features a lounge with bar, dining room, library, two hot tubs, and sun deck with exercise equipment including two ellipticals, two stationary bikes, and free weights. With the views from up top, you may actually be motivated to exercise or catch the 6:45 a.m. daily yoga class.
KidTripster Tip: One of the many amenities on board the Safari Endeavor is the complimentary, half-hour massages for each passenger. The wellness team is comprised of three massage therapists, who also teach the yoga class. Kids can have chair massages, if they’d like.
Upon arrival, you’re personally escorted to your cabin by one of the stewards. There are six cabin categories. Most cabins accommodate two people with two twins or a queen-sized bed; a few cabins are outfitted as triples. Our family had two Captain-level cabins, one for my husband and I and one for our teenaged sons just across the hall. The cabins were surprisingly roomy with plenty of closet space and drawers. Each cabin has a private bath; the shower is pretty tight, but that’s to be expected. The best feature of the Captain-level room is the large window. One night, I came back to the cabin and watched a swimming pelican hunt flying fish outside the window for nearly an hour. It was highly entertaining! The rooms do have televisions with DVD players and movies to borrow in the library, but to be honest, we never turned the television on. Neither did our kids, which tells you something.
KidTripster Tip: Our room on the first floor exited to an interior hallway, meaning we could keep our curtains open all day and all night to fully appreciate the views. However, other cabins on higher floors exited to an outside walkway. Those rooms had constant foot traffic and lacked privacy with the curtains open.
The stewards who serve your meals and tend the bar also handle housekeeping. There’s daily housekeeping and nightly turndown service, complete with chocolates on your pillow. The entire ship is kept immaculately clean, so much so that I regularly walked barefoot.
What to do?
The crew goes to great lengths to try and make every day the very best that it possibly can be. Often that means the agenda is open to change. For example, on our first day, the activities orientation was interrupted by a super pod of dolphins that decided to ride the ship’s bow. The sight of more than 100 dolphins, leaping and shooting through the water like torpedoes was awe-inspiring. We had another drop-everything-for-nature moment a few nights later - this time for glow-in-the-dark dolphins! As night fell, bioluminescent creatures came to the surface of the water; they shone like fireflies. At the same time, a pod of dolphins approached. As they disrupted the water, the dolphins picked up the bioluminescent organisms. The effect? The dolphins appeared to glow! We watched those dolphins to choruses of oohs and aahs for nearly an hour.
One afternoon of your cruise will be dedicated to whale watching from the big ship. Several different species of whales swim these waters - gray, blue, fin, humpback, pilot, and orca. We spotted several whale spouts that afternoon and followed one humpback whale for nearly an hour. It rewarded us with several breaches and swooshes of its giant fluke.
KidTripster Tip: Carry a camera with you at all times, so that you’re ready to capture wildlife moments. The ship supplies binoculars for viewing, as well.
Other wildlife encounters are part of scheduled excursions. Every evening, you choose the following day’s activities from a list of choices - one in the morning and one in the afternoon. My boys were eager to snorkel as much as possible. The water clarity here was good, and we spotted lots of fish, including Panamic Sergeant Major, Whitecheek Surgeonfish, Guineafowl Puffers, Reef Cornetfish, Cortez Rainbow Wrasse, and Pacific Creolefish. We also saw bizarre invertebrates, like tube worms. On day six of the trip, we sailed to Los Islotes, a protected rookery where California sea lions breed and give birth to their pups. While the sea lions didn’t approach us, many other passengers had encounters with playful pups and friendly moms in the water. But the highlight of the trip occurred on the last full day when we got to swim with the ocean’s largest fish, the whale shark, off the coast of La Paz. Learn more about that experience here. And then watch the video here.
KidTripster Tip: UnCruise provides all the gear that you’ll need to go snorkeling: mask, snorkel, fins, and wetsuit; you have your own set of the entire week. However, if you have a younger child on board, you may want to bring a smaller, good-fitting wetsuit. And yes, you’ll need a wetsuit. In November, the water temperature averages about 76°F, but in March, it’s 70°F, which I found to be pretty nippy.
If you rather not get wet, you can board a skiff, a small inflatable raft, with a guide and a small group of fellow passengers and go in search of wildlife. There are also guided hikes, where you learn more about the vegetation while taking in some breathtaking scenery. Our cruise offered a special birding walk with on-board, guest expert Juan-Carlos Solis. My sons really enjoyed birdwatching with someone who actually knew what he was looking at! We saw the rare and endemic Xantus's hummingbird. And in Bahía Aqua Verde, we mounted mules and climbed the ridge overlooking the bay with a local group of rancheros. This is the one activity that I probably wouldn't recommend for families, as an hour of looking at desert scrub on the back of mule didn’t hold my sons’ attention.
Under the label of “beach parties,” you do have opportunities to go stand-up paddleboading, kayaking or swimming from the beach nearly every day. My kids enjoyed this free time along with the more structured excursions.
You’ll also have some downtime on the ship, itself. UnCruise is unplugged, meaning there’s no WiFi. That was welcomed news to me. My younger son did play video games on his iPad, but more often, we would play games or cards as a family. And my older son actually read an 800-plus-page book with real paper pages! Imagine.
One more thing that made UnCruise unlike other small ships that I’ve sailed on was the educational presentations at night. There were five guides on the ship, plus our guest birding expert. The guides were 20-somethings who all have a passion for nature. Each of them had either studied marine biology, geology, environmental science or a related field. In the evening, one of them gave a presentation about wildlife that we were likely to see that week. It really made our nature encounters more meaningful. For example, did you know that a pregnant whale shark can carry more than 300 babies in various stages of development in her body at one time? Or that a mockingbird has two voice boxes and can sing two songs at once? Or that a dolphin can put half of its brain into sleep mode while it swims under guidance from the other half? Animals are truly fascinating!
Where to eat?
The Safari Endeavor has one main dining room on the first level where all meals are served. On the second level, you’ll find a full-service bar and lounge, where coffee and snacks always are available. On beach party days, snacks and drinks also are served on the beach for your convenience.
All meals, with the exception of one buffet brunch, are table-served. At breakfast and lunch, you have the choice of two entrées; at dinner, you have a choice of three, which includes a meat, fish, and vegetarian option plus soup or salad and sides. In general, we found the beef selections to be better than the fish, but it’s likely dependent on your chef. Both lunch and dinner include a dessert prepared by the pastry chef. Our favorite dessert was the cinnamon churros dipped in chocolate ganache. With a few exceptions, we found the offerings to be very good. The service was always top-notch.
KidTripster Tip: Portion sizes, especially for growing teenagers, can be small. It’s important to know that you can ask for seconds and even thirds! The staff wants to make you happy. In fact, after my oldest son asked for seconds one day, the wait staff offered him a double portion at every meal from then on, which he happily accepted. Also, if you want a side of fruit, toast or oatmeal with breakfast, just ask. If you would rather have a salad on an evening when the chef is serving soup, just ask. Truly, it’s okay. In fact, one morning, my husband and son spotted the crew having Fruit Loops during the staff breakfast, so they, too, asked for a bowl in addition to the regular breakfast. Done.
KidTripster Tip: Have dietary restrictions? It’s not a problem. Just let your booking agent know when you reserve your trip and remind the chef when you arrive. It’s as easy as knocking on the door and stepping into the galley.
Know that meals are open seating, so you can sit anywhere that you’d like. However, tables are set for six people, meaning our family of four couldn’t sit with any other families. We ate all of our meals with other adult couples and a few meals with a college-aged daughter-father duo from Alaska. My boys didn’t mind and seemed to enjoy the adult conversation. Also, there’s no dress code for dinner, even the captain’s dinner on the last night, so leave the fancy clothes and shoes at home.
Now to one of the bigger surprises on the cruise: the open bar. Unlike other small ships that I’ve been on, all drinks were complimentary, including beer, wine, and liquor. To be honest, I was more excited to find out that my morning lattes were also on the menu! My youngest son took full advantage of the open bar, ordering a different drink every day - virgin Piña Coladas, Arnold Palmers, and cream sodas, to name a few.
The cruise is priced per person. Our Captain-level room was in the middle range. The cost (without airfare or travel insurance) runs $3,695 to $4,275 per person for a double room; it's more if it’s a holiday cruise in December. The lowest fare is the Master-level cabin at $2,995 per person for a double room during non-holiday sailing dates in November and December. Port taxes and fees are an additional $250 per person. With the exception of holiday cruises, kids’ rates (ages 8 to 13) are discounted by $500.
Yes, it’s pricey. But keep in mind, the cost does include all your on-board meals, all your drinks (including alcohol), wellness amenities, excursions, expert guiding, and transfers. On traditional big ship cruises, there are a lot of add-ons.
KidTripster Tip: The Safari Endeavor is what’s called a “blue hull” ship in the UnCruise fleet; blue hulls offer the most upscale experience. However, there also are cruises on “green hull” ships which tend to be a little less expensive. The main differences? The blue hull cabins are more spacious, but honestly, you spend very little time in your room. On blue hulls, all the meals are plated; on green hulls, breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style, while dinner is plated. And there are no massages on green hulls. However, green hulls do have an open bar and all the excursions - snorkeling, hiking, stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, and skiffs - that blue hulls do. For more on how the ships compare, click here.
Like all cruises, UnCruise has a procedure for leaving tips for the crew. Tips are split equally, which I think is a fairer way to compensate not only the stewards and guides whom you have a lot of face time but also those crew members that contribute to your comfort behind the scenes. The captain makes it clear that tipping is not required; that being said, the suggested tip is $25/day/passenger. Again, it’s completely up to you. The manager who handles hotel and food service will take credit card payments before the captain’s dinner on your last night.
To board the Safari Endeavor for a cruise of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, you first fly to Los Cabos International Airport (SJD) on the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula. You then board a motor coach and drive nearly 3 hours north to La Paz. While it may seem odd to start your cruise with a long bus ride, it’s done for good reason. The navigation from Cabo to La Paz can be a rough one with passengers turning green or worse.
KidTripster Tip: I do suffer seasickness, but happily, I was unaffected on this cruise. First, the ship is sizable. Secondly, the cruise sticks to the calmer waters between the peninsula and the coastal islands. Thirdly, the crew tries to make adjustments in direction or speed if the ship does encounter rough seas to ensure passengers’ comfort; again, UnCruise voyages offer flexibility and don’t have to adhere to rigid schedules. That being said, if you are prone to seasickness, bring motion sickness medications (non-drowsy and drowsy formulas), anti-seasickness wristbands, and anti-seasickness patches, just in case. I also find that using melatonin to help sleep before seasickness sets in can help.
To see Shellie’s more detailed, day-by-day account of UnCruise’s voyage to the Sea of Cortez in order to decide if it’s the right trip for your family, click here.
To find out what our KidTripster Teen thinks of UnCruise, click here.
And why does another one of our KidTripster Teens prefer small ships over big cruise lines. Find out here.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah swore off cruises a few years ago after suffering three days of unyielding seasickness. However, she’s so glad that she made an exception for this UnCruise voyage. She and her family now hope to see Alaska by small ship.
This writer received a complimentary cruise for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.