Frank R. Hall and Associates
   382 E. Montecito Ave
   Sierra Madre, Ca 91024

Patricia and I took a Princess Cruise to New Zealand and Australia in early 2002. We loved both countries and had a wonderful time when we were on shore but the cruise ship was a disappointment. We decided we were finished with “Cruising” for awhile.

We planned two trips for 2003. The first was a river trip in France ultimately cancelled because of the “Hostilities.” We weren’t afraid to go to France, (you’re probably safer in Paris than you are in L. A.), we were just angry with the French and decided we’d rather spend our money in more friendly countries.

The other planned trip was a short cruise to Mexico. OK, so we were “cruised out” after last year, but a group of Rotarians headed by our friends Gregg and Laura Freedman had booked a one week cruise to the Mexican Riviera on the Crystal Harmony. It was scheduled to start exactly one week after Patricia’s big “Bash” of the year, the Friends of the Sierra Madre Library annual Wine Tasting she has chaired the last two years. She needed the rest and so did I. Also, we had heard the Crystal Harmony was a “cut above” ordinary ships and we wanted to see if it was worth the extra bucks. It was.

OUR SHIPMATES Laura is a Past-President of the Arcadia Rotary Club while Gregg was President of the Sierra Madre Rotary Club when it was founded six years ago. From the Arcadia Club came Dong and Betty Chang, John and June Fee, Rich and Gayla Hutton, Ernie and Gail Jensen, Gil and Carol Stromsoe, plus Larry and Patti Webber. The Sierra Madre contingent consisted of Steve and Marge Garrett, George and Susie Sladoje along with your humble correspondent and wife Patricia.

CRUISING: Patricia and I have been on many cruise ships on several different cruise lines. We’ve sailed on Princess, Holland America and Sitmar, among others. Like the airlines, the cruise lines have begun to offer deep discounts in order to fill up their ships. Also, like the airlines, service has begun to decline in almost direct proportion to the size of the discounts being offered. Beware the “Two for one.”

When we took our first cruise on the Crown Odyssey in 1992 we were impressed. The food was terrific. If you didn’t like what they were serving they’d whip up something special for you. The stewards and dining room waiters were all Italians and Greeks who spoke excellent English and catered to your slightest whim.

Over the next few cruises we noticed those European waiters were replaced with Indonesians and other Pacific Islanders who seldom spoke English well enough to understand what you were talking about.

You might say to your waiter, “I’d like the Pasta with just a little tomato sauce instead of that Alfredo sauce you have on the menu.”

Nine times out of ten you would subsequently receive a big plate of Fettuccini with lots of Alfredo sauce. Then your smiling waiter would deliver a dish of sliced tomatoes on the side, nodding in self-satisfaction.

Interestingly, over the last few cruises we’ve noticed these Pacific Islanders are being replaced with Eastern Europeans – Poles, Hungarians, Serbs, Slovaks, etc. Their command of English is much better, because most of them had to study the language in school, but still the service wasn’t up to par because there were too few of them to serve the large number of passengers.

“YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR” This is what my father would say to his restaurant patrons. His complaint concerned the McDonald’s down the street, which was serving a 19-cent hamburger while Michener’s Drive Inn, which my Dad owned and operated, was charging a half a buck. (He was right; by the way, his Burger was far superior.).

With the high-end cruise lines, such as Crystal, you still get superior service, but you’re going to pay for it.

THE CRYSTAL HARMONY IS DIFFERENT: There are only 900 or so passengers in the about the same square footage that would accommodate 1,800 folks on a Princess ship. Some of the extra square footage is devoted to more shopping “opportunities” and many more dining possibilities. In addition to the Main Dining Room and the ever-present Lido Buffet, there are two specialty restaurants – one Italian and one Japanese.

More space is also devoted to crew quarters, as there is a crewmember for every two passengers. This pretty much guarantees great service. There’s the usual spa and workout room, pool and jacuzzi, shuffleboard courts, etc. But, there are a few special amenities as well. Each stateroom is equipped with a VCR and videotapes are available free in the library. There is also a “Computer University at Sea” where you can use computers to pick up your home e-mail and surf the net, for a fee of course. Classes are offered – the most popular being those devoted to understanding Digital Cameras.

The Casino is operated by Caesar’s Palace (Park Place Gaming) and it shows. The dealers rotate to the ship from their regular duties in New Jersey, Las Vegas or the Mississippi Gulf Coast. They seem friendlier and more skilled than their counterparts on other ships.

Because there are fewer passengers and more crewmembers you are hardly ever wasting your time standing in a line. No wonder Crystal has the highest rate of return customers. More than half the passengers on this cruise had been on the ship at least once before.

WAR JITTERS: The war in Iraq was still up in the air as the U. N. dithered and Democrats fretted. This cruise was about 90% full as some vacationers (like us) cancelled European trips and substituted vacations closer to home. On the other hand less than 150 passengers had booked the next cruise to Yokohama, a “transition cruise” so-called because the ship was changing venues from a Winter cruising South America and the Panama Canal to a Spring in Asian waters.

ENTERTAINMENT: Most of the ships we’ve been on before offered only CNN International on the room TV. This network is so anti-American that we generally refused to watch it. Crystal offers CNBC, ESPN, National Geographic and A & E as well. Thus you at least watch your stocks “go in the tank” or your favorite team “take gas” as an alternative to watching Larry King throw “softballs” at some celebrity nitwit.

The shows on the Crystal Harmony are outstanding. Singers and dancers of Broadway quality appear nightly. We took a backstage tour one day and met some of the dancers. They weren’t young people hoping to make it to Broadway, these were young people who’d been on Broadway and wanted to see the world. We were pleased to see Political Correctness hasn’t taken over entirely, as the dancers still referred to themselves as “Boys” and “Girls.” That’s show biz – do as we say, not as we do.

By this time you must be wondering if we ever got off the ship.

MEXICAN HOLIDAY: This cruise was particularly convenient for us since it left the port of San Pedro and returned to the same dock a week later. We were actually on the ship for 6 full days, 3 of which were spent at sea and 3 in Mexican Riviera ports.

Like most male California natives, my introduction to Mexico occurred in Tijuana as a college student. Drawn by “Girlie shows” and beer we would periodically pile a bunch of guys in a car and go to “T.J.” for excitement. We were easily excited in those days.

It was another 30 years before I ventured south of Tijuana. I regret not discovering Mexico a lot sooner.

CABO SAN LUCAS Situated on the very tip of Baja California are “Los Cabos” – Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo. San Jose del Cabo is the traditional one. Cabo San Lucas is the trendy, touristy one. When Patricia visited here 15 years ago, Cabo San Lucas was nothing more than a place for Fishermen to charter boats, drink beer, play cards and have their pictures taken with a Marlin (their catch or someone else’s). It had been a dusty, hot little place where one would never, never drink the water.

Today, “Cabo” is not only a bustling fishing port, but a tourist destination as well. Mexican law still prevents Gringos from owning property near the Ocean, but there are many variations on the theme of “Club Membership” or “Time Share.” The warm weather and devalued Peso make Cabo a “Trendy” destination. Unfortunately, like Los Angeles, there is no indigenous fresh water, so it must be brought in at some expense.

We were given a map as we prepared to get off the ship which included “approved shopping opportunities” “Approved” meant the merchant paid a fee to the shipping line in order to be listed. More than half of the approved merchants were jewelers. Some offered “free diamond earrings” or a “gold charm” to every person who showed their map on entering the store. We showed our map and received the earrings and charm reminiscent of the prizes kids get in a Cracker Jack box.

A leather store offered a 10% discount to morning shoppers, but since the ship docked at Noon we were too late. But, most merchants still enjoy negotiating.

Patricia collects Holy Water Fonts from around the world. In the first pottery store we visited she saw one she liked, but decided against buying it because we were at the very beginning of the trip. She never saw another one in 20 or more stores we visited in the next 3 days. The moral is, when you are traveling and see something you like – buy it!

Gregg found a tobacco shop selling Cuban Cigars which you are allowed to purchase and bring on to the ship, but you must consume them before reentering the United States.

After retrieving our free earrings we retired to the “Giggling Marlin” a famous Cabo “Watering Hole” for a beers and Margaritas. The place is decorated (if you can call it that) with outrageously garish cartoons of various sea creatures holding musical instruments, with names such as “Fleetwood Mackerel” or “Bob Marlin.” A sign informs customers, “If our food, drink and Service aren’t up to your standards – please lower your standards.”

The Giggling Marlin’s mascot is a rooster who roams the place occasionally jumping up on a table to crow enthusiastically. The joint’s “Trademark” is a Marlin standing on his tail with a man hanging upside down apparently attached to a fishing pole in a “take off” of the traditional photographic pose of the “Sportsman.” For a fee you can be hoisted upside down on a winch to have your photo taken as the “catch” of the trademark Marlin.

Only Steve Garrett had the gumption to have his picture taken by wife Marge in this set up, but then he was the only one to buy a huge black and silver sombrero, too. That tells you the kind of guy he is – a “Fun Guy.”

I collect T-shirts from famous bars around the world we’ve visited such as Sloppy Joes in Key West, Mickey Mantles in New York and the Red Dog Saloon in Juneau. But, the Giggling Marlin’s T-shirt was too awful even for my taste and Patricia breathed a sigh of relief when I decided not to buy one.

GALLEY TOUR The next morning we were treated to a tour of the Ship’s Galley by the Executive Chef, Franz Something or Other. He told us that those working in the galley work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for 8 months. Then they have 2 months off.

About 70 % of the water used is “desalinated” seawater processed on the ship. The rest is purified water brought on board at various ports. The ship “re-provisions” every ten days. Fruits and vegetables are purchased in three degrees of ripeness – ripe, half-ripe and green in order to last the whole voyage. All meat comes from the United States except the lamb, which comes from Australia. Of course the galley was spotless and we were interested to watch crewmembers preparing displays of fruit and pastries.

“NORWALK-LIKE VIRUS” At this point I should mention the virus that has been plaguing cruise ships. For those of you who may have been on the Moon over the last year, an intestinal “Montezuma’s Revenge” type virus has shown up on several large cruise ships. It isn’t an air or water-born virus; it’s transmitted from hand to hand. All ships captains are paranoid about it– passengers, too. I asked a crewmember why it was called the “Norwalk-Like Virus” and he said, “Because it’s like the Norwalk Virus.” I remain unenlightened.

To combat it you are handed a disinfectant wipe to clean your hands each time you return to the ship from a port visit and all crewmembers are instructed not to shake hands with passengers. This even extends to the “Captains Dinner” where you still can have your picture taken with the Captain, but he doesn’t shake your hand. Day and night the crew can be seen disinfecting banisters and railings.

We heard about one passenger who became sick a couple of days before the end of the trip, probably from eating the local Puerta Vallerta lettuce with her guacamole. The ship’s doctor confined her to her cabin for the remainder of the trip. She wasn’t even allowed to visit the ship’s sickbay, the doctor and nurse treated her in her room.

PUERTA VALLARTA Located on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, Puerta Vallarta was the southernmost port we visited on this trip. It was warm and tropical. A hurricane had devastated Puerta Vallarta just last fall and there were still some remnants of that event. The Sheraton on the Beach still hasn’t reopened, for example.

Puerta Vallarta was a sleepy village until the 1950s. When the Communist revolution closed Cuba to American tourists, Puerta Vallarta (which has a similar climate to Havana) really began to take off as a “destination” for the “jet set”. When Liz Taylor and Richard Burton filmed “Night of the Iguana” here, famously carrying on an affair while being married to other people, the town gained a worldwide reputation as a place to get away “from it all.” The “Liz and Richard” houses, linked by a secret passage, are still part of the “Grey Line tour” of the City.

Some months before, Laura Freedman had learned about La Palapa (pronounced as
”lapa lapa” by us Gringos) a restaurant on the Beach in Puerta Vallarta through a program on the Food Channel. She located their site on the Internet and made a reservation for all of us to have lunch at this wonderful spot. Under a thatched roof and open to the sea breeze without benefit of windows, it reminded me a lot of restaurants in Hawaii. It also had a spectacular view of the bikini-clad beach-goers packed “chin by jowl” up and down the beautiful white sand. They had great food, too.
Laura also had the presence of mind to arrange for vans to transport us from ship to restaurant and from there to the shopping area, so we had plenty of time to visit more jewelry stores. In a place called "Pacific Jewelry” Patricia tried on a pretty large “rock” for the benefit of the other women in the group. The asking price was $26,000 (U.S. Dollars, not Pesos). After my heartbeat stabilized she returned the ring to the sales person who, thinking she was a serious customer kept lowering the price. By the time we left the store to wander up the street, the price had dropped to $14,000. When a half-hour later we walked by the store again the salesman came rushing out to tell Patty she could have the ring for $10,000. I told her we should stick around another hour or so and it might drop to my price range.

We took a taxi back to the ship. It had to be the highest mileage vehicle on the continent, but it delivered us chugging and coughing exhaust fumes all the way to the dock. In Mexico a Car isn’t used, it’s “Semi-Nuevo” or semi-new, certainly an exaggeration for that machine.

MICKEY MOUSE CLUB All cruises have theme nights. On Crystal Cruises it is a “50’s” night during which guests are invited to dress as they did (or would have) in the 1950’s. Laura arranged to get “Mouseketeer” caps for all 20 of us. I arranged for white tee shirts with our names on them through my son John, who is in the shirt business (catalog on request, low prices guaranteed).

Each night we met for cocktails before dinner. On this particular evening we all gathered wearing our Mouseketeer outfits. The Bartender found us pretty amusing and as we left he said, “There go the Mouses.” Later George Sladoje and I had a discussion as to whether the Bartender had been grammatically correct. Are a group of Morons wearing mouse ears “Mouses”? Mice? Or just Morons?

George is a big guy, but his wife Susie cut the back of his mouse ears cap so it fit flat on his head. Unfortunately, Patricia didn’t alter my cap, which was so small that it teetered precariously on the top of my head. Also my ample belly made me, perhaps, the largest Mousekeeter in history. I felt as if the name on my shirt should have been “Tweedle Dum” instead of “Frank.”

We arrived at the Dining Room early to have our photo taken, then marched through the assembled diners singing:

“M I C - See you real soon - K. E. Y - Why? Because we love you”

This was a bit less dignified than my usual entrance.

We didn’t win the prize for best costume, but we sure had a good time at the “Sock Hop.”

MAZATLAN Our final Port was Mazatlan, north of Puerto Vallarta on the Sea of Cortez. Famous as a “shrimping port,” Mazatlan is also close enough to Mexico City for a fairly large number of tourists from within the country to visit in addition to us Gringos.
Crystal Cruises’ on-board “Concierge” made luncheon reservations for 14 of us at “The Shrimp Bucket,” an excellent restaurant across the street from the beach. It was the first time I’ve ever been in an eating establishment where the guacamole and salsa were made fresh at the table. Just outside the entrance is a sign that says “Hotel Bakersfield.” Being from Bakersfield originally, I was interested in the source of the name, but nobody in the Restaurant seemed to know the answer. There was no “Hotel” within a hundred yards of the place.

We visited Mazatlan on the Monday before “Fat Tuesday” so preparations were being made in earnest for the Mardi Gras celebration to begin that night and culminate with a parade the following night. Many of the streets were closed while food booths and carnival rides were being erected. We were sorry to have missed the big event.

POVERTY IN MEXICO As always when we go to Mexico we were struck by the number of poor people, the vast majority of whom are “Indios.” They aren’t “panhandlers” asking for spare change, they always want to give you something in return for your money – a stick of gum or a piece of candy. The Mexican culture is a very proud one and even in the “States,” you won’t find Hispanic beggars displaying signs “Homeless – Please Help.” When you see poor Hispanic people at Freeway entrances they are offering oranges, peanuts or flowers for sale.

GOOD NEWS AND BAD NEWS – SHOPPING ABROAD We were pleased to learn that the amount of goods you can bring back into the United States has been increased from $400 per person to $800 per person. Additionally, the amount of Duty has been decreased to 5% from 10% on goods valued over your exemption. That’s the good news. The bad news is, if you pay duty on anything, the Feds notify the State of California and Gray Davis will send you a bill for the California State Sales Tax, 8 ¾%.

We really like Mexico and the Mexican People a lot and hope to go back often.

That’s all for this trip.

See you real soon. Why? Because we love you.



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