We had to keep reminding ourselves during a recent cruise to Mexico aboard Sundance Cruises' Stardancer that the Queen Elizabeth 2 carries cars too, but nobody thinks of her as a ferry.
When Stan McDonald, who created Princess Cruises way back in 1965, teamed with his daughter, Laurie, to produce the Sundance concept, with car- and RV-carrying capabilities plus low prices to encourage first-time cruisers, it was easy to shrug it off as a good idea somewhere outside the mainstream.
And, according to corporate hindsight, their first ship, Sundancer, was not an ideal vessel even before its 1984 accident. The Stardancer, launched in 1982 as the Scandinavia for Florida-based Scandinavian World Cruises, was actually the ship everyone wanted in the first place. Sundance finally acquired it in April, 1985, and spent $5 million and 20 days redecorating it, using 700 workers in relays around the clock to finish it in time for the Alaska season last summer.
We didn't catch up with the Stardancer, however, until midwinter on a Mexican Riviera cruise. We chose a weekend "Sun Break" package to Puerto Vallarta that included everything, even parking for our car in Los Angeles, for $449 per person for an inside double, $649 for an outside double for the three-day period.
We drove to the Viscount Hotel at LAX and exchanged a coupon for a paid parking ticket for their enclosed garage; another coupon entitled us to a free cocktail while we waited for the bus transfer to the port.
We sailed on Friday evening and spent Saturday and Sunday watching migrating California gray whales and playful porpoises in a calm and sunny sea, while other passengers gambled in the casino, soaked in the indoor and outdoor Jacuzzis, swam, sunbathed, or exercised in the big, fully equipped health club with huge glass windows overlooking the scenery.
The Stardancer docked in Puerto Vallarta on Monday morning, and we had plenty of time to go into town for some shopping, return for a buffet lunch on board and then meet our English-speaking guide who took us to the PV airport for our Western Airlines flight home. The hotel's courtesy van ferried us back to our car, and we got back late Monday afternoon, rested and refreshed.
At least one couple taking the three-day package decided to extend their vacation to the full seven-day cruise because they were having so much fun, and another couple, who had booked a four-day Mazatlan "Sun Break" ($549 and $749) because they weren't sure they'd enjoy cruises, were already making plans for a longer sailing next time.
These three- and four-day packages, available northbound or southbound, are the newest development in Sundance Cruises' program claiming "the most affordable luxury cruises under the sun."
Their seven-day, round-trip Mexican Riviera cruises, calling at Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas, are a top value in this price range, starting at $725 per person, double occupancy, through April 4, and $695 through May 9, including round-trip air fare from 57 cities. Passengers who don't need the air can deduct $100 each.
The Stardancer is bound to be a delightful surprise to anyone expecting something akin to a ferry. Granted, the ship looks boxy and top-heavy from the shore, but the public rooms, cabins and general decor are as clean and pretty as any ship we've seen lately.
The food, bar and hotel services on the Stardancer are operated by Poseidon, a Miami-based company of European-trained personnel which also caters for the highly praised Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. Sundance's Allan Ware oversees all the details of shipboard life in his post as general manager, and Bruce Mabie is the personable and informative cruise director. There is a warm informality on board the Stardancer, along with an excellent staff.
Many of the passengers on our sailing were on their first cruise, and most were under 40, so the health club facilities, the top deck jogging track and the chic disco saw a lot of activity. Would-be admirals peeking into the bridge through the large windows on deck were often invited inside for a personal tour with Capt. Kjell Smitterberg.
For passengers confined to a wheelchair, there is one specially designed cabin with wide doors and large bathroom with no sill and plenty of turnaround space and grab bars. Since it's an inside cabin, albeit a large one right off purser's square, its price is one of the lowest on the ship.
You can enjoy the Stardancer by day with pool games like water volleyball or aqua aerobics; try your hand at shuffleboard, golf driving or skeet shooting; become familiar with wines at a wine tasting, or simply lie back in a deck chair and be serenaded by the Dueto Mexicano.