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Cruise Views

A Fresh Look at the Islands Off Baja California

February 14, 1988|SHIRLEY SLATER and HARRY BASCH | Slater and Basch are Los Angeles free-lance writers.

The logo for Sven-Olof Lindblad's Special Expeditions is a giant eye in dark blue outlined on the white stack of his ship Polaris.

"It stands for a different way of looking at the world, with more of an in-depth perspective," said Lindblad, whose father, Lars-Eric Lindblad, pioneered many of the now-staple adventure cruises to the Arctic, Antarctic, China and other exotic destinations.

But the younger Lindblad has found still newer worlds to conquer. True to his logo, he gives the traveler a fresh look at places that are different because of their environments.

We've just come back from a special expedition to the islands off both coasts of Baja California, an eye-opener to all those who think they know the area.

Rare Fur Seals

On this voyage we saw rare Guadalupe fur seals, once thought to be extinct, frolicking in the frothy, rock-studded waters off isolated Guadalupe Island.

We watched blue-footed boobies during courtship on the almost inaccessible Isla Ildefonso in the Sea of Cortez. We played tag with a flirtatious young gray whale at the mouth of San Ignacio Lagoon.

We watched the sun rise over the fine-grained golden sand dunes of Isla Magdalena and took close-up photos of huge, docile elephant seals at Isla San Benitos.

Access to all these places was made possible by the shallow draft of our small ship and of its motorized Zodiac landing craft, which can take passengers ashore at rocky tidal pools, isolated shores and untracked sandy beaches.

It comes as no surprise to learn that these islands are known as Mexico's Galapagos and are protected just as zealously as the Ecuadorean islands, with special permits required to go ashore.

The Mexican government was one of the earliest to enact stringent measures to protect its endangered seals.

The Bahamian-registry Polaris, sturdy rather than glamorous, was once a ferry operating between Copenhagen and Malmo, a detail that is meaningful to at least one of the Swedish officers on board, chief engineer Arne Ingerheim. He used to travel on it when he was a student; now he tends the engine room with loving care.

Passengers are welcomed to the bridge by Capt. Hasse Nilsson, who is well known to expedition travelers as master of the first passenger ship to successfully transit the Northwest Passage.

Ship Recently Refurbished

Homey, low key and comfortable, the 80-passenger Polaris was refurbished last year in Sweden when Special Expeditions took it over; formerly, it was under charter to Lindblad Travel and Salen Lindblad.

The ship is not for the physically impaired, since there is no elevator, stairs are fairly steep and many trips ashore require climbing in and out of inflatable rubber Zodiacs. Also, in heavy seas there is noticeable ship motion.

The 42 cabins--three of them singles--are outside, with lower beds, built-in hair dryers, efficient bathrooms with showers, individual temperature controls and radios.

You can have your hair done, see a doctor (with no additional charge), take a sauna or work out in a small gymnasium, but don't look for a swimming pool, TV, casino, slot machines or traditional after-dinner entertainment.

You may, however, set out in the ship's own glass-bottomed boat on a balmy moonlit night to sip champagne while drifting over luminous seas sparkling with rainbow-colored fish, or take swimming and snorkeling trips to empty beaches and clear, turquoise waters.

Many Lectures Offered

For novice naturalists, the bird life, geology, seals, whales and reef fish are explained with wit and clarity by lively young American and Australian expedition leaders and lecturers.

Our well-traveled fellow passengers, many near or past retirement age, included an archeologist from New Mexico, a New York architect, a Hollywood writer-director, a rice farmer from California, attorneys, university professors and stockbrokers.

One-sitting meals at unassigned tables for four and six give everyone a chance to get acquainted, and wide windows in the dining room allow for whale watching during lunch.

The Filipino serving staff is excellent, and a Danish baker produces marvelous pastries and breads.

However, more attention should be given to the main dishes. Both meat and fish seem to spend too much time in a holding pattern between the initial cooking and the serving.

Wine lists are varied and priced fairly. In fact, Special Expeditions makes a point of not exploiting a potentially high-profit bar business, frequently offering free drinks or free beer and wine with meals.

In brief, this is an appealing, high-quality cruise product in areas where something less might be expected and even tolerated.

Some Berths Available

While most of the February departures in Mexico are sold out, a March 5 circumnavigation of Baja California from La Paz to San Diego still has space. Prices for the 15-day sailing range from $3,850 to $5,600, including air fare from Los Angeles.

On March 29, the Polaris offers a 17-day program starting in Los Angeles, flying to Manzanillo and cruising to Costa Rica, ending at Cartagena on April 14.

The ship's European summer season begins May 13 with a 17-day exploration of the British Isles from the Shetlands in the north to the Isles of Scilly in the south and the Aran Islands off Ireland.

For more information, call Special Expeditions toll-free at (800) 762-0003.

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