From the Egyptian-cotton comfort of my bed I can see burning crimson as dawn flares on the Pacific horizon. Waves swish against the hull and lull me in and out of consciousness until the crimson softens to a golden glow. Another perfect day off the coast of Mexico.
My eyelids are flagging again when something glistens beyond the balcony's glass door - a flash of fin and a splash, then another and another. I raise my head from the pillow and survey a pod of dolphins frolicking in the wake of our 5500-tonne ship. It is 6.45am and while there may be better ways to start the day, right now I can't think of any.
The dolphins are a promising omen on this first morning of a nine-day cruise from Los Angeles to Baja California aboard Silversea's freshly minted expedition ship, the Prince Albert II. Today and tomorrow were meant to be uneventful 'days at sea' - usually cruising shorthand for long lunches, lazy siestas and a good book. But there is rarely a dull moment aboard the Prince Albert, especially not when it is sailing the watery wonderland of Baja California.
That afternoon at 3.50 the ship's photographer - an Australian named Val - bursts onto the deck shouting "Whale!" He saw the beast from the porthole of his staff quarters, incredibly. Not just any old whale but a blue one, the largest animal on earth, and not just one but two of them, heaving their extraordinary bulks through the Pacific to graze its oceans of krill.
For the next hour the deck is packed with well-heeled passengers snapping and filming feverishly whenever the massive animals surface. As an expedition ship the Prince Albert II is not bound to a set course, so she simply changes tack to tail the whales. At one stage we are perhaps just 150 metres from the giants, so close that the snort from their blowholes is like rude thunder.
"This is a very, very rare sighting and we are very lucky to have seen them," announces Canadian Chris Srigley, one of the expedition guides. "I am very, very excited. I think I'm shaking."
Later, naturalist Juan Jose ("Call me JJ") Apéstegui puts the sighting into context: "There are perhaps only a few thousand blue whales left in the world, so to find two like this is a real treat."
Most of my fellow expeditioners are the sort of people who can afford to buy the most exclusive experiences the world has to offer, and judging by the delight on their 50-, 60- and 70-something faces, tracking blue whales off the Mexican coast has been money well-spent. Many are veterans of Silversea, renowned for its luxurious vessels and repeatedly voted the world's best small ship cruise line, but this is their first tantalising taste of Silversea on safari.
On the second of our supposedly lazy days at sea, the post-lunch nap is disturbed again by an acrobatic troupe of long-backed dolphins. The crew estimate there are at least 1000 and possibly 2000 creatures that mob the ship for more than an hour feeding on school fish, probably sardines. The seas are so dense with somersaulting dolphins that the display feels more like a theme-park performance than a random act of nature. Some of the animals even do that Flipper trick, skittering backwards across the water's surface propelled by their tail fin. Amazing.
Had I done some basic pre-departure research I'd have known that the seas around the 1200km-long Baja peninsula are famous for their diverse and abundant marine life. There are, for example, 33 species of marine mammals here - about a third of the world's total - including the ubiquitous dolphins, blue, fin and grey whales, and four species of turtles. But sometimes a little learning can spoil the surprises.
Technically speaking, the sea lions weren't a surprise because we were primed for them during a briefing the previous night with expedition leader Ignacio Rojas. When Rojas asked if we were excited at the prospect of snorkelling with sea lions, the entire theatre broke into applause. Take that as a yes.
At sunrise on day five the Prince Albert anchors off Los Islotes, two islands that look like jagged wedding cakes dusted with icing sugar but are, in fact, two red-ash volcanic outcrops coated in the abundant guano of brown- and blue-footed boobies.
After breakfast, the first Zodiacs begin shuttling passengers to the islets where we are welcomed by barking pinnipeds. After a final reminder from crew that we must keep a distance of seven metres from the animals - or risk the wrath of a ropey 350kg bull - we tumble backwards from the inflatables and embark on a magical encounter.
There are 25 sea lions in the colony and, for the most part, they shimmy and frolic and barrel through the water as if we are invisible. But I think everyone has the experience, like me, of a zippy pup gliding up close to eyeball them before executing a perfect pike and doubling back whence it came. During this enchanting 90-minute interlude I learn that sea lions:
- Scratch themselves with their tail fins.
- Use their dorsal fins to hug or hold each other while performing tandem pirouettes beneath the sea.
- Are noisy and they stink. The waters we snorkel in are funky with sea lion sewage, but the rewards far outweigh their ripeness.
- Are winsome creatures nonetheless.
That evening in the theatre, where passengers assemble on crimson leather banquettes over a gin and tonic or Champagne to hear the expedition crew recap the day's events, I ask Chris the Canadian whether the sea lions' elaborate underwater ballet was some sort of courtship ritual. No, he says. Breeding season is between May and July. "At this time of year they just spend their time feeding, resting, feeding, resting… It's a bit like life on board."
Ah yes, life on board. Excuse me for getting carried away with rapturous tales of National Geographic moments but, really, these were once-in-a-lifetime events that defined the cruise for me. Though the ship was memorable, too.
The 20-year-old Prince Albert formerly plied the seas as the World Discoverer but was bought by Silversea in 2007 and completely renovated to the Italian company's exacting standards before being christened in June by His Serene Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco. She made several tours of the Arctic, then headed south to Los Angeles, where I joined her, and Mexico, then on to South America. As you read this, she is summering in Antarctica.
Billed as the most luxurious expedition vessel afloat, the Prince Albert has 11 types of suites arranged over four of her seven decks, ranging from the 17-square-metre Adventurer Class to the 58-square-metre Owner's Suite. Marbled bathrooms, flat-screen TVs, movies-on-demand, Pommery in the minibar fridge and Riedel glassware come as standard.
I was fortunate to have a Veranda Suite and, later in the voyage, was upgraded to a lavish Silver Suite. Both had (very narrow) balconies that meant I could leave the door open and enjoy the balmy autumn weather. The suites had everything I required, including supremely comfortable beds.
Once you've paid your passage aboard Silversea there is little need to spend another dollar. All food, most drinks and gratuities are covered by the fare and only a couple of the more elaborate shore excursions incur an extra charge. Sea lions, whales and dolphins are all included.
Meals are served in the main restaurant, with its brigade of suited staff attending to guests' every need, or on the relaxed aft deck with its alfresco barbecues and burgers. Executive chef Udo Michael Wischniewski, a young German giant, does a miraculous job trans-forming the 3000-odd types of produce (berries always from Holland, lamb from Australia and/or New Zealand) into Relais & Châteaux-sanctioned cuisine. In his towering chef's hat he roams the restaurant each evening to check guests are happy with their menu choices and to suggest some of his own: on one occasion he asks what I've eaten (spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino and lamb curry, both excellent), then dashes to the kitchen and returns with his 'trio of foie gras'. "You must try this," he insists, and stands sentry as I do. His crème brûlée of foie gras is a delicate little creation paired cleverly with a cinnamon-rich fig jam; the 'lollipop' is a chunk of foie coated in brioche breadcrumbs and dipped in a balsamic reduction studded with crushed pistachio; and the third guise is a featherlight mousse served with a long wafer of toasted bread. He is right - I really did need to try it.
I have no idea what the quality of the cooking is like when Wischniewski is not in charge (all the staff have extended leave periods after each tour of duty), but all the veteran cruisers I spoke to were adamant the calibre of food aboard the Prince Albert is as high as, or higher than, on other Silversea vessels.
After dinner most passengers retire to bed to recover from the late-summer heat (mid- to high 30s every day) and the exhilarating activities. Unlike huge liners, the ship has no casino or nightclub, but a few of us often head to the bar for accomplished piano-playing, incomparable cocktails, and the chance to swap notes about our experiences.
Some passengers complain of teething problems aboard the new ship; airconditioning faults are a source of frustration and there are niggles about the service and amenities. Being a relative novice to cruising (four voyages and counting), I had no complaints. For me, the greatest pleasure of life on board is being able to see the world with a minimum of effort: to wake one day on the open sea, dolphins gambolling beside you, and two days later wake in the same bed, look out the same window, and be in the midst of a dramatic desert landscape but with none of the usual privations.
As the cruise continues, a feast of memories unfolds. There are 50 islands in the Sea of Cortez and we visit the cream of them, all national parks, UNESCO biospheres or, in the case of the Bay of Loreto National Marine Park, the World Heritage-listed home of almost a dozen animals found nowhere else on Earth.
We ride Zodiacs into coastal mangroves populated with whimbrels and marbled godwits (types of birds, if you didn't know), and snorkel in 28-degree waters amid schools of sergeant majors, gender-bending parrot fish (they can change sex at will, according to dive master Robin West) and graceful manta rays.
At the tourist trap of Cabo San Lucas, the southern-most tip of Baja California, I give a wide berth to the mariachi bands and the Hooters joint and instead float far above the madding crowd by parasail, then join the locals at the beach where Mexican kids perform backflips into the sea.
We get to experience a little of the local culture, too. On a day-long bus trip from Topolobampo, local guide Adrian Jiménez takes us into Sinaloa state, past the biggest can-making company in Latin America, to Tehueco, "place of the blue sky". Here we sit in the shaded yard of someone's humble home and watch local men perform the deer dance, an elaborate stomping, scraping, rattling dance accompanied by three craggy men singing in dialect to a song called "The Organ Pipe Flower".
The bus continues on to El Fuerte where we lunch at the Hotel Posada de Hidalgo, said to have once been home to Don Diego de la Vega, a man better known by his crime-busting moniker of Zorro. I sit beside two passengers, both travel agents from Arizona, who are instant converts to the Prince Albert. "There will be no more luxurious way to see Antarctica now," one of them predicts between mouthfuls of quesadilla.
The key constant of our days is the many Silversea staff who understood that on a small ship - the Prince Albert only accommodates 132 guests - there is a fine balance between their professionalism and personability. The balance is even more critical on an expedition ship, where the same people who clean our rooms and serve our meals can be found snorkelling beside us in the Sea of Cortez or taking shore leave at Cabo. The result is a relaxed, collegiate on-board atmosphere rather than the stuffiness or detachment of some cruise ships.
There were several crew members - Natasha from housekeeping, Khan on the aft deck, Carlito and Adam in the bar, Udo in the kitchen, Chris, Toby and Val on the expedition team - who were always a pleasure to encounter. And there was the captain, Fabien Roché, a French-Scotsman (or Scots-Frenchman) from Brittany, who for me was the ship's greatest asset.
Whether diving with sea lions or keeping night owls company in the bar, he was the most enthusiastic participant and often the life of the party. It was he who christened the bridge with a captain's cocktail party one evening, his (very popular) idea to serve an alfresco dinner on the rear deck, and he who followed the blue whales for miles so we could witness this once-in-a-lifetime event.
And it was Captain Roché who, with his usual cool style, broke the bad news to passengers that their cruise would have to be aborted a day early.
After an unusually rough night at sea, the PA crackled to life early the next morning with Captain Roché's sombre voice announcing there would be a compulsory meeting at 9am "for an important announcement that will affect the outcome of this cruise".
Passengers gossiped over coffees and juices, then hushed as the captain took the lectern and beamed two weather maps scrawled with crazy isobars on the rear screen.
"This is an area prone to tropical cyclones," Captain Roché began. "We have been very, very lucky. We have managed to avoid Hurricane Norbert [which had been tailing us most of the cruise, apparently]… but unfortunately we have a new one. This," he said, pointing to a nasty-looking smudge on the screen, "is tropical storm Odile."
The upshot was that both the Prince Albert and tropical storm Odile were due to reach Acapulco two days from now, and the captain wasn't prepared to risk passengers' lives. Everyone was forced to leave the Prince Albert the next day, 24 hours earlier than scheduled, at Puerto Vallarta.
For me, the news was academic. We had reached Mazatlán and that was where I was due to depart anyway. I doubt that even the excitement of a hurricane could top the nine exhilarating days I'd just spent cruising the Mexican coast.