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7 reasons to take a California coast cruise

Sailing beneath San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is a highlight of Princess Cruises’ 7-Day Classic California Coast cruise. Photo courtesy Princess Cruises

Cruising California’s famously scenic Highway 1—windows down, wind whipping your hair, music cranked as the road plays peekaboo with the rugged coastline—is a bucket list road trip for people from around the world, and for good reason. But there’s another equally compelling way to travel the California coast—and it’s not on wheels.

This past spring, my longtime friend Lisa and I boarded the Discovery Princess for a weeklong round-trip cruise from Los Angeles, with port stops in San Francisco; Santa Barbara; San Diego; and Ensenada, Mexico. Although we both live in Southern California, the Classic California Coast cruise was the perfect way to catch up while enjoying a fun “road trip” by sea. Here are 7 things that make this trip easy and relaxing.

1. The home port is close to home

Many popular cruises in places like the Caribbean, Europe, and Australia require long flights to get to the departure port. For this cruise on the Pacific, most U.S. travelers need simply take a domestic flight to LAX or to Long Beach Airport (LGB), then rideshare it to the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro. Depending on traffic, it’s usually about a 45-minute car ride from LAX, or just 20 minutes from LGB.

If you live in Southern California, you can bypass flying altogether. On the morning of our embarkation, Lisa and I drove together to the port. We deposited her car in the long-term parking lot, breezed through security, then boarded the 1,083-foot-long megaship.

Being a first-time cruiser, I’d worried about how I’d fare on the ship. Would I get seasick? (I didn’t.) Would I get bored? (Nope.) Not having to invest much time or money into just getting to the port eased some of the “what if” anxiety.

You may also like: A veteran cruiser’s 10 essential tips and insights

2. Your vacay starts immediately

Discovery Princess ship at sea.

The 3,660-passenger Discovery Princess was christened in April 2022. Photo courtesy Princess Cruises

As the saying goes, traveling is about the journey, not the destination. For road trips, that usually means checking into several hotels along the way. On this coastal cruise, you check in to your cabin and unpack your bags just once—and your relaxing vacay is on.

After stashing our stuff into drawers and closets, Lisa and I grabbed lunch at the sprawling buffet on Deck 16, then explored the ship. Spying a ping-pong table, we grabbed paddles and began to play. In an instant, we’d switched to vacation mode. As I stood on deck with the ocean breeze washing over me, I thought: Was I really at home just a few hours ago? I felt far away already.

3. The ship is a glamorous floating hotel

Guests watching a violin duo perform in the Discovery Princess atrium.

The glittering, piazza-style grand Atrium features live music, dance classes, and crew-versus-guests contests. Photo by Lorna Corpus

Christened in 2022, the 3,660-passenger Discovery Princess is beautifully appointed. Its heart is a multistory, piazza-style Atrium with music performances, dance classes, crew-versus-guests competitions, and more taking place on the gleaming, cream-colored marble floor.

Chilean sea bass.

A perfectly cooked dinner of Chilean sea bass with white wine sauce in the ship's Bistro La Mer restaurant. Photo by Lorna Corpus

A grand, circular staircase—resplendent in marble, glass, and gold-tone accents—towered next to the Atrium. On formal night, I felt glamorous as I descended the staircase in a shimmery outfit on the way to dinner.

Mini-suite aboard a Princess Cruises ship.

A mini-suite with a balcony and a separate sitting area is a relaxing home-away-from-home. Photo courtesy Princess Cruises

Our spacious mini-suite was just as fetching. It had 2 separate living areas: Untie the ceiling-hung curtains and you have a private sleeping area on one side and a compact living room and balcony on the other. The bathroom had a full-size tub, along with decent counter space. A tall cabinet held our belongings and helped keep our cabin tidy.

Sunset view of the ocean seen from a Princess Cruises stateroom balcony.

Sunset skies and cool fresh air from the balcony of a mini-suite. Photo by Jessica Cabading

In fact, we really enjoyed simply hanging out in our cabin between ports of call. Most of the time we left open the glass doors leading to the balcony to let in the cool ocean air. On one lazy evening, while taking in the West Coast sunset and waiting for room service, Lisa and I watched an episode of the 1970s TV series The Love Boat (famously set aboard another Princess ship), our lives wonderfully imitating art.

You may also like: Why 2023 is the year for a cruise

4. You see the West Coast from an entirely different angle

Cruising into town by ship instead of by car gave us a unique perspective of the Golden State’s iconic cities. When arriving in San Francisco, for example, guests can position themselves on deck (sail-in and sail-out times for each port stop are posted in a daily shipboard newsletter) to witness the Discovery Princess’ slow, early-morning glide into San Francisco Bay. 

Golden Gate Bridge seen from the water at night

A romantic view of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Photo by Daniel Cabading

If the fog isn’t too dense—or the heavy mist parts just so—the lights on the Golden Gate Bridge and the city’s skyline glow ever brighter. Traversing the mile-long suspension bridge in a car might feel not too different from driving any other roadway. Passing beneath it by ship and gazing up, however, you’ll sense the wonder of the 86-year-old engineering marvel.

You may also like: 35 cruise tips for first-timers

5. You can enjoy fun shore excursions in iconic California cities

A pair of bicyclists riding through Stearns Wharf.

Rent and ride a bike along Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara as part of your California coast cruise vacation. Photo by Jay Sinclair; courtesy Visit Santa Barbara

Picking a shore excursion in each city was like trying to choose a California wine at BevMo. They all looked good: wine tasting, bicycling adventures, cultural and historical walking tours. (And there’s also the option of DIY exploring once in port.)

As if the banquets at sea weren’t enough, I heeded the call of my stomach and booked foodie tours on land in 3 of the 4 port stops: San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Ensenada.

A pink painting hanging in Santa Barbara's Funk Zone.

A Santa Barbara shore excursion can include a walking tour of the city's artsy Funk Zone district. Photo by Blake Bronstad; courtesy Visit Santa Barbara

In Santa Barbara’s artsy Funk Zone district, our group of 10 nibbled on duck taquitos drizzled with smoky red mole at Flor de Maiz restaurant, and sampled Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel beer and a kielbasa, currywurst, and bratwurst platter at The Bier Garten around the corner.

Two women posing in front of a docked cruise ship.

The author and her bestie, Lisa (at left), in Ensenada, Mexico. Photo courtesy Lorna Corpus

In Ensenada, we tried ceviche tostadas at La Guerrerense—which began as a street cart and is now a restaurant—made famous by the late Anthony Bourdain, who’d declared the tostadas “mind-blowing” and “worth a drive from L.A.” Lisa and I fantasized that our next road trip just might be from L.A. to Ensenada to eat these tostadas again.

San Francisco's Chinatown.

San Francisco’s brightly colored Chinatown, the oldest Chinatown in North America, is a popular shore excursion stop. Photo by Scott Wilson/Alamy Stock Photo

During our 3-hour bus tour of San Francisco, we downed dim sum and visited a fortune cookie factory in Chinatown. Stuffed to the gills after each tour, and waddling up the walkway to the ship, we vowed that on our next cruise, we’d throw in a bicycling tour or two.

Trays of freshly made fortune cookies.

A visit to San Francisco can include a tasty stop at a fortune cookie factory in Chinatown. Photo by Alex/

6. Someone else can do the driving

Lisa and I love road trips, but neither of us particularly love driving long distances. On our cruise, we were able to leave the driving—and navigating—to the ship’s captain. It was one less thing to worry about during the week.

Bonus: With a “designated driver,” Lisa and I both could enjoy wine or cocktails during shore excursions or with dinner in the evenings. We had just a short stroll back to our cabin.

You may also like: Celebrate with a cruise closer to home

7. You can stay put, and that’s okay

Lorna Corpus seated before a serving of lasagna.

The author about to dig into a tasty lasagna dinner at Sabatini's restaurant onboard the ship. Photo by Lisa Barbee

On a road trip, you have to keep moving to stay on track. But by the sixth day of our cruise, we were happy to remain onboard when the ship docked in San Diego. (Disclaimer: As longtime Californians, we each had visited this beautiful seaside town many times before, so we didn’t feel the urge to disembark and explore.) From midmorning to late afternoon, a GPS would have mapped us moving from serene pool to gurgling hot tub to towel-draped chairs.

Rendering of passengers lounging in an adults-only space aboard a Princess Cruises ship.

The ship's open-air Sanctuary, a for-pay option, is a quiet retreat space catering to adults only. Rendering courtesy Princess Cruises

We checked in for our 4-hour reservation at the top-deck, 270-degree open-air Sanctuary lounge, a for-pay option. San Diego’s skyscrapers loomed just yards away, and the Sanctuary was practically empty, save for us.  

Leaning back in the hot tub and feeling utterly relaxed, Lisa and I looked at each other and laughed. “Now this,” said Lisa, riffing on California’s official motto, “is truly a Eureka moment.”

Lorna Corpus is a features editor for Westways and AAA Explorer. This was her first cruise (and she’s ready to sign up for another).

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