And now for something completely different…
Snakes on a plane? No, bikers on a boat!
San Pedro, Calif., April 13–20—Let’s get this party started. After five years of cruising in the Caribbean and a couple years of running up Alaska’s inner passage, the Hogs on the High Seas outfit brought their floating formula of biker-flavored activities and debauchery to the Port of Los Angeles for a maiden sail down the Mexican Riviera. The biker contingent of the cruise numbers nearly 1,000—or roughly half of the passenger population of Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas—and they’re not waiting for the formality of actually boarding a boat before getting the party started with a vengeance. At the Crowne Plaza Hotel in this portside city, the revelry has commenced in earnest with the kind of festive mood you’d associate with a crowd of vacationers hell-bent on having a blast. The fun and games and heavy drinking are in full bloom and it’s a riotous scene—and also a fair indication of what life will be like once this crowd is actually at sea.
One thing becomes quickly evident, and it’s that most of these people are cruise veterans (as it turns out, fully half of the participants have done a HOHS trip previously, and a whole lot more have gone on other, more conventional cruises) and a lot of them are here in organized groups so that for the likes of myself and My Personal Nurse, it’s like the first day at a new school where everybody else seems to know each other and know the drill. We know nothing. We’ve never taken a cruise. We are poor blind neophytes in this endeavor, but quick studies nonetheless, and the first thing we learn is to follow the herd wherever it may lead.
The morning of departure finds the herd assembled in the lobby of the hotel, baggage in tow, and waiting to take a shuttle bus to the ship. A steady stream of shuttles is scheduled to run for a couple of hours and everyone has been assigned a time slot for when they’ll board. As a general rule, I prefer live interment to standing in a queue, so on the advice of Debbie Anderson—the better half of the Dean and Debbie duo who created and operate Hogs on the High Seas—we opt for calling a cab instead and are whisked away a half hour later, and for less than 10 bucks including tip are delivered in relative style to the docks. Good call.
Nevertheless, after our arrival at the terminal, more lines ensue, a short one to register and receive our sailing documents and HOHS goodie bags, and then a long one waiting to get through security. Still, the whole process from the time we leave the hotel to the time we board the Vision of the Seas only takes about an hour and a half, and at no time in the process does anyone get irritated; there’s no jostling or grumbling or taking of cuts, and the sense of communal spirit and major fun in the offing keeps tempers stowed.
It’s a logistical task of daunting proportion to get a couple thousand people and their luggage onto the ship in a relatively short time frame, and it’s executed with remarkable efficiency. In truth, it would take a whole lot longer if port security were anywhere near as stringent as airport security. Here you can wear your shoes and keep your computer and camcorder in their cases, and if you trigger the metal detector on your first pass through, you get a do-over or two, with the security personnel offering helpful hints on how to fool the machine.
That laxity does not, however, extend to the luggage, but it’s not weaponry or explosives they’re searching for, it’s alcohol. No carry-on alcohol is permitted on Royal Caribbean vessels, and if you’re caught trying to smuggle a bottle onboard, you’ll have it confiscated, and if you get caught doing it twice—like trying to smuggle hooch on from one of the port stops during the trip—then you’re really in hot water, and they reserve the right to put you off the cruise. And they know all the tricks—including the old vodka-in-the-sealed-water-bottle ruse. If you purchase alcohol onshore and declare it, they’ll gladly stow it for you and return it at the end of the cruise.
Once aboard, we locate our stateroom and find it to be a pleasant habitat: small, but well-organized and roomy enough not to feel cramped, and there’s a balcony with table and chairs, and a bottle of Korbel champagne on ice. Let the leisure begin.
Learning the ropes
While the Vision of the Seas is a substantially smaller vessel than the Mariner of the Seas used on the HOHS Caribbean cruise (and which will be pressed into service for the 2009 Mexican Riviera cruise), it’s still positively gigantic, and just getting oriented to where things are and the most expeditious means of getting there takes a good while. Days, actually. But since the first two days are essentially spent at sea, there’s plenty of opportunity to explore and figure out how things work around here. There are 11 decks on this ship with elevators to transport you to where you want to go, but thank God there are also staircases, since the first thing you come to grips with is the availability of free food, including room service, at any hour of the day and night, and if you fall into the habit of taking the elevators instead of trooping up and down the stairs, chances are you’ll need two flotation devices by the end of the voyage to float your enormous bulk.
The free ride ends at the bar, however. It’s there that you get a full appreciation for the vigilance of the Royal Caribbean alcohol hunters, since this is where the cruise line makes their dough. Drinks are pricey, and despite the “all tips included” provision of the ticket price, an automatic 15 percent is tacked on to every bar purchase, as well as to wine purchases with dinner. A shot of booze runs about six bucks, and beer costs between four and six, depending. Put a thousand thirsty bikers out at sea for a day or two at a stretch and you can begin to see the serious income potential here, and I discovered in conversations with cruise veterans that thousand dollar bar bills are not unusual (though, remarkably, there are also AA meetings held onboard all week). I also discovered, personally, that the point comes when it ceases to matter, and you just accept things as they are and go along for the ride. Don’t worry… be tipsy.
The rally angle
In addition to the many activities and diversions offered as standard fare on a Royal Caribbean cruise, the HOHS participants benefit from the dizzying schedule of biker-themed doings that distinguish these excursions. Prominent among them is the presence onboard of a rally-style vendor row, occupying a spacious room on the main drinking deck, and dealing a wide variety of motorcycle merchandise that they’ll ship to the home of the purchaser. What’s more, the vendors involved provide a small fortune’s worth of merchandise to be given away nightly in free drawings to the HOHS cruisers. On any given night, over $12,000 worth of goods is dispensed, and while that in and of itself is a lavish giveaway, the real piece de resistance comes at the end of the cruise when a drawing takes place for a motorcycle—in this case a new Softail Deluxe outfitted with Boss Bags and a Dragonfly Concepts fairing that went to Arlene Merkel of Hartland, Wisconsin.
Then there’s the silly stuff, like the now-traditional Belly Whacker Contest conducted poolside on the first day at sea, and what a hoot this is. Finally, an athletic event in which morbid obesity and inebriation pay off and pay off big. There are also pageants for Sexy Senorita and Topless Hombre. A whole lot of cash gets spread around as well, going to the winners of a poker walk, bingo tournaments, and raffles. Those are the HOHS perks that occur on the ship, and a second major component of the package comes in the form of biker-styled blowouts at various well-known and touristy party emporiums at the ports of call.
Storming the mainland
There are three ports of call on this voyage: Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, and Puerto Vallarta, and parties scheduled at each of them. We arrive at Cabo the morning of the third day out, and since the ship is obliged to anchor out some distance from the shallow harbor, a small flotilla of tenders is used to ferry the multitudes ashore. Once again there is an assignment of time slots to catch a ride, and once again my constitutional aversion to standing in line kicks in. Fortunately for me (and anyone like me), there is a cutoff time for assigned placement, and after lounging onboard for about three hours all restrictions are lifted and we wander down and get on a tender without a fuss.
The HOHS party is being held a short walk away from the docks at Sammy Hagar’s infamous tequila bar, Cabo Wabo, and it becomes quickly transformed into a biker bar reminiscent of Dirty Harry’s in Daytona Beach or One-Eyed Jack’s in Sturgis. A band is playing in the bar’s dark interior and the lewd behavior strictly prohibited on the Vision of the Seas but aching to bust out finds an outlet.
The Mazatlan stopover the next day is somewhat more ambitious and a lot more involved. For one thing, there are two big parties scheduled, the main event being held in concert with Steel Thunder Outfitters, the motorcycle adventure touring company we’ve reported on in these pages in the past. This shindig is a quasi-beach party at the seaside pool of the Mazatlan Holiday Inn, which is located clear across town from the ship. Being the first HOHS cruise to the Mexican Riviera, there are certain attributes of a shakedown cruise evident in getting the hordes of bikers transported to the somewhat distant location. Again there is a long line involved in grabbing a cab or other conveyance, and again I luck out, it seems, when an agent of STO cherry picks some people out of line and leads us to a tour van. The downside of the deal is that we actually have to take a tour—or the driver will get in trouble with the law—and it’s a more time-consuming proposition than just shooting over to the party. The upside is that we get to take a tour, and Mazatlan proves a lovely and fascinating city, with ravishing vistas, rampant statuary, rich history and the longest seaside promenade in all of Mexico.
Upon arriving at the Holiday Inn, we encounter another downside, this one being the price of admission. You can’t just stroll in and have a cocktail. You can’t just stroll in at all unless you purchase a ticket. The buy-in is a minimum of $34.50 per person and includes all your drinks. The second tier is a $62.50 ticket that also gets you fed. That seems like a lot, especially for those who aren’t particularly looking to suck down booze like a refugee from a rehab facility just to break even, and especially since we’ve now become accustomed to free food on a whim onboard. The spectacle at the pool makes it all worthwhile, though, with a true Spring Break mania in full blossom and looking like a photo shoot for Empty Nesters Gone Wild. A stop at Señor Frog’s on the way back to the ship for a poker walk card and the saloon’s signature brand of playful tequila abuse rounds out the day’s thorough trashing of the liver.
The final stop of the cruise is Puerto Vallarta, and a final famous tourist bar, Carlos O’Brien’s, for still more excess, and it’s at this port that some revelers fail to show up at the appointed hour to depart. Announcements are made trying to determine if the lost lambs are aboard but somehow unaccounted for, and nails are surely bitten, since missing this boat is a big deal. Time and the Vision of the Seas wait for no man, biker or otherwise, and if you get left behind you’re basically screwed. The thought of watching the ship sail off with all of your belongings including your passport is hellish in the extreme. Happily, the stragglers arrive just in the nick of time—I watch them arrive from my balcony chair, skipping along without a seeming care in the world—and all is right with the cruise. And now it’s just a matter of two solid days and nights at sea to bring it all home.
Upon arriving back at the Port of Los Angeles, the load-out is every bit as daunting a logistical challenge as the load-in was, but again it proceeds expeditiously, and for those of you who are booking passage on the Hogs on the High Seas Mexican Riviera cruise in 2009 and planning on catching an early flight home when it’s over, I can tell you that even without opting and paying for an express departure from the ship—which would put us at the head of the disembarking line and get our bags sent to the airport directly—we got off the ship, claimed our baggage, cleared customs and took a $50 cab ride to LAX, all in an hour and five minutes, arriving at 9:40 a.m.
When the couple behind the HOHS phenomenon, Dean and Debbie Anderson, set out to create a bike rally on a boat, it was an impossible undertaking. You can’t have a bike rally without bikes. It’s absurd. So they haven’t done that, but what they have created is almost as unlikely, and that’s a parallel biker-themed universe with its own customs and colors and even, at this point, traditions. It also has its own unique charitable component, the HOHS Dialysis Fund, that provides passage, spending money and onboard dialysis treatments to 14 renal patients. While the biker theme prevails in this universe, there are radical departures from what is experienced at actual motorcycle rallies, and for the most part that’s a good thing. Unlike contemporary rallies, nobody’s walking around talking on a cell phone—there’s no reception here. And nobody’s standing up while eating greasy rally street fare because there’s nowhere to sit and nothing else to eat. And here you can spot spouting whales and swarms of dolphins from a seat at the bar. And most notably of all, especially for a man in my position who has to read the letters and hear the laments of dissatisfied rallygoers virtually on a daily basis, nobody here is complaining about a damn thing. There’s a universal feel-good vibe even among the heavily liver-damaged and grotesquely overfed. That’s quite an accomplishment in and of itself.