Travel: These are the busiest cruise ships sailing out of Southern California

The Mexican Riviera is the most popular cruise destination out of Southern California by far, accounting for the vast majority of the region’s itineraries. Twenty-two ships representing a dozen cruise lines will sail from these waters to the land of salsa, sombreros and sun this year, and none will take more passengers south of the border in 2023 than the Carnival Radiance.

The fifth-oldest vessel in the fleet is being asked to make 103 roundtrips from Long Beach to Mexico, and if those voyages are filled to capacity, which is 3,873, then that’s roughly 400,000 people living la vida loca for three or four days on Radiance just this year alone. Despite working 24/7 with no days off not only through December, but up to at least May 2024, Radiance should continue to look, well, radiant. Originally christened as the Carnival Victory in 2000, she was renamed and refitted in 2021, and at last check looked better than ever — and bigger than ever.

Cabo San Lucas, a favorite cruise port in the Mexican Riviera, offers visitors plenty of shore excursion options. (Photo by David Dickstein)

All of the ship’s public spaces underwent reconstructive surgery to the tune of $200 million. What West Coast passengers see and experience now on Radiance’s short-duration trips to Ensenada and Catalina Island are a waterpark, spa, sports complex, main theater and youth facilities that measure up to today’s lofty consumer expectations. Tastier upgrades include the addition of Big Chicken, home of perhaps the best tenders at sea, along with Guy’s Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que Smokehouse, Cucina del Capitano Italian restaurant, Bonsai Sushi and the rum-punched RedFrog Pub.

“Carnival Radiance features all of Carnival’s fan favorites and more,” said cruise line President Christine Duffy.

Carnival Panorama is one of three cruise ships fully dedicated to runs south of the border in 2023. (Photo by David Dickstein)

Sporting the brand’s new red, white and blue hull exterior livery, Carnival Radiance defies age next to her junior berth-mate, Carnival Panorama. The 4,008-passenger Panorama will make the most weeklong roundtrips to Mexico than any other ship this year. Just as she has done since her maiden voyage in 2019, the third-youngest ship in Carnival’s fleet will rack up major nautical miles making 52 weeklong voyages from Long Beach to the most popular resort cities along Mexico’s western coast.

The Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines ship Navigator of the Seas is shown docked in San Pedro. (Photo by Chuck Bennett, Contributing Photographer)

Across the Vincent Thomas Bridge is another locally homeported maritime workhorse: Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas is spending another year sailing out of San Pedro for trips of three to seven nights to Baja California and the Mexican Riviera. The 20-year-old ship went into drydock four years ago for a $115 million refit that included an expansion in capacity and tonnage for the second time since her christening. With 76 roundtrips to Mexico this year, the 4,000-passenger Navigator of the Seas will host more sailaway parties than any other ship heading south from L.A. Harbor. The world’s largest cruise ship from 2002 to 2005 ranks second overall among Mexico-bound vessels in the destination-limited, yet vital western U.S. market.

With exotic world ports farther than a cruise embarking on the Pacific Coast can go within three to seven days, the sweet spot for getaways and family vacations, the region’s most popular destinations by ship are Mexico, Alaska and the seaboard between San Diego and Vancouver, British Columbia. As for cruises specifically out of Southern California, roughly 90% head for the year-round warmth of our southern neighbor. Itineraries of three or four days from San Pedro and Long Beach tend to go as far as Ensenada to satisfy a Civil War-era law that requires ships to make an international call. Five-day sails often throw in a few hours in Cabo San Lucas, six days get an overnighter there, and weeklong voyages usually add stops in Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlán.

A tender port, Cabo San Lucas Bay requires (from left) Celebrity Solstice, Carnival Miracle and Discovery Princess to anchor offshore. (Photo by David Dickstein)

The 200-plus combined itineraries remaining on the 2023 schedule for Carnival’s Radiance and Panorama, and Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas run the gamut of cruise lengths to Mexico. And while this tireless trio are the only ships fully dedicated to the destination this year, they don’t have a maritime monopoly on mole, mariachis and margaritas.

Discovery Princess is scheduled for 30 roundtrips to the Mexican Riviera in 2023. (Photo by David Dickstein)

Other ships making waves between Southern California and the Mexican Riviera for a portion of the year include the Carnival Miracle with 36 roundtrip voyages, all from three to six nights starting in Long Beach. Not counting cruises to Hawaii that make a pitstop in Ensenada, the fifth-most roundtrip Mexican itineraries from the Southland belong to the Discovery Princess with 30, followed by Disney Wonder (29), Celebrity Solstice (18), Holland America’s Koningsdam (12), Norwegian Bliss (11) and Celebrity Eclipse (10).

The Mexican Riviera, home of Cabo’s El Arco, is the most popular cruise destination out of Southern California. (Photo by David Dickstein)

With two ships deployed in San Pedro in 2023, Celebrity Cruises is hoping its first itineraries to the Mexican Riviera in 15 years are the start of something grande.

“We wanted to grow our brand presence with California travelers with a top-tier product right in their backyard,” said Elizabeth Oates, Celebrity’s vice president of strategy and innovation. “We felt the casual elegance of our Solstice-class ships offered the perfect combination of innovation, pampering and fun for the California guest, and would hook them into the brand for future trips to Europe, Asia, South America or wherever their travel dreams lead them.”

Capt. Charalampos Theocharis of the Celebrity Solstice, which makes roundtrips from San Pedro to Mexico through April. (Photo by David Dickstein)

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Celebrity Solstice is certainly going above and beyond in that objective by working nonstop through a drydock refurbishment that came and went during the 15-month CDC-imposed shutdown. Duty called for Solstice to be deployed on the West Coast once cruising resumed, so it was goodbye planned major renovation, hello Alaska and the Mexican Riviera. A “full soft goods refurbishment” is nearly finished, so soon all cabins on Solstice will sport new carpets, curtains and furnishings – all installed while passengers are aboard, though you’d never know it. Ninjas must be on Celebrity’s payroll because twice Capt. Charalampos Theocharis had to assure that renovation work had been going on during the first full itinerary of the new year.

“The people who work day and night so that our guests get a great experience without inconvenience deserve my respect and appreciation,” Theocharis said on a sea day between calls to Cabo and Ensenada. “While every ship of every cruise line works 365 days a year except during rare times, Solstice and other vessels that go to Mexico might be even busier. We’ve found that the year-round warm weather of the Mexican Riviera gets passengers more participatory and active onboard.”

If you go …

Carnival Cruise


Disney Cruise

Holland America

Norwegian Cruise


Royal Caribbean

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