Background. My wife, 11 year old son, 4 year old daughter and I are from the Northern Virginia/DC area, and chose this trip primarily for the low price (I'll discuss some of the "hidden" costs that offset this price later). We had a wonderful time aboard the Elation, and hope that this accounting of our cruise experience will allow others to have an equally fantastic time.
Pre-trip. We arrived Wednesday for our Sunday sail date, and rented a car from Enterprise one-way from Houston to Galveston. We visited San Antonio before the cruise, and while it was certainly hot there in mid-August, it was a great side trip that I would highly recommend. It is about 200 miles from Houston to San Antonio, but with the 70 MPH speed limit, we were there in less just a little over three hours.
On Saturday, we drove to Galveston, where we stayed overnight at the Quality Inn and Suites and were pleasantly surprised with a clean, comfortable hotel with an outstanding view of the gulf. I know that there are some that will disagree, but I found the beaches on Galveston Island to be very pleasant, and my family and I spent a terrific afternoon there. The dynamics of the beach are very different in the western Gulf of Mexico than on a typical Caribbean beach. Here you may find seaweed, cloudy, greenish water, and sometimes jelly fish, but this typical Gulf beach water is not "dirty" as some have said. The bottom line is that if anything short of blue water repulses you, avoid this beach. Otherwise, go for it! We ate dinner in the historic Strand District. The port of Galveston is in a largely industrial area, but is immediately surrounded by this lovely historic district that contains many shops and restaurants. I would recommend visiting this area if you arrive a day early, both to enjoy the restaurants and to familiarize yourself with the embarkation area.
Embarkation. On Sunday, we dropped off the luggage at the ship, and then drove about 10 minutes to Enterprise to drop off the car. We were taken back to the ship by the Enterprise shuttle, and were at the port by 11 am. TIP: If you are using Enterprise, they will ask you to drop off your luggage at the ship before you drop off the car at Enterprise. They did not tell me this when I made the reservation. It is difficult to get lost in Galveston, since it is such a small island, and the roads are pretty much up/down or across, so I found getting to the port to be stress free. Admittedly not the most enjoyable part of the trip, embarkation processing was the usual waiting around game while the previous passengers left. We spent about an hour total waiting to get on. There was no separate "Fun Pass" line that I could see, but it definitely made the check-in process faster. Also, there were no special gold sail and sign cards this trip - don't know if they discontinued them or were just out.
The Ship. We had previously sailed on the similar Paradise, so we were familiar with the layout of the ship. Elation is very richly decorated with dark woods and stained glass themes. I found it to be very tastefully done, and not the usual Carnival festive colors (not that I dislike that style either). You enter the ship on deck 7, Empress, into the bottom level of the Atrium. The Atrium is beautiful and has the same rich tones that are repeated throughout the ship. There is a small stage atop the Atrium bar where a piano and strings trio frequently plays. It is a great place to grab a daily drink special and people-watch while enjoying the music.
Up on the Lido deck is the main pool area. The pool slide is centrally located between the pool and the elevated stage. This stage has been awkwardly placed sideways in the middle of the Lido deck, and cannot be easily seen from the pool area because of the slide. Up one deck and aft is the aft pool. This pool tends to be much less crowded and thus was my favorite. The only problem with the area is the ongoing basketball games that take place right next to the aft bar (in fact, there is netting that keeps the ball/players from going into the bar. The bar itself is nothing more than a small opening in the wall - definitely not suitable for a meet and greet as I found first-hand!
Back inside and down to the Promenade deck are Gatsby's and Cole Porter lounges. Gatsby's is the only indoor place on the ship where you can enjoy a cigar; they have cigars for sale, and a cutter in case you forget yours. The Cole Porter club is the venue for almost-nightly Karaoke and R-rated comedy. While I was not able to make it to any late night comedy shows, I did enjoy watching the karaoke. All the way forward on Promenade and Atlantic decks is the Mikado lounge, which is the setting for the nightly Showtime performance. I enjoyed all of the performances -- the performers were of professional caliber and I would recommend attending all shows. The lounge does have some obstructions, but we never had a problem finding a good seat.
Dining. Both dining rooms were nicely appointed, tastefully decorated, and with windows lining both sides. Our wait staff was excellent as usual, except for a couple of minor glitches by the team waiter. Overall, though, I would rate their level of service as the best anywhere - better than my experience with Disney and as good as Royal Caribbean. As far as food, everything I had was delicious. There is no reason for anyone to complain about steak that is overcooked, or to be disappointed with their meal. The staff has a goal of satisfying the guests, and will do whatever they can to meet that goal. If you don't like what you have, politely ask for an alternative (there's always filet mignon!). I would, however, like to see some more variety in the offerings, which have not apparently changed much in the last few years. The most obvious need for change is the breakfast and lunch menu in the dining room. I opted to eat most breakfast and lunch meals at Tiffany's this cruise, which provided a more interesting variety of choices. In addition, it prevents being stuck at the table with rude or unfriendly guests (more about that later). Tiffany's is a very pretty cafe with stained glass peacocks and excellent views. Most importantly, Tiffany's has the pizza and ice cream service, as well as the fixin's for my secret rum punch (see Tips and Hints section). Now, as an ex-New Jerseyite and frequent visitor to New York, I pride myself on being somewhat of a pizza aficionado. While Tiffany's pizza (actually Carnival's, since it has been the same on every cruise) is not quite New York caliber, the combination of freshly made crust and imaginative ingredients certainly makes it the best I have ever had on a cruise ship.
Ports. Progreso. My favorite port of the trip - I was leery of this port after reading other posts, but it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. As others have stated before me, this is a real Mexican town that has not yet been infiltrated by tourist traps. If you are looking for bargains on typical Mexican offerings, this is the place to buy. We are so sorry we waited for Cozumel to purchase some items, since we saw prices at least double in Coz. What to buy here: Sombreros and other souvenirs, T-shirts, $1 beer and shot, silver, liquor. The Pier: About 5 miles long, there is a shuttle bus that runs frequently. There were taxi drivers at the end of the pier trying to convince us to use their services, but the shuttles are frequent and the ride is short. Save your money and take the shuttle into town. The shuttle drops you off at the market, and once there it is an easy walk to the beach or the main town area. The ride back, with everyone having imbibed $1 beers and shots all day, is not to be missed. There is also a small shopping village at the ship's end of the pier, but the prices are much lower in town for everything, so avoid shopping here unless your excursion prevents going to town.
The market: As you step off the shuttle in Progreso, there is a market that contains many vendors, each selling mainly trinkets and hammocks. The hammocks come in various grades, and I was able to pick up a top-grade hammock for $15 (asking price was $30). Here is also where you can board a tour of the city on a double-decker bus for $2 each. We took this tour and I would highly recommend it as a way to get your bearings and see the wonderful little town. Do the tour before venturing out.
The town: Don't skip this opportunity to see a real Mexican town and take advantage of some bargains in the process. Across from the shuttle stop is a small liquor store where you can get $1 (yes $1) liters of Mezcal. It is actually cane liquor distilled with agave, but it tastes just fine with a little margarita mix. For the price, you can't beat it. Further into town, you will see numerous bars where you can get $1 beer and shots. Load up on these now since it costs a little more at the beach. Be sure to visit the farmer's market up the street (avoid looking into the meat shops - trust me). Next, it's time to walk a couple of blocks towards the beach area. You will also see several shops and bars along the way.
The beach: Had an awesome time here. The beach begins with "Corona Beach" closest to the pier. Feel free to visit this beach, but don't take the Corona Beach Break offered by Carnival - it really is a rip-off since you can get beer so cheap and the shuttle is free anyway. The beach continues with groups of palapas that correspond to restaurants across the street. We walked a few hundred yards and settled on a palapa in front of El Viejo y El Mar (The Old Man and the Sea) and were treated to a day of outstanding service by a young man named Victor. He brought us chairs, food, beer -- whatever we wanted, he even arranged for a musical interlude. The advantage of El Viejo y El Mar is that they offer restrooms, a shower, and a fresh water pool - all free of charge. We enjoyed swimming in the Gulf water, which was clear as many Caribbean beaches that I have seen, so I'm not sure what the posts about the dirty water were about. While on the beach, we were indeed approached by numerous vendors, and did make purchases from some of them. If it bothers you to be approached by vendors, you will likely not have a good time here, however I found that a simple "no thank you" sufficed in each case. We purchased a handmade bracelet for 50 cents from a little girl (couldn't resist), a silver bracelet for $3, and listened to a Mexican love song for $1, all from the comfort of our palapa. One last note about cigars here and in other ports. Don't buy Cuban cigars from street vendors -- period. The likelihood of them being genuine is remote at best. Read this article for more information: http://www.cigarnexus.com/counsel/counterfeit/, but the bottom line is that you cannot get a box of 5 legitimate Cuban cigars for $20, so stick to reputable Havana cigar merchants for these, or better yet buy Mexican, Nicaraguan, or Dominican cigars and avoid the hassle.
Cozumel. We decided to try Paradise Beach on Wednesday, which turned out to be a great choice. What we found was a clean, pretty beach, with lots of water toys, great service, and delicious food. I purchased a bucket of beer for $12 that they kept iced down, and camped out under an umbrella (too much sun in Progreso). Even at my age (45), I had a great time jumping off the iceberg and trampoline. While we had visited Chankanaab Parque in the past, we wanted a place that had a real beach, and were delighted with our choice of Paradise Beach. Although the snorkeling is better at places like Chankanaab, I could still get my snorkeling fix here and see some wonderful sea life. If you want the best snorkeling, stick to the deeper water, and go early as the water tends to get stirred up later in the day. I also had the pleasure of meeting Tom, who was out on the beach meeting and greeting his guests. When I inquired about the safety of soft drinks for my kids (since it uses water), Tom was nice enough to show me the impressive double-filtration system that they use for their soft drinks. Even with four ships in port, the beach never felt crowded, and the service was awesome all day. All in all, a perfect way to spend the day in Cozumel. On the way back to the ship, we stopped briefly in San Miguel and were very disappointed in the prices, even at Los Sinco Soles, where we thought we had gotten good deals before. My advice is to load up on bargains in Progreso and spend the day at Paradise Beach in Cozumel.
Belize. We had been to Belize before, and had taken an excursion to Goff's Caye last time. As it turns out, we wished we had taken an excursion again. When you arrive in Belize City via tender, you are dumped into a somewhat small, secure shopping area. In this area, your best bets are buying Belizean cashew wine and Barrel 1 rum from the liquor store. Feeling a little adventurous, my wife and I decided to venture out beyond the gates and see "downtown" Belize City. We hired a nice local named Errol who agreed to take us round trip to the downtown area for shopping for $10, which seemed reasonable considering it was over 100° F that day, until we learned that downtown is in fact quite close and easily walkable. The bad news is that there is really not much to see here, and we saw no great bargains. My advice in this port is to take an excursion, then do your shopping in the little market just outside of the gates of the secure shopping area. We were able to get beautiful wood carvings there for a very good price. The merchants are willing to bargain here, so don't be afraid to counter with a lower price. Also outside the gates, across from the secured area, take a walk up to the pirate's museum where you get a pint of Barrel 1 rum for $4. It fits nicely in your back pocket in case you are running low :o). Another must-do is a stop at the Wet Lizard bar for a fantastic view of the lagoon and $2 Belikin beer, a local beer that is surprising good, even to my beer-snob taste. For you stout fans, try the Belikin stout - awesome! Also try the fried conch fritters and some of the Wet Lizard's own After Burner hot sauce (I bought some from the gift shop downstairs).
Debarkation. The usual short wait. We had yellow Empress Deck tags and were among the first group to go. We had a porter grab our bags, but unlike other ports where porters go to the front of the line, the porter had to wait with us. I would not recommend using the services of a porter here unless you are physically unable to drag all of your bags to the curb. I took the Carnival transfer to IAH for a 2:30 flight. We wound up getting on the shuttle by 10:00, but got worried when the bus took the exit for Hobby airport. Turns out that the shuttle was going to both airports. At IAH, the bus stops right at a sky cap station where you can drop your bags and get your boarding passes. We got to our gate with an hour to spare, so if your flight is before 1:30, you probably want to make sure you are among the first off the ship.
Complaint department. While I think that a cruise is only as good as you make it, and people will treat you with respect if you treat them respectfully, I feel that there was an incident where I was treated poorly by the maitre d' of the Inspiration dining room, Jean-Pierre. He was condescending and downright rude to me in dealing with a request to have my table changed. On the positive side, the maitre d' of the Inspiration dining room, Nino, was one of the most gracious and polite people I have met, and while he still could not solve my problem, he at least approached it with courtesy and compassion, not insults. On the subject of courtesy, I was appalled by the actions of another guest at breakfast one morning - not towards me but to the dining staff! This "gentleman" who happened to be from Texas (Arnie, I think his name was), virtually threw his eggs at the waiter because they were overcooked, stating that "anyone knows eggs benedict are served runny". I think that everyone on board deserves to be treated with respect - whether they are a passenger, a waiter or the Captain of the ship!
Tips and Hints. Tip #1: "Smuggling". I am either too honest or too lazy to do the shampoo or water bottle trick to get liquor on board (see other posts for that), so I decided to take my chances and carefully pack a liter of rum in my luggage. I wrapped the bottle in double zip-lock baggies, then in cardboard. I was pleased to find the bottle intact in my luggage on arrival. I think if people bring only a small amount and don't get sneaky, they are probably ok with this practice. Tip #2: My secret rum punch. Actually, I read this tip from another review and decided to give it a shot. Turns out it tastes excellent, saved me money, and I could make the drink as strong as I want :o) Here's the recipe. 1. Go to the gift shop and purchase an insulated water container for $5.00. 2. Go to Tiffany's and fill ½ way with fruit punch, add a splash of lemonade, then a few ice cubes. 3. Top off with rum to your taste, mood, and/or state of intoxication. Tip #3: Take small bills ashore for shopping - and distribute the money through your pockets. Otherwise it's tough to bargain a $4 item down to $3 when you pull out a 20 dollar bill. And don't worry about getting enough small bills for the entire trip. The Purser's desk is always willing to give change. Tip #4: Do most of your shopping in Progreso. You will not see prices lower than you do there. Tip #5: Relax, and enjoy yourself. Remember, this is your vacation - you earned it and paid for it! Don't let the little things get to you.
Lessons learned. If I choose Galveston for another cruise, I will be sure to factor in some of the "hidden" costs that offset the low price for this cruise: 1. Additional cost of $66 X 4 for transfers to/from IAH. We can get a taxi in Miami for less than $15 for four - ouch! 2. The cost of hotels in Galveston. Since I insist on staying overnight before a cruise, this cost must be included. The junkiest hotels were charging over $100 a night, and that was with no shuttle. Also, there was a bit of bad mouthing northerners, non-Texans, New Yorkers, etc. from a few lunk heads, but I found most fellow passengers to be terrific people, and made a bunch of new friends. Overall, I was delighted with this cruise and will not hesitate to choose Carnival again!