I met my wife about 10 years ago. She is from sunny southern California or So-Cal as the locals call it. I am from windswept, landlocked Oklahoma. She cruised frequently with her family growing up whereas I had never even been on a boat. For years I heard about how fun cruising is, how amazing the food tastes and how many adventures one has while in port. When we got married in 2010, we took a small four night cruise and I had a great time. When we saw that Carnival offered a nine night cruise to the Mexican Riviera, we booked right up. I could already taste the tequila and fresh fish tacos.
When October 2011 rolled around, my wife and I headed to the airport to catch our flight to California with the feel of sand between our toes, the smell of the sea in our nostrils and the tastes of Mexican food melting in our mouths. We were ready to go. As we headed to San Pedro, my in-laws, who were joining us for the trip, were ecstatic. They had made this trip many times before. Their anticipation fueled my eagerness to get out my sea legs and take them for a stroll. It had been over a year since my last cruise after all. Little did I know it would take a bit longer.
The 2010 boarding process on the Carnival Paradise had been fast and organized at the Port of Long Beach. Alas for poor travelers desperate to grab a cold drink and watch the waves go by though this time around for fate had other ideas about San Pedro. I was never sure if it was the port authority or Carnival who was to blame but the boarding process was, that day, like watching cold molasses creep down a pile of biscuits. What had taken perhaps two hours or less in 2010 took more than four hours this time around. Getting through security was fast enough but after that came hours of sitting and waiting. I couldn't really put my finger on why it was taking so long this time because the process seemed more or less the same except that it took far longer than I expected. I do know I read half of a book while I waited. But, when I finally got called to the boarding gate, the Carnival staff and port security seemed very kind so all was well.
As my wife and I crossed the bridge to the Spirit, I took a photo of the ship. She looked beautiful out there, floating on the water that we had been dreaming about for months. When we passed the threshold and were welcomed on-board, I felt the weight of daily stress lift. I was nearly light headed and also very thirsty so we headed right to the Atrium and ordered some drinks at the bar. As the cold beer hit my palate, relaxation set in. Sitting there with my wife, we watched as the same reaction fell upon other cruisers. It was magic. Eventually, we met my in-laws and then located our rooms. Perfect! We found a bucket of ice with purchasable beverages, a pristine stateroom complete with our prepaid bon voyage decorations and even a famous friend there to greet us! Hello Mr. Towel Elephant! How we had longed to re-make you acquaintance! Things were really looking good. Then we went to meet the maÃ®tre d' to confirm out dinner arrangements. Again, disaster struck.
During the booking process nearly a year earlier and twice in the interim, calls had been made to Carnival asking that for formal dining we would like to eat with my wife's parents and that we would need a table and chairs. My father in law is a man of size and he does not fit in most booth seats and my mother in law has bad knees and has trouble getting in and out too so this was an important request as you would imagine. Unfortunately, the maÃ®tre d' informed us with all the emotion of a limp carrot, Carnival didn't show anywhere that such a request had been made and all of the table seating had been taken for both early and late dining. Really?
The man didn't even blink as he told us this. Naturally and I do mean immediately, given that this was totally a failure on Carnival's part, I felt a huge buzz kill coming on. I admit it. I got pretty nasty with the "D". For the record, we had booked back before hardly any of the staterooms were taken so this dilemma was in no way related to us cruising last minute style. Besides, we had, after all, made a point to call about this matter three separate times. I asked to see his boss. He deflected me to the customer service desk. Away I went. Ultimately, the customer service desk made a call and sent us back to the dining room to see the "D" once more. He said, again with a straight face and little or no emotion that I could detect, the "only" option was to seat us with another family at an extended family-sized table. Angry and ready to get my buzz back, I agreed. The only problem was, they never told the family we were coming. Things were really taking a turn for the worse at this point.
The members of the Mormon family we were seated with were, to their credit, very kind. However, they had been anticipating sitting only with their family members as we also had been anticipating and were taken aback. After some heroic efforts at small talk, it was silently agreed that our two families had virtually nothing in common so our discussions turned to the safety of our dinner menus. And when the food arrived, all I could say was wow! I will not go into too much detail here as I don't want you drooling on your computer but suffice it to say, everything the formal dining room offered on the Spirit was amazing. Whether a juicy steak cooked to your taste or the buttery flavors of well-prepared lobster or yet again the melt-in-your-mouth desserts they served (I always liked the tiramisu), the food stood out. While I marked Carnival down for the customer service compared to the previous cruise, the food again won my palate.
Other than food, the main things that I had been looking forward to were the excursions. I have always liked to travel and experience culture so this was and still is my forte you might say.
Our first port of call was Ensenada, Mexico. The day we arrived it was cloudy and a cool, damp wind was blowing so La Bufadora, Ensenada's famed marine geyser, was out of the question. We were planning to do a tequila factory tour in a later port of call so doing a winery tour, it seemed, might have felt redundant. Instead, my wife and I disembarked and took a bus from the ship a short distance into town. We purchased her a purse and me a wallet at the Gold Duck leather goods store. I was seriously tempted to look for a beer and a good fish taco, which Ensenada is famous for, but the weather was just not cooperating so we headed back on foot to the ship. The sun came out but the wind was blowing the damp right through your jacket. My wife wanted to get back on the ship and who was I to argue?
Our next stop was Cabo San Lucas. I had never been there but a friend of mine, Buck, had lived there with his dad for several years and told me all sorts of stories about the way the ocean is very different on each side of the city. It sits at the bottom of a peninsula, you see, and one side of it is in the Pacific Ocean and on the other side you head into the Sea of Cortez. Naturally, according to Buck, things are different depending where you are. I was really excited about Cabo.
CSL is one of those ports you don't really dock in if you're on a cruise ship. It's too shallow. The Spirit parked about half a mile out from the port and we tendered in. Compared to Ensenada, the weather was toasty and dry. It was about 80 Fahrenheit already by 8 AM when I woke up, 90 or higher by the time we found ourselves on the tender boat. Coming into town was amazing but a little different from what Buck had told me. The beautiful marinas filled with boats were there as was the view of the desert and the mountains. However, the view was somewhat hidden by the new hotels and condos. Every inch of land near the sea around the marinas had something built on it. Still, not so bad. It was very beautiful and again, I took a lot of pictures.
With all that I had heard of the sea life around Cabo, I decided to take a sub-submersible excursion. We piled into the craft and I watched as we headed out. I enjoyed seeing the pelicans and other sea birds that landlocked people never see and coastal folks take for granted. As the boat wandered around the rock outcroppings near Cabo, my camera was busy. The scenery was amazing and complete with sea caves, beautiful hard-to-get-to beaches, birds nesting on cliffs, rugged dudes showing off their pecks and pretty ladies showing off... well... almost everything. The underwater view was equally as eye-opening. The fish were, as Buck had predicted, very different depending on where you were. For one thing, they were bigger on the Pacific side and there was some sort of puffer fish on the Sea of Cortez side that I didn't even see ocean side. I took a lot of pictures - like over 50. It was a great time for all, but, the heat kept intensifying even in the late October sun and quickly turned things into a furnace. I'm from Oklahoma where 120 Fahrenheit is not unheard of so heat is something I know a lot about. However, the kind of heat you get when the ocean humidity meets the super dry air from the desert is unique and caught me off guard. I decided after the excursion to have a late lunch and cool off a bit.
We ate at Senor Frogs, which was very good but somewhat expensive I thought. The chimichanga and the beer were excellent but did little to cool me off. We thought about heading to one of the beach areas but as several thermometers in town put the temperature at or near 100 we decided to head back to the ship instead. This worked out just fine though because as the sun went down, I was able to take photos of the rocky coast near Cabo which, in the late afternoon and early evening sun, was a rainbow of dark shades of grey against the yellow shades of light on the water. It was beautiful and resulted in a lot of poster-worthy photographs. Our next stop was Puerto Vallarta. Hello tequila factory!
We arrived in Puerto Vallarta early before the marine layer had burned off and, incidentally, right after a hurricane had passed through only days earlier. It was humid but everything was bright green and there were flowers all over the place. We lined up for our much anticipated tequila factory tour. People were coming around offering tequila shots for sale but we declined, knowing we would be wetting our whistles soon enough. It seemed like forever we waited and waited to leave. At last, a tour director came over and introduced himself and led us to our tour bus. Within an hour we were unloading from the bus and getting to what would be one of the true highlights of the cruise. Soon we would Salud!
One factory was an old, traditional method factory by which tequila was and is still made. It was very educational being basically a living museum and really got me thirsty. The assortments of small batch tequilas were very tempting. I admit I had a few shots when offered, how could I say no? But seeing the agave stacked everywhere and seeing the locals drinking the mescal and tequila while on their breaks (I think) was very inspiring. It might have been the heat, the alcohol or the ambiance but I really felt like I was in Mexico.
The other factory was equally if not more amazing. It was a more modern factory but the tour was equally educational. It was genuinely fascinating how the process of making tequila had changed. There were a lot more steps in the modern process it seemed like, which most definitely included, I thought, a more refined filtering process. I could really see in my mind the system of taking agave plants and making them into the liquid gold that is so popular the world over.
After the tours were over, our trip back to port was equally memorable. The driver and the tour leader took us past a Mexican prison so we could really understand the difference between what we think of as a prison in the States and what it can mean elsewhere. They also showed us the old parts of Puerto Vallarta, which are absolutely gorgeous. Above and beyond any of the other ports we hit in Mexico, if I were to go spend a few days in one on my own, it would be Puerto Vallarta.
Long story short, the ports and excursions were amazing on this cruise. I simply can't offer enough accolades in this matter. The scenery, the food, the drink and the ambiance were, usually at least, authentic. I enjoyed them and can honestly say that Cabo and PV definitely exceeded my already high expectations. In the case of La Paz, our other scheduled port of call, due to the fighting between the Mexican government and drug lords, our stop was cancelled and replaced with a stop in Manzanillo. This worked out ok I guess other than the fact that by the time we reached this port, my entire family other than myself had horrible colds. This problem made going into town seem like a bad, somewhat disease-spreading, affair and the idea was scrapped. More on this later. Now we will spend a few minutes on the shops, shows and specialty venues aboard the Spirit. You knew this was coming or at least hoped so, admit it! We can't all be culture whores.
The Spirit, like the Paradise and probably every other cruise ship out there, had a duty-free shopping district with a tuxedo rental place, candy store, all-purpose gift shop, jewelry store and probably some store I am accidentally leaving out. It was all very nice and even helpful at times when it was open, which was pretty much during any of your days at sea. It resembled, sort of, a small and very exclusive shopping mall. There wasn't an indoor park or promenade as such, though some of the newer and much bigger ships have those I understand. All told, the Spirit's public areas were nice for what they were.
My personal favorite activity on the ship, other than testing out new foods, was frequenting the shows and events. Oh the shows! They had many options in this regard including miniature Broadway style shows, comedy hours, live bands of various kinds and even the infamous hairy chest events (I include these with tongue in cheek because you never knew what kind of beasts were around if you didn't attend.) There was an art auction going on throughout the week and thus a gallery you could look at and bid on if you saw something you liked. The casino was itself an interesting show too. I am not a gambler but I loved sitting around, cocktail in hand, watching as people won and lost fortunes, mostly the latter I suspected but occasionally the former. Either way, it was a good time for all just each in his or her own way. And speaking of cocktails let me tell you about those bartenders!
On the Spirit, and the Paradise too and again probably all cruise ships worth the name, there are these wonderful people that I like to consider my personal friends. They are, of course, the bartenders. Let me give you an anecdote as to what I mean.
When I went to Rome, in 2002, I met a bartender at the Hard Rock Cafe there who made the absolute best Hurricane I'd ever had. The funny thing was, I was never entirely sure of the exact recipe she used. I am sure she told me, but I had too much fun drinking the things and certainly forgot as a result. At any rate, I ordered one on the Spirit and it was not quite what I remembered but was very close. I was chatting up a waiter one evening after dinner, as I sometimes would do, and we got to talking about the Hurricane recipe. He mentioned that he seemed to remember the bartender in the dining room had once told him that a friend of his, a fellow bartender on another deck, had once worked at or visited the Hard Rock Cafe in Rome. He went and inquired. I saw the bartender run off towards the elevators and stairs. A few minutes later, he came back, with a small piece of paper in hand. It was not long until I had an exact replica of Hurricane I remembered from Rome. Not only was I surprised at the drink itself, which went down so smooth let me tell you, I was more surprised at the effort that these folks put into making me, the passenger, happy. As I said, these folks are your friends.
Now before I summarize, I want to go back for a moment to the issue of getting sick on board. I don't know who is responsible for these things, but the day we embarked there were, to put it mildly, a lot of people that were obviously very ill. There were folks that were hacking the entire time I saw them in the process of boarding, which as I mentioned before was hours long. Why exactly it was that nobody at Carnival, or the port authority for that matter, thought that maybe these people should be quarantined or otherwise not allowed to cruise, is beyond me. I know you don't want to keep people from their vacation but they were possibly putting people's lives at stake when they are allowed to board like that. And so it was without too much shock that my wife and in-laws all ended up with rather nasty colds approximately five days into the cruise. I also caught it but as my immune system always has been rather robust I did not get it very bad but, just the same, it most definitely had an impact on the trip. This was not good at all and I definitely let Carnival know about it afterwards.
On the whole, the cruise experience was very good. It was not quite the amazing experience the Paradise cruise had been given the negatives that we had to deal with but it was still memorable and full of experiences I will never forget. The amazing thing is that while the customer service people and officers on the ship did not seem very helpful, the actual room stewards, wait staff and other crew all seemed to bat it out of the park. When you add in the excursions, the amazing food (I never even discussed the buffets but those were awesome too) and the entertainment, this was most definitely a cruise I would repeat. I understand the Spirit has since then been sent to Australia so likely my trip would be on a different ship. That's fine by me. I had a good enough time I would consider doing it again. Likely, my next cruise will be the Pacific Coast or Alaska cruise though. In either case, I am sure the bartenders will still rock and the food will still fill a hungry palate well. Wherever I go next, I will have dreams of wine colored waters behind me as the bubbles of the ship's wake scatter in the darkening sea, or is that simply another bottle of champagne being opened at my table? Happy Sailing!
P.S- I didn't rate the Fitness and Recreation simply because I did not use them.