OVERVIEW & CRUISE HISTORY
The 2,052 passenger, 920 crew Carnival Elation was introduced in March 1998 and is the seventh of eight Fantasy-class ships. The 70,367 ton ship is 855 feet long and was the first cruise ship to be equipped with a state-of-the-art Azipod propulsion system which made for a smooth cruise despite the periodic turbulence of the ocean. My cruise aboard the Elation was my third cruise on Carnival and my fifth cruise overall.
My first cruise was aboard Royal Caribbean's Nordic Empress (renamed to Empress of the Seas) in cabin 7515 from November 15-22, 2003 and sailed roundtrip from Tampa to the Cayman Islands, Belize and Mexico.
My second cruise was a one-day Discovery cruise which sailed roundtrip from Port Everglades to the Bahamas on June 5, 2004.
My third cruise was aboard the Carnival Destiny in cabin 1211 from December 5-12, 2004 which sailed roundtrip from Puerto Rico and stopped in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Dominica, Barbados and Aruba.
My fourth cruise was aboard the Carnival Victory in cabin 7398 from January 22-29, 2006 which sailed roundtrip from Miami and stopped in Puerto Rico, St. Maarten and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
My cruise aboard the Elation was quite simply filled with elation from the moment I arrived at about 2:30pm on Sunday October 8, 2006. Once again, my boarding experience with Carnival was smooth and virtually trouble-free. However, this time I was left hanging by my travel agent who had neglected to include a Bahamian visitor's form which everyone else in line seemed to have already completed prior to arrival at the port of Miami.
Despite this, I happily checked into cabin M200 which was port-side aft on the Main deck with a fabulous window view. My window was actually a free upgrade from my travel agent who should be commended for making my fifth cruise that much more special since this was my first stateroom with a window.
The room itself was a spacious 185 square feet with two twin beds that could be pushed together to make a king. The bedding was Carnival's luxurious Comfort Bed which feels far better to relax on at the end of a busy day of touring than its modest look. In fact, an excellent night's sleep was the norm given the comfort of the Bonell mattress combined with the gentle rocking of the ship.
The room was clean and comfortable and was well-maintained by my friendly cabin steward David from Indonesia who was kind enough to turn my bed down twice a day and to leave those famous Carnival towel animals which seemed to mysteriously appear each night upon my return from dinner.
The television selection was minimal as on all cruise ships where the signal is provided by satellite and is subject to frequent changes. In addition to the ubiquitous CNN International and Travel Channels, this cruise featured local news coverage provided by the Denver, Colorado ABC, CBS and NBC network affiliates. It was interesting to note that while they were reporting about snowstorms and freezing temperatures in the metropolitan Denver area, I was enjoying nothing but sunshine and hot weather in the Caribbean.
PUBLIC AREAS, ENTERTAINMENT & CLIENTELE
As with past cruises, I spent much of my time in my favorite gathering spots once they were chosen and located. I was particularly fond of the ship's Grand Atrium with its bright lights, neon signs and great people-watching venues.
The Past Guest party which was held on the last formal night in the glitzy Mikado Lounge was hastily-arranged but well-intentioned with its friendly faces and free finger sandwiches and drinks. The ship's Japanese-influenced architecture and design made for some fantastic photo opportunities and I also enjoyed trying my luck in the Moroccan-influenced Casablanca Casino.
While the ship permits smoking in the casino and many of the lounges, I found this to be a little deceiving. While I enjoyed the modern rock of the all-Filipino band Music Blitz in the Romeo & Juliet Lounge, I was asked to put out my fine cigar or leave this venue as it and most other smoking areas only allow cigarette smoking. I suppose they think that lung cancer is somehow preferable to mouth cancer! The only place where I and my Macanudo were welcomed was at Gatsby's Great Bar which was adjacent to the Cole Porter Lounge and its nightly karaoke antics. Despite this initial disappointment, I did manage to find an excellent place to relax after dinner and a long day of sightseeing.
My only other disappointment was in the clientele of this particular ship. While it wasn't the case with my four previous cruises, there were more than a few times where I felt as though I was trapped in a massive floating urban ghetto. I found this to be a surprising and unfortunate issue at times as I actually felt the need to leave several public areas during the week simply because I felt as though I'd walked into "the wrong part of town." The considerable number of large, raucous families with more than a few children running in tow and often speaking a form of English that one usually only hears on the streets of inner-city America made for a below-par cruise at times. However, knowing that Carnival has no control over who chooses to sail with them, I couldn't hold them accountable for this particular issue. Several other guests quietly commented to me about the same issue and that the time of year (i.e. on/off season) might have had something to do with this but also made no mention of it to anyone else due to the political correctness of the age in which we live.
Breakfast and lunch in the Tiffany Dining Room were an often hurried and frenzied race for a good spot in the long but fast-moving meal lines. Breakfast was hot, fresh and plentiful with me having no problem in getting an ample supply of scrambled eggs, pancakes, oatmeal and orange juice. Lunch was somewhat slower-paced than breakfast but finding a good seat with an ocean view was sometimes a challenge. The Lido Deck grill served up tasty hot dogs, hamburgers and I even opted for the occasional and reminiscent-of-home bagel, cream cheese and lox with my iced tea.
My late-seating dinners were eaten in the Imagination Dining Room at Table 179. While I chose to eat late to avoid having to be back aboard ship early from tours, dinner didn't start until 8:30pm which was 30 minutes later than all my other cruises. However, the five-star cuisine and professionalism of the dining room staff more than made up for this. My headwaiter Freddi from Romania and his assistant Marlon from Peru were extremely attentive to my needs and literally had my drinks refilled just before the glass was empty.
The sumptuous three-course meals consisted of such favorites as chilled lychee fruit soup, Caesar salad with freshly-ground pepper, filet mignon with Portobello mushrooms and "real" Key lime pie, among many other delicacies. Needless to say, the finest restaurants here in Clearwater, Florida barely compare to the fine cuisine of French chef Georges Blanc who was hired by Carnival to design many of their meals.
My dinner companions were a lively and interesting bunch of American "southerners" from as nearby as Daytona Beach and as far away as northern Alabama. We all had a great time discussing the sights and sounds from our time aboard ship, as well as our past cruise history and future vacation plans. Coincidence or not, it was interesting to note that our table consisted of two other young married couples in addition to me and my wife and our cabins all happened to be located on the Main Deck within eyeshot of each other.
ONBOARD SHOPPING & PORTS OF CALL
Shopping aboard the Elation was a pleasant experience. The duty-free shops had prices comparable to those found at the various ports of call and I was able to get some good deals on liquor, including a one liter bottle of Grey Goose vodka for US$28.95 and a one liter bottle of Glenfiddich whiskey for US$23.95, both of which were about half the price paid in the United States.
The Elation's first port of call was the Carnival private island of Half Moon Cay which is located about 100 miles southeast of Nassau, Bahamas. The ship was in port from 9am-4pm on Monday, October 9, 2006 and this was the only port where a tender boat was needed to reach my destination. This desolate and undeveloped private island mostly known for its beaches and animal sanctuaries was extremely hot and there was little shelter available. Despite a large and attractive beach area, shopping was limited to a small rotunda (aka "the frying pan") consisting of couple of "mom & pop" stores selling mostly t-shirts and handmade Bahamian goods. While this island was a sun-worshippers paradise, as a shopper and souvenir hunter, I wasn't terribly impressed with Half Moon Cay but I know that beach-lovers would definitely disagree with me.
We arrived in the port of Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands on Wednesday, October 11, 2006 and were there from 8am-8pm. As with my two previous visits to St. Thomas, the first attraction I enjoyed was taking the tram up 700 feet to the top of Paradise Point. While the US$18 per person roundtrip ticket wasn't the best deal in transportation, the view from the top of Paradise Point was one of the highlights of my cruise. While there are a few stores up on the mountain, the area is more of a visual attraction than a shopping one. I did manage to find a good deal on a Panama Jack hat which I bought from a Palm Harbor, Florida native who relocated to St. Thomas and owns The Pirate's Chest souvenir shop. This and a tasty Bailey's Bushwacker complete with souvenir ceramic mug made for a fun time up on the mountain. Back at sea level, shopping in the Havensight Mall area was once again lively and exciting with my picking up several fine souvenirs, including a good deal on a bottle of Joop! (my favorite cologne). Setting sail from St. Thomas at night was a treat in and of itself since the view of all the lights radiating from the mountainside cottages were breathtaking to say the least.
Thursday, October 12, 2006 was a fine day to spend the Puerto Rican holiday of Dia de la Raza (Columbus Day) shopping in Old San Juan. The Elation was in port from 7am-3:30pm and I spent the day wandering around the steep, narrow and winding streets of San Francisco, so to speak. The main shopping area is located on Calle San Francisco (San Francisco Street) and was filled with numerous fine jewelry, tobacco, perfume and souvenir shops. Among other things, I found excellent deals on FIBO Italian stainless steel jewelry and Macanudo cigars and I only had to pay 1% sales tax on these items. But be forewarned, I was told by a San Juan Radio Shack sales associate that this tax will increase to 7% (same as Florida) on November 1, 2006. Needless to say, I think that Puerto Rican tourism will suffer greatly as a result of this absurd sales tax increase. After all, why should I purchase items in Puerto Rico if I can buy the same things here in Florida for the same price?
Cockburn Town, Grand Turk is the capital of the Turks & Caicos Islands and was the fourth and final port of call on this cruise. We were there from 12-7pm on Friday, October 13, 2006. Similar to Half Moon Cay, Grand Turk was a very attractive but small island that caters primarily to beach-goers. To its benefit, Dufry was a newly-built duty-free shopping area that offered some good deals on alcohol, tobacco and perfume. The main attraction was Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Grand Turk, BWI which was the most popular hangout spot for sun worshippers. The roped-off swimming area is as shallow as a couple of feet deep near the beach but suddenly drops to over 7,000 feet several hundred yards offshore which is no wonder why the waters of Grand Turk are known for their excellent scuba diving and underwater photography opportunities.
As is typical of Carnival, debarkation consists of two groups of "evacuees" and usually begins promptly at 7:15am. All guests who carried their own baggage ashore and don't plan on checking anything are free to leave between 7:15-8:15am. At 8:15, all other guests debarked the ship in the order that they appeared at the gangway on Empress Deck 7. It's not always the smoothest of processes but it's worked as well as possible from what I've seen over the years. My frustration this one and only time was directed at the Purser's Desk. While I had no checked luggage, I wasn't ready to debark the ship at the scheduled time and instead wanted to wait until about 8:30am and leave with the checked-baggage guests. This was due to the fact that my transportation from the port of Miami was running later than planned. After calling the Purser's Desk no less than four times between 7:15-8:15am and being put on hold for nearly ten minutes at a time, I was given three different answers (ranging from "immediately" to "10:30 to 11:00 at the latest") from three different people as to whether it was permissible for me to disembark at 8:30am as needed. Needless to say, I was irritated by the fact that these crew members couldn't seem to get their facts straight. While I understand that they were obviously quite busy due to the nature of the situation, this was no excuse for their lack of knowledge and professionalism during such a crucial time.
Despite a few issues which I think were all related to time and circumstance, I had yet another fantastic cruise experience with Carnival and I wouldn't hesitate cruising with them again. In fact, my wife and I are already in the early stages of planning our 2007 vacation. While I enjoyed cruising with Carnival again, I'd probably be more inclined to sail on a larger ship next time as I did on my first two Carnival cruises since my experiences on the 100,000+ ton ships were better primarily due to their itineraries, amenities and clientele. However, if you're interested in trying out Carnival for the first time or you're a first-time cruiser in general, I'd recommend the Carnival Elation as an excellent way for you to get your feet wet, so to speak!