Here is a rather long review from a first time cruiser. I felt a duty to publish something as I had lurked in this group and mined information in advance of our trip.
Choosing the trip We were new to the world of cruising and went in to it excited, but still a bit unsure about our decision to go. We wanted something special to celebrate our 10th anniversary and we were getting the chance to leave the kids with family for the whole week. We had never been to Mexico and never really had the desire to go, but this is what fit our schedule the best. We had the choice of Carnival or RCL and chose Carnival as we could get more room for the price. We booked a Balcony Guarantee 4 months before the cruise through Costco and were eventually assigned (on embarkation) an 8D on the Empress Deck (#6139). The cabin was starboard side, forward which gave us a view of the sunset from our private balcony most nights.
Embarkation Day (March 7th) -- We live in southern California so More
we had the benefit of having our family drop us off at the terminal. We arrived around 11:00AM, said goodbye to the folks and the kids and went to early check-in at the Queen Mary. I think we got in on the tail end of this as the sail/sign cards had already been transferred to the main terminal building and the early-check in line was shrinking. We had done the Fun-Pass entry ahead of time, so the check-in seemed rather useless until we saw the (non early) check-in line to get in the terminal. Now we understand.
We stood in line for a bit and they opened the terminal building right about noon. We managed to get through the various checkpoints and were on the ship by 12:30. Our room was still being prepared so we made it to Mermaids for lunch where I had the first of many slices of pizza that week. We ended up eating at Mermaids for all of our meals aboard ship as we enjoyed the selection and quality of the food. We have never been fans of complex or showpiece food preparation so we did not feel like we missed anything by not taking our assigned late seating.
After lunch we dropped our bags off and explored the ship. We hadn't pulled away from the dock yet but felt immediately at ease as we were finally on vacation. We were amused by the Long Beach PD boat that circled the ship to chase off anyone that got too close. This boat and a Coast Guard boat both patrolled and followed the Pride when we left Long Beach. Muster drill was held and an announcement was made that we would not be pulling out right at 4:00, but that would not delay our arrival in Puerto Vallarta. We ended up leaving Long Beach closer to 5:00 with the police and coast guard running escort on our side which encouraged some co-ed's below us to "show their appreciation." All was well, we were on vacation.
We attended the welcome aboard show and finished the night with ice cream on the stern of the ship.
2 Days at Sea (March 8-9) -- We had no idea of what to expect with the days at sea. We woke earlier than expected due to the VERY prompt room service breakfast delivery. On the first day, we spent more time exploring the ship and included a game of shuffleboard. It seemed like a quintessential shipboard activity. We repeatedly browsed the shipboard shops and spent a few hours on our balcony reading, watching and napping. We also attended some bingo sessions as well as the galley tour. On the 2nd sea day, I tried out the pool at the stern of the ship as well as the waterslide. I was prepared for the salt-water pool but was surprised at how cold it was. I did meet some folks in the hot tub. It seemed we had a fair number of firefighters on board. We dressed for formal night even though we ate in the Mermaids grill. We may have been slightly overdressed for the venue, but we enjoyed it nonetheless. I have never attended a "Vegas-Style Show" so I have no idea how to measure "Wonderful World." It was good and I was impressed with the technical aspects of the show and the staging. They do pack in a lot of changes.
Puerto Vallarta (March 10) -- Pulled in to the bay between 7:00 and 8:00. We were able to see the approach the whole distance coming in to the bay and could see another ship (Ryndam) tied up already. As we were coming in, the ship starts to swing around and do a 180 spin to eventually back up next to the nose of the other ship. I was quite impressed with the move and it reminded me of a common car stunt seen in movies. The temperatures were in the low 80's with similar levels of humidity.
We disembarked quickly to get aboard a whale watching tour booked through Carnival. This was done on a 30-foot schooner and the group was a reasonable 20 or so people. We cruised the bay for about 3 hours finding and following a pair of whales. We returned to the ship and then ventured out to shop. There is a flea market immediately outside the dock area where we purchased our heaviest souvenirs (2 chess sets). After returning those to the ship, we took a taxi downtown where we shopped more and had lunch at the Blue Shrimp. Using the code phrase "I am a shrimp lover", fresh guacamole was prepared at the table at no charge. All was very good and my wife enjoyed the shrimp nachos. We returned to the ship via another taxi and the Wal-Mart that is across the street from the terminal. It was during this ride that we learned that traffic laws were not so much laws, but suggestions. It was an exciting ride that, strangely enough, I would love to repeat. We were back on board for dinner and took advantage of the nearly empty ship by using the mishap pool and hot tub. The water was much warmer in this pool, probably due to being cooked all day. We heard and partially saw the fireworks show that was a part of the Pirate Cruise. If you are on board at this time (9:00 or so ship time), you can see the fireworks shot from the hotel beach directly across from the marina (starboard side for us).
Mazatlan (March 11) -- We got to watch the ship do another 180-degree turn in order to port in Mazatlan. We were definitely on the "right" side of the ship for most of the maneuvers during this trip. At this port, you take a tram to the terminal, walk through the sellers and grab a taxi. We did not take any organized trips in this port and just took a taxi to the "Golden Zone." We picked up the majority of the rest of our souvenirs here including blankets, vanilla and some small shelves for the house. We took a taxi back and were back on board for lunch. We did not feel a need to really explore town so this worked out for some good quiet time on the ship and it gave me a chance to do a video tour of our temporary home. We pulled out of port on time right at sunset. We have great photos of the sun behind the lighthouse as we pulled out of port.
Cabo San Lucas (March 12 - Our Anniversary) -- This is a tender port and there were 2 other ships anchored in the bay. They were both using their own lifeboats as tenders while Carnival contracted with a local operator. In my opinion, the Carnival passengers were able to get to and from the ship much faster than the other ships, probably due to the volume of tenders available. Carnival assigns groups numbers to get on the tenders between 8-10AM so that disembarking is easier. If you have a scheduled excursion, you do not need a number. We had the snorkel/sail fiesta and were able to leave when we wanted.
After getting to the marina, there are a large number of operators offering up tours of all kinds. I was still glad we booked through the ship for our first cruise, but I am not sure what we will do the next time. I would say that Cabo is the most commercially developed of the ports we visited, at least in the area immediately surrounding the ships. We boarded a tri-miran for our trip out to Pelican Bay. It was only about 15 minutes out and we were given basic instruction on how to use the gear. Our group was one of 3 in the area, but it was not crowded. The water temps were a bit cold though. We enjoyed the activity and left after about 40 minutes of water-time. We then raised the sail and went out past Los Arcos, circled and returned around the far side of the Pride.
After the snorkel trip, we walked in to town for shopping, lunch and more shopping. I was paranoid about "missing the boat" so we got in line early. As noted, the line for the other ship was moving slower, and considerably longer. We were able to view our departure from our cabin balcony. As we were turning to leave, I spotted a tender of the type we used, speeding out our direction from town. I remarked to my wife that someone was late. The Pride stopped the maneuver long enough to allow the tardy party back aboard. Then I think there was a general announcement made welcoming the latecomers back. As we made our way around Los Arcos, my wife and I exchanged anniversary gifts (thanks honey) but then we noticed a change in direction. After sailing out of Cabo for about 10-15 minutes, we returned in order to evacuate a medical case. In the end, this meant we did not leave Cabo until after 5:00 ship time.
This was also the 2nd formal night and we dressed up again for pictures. We were not particularly happy with our shots from the 1st formal night so we worked harder to get this right (which we did). We did dinner and the show and struggled to stay awake until the unveiling of the gala buffet. We attended in order to take pictures (the 1st 30 minutes the room is open), but decided not to eat. Tomorrow is the last day at sea.
Day at Sea (March 13) -- Well, the weather finally fought back today. It was cold, windy and overcast for the entire day. This definitely impacted shipboard activities, as the indoor events were suddenly more popular. The pools were making good size waves and it was too cold to sunbathe (also no sun). Mermaids was definitely busier at breakfast and lunch as less people could eat on deck and attendance at the disembark talk was a full house. We bought our last shipboard items, played bingo some and watched the Newlywed Game. The entertainment crew led by the cruise director had an informal question/answer period with guests where people were able to ask about shipboard life and working for Carnival. This went for about an hour and was a nice glimpse "behind the scenes."
We were preparing to go to a Club Carnival presentation when an announcement was made that they had to clear the stern of the boat for a medical evacuation (yes, another one). This occurred around 5:00PM (14 hours before scheduled dock time). A US Coast Guard helicopter came out and hovered off the port side of the ship and eventually dropped a crewmember to the deck by wire to prep the patient and the basket the patient rode up on. The ship continued at its normal speed of just over 20 knots while this was happening. Additionally the wind was blowing steady at over 15MPH with some serious gusts. From our standpoint just below the funnel, the pilot did a heck of a job managing his craft between the natural wind and the wake turbulence coming off the funnel. The whole operation took about 40 minutes. We got pictures and video of the whole event and I am told a local news channel showed some tape the next day. It turns out the patient had some sort of internal bleeding problem that required fast attention.
We had dinner, packed our bags and saw our last show. It was coming to an end.
Disembarkation - March 14 --We were docked in Long Beach by 7:30 and it was foggy and overcast. Our group was the 2nd color called (Blue - Empress deck forward) and we were off the ship and cleared the parking lot before 10:00AM. No problems to speak of.
Overall, we enjoyed the trip immensely. I am now more than 2 weeks removed and I still find myself thinking things like, "2 weeks ago at this time I was snorkeling!" My wife says I am torturing myself. I'm just looking forward to the next trip. Realizing all things are relative and based only on our own limited experience:
Food - Very good in the buffet (Mermaids) - no experience in the main dining room. We had cake from the coffee counter on the last night and it was a good thing we did not find it earlier as that could have been a nightly indulgence. We did take advantage of the ice cream every night.
Service - We spoke to our room steward a few times and did not feel slighted by any lack of attention. He was there when we needed or wanted him and that is all I ask for. Everyone was pleasant and the cruise director (Jeff Brrrronson) seemed to take genuine interest in the mood of the passengers.
Room - more than ample for our needs. I will always be looking for a cabin with a balcony as I enjoyed spending time at the end of our evening just watching the surf go by. A very relaxing moment.
Ship - Yes, it's 3 football fields long and 12 stories high, but it never felt like I was contained with 3000 other people. After having experienced the Pride and reading reviews of other smaller Carnival ships, I can understand why Carnival may still not be the first choice among some cruisers. However, for me I can say I would be hard pressed to try another line at this stage for fear of it not meeting my own personal desires out of a ship, its crew and facilities.