South America & Mexico - Carnival Splendor - March 3 - 21, 2009
Overall, this was a wonderful 18-day cruise on the Splendor. This was my sixth cruise, and the third time on a Carnival ship. I was travelling "solo", however, it was nice to meet many wonderful people (a number of whom were Cruise Critic members).
The Splendor was a huge ship. It was fairly new (less than a year old). My balcony stateroom (Category 8A) was on the Upper Deck, cabin 6226. It was close to the bow and on the 6th deck. The room was quite large (approx. 220 sq. ft.), very bright with a wall of glass overlooking the balcony, and could easily sleep 4 people. It had a very comfortable king-sized bed (two twin beds pushed together) with lovely linens, etc. There was a sofa that converted into a single bed and also a "Pullman" bed secreted in the ceiling. There was plenty of closet and storage space. The bathroom was a decent size (shower only; no tub) with lots of room to put away toiletries, etc. The towels were plush and the bathrobe was very comfortable. There was a desk/vanity and chair, a flat screen tv and a refrigerator. There was only one electrical outlet in the room (above the desk) and one outlet in the bathroom (up high near the ceiling). There was a hairdryer in the top drawer of the desk/vanity that worked quite well. All in all, it was a very comfortable room. My only concern with the cabin was the noise from the Spectacular Lounge located directly below it. The sound-proofing was mostly non-existent, and so I heard all the rehearsals during the daytime, and also the late show at 10:30 pm each evening. It was very loud; so if you book this cabin, be prepared to live with the noise level. The balcony was smallish, but with enough room for 2 chairs and a small side table. It was quite private and it was a real treat to be able to sit outside and admire the view whenever I chose (usually I book an inside cabin). A few feet down the hall from my cabin was a door that led out to a small deck overlooking the bow of the ship. For those passengers staying in an inside cabin, it was a place to get outside without going up to the Lido deck to check the weather, get some fresh air, etc. There was a small laundry area on three of the decks with coin operated washers and dryers and on Upper Deck there was a "pressing room" with irons/ironing boards. The dEcor of the ship was very pink and the theme was circles (think large polka dots). At first it seemed quite garish, but I got used to it very quickly and never gave it another thought. There was a large atrium in the center of the ship that went all the way from 3rd deck to 11th deck. At the very top of the ship (Sky Deck) was the mini golf area and the entrance to the water slide. Below that was the Sun Deck with the "Serenity" area (an adult only area outside with deck chairs, lounges, etc.). Below that was the Spa Deck that contained the Gym and the Spa. The gym was located at the very front of the ship and had walls of glass. The gym had lots of modern equipment and it was normally quite busy. I never used the spa facilities nor the hair salon, however, it always seemed busy (especially on "formal night" days). Also on this level was a small pool and hot tub, at mid-ship was a water park for the children, and at the back of the ship was a small sports area (basketball/volleyball) and a jogging track. The track was 10 laps to a mile long and always busy with runners and walkers out getting their exercise. There was a large pool on the Lido Deck (Deck 9) with a retractable roof overhead. And at the very back of the ship was an adults only pool and hot tub. All the pools seemed to be very popular. The surrounding decks were always full of people relaxing on deck chairs, etc. Above the main pool area on the Lido Deck was a large theatre screen. There were movies and concerts playing on the screen throughout the day and evening. Because the outdoor area was so large, it never felt overly crowded. There were lots of deck chairs and tables/chairs surrounding the pools and also on Deck 11 and at the back of Deck 10 (where the smokers hung out). Near the back of the ship was the Rotisserie Restaurant which served chicken, roasted potatoes, salads, macaroni and cheese, etc.. It was upstairs from the buffet area and was a great place to have lunch away from the crowds. Inside the Lido Deck was the Grand Buffet which served a great variety of foods. There were stations on each side of the ship including a deli/sandwich area beside the aft pool, and at mid-ship a pizzeria on the port side and a grille area on the starboard side. Although it was always busy, I never had a problem finding a place to sit. There was soft serve ice cream and yogurt stations with toppings, etc. located throughout the Lido area. I found the best place to have lunch was in the Rotisserie, because it was the least crowded. As well, there were tables and chairs on Deck 10 overlooking the main pool...another good place to sit away from the crowds.
The Veranda, Empress and Upper Decks all contain only passenger cabins. On the Promenade Deck (Deck 5) was where to find the upper level of the Spectacular Show Lounge, the shops, the Casino, sushi bar, video arcade and various bars/lounges. At the back of the ship was the El Morocco, a smaller show lounge. The shops were typical and, for the most part, fairly expensive. The Casino was a decent size and not too busy. There were a number of different bars and lounges, including a piano bar and a disco and karaoke area, etc. On the Atlantic Deck (Deck 4) was the mezzanine level of the Spectacular Lounge and a small library and the photo gallery area. There was a very small Internet area with a dozen computers. The internet area was an afterthought and located in a cramped area off of the Robusto Bar (a cigar bar). Also on this deck was the upper level of the Black Pearl Restaurant (mid-ship) and the upper level of the Gold Pearl Restaurant (at the back of the ship). The last deck with public rooms was the Lobby Deck (Deck 3). The main level of the Spectacular Lounge (were the lectures and evening shows took place) was large and was very comfortable. The sight lines, sound system, lighting, etc. were all fine, with just a few seats blocked by pillars. The Black Pearl and Gold Pearl Restaurants were large, well lit, well laid out, etc. I was sitting at a table for 8 on the top level of the Gold Pearl Restaurant at the back of the ship (5:45 pm; main seating). The table was always beautifully set with nice linens, crystal, china, silver, etc. The Black Pearl Restaurant was similar, except it was at mid-ship. I never ate in the Pinnacle Restaurant, but everyone I spoke with who ate there really enjoyed themselves. I gather the food and service were very good. The Purser's desk, shore excursions desk, front office, etc. were also found on the Lobby Deck. There was an outside promenade area on each side of the ship for walking, etc., but the two sides were not connected, so that meant you couldn't walk a circuit under a bit of cover. The atrium area on the Lobby Deck was always very busy. There was musical entertainment throughout the day and evening and a large dance floor. As well, there was a nice bar area for drinks before dinner.
The Main and Riviera Decks were cabins only. The infirmary was on the "0" deck and was very well equipped and prepared for pretty much any type of emergency. Because many passengers and crew were suffering from an upper respiratory illness, it was one of busiest areas on the ship! There was continual cleaning and disinfecting being done by the ship's staff in the cabins as well as all the public areas. Unfortunately, that didn't seem to be good enough to keep everyone from catching the "Carnival Cough". Personally, I put the blame on the passengers with no common sense and with a generous lack of personal hygiene for continuing to spread the germs. I lost count of the number of times I saw someone use the washroom and not thoroughly wash their hands afterwards, or cough into the air or maybe into their hands and without cleaning them, handle the serving tongs, etc. in the Lido buffet. Or the people who would put their fork into a dish, taste it, like it, and put their fork right back in for another bite! I consider myself lucky that I only caught a chest cold and nothing more serious.
Overall, the ship was easy to navigate and there were lots of elevators and staircases and wide hallways, etc. Therefore, it never felt overly crowded. For the able-bodied, the ship was great. For those with mobility issues, there seemed to be good access to all the public spaces, with room for wheelchairs, walkers, etc. There were some bottleneck areas near the elevators in the atrium, and also near the entrance to the dining rooms. Similar to other ships with a dining room at mid-ship and at the back of the ship and the galley between the two dining rooms, you cannot walk through decks 3 and 4 from front to back. You need to use either deck 2 or 5 and then use the stairs or elevator to access the dining room.
Not so typical of Carnival, the majority of passengers were older. I believe the average age was about 67. About three-quarters of the passengers were from the United States and about one-quarter from Canada and elsewhere. I think there were about 3,000 passengers on board. Overall, I found the majority of people on board to be friendly and kind. This was a 49-day cruise that started in Ft. Lauderdale and sailed down the east coast of South America, around Cape Horn and then up the west coast of South America. Many of the passengers were on board for the full cruise (lucky them!) and so those of us who embarked for the last 18 days of the cruise were "outsiders", but we were welcomed and fit in easily. Like any cruise there were people on board who were bored, cranky, rude and just plain miserable. Because of the length of this cruise the number of these unhappy passengers was exaggerated. The behavior of many was just inexcusable. A number of passengers had the automatic gratuity of $10 per day taken off their account (they felt that $490 was just too much to spend) and then at the end of the cruise they stiffed their cabin stewards and dining room staff. I witnessed a few people (who had eliminated the automatic gratuity) handing their waiter a $20 bill on the last night and thinking that was appropriate! The crew worked so hard for those (automatic and extra) tips throughout the entire cruise and to be denied them was beyond insulting and cruel.
CREW and CUISINE and ENTERTAINMENT:
I found all the crew members I dealt with to be friendly and professional. My cabin steward (Joselito) was amazing. The front office/Purser's desk staff were always very helpful. As were the Shore Excursion desk staff. The dining room staff were terrific (Nikola and Ivan) and overall my dining experience was great. Our maitre d' was Ken Byrne, who sang every second evening and the waiters got up to dance with him. It was entertaining and lots of fun. However, entertainment in the dining room is not eveyone's cup of tea and there were some complaints. Personally, I really enjoyed it. The cruise director (Goose) was pretty much non-existent, but his staff (Jamie, Adele, Lauren, Owen, Brad) were fun and energetic. Carnival makes a point of hiring staff from around the world and I expect that there were at least 30 countries represented. I thought the food on board the ship was very good. Every evening I got to try new things. The presentation was good and the food was usually hot when it arrived at the table. The food in the Lido was also very good. I enjoyed all the variety of foods... a much larger selection than what I was expecting. I ate most of my breakfasts in the Gold Pearl Restaurant and most of my lunches in the Lido Buffet or Rotisserie. I went to about half of the shows in the Spectacular Lounge. The staff singers and dancers were the best I've seen on a cruise ship and the 3 "production" shows that they put on were excellent. The rest of the shows were typical...comedians, jugglers, singers, etc. The orchestra was comprised of a very good group of musicians and they were excellent. As well, the Elite Show Band (who usually preformed in the El Morocco Lounge) were very good. There were good musicians performing in the various lounges. All in all, the entertainment was above par. For the passengers who were on the cruise for the full 49 days, some of the entertainment became repetitive and if Carnival decides to so more long cruises, they will have to re-evaluate the entertainment being offered on board.
PRE-CRUISE AND EMBARKATION:
This cruise left from Valparaiso, Chile. I was on Leg 3 of the cruise (Ft. Lauderdale to Buenos Aires, Brazil - Leg 1; Buenos Aires to Valparaiso, Chile - Leg 2). I flew to Santiago, Chile on the day before the cruise and spent the night at the InterContinental Hotel in the Las Condes district. It was a typical InterContinental Hotel... clean, comfortable, well situated, etc. It was in the banking district and surrounded by a residential area - so it was safe for walking around, etc. As I had been to Santiago 3 years ago, I was o.k. with not staying downtown and touring around the city. I had arranged my hotel stay through Carnival and the transfers from the airport to the hotel and then from the hotel to the ship were included in the very reasonable cost. I was met by a Carnival representative at the entrance to the airport and we travelled in a van for 20 minutes to the hotel. Check-in at the hotel was fast and simple. There were restaurants in the hotel for dinner, as well as some very good fish restaurants in the district surrounding the hotel. A complimentary continental breakfast was served before we checked-out and boarded the bus for the transfer to the ship. The bus ride to Valparaiso was about 2 hours driving through beautiful valleys with vineyards, farms, etc.
Embarkation was similar to what I've experienced in the past at other ports. I had entered all my information online before hand, and it took about 5 minutes to check in. One note for passengers flying into Santiago. The Chilean government charges an "reciprocity (entrance) fee" that was US$132 for Canadian passengers (US$131 for US passengers). This fee was paid at the airport before clearing customs and if paying in cash had to new bills only. They do accept Visa and MasterCard, but the machines are not always operational. The fee was valid for the period until expiration of the passport. Of course, I had renewed my passport since the last time I was in Chile, so I had to pay again. Note that you need to turn left as soon as you come down the escalators from the arrivals area to get in line to pay the entry fee. Then you get in another line to pass through customs. Once through customs you pass into the baggage area. You will need to put your luggage through a screening machine before leaving the baggage area. Once past security, you enter a very noisy, busy area full of people meeting passengers, etc. Keep a close watch on your luggage in this area. It is a mad crush of people and, twice, I had someone try to grab my luggage and steer me towards his "taxi".
PORTS and SHORE EXCURSIONS:
For this cruise I decided to book shore excursions through Carnival. Because I was travelling solo, I found it easier (and safer) to book through the cruise line. If I had been travelling with others, then researching and booking private excursions would have been appropriate.
I had originally booked a full day tour, but it was cancelled because we were delayed (searching for a man overboard) and only arrived in Arica in the afternoon. Arica is a busy, working port and so it was necessary to take a shuttle bus from the ship to the port entrance. It only took a few minutes and the buses ran constantly. It was a very safe, small city...easy to walk around and take in the sights and with a large handicraft market in the main square. I really enjoyed my time just walking about and the people I spoke with who did tours outside of the city (up towards the Atacama Desert) really enjoyed themselves.
"Grant Tour In Lima"
Again, the port in Lima was a working port and so it was necessary to take a shuttle bus to the main entrance of the port where you could arrange for taxis, etc. Our 8 hour tour by bus left from the ship and we drove through Callao and on into Lima. We spent time in the main square, the Santo Domingo Convent and the San Francisco Monastery. All very old and very beautiful. We drove to the Indian Market and could have spent the whole day there....so much to see and buy. We had lunch in a restaurant in the Miraflores district (a wealthy area) that was very good and then drove to the Parque del Amor (Park of Love) overlooking the ocean. Finally, we stopped at the Gold Museum, which was very interesting. This was a good excursion that gave us a basic overview of Lima.
"Manta, Panama Hats & Montecristi"
Once again, we were in a working port where shuttle buses were available to travel to the entrance for taxis, etc. This excursion was 4 hours by bus. We first stopped at the open air fish market which was fascinating. The stench was overpowering, but it was great fun to speak with the locals about the fish they had caught, etc. Tuna fish is the major industry in Manta. We then drove along the coast to Monticristi, which is a small town renowned as the home of "panama hats". It was interesting to watch how the hats are made by hand. There was a beautiful church to visit and a main square with a small handicraft market. We then drove inland a bit to the village of El Aromo and visited a small farmhouse where the family makes panama hats and sells them and locally grown coffee beans, etc. The owners were very gracious and welcoming. Finally we drove back to Manta and visited the Archaeological Museum which was very interesting. As Manta is very small, it was nice to get out of town and see some of the countryside, etc. on this tour.
"Birds, Turtles & City Overview"
Acapulco is beautiful from afar, but I found the city to be very "Americanized". I was anxious to get out of the city and this excursion was about 5 hours long. We drove through Acapulco (very heavy traffic) and then down the coast for about an hour to Tres Palos Lagoon. We boarded small wooden boats and toured through the lagoon. After that we backtracked for 20 minutes to the Sea Turtle Rescue Centre. We learned a lot about the turtles and the work being done at the centre and then had the opportunity to release a hatchling into the ocean. A very special moment for all involved. The drive back through Acapulco was scenic and took 2 hours (again because of the heavy traffic). I had no desire to wander about in the city, but many people did and enjoyed the shopping, etc. If you wanted to shop at Wal-Mart and then grab a meal at Hooters, then this was the port of call for you.
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
"Colonial San Sebastian"
Similar to Acapulco, I was anxious to get out of the city and instead see some of the countryside. This excursion was about 7 hours and I was in a van with 11 other passengers (so much better than a large tour bus). We drove through PV and then east up into the Sierra Madre Mountains. It was about a 90 minute drive to San Sebastian along winding mountain roads...very picturesque. The town itself has not changed much in 200 years and it was very interesting. All the streets are cobblestone and very uneven, so it is not a tour for people with mobility issues. After wandering about, we had a very good Mexican lunch at a local dining establishment. We then had more time to look about (the local cathedral was very interesting) and then drove to a local Hacienda where we spent about an hour touring inside and through the gardens. We arrived back at the ship in the late afternoon, with enough time to walk into town to do some souvenir shopping, etc. There is a large handicraft market right beside where the ship docks, and a large shopping centre across the road. I spoke with a few people who did whale watching tours in PV, and they all raved about how wonderful it was. Next time in PV, that will be at the top of my "to do" list.
Los Angeles (Long Beach), California
As Los Angeles was the first US port of call since Ft. Lauderdale, all passengers and crew had to pass through customs and immigration that morning. For US citizens, the line-ups were negligible. For the rest of us, we stood for 2 hours in the cold wind (very foggy and damp that morning) and finally cleared customs at 11:45 am. This left very little time for touring. Long Beach is very accessible and there is a free shuttle bus for use throughout the day. I opted for an excursion by bus to the Getty Museum. The bus ride took about 1 hour and we had about 2.5 hours to tour the museum. The Getty collection is amazing and really you need a full day to appreciate everything there was to see. In the afternoon the air cleared a bit and so we were able to see a bit of the city. The drive back to the ship took 2 hours through horrific rush hour traffic. The last (Carnival) tour bus didn't arrive back at the ship until 20 minutes after sailing time. Fortunately, the captain was in no hurry to leave, so everyone made it back safely on board.
We had 11 "sea days", which was quite different from most cruises. I found the sea days to be very relaxing. The weather was hot and sunny, so I was able to be out on deck quite a bit walking or just sitting and reading a book, etc. There were lots of activities planned throughout the day, so there was never any chance to become bored. Some favorite activities were the arts & crafts classes in the early morning, bridge instruction and games, ballroom dancing classes, and the trivia contests held throughout the day. There was a naturalist on board (Dirk) who gave talks on sea days. He was very interesting and his talks on whales were the best.
San Francisco, California
I decided to book a transfer to the airport through Carnival once I was on board the ship. I figured it would be less stressful and less expensive than trying to get a taxi by myself, etc. after disembarking. I boarded the bus at 9:30 am. and the trip to the airport took about 30 minutes (we had to wait until the bus was full). The International Airport was very busy (Saturday of Spring Break). However, it only took 25 minutes to check in, drop off my luggage and get through security.
Disembarkation was very smooth. Because my flight was not until 12:30 pm I was in Zone 4. We were called to leave the ship around 9:30 am. The first people off the ship (self-assist) left around 7:45 am. Once off the ship, we had to pick-up our luggage which was set out by zone number and then walk a short distance to the bus to the airport. It was so hard to say good-bye to the ship...I certainly wasn't prepared to leave.
As stated at the beginning, I had a wonderful cruise vacation. The 18 days I was on board certainly lived up to all my expectations. Carnival is known for their 7-day "fun ship" cruises and so this whole experience of a long cruise to mostly new ports was probably a bit difficult for them. I think the crew and staff did an excellent job during some very trying situations. With the down-turn in the economy, I can't see Carnival doing another long repositioning cruise like this one, but you never know. I will certainly cruise Carnival again (long or short cruise, I don't care).