My wife, two kids (13,15), and I recently returned from our 7 day Mexican Riviera cruise on the Carnival Splendor. This week-long voyage concluded a two week speed vacation that included 3 days at Disneyland/California Adventure Park, visiting relatives in the San Joaquin valley and Santa Cruz, and a quick stop at our second favorite city in the world, San Francisco. This was our second cruise with Carnival. We also cruised the Hawaiian Islands with NCL three years ago.
Embarkation. I dropped the wife and kids off at the terminal at about 11:00am and quickly raced back to Avis to return our rental vehicle. I was gone about 10-15 minutes and when I returned the family had deposited all of our luggage with the porters and was wondering what took me so long. We joined the pre-boarding line and in about 10 minutes received our sail and sign cards and our zone number. We sat around the terminal area for about 20 minutes and the zones soon began to move. Within 10-15 minutes we found ourselves entering the doors into the main lobby. 3600 passengers and 1200 kids onboard? Don't believe this for a minute. The most I saw was a couple hundred or so. I still can't figure out how Carnival manages this many people on embarkation or on the entire ship for that matter. In the main lobby we immediately noticed the pink decor and it was ingrained into our memory for the next 30 seconds. We hustled up to the Lido deck while the crew prepared our cabins and had a tasty lunch on the aft section. The wife and kids dined on Indian food and I had a hot pastrami on rye. Drinks of the day were soon procured through our DOD cards and while I cannot recommend all of the fruity concoctions we did find the blue margaritas to our liking and ordered only those thereafter.
Cabins: At 2:00pm we headed to the Empress deck to check out our digs. Everything was spotless and ready for us to move in. I had preordered a dozen roses and a wine and cheese basket. The roses were there, but the wine and cheese didn't show up until about 4:00pm. Even though I was technically registered in the interior cabin across the hall with my 15yr old son, our steward, Roel figured out the arrangement and my wife and I had a nice double bed set up in the balcony cabin and our kids had two twins in the interior. The cabins were certainly adequate in size as were the heads. While the beds are of very high caliber, we had spent the last week in 4 different Hiltons and they take the prize for best place to lay your weary bones.
Food: We had the 8:15pm seating every night and very much enjoyed the quality of the food. This was big surprise for us as on our two previous cruises the food was merely good, not great. Overall, we found the appetizers in the main dining room and the Pinnacle restaurant extremely good and sometimes overshadowed the entrees. I can personally recommend the gespacho, tiger shrimp, and escargots. Food found througout the ship was plentiful although sometimes I would wander into the Lido buffet and found it closed. If there was a line of more than 10 people, I went and did something for about 10 minutes, came back and immediately got what I wanted. Consequently I ate most of my daily fare from the other locations and didn't have a bad meal once. I did find one item that I must comment on; the coffee. It is quite possibly the worst in the world. When I press the button the the stainless steel machine in the Lido buffet I don't expect 100% Kona peaberry and can suck down a couple of cups to get me going early in the day. Now when I finished my extremely good meal at the Pinnacle and asked for a cup I expected something quite different. Didn't happen. One sip and my world was crushed. I was served a close cousin to the swill in the Lido. Yes, that was the worst thing about my cruise; the coffee. The Pinnacle dining experience is certainly worth the extra $30. The appetizers, as mentioned earlier, are superb. My wife and I both had the surf and turf and would put it on par with a Ruth's Chris type of experience.
Service: This was outstanding in all areas although our waiter at dinner never really connected with us. Our awesome room steward, Roel, was from Mindanao, Philippines and I had been a Peace Corp Volunteer in the same country so that fact that we communicated entirely in Visayan was an added bonus for me.
Entertainment/Activities: If you can fit half of the activities you are a true Viking partier. All of the shows were good along with the comedians and activities poolside. Try to see as many as possible. It's certainly not Vegas, but coming from a guy who has seen over 100 luau shows, it was pretty good.
For Teens: Again, Carnival gets high marks from our kids and they definitely want to return. Activities and hanging out with their friends really made the trip a memorable one.
Spa: My wife used the spa and was not overly impressed, especially when they try to sell you something. She is somewhat biased as she works at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.
Gym: Don't know what that is and don't like the people who feel the need to use them while on vacation. Never looked for it.
Shore Excursions: We did a zipline tour in Puerto Vallarta we booked directly online, visited an orphanage in Mazatlan, and sat on the beach and sucked down cocktails in Cabo. We had a great time.
Debarkation: This happened so fast I don't remember it. We never showed our passports to anyone. I'm now at home, so somehow we got off.
What we didn't like: We made the mistake of heading down to the main dining room for breakfast the second-to-last day and were seated at a table with two other families who very much enjoyed complaining about really stupid stuff. I guess with 3600 people on board there were going to be a few complainers. The other problem we had was that there are only 24 hours in a day. We will try to fix that for next time.
Overall this is a great vacation and very affordable. I would not particularly describe myself as a cruiser, but my family really digs this stuff and if they like it, I like it. I did win a Texas-hold-em tourney and got my picture taken with a Big Check. That was cool.