Our family recently enjoyed a wonderful Carnival Cruise to Ensenada and Catalina on Carnival's Elation. Our family consists of my husband, an 11 year old son, a 10 year old daughter, a 7 year old son, and myself. Unfortunately, the Elation has no adjoining cabins, so we divided our family into two separate cabins: a guys cabin, and a girls cabin...right next door to each other. This arrangement worked out well for us, but we would have much preferred having adjoining rooms with a connecting door so my DH and I could have shared a room.
We arrived in San Diego on Friday, Nov 6, and stayed at the La Quinta at Hotel Circle for a really low rate - which included breakfast and free parking. We saw the Lion King at the Civic Theatre on Friday night., which everyone enjoyed. Then we went to a little dessert place we have been to in the past, Extraordinary Desserts: http://www.extraordinarydesserts.com/desserts.htm Our kids were too tired to dine in, so we took a couple of desserts back to our hotel room to share. Mmmmmm.
We went to the Natural History Museum at Balboa Park on Saturday. We all enjoyed that. Our membership from another museum was honored, so our admission was free (saving us about $60).
My DH decided to find some new restaurants in San Diego from some shows he watched on the Food Network. That was a really good idea, since we got to try new small, privately owned places that had some good food at really reasonable prices. Here they are:
http://www.pizzerialuigi.com/ Really inexpensive, but good stuff. We shared an 18 inch thin crust pizza ($14), a meatball sandwich ($7), and a plate of lasagna ($7). The lasagna was really good, as was the pizza. The sodas were only $1 (and refillable). They also sell pizza by the slice. Definitely NOT a fancy place....very casual. There was a little specialty dessert/coffee bar located next door that looked really interesting, but we were not up for that at the moment. We may try it next time...
http://www.studiodiner.com/ The Studio Diner is open 24 hours a day, and breakfast is offered all day long. We went to this place twice. I really enjoyed their club sandwich (so large I shared it with my 11 year old) and my DH LOVED the Samson Steak sandwich. I had the Monte Cristo on my next visit, and thought that was delish. My daughter's pancakes were not that tasty. My son's eggs and bacon were good.
http://www.mamatestataqueria.com/ Hands down, this place served the best shredded beef taco I have ever eaten in my entire life. Seriously. And since I was born and raised in Los Angeles, that is saying something. This restaurant owner beat Iron Chef Bobby Flay in a fish taco Throwdown. My DH really enjoyed the fish tacos. My plate of two beef tacos with rice and beans was only $7.50. The churros are the best dessert they offer. We tried all three desserts, but only recommend the churros. They were so busy when we arrived that we had to sit at a table out front on the sidewalk. When we left, there were lots of available tables. We just picked a busy time, I suppose. I literally can not wait to eat more of those tacos!
Okay, enough about our time in San Diego. I will get back to the cruising part.
We parked our car across the street from the pier at a rate of $15 per day. Since we packed lightly and do not mind a short walk, we declined the incessant offers of help/rides from vendors in the parking lot. They were quite persistent.
Once we arrived at the pier and dropped off our two checked bags, embarkation was pretty efficient. We had to fill out a health questionnaire. Anyone checking "yes" to the flu related questions was going to be subjected to a health evaluation. We turned in the form and went to check in, then we were assigned to group 8, and waited maybe 10 minutes before we were allowed to board the ship. We promptly turned off all our cell phones (especially the iphone) to avoid incurring any extra fees.
We had to wait until 1:30 before we were allowed to drop off our carry-ons to our cabins. The staff took this 1:30 rule very seriously. Not being particularly hungry, we waited in the Drama Bar until 1:30, then dropped off our stuff, met our friendly room steward, and went to lunch at Tiffany's.
Now, I have to be honest, Holland America's buffet rocks. I do not expect Carnival to compete with them. My DH and I agree, Carnival's buffet was much better than Royal Caribbean's overall, but not quite as good as HAL's. Unlike my experience on RCCL cruises, I rarely had problems finding an empty table. Another plus is Carnival serves breakfast until 12 noon for late birds.
On my first lunch, I did not venture outside to the Rotisserie Station or the Mongolian Grill. I only ate at Tiffany's. There were two side to the main buffet. One had a specific type of cuisine while the other offered something different. Unfortunately, that means standing in several lines which can take a long time. I tried the chicken on both sides (one was Chicken Marsala, the other one I do not recall the name), both were really good. The multi-layered chocolate cake offered during the first lunch was wonderful, one of the best desserts they served us.
My DH really liked the chocolate chip cookies. As a matter of fact, when he was keeping watch over the kids while they were swimming, he took a plate of cookies with him. He stood up to take a picture of one of our kids on the waterslide, when suddenly some young child (approximately 3 years old) swiped the cookies off his plate. Soon the child's mother was calling for him, while he was trying to hide his guilt (and the cookies) and evade capture. Sort of a funny memory... Obviously, the cookies are pretty good. J
The good and the Great:
Our outside cabins (R127 & R131) were spacious, and the bathrooms well designed. Big improvement over RCCL's Monarch. Good closets. Spacious medicine cabinet. LOVED having the safe. My small purse and all our passports fit inside. Our room steward did a good job servicing our room twice a day. We did have to ask for our bed to be split into two at the onset of the cruise, but that was completed before bedtime.
On formal night, I asked our room steward if there were hairdryers available. He got me one quickly, and I was able to keep it for the duration of the cruise.
My kids loved having hot chocolate available 24/7. They loved the waterslide, playing mini-golf, playing chess on the huge oversized board, and the ping pong tables. They were mildly disappointed that the single basketball court was always occupied by older kids, and they only were able to play one time. Two of my kids enjoyed the laser tag session.
In the dining room, my 11 year old ordered what became his nightly ritual: Shrimp cocktail. Toward the end of the cruise, he was requesting three of them before his dinner. DH and I often asked for the pasta dish as a starter for us to share. My DH liked the Mahi-Mahi (but thought the portion was too small), the flat iron steak (when ordered med rare), the prime rib, lobster, chicken fettucini, and the lasagna. He thought the caesar salad was a bit weak. I liked the lasagna, prime rib, asparagus vichyssoise, minestrone soup, short ribs (I highly recommend this one), and diet banana layered gateau. The dining room turkey dinner (as opposed to the freshly carved turkey served at the rotisserie station on Thursday afternoon) and baby back ribs were merely "okay". My daughter adored the fried mozzarella appetizer, and ate the flat iron steak each and every night (also medium rare). She is also a huge fan of the famous Warm Chocolate Melting Cake.
Derrick served us in the dining room. He was very friendly and entertained our kids with some magic tricks.
Breads: Carnival does a great job with dinner rolls and other assorted breads.
Potatoes: the red mashed potatoes at the rotisserie station are awesome and available every day. On the third day (I think), was French cuisine day in Tiffany's buffet, and the Potatoes au Gratin served were very good.
Rotisserie Station: The chicken never disappointed. On Thursday afternoon, they had a whole turkey being carved fresh to order. YUMMY! I am still baffled why they served the lower quality turkey in the dining room Wednesday night and the better stuff at the Rotisserie Station. ???? Perhaps the dining room kitchen just puts it through a meat slicer making it appear like lunch meat. The freshly carved ham was also good (much better than the ham offered at the breakfast buffet). One day they had a nice looking roast beef, but I did not try it.
Mongolian Grill: DH often went here and enjoyed it. Unfortunately, the lines were always long and we usually were half way done with our lunch before he arrived at the table with his food. My 11 year old was "swiping" the salmon out of DH's bowl one day. They both thought it was very good.
Pizza: The kids loved it. My DH and I were less impressed. The crust was good, but I thought the cheese was a bit odd.
We packed a 12 pack of rootbeer in our luggage (wrapped in a plastic bag to avoid damage from spillage). During our nightly game times, the kids enjoyed making rootbeer floats. Having ice cream machines available at all hours in Tiffany's was greatly appreciated.
DH bought the soda card on Wednesday. He only had to pay just over $14 total. I chose not to buy one and kept some diet soda in my room. On RCCL, soda cards had to be purchased at the onset of the cruise. They did not prorate the fee like Carnival does. Yay Carnival!
Having a laundry room available was very convenient. It cost $3.00 for a load of wash, and $3.00 to dry. They offer laundry detergent for $1. There is a change machine near the entrance to the casino that converts bills into quarters. Once, the dryer took my $3.00 and did not work. I went to guest services, where they kindly repaid me. We packed this detergent for our trip, which takes very little space in our bag and can not make a mess: http://www.purex.com/purex-3-in-1/product
Having tips automatically charged to our account and not having to hand everyone a separate envelope was so nice. RCCL prints out receipts for charged tips and has this formality where the passenger gives the receipt in an envelope to the wait staff/steward. On previous cruises, I could tell RCCL employees were stressed about tips. The waiter on one particular cruise was obviously bothered that many passengers assigned to his table were not showing up, thus reducing his potential income. Carnival employees did not seem so stressed and it made things more comfortable for me. Carnival does recommend passengers tip the maitre'd separately (and provides an envelope for this purpose), but guest services would not provide me with a suggested amount when I inquired.
Carnival did a fantastic job handling the on board credits from the reductions in our cruise fare. They effortlessly combined the accounts from both cabins and applied all the credits and charges to the one account. We actually ended the cruise with a $4 credit balance, which I thought would just evaporate. But no, on the morning of departure they slipped a check in the amount of this small balance under my cabin door.
The bad and the Horrible:
One thing our entire family agreed upon was the that diet "pumpkin pie" served in the dining room Wednesday night was absolutely horrible - and we often enjoy diet desserts. They should be ashamed to even label it as "pumpkin pie". It was gelatinous, not even close to being a custard. That was the most disgusting thing we ate all week. It was so bad that once we got back home, we picked up a real pumpkin pie in an effort to make amends to our taste buds.
I ordered room service only once. It was delivered timely, and with a warning phone call. We filled out the breakfast card the night before. I wrote in my request for a BLT, which was delivered along with the other breakfast items. I know the BLT is a favorite of many on this board, but I could not stand the taste of the bacon. Not good quality. I avoided the bacon on the buffet at breakfast as well. To put this into perspective, I will even eat the bacon at Denny's. So while I am particular, I will tolerate most bacon....but not Carnival's.
Recalling the omelet station on HAL, I had high hopes for omelets on this cruise. While disappointed that spinach was not available, I happily chose ham and cheddar cheese instead. Unfortunately, the yellow cheese was processed cheese food, not real cheese.
Eggs: Yuck. Just yuck. The only way to order eggs here is to ask the gentleman at the omelet bar to crack some fresh eggs in the pan for you. Beware of the "eggs" at the buffet.
The kids liked playing laser tag in the Mikado lounge Thursday night (extra cost of $5 per person for a 5 minute group game). Unfortunately, my 7 year olds equipment did not function correctly and he only was credited with one shot (while his trigger happy sister had around 500). They did not offer to let him play again and closed down the activity earlier than advertised because they needed the stage to get ready for the hypnotist's performance. So I was not even able to pay to have him try the game again. Honestly, the gentleman who ran the laser tag game was the least helpful Carnival employee I met during the entire cruise. Not impolite, just not helpful and did not appear to really care.
The tables at Tiffany's were a too small for the five of us to use during our nightly "game time". Card games were fine, but there was not enough room for the board game we brought. We decided to try to play that game at the large table in the library, but changed our minds when we saw many adults enjoying the quiet room. Our group can get loud. We had to nix that game, but still enjoyed our card games - mainly Uno.
I have read on this board about a dessert called Bitter and Blanc. Unfortunately, that was never offered on this cruise. I was a bit disappointed because I really wanted to try it. Perhaps on my next cruise...
Neither the soups nor the coffee were served very hot, especially in the dining room. The dining room seems to have a problem delivering hot food hot.
No refrigerator in our room.
(Please note: none of the negative things listed above were bad enough to keep me from recommending Carnival overall. We are planning to cruise with them again.)
Been there, done that.....Many times over. Still, I enjoy walking around Avalon's shops.
Carnival uses small local boats to tender passengers to the central "green" pier.
I went to the Vons grocery store and bought something little just to get cash back from my checking account (no fees like some ATMs). We also took the opportunity to check our emails via the iphone, and return phone calls. No extra phone fees in Avalon!
On our last visit to Avalon, we went on the semi-submersible tour, which was great fun. This time around we just walked around and went to our favorite shops. We also walked to the Casino and took in the view. We decided that next time we come here we will go to Descanso Beach and play. http://www.visitcatalinaisland.com/avalon/dini_descansoBeach.php
We each got a small bag of candy from Lloyd's of Avalon, like we always do. http://www.catalinacandy.com/
We usually get our souveniors from Catalina Island Conservancy's gift shop on Clarissa Avenue. They sell ancient shark teeth for $10 each (my older two kids LOVE these and have a collection going), and have some darling stuffed animals (my 7 year old's preference).
We no longer even bother to get off the boat at this port. Carnival stays in Ensenada longer than RCCL, all the way until 10pm. There was still a sizable crowd in the MDR at the late seating. It was nice having much fewer passengers on board during the day though. Our kids swam in the pool and played the out door games.
We were in group 22, which meant we weren't getting off until 10am. No big deal, since I always hate leaving a cruise ship. They chased us out of Tiffany's around 9:30, so we spent the rest of our time at a table near the pool. When our number was called, debarkation was a breeze - the line moved swiftly off the ship. We handed our customs form to the officer, found our checked bags, and left. We never even had to show anyone our passports or answer any questions, which we previously had to do in the Los Angeles port when debarking other cruises. Quite painless, really.
We are already discussing plans for our next cruise. Since we are going to bring the kids again, it will most likely be a Carnival Cruise.
Thanks Carnival for a wonderful cruise!