In June 2010, I decided to take a week-long cruise. The four I'd done previously were all on Disney Cruise Lines (Bahamas and Mexican Riviera), but my budgetary restrictions this time around demanded that I take a closer look at a cheaper vacation. Booking through Expedia.com scarcely two weeks prior to sailing, I opted for the least expensive option: a Carnival cruise to the Mexican Riviera embarking from Southern California, where I currently live.
Much of what was offered or available on the Splendor mirrored my very positive Disney Mexican Riviera experience of May 2008: fun shore excursions, poolside relaxation, bingo games, trivia challenges, shopping opportunities—and, of course, mountains of food. Anybody reading this already knows that these cruises are veritable gorge-fests, and Carnival is no different. However, I was delighted to discover that while Disney is tops at creating fun dining environments, the actual food on Carnival is appreciably better, or at least appealed to me a lot more. Both lines offer lowbrow, midrange and upscale eating establishments, and while nothing beats Disney's Palo (fine Italian) restaurant, I was massively impressed by the menu, cuisine and service at Carnival's Pinnacle steakhouse.
Generally speaking, I was also very impressed by the service and friendliness of the crew onboard the Splendor. Waiters, housekeepers and maintenance staffers were a great blend of people from the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia (largely Bali), with a smaller percentage from India, Serbia, Croatia, etc. I greatly enjoyed the opportunity of interacting with staff members and hearing their stories of their many cruises. Cleanliness and upkeep was truly outstanding.
Although not a fan of Carnival's main variety shows (see below), I was enormously entertained by the nightly performances of cabaret pianist/comedian Ron Pass, who typically played four- and five-hour shows without a break to the delight of the 40-70 patrons who faithfully attended his hilarious act. Drawing from a repertoire of perhaps 1,000 popular songs (ranging from standards and show tunes to classic rock and the odd country and alternative tune), Ron is an extremely charismatic performer whose charm had attracted a regular following, all eager to submit their requests for a favorite tune from yesteryear and sing along to his always colorful—and sometimes bawdily embellished—covers.
The ports of call are never my chief reasons for cruising, but I should probably mention that the staff of the Splendor did an efficient job of getting its passengers on and off the ship (both by gangway and tender) and the tour groups they have contracted with for shore excursions were all perfectly fine. I should also mention that Carnival's photographers did a truly outstanding job of offering numerous opportunities for candids and portraits, and while photos were on the pricey side, they seemed to be less expensive than on the Disney ships.
My stateroom, a class 4J, was all the way at the front of the ship on Deck 7, in a corner configuration (port side). I never got to see how my neighbors' rooms were laid out, but I was very pleasantly surprised by the amount of room on what must have been a low-cost alternative, and my bathroom was nearly twice as large as the bathroom in my studio apartment, featuring a tubless, open shower with a curtain and only slatted drains and a slightly sloped floor dividing the toilet and shower areas. I couldn't have been happier with my room.
Let's move on to some areas in need of improvement, or that provoked feelings of disappointment. My travel agent had been candid about what I could expect from a Carnival cruise after four sailings on Disney, but one important aspect he neglected to mention was that Carnival allows smoking in many of its onboard areas, such as the casinos, lounges and the aforementioned piano bar. As a passionate nonsmoker, this proved to be the one glaringly bad aspect of the vacation. I can halfway understand a ship turning a blind eye to the obvious fire hazard in order to appeal to the large smoking population, but it is unforgivable to expect its nonsmoking travelers to have to pass through these foul areas simply to walk somewhere else. One example of this is the computer/internet room, which is tucked away at a far corner of the Robusto Cigar Bar, a disgustingly smoky room for people who love to puff away in the comfort of a swanky lounge. It also strikes me as unfair not only to expect music lovers to have to breathe secondhand smoke at the piano bar, but the performers themselves. When I cruise again, Disney will have the automatic edge for not allowing smokers to light up inside public areas.
Disney's ships had spoiled me in three other important ways. The first of these is the free soda. Although you can grab lemonade or iced tea at no extra charge on the Splendor, you'll pay for cans of soda (there are no soda fountains on the ship at all). I paid about $55 for a sticker on my key-card that entitled me to cans of soda, but this proved an annoyance at lunch because the buffets aren't close to any bars where sodas are available.
After seeing a bit of one of the variety shows offered in the Splendor's largeish Spectacular theatre, it's clear that I had been spoiled by the lavish, Broadway-caliber shows on the Disney ships. Several of my fellow passengers also expressed that they were bored or equally baffled by these variety shows. All I can say is, thank God that Ron Pass was on the ship doing his cabaret act, or I'd probably have been very bored at night.
Finally, I'll repeat a complaint many vocalized to me aboard the Splendor. Initially, I was extremely confused trying to find my way around on the Splendor, because you are unable to simply able to walk from bow to stern on any given deck (the way you can on the Disney ships). Take an elevator from Deck 9 down to Deck 3, and you're liable to find yourself facing a staircase, a closed restaurant and a wall. That's because Splendor's two main dinner restaurants (Black Pearl and Golden Pearl) occupy so much space in the middle of the ship that they block potential walkways on two of the decks, meaning that you often have to go up, across and down again to get from Point A to Point B. It does take a bit of studying and a couple of days to get used to the layout of the ship, and I wish I'd been briefed about this before going aboard.
Overall, I give Carnival very high marks, largely on the basis of the competence and friendliness of the crew, and the excellent food service. This would have been an absolutely perfect cruise with free sodas and no smoking.