We were a group of 20 ladies sailing together. This was my first Carnival cruise, with my previous cruises being Alaska on the Celebrity Galaxy (July, 2000), Western Caribbean on the Celebrity Millennium (December, 2000) and Alaska on the Sun Princess (July, 2001).
Arrival/Embarkation -- I flew from Dallas to Hobby, arriving at 8:30 a.m. I caught the 9:30 departure of Galveston Limo ($30.00) and was at the pier at 10:15. I was one of the first ten people there. We were allowed through security and check-in at about 11. My 21" roll-aboard and large tote bag fit through the machine with no problem (very similar to security at the airport). I presented my Fun Pass to the attendant, who did not look at it, but just laid it aside. I then waited another 45 minutes and was finally let on the ship at about 11:45. It would appear that 11:30 would be the ideal time to arrive for quick check-in and immediate access to the ship. When I embarked, I was asked to go to the Lido Deck until 1:00 p.m. I went to my room instead to drop off my bags. No problem, as all the rooms were already ready.
Rooms -- We were in M95, an inside cabin on the Main Deck. The beds were very comfortable and were covered with comfy white duvets that were a pleasure to sleep under. There was ample storage and closet space. There was also a good amount of storage for toiletries behind the mirrors in the bathroom, and the shower was spacious and had a removable shower head. The towels were big and fluffy and appeared to be brand new. We did not have a refrigerator, but our room steward brought us fresh ice twice daily. The TV had only minimal channels and there were no in-room movies, and voice mail would have been nice, because our group was so large. Other than that, I have no complaints about the room.
The Ship -- The ship is decorated with loud, neon, Day-Glo colors reminding one of Las Vegas, but the idea works, and it was not unpleasant to look at. I didn't even mind the Panorama Restaurant (Lido buffet), which was done in pale turquoise and kind of "glowed" in the evening. I thought the layout and size of the ship was excellent and that almost every amenity one could wish for was offered. Several areas of note are:
Spa Carnival -- This area has recently been completely redone and is beautiful. There are treatment rooms, a steam room and sauna, a beauty salon, exercise rooms and a full gym with windows that face the front of the ship. Elemis products are offered for sale.
Blue Sapphire Lounge -- This room is horrible. This is the main showroom and the sightlines are so poor, only about 10-15% of the seats offer a decent view of the stage. This room could benefit from a complete redo, as so many different activities go on here every day.
Rolls Royce Cafe/Internet Lounge -- The computer stations are located along City Lights Boulevard, the main thoroughfare that passes by most of the clubs and the casino. The computers are new, fast and very user friendly. There is an attendant there at certain hours, and it never seemed too busy. The Rolls Royce Cafe (coffee bar) is situated right next to the Internet Lounge. There is a charge for the coffee and pastries that are served there.
Starlight Lounge -- This large lounge at the back of the ship was empty most of the time. Some evenings a live band played there and six or eight people might be in there dancing. I think a ship of this size merits a second major show lounge like this, and that Carnival should endeavor to fill it with major acts or shows that will attract a larger portion of the guests onboard.
Verandah Pool Area -- This area is at the back of the ship one level higher than the Main Lido Pool. It was never very crowded and is a good place to sunbathe or spend time in the hot tubs.
Food -- I thought the food overall was very good. Everything we had in the dining room was deliciously prepared and presented -- lobster, filet mignon, duckling just to name a few. The service was impeccable and we enjoyed our servers, Alex from Romania and Vera from Estonia. Breakfast and luncheon in the dining room were also first rate.
The Lido Buffet, on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired. Most of the "regular buffet line" food was unappetizing looking and tasteless. There were a few areas of the buffet that were standouts, however. The pizza/Caesar salad area in the back (open 24/7) was delicious, as was the deli, which offered eight or 10 different hot or cold made-to-order sandwiches. The hot dogs and hamburgers were also good.
Entertainment -- We saw the two major production shows; they were both well choreographed and enjoyable. Great costuming! We also saw both comedians and they were very good (when the ship docks in Cozumel next to the Sensation, the comedians switch ships, so we benefited from getting to see both of them). The late night R-rated comedy shows are very funny, too. One stand-out of this cruise was our cruise director, Larry Galutzo. He is a bonafide entertainer -- a singer, musician and stand-up comedian who plays venues like the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas when he is not sailing. He was visible all the time, and we looked forward to seeing and hearing him.
Casino Blackjack -- Blackjack variations included "Fun 21" and "Face-Up" blackjack, popular presumably because those were the games that offered the $5.00 minimum bets, whereas the "traditional" blackjack tables offered a minimum bet of $10.00. The rules of these games varied in minor ways, and if I had to make a guess, I would surmise that any edge that the player may have is taken away by the variation in the rules, thus giving the casino a bigger profit. I am not a heavy gambler, but I do like to play blackjack for a few hours occasionally and I will not take my knowledge of basic strategy and years of practice and experience and throw them away on a variation of blackjack with which I am unfamiliar. Thus, the low-stakes, knowledgeable player is shut out of the blackjack tables on this ship. I am a pretty easy-going traveler, but this system really rubbed me the wrong way.
Demographics -- The ship was full, including 500 persons traveling on the annual "Elvis" cruise. I would have like to have attended some of the festivities, but they were not advertised in the daily Capers, and a special ID was required for entrance to them. The one noticeably absent group on the ship was children. I am guessing there were maybe 20 grade school children onboard, and even fewer teens. There were also very few college-aged folks. Most of the guests were Texans -- no surprise -- and everyone was friendly and fun to be around.
Cozumel -- We took an eight passenger van to Paradise Beach where we spent a very enjoyable couple of hours sunning, etc. They offer massages right on the beach for $1.00 per minute, although we didn't have time for this. I had a virgin Pina Colada, which was very good. The restrooms and changing rooms were very clean, and I would recommend this beach to anyone. We next took a couple of cabs downtown and ate lunch at Carlos and Charlie's. We were one of only two cruise ships in port on this day, so the area was not at all crowded. We secured a table for 16 with no wait. Lunch was delicious, and I can't remember the last time I did the chicken dance while standing on top of a table! One disappointment, however, was my frozen margarita. It was delicious, to be sure, but appeared to have little or no alcohol in it. I have a very low tolerance for alcohol, and I felt virtually nothing from this drink. This was most disappointing, considering everything I've heard regarding their drinks. Had I been a 25-year-old man, would they have made sure they put the proper amount of alcohol in the drink? Who knows. This was no big deal, although worth mentioning.
Weather -- Our weather on embarkation day, our first sea day and in Cozumel was perfect! We couldn't have asked for anything better. Early in the morning of our last sea day though, a cold front blew in and things turned nasty. The ship was really rocking and rolling and I lost the better part of the day to seasickness and spent a good part of the afternoon in my room. This was not an unusual occurrence, as many people on the ship were ill. This, of course, is a normal aspect of cruising, except that on debarkation morning, there was talk of one of the stabilizers not being operational. This could have just been a "ship rumor," but apparently, someone saw the stabilizer-in-question actually sticking up out of the water and visible. The ship docked and seven hours later, sailed again with 2,000 new passengers. Was the stabilizer repaired during this time? I certainly hope so, but don't really know how big of a job that is.
Debarkation -- Non-U.S. citizens disembark first, then self-assist (those carrying all their own bags), then color-by-color. If you want to change your color to disembark earlier, that is fine, too. We were looking to get off the ship near the end so our group could sleep a little bit longer and eat breakfast together one last time. We started through customs a few minutes before 10 and were off the ship a little before 10:30. I arrived at Hobby at noon.
We had a great time on this cruise and I was pleasantly surprised by the Ecstasy. The ship was clean and was being cleaned all the time. The service personnel were always smiling and ready to help. Don't hesitate to take this cruise. It was a keeper and I look forward to sailing on the Ecstasy again.