"There was a little girl who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead;
When she was good, she was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid." - Nursery rhyme
I cruised solo for the fourth time in my 11 cruises. I'm a single guy living in DC and combined this cruise with a short visit with my family in central Florida. I got a tremendous price for this trip, which got things off to a good start. But my cruise was just like the little girl in that rhyme - I had a fine time once I got on the ship, but getting there was most definitely not half the fun.
EMBARKATION: This was Ecstasy's first cruise out of Port Canaveral, and embarkation could not have been more of a shambles - it was the little girl at her most horrid. Ecstasy was coming to PC from New Orleans but encountered high winds and seas off the coast of southern Florida and so was several hours late arriving. I had no notice of the late arrival until I got to the port before the ship did - too early to board - and was told to come back at 5:30. This was a big inconvenience to the family members who were kind enough to drive me to the port, but they took it in good spirits. Unfortunately, when we got back to the port at 5:30, there was an immense queue of cars waiting to turn off the main road into the port, and we sat in this line for an hour. Once we got to the drop-off point, I got into a line that snaked around in front of the terminal, after sundown. Then it started to rain...while most of the passengers were standing outside in the open. I didn't get on the ship until 8:30, and we didn't leave until after 11:00 p.m.
As I see it, there were two reasons for this fiasco. First, the terminal wasn't nearly big enough for the number of passengers Ecstasy carries. Worse, however, was Carnival's lack of preparation for the fact that all passengers would be showing up at once instead of, as normal, over a period of several hours. At first there was only one person checking all of the non-VIP passports and Funpasses. Eventually, a second Carnival rep started to help out, but the process was impossibly slow. There was no refreshment of any kind available - no water or food - until I got inside the terminal, and even then I only got water because a very nice Carnival rep went and got me some. There were jugs of water and lemonade at the very end of the boarding line, right before we got on the ship. The combination of factors - including that passengers parking at the pier had to cross a traffic street in the dark - mad the process of getting to the ship pretty close to dangerous to the passengers. It's inconceivable that a cruise line as big and experienced as Carnival shouldn't have foreseen that these were likely consequences of the ship's late arrival. I haven't rated "Embarkation" on the CC list because they don't offer the option of the rating it deserves here - ZERO STARS.
Once we hit the ship, the little girl on her best behavior - not just good but very very good. I had a porthole cabin on Empress deck, clean and well kept by my steward Rolly, and with the usual Carnival features. The bed was especially comfortable, and of course I had the king-size all to myself, niiiice. The water pressure was good, but the nozzle of the bathroom sink had some problem that caused water to be sprayed everywhere. The cabin gets 4 STARS. My only gripe was that, after the embarkation drama, I had just had enough time to stretch out on the bed for a quick nap when Rolly came tapping on the door to tell me that the muster drill would be in 20 minutes. This bad timing was mitigated by my meeting two guys from our CC roll call in the theater (my muster station) before the drill - Jerry and Dick were nice guys, and we hung out together several times.
Ecstasy is 20 years old, but she's looking just fine, thank you. She has been tweaked a couple of times and in some places it looks like Carnival has decided to tone down the Farcus designs. The buffet in particular seemed to have been de-Farcusized; it now looks like an action stations buffet and is rather attractive. The food in the MDR was a little hit or miss - I had missed dinner on the first night because of my late boarding, and service the next night was not very good - but the waiters (Ike and assistant) called me by name the rest of the trip, how they remember all those names is beyond me. The buffet was OK. The best food was at the "alternative" stations - omelets at breakfast, plus the Mongolian wok, rotisserie, and pizza. The sushi was delicious though not very adventurous, and the grill was fine - Carnival makes the best hot dog this side of the ballpark (though Chicago dog fans will be disappointed that there's no celery salt). 3 1/2 STARS (which will show up as 4 stars on the CC list).
The rest of the PUBLIC ROOMS are well kept and didn't show much wear and tear. That surprised me a little considering the ship's age and the fact that she's done a lot of short cruises, but Ecstasy did have a 2-week dry dock in September - they did a good job sprucing her up then. Again, 4 STARS
I give SERVICE 4 STARS. I was called by name much more often than usual, and the staff was as friendly as I've encountered on a cruise ship. Ecstasy was spotless - she looked the best of all the Fantasy-class ships I've sailed, and they had a lot fewer miles on them when I sailed than Ecstasy does now.
The ENTERTAINMENT really rocked - 5 STARS for sure. The show band was outstanding - 6 live musicians. The piano bar guy was very funny and could actually sing and play the piano - don't laugh, it doesn't always work out so well. The one-man band guitarist Jerry was exceptional - a little Asian fellow but if you closed your eyes at the right time, you'd have sworn you were listening to Johnny Cash. There was also a country band, and despite what you may have heard about Carnival's future plans, we had a calypso duo, Supernova, two guys from Dominica who were also terrific. Note to Carnival: forget the on-deck DJ, keep the live calypso music; we can all listen to recorded music at home. The cruise director Steve Cassell is also excellent - I had sailed with him on Imagination back in the '90s and he has only gotten better since then. I have never sailed with John Heald, but it's hard for me to imagine that he's any better at the job than Steve.
I had two massages in the spa - one was 20 minutes each of 3 different areas, the other was a full-body. If she's still on the ship, ask for Neneth ("Nina")from the Philippines - her deep tissue technique made me wince but not scream, just the way I like it. The gym and locker room have been redone - the men's side is now where the women's locker room used to be - and look good. There's only one pool for the whole ship but plenty of hot tubs and a good jogging track, plus a deceptively tricky mini-golf course. FITNESS & RECREATION gets 4 STARS.
There's no enrichment on this ship (unless you want to call geography trivia - for which I won a ship on a stick - enrichment), and I wasn't traveling with kids, so no ratings there. I also didn't take any shore excursions, but those who did seemed to enjoy them. Half Moon Cay was one of the reasons I took this cruise, and it didn't disappoint - absolutely gorgeous though it does get crowded when everyone's ashore, so I stayed a little more than 2 hours and went back to the ship.
Last but not least, a quick shout out to my tablemates in the MDR - Zac, Cory, Paul, and Candice, you all were fabulous!! Unlike some cruises, we frequently ran into each other other than at dinner, and four of us closed the disco on the last night. Great folks, great company, and I'd love to cruise with y'all again!
So... was it the best cruise ever? No, that wasn't possible after the embarkation mess, but it was still a fun time. The weather was fine, the passengers were friendly, the crew smiled a lot and seemed to be enjoying themselves, the cocktails featured a generous pour (just watch the bartender - 2+ ozs. in every drink I had), and heaven knows no one went hungry. Fussy folk will probably find Carnival lacking, and individual experiences of the same cruise can be a lot different, but if you like making friends and partying on the high seas, if you're ready to relax and have a few laughs and hit an island or two, Carnival will never let you down. Yes, there have been some cutbacks - no more Just For Men in the locker room and the menus now look like they were run off on a cheap copy machine - but you probably won't notice them unless you're dying to have shrimp cocktail every night at dinner (this is the one that seems to get the most attention). I had a wonderful time...once I got on the ship, yes...and I'd take this trip again gladly. In fact, considering how close my family lives, I probably will.