I selected this specific cruise due to the holidays. Our Carnival Cruise on the Spirit left San Diego on 12/23/11 and returned on 1/1/12, with four ports of call - Ensenada, Cabo San Lucas (2 nights), Puerto Vallarta and Manzinillo.
I booked directly through Carnival and let Carnival handle everything from Airport to Airport.
Embarkation seemed to be a bit unorganized. As a first time cruiser (with VIP status due to our room), I did expect some extra handling as outlined by Carnival, but I also felt that was a very small thing to complain about so I let it go. However, we had no idea what to do after we boarded and there wasn't much information forthcoming. We had to wait about 2 hours before we could get into our room and our luggage didn't arrive until after we had left port (which was late leaving for some reason I think possibly a late plane coming in. However there was plenty of food to eat and free drinks. Knowing beforehand this would occur (and thinking logically about it I should have realized that moving all that luggage onto the ship and into the rooms would take a while), we would have packed a little differently and had a carry on with us so we could freshen up. This is a very very slight complaint as I said.
That said, our room was fabulous. We had stateroom 5295, a vista suite, with a huge balcony. The joke that they make up your bed when you go to the bathroom was almost true...lol. We will actually go with a smaller stateroom (with a balcony of course) next time as this was really too much room for us. Our room steward was great and very very helpful to us first time cruisers.
We completely enjoyed the food, both in the dining room and of course all of the buffets. I will say that the buffet breakfast was better then the dining room breakfast and the regular coffee everywhere was very very weak. However the decaf was a nice strong, rich coffee. Go figure. The coffee from the two coffee bars (cost extra) was really good and cheaper than Starbucks coffee. We had coffee and croissants delivered every morning so that we could sit on our balcony and watch the sun come up. Perfect mornings.
We ate at the steak house on Christmas (also a formal night). The dinner was worth far more than the $30 per person. It was literally the best steak we have ever had and other patrons were saying the same thing. The entire dinner took around 2 hours. The only thing about it was the portion sizes. They are HUGE..It was a bit of overkill. If you like smaller portions get the Surf and Turf. 7oz filet mignon and 7 oz lobster tail. Perfectly cooked. My husbands 12 oz filet was also perfectly cooked rare, which is hard to find.
Entertainment - what can I say about this? The main shows were awesome. The last show of the cruise - The Big Easy - was spectacular. It was the kind of show you would see in Vegas - flash, glitter, pyrotechnics, lifts, tons of costume changes - and all done with 4 main singers, 12 back up dancer/singers and an 8 piece band. We went to 4 of the comedy shows (adult versions) and laughed ourselves silly. The same comedians also did an early family show each night.
I gambled a little in the casino but didn't are for the cigarette smoke and of course it isn't the best place to waste your money anyway.
I did check out the gym and what a fabulous place - Had every intention to work out but..well you know how it is. I also didn't use the salon.
Our shore excursions were an adventure onto themselves. We had two canceled but it was easy to replace them with something else. In Cabo we did the Dolphin Swim on day and took a glass bottom boat for a tour the second day. The Dolphin Swim was worth every penny but the picture packages cost as much as the excursion. We bought them anyway of course. The only downside to Cabo was the gauntlet of vendors you have to deal with. Annoying.
In Ensenada we took a wine country tour. Cost was reasonable and it was a lot of fun. Had a lot of wine samples...lol..But we did miss the pack of kids in town selling chicklets to the tourists...I thought that was a joke but it isn't.
Puerto Vallarta was beautiful and by far our favorite port. We had a 7 hour Extreme Canopy Excursion so didn't see any of the town per se. This was by far the highlight of our trip.
We didn't have anything planned for Manzinillo except some shopping. We didn't care for this port much and that could simply be due to American sensibilities. I thought it would be an interesting adventure to stay there at a local hotel for a few days but my husband didn't think so..
Our last two days were at sea. The Ship seemed to be riding rough (engine noise, lots of tossing) but the seas appeared fairly smooth. They also seemed to be in an incredible hurry and were never steaming much under 20 knots. One of our dinner companions noted generally they slow down during the dinner hour. The only thing we could thing was that they wanted to get back into US waters for the New Year's party our last night at sea.
We managed to at least once do every activity offered on board. The cruise director, Stu Dunn (and when does that man sleep?) has a horse race which was great fun. If you are on the Spirit and he is putting this on, don't miss it. Bring some cash so you can place your bets.
We met lots of great people (and some that only wanted to complain about everything)and we had a fabulous time. Our few 'complaints', in my opinion, were due to not knowing how something worked. We know now and will be prepared for our next cruise. The biggest complain by husband had was on the last two days at sea. They seemed to be draining and cleaning the pools and hot tubs excessively. Several times many of them weren't available at the same time. He enjoyed the hot tubs. I only used them twice and never even set a toe in a pool. There were plenty of available deck chairs always.
This cruise was completely booked and I heard there were 600 kids on board. You would have never known it. Carnival certainly keeps the kids busy busy busy and contained. Which I really liked.
Debarkation went off without a hitch. We had an early flight and VIP status so we were off the ship and through customs fairly early. Too early actually. I didn't really look at our return flight and didn't realize until the night before we were leaving out of Long Beach instead of LAX. Next time I will double check that. Long Beach is a small regional airport. We had to wait three hours before we could even check our luggage with Alaska Air and their 'waiting' area is practically non existant.. Carnival booking should have booked us, and all the other people waiting with us, through LAX. If you are flying Jet Blue you are in luck as that is their main airline.
All in all, we had the best vacation we have ever had. For the money we spent, I feel we got every pennies worth. Next time, we won't spend near the money we spent on onboard pictures and in the shops. My husband doesn't drink and I only had the special everyday so our onboard ship and sail account was only $860.00. About a 1/4 of that was pics, 1/4 was internet usage (won't do that on the next cruise), 1/4 in the ships and the rest was coffee, mini bar usage and my drinks and some gambling. I came in below my budget without really trying.
And I swear, at every single port of call, we had to wait on people who didn't show up on time. One time, we left and the harbor master brought them out to the boat...Kinda funny, but come on people. Be on time. Our room steward said that normally they will just leave but our ports of call were so close together, they had time to wait for a while. It was kind of funny but by the last port of call, it wasn't. We all booed them as they got on.
I am in the process of booking another cruise for 2012. Just can't decide where I want to go. I want to be one of those 30 or 40 cruise people we met.
Last word - Carnival if you read this, listen up - The safety drills, as done, are a waste of time. We couldn't hear a thing or see the demonstration. There are better ways to handle this. Instead of shouting the instructions through the intercom, nne of the crew members should use a bull horn for their station. AND more than one person needs to be on a ladder or platform doing the demonstrations. We couldn't see a thing. Break up the crowd at each station.
We had a great time and would definitely recommend Carnival and the Spirit in particular.