We just returned from sailing the Mexican Riviera on the Splendor out of Long Beach, California. After sailing various Caribbean itineraries, we had wanted to sail the Mexican route for quite some time. I attended a conference Jan 4 thru 6 in San Diego, so the timing worked out well to follow-up with a cruise vacation.
With the majority of the cruise Lines having either pulled out of the market or reduced service to this area, the sailing options out of Southern California were limited. Finally settling on the Carnival Splendor Jan 8th thru 15th. We had sailed with Carnival a number of years ago and more recent cruises have been with Princess. We would have booked with Princess again, if they had been offering this itinerary.
Given our experience with both lines and recent comments on various cruise boards, we didn't go into this cruise with any grand expectations. In this respect Carnival didn't disappoint, as the cruise experience was very general and I would say average.
In some cases throughout this review, I'll compare the 2 brands I am familiar with (Carnival & Princess).
As mentioned I was in San Diego, actually Carlsbad. My wife flew into LAX and I caught the Amtrak Pacific Surf Liner train to Los Angeles to meet her on Friday January 6th. This was actually a highlight of the trip, as I hadn't taken a passenger train in years. It was great to ride along the coast and watch the surf crash on the shore. I caught the train in Oceanside and was in Los Angeles in less than 2 hours, cost $27.
I had pre-booked a rental car to be picked up at LAX. A quick tip on car rentals, I normally rent thru Enterprise, but when I checked the rate it was around $200, which I thought sounded a little high. I checked Budget (my 2nd choice) and they were around $250. I've never used Priceline.com, but gave it a shot and got a rental through AVIS for under a $100. This included dropping the car off at the Long Beach Airport (an additional charge).
After an hour of people watching outside Union Station (very interesting) my wife arrived to pick me up and we headed to Long Beach. We weren't sure where we would end up that night, so we had not booked a room and thought we would just grab something in the Port Area. I had heard some good things about the Maya on CruiseCritic.com. So decided to give it a try. Their online rates and Priceline.com (yes I'm hooked) were the same, so I called the hotel and asked if they offer the Carnival rate mentioned on this board. They did and it was $30 off the advertised rates, so an Ocean View room was $139 plus $17 for parking. The room was nice and had a great view of The Queen Mary and the Carnival Cruise Port. The Inspiration was docked and sailed that night.
Took a drive into Long Beach to pickup supplies for the cruise. We walked along the bay and had dinner at Parker's Lighthouse, which was very good. Then hit the hot tub at the Maya and the pillow after a long day.
The next morning we had breakfast at Fuego at the Maya. They have a buffet @ $19.00 per person or you can order off the menu. Had a quick look at the menu and the price of most items once you added coffee or beverage was equivalent to the buffet cost, so we figured we might as well get our stomachs accustomed to eating big for the next 7 days and opted for the buffet. They buffet offered a good variety of both hot and cold foods.
We had reservations to stay Saturday night on the Queen Mary. We checked out of the Maya around 10:00 am and called the Queen Mary to see if we could get an early check in. Our room was ready so we drove the Â½ mile or so to the Queen Mary and checked in. We had pre-booked the "Queen Mary Highlights Tour" and it was leaving at around 11:00. This tour was very informative. The guide was a Sea Captain who had retired after 20 years with Princess Cruises. He knew the ship inside and out and gave an excellent tour. The 1-hour tour stretched to about 1:15 as he a said, "I like to give a tour, the way I like to take a tour." It was very interesting to hear the history of this great ocean liner; especially it's conversion to a troop carrier during World War II.
As far as the Queen Mary as a hotel goes, I had read many questionable reviews online. Although it's old, we found it to be very clean and it was interesting to experience the 70-year-old ship in contrast to the modern cruise ship we would soon board.
In the afternoon we took a drive down the coast, checking out some of the sites. Then returned our rental car to the Long Beach Airport, catching a cab back to the Queen Mary. The cabs offer a flat rate of $30.00.
There are a number of dining options on board the Queen Mary, from high end to coffee shop. We opted for the Lounge and some finger food. The place was packed and a Jazz band started playing at 9:00. Although not a Jazz music fan, it was great. It was interesting to see the number of people in attendance wearing period costumes.
All in all I would definitely recommend planning to spend a night on the Queen Mary if you're sailing out of Long Beach. We had a porthole room looking out on the port. The cost was $139. The tour was $8.00 per person.
The next morning, the front desk staff, recommend taking our luggage to the cruise terminal around 9:30 and checking in. We did this and were given a "Zone 2 Card" and told to come back around 11:30. We toured the Queen Mary some more and walked back to the cruise terminal about 11:30. Embarkation was fast and we were on board by 12:00. I guess this would be a draw, as we've never really had any embarkation issues with either cruise line. From what I see, most issues are caused when passengers don't listen to instructions or don't read their documentation. Or simply try to skirt the rules. When that many passengers need to be moved on and off in a short time span, there can be no exceptions.
First Impression of Ship
Well!!!!! If you like pink, this is the ship for you. I can only believe the designer was on some type of hallucinogen and by the color, Pepto Bismal, also must have been involved. It does kind of grow on you and by the 4th or 5th day I could walk thru the main atrium without becoming nauseous.
This would be an obvious win for Princess as we like the classy clean look of their ships. I've heard Carnival ships compared to "Vegas". We met some nice people from Vegas onboard and they were even overwhelmed by the ship's dÃ©cor.
We had our first exposure to customer servicer as soon as we boarded. #1 we wanted holes punched in our S&S Cards for our lanyards and #2 to buy transfers back to LAX for Debarkation day. I had tried to buy these over the phone, but was told to do it on the ship. There wasn't much of a lineup at customer service, so we decided to take care of this right away. The customer service agent that assisted us was excellent and quickly took care of these tasks. We had a couple of other minor questions throughout the week and each time they were very efficient.
We've had some frustrating experiences with Princess onboard customer service staff. So we'll give the win to Carnival in this category.
Throughout the week, we tried most of the food outlets on board. We ate in the Dining room most nights, the food quality and selections were adequate. We had open seating and it never took more than 10 minutes to get seated. It was nice to be able to review the evenings menu on the in cabin interactive TV system so there were no surprises. We tried most of the casual dining options with the exception of the Sushi Bar; it's open very limited hours and alternates between Sushi and Tapas. The one evening we did try to catch it, Tapas was being served to we passed. Also didn't try the Barito Bar or the grill, just never got there. The pizza, Stir-fry station and Rotisserie were all good. The Lido buffet offered a good variety for Breakfast & Lunch. On the 2nd Elegant night, we ate in the Steak House, which was excellent. The coffee bar made great Lattes.
Food quality is definitely a step up on Princess and this we fully expected. The number of casual dining outlets on Carnival was greater, but again at a lower quality.
We had 433, a balcony cabin on Deck 6. This was a great location, with easy access to the locations we frequented most often; the Lido Buffet and Adult only Sun/Pool area at the rear of deck 9.
The cabin was spacious with lots of storage. The bathroom and shower were very functional and bright, with lots of shelves. The bed was brutal. With the 2 mattresses pushed together, one was at least Â½ an inch higher than the other one. The Steward put a topper on the 2nd day and it was somewhat better. The bed in the Queen Mary was more comfortable.
The safe on the Splendor was much smaller. On our last cruise on the Emerald Princess we took my 15" laptop and it easily fit in the safe. On this trip we took our iPads, which barely fit in the Splendor safe.
I've never heard if Carnival Corp. requires different quality standards for the construction of their ships for their different lines, but I definitely noticed some differences between the Splendor and the recent Princess ships we've sailed. Our cabin on the Splendor had many creeks and groans, which I felt was strange for a relatively new ship. We also noticed significantly more noise from outside the cabin, both from hallway traffic and the neighboring balconies than we've experienced on Princess Ships. Looking forward to comments on this.
We also preferred the sliding balcony door on Princess. Less banging and easier to keep open an inch to enjoy some fresh air. Yes, Yes I know I'm not supposed to do that.
Princess definitely wins the cabin showdown. With the following exceptions, more storage in the Splendor Cabin and I would call the bathrooms a draw.
Stewards on both have been excellent.
No contest here, Princess wins hands down. Fresh water, heated pools and hot tubs that are actually hot versus cold, salt water and luke warm hot tubs. Enough said.
The removable cover on the Splendor pool deck is a nice feature. It was closed on the last sea day.
It never seemed to be a problem getting a deck chair. This may have been an issue if it had been warmer.
Mexican ports are Mexican ports. No comparison here, as we've never sailed this itinerary before. The general consensus from most guests I spoke with was that they would have preferred 2 days in Puerto Vallarta and only one in Cabo San Lucas. I would have to agree. It would be nice if Mazatlan or another 3rd port choice could be added to this itinerary.
Tendering process in Cabo is very efficient. Best I've ever seen.
Day 1 in Cabo, we caught a water Taxi to Medano Beach where we spent some time at the Mango Deck. Good food, cold cerveza, entertaining floorshow, but definitely not for youngsters.
Day 2 we did a Whale Watching / Snorkel tour. It was fun and we did get to see some whales.
Puerto Vallarta -- We were going to take a taxi to Yalappa, but got cornered by one of the local tour vendors who convinced us into taking a tour to one of the other local beaches Las Animas Bay and the driver would also take us downtown for shopping. We did have an excellent driver in Puerto Vallarta. His name was Barbosa and his direct line is 332-116-0978.
The Cruise Director (Todd) and his Assistant (Brian) did a good job of keeping the guests informed of the daily events. We caught all the production shows and enjoyed them all. Especially VROOM. The entertainers; singers, dancers & musicians all work hard. We caught one of the comedy shows and it was your typical cruise ship comedian. They switched comedians half way thru the week. Although we didn't see the second set of comedians, we heard they weren't very good. There was a comedy juggling show that I enjoyed, but my wife thought it was kind of corny. The Juggler performed in the main theatre, which gave him a lot more ceiling height to work with. The juggler on our last Princess cruise performed in one of the performance venues with a low ceiling and this definitely had an impact on his show.
It seemed that the performing cast on the Splendor was not as large as on our Princess cruises. I'm sure that there 2 male & 2 female singers on Princess and only 1 of each on the Splendor. Just meant they worked twice as hard.
I would say the shows on Princess were a notch better, but I liked the layout of the theatre on the Splendor better.
We were docked at Long Beach by around 5:30, a little earlier than expected. We chose to do self-debarkation and we were told we could start leaving the ship shortly after 7:00 am. The non-US resident lines were very short and we breezed through quickly. We caught the first bus and we were at LAX by about 8:30. Unfortunately the airline staff didn't start until 9:00 so we had to wait to check-in for our 12:55 flight.
One of the biggest negatives I see about cruising with Carnival, is the entire week is one huge infomercial or sales pitch. You're constantly badgered to buy, buy, buy and then buy some more. The bar servers are constantly in your face to buy drinks. The photographers take pictures every night. We even had someone trying to sell us Carnival insulated cups one night in the Dining Room. I understand if the cabin price is driven down so low they need to earn revenue from other sources, but there's got to be a limit.
A definite negative of this ship is in order to get from the atrium to the promenade you need to go thru the Casino. I don't have a problem with gambling, but I hate the smell of smoke that comes from the Casino.
As I said, we didn't book this cruise with any great expectations for either the cruise experience offered by Carnival or the ports and our expectations definitely weren't exceeded. Were they met? For the most part, yes. That being said, would we cruise with Carnival again? probably. Would it be our first choice? probably not.
In my opinion Carnival offers a product, which is right in line with the expectations and budgets of a certain demographic of cruiser. This was obvious by the number of first time cruisers on board this ship. I'm sure a large number of repeat cruisers get their introduction to cruise vacations on a Carnival Cruise. There also seemed to be lots of large families and groups. It's smart business for Carnival Corp. to differentiate their brands and capitalize on more of the available market. So it makes business sense for there to be distinct differences between; Carnival, Princes, HAL etc.
Would I cruise this Itinerary again, NO! After cruising a number of times in the Caribbean, this Itinerary isn't even in the same class. For many reasons including ports and temperature. A huge number of passengers on this cruise, drove to the port. So it's important to maintain the west coast market to cater to that drive to the port demographic. It's just unfortunate there aren't more ports worth visiting within reasonable sailing distance of the California ports. Hopefully the conditions in Mazatlan improve.
One other note, about 5:00 PM on Saturday the captain made an announcement regarding the Costa Accident and asked the passengers and staff to observe a moment of silence. The captain sounded visibly shaken. Sometimes I think cruisers take safety drills for granted. Hopefully this will open a few eyes about the importance of safety and drills.
I hope this review is helpful in planning your upcoming cruises. I would be happy to answer any questions.