"Ensenada is tomorrow?" my mother had asked. "Why? I thought we'd have a day between places!"
"Revenue, I'm sure," I responded. "Think about it. If tomorrow was the 'Fun Day at Sea,' people would be saving their money for the last day ashore and the last day of vacation. This way, people will be spending whatever they have left on the ship, maximizing their experience, making it last."
"But I'm tired," she said.
When Jesse told me that he and grandma were going to a resort to lie on the beach, he made it sound like he had it all planned. They were both terribly disappointed when I told them that the Ensenada port was in the middle of town; the closest resort with a beach was at least a half an hour's drive away, possibly more, depending on traffic.
I assumed that the matter was closed until Jesse asked our fabulous server at dinner, a Slovakian woman whose name, like mine, is Jana. "Oh no," she told him, "The port is in the town, the nearest resort is at least half an hour away by cab, maybe more, depending on the traffic."
The opinion of two Janas didn't seem sufficient, so he also asked Iva, our assistant server. "Oh yes, there is a lovely resort!" she said, and Jesse brightened immediately. "It's about half an hour out of town by cab, but sometimes it takes longer if there's a lot of traffic."
The matter seemed closed until this morning, when Jesse said at breakfast, "Grandma and I are going to the beach."
"You are? Where?" I asked.
"Up on the aft deck," he told me. "We're taking our towels, our books, our sunscreen and sunglasses, and we're going to pretend we're at the beach."
And so it was, that our day in Ensenada turned into a restful day aboard Paradise.
Ensenada is actually an interesting and exotic port stop for these short cruises, with a large number of shore excursions, great dining, shopping and some notable "cantinas" for the unleashing of one's wilder side. The first large industrial port below the California border, it's an active, working city, and one of Mexico's most important fishing ports. Nestled in All Saints Bay, the city enjoys year-round nice weather, is surrounded by mountainous terrain, and has adapted maybe a little too well to the influx of cruise ship tourists. These days it's harder to find bargains on the main shopping street, Lopez Mateos ... real bargain-hunting requires a foray into the side streets or into grocery stores. A new Costco has just opened near the edge of town, which is an indication of how well the city is doing financially.
Shore excursions run the gamut from a long day at the Fox Studios near Rosarita Beach, north of Ensenada, to a visit to La Bufadora, a natural blow-hole geyser along the cliffs south of the city, to a pastoral horseback ride along the beach. Ensenada is also notable for its wine-making industry; 90 percent of Mexico's wine production takes place here, and several winery tours and tastings are available.
I had planned on a lobster lunch (a Baja California specialty) and a stop at Papas and Beer, a rowdy, raucous watering hole that's an Ensenada original -- as is Hussong's Cantina, which has been around for over 100 years. Anyone who has visited Carlos and Charlie's or Senor Frog will "get it" immediately; the conga lines, loud drinking games, over-the-top servers and music are similar. Papas and Beer isn't part of a chain, though, and on Wednesdays and Saturdays, when the cruise ships descend on Ensenada, the party heats up (no one is driving, after all). Picture a huge land-based deck party and you'll get an idea of the atmosphere. My mom had missed our stop in Cancun's Senor Frog several years before, where almost all of the other family members, including the old folk, had a blast. I was sure she'd enjoy watching the action here, too. And, Carnival's stop lasts well into the evening; departure is at 10 p.m., which gives one a lot of time to party.
Yesterday's activity and fresh sea air had taken its toll, though, so she and Jesse chose their aft-deck "beach day" over anything more strenuous. One of the nicest things about a cruise vacation -- even a shorter one like ours -- is that the time is your own to enjoy. We hadn't prepaid for a shore excursion (hadn't planned on one) so changing direction at the last minute was not only fine, it presented a benefit to me, too. Spa treatments are less expensive on shore days, so I decided to take advantage of one of the specials in the newly-refurbished Nautica Spa onboard Paradise.
I had looked forward to the inside whirlpools in Paradise's spa, but during the refurb, that section was removed to create space for more treatment rooms and to upgrade the steam and sauna areas. Unlike some ship's spas which have gone the way of dark furnishings and fabrics, the Nautica on Paradise remains light and cheerful and organic-looking, with embedded river rock in the floor and metallic fountains on the wall. Most of my time was spent in the salon, where instead of my usual Frangipani treatment (the best value on a sea day, about $26 for a scalp and neck massage), I opted for a pedicure.
This was the first time I have been seated in a real pedicure chair on a ship rather than soaking my tootsies in a basin of water on the floor. A pedicure chair is a contraption that has a foot-soaking sink built into it, and a massage and heat chair for the rest of you. There have been some reports about bacteria building up in the drains of these contraptions, causing inflammation and infection, but my therapist showed me the solution that the sinks are soaked in each night and cleaned with after every guest, so I felt comfortable.
Across from me, at one of the salon stations, a woman was getting a scalp-neck-and-shoulder massage that had me yearning for my Frangipani. But this was different, a "Traveler's Tension" treatment, and it looked positively fabulous. I determined to come back for one later in the day, but ended up not finding the time for it.
Time. Here we were on the third day of our four day cruise, and I was reflecting on what we hadn't done, and the fact that we'd have no time to do everything available. We hadn't gone to all of the shows, we hadn't played Bingo, and we hadn't gone to an art auction. We missed the pool games and hairy-chest contest. We missed the first deck party. We hadn't been to the America Bar (the piano bar), with fun sing-alongs, to the Rex Disco (except for Jesse's attempt to find nightlife on day one) or to the Leonardo Lounge. And Jesse and I had not played miniature golf onboard either, which was one of our plans.
None of us were first-time cruisers; I'm a cruise journalist so of course I'm at sea a lot. Jesse had been along on my parents' 50th anniversary cruise, so this was his second, and it was my mom's seventh. As I contemplated all of the activities that we hadn't attended, I thought back to my very first cruise, a three-nighter from Miami to Nassau, in February, 1995. My daughter and I had tried everything -- everything we could possibly try. We watched first-run movies in our cabin and saw the production shows in the theatre. We went to the midnight buffets and to the comedy shows. We played trivia and Bingo and checked out each entertainment offering. We tried the Drink of the Day every day, had our portraits taken at each station, dressed up for formal night and went to the Captain's Cocktail Party. In fact, we did almost everything on our second cruise, too, which was a seven-nighter; while I learned how to make boxes out of old menus and actually mastered the Macarena, my daughter took classes in the gym.
But as I thought about it, I realized that what we were choosing to do on this trip was exactly what we should be doing. Whether we did nothing but chat together over pina coladas at the pool bar or bounce around on a Zodiac's bench looking for dolphins, whether Jesse and my mother chose to pretend they were at a beach instead of exploring Ensenada, or we all decided to take naps in the middle of the day, we were making our cruise vacation exactly what we wanted it to be. And that's the whole point, isn't it?
So after my pedicure, with toenails in what my daughter calls "Hootchie-Mama Red," I went to my cabin to pick up my book. My room steward was making my bed, and we chatted for a few minutes. I told him that this was my mother's first Carnival cruise and so her first exposure to Carnival's captivating towel animals. Luckily the steward for my mom and Jesse -- not the same as mine -- had about as much time with Carnival as my guy did, about 12 years, and so was proficient at the twisting, folding and positioning of the cloth menagerie. Anyone who has tried to make just one simple animal knows how hard it is, and how much practice it takes to make them look right.
"We used to use guests' clothing, too," Elagno told me. "We'd put sunglasses on our creations and maybe a book or magazine in their 'hands.' Kids just loved it when we used their pajamas to make the animals. But then someone complained, just one person, and now we can't do it any more."
"Not even the sunglasses?" I was astonished, because I remembered that from my first Carnival cruise in June, 2000, and how delighted it made my daughter and me to see her sunglasses put to such creative use.
"No, nothing," he told me. "We are not allowed to rearrange any guest items at all. We can move them for cleaning, but that's it."
What a shame. Another tradition down the tubes because of someone's anal adoration of property. He or she probably threatened a lawsuit or demanded a free cruise, and I suppose Carnival's legal team chose the safest path.
Jesse's finally going to get his sushi tonight. He couldn't find it on our first night, and it was not available on yesterday's formal night. It didn't take me long to figure out why ... Californians love their sushi. When I was on Paradise nearly two years ago, the line extended from the front of the Promenade (where the stand is located) to almost the very back at the Rotterdam Bar. On formal night, portrait stations are set up all along the Promenade, and the sushi line would interfere. It was available on formal night when I was on Fantasy a couple of months earlier, so I think it's just a California thing.
In the meantime, though, I grabbed my book and big towel, and took my bright red toenails out to the aft deck "beach" to find Jesse and my mother as they enjoyed the ship's day in Ensenada.