This is a review of the Carnival Ecstasy, sailing from Long Beach, California on 12/15/03, calling at Catalina Island on 12/16/03 and in Ensenada, Mexico on 12/17/03. This was a four-day cruise that returned on Friday morning 12/19/03.
The short version: Those of you who would avoid the Ecstasy at all costs probably won't change your mind by reading the paragraphs to follow. This is a worn-out ship. Service -- save for some rough spots in the Panorama Grill on Wednesday -- was flawless. Most of the problems involved the sub par behavior of my fellow passengers, but ship's security rapidly addressed all of the incidents I witnessed before they spiraled out of control. I don't think it's the ship so much as the itinerary and pricing that are the problem here. That combination seems to attract a large number of people who just don't know how to behave anywhere in public, least of all a cruise. Carnival could put its newest and best supercruiser n this line and some people would still consider it the cruise from hell.
Did I have a good time? Most certainly, but bear in mind that I had sailed the M/S Ecstasy once before, in January of this year. I knew what to expect before I stepped on board.
Back in September, my boss told me that if I wanted to make sure I got the vacation time I wanted for Christmas I better submit the vacation request form to him by the end of that week.
My first choice was to take a train trip up to Seattle and then across the top of the nation to Chicago. Appealing -- I do love trains -- except that I've done that trip four times in the last four years. Also, Amtrak is having some financial difficulties and I had visions of a sudden work shutdown leaving me stranded in the middle of nowhere.
Second choice was a trip to Hawaii. Do you know how expensive a trip to Hawaii is during the month of December? I do now and it's too much for my budget to bear.
Finally, a cruise! But where? I investigated a few dozen itineraries but finally grew sick of all the searching and opted for familiarity. Last January my employer flew us to Los Angeles for the three-day weekend cruise to Ensenda on board Carnival's Ecstasy. After some very brief shopping, I decided to book directly with Carnival for the four-day version of that cruise, which stops at Catalina Island before heading down to Mexico.
I booked what Carnival calls a "Category 1A" stateroom, the most affordable fare on the ship. With taxes and other charges totaling $367. That's 91.75 per day for four days of accommodations, food, entertainment, and two great destinations. How could I resist a deal like that?
Flying is not one of my favorite modes of transportation and I try to avoid it as much as possible, especially if I'm travelling within California. I took Amtrak's San Joaquin train from Oakland to Long Beach, with the finally 2 hours of the trip (Bakersfield - Long Beach) handled by bus due to the need to climb 4,000 feet to cross the Tehachapis into the Los Angeles area.
After a short cab ride from the Long Beach stop, I was deposited in front of The Inn of Long Beach, a one-and-one-quarter star "motor hotel" that looks like it was built in the early 1960s. The rooms are clean and comfortable, the decor best described as "mid-90s Howard Johnson generic". In other words, your standard-issue unspectacular hotel room. All the same, I think I'll go through Priceline for something a little nicer for my next cruise.
I checked out of the hotel around 11:00AM on Monday 12/15 and took a taxi to the cruise terminal. When I was last on Ecstasy she berthed at the San Pedro cruise terminal. Since then, Carnival has opened up its own terminal in Long Beach, next to the Queen Mary. The building Carnival is using is the huge dome that once housed the Spruce Goose (it now resides somewhere in Oregon, I believe).
Registration begins at 1:00PM in the dome for people who don't know any better. For those that do know better, Carnival offers an early registration service. Hand off your bags to the porters in the parking garage (if you want to see your bags arrive on the ship in decent shape, I would suggest a decent tip), follow the signs to the Queen Mary, walk up the passageway and onto the ship, hang a left, and you can avail yourself of early registration. The caveat: You have to make it to the pier by noon. Don't worry about getting lost, a small army of Carnival employees wearing blue jackets are on hand to point you in the right direction.
Starting with embarkation of my cruise today, the Department of Homeland Security requires cruise lines to collect certain bits of information from passengers prior to those passengers boarding the ship. The easiest way to supply this information is to complete your FunPass via Carnival's Web site once you have your tickets. You'll be asked to supply information including your address, passport number, and post-cruise travel itinerary. The form also asks for your Social Security Number; as of this writing that particular bit of personal data is optional and I chose not to furnish it, there were no problems.
Carnival advertised the online registration as an option that would speed up the check-in process. Let me preface my next remarks by reminding you that I used the early check-in service and that this was the very first day for Carnival to implement the FunPass policy/feature. Having said that, I didn't see much advantage to completing the online FunPass. The "express line" for FunPass registration was as long as the regular line for non-FunPass passengers, the same agents were handling passengers from both lines, and the herder at the front of the line was filling up the desk slots with the other line first.
What didn't help matters was a family of 20 standing at the counter that seemed to have every special need imaginable, had to argue with the agent and her supervisor over the need for the Sign & Sail Card, hassle them about stateroom assignments, and ask about a million other questions. I don't fault Carnival for this, these people seemed to be taking a certain delight in being totally unreasonable. I thought the desk staff remained thoroughly professional and diplomatic throughout the ordeal, I know I probably would have reached over the counter and throttled a couple of the SOBs if I had been on the receiving end of that kind of treatment.
Travel tip: If you are traveling as part of a group, it is a very good idea to let Carnival know at the time of booking if you would like all of your staterooms in a single deck/area. As the group mentioned in the last paragraph discovered, the cruise line will reduce your options to "get over it and sail with current stateroom assignments" or "don't get over it and don't sail" if you wait until embarkation.
After registering I took a couple of pictures on the Queen Mary's gangway. I guess I slipped into tourist mode right on schedule, as I was almost completely oblivious to the fact that I was taking pictures and standing right in the way of one of the QM's photographers! I apologized profusely, and he was saying "it's okay, it's okay" but I made sure that he watched me as I deleted the pictures I had taken of his copyrighted mural from my digital camera. He seemed to really appreciate that consideration. Having apologized and made amends, I fled the scene red-faced with embarrassment.
About five minutes after noon, I headed over to the dome and one of the herders pointed me in the direction of the doorway for early check-in passengers. I presented my boarding pass and passport to the door guard and was waved into security checkpoint (same as going to gates at the airport). Five minutes later, I was through the X-ray and standing in another line, this time for the first of many pictures to be snapped by the ship's photographer. Moving past the first photo opportunity, up the escalators and toward the gangway, choose of one of three lines in front of squat wooden podiums. You hand over your Sign & Sail card, which is inserted into the podium, stand as indicated on a red-and-black plastic mat and stare down at the podium. BING! The second picture of the cruise has been snapped. Any time you get on or off the ship, you insert the card and that picture pops up on a computer screen.
Walking over the very loooooong gangway from the dome to the Ecstasy, I couldn't help but think of the tragic accident on the Queen Mary 2 a few weeks ago, where the gangway collapsed, killing dozens of workers in the shipyard. I may be big, I may be out of shape, but I'm pretty sure I set a new speed record for crossing that thing today.
I tried to charge up my Sign and Sail card at the information desk, but the purser I spoke with said their computers were down and to try again after the muster drill. Dash it all, no Fun Ship Special Foofy Umbrella Drink for me yet! I headed up to the Lido deck and comforted myself with a cheeseburger and some lemonade. I was able to activate my card after the lifeboat drill.
The Ecstasy is one of Carnival's older Fantasy class cruisers, the information folder in my cabin notes a delivery date of April 1991. Although she was refurbished in the late 1990s, in 2003 she is starting to show her age. The crew keep her spic and span, but there's no way that they can hide some of the wear and tear. Carpets (so far) don't have the dirty stains that others have written about, though I noticed several spots on the Main deck where that carpet was threadbare. In the Panorama Grill on the Lido deck, the blue-and-chrome striping along the walls show scrapes and scratch marks up to four or five inches long in some areas.
This is the last year for Ecstasy to sail the West Coast route, this fall she will be repositioned for short-term cruises out of Galveston and the Paradise will take her place. I sincerely hope she gets an overhaul before heading off for Texas, otherwise Carnival will deserve every ounce of negative press it gets for dumping this worn-out tub on that port.
I've read many comments about the Carnival Drink of the Day being heavy on the juice and light on the alcohol. That was not my experience last night. I sucked down five (and in those tall glasses each drink is really a double) Fun Ship Specials between 7PM and 11PM and I was feeling no pain by the time I staggered back to my cabin. Either Carnival has amped up the booze content network-wide, or I was under the ministrations of a Panorama Grill bartender that knew how to mix a lethal drink. As a result, my timing is a little... fuzzy... regarding certain events last night.
My station for the muster drill was Station C, in the Chinatown bar on the Promenade deck. Not looking forward to climbing so many flights of stairs (I'm on the Main deck), I grabbed my lifejacket about fifteen minutes before the start of the drill and caught an elevator to my destination. When the elevator door opened, eight other people clutching lifejackets stared back at me. Heh.
On my last cruise in January, I don't remember the drill as taking more than 15 minutes from start to finish. This crowd was a little more animated, however, and didn't seem to grasp the concept of paying attention, to the point where one of the green-hatted crew members actually pointed at a group of people and snapped into the microphone "I NEED YOU TO SIT DOWN AND BE QUIET **NOW**!" This happened after about five somewhat more polite attempts to get them settled and quiet, so it wasn't as if they didn't have fair warning. They were also the last group of people to enter the bar and they didn't look happy about it, I'm guessing that other crew had to flush them out of their cabins. Time from start to finish was 40 minutes.
We were late in leaving Long Beach due to a computer problem in the passenger terminal, we were scheduled to depart at 5:30PM, actual time was about 7:15PM. I remember it was not long after I made my Lido deck debut because the clock on my cell phone said 7:00PM right when I stepped off the elevator. Many of the people at the bar were concerned that we would be late in arriving at Catalina. The bartender assured them that this would probably not be the case, as the island is only 25 or so miles from Long Beach.
Food and service in the Wind Song dining room were both flawless, no complaints. That's it for my dining room experience and review. You see, my only other cruising experiences have been corporate events where dinner was a mandatory social function. Though food and service has always been top rate, there's something about enduring multiple dinner seatings with fellow employees you don't know, don't work directly with, and (in one case) don't particularly care for that has really put me off the dining room for now.
I awoke Tuesday morning around six, remarkably clear-headed given last night's alcohol intake. Showered and shaved, headed up to the Lido deck for breakfast. Ate a made-to-order ham and mushroom omelet, hash brown pucks, and croissant at an outside table, watching Avalon slide into focus.
And now, a short break for a public service announcement: People, please don't feed the seagulls. Please, please, please don't feed the seagulls. I'm sure that the mother who let her toddler toss pizza crust to the birds thought it was a cute scene, the way they would swoop down to catch the food in midair, the way they barked and begged for more. I don't think she thought it was very cute when her little boy ran out of crusts and four screaming gulls cornered him to demand more. If you feed them, you attract more of them, they become aggressive, and the outer decks become not so pleasant for a while. Don't feed the seagulls!
Now, for my own peeve: Where's the bacon? There was no bacon to be found at any of the buffet stations. They had ham, they had sausage, but no bacon. I recall reading that other ships now have someone doling out strips of the bacon, but there wasn't even that service. Is this yet another cost-cutting measure? That's cheap, Carnival, real cheap.
So I don't go ashore, I don't do dinner seatings, so what, exactly, does someone like me do on a cruise? In a word (well, two words): Chill out. Back in the real world, I work for a mid-size mortgage company. Beyond the paperwork, beyond navigating all the state and federal lending laws, beyond understanding the underwriting guidelines, the number one key to success on the job is talking to people. That's what I do for a living.
Don't misunderstand me, I love my job. I love what I do. I give people the means to obtain the American dream, the biggest purchase they'll probably every make and at the end of the day I always feel good about what I've done. But this is my first real vacation in a long time and I want to enjoy the silence. I want interaction to be optional. I want to isolate in my cabin all day, order room service, and watch the silly Travelog video over and over again, and sleep whenever I want for as long as I want. And now you know how I spent most of yesterday as we were anchored off of Catalina.
After breakfast I came back to the room to update my cruise journal, then turned on the television for a bit and watched the cruise video mentioned in the previous paragraph. A suggestion to Carnival: Consider offering the Travelog in DVD format? I would have purchased it had that option been available.
After the cruise video I watched the tag end of Down With Love, one of my favorite films of 2003, then headed up on deck with the Mighty Mavica to take a few pictures. The camera is huge, has a "14x" zoom lens, can do still images or movies up to 60 seconds long, and always ends up as a conversation starter with any photography buffs that see it.
After wandering around decks for 90 minutes I ate lunch and then headed back to my cabin (for those of you who keep track of such things, I was in M149) and sat on the bed. I leaned back to rest for a moment before taking off my shoes, and then woke up about four hours later in that very uncomfortable position. A quick hot shower to untie the knots in my neck and back, and I was back on the Lido deck for dinner. Tonight, the buffet cooks were doing an Italian theme with chicken parmigiana, some sort of pasta in a spicy tomato/cheese sauce, and blackened zucchini. For buffet style eating, this was some seriously good grub. I then wandered through the Promenade deck to watch the various photography sessions taking place for formal night and made small talk with folks as I passed from bar to bar.
By the time I was getting bored it was midnight so I headed over to see the comedy act in the Blue Sapphire lounge.
The comedian on stage was Geechy Guy, and he had his moments but they were few and far between. To be honest, though, I was distracted by a table full of obnoxious drunks that were sitting near me. I guess others were bothered by them too, since a trio of security guards made a point of standing right behind them. The drunks meekly left about 10 minutes after security arrived.
Also what bothered me were the parents (and I use that term loosely) who persisted on bringing very young children into a show that was advertised as age-restricted to 18 and older. It was listed that way in the Carnival Capers and the announcer repeated it right before he introduced Geechy. I noted that the majority of those "parents" and their children exited the room at warp speed when he started doing the female anatomy jokes.
Breakfast this morning on the Lido deck: Second verse, same as the first. No bacon in sight. There are maintenance workers crawling all over the ship, painting, hammering, and so on.
Squeezed off two dozen nice shots of the ship and surrounding area, including one of a sea lion sunning himself on a buoy. If I didn't know any better, I would swear that the sea lion was striking a pose for all of the people taking pictures of him. Or her. Hard to tell at a distance, probably hard to tell even from up close unless you're a marine biologist. Even remembered that my camera could take short movies, so when I was back on board I did a panorama view of the skyline.
Also of note was the large Mexican Army patrol truck that moved slowly down the access road. As it turned back to head back to the main road, I noted the three young soldiers in the back with assault rifles slung over their shoulders. I obeyed my gut feeling and did not point the camera in their direction.
Some of my fellow passengers started partying early today. Assuming the ship made it to port on time, they were down the gangway no later than 8:30 and slamming down shots at Hussong's by 9 and I was off the ship around 12:30. Some of them were so inebriated that slotting the Sign & Sail card into the podium at the security checkpoint was impossible. I'm surprised that most of them could even find their Sign & Sail cards.
Just beyond the checkpoint was the alpha male of last night's table o'drunks, having an animated discussion with one of the security crew. I couldn't hear much but what I did hear could be summed up with "You will not be served any alcoholic drink for the remainder of this cruise and if you do not calm down you will be tossed in the brig and handed over to the authorities in Long Beach." Whoa.
Crew observations: I'm not familiar with how Carnival assigns crew to their ships, but I distinctly recall that the majority of the crew that I interacted with on my January voyage were Eastern European or from African nations. This time around, I'm noting a shift to staff from Western European countries, including Sweden, Norway, Finland, France, United Kingdom, Ireland, and even a few North American faces from Canada, Mexico, and the United States. Asia is represented by Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Thailand. As it was last time, the security crew appears to be almost 95% Indian. To me, it's all fascinating, to see so many faces and hear their accents and sometimes speaking their native languages. Such diversity is one of the reasons I really love living in the San Francisco Bay Area, too.
Regardless of their nationality, the one thing that all of them have in common is that they provide world class customer service. I have not witnessed a single employee that has provided anything less than 100% service, sometimes going above that, to help a passenger in need. Say what you will about the physical state of the M/S Ecstasy, she is blessed with an excellent crew and to me that does compensate for some of the wear and tear.
Dinner on Wednesday night... guess where? Yup, the Panorama Bar and Grill on the Lido deck! First I paid a visit to the salad bar, which had ingredients in dire need of restocking. Empty crouton containers, empty salad dressing containers, hardly any lettuce left. I decided to start with the hot food first: Rotisserie chicken, penne pasta al mariscos (the mariscos being full-sized shrimp), a blackened vegetable medley, and a crusty baguette for a dinner roll. Considering that this is cafeteria-style mass production food the Panorama cooks do an excellent job.
I revisited the salad bar and the situation had not improved much, save for a restocking of the lettuce. Considering the light crowd this evening and what appeared to be an overabundance of staff on hand, I do not understand the inability to keep something as basic as a salad bar in decent condition. The Fresh Choice near my home has a sliver of the staff I saw in the dining room tonight, gets slammed during the lunch rush, yet you'll never see an empty slot in their huge salad bar. That Carnival cannot do the same with their comparatively small offering is pathetic.
Oh! Speaking of the salad bar, the first sighting of bacon took place. Bacon bits, real bacon bits, not that fake bacon-flavored nugget stuff. Not that it mattered much since all that was left in the container were some leftover scraps.
How about a slice of pizza, then? Sorry, said the pizza attendant, we are closed until 10:00PM. Excuse me? Isn't this the same pizza service that Carnival proudly trumpets as being available around the clock? That was the final straw. I demanded to speak with whoever was in charge and no more than 2 minutes later someone in a suit was presented as the manager. I said (politely) that I would really like to understand why the salad bar was being ignored and why the 24 hour pizza was not available at the height of the evening dinner service.
I have never seen a salad bar restocked so quickly in my life. Pizza magically appeared about ten minutes later. I'm sure the entire Panorama staff now hate my guts. Oh well. I was pleased that the matter was rapidly resolved, but remain disappointed that no other staff considered the situation out of the ordinary until the boss showed up.
Changing gears rapidly: There is a partially sunken steamship in Ensenada's harbor, it was visible from the aft decks of our ship. I remember it from January's cruise and always wondered about the story behind that vessel. While I was taking pictures of the steamer, another passenger told me that was the SS Catalina. It had been rotting for years in the San Pedro (Los Angeles) area, and a few years back someone towed her to Ensenada and turned her into a restaurant. That restaurant and a few other ventures bled money to the point where she was abandoned at her mooring, eventually sinking to the bottom of the harbor. The SS Catalina will probably remain there until someone raises enough money to move it, or until the port of Ensenada can no longer tolerate the thing in the way of their cruise terminal expansion plans. For now, it appears to be the Fun Ship for sea lions.
I turned in early this evening. I tried to stay up late and watch the departure from Ensenada but my body had other ideas.
Now we're on Thursday with the always popular Fun Day at Sea. I believe someone on Cruise Critic has the signature line of "Why don't they just call it Casino Day" and would surely fit here. I was out for the morning around 8:30 and the Crystal Palace Casino was the busiest nonfood location on this ship. I popped a dollar in a nickel machine and walked away with five bucks. I'm a high roller, yeah, baby.
Went up for breakfast in the faithful Panorama Bar & Grill and there it was: BACON! Bacon bacon bacon, and more bacon! They were even letting the passengers use the tongs, no bacon wrangler in sight. It went well with some of the best scrambled eggs I've ever experienced, an enormous croissant, and a cup of coffee.
Wandered down to the Promenade deck, checked e-mail and ordered a hazelnut latte from the Rolls Royce coffee bar. I don't know what desserts are offered in the dining rooms, but if the creations available in the Rolls Royce's display case are any indication, there is a world class pastry chef on board this vessel. Had a slice of strawberry cheesecake that went beyond sinful, it was that good.
Up to the Sun deck next, and then up a flight of stairs to the highest observation deck on the ship. I was expecting an arctic blast of wind to smack me in the face as I walked out of the enclosed area and onto the forward deck, but no. The Pacific Ocean looks as smooth as glass today and it is very warm. Judging from the pasty white bodies arranged on the deck chairs, passengers from colder climates were loving every minute of it. So did I, and it's one of the reasons I love living in California, even if it is the comparatively chilly Bay Area. You don't have to shovel sunshine.
There were Navy ships in the area doing training excersizes, every now and then you could hear the very far off pop of artillery. A Navy fighter jet paid a visit on starboard side of the ship, slowing down (well, as much as possible for a jet), dipped his wings in a hello, then screamed off. Cool.
Bing-Bong-Bing go the three tones on the public address system. It's time for the debarkation talk in the Blue Sapphire lounge. Time for another cranky human observation today: Why is there so much drama over picking somewhere to sit on this ship. I've never seen so many slack jawed stares of overloaded confusion in my life as I have in the faces of people trying to figure out where to perch. Just accept that no matter where you sit, five minutes later you're going to spot a better vantage point, and 10 seconds before you reach that new location someone will beat you to it. And for those of you who arrive to shows late, accept that there are no good seats left and stop whining loudly about it. No one cares, we're trying to enjoy the show, go argue with your husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend/whatever out in the hallway. Sheesh.
Oh no! It's Friday morning already? I don't wanna get off the ship! NOOOO! Oh well.
What else can I say about the cruise that I haven't already typed? Two words: Express debarkation. As the cruise director Dana Hodson told us during the debarkation talk, Carnival has implemented a pilot program called express debarkation. If you can physically carry off all of your luggage without any type of help from Carnival -- and that means no use of luggage trolleys -- you can walk off the ship the moment that the first color luggage tag is called. Dana said that Carnival is testing this program out on a few ships the past month. I decided to try this out.
After navigating a maze of elevators and corridors (some were sealed off by Customs), I made it up to the Empress deck, through the photo gallery and into a scene of complete chaos. Total gridlock with everyone who could carry their luggage waiting in three different lines, several alpha yuppie males bumping chests when they would cut each other off... what a mess. Took about 45 minutes to make it to Immigration. I suppose that's "express" but perhaps Carnival should refine this a little, the crowding and the near fist fights were not exactly a great way to end a vacation.
Oh, and Customs and Immigration are dead serious about the no cell phone rule, two people broke out their little phones while waiting in line and they were promptly seized. The passengers were not happy about it, Customs could have cared less. If your conversations simply can't wait until you're down the escalator and out of the dome, well, you're taking a gamble and you'll probably lose. My own personal encounter with the Immigration officer was pleasant and straightforward. No problems.
Since I was off the ship and through government security so quickly I decided to move up my trip home by one day. The Amtrak shuttle stop is a five-minute walk from the Carnival dome... I was home at 11:00PM on Friday.
I had the vacation I wanted, if not the vacation I expected. I went away happy and that's all that matters. Read Less