Particulars: My family joining me to celebrate my birthday included Me, DW, DD(5) and DS(8), also adult niece, nephew and wife, and sister.
Since only my niece has cruised previously, when my wife said she wanted to get my family together for my birthday, a cruise wasn't the first thing I thought of. I wanted to get together somewhere warm over the holiday period rather than the chilly places where we live, the closest and most affordable being our old favorite Mexico. I had looked at booking flights and renting a house on the beach near PV, staying at an inexpensive inclusive, and was dismayed at the cost. Having heard that cruising can be a good value, I checked travel websites to find that the cost came in around the same or less than flying in. Well, Disney was higher of course, and it would have been nice for the kids. Checking the Disney forums, though, I found that the food on Carnival was well-regarded by people who have cruised both. That definitely tipped the scales to Carnival.
The price was right, so we next had to select the ship. Checking the web for reviews, I came across CC, and was pleased to discover a forum with as much depth of information and as many fanatical posters as any consumer site that I frequent. I am amazed at the number of repeat cruisers, something I thought people only did maybe once in a lifetime. Planning was a lot of fun, I got to learn a lot about something (cruising) I didn't really know that much about.
I had assured my family that we had a balcony sufficient to hold all 8 of us, but they were not prepared for the huge size of the balcony. It easily holds 4 regular chairs and 2 lounge chairs. When they saw it, they all gasped and omg'ed. My DW said "Shut up!" to me in disbelief and we hi-fived. Pictures can be found elsewhere if you look for 6232 on the CC Carnival forum.
Believe it or not, I was excited to see Ensenada as it was our first port and we had never been there. Ensenada was prettier than I expected, with mountains closer by the sea than most California cities.
The industrial area was to one side but not too ugly.Below the ship, some sea lions frolicked. The workers had to shoo them away at the end of the day so they wouldn't be in the ship's way.
My niece, nephew and his wife headed to town, while DW, sister and kids explored the ship. They did go to the little shopping area at the pier, where there's a small flea market and drinks for sale.
We walked past the buses onto the highway, where kids ran up to sell us gum and adults were selling handmade bracelets. A block or two away, carriages await to show you the town.
We headed toward El Centro and Hussong's, an old-time cantina with sawdust on the floor. We had a couple of their simple, cheap margaritas before heading out for lunch. The bartender referred us to someplace called "the black market", so we headed out to look for it in the direction he pointed us. We had a hard time finding it at first, I thought of asking one of the many local policemen but thought better of the idea. Instead, we asked a store clerk, and found out it was the fish market I had read of.
I had read on here that the restaurants across the way were pretty good, so I asked the fellow above for a reference. We had some delicious fish tacos (including marlin, a meaty-tasting fish which I had never had before) and some large and delicious margaritas.
We headed back for our 4 PM sail-off and stopped for another drink at the pier before getting back on board.
My nephew was keen to go snorkeling, he had tried it in Acapulco and liked it. I checked on tripadvisor and selected Ecocat, a large cataraman that would give a pretty smooth ride. They supplied flippers, goggles, etc. We tendered to the dock on the port's boats, which gave a more rocky ride.
We then walked around the Cabo marina past the hawkers who were easily ignored. The marina is full of activity, including pelicans and sea lions, who like to hitch rides on boats sometimes.
I ask for directions a couple of times until we found the Ecocat booking office and restaurant. I gave them our information and they gave us our boarding passes for the 11:00 tour (the ship moved forward an hour so we were already on local time). We had sodas and bought a few trinkets as we waited.
We boarded and set sail for Chileno Bay, as the preferred location of Santa Maria was beset by too many jellies. We first got a tour of Los Arcos, which was pretty but the most interesting thing to me was all the boats buzzing around, it was quite active and exciting.
DD couldn't really be coaxed in to the slightly chilly water, and I'm not the greatest swimmer so I only went in for a little while. I saw a few fish but didn't make it over the the main area where my sister and nephew spotted quite a few different types of tropical fish. DS braved the water for a few minutes, then I saw DW carrying him back while he cried loudly. I asked him what happened and he said "sea splinters!" It took me a minute to figure out that he had ventured into a jellyfish area that his mother was trying to coax him away from. Despite many of us getting stung a few times, we had a good time in the water and on the ship. They even let us have food and drink even though we hadn't paid for the all-inclusive package (but we didn't overdo it).
On the way back, the friendly crew entertained us with some music.
DD wanted to swim with dolphins. Unfortunately, Carnival didn't offer the intermediate level at the Cabo dolphin center (at the marina), which was designed for kids who wanted a little dolphin ride. They only offered one that was in deep water for good swimmers, and a pet-the-dolphin thing for non-swimmers. Since they have a deal with Carnival, the center wouldn't allow us to book independently. She was a little disappointed to start, especially since she could see the other kids getting rides. Nevertheless, she really enjoyed petting and playing with them with DW. We were all satisfied with the experience, but we didn't go for pricey picture packages.
The snorkelling yesterday was fun but the kids wanted beach time, so when we stepped out of the dolphin center, we asked some local police where we could hire a glass-bottom boat to Mendano beach. They said any of the hawkers right on the dock were OK, so I asked closest guy, a friendly man named Rafael. He wanted to take us to Los Arcos but we said we were meeting our family and would just go to Mendano. It was $3 PP each way. DS was excited about the glass-bottom boat, but I didn't tell him that you can't really see anything under the water (even a comedian on the ship made a joke about it). It was a fun but short ride to the beach. Rafael stopped the boat about 50 feet from shore and said OK, everyone jump out! I laughed but DW was flabbergasted as we were with two young children. She should have known better from our experience with long-tail boats in Thailand. Rafael laughed and took us right up to the beach, and helped us to get off without even getting our feet wet.
He agreed to meet us at a preordained time, and to make sure we were on the same clock we synchronized our watches. The dropoff point was a way down from our destination, Mendano Beach Club, so we walked the quarter-mile or so along the beach. It was as lively as I had heard, and the water was the beautiful turquoise color that I had read of.
Lunch at the Beach Club for 5 of us, including drinks, came to around $70 (the other family members couldn't find the Beach Club because the sign was obscured). The food and drink was fresh and flavorful. I sat in the shade as the others played in the water. The temperature was fine and the waves were gentle.
I enjoyed Cabo but probably wouldn't want a week there. A weekend or cruise stop is fine.
Next up is our family favorite, Puerto Vallarta. It's the whole package, great food, nice weather, beaches, friendly people, and unique shopping (we especially like the Huichol art). Excitedly, I was up early to walk around the upper decks and watch the ship pull in to port through the haze, watching the hotel towers get closer. I sure could feel the humidity now. The port area is much improved from our previous visit a few years ago, when it was pretty much just dirt and pavement. The little flea market was still there.
We love Las Caletas (a little beach excursion), but with limited time we just headed to the Malecon (boardwalk) to walk to the Romantic Zone. We took one of the white vans on the pier for $3 each for the 8 of us. It dropped us off at the north end of the Malecon, which had been recently beautifully rebuilt into a pedestrian corridor. The kids were dying to go in the water but it's not safe on this part. Instead we walked down the half-mile or so to the church, shopping and looking at the statues and sand castles.
I like going into the Huichol gallery there, going into the back room, and flipping on the black light. There's glowing beaded statues, god's eyes, and fabric arts.
We were getting hungry already so after checking out the church (which was packed with people attending a service) and getting some more pesos, we looked for a place to eat. Unfortunately the place we liked best, Cafe de Olla, was still to far, so we picked a place near Sr. Frogs. I don't remember the name, but it was Mexican place that you have to walk up stairs past an Irish pub, of all things.
I think the name of the restaurant was Villa Vallarta. Instead of the fish tacos I had everywhere in Baja, I had spicy beef a la diabla (darn,forgot to look for posole!). It was pretty good, especially with the $8 bottomless margarita. Everyone enjoyed their meal, including the vegetarians who had plenty of choices. We made our way down to the market and crossed the rickety bridge to the island in the river.
There's lots of interesting little shops in the area, including some tamarind-based sweet shops on the street pictured above. There is a large 2-level flea market with lots of souvenirs. The island itself has some nice artists working (I was very impressed by some of it) as well as the incredibly tacky t-shirts that I had forgotten were there from my last visit. We saw a huge iguana sitting up in a tree.
We went downriver to the beach, I remembered that the beaches were better at the south end and you could rent an umbrella there. We stopped at the first place with a safe beach, Los Abuelos. It was full but they built some plastic tables on the spot for us for $15. We ordered drinks and the kids played in the sand.
Later we went in the water, it was still rough where we were but farther down the beach is was quite calm for swimming. The beach was really hopping since lots of Mexican families were there on their holiday break. It was a very festive atmosphere. The water was warm enough but the air got cooler in the late afternoon.
DD enjoyed the grilled tuna on a stick. She ate the whole thing and some of a second, which I finished off.
Our time in PV was much too short for us. We took two cabs back to the pier and hung out a bit before getting back on.
Manzanillo was probably the highlight of our stops.
DD had seen a movie called "The Last Song", a tearjerker staring Miley Cyrus, and loved it. When Hannah Montana wasn't chasing boys, she was trying to protect some baby turtle eggs from critters and helping the babies get to the ocean. I came across the fact that there was a turtle sanctuary near Manzanillo, so I looked for an excursion to see the babies. There's a standard tour called "Turtles and Mangroves" which takes you to the sanctuary as well as a boat ride through a nearby lagoon. Unfortunately, Carnival didn't offer this so I selected lujotours.com from recommendations here and on tripadvisor. They quoted me $60 pp for the 5 of us (my family plus my sister).
Despite the early hour (before 7 ship time), I couldn't resist watching us pull in to the last foreign port. Manzanillo is the largest port on Mexico's west coast, and there are some smokestacks in the distance, but the appearance is otherwise of a small, scenic Mexican city, much smaller than Puerto Vallarta. The town itself is in reasonably good shape, and the roads are excellent. Apparently it is very safe as well, and some of my relatives spent the day exploring it on foot (there wasn't much to see). There are some beaches a taxi ride away on the far side of the bay, as well as south towards the resort area of Las Hadas.
We found Luis, our guide, waiting for us at the end of the pier at the appointed time. We climbed into his SUV and took the back road out of town. We stopped off at a fruit stand and he took us to the orchard behind. He showed us some of the local fruit, including huge jackfruit. We also saw guava, mango, bananas, and much more. Jackfruit is chewy and sweet.
At the turtle sanctuary, about a 45 minute drive, we saw that there are also some iguanas. I noticed some fellow passengers there, who used a different tour company (no wonder they didn't get back to my email request).
We went around back where there was a crocodile enclosure. Since it was hot and humid the croc was well hid in the muck. There was also a tank with some baby turtles for us to look at. They sure are cute, swimming around the huge tank as fast as they can.
Luis had a surprise for us, he had arranged for us to release some of the baby turtles into the ocean. DD was in tears the night before; she was worried about the safety of the baby turtles, so I was glad she would have this experience. We followed the sanctuary guide with a bucket of turtles down to the beach.
He drew a line in the sand and handed a baby turtle to each of us to "race" to the sea. They didn't need to be coaxed, they ran as fast as they could into the surf. Luckily they all made it in!
They showed us some mature sea turtles, which are kept there to show visitors what they look like fully grown. At that time they were changing the water in the tanks.
Steps away from the visitor's center, we boarded some motorboats for our jungle cruise. We sprayed the kids with mosquito spray but DD still got a few nasty bites. We headed into Cuyutlan lagoon toward some mangrove swamps.
On the way were some lily pads. Great blue herons rested under the trees. My sister is a birder, so she was delighted by all the egrets, herons and eagles. There was a baby croc resting near a tree branch.
We had asked Luis for a little beach time, which isn't part of the regular tour. He took us to the little old beach town of Cuyutlan. it was a popular resort around 100 years ago, but declined after the railway was extended to Manzanillo. Luis bought us lunch at the Hotel Feliz, a friendly place filled with Mexican families on holiday. It's a charming old place a block or two from the beach. I had some Shrimp a la diabla, and everyone enjoyed their meals.
We made our way to the beach. The normally sleepy town was filled with holiday visitors. The sand is black due to the local volcanoes. The kids played for a while until the lifeguard whistled everyone back. The undertow can get rough here. There were some public showers behind the beach to clean off the black sand. Then we headed back on the freeway route to Manzanillo. Luis apologized for the bad holiday traffic, there was about 10 cars in front of us in the toll plaza. I let him know that being from the Bay Area, this was a breeze! It was a quick 20 minute drive back to the ship.
My nephew did the Colima tour with the pre-Columbian ruins. He enjoyed it greatly, he really wanted to see some ruins and that was his best chance on the west coast. He was just a little disappointed that it wasn't used for human sacrifice, since it wasn't a Mesoamerican culture.