This cruise is a nice break from the typical Caribbean fare. Carnival has made improvements in some areas, such as food, but the service is still less than stellar in many ways. We had 25 people in our group, about half of whom had been on three previous cruises together.
The cruise departs Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon. After two days at sea, the ship spends a day docked in Puerto Vallarta, the next day in Mazatlán, a half day anchored off Cabo San Lucas, then heads back to Los Angeles, arriving Sunday morning at 7 a.m., if things go right.
The Elation is the seventh of the eight Fantasy-class ships. The main difference between her and her predecessors is the azipod propulsion system. This new system improves space utilization in the engine rooms and eliminates the need for stern thrusters. That's the good news. The bad news is that the system has proven to be trouble-prone, causing a breakdown at sea on the Paradise and the cancellation of two cruises on the Elation (the last cruise in October, and the first in November of 2000) for repairs and upgrades.
If you've sailed on another Fantasy-class ship, you'll have no trouble getting around on the Elation. The first three decks (4, 5, and 6) are all cabins. Deck 7 contains cabins and the main floor of the atrium lobby. Deck 8 holds the dining rooms and cabins. Deck 9 is the main promenade, containing most of the public spaces, the shops, and the main floor of the show lounge. Deck 10 is the pool deck, with the Lido buffet. Deck 11 is the "quiet" sun deck and pool at the stern. Deck 12 contains the spa.
Unlike the Sensation when we sailed on her out of Miami, there was very little smoking on the Elation. That probably has more to do with the home port than with any Carnival policy. I don't recall any ship having as much uniformed security on duty as we saw on the Elation. They seemed to be everywhere: at the top of the slide; in the shops; around the pool; everywhere. I guess the only thing worse than a security guard hanging around is not having one around if you need him.
The ship arrived in Los Angeles an hour late, so embarkation and departure were delayed at least that much. We were given no explanation of the delay. The lines seemed interminable, and the port building was stifling. Los Angeles was having a 100-degree day, and the only relief in the debarkation building was that we weren't in the sun. The staff tried to do all they could, but it was a miserable experience. One problem was passengers who had not filled out the information in their ticket books; if this applies to you, get with the program and save the rest of us some misery, please. Also, there were far too few porters to take care of the luggage.
Puerto Vallarta was our longest stop, with the ship departing after 10 p.m. The city is a fairly new one, and the only attractions are shopping, snorkeling, and Señor Frog's. Be warned; Señor Frog's is fun, but it will vacuum your wallet. One member of our group spent $400 there. Too bad he doesn't remember it!
Puerto Vallarta had rain like the proverbial cow relieving herself on the proverbial flat rock. The streets ran with water over the curbs, and everyone got soaked. Luckily, cabs were easy to find, and fairly reasonable ($3 per person from the ship to Señor Frogs, for example). Snorkeling was a disappointment: the water was quite murky, and the fish were not that plentiful. The ride out and back, however, was fun.
Mazatlán is an old city, with lots of historical sites. The cathedral was impressive, although it is in need of (and getting) restoration. The vendors are ubiquitous, but not obnoxious. Poverty is the order of the day, but that's no surprise. Shopping is OK, and a quick tour through the El Cid Resort, with its million-dollar homes, was an interesting contrast.
Cabo San Lucas is probably the prettiest of the stops, but since it's only a half day, activities are limited. Those who went to the beaches said they were very good. The handicraft bazaar is actually filled with contractors selling mass-produced "handicrafts." Snorkeling has a reputation of being very good here. The only truly unusual wares there were some fairly obscene clay pipes in one stall.
One annoyance was that the tender service in Cabo is not operated by Carnival, and this is the first time we have ever been hit up for tips by the tender operators. Our departure from Cabo was delayed over an hour in order to evacuate an injured passenger. We never got any official word on how he got injured. (Amazingly enough, after all our cruises, this is the first time we were ever delayed by a medical emergency.)
The Food & Dining
The two dining rooms (Inspiration aft, Imagination midships) are pretty typical of Carnival. They aren't too noisy, but the meals seem to be interrupted too often for announcements, group dancing, etc. Carnival has, indeed, improved their food over the last few years. Unfortunately, it still needs some help in some areas. We found it good, but not great. It is much prettier, by the way, than on the Century.
Some examples of where Carnival still falls short: the pasta in the dining rooms was consistently cold and dry by the time we got it; the lobster was still partly in the shell, and the waiters did not help with it; servings were noticeably skimpy; the famous pumpkin soup recipe has been changed, and no longer tastes like liquid pumpkin pie, one of the best recipes on Carnival -- now it tastes like salty chicken soup, with no remaining vestiges of pumpkin.
Our waiter made errors every night, serving the wrong entrées, missing a course, etc. His assistant actually did more work and did it better, serving iced tea to those who wanted it, keeping glasses full, and otherwise improving the situation. His name was Ren, so we called the waiter Stimpy.
Only one dining room was open for lunch when in port, and the lunch was a buffet. We were disappointed, having gone to the dining room for some service.
The Lido buffet was pretty good, and the lines were never long. The selections, however, were not extensive. The fruit, for example, available for breakfast was limited to orange sections, grapefruit sections, half grapefruits, bananas, cut-up melons, and sliced melons.
Everyone seemed to enjoy the 24-hour pizza service, and the fact that the ice cream machines were always running.
For those who have complained about coffee being made from syrup on many of the lines, it's interesting to note that Celebrity and Carnival are two that still brew it fresh.
Carnival has a reputation for fairly roomy cabins. And it does, if you're comparing to RCCL or NCL. We had three people in our cabin. Rather than the usual drop-down bunk bed for the third, we had a folding rollaway bed.
Each cruise line has its own way of arranging beds. Most have two twin-sized beds that can be placed side-by-side to make one "queen-sized" bed. On Princess, the two beds are placed side by side, but each bed still has its own bottom sheet. However, one sheet goes over the top, and the separation in the middle is not very obvious. On Carnival, the two beds are placed side-by-side, but due to their construction, there is always a good-sized gap between the two mattresses. Each bed not only has its own bottom sheet, but each bed is completely individually made up -- not very convenient, and not very comfortable. It isn't very conducive to one of the activities seemingly encouraged by all the cruise advertising and promotion, either.
The shower is quite roomy, and the medicine chest has good storage. The closets did OK for us, but we had to leave one of our large suitcases at the end of the beds. The furniture looks cheap, but I'm sure that's part of the design to improve wear. The TV had a pretty poor picture, but we weren't there to watch TV, anyway.
It is true that Carnival now supplies some personal necessities in the bathroom. However, our steward was scandalized that we would ask for a second tiny bottle of shampoo; he said he was allowed to give each cabin only one. He did a good job of keeping the room tidy, although he came in only twice per day (unlike some lines, where used towels seem to magically disappear every time you step out of the cabin). My suggestion to Carnival would be to cut out the towel-folding and increase the service.
Fog & Dolphins
This is not the Caribbean. Although it was plenty hot in the port building and on the decks during the boat drill, it's very obvious once you exit the port that a very cold current goes south along the California coast. Just out of the port, we hit a cold fog that obscured everything. This fog can delay entry into the port at the end of a cruise, too. Our first hour or so at sea was punctuated by the hooting of the fog horn. The first full day at sea was too cool to be comfortable on deck, and the last day was much the same. Bring a jacket if you want to be on deck!
One of the more fascinating sights on the cruise was on the last full day at sea, sailing north. For over an hour, we passed through a school of thousands of dolphins. They were some small variety, but they looked like they were having a great time, jumping and diving around the ship.
Getting off the ship was only slightly less tiring and humiliating than getting on. Maybe there's not a better solution, but it seems other lines do a better job of it. There just isn't enough seating in the lounges for all the passengers and their hand-carried luggage to be comfortable, and the process seems interminable.
The long wait may have precipitated the next problem. One couple came up short one suitcase when they finally got out to the luggage area. It was not an unusual-looking piece, so the chances are good that someone picked it up accidentally. But Carnival has no procedure in place to guard against such a problem. The folks were devastated, since it had most of their souvenirs and photos in it. They filled out a claim, but figured it was gone. Amazingly, they got a phone call from the Los Angeles police the next day. Their suitcase was discovered in a restroom at the L.A. airport. Fortunately, the tag on it was still intact. Nothing was missing, again bolstering the impression that it was accidental, although some passenger didn't have the class to try to solve the problem when they discovered their error.
Once we had exited the ship and found our luggage, gone through Customs, and exited the building, we had one of the really disagreeable experiences of this cruise. The ubiquitous guards would not let us stand in the shade in front of the building. Once we found the driver of our limo/bus, we discovered that Carnival would not allow him to load us in the bus area (there were 16 of us). And they would not allow him to load us in the car area. He had to pull around and load us in the driveway. We got about half the luggage aboard when the guards made him leave that place to allow a couple of buses to exit, then pull around again to finish loading. What a crock.
Would we do this cruise again? Well, if it was the right price, yeah, we'd do it again. Was it our favorite cruise? Far from it. It ranks close to the bottom, but as long as you understand what you're buying, there's nothing inherently wrong with it. The clientele does tend to be younger than on most cruises, and there were a lot of children, but they weren't a real problem. If you're tired of the usual Caribbean fare (and just how many times can you enjoy St. Thomas and Cozumel?), this is a good break.
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Mike Blanche has written many reviews and articles for the SeaLetter and may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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