My wife and I were looking for a short weekend getaway to celebrate my birthday and our 15 year anniversary. Anne missed out on a 7 night cruise I took with our sons in March, and we both enjoy cruising very much, so we decided “why not celebrate with another cruise?” This was to be our first Carnival Cruise. We wondered if a short three night cruise on an older ship would give us a similar experience to our past sailings with other cruise lines. Below I will answer this question, and review different parts of our cruise.
by Tim Larison, CLIA Master Cruise Counsellor (MCC)
We liked the “at sea” day on this cruise – we had taken two three night cruises with Disney and those cruises did not have an “at sea” day. “At Sea” days are one feature we have enjoyed on our previous seven night cruises.
The one port we did visit on this cruise, Ensenada, promised to be interesting as we had never been there before. Ensenada did not disappoint. We did an unusual shore excursion there – the “Baja Bandidos” Horseback trail in the hills with magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean and the surrounding countryside. I had heard this was a popular excursion before our cruise, so shortly after we boarded the Ecstasy I submitted our request for this excursion. TIP: This is a good excursion to book within an hour or two of boarding. Don’t wait until the 4 pm shore excursion talk – at that talk the shore excursion manager will tell the crowd how popular this excursion is and it will sell out shortly thereafter. For our shore excursion adventure, we signed up for the early ride (8:30 am). This excursion also was offered at 11:30 am and 1:30 pm. We liked this early time as we took the ride in the cool of the mid morning, rather than the heat of the afternoon sun.
The Ecstasy docked at Ensenada at 6 am on Saturday. It was nice to be able to walk off the ship rather than take a tender boat like we have had to at some ports on past cruises. We met the van to transport us to the horse riding stables right at 8:30 am. Everything was very well organized. We took a 30 minute van ride to the horse riding stables in the foothills surrounding Ensenada. We were met by the owner of the Baja Bandidos stable. We were asked if we had any horse riding experience before. We had not ridden horses for over 15 years so we both raised our hand and said “none!” We were given more tame horses for our hour and a half ride. We left the stables in a group of 10 horses, with the owner of the ranch and another ranch hand on their horses escorting us.
The ride was very scenic. We had beautiful views of the hills of San Miguel and the Pacific Ocean. My horse, Lorando, had a tendency to fall behind – when he ran to catch up (at the urging of the ranch hands) the ride got to be a little rough, but not too bad. A soak in the hot tub back on the ship was a welcome relief after this shore excursion! Overall we thought the horseback riding was a good experience and we would recommend it. This excursion was different than any other I had done on previous cruises. We thought the staff at the ranch were good at helping people who had never ridden a horse before and we quickly learned what we needed to for the 1 ½ hour ride.After our ride we were treated to home made tacos – not enough for lunch but a good snack to hold us over until we ate at the buffet back at that ship.
The other shore excursions offered included a scenic “Gold Coast” tour, a visit to the “blowhole” (where the ocean sprays through a rock opening), a golf outing on the Bajamar golf resort, a La Bufadora adventure tour, City and Shopping tour, and a Wine Country tour. We liked the variety of shore excursions offered – there was something for everyone. The golf outing seemed particularly popular as we saw many golfers with their golf clubs waiting outside the ship as we departed for our horseback riding outing. The golf course was described as “like Pebble Beach for the views, but lots less expensive”. We were told a round at Pebble Beach will cost $395. This excursion cost $125 for transfers and 18 holes of golf.
We did not shop in Ensenada like many of our fellow passengers. We had been to Mexican markets on our Mexican Riviera cruise last February and didn’t feel the need to repeat this experience. Instead we relaxed back at the ship in the afternoon.
The Carnival Ecstasy was built in 1991 and she is the 5th oldest ship in the 20 ship Carnival fleet. Since we had only cruised on newer ships previously we wondered how the cruise experience would be on an older ship. Though the ship lacked some of the features we experienced on other ships, overall we thought she provided a similar cruise experience to our other cruises. The ship had an unusual “neon” theme throughout – it looked more like a downtown Las Vegas hotel and casino rather than the “classic” look we have seen on other ships. The bright colors and neon lights took a little getting used to and fit in well with the “party” theme that Carnival advertises for the cruise.
Our stateroom was actually larger than what we have had on newer ships. Our inside stateroom was 186 square feet – this compares to the 133 square feet stateroom that I had on Royal Caribbean’s Mariner Of The Seas in February. I found the bathroom area to be roomy. This was the largest inside stateroom we have had on our cruises next to the Disney category 10 staterooms (214 square feet for Disney). We had heard that the staterooms on the Ecstasy were noisy. We did not experience that. We could hear noise from the hallway in our room but we could not hear noise from the staterooms next door. Our stateroom was on the lowest passenger deck (the Riviera deck) and we did not hear any noise from above (there were two decks of passenger staterooms directly above us). If you are used to sailing in a balcony stateroom then you may be disappointed with the Ecstasy, as only 26 of the staterooms have balconies. But if an outside or inside stateroom will do you will find these staterooms have as much room or more room than what you will find on other lines. TIP: Be sure to bring a hairdryer as there is not one provided in the stateroom.
As for other parts of the ship, we liked the Blue Sapphire Lounge for the nighttime shows. This was an older style theatre with lots of leg room and a small table by each chair to place your drinks. We liked sitting on the first row of the balcony where we had a great view of the stage.
The Ecstasy had two formal dining rooms, the Windsong and Windstar, and a large buffet. We thought the quality of the food overall was very good.
We ate our opening lunch here, we had breakfast here one morning, and we frequently visited the buffet for snacks. The selections for the opening buffet were limited. There was a turkey carving station, a salad bar, and a choice of 7 or 8 side items. The turkey was excellent and the salads were fresh. For breakfast I liked the “made to order” omelet station. The scrambled eggs in the breakfast buffet were only average (I’ve never had good scrambled eggs in a buffet) so the omelet station was a good alternative.
The best feature of the buffet was the soft serve ice cream and yogurt station that was available most hours (from 6 am to 3 am the next morning). The ice cream was creamy and excellent – much better than the ice milk I have had at other buffets. With some cruise lines starting to charge extra for ice cream it was nice to see Carnival have free ice cream available anytime you wanted it. The buffet also had a 24 hour pizza station. I didn’t think the pizza was very good – save your calories for better options in the buffet or at the main dining rooms.
Outside the buffet near the pool area was a grill where hamburgers or hot dogs could be ordered most hours of the day. The cheeseburgers we had here were very good.
Windsong Dining Room
The Ecstasy had two formal dining rooms – the Windsong and Windstar – we were assigned the early dining time (5:45 pm) in the Windsong. The Windsong had a nice atmosphere, more elegant than the loud neon color scheme elsewhere on the ship. We found the food here to be very good – as good as or better than the main dining room food I have had on other cruise lines. The first night I thought the lobster tail entrée I had was excellent. Anne liked the prime rib entrée she ordered. On other nights I had a chicken dish and a beef tenderloin dish that were also very good. Anne also gave high marks to the beef tenderloin and a whitefish entrée she ordered.The salads were fresh. The dessert selections were limited but good.
We also ate at the Windsong for breakfast on two mornings and for lunch one day. The breakfasts here were very good – I had an omelet each morning. The only food we had here that was below par was the baby back ribs for lunch on our “at sea” day. Our waiter, Saul from Colombia, was attentive to our needs. He offered to bring more than one entrée or appetizer if we were not happy with our main selection.
On two nights the Ecstasy offered a “midnight buffet”. We didn’t stay up that late but we heard this buffet was very good from a few of the other passengers.
The Ecstasy offered many different entertainment options. There were two different Las Vegas Revue type shows offered on Saturday and Sunday night. If you enjoy Las Vegas type shows you will like this entertainment. The lead singers for the shows were excellent (Freddy Martin and Cassandra Swales). The shows featured live band music, not a canned soundtrack like I have heard on some other lines. The shows featured dancers with many different costumes and set changes – they were fast paced, entertaining one hour shows. Two comedians were onboard – Stanley Ullman and Lance Montalto. The first night the comedians gave a “PG” rated show, then on the second and third nights they offered an “adults only” show at midnight. We didn’t make it to the adult shows but we thought PG show was good. There were a number of smaller lounges onboard with their own bands. A small casino was packed with people when the ship was at sea.
The Ecstasy had one main pool with a waterslide. The pool area was very crowded on the “at sea” days. We preferred the hot tubs and smaller pool in the aft area of the ship. We particularly liked soaking in the hot tub after our morning of horse back riding! The ship had a good ping pong setup – with 3 tables in a covered area overlooking the pool. We enjoyed playing ping pong here the first night, but later in the cruise we found the tables were almost always taken. The Ecstasy also had a running track and a volleyball area.
The Ecstasy had a small internet café outside the Blue Sapphire theatre. I checked my email at various times during the cruise and never had a problem finding an open terminal. The price for online access was 75 cents a minute. I bought one hour of time before the cruise for $25, which gave a substantial savings over the regular rate. TIP: If you think you will be using the internet during the cruise, buy the 1 hour time block on the first day. You are rewarded with a bonus 10 minutes if you buy the package the first day. I found the 70 minutes just right for checking my email 2 or 3 times of day. The Ecstasy also offered “WiFi” access in the internet café where you could use your own WiFi card or rent one to have internet access from your lap top. The package prices were more expensive for WiFi access. Though I brought my laptop I was happy to pay less and just check my email from the ship’s computers. The WiFi access only worked in the Internet Café area and not in other areas of the ship.
Arrival and Embarkation
We bought the Carnival airport transfers with our cruise and we found this worked out well. Upon arrival from Denver, we were met in the baggage claim area by a Carnival employee (Susi). Susi was very pleasant and waited with us for until our bus arrived, answering any questions we had. A couple of other Carnival employees also introduced themselves to us while we waited. The airport bus took awhile, our flight arrived at 10:20 am but by the time the bus made its rounds we left for the airport at around noon. We had filled out our registration info online which gave us a “fun pass” – this was supposedly to make our checkin quicker. Our checkin was quicker with the fun pass – problem was that Carnival didn’t check if you had a fun pass to get into the fun pass line. As a result there were people without the fun pass in line that slowed things down. Our checkin took 1/4th the time of some others without the fun pass. Still there were lots of checkin lines and we were on the ship within 30 to 40 minutes of getting online. Upon our return to LA on Monday morning we had to wait for our “color tag” to be called to exit the ship. This took awhile (1 ½ to 2 hours) but once we were off the ship going through customs, claiming our bags, and boarding the bus to the airport was a breeze.
We had a good experience on the Ecstasy. We thought the cruise was fine for a weekend getaway. While the ship didn’t have some of the amenities of the newer cruise ships we have been on (like specialty restaurants, climbing walls, ice skating rinks, etc) we still thought the basic cruise experience on this older ship was very similar to our past cruises. The age of the ship did not detract from our enjoyment of the cruise. I would recommend this ship for a 1st time cruiser who wants to try a short cruise to see what the cruise experience is like, or for someone (like us) looking for a short weekend getaway. If you are planning a 7 night cruise I would recommend the newer ships for the extra features they provide.
Six Things that could have been better on this cruise: 6. At checkin Carnival should not allow people who have not pre-registered for the cruise in the same line as those who have pre-registered. The paper work for the people not registered slowed down the line for those of us who had filled out the “fun pass” registration. 5. You could not reserve shore tours before the cruise – instead you had to book these onboard and hope there was an opening. 4. Our California Coastal Highlights Tour on Monday was cancelled for lack of interest – no wonder because it seemed almost all the passengers were from California! As a result we had a four hour wait at LAX airport. 3. There was no space on the Promenade deck for deck chairs where we could lay outdoors in the shade like on other ships we have been on. Instead we used the deck chairs on the top deck in the sun. 2. Excessive noise in the hallway one night in the early morning hours. 1. While the ship’s photographers were excellent, the area where the photos were displayed was small and often congested. We had difficulty finding a good time where the photo shop was uncrowded.
Top Six Things we liked best about this cruise: 6. Formal night. On our previous 3 night Disney cruises a formal night was not offered so it was nice to have one on this short cruise. I have never seen as many photography options on formal night as I did on this cruise. There were photographers located at different areas of the ship with different backgrounds. We took three different formal pictures in different backgrounds and we could have done three or four more. 5. The layout of the main theatre. Lots of leg room at the seats and we had a good view of the stage from the second level. 4. Excellent soft serve ice cream available at almost all hours in the buffet. 3. Roomy stateroom – plenty big enough for two adults. 2. Nice variety of shore excursions offered at Ensenada – we really enjoyed our horseback riding tour there. 1. Dining room food was much better than we expected – at least as good or better than we have had on other cruise lines.