About a year ago, Susan decided she wanted to go on a family cruise. By definition, a “family cruise” requires that the whole family go, which is how Mason, Morgan and I got roped into going. My mom and her husband Jack signed up for the same cruise, so it became the six of us. The closest thing to a cruise Susan and I have ever gone on was our four-hour honeymoon cruise to the Bahamas, three-hours of which I spent puking over the side of the ship into the Bermuda Triangle. For this voyage we showed up with sea-sickness patches in hand (which worked wonderfully, I might add). Rather than write up an extremely long “blow-by-blow” review of the entire six-day trip (partially because all the days ran together!), I decided to break this post up into multiple categories … more like several mini-reviews, rather than one long story. It’ll still be long, but hey, at least it’ll be broken up.
All of the photos in this post were taken by me and the complete photo album can be viewed here. And now, on with the review!
The Carnival Ecstasy (Wikipedia) departs from Galveston, Texas and arrives in Cozumel, Mexico two days later. Our cruise left on Wednesday, June 17th, landed in Cozumel on Friday, June 19th, and returned to Galveston on Monday, June 22nd. The ship weighs approximately 70,000 tons, is 855 feet in length, and cruises at 21 knots (about 25 miles per hour). The ship holds just over 2,000 guests and has a staff of 920. Of the ships hundreds of rooms, 54 of them have a private balcony. One of those rooms was ours.
We drove from Oklahoma City to Galveston the day before departure, staying at a hotel with a terrific view of the ocean. I remember wondering if Cozumel would look as incredible as the view from our hotel did.
View from our hotel in Galveston
You have two parking choices: you can leave your car at the hotel and pay $10 each way for a taxi, or you can park near the ship for $45, which is what we ended up doing. Boarding began at 12:30pm and we wanted to give ourselves plenty of time due to the kids, so we arrived a bit early. The first thing we did was pull up to the loading zone and checked most of our luggage. This was a mixed-blessing (more about that later). After parking we caught a shuttle and were dropped off at the front door. Thanks to Susan (aka “the world’s most prepared person”) our trip through customs was a breeze. We showed our passports and breezed through the security checkpoint. After one last bathroom break, we boarded the ship.
After boarding you are given your ID card, which looks a lot like a credit card. It must be backed with either cash or a major credit card. You do not need cash or a credit card on the ship itself. Everything is used by swiping your ID card. Your card is also your electronic room key.
After boarding the ship around 12:30pm we discovered that the rooms wouldn’t be ready for occupancy until 1:30pm. We spent half an hour hanging out near a piano bar, and the other 30 minutes sitting in the hallway outside our room.
Depending on your needs and your bank roll, the available rooms on the Carnival Ecstasy range anywhere from large suites to essentially coffins. Our room was one of the largest offered, which we bought because (A) kids need space and (B) the large rooms are the ones with the private balconies.
Our room contained both a closet and a bathroom. Just past that on the left was our bed, a curtain divider, and a couch that folded out to another bed that was actually very comfortable (there were no support beams underneath the mattress). Running down the entire right hand side of the cabin was a counter, where we piled all of out things. Inside the closet was a small safe. The rest room included a shower, a jacuzzi tub, a hair dryer, a sink, and a toilet that flushed like those found on airplanes (WOOSH). Under the counter in the main cabin was a mini-refrigerator, a bunch of drawers, and ONE electrical outlet. I don’t mean one double outlet, I mean one single outlet. Susan often makes fun of all the things I travel with, but she was sure glad I had an power strip in my laptop bag! Hanging over the counter was a flat screen television that was connected to satellite television and offered about twelve channels, half of them related to the cruise. The only channels I can remember are TNT, Cartoon Network, and ABC/NBC, both of which showed local Colorado (?) programming.
As you can see, in the picture above, our room had two large windows (one is covered by the curtains) and a door leading to our own balcony. The balcony had three chairs and a small table. The door to the balcony had two deadbolts (one high, one low) to keep kids from wandering out there alone.
After unpacking we got that “what now?” feeling, so we set out to explore the boat. The Ecstasy has seven or eight floors to visit. The first thing we had to figure out was floor names. Yes, names — all the floors are named in some sort of pointless sailing tradition. Posted next to each elevator is a map which we found ourselves referring to constantly. It would have been so much simpler if the floors were referred to by number. For example, if you are on the sixth floor and need to go to the fifth floor, you know that you need to go down one floor. So much simpler than having to constantly check a map to figure out if the “Lido Deck” is above or below the “Promenade Deck”, and by how many floors.
We also got to spend time learning the elevator system, which can be confusing. We found three pairs of elevators; there may be more. In the middle of the ship there are two glass elevators that access the central part of the boat. These elevators don’t hit every floor; for that you’ll need to use one of the elevators either closer to the front or the rear of the ship. Even more confusing the fact that the port-side elevators accessed more (or less, I forget) floors than the starboard-side ones. Add to the mix that (A) the elevators were slow, (B) they were usually packed, and (C) there were stairs right next to them, we found ourselves using the stairs quite a bit.
Before setting sail, everyone on the boat must participate in a mandatory evacuation drill. This involved getting the life jackets out of our closet, walking up four flights of stairs, listening to a short recording about how to evacuate the boat in case of an emergency, and then heading back to our room to drop off the life jackets. If we ever take another cruise, I will find out where our station is in advance and beat the rush (while the elevators are still working).
After the boat began to move, we checked out a bunch of stuff. Each deck has multiple places to visit and things to do. More importantly, many of them have food!
The price of admission gets you free food and free (non-alcoholic and non-carbonated) drinks. Anything with alcohol and anything carbonated (ie: Coke) is extra. Cokes were $2/can; an unlimited “Coke Pass” was available for $28. Alcoholic drinks were reasonably priced, mostly ranging from $5-$8. Again, none of these things were purchased with real money. To buy a drink you just handed the waiter your ID card and they charged it to your room. This, probably by design, made it difficult to keep track of how much we were spending.
We found four main restaurants to eat at on the ship. The first was up on the Lido deck, consisting of two back-to-back restaurants, one with inside seating and one with outside seating. The food served in both places was identical and could best be described as cafeteria fast food, consisting of hot dogs, hamburgers, and so on. In the back of the Lido deck was a second food station that served pizza and Panini sandwiches. This food station was open 24/7. In addition to those two places there were two restaurants for dining, one casual and one formal. The casual restaurant had dishes like spaghetti with meatballs and fish and chips; the formal dining room (complete with a dress code) had things like prime rib and lobster tail. Again, all food was free so you could eat wherever you wanted and whatever you wanted. Although I would not classify it as a restaurant, the ship also has a sushi bar which is open for a few hours each evening. All of these things are also available for free through room service.
The Lido’s “cafeteria” served breakfast each morning, again serving food akin to most breakfast buffets. The scrambled eggs were watery and terrible, but everything else was good. I heard someone mention an omelet station, but I never happened across it. The breakfast buffet also included a wide variety of fresh fruit including watermelon, cantaloupe and pineapple, a large break and pastry area, and for the kids, individual boxes of cereal.
Carnival Ecstasy is a family-friendly cruise which has lots of stuff for kids to do.
First up are the swimming pools, and there are several to choose from. In the middle of the Lido deck there was a large pool complete with a water slide. On the back of one of the decks there was a smaller round pool (4ft deep) and on the back of yet another deck there was a kiddie pool that was about a foot-and-a-half deep (it said 1ft deep, but it was deeper than that). Additionally there were at least two hot tubs to choose from.
Another spot for the kids was Kid’s Club, the boat’s babysitting service (for lack of a better word). There were different rooms for different ages: one for ages 3-5, one for kids 6-8, one for kids 9-11, and at least one more for older kids (we only looked at the ones for Mason and Morgan). Morgan’s room (2-5) had lots of toys. During one of Morgan’s stays, they did face painting. During another, they made some paper arts and crafts. In Mason’s room (6-8) there were PlayStation 2s, Nintendo DSes, and one Nintendo Wii. Mason’s complained that there were too many kids and not enough gaming systems to go around. Both kids complained (in their own words) that the teachers had thick foreign accents and were hard to understand, a problem that Susan and I ourselves encountered with some of the waiters.
All of the places we dined had kid-friendly meals. Both the fancy and the not-so-fancy restaurants had kid plates including Chicken Nuggets and Mac ‘n Cheese.
Mason’s favorite non-Kid’s Club activity was Bingo, and both kids loved the musical performance “Extreme Country”. There was also a variety show that included a ventriliquist, a juggler, and a magician who (of course) picked Mason out of the crowd to be his assistant. His “trick” involved giving Mason a “magic nickel” and trying to get it to change into a five-dollar bill. When it wouldn’t, he told Mason to put the nickel “under his pillow that night, and that it would be a five-dollar bill in the morning.” Susan played along and made the switch. For the rest of the trip, people were coming up to Mason, referring to him as “the magic boy” and wanted to know if the trick had worked.
The kids also had a great time playing putt putt with Granny and Papa Jack on top of the boat. There’s a 9 hole course up there. Surprisingly, nobody hit a ball in the water.
Once we reached Cozumel it was time for our excursion. I should note here that leaving the ship was pretty disorganized. Everyone was told to head to “Level 3″ to disembark, but the elevators wouldn’t go there. We went to the level above that and found about a hundred people packed into a crowded lobby, with people standing on the stairs going down, up, and everywhere else. It was hot, the line wasn’t moving … just a mess.
When things finally started moving, it was pretty smooth sailing (pardon the pun). We all exited the ship and walked right out on to a giant concrete dock. The water was blue and crystal clear. It was also 100 degrees.
The excursion we picked consisted of two parts: Discover Mexico, and swimming at Chankanaab Beach.
Discover Mexico reminded me of every other tourist trap I’ve ever visited. It consisted of a film, a small “museum” with paper mache items on display, and a dozen miniature scale models of Aztec pyramids. The inside air conditioning was broken, so if it was 100 degrees outside it was hotter inside. Once we were done sweltering inside we walked around outside for half an hour in the heat looking at pyramid models. I wasn’t into it at all and just kept wishing it would end. People were scrambling for shade and the whole thing seemed pointless. The best thing about Discover Mexico was that it ended before anybody died of heatstroke.
Next up was Chankanaab Beach, which I have to admit was breathtaking. Every picture I took there came out looking like a post card. Chankanaab Beach was what I had imagined Cozumel would look like.
That’s not a postcard, people — I took that.
In the fourteen years since Susan and I went to the Bahamas, Susan forgot how much she dislikes swimming with fishes. The water on the beach is crystal clear and from the minute you enter it you can see fish everywhere, from minnows in the shallow part to two-foot fish checking you out in the 2-3ft deep area. Many of the rock formations were covered in crabs, and before we knew it Mason was carrying around some type of sea slug and Morgan had picked up a hermit crab. Don’t let the clear water fool you — this ain’t no swimming pool!
After swimming around for a bit we headed over to La Laguna, the open air restaurant on the beach. Even though it was warm outside the grass umbrella over our table provided shade and the breeze from the ocean kept us cool. All four of us agreed that La Laguna served the best Mexican food we have ever eaten. Hands down, it was awesome! No Mexican meal would be complete without a Mariachi band. If you don’t know the drill, allow me to share the secret — give them a dollar and they’ll go away. After the meal my heart stopped for a minute when I got the bill — $570!!! My first thought was, “I’m going to Mexican jail.” Moments later the waiter said, “Oh, did you want that in US dollars?” I guess the look on my face gave it away. He then handed me another bill, this time for $45. That was for four meals, four drinks, an order of guacamole and chips, and a daiquiri. Worth every penny!
Just past the restaurant was an area where tourists could swim with trained dolphins (free to watch, $125 per person to participate). If we ever go back to Cozumel, we’ll skip Discover Mexico and head straight for Chankanaab or one of the other beaches. I also just found out via Wikipedia that Cozumel has two working brothels and I’m pretty pissed nobody mentioned that to me while I was there.
Back to America
With a healthy fear of being left behind in Mexico, the six of us got back to the ship early and, with a better understanding of the elevators and layout of the boat, had a much better time on the cruise. Before leaving port, all of us went up to the highest and furthest forward spot we could find on the boat and watched the Carnival Ecstasy pull away from the dock.
Later that night with the kids in Kids Club, Susan and I spent a few minutes in the boat’s casino (I won $250 playing quarter slots) and later had dinner in the fancy restaurant. Susan had prime rib and said it was delicious; I had snapper and it was great as well. When Susan mentioned we had never tried lobster tail before, they brought us another plate with a lobster tail and half a dozen shrimp. We were stuffed that night for sure! Also while the kids were in Kids Club, Susan and I attended an adults-only comedy show.
After landing back in Galveston two hours late (no complaints here), disembarking began. Disembarking was disorganized, confusing and frustrating. It was the one part of the cruise that we all agreed could have been handled better.
Remember how I said on the first day Susan and I had checked luggage? Leaving the boat is done floor by floor, starting with people who didn’t check luggage. I believe there were seven levels of people, and each level was given about ten minutes to leave. With no basis in reality at all, Susan and I guessed that exiting the boat would take about an hour, so since we were supposed to dock at 8am, we figured we would be on land by 9am. Hah! Instead we docked around 10am, and they started calling people without checked luggage at 10:15am. That went on for over an hour. At this point they cut air conditioning to the ship and our room started heating up so we got all our crap and headed to one of the decks, where we waited for another 30 minutes.
I should mention that once the boat hits the dock, everything closes. No more food, drinks, casino, swimming pools, nothing. All of a sudden you’re stuck on a rapidly-warming ship with nothing to do, two cranky kids, and no sign of leaving anytime soon.
We got off the boat shortly after noon and walked right into customs. Our luggage was there, so Susan headed off to find a porter (a guy with a cart). Porters don’t come for free, so once she convinced one we had cash, he came and picked up our bags. The one nice thing about having a porter is, for whatever reason, they get to cut to the front of the customs line. Hey, no complains here! Once we got through the shorter line, Susan and Morgan left to find a shuttle to take her to the truck. That took another half an hour or so, while Mason and I sat cooking curbside in the heat. After everything was said and done, the four of us were in the truck a few minutes after 1pm. What a mess. It is disappointing that you turn in your comment cards before disembarking begins. We had little to complain about before that, but we sure have a lot of comments and suggested improvements about leaving. Like anything else, now that we’ve been through it once, next time we’ll know what to expect.
- All of the crew members were extremely nice, helpful and polite. That being said, some of them had very thick accents and were difficult to understand.
- All general announcements were made in general areas and hallways, but not in our room. We couldn’t hear any of the general or disembarking announcements without propping our room door open.
- The first day of the cruise, the wait staff was pretty aggressive with their drink of the day specials. And by “pretty aggressive” I mean I probably said “no thanks” to over a dozen waiters during lunch. Keep in mind that the drink specials aren’t free — they’re $8 for the big ones. I was really afraid the whole trip might be like that; thank goodness they eventually laid off.
We will definitely cruise again. We had a blast and now that we know how things work, we will have more fun next time.