Megaships to Mexico

| Sept. 21, 2009

Top Ten Reasons to Cruise a Megaship to Mexico - on Carnival's Splendor multiplies guest options.

As a longtime Los Angeles-area resident, I often slip into the stereotypical Southern California mindset that overemphasizes physical beauty and material wealth. Despite my peers' thinly-veiled denials, success in Los Angeles is typically defined by style over substance. Ever heard of Hollywood? Whether you're an aspiring actor, a wannabe model -- or a cruise ship -- you'd better be young, good-looking and hip to make it in L.A.

So why did it take Carnival Cruise Lines so long to get the memo? Whatever, it's all forgiven now. The recent deployment of the new Carnival Splendor to L.A. for year-round, seven-day Mexican Riviera cruises to Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas is not only a casting agent's dream, but a complementary union of style and substance.

The last new ship Carnival deployed to L.A. was the Tropicale, then the fourth ship in its fleet - and its first new build. That was way back in the mid-1980s. Since then, the Holiday, Ecstasy and other (thankfully) forgettable tonnage has dared grace our shores. And although Carnival has put increasingly larger and newer vessels into service here over the years, we were way overdue for a major upgrade to a sparkling new ship. Our prayers have now been answered.

Carnival Splendor's fresh new hardware and pink decor evoke a West Hollywood interior design studio gone slightly wacky - just without the celebrities. It's an over-the-top, very pink and very busy look that not everyone will love, but its bold design will undoubtedly be appreciated on the West Coast.

I set out on a recent voyage to find the top ten reasons for Carnival Splendor's likely success in Tinseltown. Lights, camera, action!

1.   Megaship = more options. The older, smaller ships Carnival previously deployed on this route didn't have nearly as many guest options as Carnival Splendor. Her 13 passenger decks feature myriad full-service and casual dining venues, 22 themed public rooms, four pools, two adults-only deck areas, a 21,000-sq. ft. spa (Carnival's largest to-date), a 5,500-sq. ft. Camp Carnival play area (also Carnival's largest to-date) and an eclectic, original art collection. Today's increasingly sophisticated travelers demand diversity and choice, and only megaships can deliver that combination.

2.   This isn't food -- it's cuisine! In years past, the phrases "Carnival's food" and "cutting edge" would never be used in the same sentence, but that's no longer the case. The quality and presentation of Carnival's dining room cuisine has made giant leaps in recent years, resetting the bar for mass-market cruise lines. Innovative, artful presentation, quality preparation, modern cooking styles and a myriad of healthy options give Carnival's dinner menus a contemporary feel. And the eye-pleasing presentation extends to all courses. Even the slice of Baked Alaska- a cruise dessert staple - arrived on a plate with a swirl of chocolate and melon confetti. I had heard that Carnival's new Pinnacle steakhouse would give other lines' alternative restaurants a run for their money, but I never expected that it would surpass them.

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The Aft Dining Room   Splendor Atrium

The cuisine, presentation and service are reminiscent of a fine shoreside steakhouse, without the high prices. This is a $30 per person luxury that's not to be missed. Casual dining stations along Carnival Splendor's sprawling Lido deck run the gamut: a Taste of Nations buffet that changes daily; a separate, unthemed but varied buffet; a rotisserie station with comfort food like rotisserie chicken, baked potatoes, mac 'n cheese and corn on the cob; a wildly popular Mongolian Grill, where diners choose the ingredients and pass them to the chef for a quickly wok'd meal; the grille, featuring burgers, hot dogs and chicken breast sandwiches; a New York-style deli; a 35-item salad bar; and an L.A.-centric, custom-made Burrito Bar.

A particularly bold move appreciated by L.A. denizens (the L.A. metro area has hundreds of Indian restaurants) is the dedicated Indian Tandoor station, featuring delicious tandoori chicken and fish along with freshly-made Nan bread. The 24/7 pizza station, further described below, is a popular poolside option, and California Roll serves up sushi and tapas nightly on the Promenade deck.

3.   Nirvana for kids. Family cruising has always been Carnival's strong suit, and it's made even better with Carnival Splendor's massive, well-equipped kids' facilities. With 5,500 square feet, the activities directors in the age-tiered Camp Carnival have plenty of room to carry out seven days of enjoyable activities. My six-year-old, Sasha, gave Camp Carnival rave reviews and also enjoyed her time in the Water Spray Park, on the Mini Golf course, and on the Twister Waterslide. The nightly, hosted kids' dinners are appreciated by moms and dads, who can enjoy a relaxed, romantic dinner.

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Mongolian Barbecue   The Lido Dining Room

4.   Carnival's first Spa Class staterooms. Identical in size to standard outside stateroom with balcony (and varying only slightly in décor), Carnival Splendor's spa class staterooms come with some nice perks -- Elemis bathroom amenities, waffle-weave robes, slippers, and, most importantly, a wristband that gives the wearer unlimited, complimentary access to the common areas of the Cloud 9 spa. Entering the calming, rejuvenating waters of the Thalassotherapy pool or relaxing in the Heated Bedroom or the Aroma Steamroom is a retreat into a tranquil oasis.

5.   Carnival's Seaside Theater. This innovative entertainment option, first introduced by sister line Princess, has become a hit on Carnival. Guests old enough to remember drive-in theaters will take pleasure in this similar, updated experience, enhanced by the ocean breeze, fresh popcorn and a massive, 270-square foot LED screen. And the seating, in reclining, full-length lounges at the midship pool, is more comfortable than being crammed behind the steering wheel.

6.   Great Pizza - 24/7! Consistent with Carnival's upgraded culinary options is a fast-food favorite that the line has also improved vastly over the years: pizza. What a difference a few years, dedicated space and know-how can make. Aboard Carnival Splendor, the choice - and more importantly, the quality - of pies at the poolside pizzeria is impressive. Five varieties of pizza, plus calzone and Caesar salad, are served continuously - fresh and hot from the oven.

7.   Year-round family cruising options. In years past, most ships plying the Mexico route went north to Alaska in summer, leaving scant options for summer family cruising to Mexico. Carnival Splendor's year-round Mexico schedule has remedied that, and Royal Caribbean's deployment of Mariner of the Seas on the same route and schedule should keep pricing competitive. Summer weather on the Mexican Riviera, however, is hot and humid, with an ever-present chance of hurricanes. That said, passengers still participated in a variety of shore excursions in each port.

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Camp Carnival   the miniature golf course

We enjoyed the Semi-Submersible in Cabo (expertly operated by Cabo Submarine), which affords an up-close, scuba-like view of colorful sea life just beneath the surface at Land's End. Carnival Splendor's covered mid-ship pool affords another year-round advantage. The sliding sky dome over the largest pool - which can be opened, closed, or positioned anywhere in between - allows for comfortable poolside temperatures year-round. In winter months, the first day out of L.A. and the last day cruising home can be very cool. The ability to adjust the temperature while letting in warming sunlight is a luxury heretofore unavailable on any Carnival ship in regular service to the Mexican Riviera.

8.   Hygienically Safe travel. Justifiably or not, many vacationers shy away from booking a land vacation to Mexico due to health issues related to water, food and possible disease. Cruising to Mexico effectively removes that risk. All meals can be consumed onboard (returning to the ship for a nice, air-conditioned lunch breaks up a hot day in port) while bottled beverages ashore are always safe to drink. Since the rare but headline-grabbing news of norovirus outbreaks aboard cruise ships, the lines have added new safety layers to their stringent hygiene standards, approved by the U.S. Public Health Service and the CDC.

Hyper-awareness of personal cleanliness, specifically hand-washing and frequent sanitization of high-touch surfaces, work to prevent the spread of disease. As on most ships, you'll find hand sanitizer stations at every dining venue on Carnival Splendor. If a passenger or crew member displays symptoms of norovirus, H1N1 flu, or any other communicable disease, they are immediately quarantined. In addition, Carnival now performs a pre-boarding medical assessment of potentially-infected passengers during the embarkation process and may deny boarding to protect the ship's population.

9.   3,000-plus passengers aren't necessarily a drawback. The principal knock on megaships is that the large number of passengers can create crowding and long waits. This may be true during tender service, at breakfast and lunch buffets and at embarkation/disembarkation. Rarely mentioned, however, are the benefits that a larger passenger complement confers on the overall shipboard experience. Due to the sheer number of passengers, pleasant social encounters can occur almost anywhere and at anytime. And in the rare event that you do encounter someone you'd rather not see again, you'll likely get your wish due to the size of the ship.

Affordability is another plus. More cabins to fill year-round may translate to slightly lower fares. Dual tender stations vastly expedited the tender process in Cabo San Lucas, providing much faster service than on smaller ships with far fewer passengers. And those long lines at breakfast and lunch buffets never materialized on our sailing (with 3,586 passengers aboard), due to the well-designed and distributed scope of casual dining options.

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The Spa   Splendor Spectacular Mian Show   The Tequila Shot Trio

10.   Live nighttime entertainment in up to 10 venues. With a range and variety of entertainment impossible on smaller ships, Carnival Splendor's lounges, bars, pool areas and showrooms offer something for everyone. From soft piano melodies wafting through the atrium lobby to intimate comedy acts in the Cool club to dance music in the El Morocco show lounge, Carnival Splendor's entertainers deliver crowd-pleasing performances. Production shows in the 1,400-seat Spectacular showroom are expertly choreographed and feature up to 18 performers in three unique, Vegas-quality shows, while in a more intimate venue, a jazz guitarist soothes broken dreams in the casino.

Tucked inside the dark, moody, hard-to-find Robusto Bar, I found an unexpected gem: Tequila Shot Trio. Those lucky enough to cruise on this ship before December 2009 (the end of the group's current contract) will witness an extraordinarily talented Mexican trio performing a varied mix of Latin music styles. Their romantic sound sends girls' hearts aflutter and prompts couples to nudge closer together on the red leather sofas. My wife and I found our niche here. With plenty of other options on this megaship, you're sure to find yours.

David Yeskel is a veteran freelance travel writer and cruise expert who lives in Santa Monica, CA. His byline has appeared in TravelAge West Magazine, Las Vegas Magazine, Travel Agent Magazine and Travel Weekly. David has sailed on over 50 cruises and has inspected twice that number of ships. His love affair with cruising began in 1981, when he first sailed Carnival's Carnivale.

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