Preparation This was going to be our first cruise but because I just couldn't wait 9 whole months we took a 3 day cruise to nowhere out of Alexandria, Virginia on the NCL Leeward last August. That cruise did little to help the wait and in fact probably made it worse since we had such a terrific time.
The whole idea of a cruise came about when my other half's mother got some free airfare and was looking for somewhere to go. She suggested a cruise and I was all for it, immediately researching what was available. We suggested the date since we were planning on going to a friend's wedding in Miami and thought we would combine that with the cruise. Typical of first time cruisers, Chuck's mother, Juanita, thought she didn't want a full week of cruising so that narrowed down the choices. I was deciding between the Ecstasy and the Sovereign of the Seas. I had ruled out the Leeward since we had already booked her. I thought that I would probably like RCI better but I liked the itinerary of the Ecstasy much better and combined withthe fact that Juanita LOVES Vegas we went with the Ecstasy. Booking 9 months in advance gives you good choices for cabins and good prices too. Chuck's sister and brother-in-law, Terri and William and their good friends Becky and Paul, were also going so we had a nice group of eight, enough for our own table. We splurged and went for demi-suites with balcony. We had cabins V-9 and V-11 on the Veranda deck. The rest were in E-164, E-166. Everything booked, we all settled down for a very long 9-month wait.
About a week before the cruise we started going to a tanning salon so we wouldn't be "fish belly white" as we started the cruise. I think it is a good idea to get a head start on your tan. We also thought we could get a little sun in South Beach before the cruise.
Miami Our flight down from Washington DC on American Airlines was uneventful and we arrived in Miami on time. After picking up our rental car we drove out to the beach to find our hotel. I had not put much thought or planning into the hotel (as I was soon to regret) and we could tell upon walking into the lobby that it wasn't going to be pretty. We checked into our ocean view room (great view) and were extremely disappointed. A word of warning - if you are looking to stay in South Beach DO NOT stay at the Penguin Hotel. It was without a doubt the crummiest room we have ever had. Badly painted white walls, cheap carpet, hand painted old furniture (chipped to boot) and not even a chair. I was worried about the reactions of the rest of our group who were arriving the next day. If the rooms weren't bad enough they had the most incompetent desk clerks we have ever seen. Luckily we had so much fun in South Beach that it didn't ruin anything for us. We really enjoyed being there a few days early and had a great meal at Joe's Stone Crab and drinks at Smith & Wolenski at their waterfront outside bar. The latter is perfect for watching the ships leave Miami and we got to see a lot of them.
The day before the cruise we took a harbor cruise out of Bayside, a shopping and dining and entertainment area near the port. This is a great way to see Miami and some of the ships docked along Government Cut. We were all struck at how much more beautiful the Royal Caribbean ships were next to the Carnival ships (and for the record I don't work for RCI or have I ever sailed on one of their ships). Chuck commented that the Carnival Fantasy class ships looked like big rectangular hunks of floating cement painted white. I think they sort of look that way too and was hoping that once on board we would lose that feeling.
Embarkation We thought dropping off the car at the port would be a breeze but for some reason there was no sign to indicate where Avis was, the only car rental at the port. After getting some directions we easily found it and turned the car in. There was an Avis shuttle that took us to the Ecstasy. We dropped off our bags and heading into the terminal. Since it was 12:20 or so we expected a huge crowd. Happily the line wasn't long at all and we were checked in and on the ship within 10 minutes.
The Cruise It is exciting to enter into the grand atrium. I had heard from reading other reviews that it appears smaller than you expect but since I was prepared for it to look small, I thought it was larger than I expected. We took the glass elevator to the Veranda level and were greeted by Chuck's mother and her husband as the doors opened. They excitedly led us to our cabin, V-11 (they were next door in V-9), and we were thrilled upon entering it. It was a beautiful, large cabin with everything we could possibly need. It had a queen-sized bed, sofa and coffee table, vanity with stool, a dry bar with refrigerator, TV with VCR, two closets, one with shelves and 5 drawers. The bathroom was bigger than we expected with a good sized shower and we also were surprised to see bathrobes and toiletries since we had heard that Carnival didn't provide them. I had also ordered bon voyage gifts (from our cats) of wine and flowers and they were all there too. We opened the drapes to see our gorgeous view of Miami and the bay. The balcony was small but enough for us with two chairs and a table. People could see onto the balcony from the lower deck but this didn't bother us. I do have to say that having the balcony has not spoiled us into requiring one from now on though. Although nice, I think we can live without it in the future unless the price is right.
The first order of business was to change our dining assignment. We were not pleased that we had been assigned early seating when we had requested late seating 9 months before the cruise, a chronic problem on Carnival since you don't know your fate until you embark. We went to the table in the Society bar where changes were supposed to be made. He said there was nothing that could be done for the first night but they would try to get us changed for the rest of the cruise. Chuck went ballistic but the guy just sat there smirking. While not happy about this arrangement, we had no choice but to accept it.
We went on from there to explore the ship. I knew that the decor of this ship would not be my taste (and it wasn't) but basically it is well done and thought out. I think the design is done to look best at night and that is certainly the case. When walking around the common areas, bars and show lounges in the day time it is like you are seeing it during off hours and need to come back at night to see how it is really supposed to look. Regardless, the ship is huge and there are plenty of public spaces for the 2,300 passengers on our cruise. The passengers were basically an attractive group and I was pleased that there seemed to be very little rowdy behavior. There were almost no kids except a couple of groups of high school seniors (really not kids) who were well behaved for the most part. One thing that surprised me a little was how many young men seemed to think it was OK to not wear a shirt when inside the ship. When looking at the embarkation photos there were many men boarding the ship topless too! I just find it hard to believe that these people don't know better. Some men were sans shirts even in the food areas - gross.
We looked around the pools and upper deck and then went in to the Panorama Grill for the buffet lunch. I immediately did not like this room. Walls and molded plastic banquettes in a turquoise color, the room looked the most dated of any on the ship. It also had a rather unfortunate musty/sour sponge odor that was present throughout the cruise. We got a decent hamburger and were off to explore some more and get some sun before we sailed.
Since we had early seating for dinner this first night we missed some of the sail away events and view. We had a surprisingly good dinner, well presented and tasty. I had lamb chops and they were cooked perfectly. After dinner we went to the main show lounge (Blue Sapphire) and enjoyed two comedians. After that, a little gambling (no luck there) and off to bed.
The next morning we awoke to watch our approach into Key West. Just as in Miami (and also in Cozumel) our starboard side cabin was facing out into the ocean. We were very pleased with this arrangement. Since we have spent a great deal of time in Key West before, we took the Conch Train and the rest of our group rented bikes. We sailed at 2 pm and we enjoyed the rest of the afternoon on the rear pool deck. From our previous cruise I remembered that our favorite place to sit by the pool was on the upper level of the midship pool deck. There were always lovely breezes to keep you cool there. On the Ecstasy (and all Fantasy class ships) the lifeboats line this upper level blocking both air and any view. We sat in the rear pool deck because of this but it is a huge space packed with people and no shade anywhere. Although the ship seemed to have adequate deck space I missed a cascading aft and quiet areas with shade. The few deck areas with shade didn't have chairs so you were forced to sit in the hot sun.
The Captain's cocktail party was this night and we were really surprised that they had trays of free cocktails and appetizers for all. They didn't stop you at just one drink either and we felt it was very generous since we were expecting only champagne. Dinner that night (formal night) was excellent (lobster and prime rib) they had moved us to a wonderful table for eight by the window at late seating so we were pleased. They were extremely generous with the food too. I had prime rib and our waiter came by and offered me a lobster tail too! If you didn't like something they immediately brought you something else. It was surprising how many people didn't eat in the formal dining room though. I can't imagine that they preferred the less interesting fare in the smelly Panorama grill, but who knows. Since it was a Carnival cruise I wasn't expecting to see many men in tuxedos and we didn't. Everyone looked really nice though. We saw the big production show after dinner and it was fantastic. The dancing and singing were very professional and we all enjoyed it immensely.
We hit some very heavy seas in the morning on the way to Cozumel (10 to 12-foot swells) and the Ecstasy was really rocking and rolling. It only bothered two in our party and I actually thought it was fun. As we arrived in Cozumel I was excited to see several other ships docked there. At the main dock downtown was the Norwegian Sea and at the international dock there was the Leeward (our previous ship), the Sensation and an older ship, the Italia Prima of Andrea Doria fame. We docked right next to the Sensation and it was incredible to see these two giants side by side. Chuck had gone on the Tulum tour, Terri, William, Becky and Paul had gone snorkeling and the rest of us just did some shopping. The snorkeling and Mayan ruins were both big hits. We had another good meal that night too. Some gambling, dancing, shows and off to bed.
Our last day was at sea and I mostly rested - or at least tried to. Up to this point I had not thought that there were excessive announcements on the ship but they more than made up for that the last day at sea. It was incessant and annoying with the emphasis on getting you to buy, buy, buy. I was able to resist. This last night was the usual with the tips being handed out. In the brochure it mentions tips for only the room steward, the waiter, and the busboy. In reality, you are expected to tip the headwaiter and the maitre de also. No big deal but I think it should be mentioned in advance. We saw the passenger talent show that night (not too much talent there, but very fun) and gambled a little more. Juanita, who is most familiar with gambling, thought the slots were extremely tight. Becky did win a $100 at blackjack though and she was thrilled. We got to bed fairly early and when I awoke it was to the beautiful lights of South Beach in Miami twinkling in the distance. I got up and watched from over the bridge as the huge ship made her way up Government Cut. The debarkation was painless since we got off first and we were at the airport by 9:45 am! We were able to get on an earlier American flight than we were booked on and we were home in Washington, DC by 1:15.
Conclusion All in all the cruise was great for our group. Everyone had a terrific time and we will probably do one again next year as a group. That said, I think there is room for improvement in a few areas for Carnival or at least the Ecstasy. First of all, as mentioned before, the Panorama Grill had an unpleasant smell. I also thought the formal dining room (Wind Star) smelled musty. I have to admit though that I am pretty sensitive to bad smells (for example the diesels exhaust on all ships bothers me) but it did seem that the dining areas should smell fresher. Another problem was with the crew. Our waiter and several other workers on the ship just didn't seem happy. Our waiter, perhaps in an attempt to make us feel sorry for him and tip him more, told us of the hard life and unpleasant conditions that they lived with on the ship. I also had more than one bartender complain that few tipped beyond the 15% included in the liquor (they said this to me since I do tip over that amount) and a lot of the crew just didn't look happy. I am not sure if this is a Carnival thing or not but it made me feel uncomfortable and didn't do much to enhance the "Fun Ship" mood or concept. Everything was done efficiently and well but without a happy face. I know that their conditions must be bad but they are not slaves and could work elsewhere. Our waiter indicated that the three and four day cruises are harder to work and I'm sure he is right, although Carnival is planning more of them in the future. Carnival does seem to provide a good basic product but I'm pretty sure I won't be sailing with them again anytime in the near future. I am anxious to try Princess and Celebrity to see if there really is any difference. I have to say that I did like our cruise with NCL better and preferred the understated decor. In conclusion, I have to say that I'm from the school of thought that there is no such thing as a bad cruise and this certainly was no exception, we had a great time.