This is a review from a pair of first-time cruisers, so we had no prior experience to skew our expectations!
I thoroughly researched all of the review sites for info on our upcoming cruise prior to departing, and read everyone's great tips on how this cruise was probably going to be based on the overall opinion on Carnival, but let me give you some up to date details, and you may want to look at this ship the next time you are looking for a short, fun cruise. I took copious notes during this trip, both written and mental, and came up with quite a few details that will interest you if you are thinking of going "Carnival."
Let's review in chronological order.
Booking: We booked five weeks in advance through a travel agent in our hometown, West Palm Beach, Florida. Being local means no airlines to contend with, so this is simply a cruise review. We did, however, talk to several cruisemates who used the Air & Sea program, and we heard no complaints regarding Carnival.
We booked a cabin on the Verandah Deck, category 11, about 8 cabins back fromthe bow (right under the "c" in "Ecstasy" painted on ship's top deck.) This is important later, and I'll tell you why! We were on the port side in V-26. The charge was $795.00 each, all charges included. Our cruise package and tickets arrived at the agent's about ten days later for pick-up.
We were now scheduled and eagerly anticipating our three-day cruise to Nassau from Miami!
There are swarms of porters who will try to practically grab your bags, and one inferred that we were REQUIRED to give him our luggage for portage to the terminal. We wanted to walk the short distance ourselves to keep our luggage close at hand and did so, and this is fine (and saves a tip) if you choose to do so yourself.
Embarkation Now THIS is an area we expected to be a huge hassle based on some other reviews. Therefore, we arrived at Miami's port at 11:00 AM on Friday May 19, and were happy to find that being early got us a parking space about thirty yards from Terminal 8, where the Ecstasy was docked. The parking is $30 for three day cruises, $40 for four days. No lines, hassle, or searching for a space at all.
Inside the #8 building, however, was the first of our very few negatives. The seating in this room is sparse- there are twenty linked seats- and the staff seemed worn-out and quite unhappy to be there. They do not greet you at all, and quickly bring your happy expectations to a level closer to the earth. Carnival should strive to teach these people that while they may have seen this embarkation process hundreds of times, the passengers may be on their very first cruise (we were!) and may be wanting a more uplifting atmosphere. However, nobody was rude, and when questioned, the employees would answer accurately. No information or updates are offered, however, and absolutely nobody smiles.
However, at about noon, we were allowed through Security (two quickly-moving queues through a metal detector and some dour guards) and into a large and comfortable processing room. Don't worry if you are bringing along anything small that you don't want seen, as nobody looks or asks, or sniffs, in any way shape or form. They only scan to make sure you aren't bringing booze, because then you are cutting in on their action!
Anyway, we were at the counter within 5 minutes, and, having already filled out our Bahamas entry cards and our Sign-and-Sail application, we were in the "go-aboard" room within 5 more minutes. Sign-in, therefore, was quick and painless, although again we met with the same efficient but dour service people at the counter. WELCOME your people better, Carnival, as "Fun Ship" should start with a more party-going atmosphere than this during the necessary evil of embarkation processing.
A couple of Security tips: Yes, they do scan luggage for liquor bottles coming aboard, and one couple nearby was pulled aside discretely to have their bags looked at. Second, have all the sign-in cards filled out before you head to the port. Some people didn't and we saw them delay others as a result. Other than this, it was a breeze.
After 35 minutes waiting for the ship to be "cleared" by Customs from the previous cruise, we were allowed up the escalator to the ship. We carried our own five bags aboard as we had heard from other Carnival vets that if Carnival takes your luggage during sign-in, it may not be brought up to your cabin until 7 or 8 PM; this turned out to be true. If you are in the early-seating dinner, you will need to bring clothes in a carry-on. "Casual elegance," by the way, is the dress code for the dining rooms on the first night.
First Impression: We traversed the gang-plank and entered a new world aboard the ship. You enter into the Grand Atrium on the main deck. This is a large space, seven decks high, that is decorated in a neon-plastic-stainless-steel multicolor melange. The overriding colors seem to be purple, black, red, and some pink.
It is certainly garish in its meeting of 80's and futuristic decor, but if you want the physical attributes of a party ship, this is what you expect, and we did. It isn't offensive at all, just kind of almost-tacky. But it works, just like the Hawaiin shirt I had packed for this cruise; I wouldn't wear it at home but I wanted it on this ship! We were happy an excited, and I'm glad to note that at this point, the REAL Carnival service and atmosphere took over. The employees in tis area DO greet you, they DO smile, and the DO ask what they can do to help or answer questions. Very nice. We were pointed to one of the two very neat glass elevators that ascend through the atrium (great view, very very slow) and took it to the Verandah deck.
The Cabin: This is the HIGHLIGHT of our cruise. Oh, did we love our cabin! We immediately met some of the others on our deck and I have a lot of tips about how to book on this deck.
First of all, BE on this Verandah deck. We walked through the entire remainder of the ship for sample views of cabins during the course of the cruise, and none matched our Verandah cabin for overall appeal in our opinion. There is one higher cabin grade, Category 12, but although we saw that these rooms were nicer, they are on the low part of the ship and you don't get the same viewing perspective that we got in our Category 11 balcony room. After having this balcony, I don't think I will ever cruise without one again, as it turned out that we spent 75% of our cabin time on our verandah. It is a wonderful feeling.
Second of all, get the RIGHT Verandah cabin. The four closest to the bow on each side are too close to an outdoor stairway between the decks, and there is little privacy on your balcony what with passengers constantly going up and down in front of you. Stay away from the back five Verandah cabins as well, because these have a lifeboat hanging right in front of the window! Get one of the middle ones. And don't get an inside one at all, as our friends did, because even though they are on the "Verandah"deck, they don't even have a window, nevermind a verandah.
Third, you should know that as Verandah deck passengers, you will have the most comfortable Debarkation meeting site (more later) in the Starlight Lounge, close to coffee, and FIRST to get off the ship. We thank our travel agent for these first three tips.
We entered our cabin with the keys (plastic hole-puch cards) we had been given at sign in, and were immediately very happy. The room was fresh, clean, elegant and inviting. I had ordered the "Superior" flower arrangement, a bottle of Asti, a tux, a beach wrap and drink coupons from the "Bon Voyage" card in the ticket package. The wine was on ise with two glasses (spotted, by the way, but clean), the flowers were a very nice contemporary orchid arrangement in a hologrammed vase (my girlfriend loved them) and there were stubs on the counter with the already-activated Sail-and-Sign cards on the vanity. Nice. As far as the tux goes, that has to be picked up on the Promenade deck from the flower shop "Formalities" and for some reason they don't leave the drink tickets in the room, you have to get them at dinner from the headwaiter. I wouldn't bother with these as they didn't save money or time when buying bar drinks.
The decor was perfectly acceptable. The left wall contained a tri-mirror, large vanity with four drawers, there was a double-doored, deep wardrobe with one full-length side for hangers and the other with more large shelves. A coat closet, also full length, was just inside the door. Hangers were provided. The TV was above a slide-open bar that contained a couple dozen wine and drink glasses in front of mirrors. The TV got about thirty channels (several are looping info channels, channel 6 shows video highlights continuously of the previous day's on-board activity.) There is a VCR built in. The wood that this was all constructed of was a dark-brown gloss, in good shape, but with some scratches and gouges. Nothing too bad.
The carpeting and linens were in good shape, and again, fresh and clean. We had a love seat and a coffee table next to our Queen bed, very comfortable on both counts. To both sides of the bed are dome lights with just the right shape and brightness to set the atmosphere; we loved the lighting! Along with these lights, there are switches for a bank of adjustable spotlights as well as a room-encircling set of bright fluorescents. Very nice job.
We had heard that there is only one electrical outlet in the staterooms, but that must be on other decks because we had one in the cabin and in the bathroom light fixture as well. As far as other electrical switches go, here's a tip: the air conditioning control is in the vent itself in the ceiling! And it worked just fine as long as the balcony door was closed.
The bathroom was better than we expected. Plenty of space, big shower, hand-held nozzle (watch out to not spray it on the shower curtain, because it WILL hit the floor outside the shower stall) and plenty of hot water at good pressure. A medicine cabinet with clean glasses and lots of space hung above the slightly aging sink. The room was lit with a fluorescent above this, and tiled in battleship gray.
The balcony itself is floored with the same smooth, clean hardwood of the decks, is nicely seperated by a heavy divider from the neighboring balconies, and while small is just fine for sitting. It's about three feet wide and ten feet long furnished with two heavy white plastic deck chairs and a table.
Fun Stuff: There was a copy of the Carnival Capers waiting in the room when we arrived. On the back page is the best part: "Today at a Glance." I cut this off every day and folded it inside the ship directory for my pocket, and we would take it out and look at it all day long every day for "What's happening now." Of course, we are not the "plan it all out" types; we had decided to just go, see what there was to do, and decide whether or not to do it just before it was time to happen.
We liked everything we saw. The on-board music is watered down a bit to try to please everyone, but it worked, and the activities are diverse enough to suit any taste. It was very "one-size-fits-all" as far as activities go, so see what you are in the mood for. Highlights: the comedian in the Starlight Lounge was very funny, the rock band in the ChinaTown Bar ("The Dirt Poets" were their name) was talented enough to pull this off, and the Singles Party next door at Stripes Disco was extremely fun (and full of drunk people doing things they would not do soberly!) Good spice and great atmosphere, great staff in Stripes leading the party.
by the way, the cruise Director, "Peter," gives several speeches on the necessaries ("Coming Baoard", "Debarkation", etc.) and is terrific at what he does. Even the dry was entertaining, and his "Cruise Director's Top 10 Stupid Questions" routine for Debark was great (sample: at one stop, a passenger standing at a seaside dock asked him "So, what do you think the altitude is around here?") We unpacked, hung out on our balcony for a while, then went for our first lunch at the Lido deck buffet.
Food: There are several ways to eat aboard this ship. You can have all three meals in the main dining rooms, but we went for the buffets at breakfast and lunch and did Dinner in the mains (the "WindStar" and the "WindSong.") Then, there is a midnight buffet starting at 11:30-11:45 PM, and pizza and room sevice as fill-ins between seatings and buffets.
Buffets on the Lido Deck: surprise! We expected cool french fries, steamed hot dogs, and dry burgers here at lunch, and soggy eggs, limp bacon and hard rolls for breakfast. We were SO surprised. The breakfast items were much better than we expected; serve yourself crispy bacon, good hot sausage, several danishes, a lot of fruits, always something being sliced on a cutting board (ham, etc.) and a made-to-order omelet station. Lunch was even better! Yes, the burgers and dogs were there, but there was a great salad and fruit bar, including some of the best herb-and-sour-cream potato salad I've ever had. The cutting board was out at lunch too, including a lamb roast one day! Also, the entree items included very good (for buffet) Italian and Chinese-type items. Much to choose, and none of it was disappointing or tasted aged or stale.
I have to also mention the tables and the servise in the buffet. For one thing, there are dozens of bussers picking up and wiping down constantly, so you don't really wait or look long for a free table. You can sit outside on the deck, with sun or shade, inside in a galley hall, or in the two cafeteria areas. The tables have a little fresh-flower vase, salt pepper ketchup mustard relish, and your silverware comes rolled in a maroon linen napkin. If you need something, someone gets it for you quickly with a smile. We were really happy here, and think that some of the reviews we had read about the Lido buffets were overly critical; we were pleased and satisfied. The only negative I can think of here is that the trays themselves seemed kind of beaten up, and the plastic cups for the juice just had kind of a "slick" feeling to them.
In the Main dining room (we were late-seaters (8:15 PM) for the Windsong room) we were treated to superb service (we loved the assistant waiter, who was talkative, funny, and had a great dry sense of humor.) The headwaiter, "Babu", attended well and we often saw him running the room with his little notepad keeping tabs and making things smooth. Our tablemate, we learned, was having a birthday the second night, so my girlfriend let Babu know, and out came his little notebook and sure enough the next night a personalized cake was delivered with a song from our waiters. We ordered wine the first night (go right ahead, the selection is adequate and the prices are perfectly reasonable) and this was served promptly and correctly. Everything arrived on time and as ordered.
The food itself in the dining room isn't quite multi-star, however. It's much better than "OK" and is presented very prettily, but it's a bit on the steam-table side. I can tell you that the salads were crispy and tasted fresh all three nights, with good dressings. The appetizers were good but very small. You can order two of anything, but do it up front to make sure you get it in the right order. I especially liked the Jamaican Bean Soup- it was great stuff. Our table had escargot one night and this passed muster, but again- pre-cooked and kept-heated is how I would describe everything, which is expected, but Carnival should adjust their thinking on selection based on this necessity. You can't serve a steam-table steak, for instance, but I got one when I ordered the Peppered New York Strip steak one night, thinking they HAD to cook these to order- well, they don't, and the less said about this one really bad item, the better. The atmosphere and the service easily compensate for the steam table food, and there are few disappointments. Some tips: if you order the rack of lamb chops or the lobster tails, order two because these are very small. Yes, they will insist on bringing you two separate plates, (no, they won't put them together for you, I don't know why) but you can put them discretely together yourself. Nobody even raises an eyebrow at double orders, and many passengers seem to do it. I do have to say that not one of the desserts stood out; I do not remember what I ordered on any of the three nights for dessert, and I remember thinking "bland" when eating some one of these... this is an area for improvement.
As far as the Midnight Buffet goes, the food was served in the main dining rooms two nights and on the Lidao deck the second night. The Lido one was best, but the food and selection were comparable to the surprising lunch buffets but with not quite the same service. There are fewer staff, expectedly a bit tired, but still good Carnival attitudes EXCEPT for one guy doing the dining room seating the first and third night; he was a bit rude, handled seating as if he were handling a busload of ninth-graders on a field trip, and wanted to force groups together at tables in an effore to reduce cleanup. Tacky. Go ahead and let people sit where they want to in a midnight buffet, and just staff it for the extra cleanup. We didn't really want to socialize by force at midnight.
Room service. Well, they serve it quickly, and the fruit tray was good. Drinks were delivered quickly. Everything else we ordered from room service was sub-par. There isn't much selection. The roast beef sub was dry and skimpy. The veggie tray had been frozen and thawed at some point. We really tossed more of it than we ate, I'm sorry to say; this area needs improvement.
After Dinner: There was a deck party on the Day at Sea night, and the Carnival staff really keep up the same great atmosphere. The judge hairy chests, knobby knees, best Elvis impression (to "Jailhouse Rock"), best Aretha Franklin (to "Respect") and have loads of other mini-events throughout. Its a good time.
There are six or seven bars on the ship. Try for your own tastes as they run from quiet mood music to blaring disco. However, all shared some commonalities:
Number one, Carnival does NOT water down their drinks. (They don't have Chambord aboard, though, in case (like my girlfriend) you drink it.)
Number two, they do NOT rip you off on drinks. Most were under four bucks. Even fully-garnished (all drinks were fully garnished in all areas, a nice touch) frozen drinks were only five bucks. They do add a tip to all drinks, but a little cash on the side is probably warranted because I usually tip a buck a drink and I felt bad that Carnival only adds about fifty cents to most drink orders (15%.)
Number three, service is great. Carnival seems to have a great system of moving their wait staff on a just-in-time basis. We really never waited at any time on board in any objectionable lines.
In the Casino, I won $90 over the three nights but that is only because I saved myself with a fourteen hand run at Blackjack. Otherwise, I would have lost. The staff here is good, professional, and impressive in that they can take a drink order from you and find you fifteen minutes later every time even if you've moved quite a bit since ordering. It never failed. Drinks still cost in the Casino, by the way, to the vet gamblers. I'm not a vet gambler, but I could tell that the slots really weren't paying anybody much, hate to say it. They don't really "tease"you with some small hits, you just seem to pump it in and lose it a little faster than in most casinos that aren't on board a ship. Stick to the stuff where the odds are the same as you're used to and you'll have a good time, as we did. Again, no lines or elbows in the Casino either. The tables did fill up, though, at the peak on Saturday night.
Staff in General: Our cabin was kept extremely well by the Cabin Steward, and we did get one towel animal (a bunny on the last night was waiting for us on the bed.) Our steward didn't watch the toilet paper, as we did almost run out, but everything else was terrific about him, and the deck staff was quite pleasant. Everyone else was helpful and funny as well. Questions were answered politely and accurately. The only quibble I have is that of the two people taking reservations for shore excursions (at a card table set upon the Promenade deck) one of them, the male, was not knowledgable of Nassau at all (he had never heard of the "Straw Market" and the woman was reluctant to give us info on how to get to the Straw Market as we weren't booking anything with her. Only later did we find out that these people aren't helpful Carnival people- Carnival doesn't run their shore excursions. They contract it all out for a "cut." So, you get some salesmanship from people who have no specific motive to serve the cruiseline's best interest regarding protecting its image. And it showed a bit here. We didn't go with any of the excursions because we wanted to be free of schedules, but we did find from our friends that they are worth the money, especially the "Blue Lagoon" beach party. We did our own excursion by walking ten minutes to the Nassau Straw Market and then cabbing it to Atlantis/PAradise Island. The Market was full of very colorful shops and people all pushing practically the EXACT same items. There were literally hundreds of booths, but we saw the same items repeated at each of them and very, very little unique. It was too pushy for our tastes, and although we got a few deals and were generally happy, we probably won't center a Nassau excursion around it again. Paradise Island, however, for a four-buck cabride (everyine takes US dollars) and a $25 entry fee was superb. Loads of water slides and pools in a tropical lagoon setting with a rich, elegant atmosphere and an outstanding underground aquarium. Very, very impressive. There was one drawback, however; they don't have lockers for your valuables if you decide to get your swimsuit on, so be advised.
Shops and Ship in General: The Ecstasy was very easy to learn and get around on (although we had trouble finding the doorway to get out of the ship at Nassau! Memorize where it is the first time you go there!) It was also quite clean and felt sanitary. Some old review problems don't seem to exist anymore (bathrooms were all clean and working, we didn't notice any funny smells other than where you'd expect them anywhere.) On a sanitary scale from one-to-ten, I'd give it the "9." And no evidence at all of that fire they had on board two years ago.
Some quibbles: perhaps they could speed up the two glass elevators, and perhaps the photo room could be made wider and with more than two cashiers (they take a lot of photos on board, but to purchase them became a hassle.) The shops on board need more items, and a higher grade of item, perhaps. The duty-free shop indeed was not a gimmick, however; we purchased two litres of Absolut (the Customs limit is one litre each, and a carton of cigarettes each) and two cartons of smokes for a grand total of fifty bucks; the tab at home in West Palm Beach would have been ninety bucks! Overall, the experience exceeded our expectations.
Disembarkation: Finally, it was time to leave. I despise that they make you get up and out so early on the last day, but I understand they want to turn it around to save money. Still, nine-thirty would have been so much better than eight AM, especially since we sat in the debark meeting room for 45 minutes. Eventually, they troop you off, and the process is painless. Customs was literally zero- we walked right past them as did every other passenger from our group. There was no interaction at all. No dogs, searches, questions or security- we just handed them our declaration forms and went home.
But we shall return to Carnival, in hopefully the same cabin for another (longer!) cruise!
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.