"Carnival has the fun" reads the exterior banner stretching across the side of Carnival's cruise ship Ecstasy. It's the first week-end in December, when one would think most folks are home preparing for the holidays, but this half-a-cruise down the Mexican Riviera from Long Beach, California to Ensenada, Mexico, is sold out.
At our late seating in the Wind Star Dining Room, we meet our tablemates, a combination of couples and singles from Southern California. After dinner we check out Casino Royale, where there is plenty of action at slot machines, video poker machines, and live table games.
The last thing we do Friday night is put out the menu hang-tag on our cabin door with our selections for room-service breakfast. Saturday morning, not wanting to be among the first crowd surging to get into Ensenada, we sleep until 8 a.m. Our in-cabin breakfast, including a pot of coffee arrives. Around ten we head into Ensenada for a day of exploring and shopping. Two men in what appears to be Mayan Indian garb are available at the foot of the gangway on the waterfront promenade for souvenir photo ops.
The air-conditioned bus ride to the blowhole takes about forty-five minutes, through barren Baja countryside. The stalls at La Bufadora offer silver jewelry, clothing, leather goods, rubber snakes and bugs, pottery, hats, fish tacos, and churros, the long, deep-fried Mexican version of the doughnut. There are also plenty of opportunities to buy Coronas with lime. We don't recommend churros and Coronas together. . .
We're too tired from shopping to stay in Ensenada until the ship sails, so we're on the shuttle back to the waterfront promenade where there's yet one more colorful Mexican shopping opportunity. Good thing our little cabin has ample storage for our luggage and our shopping purchases, too.
At dinner we hear from our tablemates all about what we missed. Seems a lot of young people gathered at Tapas and Beer, the restaurant/bar that's replaced Husong's Cantina (still the same as it was in the sixties) as the most popular watering hole in Ensenada. One thing led to another, and later in the afternoon there were girls dancing on tables in various stages of drunkenness and undress. Making cruise memories?
After dinner there is a musical dance show, "Dream Voyage." The Blue Sapphire Theater is the scene for bingo, major announcements such as the lifeboat drill, and production shows to rival Vegas. An eight-piece orchestra backs a seventeen-member cast. Most impressive are Russian adagio dance couple Victoria & Yuri, with some breathtaking moves we've never seen before, executed with grace and style.
On this cruise, Sunday is Ecstasy's day-at-sea.
"Thank goodness we don't have to go shopping today," exclaims my cabin mate upon awakening Sunday morning.
I'm up early and off for my massage date. Fitness classes begin at 7:30 a.m. with the Body Power Walk, Yoga, Cardio Kick boxing, cycling, and end with a stretch and relaxation class at 5 p.m.
After lunch in the Wind Song Dining Room we check out the Art preview at the Rolls Royce Art Café (there's a real Rolls Royce parked in front of it) on the Promenade deck, midship. Then we poke our heads into the Gala Champagne Auction.
What would a day at sea be without demonstrations? On the Lido stage, pool deck, the head ice-carver, Victor, sculpts an Indian head in five minutes. Victor is from the Philippines and hails from a long line of wood-carvers. We learn that the average ice carving lasts four to six hours at room temperature, costs between $600 and $1,000., and can take as many as eight hours to create. Victor says the ice dragon heading up the midnight buffet took almost six hours to carve.
The nap we considered is foregone since, dining being of primary interest, we couldn't pass up a tour of the Ecstasy's kitchenexcuse meon a ship it's called the Galley.
Opportunities to eat aboard the Ecstasy are endless. Formal breakfasts, lunches and dinners are served in the aft Wind Star and forward Wind Song (smoke-free) dining rooms with two main seatings and two late seatings. At the Panorama Bar & Grill on the Lido Deck, meals and snacks are available at any time of the day, with ice cream and sweet treats in the afternoon. Coffee, tea, and fresh pizza are available there around the clock. A sushi bar on the Promenade Deck serves a limited menu (four kinds) of sushi from 5:30 p.m. till 8:30 p.m. (Sushi is like liquor; you pay extra for this.)
A peek behind the scenes on the Festivale Galley Tour, led by the head maitre d', reveals the secrets of such massive food movement. He explains that while the Food and Beverage Department is managed by the Food and Beverage Manager, the galley itself is under the direction of the Executive Chef. We trail behind him, weaving through what seems like acres of stainless steel refrigerators, stovetops, sinks and prep areas. This nerve-center of the food department turns out over a half million guest meals annually.
A weekly grocery list for the Ecstasy includes 27,000 pounds of various meats, fish and poultry, 12,500 pounds of fruits and vegetables, 1,000 gallons of ice cream and 48,000 eggs. On sailing day in Long Beach, provision loading begins at 6 a.m. and lasts until four p.m. All provisions are purchased in the U.S. and are inspected and approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The food must be cleared by U.S. customs and is immediately transferred into temperature-controlled storage rooms.
The Wind Song and Wind Star dining rooms can seat 1,200 people each at one time. Because turnover is so fast, everything served is very fresh, and amazingly, your dinner arrives at your table hot.
At the completion of the tour, crewmembers demonstrate how to fold napkins, and fold towels into cute little seals, bunnies, puppies and fish that appear on your pillow at night.
At 4:30 p.m. there is a special Ecstasy Christmas Show in the Blue Sapphire Theater. The Ecstasy Dancers and hosts are joined by the children of Camp Carnival, Ecstasy's children's program, creating a nostalgic blend of holiday cheer.
We decide we're having too much fun and should check our e-mail messages so we head for the Internet Café, which is open until 11 p.m., on the Promenade Deck. It's a card system, and the minimum is $16 for 30 minutes. Then there's a "one-time log-on fee" of $3.95. Suddenly checking our e-mail doesn't seem quite that important.
A late afternoon trek in search of ice cream led us through the Panorama Grill on the Lido Deck. Hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad, grand marnier cheesecake. Mmmmwe don't eat dinner for three hours, so why not?
The Sunday night show in the Blue Sapphire Theater is called "Hey Mambo" a lively, colorful presentation of salsa and splash, followed by another late night comic, Lance Montalto.
Then, perhaps a little dessert snack? A little more last minute casino fun time?
Monday morning it's all business as Ecstasy's crew prepares to disembark 2,040 passengers. But not until we've had a formal sit-down breakfast in the dining room. It's our last chance to select one of each from all over the menu and be waited on by the friendly international staff.
We've filled out our customs cards, bought photos from the Photo Gallery, packed up our Ensenada treasures and, tummies full and passports in hand, are finally ready to leave our week-end life of indulgence.
Oh, and that workout I mentioned earlier? Somehow I just never got around to it!
Feature and photos by Carolyn Proctor, Las Vegas Correspondent.