"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 the Queen Mary pier in Long Beach, we board the ship on a crisp, foggy Friday afternoon. Carnival handles all the formalities of boarding inside the huge dome previously housing the Spruce Goose. On a colorful Mexican set we pause for boarding souvenir photos. Soon settled into a cabin on the Riviera deck, we check out the activity sheet for things to do.

For the first-time cruiser, Carnival's Ecstasy provides a full-scale introduction to the cruise vacation lifestyle so popular with travelers. From quizzes, game shows, bingo, casino gambling, musical dance shows, art auctions, ship tours, slot tournaments, spa services, fitness classes, disco dancing, karaoke, pub crawl and other events, there's non-stop entertainment. I decide I want a massage on Sunday, our day at sea. Good thing I checked it out before the ship sailed; Sunday massage time is nearly sold out, so I book for 8 a.m. Sunday morning.

Ecstasy sails promptly at 5:30 p.m., after which all passengers gather in blocky orange life vests at our respective "muster stations" for mandatory life boat drill. This is a serious, U.S. Coast Guard-managed event, at the conclusion of which Cruise Director Dana Hodson announces, "You are now officially on vacation."

An enormous glass sculpture
rises from the Empress deck.

Midship two glass elevators carry guests from the Empress deck skyward, where this beautiful open area is capped by an enormous glass dome. (Opening photo.) Exploring the deck levels, we check out the spa and gymnasium, so we'll know where to go to when we're ready to work out. Meanwhile we miss the shore excursion talk but not to worry—it's broadcast later in our cabin on ship TV. Our shore excursion choices are horseback riding, a visit to La Bufadora (one of three blow-holes in the world), or a visit to Mexico's oldest winery, founded by the Dominicans in 1888.

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.

Ensenada's La Bufadora is one of
only 3 blow-holes in the world.

A shuttle bus operates every five minutes between the Ecstasy and Ensenada's fashionable shops and busy restaurants of Avenida Primera. Besides the driver, a young guitar player boards, does two songs, collects a few tips and departs. A guide boards, and uses the short travel time to sell us his company's tour to La Bufadora. We discover his tour includes an hour to shop the flea market there and a free lunch and is fifteen dollars cheaper than the one officially offered aboard Ecstasy, so we sign up.

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. . .

If you love color, you'll love
shopping in Ensenada.

Ensenada in winter is not balmy and hot. Though the sun is out, the official high for the day is 65 degrees Fahrenheit. We are comfortable in tee shirts and shorts, but not the locals. On our way back to the ship we stop for an espresso and the pretty girl operating the machine wears a down jacket and, entwined around her neck, a wool scarf.

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.

The offerings on the Gala Midnight
Buffet dessert table are almost
too pretty to eat—almost.

Afterwards, there's just time to hit the Midnight Buffet for more photo ops before catching comedian Stan Ulman's midnight adult comedy show back in the Blue Sapphire Theater. After comedy, and maybe one more dessert in the buffet, there are several lounges and bars with all kinds of entertainment: piano bar sing-a-longs, karaoke, dance music with a live band and a late night DJ dance party. And of course, there's always the casino!

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.

A watermelon is artfully prepared for the Gala Midnight Buffet.

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.

Even fruit deserves a formal presentation from the Ecstasy's Galley crew.

A dinner entrée offer is lamb chops en papillote.

What would dessert be without chocolate?

Following this demonstration there is a hairy chest contest on the Lido deck. But we are off in search of a little snack.

The nap we considered is foregone since, dining being of primary interest, we couldn't pass up a tour of the Ecstasy's kitchen—excuse me—on 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?

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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.

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