Have you ever had the idea of a Cruise Vacation pop into your mind after hearing about how cheap they are only to recoil, recalling various cruise horror stories you've heard over the years? If so, you are like me... which is why I never seriously considered one. Then a few different friends of mine all independently took this Carnival cruise to Catalina and Ensenada out of Long Beach - and all of them had great things to report. So, given the affordability of the cruise, we thought we'd dip our toe into international-ish travel again (with the kids) by trying this fun-seeming option.
Remember: they have Kids' Clubs (supervised activities for your little ones) baked into the price of the ticket. If that isn't a siren song, I don't know what is.
The cats were nonplussed about our leaving. We lined up a great house- (and cat-!) sitter and packed our bags. The cats just stared back at us with their best RBFs and then went to curl up into furry balls off teeth and claws on the bed.
We drove up to Long Beach to board the ship, and ground to a halt when we had to wade through several lines to make it onto the boat. Do you have a child with special needs? Don't forget (like I did) to use the Special Needs Line... because there isn't anyone in it. You just basically get right on board. It's effectively a "Faster to the Fun" pass, something they charge normal people for but something they want you to use if you have a bit of an extenuating "situation."
After suffering through lines on embarkation, we sailed through (sorry) on debarkation.
Cruising introduces certain phrases into your everyday language. Phraseology like, "embarkation," "debarkation," "towel animals," "Donkey," "tender," "muster station" and "elegant night" shouldn't ever be among your verbal mainstays, but they will be on board that ship.
PS: if you didn't know by her height, can you guess which one is the tween?
The kids were fascinated by everything about the ship: How can it stay afloat when it is so heavy? Are there sharks in this ocean right now? What if a giant squid just decided to grab the ship and flip it over? What if a whale ate the ship? Can we really have pizza and ice cream whenever we want? Where do the people who work on the ship sleep? When we flush the toilet, does it go down into the sea?
The endless questions can prompt great conversations about physics, ecology, and employment. They can also send you straight to the nearest bar.
Once aboard, we dropped them into the swimming pool right away and grabbed a drink.
Doesn't this look just like the blue Emoji drink? If you have a Samsung phone it is. Picture it with the little paper umbrella that I tossed to the wind.
It's the Blue Margarita if you're looking for it on the Imagination.
They started right away with the entertainment, MC'd by our amazing Cruise Director named Donkey. He explained at one point where that moniker came from, but it flew in one ear and out the other. I won't even try to speculate. Just try to enjoy all of the energy that he's putting into everything.
The Kids' Clubs are grouped by age (Sting Rays, Sharks, and for our eldest, "Circle C"). Our kids were in three different groups. The Kids' Clubs are included with your cruise fare (free!) on-and-off all day until 10pm, at which point it's around $7/child/hour, which is really fantastic.
Here's Willa on a scavenger hunt organized by Circle C. She really had fun! But she also tried to pretend that she didn't know who we were when we yelled to her and took her picture. I just yelled, "BYE WILLA SWEETIE!"
Our first destination was the California island of Catalina... one of the most charming towns I've ever seen.
Catalina has some of the best diving and snorkeling on the entire coast, plus it's constantly bathed in sunshine since it's miles offshore and so, untouched by the coastal haze that plagues much of SoCal.
Did you know that some people have swam the 20 miles from this island to the mainland? They are braver and more in shape than you will ever be. Probably me, too. But we can't ever really know for sure.
The light on this island! It's otherworldly.
We grabbed some fish + chips and drinks, but the heat only made us rush to get into the water.
We brought our own snorkeling gear rather than pay $60/pp for the guided snorkel tour at Lover's Cove which the ship offers (along with so many other excursions) since we always have a go-bag full of snorkel equipment at the ready. We carried it off the cruise ship transfer boat, threw it into the sand near a lifeguard station, grabbed lunch and then snorkeled all afternoon.
Did you know that in the summertime they have these fun rafts in the swim area for people to climb on and jump into the water? We had never visited at the height of summer and let me tell you: it is PARADISE!
Then we paid $3.00/pp to shower in the paid (but decently maintained) Catalina showers towards the old Casino because there are no free public showers anymore, supposedly due to the ongoing drought in California. Nevermind that the island is surrounded by water. Oh, don't bore me with the details on the desalination process, I literally CAN'T with that anymore.
Beachgoers tip: always stow a 3-in-1 (soap-shampoo-conditioner) in your snorkel bag for public showers, especially if your hotel is far from the water. And cash, apparently, if your island is claiming "drought."
There are great candy, sushi, ice cream and tourist shops just off the pier, and bars with karaoke at night. It's a great weekend getaway with world-class kelp forest diving and snorkeling, along with parasailing and bicycling.
We had to scare the children with the threat of being left behind on the island (and therefore "missing the boat" so to speak) to get them out of the sea in time to shower and get onto the little transfer boat that takes you back to the cruise ship.
This is our post-snorkel wait aboard that smaller boat. No electronics. It was wonderful.
Unless you count the Kids' Clubs, because they do have some electronic entertainment. Then if you're going to choose to be super hardcore about your anti-electronics policy, you will suffer because the kids won't get to enjoy the Kids' Clubs and really, isn't this cruise about making new friends and trying new things and date nights? Yes it is.
Next we got ready for elegant night. Some people go crazy with this. I just packed a dress that wouldn't wrinkle and a pair of heels: you will see people run the gamut here, but to me it's just a prom-like excuse to dress up and take pictures. It's like the Titanic scene where Rose bails on the upper-crusty dinner and heads down to lower decks to dance on tables and get drunk without her shoes on. Either way, the kids were in their respective Kids' Clubs so... thumbs up on elegant night.
The ship really is beautiful after dark. Here we were sailing full-steam-ahead for Mexico. Oh, this isn't a steamship? I know that - it's just a figure of speech!
When we got back to our room, a towel animal awaited us on the bed: a bat ray! We had stalked one while snorkeling and it was adorbsies, so they got clairvoyant kudos for this neat little trick.
The next morning I was excited to see this sight out my starboard-side room window:
Before you can get off the boat, you have to wait to be allowed off. Did you think you were just going to just walk off as soon as they attached the gangway (their fancy word for plank)? There's the whole thing about moving hundreds of people off the cruise ship in an "orderly fashion." While we waited, Donkey entertained everyone, calling people up to tell jokes to the crowd. Our kids volunteered to tell a joke or two.
I guess if I were to make a prediction based on their first stand-up routines, I would say they probably won't be stand-up comedians. But hey - they are only 8 and 12. It's too soon to say. But it's not like one of those situations where they had everyone crying tears of laughter. More just like a gracious chuckle from an otherwise bored, impatient, captive audience. Maybe I can predict them being able to give a presentation to a group of colleagues at work one day or that kind of thing.
This was our view back at the ship as we headed to our cruise-arranged excursion in Ensenada. In actuality it wasn't this bleak-looking; sometimes we edit in Lightroom and I'm not trained in how to do it so I click here and there and the next thing you know it looks like we were on the moon.
Our excursion of choice was surfing at Playa Hermosa.
The beach is quite beautiful, punctuated by guys selling hats, kites, and fresh fruit.
Not pictured: graffiti, port-o-lets, and garbage. But I figured you didn't need a totally authentic experience.
There's even a horseback-riding-on-the-beach excursion that we might have booked if I didn't have kind of a phobia of riding horseback.
Luckily the kids had a blast with the surfing.
Willa just finished a surf camp, so she was pretty comfortable on the board.
The old man was pretty good too.
Though in fairness, I was standing there with a zoom lens waiting for the perfect moment when he got up; I'm not showing you the flops. I don't think that would go over well.
And when our littlest girl and I tired of trying (and failing) to surf with any level of skill or basic decency, we went ashore and flew a kite.
Not pictured: the large, foul-smelling carcass of something (perhaps a sea lion? God I hope it wasn't a person) that washed up on the beach and almost made me gag, until my foot touched the warmish water and the waves beaconed me again into the sea.
Playing in the sand. There were fire ants roaming the beach like army soldiers, but you really can't see them in this picture. Trust me, they were there. This camera leaves a lot to be desired sometimes.
Sand dollar. If only they were real dollars we would have kept them, instead of thowing them back into the ocean like useless discs!
Next we headed into town hoping for a good lunch.
We stumbled onto the most amazing place! Restaurant El Rey Sol.
This place has won a multitude of awards, and it was clear from the get-go that we picked a winner. I'm not just saying this because my tastebuds were muddled with the magic of a margarita, although they do say that alcohol can deaden your sense of taste (temporarily, thank God!)
I mean seriously... tacos, enchiladas, stuffed peppers? WOW. This is no El Polo Loco.
I didn't even snap pictures of the spicy soup and quail egg appetizers because we were so hungry we just devoured them, but they were as delicious as the rest of the food looks.
This dessert had a custard surprise inside which was amazing.
Next we went to shake down some locals for the best deals possible.
No! Rather, we went "bargain hunting."
Everyone spoke to us in English and I thought, How presumptuous! Now would be a great time to Wow them with my fluent Spanish... except for the unfortunate fact that I don't know Spanish.
Sadly, the only thing we could Wow the locals with was our enthusiasm and the old man's Spanglish, which really trends more toward the English half of Spanglish.
This guy entertained Scarlett with this marionette for far too long. I could have told him (and did) that she wasn't going to actually buy it, but he didn't believe me. I said, "Hey, knock yourself out."
Me buying a new hat. Good products at great prices, so control yourself - don't go buying up the whole street. Save something for everyone else!
Five-person selfie. This is actually an acquired skill.
Once we got back onto the boat, the old man gambled and won AGAIN in the cruise ship casino playing blackjack. Don't get excited about the money like I initially did: it was basically already spent.
The next day was a designated "sea day," meaning you're supposed to just relax and enjoy the ship. I took this advice to heart and escaped to the Serenity Deck for cocktails.
And just to remind you that drama can and will happen anywhere, see here the fallout from a scuffle that broke out when one person tried to save an umbrella chair and got up only to have someone else take it. One lady accused someone else of shoving her chair, declaring, "that's assault!" I didn't have the heart to tell her that's not actually how it works. Standing are security officers who "investigated" and then remained nearby for the rest of the day.
The rest of us on the Serenity Deck just laughed and ordered more drinks.
Each adult is permitted to take one bottle of wine on board for the trip. We chose a nice syrah from our favorite local winery, Orfila.
Someone from the front of the boat starting bragging to us back here on the rear deck about having seen dolphins up front, saying something like "if you run you might be able to catch them." Oh really? Who can keep up? Sometimes you have to just let go and enjoy where you are. I can't be responsible for getting in on every dolphin or whale sighting - at least not without walkee-talkees and binoculars and a multi-person crew in constant vigilance checking the seas for any and all marine mammals.
If I see a burst of sea spray out there through the clear portion of my wine glass while I'm holding it up taking a pic, I will know it was meant to be.
Did you know that there is a professional-ish track that you can run on, above the lido deck? It is spectacular - 360 views of the ocean that are worth even just a stroll around it. And here's a pic of the abs class that I attended to try to stem the damage of the buffets a little bit. Out of over two thousand people aboard, less than ten were present for the daily abs class, so save your fights for the buffet line or, apparently, the Serenity Deck, because there's tons of room in here for the abs workout!
There are also big, flashy Vegas-style shows you can watch every night in the Dynasty Lounge. They harbor amazing talent actually - one guy did a cover of Van Halen's Eruption that was so perfect that I made a bit of a scene. I feel like those who didn't make a scene just don't understand the magic of that composition.
This is our family with the cast, all of whom were so talented. Scarlett obviously picked up this "rock on" hand gesture from them and is running wild with it.
The pool/hot tub combo was a bit of an experience. Certainly not for those seeking serenity, nor for the squeamish.
But they DO serve drinks, and they are tasty! They will make virgin pina coladas for your kids.
Unrelated: there was a "Hairiest Chest" contest on board that we tragically missed entering the old man into. Were the prizes any good? I can't bear to find out knowing that we obviously left First Place on the table.
What is the max number of people allowed in the hot tub at one time? Isn't it always posted prominently, and isn't it always a number like 8? Don't answer that.
Yes, that is a double shot of tequila. When in Ensenada? Well we were no longer in Ensenada, we were probably quite firmly in American waters by this point, but the feeling of Mexico was still palpable.
So... if I have to come out with a recommendation for or against this cruise as a cheap and easy vacation with your family, I would have to come out on the side of Yes!
Go - drink, eat, see a show, go surfing and snorkeling, do an abs class... it will actually be fun.