I was going over my checklist of what to bring just a few days before my first cruise ever. My concerns: seasickness, drinking the water in Mexico, and will I even like the cruise-style vacation? To combat these concerns, my travel list included Dramamine and Imodium with a side of suck-it-up and make-the-most-of-this-experience. Aside from these minor concerns, I was really looking forward to this new experience. The four-day journey would leave from Los Angeles; stop on Catalina Island; then stop in Ensenada, Mexico, before returning to L.A.
Once in L.A., we were picked up by the cruise line’s own coach bus and taken directly to the ship. It was exciting to see a large vessel like this for the first time and the check-in process was great. This would be the biggest boat I’d ever been on, for sure. The ship held over 2,000 passengers, 900 crew, and weighed 70,367 tons. OK, so it’s not the largest ship in the Carnival fleet, but it’s big enough. With pools and hot tubs on the main deck, a comedy hall, a theater at each end of the boat, three huge dining areas, a couple of water slides, mini golf, and tons of activities planned each day, this ship was one big traveling party.
Dinner options were pre-selected for the “anytime dining” aboard the ship. This option lets you have a more casual approach to sitting down for dinner. On the first two nights, we ate in the full-service dining room and shared our table with guests we had never met. In one way, it was nice to get to meet other shipmates, but on the second night we learned why we weren’t interested in sharing with strangers. The people we were seated with were not at all nice, we didn’t have enough in common, and they seemed insincere in every remark they made. Lesson learned: cruise dining is “like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get”.
Throughout the four days on the ship, we ate in the main dining room and in the cafeteria-style dining area several times. I’d say the food was pretty good, but not like what every other cruiser raves about. The best thing about it is that the food is all included in the cost of your cruise. The down side of the food was that it was all included in the cost of your cruise. We enjoyed the desserts and being able to eat whenever we wanted, but our best meals were had off the boat.
Our first stop was Catalina Island. Water taxis picked us up and brought us to the port destination and back again. They just made a continuous loop all day long.
I did a little research to see if they offered snorkeling, and although they did, the water was pretty cold. I didn’t really want to rent a wetsuit and snorkeling gear to do it. Our cruise was in February, so it wasn’t exactly the best timing for this sport, but if you get there when the water is warm, check out Lover’s Cove, a large protected kelp forest. You can rent gear at several different vendors as you exit the pier. We walked to Lover’s Cove in about 10 minutes and it was very easy from the water taxi drop-off point.
After exploring the snorkel area, we were able to sunbathe and read our books on the beach in downtown Avalon, but we were the only ones there all day. The town offered fellow cruisers shopping, many different food sites, and a botanical garden.
The most popular activity was the golf cart rental, an adventure you can do on your own for less than $40. Just rent and drive around the island. The rental company we chose gave us a map so we could drive up to the best vista views of the harbor. We noticed that golf carts were actually the main transportation for those who live on the island as well. They were fun to drive and we felt like they were a great value for the time and money we put into this activity.
After bringing back the cart, we had developed a hunger and decided to grab some food at a local diner called Jack’s. They weren’t very busy when we got there, but the food and service were perfect! I had a giant turkey club, and Dan had a burger, made to order just the way we wanted them. The thing I enjoyed the most about this place was the iconic pin-up girl artwork hung on the walls throughout the restaurant. So many cool poses. There was even a pin-up with a Vespa scooter hanging near the entrance.
By the time we awoke, we were in Ensenada, Mexico. A huge flag flapped in the wind and we had a nice view of the city from the railing of the ship. We were up early on account of me signing us up for the Jeep Adventure Tour. Just outside the ship, we meet with our adventurous group, jumped into two Jeeps, and away we went. The guide talked to us over a C.B. about the many amazing things Ensenada had to offer tourists and locals. He made special comments about the variety of food offered in the region. He even pointed out the roadside taco stand where everyone in the city stopped for a bite. We sped through the city onto the highway and then into Mexico’s wine country.
The roads went from busy highway to desolate dirt and dust kicking up behind our four-wheel-drive Jeeps. Some of the roads were more like dry river beds left behind after the rainy season. That is what made this tour an adventure. Our Jeep had no problem scrambling over boulders and up gaping cracks in the ground. The caravan stopped briefly at the high point in the journey so we could see where we had come from and all that surrounded us. The view was nice, but we didn’t stay long: we still had to make it to the vineyard where we would get a personal tour of how and where they made the wine. After a few samples, we went on our way again. This time, our guide asked the group what we wanted to do. We all quickly agreed that the highway taco stop was the place we wanted to experience the most. He spoke so passionately about the food there, and boy was he right.
The open-air restaurant seated a few dozen, but most were standing where the action was. You could stand and eat as many tacos as you wanted while you watched the cooks prepare orders. They slice fresh meat off the braised beef tongue if you ordered lengua, and they dished out ten other meat varieties into hand made corn tortillas. Some meat was marinated while some was grilled. I tried the asada and the lengua tacos. Even after four tacos, I wanted to eat more just because I knew we would not find any as good as this anywhere in the states. Now don’t ask me to tell you where this place was. I only know we were on the highway out of town when we saw it.
After we ate, we drove back towards Ensenada’s downtown area. The guide told us all that if we missed the boat we could come stay with him, he would feed us, let us sleep at his home, and then he would drive us to the border the next day. This offer was actually tempting. The experience of staying with a local made Daniel and I stop in our tracks. We turned to one another and smiled as we thought about intentionally missing our departure.
The “Fun” Days at Sea
Well, we did have fun watching people compete for best hairy chest and participate in the “rubber chicken olympics”, but the best part about the days at sea was that we got to relax. No phones or internet service. We slept in, we ate when we felt like it, we read our books, and we gazed at the ocean. I was a bit sad to see the sun go down, but we had grown fond of hitting the theater, the comedy club, and the soft-serve ice cream station. One night, we dipped in the adults-only hot tub. On another, we dressed up and got photos of us looking our best. We also spent a few hours playing mini golf and walking the top-deck track. All of these things made our cruise just what they should be: a time to enjoy each other and relax. My favorite moments were holding onto Daniel at the stern of the boat, hidden from the mini golfers, watching the stars and listening to the sound of the ocean at night. The wind made us hold on tight and for a few moments, before getting the chills, we were totally alone on the sea.