May 15, 2006
Our very first cruise was aboard the Ecstasy in May of '06 and we were a bit disappointed. Having read the various reviews available online we had high expectations—maybe too high.
We drove to Galveston from Dallas and spent the weekend before on the Bolivar Peninsula in Crystal Beach at a rented beach house. This was a wonderful start as it gave us a couple of days to unwind from our frantic pace in Big D. I highly recommend it.
We parked at EZ Cruise Parking and found it just as advertised—secure, friendly and prompt. It was nice arriving at the terminal with our bags instead of dropping them then going to park.
Embarkation was a looooong walk from there but relatively quick and painless.
The décor on Ecstasy was indeed "glitzy and high energy" as the cruise critic said. But somehow I didn't expect the loud assault of color at every turn I found. Texans will most likely understand if I say "Southwest Airlines in the late ‘70's décor". I kept expecting the service personnel to wear hot pants and go-go boots.
We had a bit of a self caused problem with our room key right off the bat though—my daughter left her key in the door as we were checking out our new digs. Someone took it! But maintenance was very quick to come change the lock and even fixed a problem with a squeaky door I hadn't even noticed yet!
So far, so good, but it went downhill from there. Our experience with the Ecstasy was disappointing from multiple aspects, chiefly food and service.
The food was bland, beautiful, but bland. BLAND I Say! Texans like spicy. One of our tablemates said one evening in the middle of our cruise "It makes you want to lick dirt just to taste something!" 'nough said.
Our room steward was a joke who rarely made the beds properly (pulling the duvet up over the wadded up sheets instead of actually making the beds), never answered pages and when we complained he left us a purported swan towel animal that gave a whole new meaning to "shooting the bird"! We saw one at the demonstration that looked nothing like what he claimed was a swan so we're pretty sure it was no mistake (it didn't even use the same towels!). By the way, my kids were very disappointed about the towel animals as they were looking forward to them. We'd hear other cruisers raving about the animals their steward left—one couple told us they'd received a total of 8! Our steward left one the first night that was a cute bunny then nothing until the “swan". That's it, two was all we got.
Our waiters made a big deal about the spa menu and tried at every meal to convince me (yep, I'm heavy) to order the low-cal selections—it offended our tablemates not to mention embarrassing me! They also would make mistakes and not correct them until they were asked a minimum of three times. They were entertaining and trying very hard to be nice, but when all was said and done—I was unsatisfied.
Camp Carnival actively drove away the young teens who tried to join the advertised "teen events” in the Carnival Caper each day by telling them they had to "pre-register" at Spirals. When my daughter finally found someone in Spirals they berated her into tears for interrupting their work! When I complained at the purser's desk they claimed there weren't enough teens on board to have teen events. Funny, I managed to put together a group of 7 to play mini-golf on my own—and they all said they'd tried to "register" too, with the same results.
As for the ports of call: We enjoyed Progresso, Mexico very much. But then we like to see unspoiled small towns in any country. A few blocks in from the beach you got to see ordinary folks doing ordinary shopping from street vendors. Talk with ordinary folks sitting outside while waiting to visit the pediatrician. Negotiate with small "mom & pop" type stores for the correct exchange rate while buying a Coca-Cola made with real sugar. Ask all these ordinary folks the best place to eat? They all said "Flamingoes" on the malecon (beachwalk). So we ate at Flamingoes and found it wonderful beyond words.
The tourist market they drop you at when you leave the ship is very typical—lots of folks hawking their wares aggressively. Take a sense of humor and adventure and you can find some very nice bargains on local wares. Buy locally made hammocks, a sisal shirt (those shirts Mexican men wear that are so light and comfortable and are accepted as formal wear) or a panama hat here. Don't miss macramé goods made from an offshoot of the hammock industry they are spectacular. You'll find prices much less here than in Cozumel as they don't have to pay the import taxes the Mexican government imposes on the island.
We finished up our visit to Progresso with a tour on a double decker bus that picked us up at the tourist market. For a mere $2 each they drove us around Progresso, showing us what we hadn't seen walking and explaining the areas history and various public buildings, parks, landmarks etc. They also pointed out good spots to buy things and eat that weren't at the tourist market (I suspect they get paid to "advertise" but it wasn't too blatant). They also pointed out a "real Mexican bar" for those who wanted to brag they'd spent time in one. I'm not into the bar scene but must admit if time had permitted I'd have probably gone in that one just for bragging rights. It was small, dark and filled with Mexicans—not a tourist in sight. The tour was a good value and fun but we wished we'd done it first.
In Cozumel, my heart broke for the damage done by the hurricanes and the obviously valiant effort by the islanders to recover. They've done amazing work in a short time with little to no resources. Ecstasy docked at a repaired "International Pier" showing patches over gaping holes—but it was sturdy and we docked instead of tendering! They are most definitely open for business!
I was extremely annoyed though, by the maze of "duty free" shops they force you through to get to transportation away from the dock.
Once through, we took a taxi to the aptly named Paradise Beach. Heaven! Our waiter Eli took wonderful care of us. Fabulous food! Appetizers are meal sized—for two! I highly recommend the guacamole and conch ceviche. We could have filled up our family of four on just those two but couldn't resist the grouper fish tacos. My son ordered the fried grouper and drew a crowd for how awesome it looked! Very, very good food and no unpleasant after-effects.
Cozumel has the clearest water I've ever seen in my life. We had fun watching sea life without the need for snorkeling gear (although it's available there). At Paradise Beach, one low price gave the kids access to lots of neat beach toys, kayaks, floats, snorkeling gear etc. but you can use their chairs, lounges and umbrellas for no fee as long as you order something (at reasonable prices). Parasailing and waverunners are also available for a reasonable fee.
I had reserved space on a Famous Fury Snorkel tour that picked us up from the pier at Paradise Beach. Our waiter made sure we connected and didn't get left behind. The snorkeling was awesome! It was truly a "pinch yourself" experience. If I had made a list of the top things I'd like to see at a reef—I would have checked off every single item. From the moment we entered the water we were surrounded by colorful fish I've only seen in tropical fish stores and aquariums—so close I could actually touch them! Our guide was in the water with us leading us over Columbia Reef and the famous Palancar Horseshoe. He frequently dived down to chase up sea turtles and other sealife closer to us (although the water was so clear it seemed they were really close to start with), he brought up a live conch for the kids to touch. Really amazing. Highly recommended.
One note: Famous Fury also runs a tour with the cruise ships' shore excursions. It's more expensive and had about 100 people on it. Our tour only had 18 people aboard. Famous Fury uses a number of beautiful catamarans with steps that drop down into the sea. I have mobility issues so this was absolutely perfect.
Back aboard Ecstasy, I had trouble getting hair conditioner delivered to our room. What a letdown from the high of snorkeling for the first time.
Oh, one note on entertainment aboard. It was fine, but I think we missed the "best" shows because we aren't night owls. That was a mistake on my part. We booked the late seating because we eat late at home. That meant the late show, but by the time we finished dinner (typically around 10:30) we were ready for bed.
Disembarkation was slooooow. I don't fault Ecstasy for this. We were the last color called and it takes a while for 2,500 people to go through customs. We arrived in Galveston at 7:30. Disembarkation "self-assist" began at 8:00. We were back at our car at 1:00 pm. Next time I'll do "self-assist".
All in all we discovered we like the slow pace we had on our cruise (since we don't do late night), coupled with exciting ports of call, then slow pace again. We found cruising a good vacation for us. But we also found you get what you pay for—our next cruise won't be on Carnival.