Just returned from a 12-day Hawaii to Ensenada cruise with my wife and two daughters aboard the Carnival Spirit. Overall we had a great time on the ship, the Hawaiian Islands, and the 5 days at sea crossing the Pacific. This was our 3rd cruise and second time with Carnival. Our kids (3 and 6 year old girls) had a wonderful time at Camp Carnival and loved the Camp Carnival staff immensely.
Days 1 & 2 Honolulu - Aloha Tower Pier
Upon arrival at Honolulu airport we picked up a rental car and proceeded to the Aloha Tower pier. There is 4 hour limited metered parking at the pier terminal, and adjacent to the ship's pier is the Aloha Tower shopping center that charges $25 for 24 hour parking with no in/out privileges so don't waste your money there. Instead, park across the street behind the Comp-USA store for overnight parking. Check-in was a breeze; there were no lines at embarkation at our arrival time, although it got busy later in the afternoon. However, the private security company staff hired to perform passenger screening at the pier were rude, obnoxious, and were inconsistent in their policies and procedures. They made passengers remove articles of clothing not even required by TSA at US airports. Shopping, Waikiki beach, Pearl Harbor, Diamond Head, all easily accessible with rental car. Stopped by the Costco to pick up a few bottles of wine for the dining room dinners. Our waiter was excellent and never charged a corkage fee!
Day 3 Nawiliwili, Kauai
Took a shuttle bus from the ship to the airport and picked up our rental car, then headed to Waimea canyon in the morning. In the afternoon drove back to the airport and took a helicopter tour. Fantastically beautiful island. This port is rental car unfriendly; no car parking allowed anywhere nearby the ship.
Day 4 Kona, Hawaii
Tendered to the harbor. The tendering process was complicated due to another cruise ship being in the harbor at the same time. We were told that the pier could accept only one tender boat at a time. We walked around town for some shopping and rode some horses in the afternoon at a ranch up in the hills. We didn't book a rental car for this stop and didn't feel we needed one here.
Day 5, Hilo Hawaii
Took a shuttle from the cruise terminal to the airport for a helicopter tour of the island's lava fields. Wife got sick in the copter, but otherwise it was magnificent seeing the flowing lava only viewable from above. Rental car parking is nearby the cruise ship terminal.
Day 6 Lahaina, Maui
Another tender to the pier, and another fiasco competing with another cruise ship for tender access. Took a shuttle to pick up a rental car and then went to the Maui Ocean Center. Under no circumstance should you go to the MOC with a ship excursion since the ship charges more than double the walk up admission price of $22 for adults. Afterwards went swimming at a beach, then shopping in Lahaina. You can get 4 hour validated parking with any purchase at the Hard Rock Cafe or Banana Republic. Plan to return to the ship at least 2 hours prior to departure (if more than one cruise ship is in the harbor) because it gets really busy with a long wait going through security to get to your tender. Lahaina is in desperate need of a cruise ship pier so large ships can dock.
Day 7 Kahului Maui
The friendliest port for rental cars with a free parking lot right next to the cruise ship terminal. Get a rental car here if you need to buy souvenirs, since there's a Costco and Super K-Mart right next to the airport. Shopping during the day and went to a Luau at night. Again, don't book this through the cruise ship unless you want to waste money or feel insecure driving around Maui at night in your own rental car. In our case, a luau for a family of four cost only $160, $80 per adult and under 6 free. Had I booked this through the ship it would have cost almost $500 since they charge $100 per kid while many luau's are free for kids. Book your luau early because they often sell out.
5 days at Sea:
Went by quicker than we thought it would. Most of the voyage was with 3-5 feet swells with white caps as the wind blew fairly strong the entire way home. Seasickness patches recommended for Pacific ocean crossings. Kids enjoyed their time at Camp Carnival which was staffed by Indonesian, South African, Phillipine, and Croatian staff, all very polite and professional. Went through a sales pitch for Carnival Vacation Club... bottom line is it's a ripoff and you can get much better cruise prices online or through Costco Travel Agency. Don't get suckered into the hype of that program.
Empire Dining Room food was good with generous portions. Fish and lobster were fresh, meat was sometimes a bit chewy. Only shortcoming with the Empire Dining Room was the limited variety of food. Vegetarian friendly menu.
Lido Deck Buffet food was decent; about what you'd expect at midrange Vegas buffet.
Pizza was a bit soggy though. Desserts and tropical fruit were also very good. I didn't go to the extra cost dining club so can't comment on it.
Dining room wait staff was entertaining, professional, and did a good job keeping everyone happy. Room stewards also did a good job keeping things tidy and clean. Beware of the contents of your minibar or else you'll be in for a surprise when your Sign and Sail statement arrives on the last evening of the cruise.
Average at best. Evening shows put my wife and I close to deep sleep, we walked out for a few laps outside on deck 10 to recover. Daytime seems to be the only time for any activities on the pool decks, because after 8pm the outside decks and pools were long deserted. This may be due to the average age of the passengers, which I'm guessing was well north of 60. Bingo and towel folding lessons were big hits on this cruise. Watching hordes of Seniors pushing their walkers, canes, and jockeying their electric carts to the front of the lines for first dining in the Empire Room was entertaining, but I didn't see that activity listed in the "Carnival Capers".
Carnival Internet Service:
Carnival wireless only works in public areas on the ship. Service is painfully slow (below 70 Kbps when working) if you're used to broadband internet at home; I don't know if this is by design to soak you for more money at $0.40 cents/minute or if it's just because their system sucks. You may get a wireless signal in port from a nearby hotel or unlocked router if you're lucky.
Note about Car Rentals:
Prior to boarding the ship, reserve rental cars for every Hawaiian port whether you're going to get a car or not. Reservations made ahead of time will save you about $30-40 per day compared to if you just show up at the counter without a reservation. Avoid AVIS; they require a credit card deposit. With reservations you can get a decent car for under $40/day. Good luck getting any kind of excursion from Carnival for $40...
This is what torpedoed the cruise for us. Everything went well until we got off the ship in Ensenada, Mexico. Of course there is the customary dreaded early morning wake-up along with a long wait until your color and number are called, (although kudos to Carnival for opening the breakfast buffet and dining room at 04:30).
The real surprise was once we boarded the buses for the "complimentary transfer" to San Diego airport. I definitely got more than I bargained for... not only did we get a free Carnival Excursion of the Slums and Shantytowns of Tijuana en route to the US border, but we got to walk through US Customs in the rain unaided by Carnival to find our buses parked down a side street past the US border station.
Once we arrived at the San Diego Airport, the bus driver appeared content to stay inside his bus while the passengers waited outside in the light rain. It became obvious our driver wouldn't budge, so I wound up opening the cargo holds of our bus to remove luggage for my fellow bus passengers. I also got to crawl inside the bus cargo hold to retrieve more luggage packed deep inside, ensuring my clothes and hands were sufficiently soiled in the process. I wasn't obligated to do this but since nobody from Carnival was on hand to do this and since my fellow bus passengers were obviously older than me, somebody had to do it or it wasn't going to get done anytime soon. Clearly Carnival dropped the ball with this area...
The icing on the cake was after I pulled out the last piece of luggage and crawled out of the bus cargo hold, my wife admonished me for keeping her and my two daughters waiting longer than necessary!
Even though this was a repositioning cruise, the Spirit completed this itinerary before and will do the same cruise again sometime in 2007. On the last day on board the ship the Cruise Director pleaded for "exceeded expectations" marks for the passenger comment cards; surely Carnival can easily do better for the Ensenada to USA transfers for the passengers. Even if Carnival has to charge a nominal fee to improve the bus transfer service, it would be well worth it.