Due to newer ships and enhanced onboard
offerings in recent years, short cruises are garnering newfound
respect as the lines recognize the strategic value of impressing
the increasingly sophisticated entry-level cruiser.
Southern California, once the place where ships were sent to die,
is now catching up to South Florida in terms of product
The latest proof of
this shift is the recent arrival of the Carnival Elation in San
Diego, where, in a first for the market, it has been homeported for
year-round, four- and five-day cruises to Cabo San Lucas and
Elation in San Diego effectively puts it within a 200-mile driving
radius of 20 million potential passengers, according to the San
Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau. Carnival also expects to
draw significant passenger loads from Nevada, Arizona and western
Canada, areas already sourced for its Los Angeles-based ships.
The vessel will
join the Carnival Spirit, which offers seasonal, eight-day, Mexican
Riviera voyages from San Diego. I sailed the Elation's four-day
itinerary in early June, soon after its arrival from Port
Launched in 1998 as
the seventh vessel in Carnival's eight-ship Fantasy class, the Elation is in the midst of
the line's $250 million Evolutions of Fun enhancement program,
which was designed expressly for that class.
Due to a later
introduction than most of its siblings, Elation was launched with
several of the features already in place, including a
12,000-square-foot spa, a miniature golf course and an atrium
Enhancements due in
2008 and 2009 include a children's water park, a complete redesign
of the main pool area and an adults-only serenity area.
Ultimately, the aim
of the initiative is to offer similar amenities across the fleet,
independent of the class of ship.
According to Bob
Dickinson, outgoing president and CEO of Carnival Cruise Lines, the
line is "continually upgrading product and retrofitting ships
because our vacationer is more discerning and more demanding than
ever before. Also, our hospitality training, food and service are
the same on all ships."
fleetwide Comfort Bed refit, completed in 2006, introduced upgraded
mattresses, hypoallergenic down duvets and high-quality sheets and
pillows in every cabin. Thick, soft bath towels and plush bathrobes
are also now standard.
that the soft-goods overhaul was a necessary countermove to hotel
"The expectation of
our vacationer is that they should get the same level of quality on
a midprice cruise as at a midprice hotel chain," he said. "Sheraton
and Marriott are our competition, not necessarily other cruise
Although only 9
years old, the Elation does lack some features and functionality
present on other ships of similar age. That's because it was built
according to the Fantasy-class design, which was introduced in
extend from suites, and the ship's air-conditioning system --
efficient but apparently difficult to modulate -- delivers sweater
weather in hallways and some public rooms. Cabins have no
thermostat; a ceiling vent is the only control on the volume of
cool air that is pushed in. The new duvets, thus, come in
Due to quick
turnarounds and the party-hearty crowd they attract, ships on
short-cruise itineraries typically wear out faster than those in
Elation likely took a beating doing short Bahamas cruises for
several years, it doesn't show. Diligent upkeep and a regular
wetdock schedule have kept the public areas looking fresh and in
good condition. Cabins, dated but well-kept, could use a
renovation, but no schedule has been set for one.
On the menu
Consistent with its
improved gastronomic reputation, Carnival does a commendable job of
feeding 2,052 guests in four venues on the Elation. The line's
affiliation with Michelin three-star chef Georges Blanc is
obviously reaping dividends, as the quality and presentation of
Carnival's dining room cuisine is now on a par with, and at times exceeds that of, its mass-market
Restaurant, one of two main dining rooms onboard, is ably helmed by
maitre d' Freddy Verwaal, a Seabourn and Celebrity Cruises veteran
who ensures that diners are well cared for by the largely Eastern
The 24-hour pizza
station is popular, as is the sushi bar. Passengers also enjoy
made-to-order sandwiches at the New York Deli.
Only the buffets in
Tiffany's Bar & Grill, a casual dining venue on the Lido deck,
Seemingly the only
part of the food-and-beverage operation still mired in Carnival's
past, the buffets are typified by uninspiring presentation and
mediocre food quality.
and five-day itineraries are an improvement over the three- and
four-day model, as passengers get an extra day at sea and the line
has the ability to spread out activities. The four-day voyage, from
Thursdays to Mondays, is billed as a "long weekend getaway."
back-to-back, five-day sailings, the four-day cruise still packs a
lot of fun into the span, but it just doesn't feel as crammed in as
it would on a three-day sailing.
well attended, included Carnival's signature Hairy Chest Contest
and Saturday Night Fever dance class. As expected, the Camp
Carnival kids program was run carefully and expertly. My
3-year-old, Sasha, gave it rave reviews.
For adults, a large
and talented cast put on two impressively staged production shows
in the two-level Mikado Lounge showroom.
Cabo San Lucas, the
lone port call on the four-day itinerary, has experienced explosive
growth in the past 20 years while its infrastructure has struggled
to keep pace.
That imbalance is
hardly noticed, however, by passengers enjoying myriad shore
excursions, ranging from the classic Land's End Boat Tour around El
Arco to the new Baja Jeep Safari and Dolphin Swim.
The five-day cruise
adds a call in Ensenada, a Baja California city about 70 miles
south of the U.S.-Mexico border.
With the Paradise
(three- and four-day Baja Mexico cruises) and the Carnival Pride
(seven-day Mexican Riviera cruises) based in Los Angeles, and the
Carnival Spirit and the Elation now in San Diego, Carnival has
become the largest cruise operator, measured by number of
passengers carried, in Southern California.
And if my recent
experience on the Elation is indicative of the line's newly
improved short-cruise product, it portends well for passenger
satisfaction, and, ultimately, for drawing seven-day
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