Carnival's short cruises aren't short on style and quality

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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.

And long-neglected Southern California, once the place where ships were sent to die, is now catching up to South Florida in terms of product quality.

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 Ensenada, Mexico.

Locating the 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 Canaveral, Fla.

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 bar. 

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."

Carnival's 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. 

Dickinson asserted that the soft-goods overhaul was a necessary countermove to hotel bedding upgrades.

"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 lines."

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 1990. 

Balconies only 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 handy.

Due to quick turnarounds and the party-hearty crowd they attract, ships on short-cruise itineraries typically wear out faster than those in seven-day rotations.

Although the 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 competitors. 

The Imagination 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 European staff. 

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, were disappointing.

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.

Carnival's four- 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." 

Alternating with 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. 

Activities, usually 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 clientele.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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