Cruise to Baja – A Trip Report

We embarked on a short 3-day cruise to Baja during the Labor Day weekend (2009). As this was our maiden voyage, no expectations were set in place. The timing was around our friend and his family’s visit from overseas. As that was a popular weekend, we did not land one of those deeply discounted rates – our deal stood at $1334 (around $350 for the first two passengers and about $70 less for the 3rd and 4th sharing the same ocean view cabin). An additional 10% in taxes apply from that listed on their website. A semi-mandatory expense is the $10 per-person-per-diem tip that is automatically added to the bill but can be overridden. Tipping the maître d’ (the individual responsible for the show in the formal dining room) and room service is recommended but completely at one’s discretion. From our booking experience we learned that flexibility matters for we have noticed the rates dip to as low as $179 for first two passengers and $109 for the 3rd, 4th, and 5th passenger sharing the same interior cabin. Also, often the 4-day Baja cruise on the same ship (Carnival Paradise) with a bonus stop in Catalina Island is priced below their 3-day cruise underscoring the might of flexibility.

Carnival Paradise is a 12-year old cruise ship which underwent a major revamp in 2008. From the outside the ship sports a brand spanking new appeal and its public areas for the most part can be graded good (decks, pool, dining, mini-golf, etc) but some parts of the inside loses the sparkle completely (elevators, cabins, the Grand Atrium which is the main common-area inside the ship). First time cruisers will certainly find the sheer size of the vessel overwhelming – it has ten decks (D4 to D7 are primarily cabins while D8 thru D14 are public areas), two main theater areas (lounges), restaurants, pools, day-care facilities, mini-golf, running track, etc. To get the bearings right, we highly recommend early boarding for practically speaking the first few hours is the only time you find the ship at your disposal – once the capacity of 2000 people is reached, privacy is a thing of the past!

We drove down from the Bay Area and reached the cruise terminal around noon (231 Windsor Way, Long Beach, CA-90802 – GPS is spot on with the address – the right-most entrance is to the cruise terminal parking - $15 per day). Queen Mary was docked alongside the dome (entrance to the cruise ship is via the dome where the immigration/customs formalities are handled). We were one of the early birds aboard around 12:30 PM, although the check-in guidelines said 1:30 PM as the earliest and the immigration process was a snap. Having the FunPass information pre-filled online prior to departure helped speed up the check-in process as well – FunPass, Passport, and Credit Card are required at the check-in counter. The port personnel at the parking lot conveniently whisks the baggage away (recommended tip is $1 per bag – cabin number from the FunPass printout is required to tag the baggage) sparing you from the hassle involved in having the baggage as an attachment until the cabin is officially ready, which is around 2:30 PM. There is a mandatory evacuation boat-drill at around 4:30 PM.

Cruise ships cater to the stomach like no other and the Paradise is no exception. Most everything (exceptions are drinks, liquor, and premium coffee) is “free”. The included beverages are limited to regular coffee, a few varieties of soft drinks, and water. A beverage card can be had for a daily rate of $5.50. Paris restaurant on Lido Deck (Deck 10) is the focal place for food. This is a multi-faceted eatery – one side of the buffet area is the grill (Lido Grill) and the other side has open-air seating (Seaview Bistro) – the main buffet area is open for the better part of the day and until 1AM past mid-night – some areas are cordoned off at certain times, but the pizzeria, the grill, and/or a bistro section is mostly open. Pizza is served at the far corner of Paris restaurant round the clock. More than the food, it is the exceptional service that deserves accolades– the tables are cleared as soon as they are vacated and rarely are people waiting for a table. Casual dining is in effect for the entire Lido Deck. The sushi bar on Promenade Deck (Deck 9) open from 5PM to 8:15PM – has just one counter and generally a line can be found winding around here. For dining, the other option is the allotted restaurant which is a formal dining area. Here also the service is excellent and some program is roped in too (music and/or dance). Attire is cruise casual (no shorts, flip-flops, beach wear, etc). There is a special dinner on one of the nights called the Captain’s Dinner where the attire is Cruise Elegant – a jacket or sport coat is a perfect cover. The food is similar to the Paris restaurant, but it is full service. One can choose a specific time (5:45, 6:30, or 8:00) or opt for flexible time for dinner when signing up for the cruise. We chose the flexible option and recommend this – there is no obligation to dine at a particular time and given their efficient service we never had to wait.

The ship was majestically resting at Ensenada when we woke up around 6 AM the first day. Carnival offers a number of on-shore day trips. The pricing varies between $25 and $125 depending on the excursion – the sightseeing only tours that typically take between 3-4 hours are priced in the lower end of that spectrum, while tours that include some activity like golfing, kayaking, horseback, ATV, buggy rides are priced higher. Staying in the ship or venturing out on your own are the other options. We chose the Blowhole tour for $25 and found it to be of good value. The 3-hour tour includes a half-hour bus ride and a guided tour of La Bufadora, a natural spout that shoots sea-spray high into the air. It is a half-a-mile walk from the parking lot to the Blowhole and en-route vendors’ hawk wares from bags to medicines. Bargaining is the order of the day, should you decide to shop. Food and drinks are generally not included on these tours hence having bottled water and snacks around can be handy – a small cooler, a bottle of wine (per person), and small amount of snacks are allowed per person when embarking the ship. The immigration facility at Ensenada also houses shops selling souvenirs.

We spent the final day, the ‘Fun Day at Sea’, checking out the public areas of the ship. The kids whiled away some time at the day care facility – it is free for parts of the day and around $4 per-hour (50% discount for second child) for other times. The public areas were crowded by around 10 AM and it progressively got more so as the day progressed. The kid’s pool area (Deck 11 aft) was somewhat of an exception – the pool and the jacuzzi are smallish, and though the water was cold and brackish, the kids enjoyed it. The jogging-track goes around the mini-golf area and the enclosed skylight area (Deck 14 fore) – it takes around seven circles to cover a mile. The one area that was completely vacant was the library – stocked with some hundred or so books and some board games. The most popular (if crowd is any indication) area was Deck 10 – Paris restaurant grill area where the stage for competitions and music, and the main pool are located. The ‘Fun Day at Sea’ is the happening day for activities – Bingo, the Main Show at Normandie Lounge ( no photography or videotaping – quite good), various competitions (ping-pong, men’s hairy chest, etc.), activities (music, dancing, casino, yoga, duty free shopping, yoga class – fee, pilate class – fee, golf clinic, etc), are the highlights. Although the ship is anchored mid-ocean, most everyone should be able to find something to their liking. There is also a debarkation talk at 11AM but that can be tuned into at will from the cabin. Debarkation can take a while and handling your own luggage speeds up the process.

People react to their first cruise experience very differently and the feedback generally covers the gamut. Many love the all-inclusive, carefree atmosphere that is freely promoted and they yearn for their next trip before they even leave. Then there are those while appreciative of the all-inclusive, finds it hard to get past being stuck in a ship and in the company of 2000. And some absolutely refuse to go back citing claustrophobia. We were not buoyed by the experience and might reluctantly fit the middle group. It is obvious that if one has the flexibility, there are some outstanding deals to be had - ~$40 per-person-per-day is an unheard of deal with good food, boarding, and pampering being part of the package. However, given our zest of seizing the day, and our passion for the outdoors, we will consider another cruise only if it includes numerous calls at port that would allow us to incorporate ample sight-seeing. European river cruises, and Panama Canal/South American cruises could be a fit, but we have not researched this yet to make a recommendation.

Last Updated: 03/2012.

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