Despite having had the "should we check or should we carry?" conversation several times before even leaving Las Vegas, we seemed to be having it again. (It only took the short walk from the car for Mike to rescind his vote for "carry.") I did bring the pre-printed luggage tags, so Mike tucked dollars into his hand while we waited for our porter to find a stapler.
"Is that all you have?" he asked, pointed to our two zipped-up tote bags. "You'd be better off just carrying them."
The porter seemed to feel confident that we'd be onboard right away and in our rooms before you know it, and I had to laugh that, in spite of several firm decisions, we were once again having the Check or Carry conversation, this time going the other way. With the porter in favour of us carrying.
At the door of the terminal, a nice, older man handed us a piece of paper and directed us to the right side. But wait, we have VIP boarding, shouldn't we follow the sign to the left? No, only if you're with Sigma Alpha Epsilon, he said. They have boarding before everyone else.
So there we were with the plebs, and if you can't tell that I'm joking when I say that, you should probably click away right now, as my joy over tiny scraps of trumped-up elitism isn't going to get any better.
We took a moment to look at the paper the guy had given us. What's this? We're going to Mexico? They changed the itinerary back a week early? What about Catalina?
Luckily, we were still going to Catalina. Whew. (Catalina had been the selling point of going on the cruise, as it was cheaper to cruise than to take a ferry and stay on the island.) How excellent; two ports-of-call on a cruise that normally just hits one! (Sure, we had to trade a "Fun Day at Sea" for it, but losing tea time in the library seemed more than a fair deal.)
Meanwhile, the guy behind me was on a roll. "Look at that! Three-to-one! I was promised a three-to-one ratio!"
He was talking about women, and he was talking about the lack of women in the terminal. Especially in the queue of Sigma Alpha Epsilon. Um, wait. SAE is a fraternity? We were going on a short cruise - what some call a "booze cruise" - with a bunch of frat boys?
(I have had fraternity members explain to me why you don't call it "frat." I'm not swayed. Plus, I love the movie Mystery Men.)
Goodness. Frat boys. Well, the more frat boys, the fewer kids, right? (Weak laugh.) Goodness.
I will jump ahead right now and say that when we got to our room later, I looked up SAE on the Kindle. They have a "True Gentleman" creed that, alas, you can no longer read on Wikipedia because it's the casualty of a "Neutrality?" edit war. (I've said it here before. Wikipedia contributers looking to slash in the name of Neutrality? and Notability? are killing the resource.) I read the creed and was ready to shame any SAE member with its recitation, should they go stupid.
But you know what? Sigma Alpha Epsilon impressed me. We met a few jackasses, got a few negative (and hopefully drunken) comments from young men (which we totally deserve, for daring to walk around in public while fat, right?), but never a scoff or remark from the frat boys. The members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon we encountered were, indeed, true gentlemen.
(And yeah, they probably did keep down the population of kids. Yay! Oh, you know me, I don't mind kids; it's those parents with the Clueless Complex that piss me off. That said, the few children I did see were, indeed, pushing every elevator button, screaming while the parent ignored them, or running into everyone on the decks. But, again, I didn't see many kids. Maybe these were just the ones kicked out of Camp Carnival!)
As the SAE line moved forward, an(other) older man went up and down the rows of steerage, asking if there were any VIPs present. We hopped up and took our rightful place on the VIP side of the terminal. In the photo above, it is the (unseen) benches just behind the line of SAE guys. I hear that some ports have entire lounges for VIPs, but in San Diego you just get a different bench. Still, it got us away from Mr. "Three-to-One" behind us, as well as some (definitely drunken) jerk making "chubby chaser" comments, so membership does have its privileges.
Lest anyone think I've suddenly become rich or important, the only reason we were VIPs was because we booked a suite. Not even the ship's real suites, but the "Category 11" suite, sometimes called a "demi-suite," that is the same as a balcony room on the newer Carnival ships. We paid less for it than some people paid for inside cabins, thank you Swine Flu.
A few moments later we were in line to go through security and check-in. (Not without an argument between employees about whether we were VIPs and whether VIPs should be boarding yet.)
The first stop was X-ray. I took a moment to drop the camera on the concrete floor. Oops. But hey, that's why I carry three cameras, right? (Luckily, it was the pocket camera, and it was fine. If it hadn't been, they sell even better cameras on the ship for surprisingly reasonable prices.)
From there we had to fill out health cards, saying we didn't have a cough. Do they do this when there isn't a swine flu threat? Does anyone who has come this far ever say they feel sick, so they can be evaluated by the ship's doctor before being allowed to board?
Next, we were ushered in to jump the SAE queue and do our check-in. The clerk asked if we worked in the, you know, casinos, in almost the same tone of voice one would use to ask if someone ran a discreet phone sex business from their spare cell phone. Living in Las Vegas is so normal to me now, and sometimes it feels like everyone in California has already moved here, that I forget how it was when I first came here, less than five years ago, and people would say, "You're moving to Las Vegas to teach? They have schools there?"
We had to wait on a little extra paperwork because of Mike's green card, but it was still a matter of minutes before we sat on another blue bench, admiring our Sail and Sign cards.
Four minutes later (I checked the camera's timestamps), we were handed a shiny plastic card to present as proof of early VIP-boarding eligibility.
We watched the common folks start to seep into the check-in lines (this is my tongue, this is my cheek) for all of sixty seconds before we were herded toward the ship.
But! Before we got to the ship, we had to go through the luggage terminal. In the luggage terminal were photographers, eager to take a posed photo that would later be available for sale on Deck 9. (Ship photographers are an outside company, not Carnival. They pay for the opportunity to make money, and they have no qualms about being pushy.)
Don't get me wrong. The embarkation photo is a nice souvenir and a nice service. The quality of the photos is decent, too, if sometimes a little flashy (as in literally too much flash) for the prosumer tastes of 2009.
But I didn't want a photo. I don't photograph well, and these days I photograph worse than ever. I have never been able to smile for a posed photograph - my lips thin out, my eyes squint unevenly, all personal illusions of brushed hair are crushed, and, despite all kinds of practice in the mirror, I can never lock my head into such an angle to create a two-chin maximum. Get me for an on-ride photo, a spur of the moment shot where you're supposed to look goofy, but please don't ask me to pose. I didn't want to start the trip off depressed.
Unfortunately, there is no easy way to get past the embarkation photographers. (In ports, sometimes you can find a gap and slip through.) You don't have to get your photo taken (although they will cajole you), but you do have to stand there and watch the gap beyond the camera get ever wider (or emptier) while people put down their carry-ons, arrange themselves, smile, click, re-arrange themselves, smile, click, sometimes re-arrange themselves again and let out a few screams of excitement, gather their luggage back up, and stagger on to where the real photos are taken, the ones that are linked to your Sail and Sign cards.
Every Carnival staffer was friendly on our trip, often Disney-friendly, except for the girls (supposedly the dancers?) who took our S&S photo, and except for the girls (again, supposedly the dancers?), who help you disembark on the last day. Maybe they think they're too good to work offstage? (I saw a few minutes of their show. They're not.)
But all these small frustrations popped out of sight as we zig-zagged up the ramp to the ship. We're here! We're going on a cruise!
We started with an elevator ride to the Lido Deck. It was just past noon, so our room probably wasn't ready, and we were hungry. On to the buffet! Time to see what all the fuss about cruise ship eating is about!
It was crazy. Every member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon seemed to be queued up, and waiters were running around the deck, trying to sell the Drink of the Day. (And looking rather surprised when they got to us and we said no. Mike being a teetotaler and me being a rare drinker these days definitely put us in the minority. Still, you have to admire how Carnival sets up a "Friends of Bill W." meeting for every day on the cruise, just see the fuzzy capers below. Still, I have to wonder if the well-windowed library is the best place to have an anonymous meeting? Or, in this confessional 21st century, is the second-A of AA no longer so important?)
(At some point, Mike asked me what "Friends of Bill W." was. I quipped that it wasn't quite like "Friends of Dorothy." Then I saw what was on for 8:00 p.m. and had to laugh.)
I grabbed a table and Mike went to gather our grub. No sooner had I settled in our bags and called Dad to give him the latest, when Mike came back and said these were just lines for the grill (burgers and chicken), and the buffet was inside, where it was far less busy.
Rushed a good-bye to Dad, and we went into the "Tiffany" restaurant to join the buffet lines. This time Mike held the bags and I made up the plates.
I have to be honest: we were not impressed.
It's funny how, if certain comments I get on my YouTube videos are anything to go by, people equate Las Vegas buffets with cheap slop. Those buffets are still out there (Excalibur leaps unpleasantly to mind), but many LV buffets are practically tasting menus of fancy fare (Wynn, Bellagio), and some, while plainer, are simply delicious (M, or Paris for breakfast). Clearly, we've been spoiled.
What was wrong? I don't know. We both cautiously said that, well, maybe this just wasn't our type of food. Bland as heck. Bad luck, perhaps.
And that seemed to be just the case, for it was the only bad meal we had on the ship. I can't even say I had it, because after trying a bite of everything, I walked over to the pizza station (open 24 hours!) and grabbed a slice of Napolitana.
Hot and fresh from the oven in the back, this was delish. Not amazing, but a nice piece of onions, peppers, mushrooms, and cheeeeeeeeeeese.
There are both critics and fanboys of Carnival's pizza stations. Some critics feel the lines get too long, since each pizza is only cut into four slices. I do agree that smaller slices would speed up traffic, but then how many people would ask for two slices? And not finish? Creating waste? And taking the same amount of time? I'm guessing that Carnival has already thought this one out. Still, it would be nice if they could have more than two choices of pizza ready at a time.
Then there are the critics who like to get on the boards and say, "You thought that was good? Clearly, you've never had a real slice of (Chicago/New York/Jersey/pick one) pie!"
To them I would say, "Please join us in the 21st century." Pizza has undergone such an evolutionary process, it's ridiculous to believe your city produces the One True Pizza. It may offer a terrific pizza that your own taste buds find hard to beat, but pizza is too varied now to have a standard spec. Me, I've never had a slice of "genuine New York pie" without finding it too wet for words. Maybe that's bad luck, or maybe it's just my loss that I can't appreciate that style. Chicago-style? Touch-and-go - usually too much sauce for my taste.
And of course it's okay to hate the Carnival pizza, too. I agree with the critics, it's not as "OMG!" - to me - as some of the fanboys would proclaim, but I did think it was tasty. Mind you, the only vegetarian options are the Margherita or the Napolitana, so perhaps if I'd had Pepperoni or Goat Cheese my report would be different.
(Now that I've ticked off fraternity members, drunks, parents, the populations of Illinois and New York, and anyone who wasn't in the mood for a DUH lecture on how we should all hold hands and respect each other's pizza choices, we can move on...)
As soon as I got the pizza, I noticed the "deli." On the Elation, it is right across from the pizza counter in the back of the ship. If all you do is go to the buffet then sit down, you might miss it. "Right," I thought. "That's next."
Standing in line at the deli made me start to worry about ever booking an aft cabin. There was so much vibration in that area, I almost had to leave the line for motion sickness. (We took a ginger capsule at almost every meal and were fine. I still got queasy from the ciprofloxacin, but my last dose was that evening, so it didn't really affect the cruise.)
"Can I have a reuben, please, but without the corned beef?"
The guy nodded, took the sandwich orders for the next four people, then started preparing everything. He didn't write anything down, just nodded silently and worked. Impressive.
As was my sandwich, a toasted swiss-n-sauerkraut on rye, with dressing. Mmmm yummmmm!
Mike can tell you that, much to his chagrin, sandwiches are one of my favourite foods. (The chagrin part comes in where I consider them perfectly acceptable for dinner. "You have meat. You have bread. What's the problem?") As I blissfully groaned through the crisp, tangy sauerkraut and the soft, nutty Swiss, I knew I was set for this cruise. Mike, having bravely soldiered through most of his sad buffet plate, got a slice of pepperoni pizza (not wanting to wait for the one with everything), and ended things on a happy note himself.
Everything was getting very busy, as the rest of the early boarding peeps made it aboard, so we took a last swig of the (sweet, pulpy, refreshing) lemonade and wandered up to the Verandah deck to look around.
It was a bit past one. We decided to check on our rooms, but the couple slumped by the elevator and the sign on the fire door both let us know that it wasn't time yet. We joined the vigil.
Other people came. 1:30 came. The door remained shut. The sign did not move. Time did. I took a photo of the carpet.
I chose not to feel guilty about resting against the bottom of the artwork. (For awhile, I thought the feathery creature in the painting had three boobs. Darn stylization!)
One couple decided to open the door. They didn't return. Another couple tried it. We never saw them again. We looked at the original couple and said, "Well, now that other people have done it, we can break the rules, too!" And thus we lead the parade to our Verandah-deck rooms.
We were on port side, cabin V14, about midway up the hall. The doors were narrower than I expected; anyone using a wheelchair will definitely require a specially designated room.
The bed was covered in a soft, pillowy duvet and quickly deemed comfortable by both of us.
(Oops, you're not supposed to see the towel animal, capers, or turndown mints yet! I actually took this photo later in the evening.)
The sofa was unexpectedly, um, shiny, but still comfortable. It contorts out somehow into a bed, but we didn't try that feature.
For a ship that just underwent millions of dollars of refurbishment, including new carpeting, it seems - in retrospect - that the decor could have been a little prettier, while keeping with the mass-produced, nothing too risky, theme that is common hotel room design. But at the time I thought it was all lovely and perfect, and not nearly as cramped as I feared it would be.
The vanity area:
Hmm, what's behind that panel on the right?
Regrettably, the occasion for a dinner party just never arose. And above the barware?
Flat screen TVs were part of the recent rehab, although the VCRs remained. Having said that, on our last day, the stewards were putting VCRs in the hall. Strange SOP, or is a DVD conversion imminent?
The shower was serviceable. No bottled amenities, but you can see the shower gel and shampoo dispensers attached to the wall. The amenities we did get, pictured in the basket by the sink, were a little startling. Not the razor (nice - definitely stole that), not the tiny toothpaste packets, but what was behind them:
The Tylenol P.M. will be handy come August, but... a Harlequin novel? And placed in the bathroom? The more I think about it, the bigger round of applause I have to give to Harlequin's marketing department. (Here I have visions of male cruisegoers, sitting on the potty, looking around for reading material and getting hooked on Crime Scene at Caldwell Ranch. Boom - a new marketing demographic is born! I like how Harlequin even picked a book with a testosterone-y title.)
(And I can't rag on Harlequin, because I totally downloaded this and every other one of their 60th anniversary free books for the Kindle. No one walks away from free books in this house!)
(Unless they are very smelly and have been living with boy-cats. Have you seen this link?)
And there is the toilet. It flushes very aggressively. Davy Jones did a whole bit in his show a few weeks ago about the ferocity cruise ship toilets, and I thought he was exaggerating. Hand-grips are there for those of you who flush while still seated, that's all I'm saying. Speaking of Davy, here's my utterly cruddy video of him (un-cruddily) singing "Girl" at the show in Laughlin:
I share only this out of love of getting sidetracked. Pity I didn't know beforehand that proper cameras and camcorders are totally allowed at Mr. Jones' shows. What a nice guy.
And now I cannot see him dance without thinking of the "literal version" of "Daydream Believer":
I've put it off long enough. Let's talk about V14's balcony.
Category 11 on a Fantasy-class ship. Oh, the controversies!
I don't know why there is any controversy, other than maybe Carnival shouldn't call this a "suite" when it's a mere "balcony" on the newer ships. However, compared to most cabins on the Elation, which do not have balconies or refrigerators (and, contrary to what it says on the boards, ours did genuinely work as a refrigerator, not just a cooler), this is a suite. More of a junior suite, but certainly a world apart from a cabin with ocean view.
Unless you spend little time in the room and/or dislike balconies. Then of course it's not worth it.
We probably spent more time in the room just because we enjoyed the balcony so much. We left the cruise with the firm decision that No Way would ever book a cruise again without getting a balcony room. The view, the fresh air, our own little deck - for us, these were highpoints of the cruise.
Another point of criticism towards these Cat 11s suites is that the balcony is half the size of a Cat 12 suite, and again, about the same size as a balcony on, say, the Splendor (30 square feet). You get reports all over the place about how you can't sit facing forward without squishing your legs.
That is absolutely true. So, here's what you do. Look at our chairs above. See how they are turned to the side? Works a treat, and you can get a great view while looking at the face of your companion, Double-thumbs up.
We set the little table inside and put it to work there. You may choose to leave it on the balcony, It's all doable. (Note that I was standing behind the chair, on the balcony, when I took that photo. In other words, the balcony is longer than pictured.)
Can you have a party out there? No. Well, yes. The people next to us did. They managed to get at least five people there during sail away, with at least half of them smoking, plus the gem of a girl we started calling "Cousin Vicky" who could only talk loudly and longly about how she was going to trick room service into bring her booze even though she was underage. This monologue was delivered in front of her parents, who professed to be cool with it, as long as they didn't have to get involved. I sensed that they had a long history of "not getting involved." Alas, she was successful, and we got to "enjoy" her success on a few noisy occasions later in the trip. Later in the trip, when she would randomly yell and slur and smoke, I wish we'd busted her the first night, but at that point we were still filing such things under "Not Our Business.")
And even if your party is only for one or two, can other people watch? The "lack of privacy" is another constant criticism of these cabins. Once more, it's about what you like.
I liked having the deck right below us. I liked being on the highest deck (with cabins) on the ship. (If nothing else, there are far fewer rooms.) I'm sure I would have really enjoyed a Category 12 cabin, with its larger room and balcony, a balcony where you lean over and see nothing but the ocean, but there were so few people ever on the deck below us, that the odd passerby didn't matter. (Just about every review of the Cat 11 Fantasy-class balconies have said the same thing - other than at sail away, there is very little traffic below you. We didn't even have people below us at sail away.)
But, optimum privacy is a valid concern, so here is the view from the Lido deck, looking up at our cabin.
And here is a view from the deck near the bow:
Now, one cabin I might hesitate to book, as I am a privacy-lover myself, is the cabin nearest to the front of the ship. This is a view of that cabin (V2 on port side) from the front deck:
And once more, the traffic is low and most people who go to this deck are looking at the sea. I would take V14 over V2, but I would take V2 over an obstructed view, further back. (And I would take an obstructed balcony view over an oceanview, so continue to keep in mind that I just lurve balconies.)
I liked watching the doings-behind-glass on the bridge:
It's a great spot for watching planes, too. San Diego's airport runs right along the water.
Back inside, I unpacked, ignoring Mike's skepticism that life would be better if we did. (He changed his mind a bit when I offered to do his bag as well. Ha!) The safe is terrific!
When it was all done, the safe held three lenses (two of which I'd brought for Disneyland after the trip), camera, pocket camera, two cell phones, codeine (don't ask), keys, external flash, camcorder, Mike's enormous-and-falling-apart wallet from his teen years that he refuses to replace, the Kindle, and plenty of room to spare. I brought last year's freshly expired AAA card to lock it. (You just swipe as needed.) One time I accidentally used my Sail and Sign card, but it did not demagnetize. Apparently I got lucky; make sure you bring an unneeded card for swiping the lock. Don't use a credit card - old gift cards will also work.
Mike was still lolling in bed, shirtless (but unwilling to participate in any Hairy Chest contests listed in the Capers, dangit), when our steward came to the door. I think her name was Camilia? She wanted to know when we were dining, and I felt a little bad when I said we had the new Anytime Dining. I adore Anytime Dining and can't believe we're willing to go on this next cruise, where it isn't available yet. However, it must be hard on the stewards to know when to provide turndown service. And yet they manage to do so invisibly - incredible. Maybe even spooky.
I invited Camilia in to do the spiel about hairdryers and using the AC, as Mike modestly grinned from the bed, tucked up to the neck. I asked for two extra pillows (there were two-each on the bed, but they were smallish by our standards), and she very kindly said it wouldn't be a problem.
She also said that the mandatory muster drill was running a little late, so we didn't need to go until around five (instead of 4:45). After she left we lolled some more. Grinned some more. Nothing has changed since our first trip together, to Disney World. All we do is flop around, smile, and occasionally point at stuff. It's the best.
Muster drill started pretty much on time. As we waited, we tried to work out how to operate the life jackets. Oh, such pride once we sussed it out.
It was very nice having ours on the Lido Deck, by the pool. I hope we're lucky enough to get a similarly open area on the next cruise. I had read so much about not going too early, or you get squished to the front and are the last to leave, and it can be a problem for claustrophobics. (But you cannot miss it. Not only is it foolish, safety-wise, but they do check rooms.)
We were too late to get seats, but we stood in the shade under the steps. All of the other muster stations came up to the lifeboats, but we just sat there, already being by the lifeboats, waiting for the others to go through their drills. The only bad part was the way people would not shut the fricking freck up. No matter how many times the drill leader asked, they just BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH OWN WORLD CONVERSATION BLAH BLAH'd. Unfortunately, the leader didn't give them a verbal smackdown, but at least he didn't stop the proceedings to wait for quiet, either, which I hear is what has happened to other people. Then again, maybe the lynch mob that would have formed by the 10th time everything had to stop would have been worth it. The whole thing gave me that feeling of desperation I sometimes get, that the kids in my classroom are never going to stop talking, not when this is how the adults act. No wonder they act so genuinely confused when you call them out for talking while you do. After all, they weren't stopping you from talking, so what's the problem? Arrrrrgh! It's still Summer Break. Let's not think about it!
To console myself, I looked at other people's jackets to see who else was in a splendid Verandah suite, and I mentally dripped a scornful "ha HA!" at those balcony-less talkers. Ha HA! (As if they care. Petty comforts.) Here is Mike, posing as requested:
After the drill and another fine glass of lemonade, we moseyed around a little then headed back to the room. Hey, is this ship moving?
We were backed halfway out of the dock before making it to our balcony. (So, they don't announce the departure?) Mike took the better photos, but he hasn't uploaded them so, here, have one of mine:
That's the U.S.S. Nimitz. Don't tell Mike, but here is one of his - downtown San Diego:
The first gap you see, looking left to right, is where our ship was docked. It hardly seems possible!
And here is Mike, finally getting all into "his" lens. (The telephoto. I'm all about the macro. In theory. Like the rest of my photography ambitions.)
Even Mike was shamelessly singing the Enya. (Don't get me started.) Now, what's for dinner?