A sea change for Baja-bound families

A sea change for Baja-bound families
Plunging into the open-air pool from its spiraling slide — over and over again — offers plenty of G-rated entertainment on the Carnival Ecstasy. (John Corrigan / LAT)
The cruisers on the Lido Deck were getting frisky. After soaking in an afternoon of sunshine and tropical drink, two young women launched into a love dance, drawing cheers from the guys by the hot tub.

The show was PG-13, about to turn R-rated, when a security guard stepped in and politely ended the exhibition.

Strike another victory for Carnival Cruise Lines' policy of "modesty and moderation." The company's three-day weekend cruises to Ensenada, Mexico, are known for drawing a party crowd, but Carnival is trying hard to make the excursions friendly for families and others who want more cruise and less booze. As my wife, Alison, and I found out this month on a voyage with our 10-year-old daughter, Katie, the effort has largely paid off.

The three of us had a good time together aboard the Ecstasy, and Alison and I also had time for ourselves, thanks to the Camp Carnival kids' program. While we spent most of the trip as a family, Katie enjoyed playing games and making friends at the on-board camp. And for adults? There are more activities than time — shows, a disco and gambling for night life, and poolside sun, a well-equipped gym and a deck-top jogging track with sky-high views of the Pacific during the day.

Alison and I had cruised Carnival before, but there were a few twists this time. One is a new ship terminal, opened last month next to the Queen Mary in Long Beach. Arriving Friday afternoon, we pulled into the parking garage that replaced an open asphalt lot. At an unloading area, porters tagged our bags and took them to the ship.

It's a short walk to the new passenger terminal — the distinctive white dome that showcased the Spruce Goose until it moved to an Oregon museum. Moving through the check-in line, we sized up our fellow passengers. It's a diverse mix — couples young and old, groups of friends, extended families and boisterous bachelor and bachelorette parties. The brides-to-be wore white veils, and at least one of the future husbands (or perhaps it was the best man) carted a plastic blow-up doll.

I had taken this same cruise for my brother-in-law's bachelor party four years ago, and with Katie along on this trip, I was apprehensive. Our shipmates in '99 had included a boatload of fraternity brothers and three strippers from Oakland on a bit of a busman's holiday. We had caught part of their act at dinner on board and the rest in Ensenada.

But on this family trip, it became clear that Carnival was serious about modesty and moderation. That blow-up doll, for instance, was stowed away after a security man confronted its owner.

After boarding we made our way to our Main Deck stateroom, the nautical equivalent of flying coach. Katie was disappointed to find that our interior room didn't have a window, but we explained that portholes cost more.

We had booked the trip a week before. The Carnival phone representative first quoted a price of $963 for the three of us, and when I hesitated, she said we would qualify for a lower price of $873 because we were repeat customers. I called a travel agent, who couldn't beat that deal. I phoned Carnival back, and the price had dropped to $865.64, including taxes. Not bad for three nights' lodging and food, even if they weren't at sea, though tips and other extras can add up surprisingly quickly.

Our stateroom had two twin beds, plus two upper bunks that folded down from the wall. The twins had not been put together as one king-size bed, as the booking agent had promised, but a steward quickly fixed matters. The cabin was small, but it had a built-in desk and a TV, and we didn't spend much time there anyway.

A dinner of prime rib and Cornish game hen put us in a good mood for the night. We attended the orientation for Camp Carnival, which offers free, supervised activities for children 2 to 15. Some activities are in the common areas, but the Ecstasy also has two areas reserved for youngsters: a playroom with toys, computers and PlayStation 2 game terminals, and the Spirals disco, which serves as an activity center by day and a teen-only dance club by night.

Katie was happy to find that she would be with other kids 9 to 11, as the camp is divided into four age groups. About 50 to 60 parents and children were at the orientation, which was followed by a welcome-aboard party, ice cream sundaes and a ship tour. Alison and Katie turned in for the night, while I grabbed a Guinness and checked out the band at the ship's Chinatown club.

Saturday morning broke cool and drizzly in Ensenada. Camp Carnival had a full slate of shipboard activities, but we would not have missed the chance to take Katie ashore in Mexico. Two bucks gets you a van ride into town. Along the way, passengers hear a hard sell to buy a tour to La Bufadora, "the blowhole" on the coast 45 minutes south. We smelled tourist trap but decided the trip would be better than wandering Ensenada's bar district all day. The cruisers with tattoos and toe rings made a beeline for Papas & Beer and Hussong's; we boarded the bus for La Bufadora.

It was a good call. We had a glimpse of Baja California outside Ensenada, and our tour guide, Zoila, offered her takes on a range of topics from Mexico's social strata to its government-run Pemex gas stations. After seeing La Bufadora — which must also translate to "The Big Whup" — we braved the gantlet of merchants working the tour bus crowd. We were back in Ensenada by early afternoon, with plenty of time to shop downtown before the 5:30 p.m. sail time.

Dining is a highlight of any cruise, and this trip was no exception. The choices were great — scallops, rack of lamb, beef Wellington and vegetable curry were just a few — and the service was personal and professional. We ordered a bottle of Merlot on Friday night, and the half we didn't drink was at our table when we arrived Saturday evening. The ship also has late-night buffets and a 24-hour pizza bar.

The cruise line warned that costumes at the lounge show might be revealing, but the outfits at the "Dream Voyage" production Saturday night were no more risqué than anything found on Southland beaches. The show, one of the scheduled activities for Camp Carnival's 9-to-11 group, was fine for Katie. After the show, baby-sitting was available for $6 an hour, but Katie felt comfortable watching TV in our stateroom as Alison and I visited the Stripes disco and the Chinatown club.

Kids' camp, grown-ups' gaming

Sunday was a full day at sea. After breakfast, Katie checked into Camp Carnival while I checked out the casino. It offers slots, blackjack, roulette, craps and other games and is the only place that takes cash. For everything else, you get a "sail and sign" card to buy goods and services, with expenses charged to a credit card you provide at check-in.

Your account is billed automatically for tips to the wait staff and room stewards. Our charge was $29.25 a day, though we could have adjusted the amount. In the past, stewards and waiters relied on passengers' goodwill, and I'm sure many got stiffed. The new system is an improvement for them and eliminates awkward moments between passengers and staff.

We did encounter a few glitches. The ship wasn't full, yet the Lido Deck had run out of beach towels when I asked for one midafternoon Sunday. And we never got the wake-up call we requested Monday morning — a big deal when you have to get breakfast at 6:30 and be out of your cabin by 8.

But overall, our time at sea passed pleasurably — and quickly. Suddenly it was Monday morning and time to endure the dreary debarkation process.

Next time, we may have to take the four-day cruise.

John Corrigan is an assistant business editor for The Times.