Gulf Getaway

Cruising with Elvis on the Ecstasy

By: Kevin Brass

Although the unusually large number of guys with mutton chops should have been a clue, I didn’t immediately realize it was an Elvis cruise, when first sailing from Galveston on Carnival’s Ecstasy.

The Ecstasy was on its regular four-day run to Cozumel, a route it took over last October from the smaller Celebration. The move increased Carnival’s capacity by 38 percent on the popular four- and five-day trips across the Gulf of Mexico, which it operates year-round.

On this trip about 25 percent of the boat was filled with Elvis fans, on an annual pilgrimage to Mexico to salute the anniversary of the King’s death. The trip is organized by a Houston radio station. Once at sea, Elvis impersonators entertained people by the pool and customized bingo games featured Elvis song titles.

Groups, like the Elvis impersonators, typically fill almost half the ship, according to hotel director Tania Melkonian. In addition to the Elvis fans, there was also a group on board from the University of Texas dental school.

For most Cozumel trips, almost 90 percent of the passengers are from Texas, with the rest coming from neighboring states Oklahoma and Arkansas, Melkonian said. The four-day cruise leaves from Galveston at 4 p.m. on Thursday and returns Monday morning, making it an efficient getaway for Texans who can drive to Galveston, about an hour’s drive south of Houston.

“You don’t have to use as much vacation time to take a cruise,” said Ann Dale of Dallas, a woman in her 50s who was traveling with a friend.

The scene on board was very similar to a weekend at any mid-level Vegas resort. At night, I was one of the few men wearing a sport coat at dinner; there were only a smattering of tuxedos on formal night.

As a nod to the regional clientele, several of the entertainers were from Texas, including “adult” comedian Tony Stone. In March, the main stage show will switch to a musical called “Extreme Country,” according to cruise director Larry Garlutzo.

Even though it’s a short cruise, the Carnival staff does its best to keep people busy. Almost 200 people showed up for an afternoon art auction. A wine-tasting seminar, a program developed on the Ecstasy for its longer cruises, also drew a crowd. During the day at sea, a four-piece reggae band played by the pool. Throngs of passengers clearly uninterested in Carnival’s low-carb dinner menu feasted on hamburgers, as well as pizza, which was available around-the-clock. The Panorama Bar & Grill, the ship’s buffet, offered an extensive breakfast and lunch menu, spicing things up in the evening with some French and Indian entrees. The Ecstasy has two main dining rooms, the Wind Star and the Wind Song, both featuring an array of New York cut steaks, seafood and other specialties.

On the first day at sea I was able to avoid the party-boat throngs and spend a quiet afternoon, capped by a steam bath in the Ecstacy’s pleasant spa. The ship was sailing at capacity, but it didn’t feel packed. As the day faded there were still plenty of secluded places to watch the sunset. At night the discos were hopping, but there were only a few friendly passengers gathered around the piano in the aptly named Neon Bar, which made for a pleasant and less stressed evening.

According to the staff there were more than 100 kids on board, but there was little evidence of them. Carnival breaks the under-18 crowd into four age groups and keeps them fairly busy with Camp Carnival activities. At night, one nightclub was designated exclusively for the 15- to 17-year-old set, and there was a dedicated teen host to keep them busy.

When we arrived on Cozumel, we docked at the pier Carnival helped build, which is about a $6 taxi ride from downtown. Carnival’s Sensation, which was doing a similar four-day trip out of New Orleans, was already docked, doubling the crowds on the pier in the morning.

There were a wide variety of shore excursions available, ranging from cooking classes and party boats to diving and deep-sea fishing expeditions.

“Cozumel for a long time was always about shopping, but I don’t think that’s true anymore,” said Garlutzo, the cruise director.

I chose the “Eco-Jeep and Snorkeling Adventure” as my shore excursion. A group of energetic guides dressed in matching safari hats and khaki shorts met us at their pier and proceeded to shout instructions to a group of about 50 people.

We drove south into Punta Sur, an ecological preserve. With no alcohol allowed, the group was pleasantly well mannered. After brief stops at a small Mayan temple and a deck overlooking the lagoon, where the guides fed raw chicken breasts to the local crocodiles, it was off to the beach, a long stretch of fine white sand strewn with huge conch shells and blue coral.

The snorkeling part of the excursion was spectacular, albeit more strenuous than some people expected. It required a swim of a few hundred yards and then a walk across a long stretch of sand to reach the reef. One woman struggled to the beach after swallowing salt water.

After about an hour and a half, it was back into the Jeeps for a short drive to the local lighthouse and then a bit of bouncing around on dirt roads before heading back to the dock.

We were back at sea by 5 p.m., ready for one more day of lounging on the Ecstasy. But, as it turned out, the Gulf turned rough on Sunday and many passengers spent the last day of the “fun cruise” huddled in their bunks. It was January, after all, so I decided to forgive the Gulf.

Elvis would have wanted it that way.


Company: Carnival Cruise Line

Ship: Carnival Ecstasy

Size: 70,367 tons

Capacity: 2,052

Year Built: 1991

Plugging In: Cabins feature 110-volt electrical outlets, so there’s no need for a converter. There’s an Internet cafe onboard, and Wi-Fi access is available.

Hits: Wide array of shore excursions on Cozumel provide some variety to the itinerary, which has only one port of call. The convenient, “long weekend” trip is a quick and easy getaway.

Misses: The nightly sushi bar was a great idea, but the rolls were mushy and inedible. A remote parking lot and confusing baggage drop-off make embarkation a bit tedious.

Itinerary: The Ecstacy’s four-day cruises from Galveston to Cozumel depart every Thursday throughout 2005.

Cost: Prices for inside cabins start at $399, and for ocean-view cabins, $449

Commission: Ranges from 10-16 percent.