The enormous flag of Mexico beckons visitors to go ashore in Ensenada as we pose for a selfie against the city's skyline on Sept. 27 during our first cruise aboard the Carnival Inspiration. It was five days and four nights of fun and adventure on the Pacific Ocean that also took us to Catalina Island. Photo by Glenn.

Our ship has come in

October 25, 2017: A long time ago, in February, when we still both had jobs, we were contemplating how we might want to spend our September vacation. Too often it seemed that we wouldn't make plans, so by the time those precious two weeks rolled around we frequently succumbed to the temptation to do nothing and do our relaxing at home. Which isn't as relaxing as it might initially seem, once you throw in yard work and home improvement projects. So this year we were determined to not let that happen. In the process of kicking around ideas for what we might do, somehow we stumbled upon taking a cruise.

To see any of these photos larger, or as a slideshow, view our Flickr gallery.

It's unboxing day for Roni as she sets up her new iPhone 8 on Friday, Sept. 22. The release of Apple's latest phone was timed perfectly for our vacation, which started two days later. Photo by Glenn.

"It's a little snug, but I think it will stretch out a bit with wear." Photo by Glenn.

Hawaiian dancers perform on the community stage in Civic Park during the Heart of Oakley Festival on Saturday, Sept. 23. It was our first real opportunity to play with Glenn's new Canon SX60 HS camera. Photo by Glenn.

Next up, dancers from the Ballet Folklorico Jaracue. We had to laugh that the following day we would be heading out of town for our Mexico cruise, but we could have stayed home to enjoy this bit of traditional Mexican culture in our own town. Photo by Glenn.

Monday, Sept. 25, finds us near the Port of Long Beach as we wait to board our cruise ship, the Carnival Inspiration. That's our boat to the left, docked just behind the famous Queen Mary. Photo by Glenn.

There are worse places to kill time before a cruise than ShoreLine Aquatic Park in Long Beach. We're on the path to the Rainbow Lighthouse, which sits on a hill overlooking the marina and the mouth of the Los Angeles River. Photo by Glenn.

Looking north from ShoreLine Aquatic Park across the marina you get a spectacular view of downtown Long Beach. Just look at that gorgeous sky. It's great weather for a cruise. Photo by Glenn.

One last look at the Rainbow Lighthouse in Long Beach. Nothing says Southern California like a grove of palm trees. Photo by Glenn.

No, this isn't our cruise ship. It's the Russian Scorpion Submarine that is one of the attractions at the Queen Mary. We are still an hour or so early for our scheduled boarding time, so we take the opportunity for some more sightseeing first.
Photo by Glenn.

On board the Carnival Inspiration at last, we have a great view of the Queen Mary and the cruise terminal dome. The dome formerly housed the Spruce Goose that was once owned by billionaire Howard Hughes. Photo by Glenn.

Our stateroom aboard the Carbival Inspiration is small but cozy. At least we have a window to watch the ocean pass while we cruise along the Baja California coast. Photo by Glenn.

On the top deck of the cruise ship you get a bird's eye view of everything. We haven't even left port in Long Beach yet. Photo by Glenn.

Tuesday morning finds us at Catalina Island. There is a camera in the bow of the ship so passengers can monitor the action from their cabins. Some don't have a window like ours does. Photo by Glenn.

Time to go ashore. Tender boats ferry passengers to Avalon because there is no dock there that can accommodate a large cruise ship. It's our first visit to the island. Photo by Glenn.

The waters of Avalon Bay are beautiful and clear. The Catalina Island Casino is at left and our cruise ship is anchored offshore to the right. Photo by Glenn.

The Catalina Island Casino and Avalon Theater building opened in 1929 and is the most easily identifiable landmark on Catalina Island. Photo by Glenn.

One of the Art Deco-style archways near the entrance to the Avalon Theater. Photo by Roni.

There are many ways to have a good time on Catalina Island that don't involve spending extra money, but for those who choose to there are sports such as parasailing and scuba diving, both of which are happening here while the cruise ship waits for our return. Photo by Glenn.

Brilliantly colored Garibaldi damselfish swim amid the tourists participating in a snorkeling class at Casino Point on Catalina Island. Photo by Glenn.

Time for lunch — and a peach margarita — at El Galleon restaurant in Avalon on Catalina Island. The drinks here were just slightly cheaper than those on the boat, but just as tasty. Photo by Glenn.

There are lots of fun gift shops to visit in Avalon. We loved this T-shirt we found displayed at one of them. Photo by Roni.

Tourists stroll through the shopping district in Avalon. It's getting late in the afternoon and our stay here is about over. Time to grab some souvenirs and head back to the cruise ship. Photo by Glenn.

The late afternoon sun is just a bit too intense, so Glenn takes a creative approach to shading himself for the tender ride back to the cruise ship. Photo by Roni.

A cup of coffee and a gentle sea breeze complement the beauty of a California coastal sunset as we depart Catalina Island and head south at the end of Day 2 of our cruise. Photo by Glenn.

The moon is already out, along with the seagulls, as we relax on board the Carnival Inspiration and watch the sunset. Photo by Glenn.

No, you can't have too many sunset photos. Photo by Glenn.

The sun is down, the moon is out, and the stars are bright in the western sky as our ship makes its way through the calm waters of the Pacific Ocean. Photo by Glenn.

A crowd gathers around the Grand Atrium to enjoy the show as a deejay spins hits from the '60s. Photo by Glenn.

We have no idea who the woman behind us is. She photobombed us while we were taking selfies in the Paris Theater before the start of the Motor City variety show. Everyone we met on our cruise, from the staff down to the guests, was friendly and added to the fun we had. Photo by Roni.

The '60s never looked or sounded quite like this. Multicolored costumes were the order of the evening during the Motor City show on board the Carnival Inspiration. Photo by Roni.

One of the signatures of our Carnival cruise was the towel animal creations that showed up each morning after the housekeepers freshened up our room. Wednesday morning it was this bullfrog. Photo by Glenn.

If we look like a couple of American tourists getting ready for a day of sightseeing in Mexico, well, we are. We're in port at Ensenada, waiting for our tour bus. Photo by Roni.

Cruise ship passengers wait in the plaza at the dock in Ensenada for various tours. Photo by Glenn.

Our tour guide Fabiola narrates our journey aboard the Topless Bus as we head up the Ensenada coastline. Photo by Glenn.

It's sort of difficult to get good photos when you're packed in like sardines on a tour bus, so when the tour guide tells you they are stopping at a popular photo spot, of course everyone has to pop up for a shot. And just what is it we're all looking at?... Photo by Glenn.

...It is the ever-photogenic Ensenada sculpture. Awright, we lugged the camera with us, so better get this shot. Photo by Glenn.

Another reason for the photo op at the Ensenada sign was so the tour guide could sell us a few drinks. Cokes and bottled water on ice were available for a buck. Photo by Glenn.

The Mothers Monument, erected in 1965 by the Rotary Club at the intersection of Calle Sexta and Alvaro Obregon in Ensenada, is a tribute to motherhood worldwide, but especially in Latin America. Photo by Glenn.

The Topless Bus is the only one of its kind in Ensenada, and as such gets a lot of attention from the locals. People on the street wave at us and passengers wave back as we roll through the downtown business district. Photo by Glenn.

Roni browses the merchandise inside one of the tourist shops in downtown Ensenada. Photo by Glenn.

Strolling musicians add to the festive atmosphere at the intersection of Primera and Miramar streets in downtown Ensenada. Walking among the shops and countering the aggressive sales tactics of the merchants is sort of like being at a giant outdoor carnival. Photo by Glenn.

Roni checks out the wares at one of the sidewalk displays in downtown Ensenada. The football field-sized flag of Mexico will always point you in the direction of the cruise ship in the unlikely event you find yourself lost here. Photo by Glenn.

A shop in the building near the cruise dock offered a wall full of ceramic items for purchase. Roni found some gifts to bring home. Photo by Glenn.

Carnival's many towel animal creations are on display at the towel station near the swimming pool on Lido Deck 10. If you really like them, there is a book you can buy that shows you step by step how to make them. Photo by Roni.

Nothing like a pair of fruity rum drinks (minus the rum) to help us while away the afternoon in our stateroom while sitting in port at Ensenada, Mexico. Photo by Glenn.

The Mexican flag that flies over Ensenada is one of several "monumental flags" erected throughout the country since 1999 to instill a sense of national patriotism. Ensenada's flag is the second largest behind one that flies in Mexico City. Photo by Glenn.

The seagulls are ubiquitous on the cruise ship, so you might as well use them as a photo prop when you can. They look cool silhouetted against an Ensenada sunset. Photo by Glenn.

Getting out of port in Ensenada involved some tricky maneuvering on the part of our captain. Just like backing out of a parking stall at the mall, you want to be sure not to hit the vehicle — or vessel — behind you. Photo by Glenn.

Safely out of port, we leave the city of Ensenada in our wake as the Carnival Inspiration returns to sea for the journey home. The city skyline looks quite beautiful at night. Photo by Glenn.

The deck lights on the ship provide the perfect lighting for a night portrait of the perfect model. Ensenada is getting smaller in the distance. Photo by Glenn.

Our Wednesday night entertainment is comedian B.T., who did a great improv sketch in the ship's Punchliner Comedy Club. Photo by Roni.

An auctioneer from Park West Gallery gets art patrons in the mood to bid during an on-board art auction Thursday afternoon. We just came to look and pick up our door prize... Photo by Roni.

...Oh yes, and for the free champagne. This was without a doubt the cheapest alcoholic beverage we enjoyed during our cruise. Photo by Roni.

Remember that scene from Titanic where Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio hang out on the bow of the ship and she pretends she's flying over the ocean? Naw, we didn't do that. But there is a certain allure to the notion. Photo by Glenn.

The weather was great for most of the cruise, and we rarely needed to bundle up when we went out on deck in the evening. Thursday evening was a rare exception, but a sweater was all that was necessary to be comfortable. Photo by Roni.

We were at sea all day Thursday on our journey back to Long Beach. We've got a bit of cloud cover as evening moves in, but not enough to obscure our ever present celestial companion, the waxing moon. Photo by Glenn.

A chef prepares a gourmet sample for us to try at the ship's Taste Bar. The food selections on the cruise ship ranged from basically good to amazing. Photo by Glenn.

You had him at cheesecake. We're going to miss the buffet and its dessert bar. Photo by Roni.

Cruisers rim the Grand Atrium and the confetti flies during the Mardi Gras after party on our final night at sea. This is looking up from the seventh floor to the skylight above Deck 12. Photo by Roni.

Throw me something, mister! Glenn claps along with other cruisers waiting to catch Mardi Gras beads during the Thursday night after party in the Grand Atrium. Photo by Roni.

We've got our beads. We've got our neon glowstick headband. We're having a party on the last night aboard the Carnival Inspiration. Photo by Roni.

We may be back on land, but the party isn't over as we head to Hemet on Friday, Sept. 29, to help Glenn's Grandma Rose celebrate her 99th birthday. Photo by Glenn.

Grandma's caregiver was good enough to take this shot of the three of us. They weren't expecting our visit, but Grandma was thrilled that we decided to stop by on the way home following our Carnival cruise.

And here's the original, still trapped in the photographer's cell phone. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn and Grandma Rose dance to one of her old Peggy Lee records. She may be 99, but she can still cut the rug. Photo by Roni.

The Ventura Pier sports a patriotic look on a gorgeous Saturday morning, Sept. 30. It's our final day of vacation, and we're taking a leisurely drive home along the Southern California coast. Photo by Glenn.

Fishermen and walkers are out in force on Saturday morning. When it was built in 1872, the Ventura Pier was the longest wooden pier in California. It is presently 1,620 feet long, shortened from its peak of 1,958 feet as a result of storms, fires and other disasters over the years. Photo by Glenn.

These guys were so excited they caught a shark that they were more than happy to pose for a photo of it for Roni. Pictures or it didn't happen! Photo by Roni.

When in the Danish village of Solvang, what better treat to have than a Danish — or three of them, in our case. These were from Mortensen's Danish Bakery, a longtime local establishment. Photo by Glenn.

Must be time for the changing of the guard at the Solvang Inn. Looks like Glenn is ready to yield the outpost to anyone else who wants it. Photo by Roni.

The names of the businesses may change with the times, but Solvang remains a popular tourist destination. The Solvang Brewing Company opened seven years ago in what used to be the famous Danish Inn and Viking Room. The historic windmill was preserved. Photo by Glenn.

The Little Mermaid statue at the corner of Alisal Road and Mission Drive in Solvang is a replica of Edvard Eriksen's famous original erected in Denmark's Copenhagen Harbor in 1913. The statue commemorates Hans Christian Anderson's fairytale of the same name. Photo by Glenn.

The famous pier in Pismo Beach is closed for extensive renovations that won't be complete until the summer of 2019, but the beach in our favorite coastal town is just as beautiful as ever for our visit on Sept. 30. Photo by Glenn.

No visit to Pismo Beach is complete without a stop at our favorite restaurant, Mo's Smokehouse BBQ. Photo by Glenn.

We ate our way from town to town and while sailing the high seas this vacation, but nothing beats the ribs and a side of potato salad from Mo's Smokehouse BBQ in Pismo Beach. Photo by Roni.

We’d never been on one, but the idea of kicking back on a sun deck with fruity drinks in hand and leaving the driving to somebody else had a certain appeal. For years, many of our longer vacations have been road trips which, while fun, have left us exhausted after thousands of miles behind the wheel. We aren’t too old for that yet, but every such trip reminds us that our bodies aren’t as willing as our enthusiasm for exploration. Yes, a cruise would offer a new adventure.

After checking into some of the options close to us and getting more excited by the idea as we discovered how affordable the packages were, our plans started becoming more grandiose. Why stop at a week? We could do the 10-day trip to the Mexican Riviera out of San Francisco! Maybe we could go to Alaska! Or Hawaii! Or… maybe we’d find we totally hated cruising and wish we’d done something much shorter. Besides, we only had two weeks of vacation and did we really want to use all of it stranded on a ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean?

In the end, we decided to stick with a more modest itinerary and booked our trip on the Carnival Inspiration — five days and four nights to Catalina Island and Ensenada, Mexico. Two places we’d never been and just enough time to get our taste for cruising without becoming bored. We put down our deposit on a stateroom and started the countdown to our adventure on the high seas.

That was before Glenn lost his job at the end of June and our financial picture became murky. We seriously considered canceling the reservations, but ultimately decided against doing so because by then we had already paid for most of the trip. Besides, even job hunters need a break from the stress of the daily grind, and Roni’s schedule is as busy as ever. If we needed to get away before, we’d need to even more by the time September rolled around.

* * * * *


UR TRIP WAS scheduled to depart the afternoon of Monday, Sept. 25, from Long Beach. We decided to drive down from the Bay Area a day early and spend the night there so we could arrive at the cruise terminal refreshed and in plenty of time for our appointment. With so many passengers boarding, Carnival schedules embarkation times so not everybody shows up at once. Our check-in was 3 p.m. We deliberately picked a late time because we weren’t sure where we would be staying the night before, and we wanted to allow time to get through Los Angeles traffic if we needed to.

As it turned out, our room was barely a mile from the port. We got a fourth-floor suite in the Courtyard Marriott in downtown Long Beach, arriving just as the sun was setting on our 350-mile drive along Interstate 5. There was still some time for an evening stroll to check out the sights and grab dinner at one of the dozen or so restaurants within a short walk of where we were staying. Roni dug into her purse to pull out her camera and suddenly panicked.

“Where’s my camera?” she said. “I thought you packed it.”

“I did,” Glenn insisted. “I cleared off your memory card and then put it in your bag on the dining room table.”

“Which bag? There were two of them.”

It turned out that the empty bag Glenn shoved the camera into was the one Roni was leaving at home. The one she brought — her new purse she’d picked out just for this trip — had everything she needed, with the exception of the camera that was still on the dining room table. Ah well, at least she had her new iPhone 8, which had arrived literally two days before we left for our vacation. It would have to suffice for the next week. Nonetheless, the forgotten camera cast a dark cloud over what had been a great trip so far. We hoped it wouldn’t be a harbinger for things to come during our cruise.

We went out to dinner at a place called the Thai District restaurant on Linden Avenue, just a block from the hotel. Its menu features a lot of New Age organic and sustainable dishes, and we filled up on the pineapple fried rice and drunken noodles. We found downtown Long Beach to be a fun, safe place for a nighttime walk, so we took our time along the clean sidewalks lined by skyscrapers and trees wrapped in strings of miniature lights before retiring to our room at the hotel.

* * * * *


ONDAY MORNING RONI was awake much earlier than Glenn, who hadn’t slept well and was slow to get out of bed. So she went out for a morning walk and to take some pictures on her new phone. By the time she returned to the room, Glenn was up and showered, barely ready to face the day. We still had hours to kill before our boarding time, so we decided first to grab breakfast at Creme De La Crepe on First Street, then drove to Shoreline Aquatic Park to check out the lighthouse there.

The park is near the mouth of the Los Angeles River and also home to a veterans memorial and the Aquarium of the Pacific. There is a long spiral path that leads up to the Rainbow Lighthouse, from where you get a sweeping view of the Long Beach skyline and the shipping port. Across from us was the Queen Mary and our cruise ship, already docked and awaiting its passengers. It felt funny knowing that in just a few hours we would be standing on the deck of that ship looking down on the lighthouse where we now were.

Although Roni was having a great time trying out the photo features of her new iPhone, she found herself missing the telephoto capabilities of her Canon camera. Glenn felt so badly about having left the camera at home that he offered to buy her another one if it was that important to her to have it on the boat. She decided it was. So with about three hours to go until boarding time, we tracked down the nearest Best Buy store and drove eight miles to Signal Hill in the midday traffic to look at cameras. We picked out a suitable replacement, then scurried back across town to the cruise terminal with plenty of time yet to spare.

The cruise terminal is adjacent to the Queen Mary, which we had never seen. There is a restaurant there, so we thought it made sense to eat our lunch on the famous boat before boarding our less famous one. That was until we learned that the restaurant is only accessible if you happen to be a guest of the ship’s hotel or purchase tour admission tickets at $32 per person. Given that we didn’t have time to take the tour, we decided to hold out for the abundant free food waiting for us on our cruise. We stuck to what we could see of the ship from outside, which wasn’t much given that they were setting up for the Halloween-themed “Dark Harbor” event and had much of the area fenced off.

Even after all of this, we still had about an hour to kill before our scheduled boarding time. Might as well just get in line and hope they’d take us early. We checked our bags at the curb of the parking garage and made our way into the giant white geodesic dome that serves as Carnival’s cruise terminal. It is the same building that once housed the famous Spruce Goose airplane that belonged to reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes. Now it is the realm of TSA agents and long theme park-style queues for passengers waiting to board.

We were glad we showed up a bit early, because even though they took us right in it still took nearly an hour to get processed through the line, fill out health questionnaires, go through the security screeners, have our passports verified, and get our Sail & Sign cards from the registration desk. It felt more like we were immigrating to a new country than embarking on a vacation. All we had to say as we lugged our carry-ons up the escalator and across the boarding ramp to the cruise ship was, “For all that work, this had better be an E-ticket ride.”

* * * * *


HANKS TO THE internet, we already had a basic idea of what to expect from our cruise ship. But all the photos don’t compare to the experience of walking into the glitz and multicolored lights of the Grand Atrium for the first time and gazing up in awe at the skylight seven decks above you. The boarding ramp deposited us on the seventh-floor Empress deck, which happened to be where our stateroom was located on the port side of the ship. We had chosen that location deliberately so we would be facing the coastline on the trip south.

We quickly found our cabin, E98, and spent a few minutes getting situated before heading out to find food. Our checked luggage hadn’t yet arrived, but we were comfortable in our shorts and had all we needed to get started. We’d read that lunch was only being served until 4 p.m., so we had barely half an hour to find it. Being unfamiliar with the layout of the ship, we’re not sure if we found the right place, but the Blue Iguana Cantina with its all-you-can-eat tacos poolside on the Lido deck, Deck 10, was just as good. And even though we were both starved as it had been several hours since our crepe breakfast, we didn’t want to overstuff ourselves because dinner was set for 6 o’clock.

Any notion we had that taking a cruise would involve a lot of boring hours to fill between ports of call was dispelled the moment we set foot on the boat. After racing to find lunch, we returned to our stateroom for mere minutes before we had to assemble in the casino on Deck 9 for a mandatory muster drill. After getting a full demonstration of how to use lifejackets and reporting to our assigned lifeboat station, we were free to… race off to the Carnivale dining room for our 6 p.m. dinner reservation.

Reserving a dining room time is something you are required to do before you board. There are three formal dining rooms on board that are randomly assigned, but guests can select from early or late dining preferences. If you miss your assigned time, you’re out of luck for a formal meal, although there is always food available in the buffet. If we had it to do again, we’d skip the formal dining and stick with the buffet.

Unlike a swanky restaurant where you get your own booth, we were seated at a table with three other couples we didn’t know. The table was in the worst location possible, at the front of the restaurant next to the noisy check-in line and in the center of the room, far from any windows and with a view that was obscured by a staircase. Bleh. The four-course meals we ordered were served at the rate of about one course every 20 minutes, allowing more than ample time for the conversations we weren’t having with our dining partners. Meanwhile, we missed seeing our ship’s departure from Long Beach and nearly missed the sunset Roni had been waiting for. We skipped dessert and hastily made our way to an outside deck on the starboard side of the boat to catch the sun’s last rays as it disappeared below the watery horizon.

It had been a long day. We were super exhausted. But we were too curious about the amenities to simply crash in our cabin where there was no cable TV or free internet service. For the next two hours we tromped up steps and through long hallways, rode elevators, made note of dining spots, bars, shops and theaters. We discovered the miniature golf course and jogging track on the 14th-floor Sun Deck, the massive waterslide, the swimming pool with its ping pong tables and giant chess board. And when eventually we found our way to the Lido buffet, we filled up on decadent desserts and bowls of soft-serve ice cream.

This place was like a floating city with everything anyone could want or need. We were already falling in love with it, and we hadn’t even completed day one. By the time we did finally curl up for the night in our stateroom and had purchased the basic internet plan so we could check our social media accounts, we discovered from our cell phone apps that we had walked nearly five miles! No wonder we were exhausted.

* * * * *


HE CRUISE SHIP does most of its heavy duty sailing by night, and it doesn’t do it very quickly. Our first port of call was Tuesday morning at Catalina Island, which lies about 30 miles to the southwest of Long Beach. An express ferry service can get you there in about an hour. Our ship took about 13 hours, pulling in around 7 a.m. while we were still asleep.

We had ordered room service for breakfast, so around 8:30 someone brought us a stack of plates with bagels and cream cheese, fresh fruit, juice and some yogurt. We showered in our tiny bathroom then ate our meal on the bed while gazing out our dirty window at the boats coming and going in Avalon Bay. (Sadly, even if our window had been washed before our cruise started, the ocean spray would have only muddied it up again before we got to Catalina.)

There is no port facility at Avalon large enough to accommodate an 855-foot cruise ship, so access to the island is via tender service. Anyone who wanted to go ashore first had to report to the Paris Theater Main Lounge on Deck 8 and receive a tender sticker. Passengers were seated on the boat by group number. Ours was No. 30. It’s about a 5-minute trip to shore, and the tender boats run around the clock until the final departure from the island at 4 p.m. There are several shore excursions you can purchase in advance on the ship, but we decided to stick close to the dock and browse the downtown shops and restaurants.

Friends and family who had been to Catalina before us said we would love it, and they were right. Avalon is a quaint seaside resort community that rims the bay, and you can easily stroll from one end to the other within the time allotted. Perhaps the main attraction is the art deco casino and theater building that dominates the skyline to the north end of town. Pedestrian access is by a paved promenade that follows Casino Way from the heart of town. Many visitors opted to walk there while others rented golf carts, which seems to be the ideal way to travel on the island.

We walked around the outside of the casino building and watched the scuba lessons being given to a group of tourists near the jetty that runs behind the complex. The waters around the island are teeming with brilliant orange Garibaldi damselfish, which didn’t seem at all shy around people. Most likely they were being fed to attract them for the paying customers.

One of the things we most looked forward to about our cruise was the freedom to enjoy some adult beverages without worrying about having to drive anywhere. We opted not to buy the on-board drink ticket, figuring we wouldn’t go through that much alcohol in a year, and decided instead to purchase our drinks individually when we might occasion to want one. There is a Mexican restaurant bar on the island called Coyote Joe’s that was advertising “cruise special” $6 margaritas. Seemed like a perfect spot for lunch, so we grabbed a table and waited for our waiter… and waited… and waited. Finally after 15 minutes of waiting with no acknowledgement while people all around us were being served, we ditched that place and went a few doors down to El Galleon, where we enjoyed some peach margaritas and a large portion of Wisconsin cheese curds and sweet potato fries.

Four o’clock came all too quickly, so we stopped off for ice cream at Scoops and did some last-minute souvenir shopping before returning to the wharf for the shuttle ride back to the cruise ship.

* * * * *


Y NOW WE were starting to get our sea legs. A full day on the boat had given us time to scope out the amenities and rest up a bit to the point we were ready to enjoy some of the night life. We ate our dinner in the buffet on Tuesday night, preferring the casual atmosphere to the Carnivale dining room. We sat outside at a table near the railing and enjoyed coffee and dessert while taking in the full show of a perfect sunset.

Later, we ventured into the Grand Atrium where our cruise director Brittany and the ship’s DJ had the crowd going to music from the ’60s. We looked down on the action from the ninth floor as audience members took turns dressing up and singing (badly) the music being played. It was the warm-up routine for a theater show called Motor City, a revue of Motown musical hits in the Paris Theater that Roni really wanted to see. We sat near the front row and clapped and danced along with the rest of the audience during the performance.

That’s the thing about most of the entertainment on the ship, they try to make it interactive. There are frequently medals and trophies given out to audience participants, and one young newlywed couple on their honeymoon almost stole the show more than once with their dance moves and eagerness to get involved with the performances.

* * * * *


HE THIRD DAY of our itinerary found us waking up in Ensenada, Mexico. We had waffled about whether to go ashore, having been to Mexico on other occasions and coming away unimpressed, and we didn’t have an interest in checking out the Blowhole, which would have required a long bus ride out of town for an attraction that got lukewarm reviews. But because we had gone to all the trouble to acquire our passports for the trip, we decided we should at least set foot on land for a few minutes to say we did.

Carnival had been sending us emails for weeks encouraging us to book our shore excursions in advance. Apparently we weren’t the only ones who didn’t, because there were still plenty of tours to be had at not unreasonable prices. We were on our way to the ramp for our little stroll when we passed the excursions counter and met a woman we would soon come to know as Fabiola, who was selling seats on something called the “Topless Bus.” It was an open-top tour bus that for $20 per person promised to take us on a two-hour sightseeing trip around Ensenada. We figured we’d get to see at least some of the city that way, so why not?

The moment we set foot off the ship we were ushered through a receiving line of cruise personnel trying to take our pictures with folklorico dancers, pirates and parrots on our shoulders. We then went to a fenced plaza with dozens of other cruisers to wait for our tour group to be called. The only way off the dock and into town is through a building housing roughly a dozen vendors selling souvenirs, trinkets and convenience store items. Roni bought some water for the bus ride, as it was shaping up to be a hot day.

When it was time to board our bus, we lined up behind Fabiola and she paraded us through the shops and out to the parking lot. Roni wanted to get a good view for photos, so she had booked us seats in the open top portion of the bus. Our driver came up briefly and introduced himself as Armando, said they wouldn’t be pressuring us to buy anything, then told us there would be Cokes and water available for purchase during the ride if we wanted them. Fabiola was our guide for the trip, and she struggled to be heard over the PA system with its flaky microphone that kept cutting out on her. It was suggested by one of the other passengers that proceeds from the beverage sales should be used to buy her a new mic.

Fabiola said we could call her by her new favorite nickname, Fabulous, which was apparently given to her by someone in an earlier tour group. She certainly did a fabulous job narrating our journey, which once it left the cruise ship parking facility took us through the city and then a few miles up Federal Highway 1 along the coast as far as the Autonomous University of Baja California. We learned that you can still get an affordable college education in Ensenada, with tuition rates running about $200 a semester. We also learned that our driver, Armando, knows just about everyone in town on a personal basis.

We discovered this near the end of our ride, when we were deposited for an hour in the middle of the tourist district with its seemingly endless rows of businesses selling everything from pottery and novelty items to leather goods and fine silver. Fabiola dutifully pointed out the “preferred” businesses that would be sure to give us the fairest rates because they knew Armando would be watching out for his customers and would stop recommending them if he ever found out the merchants had tried to cheat someone. We weren’t sure about that guarantee, but we weren’t too worried about being cheated on the handful of postcards and magnets we wound up buying.

That didn’t mean there was any shortage of come-ons to get our business. The moment we stepped off the bus someone shoved a flier into our hand advertising great prices on Viagra from the Happy Pharmacy. Keeping it classy, Ensenada. With our cameras around our necks and our colorful bus wristbands that branded us as tourists, we strolled through the gauntlet of vendors standing on the sidewalk with their pickup lines: “You finally got to my shop,” said one as he tried to guide us inside by walking his fingers along the pavement in the direction of the front door; “Come here and let me show you this jewelry…”; and our personal favorite, “Come inside and take a look. You never know.”

“You never know” who you might run into in a foreign country, including one vendor who upon learning we were from the Bay Area told us he was from near Santa Rosa. How does someone from Santa Rosa come to live in Ensenada working at a tourist shop? He said it was actually his relative’s store and that he only made the 80-mile drive from Tijuana to help out on days the cruise ships came into port. The Carnival Inspiration was the only ship ported on the day we were there, but occasionally there are two ships in town, which can mean more than 3,000 tourists bringing their potential business. For a poor community that lives and dies by tourist dollars, it’s all hands on deck for the busy times.

We also learned that anything people tell you about bargaining with the merchants for better deals is mostly bunk. They are savvy to just about any trick you might pull. We laughed when one woman tried to purchase a leather good that cost $35 and she told the seller that she only had $25 cash with her. “Oh, we take credit cards,” the cashier told her.

We were inventing our own stories as we tried to resist the high-pressure sales tactics. One persistent seller wanted us to visit his shop, so Roni told him that we didn’t have time because we were on our way back to the tour bus that was getting ready to depart. “See that big flag over there?” he said, pointing to the gigantic flag of Mexico that dominates the port. “You just go right around the corner and the cruise ship is right there.” “But we paid for the tour bus, so I don’t want to miss it,” Roni told him. “Oh, you won’t miss it. I know their schedule. You’ve got plenty of time.”

We were happy to finally be back on the bus, satisfied that we’d gotten a little taste of Ensenada and held on to most of the money in our wallets.

* * * * *


HE PART WE enjoyed most about Ensenada was standing on the Verandah deck (Deck 11) of the cruise ship as the sun went down and our captain maneuvered to take us out of port. We had missed our departure from port at Long Beach, so we really wanted to see it when we departed the dock in Ensenada.

There is a cargo container shipping facility immediately behind where the cruise ships dock, so the Carnival Inspiration had to complete a tricky maneuver that involved first sliding away from the dock, backing up, then making a 90-degree turn to take us past the breakwater and back out to sea. The ship leaned heavily to port as it moved sideways, water sloshing across the deck from the shallow pool surrounding the waterslides. Then it moved slowly backward, coming close enough to the cargo ship docked behind it that we joked we might be able to leap from our deck to the other ship. When our boat at last completed the complex turn in tight quarters, folks watching it all on the Verandah deck applauded — us included. The Ensenada skyline grew more beautiful as the darkening sky gave way to the electric lights of the city, which became smaller as we quickly sailed out to sea.

Our entertainment for the evening was a standup routine by comedian B.T. in the Candlelight Aft Lounge on Deck 9.

* * * * *


E WERE AT sea on Thursday, as the ship crawled north from Ensenada back to the Port of Long Beach. That meant a day of having to keep ourselves occupied on a ship we had already thoroughly explored. Or had we?

One of the first things we discovered on the day we boarded was the art gallery on the Empress deck. It is located in the main corridor between the Grand Atrium and the elevators, so you pretty much have to walk through it to get anywhere. Along the walls were several dozen framed paintings being previewed for auction, and naturally we were curious as to how that all worked. Having never been to an art auction and with nothing better to do, Roni signed us up to attend.

The event was being handled by Park West Gallery, an art auction house that exhibits in fine hotels and on several cruise lines including Carnival. The auction began at 1 p.m. with a preview in one of the lounges. We picked up our bidding card, were served champagne, and then made our way through the room with slips of paper that we were supposed to attach to the paintings we liked. Afterward, we were all seated so the bidding could begin. Our auctioneer alternated between selling art and running contests that would give audience members lots in a drawing for prizes at the end of the event. A huge part of his job was keeping our small group whipped up into a bidding frenzy.

No amount of boosterism was going to encourage us to place a bid on these works, however, as the prices in most cases ranged upwards of $1,000. Among the featured artists was Andrew Bone, known for his photo-realistic paintings of wild animals; Peter Max, a famed New York pop artist of the 1960s whose patriotic images following 9/11 have become iconic; and the late Thomas Kinkade, the so-called “painter of light” whose works are unfortunately synonymous with cheap department store knock-offs and greeting cards. Not that there was anything cheap about the lithographs being offered for purchase.

We were not the only ones hanging onto our wallets, as several of the works attracted no bids at all. In those cases, our auctioneer would sometimes sweeten the deal by adding a second, third or even a fourth painting to the lot, or lowering the reserve bid. For works that received a lot of “likes” in the form of the colored slips of paper we were supposed to have attached, we were sometimes encouraged to speak with the sales staff privately after the auction to find out about purchase options. These guys are in the business to sell art, and they have many creative ways to do that.

Not everyone was shy about bidding, and there were a couple of people in our group who bought several works totaling more than $5,000. One woman said she planned her cruises specifically for the ability to attend art auctions. It all comes down to what you want to get out of your cruise. As for us, we were content to watch the event for its two hours and go home with our door prize of a postcard-sized litho.

We had already done the revue of music from the 1960s, so it seemed appropriate that we attend Thursday night’s show, which was a sendup of disco hits from the 1970s. The same performers who had brought us The Supremes and Marvin Gaye two nights earlier were now strutting their stuff as Donna Summer and the Village People in the Paris Theater. We joined in the after party out in the Grand Atrium, where cruise director Brittany and the DJ kept the fun going by playing modern pop tunes while tossing Mardi Gras beads and glow sticks down to the audience from the top of the grand staircase. We caught our share before the jostling and elbowing of other cruisers got too competitive.

* * * * *


E'D BEEN PARTY poopers on formal night, choosing to go in tee shirts and jeans for the evening rather than dress up for a Tuesday night of activities. Although we had brought some nicer attire just in case we wanted it, we felt just fine without it except for one thing: photos. There is no shortage of opportunities to have your picture taken on the cruise, and in fact the staff encourage it by shoving a camera in your face while you are poolside, at dinner, or on shore excursions. The goal, of course, is to get you to buy prints from the on-board portrait studio on the ninth deck.

Our candid shots had been mediocre so far. They mugged us when we were boarding the boat with our carry-on bags in hand. The took pictures of us posing awkwardly at the dinner table in the Carnivale dining room. There were photos of the two of us — individually — taken in Ensenada with a parrot perched on our shoulders. None of these was worth purchasing, in our opinion, so we were mostly content to rely on our own cameras for our fun photos.

But something about seeing other people’s studio shots, posed in front of professional backgrounds in their formal wear, made us think that we should try to get one done ourselves. So on Thursday evening we put on our semi-less-casual wear and strolled the Promenade deck (Deck 9) in search of a background we liked. There is no charge for the pose, so we selected two of them — one taken in front of a cruise ship that could have been ours but wasn’t, and the other in an elegant setting with a grand piano as a prop. Each session took less than five minutes, and we were on our way — back to our stateroom to change back into our more comfortable duds.

The prints showed up later that night at Pixels, the portrait gallery that had been displaying everyone’s photos since the beginning of the cruise. We actually had a difficult time choosing from the poses available, but the price adds up fast so we picked out our favorite two and charged them to our room. It’s not every day that we have professional portraits made of ourselves, so we decided it was worth the cost on this special occasion.

* * * * *


RIDAY MORNING CAME all too quickly, and just as we were getting comfortable with this cruising thing, it was time to disembark. Carnival doesn’t mess around when it comes to getting folks off the ship. We were in to port at Long Beach before 7 a.m., and they were calling passengers by deck around 8 to head to the exit. We aren’t early risers normally on vacation, but we wanted to be sure we had a chance to grab some breakfast at the buffet before we went ashore.

Getting off the ship was nearly as cumbersome as getting on, especially because this time we didn’t have the porter take our bags to the curb for us. That meant we had to lug them through the line along with our carry-ons as we made our way through the hallways and the Grand Atrium to the gangplank, then into the Cruise Terminal dome where we had to go through customs and declare whatever forbidden fruits — literally — we had brought back with us from Mexico. We had none.

Once back in the parking garage, we paid our $75 parking bill and were soon on our way up Interstate 710 bound for Hemet, flipping the dial on the radio in search of some music to entertain us on the long drive to Glenn’s grandmother’s house. We were coincidentally rolling east on Highway 91 near Buena Park when we caught an ad for something called the Route 91 Harvest Festival, a big country music show we assumed must be somewhere nearby that was starting that night. Eric Church, one of Roni’s favorite artists, was scheduled to headline the Friday performance. “We could go see him,” Roni mused.

Glenn looked up the details. “Oh, it’s actually in Las Vegas,” he said. “But it’s a three-day event and all the tickets are sold out. There are no single-day tickets.”

“Too bad,” she said. It was a passing thought. Not that we had the money to splurge for a pair of three-day concert passes after our cruise, or would have taken that very long detour to Las Vegas following five days at sea. But that moment in time was very much on our minds three days later when we first learned about Stephen Paddock’s deadly shooting spree at the festival’s Sunday night concert featuring Jason Aldean that left 59 dead and hundreds wounded.

There but for the grace of God go we.

* * * * *


LENN'S GRANDMOTHER WASN'T expecting us, nor had we been entirely sure we would be up to paying her a visit. But it all worked out. Her caretaker was with her at the house when we arrived a bit after noon, and Grandma Rose was delighted to see us. Even more so because we had shown up two days before her 99th birthday, which she was in the process of celebrating with a tiny cake and a paper hat her caregiver had provided.

Grandma suffers from dementia, but her memory still appeared sharp where it came to her eldest grandson. We sat and visited with her for a couple of hours, looking through old photo albums, playing her old records on her stereo, and doing our best to reacquaint her with other members of the family and the fun times we have shared together this summer. But all too soon we had to get back on the road because we had a long drive ahead of us and didn’t want to get stuck in Los Angeles after nightfall.

We made it as far as Ventura that evening, deciding to take the slower, more scenic U.S. 101 home instead of the faster but far more stressful I-5. Saturday we took our time heading north, first spending part of the morning sightseeing at the Ventura Pier. We stopped for a while to browse the shops in the Danish tourist village of Solvang, then we made our way to Pismo Beach for a barbecue lunch from our favorite restaurant there, Mo’s Smokehouse BBQ. With all the stops we made and the distance from Ventura to home, it seemed improbable we’d make it back before 10 p.m., but we somehow did.

It was a long week of traveling filled with fun and adventure, and probably the last big vacation we will get to do for a while, although we are already talking about one day taking a much longer cruise to Hawaii or the Bahamas. Dreams.

We’ve run very long this month, so we’ll get this posted for now and try to catch up on the rest of what we’ve been up to this fall in next month’s newsletter.


Glenn, Roni and Ben