why the carnival mexico cruise tops america’s must-do travel list

There is something about a cruise which meanders through the oceans, stopping en route at exotic ports, as I discovered last month. I don’t know when I last ate so much, laughed so much, or bonded so much with my fellow-travellers—my mother and my sister. To top it, I got to explore magical places every day.

The cruise was a 5-day extravaganza by Carnival Cruise Line with stops at Santa Catalina Island just off the coast of Southern California and Ensenada in Baja California, Mexico. A Las Vegas-styled liner with a guest capacity of 2,056, the 14-storey ship prides itself on giving its passengers unforgettable holidays filled with carnival-like fun. And no, it is not just a marketing spiel.

Don’t fret, I am not going to bore you with pictures of the three of us eating and laughing ourselves silly. What I would like to share is what the cruise was all about and what made it one of my most memorable travels to date. Hope you enjoy the post as much as I enjoyed my five days at sea. 🙂

The cruise ship: Carnival Inspiration, wherefrom you leave a little fatter and a lot happier

Top: On the deck—me, my tea, and my book; Above: Party time in the Atrium.

Whether you want to indulge in solitary contemplation of life’s mysteries or take part in a Mardi Gras party, Carnival Inspiration [that’s the name of the cruise ship] lets you do it, giving you both space and a huge, warm, fuzzy hug, depending on which one you want. From live shows, live bands, and live games to board games in the library and yoga classes, every day is themed. No day alike.

Food, food, and more food. From gourmet to fast food. Elegant dine-ins to casual dine-outs on the deck. They even have Indian curries and biryanis on the menu. What’s to die for? The cheesecake and sumptuous sit-down breakfasts!

And when you have company like the above at sunrise as you fumble your way in your pyjamas, armed with a steaming hot cup of coffee to look ashore … all of life feels good.

1st Port of Call: The charms of pretty-as-a-picture Santa Catalina Island

Throw in a tiny, pristine island wrapped in silk-like ultramarine ocean and sky. Add to it whitewashed Art Deco and Spanish colonial architecture tumbling down its rugged hills. Sprinkle it with snow-white yachts, swaying palms, and golden sands. And you have Santa Catalina Island fondly called just Catalina, 35 kilometres off the coast of Southern California.

A favoured playground for the rich and famous in the 1920s and 1930s, Catalina is the private property of the Wrigley family. William Wrigley Jr. of Wrigley chewing gum fame bought the island in 1919 and transformed it into a romantic getaway for millions who sailed to its shores for a dinner, dance and movie in the iconic Casino or “Gathering Place” perched right on the coast of Avalon, the island’s only city. Marilyn Monroe once lived in Catalina. Clark Gable spent many an evening here.

It is easy to get engrossed poking into the quaint souvenir shops and cafes lining Avalon’s pedestrian walkway or get an adrenalin high in its famed water and adventure sports. But a delve deeper into its lanes and higher into the hills offers unparalleled views and charms.

One can do this in two ways. Hire a golf cart and zip through the Island in an hour [petrol cars are not allowed on the Island to ensure it maintains its no-pollution zone status]. Or you could do what I did, and walk up and deep into its recesses.

Either way, don’t miss out on Catalina Casino, Wrigley’s 11-storey Art Deco 1929 gift to Avalon with the largest circular ballroom in the world, Catalina Chimes Tower installed in 1925 by Wrigley’s wife Ada Elizabeth “to bring enjoyment to the residents and visitors of Avalon,” and Saint Catherine of Alexandria Catholic Church, site of the first Island Mass in November 1602. [Factoid: The island was first sighted on Saint Catherine’s feast day, 25 November, 1602. Hence the name Santa Catalina (Saint Catherine) in her honour.]

Lanes which are but flights of stairs. Public spaces decorated in exquisite colourful tiles made at local kilns. Look down from its rolling hills and one feels one is on top of the world. Catalina makes you forget all kinds of 21st Century realities, wafting one off to a piece of magic amidst the Pacific.

View from the hills rising behind Avalon, Santa Catalina Island’s only city, with the famed Catalina Casino and Yacht Club built in 1929 and 1924, to the left. The Island’s Art Deco centrepiece, Catalina Casino, has been a venue for dance, music, and movies for the rich and famous for a hundred years.

There are only around 4,000 people living on the Island of which 90 percent live in Avalon. 88 percent of the island is protected under the Catalina Island Conservancy set up in 1972 by the Wrigley family.

Just another street. Just another home. Catalina: Where lanes are flights of stairs and inviting couches are plonked outside homes.

Left: A stained glass window in the Saint Catherine of Alexandria Catholic Church, site of the first Mass held in November 1602 in Catalina.

Overlooking Avalon, Catalina Chimes Tower was installed in 1925 by William Wrigley Jr.’s wife Ada Elizabeth “to bring enjoyment to [its] residents and visitors.” Wrigley bought the 35-kilometre-long, 13-kilometre-wide island in 1919.

And here’s another last view from the top of Santa Catalina Island with my ship, Carnival Inspiration in the background, and the tender heading back to it after dropping off passengers at the pier. As you can see I could not have enough of this view. 😀

2nd Port of Call: The rugged beauty of Mexican Ensenada, the beautiful Cinderella of the Pacific

La Bufadora, nature’s gift to Ensenada, is the second largest blow hole in the world with a water spout that rises a monumental 100 feet up in the air!

If Catalina is all pristine prettiness, Ensenada, the cruise’s second port of call is winsome wilderness. Local Mexicans call it La Bella Cenicienta del Pacífico. Translated into English it means “The Beautiful Cinderella of the Pacific.”

The city’s highlight is without a doubt its natural wonder: the blow hole, La Bufadora, 37 kilometres away. Second largest in the world, the blow hole creates a spray of water 100 feet high every minute or so during high tide. It is incredible what mere air trapped in a sea cave can create.

Located on the north-west coast of Baja California in Mexico, Ensenada started off as a minor port during Spanish colonial rule. Two landmark events brought about its exponential growth, putting it firmly on the present global map. The first was in 1870 when gold was discovered in its mountains, leading to its incorporation as a city in 1882.

The second was in the 1920s. The prohibition of liquor in the United States led to an economic boom in Ensenada founded on hotels and casinos built to cater to Americans seeking alcohol and entertainment outside its borders. Though prohibition was soon revoked in the States, there was no looking back for Ensenada which has since grown into one of the most popular ports of call for cruise ships.

Hotel Riviera del Pacífico launched in 1930 as Hotel Playa de Ensenada, and the Museo de Historia de Ensenada in its premises tracing the town’s history from its Native American legacy to the 19th Century gold rush, best represent this side of Ensenada. Somewhere in-between heritage and nature is Ensenada’s downtown filled with cafes, souvenir shops, and Mexican music, all under vivid blue skies and golden sunshine.

There is no rush in Ensenada. It is where you pause to taste nachos, sip original coca cola, and tap your feet to the rhythm of life. ❤

Top: Mexican Marionette string puppets on sale. These puppets trace their presence in Mexico back to the 16th Century when Hernan Cortes and the Spanish conquistadors brought them from Spain on their first expedition to Mexico. Cortes was responsible for leading the expedition that led to the fall of the Aztec Empire and bringing Mexico under Spanish colonial rule.

Bottom: The part of downtown Ensenada where the locals prefer to hang out.

Ensenada’s second major attraction after La Bufadora is the extravagant Hotel Riviera del Pacífico. It used to be the Hotel Playa de Ensenada, a Spanish-style casino for American socialites in the 1930s who thronged its rooms for wine and dance during the Prohibition, and was a hangout for the notorious Al Capone. Now the hotel complex is a cultural centre. Top right: My attempt at a self-portrait.

Two Chinese lions guard one of the entrances of the cultural centre. They are a gift from the cities of Pulandian and Dalian in the People’s Republic of China.

Musical fountains at the Ensenada waterfront. And with it, another end to another day of another travel treat on the Carnival Mexico cruise.

Travel tips:

  • My 5-day Mexico cruise was done on Carnival Cruise Line’s ship—Carnival Inspiration. The liner sails from Long Beach, California, to Catalina Island, California, to Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico, and back to Long Beach, California, every Monday. To know more about the cruise, click here.
  • To know more about what you can see and do in Santa Catalina Island click here.
  • To know more about what you can see and do in Ensenada click here.

[Note: I do not do FAM trips or Reviews. The above post is a personal account of a personal, paid-for travel experience (it was a gift from my brother-in-law to my mother and me) which I have chosen to share on my blog.]

#7 beyond the obvious: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

So, you’ve ticked off Agra’s major sights, the raison d’êtres for your visit. Or maybe it is your umpteenth time to the city. What now?

After marvelling at Agra’s treasures [listed from 1 to 6 in this series in no specific order] I wanted to experience yet more of it. Beyond the Agra the travel and history guides enthused about. And I was not disappointed. Digging and wandering through its centuries old lanes, having heartfelt conversations with its present residents, I saw sides of it which further justified its place in a traveller’s bucket list, equal to its more celebrated attractions. Don’t believe there is more to Agra than its UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Mughal masterpieces? Read on and be pleasantly surprised, like I was. 🙂

1. Dig into a Pay-What-You-Want meal at Cafe Sheroes Hangout

Continue reading

#6 colossal sikandra: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

After getting all sentimental at Shah Jahan’s expression of love for his beloved, departed wife and marvelling at the artistic nuances of Nur Jahan’s token of devotion towards her doting parents, I am ready to be bowled over by Sikandra, Akbar’s tomb for his own self.

Here was a monument made by, and for, one of India’s greatest rulers—befitting his stature and achievements. I wondered what it was going to be like. Continue reading

#5 roman catholic taj mahals: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

Whilst Shah Jahan was building the Taj Mahal as an ode to his beloved wife, the European Christians in Agra were creating their own fairy-tale like mausoleums in a cemetery dating back to Akbar’s time. Not perhaps on the same scale, they are however, no less delightful in carved red sandstone, yellow basalt, and whitewashed plastered walls. These tombs in Agra’s Roman Catholic Cemetery are the resting places of initially the Armenian Christians in the 1600s and, thereafter, of other European Catholics in the city. Continue reading

#4 itimad-ud-daulah’s poetic tomb: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

There is no one more fascinating in Mughal history than the Persian father-daughter duo Mirza Ghias Beg and Mehr-un-Nissa. Posterity knows them as Itimad-ud-Daulah and Nur Jahan.

A classic tale of riches to rags and back to riches, Mirza Ghias Beg was a defamed nobleman from Tehran, Iran who decided to try and change his fortunes in 16th Century Mughal India. Robbed on his way, he reached Akbar’s court penniless, but was quick to rise the ranks to earn himself the title Itimad-ud-Daulah or Pillar of the State, and even become the grand vizier in Akbar’s successor, Jahangir’s court.

His daughter, meanwhile, was abandoned at birth by her parents, fraught with poverty, in Qandahar, Afghanistan on 31 May, 1577 on their way to India. She was returned to their home the same night by a stranger who decided to take the family under his wing.

Beautiful, fearless, hot-tempered with nerves of steel, she fell in love with Jahangir, the Emperor Akbar’s son when she was eight years of age. But it was only after a 14-year bad marriage—widowed, 34, and with a child—that she re-entered his life to become his 20th and last wife in 1611. He bestowed upon her the title Nur Jahan, Light of the World. In the ensuing years, Jahangir spent his life intoxicated by opium and alcohol, smitten by her beauty and brains. She, on the other hand, became the most powerful woman in Mughal history and ruled the empire for 16 years from behind the veil. Continue reading

#3 abandoned fatehpur sikri: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

“Jesus, son of Mary said, ‘The world is a bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day, may hope for eternity; but the World endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer for the rest is unseen.'”
~ Persian inscription,
Buland Darwaza, Fatehpur Sikri, 1601

My recollections of Fatehpur Sikri trace back to a family holiday many eons ago. I was 10. I remember being mesmerized as I wandered through the vast, desolate expanses embellished with exquisite stonework. Long fingers of golden sunshine stroked the edifices, setting the scattered, towering, red sandstone walls aflame.

For a 10-year-old it was a surreal place totally removed from all reality as I knew it.

Over the years I would often close my eyes and go back in time to re-emerge starry-eyed about life’s wonders. Amazed about a whole city built by one of the greatest emperors history had known, in honour of a Sufi saint who predicted the one thing he wanted most—a heir to pass on his empire to. Crafted with incredible passion and precision, the emperor Akbar himself oversaw the building of the site from its floor plans to the hand-chiselled columns and doorways to ensure it reflected his secular beliefs and heightened sense of aesthetics. Continue reading