Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Second Cruise: Learning to Love Carnival

Recently, I've faced some interesting expressions when revealing that my fiance and I have chosen Carnival Cruise Line as the carrier for our honeymoon later this year, and despite feeling that I have the ability to explain our choice, I find myself thinking that people still don't get it. Poor Carnival...they really do have a bad rap. They're the party cruise line, man. Stuffed to the brim with rednecks and rowdy teenagers/college students. Their ships are old and everything, everything is sub-par.

Umm, yeah, sure, maybe--if the only Carnival cruise you ever go on is their little 3- or 4-day Bahamas cruise. But what I did in 2005 was cruise on Carnival's 6-month-old Valor; a week-long cruise to the beautiful Western Caribbean. And what we're doing later this year is cruise on Carnival's year-old ship Dream, also to the Western Caribbean because as it happens, Carnival picks by far the best Western Caribbean itineraries. Mexico, Belize and Honduras? Yespleaseandthankyou.

Just as an FYI: the travelers were myself, my parents, my two younger sisters and my now-ex Jason...but only my parents and Jason and I were over 21 ;)

So without further ado, I bring to you a week on Carnival Cruise Line--maybe not the "best of the best", but certainly something I'd recommend...to an extent.

SUNDAY:

Thankfully, our flights and everything went smoothly, and we arrived in Miami with ourselves, and ALL of our luggage, intact. It took them forever to load everyone's stuff onto the bus (they really should have had someone helping the bus driver), but at least it was air conditioned. Once we got to the port, it took about one hour and fifteen minutes to check in...basically, our flight landed at 11:45 AM and we were on the ship by 2:30 PM. My suggestion at this point would definitely be to fly into your port city the day before your cruise, that way, if your luggage IS misplaced, you have more of a chance of recieving it before embarkation; and also because we were exhausted the whole day on Sunday from having to get up so early (I got up at 4:45 AM, because our flight was at 7:20 AM).

My first impression of the room was that it was much bigger than the room I had on Royal Caribbean's Monarch of the Seas in 2000. Granted, the Valor is a much newer ship, but the room was very nice...not too small, tastefully decorated, and the picture window was literally big enough to sit in (which I did many a-morning before actually getting up and doing anything worthwhile). The one complaint I have about the room...no clock! It was really frustrating having to locate my [now ex-]husband, Jason's, watch or turn on the TV every time I wanted to know what time it was...especially since the time on the TV didn't change when the ship's time did.

As for our luggage: my family had three cabins, and the luggage came piece by piece. Three of us had it before dinner, two had it right after dinner, and I didn't get mine until about 7:30-8:00 PM. Thankfully, we were all smart enough to pack a nice (as in, not shorts and a t-shirt) change of clothes in our carry-ons, so we all had clean, decent clothes for dinner. I would definitely suggest packing such a change of clothes :)

We all ate a quick lunch on the Lido deck...we had burgers and fries...the fries were really good and the burger was one of the best I have EVER had, and I'm not exaggerating...for the rest of the week, we were always hoping that the burger place was open.

Community burger! No kidding though, that burger was awesome.
Dinner (we had the 5:45 seating in the lower Washington Dining Room) was pretty good...Jason had the steak and I had the lamb, both of which were good, but nothing special. The sweet and sour shrimp, however (which my sister had, and I tried), were VERY good. I had the apple mousse cake for dessert, which was very light but almost tasteless...once again, not bad, but nothing to brag about. My parents really loved the carmelized lemon custard. After dinner, my only complaint about our waiter, Louie, was that he seemed to be very rushed toward the end of dinner and really wasn't paying much attention to what we might want or need...thankfully, this really did turn out to just be a first-night fluke, and by the end of the trip, I had absolutely no complaints about him...he was great!

We went to the show at 8:45 that night...it was okay. The comedian who was on right after the Valor Dancers was pretty funny, at least. After the show, we went to karaoke in the Paris Hot Lounge. We got there just before 9:30 and it didn't really get crowded until almost 10...it was tons of fun, especially after a few drinks! My parents actually stayed up until 12:30 AM (I have NEVER seen them up that late), and I sang a lot, because after singing by myself, my sister wanted to sing with me, and then I sang a [very sad] rendition of "Summer Nights" with a very drunk newlywed...his new wife didn't mind, because she knew I was married, and the whole thing was just very fun.

MONDAY:

Surprisingly, we were up and at 'em by 9 AM (and thankfully, we didn't have hangovers) for breakfast at Rosie's. The lines actually weren't prohibitive, and the food (I just had eggs, bacon, and some fruit) was pretty good. We were at the pool before 9:30, and there were still a decent amount of chairs available. As always, there was a lot of chair-saving, but even after the Lido deck got crowded, there were plenty of chairs on the higher decks. My sisters and I went on the slide, which was a lot of fun, and the drink waiters were more than attentive all day long :) (which rendered Jason in need of a nap before dinner that night). The announcements did get kind of annoying when sitting outside by the pool for so long, but I suppose there isn't much one can do about that. The hairy chest contest was a lot of fun and I was even chosen to be one of the judges...which probably made it just a bit more fun for me.

I also did a bit of shopping, and was surprised at the selection in the shops. There were plenty of Carnival souvenirs, and even some shot glasses from the different ports of call...the alcohol selection wasn't the best, which is why I chose to buy my alcohol on Cozumel, but that's another story for later in this review ;) Jason bought the bingo cards (three for $20), and he said it was very worth the money to buy them earlier in the week, because you can play all week on that $20. If you don't buy them then, you can buy them mid-week at "El Cheapo" Bingo for $10 for a strip of three.

This night was the first formal dinner...Jason and I went to the Captain's Cocktail party in the Eagles Lounge prior to dinner, and sat with a very nice older couple from New York. After that, we headed straight down to our seating, and this dinner turned out to be the best of the week, in my opinion. The pumpkin soup was great, the Caesar salad was good (the dressing wasn't quite thick enough for my taste, but that's just me), the lobster was amazing, and the Riesling wine that they had on the dessert wine list was one of the best Rieslings I've ever had. I had the tiramisu for dessert, and although it was served very differently from any other tiramisu I've ever had (sort of like a custard with the lady finger on the side), it was delicious.

Trying to take nice formal night pictures on the top deck...too windy!
Unfortunately, we missed the show this night, but my parents (who are not exactly the easiest people to please) saw it and said that it was very good. We wandered over to karaoke around ten, and the place was packed, so we just sang a couple songs, and then went to the One Small Step dance club. The club had a great setup (the lighted dance floor was really cool), but the music they were playing wasn't that great, and there weren't many people there at all. There was a small midnight buffet this night, but it was just that--small--so my sister and I just grabbed some of those delicious cheeseburgers (it was just before midnight when we got up there, but this was the only night I saw the burger place open that late) and went to bed.

TUESDAY:

Welcome to Belize! We ate breakfast in the Washington Dining Room this morning...I had waffles, which were a bit dry, and when I ordered them with strawberries, I didn't expect the strawberries to be stewed (they tasted more like jam or jelly), which was disappointing. I kind of liked having the selection at Rosie's, which was right in front of me, better.

Beautiful Goff's Caye off the coast of Belize
I would suggest to any and everyone that they book a tour through Carnival for Belize. It is a tender port, and they have to tender pretty far out...about five miles, actually. I definitely would not have enjoyed having to get up and wait in line at about 8 AM for a tender sticker...thankfully, we did the Goff's Caye Snorkeling Tour, and they picked us up right at the boat, not to mention that we didn't even have to meet until just before noon, which made for a fairly relaxing morning. The tour was about $62 per person, and it was worth every penny. The "island", which was maybe the size of 2/3 of a football field, was very clean, and the water was beautiful. Jason went out on the boat and snorkeled on the reef, and said it was the best snorkeling he had ever done. I stayed on the island and snorkeled off the beach with my sisters, who had never been "deep water" snorkeling before and were a bit frightened of the concept. The water wasn't very deep and the snorkeling was pretty good, although I'm sure not as good as it was off the boat. There were a few vendors there, but they weren't TOO pushy, and we all had shrimp kebabs with homemade BBQ sauce and tortillas, which were quite tasty and only $6 each.

Swimming off Goff's Caye
By the time we got back to the boat, we were still a bit hungry, so I shared a tuna salad sandwich from the Deli with my sister. It was actually better than I expected it would be! Within a couple hours, we had to go to dinner. For a starter, I had lobster bisque, which was decent, but not the best I've ever had. I had the penne pasta with shrimp and scallops for dinner, and that was very good, and the cherry cheesecake was great (if you like the light, fluffy kind of cheesecake, which I do). The raspberry lemon creme brulee was also amazing.

For the shows that night, they had a different comedian, followed by a juggler. The comedian was pretty good, and the juggler was awesome...and actually funnier than the comedian. We went to bed soon after the show, as we were docking early the next morning and had another excursion to catch.
WEDNESDAY:

We had room service for breakfast this morning--just bagels and fruit, but it was good, and it came right on time. However, they did forget my danish, which was a bit upsetting, because their danish are one of their best breakfast items.
 
Snorkeling off Tabayana Beach
We were originally just going to take a taxi to West End Beach, but my mother overruled us; and in the end, I'm glad she did. We ended up doing the Tabayana Beach Break for $33 per person (just having reliable transportation was worth it). We did the 9:45 AM one, but if you want choice seats on the beach, and if you want to snorkel, I would suggest doing the earlier one. Snorkeling gear was $10 per set, but they were out of masks by the time we got there, so we had to wait about a half hour, and then we literally had to chase down people who were returning their equipment so that we could rent it. As for the beach, both it and the water were clean and beautiful. The changing rooms were also clean, and it was nice that they had freshwater showers. Lemonade, ice tea, and water were included, and they had a bar, burgers and hot dogs for sale, and a pretty decent live band. There were a few vendors--one of which was an amazing painter (I bought a medium-sized painting of a town scene from the island, framed and everything, for only $50)--but none of them were pushy. They also had hair braiding and massages for $25. As for the snorkeling--it was AMAZING, the best of the entire trip. There were huge cliffs of coral, and tons of fish large and small. My only complaint was that the beach was pretty crowded. Also, my dad and sister went parasailing, and the prices for that were pretty good--$50 per person or $75 total if you go tandem with someone else.

The Valor docked at Isla Roatan
Back on the ship, I had a hot turkey sandwich for lunch. I was certainly pleased with it--we didn't have one sub-par sandwich from the deli on this cruise. When dinner came around, I ordered the Alaskan King Crab meat for a starter...it was okay, but more of a crab meat salad than anything. For my meal, I had the shrimp with the cream sauce and pastry, which was amazing, and for dessert, I had the seasonal berries desert with the orange-cream-filled pastries. It was good, but VERY fruity...I also tasted the Bitter & Blanc, which in my opinion was MUCH better.

The show that night was a tribute to Frank Sinatra and Sammie Davis Jr...the singer and the band were certainly talented, but if you're not a big fan of Sinatra and Sammie Davis, this show probably isn't for you.

We had decided to go to karaoke again that night...thankfully, we got there early (9 PM) and were the second people in line. If we had arrived any later, we probably wouldn't have gotten seats for all six of us...so if you plan on going to karaoke any night besides the first night, get there before 9:15!

THURSDAY:

For breakfast, we went to the Washington Dining Room again. The service was a bit slow, and although the French toast was good, half of my pieces (I had a double order, which is four halves) were not cooked all the way through.

Hell, Grand Cayman
Today was Grand Cayman, and we tendered again. I have never seen water so amazingly blue! We were doing the Stingray Sandbar, Hell, and Turtle Farm tour, which cost $59 per person. Once again, it was nice that we had booked a tour through Carnival and didn't have to bother with getting a tender number or anything like that. The tour itself seemed worth the money to me...we got to see a decent amount of the island, including Seven Mile Beach and the Old Homestead (the oldest house on the island and one of the few that survived Hurricane Ivan in 2004). The island was about 95% destroyed by Hurricane Ivan, and when I visited on this cruise in June 2005 they were only about half done with fixing everything. Anyway, Hell wasn't much to see, but it's cool to say you've been there ;o). The turtle farm was really neat--they had some turtles as big as kitchen tables, and then they had medium-sized and small ones which you could hold if you wanted to. The stingray sandbar was also really cool, but I wouldn't swim with them if you get easily freaked out--they won't hurt you (yeah yeah, I know, tell that to Steve Irwin), but if you start jumping up and down and stirring things up and frightening them, it's not good.

Turtle "Farm" on Grand Cayman
We got back in time to do a little shopping, but I opted to just return to the ship so that I wouldn't be rushing to get ready for dinner that night--it was the second formal night. Food-wise, for a starter the crab cakes were AMAZING, and the broccoli soup was pretty good too (a little too chunky for my taste, though). The tiger shrimp dish for the main course was good, and for dessert I had this chocolate thing with a French-sounding name, which was also good--and the caramel ice cream that came with it was even better!

Look at that blue water!
Later that night we went to the show, which was called "Far From Over". It was an 80s tribute, and it was absolutely amazing!!! I don't want to give anything away, so I won't say any more, but I will say that if it's still playing on the Valor (or in slightly different form on any other Carnival ship) it is a must-see! From 10-11 PM we went to 80s hour in the dance club, and that was also a lot of fun. There were more people there than had been there Monday night, but it was still obvious that it wasn't "the" place to be. After a few drinks, we went to check out the Gala Midnight Buffet. The first part of it wasn't that impressive, but at the end they had some really cool stuff. I didn't try any of the food (to me, it looked a little too fancy for midnight drunk munchies); instead, I went and grabbed some pizza. The pizza is actually more similar to the actual Italian style of pizza (for instance, their cheese pizza is called "Margarhita", which is the name of real Italian cheese pizza)...suffice it to say, the deck of a Carnival cruise ship sailing the Caribbean is no Italy, but drunk munchy wise, I wasn't complaining.

"80s" night at the club

FRIDAY:

We ordered breakfast in our room again this morning (yes, I have my lazy moments, even on vacation). We had put on the room service card that we would like it between 9:20 and 9:40 AM, and it came about 9:30 AM. Just bagels and fruit again, but it was good--they did, however, forget the honey for my hot tea. (Sad to say that there's a bit of a pattern developing here...)

My sisters and I at Chankanaab on Cozumel
We didn't do a tour through the ship on this day, because I had heard enough about Cozumel to know that we would be plenty safe doing something on our own. Therefore, we took a taxi to Chankanaab ($10 for a one-way taxi ride, and it was $12 per person for admission into the park). The botanical gardens were okay (nothing to brag about), and the snorkeling was nowhere near as good as Roatan or even Belize, but it only cost $8 for a set of snorkeling gear, which wasn't too bad. There were lots of huge lizards, which was neat to see, and the beach was nice, but the entrance to the water was rocky. I didn't mind that, but it probably wouldn't be the best beach to bring small children to. It was also nice that you could walk over and see the dolphins that they used for the dolphin encounter. The whole park was very clean, and I even got my hair braided there ($25 for half of the head, and I got mine done with a design).

The Valor docked in Cozumel
We got back from Chankanaab just before a rainstorm, so we did some shopping and ate at a Mexican (obviously) restaurant. I can't remember the name of it, but it was in this old warehouse and was closer to the taxi area than to the pier. The nachos were good, if a bit dry, and the quesadillas were excellent. My sister and I shared a Mango Margarita, which was not only good, but strong. After lunch, the rainstorm was over, so we did some more shopping. The shopping here is pretty good; the vendors are of course willing to bargain, and only a few of them were fairly pushy, but none of them were anywhere near as bad as some other islands I've been to (such as St. Lucia and Jamaica).

Back on the ship for some dinner...
Although we had planned on doing a sit-down dinner, we decided that we would rather do something quick, so that we could get back out and party at Fat Tuesdays. So we ate at Rosie's...the selection wasn't the best, but the fried chicken was good, and the soft serve ice cream was also really good, which surprised me (the ice cream on my previous cruise, which was a Royal Caribbean Cruise, was really grainy and not good at all). After dinner, we headed right out to Fat Tuesday's...the daiquiries were your average touristy-bar price ($11 for a yard glass and $9 for a tube glass...and just to let you know, they hold about the same amount of alcohol, so the tube glass is the better deal). The bar was really crazy, and REALLY fun...my sisters and I even ended up dancing on the little stage with the pole :) If you are going to go here for the evening, I would suggest getting there by 7, because by 8 PM it was insanely crowded and you never would have found a table close to the bar.

With our yard drinks at Fat Tuesday's

Yeah...we had fun ;)
Once back on the ship, we went to the party on the Lido deck, which was also a lot of fun. We got there just before 10:30, but if we had gotten there any later, we wouldn't have gotten a seat at the bar. It was still hoppin' when we headed to bed around 12:30 (at least, I think it was 12:30). We actually got room service that night, because the lines were so long for the buffets and everything--both the roast beef and brie sandwich and the shrimp salad sandwich were delicious!

SATURDAY:

It's hard to believe a week can pass so fast! We had breakfast in Rosie's this morning, and as always, the bacon and eggs and fresh fruit were good. We arrived at the pool about 10:00-10:15 AM and there were still plenty of chairs available; however, all the "good ones" were filled by 11 AM. It was a nice, lazy day. For lunch, I finally got to try to fish and chips upstairs in Rosie's, and all the reviews I have read were right--they were some of the best fish and chips I have ever had (and that's a lot to say from someone who grew up going to Cape Cod and Maine every summer). The chocolate buffet was amazing--I have never seen so much chocolate in one place! I tried the banana fritters, the chocolate cheesecake, and the chocolate-covered doughnuts, all of which were delicious.

Being silly on the Lido. That's the only explanation I have for this ridiculousness.
When it came time for dinner, I wasn't sure how I was going to eat any more, but I did. The chicken quesadillas were good (if you like black beans and don't mind the severe lack of sour cream, you would really love them); the Newburgh seafood plate was good (but not great--the sauce was a little strong for a seafood plate, in my opinion). I also tried Jason's prime rib, and it was delicious--very tender! For dessert, the Grand Marnier souffle was divine. And after a week with our waiter, Louie (I think he was from the Philippines), I must say that he was great--very fun and very attentive.

That night, we spent some money in the casino (not a bad selection of slot machines, I must say, although Jason was very disappointed that they didn't have Texas Hold 'em as one of their card games). I also have to wonder if Carnival, or at least, the people who designed the theme of the casino, know what a geisha is...Anyway, we also stopped by the Lindy Hop, which was pretty fun and not too crowded (we got there around 10:30, I have a feeling it might have gotten a little more crowded as the night went on). The piano man was not the best singer, but he was better than some of the piano men I've seen play in the past.

Enjoying our last night on the cruise! (Big sis and baby sis)
Our attempt to order room service this night completely backfired. If I were you, I would just plan on making your way up to the buffet on the Lido deck--we should have just gone there, but I suppose this is what you get for being lazy, because we waited over an hour and a half for the food we ordered from room service, and when it finally did arrive, it was cold.

Now, for some things we learned throughout the week:

-"Laws", the pool band, sounded good, but seriously only seemed to know about ten songs.

-If you drink a decent amount, here is some good-to-know info: it's cheaper to buy wine and champagne by the bottle if you want more than one glass; it is cheaper to buy buckets of beer if you are going to have four or more; also, it is a good deal to buy the daily special in the refill cup on your first day and remember to cart it around with you and use it for the drinks of the day for the rest of the week.

-I found it weird that many of the bartenders did not know how to make a Rum Runner on the rocks...

SUNDAY:

For breakfast, we once again went to the Washington Dining Room, where I learned that either baked apples are served cold, or the baked apple I had was just a really bad one. However, I also had the buttermilk pancakes, and those were just fine.

For debarkation, we did the "relaxation debarkation". This meant we had to have our baggage (except for our carry-ons) outside of our cabin by midnight on Saturday. We had to be out of the room by 9 AM, but after that, we were able to just laze around on the couches near the Java coffee place for about an hour or so. We got in line to disembark around 10:20 AM and eventually got to the airport at about 12:15 PM. Just FYI, the Port of Miami has no air conditioning, and most of the time we were waiting in line to go through customs was pretty hot and miserable, although once we got down into the main area, the line was almost constantly moving. Thankfully, we had a late flight and were able to check in, get through security, eat a sit-down lunch, and still have time left over. In conclusion, the debarkation was long and hot--when I went on my Royal Caribbean cruise, they did it by flight number and it was much easier, so in my opinion, Carnival really should work on their debarkation process. Due to weather issues and the usual incompetency of US Air, we didn't get home until about 4:30 AM Monday morning, but that is not Carnival's fault, so it is a different story for a different time, I suppose.

Now for my major complaint--I bought a bottle of tequila (a brand that is not sold in the U.S.) and a bottle of Cruzan banana rum (which at the time, I had never seen at any liquor store I'd been to in the U.S.) in Cozumel. I had to hand it over to Carnival when I boarded the ship Friday afternoon, as did everyone else who bought alcohol in the ports. They said it would be delivered to my room by noon the next day (Saturday).

Well, when it wasn't there by 3 PM on Saturday, I called the front desk. They told me that they still had a lot of alcohol to deliver, and that I would get it by 8 PM that night. When it still wasn't there by about 9 PM, I went to the purser's desk. The person I spoke to told me it would be there by midnight, but when I went to bed at 1 AM, it still wasn't there, and when I got up at 7 AM the next morning, guess what, STILL no alcohol. At this point, when I called front board services, they said I had to go to the purser's desk.  However, the purser's desk tried to tell me that they had no record of me ever handing over my alcohol to them, and then said they would reimburse me the $25 I had spent.

Needless to say, you can't buy two bottles of decent liquor for $25 in the U.S., so I asked if they could replace it with liquor from their store. Apparently, all they had left was Absolut Vodka (of which Jason had already bought a bottle), Crown Royal, and Cruzan Vanilla Rum. I took a bottle of the Vanilla rum and a bottle of Crown in exchange, but I made it very clear that I was not happy with the situation. If they had not confiscated my liquor in the first place, this whole issue never would have happened. The woman kept saying "I don't know what happened, I don't know what happened"...I replied, "I'll tell you what happened--either one of your crew members stole it, or you delivered it to the wrong room and the people who received it didn't have the morals to return it".

I did end up writing a pretty nasty letter to Carnival regarding their ridiculous alcohol policy and the trouble it caused me. They were kind enough to send me a $25 on board credit voucher for a future cruise...to be used within twelve months. (yes, I'm being really sarcastic here)

Despite this ouchy on their part, in general I had a great time--obviously good enough to do it all again, anyway! The room and ship were beautiful, the food and service probably above average, and the entertainment top-notch. When one considers how much lower Carnival's prices usually are when compared to other cruise lines, the value for your money cannot be surpassed.

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