Spring Break Cruise 2012, March 24th -- April 1st
Eastern Caribbean 8 Days -- Ft. Lauderdale, St. Thomas, Antigua, Tortola, Nassau, Ft. Lauderdale
This was our second annual family spring break cruise and our first cruise on Carnival. Overall, this is our fifth cruise with three previous RCCL and one NCL. Our first spring break cruise was last year on the Norwegian Epic -- so, there are naturally going to be a few comparisons featured in this review.
We have the benefit of being from Florida, so on the morning of March 24th, we just woke up and drove three hours south to Port Everglades. Our family is myself 39, dw 38, dd 9 and ds 6. We got to the parking garage at about 11 a.m. and had no trouble parking ($15/day). We handed over our bags to the porters, got our passports checked and began the waiting process. We were inside, so that was nice, but found it a little odd that we just sat in the maze of a line for about 45 minutes. This terminal is a little old and could use an update -- perhaps the initial small holding area is the issue. Finally, we made it to the x-ray machine to scan our carry-on luggage. I have two bottles of wine in my backpack (one for me and one for my wife ... ok, both are for me) and I have a carry-on suitcase full of Coke Zeroes and a few Red Bulls (basically about the amount that Carnival says a family of four can bring on). The wine gets through with no problem, but security quickly gets called over for my beverage suitcase. At first, the security guy didn't seem like he wanted to check it. Finally, he brings the bag over to the side and looks at all of my plastic sodas and says, "I don't think so." I get nervous believing that he won't let me take on all of the drinks. However, what he meant was that there was no way he was checking and going through all of my drinks. He quickly sent my beverage suitcase and me on our way. Once we were through with the initial process, things went very quickly. From that point, we were probably on the Freedom within 10 minutes. So, about 55 minutes to board ... at 11:00 a.m. I am sure it took longer for those that came later. By comparison, when we sailed the Epic last march, we were parked and on the ship in about 20 minutes.
We got on board the Freedom and headed straight to the Lido deck buffet for lunch. At 1:30, our rooms were ready and we went to drop off our stuff and check out the cabin. I have to give the nod to Carnival on the cabins. We had a balcony cabin near the aft on the 6th floor Upper deck. Our beds were pushed together and were comfortable. The kids had the "bunk bed" type set-up with the top bunk pulled down. There was plenty of room for us and we didn't feel cramped in the room. Last year on the NCL Epic, it was very cramped with four in a cabin. Our cabin steward was Tony and he and the assistant steward did a great job. I tipped extra during the week and at the end. Cleaning up after a family of four can't be easy. My only gripe with the room is that it was just above the Piano Bar and was very loud the first few days. I think on the first two nights, we could sing along to the songs. After a few days, we didn't notice it as much -- they either turned it down or we began to tune it out ... or both. I should have researched room locations better, but chose to let Carnival choose the room to save some money. I could have avoided this and we did get used to it. Also, we did order rum and vodka through Carnival's Bon Voyage program and I would highly recommend this. We did order before the price increase, but even where the prices are now, it will save you money. Our bottles were waiting for us when we got into our cabin.
After we got settled in, we went to explore the ship. I have to agree with other reviewers and say that the decor is pretty gaudy. It is almost designed in a way that makes it look dated very fast ... and not in a good way. To be honest, you get used to it and it isn't a big deal. Just worth a brief mention. I really liked the layout of the pool area on deck nine / ten. The multi-levels of it gave you plenty of opportunities for a great seat to overlook the pools or the Seaside Theatre. I really liked the Seaside Theatre and hope other ships have this set up as well. On the screen, they showed nature videos with pop music in the background, the morning show, live concert videos, movies and the Final Four. There are two pools in this area and four hot tubs. We felt very comfortable with our kids being in any of the pools or hot tubs in the area. They also had the big green slide and the kids enjoyed that. The slide is fun but no comparison to the Epic's three slides -- especially the Epic plunge.
On the aft of deck nine, they had the adult pool area that also had two hot tubs. Nice set-up here, but we didn't really get to take advantage of this area as we enjoyed the pools elsewhere with the kids. The Serenity adults-only area is on deck 12 and 14 at the front of the boat. They also have two hot tubs here as well. We did go here a few times while the kids were in Camp Carnival and really enjoyed it - comfortable chairs and pretty relaxing. They have a small bar in this area as well.
Our kids both enjoyed Camp Carnival a lot and quickly made friends there. They were in separate groups (6-8) and (9-11), but didn't seem to mind. The counselors were friendly and made check-in and out very easy. Activities in the area included crafts, games, video games, scavenger hunts, dancing, t-shirt coloring and more. In addition, they had a talent show, which our daughter participated in. She loved it and the counselors made every kid feel good about their performance.
We did Anytime Dining and were assigned to the third floor Chic deck. Our first waiter, Thuntisa (or something like this) was the best waiter we have had on a cruise ship. He was very friendly and attentive to us and to the kids. Another stand-out waiter was Mladen from Croatia. He was a head waiter and did a excellent job of directing his crew. All of the other waiters were very good, but those two were standouts. The maitra di visited us each night and was very kind. Probably the best maitra di that we have had on a cruise ship as well. We enjoyed Anytime Dining for the flexibility and it was hit and miss on if you had a wait for a table or not. We went early to the first elegant night and didn't have much of a wait, but when we left at 7:30 or 7:45, there was a very long line.
As for food, I thought the overall quality was very good. I know not to expect fine dining, as this is a cruise ship with a few thousand people on board. That being said, the food was better than I expected ... in the main dining room. It is interesting to see what each cruise line puts an emphasis on. Carnival obviously prides itself on their main dining room and they have quality food and service. They do offer their signature steak house as well (which we decided not to go to) and I heard great things from people that went there. On Norwegian, they pride themselves on their specialty restaurants. The food there is very good with good service. However, the main dining room on Norwegian was just ok with mediocre service. Carnival has them beat on the main dining. I thought that the buffet food on the Freedom was fine and especially enjoyed the Mongolian Wok and the Tandoor section. The pizza was good too. The overall buffet food on NCL was a little better in my opinion. One odd thing on the Freedom is that they have a smoking section just outside the door of the deck nine buffet. Morning, noon and night when you walked out of the buffet to the pool area, you were hit with a wave of smoke. I thought the placement was a little odd. I think smokers should have a section, just not right around where the buffet entrance/exit are.
I liked the casino area and we had fun in here a few nights (read: won money). It got pretty crowded in the evening, but you could get a spot at a blackjack table pretty easy and could usually get in on the craps table as well. Lots of people were playing the slots, but you could find some open if you were looking.
As for the crowds, yes this was a Spring Break cruise. I think because it was an 8-day cruise it kept away some extra rowdy people. The vast majority of people were there to have a good time. We saw a few dumb things/people -- but, that was in the minority. The pool areas got very crowded on the sea days, but it was manageable. Where there chair hogs? Yes, but I don't have a lot of sympathy for people who start looking for a chair around the pool at 10:30 a.m. I do note the worst chair hog day was on the last sea day where it was difficult to find an open spot in the main pool area by 8 a.m. There were still spots open, but they were on the sides of the ship.
We checked out a number of the shows on board and will admit that the typical cruise-ship "big band" shows are not our thing. The New Orleans show was good (our daughter was really impressed), as was the Beatles show. Good, just not what we prefer. We were spoiled last year on the Epic -- who is routinely rated as the best entertainment at sea. With Blue Man Group, Second City Comedy and Nickelodeon, NCL has superior entertainment. On Freedom, we were entertained by some of the contests -- Love and Marriage show, Hairy Chest contest and Mr. and Mrs. Freedom contest. I thought the cruise staff did a good job with them. We thought very highly of the assistant cruise director who was in charge of bingo. We never played bingo before, but did because this guy was so funny.
As for the ports, we did Sapphire Beach in St. Thomas. We took a cab there ($9 per person, each way) and had the best time. The water is very clear and most of the people there were snorkeling (including us). The beach-side service was excellent as well. Our server was Lindsey and she was very entertaining. In Antigua, we went to Valley Church Beach -- which is one of my favorite spots. We walked out of the dock and took a cab there with 8 other people. It is a about a 20 minute ride through some rough looking areas. It didn't look unsafe, just poor. As an American, I felt fortunate that we have it pretty good. Antigua, like much of the Caribbean is all about the "Have and the Have-Nots." There is really not much of a middle class to speak of. Ok ... back to the ride ... after the 20 minute ride, you take a right turn and you are in Heaven ... or more specifically, Valley Church Beach. My wife and I were the only ones who have been to this beach before and everyone else oooooeeed and ahhhhhhhed as soon as they saw the beautiful milky blue water of Valley Church Beach. They have a restaurant here called The Nest that has some good food -- especially the Caribbean lobster (beats the heck out of the frozen cruise ship lobster). Our same driver came and picked us up ($8 per person, each way) and got us back to the port. We ended up having a quick snack and Wadadli Beer (the official beer of Antigua) at the Big Banana Pizza (good stuff). Of our itinerary , Tortola was the only island that we had not visited yet, so I was looking forward to it. After some good research on Cruise Critic, we decided to book a private charter (BVI360) and go to Jost Van Dyke. The seas were rough getting there, but the kids thought the boat was like a ride at Disney and loved it. We had the best time there and especially enjoyed hanging out at Soggy Dollar Bar (the birthplace of the painkiller drink). Be careful of the Painkillers there -- they are delicious and powerful. The food here was also good -- jerk chicken sandwich is what Mic the bartender recommended. Our last port was Nassau, which is not our favorite place ... but, I just need to figure out the best thing to do here. Previously, we have done the Blue Lagoon and didn't love it. So, this time we just decided to go to Junkanoo Beach, which is open to the public. The water is beautiful here, but it isn't a great beach. Disconcertingly, I found some broken glass along the shoreline and worried about my kids getting hurt. We lasted here about an hour and headed to Senor Frogs. We got seated on the outside of the craziness, but were still very entertained by the Spring Break crowds there. I thought the food at this Senor Frogs was better than the one in St. Thomas. We had Ceviche and grouper fingers and both were very good. They ceviche is served table-side.
Overall, we really enjoyed the cruise. The Freedom is a very good ship, but does take a little bit to get used to. We book a cruise for the itinerary and we thought this was a great one. The service was very good on the ship and you can tell the Carnival prides themselves on this. I only had one bothersome issue when a pool server brought me a bucket of beer, when I just ordered one. It took time, but he did finally take the charge off -- the situation could have been handled better by him, but certainly not a huge deal.
A few suggestions:
- Have a good attitude. Be prepared to have fun on ship with a few thousand people onboard. Not everyone is like you or does the things you want them to do. No worries, just stay away from bad situations.
- Bring binoculars (especially if you have a balcony cabin). You can see some really cool things at sea ... other boats, islands, sea life, etc.
- Consider bringing your own snorkel equipment if you are doing that on an excursion. While the rented ones get cleaned out, you would rather have your own.
- Bring along a small flashlight. Nice to have at night and in case of an emergency.
- Bring GOOD zip lock bags along to the pool and excursions. Great for camera, phones, etc.
- Bring LOTS of sunscreen. It is very expensive onboard and at ports. Bring more than you think you need ... and use it!
- If you have little kids, bring a small bag of beach toys. This was great for us on this trip.
- If you are on Carnival, bring your allowed bottle of wine per adult guest. And bring some sodas, waters,etc -- it will save you a lot of money. Also, order liquor through the Bon Voyage program. Another great money saver and nice to have.
- Tip Well! Treat the servers and stewards well. Also, tip well in port. These people are reliant on tourism.
- Have an open mind. Truthfully, we avoided Carnival for a while for a variety of reasons. We gave them a shot and had a really good time. We would sail Carnival again.