One of our biggest fears about cruising on a mega-ship, namely long lines and long waits, was dispelled right away at Port Canaveral. While there were long lines, they moved quickly and efficiently, and the boarding operation was very smooth. Kudos to Carnival for something done right!
Overall, we enjoyed our cruise, but we learned something important, which is that we will never choose to cruise with Carnival again.
The Carnival Dream is one of their largest ships, and she carried over 4500 souls on this cruise. Carnival advertises its "Fun Ships," and we learned that their idea of "fun" is LOUD. The Dream is loud both visually and aurally. She was decorated with all hard, reflective surfaces: steel, glass, mirrors, tiles, shiny plastics, gleaming metals and polished stone, with plenty of neon lights. All PA announcements were too loud. All the dance music was too loud. The stage shows were so loud that, even if we wore our ear plugs, it was still uncomfortably noisy. Nobody cared about requests to back off a little on the volume. Apparently "fun" equals "loud," and if we didn't like it, we could go to our stateroom (which we often did). All the hard surfaces reflected sound as well as light. The assault on the senses was exacerbated by the numbers of people, including many children who were often not under any sort of parental control. We really found ourselves wishing for the relative quiet of the Holland-America ships. (In fairness, I must mention the "Serenity Deck," high in the Dream's superstructure near the HVAC units. This area is for adults only, and it features some comfortable lounge furniture as well as an absence of loud music. Unfortunately, it is also quite windy, and the noisy fans and HVAC equipment detracted somewhat from the serenity.)
We were pleasantly surprised with our stateroom, a modestly-priced "ocean view" room on the lowest deck, close to the aft elevators. We had TWO bathrooms!! I've never seen anything like it on a ship! One tiny bath had a tub/shower and a sink, the other, larger, had a shower stall, toilet and sink. The bed was good, lighting was good, service was good. The only downside is that, instead of little travel-sized containers of shampoo, lotion, conditioner etc., the showers were equipped with dispensers for gel and shampoo -- both cheap -- and there was no lotion at all! (When we called Guest Services, we were told that Carnival no longer supplies lotion and that we could buy some at the onboard shops.) The artwork on the cabin wall was monumentally ugly, and the chocolate mints left on the bed at turndown were stale.
The schedule of shipboard activities was uninspired. Movies were shown on a giant screen outside on the Lido pool deck, not a good venue if you actually want to enjoy the film. The daily program listed several "seminars" and "information sessions," but in reality all these programs were sales pitches, either for shops in the next port that were owned by the cruise line or for vastly overpriced onboard services and products. There were no genuinely informative lectures about the upcoming ports of call (or anything else), and we found that disappointing. Frequently, several activities were scheduled at the same time, or very nearly so, and we had to choose among several attractive-sounding options at X o'clock, but found nothing interesting for the two hours preceding or following that time. The ship's library was a quiet room, but it was kept very chilly, and the bookshelves were firmly locked. Once, the schedule said that bridge players should meet there to play cards, but nobody besides us showed up, and there were no cards available!
The ubiquitous casino was noisy, nearly impossible to avoid, and often smoky. The Lido pool deck was hot, humid, overcrowded with obese bodies, overrun with children and it smelled of chlorine, cigarette smoke and fried foods. Not inviting at all.
The food aboard ship was pretty good, as it usually is on cruise ships, but we had a few problems in that department, also. For example, the (powdered, I think) scrambled eggs on the Dream are worse than what we used to get at summer camp, and the bacon tasted as if it had been cooked in months-old grease. (After the first day, I ate boiled eggs.) The omelets were excellent, but we needed to be patient while waiting in line. Juices were prepared from concentrate and not mixed very thoroughly, so when I helped myself from the dispenser, I never knew whether I would get colored water, normal dilution, or super-concentrated orange juice.
Hot foods on the buffet were rarely as hot as we would like. I was excited to see lasagna offered for lunch one day, but it was lukewarm and tasteless -- very disappointing. Salads and fruits were a highlight -- fresh and delicious. Most of the desserts looked much better than they tasted.
The food in the dining rooms was very good, but the service was extremely slow, at least at our table. On a few evenings, we arrived at the appointed time and then sat at our table with only water and bread for over an hour before receiving our dinner. By the time dessert arrived, they were already trying to clear the room to set up for the late seating. A (loud) PA announcement told us we needed to be out in five minutes, and this happened before anybody at our table even had their after-dinner coffee! And, for reasons we never understood, dinner was interrupted at least once almost every night by bursts of(very loud) music and waiters dancing on serving tables. (I think this was supposed to be fun.)
On the "up" side, the itinerary of this cruise was outstanding, and there was something attractive or interesting about each of the ports. Somehow, they squeezed four different ports of call into a seven-day cruise -- amazing! The water in the Caribbean is clear, clean and turquoise blue, and the snorkeling venues are truly lovely. I'll never remember the names of the many dozens of fishes we saw, but I will certainly remember their abundance, colors, variety and beauty.
We snorkeled at both Cozumel (an island off the coast of Mexico) and Roatan (also an island, off Honduras), and enjoyed both excursions. Roatan has a public beach within sight -- and an easy walk -- of the ship's pier. No need to pay for a shore excursion there (I wish we'd known that ahead of time). A chairlift to the beach was available (for a price) which would spare us about 300 yards of level walking. We found that highly amusing, but declined the ride.
Belize is a very poor country, and Belize City is unattractive. We chose a shore excursion that took us inland to some caves and it required a long, uncomfortable school-bus ride on really lousy roads. As we rode along, our guide explained to us that the Belizian government gives each adult citizen a piece of land, and then the citizen is on his/her own to build whatever dwelling s/he is able to afford. The result is a ramshackle collection of huts, hovels, modest houses and crummy buildings that need more maintenance than they receive. After we left the city behind, we rode through flat, mostly featureless countryside on a lumpy, two-lane "highway." After an hour, we turned off toward the caves, and the final 30 minutes of the drive was along a broken road with potholes the size of swimming pools.
On arrival at the caves, we were each issued a PFD, a helmet, a helmet light and an inflated tube the size of a truck tire inner tube. We walked along a short trail and down some steps into the cave to the edge of an underground river. There, we plopped ourselves into the tubes and began the tour. These caves are fantastic! Fascinating rock formations were everywhere, with stalagmites and stalactites of every possible description and many other shapes with serrated edges and unusual folds. Many of the formations were covered with silica crystals that glittered in the beams of light from our helmets. It was beautiful! At one point, we were invited to turn off our helmet lights andexperience the total absence of light within the depths of the cave -- that was eerie. After paddling along for a while, we climbed out of the tubes and walked along a trail to see some other formations and remnants from the Mayan religious rites that were performed down there. (The Mayan name for these caves is Xibalba, meaning "hell" or "underworld.") After the short foot tour, we climbed onto our tubes again and paddled our way back to the entrance. There, we were permitted to swim in the underground lagoon near the entrance -- very nice! We loved the cave excursion!
One final note on Belize: Belize has an offshore barrier reef second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef off Australia. For this reason, our ship needed to anchor WAY offshore, and we were ferried into Belize City on locally-based tenders -- about a 30-minute ride. The barrier reef is a nationally protected park and a world-famous attraction for scuba divers.
The final port on our itinerary was Costa Maya, which consists mostly of the collection of shops that characterizes all cruise ship ports. But Costa Maya made it more interesting by planning the shops around a free-form, amoeba-shaped salt water swimming pool open for use by natives and ship people alike. That was kind of fun! Also, since this shopping area was right on the ocean's shore, they had a beach with lounge chairs and thatch umbrellas. One part of the beach had dolphin pools, where folks who had signed up to swim with the dolphins enjoyed their excursion. We all got to watch the dolphins go through their paces, "dancing" and "talking" and kissing people on command and giving tourists rides on their backs or their tummies. It is probably not healthy for the dolphins, but it was entertaining to watch and probably a thrill for the folks participating.
A day and a half after leaving Costa Maya, we were back at Port Canaveral, the disembarkation process was handled as efficiently as the embarkation had, and the long trip back home began. Orlando's airport is attractive, but five hours was too long to have to wait for the first of the two flights that would bring us to Seattle.