This was our 16th cruise, all with Carnival. We started cruising in 2004 with a 5-day Canada cruise, just to see if we'd enjoy cruising. We got hooked. Before this cruise started we had 94 sailing days so we were Platinum before VIFP and we're still Platinum. I'll talk about VIFP throughout the review.
Sailing were me (52), DH (51), and two of our three sons (16 and 12). Our oldest son is a senior at the US Merchant Marine Academy, and while we were sailing on Pride he was sailing on a three-week internship on USS Wasp. He had 9 Carnival cruises with us when he went away to school and now he's talking about a couple of cruises during school breaks this year with several of his classmates. We had originally hoped he would be able to join us on Pride for this cruise, but the Navy won. In his place was my 17 YO nephew, a first-time cruiser. Once we realized oldest son wouldn't be able to cruise with us, we thought about who could take his place -- and nephew came to mind pretty quickly. He's always gotten along well with our two younger sons.
We're limited to sailing between (roughly) July 1 and August 15, thanks to my work schedule, DH's teaching schedule (he teaches at a community college) and sons' school schedule. However, we make it work.
We arrived in Baltimore on Friday for a Sunday cruise and stayed at the Hampton Inn Convention Center, right across the street from Camden Yards. Saw the Indians-Orioles game that night, then the next day went to the Inner Harbor -- Aquarium and historic ships.
Boarding - We took our time in the morning since we were all of a 5-minute drive from the port. Still, we were there by 11:15 and used VIP check-in without a problem. Once aboard, our first stop was a visit to the Shore Excursions desk to choose a cabana on HMC, along with beverages of choice, and an extra ticket for nephew. Then up to Lido deck for lunch. They boys didn't hang around very long -- they wanted to show their cousin everything the ship had to offer. As for DH and me, we relaxed with Fun Ship Specials until the cabins were ready at 1:30. We had Vista Suite 6329 while the boys were next door in aft balcony 6331. We had to get extra keys since DH was booked in the boys' cabin and 16 YO was booked with me, but that was easily done.
Muster drill was around 3:45. This is where I saw a change since Costa Concordia -- the drill was opened by the Captain to emphasize the importance of the drill before turning it over to the Cruise Director. Most people seemed attentive, at least until toward the end. Sailaway was at 4:15.
We had early seating dining, and were pleased to find we had a table for five (actually designed for five, even) at the aft of the Normandie dining room. We had good service, but a little slow; it seemed the entire rear of the dining room was served later than those closer to the entrance. After dinner, DH stayed out on our balcony and I went to the "Welcome Aboard" show. I've seen it lots of times, but it's still fun. The Cruise Director is Jaime Dee (she was Jaime Deitsch when we sailed on Pride two years ago and she was the ACD - I guess shortening it was easier). Jaime is a wonderful CD -- she has an unbelievable amount of energy and she clearly loves what she's doing.
First sea day -- DH and I have a routine for sea days -- breakfast on the Lido deck followed by gin rummy on the Promenade deck. The lines weren't long most of the time; DH was able to get his daily omelet and yogurt without a long wait, and I did fine with the main buffet lines. I liked that they varied the potatoes and sausage every day -- the different styles were a nice touch. This day they offered a cooking demonstration in the steakhouse -- no extra charge. They prepared four dishes -- a salad, appetizer, entree and dessert -- and samples were given to all in attendance.
This was elegant night. We didn't go to the "Captain's Celebration," as we have had plenty of photo opportunities in the past and we needed to make sure the boys dressed on time -- not an easy job. However, we got them cleaned up and dressed in time for dinner. Afterward, the boys very quickly got changed while we decided to visit the piano bar. This was probably the most crowded I've ever seen the piano bar on a Spirit-class ship, but Roger really drew in the crowds. He's a lot of fun.
Second sea day -- Again we spent a morning with breakfast on Lido followed by cards. Then a wine tasting at the steakhouse -- I was surprised that not many people were there. We've done this on other ships and it was much better attended. The VIFP party for Gold and above was at 4:30 -- first time for the party on Pride. DH, youngest son and I went. As we entered, we were greeted by the entertainment staff and the senior officers, all of whom welcomed us with some rather enthusiastic "welcome backs." We were then greeted with a tray of Funship Specials and some pretty good hors d'oeuvres. I liked the mini-pizza and the chicken. There were a couple of other drinks available -- there was a pina colada and another fruity drink I couldn't quite place. (It was good, though.) And the band played for us. We did see the film clip with Ted Arison followed by the "parade of ships," after which Jaime talked about the Funship 2.0 project. Then it was Mardi Gras time -- beads and a conga line going around the Butterflies Lounge. And then everyone was invited to the stage to learn some new dances. (I have two left feet, DH didn't even try, but son was into the dancing!)
We booked the steakhouse for dinner this evening -- I generally find the third night menu to be weaker than others, although on this cruise I probably should have opted for day 5. We were seated on the upper level of David's; there was a good-sized crowd, but the steakhouse was by no means full. I opted for tuna tartare, spinach salad, filet mignon and the chocolate sampler; DH opted for tuna tartare, salad, surf and turf, and the chocolate sampler.
Grand Turk - This was our fourth visit to Grand Turk. The first time we visited we went with the beach next to the ship and didn't care for it -- it was crowded and the water was rather murky, with a rocky bottom. Next time we walked what I think is about a half mile down the beach to Jack's Shack, where the water is nicer and the beach less crowded. We've been going back ever since. We rented two beach chairs and an umbrella (you can tell there's more competition for business now, since it was only $10 instead of the $20 we paid last year) and spent time enjoying the beach. DH and I then went up to the bar, where Jack and Janet were busy mixing drinks -- rum punch for me, mojitos for DH. Back on board time was 1:30, and I wanted to get back in time for my one required Grand Turk purchase: Bambarra Rum, made in the Turks and Caicos. I've never seen it for sale in the States, so we used our Customs limit with two bottles. Back aboard the ship, there were several July 4-themed activities. I opted for July 4 Trivia and, thanks to knowing the first seven words of the Declaration of Independence ("When in the course of human events...")
Half Moon Cay - I know better than to book a cruise strictly for a particular port -- and if you do, you need to keep in mind that the port might not happen. Since HMC is a tender port, it will be canceled if the tenders can't operate safely. However, HMC was a big reason for booking this cruise -- it's absolutely gorgeous. We had Cabana #9; we booked this cruise in September 2011 and booked the cabana shortly afterward -- they go quickly, as there's only 15 of them (plus the Grand Cabana aka Private Oasis). My personal preference is for a cabana farther down the beach, where it's less crowded. On the way back, the last tender was at 4:15 for a 5:00 sailing, and we opted to go back to the ship a little after 3. No lines at all.
Freeport -- We went on Carnival's "Alexander von Humboldt" excursion. Alex, as the crew calls her, is a 106 year-old windjammer. She wasn't actually built as a sailing ship; instead, she started out life as a lightship in German waters. She was retired in 1986 and converted to a tall ship, based on her clipper hull, for use as a training vessel. She was retired as a training ship a few years ago and purchased by a Bahamian group for use as a touring and training vessel. She left Germany in January 2012 and arrived in Freeport in March 2012, with a German crew to train the new Bahamian crew. Now she's doing three-hour sailing tours off Grand Bahama.
We were a combined group from Pride and Ecstacy, which was also in Freeport that day, with the tour departing at 8:30. It was a short walk from our pier to the next pier where Alex was moored. We were greeted by both the German and the Bahamian crew, boarded the ship, and set sail. The idea was to give us a real sailing experience -- use the available sails and minimize the use of the engines. Passengers were welcome to join in raising the sails and to climb the ratlines on the masts to the first platform. (None of our group dared, but others went for it.) They would also give you a turn at the helm.
What was interesting was watching a group of very precise German sailors training a group of much more laid-back Bahamian sailors. It makes for an interesting combination.
The boys -- I haven't mentioned them in a while in this review. They were on deck for a while, but then disappeared below. Turns out they were sitting in the crew mess when the chief engineer invited them to tour the engine room. We didn't even get that chance!
In all, this was a very relaxing sail -- and certainly the biggest ship I've ever traveled on under sail We were back at Freeport around 12:15 -- enough time to do some shopping at the straw market. I found a fan; DH found a floppy hat that he'll wear for lawn mowing; and youngest son found a fedora that he thinks is way cool.
This was the second elegant night. I had a different outfit (after all, girls can't be seen in the same outfit twice!) but the boys all wore the dress clothes from the first elegant night -- except for Steve's prized hat. Tonight we went to see "Jazzin" in the main lounge, followed by Al Ernst's comedy show. I like Al -- this was his adult show, but there was nothing raunchy about it.
Last sea day - This was a pretty laid-back, do nothing day. We slept late (not hard to do when you're traveling with teenage boys), played cards in the card room, wandered the ship, and read. This afternoon Jaime and Jay the ACD held a question and answer session in the Starry Nights lounge to talk about life on a cruise ship. A lot of people were there and had some pretty good questions. An interesting observation from Jaime: While a number of us may not care for Pride's Port Canaveral/Nassau/Freeport itinerary, the crew likes it better than the Grand Turk/HMC/Freeport itinerary because they get more time ashore. As the mom of a merchant mariner I completely understand; when our oldest was on one cargo ship for four months, I think he had five days total where he actually got off the ship. They did deliver my two bottles of Bambarra Rum to our cabin that evening (last year on Fantasy we had to collect it ourselves the morning of debarkation). Then packed our bags (we don't do self-assist), set them outside our cabin, and sat out on our balcony enjoying the bottle of champagne that Jaime sent us. We stayed up until we entered the Chesapeake and went through the Chesapeake Channel of the Bay Bridge-Tunnel. According to the captain, the entire Chesapeake transit to Baltimore is about 9 hours.
Debarkation and Home -- It always seems as if we have more stuff left in our cabin when debarking than we anticipated. We were jamming dirty clothes, toiletries, a third ship-on-a-stick (courtesy of Jaime) and stuff the kids hadn't packed into our carry-ons. As Platinum cruisers, we had #1 luggage tags and could wait to be called on deck 2 at 9:15. We were off the ship even earlier, through Customs in no time, and in our car on the way home by 9:30.
This is the section where I give my thoughts about the ship, cabin, passengers, the entertainment staff and crew, food, and the itinerary.
Carnival Pride: This was our second time sailing on Pride. She's not my favorite ship, decor-wise. I find the Renaissance/Baroque themes to be too dark for my tastes, and when you're traveling with three teenage boys the nude artwork becomes an issue. (Youngest son didn't like the reproduction of Michelangelo's "David" in the steakhouse. I explained about the significance of Michelangelo's work, but he just couldn't get around the naked statue.) I also prefer Conquest-class to Spirit-class ships, unlike a lot of people; the difficulty in navigating decks 3 and 4 on Conquest-class doesn't bother me, and I find it more difficult to navigate Spirit-class ships during the dinner hours. I find the Lido deck on Spirit-class ships to be more crowded at lunchtime; although the buffet lines move well, there's nowhere to sit unless you eat very early or later. No problem on Conquest-class; if there's no seating available on the Lido deck, I go up one floor to the Promenade buffet seating and have never had a problem getting a seat there. However, decor and layout are not a primary factor in booking a cruise, so I wouldn't hesitate to sail Sprit-class ships -- and Carnival Pride in particular -- again. And there were features we really liked, like the card room on the Promenade Deck and the fountain between decks 2 and 3 forward. The Serenity area on Lido deck aft is very nice, if you can get a chair. And Pride is very well maintained. At the question-and-answer session on the last day, someone asked about maintenance; the response was that it's ongoing. The crew was out constantly working on the ship.
Cabin: We had aft Vista Suite 6329 and adjoining Balcony Aft 6331. Both very nice cabins. When you enter the aft wrap, you go down a hall to a sitting area with sofa, table, chair and desk and a TV. Next is a dressing room and the bathroom with a tub with jets -- DH used it several times. Finally, there's the bedroom with a king bed, drawers and closet, and another TV. The balcony has most of its space along the aft of the ship, with a small portion on the starboard side. I used that small starboard portion often, as it tended to be shadier during the day -- and was out of the range of people dropping cigarette ash from above. (Yes, someone did drop ashes on me while I was sitting outside reading my Kindle! 6331 was also a nice cabin with a good-sized balcony. The boys didn't use the balcony very much and we never did bother to get the divider opened between the two cabins.
Passengers: As with our last cruise on Pride, this was a very Mid-Atlantic passenger demographic. Lots of folks from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey, with others from New York (I met a couple from a town right across the Hudson River from us) and North Carolina. Aside from chair hogs on the Lido deck, it was a really nice group of passengers. Lots of kids, but we never noticed them.
Kids' Activities: We signed up youngest son for Circle C and nephew and older son for Club O2. None of them ended up participating in many organized activities, although the older two met kids at Club O2 to hang out with. As for the younger one -- he missed the first night get-together and never really got into Circle C. However, he still had a great time. He and the older two spent a fair amount of time on the sports deck.
Entertainment: Jaime had a great entertainment staff and I had no complaint about the number of scheduled activities. All the usual activities -- trivia, hairy chest, love and marriage, ice carving, bean bag toss, etc. Three production shows: "Jazzin," a tribute to the Jaz Age, "Wonderful World," a trip around the world, and "Vroom!", a motorcycle-themed show. A Motown Show with Ron Joseph. Comedy every night except Thursday.
No Lido duo -- two DJs instead. I missed the Lido group, but the DJs were pretty good, very entertaining, and played a good mix of music. Roger was great in the piano bar -- I've never seen the piano bar on a Spirit-class ship so crowded. Then there were a couple of solo musicians and the group "True Identity." I do have to say I'm disappointed in the ship's orchestra; this group was down to a live saxophone, keyboard, drums, and two guitars. There's a lot of dependence on electronics.
Crew: We had great stewards and wait staff. Our cabin was well cared for. The wait staff in the dining room was great as well, although service was a bit slow. Our only complaint was with the purser's (Guest Services) staff. We had a problem with the entry key for 6331; sons' cards and DH's key card took a number of swipes before they would work. Our cabin steward confirmed that there was a problem with the lock and he called it into Maintenance. Instead, Guest Services just re-keyed the cards for 6331. They didn't work any better, and DH's key card didn't work at all. And it messed up DH's Internet access, for some reason (I guess because he was booked in 6331).
Food: When it came to breakfast, DH had a Western Omelet and yogurt each morning. He had a very short wait for the omelet. I opted for the buffet, and really liked the varieties of potatoes and sausage they served every day. For lunch, we had a good variety again; DH opted most times for a salad or low-carb entrees. He's been trying to lose weight and has the added issue of being recently diagnosed as diabetic, so he watched what he ate very carefully (although he resigned himself to gaining weight on the cruise; at the end of the cruise, he gained all of Â½ pound.) I varied my lunch; burgers and fries several days, Caribbean another day, Oriental another time. If you get to the chocolate buffet on the last sea day, don't miss the chocolate cheesecake! And as for dinner, we never lacked for variety. The older two boys are picky eaters, but they did fine with dinner. One had a grilled chicken breast and Caesar salad every night, the other had a hamburger every night. They were happy. And DH, 12 YO and I always had a good choice for dinner. (BTW, nephew and 12 YO raved about the bacon mac n' cheese!)
Itinerary: The biggest problem with this itinerary is the port time. Now, I've always said that ports don't matter very much, but if we're going to do a port we'd like to have enough time to enjoy it. Due to the 7-day itinerary, with 9-10 hours just to get from Baltimore to the ocean, port time is limited. Short port times in Grand Turk and Freeport make it difficult to find things to do. And speaking of Freeport -- So many people don't like Freeport. And if you just want to get off the ship and walk around, that's understandable. There's nothing right by the port. It's industrial. If you want to see anything, you need to book an excursion or get a taxi. However, I do have to share the thoughts of someone who was on Carnival Ecstacy and also was on Alex with us. She and her daughter really couldn't imagine why people didn't want to get off the ship at Freeport -- the port area is clean, the shop folks are not pushy, no one's trying to sell you drugs, unlike other ports. There's some music to listen to, if you'd like. There's food, but if you'd rather go back aboard the ship to eat that's easily done. Now, there's no reason that people who want to enjoy the ship on Freeport day as a "made-up sea day" shouldn't do so; we've done it twice, in Nassau and Montego Bay, where we got off the ship to make a few purchases, went back aboard the ship, and enjoyed having the ship practically to themselves. But I wouldn't go so far as to not take a cruise because Freeport is one of the ports.
Platinum status: We never used the drink coupons because they were good only at breakfast or lunch in the MDR and we stayed with Lido for both meals. Did use the laundry service; for five of us (four Platinum, one my nephew who was a first-time cruiser), we used a total of five laundry bags for the week. With three bags allotted per Platinum passenger, we could have sent out seven more bags but just didn't have the laundry to justify doing so. Platinum gifts were small backpacks and binoculars - we sent one each home with our first-time-cruiser nephew. Didn't use priority dining reservations or tender service. Liked both the embarkation and debarkation - we were on and off the ship in no time. The ship-specific pin is cute, but DH jokes that if I pin too many of these on my Carnival baseball cap with my past guest pins I'm going to break my neck.
As for the VIFP party - I liked it better than the old past guest party, even with the limited drinks. The first one was a Funship Special, the second was a Mai Tai, and the third was a pina colada. 12 YO son got a Coke - before he was always limited to the non-alcoholic fruit punch, which he liked, but the Coke was fine too. Jaime the CD made it a much more interactive party, with a Mardi Gras conga line and learning a couple of dances on stage.
We like the benefits (especially the laundry), but we don't cruise because we're Platinum - we just like to cruise. Right now Carnival suits our family's lifestyle. Someday, when we can take longer cruises and/or sail without our kids, we may try something different.
Conclusion - We enjoyed sailing out of Baltimore. It's nice having an 8-day cruise available out of NYC or a 7-day cruise out of Baltimore within a relatively short driving distance. However, I love Western Caribbean cruises and as much as I like Grand Turk and HMC, I really want to go back to a Western itinerary, and for that we'll have to fly. Then there's next year -- it's our 30th wedding anniversary and oldest son's college graduation. Carnival's sailing a Baltic itinerary with two days in St. Petersburg. No, it's not cheap. Yes, we have to fly. It means taking off from work at least 2 Â½ weeks. (Boss frowns upon 2-week vacations, let alone longer ones.) But all of the boys (DH and oldest son who plans to sail for a living included) really want to do this one. And you're only married 30 years once!