This is a review our 20th anniversary cruise. While we have cruised over 20 times in our years together, this was our first cruise without the kids in more than 7 years. It also had been over 2 years since last cruise (a considerable dry spell for us) and 3 years since our last Carnival Cruise. Needless to say, we were primed to have a fantastic time as a couple and we certainly did.
We enjoyed our 6&1/2 hour drive from Mission TX to Galveston the day before our cruise and arrived on time to see the Triumph's sail away. We used HH Points for a free night at the Island Hampton during prime season and were very pleased with the room and staff there. Saturday night we went to Moody Gardens for "Bands in the Sand" and Fireworks. $12 got twilight admission to the small waterpark and lawn chair seating to listen to "Midlife Crisis." This band played all kinds of great beach music against the backdrop of Galveston Bay. Fireworks show was also very good. We liked Galveston so much that we're considering a Family trip there soon - even though we have South Padre just an hour away.
Embarkation day was our smoothest ever. We had been huge fans of lighthouse parking, but the Galveston Park and Cruise right across the street worked out even better. Drop you bags with the porter then park across the street. Simplest thing ever. We were super early - like 9:30 at security, but there was no wait at all for Platinum either at security or to get our passes. We did have a major snafu with DW's Platinum status - which we've documented here: (see: http://boards.cruisecritic.com/showthread.php?t=1688085) But this did not keep us from being escorted on to the ship at 10:15. Despite the fact that they ask you not to, I did pop in to the cabin to drop most of our carry-ons - the room was already made up in the King bed configuration we requested. Emergency drill was completely uninformative and ill timed - we missed our sailaway.
We loved our COVE. We've cruised in 22 cabins and this was absolutely our favorite. We were expecting the balcony to feel a lot like those on the first three Voyager Class ships - but the angle of the hull and the size and shape of the opening to the sea - just 20 feet below - made them feel so much more open - yet incredibly private.
Besides our Cove, the other things we really liked about the ship were the hot tubs on deck 5, the open arrangement of the fantail (as opposed to the domed boxed in layout of Destiny/Conquest class) the Deli, and especially the Red Frog pub (we were first customers of the cruise and received a two free pints for opening the bar). Casino was well appointed - the machines were virtually cashless permitting free draws on our sail and sign account. We played 20 to 60 cents on the penny machines about an hour each day and were ahead until the last night. We did not come close to the 1500 pt threshold for free drinks - I think we cashed out with 300 to 400 pts. Also big on the plus side were the Italian Restaurant, the rope course, and great embark and debarks in the ports of call (even with a ship at 125% capacity). It's also wonderful that they did away with the ridiculous "no drinking in the pool" rule.
Things we didn't like were that the pools were WAaaaYY too small and there were not enough of them. Serenity just in front of the Kids area (which was cool) made no sense - they should move Serenity to the fantail and figure out how to get a kids pool all the way up top. Another great place for a pool would be inside down on deck 5 - indoors - between the two hottubs, where they did entirely too much Karaoke. We were very glad that we "passed" when the upgrade fairy tried to upsell us to a spa cabin. All of the balconies on deck 6 and higher did not have nearly the privacy we enjoyed on our COVE. We were expecting a more subdued, "Post Farcus" dEcor - but many areas of the ship were bland. While there were some noteworthy exceptions, most of the crew seemed unengaged. Also cut backs in live entertainment and dining were very evident since our last Carnival Cruise 3 years ago.
We tried the steakhouse on the first night as they offer a free bottle of wine - we were underwhelmed. It was not nearly the experience it was on the Conquest - the tables are too close and they spray them down with windex while you are still eating.. More disappointing was the MDR where we dined for the next 5 nights. We had a table for two in a nice location. The food was warm and always served promptly. We never really felt rushed - it just wasn't an intimate experience. The way the room is laid out: with pedestals for the staff to deliver ginourmous trays where 50 plastic covered plates are put out right in front of you while they peek under the lids to sort out who got what is terrible. Then they use this same station to clear the dirty plates and consolidate the plate waste right next to you. I realize all has to happen - but it's usually off in a corner someplace where you don't have to see it. The other problem with this system is that all the plate clanging and flatware spilling generates so much noise that everyone has to talk loudly - so it feels like a cafeteria - particularly with the lights blaring. Wait staff was too busy to get to know our needs - and always seemed stressed. The staff did everything right and almost always did it at the right pace- but there was just no intimacy." Strangely the mood for open seating breakfast was so much better. I also started a thread on the Comedy Brunch: (see http://boards.cruisecritic.com/showthread.php?t=1688663 ) which was a mixed bag as far as we were concerned. Our overall dining experience was SAVED by the Cucina del Capintano. We went there for dinner of the last night: The food and service were fantastic and all of the Black and White photos from the days of the good old Carnival reminded us what dining on a cruise can and should be. We also thought the Seaside BBQ on deck 5 was a great addition, along with the Hotdog stand under the ropes course (which was also pretty cool).
Our cabin Steward was prompt and attentive. He met every request with a smile. He was the only staff member we extra-tipped. Interactive TV worked great, especially for room service. Our morning coffee and juice showed up just a few minutes before the delivery window we specified - all six days. We missed a couple of the shows (and the repeater party) because we were enjoying the departures from the ports of call on the COVE. We even missed the Magic show on the Magic.
We did make it to the welcome show and the two main review shows. The experience and dEcor in the main theater was similar to the main dining rooms - perfunctory. We did two shows in the Comedy Lounge and this concept seems to be working pretty well - we had fun. CD James and his staff did a good job with two pool deck parties but he was nowhere close to being in the same league as Todd Whitmore backed up by Bloodpower.
We spent an hour or so dancing in VIBE when they had Latin music playing - we also danced in the main lobby once or twice.
We enjoyed our shore excursions, but we made a boo-boo in Jamaica. We have been fans of Sunset-beach since our first Conquest Cruise 7 years ago. But it's gotten more expensive and more crowded on each successive visit so we decided to have the "Time of our Life" at Sandals once we saw there was an extra ship in port (CCL Legend was rerouted due to the weather). Sandals was not any better than Sunset Beach and the extra time and money spent on the cab ride each way made it seem wasteful. It was also stressful because the
Jamaicans won something in the Olympics (not Bob Sledding) and there was a ton of traffic in MoBay due to this and the extra ship. We ended up leaving over an hour and a half late- which makes you wonder why they don't give you a longer port day in the first place (we were at the next port right on time).
We also kind of misfired in Grand Cayman. I had my heart set on doing a Jet Ski excursion to Rum Point with DW. We did not want to waste a full hour waiting for the tour to leave from the terminal, so we decided to take a bus to the Resort where we thought the tour was leaving from. Turns out- there is a Royal Palms Hotel and a Royal palms Resort. We ended up at the resort which was designed specifically for Cruise day trippers and it was not anywhere close to where the jet ski excursion was leaving from. We had a nice day for a reasonable amount of money at the Royal Palms Resort, but it was not what we set out to do. Tenders from and to the ship were as smooth as they could be. ( I think they anchor a lot closer now).
We got it exactly right with Cozumel. We took a cab to the Sabor Resort Hotel where we had put a deposit on day passes. That place blew Sandals away. Beautiful quiet beaches, lively pool bar, great food, friendly courteous staff and guests. Even with a 10 to 15 minute thunder storm, we had a fantastic time and did not want to leave.
Platinum debark was also super smooth. We had another nice sit-down breakfast in the Southern lights and then made our way up to the northern lights to wait for all of 5 minutes as they ushered us off 15 minutes ahead of schedule. I think we grabbed the 2nd porter and breezed through customs - I went over to pick up the car why DW waited curbside with the bags for less than 5 minutes. We were loaded and on the way home by 8:30.
I probably have too many complaints about the "Wham-Bam-Thank-You-'Mam" nature of the new Carnival experience. All in all we had a wonderful time and we wouldn't hesitate to book another Cove if the price and timing were right. The ship was well maintained and ran like clockwork. We hit every port on time and were able to get off and on very quickly. They dealt with a bad weather situation professionally in a way that minimized drama, (see http://boards.cruisecritic.com/showthread.php?t=1690484) and they have added a bunch of dining options and have new entertainment venues. It was not our favorite cruise, but it was in the top 50% and all of them were great.