This was the first cruise for my family of 5. I gave them the option of our normal week at the beach or to do something different this year and go on a cruise. They enthusiastically chose the cruise.
I poured over these boards before our trip and the information I found was extremely useful. I vowed when I returned to give a review of our trip in the hopes it would help someone with their trip.
We booked the 5 day cruise out of Charleston, SC to the Bahamas with stops in Nassau and Freeport.
We drove down the night before and stayed in Charleston and had a great time shopping downtown. Afterwards we decided to do a drive-by and see if the ship had arrived. It had not but we enjoyed walking around the waterfront area.
Right before leaving for the port we put our tags on our bags for checking them.
The process from arriving at the terminal to getting on the ship was long. We arrived about 11:30 (boarding started at 12:00 pm) and there was already a decent line for parking. You need to enter the exact way shown on this map.
We waited about 20-25 minutes to get to the payment tent before we went in the warehouse. Just a tip here, you need to have your boarding passes and ID for all passengers in hand while waiting in line. They will check these to make sure you belong on the boat. I had these in my bag so I had to get out and find them while in line.
My wife has a handicapped tag so we didn't have to pay the normal $75 for parking (yippee!)
We paid and proceeded to drive under a tent for unloading of our bags we wanted checked. We did give the customary tip of $2 per bag. Once we unloaded our bags we were directed to the warehouse for parking. After you park your car they will direct you to board a shuttle bus which will drive you to the boarding terminal.
You need to do four things when you enter the boarding terminal:
1) Go through a metal detector and have all of your bags x-rayed. Think the airport here. It took us about 20 minutes to get through this line.
2) Pick up your sign and sail cards. This took about 10-15 minutes
3) Have your picture taken. Smile! You can purchase these later. 2 minutes
4) Have your picture taken again by Carnival. This picture is tied to your sign and sail card and is used used when you enter and exit the ship. 2 minutes
When these are all complete you are ready to board the ship. Walk up the long winding boarding ramp and you enter the ship on the main (Empress) deck. They will officially scan you on board with your sign and sail card. We entered the ship about 12:45 so about 1.25 to 1.5 hours to get on ship once you arrive in port.
So we are now on board. Yippee! I had read that you would not be able to go to your room until after 1:30 but we were pleasantly surprised when they told us our rooms were ready. We had two rooms on the Riviera deck so we proceeded to the elevators and took the ride down 4 decks.
We loved our rooms! We had booked two rooms, one for myself and my wife and an adjoining room for our 3 kids. Both were window rooms with a nice 3 or 4 foot window to view the ocean. Our rooms were located on the Riviera deck, mid ship, which is I think 3 decks down from the main deck and we found them very comfortable. The beds were very comfortable and we slept surprisingly well. No real noise, even during docking in the middle of the night we never heard anything. I did bring a small travel, white noise generator which I take everywhere which does wonders to mask the little stuff.
Yes, the rooms are small but exactly as we had expected.
Ports and Excursions
We booked the Dolphin Close Encounter excursion at the Blue Lagoon. You get to spend about 15 or 20 minutes with a dolphin in the water (on a small platform) and then spend the rest of the day at their beach. We did not book this through Carnival due to cost so we had to arrange for our own transportation.
We walked off the ship and took a taxi over to the Paradise Island Ferry Terminal which is about a 10 minute drive. The taxi drivers 'herd' as many people as they can into small buses so be prepared to be cramped. The driver gave us a mini-tour of Nassau on the way which was nice.
We entered a ferry boat for a 40-45 minute ride to blue lagoon. Upon arrival we were shown a 20 minute video about marine conservation and then split into groups for the dolphin encounter. On the platform we were able to give the dolphin commands, touch the dolphin and just enjoy the experience.
Afterwards we went to the beautiful beach and swam. Lunch was a staggering $70 for our family of 5 which included a hot dog or hamburger, chips, fruit and drink. Swimming was the only thing that was free. If you wanted to use any of the water toys or swim in an area with large inflatable floats there was a charge.
We hung around the beach for about an hour and a half and then headed back to the boat. In general I thought this was an ok excursion. It was expensive, took a long time to actually get there and felt like the only thing they wanted was your money. Very commercial feeling.
I see such bad reviews of Freeport but we really enjoyed our time here. We booked the Freeport Kayak and Nature Experience which is a 2 hour Kayaking trip down a shallow stream among Mangrove trees.
We did book this through Carnival so the transportation was included with our purchase price. We met up outside the ship and boarded a bus which took us to another area where we met up with our guide and boarded a small mini bus for the trip to where the kayaks were located. Each Kayak holds 2 people and you take a nice, lazy trip down this crystal clear water among the mangrove trees. My family had loads of fun and really enjoyed the 2 hour ride. At the end of the trip they load the kayaks and you take a short ride to Gold Rock beach which is stunning. They provided us a nice meal of sandwiches and gave us about 90 minutes to enjoy the beach.
All of this area is located in a national park so there are no houses and it is not at all commercial. Just nature and the most amazing beach I have ever seen. Everyone had a great time and I would recommend it highly.
On the ship you have three options, eat in the dining room, buffet or room service. I'll start with room service. Although having someone deliver food to your room is nice since there is no extra charge other than the tip, the food was very limited and the only thing that was good was the chocolate cake. We ordered lots of chocolate cake but everything else was kind of blah.
The buffets are good. Each day has a different theme so the food changes. They always have available hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken fingers and a chinese stir fry bar where you can have them make your favorite oriental dish. There is also a small deli and pizza bar in the very front of the dining room along with an ice cream bar. The buffets were great for the kids. We would routinely walk through this area and see my two older kids sitting with friends they had made.
The dining rooms are open for all meals. We did have breakfast in the dining room one morning which was very good but we mostly stayed with the buffets for everything but dinner. The first night we had to wait about 45 minutes before they could seat us so we made it a point to get there at 5:30 on future nights to avoid the rush. The food in the dining rooms was good. I would give it a 6 or 7. Nothing fancy but not too bad either. The chocolate lava cake is AMAZING. Everyone had this every night. Several nights I ordered two meals just because I wanted to try different things. Also, on lobster night, you will need two meals. The portion of lobster they give you is small.
Lots of entertainment on board. They have a large theater in the front of the ship that seats several hundred people. We went to two shows in the theater while on board. The Beatles tribute and some type of Broadway show. Both had lots of dancing and singing and were entertaining. We skipped the welcome aboard show.
We went to one comedy club performance which was ok. These seem to be very popular and are performed in two different 'flavors'. Family friendly and adults only. We went to the family friendly performance.
We never made it to the night clubs or bars on board so I can't say how good or bad the performers were there.
We took our 3 kids ages 8, 14 and 15 on the cruise and they unanimously voted this one of their favorite vacations we had ever taken. My older kids went to the teen night club the first night but I don't think they really enjoyed it and quickly made some friends and went off to explore the ship as a group. I wasn't too impressed either when I went to find my kids at the nightclub and it was pitch dark with several teenagers grinding on the dance floor and several more sitting in the dark together. I went in to look for my children and was told I couldn't be in there and if I wanted they would make an announcement over the loudspeaker. I quickly realized the sheer horror on my kid's faces if their name was spoken over the loudspeaker. Could you imagine them hearing "Bobby and Cindy, your Dad is here to pick you up" in front of all the teenagers? I politely declined.
I ended up finding them in the room with the food. Just sitting and talking with their new friends. I know a lot of people are worried about their kids on the ship and I was no different. We brought walkie talkies with us and made sure they had these when they were out. We really didn't worry and the few times I went looking for them it didn't take long to find them.
My 8 year old loved his camp and wanted to go every evening. They have video games, board games and do generally fun 8 year old things. We dropped him off either slightly before or after dinner and picked him up at 10pm.
He also spent a lot of time in the pool and hot tubs but only used the water works area once.
The only real incident we had was getting the dreaded 3 am nighttime wakeup call "I just threw up" from my 8 year old the night before our first port call. Not sea sickness just a bad reaction to some food coloring. I was very impressed how quickly the cabin steward responded with the right equipment for the clean-up. They had the floor cleaned and new sheets within 15 minutes. They also came the next day and completely sanitized the room.
I did have to do some laundry and finally found the Laundromats at the front of the boat. Each load, wash/dry requires $3 of quarters which you can get at the guest information desk..even at 3 am.
I am quite the techie so I was worried about communication on the boat. We all have iPhones but I knew the incredible roaming charges with using your phone on board so I made everyone put their phones in airplane mode when we left port.
I had read about calling the stateroom and leaving voice mails but we ended up just using the walkie talkies for communication. I had read the 'wars' that go on about how rude walkie talkies can be to other guests so I found a set that would vibrate instead of make the annoying warble sound. Each person had a walkie talkie when they were out so we could communicate very well. The range covered most of the ship.
I have a job that does not allow me to be out of communication so I was very worried about internet access. We ended up buying a block of minutes to use on the boat which equaled about 60 minutes per day. This allowed me to check work email and the kids to get their facebook/email 'fix'. We all shared an iPad for the trip and it worked out well. I was pleasantly surprised at the internet. It was stable and the speed was acceptable. The wireless signal was iffy down on the Riviera deck so many times I went up to the empress deck where they had PC's I could use.
That Boat Rocking
We had very calm seas during our trip so we experienced very little rocking. The final night we apparently hit the intersection of two currents so we did start swaying. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and seeing our connecting door move back and forth and feeling the waves. We had no sea sickness but did have plenty of medicine on hand just in case.
Debarkation was very easy. The 'Silent' debarkation system they use works very well. Just wait until they call your deck and walk off. You will need to go through customs and then take the short ride back to the warehouse where the cars are located. All in all about 30 minutes form walking off to our car.
1) There are 3 banks of elevators. One forward, one mid ships and one aft. We found the easiest way to go from the front of the boat to the back of the boat (or vice versa) is take the elevator down a deck or two to a deck that only has staterooms and walk the looong hallway then back up on the elevator.
2) The buffet lines are sometimes very long. If you only want a hamburger, hotdog or chicken fingers, there is an express line in the middle of the outside buffet on the lido deck.
3) When learning how to get around remember Food (Buffet) is at the back of the ship, Shops, Atrium, Guest Services and the Theater are at the front of the ship.
4) The Lido deck is where all the fun is. (Food, Pool, Stage)
5) Every elevator has a map of the deck and a side view of the ship. Very handy for finding your way around.
6) You have to go through a bar to get to the younger kids camps. We found it almost irresistible once we dropped our 8 year old off at camp not to sit down and have a fruity drink.
7) There is a deck called Serenity at the very back of the ship for adults only. No, it's not clothing optional, just kid free. Getting to it is kind of weird. You walk through the bar, then the room where the comedy shows are held. It's an unmarked, grey door. They have 2 hot tubs and the deck chairs are nicer.
8) At night they put the exact food they serve in the dining room on the buffet in the dining area. If you want to sample all the food on the menu, or just want a quick dinner go there.
9) The Chocolate Lava cake is the best. You...have...to try it. Amazing.
10) Don't worry about ordering two of anything at dinner.
11) The water on ship is desalinated sea water. It's not bad but it does have a chlorine taste. The bottled water they conveniently sell is much tastier.
12) They have a couple of Laundromats on the ship. I know this because I was fortunate enough to have my 8 year old throw up in the middle of the night one night and had to do emergency laundry at 3 am. I had brought a few of those little detergent packs in my suitcase but it costs $3 in quarters to wash and $3 in quarters to dry. You can only get quarters at guest services.
13) You can eat in the dining room for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner.
14) If you are eating in the dining room get there at 5:45. You can be seated immediately and finish with plenty of time to see the sunset.
15) See a sunset and a sunrise.
16) Definitely bring a power strip if you have more than two things to plug in.
17) Be sure to bring your sign and sail cards AND your ID when you get off the boat.
18) Keep your plastic cups that your fruity drink came in. It saves you .75 to just get them refilled.
19) Bring lanyards for your sign and sail cards and have your cards punched at guest services so they can be attached. Especially if you have kids who don't carry wallets. They are $5 in the gift shop if you don't bring them.
20) We loved the towels and thought they would be great souvenir of the trip. If you want to buy these just talk to your cabin steward.