This was our annual "Friends Cruise" with a slight difference in that instead of the typical 6-8 friends, we had a total of 14 this time, ranging in cruise experience from over ten to first timers. We range in age from early 30's to early 50's, are mostly ballroom & swing dancers and enjoy having a good time that revolves around dancing more than it does drinking. I'd call myself a collector of experiences and we love trying new things. That said, on to the review!
The majority of travelers this cruise, left for the Tampa area on Friday afternoon as our ship did not sail until Monday morning and they wanted to take advantage of the weekend. Some went to Busch Gardens and other places of interest prior. For us, we left Atlanta on Sunday at about 6pm, arrived in Tampa at 2am and checked into the Hampton Inn-Tampa Airport. For $115 (including tax), we had the room for the rest of the night and it included parking for the duration of the cruise and shuttle TO the pier (which is about 6 miles away). Be aware that if you stay here for their Park & Cruise Rate that it does NOT include a ride back to the hotel. That was ok with us since we had so many friends from which to get a ride but if you are traveling solo, make sure you arrange for a taxi back to your car. As far as the Hampton goes, we would absolutely stay there again. It will get a separate review but suffice it to say that the room & staff were exceedingly awesome and the rate also included a hot breakfast. For $115, including tax & parking, it couldn't be beat. One note of caution: no NOT park next to any bushes! We drove home with a car load of ants who had made nests in our engine. We stopped mid drive home and had to vacuum the car out twice. Yuck.
By far the easiest embark of all the cruises we've done. We arrived just before 11am and went from curb and through check-in, getting assigned our embarking Zone number (we were 15) in record time. We sat in the terminal and waited for approximately 30 minutes before our Zone was called and we boarded, which was a walking, not standing, line. Really nice.
We carried a six pack of water with us in our carry-on and it was nice to have on the ship when I didn't feel like going up to get a glass of water or lemonade from the dining room. We did see folks with cases of water & cokes though, so "feel free to byo", seemed to be the tone at embarkation.
Beautiful ship. I know they said it was an "older" ship but really, it was WAY nicer and way more clean than the Carnival that we were on last year. There was really no comparison, Paradise has Triumph beat, hands down. There wasn't the black, circular cigarette burns all over the hull that the Triumph had. In fact, I think I smelled smoke on this ship an entire two times in the five days I was there. One time I was full on IN the smoking section at the bar, so duh, and the other time one real dummy of a woman lit up on the Serenity deck, immediately in front of the No Smoking sign. While there's no fixing stupid, the towel porter got to her after someone told him what she was doing. Upshot of that is, I don't know if the ventilation on this ship is such that we hardly ever smelled smoke or what, but it was extremely nice, especially since I have asthma & allergies to the smoke.
She's actually quite a handsome ship and I would gladly sail her again:
The front of the ship, on top, there was a putt-putt golf area from which one of our crew won the Putt Putt Golf tournament held on the last day. It is ringed by a running track which was quite nice and we enjoyed a few sunsets from up there. I would caution against standing against the rail in the very front of the ship on this deck however, when you are about to leave port because the ships horns are up there and, well, suffice it to say, I almost threw myself overboard voluntarily when it sounded not once, but twice, about 10 feet from my head. At the very least, I think my brain had a seizure and I couldn't see for a few minutes. LOL
Also, be careful of the breeze at the front of the ship as well, if you are sporting a skirt. I'm afraid I gave the folks behind me quite a view of all that God graced me with as well as my purple underwear when my skirt flew up above my shoulders and stayed there, blowing in the wind. I had no idea I was standing there innocently admiring the stars while the ship was admiring the "moon" until my DH pointed out that my skirt had formed a peacock like tail behind me and I was indecently exposed. After a few moments of wrestling my skirt into proper position, I backed off the deck and didn't return until attired in something a little more stable.
Activities & Entertainment:
We actually did fewer activities on this cruise than any other. We played (and won) the Music Trivia contest the first day, so racked up another Solid Gold Plastic Ship on a stick. One of our crew did the Hairy Chest Contest, which was fun, and we saw the big show, "Shout" on Formal Night, which was really, really good. Excellent, actually. It was almost an hour of non-stop singing and dancing. Being dancers ourselves, we seated ourselves in the first row so we could have a great view. The sound system, we found out later, was on the blink, so it was freakishly loud there in the front row, but the show was so good, it could be overlooked. The lady singer they have is really good and they should probably showcase her a little more but all of the dancers were spectacular, especially Taylor (bleached blonde spiky hair). We all loved him. We also saw (ok, maybe we did more than I thought! LOL) the Love & Marriage show, hosted by Misty, the Asst. CD and it was a lot of fun, always is.
The one thing we saw on the ship's TV that we were very sorry we missed was the CD, Steve Cassell, playing classical music on his violin. He is beyond good and the piece he choose was extraordinarily hard. SO sorry we missed it in person.
The one thing that was very important on this trip was that I had planned a surprise mini "Flash Mob" between the 14 of us, for his 40th birthday. We had a routine and a song and were ready to go. I was able to get a message to Misty through a passenger who sailed a week prior to us (thank you SkyMaster!)about what we wanted to do so that Misty could plan for it prior to us coming on board. My attempts to contact anyone prior to sailing all failed.
I was able to get another message to Misty the first day, an able to talk to her personally the second day. She made it so easy by asking us to drop off the CD with the song at Guest Services, told us when and where she was going to play it and all we had to do was be present....which we were! It all went down without a hitch and to the Misty & Carnival I give a HUGE thank you!
Service by our room porter, I Made (pronounced e-mod-a), was very good. Our friends in the next cabin had a cooler that was kept in ice the entire cruise. There wasn't a time when we went back to our room and it hadn't been tidied up. We gave an extra tip to him for the first time in our cruising experience. He remembered our names and said something to us every time we saw him in the hallways, which was always. He was constantly doing his job. Gotta love that.
Service by the MDR staff was ok. We had a huge table for 10, and then another table, which we affectionately called the "Kid Table", for up to 6. We decided that whomever arrived last to dinner would sit at the Kid Table. :) It was fun. Our service AK worked his tail end off, however, his 'help' was no help at all. They were so slow that dinner in the MDR last 2 hours for the first two evenings. We complained that while we didn't mind a 2 hour dinner, it would have to be on OUR time, not on the wait staff's time table. On evening 3 it was much, much better, shaving off a full 30 mins to the service as they got AK more help. Nights 4 & 5 were back to ok but the food was good, the company was great ad we just settled into it.
This needs it own section. While the food on the Triumph was horrible with the exception of the shrimp fritters, which I unfortunately ate way too many of, causing a horrendous stomach ache that kept my in my cabin for a night, the food on the Paradise was all quite good. It was the exact opposite of our last experience, there being maybe one thing I didn't care for. A few times, the main dish was good but I didn't care for the sauce so I began ordering without the sauces or with them on the side and was perfectly content. High points:
Shrimp Cocktail: https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/BM3n3GeoM0Dm0WyBchfDjTlM4Q7McqXWLpoO6jNE_wU?feat=directlink
Note: Order 2 or 3 from the jump. There are only 5 shrimp per order and getting more for us, took an act of Congress. And you will want more.
Note: This was a bit heavy, but delicious. I would recommend only one and not the two that I greedily ordered...and almost finished.
Note: I don't eat this but my better half said it was the best he's had.
Lobster with Tiger Shrimp: https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/C7jnyjhBsSACKpcOcZTIDDlM4Q7McqXWLpoO6jNE_wU?feat=directlink
Note: Again, I don't eat, but my table mates were raving and the shrimp were delicious.
Cheese Platter for dessert: https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/02iQ-UoujouUELH4U1p_QlGMRF1axEsMrYBTsqd-Mjs?feat=directlink
Note: The Port Salut was divine, the Blue good and the rest ok but it was very nice with coffee to end the meal.
Things to pass on:
Frog Legs: https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/t1KnG_BbjtSx4421T0wsk1GMRF1axEsMrYBTsqd-Mjs?feat=directlink
Note: Not much flavor here...not even chicken.
Wine Marinated Pair: https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/HlZyRuMuh4fX0hQrJzDTklGMRF1axEsMrYBTsqd-Mjs?feat=directlink
Note: Sounded intriguing but it was just weird. The texture was hard and the taste was off putting.
Lobster Bisque: https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/1pyyDzVJGskV0bTwA9_JzFGMRF1axEsMrYBTsqd-Mjs?feat=directlink
Note: Everyone, and I mean everyone, complained that it was a glorified tomato soup with a base that was too strong to support the light flavor of the lobster. Pass on this, even though it looks brilliant.
Port & Shore Excursions:
Port 1: Grand Cayman - This port was on the 3rd day on the cruise. Most of us decided to find Cemetery Beach and just relax and swim. Getting to port is by Tender and it was fine. We actually saw a tornado "Spout" off the coast and that was terrific.
It was a maybe 10 min ride to the shore and then you walk through shops and then boom, you're out on the street, faced with a million people holding up a million and a half signs trying to get you to go with them. Our aim was to catch a local bus $2.50 and head to the beach. What we did instead was hire a local driver for $3.00 each to take us in his van to the beach. It was fine, after the water truck that had blocked him in moved. That chewed up some of our time and I was kinda PO'd about it but there was nothing our driver could do. He got us safely there and the 6 of us were the only ones on the beach with the exception of 3-4 others. It was sublime. We saw lots of fishes:
The bus to get back to the ship arrived about 30 seconds after we arrived at the bus stop, which is immediately across the street from the beach, about a 5 minute walk.
Port 2: Cozumel
As we did last year, we chartered a boat through Eagle Ray Divers (www.eagleraydivers.com) getting the 3 snorkel tour which included lunch at The Money Bar. Words cannot express what a gigantically great time all 14 of us had. It lasted most of the day, drinks & snacks included and if it's even possible, was better than last year. They have two boats, docked minutes (literally 3-5 minutes) from the pier. You disembark straight onto a very long pier in Cozumel, no tender needed.
We took 2 van style cabs (7 people each) for $30 one way, so $5 a piece included tip, to the marina. We taxied back for $6 each, I think. Either way, it's no biggie. Eagle Ray peeps will get you the taxi and you'll be back to the pier in a whole 3 minutes.
Ask for both Leo & Tony (Antonio) as your snorkel guide. We had the pleasure of them both since we were so many. For a smaller group, like last year, we had Tony, who remembered us. We tipped $20 for a great adventure...every few minutes, it seemed, they were pointing out new things in the water. A few pictures:
We had R2, pictured below. It is the most forward room on the bottom deck (4). It was a port hole room and was extremely specious. This was our first time in a port hole room & I wasn't sure if we would like it or not but we LOVED it.
Yes, there was a bit of extra noise and shaking when the anchor let down but we were awake (mostly) already when we docked so who cares? Not us! Could it wake you? Yes, probably, if you were still sleeping and intended to keep sleeping but it didn't last long, probably less than 5 mins, so if you're aim is to stay in bed all day while docked, you could probably go back to sleep pretty easily.
Our aim was to get up and out and see stuff, so it was perfect for us. The port holes are set into the ship, which I didn't anticipate, but they gave plenty enough light to keep my slight claustrophobia away. There was a good bit of extra rocking in this far forward cabin but that, again, didn't bother us at all. We like the ship rocking, so we will definitely book at cabin like this again.
More pics of the cabin:
There are two dining rooms, we were in the Elation
We did not travel with kids and there weren't a lot on this cruise but when we passed the "kids lounge" it was always hopping and the kids looked as though they were having a good time.
The only thing that annoyed me & others beyond tolerance was the number of kids that crowded into the hot tubs that CLEARLY had stated on the sides "No Children in Hot Tub". It amazed us just how many parents obviously thought it didn't apply to THEIR kid. Sigh. A solution to that was to go to the Serenity Deck where there are two hot tubs, though they were crowded most of the time so whatever....it's one of those "pick your battle" cases and we just moved on without saying anything.
The smoothest in history. Though we were given "Lot 25" which was the last group to disembark, we were able to eat a last breakfast in the MDR and on our way out, the folks told us it was ok, we could disembark right then. I asked if they were sure since we had pulled the short straw, but they insisted and we literally walked off the ship, got our luggage and left. It was that easy. I'm guessing that due to a delay in customs which put us about 30 minutes to a hour behind, that all the luggage was already lined up and ready to go. Regardless, it was about as easy as counting to three and we drove the 8 hours home without incident.
This is long & detailed but if I've forgotten anything you would specifically like to know about, convo me and I'll be happy to fill you in.
Now, we can't wait for Friend's Cruise 2013!!!