New Orleans: This cruise was a last-minute happening -- and we paid probably the highest rates of anyone on the ship as a penalty for our tardiness in selecting. Then it became clear that it was the first sailing post-drydock AND it was a weekend confluence of tourist-heavy events (Halloween, music festival, football) in New Orleans. Unwilling to buy $499 for a hotel in the French Quarter, we stayed on St. Charles Ave at the Best Western Plus for $287/night. It was a great location, on the trolley line (replacement bus service toward FQ until the end of 2012, however, due to construction), free parking (we showed up at 10 am and were given access, even though check-in wasn't until 3 pm...so that was helpful and easy) and free, filling breakfast. However, our corner room had rooftop view of a/c units (and resulting noises), there was some mold on the bathroom ceiling, the floors/stairs were squeaky and uneven (atmosphere or character?) and some guests had large dogs in their rooms. The entire hotel is non-smoking. It was a 7 minute drive to the port. It was clean and the staff were helpful and friendly.
Embarkation: As planned, we arrived in the Erato parking garage at 9:40 a.m. and handed our bags (and tip) to the porter. We received Zone 5 boarding cards and were waiting in chairs at 10:10. A group of travel agents went aboard before we did; they were treated to a view of the Conquest 2.0 upgrade and lunch at Guy's Burgers. Our group boarded and we went to the Fish & Chip restaurant for lunch. We were enjoying the ceviche by 11:20 a.m. [Eat the strawberry cake pops on embarkation day; we never saw them again.]
We explored the chip and delivered carry-ons to the cabins promptly. We went on the tour of the spa, which helped me get familiar with the steam room, sauna and how to reach the gym (all free locales). Didn't win any spa drawings so didn't buy any spa services this voyage.
Baggage took a long time to arrive. We chose 6 pm dinner -- and were pulling away from the New Orleans dock at 7:15 p.m. -- three hours late. The captain made up the time; however, we missed seeing the sights going down the river as we chose to keep our main dining room plans.
The first night's "show" was audience participation and two samples of comedy. Carnival has found a way to fill the MDR (main dining room) on sea days; offer the Comedy Brunch (and coupons in-cabin for a free drink). The food was good, the comedy was a 5-10 minute stand-up; again, relying mostly on interviews of guests. I'm not sure how long people will keep packing the MDR for this.
Ports: Montego Bay, Jamaica. Independently, we took a $6 pp JUTA taxi ride to Doctor Cave's Bathing Club ($6 admission) where we enjoyed the beach and were not pestered excessively by shell-sellers, hair braiders and ganja peddlers. Talked to some passengers from the Carnival Magic out of Galveston who were not as thrilled with their cruise (the first of several we talked to, since the two ships have the same port calls all week). If you are ever going to stay onboard on a port day, this is the port to do so. If I were in a group without a man along, I wouldn't do this port independently.
George Town, Grand Cayman. This is a tender port. We arrived in the main lounge before the appointed hour for tender tickets. Staff arrived and started giving them out -- at the other doors! By the time we caught on (no announcement was made), we got Tender Group 3. Still, it was quick and efficient after that initial sputter. Independently, we had our third satisfying experience with Moby Dick's snorkel/stingray city tour. For $45 cash pp (and $20 tip pp, yes it was that good!), we were delighted to be the first tour out in a week (due to the choppy seas of Hurricane Sandy). Thanks to Mark Button & crew for their efficient, safety-conscious, informative, fun outing! We got off the Moby Dick bus at Seven Mile Beach and enjoyed the lovely soft sand and beautiful scenery. We bargained with the cab driver for the jaunt back to the ship - $4 pp. Others recruited by the driver paid up to $7 pp!
Cozumel: Again, independently. We walked toward town, enjoying the scenery and the views of the students at "snorkeling school." However, it is a long, hot, mostly unshaded hike. It's worth the taxi ride if you want to truly explore the town! We got as far as the Mega store (a bit like a WalMart) then took a taxi back where we enjoyed the shopping within the secure zone at the pier. Lots of little shops. The prices and variety were far better in town -- but this was enough for us that day.
The Best: I like Carnival cruises. I'm happy on Carnival cruises. I won't be experimenting with any other cruise lines. I know what to expect, I like what I get for the fare I pay. The cabin was in good condition, even the clothesline was retractable (unlike on the Liberty in June 2012). The past-guest reception (in its new format) lasted 45 minutes and was more of a pep talk to cruise again than a chance to meet fellow cruisers (unless you could chat while participating in the conga line). There are now more karaoke options (some daytime opportunities for families) and tea time still exists. Grand Marnier souffle is served. The magician who made that $20 bill appear inside the grapefruit was phenomenal entertainment! Old favorites are still to be found: chilled fruit soups, alligator fritters, shrimp cocktail (now daily, unlike in June), fantastically frothy hot chocolate, and a frozen yogurt machine convenient to the walking track. There was a night early in the week where none of the main entrees sounded good so I tried the flat iron steak. Great selection! Medium well, it was very tasty -- and the dark, rich beefy gravy was very British. The ship still offers the same gentle rolling motion as I snooze. The deck chairs are comfortable and plentiful. The hypnotist was squeezed in very late on the final evening; he was very, very good and worth staying up late to enjoy!
The Good It is good that there is an onboard medical team. They very busy this cruise. Also, I noticed more security officers on patrol than in past cruises. Before, we only saw them on shore excursion days at the "ding ding"/metal detector area on Deck 0. This time, they were in the clubs, in the lobby and shop areas, etc. Staff were cleaning railings, artwork, dusting, vacuuming, etc. frequently (just not the toilet bowls). Room service menu, although limited (and apparently without any potato chips this week), was tasty, service was generally rapid and delivered with a smile. Lots of guests were in the Halloween spirit and dressed in costume. The costume competition had 25 entrants and was very entertaining. The juggling comedian was so-so. I'm not sure what Carnival does for a show the other weeks of the year? Although we never did find the serenity area, there were plenty of quiet, sunny (or shady) spots on the 10th deck. There were so few children and teens on this cruise; definitely an older crowd than in March and June when we have previously cruised!
Needs Improvement: Despite having requested bunk beds in the cabin (and seeing the request noted on the Carnival site), the room was made up as a double. Tipped the steward $10 that first night to make it right.
This is the second cruise where I noticed black rings in the public restroom toilet bowls.
Perhaps it is time for the Lido Deck buffet to offer something more substantial a bit earlier than currently? I noticed plenty of (mostly older) passengers sitting around with a cup of coffee, waiting for the real food to be available each morning.
The time displayed on the in-cabin TV channels wasn't right --and took days to correct itself. Same problem after the clocks "fell back" for daylight savings time (which Carnival dictates happens a day premature)...the TV time wasn't right. And where was the TV channel showing the bow cam, the route map and displaying speed and weather conditions? Nowhere to be found. Other passengers noticed its absence. Seems like a simple and cheap thing to include to inform passengers.
It was sad to experience the decline in big production shows in the lounge each night. There were not many -- and the ones that were planned sometimes only had one performance time. Much of the entertainment was dependent on guest participation ("Carnivalaire" or Noonan's version of Win It in a Minute), even interviews of random guests by the Cruise Director (Hello, Noonan!) or the Asst CD (Squishy -- love the British accent!).
This sailing was hindered by technical glitches which delayed the debut of the Playlist Production of "The Brits" to later in the week. Hurricane Sandy put a wrench in airline flights for the onboard comedians. One free card of bingo per person was offered as an apology one evening. The "substitute" Flying Scotsman, Chris Williams, was a top-notch alternative who deserves his own show! By the time we saw "The Brits," it didn't wow me. It fell far short of all the hype (and I love musicals and really didn't expect more than a good high school production). In fact, it had some authentic American tunes by famous American singers (Elvis). Why? We were told that within months, two more production shows will also be included. While the technology in "The Brits" was enjoyable, I hope those shows area whole lot better.
Our dining room service team was obviously suffering from learning how to work together -- and learning who was in charge. Some members were new with this sailing, others were leaving mid-way through or after this sailing. We could tell -- our meals took so long we discussed with others how on earth they reset the tables in time for the second seating! The long gaps in between courses were sometimes filled with offers of bread (up to 5 visits some nights), or just one bread service. It varied.
Debarkation: I had ordered room service to arrive between 5:15-5:45 a.m. However, it didn't. I called them at 6 am and the food arrived at 6:10 am. Friends who had asked for food between 6-6:15 said it arrived a tad early.
We all chose self-debark. Being on Deck 2, it was quick and easy -- very well organized. We were in the vehicle and joining the Interstate entrance ramp at 7:15 a.m. Even the long drive home wasn't so bad, despite some rain.