We just returned from our June 25 - July 2 cruise on the Carnival Conquest.
This was our 3rd cruise in 3 years, all with Carnival (Elation/Galveston June 2004, Conquest/New Orleans June 2005, Conquest/Galveston June 2006.) My family (myself (46), wife (45), daughter (17), and son (12) all had a GREAT time on the Carnival Conquest!
We drove from San Antonio to Galveston which is about 4.5 hours. The port is easy to find and fairly well organized. We used "Lighthouse Parking" which is just a 1/2 block off the main road and cost $55 for the week. They take you and your luggage to/from the terminal. NOTE: Upon returning we learned that Galveston started enforcing a tariff on buses/taxis,limos that was passed 18 months ago. They must now pay $10 per entry to the port, so might be going up after this week.
Being eager to sail on the Conquest again, we parked and were inside the terminal early. We arrived about 11:00 and waited with another 150 early people to start the process, which began about 11:45. Once it started, it moved quickly. Less than 15 minutes through security, 30 minutes through the Fun Pass Line, and then sat in a chair filled lobby until they started boarding around 1:00 pm.
Once on board, we headed for the buffet and helped a few lost cruisers find their way as we went. After feasting for the first of many times, we went to our cabin and found it was ready. We booked a balcony cabin for the first time and were not disappointed. 6226 is on the forward port side, just about where the waves crash as the ship sails through the water -- very neat and very relaxing. By 3:30 pm all of our luggage had arrived to our room so we breathed a sigh of relief and let our vacation begin (we always worry about becoming one of the few whose luggage never arrives:-)
During 2 days at sea on the way to Jamaica, we enjoyed all the usual entertainment. Todd Wittmer was the Cruise Director when we sailed on Conquest out of N.O. last year, and he is very good (although we'd already heard many of his jokes, he is still a very good CD). Todd claimed the Conquest had received the #1 Carnival ship award for 7 out of the last 11 weeks and had not been out of the top 3 for the past 13 weeks. We certainly didn't experience anything to question that ranking. We also heard Todd is moving to the Carnival Liberty in November.
We docked at Montego Bay on time, but since we planned our day at the Sunset Beach resort (based on invaluable cruisecritic.com info) we took our time having breakfast before getting off and taking a taxi for $2 per person to the resort (which is on the other side of the cove where the ship docks and could be walked, but for $2/person why bother?) Sunset Beach was marvelous. $40 per adult and $20 for kids under 12. My 12 year old was skeptical about going here, since we had always booked excursions through Carnival for our previous cruises. However, by lunchtime he had decided Sunset Beach was in fact "paradise"! There is much info about Sunset Beach in the Ports of Call area on cruisecritic.com so I won't duplicate those descriptions other than to say it is GREAT!
In Grand Cayman, I reverted to a Carnival excursion. We did the Stingray tour last year (which is really neat) so this time we took a Reef and Wreck Snorkeling excursion for a few hours. The stay in Cayman isn't that long, so this short excursion didn't make us feel rushed. I think the tour company was "Kirk's" and our guides (Shaggy and Scooby) did a good job.
In Cozumel, we again applied research performed on Cruise Critic and took a taxi ($4/person) to Paradise Beach. Not quite the same as Sunset Beach in Jamaica, but still a good deal and fun. Use of the chairs/umbrellas is free (a rarity in Cozumel) but the $8/person you can use their water toys (floating mats, water Iceberg and trampoline, kayaks, and snorkeling equipment). NOTE: They do check for wristbands on people using the equipment. Also available on the beach is hair braiding ($25), Henna Tattoos ($5-$15), and massages. Food/Drinks can be purchased also via the waiters on the beach. Freddy took good care of us during our stay. Good shopping opportunities are still alive and well in Cozumel as rebuilding is proceeding quickly. Destroyed vegetation, however, will take much longer to replace and was sad to see during the 20 minute taxi ride to Paradise Beach. The 45 minute tender process is a little frustrating, but if you have never docked at Cozumel you'd probably not question it. They actually do a good job of moving people off/on the ship, but getting those docks back in operation (next year?) will certainly be nice.
The evening shows on the Conquest were all great. Mark Ruben is still a good comedian/ventriloquist. The female magician (Deja) is good, but her requests for applause just for being female get kind of old. Fortunately, her tricks are worthy of applause on their own. Robert York, a "Variety Comedian" performed one evening and was a big hit with us Texans. He has a cowboy/redneck show that resonated well! The comedian Phat Kat is also very funny and the Carnival dancers perform 2 great Vegas/Broadway style shows, "Formidable" on the 1st formal night and "Point and Click" on the 2nd formal night. Only the last evening entrainment is still a little disappointing. Happily the former "Talent Show" is gone, but has only been replaced with a similar format with "talent" found from cruisers. During the week in the Karaoke lounge, cruisers are auditioned to impersonate legendary singers (Elvis, Sinatra, Madonna, etc.) and then they perform along with the Carnival Dancers (for some class) for one 10:30 pm show on Saturday night. Personally, I prefer professional entertainment rather than amateur wannabe's, but it wasn't totally awful. Still, I'd much prefer a professional juggler, magician, or comedian on the last night.
We ate in the Monet dining room each evening (8:00 pm late seating which is what we requested). Food and service was great. Yes, sometimes the entree's weren't steaming hot, but neither were they cold. Serving so many people good food so quickly really is an amazing feat. One of our few criticisms of Carnival is that once again we were seated at a table for 4 rather than at a table with other people. Only once out of our 3 cruises (last year on the Conquest) did we get assigned dinner at a larger table. How they decide who sits at the larger tables or smaller tables is a mystery to us. Guess some people want to eat alone, but we thoroughly enjoyed getting to know people at dinner last year. Carnival should at least ask the preference when booking a cruise and then try to accommodate as many as possible, rather than using the apparently random method.
The only other criticism is that there are too many areas approved for smokers. Even when they stay in their areas (which of course they don't) there are too many areas in too open areas. While Carnival may be an international company, they should realize that smoking in the US is declining and the restrictions on smokers is growing -- join the trend! The number of happy non-smoking cruisers will greatly out-number the disgruntled smokers.
The professional photos taken during free sittings around the promenade each evening are really good! That's the good news. The bad news is the price has gone from $20 in past years for the 8x10's to $21.95! During the week, we eventually ended up with 86 photos to view and decide upon. They were all very good and we wanted them all, but at $21.95... well you do the math! Seems like they would sell more photos and make more money if they would sell 5x7's with options for 8x10s. Although I must admit they made a lot of money selling us 8x10's! I'm sure in years to come we will greatly cherish these photos and the price will seem trivial.
Debarkation, as always, was a sad time. Nobody wanted the cruise to end. While the "Self-Assist" program seemed to go smoothly, we opted for the regular method which starts after the self assist (7-9 am). Our theory: Why get off the boat sooner than you have to?! The order of self-assist (drag your own bags off the ship and through customs) started at 7:00 am shortly after the ship docked. They worked through the decks starting at the top and working their way to the lower. Then about 9:00 am they started again at the top using tag colors. We were on deck 6 forward (dark green) and which got called about 9:50. We found our bags in the claim area of the terminal, waited in a porter line for 5 mins, got the luggage loaded, onto a bus to the Lighthouse parking lot, and on the road home (reluctantly :-) by 11:00 am.
Rumor is that the Conquest is moving back to New Orleans next year. Hopefully Carnival's new ship, Freedom, will come to Galveston to replace the Conquest. In any case, we'll certainly be sailing on Carnival again!