Where to start... well the anticipation was killing us by the time we called the taxi to take us to the International Cruise Ship Terminal (ICST) in Sydney for our 2-2:30 pm embarkation schedule.
We dropped off our luggage and spent probably 15 minutes in a line filling out a customs declaration on the ground floor of the ICST before going up to Level 3 where Carnival had their desk setup for check-in... we waited about 5 minutes in this line and then checked in one by one (verify sail and sign cards, pic ID etc.), a brief walk through customs and x-ray and then it was on the boat - even with a 3 year old, it was painless really.
Upon walking onto the ship - we proceeded to our rooms to drop off our carry on (as the room was available) we travelled in two groups my wife, our daughter (3) and myself, with my sister and my mother and father... we had room #4231 on deck 4 (starboard side aft) and they had #4232 (aft) while the numbers are incremental if you look at the deck plan you'll see there is a few suites and other rooms between them, but pretty close and a great option for us families travelling together.
First opinions of the rooms, immaculately presented, no "funky" smells, all surfaces were clean, and the amenities were ship shape. We checked the TV with the on-board cameras, more for novelty purposes to entertain our daughter some more, shower and bathroom area were clean and tidy, towels hung neatly as well as spotless floor, I've been to hotels that charge more per night with rooms of lesser quality.
Side note - the bed was by far the most comfortable bed from any hotel I've ever slept it, and I've stayed in some REALLY swish hotels! my expectations were set at another rock hard bed and 9 nights of average sleep - needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised and slept like a log every night.
Moving on, after we checked out each others respective rooms (the extended balcony on #4232 was a nice addition, though the rooms were identical otherwise.
We proceeded up to the Lido deck and the 'La Playa Grille' - we walked up the stairs as we made a pre-embarkation pact not to indulge in use of the lifts for ease of use as our working legs had never failed us yet - it was also good to burn out some of the energy stores from our daughter. The main buffet on board we witnessed roughly 3 states - Packed (6am-8am for breakfast and 12-2pm for lunch) Busy (8am-10am & 2-3pm) and Virtually Empty (11am-12pm and 3pm-9pm), we mostly at breakfast and lunch in the "busy" windows and usually got our daughter dinner at 6pm as we were on the late - 7:45pm dinner sitting.
All the food was well presented and summarizing for the entire trip we very rarely got an average meal here - "Good Eats" and "Chop Sticks" were frequented at lunch time, and my Father favoured "Snags & Pies" the Pizza Bar and Deli were exceptional and worth their average wait times. The Themed daily meals ranged and changed each day and it wasn't disappointing to a food lover such as myself (though I'm no critic, I can only speak for what I like to eat)
Moving on - we opted to follow advice from other Cruise Critic FAQ's and ate at the Nouveau restaurant on the first night (we booked via email pre-cruise and were seated at a large fore table, starboard side by the window overlooking the sun deck (deck 10) They offered us two bonus bottles of complimentary wine, I don't drink, but the folks did and they agreed it was nice (the left overs they actually had at our table in the empire dining room on night two - surprised again) We got one + one bonus entree and the main meals - I had the 500gm "cowboy" rib eye on the bone steak - were exceptional, my parents being farmers of beef cattle and one of the best in their region, I've grown up eating amazing steaks so I have EXTREMELY high expectations whenever I eat steak anywhere and again, not disappointed, I ordered Medium-Rare and it was so succulent and tender and easily worth the $35 AUD overhead. Others in our group had the Steak & Lobster, speciality 5-spice steak and our daughter had the 200gm rump steak (which I polished off after she had eaten 3/4 of it...) Dessert followed and we all had something different, I had two berry sorbets, others had cheesecakes and the like... everyone left full with a smile on their face... Anastasia was our waitress (from Serbia) was awesome too (even if it was her last cruise)
Skipping to the Empire Dining room experience now, and the high standards continued, as mentioned above, the left over wine from the night before was set and waiting at the table (Table #145 a window seat, starboard side-aft) when we arrived and the drinks waiter a poured two glasses worth within minutes of us sitting down...
Our "Waiter Team" consisted of Head Waiter Gabor (Hungary), Nengah (Indonesia) and Randolf (Philippines), I can't remember the name of our matre d' - she was nicknamed "Lady Gaga" early on and it just stuck all cruise long... That said I really can't speak highly enough of EXCEPTIONAL service offered by our team of guys, we found after the first night that 7:45pm was too late after a big day for our daughter who was also too excited to nap during the day, and while the guys made every effort to accommodate her, food and entertainment wise, within minutes of arriving at the table, she passed out on my lap within 10 minutes the first night and asleep under the table on night two, we forced naps on her on day three and from night 3 - she was the life on the party.
As above, Nengah and Gabor ensured we had meals for our daughter within 10 minutes of arriving, they also had colouring pencils and activity sets, as well as origami animals and napkin pets all cruise long - she thought it was Christmas all over again... and one thing to add - the guys often bought out "kid friendly" meals that weren't printed on any menus anywhere, like chicken schnitzels and chips, or pizzas and pasta etc and they even would cut it up and entertain our daughter while feeding it too her - talk about above and beyond!
We had table water and bread within 5 minutes of sitting down courtesy of Randolf and regular top ups without prompt from Nengah or Gabor... menus came within seconds of that and the near monotony of the "well-oiled-machine" appearance made my expectations for food quality lower (if you've ever been to Australian Outback Spectacular on the Gold Coast, where they serve 1000's of meals in one go, you'll understand my low benchmark) however again, and wanting to compare quality of steaks, the first meal in the empire room was the 200gm steak and mash potato's & steamed beans side and a prawn cocktail entree. we had our Entree's within 5 minutes which felt like a blink of an eye as the boys were chatting and entertaining us all with stories of cruises gone by... and then shortly after the entrees were taken away, 5-10 minutes later, our main meals arrived... this was the same time standard whether we arrived at exactly 7:45 or sometimes later 8-8:15pm on the shore days... and let me just say... the FOOD WAS AMAZING!! the dinner choices were nearly impossible to pick each time and not one meal was ever a let down... and let me just say as a westernized Mexican food lover, the chicken enchiladas with hot sauce were TO DIE FOR!
As there was times where I couldn't decide between one or another, be it entree, main, dessert... Nengah and Gabor would usually bring one of each... (I swear - these guys were dead set legends, both veteran Carnival Staff of 16 & 14 years) when we made jokes about them trying to fatten us up, they had plenty of witty retorts to justify why we should not worry about eating the extra... even if they were all porky pies (lies). Dessert wise again, be it a fruit platter, or a bowl of ice cream, it was amazing and the baked New York Cheese cake - was my all time favourite dessert on the cruise.
The Sea days were much of a muchness, having never cruised before - we had no expectations other than to follow the schedule of organised events when we weren't sitting around sun baking or swimming, that said... we were never bored and the quality of all the facilities were top notch and nothing felt 'used' for a ship that had seen surely close to millions of passengers in it's 13 years of service.
In the mornings before breakfast we'd alternate hitting the gym while our daughter slept in (my wife being a pavement runner had trouble adapting to running on the treadmill while the boat swayed (minor) to and fro, and opted not to run around the boat decks as she couldn't keep track of her distance, and she said a few times she'd have to wait for a free machine) I would train resistance weights and found the small gym sufficient to my needs, yes a squat rack or flat bench with barbells would have come in handy, but hey - I know enough exercises to work around it, I never found it busy, even one day when I exercised at lunch time - so 5 points for the gym facilities - that said, normal gym goer problems, the others who used the gym (I'll call them the animals) who work out, sweating like pigs and walk away from their stations without as much as a wipe down was still present - but alas, again plenty familiar with that!
After breakfast we'd hang out by the pool and take in some sun and tunes by DJ T-Lake before the occasional dip in the pool (it was cold by my standards and I'm not usually one to complain - by my wife and several others who I saw cringe when they got in referred to it as "Freezing") we'd hit up the burger grill for lunch for our daughter - chips and burgers were easy food and there was very regularly a long wait... after we had lunch we'd take her to the room for a nap and from there proceed with the afternoon activities, such as trivia or sports etc... everything was fun, even though we were hardly winning haha!
Shore excursions were great, and I don't think we needed to spend any time longer then we did in the ports
Isle of Pines was nice as advertised, though the lack of toilet facilities were problematic (they may have been some, but when we asked the locals, they'd often point us to buildings with no obvious facilities and we ended up "holding" until we went back to the boat at 2pm - we didn't partake in any excursions, we walked over to Mushroom Rock and snorkelled (a must have item as hiring and buy-on-board was outrageous) and walked up and down the beaches until we saw enough.
The tendering process was not painful at all, except one day in Lifou where it was choppy and windy a tender boat had problems I heard through Chinese whispers and stopped mid-journey and had to be towed back to the boat and was worked on at the tender gangway which meant only one 'dock' was active which delayed us about 40 minutes but we just sat around while our daughter played with the over-sized novelty connect-4 game.
Lifou on day two was probably the stand-out day, the natural aquarium - which we were hesitant to do at first on account of the reports of people being chopped up by the coral and rougher seas - was hands down the most amazing thing I've ever seen (the snorkelling at Yejele beach on Mare was nice too - but this was more spectacular) we had no troubles with the coral or choppy seas - others weren't as lucky... I saw plenty of cuts and grazes from guys and girls coming out of the water... but like anything swim within your limits!
We walked around to the Church on the hill (can't remember it's name, Notre-Dam-De-Lourve I think) which was an steep climb up an 800m hill, but worth it for the views - I'm not religious so don't ask for any spiritual advice, but all I can say is the craftsman ship alone was worth the walk.
Noumea was port day 3 and as above - the least enjoyable port to wake up too... containers and filth on one side and the nickel refinery/smelter on the other, that said, we made the most of it albeit with everything shut on a Sunday! we bought our own 2.5 hour bus ride through city/country for $25 AUD per person (they took Australian currency on every port). It showed us all the major things that the cruise organised tours did too, so we didn't feel ripped by the 100% carnival mark-up (no I'm not going to argue ethics, I know they have reason to charge more, etc) the guide was funny and entertaining and I felt like we got all we could out of a 2.5 hour bus right. After lunch (nothing open so we went back to the boat) we followed it up with a $10 AUD per person "city tour" on a bus that just runs a 45 minute loop around Noumea, for the first 25 minutes we were alone on the bus before picking up some other Carnival guests returning from the beach and then a bunch more on a group tour to the Aquarium. It wasn't advertised, and I was spewing I missed it, but the Tug boat did a "demonstration" show alongside the spirit before we departed which was quiet good, I saw bits of it next to the P&O Pacific Jewel that was also docked at Noumea.
Mare was day 4 and our final Port day... it was a beautiful looking island, and the cruise director Stu had pulled no punches saying there wasn't much to do on the island bar the 20 minute bus ride to Yejele beach - we tried to see if we could do a "cash job" with the locals, but Carnival had a slick system where they controlled all the tickets on and off the buses, so we had no choice here but to pay the $17 AUD per person per trip and we even had to pay full price for our daughter, even though she had to sit on our lap both ways. Snorkelling in Mare was amazing too, the beach pristine and bar the occasional dog fight (locals pets I imagine) the atmosphere was very tropical, food stalls and coconut stalls everywhere... and port-a-potties set up as the facilities, Coconuts here were the cheapest at $1 each, vs $3 everywhere else, though they charged another $1 to cut it open for the flesh afterwards (which was free on the other islands I heard)
We didn't opt into any of the local cuisine on any of the shore trips, so I can't comment or speculate either way there, I didn't hear reports of people getting sick... but I aired on the side of caution and didn't risk it, nor did I or any of our group drink from the Spring in Noumea, despite plenty of locals - including the bus driver and tour guide filling up several water bottles whilst there.
Misc. things, Stu - well you will probably get sick of his voice... while he was a nice guy from the few times I saw him and had a brief chat etc., his delivery of stories/information etc. was very droll... other staff we interacted with regularly was Eli, Brody, Monique and David (I think he was David) these guys were great, Eli was a kiwi and the others from the US - Aussie trivia was funny and plenty of jibs about Australian place names pronunciation and bands they'd never heard of ...
Summing up... well where to start and what to say that I haven't already, oh - Putu our room steward was great, friendly and knew our names from day one (not hard I know they all have roll sheets) but we always had fresh towels and a clean room, the stewards would arrange our PJ's on the bed each day and all our daughters bed toys by her pillow, the night turn down towel animals were great too, our favourite was the monkey... It was by the bed so I moved it to another spot much to the delight of our daughter who thought it moved by itself! we moved it one more time and she was watching it for the remaining two days every time we were in the room to see if it would move again.
I didn't eat everywhere on the boat, so I can't comment on the cafe or the coffee bars, or Jimmy's C-Side BBQ...
We opted not to buy a drinks packaged and survived without any problems on the juice bar Lemon Squash and Iced Water.
All up we spent an additional $350 AUD on our Sail & Sign card... which we thought was reasonable, most of that was cocktails and the shore excursion in Mare and some gifts for our friends and family's children.
We won a coveted "Ship on a Stick" trophy (A embossed Golden Carnival Spirit) for being first runner up in the Aussie Music Trivia challenge, which my daughter quickly claimed as her own and is very proud to show it off!
I can't think of much more to say - the Trip DVD at $29.99 - was a nice touch for the holiday memory... we were snapped on camera a few times by the video guy, so it was a no brainer.
I'll wrap it up there... I have a bunch of pics I'm happy to share if anyone is interested - I'm sure you can figure out how to contact me through the site!
This was the first Cruise for us and the only holiday - of many - That I have actually returned from wishing I was still there... it was an amazing experience all around and we were seriously sad when they called our number to disembark on return to Sydney!