My wife and I were looking for a short vacation to take before our lives got crazy busy for the next year. We decided a cruise would probably be the best bang for our buck, and we were pretty much correct!
We booked Carnival's Fascination out of Jacksonville, FL for 5 days to Nassau and Little Stirrup Cay. The trip itinerary was Day 1 - at sea, Day 2 - full day in Nassau, Day 3 - half day in Little Stirrup Cay, Day 4 - at sea, Day 5 - in Jacksonville.
We attempted to book through carnival's website, but found it not working well, so we called to book. The woman we spoke with got the task accomplished, but it was a bit pain-staking, slow, and repetitive. We were on a budget, so we booked the cheapest room, the cheapest package, and no insurance. We then checked in online 2 days before the cruise and were able to print our boarding passes, luggage tags, and setup the on-board account. We drove to Jacksonville, since we only live an hour and a half away, that morning and arrived around 1 pm. I know there are cheaper options for parking, but I chose to park at the cruise terminal for $75 simply for the convenience of having my vehicle as soon as I leave the ship, and the comfort of knowing it's in a secure lot on the port property. Once we arrived at the port we drove over to the terminal and unloaded our bags to be taken directly to the ship. We then parked and walked into the terminal and waited through the security lines, which moved fairly quickly. NOTE: cell phone and camera use is strictly forbidden in the terminal...don't even pull it out, they will tell you to put it away. Once through security it was on to the next line for the desk to get checked in and collect our room key/boarding card thingy. That line moved pretty quick too. Since I had already setup the account and put in all our passport info when I checked in online, we were out of that area within minutes. Next line was to have your picture taken, card scanned, then on to the ship! We had a room on the empress deck, which was very convenient because we were just below our dining room, on the same floor as guest services, and had a back stairway right on to the serenity deck (where we spent most of our ship-board time). Our room was ready immediately, but our luggage didn't arrive to later that night, so we tossed our carry-ons in the room and hopped up to the lido deck for some food. We spent the rest of the day walking around the ship to get familiar with the layout, signed up for a spinning class for the next morning, then went back to our room to wait for the 4pm safety drill. After that hung out on the serenity deck and watched the ship leave port until dinner at 6 in the imagination dining room. Dinner was good. I don't remember what we had, but there was a nice selection of food, the people we were seated with were all very nice and chatty, our servers were efficient and friendly, and overall dinner was a nice experience. The food was good, not super fine dining nice, but good none-the-less. After dinner we relaxed around the ship then went to the first show in the theatre. The show was really good, all the performers were very skilled.
Day 1 - at sea:
We woke up early, had breakfast on the lido deck (buffet style, pretty good overall...coffee was just ok, but drinkable). Afterward we went to our spinning class and burned off breakfast in 50 minutes! We spent the rest of the day lounging around the ship. That night was the formal night, we got all dressed up and enjoyed a fancy evening with the ship's officers and what not, it was fun.
Lessons from the day: If you want a good chair on the deck, get there early! Also, don't be a douche and toss a towel on a chair and disappear for an hour+...not cool people.
Day 2 - Nassau:
Ok, here's what I learned about Nassau...there is a TON to do there that does not require you to play insane amounts of money for the excursions. We are both heavily certified divers, but found it insane to pay $120 per person for a single open-water dive. We chose the cheap option of walk off the ship, stroll 1/4 mile west to Junkanoo beach, and chill for the morning. It's a free public beach with food stands, bathrooms, chair rental places, music, etc. Why pay to go to Atlantis when you have a free beach nearby? Plus the had a view of the ship which was nice. After spending the morning relaxing on the beach we went to Senor Frog's for lunch. Food was great, atmosphere was spring break fever, prices were high. $50 for ceviche, a wrap, and 2 margaritas. Eh, it was an experience. After lunch we spent the rest of the day strolling around town, visiting the shops, the straw market, and seeing the sites. The merchant will try hard to get you to buy something (and will negotiate, especially in the straw market)...having been to many other countries we found them to be WAY easier to deal with that others. A simple no thank you, or I'm just looking was all we had to say. It wasn't until after this and we looking into what Nassau has to offer that we realized if we got a cab we could have see so much more. Nassau has some history, parks,distilleries you can tour, etc. Again, excursions are expensive...look into the other options before thinking you have to dump a hundred buck to leave the ship. We had dinner back on the ship, went to a show, saw the comedy show (it was funny, but not kid appropriate (hence adult only)) and relaxed while we watched the ship depart Nassau around 8pm.
Day 3: Little Stirrup Cay
Here's the deal with the Cay. The ship will tender near the island and they will use water taxis to get you there. You will have to get a ticket when you are ready to go and they will call your number when your group's turn is near. They said do not get a ticket until you are ready to get off the ship. They started handing out tickets at 7:30...we got a ticket in group 1, then went to breakfast knowing we had 30+ minutes before they started running the taxis. When our group was called we went down to deck 3 and got off the ship. Once at the cay we looked around for a few minutes, then started wandering off to the far side of the island. Again, excursions are expensive, and being a 20 something year old couple we didn't need to play at the water park. There is a nature trail across the island. You can pay $20 for a tour, or walk it by yourself for free. We did the latter and found the trail has cut-offs to some small private areas of the beach on the side of the island opposite the hoards of people. We did that and found a great little spot for just the two of us to relax and enjoy the beauty of the island. We walked back to the main area for lunch, then returned to our little spot to find it just as we left it. The last taxi back to the ship was at 3:30, we hoped back on around 2:30 after walking the entire nature trail and taking in the seclusion of the island. It was peaceful and quiet. Back on board we got cleaned up, relaxed and went to dinner. The evening was about the same as before, shows, comedy, staring at the stars, etc.
Day 4: at sea
Pretty much the same as day 2, relaxed on the serenity deck. Enough said about that. We chose the self debarkation process for the next day, so we didn't have to pack our bags up that night or anything.
Day 5: Jacksonville
We woke up early, packed then went to breakfast. We then grabbed our stuff from our room (you have to vacate the room by 8:30) then sat up on the promenade deck and watched the port people clean and load/unload the ship until our deck was called to debark. The timeline they gave us was off and we debarked 30 minutes late, but I suspect that is because people didn't listen and wait their turn which probably caused issues. Seriously people, if you're in a rush to leave the ship, pay for the option that lets you do that as early as possible, or you will hold the rest of us up. Once off the ship we sailed through customs (we didn't buy anything and thus had nothing to declare), found our car and were out of there! We decided the vacation didn't need to end yet, so we spent the rest of the day at the Jacksonville Zoo (just down the street) before heading home.
Overall, I really enjoyed the trip. Said and done we spend $600 for the cruise, $140 (i think) for gratuities, and $40 for a few drinks and the spinning class. We had a $40 on-board credit which was nice. As I mentioned, we did the trip as cheap as we could and overall spent less that $800 for essentially a round trip the Bahamas, 4 nights at a hotel, and all meals included. Seriously, you can't beat that deal.
Don't go into a Carnival Cruise expecting a glamorous vacation, you will be disappointed. But if you go expecting to have a good relaxing trip, see a new place, and enjoy a few days free of cell phone and computers, this is the trip for you. I plan to do another next year once the impending mayhem settles down and life returns to normal.