I sailed with a group of 9 on the 9/3 sailing of the Conquest out of Galveston. Most of our group was driving down from the DFW area on Saturday, and two people flew directly into Hobby Airport with one of us picked them up Saturday afternoon. All but two of us were first-time cruisers, and we are all in the 30-40 yr range.
We had issues finding an inexpensive motel to stay at the night before, and I assume that was because the number of rooms we required and the fact that it was Labor Day weekend. Everyone in the group wanted to complete most of the trip on Saturday just in case we had to deal with any unexpected issues, so we eventually found a place in League City, which is about halfway between Houston and Galveston. We stayed at the Days Inn - nothing special, but it served its purpose for what we needed and allowed some time for the Kemah Boardwalk Saturday night.
Sunday morning we woke up and were on the road by around 9:40 am with our group split up in two trucks. We were at the pier within about 30 minutes, and unloaded all the passengers and luggage. We got the trucks squared away at EZ Cruise while everyone else took care of the porters and all of the many, many suitcases. EZ Cruise was no more than a five minute walk from the pier, and since the bags were already there it was easy to just walk back rather than wait for the shuttle.
We were through security and check-in without any issues, and in the first group to board. The Conquest was amazing! I was impressed with its size, dEcor, and simply the amount of "stuff" they were able to fit into every nook and cranny. The main public decks are Deck 5 (Promenade) and Deck 9 (Lido). Those two decks contained the pools, alternative dining options, casino, arcade, shops, and most of the bars.
Our group was a mix of balcony and interior cabins. My wife and I had a balcony (6359), and after starting off my cruise experience with one, I don't know that I'll ever be able to do anything different. The views were spectacular, and it was very relaxing to simply be able to watch the sunrise or read a book and have the sounds of the ocean constantly murmuring in the background. There were two full-sized closets and one closet filled with shelves. Between that, the shelves in the bathroom, and all of the drawers/cabinets throughout the cabin, we had plenty of storage space for all of our miscellaneous clutter.
We spent the sea days relaxing by the pool, participating in the blackjack and slot machine tournaments, and attending many of the activities throughout the ship (the Survivor Game, sports trivia, bingo, etc).
In Jamaica, most of the group went to Sunset Beach resort. For $40 pp and a $2 cab ride to the resort, you have access to the entire facility and that includes all food and drink. We spent some time on the beach snorkeling (watch out for jellyfish!), tried out the slides and lazy river in the water park, and had some good jerk chicken for lunch. The bulk of our time was spent in the pool, not too far away from the swim-up bar. They had banana daiquiris that were delicious!
In the afternoon, we took a cab to Margaritaville. It was fun, but not at all like other Margaritavilles. If you are a Jimmy Buffet fan and have been to Orlando, Key West, Las Vegas, or New Orleans - this will be a completely different experience. The M'ville in Montego Bay has more of a nightclub or disco feel to it, albeit one where everybody is in bathing suits and tank tops. Not one Buffet song was played; in the two hours we were there it was predominately dance music. But the waterslide out into the ocean and the floating trampolines did look cool! Not a bad place, just not what you'd expect based on what the other M'villes are like.
Thursday was Grand Cayman. Since we had a group, we hired a private charter through Captain Bryan (http://www.cayman.org/captainbryan/). We had a 42' boat all to ourselves, and Captain Bryan and his mate took excellent care of us. The price was higher than a standard tour - it was about $100 per person - but when we pulled up to the Stingray City Sandbar and saw all of the people, we knew we made the right decision to pay a little more for the private charter. The mate (Chigo? Giglo? I still don't know how to spell his name!) made sure that each one of us had a chance to hold a stingray by ourselves, and each of us had a good 5-10 minutes of one on one interaction with her. A few times some people from one of the other larger groups started crowding around us because of all the interaction we were having, and Chigo did an excellent job of steering them away from us so that each person in our group could have the same type of uninterrupted experience. The water was beautiful and crystal clear, the stingrays were amazing, and everyone in our group agreed that this had been the highlight of the trip to this point.
After the Stingray Sandbar, we went to Rum Point Beach. We spent about 90 minutes there snacking on some lunch, riding jet skis, and just soaking up the sun, sand, and saltwater. Captain Bryan had us back across the bay and transported to the tender pier with about 2 hours left for shopping. I cannot praise Captain Bryan enough for the trip we had, the attention we received, and the overall experience he provided for us. His company also runs standard trips to Stingray City Sandbar on large catamarans, so whether you want a private charter or just a fun excursion booked independently from what the cruise line is doing, check him out!
In Cozumel (Friday) the group spent the first part of the day shopping in the downtown area by the pier. The entire group went to Pancho's Backyard for lunch, which is located next to/behind Los Cincos Soles. After lunch, my wife and I did a little more shopping before heading back to the ship for some relaxation while the rest of the group went to Chankanaab Park for the dolphin encounter (around $110 per person). They loved it, and their pictures were fantastic. If we went back to Cozumel again I'd probably do this.
Saturday was another relaxing day at sea, and then Sunday morning we were back in Galveston. We all did self-assist, and were off the boat fairly quickly with no real hassles. It's a little difficult to manage all your bags down the elevators/stairs and through some of the narrow places on the ship, but once you're off and into the terminal there is plenty of space to extend those handles and just pull them all behind you.
I will definitely cruise again after taking this trip. I had no problems at all, and would recommend the Conquest and this itinerary to all of my friends and family. The ship was festive and clean, the staff attentive to our needs, we never felt overwhelmed by the number of people onboard, and I don't think we had one complaint out of our entire group.
Here are some tips and ideas that worked well for us:
--All cabins on the Conquest have refrigerators. We asked our room steward to unlock ours and then we put all the contents in a container under our bed. We used the fridge to keep our juice, water, and champagne cold.
--Bring a power strip! There's only one plug in the main cabin. We had travel alarm clock, iPod speakers, camera charger, and video camera charger. Toss in a cell phone charger and a hairdryer and you've got way too many cords and not enough outlets.
--Yes, they do supply a hair dryer in the room. No, my wife did not like it. You have to constantly keep a button pressed on the handle to keep the hair dryer turned on - it's awkward to use.
--All of the walls in the cabin are metal! We brought magnets and used one wall like a giant refrigerator door. We kept our Capers there, the appointment cards for my wife's spa treatments, and any other flyers or printed items we wanted to keep track of.
--Use the dining room as an opportunity to try new things. The soups were all delicious, and not something I'd ordinarily order in a restaurant. The strawberry bisque was my favorite! My wife and I would usually order an entrEe for each of us, and then a third one to share - this allowed us to at least get a sampling of several items, and we rarely finished all three.
--Spa treatments are definitely cheaper on port days, and t-shirts and other souvenirs go on sale in the gift shop on the last sea day.
--They have dispensers for shampoo (I think it was Dove) and body wash soap (Lever 2000) in the showers. It's always full and that's two less items to pack.
--Need extra pillows? More towels? A blanket? Ask your room steward. Ours was incredibly helpful and took care of these types of requests quickly.
--And speaking of room stewards - ours was friendly and funny. Our wait service team in the dining room were also both personable, entertaining, and a good source of information. For the most part, it seemed like these crew members are constantly working and doing everything they can to make sure you have a good vacation. Talk to them, say hi when you pass them in the hallway, and ask them for their recommendations if you don't know what to order at dinner. Putting aside any issues about how much to tip, I really felt like they appreciated just being treated like normal people and included in some of our fun.
----Unless you've been on several cruises and know exactly what to expect, you're going to overpack. Accept it. Just try to minimize it where you can, understand that you'll have a lot of luggage to manage both to and from the cruise, and keep a mental note of what you didn't need so you can do better next time. --Oh yes, there most definitely will be a next time...