Background: My wife and I (both 40's), my 17 year old son and 15 year old daughter took a 7 day Western Caribbean cruise, out of Galveston, on the Carnival Conquest. This is the 6th cruise for my wife and I, while it was the third cruise for both the kids. We have cruised with Carnival (4 times), Royal Caribbean (once), and Celebrity (once). We got a tremendous deal, from one of Carnival's weekly sales, plus this was a drive to cruise. We live in Fort Worth, TX, so this allowed us to avoid the added expense of flying to the port city.
Embarkation: We drove down to Houston, on Saturday, and stayed at the Best Western Galleria hotel. We had a nice dinner, at Pappadeaux's, and used the hotel's indoor pool. Sunday, we left Houston, around 10:25 A.M, and drove the 50 miles to Galveston. I had booked (and paid online for) parking with EZ Cruise Parking. They are $50 for the seven days, versus $70 for the Port Authority parking. They took us, and our luggage, directly to the cruise terminal where a porter took it away. I would definitely recommend their service. We got in line, one of many, at approximately 11:45 A.M.. There are four lines, so don't be surprised after exiting one, to have to get into another. First, you get into the security line, where they put you through the standard metal detector test. Next, you enter a long line to check in and collect your Sail and Sign card. Then, you get into line to have your embarkation photo taken. Thinking that you're done, you get into one last line to have your photo taken, which is tied to your Sail and Sign card. This allows you to be visually checked by the Carnival security staff, when leaving and returning to the ship, while in port. We stepped into the beautiful 9-story high atrium on the 3rd deck, awash with waiters selling the $8 drink of the day (DOTD), at around 1:30 P.M. There was a lot of standing and shuffling, but the process went as smooth as expected, due to the amount of passengers sailing (~3200).
Ship: The ship is extremely large (110,000 tons) and it can be quite confusing initially. The most important thing to remember is that decks 2 (Main), 5 (Promenade), and 9 (Lido) go from one end of the ship to another. The others have a roadblock somewhere that may force you to go up or down to go around them. The ship, while slightly worn in a few areas, was in great shape. I won't go into the specifics of ship, since they can be seen in the brochure, and are spelled out in so many other reviews..
Cabin: The four of us had an outside cabin on the Main (2) deck. The extra beds, for the kids, actually dropped down from the ceiling. This was a great space saving feature, versus the other cruise lines having the extra beds tucked into the wall. Unfortunately, the kids complained that the beds were hard and uncomfortable. Also, the ladders weren't the easiest to maneuver around, especially having to get down in the middle of the night. Anyone that is large in size, or older in age should probably think twice about putting four people in a cabin. The normal beds were pretty comfortable, beyond the claustrophobic affect of having the bunk beds above. Even with four in the room we had enough storage space. The bathroom was extremely well laid out, and the shower had enough space to move around. Not once did the shower curtain molest me. Having containers of body wash and shampoo, in the shower, was extremely convenient. I did bring a power strip, night light, alarm clock, and 24 slotted shoe holder to make life a little easier. The room had a refrigerator in which we stored our own stash. We brought on a 12 pack of water and an 8 pack of Sprite, in one of our carry ons. Our cabin attendant was extremely efficient and did an admirable job. It seemed like we all took two showers, everyday, so we went through quite a few towels. The usual towel animals, chocolates, and the next day's Carnival Capers awaited us every evening.
Dining: We were initially assigned table 522 in the Monet dining room for the second seating (8:00 P.M.). The Monet dining room is located in the far back (aft) of the ship, while the Renoir dining room is in the middle of the ship. The table assigned to us was right next to the back window on the upper level of the dining room. Unfortunately, for the entire first evening meal, we had a tremendous amount of engine vibration. No rocking whatsoever, but it felt like you were sitting in a massage chair. This gave my daughter a headache and wasn't a pleasant way to spend 90 minutes. We talked to the Maitre' D (Fernando) and he moved us to a booth for four, further in, on the lower level. Problem solved. We sat in the booth for the next six dinners. This was a great move since our headwaiter (Jerome) and his assistant (John) made dining such a great experience. They were the best waiters we have ever had, since they were extremely personable and had a great rapport with our kids. Every request was happily done and we never wanted for anything. John had a great sense of humor and sang, danced, and performed magic tricks practically every night. The food, while not great, was consistently good. We usually had two appetizers and two entrees nightly, which allowed us to occasionally try items not in our everyday diet. Some hit, some missed, but we certainly never went hungry. We only ate one lunch in the dining room and that was very good. The dining room is closed for lunch the three days you are in port. Somehow, I awakened early enough to have three breakfasts in the dining room. Even though the menu never changes, I preferred it over having breakfast on the Lido deck. The service was top-notch, plus all the food was piping hot, and the quality was excellent. We had four breakfasts at the buffet on the Lido deck and it was the typical buffet fare. They had a few omelet stations but they usually had long lines. The buffet lunches offered more variety with the main forward buffet stations each day containing a different themed menu (French, Caribbean, chocolate, etc.). They had a decent salad bar, plus pretty good pre-made salads. It usually had a fish and chicken dish along with a carving station. At the back of the ship, they have a grill with jumbo hotdogs and hamburgers with all the fixins (sauteed onions and mushrooms, sauerkraut, and chili). They also have 24 hour pizza and they make a pretty mean Caesar salad. We made excellent use of Paul's deli, and had many corn beef and pastrami sandwiches. Po's Wok (Chinese food) was good, but they have a very limited daily menu. My big disappointment was at Sur Mer (seafood) in the upper level of the Lido deck. I have never seen such a disorganized group of people. Even with 10 people waiting to order, they would only take one order at a time. Everything is made to order, which is good, but waiting 25 minutes to get fish and chips is unacceptable. Maybe, I just never hit it at the right time. The desserts (in the buffet) were a bit disappointing, but the self serve ice cream was pretty darn good. My family made good use of Café Fans, and paid a modest sum for cookies ($1), slices of cake ($2), and chocolate covered strawberries (5 for $3). These were high quality and tasted wonderful. We neither experienced the sushi bar, room service nor did we elect to go to The Point Supper Club (extra cost).
Service: In a word, EXCELLENT. It started with our waiters, in the main dining room, to all the staff on the ship. I rarely saw a dirty table in the Lido dining room, and they were constantly on top of things. The majority of the bar staff was not pushy, and quickly and efficiently processed the drink orders, usually with a smile. The general attitude of the ship staff was extremely upbeat and they seemed to take great pride in what they were doing. Kudos to management for keeping their employees motivated and happy.
Entertainment: We saw the majority of the scheduled entertainment and most were well done. Please remember this is neither Las Vegas nor Broadway, so temper your expectations. The two production shows Formidable and Point and Click had very good dancing and choreography, and so-so singing and story line. They were fine for after dinner entertainment. The comedians (Phat Kat and Mark Rubbens) were both very amusing in both the PG and late night R-rated versions. Deja, the magician, did some seen-before very ordinary illusions and seemed a little smug with herself. The Legend's (fancy passenger Karaoke) show was a real hoot and more enjoyable than I thought it would be. We passed on the Ron Joseph Show. The lounges contained some very good acts, only if you could handle the gauntlet of cigarette smoke. Since a lot of the ship is smoke-free, the smokers seemed to use the lounges as their small haven for smoking. I have no problem with smoking, but at least 50% of each crowd had a cigarette hanging from their mouth. I don't think the ventilation systems could handle it. The band Blood Power plays in too small of a lounge for the quality and loudness of their act. They are a great cover band who played a plethora of different songs, all extremely well. During their sets, people were hanging out the doors, plus the high volume did not allow for any conversation while they were playing. Damien, in the piano bar, does a nice job when he is actually playing music. He would sometimes go 10-15 minutes conversing with the crowd, but a lot of what he said was inside jokes meant for his 10-20 regulars. Karaoke is karaoke, so take it for what it is. Some good, some O.K, and some so bad it was both embarrassing while amusing. There was a very nice classical trio that would play in the lobby atrium that we would regularly listen too before our dinner. They also had a calypso group play some afternoons, at the Lido main pool, and they added to the Caribbean feel to the trip.
Activities: We participated in or attended some of the activities. Please be aware that they really push the bingo. BEWARE: Carnival keeps at least half of the money from bingo, and any other on-board gambling events. This does not include the casino, beyond the tight slots. Case in point: We won the Horse Racing game, and collected only $6 from a $3 bet. Since there were 6 horses, the true payout should have been $18. I would have understood if they paid back around $13-$15, since they should keep a little. But, to keep 2/3 is almost a crime. The same goes for the slot and blackjack tournaments where they collected more than $1000 (at least 50 participants) and only paid back $500 to the winner. If you play any game, involving money, just be aware of your highly diminished odds and chalk it up to the entertainment factor. I'll get off my high horse now. The Newlywed games, Survivor, and Hairy Chest contest were all a hoot, while the few trivia contests broke up the time. The gym has a nice collection of cardio and workout machines, once you figure out how to get to them. You need to go through the spa and sauna rooms. Men and women go through different entrances. Occasionally I moseyed over to the casino and even played Texas Hold' Em ($5-$10 stakes) one evening. There are always the pools or just relaxing while reading a book. You can't go wrong anyway you go. Due to the late dinner seating (8:00 P.M.) and a lack of interesting planned activities, neither of my children really took part in the teen scene. Most of the older teens tended to wander in and out of the teen club and did their own thing. The younger kids looked to be much more involved in organized activities. They have a bunch of arcade games, many were broken, while some tended to eat your money. The better ones cost $1 to play. There were 400 children on board, but they did not cause any problems, that I saw.
Ports: We have already been to Grand Cayman and Cozumel, and I highly recommend purchasing a shore excursion outside of the cruise lines. With a little online detective work you can get exactly the excursion that interests you at a price 1/3 cheaper than the cruise line. According to an inside source, the cruise line skims that amount of money, right off the top, from your excursion ticket price. Also, you can skip the large crowds, the obligatory extra long shopping stops, and the inevitable waiting around, as I'm sure most people would prefer.
Montego Bay: After reading all the horror stories (drugs, pushy vendors, poverty) about this island, I decided that I needed to plan ahead for my shore excursion. The island is gorgeous; from the sandy white beaches, the cool blue water, to the lush tropical mountains. After extensive research, from all the online boards, I heard great things about the tour company, A-Z Jamaica Planners. After a few e-mails, back and forth to the company, I had decided to give them a whirl. We had decided on a private tour, in an air-conditioned van, that would be solely at our disposal. This included a tour of the island, a trip to the Rose Hall Great House, lunch, shopping, and finally a stop at Doctor's Cave beach. It ended up costing me $60 pp, but they paid for $25 worth of entrance fees per person. After getting off the ship, we found our tour guide/driver Mark, waiting for us. To quickly sum it up; he made us feel very comfortable, was a wealth of information, had a great sense of humor, and steered us away from any problems. We were never hassled by vendors, never offered drugs, and always felt safe. We had a super time, and really loved this island. Doctor's Cave beach is absolutely AWESOME. White sand beach, calm, cool, clear blue water. We only stayed less than two hours, but you can make a day of it, since they have beachside waiter service from the restaurant. Please note that this is a pay beach ($5 entrance fee) and it does cost extra for chairs and umbrellas ($5 each). Use lots of sunscreen, else you will fry. Rose Hall Great House was interesting, as were privately escorted and told the tale of the White witch, Annie Palmer. We were also taken to a semi-private shopping area, where we were never hassled and got a great deal on an expensive watch, and some T-shirts. We even had lunch with the driver at a local air-conditioned restaurant (The Pelican), which had excellent jerk chicken. All in all, a wonderful day.
Grand Cayman: If you want to experience European prices while in the Caribbean, this is the stop. $1 Grand Cayman (CI) dollar = $1.25 US dollars. Make sure you check the price tag to see what currency is being used. This is a beautiful, safe island. We did the stingray tour through Nativeways Tours, on our last trip, and no one wanted to do it again. If going to the stingray sandbar, try to get there as early as possible, as the stingrays will be hungry and more active. We also had enough sun from the day in Montego Bay, so we didn't want another beach day. It rained most of the morning, so inevitably, it was extremely humid in the early afternoon. We tendered in, like all ships, walked around and did a little shopping. After 1.5 hours we were sweating profusely and headed back to the tender. We were back on the ship three hours before it departed GC, and it is so nice to have no crowds to contend with. The buffet, pools, and common areas were sparsely populated, and we enjoyed the quiet time before the hordes came back.
Cozumel: We found out during the cruise that we would be docking (first time in over a year) instead of tendering. We docked at the Punta Langosta pier, right next to the Rhapsody of the Seas. You are directed/forced into a shopping center before you can leave the area. Again, I looked for a quiet, out of the way place, to spend a nice beach day. Online, I had read some nice reviews about Playa Uvas. We took a taxi ($10 fare) to Playa Uvas, and paid the entrance fee ($7 pp), which includes a drink. This beach didn't measure up to Doctor's Cave beach, solely because Cozumel's beaches are much more rocky. There were very few people here, and we enjoyed the water and the atmosphere. The water is clear blue and we even saw fish swimming near our feet. They have many (free) chairs and umbrellas right on the beach. You can also snorkel or clear kayak with them (for a fee), but we passed. The people coming back from the clear kayak excursion said they really didn't see much. We had a nice lunch of chicken quesadillas and chips w/ pico de gallo (not salsa). After spending three hours there we headed back to the pier for shopping. Nothing special, just trinkets and T-shirts.
Debarkation: In a word, LONG. Due to the extraordinary weight of our luggage, we decided to put our bags out the night before, and not do self-assist. We finished breakfast at around 8:50 A.M., and had to wait until 10:45 P.M before our color luggage tag was called to disembark the ship. After waiting in a few lines, we grabbed (actually waited in line for) a porter, gathered our bags and went through customs. The E-Z Cruise parking shuttle was waiting and we finally got to our car around 11:30 A.M.
Final Thoughts: Even though I pointed out some deficiencies, my family and I had a really good time on the cruise. I feel that if you go in with a good attitude, and roll with the punches, then how can you not have a good time. Both the Carnival cruise line and the Carnival Conquest ship are very well run and know how to give the customer a solid, positive cruising experience. This cruise was a great value and allowed us to experience places that we would not otherwise see. I would definitely take a Carnival cruise again, if I continue to get such great deals.
Tips: Take a power cord, alarm clock, and over the door shoe holder. Avoid the back of the ship, while in the Monet dining room. Bring some beverages in your carry-on luggage for use in your room. Create your own shore excursions. And most importantly, speak up if something isn't to your satisfaction. It can't be fixed, if you don't let someone know. Your spouse doesn't count.