Having not taken an extended vacation or cruise since our children were born four years ago, my wife and I decided to check out the Carnival Splendor out of NYC based on recommendations from previous travelers and the children's programs on the Carnival ships. I first cruised on Costa in the Med in 97, and then my wife got engaged in the Cayman Islands while sailing on the Caribbean Princess, so I have some cruising experience. Having never sailed on Carnival, I read quite a bit of these reviews prior to our sailing and frankly, was a bit surprised by some of the negativity, which made me brace for some possible disappointment. However, aside from a few minor issues which I'll touch on below, the entire experience was overwhelmingly positive.
This is going to be a fairly long and comprehensive review based on our experience. I'm sorry for it being so long, but hopefully some of you will find the information useful. This review is from the point of view of a family of four, traveling with 4yr old twins.
First impressions: When driving up to the port terminal on the west side of Manhattan, I could not believe the size of the Splendor. She was mammoth. I figured embarkation would be a nightmare trying to board her with my fellow 3000+ passengers, as this cruise was sold out.
Embarkation: Really quick. Staff was courteous, fast, and efficient. I think it took about a half an hour from the point that we were dropped off till the point that we were walking into our cabins.
Cabins: Since there were four of us traveling, my wife and I, and our four year old twins, we booked two cabins on deck 2. Our main cabin was an ocean view cabin with a decent sized picture window. There was a king sized bed in this room, along with a couch that converted into a large twin bed. We also booked an inside cabin directly across the hall for extra space and beds. This room was slightly smaller and had two twin beds. The kids stayed in the main room, and my wife and I took turns "taking advantage" of the quiet "inside" cabin. HOWEVER, one complaint I will lodge, and this is something to be aware of.....our inside cabin must have been either right alongside or just below the stage area of the Spectacular theater, because during show times, it would get downright loud. Now, most shows were over by 11:30pm, and it would be quiet, but if this would have been our main room, there would have been no way our kids would have slept through the racket. This is something that our Carnival rep should have, at a minimum, prepped us for. Thankfully, the cabin with the window was very quiet.
Room Steward: Our steward, Bernardo, was awesome. He ensured we had everything we needed and always kept our cabins in a superior state of cleanliness, which I would have thought to be impossible with two four year olds tearing up the stateroom every time they set foot in it.
Dining Room Staff: We were on the anytime dining schedule at the Black Pearl restaurant. This restaurant is located towards the front middle of the ship on the 3rd & 4th decks. The staff here realized we were with two young children and we're very accommodating. For the sake of being able to sit close to a window, we did arrive to dinner fairly early every night and we sat in the same section every night with the same wait staff crew, who picked up on all our needs and those of the kids immediately. They were extremely friendly to us and the kids, and bent over backwards to ensure our dinner experience was positive. I read some complaints about the length of dinner service and food taking too long to come out. My experience was that dinner, from start to finish, was about an hour and a half, and we were just fine with that. I hate my dining experience to be rushed, and with multiple courses, drinks, dessert, and coffee, the timing to me is just right. I think that sometimes, as Americans, we've gotten used fast service from our food industry that is designed not on the dining experience, but on flipping tables as quickly as possible. That's not happening on the Splendor. There were a variety of food choices every night, with the menu being split in two every night. On one side of the menu, there are items that you can get every night and on the other side are items that are unique to that night only. The food is very good and I'd consider the majority of the items I ordered to be above average. The menu has a "Didja ever?" section with some unique dining options that we tried a few times. You'll see what I mean. Our wait staff team of Joselito, Nazer, and Roel were all from the Philippines, and they an awesome, very hard working team.
Food in General: The food on the Lido deck for breakfast and lunch was good. Nothing outrageously great and nothing was terrible, just good. Breakfast was the same every morning and there are omelet stations that will make pretty much everything. Coffee is good, however the juice, including orange and lemon was way too concentrated. I needed to water things down by half or more. At lunch, there are a variety of options and things were different every day. There is a deli station at the rear of the ship that makes great sandwiches, Sushi bar, Indian food, a Mongolian BBQ station, a burrito station, a Pizza station (a previous reviewer mentioned the pizza was like cardboard This certainly wasn't my experience as I thought the pizza was above average.) There is also a hot dog & hamburger station out by the Lido deck. This station was mobbed early on in the cruise, but later on in the week, you could just walk up and get a burger and fries in seconds. Desserts were good, but after a while, they all started to taste the same. Towards the end of the cruise, they do a lunch chocolate buffet which borders on being excessive, but I guess that is the point. Finally, don't expect your food to be overly spicy. I think they shy away from that to appease everyone, so you my need to ask for hot sauce or use plenty of salt & pepper if you like your food to have some kick. There are also some specialty food options that you can enjoy for an added fee, which we didn't try. One was the steakhouse, which charges $35 a person for a meal. I heard nothing but good things. The other is the specialty coffee shop, which was charging for specialty coffees, other than the boring old simple cup you could get at the buffet or a dinner.
Activities: In our particular case, we mainly focused on activities geared around our kids. This meant that we took full advantage of "Camp Carnival." Camp Carnival is a huge play area on the 10th deck, amidships, where they break your children down in to groups, in our case, the 2-5yr old age group, and the Camp Carnival staff keep them busy from 10am, all the way through 10pm, and for an added fee, their night owl program begins at 10pm, and ends at 3am. Now in our case, we were just looking for 2-3 hours of "kid free" time a day, so we'd normally drop off the twins at 10am, and pick them up and 1pm for lunch and keep them and enjoy the different pools. Speaking of pools, there are three of them, two of them are kid friendly, as are their accompanying hot tubs. In addition, there is also a fairly awesome water slide that my four year old son thoroughly enjoyed. For the adults, there is an area called Serenity, which was pretty darn nice up on the 11th deck forward. Nobody under 21 allowed and it is nice and quiet, with chairs and chaise lounges that are padded. I understand that on some of the newer "2.0" ships, there is also a Serenity pool, but sadly, the Splendor does not have one. Each day you get a program with all the activities on the ship, and there is never a passing moment where there isn't SOMETHING going on to pass the time. The cruise director would get on the PA system multiple times during the day to give you a rundown of all the activities. If there is a moment that you're not presented with an opportunity to have some fun, then it's because you're just not participating.
Common Areas: As expected, days at sea mean that the common areas are chock full of people. If you're interested in getting a lounge chair, then you probably need to get up to the deck area you want to hang out in no later than 10am on those sea days. The best times to enjoy the common areas are on port days, as the ship is almost empty if you haven't booked an excursion. While my family and I got off at every port, we made our shore trips fairly short so that we could get back to the ship and get into the pools and hot tubs without having to be shoulder to shoulder with strangers. Also remember, the deck layout on this ship is fairly confusing, but nothing you shouldn't get a handle on by the 2nd or 3rd day. The 3rd deck and 5th deck are your friends. 3rd deck is where guest services is and the 5th deck is the deck that runs the length of the ship that has the coffee shop, sushi bar, casino, sports bar, arcade, red lounge, piano bar, and the Morocco lounge.
1st Stop - San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Entering the harbor, you sail right past the Il Morro fort, which is beautiful. Our ship docked right in the heart of Old San Juan. The port area is beautiful and they are doing a great job of revitalizing the area. You can walk the entire Old San Juan area, but a lot of it is uphill if you're trying to get to the forts. The closest and largest fort to the dock area is the San Cristobal fort, which is impressive in its own right. There are tons of shops and restaurants and this was my favorite stop due to the proximity of everything and it wasn't a port controlled by the cruise lines. This is something I'll elaborate on further.
2nd Stop - St Thomas, USVI. This was a very picturesque port, although the immediate area where the ship docked could stand to be spruced up a bit. Immediately off the ship, there is the Haversight Mall, which is a collection of typical cruise shopping stores, such as Diamonds International, Jewelry, Watch, Gold, liquor, duty free etc. That type of stuff doesn't interest us at this stage. However, there are a ton of souvenir shops with cool t-shirts and other gift items to buy. There is also this cool sky rider cable car ride that takes you to the top of this hill with a great view, but it is currently undergoing renovations. Having been to St. John before, I'm fully aware that there are awesome beaches here in the USVI, but we did not take an excursion here. We got back to the ship fairly early and enjoyed the sparseness of the ship.
3rd Stop - Grand Turk. Pulling into Grand Turk, you feel like you've landed in paradise. The water is crystal clear and the beach area appears to be white sandy beach, but nothing could be further from the truth..read on. Also, it appears as though Carnival has invested heavily in this port, building an obviously cruise shopper inspired type mall that you're forced to walk through as you disembark. There is also a free resort style pool area, with a surf pool that you can use for a fee. There is also a Margaritaville here along with your typical cruising shops. Now for the bad part...if you want to get a lounge chair on the beach, make sure you're off the ship fairly early, otherwise it'll be impossible as all the loungers get taken. The beach directly in front of the ship is cruise ship property, so the locals won't bother you, but if you walk down further, there's a property line where all the locals are lined up attempting to entice you to visit their establishments, casino, restuarants, get your hair braided, and boating watersports. I didn't see anything dangerous here and it looked like people were having fun. The other bad part is getting into the water. You have to be VERY careful, as what appears to be a sandy bottom is actually hard as concrete coral rock, which may look smooth, but looks are deceiving. When you first enter the water, there is a dip that takes you into a trough of sharp rocks before leveling out to the relatively smoother hard as concrete with the occasional hole coral layer. Here, the water is never more than 3-4ft deep for about 100 yards, before there is a drop off where it appears the coral was cut into to deepen the water for the cruise ships. Bottom line, the option to use the waterfront area is free, but if you want a nice beach experience on Grand Turk, take a beach excursion. My wife fell on the rocks and cut her foot, so our stay on Grand Turk was a short one. Once again, we took advantage of an empty ship and used the pools and hot tub without the overcrowded feeling.
Sign & Sail Card - The card you always carry with you is your sign & sail card. This is the card that gets you on and off the ship. It's also the card you use for your onboard purchases. Remember, that on a cruise, all that is covered is your lodging, basic food, and basic drinks and juices such as orange juice, lemonade, and coffee. Everything else is a cost. Alcohol, soda, and specialty shops, such as the coffee shop are all considered premium, and will carry an additional expense. Also, the ship's photographers are ALWAYS taking your picture, and if you want to buy them, especially the larger prints, they can add up fast. My family, after it was all said and done, buying a drink or two at dinner, getting a massage, buying a few photos, and the prepaid gratuities, we probably laid down an addition 1K in onboard expenses and we were being conservative.
Gratuities - Carnival automatically deducts gratuities. Usually on drinks the charge is 15% and then there is a standard breakdown taken out for service staff, such as your room steward and dining staff. If you're uncomfortable with this or want to control it, all it takes is a stop by the guest services desk to work out your own formula or take control of gratuities yourself. We left our arrangement as it was, and, towards the end of the cruise, personally gave an additional tip to people we felt went above and beyond the call of duty making our experience a memorable one. The staff really does work hard and they appreciate anything you give them.
Disembarkation - If you're able to handle all your luggage on your own on disembarkation day, then this is the option I recommend, as you will get off the ship first and in a quick manner. However, if you pack everything but the kitchen sink and need your bags handled for you, this will make you wait a few hours before you can get off. With having young kids, we had no choice and we're given disembarkation number 16. It took approximately two hours after the ship docked to get our number called. However, once it was called, it was a speedy process, as we were off the ship, found our bags, went through customs, and got picked up in under 15 minutes. Final observation. I'd book another Carnival cruise in a heartbeat and I highly recommend the Splendor. If you know what to expect, this can be a very pleasurable cruise, especially if you're in NYC area and don't want to travel to Florida to jump on a cruise ship. My minor annoyances were petty, such as feeling nickel and dimed at times for a few things, but that is the way it goes. I think Carnival gives you a lot of bang for your buck. Also, if you're looking for a cruise where it's all young urban professionals, with no tattoos, in khakis and sweaters tied around their necks, you're going to be disappointed. This cruise was about as diverse as you can get, but in the end, everybody seemed to be having an enjoyable time, everyone was courteous, and I actually appreciated the diversity.
Final Analysis - Given the opportunity, I'd sail on the Splendor again. In about a year or two, she'll probably be due for an overhaul as Carnival moves to its whole Carnival 2.0 experience. However, I hope the cruise industry doesn't dive too deep into the commercialization of its ships. The day there's a McDonald's or Burger King on a cruise ship, that'll be the day to reconsider going on a cruise. The other thing is that at time, you may have the feeling that you're being nickel & dimed to death, but that's the cruise industry. You can certainly get by not spending a dime other than gratuities, and even then you're not obligated, but the folks on the ship certainly do earn it.
Anyhow, I hope my review helped you. It was a pleasant experience that I'd certainly consider doing again, but given the vast number of cruise ships out there that I'd like to sail on, I may never sail on the Splendor again, but I do thank her for the memories she provided for me and my family.