If I had to sum up the best thing about our cruise in a single word, it would be 'Tandoor' - simply awesome. If I had to sum up the worst thing, it would be 'Excursions' (or lack thereof). More later.
Travel / Embarkation
Since we live in central Florida, we can drive to the pier - 45 minutes doorstep to doorstep. The parking garage affiliated with the Dream is pretty convenient, although bordering on ridiculously expensive at $16 / day. The garage is just across the way from the terminal - a 3 to 5 minute walk at most.
(As a side note, my brother called me the day before the cruise and asked me what time I was leaving for the port. Huh? He said that he forgot his passport. Thank goodness for FedEx. Our cousin was able to mail his passport to my house next day, Saturday morning delivery. It made it to the house by 9:30am, and we brought it to the pier with us. As soon as my brother and his family pulled into the luggage drop-off area, I was able to hand him his passport - crisis averted.)
We dropped off our luggage with the porters before parking. We tried to check a case of water, and the porter informed me that they no longer accept cases of water there. He said we needed to carry it with us on board. Thankfully we took our full size stroller for the baby, so I was able to put the case of water in the basket underneath.
While the full size stroller was very convenient to assist in carrying items during both embarkation and debarkation, next time I would definitely bring (check with our luggage) the umbrella style fold up stroller for use on board the ship. The full size is a bit much for maneuvering around a crowded ship.
One interesting thing worth mentioning during embarkation was a secondary photograph taken just before we walked on the ship. In addition to the usual photo taken when being issued our ship cards, Carnival took pictures of everyone against a green background, just as they do with actors in any modern movie. The concept is similar - just like computers can place the actors in any scene with varying backgrounds, Carnival can use these images to automatically pick out / track individuals no matter where they are on the ship. Hmm, a bit concerning anyone?
After arriving on board by about noon, we were greeted by a man holding a tray of drinks. My wife asked if they were complimentary, and of course the answer was no. It has been many years since I recall getting a complimentary drink as you walked on board. Certainly not on Carnival :-)
We headed up to the Lido deck for lunch. Buffet looked decent, and it wasn't too crowded yet. For lunch, there were several themes that were available every day - Mongolian wok, pasta station, made-to-order sandwiches, pizza, burgers and hotdogs, and of course Indian Tandoor. In addition to those choices, the main buffet area had a rotating theme. This included Caribbean, American, Italian, French, and I'm sure something else I can't remember. The concept was a welcome one - better than the same old dishes at a large buffet.
One thing to note - the Indian and sandwich area are all the way in the back of the ship, past the main buffet area. We didn't see it until after we finished our lunch the first day.
I won't belabor the point, but seeing that my wife and I are lovers of Indian food, I would like to say that we were pleasantly surprised by the flavors and general enjoy-ability factor of the Tandoor station. If you like spicy food, you won't be disappointed. Try the Tandori fish – it is awesome. I think I ate Indian for lunch every day but one, and a couple of times for dinner in the main dining room.
The pizza on this ship was surprisingly good, probably the best I've ever had at sea. That place turns out quite a decent number of pizzas every day. They are open late into the night, which is good for a night time snack. They are about 10" pizzas, cut into 4 slices. Unless you ask otherwise, they put 2 slices on a plate. Don't be surprised if you have to wait 10 - 15 minutes.
Cabin and Drill
After lunch we went to the room to see if it was ready for us to enter, and as luck would have it, it was. (They told us 1:30, but it was ready by 1. If you've cruised a lot, you know they don't like to open up the rooms until the last minute.) The room was nice, especially the balcony (it's been a few cruises since we've had a balcony). It really adds to the cruise experience. This was the first time that I didn't head up on deck during our departure - we just stayed on our balcony, and my daughter and I watched the dolphins and manta rays swim near the ship as we pulled out of Port Canaveral.
Cabin was a bit tight, since we needed a crib for the baby. I would recommend you reserve one in advance before sailing, this way you are sure to have one.
The safety drill was not bad at all. We had to assemble in the main theatre as they explained the emergency procedures to us. Best of all, we didn't have to wear our life vests, and we didn't have to stand outside in the sun. As an experienced cruiser who has done that many times in the past, this was a breeze. I noticed that the Disney ship across from us still practiced the traditional out-on-deck life-vest-wearing drill. RCCL also is as relaxed as Carnival, which again I like. Not sure if this translates to an inefficient evacuation in an emergency situation, but hey what are the odds? (No further comment needed, sailing on Carnival after all :-)
Overall, we liked the layout of the ship. I was pleasantly surprised with the main deck area on Deck 5. A large, long section of the outside portion of the deck extended significantly over the side of the ship. What a great idea! This essentially doubled the width of the outside deck area. Finally someone one-upped Royal Caribbean on ship innovations (although I don't think anything will ever top the Royal Promenade). Also, the Jacuzzi’s on the lower deck were a nice touch.
Since we had a baby and stroller in tow, we had to take the elevators quite often, which I despise. Granted, I am a type 'A' person who likes to get places quickly. Having said that, why the heck do people take the elevator to go down just 1 deck? Are you kidding me? Anyway, as with most Carnival ships, the two main dining rooms are separated by the galley, which to you and me means you can't walk through that part of the ship. That means if you are eating in the aft restaurant, you must walk down the stairs / take the elevator to that restaurant. Those elevators, which for whatever reason, were extremely slow. It was so painful, that we found ourselves taking any elevator that would open, even if was going in the wrong direction.
Half way through the cruise our normally resilient daughter caught some sort of bug, and the only symptom was a fever. The first time my wife took her down to the infirmary the nurse took her temperature (102) and prescribed an over the counter fever reducer ($5.50). The next day she still felt warm, so we took her back and her temperature was now 103.5. We talked with the nurse for a while, and he suggested that we might want the doctor to have a quick look at her (posted charge of $90). We really didn’t want to spend the money, but it seemed like the prudent thing to do. So, the doctor looked at her very quickly, and basically said the fever needs to run its course, and just keep up the medicine and cool showers. On the bright side, they were kind enough not to charge us for that quick checkup. By the end of the cruise, our daughter was back to normal, and the biggest casualty was the fact that she missed the last 3 days of Camp Carnival.
Dining room / Staff
In all honesty, a Hooters waitress could have articulated how their wings are prepared, better than our waiter could have about any meal we ordered. And I do feel bad saying that, because I know how hard the wait staff works. Maybe it was the language barrier - I don't think so, however. I am going to assume that it was just our servers, because we have been on many other Carnival cruises, and the knowledge of the staff was just fine. The service was bad enough that my mother said she wouldn't be taking another Carnival cruise for a very long time. The food itself in the dining room was generally good – no complaints.
Ports / Excursions
The biggest issue we had with this cruise was shore excursions. Since we had a first time cruiser with us (our 6 month old), I specifically called Carnival before booking this vacation to find out the scoop about leaving our child on board while we take excursions. I was told in no uncertain terms that this was not a problem. Now, on the first night of the cruise when you sign up your children for Camp Carnival, I noticed that the papers stated that all infants (6 months - 2 yrs) needed to be picked up by 12pm sharp on port days, no exceptions. Now, considering ALL of the Carnival excursions ended past noon, this was a serious problem. So, I met with the director of Camp Carnival, followed by the shore excursions people, and, no joy. Amazing. So, we had to cancel both our Carnival excursions (full refund). Hate to say this, but we won't be sailing Carnival any time soon, since we essentially missed the ports of call on this trip, due to misinformation.
Camp Carnival staff however, was great as always.
Since my wife and I had been to Cozumel many times, and since my wife doesn't really like water sports (can't wait for the kids to get older!), we decided to just stay in the port area and shop. Cozumel has a pretty decent shopping area right at the port - almost as good as downtown. So if you are looking for a simple day of shopping, and you've been to Cozumel before, the pier area shopping is pleasant (although be forewarned that some of the local shop people are a bit aggressive in trying to get you to come into their shops). If you've never been to Cozumel before, and you're just in the mood for shopping, I would recommend catching a taxi right at the edge of the pier shopping area to take you to the main downtown shopping district. It is only a 5 - 10 min ride and doesn't cost much at all. Just tell the driver to take you to the main shopping area.
Belize was the only tender port on this cruise (thankfully). The tender was about 20 minutes, which seemed like a long time to me, especially since they didn't have any windows open for the trip to the shore. The local pier area shopping in Belize is pretty minimal - again since we couldn't take a cruise excursion, we didn't have much choice but to do local shopping. Everyone I talked to said that Belize was pretty crappy and dangerous, so winging it was not an option. I did end up buying a nice locally carved wooden bowl, made from an indigenous tree. The tender back to the ship was much better, as it was an open air covered ferry. Was very hot that afternoon...
Isla Roatan - Mahogany Bay Beach was a nice treat. We planned this to be our beach day, and it didn't disappoint. It is a simple 10 minute walk to the private beach (need to show your Carnival ship card to enter). There was also a nice chair lift that would take you right to the beach if you are into that sort of thing ($13 adult, $7 child). There are plenty of lounge chairs on the beach, although I would recommend going early to get a decent spot. By noon, most of the good lounges and spots were gone. There is a nice open air place on the beach to buy lunch (burgers etc), music and of course drinks. Overall a very nice beach area and pleasant day. This was the first beach day for our new baby boy.
Costa Maya - port shopping was a pleasant surprise. Mostly locally made merchandise, not made in China crap like many ports. There was even a large pool for guests to use! This was probably my favorite port for shopping. (It seemed like a long walk from the ship to the shopping area, but maybe because it was a bit hot.) Next time, Mayan ruins when the baby turns 2 so we can leave him on board.
Overall, not a bad vacation, for the price. Also, I do want to give a shout out to a wonderful bartender, Duranee, who worked at the Plaza Bar in the heart of the ship on deck 5. She was such a pleasant, cheerful person who always made a great drink. She almost made up for the fact that Carnival screwed us over with misinformation regarding infants and shore excursions. Almost…