Firstly please accept my apologies for the length of this review but I assure you this is the shortened version!
We are a couple in our late 40s travelling with our son who turns 17 in early August 2013. This was our third cruise - the first two being with Ocean Village (cruises for people who don't do cruises) and Princess.
This was intended to be our last family holiday together before our son hopefully heads off to university. The choice of cruise destinations was based on our son's dislike of "sat-in-the-sun for two weeks" and the opportunity for us all to explore new places, with the main port of interest being St Petersburg. The fact that the cruise set sail from Dover meant there were no flights required, just a drive of approximately 6 hours from Lancashire without any air con... but that is a different story.
We travelled down to Dover the previous day and stayed overnight in the very basis 2* County Hotel (NB: You get what you pay for). We did not use the port's car parking facility but chose to use an off site Company called Relyon (much cheaper than the port parking but situated the other side of town) who provided us with a shuttle service direct to the cruise terminal. Also one of their representatives was clearly visible directly outside the terminal upon disembarkation and we experienced no delays.
Embarkation was straight forward and after enjoying a lovely lunch on the Lido deck our bags were waiting outside our stateroom. The room itself was quite spacious considering there were 3 adult sized people in it. Our bed was 2 twins pushed together but we had no issues. Our son had a drop-down bunk which was very sturdy and in his opinion very comfy. There was also a sofa bed if required. The bathroom was roomy and bright with a good shower and plenty of hot water. Having bathrobes was a lovely bonus. Service from our stateroom attendant Kade was excellent!!!
The only issue we had was we were directly underneath the Satchmo Lounge. On some nights when we retired early in preparation for a tour ashore, loud music could be heard coming from the lounge until midnight. One night in particular was the night before we arrived in St Petersburg. Not only did we have to be at our meeting point at 7am, the clocks also went forward losing us one hour's sleep. The late music was therefore not really appreciated!
As a family we had previously arranged to explore most of the ports ourselves on foot with the exception of Helsinki and St Petersburg, where we pre-booked a couple of tours online. The 2-day Grand Tour of St Petersburg and the Winter Wonderland in Helsinki.
Let's start with the Winter Wonderland. Once we got over the initial shock that it was totally fabricated inside an industrial unit, we proceeded to have a really fun time. Have you tried tobogganing on a thin piece of plastic smaller than your derrire? Or a husky-drawn sled ride? The owner of the huskies was very informative and invited questions about the dogs and the work they carried out. To cap it all off we got to meet Santa Claus, where Santa's Little Helper absolutely made my holiday let alone day, when he asked "Who do we have here? One father and 2 siblings?"! Children in particular were really enjoying this trip, without the complimentary shot of vodka of course.
Our only gripe with this tour was the cost. On the coach provided there was tourist information booklet on Helsinki. There we saw the entrance fee for the Winter Wonderland experience. Upon our return to the ship we established the cost of a taxi fare and soon realised we could have purchased the trip ourselves at half the price that Carnival charged! A tour guide was most definitely not needed for this trip.
The 2-day Grand Tour of St Petersburg was also expensive but we felt that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience and therefore we stood the cost. It is fair to say that we were a little disappointed with St Petersburg. As we were on a guided tour and didn't walk the streets ourselves, we didn't really get a feel for the place. Also St Peterburg is only just over 300 years old. Living in Britain with relatively easy access to many other locations in Europe we are surrounded by a wealth of history, consequently we were not overawed by the palaces or churches in St Petersburg.
However what we did find fascinating was the depth of knowledge of our tour guide Anna. St Petersburg is her birth/home own and her passion for the city was obvious.
On a down side it did feel like we were being rushed through places. In the Hermitage Museum, Anna would be talking about one room and then would set off into the next room. Because the place was so congested those at the back of the group, us included, would still be looking at the first room of interest when Anna would begin talking via radio loop about the next room she was in, which we couldn't see or refer to. Also, to our knowledge there were at least 15 coaches from our ship on the 2-day tour and we all appeared to be following the same route. As we were not the only cruise ship in port, the tour providers really need to put some thought into the tour routes and schedules in order to make the experience for tourists somewhat more enjoyable.
PLEASE NOTE: An absolute NEGATIVE to St Peterburg and the overcrowding at places of interest is the risk of being a target for pickpockets. An older male passenger from our ship had his wallet taken from his front trouser pocket. The man in question wore casual slacks which had quite open and loose pockets. The only advice we can give is if you don't need it don't take it ashore, and if you do need it, guard it very carefully!
Lunches on both days were adequate but were a bit on the Forest Gump side - you didn't really know what you were having until you bit into it. Both lunches came with a glass of bubbly and shot of vodka and fruit juice for the children.
We thoroughly enjoyed the other ports of call. In Copenhagen we walked round the city getting lost and taking in the architecture. Not to mention almost getting knocked down by cyclists!
In Germany we visited the lovely port and beach of Warnemunde and in the afternoon travelled via train and tram to the nearby town of Rostock. Here we went to the zoo which had a very interesting exhibition on Charles Darwin and evolution.
In Tallinn we took in the mediaeval part of the town, walking the cobbled streets, taking in the sights and enjoying a refreshing beer.
There was so much going on in Amsterdam we have decided to go back at a later date for a longer stay. In the meantime we visited Madame Tussauds and the Amsterdam Dungeon. All the staff spoke very good English which made the trip to the Dungeons quite entertaining. A walk back to the ship through the Red Light District was also a real eye opener for both father and son!
With regard to the ship, there were two separate pools available to us. One pool had a retractable roof and the water was heated. The downside to this pool was that this was where the poolside entertainment took place and was always unnecessarily loud. The open air pool in comparison was quieter but the water was not heated. It should be noted that the pool side music was the same everyday. Surely after over 60 years of charted music, the DJ could find 12 days of music which didn't repeat itself.
We didn't mind the choice of dining options. We chose to eat breakfast mainly from the Unicorn Cafe on the Lido deck. Lunch was either in the same cafe or from the grill near the pool on the same deck. In the evening we chose the 'Your Time' option in the Truffles Restaurant, which meant we were not held to a dining time but could choose anywhere between approximately 6:30pm and 9:30pm. We did not have the same waiters but had a variety dependant on where we sat in the restaurant. There was an additional steak restaurant which incurred a fee of $35 per person. To be quite honest over the duration of cruise we had a number of perfectly good steaks in the Truffles restaurant and therefore could not see the need to fork out unnecessary money where it was not needed.
High pricing seemed to be a standard across the ship. Constantly having flyers handed to us for the spa which was permanently empty - try halving the prices, which by the way would still be way greater than the cost to me in my home town for a similar service.
We were not totally enamoured of the entertainment, the bulk of which required audience participation. The Jazz Show on the first night was so loud with bright flashing lights there should have been a health safety warning! In comparison with Princess cruises who put on a Vegas style show every night, this ship has a long way to go.
We did see some of the other shows but found that some had only just started when they had to end, eg. the hypnotist. We did see some good comedians but were failed to be told that the 'adult' routines were the same as the 'family friendly' routines with the addition of swear words. The jokes were basically the same.
The attitude of some of the entertainment staff also leaves a lot to be desired. At one Trivia question time the host Brett mispronounced the name of the artist Holbein as "Hol-be-in". When he was corrected by the participants his response was and I quote "That's what I said 'Hol-be-in'. Look my teacher tried for 12 years and she failed" and "I went to school in Liverpool". Really? Carnival sold itself to us on it's excellent customer service. People have paid thousands of pounds or dollars for this cruise and this total lack of respect from someone with such zero customer service awareness is unnecessary.
Add to this the bumbling antics of the Assistant Cruise Director Calvyn makes the whole entertainment experience quite painful. The Cruise Director John Heald was very charming and came across as sincere, albeit some of his comedy routines and expressions were predictable. He was witty and quick in his reactions to situations that at times he was the entertainment. In comparison Calvyn was loud and inept in most of his actions. A good example of this was the last Bingo session where he was totally unprepared and gave out vocal descriptions of lines required without the corresponding pictorial image showing on the screen (as per all the other Bingo sessions we attended). He also had his microphone too loud and commenced to clear out the Bingo trolley giving out prizes willy-nilly including a clothes hanger!! On a positive, Katie was very professional!
We also don't need to see the constantly ogling of another human being regardless of someone's preferred sexual orientation. There were usually children of all ages in the audience and this kind of behaviour is totally unacceptable.
And finally we come to gratuities... Britain is not known as a nation of tippers unlike our American counterparts. In order for us to give a tip service, above and beyond excellence is usually required. We paid 277.65 in 'Pre-paid gratuities which was supposed to cover tips for the dining room team, the stateroom teams and alternative staff teams. Carnival recommends that the total daily amount of gratuities is $11.50 per day per person. As there were only 2 adults in our party, our son is still a student and under 18, by our calculation $11.50 x 2 x 12 = $276. So how come Carnival have charged us 277.65 which is over $400? Also how on earth does bending down reaching into a fridge, grabbing a bottle of beer and putting it on the bar justify a 15% bar gratuity? It doesn't... and for that reason we chose not to pay it.
You might think that we are tight but quite frankly in time of financial uncertainty, 277.65 in tips is quite more than enough!
In short we found cruising with Carnival only average and do not envisage travelling with them again.