This was our third Carnivial cruise in three years. We sailed on the Elation (2011 from Mobile) and Dream (2012 from Florida). Conquest was right in between - to me it had just enough of the "large boat" features such as the speciality bars, steakhouse, balconies - without as much of the crowds. We felt Dream was too crowded - it seemed most of the added space was simply cabins - the public spaces were not increased in proportional size so there were lines for everything and often customers were turned away. We loved Elation, but it lacked some of the modern day features that we still enjoy.
My review is prefaced by two pieces of information, one about us and one about this particular cruise - 1) We are true believers that travel and cruising in particular is partnership between the cruise line and the guest - the guest has to know what they want and how some reasonable expectations of how that typically happens and how to articulate those needs - and the line should make it happen. Too many times we have read reviews or heard complaints about how the cruise line simply didn't anticipate their unspoken needs - or the person didn't speak up. We call these "first world problems" - for example we heard one passenger complain that on a sea day it took him 10 minutes for the staff to cook his pizza and it wasn't fast enough. However, he admitted the pizza was fresh and cooked to order - he simply thought the staff should have read his mind that he needed a mushroom and onion pizza right now. If you don't share this basic philosphy - then my review probably won't help you much.
2) Our cruise was truly "off-season" - right after the kids go back to school and before a holiday weekend. We understood from staff that this sailing was about 500 passengers below capacity - the rooms were all booked but they were booked at double and not triple/quadruple occupancy. There were very few kids, and the cruise was mostly middle age professional to retired couples. I think this altered the typical experience in a positive way for us - the staff had more time to pay attention details, wasn't rushed and as a result, with a very few exceptions - provided us with the best customer servicer experience we ever had on a crusie. The kitchen was as busy, there were no lines, and embarkation and disembarkation was a breeze because there were simply few people.
Now for the real review....
The Top 5 - (the things that made our cruise great)
1) The staff at the Alchemy Bar (Adri, Tatsianna and Polona) was the highlight of our cruise, and perhaps any of our crusies. This is a relativly new concept on Carnival - its a "hippier" type mixology bar where they make speciality cocktails based on your drink preferences - not the standard bar menu. We particularly enjoyed Adri's mixology class on the last day of the cruise - and I actually learned something about making martini's. Imagining learning something on vacation.
2) The dining room staff (Fernando in the Monet dining room in particular) was the best we have had yet, and the food was also the best overall. Only one piece of meat was sent back the entire week. No doubt, this was helped by the fact the dining room was pretty empty for the 8:15 dinner, by the far the emptiest I have ever seen it on a cruse. Of our assigned table for eight - only one other couple showed up on a regular basis for dinner. The other 4 people came only for the first formal - and disappeared. Another table next to us in his section was empty most of the cruise.
3) We did the bamboo massage on embarkation day, and it was worth the pricey tab. My back (which gets creeky) didn't hurt all week and it set the tone for the week.
4) We also did the chef's table for the first time - which is private dining expereince for 10-12 guests (at $75 each) with the executive chef. We learned they only do it twice per seven day cruise - so only 24 people get to do it per sailing. It was an amazing nine course meal and worth the $75 plus extra tip. The chef du cuisine met us in the galley, gave us a tour and the pastry chef taught us how to make the famous melting cake. Wine was included in the price and the dinner lasted nearly three hours. The only negative - we learned the chef's table menu is actually approved by corporate - so it is not a true chef's table of the chef du cuisine on each ship although they have input into the menus. So doing it again on another ship won't get a different meal. But the food and experience was worth it.
5) We were easily able to get a deck chair on the aft upper level overlooking the adult pool on all three sea days - this was no doubt helped by fact that there were fewer passengers.
The Bottom 5 (things that detracted from the cruise - keep in mind many of these are somewhat minor - but worth noting)
1) The Loyalty/Promotions Director (Anna) seemed stressed and was outright rude to me on the last day of the cruise. Unless you were there to book a specific future cruise - she was not interested in talking to you at all. Period.
2) This ship seemed noisery then others - like the rooms/halls weren't very well insulated. Deck 7 is a good deck because you have rooms above and below you to insulate a lot of noise - yet we heard everything in the hallway from our bed - including evertime a crew member went in our out of the galley/crew door across from our room.
3) Our stateroom steward was in a hurry to get our room cleaned - so much so that I absolutely had to make use of the "Sleeping/Crusing" sign. He knocked on every door that didn't have the sign promptly at 8 a.m. In the evenings, he knew we were doing the 8:15 p.m. late dinner, yet he still knocked or tried to come in to do turn down service right at 6:30 - while we were showering and getting ready for dinner. Mind you our room was cleaned perfectly everytime - but it seemed like if he got everything done in the first hour of his shift - he thought he would get a longer break so he wanted you out of his way.
4) Tendering at Grand Cayman was a mess both getting off and back on the boat. On previous crusies with tendering, you arrived at common location (usually a lounge) and got a group assignment number and they then called you by number. Here, everyone was lined up on the zero deck, which caused a huge line to back up several decks. This was the only time we had lines - getting off the boat. Also, another Carnival ship tendered next to us later in the day, and when it was time to load up, we had fewer tenders so it took longer, even though the other ship was in the middle of its visit and its tenders were empty going back and forth. Right before our scheduled departure (and as about 750 passengers were still being tendered) there was huge thunderstorm and many of those passengers got soaked waiting in line at the terminal. Had they diverted tenders from the other ship which didn't really need them, they would have moved everyone in 30 minutes instead of an hour.
5) There was a distinct lack of information from the cruise director (Cory) with useful information - he only spoke when he was advertising a Carnival event or selling something. On prior cruises, our cruise director gave us weather forecasts, local port information and other useful information and assisted in letting us know when we got to port when the boat had cleared local customs and was ready to unload. On this cruise the cruise director was silent - you had to guess when it was time to get off which meant everyone showed up early and the lines got long. He didn't even handle disembrcation - that was done by the Assistant Cruise Director (Matt). And Matt was either hung over or not yet awake at 8 a.m. - his announcement were often jumbled and had to be repeated.
Overall we made it a great cruise - we had a good mix of spending time alone on our balcony (I read an entire book) and finding interesting people to meet and spend time with (our dinner couple who did show up was amazing). This is what you make of it - if you wait for Carnival to simply make it happen - you might be disappointed - vacation requires being somewhat proactive.
Also, one little final note. We book all our excursions through tripadvisor and cruise critic - we never use the line. We wind up spending a little more sometimes (maybe an extra $50-$100) but we get 100x the value being in smaller or personal tours. I highly recommend it. You are spending $1,500-$2,000 on the cruise - spend an extra $150 on your exercusion and get the personal touch.