For more than 10 years, cruising to me meant a Carnival Cruise. In fact from May 1994 to September 2005 my wife, Stephanie and I cruised 13 times on Carnival. Over that time we experienced most of the ship classes and considered ourselves to be quite adept at getting around and knowing the drill so to speak. So the prospect of trying out a whole new line had us a little intimidated. Considering this, you'll see that this review will probably serve as much as a comparison of the two lines as it does a review of the cruise itself. Of course I haven't written it yet, so these facts might be just be useless drivel that will only serve to dissuade you from reading this ridiculously wordy review. Oh, lets just get on with it.
The day began at a Hilton Garden Inn in Allentown, PA. Normally we drive into the city for New York based cruises and goof around there on the evening before sailing. This cruise however was from Cape Liberty/Bayonne New Jersey, so driving into the city from the west and coming back out the next morning seemed a little silly. Allentown turned out to be a good place to stop as it was about 5hrs from home and left us with only slightly more than an hour to the ship on Sunday morning. The weather was absolutely beautiful on Sunday but it was windy enough to blow you off the highway if you weren't paying attention. So you can imagine what it was like once at the water. Cape Liberty terminal isn't real pretty to look at, but I really didn't mind its functionality. Its less than a couple miles off of I-78 and pretty easy to find. The line of traffic getting in was rather time consuming. We arrived around 11 and were on the ship by 12:30. Probably half of that 90min was in the car and half in the building. You actually have to sit through the same line if cars twice. You sit through the first time and drop your bags and people, then round the building to enter the line again so you can go park. Admittedly that's a little weird, but it works. RCCL had a lot of people there to handle checking in passengers so this too was a breeze. One thing that is sort of a pain is the fact this building is a good ways from the ship. So far in fact that they put you on a bus to get you there. I imagine this system would crumble if they didn't have enough busses but that wasn't a problem we experienced either going or coming home. For all the oddities of the system it worked pretty well. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention&definitely do the online check in before you go as that only added to the efficiency of the visit to the check in desk at the pier. If I had to compare Cape Liberty with the piers in Hells Kitchen Manhattan, I'd have to say that leaving from Bayonne is much easier if you are just looking to get on the ship. This being mainly because of the traffic inherent to Manhattan and the lack of space and therefore crowded feel of the check in area. However, I would still pick Manhattan for other reasons, such as sailing down the Hudson past the skyline, the Statue of Liberty, and the general NYC feel. Plus as stated earlier, I would more than likely spend the night in NYC the night before to get the complete New York experience. So they both have their good points and bad but I prefer the piers.
Now it may not always be like this, but we weren't allowed to go to the room until 1pm, which left us dragging our carry ons around a little too long. There was a mix up on the previous cruise due to the time change that had taken place that morning so apparently they were an hour behind schedule. Maybe that's why they were so strict about it, but they actually had crew stationed on all the floors near the elevators restricting access to the rooms. Of course they tell you not to go directly to your rooms on any cruise, but this was the first time I've ever actually seen them do something to stop you. For some reason I have neglected to mention our travel mates for this cruise so far, our 2 and a half yr old son Colton and Stephs parents Tom and Judy. Its not exactly easy to transport the carry ons, diaper bag, stroller, etc. so we weren't thrilled with having to move our little circus to the Windjammer without being able to lighten the load at the room, but alas we were given no choice.
Sailing on Sunday evening was tremendous, even if it did feel 20degrees out on deck with the wind chill. Due to the time change it was nearly dark by sailing at 5pm. So to the east we had the always gorgeous Manhattan skyline just beginning to light up, to the west, the brightest red orange sky you've ever seen, to the north the Statue of Liberty and the south the lighted Verrazano Narrows Bridge. What an experience that was! Its just a shame the weather was such that not many people chose to hit the outside decks to see it.
Our first visit to the Windjammer was good. As were the others for the most part regardless of how that sounds. One big difference from Carnival was apparent immediately. The iced tea and lemonade were not available on tap! That may not seem big to everyone, but that was huge to us, as we drink a lot of that stuff over the course of a cruise. They were nearly always available pre-poured on the buffet but that just seemed cheesy and resulted often in watered down taste because of the ice. Ok so this is a dumb thing to whine about, but I'm just trying to point out differences that mattered to me. So point for Carnival in my opinion. Although Steph points out that this cut down on a lot of hassle with filling cups with drinks at crowded times. So its just how you look at it.
As for food in general, I'll give the nod to RCCL. For all the negativity I hear on the boards about the Windjammer food, I was quite pleased with the quality and variety both. Perhaps that speaks to what I was used to with Carnival? I don't know. Anyway, the burgers and dogs were far better on RCCL and the pizza is probably a toss up. :) I experienced a great deal of confusion prior to sailing about the Windjammer and the Island Grill. Let me spell it out a little better so my readers will get it there is no difference it's the same place. There is a big buffet on Deck 11 where you'll likely eat most of your meals. Parts of it are open at different times, I assume as part of an effort to control crowding and confusion. The furthest aft parts of this buffet are open each evening from 6:30 to 9:30 for casual dining. During this time, the only difference is that the silverware is already waiting for you on the table. Its still a buffet and its still in the same place you likely ate lunch.
Returning inside from sailing away the first evening, I was hit with what I thought to be a huge disappointment with RCCL. The Windjammer was closed and not scheduled to open until 6:30. How was I to get hot coffee to thaw my frozen body?!?! On Carnival ships, the drinks are available round the clock in the Lido restaurant. Later on, unfortunately about Tuesday I think, we discovered that food and coffee are available 24hrs at the Cafe Promenade. So I guess I can't complain about that too much. Although, the Lido restaurant area was always a nice place to hang out at any time regardless of whether you were eating since the drinks were available and you could see outside. We did grow to love the Cafe Promenade however, but I'll go into that later.
We chose to have dinner in the Windjammer the first two nights. I for one didn't mind it, but the rest of my group did go to the dining room on Tuesday and Wednesday. The variety of food at the Windjammer was excellent and the quality was good as well. There were generally higher ranking crew circulating in addition to the waiters/waitresses, and they were always more than willing to stop and talk or get something for you if you needed it. Having a 2yr old along on the trip draws a good bit of attention, so we were visited quite a bit by various crew who wanted to talk to him. I don't think I've mentioned yet that he was sick nearly the entire time, so even the most enthusiastic visitors evoked very little response from him. The poor little guy was diagnosed with an ear infection the night before we left for the trip, and got much worse through the week before finally being pretty close to well on Thursday. Anyway, the good was obviously better on RCCL than Carnival considering the Windjammer vs. the Lido Restaurants.
The only experience I had with the main dining room is for breakfast a couple of times. Service was good on all but the last day. Which supports my theory that some of them are only good to you when their tip depends on it. I'm an Eggs Benedict kind of guy and give the award to Carnival for their version. Although for all I know the way it is on RCCL might be more proper. As I've said before, its all in what you are used to. Steph and her folks went to dinner in the dining room a couple of nights and I stayed with and entertained Colton. They had no complaints really that I recall, other than the fact that the menu maybe didn't have quite as much to choose from as we were used to on Carnival. As far as quality everything was fine, especially the steaks and prime rib. Steph brought me back a prime rib dinner on that night and I must say that it was probably the best I've ever had. Service was very good and much more traditional than things have become.
On principle we never go to the fancy pay restaurants but we did go against our don't fall for their nickel and dime you to death crap policy for one lunch when we visited Johnny Rockets. This was very nice and we all enjoyed it thoroughly. At $3.95 a head you get anything on the menu other than drinks and milkshakes. So we had our fill of fries, onion rings, and chili before our burgers even came out! All in all a very good meal and even Colton perked up a little during our visit on Tuesday afternoon. He experienced moments of being himself between all the down times that hopefully allowed him to enjoy the cruise a little bit.
Our accommodations were an interior cabin on Deck 7. So my hopes that RCCL would take pity on us and upgrade us slightly were unsatisfied. Deck 7 puts you 4 decks below the pool deck and 2 above the Promenade. And we were located nowhere near the stairs so regardless the destination a healthy walk was involved. While that got a little irritating over time, it really is better for you on a cruise to have a lot of walking to do considering you eat 3 times as much as on normal days. Well, at least I do. Well, maybe that's not true its probably more like 4 times as much. I always recommend taking the stairs on a cruise and this room location made that opportunity readily available. Having Colton along meant that sometimes we did have a stroller depending on how he felt so that of course meant we had to take the elevator a little more often than I would have liked. You know this brings up something that I thought was a little strange, there were only two sets of elevators on the Explorer of the Seas, forward and aft. Most Carnival ships have three sets, forward, mid and aft. This seems unusual considering the EOS holds so many more people and so much more area to cover. The actual number of elevators probably varies but the location is what determines the ease of getting around, at least in my opinion. Some walks were just a little longer than necessary with only the two elevator/stairs locations.
Our cabin steward was Jose from Costa Rica. He wasn't the most outgoing guy we've ever come across, but seemed nice and did his job well. At first I didn't like the little tags you put on your door that said, make up my state room or do not disturb. But in time I realized it probably did work better because there was no room for error as long as the steward made an effort to get it done as soon as he saw the tag. Normally that's been one of the amazing things about those guys is that they just observe and learn your comings and goings so that they can do their job efficiently without interfering with the guests. Jose did fine though and we were happy with him. Now the question is, was he happy with us? We put this poor guy through a little more than normal due to our sick little boy. At various times over the first three days, he had a few accidents of the vomiting nature. It was so sad. Anyway, once it was necessary to clean the carpet and once it was necessary to change the bed linens an extra time. All of the other times were confined to the shower/bathroom so it was a little less laborious to clean up. One thing I learned that was interesting was that if something happens in the middle of the night, which the bed one did, they have a guy on call who comes to do the work. He was very quick to the rescue and had the bed changed in a jiffy. So I was impressed by that. I didn't know if you were just out of luck until the cabin stewards were back on duty or not. As far as the carpet cleaning, they also have a separate crew for that and the carpets were steam cleaned and good as new before we even got back from breakfast. So this is all big points for RCCL, although I've never been forced to use these services on other lines.
The show the first night was ok, but I never really was able to put my heart into any show due to the little guy being under the weather and more than a little difficult. It featured a comic as well as the usual ramblings by the cruise director about how this vacation was going to be the best you've ever experienced. The more of those little pep talks you hear, the more you wish you hadn't bothered to show up.
On the sea days the ice show was offered twice a day. All I can say about that show was that it was fantastic! I honestly didn't care if I went or not, and had to be essentially drug there by Steph, but man am I glad I went because it was one of the best things I saw all week. The place is very small so every seat is good. We sat in the second row and could see every expression on the faces of the skaters. I don't really know what else to say about it because I don't know much about skating, but I do know it was entertaining as could be. Good music and awesome skating and the hour passed in no time. No matter your attitude about it, or whether you think you'll like it or not, do yourself a favor and go. Its safe to say you won't regret it.
Steph and I have never chosen to do a Bermuda cruise due to the fact that they usually spend so much time there and we'd simply rather stay on the ships. Well, on Tuesday we discovered why cruises stay so long. Bermuda is an awesome place! Absolutely beautiful in every way. The people were nice, the ocean was clear as glass, the structures were colorful, and on and on. Neither of us could believe it had been there under our noses all along and we had so willfully neglected it in favor of the Caribbean or Canada. Now don't get me wrong, I still love the northern cruises to Nova Scotia but I'd trade the Caribbean in a second for Bermuda. It's a very wealthy place apparently. In fact the cab driver we had on Wednesday said the average price of a home is 1 million dollars! Can you believe that? Everything was clean, nowhere did you feel threatened and nowhere were you being pressured by people wanting to sell you something.
On Tuesday we took the ferry, $8 round trip, to Hamilton and strolled around the shops for a while. Almost as soon as we bought those tokens we regretted not buying the day or two day pass. I want to say a 2 day pass was $20 and good for the bus lines as well as the ferry. It worked out fine for us because we really couldn't have done much more considering Colton's condition. We were probably pushing it, dragging him around as much as we did. He did a lot of sleeping that day though so I don't think he minded too much. The bus lines take you anywhere you want to go and the ferry is only about 15 min to Hamilton. Hamilton is an adorable little city filled with scooters, colorful buildings, polite people and lots of palm trees. And oh yeah, wait til you see the businessmen walking around in shorts. We saw numerous fellows walking the streets in complete business attire, including dark socks and shoes, only with shorts. It was crazy! Back at the Dockyards and after lunch we strolled around some of the shopping near the ship. There really isn't much so don't count on being able to stick around the ship for your entertainment when in port. Snorkel Park was a place I had anticipated but it was rather disappointing. Very small beach and no one was out snorkeling. But it was getting late so perhaps that's why. I had heard nothing but good reports about it so its quite possible we were missing something by visiting late in the day. The little mall at the Clocktower wasn't much. Just a few small shops with not a whole lot to look at. I mean, it was fine for just wandering around just before dusk waiting for dinner time to arrive, just don't plan on it for a primary shopping destination.
Wednesday we took a cab to Horseshoe Beach, which was indescribably beautiful. Crystal clear water, ultra fine pinkish sand and rocky surroundings made for a really nice place to hang out for a while. Steph and I both anticipated pink sand, as that's the way its advertised. But in reality, it looks more white than pink. If you pick up a handful you'll see its full of pink specks, so maybe in the right light the beach itself appears pink. But it didn't to us. Not that that mattered of course. It was probably still the most beautiful beach I've ever been too. Well, that's debatable I guess. Steph and I debated what was prettier, Magens Bay in St. Thomas, or Horseshoe Bay in Bermuda. In the end I think we both felt Magens had been displaced as our favorite simply due to the rocks. So all I can say is try it out for yourself and see what you think. The trip was about 20 minutes and cost about $25 ea way. Plenty of cabs were waiting there at the beach for the return trip. The drive over was beautiful, with lots of views of the southern coast line and its various mansions, resorts and beaches. Although being an American I was quite unfamiliar with riding in a car on the left side of the road. I don't know how many times we thought we were going to crash because when you live your whole life expecting opposing traffic to be where its always been, you get a little scared when you see them on the other side. Another interesting fact, child car seats aren't required there either. So Colton experienced his first rides outside of being strapped in his seat. That was a little nerve wrecking but we held him tight and everything turned out fine.
The sea days provided plenty of activities if you were interested. The only thing I did was the ping pong tournament, which was a lot of fun. I strongly recommend participating in the activities on the first sea day so that you might meet some people. Our first day was rather taken up by our little guy so we basically did nothing. So by the time I met some folks to play ping pong with on Thursday, it was too late to bother getting in touch again to play. The mini golf was rather a joke in my opinion. The condition of the course was awful and didn't allow for any serious play. Now of course when you are playing with a 2yr old, its just fine. But it just seemed to me that was one area of the ship in serious need of renovation. As Steph said though, the novelty of being on a ship makes its condition a little more acceptable. If you were to come across that course anywhere else you'd walk on by. But as it was it was ok I suppose. The basketball court was excellent and we did get the chance to go out there a few times. There were four balls laying there at all times which made it easy for people to play. On Carnival, as I recall, you had to go to the pursers desk to sign out a ball if you wanted to play. That of course was ridiculous, so theres a point for RCCL. All of the equipment was plentiful actually, ping pong, golf, basketball, shuffleboard. Everything you needed to play was readily available and in good condition. The inline skate track looked nice but none of us do that so I can't really comment.
The promenade on deck 5 was very cute. Basically it looks, and feels really, like a street in a town with shops and bars lining each side. Tables and chairs from the bars spill out on the sidewalks providing a really nice atmosphere in which to spend some time in the evenings. Cafe Promenade is the anchor for the street and had small sandwiches, pizza, deserts, and coffee available. Specialty coffees and Ben and Jerrys Ice Cream were also available for a nominal fee. Does that term bother anyone else like it does me? How do they know what a nominal fee is? To an NBA player who is fined $10,000 for speaking his mind, that is a nominal fee! To some folks that's a years salary. I know I haven't been cruising very long in the grand scheme of things, but I do believe that once you pay your fare to get on board, all the rest should be gravy. But I guess I'm not necessarily in the majority with that thinking. Or with any thinking for that matter. We grew quite fond of the place and went there for coffee and snacks every evening after we figured out it wasn't necessary to pay for everything.
Cafe Promenade is also a wi-fi hot spot, so you can take your computer there and fire up the internet if you are so inclined. I took mine this cruise for the first time but don't know if I would again. It turned out for the best because I needed to write home to keep my mom informed of the little guy's condition. But of course I could have done that on the ships computers too. You think going in to a cruise that you'll have unlimited time but you never do. The one place the laptop came in handy was for Colton to watch his videos. Come to think of it, I don't know what I would have done without that. He spent a lot of time in bed and while I know he was miserable it had to have helped having his own movies and videos to watch. So in that respect, I guess I'll keep taking along the computer for him. Other hot spots were the 19th Hole bar, the Crown and Kettle bar on the promenade, the library and a few others. There were only 5 or 6 I think but that was plenty. Contrary to what I had read on the boards, service was very reliable and I never experienced any problems with connectivity. Cost wise, its $0.50 a min unless you buy a longer package. I bought a 60 min package for $25, which reduced the rate to $0.42 a min. There were longer ones too, but I didn't want to spend that much of my vacation looking at the computer. Just another tip by the way, always type out emails prior to logging on and then you can just send once you are connected.
Unfortunately we did have the opportunity to check out the medical facilities on this ship on the first day Colton was getting noticeably bad off. There was no crowd and therefore no wait. The check in guy was from Norway and very nice. The doc was from Sweden and also very nice. He explained everything very well and told us that Colton's infection had spread to his throat and tonsils. They armed us with medicine and sent us on our way about $170 lighter in the wallet. Seemed expensive considering we just pay copays here at home, but considering how worried we were about our little guy it was a small price to pay for a little peace of mind.
The casino was nice and had all the usual games. But I must say I was pretty disappointed with the payout. Man, it was horrible. They never even threw us a bone, as if to say, aww come on spend some time with us&nope it was just, thanks for the $20, now get on out of here. So we didn't spend as much time there as we normally do simply because we couldn't afford to and the machines weren't geared toward keeping you happy. Oh well, that's probably for the best anyway. You know what was very good though, and a big point for RCCL? There was no charge for getting money on your Sea pass card. The last few Carnival trips we noticed they charged you three percent for that service. Talk about putting the screws to you! If you are like me, you put everything you can on credit cards that earn cruise points so throwing some money on Sea Pass translates to cruise points, whether you need the cash or not. The challenge is taking it home to put it in the bank before you spend it!
Disembarkation was fine. As usual you have to sit in a public area for a ridiculous amount of time before they let you go like cattle, but that's just a part of cruising. We were out of our room at 8 as requested and then went to the dining room for breakfast. About 9 we made it to Studio B where we staked out a nice plot of floor. By 10:30 we were off the ship. And by 11 we had our luggage, the car and were on the road. So yeah, that could probably be a little more efficient, but considering it's a pain on every cruise, I see no need to complain about it.
Well, I know as soon as I post this I'll come up with something else to add. But for now we'll call it complete, because in all honesty, I'm tired of typing. I hope you've managed to discover a little of what you are looking for about the cruise in here amongst my simple ramblings. If not, please feel free to email me with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org Did you notice how my comparisons of Carnival and RCCL faded away? Yeah, well, so did I. There are some differences, yes. But most of which are just trivial little things like what I pointed out. Even though they are different, the two lines are very much the same. They appeal to the same set of travelers who want good value, a low price, a lot of decent food and a week in the middle of the ocean. Next cruise we're scheduled for NCL, so its going to be all this anxiety all over again. But hopefully I've learned a lesson with this one and will see that it too is essentially the same as RCCL and Carnival. As I said, feel free to email. Thanks for reading.
Mike (mdaviswv) Clarksburg, WV