Now that it's been weeks since we got home I finally have time to write a bit.
This cruise was a Christmas gift to my daughters and grandson. No, I'm not rich. My dad left me a small inheritance last year and my sweet husband insisted I put some of it aside to "play" with as I saw fit. From the day our second daughter was born, 33 months after her older sister, I began dreaming of a Mom and Daughter Trip when they were grown. This trip was a tick mark off my Bucket List and it spent the last of my play money.
This review includes the following cast of characters:
Kathy/Mom: me,AKA the Monkey. My girls kept saying, "Give the Monkey a banana whenever I wanted something they did not. This was my 5th Carnival Cruise (3 on Conquest, 1 on Victory). I also have 1 NCL cruise, a trip on the Alaskan Marine Ferry up the Inside Passage and an army transport "transatlantic cruise" from Germany to NYC in 1958 under my cruising belt.
Katie: Daughter Number 1 - has cruised twice but never on Carnival and she is mom to Colton: Grandson age 5 - his first cruise
Kristie: Daughter Number 2 - has cruised once before with her dad and me in 2009 on Conquest
The grandson was included since I am usually his Spring Break caregiver. The other males in the family were quite jealous.
We usually sail from Galveston but I picked this cruise for the ports and Sunshine. We had originally planned to leave Arlington on Friday afternoon, drive to the Austin area where Kristie lives, spend the night, get up early on Saturday and drive to NOLA.
At 4:30 on Thursday afternoon that plan changed as it dawned on all of us that Katie and never been to NOLA. SOOOOO, a quick phone call to the Holiday Inn in Metairie and a new room booking later, our plans updated.
Katie and I had our nails done, did a couple of errands and then picked up Colton from school at lunchtime on Friday morning. A quick drive through lunch and we were headed south on I35.
We were in the Austin area and at Kristie's house by 4:15, loaded her gear, goodbyes to the 20 month old granddaughter and, after a Sonic break in Elgin, we were on our way!
The girls tag teamed the driving of my Annie the Equinox - stopping about every 2 hours to stretch, potty, and switch drivers, and I sat in the back with Colton. I read to him, he played on his iPad, I texted with my husband, and we all got caught up on each other's news. Including the news that Kristie and her Jordan have accepted a job in the UAE (she will be teaching science) beginning in August! Wait! What? You are taking our granddaughter away? Why don't you leave her with us for the 2-5 years? (A no-go, by the way, darn it)
Colton napped after we said his prayers about 9 but never did sleep soundly and for long. Katie napped slightly while Kristie was driving at one point but mostly we were all awake all night. We got to the hotel about 1:30 am.
We got our room keys and headed to the elevator (Katie only does stairs, by the way). Imagine our surprise to find luggage in the room we entered! Luckily no inhabitants...must have been on Bourbon Street. Katie's key didn't work at all but we heard a baby crying so we think we woke up occupants of that room as well.
Back downstairs I go to the front desk. They had had a computer crash earlier and had been hand assigning rooms. Someone had forgotten to mark these rooms as assigned. After many apologies we had new keys to a suite and another room, breakfast vouchers and all sorts of of freebies.
We were finally in bed about 3:30. Up at 8 for breakfast and a day of sightseeing.
We took Colton to see Elation in port so he'd have an idea of what a cruise ship looked like, as well as driving over part of the Pontchartrain bridge, visiting the WWII Museum (which he called the Airplane store) and many other things.
Acme Oyster House for supper, a quick trip to K-Mart (which we no longer have in our area) and then to Morning Call for the best beignets ever.
FINALLY got to the terminal and got a porter to get our luggage.
He pointed us in the right direction and we flew to the doors. They took our photo first which was new for me, this was the first "Give the Monkey a Banana" Moment as the girls weren't thrilled with the shirts I had given them to wear but whatever it takes.
Thanks to the Priority boarding of our suites, we flew through check-in and we were on board at a new all time (for us) early time of 11:20 am!
Dropped off our carry-ons in our rooms (2 suites, side by side, on Deck 7), spoke to the room steward who promised to open our balcony door and divide the beds (oops! someone missed a memo) after his break, took a few photos, let Colton open the gifts he found waiting for him (sand toys and a Carnival bear) and we headed to the Lido for an early lunch. Mark, our steward, was amazing, by the way! We loved him.
The rest of Sunday was spent checking out the ship, touring the Spa, touring Camp Carnival, going to the Camp Carnival orientation and unpacking and sitting on our balcony and enjoying our trip down the Mississippi River.
My thoughts on Sunshine? Adding more staterooms took away from common areas and the common areas left are not all adequately used. I saw John Heald post that Carnival is going to add more chairs and sofas to Deck 5. They need to! It's the perfect people watching area and there are several hundred feet of an area with huge windows and nowhere to sit to enjoy the view.
Regarding the smell in the Lounge I kept hearing about? Nothing. We were in the Lounge twice within 3 hours on Sunday. Once for Muster and once for CC orientation. For about 30 seconds I caught a slight odor during the CC orientation. It smelled like stale diesel fuel - which does smell like sewer sometimes but it was gone as quickly as it appeared.
Speaking of Camp Carnival:
The Boy was so excited about Camp Carnival that he cried when he realized he wasn't going there on Sunday. Sadly, once he got to CC on Monday morning he didn't really care for it.
They break up the ages poorly...his group was 2-5. Many 5 year olds are in Kindergarten, and like Colton, they are already reading. Two year olds, especially early 2 year olds, are still babies, not talking well and still taking naps. His complaint was "too many babies" so we didn't send him back unless he asked - both times after lunch so the babies were all in their own cabins taking naps. We met several other parents of 5s who had the same comments and whose 5 year olds had the same complaints. How sad to go from so excited he cried that he couldn't go to detesting it in the space of a few hours. He was only there 2 mornings and 2 afternoons. Afternoons were definitely his preference since the little ones were generally asleep!
I taught preschool for 9 years. I would never have put 2s and 5s in the same group. Too much difference.
He had a great cruise so it wasn't the end all of his experience but it's something we're going to keep in mind in the future.
Sunshine's "Confusing" layout:
I've seen lots of comments about Sunshine's lay out. I admit to being confused and not by the layout. I have not sailed Dream, Magic, or Breeze so I don't know what those ships are like but Sunshine is very similar in layout to Conquest and Victory and they are the same as all the other Conquest and Destiny class ships. The galley is in the way on decks 3 and 4 if you want to walk from one end of the ship to the other. In each case you have to go to 5 to get to 3 or 4. No big whoop. We almost always book on Deck 7 and almost always have the aft dining room. We walk to the Deck 7 aft and either use the stairs or elevator to get to Deck 3 for meals.
They are definitely trying to monitor "chair hogs" better. We saw stuff on chairs at 6 am that were still there at 8 with no one around. Starting at about 8 a Carnival employee began wandering through at 40 minute intervals. If the chair was person-less, she put a sticker with the date and time on it. When she returned in 40 minutes if no one was there still, she took the towels, clothes, etc to the bar area and someone moved into the now empty spot.
We had Tuesday night reservations to the Steakhouse - Fahrenheit 555 - but because Colton wasn't feeling well Katie stayed with him and Kristie and I went to dinner.
We have eaten at the steakhouse on each of our cruises that had that option. This was my favorite. It's upscale and classy without being weird. I loved the venue and it's almost hidden and quiet location.
The meal was delicious as always. The staff was very helpful, too, as they packed up Katie's meal and sent it to her. I'm glad she got to enjoy the steakhouse's fare, too.
We did two excursions which involved snorkeling. My daughters had a ball. The grandson and I did, too, but we had beach time and playing in the water and building sand castle time.
The Mesoamerican Reef in the Caribbean Basin is the largest coral reef in the Atlantic Ocean. The reef extends nearly 700 miles from the Yucatan Peninsula to the Bay of Islands in Honduras. More than 500 species of fish and 65 types of coral live within the large reef system. The Belize Barrier Reef is a part of the Mesoamerican Reef system. The reef extends from Ambergris Caye in the north to the Sapodilla Cayes in the south. This 185-mile-long reef covers an area of 237,962 acres and is protected by the UNESCO World Heritage program. The reef includes a phenomenon called the Blue Hole that’s visible from space.
The Girls had a great time snorkeling in this reef again in a second country. Katie says she could have snorkeled all day if given the opportunity. Since they were snorkeling near the sand bar it was still very shallow so it was trickier not getting too close to the reef and risking killing a piece of it.
Kristie said some species of coral can sting divers and snorkelers who brush up against it. Hydroids, commonly found in shallow reef beds and resembling plume-like plants, also cause stings, as do some types of sponges. Reactions to a sting from one of these animals typically appear as a rash or inflammation lasting for a few days. Katie must have brushed against one of the stinging creatures since she emerged from the sea with a rash on her arms that lasted several days. Thankfully the ship sells hydrocortisone cream since that's about the only thing I hadn't packed in my first aid/medicine kit.
Friday was Cozumel and Dolphin swim. It was amazing.
I tell everyone what good experiences we've had with Carnival's Guest Services. Our first cruise part of our luggage went into the Gulf on the last morning as luggage was being off-loaded. We were treated better than I can explain - including a free cruise and all our losses paid for as well as new luggage.
It's a good thing that was our first experience because this cruise had several negatives with guest services and the shore excursion desk.
I booked two different excursions which said "5 and under" free. I did a screen shot of the details online of both excursions and printed out them screen print. I got charged for Colton both times. I called my PVP, he put me in touch with the shore excursion department by email, and as I was writing my email to them I realized the second excursion changed to "3 and under" as I was writing the email so I included my screenshots.
The excursion people answered within an hour. The person said, yes, it had changed but I had ordered before the change and they owed me for two excursions. I was to go to the shore excursion desk once we got on board and they would refund me the price of the excursions as OBC. So, the first thing we did when we got on Sunshine was go to the excursion desk. The man working there said his boss was on break but he would try to help me. I always travel with a binder that I call my Travel Book. It includes everything - passport, tickets, hotel confirmations, copies of documents, copies of emails, and what have you.
I showed him my paperwork, emails, screenshots, etc. He picked up the shore excursion book and showed me where the Dolphins were free for Colton but not the Sharks and Rays. I pointed out the emails addressed that issue. He said come back when the boss is here about that one but sign here for credit for the Dolphins. It took three more trips and several conversations before I finally got the second credit.
Went to the Dolphin excursion and two tickets said Dolphin Swim and one said Dolphin Encounter. The guides put me in the Swim since they could see a mistake had been made. They called Carnival as I listened to the call....difference will be $38. BUT when we got back from the Dolphins I discovered I had been charged another $129 for the Swim. Never have gotten my refund.
As I'm dealing with the shore excursion fiasco, Kristie is trying to email with her husband. Except her internet minutes are gone. Except they aren't. They show as there but they won't work. She called Guest Services and the next 65 minutes was just one dumb thing after another. First they told her it was an error and they would get it back on. When it didn't come back, she called again, and they told her it was MY error and I had to go to the GS Desk and show them my card so we can reactivate her S&S card. Which I did. Still nothing. Another phone call and they told her SHE had requested them to untether her account from mine.
In her words....
if you focus on the negative, you could have a really awful time. Believe all the bad reviews you see, if you want, but we have a lovely balcony, wonderful waiters and fantastic room steward and are having a wonderful time. Just ignore the messed up folio problems (somehow my folio was untethered from the group AND inactivated), the missing photographs (my mom tends to BUY ALL THE PICTURES), the total lack of non crowded public areas, the craptastic shore excursion desk staff and it's all good.
Yes, they untethered her account from my credit card and then tried to convince us SHE had asked for that to happen.
Um, no. This was my gift to my girls. I promised the trip wouldn't cost them a dime. She definitely would not have untethered her account. They finally blamed it on a computer crash the day before and we were finally all back online. Except they gave her her minutes and then gave me the same amount. Back downstairs to let them know we had too many minutes. I was assured no, we didn't have too many minutes. Well, maybe not but *I* didn't buy 395 minutes! I finally gave up trying to convince them they were giving me something for free.
We spent Saturday playing and getting a little more sun on Sunshine.Hair appointments, swimming, sunning, reading, Build a Bear for the cousin, taking photos, just a great day at sea.
Final Day Morning:
Embarkation was a dream. Debarkation, not so much. We were to be in the Forward MDR by 8:15 so at 8 we made our way out of breakfast in the aft dining room and headed forward. Katie doesn't use elevators and I don't use stairs going up so we split the girls heading to the stairs and The Boy and I to the elevator. They made it to the meeting place. We did not.
You know how there's always someone who thinks they are more important than everyone else? People began crowding in the Lobby although no one, other than Self-Assist, had been called yet. They ended up turning off the elevators and trying to turn people around who were on the stairs. Poor Butch. He was making announcements and you could see he was frustrated. I've never seen such a mess.
While waiting to be able to get down the last flight of stairs once the elevators were off, I listened to one guy who kept saying, "They told us we could get off at 7 am and here we stand at 8 o'clock." After about the 15th time I heard his tirade I turned and looked at him and replied, "Sir, I don't know who "they" is but this ship isn't technically due in to port until 8 am. NO ONE ever said you could get off the ship BEFORE IT WAS DUE TO DOCK." His wife turned to him and said, "I told you they didn't say 7." He didn't say anything else. It took about 30 minutes to get people out of the way and order restored. Colton and I made it to the meeting spot at exactly 8:15 and we were off the ship by 9.
Since we had to drive home we didn't wait on the hotel shuttle, instead taking a taxi back to the Holiday Inn to let them know we weren't going to be on the shuttle and to pick up the car. Led-foot Katie drove most of the way home with Kristie navigating. We made a couple of potty and gas breaks but mostly we just headed home.
Colton and I sat in the back and read, worked on his journal, and played games. He napped a couple hours so I worked on my journal.
We started his travel journal last year on a 17 day, 10 state, 10 family member road trip vacation and we continued it on this cruise. Each night he and I would talk about what we/he had done that day and I would write down his thoughts and comments. If he was asleep at dinner and didn't wake back up when we got him back to the room he and I would do the journal the next day. I am a journal person. I think we are losing our written history and I hate to see that happen so I'm a big advocate of journaling in some form. I've always had a diary or journal and now I have an 11 year old blog. I also write on paper wall calendars. I have every one since I was 12 and in the 7th grade. The journal technique of writing and reading worked with Colton's mom, aunt and uncle when they were small although they stopped as teens. A couple of them journal again in an informal way, calendars and written word in Facebook notes. We'll see if the 15 year old Colton is still journaling in 10 years.
We were back in Arlington having dinner at a favorite restaurant with the men in the family at 6:15. Not a bad day's drive.
Thursday, March 12 found us tendering in Belize City, Belize.
This was a MESS! We had room service breakfast at 6, watched the ship port, and, after yesterday's need of a tardy pass, we were in the lounge well before our appointed time today.
It went very well, although it was running about 10 minutes behind, until about the time our number (45) was called. Just about the time 45-47 were called those who had priority tendering from milestone status or FTTF were also released to go to the tenders from the area where they had been stationed. So, suddenly, the stairs were clogged with both sets of people vying for the same area and space. We were on the stairs for 45 minutes as we attempted to go down 3 flights of stairs to get to the tender. It was a mess! Members of our excursion were on 3 or 4 different tenders. We took the tender and then immediately got on another (tender size) boat to get to our excursion on Caye Caulker for the Sharks, Rays and Island Getaway, and, although it didn't take but about 10 minutes to gather everyone from the various tenders, by then we were an hour late getting started. Our excursion was supposed to be 5 1/2 hours and it was, we got back about the time the ship should have sailed. There were 3 other excursions later than us so we sailed about 30 minutes late. Pretty impressive, all in all, that it wasn't much later.
The excursion was wonderful. It takes about a hour to get to the island but there is some sightseeing involved on the way there. There is a brief stop to order lunch and change clothes/take a potty break before reboarding the boat and heading to the sandbar to find the nurse sharks and sting rays. We also saw Mangrove Forests and lots of cool islands and houses on the way to Caye Caulker. During that break a gentleman from the island brought a sea star (starfish) for us to see. Kristie is a biology major who teaches high school science. She was most intrigued with it as was her nephew. She reminded us that most sea stars can only live an hour or two out of water, this one was out of water about 10 minutes.
We saw lots of sting rays. I have "done" Sting Ray Alley in Grand Cayman. I liked it better from the point of view that I thought the guides were more interesting and explained things better. Our guide this time just kept saying, "Be careful where you step.". Well, Duh.
Our guides in Grand Cayman explained to "scoot" along the sea floor, never raising your feet, so as not to accidentally step on a ray. I showed that technique to Colton and he was good to go. We were in very shallow water so even he could touch the watery ground.
There were lots of rays of varying sizes. We also saw lots of conch shells.
It was a bit cloudy and Colton got cold. I took him back to the boat and the others went with our guide to the reef for some more snorkeling.
Although the excursion is billed as "Rays and Sharks" the nurse sharks were in low supply.
Colton and I saw two sharks. One small one as we got back on the boat and another (maybe the same one although it seemed larger?) as it swam under the boat and out the other side. Katie and Kristie saw one as they were swimming back from the reef.
After everyone was back on the boat we headed back to Caye Caulker for lunch. It was a tasty lunch, ready for us as soon as we got there since we had placed the order earlier. The price was good but I didn't have anything but 20 dollar bills so I needed change...which arrived in Belize money. I left part as a tip and gave the rest to our room steward. We ate at pre-assigned tables. Ours was next to a grill area that had tables and swings for chairs. Colton played on the swings as we were getting settled and our food was arriving and again after lunch.
Without the stops we made going to the Caye it was a shorter (and speedwise must speedier) ride back to the port.
The captain of our excursion boat said he used to tender his excursions directly to the ship but that Carnival has told him he can no longer do that so we got off one boat and onto a tender and then off that tender boat and onto the ship. We got back to the ship about the time it should have been sailing and there were 3 or 4 excursion groups still
In November when I told my daughters what I wanted to give them for Christmas Katie immediately sat down with Colton to show him photos and YouTubes of Carnival Ships, Sunshine in particular, and shore excursion ideas.
He saw a dolphin and, remembering a trip to Sea World two summers ago, asked if he could pet a dolphin. She laughed and told him maybe. When she told me what he'd said I decided to make certain it happened. On Christmas morning when he checked his stocking to see what Santa had left there was a photo of the Dolphin Swim and Lunch shore excursion and a note from Santa explaining that Colton would have to wait until Spring Break to get to use his gift. Almost as wonderful as his reaction? Children 5 and under are free with a paying adult. HavinsNest Family Motto? Never pay full price.
Friday in Cozumel was Colton's big day. We got up early, had breakfast and set out for our excursion, again making certain to arrive early at the meeting spot. When Santa booked this excursion it was for Chankanaab National Park but by the time Spring Break arrived it had moved to Dolphinaris. I can't rave enough about this excursion.
The downside was: Went to the Dolphin excursion and two tickets said Dolphin Swim and one said Dolphin Encounter. The guides put me in the Swim since they could see a mistake had been made. They explained to Carnival as I was listening. Should have been $38 difference but when we got back from the Dolphins to discover I had been charged another $129 for the Swim. Never have gotten my refund..
It was very well organized (although they do exit you through their photo sales area) and it was lots of fun. Life jackets are required, an all you can eat buffet lunch is included, the trainers are very knowledgeable (ours was quite passionate about the animals), and the 40 minutes in the water with the dolphins seems much longer. They run a lot of people through this place (I admit to wondering about the dolphins although they seemed in great health and appeared to be enjoying showing off - one of them kept nudging Kristie as though she wanted a "love"). There are 20 dolphins and I think I counted 8 pods of people, each with two dolphins. There is a separate area for Dolphin Encounter people so that is probably where the other 4 dolphins were. They do not allow you to use cameras in the water. Supposedly for the safety of the dolphins. Perhaps so but it certainly helps their bottom line since they sell a lot of photos and videos of their own that way.
We got our wrist bands and headed towards the lockers - rental was just a couple of bucks, as I recall. You can snorkel and swim after your dolphin time but we chose to eat, do a little shopping (had to buy The Boy a shirt and stuffed dolphin, doncha know?), and watch other groups in the water. The excursion is over at a set time - a 3 hour excursion. Taxis take you to the Dolphinaris and pick you up from there arriving about every 5 - 10 minutes so I got the impression you could stay a while longer if you were so inclined. We left just after the 3 hour point and did a little shopping in the terminal area as we wandered back to the ship.
I have a KYSS bag, purchased with this trip and our June cruise in mind. This excursion was when we test drove it. I love it. So did the girls. I will be purchasing one for each of them. I highly recommend it. It held everything we took with us (including 4 Carnival towels and Colton's Batman towel) and still had room. The lock was easy to use and it held fast. Don't know why I didn't invest in one before now.
We are rule followers (and I detest being late to anything) so we sat in our room and patiently waited to hear a "we have been cleared and you can leave the ship" announcement which we've had on past cruises. At about 9 o'clock, knowing our excursion was at 10) Kristie called to check with Guest Services to be told, "Oh, we didn't make an announcement today but you can leave at anytime.". O-Kay. Gathered up and headed out.
After checking ship's time with my watch (mine was a minute faster) left the ship, had our photos taken, and then we scurried to the meeting spot at the end of the pier for our tour... only to find we were late! Luckily only a few minutes late and they hadn't left yet so we hurried to the little boat we were taking and climbed on; we were not the last 4 passengers to arrive. It seems others had been waiting for an announcement, too. There were announcements the other two days, by the way.
I began investigating underwater cameras months ago. After lots of research and many recommendations I settled on the Olympus Tough - 820. This trip was our first experience underwater with it. It did so well I bought a second one during the cruise to give to Kristie to take to their new home on the Persian Gulf.
This excursion was great.from the moment we got on the boat until the moment we got off. The food, the beach, the snorkeling, the hospitality, everything. LOVED it and will do it again.