On the whole a very nice first-time cruise experience on the Carnival Conquest.
Note: We did not assess things like the bars or the casino because we did not use them.
EMBARKING / DISEMBARKING. We had read stories about standing out in the heat waiting to get aboard. That was not our experience. We arrived, waited in the shade or indoors in relatively short lines, and were on board within 30 minutes.
They need to do a better job at ports of call communicating expectations for first-timers that don’t know the drill. For instance, it would be helpful if there were signs advising what documents are needed to get back on board (e.g., don't need passport, but will need photo ID and the ship card). And a sign asking returning passengers to remove hats and sunglasses would prevent the need for them to continually have to ask passengers to do so.
The final disembarking at first was fairly straightforward, perhaps because we carried our own luggage so we got off earlier. But then we ran into an issue with the shuttle to the airport we pre-paid Carnival for. I went down early in the morning to Guest Services to find out where we needed to pick up that shuttle. She told me there would be a bus with "Carnival" on it and that they would have a list of those that had pre-paid. But when we disembarked there was no such bus (perhaps because they got us off the ship earlier than planned @7:30 AM). So I approached another Carnival employee re: where I should go for the prepaid shuttle, and he sent me to a woman who led us to a van. En route we learned that this would cost us $10 per person and that it was not affiliated with Carnival in any way. $32 wasted.
GENERAL. Some things on board are covered in the costs, and some things are extra charge. They could probably do a better job letting first-time guests know which is which.
The daily newsletters are quite helpful, although they could be organized better to reflect how passengers prefer to get their information (e.g., pre-answer their frequently asked questions).
The automatic charge for tips is supposedly optional. Although we planned to just go with it, there was nothing communicated to the passengers that this would hit their accounts AFTER Tuesday and then could be adjusted or declined. Realistically, this is something that should be able to be handled up-front and online.
CABINS. The cabin was small, as expected, but livable since the room arrangement made good use of the space. Good use of mirrors to make the room feel more spacious. Comfortable bed, no strange smells, clean bedding, good lighting, and mostly quiet (only one night did noise from an event on the deck below intrude).
Our excellent cabin steward Pandita kept the room very clean, had a great and ready smile, was always polite, always knew our names, and was always timely in his work.
Opportunities for improvement in the cabin include:
1) There was only a single electrical outlet in the entire room. Even with the extension cord we brought, it was difficult to cover two cell phones and a laptop on one end of the room, and the medical CPAP machine on the other.
2) It would have been nice to have a clock somewhere in the room
3) The TV monitor was too dark and the controls were not evident. We probably should have asked for help on that one.
4) The ship-wide announcements were very difficult to hear when the door was closed ... should have speakers in the room with an on-off switch so guests have the choice as to whether to hear the announcements.
-The overall ship was clean and seemed well designed
-The pools and whirlpools were clean and well laid out, and were numerous enough that you could usually get into them whenever you wanted
-The public elevators were numerous enough that most of the time the wait was minimal
-The public restrooms were ubiquitous, although a bit hard to find at times. Nice high speed hand dryers
-A few things were in need of repair:
---Part of the outside deck on level 3 was blocked off for some reason the entire cruise
---One hole in the mini-golf course required putting the ball up a stone ramp which was so chipped and broken that no ball could roll up it (seems like a simple patch job)
---We never tried to use the water slide, but heard it was shut down for repairs although we never saw anyone working on it.
-The song and dance show we attended was well done and tasteful, although it seemed at times like they were lip syncing the songs
-The Comedy Club was mixed. The first performer spent most of his time complaining that there were only 20 or 30 people present (I counted nearly 100). But the second comedian was much better at engaging everyone and left us all chuckling afterward.
-There was a comedy/hypnosis show which, although funny, was a tad unsettling. It just felt wrong when he made a 6'4" US Marine believe he had lost his belly button and reduced him to tears.
-The ping pong "tournament" was a joke. The tables are outdoors with metal nets in high wind. Six people showed up and they just arbitrarily divided them into three teams of two. Team A played team B, and the winner played team C. That was the entire tournament, for which the 1st and 2nd place teams got medals. The gal organizing it knew little or nothing about ping pong, including the rules.
-The mini-golf course was fairly simple but nice
-They did a gourmet cooking show where they prepared four dishes in front of us and then gave everyone samples. Very good idea and well executed.
-It was also fun to go to the demo showing how the stewards make those great towel-animals
-They had a giant chess board by the one pool on the Lido deck (2' high pieces). They might want to consider seeing if anyone wanted to sign up for chess matches because it was pretty well ignored.
-Ditto for volleyball or basketball games, or even shuffleboard competition. A little activities organization would provide opportunities to better use the facilities, like they do for bean-bag tosses.
FOOD. As expected, the food was more than plentiful and, for the most part, of good quality.
-The buffet was just a typical buffet where you dine if speed, variety and/or quantity were your priorities
-The Main Dining Rooms were excellent with great daily variety and wonderful preparation & presentation
-The Guy's Burger Spot had some of the best burgers I've ever had with a great toppings bar. I was curious as to how they made such great burgers, but they were cooked behind closed doors and brought out in metal trays.
-The Blue Iguana Cantina soft tacos and burritos were fairly good, and the Salsa bar had a very good variety of topping options
-The Pizza Pirate pizza was also quite good, and the 24-hour availability left me determined to get a piece at 3 AM "just because!"
-The Fish and Chips station in the upper buffet area was fairly good, although not well promoted. It had more than just what was expected, including things like ceviche. The only negative here was that the "chips" were really just thin French Fries, although they did have malt vinegar at all the tables.
-We were disappointed to learn that they had eliminated the sushi station and replaced it with the Taste Bar
-They also advertised a stir-fry station, but none of the crew seemed to know where or when it was available (including Guest Services) and we never did see it
-The only bad tasting food we had was the Seaside Theatre popcorn which was awful (tasteless Styrofoam). A simple and fairly inexpensive opportunity for improvement would be to provide a little butter (real butter, not the fake stuff at cinemas) and a little optional salt. To go the extra mile, seasoning shakers would be a really nice touch (e.g., cheddar, garlic/parmesan, pesto/garlic, buffalo wing, caramel, cheddar/jalapeno, ranch, chili/lime, chocolate, cinnamon sugar).
-Because of all the variety and availability and quality of food, we had to be very mindful not to overdo it. At one point we got "fooded out" and had to adjust our dining approach. Next trip, since the onboard food is already paid for in the cruise price, we would limit our on-shore dining to things we could not get on board (e.g., local food), eating them as snacks and nibbles instead of full meals.
SERVICE. In the Main Dining Room we were particularly pleased with the head-waitress Olga and her two main assistants Putu and 'I Komang.' They were friendly, very attentive, very helpful, and by the 2nd visit already knew our names and preferences. Water was constantly refilled and plates were usually bussed immediately. Obviously well trained (kudos to Carnival management) and very adept at what they did.
Olga was particularly impressive with the way she managed a lot of moving parts yet still was able to engage her customers personally!
Our wonderful cabin steward Pandita was excellent, with an infectious smile, a helpful and very polite personality, and a great work effort which yielded very timely and high quality cabin prep and cleanup!
The only negatives we experienced with service was (ironically) from Guest Services. When we would ask questions of crew members they would send us to Guest Services. Then Guest Services often lacked knowledge about what was going on aboard ship (What is the show about? What are the Main Dining Room menus for the week? Where/when is the Asian stir-fry station?).
Additionally, the lines are often long at Guest Services. They might want to consider leveraging a floater to step in when that happens.
And then there was the whole fiasco with the prepaid shuttle to the airport mentioned earlier.
PORTS OF CALL – ST. THOMAS. Very nice, with a lot of shops and eateries right near where the ship docked. The view is very nice, particularly if you take the cable cars 700' up to Paradise Point to overlook everything.
Ate lunch in town at a nice place called Gladys' Café. Their jerk chicken wings had the best sauce I ever had on a wing ... tangy, sweet, a bit spicy, and thick like a glaze.
The music in the streets (especially the steel drums) and near all the shops and at the bazaar was nice and added to the ambience.
The taxi to take you to town was reasonably priced at $4/person, albeit unusual … a converted pickup truck with seating for 12.
SAN JUAN. We had hoped to take in much of Old San Juan's historical sites, but were short on time and took a tour bus. That proved to be a mistake since we saw much of NEW San Juan including the poorer parts of town where we got stuck for some time on a narrow street behind a delivery truck. We also only stopped where the driver wanted, which meant some of the places we had originally planned to walk to we only saw as we drove by.
What little we saw was quite good. Piqued my interest to go back again.
The hustle and bustle of the shops and street vendors was interesting, as were the street musicians.
Ate lunch at Cafe El Punto (Punto de Vista) very near where the ship docked. Very nice food, especially the churrasquitos (steak tacos) and carne frita (deep-fried pork with plantains).
GRAND TURK. We had planned to just treat Grand Turk as a day of very light shopping (there is not much there), a light meal ashore, and mostly just relaxing at the beach under the palm trees. To that end it perfectly fit the bill.
The beach to the south of the pier (to the right when approaching the shore) is only sand out to about mid-thigh. Then it turns into bowling-ball sized sharp and painful rocks. Only go there if you want a more-quiet less-crowded place to relax and don't intend to do anything in the water.
We ended up re-locating to the much better (but much more crowded) beach north of the pier.
The only real places to eat nearby are Margaritaville (in the main area where you first come ashore) and Jack's Shack (about 600 yards north along the beach). We ate in Margaritaville, where the cracked conch was initially good until we got some pieces that were quite chewy (breaded and fried rubber bands), the "coconut" shrimp was fairly tasteless, and the BBQ Jerk wings were a disappointment.
The NASA mini-museum was interesting, although it really seems out of place.
We rented some snorkeling equipment to watch the little fish (4” to 12” long) in the swimming area.
On the whole a very nice and quiet day.
SUMMARY. Despite a few irritating deficiencies, the cruise was on the whole quite enjoyable and a good value. We are already planning to go back, this time with the entire family (12).