Our vacation started about noon, at, of all places, the Brazos Mall. We went to get some jewelry prices to compare with the prices at Cozumel. This was after fussing about getting the last of our packing done, removing a dead cat from our storage shed, and packing up the car. After a light lunch at El Chico, our last taste of Tex-Mex for a week, we headed out to Galveston. A quick trip by the pier, which was deserted, and we went on to EconoLodge, our departure hotel. We determined that it was nearly as cheap to get a hotel room, with free parking, taxi to and from the pier, as park for $10 a day at the pier. An added benefit is that we miss all the madhouse at disembarkation. While others are waiting in line to get to a shuttle, to go to the parking lot, wait in line to get out, and get their cars and get in line to pay, and then get into the traffic flow to get in line to find a parking spot at the terminal, load their cars, and get back in line to get out of the terminal, we hail a taxi, get out at our car, load our baggage, and drive off! We ate simply at the hotel, and watched Star Trek Insurrection to pass the time. We'll see if the noisy neighbors cause any problems going to sleep. We're planning to get up, eat a leisurely breakfast, distribute our baggage, and call a cab to arrive about 11:00 AM.
Sunday, January 25, 2004
We awakened at our usual time (6:00 AM!) with only 5 hours to kill. The continental breakfast at the hotel was typical, with muffins, juice, cereal, etc. We watched a movie and walked along Seawall Blvd. to kill some time. We arranged our luggage into checked and carry-on, and moved the car to the cruise parking lot. About 10:45, we called for a cab. The cab arrived and we loaded up and set out for the pier. The cab was a little "skanky" as Belinda described it. Traffic was light because it was so early. Our cab fare ran $9.70 + 1.30 tip. We gave our luggage to a baggage handler, and entered the check-in facility. Lines were very short! We stepped through a carry-on x-ray station, and went to the "express check-in" section, because we had pre-filled out information online. We didn't wait at all, but saw an agent who verified our documents, scanned our credit card, stamped our boarding ticket, and gave us our "sign and sail" cards. The cards are your room key and on-board credit card. You can buy drinks, art, jewelry, liquor, shore tours, etc. with your card (as long as you pay for it with your credit card at the end of the cruise!). We heard later that there was some type of computer glitch later on in the day that caused some problems, but we did not experience any.
We had to wait about 1 hour to board the ship. Wedding parties have first priority. We were probably in the first 50 on board. They take your boarding picture, which they try to sell you later, and an identification picture that is tied to your sign and sail card. You enter on the Empress deck at the prettiest part of the ship, the atrium. It is an open air space, elaborately decorated and lit, that extends 6 decks and ends with a glass window. There are 2 glass elevators, that give a spectacular (if somewhat slow) view. We took a few pictures, and went to the Lido Deck to have lunch. Tiffany's is a buffet-line (2 lines) restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The food quality is similar to a buffet-type restaurant, not great, but not bad. Water, tea, coffee, juices, and hot chocolate are free, cokes and drinks cost extra. Pizza and ice cream is available 24 hours a day. We did the responsible thing and picked frozen yogurt for our 3-4 ice cream cones per day.
We went around taking a few pictures and video and exploring a little. The weather was nice, around 70 and clear. We requested early dinner seating (around 6:00), but were assigned late seating (8:30). We tried unsuccessfully to change back to early seating, I guess more people want to eat early than late. We then went on a ship's tour with one of the assistant cruise directors. It was interesting, but nothing we couldn't have seen ourselves. We didn't get to see the wheelhouse, the engine room, the kitchen, or the crew's quarters. We picked out our excursions and dropped the sign-up sheet in the drop box, as the tour desk wasn't open. Because this was a last-minute cruise, we didn't have time to arrange outside tours, which others have found better or cheaper than the ship's.
Carnival cabins seem to be a little larger than other cruise lines, at least according to internet information. This cabin appeared to be very similar to our cabin on Jubilee. The room is fairly large, with room for the king-sized bed (made of two twins connected together) and room at the foot, a small seating area in the corner opposite the bed, a desk up against the wall, with 5 drawers, two clothes hanging areas, and a similarly sized shelved area. Hangars are provided for each side. There is a sail & sign operated safe in the center shelved area. There were two other beds in the cabin, both single and attached to opposite walls. We lowered the two beds, and they were both sturdy. The king bed blocked one bed from using the ladder. Use by four people might necessitate separating the king bed into two singles and rearranging so that a ladder could be placed by each upper.
The bathroom contains the toilet, several towel racks, a medicine cabinet over a large sink, a ceramic bowl to contain toothbrushes, combs, etc., and a 2'x4' shower. The shower has a removable head on a hose, and the height and tilt of the head is adjustable. Water is plentiful and hot, and shampoo and body wash liquid are provided via refillable pumps attached to the front wall of the shower. There is a low threshold between the shower and the rest of the toilet. Because of the force of the water and the lightness of the nylon shower curtain, water tends to escape the shower enclosure and is directed to it's own drain. The mat provided each day is necessary to keep the toilet floor relatively dry. Four towels are provided, and they are changed twice each day, as part of the cabin service.
We decided to skip the dinner, and ate hamburgers and pizza at Tiffany's and I got a shot of sundown leaving Galveston in the distance. After dinner, I made quick time turning $20 into $5 at the casino, so Belinda had some money to gamble to match my losses. She gambled on this hokey "horse race". She also showed her luck by buying several "lotto" tickets. After the horse race, there was a game show, where they get people up and they compete for a gold coated plastic ship. After that, we sat through Bingo at $10 a card, and the main Welcome Aboard show started. It was pretty funny, with audience members generally making fools of themselves. The finale was a comedian, pretty funny, who also brought audience members up for a little "MO-TOWN" .
Monday, January 26, 2004 - "Fun Day at Sea"
We slept late (6:00). After showering and dressing, we went up to Tiffany's for "Breakfast at Tiffany's". Standard buffet fare, fruit, cereal, eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, and made-to-order omelettes (that doesn't say I ate all those things, just that they were available). Lines can get fairly long at peak times, but there are two lines (plus a line outside on Lido deck), so they move fairly quickly.
Carnival tries very hard at "up-sell". Want a coke? You'll pay. Want bottled water, ditto. Alcoholic drinks are pretty expensive, I think. The "Drink of the Day" is usually about $6.50 (but you get to keep the plastic glass). When you're on the deck chairs, waiters wander around constantly, asking you to buy drinks. Want to call home? You can, from your room, even, and it only costs you $6.99/minute! Internet access is also available for anywhere from $1.00/minute to $0.55 if you buy lots of minutes in a package. They push lotto tickets, "inch of gold (plate)", liquor, cigarettes, their gift shops, art auctions, casinos (which open early, and close late), Bingo, horse race betting, lottery, raffles, and pictures, pictures, pictures. People are always coming around taking your picture, and there is a huge hallway where they display these pictures, and try to get you to buy them. On formal night, the photographers multiply, allowing you to pose in front of the ship, in front of Mayan ruins, in front of a sunset, in front of a ship's wheel, you get the picture. They also push spa services very hard. "Ionothermie", mud baths, personal consultation, massage, essential oils, aromatherapy, relaxation chambers all are available (at outrageous cost).
We attended a "Shopping Talk", where the ships shill the shops that have paid them fees to advertise. I don't know how much they pay, but the speakers push them really hard, and tell you horror stories about the other non-recommended stores. We're probably going to look at gold and diamonds in Cozumel, but we've looked at home so we know whether prices are reasonable or not. We tried the formal dining room for lunch, with a sit-down meal, waiters, menus, etc. The food was definitely better than the buffet, but it does take longer, and our waiter was a little surly.
After lunch, I crashed for a nap, while Belinda watched "Shipboard Survivor". We then played trivia, where I did well, scoring 18 , but some ladies scored higher, and we didn't win the "ship on a stick". (Hint, the hardest answer is "parking meter"!). Then Belinda went up and sat on the deck, and allowed someone to talk her out of her priceless blue beach towel, that she had check out to her card. Therefore, she was going to have to pay $22 for that towel. She looked all over for "her" towel without success. She explained her predicament to the purser's desk and the deck attendant, so she may not have to purchase the missing towel after all. It ruined her mood for the day, though. I worked out a bit to keep my figure in shape, while Belinda soaked her troubles.
Tonight was our first formal night. Belinda was all decked out in a black sequined spaghetti-strap cocktail dress, black strap shoes, and silver jewelry, easily the prettiest women on the boat. I, on the other hand, wore my funeral suit, with Mickey Mouse tie to add a little color. We took lots of pictures, and then went to the Captain's cocktail party, arriving too late to get the appetizers, and free drinks. However, it was close to 8:30, so we went to dinner. Our tablemates were interesting, and the food was good, with lobster tail and prime rib on the menu (I had both).
We went to the musical type show, which started out with Las Vegas style showgirls, dancing and singing, but Belinda was falling asleep, so we left early. Tomorrow, we discover Chichenitza.
Tuesday, January 27, 2004 - Progreso, Mexico
We disembarked at Progreso about 8:00 and got in line for the tour. Progreso is located in shallow water, so the pier is about a mile long. There were about 8 buses going to the site, and we were in bus #2. Enrique was in charge of the bus portion of our tour. He gave us information about the history of the area, the language, the people, the culture, and the city and countryside we were traveling through. The bus ride was about 2 hours long, (thank goodness there is an onboard restroom) and after 1½ hours, we stopped at a small unnamed village to buy souvenirs. The shops were all connected together, and to get to the restrooms, you had to pass through all the shops. The prices weren't all that good. Evidently, all these shopkeepers had paid a fee to the tour companies, because there were other vendors that were outside the cordoned off area, and our tour guides told us to ignore them. However, I was looking for jaguar heads, and the only shop that had them wanted $40 (bargained down to $30) for one. The street vendors had a couple, and so I walked out to the cordon and bargained with them. They were very insistent, but I brushed off the blankets and the totems, and the handkerchiefs and got a small head for $5, and a larger head for $8. They had a prettier larger one for $20, but I wouldn't go that high, and sadly, left it behind.
Chichenitza is a well tended, fairly commercial park, with gift shop, restaurant, etc. The guides purchased our tickets and gave us wrist bands for entry. We walked down a trail that opened onto the plaza where the large pyramid is located. It is a striking sight, and most of us clicked off a few pictures. It was about 10:30 AM, and very few people were there, so our guide, Carlos, let us climb the pyramid and have a little free time before the pyramid got too crowded. We climbed the inner pyramid (not for the claustrophobic) and saw the figures at the top. It wasn't too impressive, and there was no room to loiter, so we went back down (holding the ceiling, since there were no handrails). We then climbed the 91 steps to the top of the main pyramid. The steps are very steep, and some people climbed them on all fours. I have to admit that I did have to stop partway up to catch my breath. The view was very good (the top of the pyramid is the highest point for many miles around. This part of Yucatan is very flat, with no hills, mountains, etc. I took the chicken(iza) route and held the rope for the climb back down. Afterward, Carlos took us to several ruins, interpreted the carvings, gave us some history and speculation about what happened when the Mayans were conquered by the Toltecs and Spaniards, and generally did a good job as tour guide.
The bus ride back was quiet, with everyone respecting the traditional Mexican custom of siesta. We did not stop on the way back for souvenirs, so get them on the way, if you want them. We arrived back at the ship at about 3:30 pm, just in time. After everyone was boarded, we cast off and started for Cozumel. It was extremely windy when we got back on the ship. Evidently this wind kicked up quite a few waves, because the boat was what most landlubbers called "rockin' and rollin'". Belinda had a headache, so we skipped the formal dining room. The featured act that night was of all things, a balancing act! The motion of the ship caused a few "false starts", but otherwise, the guy did a great job. He balanced golf clubs, balloons, bicycles, glasses, swords, champagne bottles, etc. The motion was especially evident in the Mikado lounge, which is located high and forward. We were low on the ship, near the center, so the motion did not bother us too much in bed.
Wednesday, January 28, 2004 - Cozumel
Today was a shopping day. Due to the strong wind, we cancelled plans to go to Chankanaab and snorkel. People who went on the tours complained about the strong wind. Weather was clear, however, so we got lots of sun. We took a cab ($6) to the forum shops and started our trek. We dropped off the requisite raffle forms, and picked up the featured trinkets. We purchased diamond stud earrings at Diamonds International (but only because we had done our homework and knew what competitive prices were). Prices were much better (for same CCCC) than local jewelry stores, plus no tax, and slightly better than internet prices we had seen (and we were able to see before purchase). The big money spent, I went looking for my purchase (a baseball cap). I enjoy haggling with the vendors, but I do not enjoy hawkers trying to talk/coax/guide you into their shops. The best bargains are to be found away from the center of town, on the streets perpendicular to the main street. We ate at the restaurant in the center of town, somewhat overpriced for standard fajitas. Be warned, the pepper sauce is extremely hot! We snapped a picture of our floating hotel at the pier shopping mall (same stuff as at downtown, but much less haggling on price), and got back on the ship.
Thursday, January 29, 2004 - Belize
We signed up for the Shark and Ray Alley snorkel tour. I got up early to catch the sunrise, however, the day was cloudy, with lots of wind. Not a good day for snorkeling! We met at 8:00 AM and got in line to get on our tour boats. We were the last two on that particular boat. The seas were choppy, and it was a little difficult getting into the boat. After we were all on the boat (about 25 of us), the twin Yamaha V-6 200 hp motors roared into life and we were off. The water was very rough, and it was raining on and off. We were "lucky" to get in the front of the boat, which was covered. We got out of the rain and wind, but were battered by the boat crashing into the waves. There was about an hour of this bashing, punctuated by a few short stretches between the cayes where the seas were blocked. We stopped at Caye Caulker to change, hit the restroom ($0.50 Bz, $0.25 US charge), and get snorkel gear. It was then off to the snorkel location, just off the barrier reef. We tied to a bouy, and got into the water. The water was still choppy, and it was raining, but the water was not too cold. The snorkeling was surprisingly very good. We saw many rays, petted them, swam with them, and one thought I was offering food when I dived down, and brushed up against my back and head, which confused me, and I got up top pretty quickly. We saw barracuda, jack, parrot fish, and a couple of 4-6 foot long nurse sharks. The coral, combinations of brain and fan coral, was very pretty, and seemed very healthy. There were lots of tiny very colorful fish darting in and out of the coral. The water depth started out about 8 feet, but as we got closer to the reef, it was eventually about 1-2 feet deep. We stayed at the edge of the reef, where it was 5-7 feet deep. Once I wandered off from the group, and a guide from another boat had to direct me to the proper group. After about 50-60 minutes, I was getting a little queasy from bobbing up and down and getting a few mouthfuls of salt water, so I got out. I was about in the middle of the group leaving the water, and the others boarded about 5 minutes later. We finished off our disposable film camera.
We removed our gear and took off for Ambergis Caye, where we were to have lunch in St. Martin. After about 15 minutes, we arrived, changed clothes, and ate an authentic meal of rice and beans, potato salad, barbecue chicken, watermelon, and fruit punch. We purchased a bottled Coke instead of drinking the fruit punch. We had about 1½ hours shopping in St. Martin. It is a fairly small town, with sand roads, with golf cart being the primary mode of transportation. We walked the tourist shops, but didn't buy much, because the prices were higher than they were in Cozumel. We did find some cheap ice cream and headed back to the boat for the 1½ hour boat ride back to the ship. The weather had cleared up, becoming sunny and breezy. On the way back, I guess to make up for the rainy weather, the boat stopped at a Manatee preserve, and we drifted into the area to look for manatee. We saw several at a distance of 100-200 yards, and then, incredibly, two surfaced about 3 feet from the boat! I tried to get the video camera pointed at them, but didn't really get a good shot. Belinda was up on the bow and had a great downward view of the ugly but gentle giants, but she didn't have the camera! We then proceeded back to the ship. The crew worked hard to keep us safe, shepherd us in the water, show us wildlife up close, and in general, earned their tip.
Back on the boat, we took off in a meandering course between the cayes and back out to sea. I got a few sunset shots.
The entertainment tonight was a Talent Show. There were 8 guests who performed, and then the crew got involved. The result was a hilarious rendition of "If I Were Not Upon the Sea", involving 10-12 crew members. The highlight was the cruise director coming out dressed in drag, giving one "implant" to the assistant, which he popped, showering the assistant with water. On his way to his spot in the line, he slipped on the water and fell flat on his rear (very much an accident, which he told me later), which slayed the other crew members, because he is their boss!
Tonight was the big deck party, to say farewell to the ports of call. There was a Mexican buffet at midnight, followed by music by a DJ, and dancing on the Lido deck. The Elation dancers lead a fairly large Conga line snaking up and down the ladders and back onto the stage. There were a few group activities, such as country line dancing, and the Electric Slide. We were a little tired from the snorkeling, and didn't stay until the end.
Friday, January 30, 2004 - Fun day at Sea
Today was sunny and warm. We are finally starting to adapt to the late nature of shipboard activities, we slept in until 7:00. After breakfast, at the dining room this time, with basically the same food as Tiffany's, but with slow personal service, and seating by strangers, we set out to bake ourselves. The deck was covered in lounge chairs, but there were several available. We sunned ourselves until lunch (burning the area between my shorts and my shoes), after which I napped, while Belinda went to some activities, such as Survivor at Sea, Battle of the Sexes, etc.
If you're a past Carnival cruiser, be sure to identify yourself when you book, and when you check in. It qualifies you for a reception on Friday, with a free pin, free drinks and appetizers. The captain was there, and we viewed a short video on Carnival, showing the history of the company, and a list of all past and present Carnival ships. The finale was a drawing for a commemorative bottle of champagne, which we didn't win.
Tonight was the final formal diner. Of course, Belinda wore another stunning black dress, and I wore my same suit. The food at dinner has been generally good, with dessert being the weakest course. The desserts generally are strange, with small portions, and if they contain pastry or cake, they taste "stale". This is probably due to the fact that they are prepared in advance. Of course, you can always opt for the ice cream or sherbet, which is always good.
The last Las Vegas style show was entitled "Spin", and was a spinning wheel with different US cities, and when the wheel stopped on that city, the dancers did a number with that city as theme. Dancing was good, the costumes were extravagant, the lead singers were both good, and in general, it was one of the best shows.
Tonight was the "Midnight Buffet". This was a chance for the artistic chefs to show off their work. They use food to craft beautiful and artistic items, which are on display at midnight. There were two ice sculptures, a ship, and this dragon. The food looked pretty, but tasters said that most of it tasted rather bland. As the tasting started at 12:30, and we had just eaten at 8:30, we didn't stay for the tasting, but went off to bed.
Saturday, January 31, 2004 - Another "Fun Day at Sea"
This day, closer to Galveston, was a lot cooler and cloudier than yesterday, so we mostly stayed indoors. There are lots of areas with comfortable seating on the Promenade Deck, where the lounges, bars, disco's are located. We both brought books, and in general read, lounged in the hot tubs (there are 5 on board, not counting the ones in the swanky cabins), napped in our cabin, and in general, relaxed.
The cruise director gave a debarkation talk, which included instructions on baggage, immigration, and debarkation. Everyone was encouraged to attend, but it's really not necessary, because it is played continuously until debarkation. You can bring back $800 per person, 1 liter of liquor and 1 carton of cigarettes per person into Galveston, but no Cuban cigars.
The selling really reaches a fever pitch on the last day. There is a raffle for a free cruise, $2000 bingo, the final horse race, and all the gift shop merchandise is reduced by at least 20-30%. Tip: Don't buy souvenir junk from the ship's gift shop until the last day. There's very little risk of running out, and the prices are reduced. The spa was holding a special, which Belinda took advantage of. Crew members were walking around with raffle tickets and scratch-off lottery tickets all evening. The "inch of gold" table magically appeared in several places.
After the show, we put our check bags outside our room, packed our carry-on's, and went to bed. We realized that Riviera deck was last in line to leave, but that was OK, as we decided to stay on the ship for longer than we did last cruise. The cruise director said that it was OK to change your luggage tags, so you could have figured out which color went first, and changed your luggage tags to match, however we did not.
Sunday, Feb 1- Debarkation
We slept a little late, and spent some time arranging our luggage and doing a final check out of all 4 beds. One note: the announcements regarding immigration, debarkation are not audible in the staterooms, so you have to either leave the door partially open, or leave your cabin to hear them.
We had decided to be one of the last to debark, but as the colors were called, we got a little more anxious to leave. Therefore, as soon as they called our color, we went to immigration. The line moved quickly, so there was only a 10-15 minute wait. We read and relaxed until our color was called, and sadly walked down the gangway to shore.
We picked up our bags, and lugged them to the taxi stand. The taxi situation needs some work in Galveston. The taxis have to wait in line to get to the terminal with all the other shuttle buses, and private cars that are jockeying in and out of the terminal to pick up passengers and luggage. A separate taxi lane would speed up the process greatly. Our taxi driver told us the lack of taxis was due to the fact that the drivers have to wait 30-40 minutes with no meter running, every time they return to the terminal, and that many of them just avoid the area. The fact that there were two cruise ships debarking at the same time also had something to do with it. If you don't have many bags, you could probably walk to the Strand (4-5 blocks) and pick up a taxi more easily. We split the fare with another couple, arrived at the hotel ($10 fare), started our car, and headed home.
In general, the cruise was enjoyable, relaxing, and a good value.