When my parents booked a family vacation on the Liberty I had little interest in a Caribbean cruise and even less interest in a cruise line that featured hairy chest contests and singing waiters. But this cruise was about my family's interests - not my own - so I was determined to make the most of my vacation and began by asking CruiseCritic.com members for advice on how to do so. The feedback I received was so helpful I would like to return the favor and pass on the results of my own experience to people who find themselves in a similar situation.
If you are a land vacationer or upscale cruiser who finds the whole Carnival "fun ship" concept slightly horrifying you will find that the most important key to success is to have the right mindset. In my case, my first thought was to adapt the cruise to my tastes. However when I sought advice on how to make a Carnival vacation as elegant as possible the friendly folks on this board politely implied that I was essentially trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear and that it was better to adapt my tastes to the cruise instead. I immediately saw the wisdom in this approach but despite all my advance research I still wasn't adequately prepared and spent my first few days experiencing what can only be described as culture shock.
A couple of caveats: I obviously can't speak for every Carnival ship or itinerary but to put my voyage in context I was on the newest ship in the line (making it one of the nicest) and the 8-day Caribbean cruise was a fairly pricey one (making the clientele one of Carnival's more upscale).
EMBARKATION / DEBARKATION Not a whole lot to say about this. We were the last ones to board and the process went smoothly other than the fact that we were held up because Carnival had no record of the "Fun Pass" I had filled out in advance specifically to avoid being held up.
Our flight home departed only a few hours after docking so we opted for the "early flight" debarkation figuring it would be one of the quickest ways off the ship. However, we discovered that self-debarking and platinum club passengers both get priority over the early flight passengers so it's really not that quick an option. Lesson learned for next time.
PASSENGERS This is not a typical category for cruise reviews but it is an essential factor when describing the Carnival experience to the uninitiated. After reading the numerous threads on the boards about smuggling booze and wearing jeans as formalwear I had a pretty good idea of Carnival's primary demographic when I arrived on board. But what threw me off completely was the Jerry Springer contingent. This semi-illiterate, loud, ill-mannered and overbearing portion of the passengers may have been a minority but they had a significant impact on not only my experience but also that of my family and a number of other passengers I met. I have to give kudos to my sister for her tactfulness in dealing with her 11 year old son's introduction to this "ugly American" stereotype. She was sure to point out that only a small minority of United States citizens wear their pajamas to the lunch buffet or speak like the Beverly Hillbillies. Luckily the Springer crowd tended to congregate in selected areas (usually ones with easy access to food, alcohol and slot machines). Observant readers will note that much of my remaining review deals with tips on avoiding these areas.
PUBLIC AREAS/ DÉCOR
Good: The theatre is actually one of the nicest at sea according to an experienced cruiser I met and the dEcor is also very tasteful in Emile's buffet restaurant, the Victorian Lounge and The Cabinet bar (providing you ignore the neon green LEDs in the latter room). Also, the ship was kept in immaculate condition throughout the entire cruise.
Not so good: While the Liberty photos available on Carnival's site (and ShipParade.com) are generally true to life, be warned that the dining rooms and supper club tend to look deceptively elegant on film. I would say that they are outright gaudy except that I don't want to hurt the feelings of the high school shop class that must have worked so hard at applying all that gold and silver spray paint and installing all those garish lights.
Drawing from the "more is more" school of thought, many of the bars have an extremely literal theme, employing oversized motifs not just in wall and ceiling decorations but also in every single piece of furniture. Clearly this Disneyland style of decorating is designed to appeal to the children on the ship which is odd considering that children don't often go to bars.
Conversely, the ship's exterior is so uninspired and stiffly angular that one would think it was a leftover from the Soviet bloc.
Good: Next to the advice to adapt / lower / jettison my standards, the best tip I received on these boards was to upgrade to a balcony room where I could retreat when I couldn't possibly take another moment of Carnival "fun". Indeed, the balcony and large window ensured that the room never felt claustrophobic no matter how much time I spent there. Staring out at the sky and the ocean in peaceful privacy, one could easily picture oneself thousands of miles away from anything remotely related to Carnival. In addition to the great view, the cabin was roomy, storage was plentiful, the shower was wonderfully relaxing and the bed was more comfortable than most hotel beds I've encountered. To cap it all off, we received wonderful service from our steward Aubrey.
Not so good: The salmon colored dEcor. (Tip: turn off the fluorescents at night and the color becomes a lot more palatable)
FOOD & SERVICE
Good: I can't comment much on the fast food stations because they were favorites of the Jerry Springer crowd and so I did my best to avoid them. I did however visit the famous 24-hour pizza station a couple of times and I would say that the fame is well deserved. Room service for the most part offered good food and quick delivery.
While the previously mentioned gaudy dEcor kept Carnival's famous supper club from being a "six star plus" establishment as the cruise director liked to claim (apparently Carnival operates its own restaurant ratings system), Harry's cuisine and service were definitely on par with any upscale steakhouse I've visited. Every meal was preceded by a detailed demonstration of the cuts of meat offered and began with a complimentary amuse bouche. Portions were plentiful, dishes were tastefully presented and tables were beautifully set. The impressively high staff to guest ratio and professionalism of the waiters and sommeliers ensured outstanding service (the type of service that some Carnival fans disdainfully refer to as "buttkissing" elsewhere on these boards). Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly) the restaurant was half empty on two of our three visits.
Which brings me to the highly contentious topic of the dinner dress code. This was one aspect of the cruise where I was truly prepared for the worse and so I was thoroughly impressed when the maitre d' announced on the first night that long pants were mandatory for dinner and that those who arrived in shorts would be turned away. As expected, there were few tuxedos on formal night but the diners were generally so well dressed that I felt completely comfortable in mine. At the supper club I would say 50% of men took the effort to wear a jacket except for the last night which was casual yet ironically attracted the dressiest crowd I saw there all week.
Disclaimer: The dress and demeanor of the other diners would have been a much more significant factor if I hadn't been dining at a table reserved exclusively for our family. While I really enjoyed the mixed-seating aspect of traditional cruising I don't think my partner and I would have been so thrilled if we had been assigned to a table on the Liberty with the couple that tucked their napkins into their shirts or the man who was so disheveled that my mother initially thought he was homeless. If you have similar qualms I suggest you take the advice of another couple we met who made a point of requesting a table for two as soon as they arrived on the ship and got a good look at their potential tablemates.
Finally, a brief word about the drinks on the Liberty. After reading booze smugglers justifying their tackiness by blaming the outrageously high cost of drinks, I couldn't believe how reasonable the ship's drink prices were. Of course, I wasn't comparing them to Hooters' prices. Even the bottles of wine sold for much less than you would expect at any half decent restaurant.
Not so good: Initially I expected the food to be unremarkable but the numerous posts regarding Carnival's huge improvement in cuisine led me to believe I would be in for a real treat. However, that wasn't the case. I would describe the buffet quality as being on par with a Denny's or Applebee's. Breakfast and lunch in the dining room was much more civilized than the buffet (must have been the strict "no pajamas" policy) but unfortunately the food usually appeared to have been prepared long before the restaurant doors ever opened.
As for dinner, the dining room was essentially a Holiday Inn eatery tarted up as a Fairmont restaurant. The elegant table linens, romantic lighting and stylish staff uniforms were impressive details that seemed completely at odds with the overall experience. Dinner was always more impressive on the menu than it was on the plate and even fairly exotic entrees like duck and rabbit ending up looking and tasting fairly bland. The service was so rushed it felt like we were in a race with our fellow diners and the hurried removal of dishes after each course created a nearly continuous cacophony of clattering plates and utensils. Whether or not this was the cause for the raised voices at the surrounding tables, the end result was a din so loud that we sometimes had to shout to be heard by our tablemates.
Equally schizophrenic were the formal nights when guests were instructed to dress up only to have their meal interrupted by amateur performances by the wait staff, such as a painfully bad clarinet solo and boy-band karaoke number. (Then again, we're talking about a cruise line that defines sports jackets as "formal" and serves bottled beer in the dining room.)
Our waiter wasn't particularly remarkable. At first he was as haggard as the rest of the staff - likely from the extra work in dealing with a post-norovirus cruise - and made frequent mistakes with our orders. He improved over the course of the week but was never as personable as the servers that waited on us for lunch. As for our bar server, the consensus was that he was just plain annoying.
Finally, I also took in the ship's afternoon tea one day which was decidedly mediocre.
Mixed: The live entertainment at Harry's Supper Club was somewhat more refined than in the dining room but still very Carnival. It consisted of a synthesizer husband and wife duo singing 1980s ballads with a specialty for musical impersonations. Although I often thought I was watching a Saturday Night Live skit I couldn't help but be impressed by their uncanny ability to imitate everyone from Barry Gibb to Julio Iglesias and Diana Ross to Barbra Streisand.
After having discovered the "foo foo" drink through these boards I made sure to try them out. While some were okay, the pina coladas actually tasted like hand soap to my partner and me. While my family didn't agree, the drink server did mention that Carnival had recently changed suppliers and the new ingredients were pretty cheap.
Good: On the night of the Captain's Party a few of us decided to bypass the herd that packed itself into the Victoria Lounge for the cherished free cocktails and instead purchase our own drinks at the lobby bar (God forbid!). To our great delight we found a classical trio playing there and subsequently made a point of dropping by the same bar for preprandial refreshments whenever we had the chance. The music was not only wonderfully relaxing but it also served to ward off the Jerry Springer crowd (much like 7-11 stores use classical music to discourage loitering teenagers). For similar reasons we also enjoyed jazz trio that appeared in the Cabinet lounge most evenings after the late seating.
Mixed: I find cruise ship revues about as enticing as auto show entertainment and the Liberty didn't do much to change my mind. Although the sets and costumes certainly beat out the ones I saw on the Queen Mary 2, the talent on both ships was what my 22-year old nephew aptly described as being somewhere between high school and college level.
Curious about the R-rated comedians I decided to take in a few of their shows. I had expected that the restricted label meant that adults would be free to enjoy routines that didn't have to be self-censored for the sake of younger audiences. What I discovered is that the rating was a directive for the comedians to focus exclusively on toilet humor for the duration of their set. That fact aside, one of the comics was very good, one was mediocre and one was so bad we walked out.
Not so good: I didn't attend any of the ship's numerous bingo games or karaoke contests but I did get to see some of Carnival's (in)famous "hairy chest contest" when played back (repeatedly) on the ship's onboard TV channel. One would assume that such a contest would consist of a crowd of people cheering for the most hirsute contestant. But where's the fun in that? Wouldn't it be so much better if the judge was a blind-folded elderly lady who had to determine a winner by rubbing the chests of the contestants while they gyrated on her lap? (I'm not making this stuff up.)
Good: My preconceptions of cruising were based on a preference for being a seasoned traveler instead of a shepherded tourist. I had no desire to sail on a ship that arrives at a destination only to disgorge thousands of pasty, overfed passengers who swarm to the souvenir stands that litter the port then return to their cabins without ever experiencing the local culture. I now realize that this Wal-Mart scenario is not the only option. Depending on the ports of call, onshore experiences can indeed consist of nothing but beaches and souvenirs or they can offer exciting and educational opportunities. While a six-hour excursion will never allow a person to gain a legitimate appreciation of a country's culture or geography, it can allow for a very good introduction. In my case I got to scuba dive for the first time in Costa Maya and was able to learn a considerable amount about Panama during an unforgettable excursion to the canal.
Here's something else I learned: opting for non-Carnival excursion not only saves you money but also allows you a much more personalized tour and a break from your fellow cruisers.
Good: Based on comments from this board I was prepared for endless PA announcements from the cruise director but in fact there were only about three a day. It was a little tiring hearing about upcoming events that were always "FANtastic", "fun" or "not to be missed" but at least the CD wasn't as smarmy as the one on the QM2.
I also expected to be harassed constantly by photographers looking to sell me a portrait but this was not the case. I suspect it was because they were far too busy dealing with the nightly lineups at their photo stations. (Personally, I have never understood people's fascination with cruise photos - is it really that rare an occasion for them to comb their hair and put on clean clothes? And what's with the cheesy setups like the one featuring a piano (complete with a single rose and martini glass) sitting in front of a photo backdrop of a plantation veranda. Who the hell keeps their piano on an open-air porch? But I digress . . .)
Oh, and the one-time laundry special was an excellent deal - keep an eye out for it early in the cruise!
Not so good: Unlike the photographers, the spa staff lived up to their reputation for giving guests the hard-sell. Here's a tip for minimizing the post-massage spiel: when filling out the health assessment form prior to the massage don't admit to any ailments: it only gives them more ammunition to push their various products! As for the treatments themselves, my massage and facial were fine but the room was so spartan it felt like a gym change room
The Bon Voyage folks managed to get two of my three orders correct. The fruit & wine baskets were in the right cabins but despite both faxing and phoning my order for a white dinner jacket then personally confirming it the week before the cruise, the formalwear shop had no record of my order. Luckily I had only ordered the jacket to augment my own tuxedo so I got along fine without it. (By the way, the Liberty formalwear shop also sells bulk candy in addition to renting tuxedos. Why, I really don't know.)
THE FINAL RATING To sum up my own experience, I enjoyed the rare opportunity to spend time with the whole family, especially my nephews. I am also thrilled to have had the chance to sail the world famous Panama Canal. Did this trip change my opinion of Caribbean cruises? Not really - lying around a wading pool with thousands of other (North) Americans doesn't seem like the most rewarding use of my valuable vacation time or money. Would I sail Carnival again? No, once was enough.
Clearly my opinions are colored by my preference for the finer things in life as well as my previous experience on a much more upscale cruise. In the interest of fairness, I'd like to share my family's views, all of whom are first-time cruisers and not nearly as demanding as I am! - My parents (suburbanites, aged 65 & 70) enjoyed the trip for similar reasons as myself but would prefer a cruise that either offered more to see each day (Alaska) or more ports of call (Europe). - Unlike my parents and myself, my two sisters are quite content lying around in the sun with a cold drink in hand. One sister (suburbanite, family of 3 boys ranging from 11-21) indicated she would definitely take a similar cruise because her previous resort experience was not the best so she appreciated the way this cruise allowed her to visit foreign countries without having to deal with foreign food or languages or unimpressive entertainment. She also said she would choose Carnival again it offered a wide range of activities for her whole family. -My other sister (rural/city background, left the 18-month old at home thanks to the wise advice on these boards) has been spoiled with corporate trips to very nice resorts and preferred those land vacations over the cruise due to the opportunity to escape the crowds, sample foreign food and mix with foreign cultures.
I also surveyed a few experienced cruisers over the course of the voyage and was surprised to find that Carnival was almost universally considered a second choice cruise line. Almost all of the people I spoke to chose the Liberty cruise despite Carnival's reputation rather than because of it, citing either the low price or the unique itinerary. Interestingly enough, that same rationale also popped up in some of the responses to my original posts on these boards. However, the upside of the division of Carnival passengers into first-choice and second-choice cruisers is that you will find plenty of similar souls if you happen to fall into the latter group. We met a couple that was as reluctant as ourselves and who had also decided the best solution was just to sit back and "enjoy the comedy" as they put it. We ending up spending a lot of time together and the end result was a far more enjoyable cruise than if we have never encountered each other.
So, to recap the most important advice for hesitant Carnival cruisers: 1) set expectations low enough to enjoy it 2) bring a similar-minded companion to get through it 3) book a balcony room to escape it
If all else fails, head for the bar.