Background: This was my 8th cruise, 5th with Carnival. We joined Carnival Vacation Club last year and were looking forward to some of the benefits. Our group included me, my dh, and our sons ages 13 and 10. We were joined by my sister, bil, niece, 16 and nephew, who turned 13 while on board.
Pre-Cruise: My sister has a condo in Tampa, so we flew in 4 days before the cruise to do some vacationing with the family. We rented a big van and all eight of us piled in (twice) to go to Orlando. We purchased two day passes for Universal Studios. The weather was unusually cool for Florida, but we enjoyed the park and the family.
Embarkation: On Monday morning, day of embarkation, we all piled in with our luggage and headed to the port. The dads dropped moms and kids portside and we handed our luggage off to the porter around 11:00 am. Funny that my husband and my BIL each tipped the porter, not realizing the other had done so! Lucky guy.
The guys took the van back to the airport rental center and were to grab a shuttle back to meet us. We waited in the coffee shop on the corner for the dads to return. The kids played checkers and my sister and I had a relaxing cup of coffee. It took them about 45 minutes to get back from returning the rental. They returned just as three bus loads of HS marching band kids and their families were unloading. We had to wait a little while to get into the terminal since it was a mass of confusion with the bus passengers.
Once inside, we preceded to VIP check-in. It was very easy. The little waiting area wasn't much to speak of, but we didn't have to wait more than 5 minutes to be checked in. The agent there had not pulled all of our cards, so we did have to wait while she went to find them. I thought my sister and family could piggy-back on our VIP status, and while this was not technically the case, the agent took them to the front of the regular line and they were checked in at the same time as us. After a quick photo stop, we were in the Inspiration atrium by about 12:15! One check plus for the CVC membership!
Ship: Our cabin would not be ready until the posted time of 1:30, so we headed to the Lido. We grabbed two tables by the pool and drinks were in hand very quickly. The kids took off to explore and we started to relax very quickly. We all grabbed some lunch and moved under the overhang as it started to rain. Oh well, we were on the ship so we didn't care too much. The rain caused us to abandon our poolside lounging and go explore a little ourselves. The ship was very clean, crew were bustling around completing maintenance and welcome aboard activities. We were on Valor just last year, and it did take me longer than I expected to grow accustomed to the deck plans of the smaller ship.Cabin: We were in four outside cabins on the Rivera deck. I don't think I liked being that low on this ship because the elevators were very slow and it seemed to take forever to get anywhere. I prefer to be more centrally located. Our cabin itself was clean and ready for us at the stated time. We had cabin decorations provided by the Casino Host, and our lovely chocolate covered strawberries in our both rooms provided by the CVC. There was a bit of a sewage smell in all of our cabins. I found if I kept the lid down on the toilet that the smell was containable. I remember this same problem in the one other Fantasy class cruise I took a couple of years ago.
We met our steward, Leroy at some point that first afternoon. I'm sure my dh gave him a little cash tip up front, as that has always been our tradition. The cabin staff kept the cabins appropriately clean and when we did see them they were pleasant and customer focused. My kids noted that Leroy wasn't as "fun" as our last steward who always shared a joke or two with them…but Leroy actually did a better job cleaning.
Our cabins were surrounded by kids on the marching band trip. We were told that over 50% of the passengers were under the age of 18. While this may have been an issue for some passengers, I thought it was fun and all the kids were polite and pretty well behaved. We have cruised during Easter week four times, and have never had a problem with rowdy or obnoxious kids. Notably, there were not many families with very small children or infants on this trip.
Dining Room: We were seated at the 6:15 dinner in the Mardi Gras Dining Room. Our waiters were Roman and Ciprian. They were efficient and friendly, with a little more jolly attitude coming from our assistant. Each evening, they remembered our preferences and brought our food appropriately…remembering that the kids liked shrimp cocktail and bringing a couple of extras each evening earned them extra points with the folks. After the first evening I did not have to order my cappuccino, as it was ready for me without having to ask.
Food: The only negative experience with any food at diner was my filet mignon. This is usually my favorite cut of beef and I know what to expect. The serving was tough, and I would have sent it back except that I realized that it was not the preparation, but rather the quality of the beef. I had plenty to eat between appetizer, salad and dessert and I did not suffer. My husband said his NY Strip was better. While I greatly enjoyed the chocolate melting cake - the Black and White Souffle deserves an honorable mention…yum.
Ports: Grand Cayman - The seas were rough the day we arrived. Tendering was not good and perhaps the port should have been canceled. We booked the 10:30 Reef and Wreck tour. The seas were very rough and the staff was having a horrible time trying to stabilize loading and unloading of the tenders. We got in line for the tender at 8:45 and didn't make it to shore until 11:15, just as our tour pulled away. The Carnival Excursions Rep at the pier took our tickets and told us we would be refunded. The charge was removed from our sign and sail without hassle.
We decided to get back to the ship quickly after a short port walk and lunch at Sr. Frogs. We didn't wait too long to get on a tender, but back at the ship it probably took over 1/2 hour to off load the tender. Passengers had to literally leap into the arms of the ship personnel who were there to catch you. Many passengers had a long wait on the pier and there was a lot of talk of frustration back on board. Carnival compensated everyone by offering a 1.5 hour open bar on the last sea day, great for us - but maybe not enough for those who had bigger issues.
I kept repeating, a bad day at sea is better than a good day at work...and that attitude was expressed by my whole group, so we didn't let it spoil our trip. I have the memory of a wonderful margarita at Senior Frogs to take home from our Grand Cayman adventure.
Cozumel - A second day of tendering…we planned to take our time and go ashore after the crowds settled. We left at end of the numbering system, maybe around 12-12:30 and took a cab to Mr. Sanchos beach, $30 for all eight of us in a van. Even though we knew Cozumel was hit hard in the hurricanes, it was still sad to see so much destruction. Mr. Sanchos had really eroded and the lovely sandy coast we remembered had a rocky/ cement barrier to protect the beach. The pina coladas and guacamole were as good as we remembered though.
Activities/Entertainment: Our two fun days at sea were nice and relaxing. We did not have issues finding deck chairs one level up from the lido. I did think Risa, the cruise director, had a completely grating and annoying voice, but since I didn't really participate directly in anything she hosted, it was not a deal breaker for me. I played a little bingo, listened to a little music here and there and my dh and I saw the adult comedian who was funny. We don't usually attend the production shows. The casino is our favorite night spot and the casino staff on this trip was absolutely wonderful as they took our money!Camp Carnival: My 10 year old ds was a little slow getting to know other kids. The first evening on board seemed to be geared towards very young children and their families, with not much interesting for the 9-11 crowd. The teens had a meet and greet that got them going from the start. After the first evening, I guided my 10 year old to his events with a little nudging, and he seemed to settle in and have a great time. He enjoyed the arcade, although it was very small with not a lot to keep him busy. The “overnight” party for his age group was a big hit, I wish it were earlier in the week as it would have helped him make friends earlier.
The two 13 year old boys took advantage of the Camp Carnival dances and gatherings for the 12-14 age group. DS won a ship on a stick for wearing a costume at a dance and he also participated in the kid's talent show with his guitar. My 16 year old niece did not lack for company or activities as her cabin was surrounded by marching band boys who quickly befriended her, they went to shows and hung out at Club O2. She gave club O2 a thumbs up.
Highlights: I enjoyed the casino and didn’t lose too much money. I made the finals of the blackjack tournament...won two t-shirts...one on the first night for knowing Denver's name in the Paris lounge (thanks to that advance email to the casino!) and the second for being in the tourney finals. With so many "under 21's" the crowds at the bars and casino were non-existent. I also had a lovely afternoon tea with my sister on our second sea day. My dh and bil made a friend in Bagus, the bartender in the cigar bar who was always attentive and even picked them out of the crowd during the open bar hours to make sure they got their Grey Goose martinis.
Disembarkation: Well, we missed the 8:30 gathering for our special CVC disembarkation benefit…I guess we were just too slow crawling out of the comfy beds. We had plenty of priority luggage tags delivered to us the night before with our instructions to meet in the Library to be escorted off. We showed up at 8:45 and they were gone. We ended up waiting in the Library anyway until the line looked short enough to attempt to move out. It wasn’t long at all. I don’t think the priority tags did any good…the priority holding area was in the back of the terminal and we still had to drag our luggage through the crowd. Once outside, we easily grabbed a couple of cabs and were back at the condo by 10:30 am even without the benefit of priority disembarkation.