Personal Cruise History:
I'm 30 years old and have lived in New York all my life. I was 21 when I took my first cruise on the S/S Norway (she originally took to the seas as the S/S France and was later re-christened the Norway). That was the cruise where my wife, Debbie, and I got engaged. I have since cruised about a dozen times on many different lines, including Norwegian, Princess, Windstar (our honeymoon trip to Tahiti 7 ½ years ago) and our most recent, Carnival. I've cruised to Bermuda, all over the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal, across the South Pacific and up the Inside Passage in Alaska. I've favored Princess over the years, but I've had great experiences on all lines I've been on. I've been on ships grand and small, new and old. I don't really have a favorite. I'm willing to try any ship on any line (with the exception of the Carnival Jubilee which I've heard nothing but bad things about). This was the first cruise Debbie and I took with our 5-year-old twins, Sam and Amanda.
Even though our ship didn't depart until 10pm Sunday, we chose to fly to our departure port of San Juan a day early - just in case. Given my position as an airline employee we get good deals on airfare, which comes with the added bonus of flying standby. For those of you not familiar with standby travel, this means that unless you pay for the gate agent's coffee and pay his rent for the next two months, you don't get a seat on his plane. Luckily, I felt like the ship's casino was going to be good to me, and I ponied up the rent money for Justin. He gave us the last row on the plane, but we were going to San Juan. We arrived on Saturday around noon and headed straight for the Wyndham Condado Plaza Hotel and Casino (an $18.00 taxi ride from the airport). Another airline employee perk is that we got the $340 room for just $99 for the night. Since we last stayed at the Condado Plaza it was taken over by Wyndham and renovated. Truth be told, it looked the same to me all except for the giant Wyndham branding iron that they made people back into. When I called the hotel directly to make our reservation, I requested a room with a king size bed and a pullout sofa. The pullout sofa was only available in a room with two doubles. The king wouldn't be ready for at least another two hours. We relented and chose the available room (it's all the same since we're married anyway). The weather didn't let us down, and within about 15 minutes of checking in the kids were sailing down water slide built into the rocks and garden at the pool. I swam up to the bar and ordered two expensive and decidedly un-stellar pina coladas. The room was average. It featured a private balcony which, from our third floor perspective, had a spectacular view of the top of the building next to ours. I was still able to step outside, plug in my itty bitty book light and read while smoking a Churchill length cigar after everyone went to bed. Churchill must have been a champ because it took m e a good couple of hours to finish that thing. After sleeping in (in kids terms - until 7:30am), we got a small breakfast, headed to the pool for a while longer and finally checked out. The taxi to the pier cost us about $20.00.
The taxi ride to the pier took about 15 minutes. Along the way we passed the Dawn Princess - truly a sight to behold because of her size. We were dropped at the entrance to the Carnival Destiny's terminal where we were accosted by a wild throng of hand-truck wielding porters. One porter assured me that he would get us through the line quicker, so we piled our bags on his luggage taxi and literally ran after him. Having booked our cruise just days prior to leaving, we were scheduled for pier pickup of our documents and had no luggage tags. No problem - while it slowed us down a bit, we got the tags before we entered the terminal and the porter filled them out and attached them to our luggage (ka-ching!). It cost me $10 for the porter to fill out our luggage tags and get us through to check-in. Based on a prior Carnival review I had read, we did have the foresight to use Carnival's 'Fun Pass' online pre-registration. The 'Fun Pass' line was longer than the standard line, but we used it anyway. When we got to the counter I was told that even though I had the registration confirmation printed and in-hand, it somehow never made it to the computers in San Juan. We had to fill out all the standard forms. It took a few minutes longer, but we made it through fairly easily. After registration we went to another table to get our 'Sail and Sign' cards, moved along to the embarkation picture station (ka-ching!). We boarded minutes later. As an aside, when departing from San Juan there is a duty free liquor store right on the pier before check-in. That's where we bought some liquor and sodas to enjoy during the cruise. We hid them in our carry-on luggage so they wouldn't be taken away when we boarded.
Our cabin was a category 4C, number 6225. It was an inside cabin, but roomy enough (185 sq. ft.) for four people with two lower beds (convertible to queen size) and two bunks. Nothing makes a kid happier than a bunk bed! Upon arriving in the cabin, we noticed that the lower beds were still separated though we requested them to be arranged in a queen formation. This was when we first came in contact with Glenford, our cabin steward. He instructed us to go wait on deck and said he'd get to it. When we touched the Carnival branded towels that were neatly stacked on the bed, Glenford told us that they were for shore excursions only, and that if they didn't come back we'd be charged $22 for each missing one (Welcome!). We dropped our bags and went out to explore. About an hour and a half later, we got back to the cabin to find it untouched. I moved the beds myself (thumbs-down for Glenford, so far).
The cabin is mid-ship and located close to the main Rotunda. While we were above the casino, we heard nothing. For a reasonably new ship, I was surprised at the amount of broken or unsightly things we encountered. The telephone was mounted to the wall, but the jack was hanging by the wires alongside the phone; the bi-fold closet door was broken and swung open all the way due to a broken track along the top (this caused a bigger problem when Sam's finger got caught between the folds in the door when it swung all the way open); one of the walls had apparently been recently patched - not a major problem, but an eyesore nonetheless; the hair dryer in the bathroom appeared to be some kind of vacuum cleaner tube with an open end which was split along the middle of the tube and barely blew with enough force to cause a ripple in still water; broken lights above the bunk beds and a reading lamp at the head of one of the lower beds which tried like hell to jump ship over and over again.
The biggest issue we had was the lack of adequate storage space. There was actually too much closet space and not enough drawer space - two full length closets, a bi-fold closet with three tall shelves and a dresser with three small drawers. Other amenities in the room included a safe, an interactive TV (Fun Vision) with a remote, and a fully functional, private bathroom with a surprisingly large shower stall.
In the bathroom: the super-sized shower had tons of water pressure - even if you couldn't find a rare setting like 'hot', a good showerhead, soap, shampoo, and a complimentary assortment of personal care items such as toothpaste, disposable razors, dental floss, and lotion. There was a dispenser on the wall which had shower gel and shampoo, but no conditioner save for the small sample packet that came with the personal care items. This led to our second encounter with Glenford. He spent too much time trying to explain why he couldn't get us any more conditioner (a second thumbs-down). There was also a comprehensive cabin directory and a Ports of Call book. After a few hours on board, our luggage arrived. Glenford remained a constant thorn in our side - explaining why he couldn't do something (like replenishing the tissues in the bathroom) rather than just doing it. His tip reflected the service we felt we received. I don't think all of Carnival's cabin stewards are the same, and I wouldn't judge the entire crew based on our experience with Glenford. He did take pride in the towel animals he made each night and left on our bed.
The Destiny is a beautiful ship. Having never sailed Carnival before, we weren't used to the flashiness and neon-lit areas that are a staple of the Carnival fleet. The rotunda is impressive with glass elevators that span nine stories and a bar at the base of the elevators. The shopping areas are big and well lit, and the information and shore tour counters are easily accessible. As could be expected, there are tons of bars and lounges - we even planned a pub crawl for the last day, but alas did not make it. A combination of smooth seas and the ship's own facilities made for a virtually movement free week. The layout of the ship is excellent - even for its size, we found our way around fairly easily within about a day. The only time we had any problem moving around in any public area was on departure day (Super Bowl Sunday) when the bars outfitted with TVs were packed solid. My favorite drinking spot wound up being the Onyx Bar - a tastefully decorated cigar bar with a wide selection of cigars, cognacs and whiskeys and a live three piece band. The rest of the ship was nicely appointed. The only thing I'd change is in the dining room where the lights would start to flash about a half-hour into the meal, readying the passengers for the night's entertainment courtesy of the dining room staff. Every night was overkill.
The Palladium Lounge was impressive to say the least. It's the largest proscenium stage I've ever seen afloat and is a full three stories with no obstructions. Wow! The production shows could have been better, but Carnival outdid themselves by hiring Jim Brick, the comedian whose show I was lucky enough to catch.
I make it my business to get to the spa for a massage at least once when I cruise. This time was no different. I headed straight for the spa as soon as I had a minute and made an appointment for a 1 hour 'body blitz' massage. I also booked a foot massage (my first ever - not my last). They even gave me a $20 discount from the published price of each. I don't know if this was just a marketing scheme, or if it was truly an enticement. Either way, it was fine with me. The gym was beautiful with plenty of apparatus and a floor to ceiling view of where we were headed. There were also two adults only hot tubs. Both the men and women have their own steam room and sauna as well.
While we favored the mid-ship pool where the calypso band's stage was, all three onboard the Destiny were very nice, and two were situated alongside bars (although there were no swim-up bars). All three are saltwater and have ample splash areas and showers. The public hot tubs were not always entirely 'hot', but did provide a nice break from the saltwater. There was no need for a wake-up call as finding a deck chair didn't really pose much of a challenge at any time of day. While both of our kids were just a bit too small for the giant spirally water slide, we did test it out and it was fun. I guess that's why they call it a 'Fun Ship'.
I've heard conflicting reports about the food on Carnival. I went not expecting much and was pleasantly surprised. The food in the Galaxy Dining Room was very good and on most nights our waitress, Gabriela (from Romania), insisted on bringing more than one dish so we could try everything we wanted. We dined in the dining room every night at a private booth for four.
Kids menu: On the first night of the cruise, the four of us went to the dining room. Gabriela told us about all of the special meals available for kids: PB&J, hamburger, cheeseburger, pasta, chicken fingers, mac & cheese or pizza. The next night, and every night thereafter not only were there two kid's menu/coloring books on the table, but also a cup full of crayons (as specifically requested by the kids on the first night).
The Sun & Sea buffet was ok, and it was where we had breakfast every morning. Just like everyone else aboard we took more than we could eat day after day, but that's one of the things about cruising, isn't it?
One great feature was the New York Deli. It was nice to be able to get a pastrami and corned beef on rye with mustard whenever I wanted it. The rest of the dining was good, as well. The burger stand had nice size burgers and was constantly running full-steam; there was an international buffet which featured a different country's delicacies every day; the Chinese food stand looked good, but I didn't try it; and my midnight pizza runs became a habit after leaving a deposit in the casino each night. And how can I forget the self-serve ice cream? I don't know who liked it more, me or the kids.
For the most part, the service was good. Gabriela and her assistant, Eddie, in the dining room were perfect. In fact, on the last night of the cruise, they handed each passenger an illustration of our ship. Amanda drew a picture of the ship on the back of it and gave it to Gabriela.
Our cabin steward Glenford was the only problem. Virtually every time we stopped at the cabin, he was inside. Any time we asked for something, it became a long explanation as to why it wasn't possible. I really felt like I was bothering him every time I had to speak to him.
Entertainment and Activities:
There was a plethora of entertainment aboard. Live bands and musicians were stationed in and around many of the bars and lounges. For the most part, the shows in the Palladium Lounge were ok - not great, not bad - but that was only a small part of what you could do. There was karaoke, a piano sing-along bar, the Criterion Lounge which featured an act each night, the Onyx Bar where a 3-piece jazz ensemble played nightly, the Point After dance club, a full-scale magic show and comedy. The passenger talent show was fun, but I found myself mostly on a rampage of making fun of those who participated regardless of their talent level.
The casino onboard is big. Really big. There are lots of gaming tables and plenty of slot machines for every type of player. Tables included the standard Blackjack, Let it Ride, Caribbean Stud Poker, Roulette and Craps. The slot machines I saw included nickels, quarters, dollars, five dollars and even a $25 machine!
The daytime activities in my opinion were not well publicized. We found ourselves wondering what was happening on a regular basis. Deck activities that we did see were the Survivor contest and the Men's Hairy Chest competition - neither of which we participated in. While Bingo was popular, the only time I participated was for 'Win a Cruise' Bingo. I didn't win. Something about me: Whatever skill you need to win at Bingo, I was not born with. I stink at it.
The crowd was a mix of generations, nationalities and lifestyles. It was during school time, so there weren't tons of kids, but there were some. We had a few encounters with a certain group of passengers who were seemingly piss-drunk 24/7. They were loud and rowdy and tended to have a real fondness for water fights without caring who was around. One particular water fight took place across our belongings while we were in the hot tub. Luckily my camera did not get too wet. Otherwise, the passengers were a pleasure to be around.
We had constantly great weather from beginning to end. With the exception of a very brief drizzle in Barbados, not a raindrop fell and the temperature was perfect. The seas were so calm we felt like we were sailing on glass.
Ports of call were St. Thomas, Dominica, Barbados and Aruba. I found out that Carnival removed Martinique from this itinerary 3 weeks prior to our cruise and replaced it with Dominica. Lots of passenger complaints seem to be the reason. St. Thomas is a staple on virtually every Caribbean cruise. I stocked up on liquor and cigarettes and moved on from there. This is also where I found a Super K-Mart to get hair conditioner and a few other essentials that were costly on the ship. It was our first time to Dominica. After walking around for a little while in the decidedly third-world shopping area, we stopped for a frozen drink at a seaside bar then got back onboard. Before leaving this port, Debbie and I decided to take a quick taxi tour to see something, anything nice. It being the end of the day with the ship leaving in less than two hours, we got a deal for $10 per person for a ride up to Trafalgar Falls and back. We still weren't impressed with Dominica, but at least we saw something nice.
In Barbados we did two water related tours, so we didn't get to see the interior of the island. I've heard it's really nice, and I plan to return there someday to see more. For the first tour, Debbie and I took out a two person motorboat called a Rhino Rider. It was fun, and I couldn't stop myself from hot-dogging as much as possible. The second tour was on the Jolly Roger Party Pirate Ship. The rum punch was free flowing and was as strong as the gasoline used to power our beloved Carnival Destiny. It was three hours of party music, drinking, dancing and fun! Once we found a safe place to anchor, the crew opened the 'plank' and rope swing. I recommend the Jolly Roger for anyone looking for an afternoon of enjoyment.
Since we used it every day, I felt it necessary to include a review of Camp Carnival. Camp Carnival is open from 8:00 am to 10:00 pm with breaks from noon to 2:00 pm and 5:00 pm to 7:00 pm. The services are included in the price when you cruise with Carnival. Camp Carnival breaks down age groups into Toddlers (2-5), Juniors (6-8), Intermediate (9-11) and Teens (12-15). After easy registration on the first day of the cruise, we employed their services on a regular basis. The Camp Carnival playroom is colorful and big. It features a table in the middle which is presumably used for crafts, a big enclosed trampoline, kid-size upright video games, board games, books and plenty of toys. Additionally, there are video screens on which the kids can watch any number of movies stocked in the library. The counselors were outstanding and the kids couldn't wait to go back whenever we took them out. They made all kinds of crafts and drew all kinds of pictures. There was face painting, a pirate scavenger hunt where the kids were made up to look like pirates, kids' karaoke, a kids only talent show and more. Camp Carnival also does babysitting after 10:00 pm. The fees are reasonable and allow parents some alone time for night time activities. We paid $10/hour one night for two hours - it was well worth it. We at least got to see a show together. I haven't used any other ships' kids programs, but I can't imagine a more comprehensive program than Carnival's.
Since we used it every day, I felt it necessary to include a review of the Infirmary. Just kidding - we skipped one day. We actually did have a series of medical maladies which needed attention. Without getting into too much detail, the staff in the infirmary was totally professional and extremely helpful. The nurses were sympathetic and provided some over-the-counter medications that weren't available in the gift shop. The doctors (we met both) were very good. Thank God for travel insurance.
Announcements began over the PA system at 6:00 am for those who had a reason to debark early. That's when we got up. It wasn't until about 8:15 am when our deck was called to clear customs, an exercise that isn't entirely fun, but is necessary. We cleared easily and were told to wait on either deck 5 or deck 9 for our luggage tag color (purple) to be called. We waited... and waited... and waited. Apparently the spectrum didn't have enough colors in it, so Carnival created a few new ones for the sole purpose of prolonging the purples from getting off the ship. Every single color was called before ours. We were cleared off the ship at about 11:00 am, took a cab to the airport, and waited until 8:50 pm to finally get a flight back to New York (remember, we flew standby and I didn't have any money left for rent). Luckily, we found out about a park called Aeroparque which is situated alongside the runway just a bit down the road from the terminal at SJU. We took a cab there and the kids let off some steam and burned some energy. As planes took off and landed, the kids all lined up along the fence to watch. I felt the need to keep very close to my kids as this park seemed like just the kind of place where kids get abducted. Aside from the sleaziness, it was a great way to keep them occupied. We took a 15 minute walk back to the terminal when we'd had enough.
Room for Improvement:
Given our poor experience with our cabin steward, I recommend that Carnival should consider doing periodic checks (or more periodic checks as the case may be) of their service personnel.
More than once the bar on the lido deck ran out of supplies. I had trouble getting a domestic beer on the night of the deck party (I tried Bud, Coors Lt, Labatts and MGD - once all were out, I tried for an import, Bass, but I wound up with a Fosters).
Given the relatively young age of this ship, it seemed to be in a state of disrepair that was unexpectedly poor. Too much was wrong in one tiny little 185 sq. ft. cabin.
During the cruise, one of the steps going from the lido deck to the sun deck literally split in half under the foot of another passenger... and he was only a medium build.
Finally, while the photo gallery has a price list for 5x7, 6x9 (an odd size) and 8x10 pictures, they don't seem to print any 5x7s. All of the smaller ones were 6x9 and cost $1.00 more each than 5x7s. Not only is it an inconvenient size picture to frame, but it's more costly. When I asked about the 5x7s, I was told that once we bought a picture they would print it into whatever size we wanted for the additional cost. Poor marketing on the part of Carnival. I bought some 6x9s because that's the only way they were available, but I wasn't entirely happy about it.
It was our first Carnival cruise, and probably not our last. Even with the problems we had with service and such, I'd happily book Carnival again. The fact that all four of us got sick in one way or another at some point during the cruise, and we STILL had a good time, is testament to the overall quality of the ship - and of the medical staff.