Background Information: I'm a recently graduated graduate student and I cruised with my boyfriend. We are in our late 20's. First cruise ever.
Travel To Port of Embarkation: We live in Houston, so we drove our car to Galveston around noon, parked at EZ-parking which is cheaper than the Port of Galveston, even if you don't book online ($55 onsite, $50 if you prepay online). It was a lot easier to just leave our car because of the unpredictability of disembarkation.
Embarkation: I read a lot beforehand so I kind of knew what to expect. We packed very lightly, so we didn't utilize the porters (people who take your luggage ahead of time and get it checked on the boat for you). Although it was a bit bothersome to carry our luggage through the lines, it was nice to be able to drop it off right at the room when we got on the boat. We arrived in Galveston at 1:15 and were on the boat around 2:45. The lines were long, but they moved and we were excited, so it all worked fine. You go through one line to get your bags xrayed, then you stand in a longer line to get checked in and you receive your sail & sign card. We gave them a credit card to charge everything on which seemed a lot more convenient than leaving a cash deposit. Then you stand in a line to take pictures in front of these huge fake rocks. It was cheesy, but not too painful. Once down the gangway and on the boat, you take a quick picture that's attached to your sail & sign card for ID purposes. Once in the lobby of the ship, we headed straight to our room to drop off our luggage. Our rooms were available and clean.
Ship Info: The ship is huge, very well decorated in an impressionist art-era theme. I read a lot about the ship beforehand but I was still impressed to see the inside. Vibrant, colorful, always kept very clean, never smelled anything foul or sewage-like, as some previous posts have mentioned. There was deck 3 which was the lobby, where you can access the two main dining rooms and the bottom floor of the Toulouse Latrec theater. Deck 4 were the photos. Deck 5 was the gift shop, casino, and promenade which was where you could get sushi, go to the Captain's cocktail party or go to any of the lounges and bars. Deck 9 was the Lido deck where you can sun, swim in the pools, access the Cezanne Dining room (buffet dining) and the 24 hr pizza/grill. the higher decks were the gym and spa. Deck 10 was where the Pointe supper club and sur mer restaurant was. There's something for everyone on the ship, so you can as much as you want or as little as you want. Overall the ship is a "fun" ship so there were many people in the 16-24 age group, which rightfully so, undergrad just let out, but overall there were people from all age groups, represented. I felt carnival did a great job catering to everyone. From the shows to the dinners to the cruise director, you just need to not take yourself too seriously because everything is a bit of a fun-cheesiness. And everyone we encountered were so very nice... probably because everyone was on vacation. It was a nice feeling.
Stateroom: We had an inside cabin on the Empress floor (7th) forward. I felt being in the middle was good because I get motionsick easily. We were very content with our inside cabin. The two twin beds can be pushed together to be a king (the steward will do this for you if requested). You get both shampoo and body wash, just bring some conditioner if you'd prefer. They also provide any other bathroom needs you would need. The hair dryer is standard, but has a button that you need to hold down to use. Bring an extension cord, to charge cell phones, camera batteries, etc. Being students on a budget, we found plenty of places to get great views of the ocean, but definitely look forward to finally getting a balcony on our next cruise. We were also located right off the elevators and from experience, the glass elevators are a lot faster than the middle ones, just a hint. Our steward Maung was awesome! Our beds were made twice daily with evening turn-down service and CUTE towel animals! He was always quick to greet us, some of the best hotel service I've ever had and I've stayed at plenty of hotels! These service employees work for pure tips so make sure you tip well!! We stuck extra money in our towel animal on the last day. We watched a good amount of tv, usually falling asleep or in between events. There are standard local channels as well as local news. They keep replaying the cruise video they try to sell, but they also replay important talks that you may have missed such as various port days and disembarkation instructions, so no fear if you missed the talk.
Activities: On the first two "sea days" we laid out on lido deck, which was a lot windier than I would have imagined, but it was a good relief from the sun. To get a "central" spot on lido deck you gotta be up there by 9am, but if you show up at 1030-11 there are plenty of spots on the higher, more secluded deck, which was what I did and I felt it was just as great. Make sure to catch the Hairy chest contest and the survivor game on the lido main deck. I would also recommend any comedy routine that is scheduled, esp the adult "R" rated shows, they were my favorite. The nightly shows were all very fun, very vegas-cheesy like, but fun nonetheless. The last night was the Legends show, which they hold auditions for and guests and impersonate their fav singer. Our Frank Sinatra was awesome! Oh and the newlywed game was a huge HOOT. We tried to hit every event that had free alcohol.. the drinks on the boat were very good and strong, but pricey ($5-8/drink). So free alcohol: captain's cocktail party (mon night), art auctions (champagne), casino wine party. They also have afternoon tea which seems a bit "i'm snooty" but it was very cute and they serve free dessert and finger sandwiches and smoked salmon. Plus I enjoy the classical music played. The cruise director is Mark Price, who is funny, accommodating and a hockey kind of slap-stick humor kinda guy. His assistant Pete is also very funny and entertaining and says "6" really funny.
Food: After reading so many reviews, I was truly expecting the least b/c I love love love good good food and I was overall surprised and impressed. We always went to the main seating dinners. We originally asked for late seating thinking we'd get back from excursions late, but we got the 6:15 in the Renoir dining room. When we first got on the boat, we went straight to the Renoir dining room to get our seating changed. We were told we'd keep our seating for the first night. We were seated with 6 other people a bit older than we were, who were all very friendly, but a bit awkward b/c we sat on the end and they all knew each other already. By the 2nd night, we were still in the early seating but got a private table. The early dining option worked out great b/c the one night we ate at the Pointe supper club at 830 we found we were waiting around for dinner too long. It also gave us the option of having a midnight snack, which we loved doing. I think I appreciated the fact that the kitchen tried to make dining a culinary experience with every meal and I can recall paying $40/person for dinners worse than the ones served. My boyfriend loves seafood and his favorite was the lobster (served on formal night number 1, monday). I loved the roasted duck appetizer served one of the nights. My fav parts of the meal were the appetizers and the desserts. The filet mignon was tasty as well as several of the soups. The vegetarian Indian dish served one night was awesome, minus the soggy naan. Several of the main courses left lots to be desired, namely pork loin chop and duck. Escargot was too buttery with little taste. My boyfriend had pretty much every seafood dish and he enjoyed majority of them. As for desserts, you must must try the warm chocolate melting cake. I enjoyed the cappuccino pie, tiramisu, butter pecan ice cream and several others, with a cup of coffee. The cheese plate was pretty blah. If you enjoy wine, an economical option is to order a bottle the first night and they can cork it and keep it for you all week. Service was outstanding. I am amazed at how efficient the kitchen and the wait/bus staff all work together AND are able to sing and dance. They all work very hard to please and again, they work for tips so give them some extra at the end of the week. Breakfast was great in the Monet if you have the extra time, but buffet was the same every day. Omelettes are great. We also did in room continental breakfast, which is good for excursion days, where you're pressed for time. You just leave the tag on your door by 5am for them to get your order. As for lunch, we felt the Cezanne buffet sufficed. I made sure to try every single cuisine they had available. Sur Mer fish and chips and bouillabaisse is a must. It gets long lines and crowded but the wait is worth it. The ceviche is also worth a try. The chinese was pretty decent and I also enjoy when they did different ethnic food daily. The nacho bar is AWESOME! We did Monet lunch dining one day and felt it was so-so, except for the creme caramel (flan) which was great. The sushi was all cooked and tried to mimic raw stuff, which overall was good. The rice was well done. The 24hr pizza was good but standard. Try the goat cheese and wild mushroom pizza, it was fun. The 24 hr grill was great! hamburgers were good and tasty and with grilled onions and mushrooms, I was so happy when we went on our midnight food run. We dined at the Pointe supper club one of the nights (tues) which worked out well b/c it wasn't on an excursion night, where we were pooped most of the time nor on a formal night (don't miss out on the lobster on monday night!). The food was definitely several notches above, pretty classic new york steakhouse. the fair was standard meat with some fish and poultry options, but mainly steak. there were surprises with chef attempts at avant-garde foodie pre-appetizers, which were inventive. there was also an after dessert palate cleanser, which was great but we were so full! only downside is there aren't great views from the restaurant, but figuring it's after the sun sets, you can't see anything anyway. I would recommend the Pointe for the extra 30 bucks!
Shore Excursions: 1) jamaica: so i had read ab Marva Shaw's tourguide service from a message board, but turns out she's based out of Ocho Rios and we actually dock in Montego bay, a good 2 hr drive to Ocho Rios which is where a lot of the jamaican action lies. We ended up hiring her for pretty much a private tour of the island. As most reviews have mentioned, Jamaica is a very poor country, diff from texas/louisiana for sure. Because we were protected with our tour guide, we were never offered drugs, but did see it growing in various places. If you are interested, you can contact marva shaw in jamaica and ask for Richard. Impeccable service, friendly, knowledgeable, laid-back and will take you on a tour enough to last a lifetime for jamaica. We went tubing down the great white river, which was a bit short, but loads of fun. We did one cliff jump which was a blast. Then we climbed the Dunns River Falls, which was fun as well but super crowded b/c it was a holiday in jamaica. Definitely buy some creamed rum there if you get the chance. You can take back 1 bottle if you're texan and up to 5 if you're non-texan, up to 1 liter/bottle. Once you board the ship, the alcohol will be taken, put away and you get it back the night before you disembark.
2) grand cayman: so at this port, we had to tender, meaning you take a smaller boat from the conquest. if your excursion is early for GC, make sure you show up in the Toulouse Latrec lounge earlier than the first tender to make sure you get off the boat in time. Our excursion wasn't until 10 so we just slept in. We booked a half day snorkel with the sting rays with Captain Marvins. I felt we got what everyone else got booking through carnival for the same excursion, just mine was half the price. Very nice captain and assistants. The weather was a bit gloomy, but it was still great snorkeling. You must try the sting ray snorkel. They are scary at first, but very friendly. We hit a big storm trying to get back on the boat, but it was very dramatic and gave the end of that port day a fun surprise. We bought many rum cakes to take back as gifts. It was a good day.
3) Cozumel: being the final port, we decided to just relax. as with jamaica, you just walk off the boat to land. we took a taxi ride to paradise beach ($13 each way) where we paid $9 to have access to all of the water equipment. You can lay on their umbrellas for free if you didn't want to partake in water equip. I used the sunbathing mat the most. The water here is beautiful. We left there around 2pm and had lunch at senor frogs. Surprisingly I felt cozumel gift prices were definitely higher than what you would expect for mexico. but figures, we're tourists and they're smart :) It was also a great day in cozumel.
disembarkation: just as mentioned previously, it's a painful process any way you look at it. just read the caper the night before to be 'in the know' or go to the disembarkation talk, which was entertaining and good to know. we did the self-assist (which is the way to go!). They call random floors to leave self-assist first and then all the rest start being called at 9:30, which is painful to wait around for.
Over all it was a fantastic experience. I would do it again in a heartbeat and plan on cruising for the rest of my life as much as i can.
Realize the boat is always trying to sell you something. Just ignore it if you're not a buying type. Bring a highlighter b/c every night, the steward will give you a copy of all the events and important info for the next day. Bring an extension cord. Bring conditioner. Bring several clothing options including formal, sundays best and casual. Dont take yourself too seriously and do what you want, sleep through what you don't want to do. Sunscreen up!! Bring smaller cash bills to tip. Try out new foods!! This is your chance to do it! Bring a pack of 12 cokes if you drink coke but don't want to pay $44 for a fountain card (unlimited soft drinks). If you opt for the card, get one for all in your group. they don't really check. We brought 12 and we were able to take cans to the dining areas no questions asked. Try the pointe supper club. Bring dramamine (scopalamine) if you are prone to motionsickness. The infirmary also has a bucket of free medicines in front of their door.
Thanks for reading and enjoy!