Our Carnival Sensation Review 1/15 - 1/19/04: The bottom line is that we had an absolute gas on this cruise and can't wait for our next one. Now that we've had time to (RRRGGGHHH) re-adapt to the frigid northeast, here's our review of the cruise and all that went with it. Photos of our trip are posted on the Webshots site at: http://community.webshots.com/user/mageesworld
Background: A little about ourselves: We're a mid-40's semi-active couple with one prior cruise under our belt (Carnival Triumph, April '02). On that trip we immediately fell in love with cruising in general and the Caribbean in particular (Husband hasn't completely accepted it yet but we ARE gonna retire there!!!). This past summer we scheduled what we thought would be our second cruise, on the Golden Princess for Easter '04. BUT, by October '03, April started to seem like forever to wait. Soooo ... we scraped together some extra cash and started looking for an "emergency backup cruise" we could do on the cheap, to tide us over 'til the "big cruise" came along. We figured a four-niter someplace warm, with maybe a hotel stay before and after would do nicely. Hence, our time on the Sensation.
Just to put things in perspective, the night before we left the overnight low at our home near Syracuse NY was 15 below, and was 25 below a few nights before that. About then we would have been happy on a tramp steamer if it was headed someplace warm and toasty. As it turned out though, this cruise far exceeded our expectations. We'd sail on the Sensation again in a heartbeat if the opportunity presented itself.
Air Travel: Jet Blue, SYR to TPA with an hour layover in New York. Nice cushy leather seats, decent legroom, and funky blue potato chips. The 26 channels of DirecTV (including ALL 4 ESPN CHANNELS !) helped pass the time nicely. No wonder these guys are one of only two airlines turning a profit. A particularly good omen: During casual conversation we learned that one of the flight attendants was a full-blown Parrothead (a Jimmy Buffett fan, to the uninitiated) right down to a tattoo of a shark drinking a margarita (fins to the left, of course).
Port of Tampa: Taxi: $17.50 from TPA to the Hyatt, and $4.50 from the hotel to the cruise terminal, before tip. BTW, how much do people tip for taxi service anyway? We've been adding 15%+ a la restaurant tipping, is that overly generous?
Hotel: Stayed at the Hyatt Regency Downtown. Nice digs. I doubt I'd spring for the $180 rack rate but for $45 (Priceline) the accommodations were cushy. Elevators are security keyed so that you have to use your room card, a nice touch. There is a nice workout room and outdoor pool/hot tub/garden area atop the 5th floor. Apparently the evening temperature (in the low 50's) was too nippy for the other guests as we had the run of the place, but to us it felt absolutely balmy. Hah!
Services & fares are typical 3-star pricey - I'd advise against the $8.50 juice and toast for breakfast, but for dinner room service has a 2-item pizza for $11.75 that'll feed two if you're not overly starved. Upon checking out the town, we learned that both the Marriott Channelside and the Wyndham Harbor are right on the waterfront and a bit closer to the cruise terminal (perhaps four blocks west of the port and right on the trolley line, while the Hyatt is 4 or 5 long blocks north of these hotels (DON'T TRY WALKING IT AT NIGHT!!! for reasons revealed below).
Tampa Transportation: During mid-day (11 to 2) the Teco Streetcar line has a free trolley run, sponsored by Hooters, that runs from central downtown, right past the Hyatt, to the Channelside complex (shops, movies, and restaurants), the cruise pier, and the Tampa aquarium (these are all adjacent to each other). Until 6 pm, there's also a free connecting bus that runs the four or five blocks south to the Tampa transportation center where you can pick up a trolley ($1.50 single fare, $3.00 unlimited) to Channelside and on to Ybor City. There are transportation maps in the hotel rooms. Trolley info is also available at: www.tecolinestreetcar.org/home.html
The trolley conductor told us that both the Ybor and the Channelside areas are hopping places on weekends (actually, according to some stories we've heard since our return Ybor City is an absolute DEN OF INIQUITY if you know where to look, to the point that it makes Carlos 'n Charlies look like a convent if you can believe that ... hmmmm ... ). But as we were in town on a Wednesday nite we had the trolley all to ourselves (are you starting to notice a pattern here?) and Ybor looked pretty dead.
Ate at a nice Mexican place in the Channelside complex that served killer frozen margaritas, then rode around on the trolley to see Ybor. Just to make the evening exciting, we made the mistake of walking the four or five long blocks from the transportation complex back to the hotel, well after dark, rather than taking a taxi. Just before reaching the hotel we were stopped and then followed by a fast-talking young man who needed money -- not sure if he was trying to get up the nerve to force the issue but we kept walking fast as he trailed us, his hands on our shoulders, and we didn't break stride 'til we were in the hotel lobby. If you stay at the Hyatt, spring for the five bux for the taxi. You'll be happy you did.
Tampa Cruise Terminal & Embarkation: The Sensation berths at Pier 2, which was maybe five minutes by taxi from the Hyatt. You are dropped off literally at the terminal door and your luggage goes directly to staff wearing Carnival uniforms (we still tipped 'em a buck a bag). Way easier than Miami. The terminal itself is reasonably comfortable, the wait relatively painless, and there are floor-to-ceiling picture windows facing both the ship and the adjacent Tampa Aquarium lest you get bored. The initial sign-in procedure was quick and easy for the most part. I did get chastised for not printing out a hard copy of my Carnival Fun Pass pre-boarding info from the Carnival website, even though I input all the information on line. Felt a little bit like a kid that forgot his homework but the feeling quickly passed as visions of blender drinks danced through our heads.
Based on what we've read on this forum, we arrived at the pier a little after 11 in hopes of getting on board in short order. However, debarkation was held up by some unspecified customs problem so our first group didn't start boarding until about 12:45. We were in group 3 of perhaps 15 boarding groups. Once started, things moved quickly and we were in our cabin before 1 p.m. Before even closing the door we both spontaneously cut loose with our best John Dean-style YEEEEEHAAAAGGGHH, oh yeh we're aboard ship again !!!!!
The Ship: Let me say this right off the top, when we signed up for this cruise I was expecting a somewhat tired and shopworn boat with a "tacky chic" (at best) dEcor (maybe it was all the pictures of those huge fiberglass hands in the oddly-named "Touch of Class Lounge" piano bar). Whether due her recent dry dock refurbishments, or simply the distorted perceptions from our "cruise-buzz", the ship looked sparkling clean to us, and in very good condition both inside and out. The dEcor didn't seem any more (though certainly not any less) glitzy or Vegas-like than the Triumph. While we had expected to have a good time in spite of the ship itself, in truth there was absolutely NOTHING about the ship that detracted from the cruising experience.
Cabin: The Upgrade Fairy treated us to a nice bump from a 5A Guaranty (outside porthole cabin) to a 6A (Ocean View picture window cabin on the Main Deck). The cabin wasn't quite as large as its equivalent on the Destiny-class ships (which are longer and have a small couch) but was quite comfortable with plenty of storage space. No in-room fridge, no Carnival Fun Vision on the TV, but at least we had the in-closet safe and comfy Carnival bathrobes.
Wait Staff: I can't imagine how any service, on any line, could be any better than what we experienced. Our cabin steward, Conrado, made a point of seeking us out the first afternoon and introducing himself. After that he always had a smile for us and ALWAYS greeted us by name. I have no idea where he found the time but, over the course of any given day whenever we returned to our cabin it had been gone over, freshened up, and the ice replenished. Our dining room server and assistant, Hashim and Natalya, were personable, consistently focused and attentive, and worked well as a team. Our tastes and preferences were memorized after the first meal, and dining was always a pleasant and relaxed experience.
Dining: The popular consensus is that (1) cruise food in general is good-but-not-great, about what you'd expect at a decent buffet; and (2) the coffee is invariably terrible. The coffee on this trip didn't do anything to change that perception, but the menu items we ordered were consistently superb (not a word I throw around lightly). Note that we're both big on steaks and seafood, and therefore can't speak to the whole spectrum of menu selections. But I can tell you that our lobster tails were fresh, sweet, and tender, some of the best I've had ANYWHERE -- and that's coming from someone who REALLY loves seafood. The sirloin, prime rib, and Beef Wellington were equally delightful, cooked exactly to order and as tender as you've had. Thumbs-up on the desserts as well.
Entertainment: I really enjoyed the ship's show band. When left to their own devices they favored retro-swing music, a favorite of mine. We took in both of the evening dance-and-song productions, and found them pleasantly entertaining -- probably run-of-the-mill to a seasoned cruiser but enjoyable nonetheless. Our cruise director (forgive me for not recalling his name but I misplaced my "ship's log" while writing this) was a personable fellow who was at his best during improvised give-and-takes with the audience. A rather portly man, he maintained a running shtick about both his less-than-svelte figure as well as his hispanic roots. Didn't take in either of the comedians (hey, it's only a four-nite cruise and there are soooo many things to do...)
Cozumel: 85 degrees and partly sunny. What else is there to say ?????
Docked at the Puerto Maya pier, a few miles from downtown. Both the pier and its adjacent shopping village may set the all-time standard for Mayan-prefab-tourist-chic, but if we wanted high culture we'd have booked a Renaissance cruise stopping at Renaissance-era European ports ... (NAAAHHHHHHHH !!!). Stocked up on staples of t-shirts, serapes, and silver jewelry as well as that must-have Mexican tourist icon, the infamous Corona Beer Bottle Shirt !!! (and to think DW had to talk me into buying it!)
Shore Trip: To make up for skipping Renaissance Europe, we had originally planned on doing the Mayan Ruins at Tulum as our shore tour. However after our 3rd drink-of-the-day, this suddenly seemed a glaring admission of late middle-agedness, and this forty-something-couple decided instead on the "Hideaway Powerboat and Beach Escape".
What a trip !!! I've been around powerboats my whole life and have even piloted 1000hp, 47ft Fountain offshore boats, but the time we spent on these little 14ft 2-seaters, skimming over Cozumel's clear emerald waters while hugging the coast, was easily one of my all-time most enjoyable nautical experiences.
Our guides, Carlos and Rodrigo, were personable, laid-back, and definitely seasoned in the art of showing the customers a good time. We cruised for about an hour to the uninhabited north side of the island where we were served a very decent Mexican buffet. We spent the next few hours impersonating the couple in the Corona Beer commercial, lounging on the white sand under our beach umbrella while looking out at the turquoise waters. If I had brought my cell phone with me I would have tossed it into the ocean in tribute to the moment.
Rodrigo was perhaps in his late teens or early twenties, and we sat talking with him under our umbrella for easily a half-hour. I'm a bit of a history buff, and must say that Rodrigo's awareness and sense of world view was quite remarkable. It was fascinating to converse with a man of his young age who had such thorough knowledge of his heritage and Mayan ancestry (to the point of grasping the effect of the Moors' influence on the Spaniards in their subsequent conquest of the Mexican people -- heady stuff, don't you think ??? ). At the same time, he was completely comfortable and clearly enjoyed conversing with us American Touristas, a very unpretentious and genuine young man. I couldn't help but wonder how many American kids could engage in such a conversation if called upon to reflect on their own heritage ...
One word of advice: There are up to 20 boats on a given tour. Before setting, off, should you overhear a number of testosterone-driven young males in the group bragging about the massive quantities of alcohol consumed before leaving the ship, tell your tour guide you wish to be the last boat in line. Not that there were any problems during the tour, but the added peace of mind was well worth it.
Cozumel, continued: Cozumel is a fun, fun place. To quote syndicated columnist Dave Barry: "We go ashore and experience Mexico, which consists of souvenir stores and restaurants where everybody speaks English and accepts dollars. Travel is a good way to learn about other cultures."
When you cruise the main drag downtown, take a walk off the beaten path and hit a few of the side streets. The scenery and the action there are a pleasant complement to what you'll see on Main Street. I must state here my regret at not doing the horse-drawn carriage ride with my dear wife at sunset, and smooching with her liberally for the duration. This alone is sufficient reason to go back ...
Carlos 'n Charlies: Yes, it's completely tacky. Yes, it's unrefined, and yes, it's TOTALLY politically incorrect (where else in North America do the waitresses communicate only by blowing whistles at you, snuggle your head DEEP in their bosom while pouring shots of cheap tequila down your throat, then pinch your chest REALLY HARD and top it off with a quick spanking and a goose for good measure??? And that's during family hour ...). I'm sure if you were a local or if it was your 25th stop in town it would wear thin, but as a pale-faced Tourista looking to wash away the memory of 8-foot snow drifts, the tacky-chic ambience DEFINITELY worked for us heheheheee)
Cozumel, Last Thought: 1. Be sure to have your picture taken outside of Carlos 'n Charlies, in the big sign where you stick your head through the holes. 2. The Pina Coladas (and all other foo-foo drinks) at Carlos 'n Charlies (and Senor Frogs, same theme, different venue) are 27 inches high and cost 12 bucks. Pay it without blinking, and don't forget to tip. When you've knocked them off order another -- you only go around once. 3. By then, you will have sufficient liquid courage to flag down a taxi. Just for fun, tell the driver in a dramatic tone "We're late for our cruise ship, OH GOD PLEASE STEP ON IT !!!!!" Then just sit back, watch the show, and giggle. I still have the faint bruises from my dear wife beating on my arm the whole way back, but it was worth it.
Parting Thoughts: The people that read these boards are (and I mean this in a good way) the most compulsive cruise consumers in the world. We obsess about everything from when our documents are going to arrive, to whether the butter is Presidential salted (hey - you know who you are!), to whether port-or-starboard cabins offer the best view. In fact, over the past few years I've obsessed with the best of them and will continue to do so.
But in the cruising world I've come to the conclusion that you can spend a sizable chunk of your life on these boards, do enough research to fill a Ph.D. dissertation, plan for your cruise vacation like a compulsive maniac, and when all is said and done the quality of your cabin steward, the personality of your wait staff, and whether or not you have to wait in the pizza line simply comes down to whether or not you draw the short straw. But if you REALLY love cruising -- the way most of us do -- then no carpet stain, no overly-cooked lobster, no inattentive food server can spoil one of the most precious moments of your life. And that's what it's about.