My wife and I have sailed on Carnival once before, on the Carnival Valor on a Caribbean cruise to Belize, Honduras, Cozumel, and Grand Cayman. We have also been on several Royal Caribbean cruises, and my wife has also had a few extra Carnival voyages of her own. This was our first European cruise, our longest to date by far, and it was quite an experience. We were traveling with my wife's parents, so each of us two couples had our own cabin. There is a six-hour time difference between the East Coast of the USA and this cruise - the USA is six hours behind.
Embarkation: We had flown into Rome three days prior to our cruise. The flight was smooth, and getting through and out of Rome's airport was a little chaotic but not terrible. After spending a few days on our own in Rome, we took private transportation to the port city of Civitevacchia which was booked online through Viator. Our shuttle arrived at the hotel in Rome about 45 minutes early, which was a pleasant surprise to us since we were already set to go. It took about one hour to drive from Rome to Civitivecchia, and our driver made us feel like we had just been on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride from Disney World. He navigated several Rome traffic jams and traversed various winding roads at what felt like high speeds - of course, they were kilometers per hour and I couldn't convert easily on the spot - before arriving at the highway and taking us to the ship. It is quite simply an industrial port city with next to nothing other than the harbor and a few small restaurants for the locals. We were pretty early in terms of embarkation, arriving somewhere between and , which helped us quickly get through the lines and onto the ship. We had all of our documentation ready, so the process went very smoothly and quickly, and we were on the ship within ten to fifteen minutes. Later on, we heard that the Carnival Freedom computer systems had a little "glitch" where people's security photos were not being stored properly and needed to be taken and stored manually. Luckily, we were on board before that problem surfaced, but our cruise director's announcements seemed to indicate that the lines to get on board were much longer and more frustrating than anticipated. (He later joked that they had thrown their entire computer system overboard.) Once we were on the ship, we hung out on the Lido deck and had some lunch before going to our cabin.
Cabins: This trip was not inexpensive, by any stretch, so we had to settle for interior cabins rather than a balcony. However, upon entering our cabins on Deck 6, we were quite surprised and very satisfied with what we saw. For comparison's purposes, our cabin on Royal Caribbean's Sovereign on the Seas was so small that I could sit in the middle of the bed, stretch both arms out (about a six-foot wingspan), and touch both walls without any problem whatsoever. This cabin was significantly bigger, with enough room on both sides of the double bed for nightstands and plenty of space underneath for suitcases. There were also three large closets, several drawers, and a decently-sized bathroom. We had a flat screen TV with about twenty channels, which were mostly ship-based, news channels, or in some cases repeating movies that changed daily. The cabin definitely surpassed our expectations and was plenty roomy enough for 12 days. We did have some issues with the bathroom. About halfway through the cruise, we noticed that the bathroom would flood every time that we took a shower. It seemed to happen no matter how we angled the shower head, no matter how tightly we tried to draw the curtain, etc. My opinion is that there may have been a problem with the drainage, but we didn't think that it was important enough to call into maintenance. The next folks to enjoy our cabin can handle that (hehe).
General Comment on Clientele: Before going on, I really must comment about the clientele on the ship. It seemed like a pretty large percentage of passengers were from the Northeast United States (like us), flying in from the New York City area. California, Florida, and countries like Canada and the United Kingdom were also somewhat well-represented. However, my wife and I were extremely surprised at the number of teenagers on board the ship. Furthermore, we were also surprised that parents seemed to let both teenagers and young children roam - no, run - around the ship of their own free will. At one point, my wife's parents saw a group of kids congregating on one of the stairways, and they nearly knocked over an elderly lady trying to make her way through the area. On several occasions, we had to call the Purser's Desk and ask that Security do a round on our deck because both the little and teenage kids would be running down the halls, yelling, laughing, slamming cabin doors repeatedly, etc. My wife and I think that there are a lot of rich and/or lazy parents who say "Screw it, I'm on vacation" and just set their kids free without regard to other guests. To top it off, getting through to ship Security late at night was quite a challenge. I had to call the Purser's Desk, and they would always put me on hold because, as I was told, "we have a line and cannot assist you at this time". Thank goodness I hadn't had anything stolen or wasn't witnessing a bar fight. I ultimately had to write a complaint, which of course the Purser's office then immediately noticed and completely changed their tone with us, proactively calling to ensure that the noise levels were bearable and even volunteering Security to conduct extra rounds on our deck. It never fails that putting something in writing almost always gets a more immediate and more satisfactory response. I also think that we saw the worst of Americans on this cruise at times, and I understand now why people in other countries find us to be egocentric and thinking that the world should bow to us at times. It amazes me how people can push their way past you or cut you off in lines without so much as an "Excuse me", "My family's just up there, may I please join them?", or any kind of courtesy. This even happened on excursions, with people pushing in front of us just to try and keep up with guides with no regard to people around them.
Ship Food: We tried very hard not to miss a dinner in the dining room. The food there was always superior to anything that we would ever find on the Lido deck's buffet. We had fantastic servers, the best that we have ever had on any cruise to date. Just as an example, there was one evening that our excursion ended later than we expected, so we got to the dining room almost 45 minutes late. Yet our servers were still able to get us a main course, which was great. The dinner menu always had one beef, one fish, one vegetarian, one pasta, one Asian, and one chicken selection, as well as various steady alternatives including broiled salmon and grilled New York strip steak. (Try the Angus burger - it's great, and much better than what they cook on Lido.) Dessert always had three primary selections as well as my wife's personal favorite as an everyday alternative - the warm chocolate melting cake, which most people seem to love. Our maitre'd Ken was also excellent, singing something almost every night and actually being somewhat entertaining, plus going out of his way to talk with guests at their tables. That's much different than what we're used to, which is a maitre'd saying hello and goodbye, then expecting a tip for doing so. This one actually earned his tip. As happy as we were in the dining room for dinner, much of the other food was often disappointing. My wife, who generally tries to eat pretty healthy food most of the time, always had trouble finding good food to eat on the Lido deck. Breakfast was disappointing no matter where we ate, just in terms of food quality. Pleasant surprises included the Fish & Chips (excellent), the Deli (where we got great pastrami sandwiches), and the chocolate buffet that the Lido deck hosted on one of the sea days. (Try the fudge - it is awesome.) Bar service in general was pretty good, with most of the drink that we got being pretty tasty. My father-in-law had a margarita every night in the dining room, and my mother-in-law a martini, with neither of them complaining. My wife and I got the occasional glass of White Zinfandel (which she loved), daiquiri, or BBC. Also, my wife and her parents each got the $75 soda cards for all-you-can-drink soda, which was worth the investment for them. However, be advised that sometimes certain bars - such as the one by the Lido deck's main pool - consistently give you sodas in smaller glasses for some reason. The ship in general also seemed to run out of diet soda quite frequently, particularly Diet Sprite, which we found very surprising.
Ship Entertainment: I had seen comments from previous folks on this boat that the shows were mostly musical and that folks wanting to see lots of comedians or different kinds of acts would be disappointed. This is half-true. Most of the shows are, in fact, musical in nature. The singers & dancers, who were excellent, did three shows including a very entertaining Beatles tribute. However, we didn't go to all of the shows. For instance, we skipped the virtuoso violinist and the opera singer. There was only one comedic act (comedy/juggling/etc.), which was okay. I also think that, after the third sea day, the last four days of the cruise were somewhat light on entertainment and activities because I think Carnival expects that everyone is too pooped from their excursions to want to participate in activities. "Show Seat Squatters" was a new phenomenon that we encountered for the first time. There were some nights when we would walk into the theater 30 minutes early for the show, and we would see people having left trinkets on seats that they wanted for the show. I'm talking everything from hair brushes, combs, headphones, etc. It just seems to me to be in poor taste. Our cruise director, John Heald, was simply awesome. We heard that he is one of the best, and he did not disappoint. He has a very dry sense of humor and isn't afraid to be a little politically incorrect at times. "What do you call four drowning Mexicans? Quattro sinko!" He is also very accessible, constantly reminding guests to drop him "Dear John" letters if things aren't up to par or if they are celebrating something. The shows that he handled were also quite entertaining, especially the "Bedtime Story", and we enjoyed his "Welcome Home" tagline.
The Casino: One thing I really like about Carnival ships is how they have set up the casino area. Unlike Royal Caribbean ships, the casino is more open and has windows viewable from most of the floor. So I patronized this a bit and lost some money at Caribbean Stud, craps, and "Fun 21". A word of advice: The regular blackjack tables are six-deck shoes but all have electronic shufflers, which greatly increases the house edge. "Fun 21" doesn't use an electronic shuffler and gives the player more options when betting, but uses eight decks with all queens removed. So basically you can pick your poison. The casinos on cruise ships aren't set up for people to win, but then what casino is? They also did have an electronic Texas Hold-Em poker table on board with ten seats and had $60 single-table tournaments on the sea days. However, it was almost always empty because nobody wants to play limit poker by themselves. Plus, when I asked about the blinds and tournament structures at the casino cage, I was told by the casino manager that only "one guy" knows that stuff and that he was at dinner. She was ready to call him on the radio, but I told her not to bother. If only one guy knows about it, that doesn't exactly build my confidence into how well-run a tournament it really is.
The Rest of the Ship: The ship itself was always impeccably clean and very well-maintained. If you have been on the Carnival Valor or other comparable ships, this is basically the same ship. For someone's first cruise, however, it can be somewhat confusing to navigate since you can't walk from front-to-back on every deck. Deck chair squatters were horrendous, as is typical on any cruise. I got up around on the sea days so that I could get a chair in the shade and enjoy the pool when it was relatively empty upon opening at . However, on this cruise, I noticed a new phenomenon - show seat squatters (see above in "Ship Entertainment"). There is a mini-golf course on the top deck, which my wife and I didn't found out about until halfway through the voyage. Unfortunately, it was always too hot and windy to try it out. The shops were fine, typical for any cruise ship. We spent some time in Scott's piano bar with Ron, and although it can be a smoky place, it was fun listening to him and putting requests in. I also went to one of the on-board art auctions, just to watch the money. (It amazes me how someone can spend $90,000 for a $108,000 Picasso painting in less than 30 seconds.) We didn't patronize the supper club on this trip.
Shore Excursions & Ports of Call: If there's one thing that Carnival has a great handle on, it's excursions. You get a ticket for any and all excursions that you book which has your meeting place and time. As long as you show up then with everybody in your party, they do the rest. They'll get you on a tender (if necessary), to your bus, etc., all in a very organized fashion. The cruise director also does "Travel & Adventure talks" that give a nice overview of many of the excursions in the ports, just in case you are undecided. Those talks sold me on two excursions for days on which we hadn't booked anything.
Here is an overview of the shore excursions that we did and a short commentary on each. Remember throughout all of these excursions that you MUST watch out for pickpockets who are very clever and will work in teams to distract you while they rob you blind. They’ll warn you about it on the ship, but do what you can to protect yourself before leaving.
• Naples, Italy – “Pompeii, Sorrento, and Capri” – this was the most popular excursion for this port. We actually did the three stops in reverse order. Capri was first. I was disappointed in that it took more time getting to and from Capri than we actually spent in it, first on a hydrofoil (basically a ferry boat) and then on a funicular (basically an inclined railway / train). If you get even a little seasick, you will probably lose your lunch on the hydrofoil rides, so take some Dramamine beforehand and be prepared. In Capri, we walked to the botanical gardens and enjoyed the views before having a little free time in the streets to shop and have refreshments on our own. There are no cars, but there are lots of little trams and trash buggies that roll through. I wish we had more time there. We then went into the town of Sorrento for lunch, which was included and very tasty, as well as to a shop that sold various inlaid wood products like jewelry boxes, furniture, chessboards, music boxes, etc. After that, we drove to the ruins of Pompeii. It was quite hot, but also an interesting journey through the ruins. Our guide was with us from the start of the day until the end and did a good job of keeping the group together. We then drove back to the ship through Naples. All in all, a pretty good day, but it was long (eight hours). Although we had “whisper units” where the guide talked into a microphone and we all could hear him up to a certain number of feet away, the guide still was difficult to understand at times – through no fault of his own.
• Venice, Italy – We did two excursions here since we had two days. The first was “St. Mark’s Experience”, which was one of the most popular choices. We took a ferry to the square and toured the Doge’s palace with a guide (again using whisper units), then had some time on our own to explore the square (it was this or go to a glassmaking place, which we skipped), then reconvened for a gelato along the square. After that, we had some free time and did some exploring in the back streets before returning to the ship after the four to five hours of the excursion. It was a pretty good orientation to St. Mark’s and a good first excursion. The next day, we did “Murano and Burano” for about five hours. Murano is an island famous for its glass, so we went by boat to the glass factory, saw a demonstration by one of their “masters”, then explored the store for a bit. The surprise on the excursion was the island of “Burano”. This was advertised as a shopping island known for its lace and crocheting. However, it’s also a highly residential island, and we really enjoyed just wondering through the streets looking at the houses and seeing how typical Italians lived in this little village. All in all, both excursions were a lot of fun, and I would recommend both to anyone.
• Dubrovnik, Croatia – This is the only port where we needed to have our Passports or some form of photo ID with us upon leaving the ship. It was a tender port, which means that you board little boats which take you from the ship into the harbor. There weren’t enough Croatian tenders, so Carnival actually had to use its own life boats to ferry people to and from the ship. That in itself was an interesting experience, but in my opinion it wasn’t terrible and there was never really a long wait to get on a tender. We did “The Best of Dubrovnik”, again the most popular choice, for about four hours. It’s mostly a bus ride with not much walking. They first take you to a small Croatian restaurant for refreshments, then to the small seaside harbor of Cavtat where you can walk around, relax and have a drink, and basically be on your own for a while. Then they take you into Dubrovnik itself where you can walk around the car-free “OldTown” within the city walls. That was a very HOT and to me not all that interesting experience. We then had to board a shuttle bus to get back to the port and catch a tender back to the ship. The excursion was okay, but you really didn’t see a whole heck of a lot, and I think in retrospect I probably would try to choose a difference excursion. Croatia is supposed to have nice beaches, so I’d probably look for something like that.
• Messina, Sicily – “We do not go to Messina for you to see Messina.” That is the cruise director talking. He basically said there are two main things here, Mount Etna (Europe’s largest active volcano) and the village of Taormina. We did an excursion called “Taormina On Your Own”, again the most popular choice. It took about 45 minutes to get to the village, and then another 15 to 20 to take elevators from the bus up into the car-free village itself. We then had about six hours to do whatever we wanted. We walked around, visited the Greek Theatre on our own (which has spectacular views of the island all around it), and stopped for a gelato and a cannoli since this is where the cannoli was invented. However, it was probably a little too much time for us. Four hours would have been sufficient, because after that we kind of ran out of stuff to do and just sat around waiting for the bus to leave. To top that off, our bus broke down on the way back, so we had a short unscheduled stop at a Sicilian beach while a new bus came to take us the rest of the way back to port. Again, not a bad choice, especially for shoppers, but it was a bit too long for us.
• Barcelona, Spain – “Gaudi and Barcelona” was our excursion of choice this time. We boarded a bus, which first took us to an overlook where we could take pictures of the entire city from our vantage point. The focus of the tour was on Gaudi’s buildings, so we drove through the city itself and stopped a few times at buildings that Gaudi designed for picture-taking. We then stopped at the Segrada Familia church, or the Temple of the Holy Family. The reason we chose this tour was because we got to go inside, while most other tours simply passed by it for picture-taking. We had a chance to take pictures outside and inside, and the church itself is amazing – at least, it will be whenever it is eventually finished. The outside, though, is breathtaking. We then boarded the bus again and headed for the Gothic quarter, where we toured a large cathedral as well as some of the other buildings in the quarter. The bus then let a few people off near La Rambla, the main tourist drag in Barcelona where a lot of the shopping, tapas places, and pickpockets are. We decided not to fight the crowds & heat, and so we went right back to the ship after about five to six hours of our excursion. It was a pretty good excursion for first-time Barcelona folks like us.
• Cannes, France – This was another tender port like Dubrovnik, although Carnival didn’t have to use their life boats this time & the tenders were much bigger and much quicker. Most people seemed to head for Monaco and Monte Carlo. We took a different path, choosing “A Scenic Drive Through the Villages of Provence”. This was advertised as an 8 hour excursion but actually lasted 10 hours and almost caused us to miss our dinnertime. It was about a ninety-minute ride from Cannes to our first stop, which was an old church in the village of Lourges. We then rode to the village of Cotignac, where we were able to explore with the guide and also have a pretty tasty French lunch – at least, most of us thought it was tasty. We then visited another small village and an old 13th century mill for olive oil tasting before returning to the ship. I had chosen this excursion because I knew that the towns wouldn’t be touristy and wanted to see the REALFrance, which we did. However, most of the excursion was driving. The roads aren’t built for buses, so we got to see a lot of near-misses with our bus and other vehicles. Many of the roads are also very windy, which eventually caused me a bit of motion sickness. The olive oil tasting was a waste for us. The guide had to translate everything the proprietor said about how he produces olive oil. We couldn’t see it because the mill only operates two months a year in the winter. I think all of us were of the opinion that we would have liked to see more than we did and spend less time in the bus, and that after the first two stops the rest of the tour was kind of a waste.
• Livorno, Italy – This is another one of those ports that in itself isn’t why the ship goes there. It is the nearest port to Pisa and Florence. We chose “The Best of Florence” because it was the only excursion that actually took us inside the Academia in Florence to see Michaelangelo’s David. We took a one-hour bus ride into Florence (after stopping for the toilets at an authentic Italian rest stop). After getting our whisper units from the guide, we walked from the bus into the center of town and got an overview of the main historical buildings of Florence, including walking by the Uffizi museum and the famous Pontevecchia bridge. Then we doubled back to see David, which was really quite cool, and we had plenty of time there to see it. The guide was extremely knowledgeable about everything that we saw, including David, and gave pretty good explanations. We then went for an Italian lunch and afterwards had a couple of hours on our own to do whatever we wanted. My wife and I paid a few Euros to go into the Cathedral de Santa Croce, which was pretty interesting to see & I would recommend it as a good place to kill some of that time. Just before going back to the ship, the guide drove to the highest point in Florence where we got a chance to see the whole city from above – just as a drive-by. All in all, it was a good tour, despite the high walking speeds of the guide at times.
Debarkation – Okay, this was the toughest part of the trip. They start disembarking people from the ship at . Yes, that’s in the morning. Their goal is to have everybody off of the ship by , and I believe that they did just that. You basically do what you can to have some sort of breakfast and then find a place to wait (if necessary) before your color luggage tag is called. Once that’s called, you get off the ship, claim your luggage, and find your transportation. For us, we had a flight from Rome, so we were called around or so. We got our bags, boarded our Carnival shuttle, and headed to the airport, arriving around . I am warning you now, Rome’s Leonardo Da Vinci airport is an absolute mess. We walked in and navigated our way to Continental’s desk, which in itself was challenging because the lines aren’t very organized and security is very visible and very intimidating. They have guys with machine guns above the terminal area, watching everything. My wife tried to navigate her way to the desk, and a security guard stopped her and actually pushed her back somewhat forcefully toward the lines. Once we eventually found Continental’s lines, however, we had a problem. Because there aren’t that many Continental flights, they weren’t opening their desk up until . Around or so, we finally were able to check in. Once we did that, getting through security was pretty simple and quick. We had a brief lunch and headed to our gate. Once we got to our gate, we had to change gates. We were delayed about 45 minutes, and then, once we started boarding, we had to get on a shuttle bus which transported us a few hundred feet to where the plane was sitting with two staircases leading up into it. I tell you this, none of us will ever complain about American airports again after experiencing this.
Overall: We had planned this as potentially our “trip of a lifetime”, and we weren’t disappointed. I would highly recommend this cruise as a good one for first-timers who have never been to Europe. To us, this is way better than taking bus tours around Europe without the ship, because it gives you some predictability as to your “hotel” room, food, activities, etc. It gives you a home away from home, yet takes you to quite a few different places. I think that if we had the money, we would probably try to find a way to stay on and the 12-day Greek Isles tour that the ship embarked on immediately after we left.