This was our (DH is 41 and I'm 34) third cruise, first with Carnival. We had cruised twice before with NCL, the last of which was on a barely month old NCL Pearl in January 2007. Naturally, most of our comparisons are with NCL...
Arrival in Cape Canaveral and embarkation: We picked Carnival and this particular Eastern Caribbean itinerary because of the proximity to Atlanta, GA, and the price, and that we had not yet been to any of these islands before. We got a balcony for just a little more than a simple outdoor cabin would have cost us on our preferred cruise lines, but we decided to try Carnival after all. We drove from Atlanta to Cape Canaveral in less than eight hours, including a lunch and a couple of pit stops, easy and uneventful drive. We stayed in Radisson, where a suite with a whirlpool for one night, plus parking for the car all week came to $189 including all taxes. The hotel is very nice, the suite was wonderful, the whirlpool malfunctioned but was promptly fixed. DH found the sleep number bed less than spectacular, but I felt like it worked. Radisson is good value, highly recommended, if you don't plan to use their port shuttle! We also had an excellent and very affordable sushi/thai dinner at Siam Orchid (1275 N. Atlantic Ave, Cocoa Beach, next to La Quinta, on the main drag)- also highly recommended at least for Asian food lovers and those who care to eat healthy and low fat stuff. There's also a lovely, but expensive natural foods store just a couple of blocks down on the main drag for some last minute food items. Radisson's shuttle to the port in the morning of the cruise, however, is another story. Utterly disorganized, forget about the pre-booked shuttle times. We stood at the main hotel entrance among some 70 people, quite a few smoking non-stop right there, tons of luggage and chaos taking place all around us for approx. 1 hour before we finally made it onto the shuttle. They prefer larger groups, so if you're traveling as a couple or just a couple of friends, be prepared to be ignored and get to the ship late. It was a waste of time and overall a very unpleasant experience. If we ever cruise from PC again, we'll get a taxi to the port or choose another hotel, which has more shuttles available and which has more courtesy toward their guests. We eventually made to the port around 1:45 pm. Radisson's shuttle debacle was one of the lowest points of this vacation.
Carnival's embarkation procedures were well organized, even though lines were long. Given the Homeland Sec. Dept. rules, that was to be expected, but we were on the ship in 30 minutes.
On the ship: We were pleasantly surprised to hear good piano music as we entered the ship. The cabins were not ready, so we had to drag our carry-ons to the restaurant to make arrangements with maitre d' for a table for two, which we got with little fuss. The staff was helpful all along. When we finally got into our balcony cabin on Deck 8, we found it very good. It was worth spending a little extra, and we kept the balcony door open every night and most of the sea days as well. That was priceless - the sound of ocean all around, stars above the head and sometimes some island lights on the horizon.
Overall impression: the ship is well-maintained, clean, but make no mistake, it shows its age. It is much darker than NCL's Pearl, much more plastic and metal used in interior design, which leaves a somewhat chintzy impression. The layout is bad, I mean confusing and illogical - Pearl was so easy to navigate! I sympathize with those with walking difficulties, let alone using wheelchairs... we appreciated any opportunity to walk and so get as much exercise as possible if we got lost, but probably not everyone did. The room steward did a good job, the purser's desk was helpful. There is no flatscreen TV in the cabin, the old TV was sticking out of its compartment, I banged my head a couple of times. There is enough closet space, but not more than enough - the previous cruisers had kindly left some hangers, and we appreciated that. Bathroom - the water was most of the time not warm enough, shower constantly alternated between almost freezing water and warm, not hot. I was cold many times after the shower and had to go out on the balcony to warm up - and that with no air conditioning turned on in the cabin! In short, the cabin shows age. The bed was comfortable, and there is a real comforter type blanket, not just some miserable cheapo cover - we loved it!
Entertainment: We saw just a little of the shows. OK, but nothing that could hold our attention longer than 20 minutes. Besides, Carnival seems to cater to two age groups in terms of sound volume - teens with no limits on decibels, and seniors with mighty serious hearing problems. We hear very well, but did not want to loose our hearing, so could not really take it more than 15-20 minutes without getting headache. We spent most of the time on our balcony or on the open decks. Even though the pool towels are not to be lost unless one wants to pay $22, people were saving deck chairs all over the place. We looked for spots further away from the water slide with running and screaming children, and some days we could find them, sometimes not. There were children on board, but not too many and not too noisy, I guess, because we cruised during the school year, so absolutely no complaints here. We played minigolf, but it is very windy up there. DH participated in the ping-pong tournament, but the wind played a major role there, too. I would have loved to participate in the Walk for Cure, to raise money for the Susan Komen foundation's breast cancer initiatives, but this was very poorly advertised, not clear exactly where to meet, etc. I wish Carnival would give more info on this rather than trumpeting the endless sales and bingo. Also, the arrival in port was not announced so it was not clear as to when exactly one could get off. Instead, art auctions and bingo all the time! Can't comment on casino - we don't gamble, all we noticed was that is was cold, smoky and loud. overall, public facilities are cold, the dining room was nearly freezing, the shops were the warmest public space on board except the hot tub and spa.
The absolute best of this cruise: the classical Cassovia trio from Slovakia - they played in the main lobby, during the afternoon tea and other times. We loved it! Kudos to Carnival for remembering that not everybody exactly raves about calypso and rap. The trio played mostly light classical music, jazz and some film music with poise and enough variation of program. DH even requested a couple of Brahms' Hungarian dances which they performed with class and exuberance in very nice chamber music arrangements. There was also a pianist, Odetta, who played some classical piano music, some jazz and what sounded like New Age. She did a good job for the circumstances too - we loved it. The bar in the main lobby was very good, well-mixed drinks, prompt service. We spent some time with pre-dinner drinks in the lobby and bar enjoying the Cassovia trio and drinks on all non-shore days. This trio rocks, and Carnival does too - in comparison with NCL in this regard.
Now to the things that left quite a bit to de desired:
The food. We were assigned to the very last seating, Golden dining room. We were used to NCL freestyle dinners and have to say - that is the way to go. The food on Glory arrived around 9pm or later. It's too late - simply too late, it's unhealthy to stuff oneself up that late. And, there is really not a decent alternative - the dinner buffet on Carnival most often tasted like a country diner fare, but the restaurants served much better food, so we simply had to wait. I had bad dreams going to sleep on almost full stomach, since the dinner was not really over before 10pm. I usually had some sushi a couple of hours before the dinner. It was OK, but don't expect anything spectacular, yet it's free - so why not. NCL's Freestyle rocks, I guess Princess has something like this too. Or we simply have to insist on an early seating, which on the other hand, may interfere with shore activities. No winner here. The food took much longer to appear on the table from the moment it was ordered as compared to NCL. We had a good waiter, but his assistant was the real class - I-Made from Indonesia. Should be promoted, he has manners and anticipates the wishes of the clients very well, deserves high commendation. The Golden dining room itself looked sort of bleak, again NCL Pearl fared much better in our opinion. The food, yes the food. DH loved most of it, praised highly not only the famous chocolate melting cake - and here, regarding desserts his opinion really has traction, so try it out if you can/may - but also most of the meat dishes and also vegetarian stuff. He found plenty of items for breakfast and lunch as well, so that this cruise gets 4 stars based on his food evaluation and only. Not mine. Here's why: I'm a vegetarian who eats seafood but for health reasons cannot eat dairy and eggs. Breakfast was rather horrible, since almost everything on offer contained meat, dairy products or dairy ingredients and eggs. On NCL I was used to eating smoked salmon or gravlax for breakfast, here it could be obtained only in the Platinum dining room breakfast, which we tried but which took a whole hour, almost like the dinner. On shore days we did not want to waste time with this, so I had brought along healthy stuff for breakfast, but Carnival could not even put out a darn carton of soymilk for breakfast cereals. Lunch and dinner was better, there was always some seafood, but lots of it did not taste too good, and was deep fried or was drenched in creamy sauces. Fish and Chips: the bouillabaisse was OK, the fish and chips - well, deep fried it was for sure, but otherwise it does not come close to what F & C usually stands for in UK, so don't expect that sort of food if you've been to Britain and know what that is all about. The Asian counter in the buffet, well, that was my lifesaver rather often, but nothing special, almost any Chinese takeout would outperform this easily. Overall, very good food for those on the mainstream carnivore side and for those with a big sweet tooth, but for those who are vegetarians or simply want to have healthy, low fat and still good tasting food - leaves a lot to be desired. The Spa selections on the main dinner menu - well, sounded good, but tasted most of the time just plain nothing. It is not true that healthy food must taste inferior - I think Carnival does not put enough effort, creativity and quality of the ingredients into these selections. And we firmly believe that we don't have to pay extra for the supper club to get something that is both delicious and healthy if we have already paid for the cruise. So, yes we did not go the supper club. I ended up ordering several appetizers, soups and salads several evenings - these items seemed to be the most delicious and the lightest of all. NCL wins in terms of food variety - their alternative dinner buffet was much better than Carnival's. For lunch the Red Sail fared better than dinner, the international lunches were quite good, especially the Indian. Personally, despite all the hassles, I loved the fact that I didn't have to cook and clean up afterwards - that is reason enough to rejoice even though getting back to health took some time after the cruise food.
Ports of call: Nassau/Bahamas - it was Sunday, everything was quiet and closed. The city is unfortunately run down quite a bit. Even some major churches were closed on the Epiphany Sunday morning, until we saw that the Anglican cathedral had their service in full swing with the local bishop preaching. Otherwise there were only cruisers around. We walked to the Ardastra Gardens - delightful place, marching flamingos, parrot feeding, tropical plants and animals, it was a nice oasis far enough from those messy few stores that were open and where one could get a Gucci handbag for $20. Shops were the only thing that was open, so we avoided those few crowded areas and headed back to the ship. St. Thomas - this is a mighty idiocy on this Carnival's itinerary. Because of spending some hours in Nassau, we had to go through US immigration again to get off the ship in St Thomas. Complete waste of time, just incredibly annoying, especially for those families like ours, where one spouse is not a US citizen. Carnival should not split the families and let all family members go through the process only once and keep all family members together. This was a ridiculous bureaucratic hassle. I had booked a tour with Godfrey's tours - thanks Cruisecritics for suggestions on these boards! I paid $25 pp, for the island tour. He was very professional, efficient, polite. No loud music as on the Sunny Liston safaris - yes, they were loud, but nicely painted with parrots. In Charlotte Amalie there were tons of shops and some roosters running around among the tour busses. We did not have enough time to do real sightseeing due to the fact that immigration took so long and the traffic was impressive - like NYC around Lincoln tunnel around 5pm. We did the island tour, chose not to stay on Sapphire beach - it is really small, a bit unclean, kinda uninviting - Orient beach on St. Martin was much better, larger, more comfortable, more beautiful. St. Thomas had really good booze prices, we got a couple of bottles for a fraction of what they would cost in Atlanta. The island is beautiful, but run down, perhaps not well governed - it is sad that after all these decades of being a US territory, well colony, the government had let things go this way. The infrastructure is decrepit, all that glitters is the duty free gold in those countless shops. St. Martin; this is a very nice island, we enjoyed both the Dutch and French parts, enjoyed having an opportunity to speak French but did not enjoy the European Union prices, especially on the French side considering how low USD is. On the way from Marigot to Orient beach a truck somehow got off the road, half of the island was brought to standstill for almost an hour and we were stuck in the taxi instead of beach. There are taxi's all around and they are pricey, but that seems to be the best way to see the island. It was $15 from the cruise dock to Marigot, $18 from Marigot to Orient beach and $18 back from Orient beach to Phillipsburg. On Orient beach I did parasailing ($50 for one person, $90 for two) which was wonderful, then we spent a couple of hours in the Bikini beach section. There were cheaper sections, but while parasailing I did notice from up in the sky that Bikini beach and the next section with dark parasols were the emptiest and thus the most comfortable. the cheaper and smaller beaches were packed, looked like people were sitting in each others laps. No privacy whatsoever. So we paid a buck more and got nice beach chairs in a less crowded place. There are restaurants on the beach but the prices are simply through the roof. During our 3-4 hours on Orient beach we probably saw at most three or four topless women, so the famous concerns about this issue are probably overblown. Anyway, in Europe this is something no one particularly gets excited about, and Orient beach looked rather very tame in this regard, except for probably the most sanctimonious tastes. We walked around leisurely in Phillipsburg and it seemed like the prices were even better than in St. Thomas, even though we did not really shop for anything. Overall the atmosphere seemed to be more pleasant and relaxed than in Charlotte Amalie, much cleaner and better maintained everything - city, roads, beaches. Definitely, if we are going to be back in that corner of the Caribbean, St. Martin will be the top place to go to.
Spa: the spa was good - better than NCL Pearl's spa, which was prettier, more spacious and overall more contemporary and advanced, but on Glory the staff did not push the products too much. I had a wonderful massage done by Olivia. She went far above and beyond the usual special massage+ facial combo offer and this turned out to be one of the best deep muscle massages that I've had. Professionally done, with appreciation of the client's particular aches and needs. Great job! And I've had quite a few good ones before... The use of the pool with the cascade, sauna and steam room was free - which is great, as NCL charged $15 per day, per person. Glory even has its own acupuncturist! The prices for acupuncture are very, very high as compared to the shore, except perhaps NYC or LA, so we did not use this service. But if I would have had a sudden awful back pain or something really bad threatening to ruin my cruise, I would have gone right to the chinese medicine doctor. The gym is smaller than what I had seen on other ships, and the spa could be decorated better, it's sort of drab. There were spa specials all the time, of course, shore days had the best offers. Still, the special prices compared favorably with what is available here in Atlanta, so Carnival is offering a good deal here.
Cruise director and staff: the less talk from him, the better. All the talks about the ports were, of course, only about shopping by a dude immersed in his tanzanite underworld of tax free glitz and trinkets changing color in sunlight. We stayed away from the pool games and all those hairy supersized chests and thanks goodness, there are spots on this ship to escape that old fashioned hoopla. If you like to read on cruise, bring your own books. THe library is just miserable, opens probably only for an hour a day, if that much. NCL Pearl's library at least was better, more spacious and more user friendly even though it was not even appropriate for that number of people onboard, let alone great.
Back to Port Canaveral: we arrived as planned, disembarkation was orderly and since we did not have to catch a plane, we did not bother with dragging the suitcases off the ship ourselves. After breakfast, we were off the ship with out luggage in hand around 9am, but thanks to Radisson we got back to the hotel parking lot only shortly before 10am. The shuttle was not initially available, then finally showed up, parked in a spot that was hard to see and find, the shuttle did not have Radisson's name displayed clearly as other hotels' shuttles did. Other shuttles had parked right where the passengers were coming out of the terminal. At the end of it all, we left Radisson at 10am and were back in Atlanta around 6pm. Final verdict: "Never say never" - perhaps we'll cruise with Carnival again if we can get the biggest bang for our buck and if the itinerary is right. The fact that it is much more convenient these days to drive to the port, the city of departure will play a significant role in our future cruising plans. The set dinner times are not for us, that we know for sure, or the food at least has to be head and shoulders above that which we had on Glory. We love cruising and we will cruise again, God willing, but we'll most likely consider Carnival if we can't find anything else that fits our busy schedules, departure port preferences and reasonable vacation budget.
THe last word: I got the best deal for this cruise online. They have all the ship layouts online so one can pick the right cabin and location. I would have preferred to book directly with Carnival, just in case something had to be cancelled etc, but despite their promise of the best price, Carnival would not match the online offer, so I went with the online company and saved some $200. Carnival's best price offer does not seem to be trustworthy, so it pays to shop around.