The cruise gods have been smiling down on us over the past week, as this review could aptly be entitled "The vacation that almost didn't happen". My husband and I are second-time cruisers, and this time decided to go with my parents. Having never travelled at this time of year, we were a bit nervous about the weather, but purchased our insurance and hoped for the best!
Carnival Cruise Air: I have heard horror stories, but we were very pleased with our air - it did not come without many hours of panic though! Due to work obligations, I could not depart until the morning of the cruise. Cruise air flying from Buffalo saved us more than half over a Toronto departure. When we received our itinerary, we were to leave Buffalo at 6:46am, route through Detroit, then arrive in Miami at 1:30. A call to my PVP assured me that the timing was fine, although others warned against such a late arrival. As it turned out, weather delayed our flights by hours, but thankfully we were one of the last flights to leave each airport as the storm of the year followed us! Arrival in Miami was tense, as we rushed to find the Carnival rep, but luckily there were 8 others for our ship, and several for the Freedom. We strolled onto the gangway at 3:50, just in time for muster drill. I must say, embarkation was very quick as there were more agents than passengers at that point! Had we not booked cruise air, the ship would not have waited or let us on so late, so I am very thankful. We saw people boarding on Tuesday in St. Thomas, having missed half their cruise. Not a fun way to spend your week, I'm sure.
The Triumph: I found the decor to be quite tasteful, and really elegant in many places. The color scheme is just beautiful - rich blues and golds, and more understated than the Miracle which was our last cruise. I just loved the brass globes at the end of each railing, and the marble floors throughout elevators and common areas were gleaming and beautiful. As others have mentioned, the layout is not the best. Our biggest complaint was the lack of outdoor deck space for walking. On the main deck you can get out on the sides (only on the last day, as winds were too high the rest of the cruise), but you can't get around the bow or stern. On Lido there are a series of stairs and multi-levelled decks. The kids area and mini-golf course disrupt a continuous path around these decks, too. If you enjoy a stroll around the decks, this can be a little frustrating. After dinner when all the deck chairs were put away, there was lots of space to walk, and it was quite lovely. We finally found, also the only forward decks on deck 9 and 10, which you have to access through the stateroom corridors by walking all the way aft. These were very quiet, and at night, there were no lights here, providing an excellent view of the stars and dark waters ahead. Interior areas were as I mentioned, beautifully decorated, and the variety of bars and public areas were pleasant. There is no clear path from front to back on any deck, and you either have to snake your way through the casino, or the Oxford lounge to get from one end to the other. Both these areas are very smoky, and had I been travelling with children, I would not have wanted to take them through either area, leaving the stateroom corridors as the only way to get from one end of the ship to the other. After some navigation, we figured out the ups and downs, and were able to make decent time from our dining room to the show lounge! Our room was very standard. Very clean, and well maintained by our excellent room steward, Edwin. As our first interior, I didn't like the darkness - I always woke up feeling like it was the middle of the night, and as a result, didn't ever feel like I'd had a good rest. Another strange issue was that the boat vibrated constantly, and I am still vibrating today :) (not the regular roll or pitch of the waves, but a mechanical chugging along that shook everything constantly).
Entertainment - as always, I was very impressed with the entertainment. The shows were energetic and well-done. The singers were both very good. The orchestra was absolutely superb. I really enjoyed Cecil Parker our fly-in entertainer, and the comic was also very entertaining. I did not enjoy the magic show by Kevin and Caruso. There was a lot of dancing in strange costumes, and not a lot of magic. My parents, however, loved the magic show, so to each his own. I have a hard time believing these guys headlined in Las Vegas, unless they have drastically changed their act. The magic they performed was entertaining, but I think there were only 4-5 illusions compared to at least an equal number of long, boring dance numbers. I did not attend the hypnotist show. The Carnival Legends were just great! We found good talent this week, I think! :) Very fun!
In the bars, I loved the piano performer who was in the casino (whose name escapes me!) and the classical trio (the Natalie Trio) was lovely. They performed at the afternoon tea, which was a nice venue compared to busy common areas where they usually played. The Jazz group was excellent as well. I enjoyed the music of the "party band" Music Power, but we noticed that in 4 evenings we heard the same 4 songs each time, and although well performed, wondered if they had any more repertoire. We did not venture into the piano bar, but saw the pianist with a wolf's head on, screaming at the top of his lungs. Very strange.
Food: Overall, I was not as impressed with the food on this cruise as I was on the last. Meals every night were hit or miss for me. The salads were all delicious, and the appetizers were usually quite good. Main courses varied. My vegetarian eggplant and zucchini parmesan was to die for, and linguine was superb. Some pasta dishes were undercooked, some were delightful. Sometimes the beef was melt-in-your-mouth, sometimes it was plastic tasting. The lobster was absolutely wonderful on formal night, and many of the side dishes were lovely. DH enjoyed all the desserts, and I loved the bitter and blanc.
Lido dining - Didn't eat here as often, because it was always quite noisy and busy and we just felt like a quieter setting usually. Breakfast was very, very greasy so I ate oatmeal and fruit. I had Hong Kong Noodle factory Thai lunch one day, which was tasteless. The pizza was always delicious, and the caesar salads from the pizzeria were really great. I do also love the soft-serve stations, and visited them several days. The Gala buffet was visually impressive, but none of the food was very good. I made a mistake by taking the exotic looking things and not the regular salads and meats and things. Not a good idea. Nice desserts though :)
The sushi was always stellar, and I tried to never miss a sushi bar evening! Mmm mmm mmm!
Ports of Call:
Half Moon Cay - we beached a bit, but mainly walked, and there are extensive and beautiful walking trails throughout the island. Even an isolated ruins trail that snakes up through hills past old ruined structures. Lots of wildlife and beautiful plants. Yes the beach is lovely, but you can also spend hours exploring on your own without ever running into another guest. The buffet on shore was very nice, and a perfect addition to the lovely day. Try the jerk chicken!
St. Thomas - we took the Ultimate Island Experience, which was a great excursion. Our tour guide - the Black 007 - was very knowledgeable and friendly, and we learned a lot from him. We spent two hours at Magen's Bay beach, which was just right for us. Nice swimming. Nice views. He then dropped us off at Blackbeard's castle, which is not actually a castle. It's a collection of historic homes with numerous bronze pirate statues placed amongst them. It was a neat history tour, and we walked down several hundred feet from the starting point to visit all the houses. We ended the self-guided walk at 1829, a hotel with a little bar and tried the Irish Blackbeard. 8 ounces of liquor, all 40% or so. Wowee, the island was really swaying after that! It was only $7.00, and tasted like a Shamrock Shake from McDonalds. Dangerous!
We were then on our own to make our way back to the ship. The walk to the shore and along the piers to the ship was probably two miles, and a really lovely walk. There was a small market nearby , and one of the vendors noticed my husband's fire department t-shirt and directed us to the local fire station. He was able to buy a Virgin Islands Fire Dept. T-shirt for $20, which is his favorite souvenir. He also talked fire and rescue with some locals and other tourists who were drawn to the shiny red trucks, and had a blast! What a lovely shoreline with all the yachts and private boats tied up. We were impressed!!
San Juan - I LOVED this port. We did our own exploration on foot, and went to both the Fort San Cristobal and El Morro. Excellent historic sites, lots of fabulous vistas and photo opportunities. There is a very impressive cemetery near El Morro, but you can't get to the fort from the cemetery so be prepared to back track if you venture down there. There were hundreds of schoolchildren flying kites on the lawns in front of El Morro, which was a fun scene. We walked back through the old town and stopped at Ben and Jerry's for an ice cream. Mmm. The streets near the shoreline are also lovely, and I would have spent another several hours walking along the water if we had the time. Unfortunately, I got sunstroke in San Juan, and spent the evening in bed. Make sure you drink lots and lots of water, and don't try to push it and see everything. I think we overdid it here, but I loved it and would love to go back.
Grand Turk - the biggest surprise, and a jewel to top off our trip. I loved this island. It's very desolate and rustic, so unless you want to spend the day at Margaritaville or on the beach, book an excursion. We took the Madison Point clear kayak, which was remarkable. We had a guided bus ride to the national park, where another guide took us out in glass bottom kayaks through a crystal clear Mangrove stream. He told us all about the ecology and history of the island, and we saw thousands of creatures in the clear, shallow water. Sea cucumbers, jellyfish, barracuda and many more. What a perfect day! Then we went to a small snorkel shop where we went on a little guided snorkel over some lovely coral and saw plenty of fish and other creatures. IT was not for experienced snorkelers by any means, but was a lovely introduction to the activity. The guide pointed out all the fish by name. I found these guides to be super-enthusiastic and very genuine. They don't have the routines of all the other seasoned guides in the other ports. These ones seem to treat each visitor like their first, and are genuinely excited to share their island with you. In Grand Turk there is no privately owned shoreline, so the feel is very authentic and free. I don't expect this to last as the port matures, but it felt like a true glimpse into a real desert island where the inhabitants go about their lives.
Random Thoughts: Brad Calabrese was our director, but he left when we did for a vacation, so I'm not sure when he'll be back. He was very enthusiastic, and presented the same jokes I heard from our last director. Lots of announcements, but he was also very present and visited with the guests all the time. I didn't seek him out at any point, but ended up chatting with him nearly every day in some place or other on board. The Maitre'd was equally friendly, and he made lots of announcements each evening, and visited our table at least once a day. I saw him on Lido quite often and at all the special events. We saw the captain nearly every day as well, and all the senior officers were very friendly and always walking around the ship. Our service team in the dining room and our room steward were wonderful. I was always greeted by name. The social hosts, with the exception of one, were a little timid, and didn't ever seem to say or do much. We were quite angry one day when there was a ship-board walk for Breast Cancer, when a group of guys were playing beanbags on the walking track where our walk was scheduled. Two social hosts allowed them to continue playing and create a barricade to prevent us from walking into their game, even though there were hundreds of people walking in the fundraiser, and we had to already snake around the deck chairs. A guest finally forced the social hosts to kick off the beanbag tossers, thank goodness. We were irate though. What kind of arrogance allows some 20-something bug guys to dare to try to block the path of hundreds of people who are doing something meaningful - many in tears as they shared stories of lost loved ones. I could have thrown those jerks overboard, that's for sure.
Afternoon Tea - check it out! A lovely concert, and some of the nicest little treats on the cruise. Wonderful service, and a delightful atmosphere.
The money grab: This seemed to be even worse than our last cruise. Everywhere you look there are sales, auctions, contests etc. Lots of announcements over the PA to go to this or that sale. And there was bingo in the Rome Lounge before nearly every performance. It got a little tiresome.
Debarkation - Very smooth and easy. We picked up tags for early flight, which was had, but it wasn't really necessary. We had to be in the lounge for 7:30, and were in the Fort Lauderdale airport before 9:15 for our 1:00 flight. Very boring! We saw people from the last group to debark who arrived at the airport before we were even allowed to check in, so we would have had no problem debarking an hour or two later. In the lounge as we waited for our number to be called, we were shown America's Funniest Home Videos, which was a nice diversion. Good idea! Debarkation was smooth, and our transfer to FLL was easy and pleasant.
Overall - I had a really lovely time. I couldn't help but compare it to our last cruise, and would have to say that I liked the ports of call and our excursions even better this time, but the onboard experience was not as good. Or shall I say, it didn't blow me away like it did last time when I had no prior expectation. I would certainly not avoid the Triumph in the future.