Age: 25. Occupation: Academic Adviser. Number of Cruises: 2. Cruise Line: Carnival. Ship: Paradise. Sailing Date: August 31st, 2003. Itinerary: Eastern Caribbean.
My husband and I just returned from our second cruise, our first on the Paradise. We chose the Eastern Caribbean itinerary as we had explored the Western route on our first cruise, on the Sensation in May of 2001. I'll do my best to rate the Paradise on its own merits, and also report on some of the changes in Carnival we noticed from 2001 to 2003. This review is pretty long, but I did my best to include all the things I wish I could have read about in my research, and included the topics I found most helpful in other reviews.
First a little bit about us - we are both 25, married 3 years. My husband Shawn is a systems analyst for a utility company, I am an academic adviser at a public university. We aren't into the party scene, we like to take our vacations to relax and explore or see new places, and to spend some quality, romantic time alone together. We enjoy reading, hiking, music, and eating out. Our one real problem with the Sensation was the terrible amounts of cigarette smoke. We found it unbearable to be in the atrium, and could not enjoy any of the sing-alongs in the bars and lounges due to it, it made even using the elevators unpleasant. So we were very excited to hear that Carnival offered an entirely smoke-free ship!
BOOKING THE TRIP:
We started researching our options back in February, and found that the lowest price was available at an on-line at a travel agency. So while we never actually met our TA, she was very good at responding to e-mails, and when we found the price had dropped (on two occasions) and gave her a call, she re-figured our bill for us. We ended up paying $499 plus tax for a category 6A, a much better price than we had paid in 2001. Five days before our sail date (8/31/03), we called Carnival for one last price-check and found they were offering our category for $495 including tax, and after a little bit of the run-around (Carnival told us to call the TA, the TA told us to call Carnival, etc.), we received $100 ship board credit! The moral of the story - be persistent! The squeaky wheel gets the grease!
PORT OF MIAMI:
I have always enjoyed road-trips, my family always took at least one every summer during my childhood, so I talked Shawn into driving to Miami from Akron, Ohio. People seem to think we are loony for this, but the drive was very pleasant! We left right after work on Friday, drove all night in shifts, and arrived in Miami around 11 on Saturday, which gave us plenty of time to relax and enjoy our first visit to the city. We had bid $35 on Priceline about three weeks before for a hotel in the downtown Miami area, and the bid was accepted by the Radisson on Biscayne Blvd. What a deal! The only complaint we had about the hotel was the parking fee - it was $2 for the first hour and $1 for every additional hour, for a maximum of $10. Still, with the price of the room we didn't pay all that much! The hotel is just a few blocks north of I-195, very easy to find. Upon checking in, I asked the clerk if any of the rooms faced the port - I was not asking to be in one of those rooms, but I think English was his second language and due to a very fortunate misunderstanding, he said he would change us to a king room (instead of 2 queens) that faced the port at no additional charge! What a way to begin our vacation.
We enjoyed a dip in their beautiful roof-top pool, and took a nap to catch up on our sleep. Around dinner time we got up and drove over to Miami beach to see what all the fuss was about. Since we're really not into clubbing, we soon determined it really wasn't our style, and drove north up to The Crab House, and had a very nice dinner of snow crab and coconut shrimp. The next morning we woke up and excitedly went to the window - off in the distance, you could see the Paradise had arrived!
We checked out around 11 and headed to the IHOP we had seen last night, just a few blocks north, then headed down Biscayne the other way to Port Blvd. The Miami Port is very well designed. We had no idea what to expect, but upon crossing the causeway we simply followed the signs towards the Paradise in Terminal 8, went through a security checkpoint, and then continued following the signs to the baggage drop-off. From there it's just around the corner to the long-term parking. We were very happy to see it was in a garage so our car wouldn't get too hot. Keep in mind, Terminal 8 is on a cash-only basis, $10 a day all in advance.
We estimated that arriving around 12:30 would be "early," since our tickets said boarding began at 1:30. I should have paid more attention to other reviewers! Apparently 12:30 is around peak-time, so there was quite a line in the terminal, but it really did go quickly. As we approached the line a Carnival employee gave us a letter telling us they were closely monitoring the progress of Hurricane Fabian and would keep us informed of the situation. We first had to go through security with our carry-on, which consisted of two bookbags, our digital camera, and a beach bag. We had 4 bottles of water and 3 bottles of juice as well as various snacks (which I'm sure you could see through the X-ray scanner) and apparently Carnival considers that to be within their "reasonable amount" since no one batted an eye at it.
After that we got into the check-in line, which was about 45 minutes long. They really keep it moving, the clerks at the desk are very efficient without being pushy or rushing you when it's your turn, but they don't dawdle. At the desk we asked the Carnival representative about the possibility of early disembarkation since we had quite a drive to get home. She said to go to the Information Desk on the ship and tell them we had an early flight and didn't have the tickets on us to receive an early disembarkation tag. She also told us that when people get off the ship has a lot to do with customs, and that this particular morning customs hadn't cleared the Paradise until nearly 10:00 so even the early people didn't get off until 10:30 or so, preparing us for that possibility. We were grateful for her frankness on this matter.
As other reviewers have mentioned, we were struck by the much classier tone of the Paradise compared to the Sensation (and, I assume, other Carnival Fantasy-class ships). So I won't go into too much detail here, but the wood-tones and Faberge egg motif was very attractive. It still has the twinkly, glitzy Carnival look, but toned down a bit. The carpeting was identical to what we remembered on the Sensation, and the pinkish-orange hallways in the cabin-areas were the same also.
Our room was midship on the Riviera (we prefer the lower deck as we feel the motion is not as noticeable, and walking the stairs helps you work off those midnight buffets!), and pretty much identical to our room on the Sensation, although opposite in lay-out. The one difference that we appreciated immediately was that Carnival had installed soap and shampoo dispensers in the shower, which was very convenient. Our room steward Ted refilled them every time they got low.
We went around exploring the ship and found that it is of course very similar to the Sensation as they are both Fantasy-class, so it wasn't hard remembering how to get from place to place. The biggest difference of course - no smoke or smoky smell! We appreciated that right away.
Dinners: We had requested the early seating, as on our previous TA's advice we had done the late seating on our first cruise. Her point was that early diners had to rush back to the ship and didn't get to enjoy the ports. We found that we didn't spend that much time in port anyway, and when you have dinner at 8:30, you miss so many of the evening activities and have no appetite at all for the midnight buffets, so we were excited to try our new dinner time. An unintended benefit of the early seating seemed to be that dinner moved a little more quickly (or maybe that is just because there were less people than our first cruise), and the meat was always cooked as we ordered it. Shawn is a steak-man, and he was a little disappointed on the Sensation that his steak was always too well done. He orders it medium-rare, and this time around, it actually arrived medium-rare. The food just seemed a little hotter, a little fresher.
Last time we had been seated at a large round table right next to the dining room entrance right in the middle of the room, so we didn't have a real ocean-view. This time we had a booth which is just one row away from the window, so we had a great view even if we weren't at a window-table. The booths seat 6, but we had only one other couple at our table, honeymooners from Virginia named Mike and Antoinette. Either the other couple never showed up, or only the four of us were assigned to that table - I think it might be the latter because it didn't appear to be a full ship. There were always plenty of open seats in lounges and around the pool, even during peak times. We found that the dynamic is definitely different when you have just one other couple at your table instead of four - but luckily we had a lot in common and got along very well. Antoinette was originally from St. Vincent and had gone to college in St. Thomas, so we were able to get a local point of view during the week! Our head waiter was Rommel from the Phillipines, and Bart from Poland was his assistant. We also had a waiter-in-training named Olga from Lithuania. Please remember if you have a waiter-in-training that they are not included in your automatic tip, so it might be nice to give them a little something. Olga worked very hard for us, and we appreciated her efforts. We soon met Svitlana, our bar waitress who was diligent in bringing me my soft-drink every night after I showed her my fountain card that first Sunday.
The menu was identical to what we remembered on the Sensation - literally. I know because they had the strawberry bisque and roasted pumpkin soup on the same night - and again I couldn't choose between them, so I had both! I did my best to remember what I had ordered before and try something new each night. As a result, I tried a little bit of everything - the seafood (perch, lobster tail, red-skinned snapper), beef, lamb, and pork. I'm especially fond of Carnival's soups and had two on some nights! The only course I didn't care for was the salad. There wasn't a lot of variety and many of them had "mixed greens," which I can't stand, they're too bitter for me. So instead of salad I usually ordered a soup and some other appetizer.
On the night that the dining staff sang "Happy Birthday, Anniversary, Honeymoon, etc" Rommel found out that we had celebrated our anniversary 3 weeks before and two days later gave us a cake as well, which was really sweet.
One thing we did notice about dining that had changed was that instead of leaving a basket of bread at the table, they came around with the basket and served a piece of bread to each guest (more than one if you asked). I'm sure this is a cost-cutting measure, and it didn't bother me a bit - since if bread is in front of me, I tend to keep eating it, and have less room for dinner! And any time you wanted more bread you just let the staff know and they brought the basket around again.
There also seemed to be more of the staff performances - I remembered the Italian song, the Macarena, Mambo #5, and God Bless America on the final night...this time around there was some song or dance every single night except the first one, and God Bless America was replaced by the Carnival rendition of "Leaving on a Jet Plane," called "Leaving Our Fun Ship." I'm pretty neutral on this aspect of the dining experience. It does make for a fun, party atmosphere on one hand, but on the other hand I feel bad for the staff, that's already knocking themselves out to wait on us hand and foot, and then must entertain us as well.
Breakfasts - Breakfast had changed as well - on the Sensation, there was always an assigned breakfast time in your normal dining room for a full-menu breakfast only. This time around, on sea days breakfast was at your assigned time in your dining room; on port days, only the Elation dining room was open and it was open-seating. There was also a buffet available in the dining room. It was pretty similar to the buffet on the Lido, with a little more selection in fruit, better-looking eggs, and French toast. We never ordered from the menu, and went to a buffet each day - in the Elation on port days, and on the Lido deck on sea days. Unlike lunch and dinner, we found the food pretty comparable in quality in the formal dining room and the Lido deck.
Buffets - the buffet opened at either 11:30 or midnight each night, in the Paris Restaurant most nights, but one night there was a Mexican buffet on the Lido deck. Most of the time it was fruit, leftover desserts from the formal dining room (which was nice if you couldn't decide between two desserts - there is a chance you could try your second choice later that night!), and cold cuts. One night they had a make-your-own-crepe buffet. I had never tried crepes, and thoroughly enjoyed loading one up with chocolate, almonds, and whipped cream. Friday night they had the gala buffet; first picture taking in the Elation, and then you could go right upstairs to the Paris to eat it! Honestly, I think this buffet is more eye-candy than anything, creative and amazing in presentation but not so striking flavor-wise. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed it, but it wasn't much different than the food I'd had all week. Since we'd eaten at 6, we managed to fit the buffet in almost every night, and it was very enjoyable, sitting at one of our favorite spots on the deck (the back of the Lido deck behind the Paris), enjoying a midnight snack.
Room Service - the menu was very similar to what I remembered from 2001, there may have been a few additions. We used it three times - once for an early lunch when we slept in, once for a late-night snack (just because we could), and on Friday night we put out our order card for breakfast-in-bed on Saturday. The fruit salad is good, as is the roast-beef and brie sandwich, and the chocolate cake! The service was always very prompt.
Nassau, The Bahamas: We had decided very early on to take only one excursion to keep costs down, and I hadn't heard a lot of good things about Nassau so we decided to make it just a low-key day and hang out on our own, return to the ship early and get a discounted couple's massage while the ship was in port. When we first arrived at the pier on Monday there was a light rain. We ate breakfast on the Lido deck and by the time we finished the weather was clearing up. We exited the ship from Deck 3 and took the walk down the wharf to the actual city. The wharf is maybe a quarter-mile walk. There were a few people waiting at the end of it offering us tours, but were not persistent when we declined. We walked into the "welcome-building," which can be a little bit tricky. We assumed the official-looking people behind the counters were there to give us information, but apparently these are just tour operators with enough status to get an official-looking spot behind the counter! One woman offered to braid my hair when I asked her about local beaches, and the man next to her told us the only public beach was on Paradise Island and offered to ferry us there. I knew from reading reviews that this was not true, so we just decided to walk.
Coming out of the welcome center, we went right down Bay Street, and walked until it dead-ended at the British colonial hotel private beach behind Senor Frog's. We made a left and then another right on Marlborough to go around the hotel, and lo and behold on the other side of this huge hotel is a little public beach! I think it is called Lighthouse Beach, as it is right across a little bay from a lighthouse. We could see the Paradise about a half-mile away. There was a vendor there who offered to rent us chairs, umbrellas, etc., and to braid my hair, but again stopped bothering us after we declined. We laid towels down on the sand and went for a quick dip in the calm, warm, crystal-clear water. It is really a tribute to this beach that I got in at all - I used to love the ocean, but after five encounters with jelly-fish in South Carolina, Alabama, and Florida, I have developed a phobia of being in water that I can't see into. This was like being in a pool it was so clear, I had no fears at all! After our swim, we laid out to dry off, reading our books.
Around 11:30 we headed back the way we had come, and stopped at Conch Fritters across from the hotel to try this local delicacy. We had read on the web and in several guidebooks that this restaurant prepared it well. We split a Coke and ordered the fritters, which were delicious! Warning, for those of you who haven't tried them - don't ask what they are until you're done! : ) We walked back through all the pier-side vendors and were back on the ship by 12:30, enough time to shower and get ready for our 1:45 massage.
La Romana, Dominican Republic: This was the most confusing port to research, in my opinion, since the Paradise is one of the first ships to visit it. At first the Carnival website said the port itself was Casa del Campo, so I wondered if that meant we would be able to just hang out at the resort. I called the resort and Carnival on 3 separate occasions and no one knew. After receiving the excursion costs from Carnival, I decided to do a little research and see if I could see the same sights for a lesser cost (which you can usually do). I found several agencies that offered the same tours, but got one confusing message from one of them that Carnival forbids its guests from taking any non-Carnival excursions. This sounded fishy to me, but rather than fight it, we just decided to use our on-board credit for an excursion. The best one seemed like the Saona Beach Catamaran, which actually combined 2 other excursions - the trip to Saona and the speedboats to La Piscina Natural ("natural pool"), for $85/person. The Paradise appeared to actually dock on Casa del Campo property, but I never saw the resort, just a locked gate leading to it; my guess is to use anything on the resort you would have to take one of the excursions that used their facilities. The big difference between this port and all the others I've been to is that it doesn't dock anywhere near a city; it's pretty isolated and there aren't people crowded around waiting for you to sell you something. You get off the ship basically in a parking lot area from which the tour buses depart. Despite all the discouragement of Carnival in the pre-port talks, it is very possible to explore the island on your own. We later found out our tablemates got a cab from the parking lot to take them in to Santo Domingo. They said it was pretty easy; the one thing to look out for is that there is very little English spoken on the island (although sometimes I got the impression our tour guides understood more than they let on).
We boarded a bus in the parking lot at the pier, and met our guide Jose, who has run several tours to Saona for the local resorts. He took us to a beach where vendors were waiting to sell us hats and Jose warned us we would need them to be protected from the sun. We decided to take our chances. There was a group of guides waiting for us that divided us up into canoe-like motorboats to take us out to the waiting catamaran for the sail to Saona. We started at around 9:30, and it was close to a 2-hour trip. That's when they start with the open bar. Now, we have no problem with drinking, we just rarely do it (especially at 9:30 in the morning). But rather than the nice relaxing sail we had hoped for (since this was not marketed as a 'party boat' as some others were), we got loud music blasted in our ears and some very, very drunk obnoxious people. I didn't mind the music at first, but for those of us trying to relax on the shady part at the back of the boat, it actually began to become painfully loud, and some of the songs had very explicit lyrics that I don't think I was old enough to hear, not to mention the two kids on the tour. Then, once everyone (except a few of us) had plenty to drink, the guides came around and plopped a do-rag on everyone's head. I was actually trying to doze and the guide sat me up and tied it on, even when Shawn and I protested (in English and Spanish) that we did not want one. We gave up, not wanting to offend their "hospitality," and then five minutes later the female guide came around collecting $5 per do-rag. We gave ours back to her but wondered how many other people had worn them and returned them. It was a pretty good little trick, since some people were pretty out of it by then and just forked over the cash.
The other thing that turned us off was that the guides kept pouring drinks down the throats of two attractive college girls on the trip - now mind you, no one made them drink that much, but as they got drunker and drunker the guides at first tried dancing with them very suggestively, and eventually got them to the point where they were looking down their bikini tops and grabbing their breasts, which got offensive in my opinion. If this had been guests doing this to each other, that's their own business, but it was very unprofessional for guides to be doing this to guests.
When we arrived at Saona, I cheered up a little - we were boated in to a totally isolated beach where a buffet was being prepared, and a line of lounge chairs lay under a row of beautiful palms. The water was kind of murky at the beach, but for people who wanted to play in the clear water further out, the guides took them out in a boat. At first I tried to return to my nap in the shade. It was nice for about 20 minutes, and then I heard people around me yelping about mosquitoes. I figured they were farther inland since generally mosquitoes don't go near the ocean. But then I began to feel little stings and pricks, and was slapping them off of me left and right. I don't know why they suddenly showed up, I suspect they were drawn by the buffet - but then the guests became the buffet! After making a small dent in the mosquito population, I gave up and headed for the water. Amazingly, they followed! These were hard-core mosquitoes! I had to go in all the way up to my neck, and still wave them off of my face. After about ten minutes, Jose called us up to lunch, and now that was an adventure! No one had thought to bring bug spray (since this was a beach trip, not a rainforest or river or something) and they ate us alive as we got our food. I dropped my plate three times trying to get them off of me. They were also all over our food. I hurriedly got myself some rice, fresh fruit, and a piece of grilled chicken and ran back out to the ocean. There were picnic tables but it was impossible to eat there. One girl wrapped herself up in clothing from head to toe and they still hovered around her bare hands and face, so most people ended up joining me in the water. Even then you had to look out for them. And if you've never tried it, it's pretty hard to hold your plate and manage to eat while neck-deep in water, so I really didn't eat all that much. Poor Shawn had at least 25 bites on his back and neck, and as we all began to compare bites, we found the winner from our group - this guy had close to 50 his torso! Be warned!! While this is a beautiful island, you will be eaten alive unless you bring spray, and I'm not even sure that will slow them down.
We were supposed to stay at the island until 1, but there was a lot of grumbling and whining at this point, so as soon as lunch was over they let us board the speedboats for the trip to Piscina Natural. If you've never been, this is about halfway between the beach where we started and Saona. It's an area of the ocean about 200 yards off the shore that is only 3-4 feet deep and very clear! So it's very similar to a pool. I really enjoyed the speedboat trip out there, the guides would zigzag back and forth and we'd bounce in each other's wake. They really did go pretty fast, it was a lot of fun as the three boats would race. Once at the pool, we all jumped out and had some fun playing with one of the guest's Frisbees. Jose found a starfish and brought it over to let us touch. It was much spinier than I thought it would be, and the weirdest thing was, he had us touch a crack on its bottom while he held it under water. Little suction things came out to suck on your finger, which you could see when he turned it back over. That was a new experience!
After about 30 minutes, several of us got back onto the speedboats. There really wasn't a lot to do there other than swim, drink, and throw Frisbee, and if you hadn't had a lot to drink, that wasn't fun for a super-long time. We had to sit in the boats until 3 since we'd left Saona early while they kept playing and drinking. Finally everyone else boarded (one guy with quite a bit of difficulty - he fell off the ladder twice he was so wasted; I was afraid he would throw up when the boats started racing again, but instead he just passed out, while his wife hung onto his life jacket to keep him from falling out).
We were back on the beach we'd started at around 3:20 where vendors waited with ice cream. Warning - the price of this ice cream varies depending on how much they see you have in your hand! We bought a cone for a buck and got back on the bus to be taken back to the Paradise. While I can't say I didn't have fun on this trip, the day was a little over-long for me, and I'm not sure it was worth $85 based on the fact that I drank only water and had a pitifully small lunch, and the mosquitoes made Saona more painful than pleasant. One of my suggestions to Carnival at the end of the week was that they should offer two prices for the excursions that include an open bar, and not assume that everyone is going to drink - why should I, who had 2 waters, be charged the same price as someone who has a dozen alcoholic beverages? Maybe they could put a hand-stamp or something on people who haven't paid for the bar, and then they can pay for any drinks they do want out-of-pocket.
From this excursion I would say the best part is the speedboats and Natural Pool, which you can get for almost half the cost on the Speedboat excursion.
St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands: This was by far the best port on this cruise, and of our Western itinerary as well! I knew it was going to be a great day when I woke up and looked out of my window to see a beautiful hillside spotted with villas. The weather was perfect. We had a quick buffet breakfast in the Elation dining room and were off the ship by 8. I had decided way back in March to do St. Thomas on our own since this was a very reputable, safe island. We wanted to see St. John based on the stories of friends of ours who had visited it and fallen in love; but we didn't want to pay Carnival prices and go with a huge crowd. As it turned out, it's a good thing we booked with a private company, as all Carnival snorkeling excursions were cancelled due to Hurricane Fabian (hundreds of miles away) stirring up the ocean floor, making conditions murky. Several of the companies I had e-mailed turned out to be closed during that week, as this is their downtime. Two wrote me back, and based on what they offered I decided to go with Jester Sailing Adventures. We only wanted a half-day sail to make sure we'd have plenty of time to make it back to the ship, and while there was a 4-person minimum for a half-day, Captain Jim assured us that he could find the other two, so we tentatively reserved a spot. About a month before we sailed, we wrote him with our credit card and reserved the day from 9-1. He still had not found 2 others but told us if it was just the two of us it was OK. We had one little problem when he wrote us about 3 days before we left and told us he had another request for a group of 4 for a full day, and since he hadn't heard from us he reserved with them. We were pretty confused by this as he had heard from us, but it was cleared up very easily with a phone call - it turns out an e-mail virus had caused him to lose our reservation, but when we forwarded our copy of it to him he was very apologetic and eager to honor his prior agreement with us - he said if the group of four still wanted to go, we could do the full-day with them for the half-day price. As it turned out, they backed out anyway, and so we got a half-day with just the two of us! The day was everything I had hoped for with the Saona beach excursion!
Upon getting off the ship, we caught a taxi to the Renaissance Resort where the boat was waiting for us. The taxis all line up right alongside the ship, and many are open-air trucks with several rows. The driver was very informative along the trip. Once we arrived at the resort, Captain Jim brought his dinghy over to the beach to take us out to the Jester, and then he invited us to kick off our shoes and relax. He served us his very own beverage called Jester Juice - a combination of island juices (such as guava, passion, pineapple), vanilla rum, topped off with coconut cream and fresh nutmeg. I could have had these all day! It was the most refreshing drink I've ever had. Literally. The two of us relaxed on a cushion on the bow of the boat for the 1-hour sail over to St. John. Captain Jim played some relaxing, tropical tunes for us, and made the trip very pleasant and romantic for us. He put the anchor down at Honeymoon Beach and gave us snorkel equipment and encouraged us to swim one beach over to see some beautiful coral (assuring me they rarely see jellyfish in the Virgin Islands). We had a great time snorkeling, sure the conditions weren't crystal-clear but we saw a lot of neat fish and sea urchins in the 7-foot deep water. When we swam back to the boat, he had brought out floating Styrofoam mats to relax on. After a little more relaxation we climbed back aboard the Jester where we were supplied with more juice, fresh fruit and cheese, and nachos with a fabulous homemade salsa. He also had a cooler of pops and beer available, but we didn't even touch it since he kept us supplied with his special drink. The sail back to St. Thomas took a little longer, which was fine with us. The sky, water, and surrounding scenery was so beautiful we could have stayed on the boat forever. We arrived back at the Renaissance around 2, took care of payment, and the hotel got a cab to take us back to the pier. I highly recommend Jester Sailing; we hope to take a full-day trip with him the next time we are in the area. Captain Jim is very knowledgeable, accommodating, hospitable and easy-going. He promised us the best day of our trip and he really delivered!
We did not use the Spa on the Sensation, so this was a new experience for us. One of the first things we did was take a tour of the spa (hoping to win some free treatments, but no such luck!). At first I was astounded at the cost of the official "Couples Massage" ($220), but then I asked if any of the treatments we were being told about were available to couples and assured that most of them were - this is just something they don't mention since it is significantly cheaper. After our tour we booked the Spa Teaser/Reflexology as a couple for the next day to get de-stressed for our vacation. The in-port price was $79/person. When we arrived at the spa we turned in our Sign and Sail cards to get locker keys, changed into the supplied robes and filled out lengthy medical forms, and then were re-united in the couple's massage room. The Spa-Teaser was a 25-minute Swedish massage concentrating on whichever muscles you preferred, and the Reflexology was an additional 25 minutes on your feet. The massage itself was wonderful; we had two girls from the Philippines as our therapists. I've only had five other massages and technique-wise, this one was up-to-par. It was Shawn's first massage, and despite his concerns that he would feel "girlie," he stated after the massage that we should get this done once a month! Yippee! : )
It was after the massage that our troubles with the spa began. After leaving us alone to relax in the darkened room, the girls returned and began pitching their various oils and other products to us. I had been expecting this from other reviews, and knew this was the main difference between a Carnival spa experience and a regular one. We politely declined and they brought us our bill. The bill stated that we had received the full Couple's Massage, which we had not. We took it to the front desk and the manager graciously adjusted the amount. But things went downhill from there. We both turned in our locker keys; the manager who had taken our Sign and Sail cards was on the phone, so the therapists looked for them. They gave Shawn his but couldn't find mine. When the manager finally got off the phone she got very impatient with them, wondering what they were doing. They explained that my card was missing, and she said to them very condescendingly, "Well, what are you girls going to do about this?" They became very apologetic, explaining that they had never even seen my card or taken it from her - they had charged it to Shawn's card, not mine. Disgusted, she waved them off to their next client, and assured me that I should "be calm, there is no problem." I was perfectly calm, I just wanted my card back. She told us it would be taken care of, and then she proceeded to help every single person who came to the counter while we stood there, waiting. We were there a good ten minutes and would have stood there longer as more and more people arrived had not the phone rang just then - it was another client who had been given my card by the manager by mistake when she turned in her key. Now, mistakes happen, and I don't get angry when they do; I get upset if the mistake is not handled correctly. Instead of asking for the woman's name, or sending one of her staff to the woman to get the card (since I can see why she shouldn't have to stop what she was doing to come turn it in as it was the spa's mistake), she told her to bring it to the Information desk where I could pick it up. She didn't say when to do so, and then sent us down there. Of course, after we waited in the 15-minute line down there, it had not been turned in, so they ended up issuing me a new card. This was much more complicated than it had to be in my opinion, and I didn't appreciate her reprimanding her employees publicly for what turned out to be her mistake.
But the saga continues. We checked our Sign and Sail the following day to make sure the other guest had not accidentally charged anything to our account while she had my card. We found 2 charges (from the spa), both of which had been cancelled. There was a third charge from the spa on my NEW card, for $100 the day after our massage! We went back to the spa and spoke to the same condescending manager, who told us the spa employee who had put the charge on my card was not there, and we'd have to come back and deal with it later. She kept telling us to calm down in a very fake-friendly way, when again we were perfectly calm. This time my husband would not be put off, and suggested she do what she could about it right then. After some huffing on her part (and questioning me as to whether or not I was sure I hadn't had my hair cut and colored the day before, like I would forget!) she finally found the erroneous receipt, with my name and account but another woman's signature. The spa employee had entered the account number by hand, entered one digit wrong, and it happened to be charged to me. Again, an easy mistake to make - but getting it corrected while being talked down to was very unpleasant. Despite the fact that we enjoyed our massages, I think we'll avoid the spa in the future, at least while that manager is there!
One of my favorite perks of cruising is the ability to do as much or as little as you like on the ship! You can be a couch potato and hang out in your cabin all day or a party animal. We are somewhere in between, but due to the fact that I had a severe back injury during our last cruise, we spent a lot of time in the cabin as I was in too much pain to do much. So I was looking forward to exploring ship life! We attended a dance class, the Game Show, the Great Carnival Quest, the Love, Sex, and Romance Game, and our favorite from the last cruise, the Newlywed and not so Newlywed Game! All of these were a lot of fun - one complaint about the Love, Sex and Romance Game was the entire audience was strong-armed into coming up on stage to participate, when some people just wanted to observe. The pressure was really put on by the cruise director, Jeff Bronson. He was a little fake and cheesy for my taste, only got a couple of really good laughs from me during the week. I thought our director on the Sensation was genuinely funny. However, I came to appreciate Jeff a bit more when I attended the second Game Show, which was run by the assistant director Brent and the social director Karl with a K, who pretty much destroyed any organization the Game was intended to have, by playing the wrong sound clips for the question deliberately, screwing with the score, running around the stage, etc. It was much better handled by Jeff, corny as he may be. But overall, we really enjoyed all these activities.
We went to several of the evening shows as well - I really enjoyed the musical production, "Dream Voyage." The performers were really talented - I especially enjoyed their tribute to the men and women of World War II, sentimental that I am! We didn't make it to Shout, maybe next cruise. The magician on Tuesday night was decent as well, he had some really good illusions and musical accompaniment. The "zany" comedian that followed him, Adam Ace, wasn't nearly as entertaining. From what we saw he was pretty much a pro-comic, and enjoyed toilet-papering people. At that point we decided our time would be better spent in the hot tub on Lido deck! I didn't remember them being open so late, but the main ones by the pool out there were open till 11:30, and this became a favorite spot to hang out before the midnight buffet for us.
The third show we saw was on the last night, a ventriloquist comedian that we are still getting mileage out of - his ostrich Hanky-Panky was hilarious, and he was followed by the sarcastic comedy of Jim Brick, who got many laughs out of us at our own expense, making fun of cruisers. They were both very funny. As far as the in-room movies goes, there was MUCH more variety than we'd had in 2001. Instead of the same 4 movies running back-to-back, they had 3 different movies each day, each on its own station playing over and over. They got around to the same movies by the fourth day, but in a different mix. There was probably a total of 8-10, and some were pretty new releases, like The Two Towers and Chicago. Definitely an improvement in this department. We really enjoyed all the live music on-board, the jazz band in the Normandie lounge, the reggae band at the pool, and the orchestra in the atrium. We also spent a little time at the sing-alongs with Roberta in the American Bar which was a lot of fun. There was a lot more karaoke than I remembered as well, at least 4 or 5 nights.
Two thumbs down. I'm not referring to the cabin steward, or dining room staff, but in general the dealing with any problems we had. We were aware of the bad reputation of Carnival in this area, but had no problems to be fixed on our last cruise. I wish I could say that was the case this time around. Around noon on Friday we started to notice an annoying, high-pitched squeal in our room. It got louder until it was bang-your-head-on-the-wall piercing. It even drowned out the TV. We called Information and they sent down a security guard to verify the noise. Shawn went to Information while she investigated the noise and I stayed in the room. Shawn called me about ten minutes later to see what was going on, and it was still loud. Then, while we were on the phone it suddenly stopped. At that moment Information got a call from the security guard saying she had "asked someone to stop doing something," and that seemed to correct the problem. Satisfied, we let it go, until it woke us from a sound sleep at 4 in the morning. We went to Information again (at least they were open) who told us we were mistaken, the security guard had done nothing earlier to get it to stop, so the only thing they would do is offer us a new cabin. Well, the prospect of moving all our stuff to another cabin at 4 in the morning where we didn't even have a double bed was not a happy one. So we stuffed cotton in our ears and dealt with it. It was still going on at 11 the next day, so we went to Information again. The most frustrating thing was that they wouldn't even investigate it at all, and it sounded electrical which could have been dangerous. They seemed baffled that giving us a new room didn't satisfy us. I explained we didn't want to move all our stuff, tip another steward to put the beds together, etc., if there was a simple way to make it stop. They wouldn't send engineering, but told us another security guard would be down in 10 minutes. In 35, no one had showed up, so we gave up for awhile and went to the pool. On the Lido deck we saw the security guard who had helped us the night before. She said at the time we heard the noise she found several rooms being vacuumed, and once all the vacuums were off, it went away - so it was an electrical problem. Grateful to finally have an answer we went back to Information to get it fixed since, after all, it had not been happening all week and people had been vacuuming all week! They told us an engineer had investigated it, and it was an engine vibration that had somehow worked its way from the back of the ship and popped out in our room, perhaps due to the increased speed of the ship (due to a medical emergency), and that they were "working on it." I think this was a bunch of crap to shut us up, as it only got worse throughout the day, forcing us out of the cabin. We finally gave up and had the steward make up the bed in our other cabin since we had to pack up the last night anyway, and slept in the other cabin which was in the very front of the ship and right where the waves crashed into the hull, so it had its own problems. Luckily we docked early in Miami (by midnight) and things calmed down enough that we could sleep, but it was still frustrating feeling like no one would listen to you when a simple investigation could have solved the issue. Again, I just want to stress that we weren't bothered that there was a problem - they happen and there is nothing that can be done about it. However, it isn't too much to expect to be taken seriously when trying to have a problem remedied.
Overall, this went pretty smoothly and we did get off the ship in time to start our road-trip, although it was by accident! Following the Carnival representative's advice at embarkation, we went to Information to request an early departure due to having an early flight; they said to come back with the tickets. So that foiled that approach; we went back and talked to a different employee this time, telling the truth - that we had hotel reservations in Tennessee Sunday evening that we would like to get to by 10:30, and we were driving. We were told this did not qualify for early disembarkment; this seemed unfair that people who fly are given preferential treatment. The lady told us this was Custom's policy, not Carnival's, and that Customs would be checking for flight tickets as the early people got off. However, she assured us that after the early people got off the ship, we could get off next no matter which color was called, since they wouldn't be checking luggage tag color (although she was somewhat skeptical that we could make it to Tennessee by 10:30 pm). This was somewhat encouraging, and things worked out even better than that! After breakfast on Sunday we dragged our carry-on to the Atlantic deck and noticed other non-early people waiting on the Empress deck right next to the exit. When there were gaps in the early disembarkers, the impatient customs people waved whoever was standing nearby over to get off the ship. After seeing entire groups of people with regular tags get off, we decided to give it a try. Sure enough, we were waved over to go through security, no one asked for flight information or anything, so we were off at 9:15. The one fly in the ointment here is that when we got to the luggage warehouse, I realized I had left our video camera in the Atrium on the ship! Luckily, it was less complicated getting back on the ship than I would have thought. A warehouse employee had to accompany me, but we were able to walk right on, and thank goodness it was still laying where I had left it on the floor - close shave there. At any rate, we were on the road by 10, and to all the skeptics out there - we were at our hotel by 10:15 that night! : )
Overall, this was a fantastic vacation. The ports were great, the ship activities/entertainment was great, the massage was wonderful, and wow do I miss my dining staff and cabin steward after doing housework the last two nights! We were a little concerned about Hurricane Fabian, but Carnival did a good job keeping us up-to-date, posting location charts around the ship every six hours. There were two nights that the motion on the ship got pretty bad due to the "swells" the storm caused, but that was the worst of it.
We fell in love with the idea of a smoke-free ship, and I don't see myself going on another cruise where smoking is allowed, this gave me so much more comfort and freedom to go where I pleased and do what I wanted. We would sail the Paradise again, but it would be nice if other cruiselines followed suit to offer a smoke-free environment, or if Carnival would create more of these. We would sail Carnival again; the few bad experiences we had were not enough to spoil a lovely, relaxing, romantic week - but I think we'll be a little bit wiser about what we can expect from Carnival in the future.