Now, for the details...
ARRIVAL AND EMBARKATION: We chose to fly into Hobby Airport in Houston the day before we were to set sail. We spent the night in Galveston (which is another treasure that we would like to explore more someday), and called a taxi to take us to the terminal. We were traveling in a group of 10 which made it difficult to travel together in cabs, but we all easily met up again at the terminal. By the time we all arrived, it was about 11 a.m., a porter appeared before we even had time to think about locating one, and our bags were out of sight. We stood in a number of lines for security, photos, registering, etc. Honestly, the lines moved quickly, and we were on the Lido deck by noon, eating lunch and reeling at the amount of luggage being loaded onto the ship. Our rooms were ready by about 1:30, and the luggage was at our doors by the time we finished dinner. We got on the ship dressed in casual resort wear - we looked fantastic for that picture they take as you board the ship, and since we had the 5:45 dining time, we also looked great for the first night in the dining room. Piece of cake!FIRST TWO DAYS AT SEA: My husband would argue this point, but I honestly enjoyed the first two days at sea. It gave us all time to explore the boat, take in a number of shows, and get used to the comfortable, relaxed atmosphere on the ship. The usual caution that strangers typically exhibit was thrown out the window when our fabulous cruise director, Wee Jimmy, reminded us that it was perfectly OK to talk to each other on the elevator. How can you ignore the wise words of a guy named Wee Jimmy, right? Our two boys, ages 12 and 15, were able to meet some new friends in those first two days through a number of age appropriate activities. We were never really worried about our youngest - he's always been very outgoing and eager to meet new people. He actually hooked up with a small group of kids on the very first night, and they spent the next two days swimming, dancing, and just plain talking to each other. I'm not sure those kids would have had a chance to bond without those first two days at sea. The test came with our oldest - very shy around new people. He went to the orientation, but we continued to encourage (or NAG if you were to ask him) his attendance at some of the teen activities. Irregardless of the oldest boy's hesitation, what a terrific experience for both boys! The husband and I traveled from one lounge to the next, listening to a variety of musicians, watching the shows, and exploring the boat. We quickly discovered that you could stay as busy as you wanted by attending shows and participating in the numerous activities artfully organized by Wee Jimmy, or simply sit and watch the world go by.
JAMAICA: Thanks to a number of suggestions on this very message board, we decided to contact Barrett Tours after agonizing over whether we should even leave the ship. Yes, Jamaica is a poor, rundown country that makes you thankful for everything you have at home. However, the people of Jamaica are beautiful, friendly folks that always have a smile on their faces. And to think we never would have experienced this side of Jamaica without our trusty tour guide, Errol. He picked us up from the terminal, and took us through a back roads tour of the "real" Jamaica. Once you get past the unique driving methods of the Jamaicans (I reminded the 15-year-old not to take any driving lessons during our stay), the country is gorgeous, and there are so many things to learn. Errol continuously pointed out and described anything he thought we might find interesting. A number of times, he stopped right in the middle of the road to pick a calabash so we could get a closer look, pull a handful of lemon grass to smell, and collect the type of herbs that have been used by Jamaican ancestors for generations and are "good for sickness." We saw banana trees, coconut trees, pineapple trees. WOW! He took us through small villages where you could buy just about anything in the markets and rural areas where farmers were in their fields with the machetes that they always carry. Errol asked if we would like a real Jamaican pineapple, and we suddenly stopped in front of a shack that was so tired and run-down, it was hard to believe a family honestly resided within the walls. A friend of Errol's peeled a pineapple (with one of those infamous machetes) right in front of our eyes while we took in the beautiful mountain backdrop that was literally in the family's back yard. From there, we stopped at YS Falls and then took a tour on the Black River. Both areas were staffed by some of the friendliest, kindest people you have ever encountered. Afterwards, Errol dropped us at a Jamaican diner, and we were served fried chicken, beans and rice, yams, salad, roast beef, and all-natural fruit punch. Delicious! Errol provided us with an afternoon that I will never forget! I strongly recommend that you contact Bartlett Tours if you are ever in Jamaica.GRAND CAYMAN: All of the stunning pictures that you have ever seen of the turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean islands are completely and totally accurate! Well, except for the fact that seeing it all in person is MUCH more breathtaking than looking at an ordinary picture. We needed to tender into the island, and the process was quite orderly. We obtained a tender ticket, and were quickly into the tender boat before we had much time to think about all of those people that typically complain about the lousy tendering process. We encountered no problems, whatsoever! We had booked with Captain Marvin to take us snorkeling along the Barrier Reef and to visit the stingrays, but due to the smooth tendering process, we found ourselves with about an hour to kill before our reservations. We took a walk along the port area to do a little shopping, we found the Harley Davidson store, and we were able to get a snack for the kids before we headed back to Captain Marvin's place. After signing in, we were directed to a shuttle bus which took us right to one of Captain Marvin's boats. After a 20 minute boat ride, we found ourselves snorkeling in some of the most beautiful coral reef areas ever! We saw tropical fish galore, and it was incredibly difficult to drag ourselves back to the boat because there was so much more to see. Fortunately, we had the prospect of feeding and holding stingrays at the next stop as motivation. ? After getting over that initial shock and surprise at these large, yet graceful creatures coming up from behind and gently rubbing against your legs in the hopes of a little squid reward, you quickly find yourself eager to hold and even kiss the marvels. The boat ride and shuttle back to dock were spent reflecting and wishing there were more hours in the day to experience those coral reefs. Our youngest boy was exhausted from the parties, dances, and activities on the ship paired with the previous day's activities in Jamaica (did I mention he was even brave enough to endure a thrilling zip-line ride over the YS Falls?) and our Captain Marvin experience. The little guy slept right through bumpy boat, shuttle, and tendering rides back to the ship. Our oldest (remember, the quiet, shy type?) actually began to crack a smile, especially when he got to see natural coral reefs - something he had recently studied in his biology class. Science textbooks couldn't touch what our boys experienced that day in the waters of Grand Cayman!
COZUMEL: Though it took longer than expected to get off of the boat at Cozumel (partly our fault at attempting to get to deck 0 before the boat was even docked - we were just anxious to get to the beach, I guess), we easily found a taxi willing to take us to Nachi Cocum. Now, I don't want to talk about this place too much - it is an absolute hidden treasure, and if too many people find out about it, the place will be jam-packed the next time we get there. ? Seriously, we saved this last day to just lie on the beach and get spoiled. They brought plenty of pina coladas and daiquiris (non-alcoholic ones for the kids, of course), and this gorgeous stretch of white beach made me briefly consider retiring from teaching to become a beach bum. Making a temporary move to Mexico to spend my days sipping daiquiris and soaking up the sun wouldn't be all bad, would it? We decided to indulge and took up the offer for more snorkeling. I'm not sure where they came from, but two guys and a boat took us a few minutes from the relaxing beaches for an exhilarating snorkeling tour. Our guide, Jose, led us through a number of areas chock full of wildlife. We saw barracuda, a school of tuna, and a host of other tropical fish that I couldn't name, but certainly enjoyed. We saw where the ocean floor drops off just past the coral reefs and briefly met a small group of scuba divers, vowing that we would take a scuba outing the next time the occasion presented itself. Lunch was outstanding (Mexican salsa is NOTHING like that stuff you buy at Wal-Mart - it is crazy-hot, but delicious all at the same time), and we were able to do a bit more relaxing before we had to collect our sunscreen, our towels, and our last dip in the ocean before saying "Farewell" to Cozumel.
THE LAST DAY AT SEA: Well, we spent our last day at sea fully intending to get rested up from our adventures in Jamaica, Grand Cayman, and Cozumel, but found ourselves attending even more shows on the boat, losing at Bingo, and playing a quick game of basketball. Our boys weaseled out of "family time" because they only had one more day to spend with their newfound friends before saying goodbye. Oh, and by the way, that oldest, shy one of ours - the one that needed a little extra "encouragement" earlier in the trip - was the first to squirm out of dinner. I believe it had something to do with a girl he discovered on board. ? As the afternoon slowly slipped into early evening, we sadly began directing our attention to the chore of packing. We had our bags out in the hallway by 9 p.m. for Carnival to store and unload in the morning. Traveling with a party of ten, there were simply too many bags for a self-assist departure. Meanwhile, the dining room staff had a touching farewell performance that made me want to hide away somewhere on the boat to make this vacation last just a week (or a month) longer.
DISEMBARKING: We received the detailed list of what we had spent on the boat for the entire week the first thing in the morning (seriously, did we REALLY spend that much??), we headed down to the dining room for one last round of pampering by the outstanding dining staff, and we finished up the packing. As a courtesy to the room stewards that needed to prepare for the next round of guests, we gathered up our belongings, and waited up on the Lido deck for our baggage numbers to be called. Our plane didn't leave from Houston until 4 p.m., so there was really no need to rush off of the boat. The U. S. Customs experience was a bit lengthy, but with more helpful advice from Wee Jimmy who told us to smile at the Customs guys and remember that they had a job to do, we got through it all unscathed!
FINAL THOUGHTS: Honestly, the very best vacation ever! Maybe it's the bit of ADD in me, but I typically start looking forward to going home about halfway through vacations. Not this time! Not only did we have terrific experiences in the ports, but the entire Carnival staff left us with a truly memorable escape from our typical lives.
In the dining room, Jimmy and Tetyana in the Monet dining room were absolutely superb. They anticipated and attended to every culinary desire we had, and their charismatic banter left us feeling completely comfortable in an exceptionally elegant setting. I ordered something new and different every night, and everything was fantastic. As for the dress code, I saw everything from sundresses to jeans. I understand that it is difficult to enforce a dress code when people are paying hundreds/thousands of dollars to cruise. However, dressing for dinner communicates a polished and refined atmosphere - a place where our boys actually felt obligated to use all of those manners that we've hassled them about since they were three. Dressing up a bit was a delightful change from the jeans and T-shirt usually worn to dinner at home. It's vacation, try something different from the routine, right?
Our room steward, Nur, was constantly busy straightening up one room or the other, but he always had time to chat, answer questions, or even just flash a smile as we moved through the hallway to yet another destination on the ship. We could be out of the room for 15 minutes, we'd come back, and *poof* - everything was straightened and cleaned again. How he knew that we will only be out of our room for 15 minutes is amazing! Our rooms were always flawlessly attended, and I can't say enough about the towel animals! They even impressed two teenage boys.
As for excursions, I would recommend finding your own reliable company rather than booking through Carnival, if you are brave enough. We were very fortunate to have helpful advice from these chat boards which resulted in exceptionally rewarding experiences in all three ports. People that took Carnival excursions had a wonderful time as well, from what I've heard, but they all looked like cattle herded from one area to the next. There were always so MANY of them.
I'm sure there are a number of things that I will wish I would have mentioned a week or a month from now. However, I prefer that readers stay awake long enough to get to the end of the review! ? This was our very first cruise, and we are already thinking about the next. Sure, there are people that may complain about the food, the service, or something in their trip that was less than perfect. Honestly, life is too short to dwell on things that can't be controlled. We prefer to treasure the moments we were able to spend together as a family. It's been a week since we've been home, and we are still talking about the ports, the shows, and the dynamite Carnival staff members. I think we are all afraid to forget the tiniest, little details lest we lose one, single cherished moment. These are OUR experiences, and I encourage you to make your own memories with your family.