Here's our story. We are two 40 somethings with a 12, make that 13 year old son. He became a teenager while on board. This is cruise #8 for me, #5 for DW and #3 for DS.
We also like the movie and play, Hello Dolly! We don't however like any tropical system - no matter what it's name is.
We have done this itinerary before over New Year's 2001-2002 on the Paradise. DS was 6 then and not able to do some of the fun things on this itinerary (stingrays, Dunn's River). The idea of this trip was lots of relaxation - another reason we really didn't want to tackle new ports this trip.
The largest ship we have been on previously is the Paradise. We don't like crowds and were concerned about the number of people on board. Being summer, we were full - 3500 total, with 1000 of them under the age of 17. We tried to do things opposite the crowds and it worked pretty well. We ate some lunches outside on the Lido because DW prefers the fresh air. In that area, you just have to expect the crowds. But, if you moved around on the upper decks and other areas, it really wasn't bad. I wasn't sure I'd like the layered floor plan of the Lido deck. Turns out I liked it fine. If everyone was on one deck it would have felt more crowded, at least from my perspective.
We're not particular with food, so when it was lunch time, often we just picked the buffet with the shortest line. One the last day, the Fish and Chips was so slow, there was not a single person in line. My food was fresh and hot, they cooked it when I got there!
Embarkation: Overall the process went smooth. Must bigger ship, lots of people, I expected it to take awhile. But, it still was the longest we've ever had to wait to board a ship. Now, the documents say the earliest you can get on board is 12:30 and they did start boarding at 12:20. But, I've never had boarding start this late and have seen many, many reports of people getting on this size ship way before this time. Anyways, in retrospect it wasn't that bad - at least our waiting was inside the air conditioning. When eating lunch on the Lido, we saw people standing in line outside in the hot July heat. Speaking of which - since this is my 1st Conquest class ship - I don't know if it's normal or not. But just when you get on the ship - we had to stand outside on Deck 3 before getting our Sign and Sail photo taken. (hot, hot, hot makes for good S+S pics - not, not not!)
The Ship: I had heard that this ship was a little more understated, we found that to be the case. We really enjoyed the artisan theming. I had also heard about difficulties in getting around on the Conquest class of ships. Most of the ships I've been on were very old (Carnivale, Celebration, Britannis, Emerald Seas). I'm used to the dining room/kitchen breaking up certain areas. Once you learn which set of elevators/stairs to get to the dining room, we really don't find it to be a problem. Deck 5 (Promenade) goes all the way thru, as do the cabin decks. I guess it's just a non-issue for us.
Cabin: For the first time, we had a balcony. We loved it. The balcony did help with the crowds because we always had a private outside area of our own. We were centrally located on the Empress deck midship. Our cabin steward was great. DS loved the towel animals, his favorite was the monkey hanging from the ceiling. I've heard reported and can confirm - the fridges are not very cold! We had chocolate milk go bad after 2 days.
Dinner: We requested 1st seating and were seated at 6:00 on the 2nd level of the Golden Olympian Dining Room. We enjoyed the dEcor, but wished the curtains had been open to let in more light. We found the new menu very enjoyable. I am a huge chocoholic and did enjoy the chocolate melting cake. But, I did not have it every night - though 2 others from our table did. We had great tablemates which always makes for a fun time. Ordering two starters and/or two entrEes was never a problem. You can request the pasta entrEe as a starter and that occurred often at our table. Our steaks were done as requested. The prime rib was done a little more than requested, but was still juicy, flavorful and enjoyable. The grand Marnier soufflE the last night was fantastic.
We ate at the buffet two evenings (1st and 5th nights). The Mongolian BBQ, deli station, 24 hour pizza as well as one buffet station were open. I checked the dinner menu often and found that the buffet included two and most often three entrEe items from that nights dinner menu. Additionally, one of the dessert items from the dining room was on the buffet (even the melting cake one night). I post this just to let people know that you while you do miss the starters from the dining room, if you are just too tired or busy to make your allotted time; or don't want to spend as much time at dinner, the buffet really is an acceptable alternative.
Breakfast: We ate at the buffet most mornings. I've heard comments that the same thing is offered every day except the pancakes and French toast may alternate. That is true, but we just didn't have everything on every day. Twice I had personally made omelets, a bagel with cream cheese one day, pancakes another, lots of fresh fruit etc. It is what you make of it. Just because it's a buffet doesn't mean you have to eat all of it every day. One day we had breakfast which is in the Silver Olympian Dining Room. I liked this room better because the windows were open and we were seated at a table at the very back of the boat with another set of great table mates. A few things not available on the buffet you can get in the dining room are the stewed apples and corned beef hash, I had both ?
Lunch: We did not eat in the dining room and had lunch in Grand Caymen and Jamaica. For the lunches we did have on ship, there were many choices. One day I had Mexican, a daily buffet option. The family had burgers a couple of times. I tried the Fish and Chips twice. The fish was good as was the bouillabaisse. The fried oysters were only OK, they were squished thin (I guess to get even cooking); but ended up overdone. Themed days on the buffet lines includes Caribbean, Greek, American and the chocolate buffet on the last sea day. I found these desserts to be as good as the evening choices in the dining room.
Other options: I tried the sushi bar one evening and got a slice of "fat" carrot cake and a chocolate chip cookie from the specialty cafe. We also had pizza and the soft serve ice cream and yogurt. Everything was very good. It seems the soft serve was even better than I remembered - very creamy, no ice particles.
Camp Carnival: Considering there were 1000 kids on board, the kids counselors did a great job. My son participated in the 12-14 age group, now called Circle C. He selected activities he enjoyed and was kept active 2-3 hours a day.
Pools/Hot tubs/Spa: We knew to pack bathing suits in our carry-on, so got our first dip in the pool and hot tub after lunch while others were still getting on board. The pool in the back has a retractable roof which worked well when we hit rain. It does become hot and humid in that area, but still gives an option for those wishing to swim. I didn't use the work out equipment, but it was used a lot by others. The hot tub in the spa area was different. There were 2 parts, one was small with areas to sit. But I found every seat in this area uncomfortable. The other area was very large and more like a pool where you stood about chest deep. This was OK, just not like any other hot tub I've been in. I did enjoy the steam room and sauna.
On deck: It was nice having the MUTS (Music under the stars). We only watched bits and pieces of things, but it was fun having it there. Though I will admit at times they repeated things too much. IE. Paula Abul's song "Dance Like There's No Tomorrow" was played so much that tomorrow came ? DS used the basketball and volleyball area, was all did putt putt and ping pong. You sign out the equipment from the Towel Hut by the pool. Once DS wanted to play putt putt, the people in front of us took the last clubs. So, plan B was the ping pong. No problem - we're on vacation, don't sweat the small stuff. Lots of activities if you choose to participate. We watched the ice carving and hairy man contest always fun Carnival staples.
Itinerary: When we left Miami we knew there was a tropical wave in the Southern Caribbean. Our 2nd day was to be in Cozumel. On that Day, the storm, then called Tropical Storm Dolly, would be in that area. The captain decided to keep us at sea an extra day. He kept us north of Cuba and away from the wind and waves. We still hit all our ports, but only had 9 hours in Cozumel. If the captain had kept the original itinerary - would would have had very rough seas getting there and 15 hours in port during a storm. It's obvious he made the right choice. Speaking of wind and waves, we had a little rockin' and rollin' when we had to go by the tail end of Dolly. Compared to the small ships I've been on in the past, the movement really was minimal. I hope it didn't bother others. I didn't hear of it, nor did I specifically hear of people complaining about the necessary changes.
Cozumel: With the new itinerary, we have 3 ports in 3 days. We altered our plans here since we're trying to relax and have busy activities scheduled the next 2 days. We took a cab to Chankanaab park. We had been here in 2002. I've heard there are not many fish, especially since Wilma in 2005. Our experience was there were more fish than we saw the last time. Was it the best snorkeling we're ever done - No. Was it one of the snorkeling "beaches" we've ever done - yes. It all depends on your expectations. With limited time, we chose to only shop at the International Pier.
Grand Caymen: We did a private tour called Rays, Reef and Rum Point. The tour was wonderful. We've done Stingray City before, but DS was only 6 and was afraid at that time. We all enjoyed it this time. Then we went to a snorkeling area near by, and lastly to Rum Point. Lunch was included in our tour and ready when the boat arrived. We had over an hour there to eat, swim and relax. More info on this tour is posted on the Grand Caymen board.
I will note that Carnival needs to work on the tendering system. They said you had to have a tender ticket and the Carnival tours get off first and you show your tour ticket to get on the tender. We wasted an hour in the Venetian Lounge. They didn't give out tickets at first because it wasn't crowded yet. Then they gave out tickets, but the people with no ticket went first. Well, if you had a ticket, all you had to do was throw it away and go with those with no tickets. Also, many, many, many people just got in line to get off. You didn't have to show Carnival tour tickets, you just get in line. Lesson learned, we won't do it that way again.
Ocho Rios: Jamaica gets a bad rap. There are issues there, the unemployment rate is 30%. But, most of the people are very friendly, they are just trying to make a living. A helpful hint I heard on this site was to acknowledge every person who speaks to you. No matter what they are offering, a simple "no thank you" ended the interaction. The Jamaican people just want to be acknowledged, not ignored.
Having said that, it is best to take a Carnival sponsored or private tour. We did a private tour and did Dunn's River Falls. DS was able to climb this time and really enjoyed it. I must make a comment about the vendors at the top of the falls. They are famous for their "diligence" in trying to get your to buy their stuff. I think word has finally gotten to them about what a turnoff that is. They still ask you to stop and look, but no where near the pressure we had 6 years ago. We bought the video of our trip up the falls. A vendor showed me how to get to the video shack. All he asked in return is that I look at his items. A simple 2 minute look, a "no thank you" and he was as nice as could be.
Then we did some shopping and had lunch. We ended up at Margaritaville. They have two jump trampolines that DS wanted to do. I had looked at the Margaritaville website before we left (since there's one at each port we went to). I may have missed it on the site, but we did not realize you have to pay to swim at the beach, and pay more for the trampoline. In hindsight, it does make sense. Again, it's all in the expectations and in this case we just didn't expect it. But, it was fun and DS was happy.
Entertainment: Karl with a K was our Cruise Director. We enjoyed him quite a bit. We're not night owls so we didn't do many of the entertainment venues. The Piano Bar and Venetian Lounge with Music Boardwalk sounded good but neither had a crowd, at least early in the evening. The ventriloquist and Rock Down Broadway are the only shows I saw all of, I thought they were pretty good. I saw bits and pieces of a few other shows. Typical cruise entertainment. I've been to Vegas and Broadway - I don't expect that quality. I just want to be entertained and have realistic expectations. We did the casino a bit, but just the slots. Didn't have much luck, but didn't expect to - it was all just for fun. I only had a few drinks from the bar, but the service was good and of course were delicious!
Debarkation: We did the self assist. We learned our lesson from the tendering fiasco and headed to the Lobby before the official call for debarkation. We left our room at 7:05. They were letting people off, so off we went. We were thru customs by 7:20 and had the car loaded and were leaving the Port of Miami at 7:35.
Overall: We've done many cruises and this exact itinerary before. We came to relax and we did. Was it perfect - no. Were the things that went wrong things that could happen on any vacation anywhere - yes. Life is what you make of it - a bad day cruising is better than a good day at work. Happy cruising everyone.