Background: I decided at the very last minute to book a cruise for my family's vacation in August 2008, so I called a cruise consolidator, who managed to find me adjacent inside cabins on the Carnival Victory to fit my family of five. As many cruisers out there know, families of five are hard to fit into one cabin unless they book a large suite, and those are awfully expensive. Although we we have taken a total of four cruises, we have only taken two (including the one I'm reviewing now) with three kids. Our last cruise was RCL on the Enchantment of the Seas, and we had adjacent connecting cabin. We were able to put all three kids in one cabin, and my wife and I stayed in the other cabin with easy access to the kids through the connecting door. There are very few inside connecting cabins on the Carnival Victory, so we were lucky to get the next best thing at this very late date. I called the cruise consolidator on Monday, and the cruise left from New York City on Saturday.
Since we live in Maryland (suburbs of DC), we opted to drive up to New York City to save on the cost of the flight or train, which ran anywhere from $1200 to $1600 depending on the mode of transportation and time of departure. Our family of five costs a lot to transport, so driving was the cheapest, though not necessarily the fastest, way to get to NYC. We drove up Friday afternoon, and stayed at the Fairfield Inn in East Rutherford, NJ, which across the river from NYC by way of the Lincoln Tunnel. We decided to stay at the Fairfield Inn because it was close, and the price was right: free. I used my Marriott points to wrangle a free room (and we overstuffed the room with the five of us, even though the room was made for four, but my kids are 8, 4, and 4 (twins), so they don't take up that much room), and there was the bonus of a free continental breakfast! But I digress.
Arrival and Preliminaries: We left the hotel at around 9:45, and we were at the cruise port in about 30 minutes - that gave us a LOT of time to wait. We parked our car at Pier 92, which is where the Victory was docked. There isn't that much parking available, so if you want a decent spot, get there early. The daily rate at the time of this writing is $30 per day, and you have to pay all of it up front ($150 - 5 day cruise). We were a little confused as to where you go down from the parking deck (which is on top of the cruise terminal) to the terminal itself, and we drove around the parking pier for a little bit before we figured out that it's best to park near the entrance, as that's where the elevators are located. That way, when you come back, you don't have a long walk to the end of the pier to get your car. Here's a tip that we learned though at the end of the cruise: The Victory doesn't necessary come back to the same pier that you leave from. I don't know if it's possible, but see if you can find out where the Victory will dock when coming back so you can park at that dock, rather than parking at the embarkation dock. We came back to Pier 88, so we had a very long walk back to retrieve our car.
We got to the terminal area at around 10:30, and we were among the first 20-30 people to check in. Some people were there even earlier than we were. We had a hard time finding where to dump our luggage, but someone pointed us to a person at the very front of the terminal that was taking bags. We were confused by who to go to because it seemed that most people were arriving by taxi, and the porters were more set up to take bags from people getting out of taxis, rather than folks like us who arrived by car. At the time we checked in, Carnival's computers were down, so they were checking in everyone by hand, which was slow, but after about 45 minutes, I think they fixed the problem because they wheeled the check-in counter (which only had about 6 customer service reps) back to where they had all of their regular check-in equipment. Pack entertainment and kids for your kids if you get there early so they won't be bouncing off the walls and annoying everyone. We wanted to get there early so that we could get on board and hit the buffet before it got too crowded. Kids get cranky when they're hungry, so we wanted to avoid that as much as possible. I packed a laptop that had movies on it so the boys (4 year old twins) could be entertained - my 8 (almost 9) year old daughter had a bunch of books. She's good at entertaining herself.
In the terminal area, they had rows and rows of chairs, and you sit there in the order in which you checked in - the earlier that you arrive, the closer you are to the front. At around 11:20, they started to let us go into the main terminal by rows, and by 11:30-35, we were allowed to go up the gangway and onto the ship. We hit the Mediterranean Restaurant buffet for some food a little before noon, and we then we explored the ship while our room was being prepared. They said that the room wouldn't be ready until 1:30, and the doors leading to the staterooms were all closed until that time. Since we booked at the very last minute, we were assigned the 8:15 seating, rather than the 6:00 seating (for this cruise, both the Pacific and Atlantic dining room seating times were at the same time). The maitre'd began taking dining change requests at 12:30 in the Atlantic dining room, so I hustled over to there at the appointed time. There were several groups who also wanted to make changes, so I was probably about 7th or 8th in line when I got there. Unfortunately, everything was booked solid for the 6:00 seating, so they had to put us on a waiting list, and they said that they would let us know either way whether they would be able to get us a 6:00 seating. However, they wouldn't know until the next day, so for the first day of the cruise, we were stuck with the 8:15 seating time. My 4 year olds wouldn't last until that time, and we didn't want to inflict our cranky 4 year olds on other diners if we were stuck with the 8:15 time slot, so we thought that we would probably be left with eating in the Mediterranean (Lido Deck) buffet the entire trip if that were the case. We ate dinner at the buffet the first evening. However, we found out the next day by way of a letter left in our cabin the following afternoon that they were able to get us in for the early seating, and we only missed dinner in the main dining room the first evening. Hurray!
The Ship: My wife and I have been on three cruises prior to this one, two on RCL, and one on Celebrity. The RCL ships were Grandeur and Enchantment, and the Celebrity one was I believe Horizon. The Victory is about on par with those ships, though the Grandeur and Horizon are a bit smaller, and the Enchantment may be a bit larger. The Victory has a central atrium, but it's not one that's huge and that causes you to say "wow" when you first get on board. Other cruisers have commented that the Victory's layout is not conducive to traffic flow, and I have to agree. The Atlantic dining room is located right in the middle of the ship, and blocks off traffic flow for decks 3 and 4. The Atlantic is generally left open during the day, so you can walk right through them if you need to get to the other side, rather than going up or down decks. The Pacific dining room entrances do not have large gathering areas - they have small entry lobbies, and right before dinner, there are lots of people that are forced to wait on the stairs between decks, which also clogs up traffic ways. The ship feels very compartmentalized, and not that open, but once you get used to it, it's not hard to get around. The color-scheme of the ship's interior public areas is very green. The atrium has emerald green colored panels all over the ceiling, and much of the carpet is a more muted green. The Lido deck is tiered, rather than having a flat open deck, and there didn't seem to be as much open space around the pools as the stretched Enchantment. When we first got on the ship, there were some people already in the pools - the pools were HOT!! I expected the temperature to be very cold based on other reviews, but they were about the temperature of the hot tubs, and one lady complained to Victory staff about how hot the pools were. That wasn't a problem later though as the pool water cooled down considerably once we were underway. We never actually went into the pools though.
Cabins: We had inside cabin numbers 8412 and 8416. They opened the hall access doors a little after 1:30 so that we could get to our room, and our luggage started arriving pretty quickly after that. Our cabin steward introduced himself, and he was very nice, and took care of us very well. The rooms weren't large, but there was enough room for us. The bathrooms were a lot larger than on other cruises I've been on, and there are bath gel and shampoo dispensers on the walls of the showers. I tried the gold colored stuff labeled "shampoo", and it stripped my hair - it was as if I were using soap rather than shampoo on my hair. On a lark, I tried using the blue labeled "bath gel" on my hair, and that felt like shampoo as that didn't strip my hair. I think that they have the gel and shampoo reversed, but all of the large tubs I saw on the supply carts in the hallways had jugs of blue goo labeled "bath gel", and the dispensers in the two cabins we had were consistently labeled that way. Eh...go figure. I just used the blue bath gel as shampoo, and the gold shampoo as soap a couple of times, and it worked. I also used shampoo that we brought ourselves from home. The pool deck is right above our room, and there was one evening where I heard them moving furniture around when I was in bed, but it didn't really bother me that much. We had a problem with cabin 8416 a couple of days into the cruise, which Carnival more than made up for, but more on that later.
Food: The Victory only has two dining venues: Main dining rooms (Pacific and Atlantic), and the Lido Deck Mediterranean Restaurant area. The Mediterranean buffet pretty much served the same stuff for breakfast every day - pancakes or french toast, various fruits, yogurt, cereal, ham, scrambled and hard boiled eggs, bacon, sausage, grits or cream of wheat, oatmeal - I think that's pretty much the entire list. The Memphis Grill made omelets to order. The buffet was generally fine, though different foods would have been nice - though I suppose you can't really change up breakfast food that much. They also have Chinese food at the Yangtze Wok, which is on one side of the buffet along the wall, and on the opposite side of the buffet, there's the deli. Those were all ok, though the lines for the Wok and the deli could get long, and moved much slower than the buffet line. The pizza was decent, but they weren't up and running during the early part of lunch on embarkation day. I don't think the pizza making started until a bit after the buffet was open on the first day. There is a sushi stand that's on the side of the bar that's near the casino. It's fine for a fix, but it's not open that long - I believe the hours are only 5:00-7:00 p.m. or so.
We had early seating in the Pacific Dining room, and as I mentioned above, traffic flow was a problem. We discovered though that if you take the elevators down from our cabin deck (8) down to deck 4, that will dump you right into the lobby area, and you can avoid all of the people clogging the stairs. It's a bit of a cheat, I know. We would take the elevator down from deck 8 to deck 4 (2nd floor entry of the Pacific) right at 6:00, and we would walk off the elevator and into the crowd just getting into the dining room. People were nice about it though. I don't think I met a single nasty person on the whole trip. We were fortunate. The food in the Main dining room was decent, but I thought the food on RCL and Celebrity was better. Nothing caught my eye as being particularly special - it was decent fare for a moderate restaurant on land, and you have to cut them some slack for serving so many people at the same time. There were a lot of shrimp-based dishes. The servers were quick and attentive, and they brought out milk for the kids right when we sat down. Nice touch. However, I had a standing order for fruit punch, and they never managed to bring that out each evening until I was pretty much done with my entree. Not much point in bringing it out that late, but that really was my only issue regarding dining. On lobster night, our waiter happily brought out three orders of lobster for me without batting an eye. Sodas are not free in the dining room, and only the juices like the ones you get from the dispensers in the Mediterranean, iced tea, milk, coffee, and hot teas were free. The second evening was formal night, and many people were in suits or nice dresses. There were a few, however, that were still in shorts and T-shirts. For the "cruise casual" dinners, the dress was supposed to be what I consider to be business casual - collared shirts/polos, dress pants, etc. But there were still some that wore shorts and T-shirts. As far as I could tell, no one was barred from dining just because they didn't wear the right clothes.
Days at Sea/Camp Carnival: We had two full days at sea (2.5 days total if you count the first day as 1/2 a day), and during those days, we put our kids in Camp Carnival. The boys went into the 2-5 year program, and my daughter went to the 9-11 year program. She's 8 years 9 months old, and all of her friends are older than she is, so she felt more comfortable being with 9-11 year olds, rather than the 6-8 year olds. The Camp staff was fine with that. The boys had a lot of fun with the activities they had - my daughter was just kind of lukewarm about it, though she did meet two girls whose company she enjoyed. Camp staff was really friendly, and they learned the kids' names very quickly. For the 2-5 year olds, they give parents a cell phone that's apparently hooked into the internal ship-board cell system so that they can call you if your kid is having a hard time, needs to be picked up, injured, etc. You can't drop off your 2-5 year old without having the phone in hand. Apparently, staff needed to call a parent one day because their kid had a problem, and the parent(s) didn't have their cell phone on them, or on, so Camp staff couldn't reach them. After that, Camp staff was very vigilant in ensuring that parents had the cell phone on them when they dropped off their kid. I did think that the RCL camp was better though - the activities for RCL were more varied and more "edu-tainment" oriented. The Carnival stuff seemed to be more game and craft oriented. Also, on the last day at sea, there was barely anything for the kids, so they had to be engaged in other things outside of camp.
The days at sea were not very warm, and the trip to and back from Canada was VERY foggy at times. The ship had to sound the fog horn every 2 minutes during some portions of the trip. Bring sweatshirts and long pants just in case. We only had shorts and T-shirts, so we had to layer up at times, though we did bring light jackets. Although the chairs on the Lido Deck (deck 9) filled up early, I didn't have any problems finding open chairs on Deck 10. If there were no open chairs, there were stacks of chairs on the side that were tied up, so you could easily grab one of those. I don't like the sun, so I found some good shaded areas where no one wanted to be, and I set up my chair there and read the books that I brought along. Even though it wasn't that warm, people still were out in swim wear trying to work on their tans.
Entertainment: We didn't go to any of the small entertainment venues or late night entertainment since our kids go to sleep before most of those things start. We did manage to go to three shows though, and they were pretty good. We put the twins in camp (they don't start charging until 10:00 p.m.), while my wife, daughter, and I went to the 8:30 shows. Two were music/dancing type productions, and one was a magic show. The magician was good - he only did I think 3 "big" illusions and 3 "small" tricks, but he was really funny and entertaining. The jokes that he did extended the show so that the 3 big and 3 small numbers filled in the entire 45 minutes. We particularly liked the show "Vrooom", which is a compilation of 80s tunes, with some 50s to 70s mixed in. Staging was well done - lots of production value there, and the dancers were very good. My wife and I did have an issue with 2 of the dancers though. We may not be the fittest people in the world, so I suppose it may not be right to criticize, but dancers should be in a certain shape for public performance. Two of them, while perhaps technically fine, were a bit...umm...heavy as compared to the other dancers. That was a bit distracting, especially since one of the shows featured "showgirl" costumes. The costumes were not flattering on them.
Ports: The ports for this cruise were St. John and Halifax. These are not sunny cities, and there is not a ton to do, but with a little planning, you can find something to entertain yourself. I don't think that the excursions offered by ships are of particularly good value, and you can get them on your own by walking out and exploring on your own. In St. John, we got off the ship at around 10:00, and followed the red marked path into town. It's hard to miss. Once we got there, there are buildings with connecting walkways you can use to go around, and we eventually ran across a St. John tourism desk. The staff there was very friendly and helpful, and suggested many different things to do. We were looking for a sweatshirt for one of my boys because I had lost it on the ship (I lost my other boy's sweatshirt too, but that one eventually turned up at the pursers desk in the lost and found).
There are a couple of souvenir shops along the way, but we found a better price with "CANADA" on it at the market you see all over the place on the Internet. We didn't find out about the discount store up the hill until later. Ah well. After getting several suggestions from the tourism desk, we decided to grab a taxi and go to the Cherry Brook Zoo. It's small and quaint, and the kids liked it. It's very rustic. Cab fare for 5 of us was $10 to get there (not including tip), and $12 to come back (again, not including tip) since we had to call the cab company to dispatch a cab to get us from the zoo back to downtown. The Zoo was $21 for a family of 4, and they let us slide in an extra kid for nothing. If you don't have any kids though, don't go to the zoo if you just have a bunch of adults. Adults on their own would probably think the Zoo is not worth it. It's all subjective of course. Anything that entertains my kids for an hour is a good outing. The weather in St. John was overcast, and the temps started off in the 50s in the morning, and eventually was in the 60s to low 70s later in the afternoon. Most people getting of the ship had jeans/long pants on and sweatshirts. We didn't have long pants, and we layered on the cloths, and we were fine.
The second port was Halifax, and it was overcast with on-and-off rain. Not great weather. We walked from the port down to the main tourist area, and there are many locations where you can book tours, whale watching trips, Theodore the Tugboat trips (for you parents out there, apparently, Theodore the Tugboat is a lot like Thomas the Tank Engine, and the style of the tugboat show is very similar to the train show). This may be one time where booking through the cruiseship is better because all of the earlier whale watching trips were sold out. But there is no guarantee that you'll see a whale though. The tour company had a large calendar in their office showing what they saw on which days. I'd say about 60-70% of the time, they did see whales. If they didn't see whales, then they were able to see seals. However, there were a couple of days where they didn't see anything. If you don't see anything, they still keep your money. We debated on whether to do Theodore or do an amphibious boat tour, and we decided to go on the amphibious boat tour. The tour went all over the city, and drove around the Citadel. I was going to drag everyone up to the Citadel on foot, but we saw everything we need on the boat tour. It lasted for about an hour, and it was fun and informative - though pretty pricey at around $90 for the 5 of us. Afterwards, we went to Murphy's for lunch. Although the food there was good, the kitchen was unbelievably slow. It took them about an hour for them to bring out all our food. The excuse was that they had an unexpected influx of people for lunch, which backed up the kitchen. Fortunately, they were able to bring out the kids' food within about 10-15 minutes of us being seated, but the rest of the food for me, my wife, and my daughter didn't come out until about 45 minutes after that. I eventually told our (very nice, but perhaps a bit inexperienced) waiter that if the rest of the food wasn't out in 5 minutes, that he should just bring us the bill for what food we had been served, and that we would leave. The food did come out within the 5 minute time limit I set.
The Leak: I mentioned above that there was a problem with Cabin 8416. A few days after we embarked, the pool above us developed a serious leak - I believe that it was a problem with a pipe, and not the pool structure. Cabins 8420 and 8424 (the two down the hall from us on the same side of the hall) were completely flooded out, and the guests in those rooms had to be relocated. I don't know where they were moved to, but I hope they were able to find something for them as the boat was pretty close to or at full capacity. Our cabin wasn't flooded out, but there was a lot of seepage from 8420 into 8416, and the entrance way was soaking wet with water from the leak. Also, the carpet was wet in some parts of the room along the wall adjacent to 8420 since the water apparently seeped under the wall. We didn't have to move, but it made for some squishy times. Carnival staff was right on it, and they made repairs as fast as they could to the pipes, which involved opening the wall in 8420 to access the leaking pipes and to replace them. The purser's office called us and left us a note letting us know about the leak, and told us to give them a call if we needed housekeeping staff to come and suck out the carpet, which we did a couple of times. Carnival sent us a very nice fruit basket with a bottle of wine for our inconvenience (it was an inexpensive bottle of La Terre Merlot, but it was a very nice gesture). Carnival also gave us an on-board credit of $25 per person for the two people booked in that room, which was very unexpected. And finally, Carnival gave us a letter giving us a discount for two (the number of people booked in the affected room) on a future cruise, to be used within 18 months. Another unexpected and very nice gesture. Carnival let us know that we could give the purser's office a call at any time if the problem got worse, or to have housekeeping come in try to dry out the carpet using their suction machine. They set up blowers in 8420 and 8424, and they put blowers in the hallway to dry out the carpet. All in all, it was a good fixing and cleanup effort, and a good customer relations experience.
Tips: Carnival automatically adds a $10 per day per person service charge to all guests, which shows up on your ship charge statement beginning on day one. I was going to be a bit put out if I wasn't going to be able to adjust the tip charge if we didn't get early dining because we wouldn't have used the main dining room at all. Why should I be charged an automatic tip for something I didn't use? But that became moot when we got moved to early dining. On the last evening, you get an envelope for your maitre'd left on your bed if you care to tip him/her. Since he was able to move us from late to early dining, I did give him a tip. I also tipped the Camp Carnival staff too. There are envelopes on the wall outside of the camp room that you can use for that.
Disembarkation: The self-disembarkation process that Carnival has in place is a great idea. I love that you don't have to hunt through thousands of pieces of similar looking luggage to find your own luggage. Also, if you self-DE, you can get off at any time, though they do call for self-DE's to get off the ship early on. We just went to breakfast in the morning on the Lido Deck, finished up at around 8:30 or so, got our bags, and started heading off the ship at around 9:00 or so. The only problem in getting off the ship is that the line to get through customs is very long and very slow. We got off the ship with our luggage pretty quickly as the line for people to scan their IDs was short. However, once you got into the terminal, the lines were long and slow. Just be prepared to wait at least 30 min to get through customs, if not longer. The customs folks ask you if you are bringing food off the ship, and as long as you are not carrying any fresh fruits or vegetables, you're generally ok. I don't know about baked goods as we didn't take any bagels or muffins or anything like that. We did have the bottle of wine from the fruit basket (we left the fruit we didn't eat), granola bars, unopened bottled water, and dried fruit in sealed, unopened, and original packaging (also from the basket), and customs didn't have a problem with those things. Getting out of the port was easy, but we got caught in legendary NYC traffic getting too and through the Lincoln tunnel.
Summary: All in all, this was a relaxing and decent vacation. Canada is not the sort of destination to go to if you're looking to lounge around in the sun, but you probably wouldn't be choosing it if you were. If you're looking for decent (but not great) food, good service, and a few places to poke around, then this is definitely for you. Now that I've been on a cruise to Canada, I'm glad that I went, though I can't say that I would go again as it was a bit too foggy and cool even for me, and I try to stay out of the sun as much as possible! Carnival went out of its way to ensure that we had a good experience, and although it's not at the same level as RCL, I would definitely go on another Carnival cruise.