Carnival Liberty Eastern Caribbean 11/01/08 to 11/08/08
First of all, let me say that this was yet another great cruise vacation, this time to celebrate our wedding anniversary!
We had the chance to sail on the Liberty during its inaugural season in 2005. After 3 years in service, the ship is still just as beautiful, polished, and clean as the first time we sailed aboard it. Signs of wear and tear are almost non-existent. In our opinion, it's one of the most tastefully decorated ships in the Carnival fleet with its European inspired interiors, iron accents, rich wood throughout, and hand painted murals.
My cruise review will focus mostly on changes since the last time we cruised, most which we considered to be positive ones. These include: New Cruise Terminal, Platinum status, Total Choice Dining, Elegant nights, Harry's Super Club, and entertainment.
Check In The new Cruise Terminal in Miami is not only a modern and attractive facility, but is also very efficient. We arrived around 11:00am and there were already hundreds of passengers checking in. Thankfully, this was our first cruise as Platinum members which meant no lines for us! VIP treatment begins at the security checkpoint. After that, we proceeded directly to the VIP lounge. The actual check-in process took less than 5 minutes. The lounge is nicely appointed with comfortable, big, red chairs and smart furniture, but we didn't spend enough time there to enjoy it. We were onboard the ship within 15 minutes of arriving at the port!
Embarkation We have a wonderful Personal Vacation Planner who not only met us at the port, but also signed up for an employee ship visit. This allowed us to invite some of our friends who live in Miami to come onboard during embarkation as well. We were very grateful for this opportunity and are glad to have developed such a wonderful relationship with our PVP over the years. Having our friends with us on embarkation day was the perfect beginning to a memorable cruise.
At the gangway, we were asked for our Platinum cards and once again went straight to the front of the line. Even though we were on the ship around 11:15am, our cabin was still being cleaned, so instead, we went to Emile's for lunch (the buffet style restaurant). We agreed that food quality and selection has improved since our last cruise (not that it was bad before, but there were even more (and tastier) selections at the buffet).
Cabin We booked one of the larger 6B (oceanview) cabins in the aft section of the Main Deck. These cabins are a great bargain. It didn't have a sofa, but it had a convertible king size bed (with the Comfort Bed System) and a table & two chairs. The extra space was definitely a nice perk. We loved having TWO large windows instead of one. The only negative is that during rough weather, the cabin rumbled quite considerably (more on that later).
Departure from Miami After saying goodbye to our friends, we went to the Lifeboat Drill. What is normally the most dreaded part of the cruise (at least for us) turned out to be one of the quickest, most efficient drills we've ever attended. Also, the life preservers seem to be brand new, probably from the recent drydock. We departed promptly at 4pm.
Time onboard. , Fellow passengers, and Days at Sea Fellow passengers were somewhat older, diverse, and more low key than on other Carnival cruises we've recently taken. In addition to cruisers from the US, we also met several cruisers from Europe (specifically Germany and Italy), as well as many from South America. It was common to see guests enjoying a book or card game quietly throughout the ship. Families with children were only a small percentage of the passenger count (the Cruise Director even made a joke about it when he called a 10 year old kid to the stage and asked him if his parents had pulled him out of school for this trip, and he said yes. The Cruise Director said to the parents jokingly "Way to give your kid a good example! Not only are you jeopardizing his education, but you should be home voting! " (the cruise was on election week). I don't think the parents appreciated the comment, but everybody else got a kick out of it. Since we came looking for relaxation, we thoroughly welcomed the more calm and to a certain degree sophisticated atmosphere onboard.
We didn't have perfect weather. Some days were beautiful, others were rainy. Still, no complaints. On the first day at sea, it was storming and we had to deal with huge waves. You know it's getting rough when there are seasickness paper bags tucked in every corner of the ship for easy access. Our cabin rumbled and pieces of the ceiling creaked all night long. There's a weird sideways motion when riding in the back of the ship during rough seas which we are now familiar with, but it can be a bit startling for first time cruisers, or cruisers who have never had a cabin in the back of the ship. Besides the first day, we had wonderful, smooth seas, and the rumble stopped (although we did have to deal with rain later on in the week).
Sea Days were mostly lazy days (at least for us). We truly enjoyed getting up early and having fresh breakfast at Emile's before the late risers would invade the place. After that, we would have the pool deck and hot tubs pretty much all to ourselves. It was especially nice to sit in one of the hot tubs under the glass ceiling in the back of the ship, and just watch the world go by or to go for a morning walk on the jogging track high above everything else.
We found ourselves enjoying the music provided by a classical music trio on some days (and a pianist other days) at the Flowers Lobby. It truly gave this cruise a touch of class to enjoy an hour with a cocktail while listening to beautiful music on our days at sea.
Total Choice Dining This is Carnival's new dining option where you don't have an assigned table or time. You just show up sometime between 5:45pm and 9:30pm. This is currently being offered on only two vessels of the fleet. This option was being offered at the Golden Olympian Dining Room while the Silver Olympian Dining Room was operating as a Traditional Dining option. We absolutely, 100% and without a doubt loved, LOVED Total Choice Dining!! No matter what time it was, we had a table for two available for us either immediately, or within 5 minutes. If there was a small wait, they would give us a beeper, but normally we would start walking away, only to turn around because a table would become available almost immediately. As much as we loved this option, it's NOT for everybody. We witnessed an irate couple on formal night insult the Maitre'D when they were informed that there was a 5 minute wait. It was somewhat embarrassing to watch (the loud tone and choice of words was completely inappropriate). They had cruised on Carnival before and were telling the Maitre'D that they had NEVER had to wait for a table for dinner and that they were going to miss the comedian. I believe that these guests might not have been the only ones unhappy with Total Choice Dining because after the 2nd night, the Golden Olympian Restaurant first floor started accommodating Traditional Dining, while the second floor was still offering Total Choice Dining. We do hope that they continue Total Choice. We spoke to the Maitre'D one night and he said that the plan is to make it available in every ship and that they hope to have it rolled out fleetwide in one year.
Harry's I had read the arguments in favor and against dining at the $30 per person, reservations only Harry's. Some people may argue that the food served at the main dining room is good enough, or that paying extra for dinner is a waste of money. After celebrating our anniversary at this venue, I tend to believe that those against this type of option have never had the chance to experience this wonderful place. The food was absolutely phenomenal. There's a HUGE difference between the flat iron steak served at the main dining room, and the filet mignon or 24oz Porterhouse served at Harry's. The cuts served here rival those at high end steakhouses at major cities. In addition to the main entrEe's, the ingredients and recipes used for other dishes are truly exceptional. Every bite is a treat to the palate. We had 3 servers taking care of our table for over 2 hours (service is polished, professional and unhurried.) The atmosphere is elegant without being overly pretentious. Truly a highlight of our cruise!
Elegant night Even though formal night has been re-named and the dress code has been relaxed a bit, we found it to be basically the same as when it was called formal night. Guests ranged from the very formal (tuxedos, night gowns, etc) to the not so formal (jeans and t-shirts), although we didn't see anybody venture into the main dining room in less than a jacket or long sleeve shirt and tie. In my opinion, all that Carnival did by changing the name of the night and dress code was to give the green light for people to wear what they've been wearing all along...!
San Juan, Puerto Rico First of all, let me start by saying that I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. My family still lives there and we visit several times a year (last time just 3 months ago). However, this is the first time I had the chance to visit my own island aboard a cruise ship as a bona-fide tourist! Entering the San Juan bay and seeing the El Morro Fortress from our ship was truly exciting. It's without a doubt one of the most beautiful arrivals to any Caribbean island.
My parents live on the west coast of the island (about 2 hours away), so they reserved a room at the Sheraton Old San Juan and waited for our arrival along with one of my sister and my two nieces. We arrived in San Juan about 1 hour early (4pm), and were off the ship within minutes and met at the Sheraton. Contrary to what I had read before, many stores remained open late into the night to accommodate the cruise passengers. We walked around, shopped, and made a cocktail stop at the outdoor bar located at the Hotel El Convento (a historical landmark and former nun's convent turned luxury hotel). After that, we worked our way to the Parrot Club (a Nuevo-Latino restaurant) located in SoFo (South Fortaleza street, which is also where other trendy restaurants where the hip and chic crowd of San Juan hangs out). Food here is truly exceptional. After that, we headed back to the Sheraton where we spent some time at their Casino and socialized before going back onboard the ship around 11pm for a midnight departure. Truly a memorable stop! However, it made me realize how little of my wonderful island of Puerto Rico the average cruiser gets to experience on these itineraries. Also, some excursions seemed to be a rip-off. For example, the ship was charging $79 for an otherwise FREE tour of the Bacardi Rum Distillery. Granted that the only way to visit the distillery at night is on an organized shore excursion, but $79 to visit a place that normally doesn't charge admission and can be reached by an inexpensive water ferry??
St. Thomas, USVI We woke up early and were off the ship by 9am. The last time I had been to St. Thomas was 14 years ago, and even though the island still looks similar, it has definitely developed more (with indoor malls, Home Depot, Mega-movie theatres, more Pizza Huts, McDonald's, Wendy's, etc). We took a cab to Charlotte Amalie to do some shopping. Traffic is bad going and coming back to the ship (literally stopped for a long time). The downtown area and shops look almost identical to the last time I visited. We looked at some watches and sunglasses that we had checked out prior to leaving on this cruise to see how the prices compared . We were surprised to see that even with all the discounts, they were either the same price or more expensive than what we had found back home (in Atlanta).
Around 12pm, we headed back to the ship for a quick lunch before taking the Discover Scuba Diving tour at Coki Beach. The tour by itself is well worth it. It was truly a wonderful experience. After filling out a medical questionnaire and signing our lives away, we boarded an open air taxi for the 20 minute picturesque drive across the island to Coki Beach. The first part of the tour is spent with an instructor who gave us the basics of diving. After that, we were fitted with our SCUBA equipment. The water in St. Thomas is beautiful and clear and we went to depths around 30-35 feet. However we didn't see as much fish or corals as we would've liked. Even though we enjoyed this tour quite considerably, Coki Beach is way too crowded these days. It's a shame, because it's such a beautiful place, but better enjoyed without so many others. Oh well!
After that, we returned to the port area, looked around the Havensight shops and were back onboard about 1 hour prior to departure. We skipped dinner this night. We were exhausted!
St. Maarten, NA We woke up to a rainy and foggy St. Maarten. This was our first time docked at the new port facility. Although convenient, I personally missed taking a tender from the ship right into downtown. Although not as convenient, for me, tendering was part of the "island" experience in St. Maarten. We did however take the water taxi from the new port facility to downtown (we were dropped off at the original pier right in front of the courthouse).
Our plan was to walk around downtown before heading to Maho Beach to watch the airplanes come in low over the beach (I'm an airplane enthusiast). I had even pulled the flight itinerary for the day. Unfortunately, the rain would not stop. We decided that we would go to Maho Beach anyway. We hailed a cab driver who actually discouraged us from going there. He told us that the beach had been damaged with the last hurricane and had been blocked off, and that there were few covered spots to actually enjoy the views. By this time, we had decided that the bad weather, beach conditions, and negative reviews from the cab driver were enough to cancel our plans, so we stayed downtown. The rain kept getting worse, so we took refuge at the Barefoot Terrace restaurant, with an open terrace overlooking the bay. We had jerk chicken wings (very good, but also VERY spicy). After that, there wasn't much to do so we headed back to the ship. We were back onboard around 2:30pm and somewhat disappointed that we couldn't enjoy St. Maarten more. I guess we'll have to return some day!
Last 2 days at Sea, On Deck for the Cure We thoroughly enjoyed our last 2 days at sea. Initially we were a bit skeptical about spending 2 full days at sea, but it turns out that we wish we would've had at least one more day! On Friday, we participated in the On Deck for The Cure walk. About 250 passengers signed up. This was definitely something different to do on vacation, but completely worth it!
Debarkation The ship docked back in Miami a little before 6am. Because I was planning on standing by on a 9:00am flight out of Ft. Lauderdale. (I had to go to work straight from our cruise, yuck!), we were packed up, showered, and ready to leave our cabin at 6:45am. We walked to the Lobby to do Self Assist Debarkation only to find out that a hundreds of other passengers with their huge suitcases had the same idea. Staircases, elevators, and the entire lobby area were jammed pack with people. We opted for plan B which was to head to the Venetian Palace, deck 5, where Platinum members could wait to be called and escorted off the ship during Traditional Debarkation.
However, we didn't have to wait for Traditional Debarkation to begin. From there, we were taken immediately back to the Lobby using a different set of stairs and we were off the ship and through customs within 10 minutes. Not bad! If there's a Platinum perk that we enjoyed, it definitely was Priority Embarkation and Debarkation!
We arrived at the Ft. Lauderdale airport at 8:25am, and we made our 9:00am flight to Atlanta!! We couldn't believe it!
Final thoughts Our cruise aboard the Carnival Liberty was definitely an AWESOME vacation. It wasn't perfect, but which vacation is? We thoroughly enjoyed it and we're already planning our next cruise. As the airplane took off from Ft. Lauderdale and we started heading north, I couldn't help but to feel a bit saddened that the cruise was over so quickly. We will definitely be back!