My friend and I took a seven-and-a-half-day cruise (more about the half day later) leaving from Galveston, TX. We call ourselves 'experienced cruisers' because we have cruised with both Carnival and Royal Caribbean and knew what to expect. The cruise didn't disappoint but didn't exceed our expectations, either. We had booked a discounted fare so we considered it a fair trade and good value for our money.
Having almost missed our previous cruise due to a series of unfortunate flight delays, we decided to drive to Galveston the day before the cruise and spend the night in a hotel. We chose La Quinta on Galveston island, four miles from the cruise pier, and didn't regret our decision. Having suffered severe damage from Hurricane Ike, the hotel had been completely remodeled. Our room was comfortable and everything was working properly. We left the car at EZ cruise parking lot and took a shuttle to the cruise ship.
Embarkation went relatively smoothly and we began boarding the ship around 12noon. Unfortunately, most of the Carnival employees in charge of debarkation seemed easily confused. They often had to ask for assistance when something needed to be entered into the system and couldn't figure out how to get things working. For some reason, our room cards had been lost so we were given a temporary 'pier' cards that allowed us to board the ship (we received our key cards an hour later at the purser's desk.) Passengers weren't allowed to get into their rooms until 1.30pm but the buffet was open for lunch.
We had booked a balcony stateroom that allowed us to enjoy the wonderful ocean view and lush tropical scenery of the Caribbean islands. The cabin was clean and comfortable. Balcony was small and yet cozy. Bathroom was tiny but offered everything we needed. Our room attendant took care of everything and always greeted us with a polite smile. I heard some people complain about the size of staterooms but, for me, a cabin is merely a place to leave my belongings and sleep. There is so much to do and see on the ship and ashore!
Food was abundant, although mostly bland and quite often tasteless, especially burgers and steaks. There were limited options in the buffet but at least it offered a wonderful ocean view from Deck 9. The dining room offered a greater variety but food was, yet again, bland and tasteless. The fruit often tasted like pesticide and the steak had no personality whatsoever. However, I do recommend one of the signature desserts, the melting chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream. Coffee was good; there were two coffee shops offering mocha and cappuccino. Baristas were knowledgeable and attentive.
There were different shows every night, featuring musicians, dancers, singers, an illusionist, and two stand-up comedians. The six-member orchestra (percussion, keyboard, sax, trumpet, and guitars) was wonderful, always supportive but never overwhelming. The dancers were also good although most of the choreography sucked. The opening night show was extremely disappointing. It was followed by an even more disappointing show entitled 'Point and Click' featuring French or Paris-related songs with no visible connection.
There was a jazz trio (drums, guitar, string bass) in the cigar lounge and piano trio (violin, piano, cello) performing classical music on the promenade. Unfortunately, the lead singers were having a bad week and sang grossly out of tune. I won't even dignify the promenade 'singers' with a comment. Think 'American Idol.'
STAFF AND SERVICE
Staff was polite but everybody, from the waiters to the room attendants to the bartenders, look tired and overworked. Most of them acted as though they really didn't want to be here and rarely bothered to greet a guest with a smile or respond with 'thank you' or 'you're welcome.' According to one of the baristas, most of them had eight-month contracts that required them to work at least eight hours a day, seven days a week.
The highlight of on-board activities was the New Year's Eve party on Deck 9. There were many other activities going on during the day of sea but we didn't care for most of them.
We booked all of our shore excursions through Carnival and I recommend this manner of booking to all of may fellow cruisers. It was nice to know that we wouldn't have to worry about arranging our own transportation, being ripped off and, most of all, left in the middle of nowhere or stuck in traffic, not being able to get back in time and miss the ship. Should that happen on a Carnival-booked shore excursion, the ship would wait for the passengers to return so Carnival won't have to fly them to the next port of call.
MONTEGO BAY, JAMAICA
The port of Montego Bay, Jamaica, was our first stop. We booked a trip to the all-inclusive Sandals Royal Caribbean resort, about 20 minutes away from the cruise port, and enjoyed it very much. The resort (rooms start at $500 a night) was probably the best place to master and perfect the art of doing nothing. The beach was smaller than I expected but there was a private island, Sandals Cay, that offered the same experience as the mainland resort. The buffet didn't offer as many choices as I'd expected, either.
GEORGETOWN, GRAND CAYMAN
Our second port of call was Georgetown, Grand Cayman. My friend had already visited the island and its main attractions, Turtle Farm and Hell, so we decided to walk around on our own and immerse ourselves in the local atmosphere. Georgetown was a charming town with clean streets, colonial architecture, crystal clear waters, and friendly people. Everything was within walking distance and could be covered in an hour or two.
Our last stop was Cozumel, Mexico. We booked a mainland shore excursion to the Mayan ruins of Tulum and, for both of us, it was the highlight of our cruise. We took a fast ferry from Cozumel to Playa Del Carmen and hopped on bus to Tulum, about an hour away. The shore excursion was organized very well and timed to perfection. Our tour guide, employed by the National Museum of Mexico, offered us a series of lectures about the Mayan civilization that we enjoyed very much. The Mayan ruins of Tulum, surrounded by lush palm trees, towered majestically above the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. There was a small private beach at the bottom of the cliffs that provided a much-needed relief from the heat on this 'cold' day in the low 80s. I greatly recommend this shore excursion to anyone who visits Cozumel or vacations in Cancun.
Disembarkation was delayed for hours due to a dense fog in Galveston. We were scheduled to dock at 7am but had to wait until 1pm to enter the port. It wasn't until 2pm until the debarkation process began and 4pm before we finally got off the ship. I felt sorry for the people that missed their flights but Carnival handled the situation very well. The buffet was open for lunch and guests were updated every 15 minutes.
Our cruise turned out to be a seven-and-a-half-day experience and we loved every minute of it! Getting away from the cold winter, even for a week, was simply wonderful. We will definitely be taking another cruise same time next year!