Since we live in the Houston area, access to the port at Galveston was pretty simple. Not knowing what traffic would be like going into Galveston on a day when two cruise ships leave, we left our house at 9:30 am and were at the EZ Cruise Parking lot before 11:00am. I had reserved with EZ Cruise in advance based on the recommendation of several on the CC boards, and we weren't disappointed. Parking was a breeze and we were shuttled to the terminal right away. The only downside to EZ Cruise was that the shuttle drops you off at the far end of the terminal, so it was a long walk to the entrance. We left our luggage with a porter (highly recommended, especially at debarkation) and proceeded inside. Since we were so early, we went straight through security and check-in and were among the first to board at around 11:45am.
We had the late (8:15pm) seating as requested, and were in the Renoir dining room. We enjoyed talking to our waiter, Sang, each evening, and he really catered to the kids. When our daughter asked for extra ice cream with her chocolate melting cake, he brought her three extra bowls! Dinner was good every night, but not fantastic. The steaks were usually good, but no matter what sauce was on the menu it always seemed like the same brown gravy. By far, the highlight for me was the duck served on the first formal night, and for my son it was the baby-back ribs he got on the last night (ask for extra napkins).
We ate in the Monet dining room twice for breakfast and once for lunch, and the food was good (especially the eggs benedict). Most of the time, though, we ate at the buffet on the Lido deck. Omelets were a highlight, but there was often a long line. Always check both sides of the room, as there are three omelet stations and sometimes one would be empty. For lunch at the buffet we most enjoyed the Asian food window. I was disappointed in Sur Mer (fish & chips), but that could be due to the high expectations that I had after hearing all of the great reviews on CC. Again, it was good but not fantastic.
The entertainment in the main theater was hit-and-miss. The singers and dancers were fun to watch for a little while on the first night, but we only stayed for half the show on the second night (Point & Click), and skipped entirely on the other night (Formidable). The special acts, though, were generally great. There was a comedian (John Wesley Austin) on the first night who the kids thought was fantastic, a singer (Jamila) one night that was very talented, a juggler (Manuel Zuniga) one night who was amazing followed by a comedian (Mark Hawkins) who was very good. My wife and I enjoyed his act so much that we went to his R-rated show later that evening. There was an illusionist (Lady Hellavi) who performed one evening, but all of her illusions were basically the same trick with variations in choreography so it got old after a while.
Aside from the main theater, we enjoyed the other activities going on around the ship. On Tuesday night we joined in the conga line around the ship and danced the night away on the Lido deck. The following night was New Year's Eve, which we spent on the Lido deck listening to Calypso music, followed by a gala buffet after midnight. During the day, my son and I entered a digital scavenger hunt where you run around the ship taking pictures of different objects on a list. We won and received a coveted 14-carat gold plastic ship on a stick which we will treasure forever. My wife and I also won Carnival Conquest medals, although she has sworn me to secrecy on what we did to win these! Overall, the entertainment staff does a great job in providing a variety of activities throughout the day.
Speaking of entertainment staff, I had heard wonderful things about Ralph Valente, the Cruise Director, before going on the cruise and he did not disappoint at all. He has a great personality and could make even mundane PA announcements entertaining. He had a habit of ending many announcements with "I love you", and when he didn't we would find ourselves a little saddened. I heard only after coming back home that Ralph is leaving the Conquest to go to the Carnival Victory and that Assistant Cruise Director Kyle is moving up to the big job. Kyle - you have some big shoes to fill!
We used Carnival for all of our shore excursions. I know that we could have done it for less money by booking directly with tour operators or going solo, but it was worth the peace of mind knowing that if we were late for some reason we wouldn't miss the ship.
In Jamaica, we climbed Dunn's River Falls. There are some parts of the waterfall that you look at and think there is no way you can make it up, but the guides lead you to the right places and help as needed. It was a lot of fun, and a cool and refreshing climb. On the bus ride there and back we had a tour guide (Zrain) who kept us entertained. My wife and I both liked this tour the best of the three.
In Grand Cayman, we opted for the Cayman Highlights bus tour where we went to the Turtle Farm, Hell, and one of the ubiquitous Tortuga shops to buy rum and rum cakes. It wasn't the best of tours, but we got to see a few highlights in a short period of time.
In Cozumel, we got a day pass at the El Cid all-inclusive hotel near the port. The hotel isn't the nicest on the island, but it had everything we were looking for: lounge chairs on the beach, snorkeling from the shore, a lunch buffet, and drinks included (brought right to our chairs on the beach). The kids both voted this high on their list and will want to do the same next time.
We had connecting cabins 6295 and 6297, which were located in a central corridor on the Upper deck. The rooms were well laid out, and because they were in a corridor that only has 11 cabins there was very little noise from other passengers walking through. The rooms were directly below the casino, so you did get noise from slot machines, cheering gamblers, and occasionally someone over a PA system. The noise usually seemed to die down around midnight, though, so we never had a problem sleeping.
Although our kids (ages 14 and 11) did not use the Camp Carnival facilities, there was plenty for them to do on the ship (air hockey, miniature golf, basketball, and ping pong just to name a few). They enjoyed most of the shows (particularly the comedians and juggler), and participated in some of the other activities as well. They also had a good time ordering drinks from the bar (non-alcoholic, of course, but not much difference in price than the ones with alcohol.)
Coming into Galveston, we ran into thick fog that closed the port and meant we had to hold our position about 15 miles offshore. Ralph was on the PA system to give us updates (or lack thereof) every 15-30 minutes between 6:45am and when we finally were able to start heading into port at 11:30am. We finally made it to Galveston around 1:00pm, and we were off the ship at 3:45pm. We were in no hurry since we didn't have a flight to catch, and we got to have an extra meal on the boat at lunchtime (not that we needed it after a week)!
What I had not realized until we got out of the terminal is the impact the delay has on the rest of the island. I knew that our late arrival would cause the next cruisers to be delayed, but I didn't realize that many of them didn't even have a place to park until we vacated our parking places. When we came out of the terminal building, the line of people waiting to get into the building stretched the entire length of the terminal (which had been completely empty when we arrived the week before). On top of that, the line of cars waiting to get into the parking lot went out as far as I could see.
Unfortunately if you sail out of Galveston during school holidays you will pay a premium. Looking at similar itineraries out of Florida, Galveston can be hundreds of dollars more per person. However, there is not enough of a difference to cover the cost of airfare to Florida and it is very nice to be able to just drive 1.5 hours and be at the port. Aside from the holiday premium, though, I thought the cruise was an excellent value for the money - particularly since we received $850 in OBC due to rate reductions and elimination of the fuel supplement after we booked our cruise.
In summary, our first cruise was a very positive experience - so much so that we took advantage of Carnival's "Where Next" offer on the ship (pay $100 and receive $100 certificate toward next cruise plus $100/cabin OBC). The Conquest goes into dry dock very soon, so we are looking forward to sailing her again to see the new movie screen and to find out what other improvements are made.