This was our 5th cruise overall and our first on the Carnival Triumph. Departure was Sunday from Miami, but we elected to arrive the day before. Coming from Indiana, this was a good decision as it relieved us from worrying about flight delays and ensured that we arrived for boarding refreshed and rested, and in our summer clothes. Not having been to Miami previously, we chose to take Carnival's pre-cruise package with a stay at the downtown JW Marriott. This was a bit pricey at $150 per person including transfers, but an excellent hotel in a very good location.
Boarding was tedious as expected with security checks and waiting in line for check-in. My wife and I were traveling with four other family members, two of whom had not previously sailed on Carnival. In order to get the past-guest discount for them, I made the bookings with me and one of the other couple under one booking, and my wife and the other half of the couple on a second booking. I was very up front with the Carnival reservations folks about this, and they assured me in several calls that this was commonly done, and that all we needed to do was inform the agent at check-in that we wished to switch rooms which could be done simply and with no problems. The reality was quite different, and involved the services of a trainer, and then a manager at Carnival's Miami port check-in counter. In the end, it took about an hour to get our Sail & Sign cards, over and above the additional hour or so to get through security and wait in line. And after all of that, it wasn't until the middle of the week that we found that the folios had been incorrectly set up such that the onboard charges from our Sail & Sign cards for all four of us were being charged to my credit card! This was quite disappointing considering the assurances provided by Carnival's reservations folks, and something that I wouldn't do again. Once we finally got on board, things improved significantly.
About the Ship: I understand that the Triumph had been placed into dry dock for renovation in late 2008. They did a great job, with nothing on the ship looking worn, stained, or scuffed. Our rooms (balconies on the Verandah deck) were excellent, intelligently laid out, and with plenty of storage space which is standard for every Carnival ship on which we had ever sailed (with the exception of the Mardi Gras back in 1978 which was too long ago to count). The only amenity I missed from our last cruise on the Conquest was a mini-bar in our cabin.
I've read some reviews where folks have mentioned some difficulties finding their way around the ship as the configuration of the second levels of the London & Paris dining rooms prevent walking from the front to the back of the ship on deck 4. We did not find this a problem at all, making deck 5, the Promenade Deck, our main avenue of transit when not up on the Lido deck sunning, visiting, and reading. The casino was excellent, if not too kind to us this time around. I guess this was a payback of sorts from the $2,000 we won on our last cruise.
About the handicap facilities: One of our group was of limited mobility, using a walker most of the time and a wheelchair for longer treks. Arrangements were made for a handicap accessible room on the main deck. Note that Carnival doesn't hand these out like candy, requiring a rather complete physical assessment document at the time that reservations are made. After seeing the handicap accessible room, I can understand why. This room was huge, being more than twice the size of a regular stateroom, with a bathroom large enough for wheelchairs and a walk-in shower and no step-up's or door sills to navigate. We were particularly appreciative of the special attention given by the room steward who made sure that all extra needs were met.
About the Dining: Dinners in the Paris dining room were outstanding. Food variety, quality, and quantity was excellent. For formal dining, Carnival is hard to beat amongst its primary competitors. Alternatives to formal dining are plentiful and include the South Beach buffet along with individual locations for Deli sandwiches, stir fry, hamburgers and hotdogs, and pizza and calzones. I'd rate the quality of the alternative dining as perhaps a 7 out of 10; good, but not great. The pizza is outstanding, but the calzone was underdone and doughy in the middle. I particularly liked the grilled corned beef/Pastrami combo from the deli bar. We were disappointed in the absence of midnight buffets, and especially that of the grand buffet which was always a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. Don't know if the decision to not do this was fleet-wide or just on Triumph. We also made liberal use of room service, especially for breakfast. My wife and I have, over the years, gotten used to light breakfasts of coffee, juice, fruit, and sometime, pastries. I usually am the first up in the morning, and made it a practice to order breakfast before my wife rolled out of bed. While you can pre-order your breakfast via a card that you hang outside your door, we preferred to order in the morning via phone as we were never really sure just when we'd get up. I don't know how they did it, but it never took more than 20 minutes from order or delivery. In any case, I can assure you that you will definitely NOT go hungry or suffer from wont of great food.
About the entertainment: Not being 'party people', we didn't join in on most of the daytime events on the Lido deck (e.g. the Hairy Chest contest, etc.). But we did make it to all but one of the evening shows in the Rome Lounge. If you take this cruise, make sure to take advantage of these productions. They were all exceptional. In past cruises, we had been somewhat frustrated with people (inconsiderate boobs in my opinion) who would send one of their party to the lounge an hour ahead of time to stake out seats for the 5 or 10 people traveling with them. On this cruise, Carnival made significant attempts to discourage this with positive results. We made it a point to head to the Rome Lounge about a half-hour before the show and never had a problem finding six seats together in a good viewing location. While it was common to find someone saving a seat for their spouse/companion, we didn't run into any instances where someone had tied down a whole row or section.
About the people: Can't express enough how pleased we were with the ship's friendly and accommodating staff, from our room stewards to our wait staff, and all of the other folks we encountered on this cruise. Our waiter in the Paris dining room, Wilfredo, was a special joy for us. Not only was his service efficient and prompt, but his engaging personality made dinners a special event for us. (Wilfredo, if you should ever read this, thank you again for the extra efforts and joy that you brought to our week.)
About the itinerary: We took the eastern Caribbean route, arriving in San Juan, early evening on Tuesday, followed by St. Thomas on Wednesday and St. Maarten on Thursday.
San Juan: Given our evening arrival time in San Juan and not being into the night club scene, we spent our time walking through the old city, enjoying the architecture, shopping, and sampling some of the local cuisine. The ship docks within comfortable walking distance of the old city, so no need for cabs or other transport.
St. Thomas / St. Johns: Being beaching and snorkeling types, we always make it a habit to head over to Trunk Bay on St. Johns whenever we port in St. Thomas. While you can purchase a $78/pp excursion to Trunk Bay, we prefer to go our own way and save some money in the process. Getting there is easy. Just grab a taxi at the pier to Red Hook (the ferry terminal) at a cost of $7.00 per person. From Red Hook a ferry will take you to Cruz Bay in St. Johns for another $6.00 or so. And from Cruz Bay, there are plenty of open taxis that will take you directly to Trunk Bay for another $6.00 or so. Once at Trunk Bay which is in a US National Park, you will need to pay a $4.00 part entrance fee. These costs are approximate but you can figure roughly $50.00 round-trip per person, with the benefit of being on your own schedule. There are showers and changing rooms at Trunk Bay, so no need to wear your sandy and wet swim suits all day, and you can also rent snorkel gear, beach chairs, lockers, etc. This is a great place to spend the day.
St. Maarten: We had been to St. Maarten on a prior cruise and had done a catamaran excursion to a private beach on that trip. This time, we elected to rent a car with plans to visit at least a couple of beaches that I had heard were excellent for sun, sand, and snorkeling. As it turned out, our first stop was at Dawn beach, and we never made it beyond that point. Dawn Beach is an absolutely beautiful strip of white sand with surf high enough to be fun, but not so high that you can't comfortably snorkel the reefs just a few yards off shore. As recommended from my Internet research, we parked at Mr. Busby's Bar and Grill where we rented a couple of beach chairs equipped with a large umbrella which was very welcome as the sun was very strong. Unlike Trunk Bay, Dawn Beach is a 'commercial' beach with lots of lounge chairs set out. A relatively short stretch of sand... around a half-mile long... this is not the sort of beach you will like if you want an isolated, solitary beach experience. On this day, we desired a bit of pampering, with food (excellent Pizza from Mr. Busby's), drinks, and other fare available to be delivered directly to your spot on the beach at very reasonable costs. Chair rental from Mr. Busby's was $10.00 per person, although I have heard that if you get there early and order breakfast, they will let you use the chairs at no cost. If we had to do it over again, the only thing we'd change is our decision to rent a car, instead simply taking a taxi.
One of the couples we were traveling with elected to purchase an excursion for horseback riding through the surf. They were very disappointed. At a cost in excess of $100.00, their 3.5 hour excursion consisted of 90 minutes of riding, with the rest of the time spent hanging around at a beach that didn't have much going for it. They reported that the beach was so bad that a number of the guests arranged for their own taxis to get them back to the port rather than wait for the excursion's transportation.
Debarkation: Carnival has gotten really good at debarking better than 2,500 passengers in just a couple of hours. Luggage was packed and in the halls outside of our stateroom by 11:00 PM where it was collected by the crew. We needed to be out of our cabins by 8:30 AM the next morning and went to the Lido deck for breakfast. Unless you choose to go with 'self-debarkation' (a real zoo, I understand) where you haul your own luggage through crowds of other like-minded 'type A' personalities, guests are debarked by numbers provided on special luggage tags given to you the day before. Being in group #12, we were among the last to be debarked, but were still off the ship by 10:00 and on a bus to the airport by 10:30 or so. Unlike our embarkation experience, this was quite painless. Depression set in the following morning when I rolled over in bed, dialed 8000 for room service, and no one answered. Bummer. Had to make my own coffee.
Final Comments: This was a great cruise, and one that we would do again in a heartbeat. Carnival offers some of the best overall value in the business. Every year that we decide to cruise again, we look at the possibility of sailing with other lines... most notably Celebrity... but end up going back to Carnival as we can't justify paying significantly more money when Carnival has never disappointed us. Next time? We're thinking that a back-to-back cruise may be in the cards. Seven days just doesn't seem to be enough.