Just got back from the May 10th sailing with the Barbados swine flu incident and the Cosol jellyfish - and we had a spectacular time. It was my first Caribbean cruise (others were Hawaii and Alaska) and my wife's 3rd, so I don't have much to compare to in terms of similar trips. I can say this much, I don't think I can ever go on a 3-port or 4-port cruise now after this itinerary, which we specifically sought out for having no at-sea days. We hate at-sea days! So here goes my lengthy review of this very busy cruise.
Pre-Cruise / Embarkation
We arrived on Saturday (for a Sunday sailing) and stayed at the Sheraton Old San Juan across from the pier. The location is perfect and I felt the room was very comfortable. Of course we only stayed one night so one can only say so much. We glanced at the casino, it was very small and I saw no bar or waitstaff with free drinks so we didn't spend any time in there. We had lunch at La Bombanera (which looks like a dump but I'm glad I stayed - the mallorcas were excellent) and explored Fort San Cristobal before it closed at 6. I enjoyed the fort a lot more than I thought I would. We walked to El Morro, explored the grounds, and made our way to Paseo del Morro, the beautiful walkway that follows the shoreline outside the city walls. It was here that we were surprised by the feral cat colony and counted 43 cats on the shoreline, not counting the 20+ we saw between El Morro and San Juan Gate. That was a big highlight for us - we're definitely donating to SaveAGato.com, which provides food and care for the cats. This pathway became our favorite place in Old San Juan, and we saw an excellent sunset there. Had dinner and the flamenco show at Barrachina, home of the pina colada. As expected, they were the best pina coladas we've ever had. Food was good enough, but not memorable. The flamenco show by all rights should have been cheesy but we really enjoyed it, you can tell that it's VERY hard to pull off those moves.
The next morning we had breakfast at La Bombanera again and went back to Paseo del Morro again, and then explored El Morro itself. I think I liked this fort slightly more than San Cristobal, but both are great places to visit. We noticed a whole lot is closed in OSJ on a Sunday and quickly got bored, so around 12:30 we headed back to the Sheraton to pick up our bags from the bellman, and walked over to the pier. It was a very short walk, easy with the bags. We walked into the port at about 1pm and had no line for anything at all. Not for getting luggage tags, not for dropping off suitcases, not for registration. There were lots of liquor samples available before & after registration, and between the registration desk and the security line to scan your carry-ons is the famous dirt-cheap liquor store. $9.99 for a liter of Captain Morgan's, you can't beat that! We got some Captain, some Bacardi Razz, some Diet Coke and some bottles of orange juice. The clerk put the Coke and the juice in a bag and told us we can carry that on the ship openly, and told us to put our liquor in our carry-ons. Hilariously, the security people made guests throw out half-finished water bottles before going through security, but you could put as many liquor bottles as you wished in your carry-on and they didn't care. The liquor collection lady stopped me after security, but only to go through my bag of Coke & juice to make sure no liquor was in the bag. What a joke!
Much to our surprise, they said our room was already prepared when we got on board (was maybe 1:30 at this time). We dropped off our liquor, had lunch, and explored the ship. I think this is a ship where one might love or hate the dEcor. It's very over-the-top, and some might find it tacky. Myself, I enjoyed it. All the different bars were very nicely designed. Too bad they never got much worthwhile use, but that's a comment for later. I can't recall when we got our bags delivered to our room but I know they were delivered a lot earlier than we thought they would be, delivered separately, and it was long before dinner. The first dinner was open-seating and we were immediately surprised that the food was actually pretty good. That level of quality seemed to keep up as the week went on.
The muster drill was pretty frustrating. Not because nobody likes to do it, that is just assumed. But Carnival does a horrible job of communication regarding it (something that became a persistent problem as the week went by). For example, if you never cruised before, you would have no idea there was a muster drill at 9:15 unless you paid attention to small print in the day's Capers. And if you know it's at 9:15, and are anticipating it in your room, lifejackets at the ready, you start to wonder what's going on at about 9:30 when not one announcement has been made. Other ships usually pester you on the intercom repeatedly about this. We finally got a knock on the door from security saying "ok, come on", like we knew what was happening. Of course, we DID know what was happening, but only because we know all about muster drills. We didn't hear the first intercom chatter about it until well after 9:30 when we were already at our muster station. Annoying, but hey, that's a muster drill for you.
The ship didn't really come alive until after the muster drill. As it sailed away past El Morro and our favorite walkway, the raucous deck party got everyone energized. The casino sprang to life once we hit international waters at around 10:30pm, and the onboard shop had free liquor tasting which was fantastic. Nevermind that we had all the liquor we needed in our room!
This is after all the highlight of the trip, so let's go! All our excursions were through Carnival unless otherwise noted.
St. Thomas - We took the Trunk Bay Beach & Snorkel tour here. It didn't leave until 11:45 so we slept in, had a big breakfast, and then walked around the port. This morning introduced the next big things in Carnival being horrible in communication. Maybe it's because we slept in past when disembarkation began, but we had positively no idea where to get off the ship! We're used to the daily leaflets (the Capers in Carnival-speak) saying where disembarkation was. It took us a while to determine we had to go to the Fore of the ship and descend to Deck 0. Sure, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to ultimately figure this out, but it's just surprising that there was so little information provided on this. Similarly, we left the port, turned around to take a picture of the ship, and saw a sign saying we needed photo ID to get back on the ship. Thanks for telling us that one ahead of time, Carnival! We only were able to get back on to go get them because security just saw us walk past them. Yes we should have known to have photo IDs from past cruises, but it's been a while and we forgot. We're not the only ones - when we came back on in the afternoon, there were a lot of angry people arguing with port security because they didn't have their IDs either. From that day forward, disembarkation crew members always reminded people to have their IDs on them. You would think this was their first cruise and they just now figured out they should tell people this. Anyways, it was another minor communication issue that built up over time.
This lack of information carried over into the port map for St. Thomas. Remember this is my first time at this port! The map they provide only has a map of the area next to the ship, a shopping area down the street, and downtown. There is virtually no information to discern which map is which and how far apart each area is (it only made sense AFTER I'd been there). We decided to walk downtown, which ended up being 2.5 miles and took a little over a half an hour. I don't mind the walk, but we didn't realize it was that far, so we only had about 10 minutes to see some stores and pay $4 a head to take a cab back to the ship. Now granted I didn't really have a burning desire to see a port with a bunch of worthless jewelry stores, or else I would have woken up earlier, but it was mildly frustrating that the maps provided gave no inclination towards how far downtown really was. Oh well, I enjoyed the walk though!
For the excursion, the Trunk Bay Beach & Snorkel, we shared a boat with the only other cruise ship in port, the Grandeur of the Seas, and passengers for three different St. John excursions took the boat. Despite all that, it wasn't very crowded. The boar left from directly next to the cruise ships, and sailed down the coast of St. Thomas, providing some excellent views of the island and the homes of some celebrities such as Michael Jordan. I know some people complain about how long it takes to get to Trunk Bay, but I felt that getting there was half the fun. Once at St. John we boarded open-air buses and headed up to the famous Trunk Bay overlook, and down to the beach. When we got there, we were told when the buses would be leaving, it gave us 1 hour and 55 minutes at the beach. Some people in our group couldn't do basic math and were furious that they only had "55 minutes" at the beach. But it was a full 2 hours. Trunk Bay was every bit as spectacular as I had dreamed. Beautiful beach, great water for swimming, just 2 hours of pure pleasure. Honestly the snorkeling isn't all that great but I was more interested in swimming around and taking in the view. I would have been happier with 3 hours on the beach, but I was quite satisfied when we had to leave.
Dominica - This day was a complete and total disaster and marks the first excursion I've ever taken that I disliked. We were booked on the intense, day-long Sari Sari Falls river hike. When we were about to get on the bus to go there, a tour guide stopped us and said the tour had been cancelled due to rain and the river was too dangerous to hike through. I understand that, but it rains every day on that island, so what I really want to know is when can they ever actually have this excursion? The 7 of us that were on the excursion all said "ok, take us to Middleham Falls" which is the other hiking trip they offer, but oh no, it was full. Too bad so sad for you. Nevermind that we had a bus and a guide ready to go. This incident really made me wish I had gone with a private tour operator who would have accommodated me better. The Carnival shore excursions rep. convinced all 7 of us to take the Dominica's Favorites tour which went to Trafalgar Falls and the Emerald Pool. I previously considered this excursion so I knew it was supposed to be nice views but short walks to get to them. Well, that's fine, I just want to see Dominica.
And that's where we were misled. The description of this tour only says you see these sights. When in fact it is a 4.5 hour bus ride through dumpy, non-scenic areas, and you only spend 20 minutes at Trafalgar Falls (only 10 of which is watching the falls from a crowded platform), and 40 minutes at the Emerald Pool, only 20 of which is spent actually at the pool. Now I'll be fair here - the Emerald Pool is really cool. I went swimming in it (it's COLD but worth it) and felt so much happier. It was the only highlight of my day. Spending 4 hours in a bus is not what I want to do on my vacation. We were so furious afterwards that we ambushed the shore excursion desk when it opened that night and laid into them about how awful our experience was. The excursion cancellation I can understand, but to not accommodate us on the similar excursion they offered and to have a replacement excursion described that horribly was unacceptable. We got 25% back and two free snorkels out of it. That helped make us feel better, but what was better still was tracking down the other people from that excursion and telling them to go get their 25% back from Carnival as well. Sweet, sweet revenge! We were also feeling better about our next port, which we expected - correctly - to be amazing.
Barbados - You might read some reviews saying our ship "got tied up in customs" and we couldn't debark for 2 hours. Well, that's what they told us. When we did finally get off, we got these odd cards saying in political-speak: "if you get sick on your vacation, you got sick before you came to Barbados". We laughed and threw them away. Oddly the port was completely empty. All the stores were closed. We didn't care, we were running to our early morning excursion that was now 2 hours late to make sure it was still happening. We had booked the Sea Turtle & Shipwreck Snorkel in the morning, and the Malibu Rum Factory in the afternoon. If Carnival cancelled either, I was determined to hire a taxi to take me there. But before I get to the excursions, perhaps you'd like to know WHY we were "tied up in customs". As rumors surfaced later, and were confirmed by news reports when we got home, it was...
...SWINE FLU! Well, a hyper-sensitive fear of it really. The truth is that one crew member had flu-like symptoms, Carnival reported that before arriving, and the Barbados authorities evacuated the port and disallowed the ship from disembarking. The 2-hour wait was apparently a two-hour argument because some passengers start and end their cruise in Barbados, and the ship HAD to be allowed to disembark. Finally, after scaring away all the cabs and port-workers, the Barbados media lied and claimed all passengers underwent a medical exam before being allowed off the ship. Not even remotely true, but hey, we got to see Barbados and stay an extra 2 hours, so that's all that matters. Barbados ended up being the best island of all!
We did indeed get to do the Sea Turtle & Shipwreck Snorkel trip. They assured me it would not be shortened in any way. This was one of the best ship excursions I have ever done and I highly recommend it. We took a boat ride out to the turtles, snorkeled there for 30 minutes with 3 turtles right in our face, and a stingray. Now 30 minutes might sound short, but I felt it was a satisfying length of time. We then sailed to the shipwrecks and spent 30 minutes over a 100-year-old shipwreck that was teeming with fish. Again, 30 minutes was a good amount of time here. The rum punch started flowing, and we landed on a nearby beach, I believe it was called Browns' Beach, and it was phenomenal. The sand and water were outstanding, and it was one of the best beaches I've had the luxury of spending time on. We only spent 30 minutes here and that's the only thing I was disappointed by, of course I could have spent all day there. Sailed back to the ship, and tipped heavily. This excursion was spectacular.
At this point we tried to find out when our afternoon Malibu tour would be postponed to. Despite a 2 hour delay in morning excursions, the fools at Carnival only postponed afternoon excursions by 30 minutes. In our case, Malibu was only open until 5pm so I suppose I can understand it, but they said they did it across the board. The shore excursion rep. on the pier took our tickets and said we would be credited our money back (we were). We grabbed lunch on the ship, then took a taxi to Malibu on our own. $10 each way, $15 per person for the tour (which included a free drink plus 4 samples), and we ended up spending more time on Malibu Beach than the excursion would have and saved $20 total off the Carnival price, and that's after the tip for the driver. I spent that money on a jetski ride on the beach, and I loved it. Of course it was horribly unsafe - the owner was smoking a joint, I had been drinking rum, and there was nobody liable for the rental, but I'm still glad I did it. We had a great time at Malibu Beach, though it wasn't as nice as Browns' Beach earlier. We got back well before the ship left.
St. Lucia - We took the Cosol tour here, and we're glad we did. We got to see SO much of St. Lucia! Plus the food was outstanding. I just wish I was warned ahead of time not to eat breakfast on the boat. Cosol's breakfast spread of tropical fruits was so spectacular that I would do his tour again just for that food. We were in a van with his brother Yellowbird all day, and you would think that given my complaints about Dominica I would have a problem with this. Not the case. We stopped more times before breakfast here than we did all day in Dominica. We stopped constantly and saw more sights than I can even remember. But really the highlight of this trip is the Piton mountains, and taking the water taxi between them to land on Jalousie Beach. We were there on the day the jellyfish were present, something that Cosol was very upset by and had claimed had never happened before. Some people were really upset but I wasn't at all. The view of Gros Piton from the beach is outstanding and I realized that if I went swimming I would just be looking back at the beach, when I really would have rather stayed on the beach and stared at the view in the other direction. I told Cosol as much afterwards when he unveiled his special blend of overproof rum. Delicious! Towards the end of the trip they really made sure you had enough to drink, I kept it pretty reasonable though. I really enjoyed this excursion, I don't know if I would say it's the best thing I've ever done on any cruise, as some have claimed, but I highly recommend it. Cosol and his crew were definitely the best tour guides I've ever had, that much is certain. I can't imagine a better tour of St. Lucia than what they provide.
Antigua - We did the See Antigua By Sea tour here. It was amazing, but mildly frustrating. The catamaran circumnavigates the island, and you see more beaches than you can imagine. Antigua definitely became our second favorite island because of this, it was so beautiful. But the frustrating part is that you want to go to all those beaches, and you can't! Our boat (the Excellence) stopped at Green Island for some completely worthless snorkeling and a just-ok beach. The swimming was nice, albeit lots of sea grass. I'll take sea grass over rocks any day, but I'd rather have pure sand. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed our stop, but it's nothing spectacular. The food provided on the boat was quite good. And the rum punch... well... watch out for the rum punch. I later learned they used overproof rum in it. This would explain how I had my short-term memory completely destroyed towards the end of the boat ride. "oh look Nelson's dockyard..... hey we're back at Sandals....sure honey you can buy that painting in this store I don't remember walking into....hey how did I get in my room?" Looking back at my pictures, it doesn't seem like I forgot all that much, but to this day I have absolutely no memory of embarking the ship! I sure hope I tipped those guys well, because that was one heck of a nice trip.
St. Kitts - We took the Carnival Fan-Ta-Sea tour here, which was remarkably similar to the previous day's boat ride. The boat took us out for some mediocre snorkeling (better than Green Island, not as good as Trunk Bay) and then we had a really good barbecue lunch at the snorkel spot, on the boat. It used to take you to Nevis but currently the boat isn't going there. Instead, after lunch, you land at Cockleshell Beach on St. Kitts. We thought this would be great because we knew Cockleshell was really popular. Honestly though, I don't see what the draw is. The beach is not very nice, it's rocky, not very attractive, and extremely hot - feels like a desert environment. The water is nice to swim in though there is a rocky bottom. I was later told the snorkeling there was good if you had your own gear, as there were a lot of starfish, but the excursion didn't provide the masks again so we didn't try it. It seems to me that the popularity of the beach is the Reggae Beach Bar at one end, as most people were congregated around there and drinking heavily. Half our passengers were already drunk off rum punch and beer before we even landed, and not regular "I need to lay down" drunk like everybody in Antigua (counting myself!) but more "Girls Gone Wild" drunk. I think that was just a roll of the dice of who's on the boat, and honestly I found it more entertaining than annoying, so I didn't care. I was staying away from the rum that day so I couldn't tell you how strong it was. As for the beach bar, it felt like spring break, probably due to the large amount of local veterinary students with their dogs. I think some people were annoyed by this, I didn't really care. It was my last beach day so I was making the most of it, even if it was probably the least impressive beach we went to on the trip. As the catamaran sailed past Nevis and back to the ship, the passengers were thoroughly hammered, Animal House-style, which made for a really amusing show. We lounged on the net (which we stayed completely dry on, unfortunately) and soaked in our last day of the cruise.
Disembarkation / Post-Cruise Hotel
Regarding disembarkation, Carnival strikes again with ineptitude! We have always taken the express disembarkation options in the past. Wake up, take your bags with you, off you go. We had no indication how that would work on Carnival. As a matter of fact, we had no indication at all about how disembarkation worked. Only after we got back from our excursion did we find a customs form and luggage tags in our room. No instructions on disembarking. We didn't go to the disembarkation talk, but we watched it on TV, and it told us almost nothing at all save for leaving our bags outside our door, and how to fill out a customs form declaring all the junk we didn't buy. Finally I just called guest services and got all the information I needed, and they had to send someone to our room to bring us a comment card because they were supposed to leave us one and never did. Here is where they blatantly lied to me - when asking about express disembarkation they said "well, you can do it, but the elevators are going to be shut off, so you'd have to carry it down the stairs". Pass. To their credit, you didn't need to have your bags out until 9:30 - 11pm, so we had lots of time to pack up and leave them outside. Also, we didn't have to be out of our room until 9am, and breakfast stopped at 9:30am, so we pushed the limits there. Only had to sit around and wait for about 15 minutes after that. We were #16 (out of 25, 28?) and were off by 10am. There was a fast moving line to get your bags, and a faster line to go through customs, who clearly didn't care to do anymore than just collecting forms. Fine by me, we were on the street before 10:15.
We stayed post-cruise at the Marriott Stellaris in Condado. Great room, great pool, boring location. There's really nothing to see or do in Condado. The beach was nice to walk on, but there were red flag warnings up due to the dangerous tides. It was ok, we lounged in our room and on our balcony, and relaxed on our final vacation day. We left the next morning at 6:30am to make a 9am flight - we were at our gate by 6:55. No traffic, no lines for USDA, checkin, or security. Just hurry up and wait. Hey, better than missing a plane.
Overall Ship Review
Since this is a port-intensive ship, it is not surprising that it doesn't have a whole lot of amenities. That said, you're on the boat at 5 or 6pm every night, so you would think they would have something of value going on each night. Well, if you don't like the awful production shows, and you don't like karaoke or bingo or silly trivia, and you don't spend all your time in the casino, there's not much to do. Sure there is a mid-week deck party and I would have loved to go to it, but it was at 11:30pm. I kinda sortof have morning excursions here people. Same with the comedians, you could either sit through a production show to see one, or you could catch the late show another day in one of the lounges. That was really all they had that was of interest to me, and they were at bad times. We spent most of our time in the piano bar which was also a bust each time. It's not for the piano player's lack of ability (her cocktail piano style is too amusing to be annoying), it's just that it's supposed to be a sing-along bar, and nobody sang along. I even had her play Sweet Caroline... nothing. So it was passably entertaining but could have been a lot better.
Also, the water slide was very frustrating on this boat. It's supposed to be open 12 - 5. Embarkation day: closed. St. Thomas: closed. Dominica: open, but closed at 4:30 right when I was about to get on it. Barbados: open at 8am! So you can't trust the posted times, and even then, the posted times are pretty worthless when you are in port every day and should really be getting off the ship!
We only used the fitness center once, but it was definitely the nicest one we've seen at sea.
The food is the one thing that really stunned me on this boat. It's actually pretty good! I only had lunch twice, in both cases I got pastrami from the deli and loved it. I had already been warned to stay away from the pizza. Wanted to try the stir fry & sushi, but never got around to either. The breakfast buffet is decent but the eggs are the worst, stay far away from those! The sit down dinners were what really surprised me, they were very good - especially the seafood. Their crab cakes were surprisingly some of the better ones I've had, and their prawns and even lobster were pretty impressive. And of course there's the classic Warm Chocolate Melting Cake. Also known as "don't plan on drinking tonight because you will be way too full" cake. I only ate one dinner at the buffet, and was pretty surprised at the quality. Not that it was memorable, but it tasted good at the time, and that's all that matters.
I really enjoyed this cruise. Of course when you write a review, you want to vent on the negatives. Carnival is awful at passenger communication, we got the runaround in Dominica, nighttime activities are lacking, etc. But you're on this ship for the ports, or otherwise you are on the wrong ship. And the ports, for the most part, are fantastic. Save for Dominica, you can be on a beach every single day of this trip. You can be snorkeling every single day of this trip. You can take a catamaran anywhere. For fun in the sun over half the Caribbean, you can't go wrong on this cruise.