We were a group of six: me and my husband, our daughters ages 19 and 21, and their two friends ages 18 and 21. Our family has previously cruised with Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, and Princess. The two friends were newbie cruisers.
We traveled to New York City on a bus, arriving at the Port Authority bus terminal around 9:45 am. Since we had time to kill, we decided to walk to the cruise terminal rather than taking a taxi. We each had only one rolling suitcase and thought it would be manageable. It was a good 20 minute walk to the terminal, and in retrospect, a taxi would have been easier. Daughter 1's friend's suitcase wheel didn't stand up to the distance, but we got to see a bit of NYC and walk past the Intrepid Museum.
We waited outside the cruise terminal for our daughter 2's friend, who was being delivered by car, and were inside by about 10:30 am. There was no wait for the check-in procedures, but after doing the paperwork we were directed to a seating area where we waited until about 90 minutes before entering the ship.
We were told we couldn't go to our rooms right away, so we headed to Horatio's, the buffet, where lunch was being served. We found a variety of food stations, each with a different type of food. We browsed for a bit and made our selections. Tables were hard to come by since everyone was being directed to the lunch buffet at this time. We had been hoping we would like the food, having sailed on several other cruise lines, and often hearing comments about lower food quality with Carnival. We found the food quality and selection to be comparable to that of other cruises we had taken recently.
After lunch we dropped our carry-on bags off at our room and explored the ship. The decor was unusual, but we enjoyed seeing how the variety of fictional themes had been carried out in the different public areas—very creative, if sometimes over the top.
Our rooms (three of them) were among the least expensive offeredinside cabins on deck one. The rooms were well designed and had plenty of storage. We found that we liked the location of our rooms a lot. Deck one is just below the deck where the Bacchus dining room and the Phantom Lounge are; and it is also close to the main public areas in the interior of the ship. For instance, after dinner, we would go down a deck to deck one. We could walk a straight, unobstructed path from just below the dining room (at one end of the ship) to just below the show lounge (at the other end of the ship) and stop at our room to grab a sweater or use the restroom on the way.
Our cabin steward asked our names the first day and called us by name when he saw us in the hall throughout the cruise. He did a great job of keeping the room clean. He responded quickly to any requests and was unobtrusive. Except for debarkation day, but that wasn't really him. (more later)
We were assigned to the second seating. Our round table for 6 was in the lower level of the Bacchus Dining Room, in the central area between the balconies on the upper level. It was very loud in this particular part of the dining room. We could hear conversation and noise from both the upper and lower levels. In addition, the design of the room seemed to contribute to poor acoustics with lots of metal and hard surfaces. This was probably the biggest disappointment of the cruise. It was almost impossible to have dinner conversation with people across the table, since the acoustics made it difficult to understand what they were saying. I'm sure that the table locations that were beneath the 2nd level overhang may not have experienced this issue.
However, one benefit to our table's location was that when the maitre'd and the serving staff did their nightly entertainment gig, we were right in the middle of the action. Frankie, the maitre'd, was one of the most entertaining and personable we ever experienced. I wouldn't be surprised if he secretly wants to be in show business. Frankie sings (rather well), the servers sing, several of the servers dance on the tables… quite the production. The teen girls in our party particularly enjoyed watching the Asian server who danced on the table next to ours most nights.
The food selections were varied, and overall the food quality was pretty good. We were pleasantly surprised. One suggestion for Carnival would be to work harder at getting the food to the tables while it is still hot. Usually, the food was not quite as hot as it might have been, but still it was good. On the menu, there were a number of entrees that were standard every night, and there were about 5-6 unique entrees to choose from each night. Personally, I would have liked to see more variety in salads. The salads offered were usually pretty standard fare—Caesar and tossed. The teens enjoyed sampling the cold fruit soups. We all generally ordered at least 2 appetizers, and once or twice someone ordered two entrées.
Our servers, Katalin and Ilona, were obviously busy with multiple tables, yet they did their best to exceed our expectations, which is purportedly Carnival's goal. They remembered our preferences and went out of their way to accommodate special requests. They weren't especially chatty, but they focused on doing their job and doing it well.
We generally ordered coffee and fruit from room service each morning, which served as a wake-up call. It was nice to relax and have our coffee before heading upstairs for breakfast a bit later. We ended up eating breakfast in the dining room once or twice and lunch in the dining room once. Both were good, but the lunch service seemed so slow that thereafter we opted to frequent Horatio's at lunchtime. At Horatio's, I particularly enjoyed the unique salads located against the center aft wall. I also liked the Asian buffet area.
One other note regarding food. Since we were eating at second seating, we often wanted a small snack around 5 pm. All that was available at this time at Horatio's seemed to be pizza, deli sandwiches, and what they served poolside (hamburgers, hot dogs, nachos). It would have been great if we could have found some fresh fruit or soup during this time period. Instead, we found that the fresh salsa offered at the poolside grill was excellent. Also, there was usually sushi available beginning around 5 pm in a lounge. Even though I didn't really want pizza, I tried the veggie pizza a few days and found it to be good. My husband ended up eating a pastrami sandwich on several days. It was more food than he really wanted, but he gave the sandwich high ratings. So, we certainly didn't go hungry, but would have liked to find more light choices available in late afternoon.
Entertainment and Activities
We went to almost all of the main evening performances. The production shows were all entertaining and well done. There was one show we didn't care for and left after a few minutes. I think it was a ventriloquist… obviously not memorable.
We were kind of annoyed by the announcements in the Carnival Capers that regularly encouraged second seating guests to get to the show venue early in order to get a good seat, or to see a special movie clip before the show, etc. Upon arriving, we would find the Bingo session with first seating people in progress. And, "oh, by the way, if the second seating people want to buy a Bingo card, get in line and you can join the game." It seemed like such an obvious false advertising tactic to sell more Bingo cards. We didn't oblige by participating in Bingo, but many did and the cash prizes were sometimes very large.
We participated in some of the organized games such as Family Feud and Trivia Games. They were usually fun. We would have liked to see more variety and frequency of free exercise/fitness activities or dance classes. The emphasis on cruises in recent years (not just with Carnival) seems to be very much on getting passengers to buy extra services, but the availability of organized fitness activities that didn't cost extra seemed particularly sparse on this sailing.
Members of our group enjoyed using the sauna, the steam room, the hot tub in the spa, and the exercise equipment. We tried a number of pool areas. Our favorite spot to grab deck chairs tended to be on the level above the pool near the ping-pong tables. On particularly windy days at sea, the lounge chairs in this area seemed to be a bit sheltered by the design of the ship. We liked that there was an adults-only pool and hot tub, but the one day that we used that area we felt too tightly packed—there were so many lounge chairs set up that you could barely walk between them. We enjoyed the more open feeling on the deck above the pool area.
Ports of Call
We had four days at sea—more than we had ever had on a cruise before. This made it a very relaxing, if somewhat repetitive cruise. Most of us are happy to relax in the sun on a lounge chair, read, and people-watch, so this provided a welcome break from the real world.
We opted to use the beach area adjacent to the ship. We arrived early and had our choice of loungers. The beach was nice with restrooms and refreshments nearby. We had brought our snorkeling equipment and tried it out here. No coral reefs, but a few fish were swimming between the hordes of vacationers. A woman next to me said she saw a stingray in the water.
The beach is mere steps from the ship and from Margaritaville—obviously built to cater to tourists like us. Later in the day we moved to the pool area near Margaritaville. There was also a Princess ship in port that day. Their ship left earlier than ours, so the pool area had cleared out to some extent by later in the day. It was a very nice pool with lots of free lounge chairs. We bought some hot wings at Margaritaville to appease the teen girls who were in "wing withdrawal." We each had a drink—necessary with hot wings—and headed back to the ship. Overall, a nice day, free from the hassle of taxis, buses, and charges for lounge chairs or beach use that one might find at some ports of calls.
Half Moon Cay
Wow! The weather was beautiful and so was this port of call. The water and sand were straight out of a travel postcard. Beautiful aqua water, soft white sand, true paradise. Our group of six arrived rather early via tender boat and had our choice of spots to claim. We rented two clamshells since we had already had plenty of sun during the prior days, and also grabbed some loungers near the water. We took turns between the loungers and the shaded area. Even at the busiest time of day there were still plenty of lounge chairs available to those willing to walk up the beach a distance. Although we were parked in a crowded area of the beach, some of us walked up to the more isolated end of the beach, where it was possible to truly enjoy the beauty of the island.
The lunch buffet was served in a pavilion behind the beach area. There were several pavilions adjacent to where the food was served with tables to sit and eat. The array of pavilions was scattered amongst a maze-like walkway that cut in and out of trees, bushes, and vegetation. It was somewhat confusing to navigate through this area. We ate in shifts so that someone could stay with our belongings on the beach. My husband and I ate near the end of the designated time period. There were several buffet lines serving the same thingand hardly any wait for food. Plenty of tables were available at this time, as well. The food was good, but consisted of a typical picnic fare—hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken, fresh fruit, salads. Although there was jerk chicken, it might have been nice to be offered something more Bahamian, rather than what we might serve at a backyard BBQ in the USA. I enjoyed the fresh pineapple that was available here. It was notably absent from the fresh fruit displays at Horatio's on the ship.
We booked our only shore excursion for this port. I pre-booked the Sail and Snorkel excursion through the Carnival website. The website gave two time options, 9 am and 1 pm. I selected 1 pm. At some point during the second day of the cruise our tickets were delivered to our room. They showed a time of 9 am with no explanation. The literature in the room made no mention of a 1 pm option for our excursion. Curious. Eventually we stopped by the shore excursion desk and were told the vendor had cancelled the 1 pm trip so we were moved to the 9 am departure. OK, would have been nice to have that explanation along with the tickets. They said we could cancel if we wanted. No, that's OK, we'll just make the teenagers get up early.
The time switch turned out to be a blessing. We enjoyed our morning catamaran ride to a reef area and about an hour of snorkeling with a lot of colorful fish. We thoroughly enjoyed our choice of excursion and the beautiful weather. When we got back to the ship, it started drizzling. We had planned to have lunch on the ship and then go shopping. By the time we were done with lunch it was raining. After exiting the gangway, we stood under one of the covered areas on the walkway adjacent to the ship for a bit, hoping the rain would stop. No such luck.
We noticed a free shuttle was taking people to the main tourist-oriented area of the pier where there were some shops. We had walked past this area in the morning on our way to the catamaran ride. We took the free shuttle and explored the shopping options that had been prepared for tourist consumption. Now it was pouring. So, we looked around again. It was still pouring. We double-checked to make sure we hadn't missed anything there. Did I mention it was pouring? Well, at least we had already done our snorkeling!
On the way to the catamaran ride we had passed a big tent area with lots of local vendors. I guess it was the straw market. The girls wanted to go there. So, we ignored the rain and walked a few more blocks, popping in and out of stores on the way. The straw market was a great place to go if you were looking for a knockoff designer handbag. Tons of handbags with a smattering of native crafts. My daughter haggled for a handbag and we bought a few other trinkets. My husband browsed the nearby liquor store while we took our second run through the straw market. He bought a bottle of Sands beer and they asked if he would like it opened. OK. The walk back to the ship was wet, but we were pleased with how our day turned out.
This was the low point of the cruise. We decided to carry off our own luggage so we kept our bags in our room the last night. On the final morning, prior to the announcement for self-assist folks to depart, we went to breakfast at Horatio's and then outside for a look at NYC. Soon they announced that self-assist passengers could leave. We headed to our rooms to pick up our luggage and use the restroom. Surprise! Someone (not our cabin steward) was in our room making the bed and cleaning. He had moved our luggage and our carefully arranged items off of the bed and had piled them in a chair. We needed to use the restroom, but he was there and apparently wasn't going anywhere until he finished what he was doing. We walked around him as we tried to gather up our luggage and make sure we weren't forgetting anything. Finally he left; we used the restroom, and were on our way.
The previous day, our cabin steward had told us that since we were on deck one, we would be the first to be called to leave for self-assist departures. I guess someone forgot to dismiss the self-assist people by decks. What a mess! One announcement. Everyone heading to the same place at the same time. People exiting elevators to find themselves trapped in a sea of wall-to-wall people and suitcases. Nowhere to stand; nowhere to move to. It took over an hour until the staff responded to and alleviated the traffic jam by creating and diverting a line of people from one end of the deck to another. Finally the line was organized and started moving.
We had decided to take a taxi back to the port authority bus terminal. We were directed to a line of people waiting for taxis. A Long Line. Very Long. There didn't seem to be any sort of steady stream of taxis waiting to service this line either. I think we waited over an hour until we got two taxis for our group. The line was organized, it just moved very slowly. We could have easily walked to the bus terminal with our luggage in less time. We made it with mere minutes to spare before our bus left.
Overall, we had a great cruise. On every cruise there are some things we like and some things that could have been better. It's easy to think of things we liked better on certain other cruises, and there were things on this cruise that we liked. No one cruise always offers everything to exactly please everyone. For the price paid, we were very satisfied with what we received and would consider cruising with Carnival again if the itinerary, ship, departure port, and sailing date fit our needs. We had always heard that Carnival was a party ship and the food is not very good. Other than the group of about six people who were traipsing through the water at Half Moon Cay, each with an empty "bucket of beers" on their head, we didn't run into a lot of people who were obviously inebriated. Most of our fellow passengers were pleasant and friendly. And, the food was comparable to what we've had recently on Royal Caribbean and Princess. So, chalk one up for Carnival for delivering a fun cruise.