This was the first cruise for my wife and me. We joined my wife's sisters and friends and families, including the very young children of one of our three nephews. I am retired and a long time domestic and international traveler on business and vacation, but never on a cruise (except for the Nile in 2006 and three Atlantic voyages in my student days). As a photographer, I prefer to fly to a country and explore it by car, air, ship (Egypt), train, or other land transport. So I looked at this cruise as a new experience. It's a different type of international travel and has its pros and cons. I felt it would be especially good for my wife, who can't take the types of trips that I do.
My wife has some walking and speech problems (a stroke victim), so we had a handicapped-friendly inside cabin. The cabin was extremely small because of the very large bath, so there are tradeoffs. Next time we'll splurge on a larger cabin, but you have to experience a cruise to understand these things. We wondered how well she would handle the walking (with her cane and sometimes a wheelchair) on ship and on shore, with possible ship motion to consider. She is also very hard to please! The cruise worked out very well for her and she was very well pleased. All of the staff members were very helpful, from Aileen as our cabin steward and Jos and Sugiyanto in the Silver Olympian Dining Room. The service was truly outstanding, and my wife loved the dining room service, food selection, and quality. It surprised me that they always seemed to cook the meat exactly to her taste. I usually prefer to hit the buffet line and get through a meal quickly, but my wife always insisted on the dining room for dinner (and sometimes for lunch) and I will agree the food was excellent (and possibly better than the buffet). When I see comments from your cruisers about the food not being satisfactory, I do wonder what their normal taste level is. My business travel took me around the world to some very fine restaurants, so I think I have a good idea of the world beyond the hamburger. Carnival's dining room measured up very well.
I have seen comments about long lines at breakfast. I did not experience this because I was there at 7 to 7:30 am and was able to have whatever I wanted, including omelettes, quickly, and I was also able to take a tray with an omelette and other breakfast items to my wife in our cabin (I've mentioned her mobility problems, and this was a quick way of getting things going in the morning!). The buffet lunch was easy and excellent. There is no way you can go hungry on this ship. I managed not to gain any weight, probably because I was on the go outside most of the time (that cabin was tiny) and I walked a great deal on the town visits, carrying a heavy camera bag. That was the greatest surprise of this trip, since I definitely forgot anything about dieting and ate far more than at home.
Embarkation: Once we passed through the initial security point (with five carry-ons!) and met the rest of our family in the main checkin hall, Carnival checked us in very quickly, since my wife was using a wheelchair at this point. Debarkation was handled extremely well. We were in the 29th zone, probably since we had our car at the port and didn't need to catch a plane. We were too loaded down with baggage, but that was our problem (my wife is not well organized) and certainly not Carnival's. A Carnival staff member helped us down the elevator and to the baggage carousel. We were off by 10:40 am and since my wife was so slow in getting her act and carry off bags together, that was fine!
I had not expected photography of guests to be such a major activity (and profit center for Carnival). The ship is a floating photo studio. I felt this worked out very well, and I probably spent more money on pictures of ourselves and family than on any other item. The many ship photographers did an excellent job and I was very pleased with their efforts, patience, and skill. We had various family and friends combinations photographed, including all 13 of us in one group picture a couple of times. I had read all the Cruise critic comments and complaints about dress codes for the dining room and for the "elegant" nights and felt that I shouldn't have to haul a suit and tie along and dress up on vacation! (but of course I did) But the point of getting dressed for dinner on those elegant nights is to pose with your family or with your spouse or friends for portraits! So dressing up is a necessary evil if you want to be photographed in your Sunday best. And if not, the photographers will take your picture in casual clothes....it's your choice and there are no obligations to buy prints. Experienced cruisers are probably familiar with all of this, but I never saw anything about it in all the cruise reviews I read before this trip. So in many respects this was a pleasant surprise and what seemed to be an important activity.
Shore visits: My wife took a San Juan sightseeing and shopping tour (by bus, since she'd never be able to walk around the city) with her sisters and friends, and this worked out well for her. For St. Thomas and Grand Turk she shopped at the pier and was very happy with this. I took her to a shop next to the St. Thomas Skyride while her sisters went to the top. The ladies were so kind to her that she bought quite a few clothing items and was very happy. Later I walked downtown to Charlotte Amalie and enjoyed a day of photography. I do recommend that Skyride, but not if you are not good with stairs (two flights at the bottom station and at least three at the top)! The view is worth it. (pictures are at my flickr site under "dslewis" or just search under "Carnival Liberty") If any of you have cruise pictures on your flickr sites, give me your links via flickr mail.
Some of our family members took shore excursions, and these met with mixed results. Delays with the tenders at Half Moon Cay fouled up one sailing excursion, but they were able to take the sting ray/snorkeling trip successfully. One of our nephews enjoyed the catamaran/snorkeling at Grand Turk. For St. Thomas, San Juan, and Grand Turk I took taxis or walked to the town and explored them on my own in order to photograph the architecture and interesting buildings and places. St. Thomas (Charlotte Amalie) has a crowded main street of shoppers (ugh!) but such lovely old buildings and street scenes when you walk a block or two off the main drag. San Juan also has a busy shopping street or two, but the rest of Old San Juan is a wonderful Spanish city with squares and architecture that reminded me of my Latin American travels. This was my first trip to the Caribbean. Grand Turk was badly damaged in last September's Hurricane Ike, but reconstruction is ongoing and I enjoyed my (hot!) walk along the waterfront and adjoining streets of Cockburn Town. My nephew took Carnival's tour of the same area, and this might be a good choice for most people.
This cruise gave us a glimpse of three islands with historic cultures and architectural details from Danish, Spanish, and British origin. I never shop for name brand luxury items, the main attraction, it seems, for these ports. What I did find interesting were shops in San Juan with local Latin santos (religious artifacts) and other Latin imports (I shopped in one store specializing in hand made Peruvian items). My wife bought clothes with a Caribbean theme. But at least this cruise offers something for everyone and every type of shopper, and Carnival is very successful and rightfully so.
Half Moon Cay is one of the most beautiful and pleasant beaches I've visited. Yes, there was a crowd, but there was enough room in the water, and the water was very smooth and warm. The bottom is soft sand and very level, so that you can walk a good distance out without the depth changing significantly. There is enough of a shallow area for little ones and enough chest or shoulder high water for adults. One of our nephews and his wife brought their little ones to the beach and enjoyed it immensely. Their little boy had an ear to ear smile the whole time and loved the water slide at one end of the beach. I haven't seen such a happy kid! His father was celebrating his own birthday and this was a rewarding day for his family and him. We live in Florida and know many of the beaches here, which I enjoy, but you have to contend with rough waves (sometimes) and possible undertow concerns. Half Moon Cay? Fantastic!
The only negative here is that you have to use tenders (small boats) to reach the shore, and it takes a while for a thousand or two to be transported there and back. There were some delays on the return also. We very reluctantly left that beautiful beach at about 2:30 pm, but other family members who left just fifteen or twenty minutes later faced much worse delays. This is one beach I'd enjoy for several days.
Grand Turk has a beach right alongside the ship, so this is very accessible (no tenders!). I was able to spend a few hot hours photographing Cockburn Town and still had the chance to get back to the ship, unload my photo equipment, and get out to that beach for a couple of hours. There are flat stones in the water at the Cruise Centre beach, and these can be a little uncomfortable at times. After an hour or so enjoying the beautiful water, I walked up the beach beyond the cruise center area (it's marked) and found there were no more stones. There was a sign that this was a national park area, and though there were still more bars or cabins in this area, no one said a word and I enjoyed this beach. Yes, there are shops and enough places to drink right at the pier, but those choices were for others. Again, something for everyone.
I felt that Carnival handled the large crowd on this ship very well. There was a broad mix of nationalities and races and levels of courtesy (which are NOT related to nationality or race or age!). With my wife's problems with mobility and our need to chase after elevators, we did appreciate the many people who held the doors open for us and were so courteous. Carnival's staff is from all over the world, especially Asia (my area of greatest travel), and I appreciated their kindness and diverse backgrounds (with which I am familiar). We were on the Lido Deck (an excellent choice, thanks to my sister in law), so the buffet restaurants and outdoor entertainment were convenient. My wife wished that the restaurant did not require taking elevators, but that is a function of ship design. At least there are elevators (a contrast from my first voyages on 12,000 ton Dutch and German student ships!). This is the busy summer vacation season, so I suppose crowds are to be expected.
Seasickness? My wife's sister gave her a pair of wrist bands and these apparently worked fine. But ship movement was minimal, much less than in a car, train, or airplane. Don't worry about it unless you think you'll be susceptible, and then try those wrist bands. We had good weather, so I don't know how it is during a storm.
Since I knew that Carnival's charges for internet and wi-fi service were so expensive as to be an insult to my intelligence, I did not bring along a computer or even consider their internet center. But if I were still working as an international sales manager, internet usage would have been a necessity, even on a vacation. This is the 21st century and such outrageous prices for electronic communication are a bit antiquated. It's probably a good profit center for Carnival and they are able to get away with it, but they might note how the landed world now offers free wi-fi or internet service. Telephone service is also outrageous, but at least in San Juan and St. Thomas our American cell phones are operational.
I can't comment on the shows except for their "Around the World" themed show, which I enjoyed very much. Other family members liked the shows. The ship had something for every taste.
Would we do it again? My wife says yes, and that is a great compliment to Carnival! I agree. She says the service was "beautiful" and absolutely loved the dining room and staff and food. We just wish that the designer of this ship could have figured a way of getting from the forward most point of the ship (where we were) to the stern (Silver Dining room) without having to take several elevators. I walked that ship thoroughly via stairs and elevators, but my wife is limited, most of the time, to elevators. The Golden Olympian room would make this easier, yet in the Silver room we did have a table near the stern right alongside a window, and that was hard to beat! We have only the greatest praise for the crew and staff of Carnival, both on the ship and in the embarkation and debarkation process. In the future I will prefer Port Canaveral over Miami since we live near Orlando, but this Miami departure did give us a chance to explore that city for a couple of days before sailing. We also will not take so much stuff! My wife was prepared for every eventuality and now understands she can get by with half!
And will we stay with Carnival for cruise number two? Definitely. We have Carnival's system figured out, I think, and we were very pleased with the way that Carnival handled everything.