Pre-cruise - We drove down to Fort Lauderdale from Atlanta. We stopped in Melbourne along the way to visit my Aunt and Uncle. By stopping in Melbourne, about 2.5 hours north of Ft. Lauderdale on I-95, we were able break up the long drive into a long drive and a short "sprint" on Friday. This is our first cruise from a different port; typically we sail out of Port Canaveral. I will compare and contrast our experiences.
In Ft. Lauderdale we booked a room at the Hampton Inn on 12th street. This is a relatively new hotel located on the main drag near the airport. It was not too close to the airport, we did not notice the jets taking off and landing but it was convenient being only about 3 miles from the port and less than 2 from the airport. We booked a "Cruise Package" that included the room, parking, and a shuttle to the port and back, it was supposed to cost $30 extra but we were never charged. The hotel was very nice but it was not what we were used too. In Port Canaveral we stay at the Port Canaveral Radisson and use their shuttle service. Staying in Port Canaveral makes me feel like my vacation has started as soon as I check in to the hotel. The first difference between the two was the way that we reserved our shuttle time. In Port Canaveral was can reserve the slot on the shuttle before you even arrive at the hotel. In Ft. Lauderdale you have to reserve it at check in, not a big deal. However, at the in Ft. Lauderdale they have a "big" van and a smaller van. I was not aware of this and I asked for the first slot which was at noon. The next day I found out that they moved us to the smaller van, which was fine, but had I known that there was an option I would have chosen the smaller van with and earlier time. The "big" van holds 11 people and the smaller one holds 7. In Port Canaveral they have two busses that hold 30 people and the bus tows a trailer that holds the luggage. It is much more efficient. Another nicety of Port Canaveral is that the whole area is more of a resort area. Even the port itself is designed as a passenger terminal where Port Everglades made me feel like cargo, it is very industrial. The hotel in Ft. Lauderdale is located next to an old strip mall. There really is not much to do the night before the cruise. Other than that, the room was nice and the bed was comfortable.
Embarkation - On Saturday we boarded the van and headed to the port. I was expecting the worst based on what others have posted regarding embarkation at Port Everglades. I was pleasantly surprised. I had heard stories of people waiting 1.5 hours outside the building in the South Florida heat, we did not have this problem. We went right in to the building and within 5 minutes we were through security. We headed up the escalator then we saw the lines. "Oh no!" I thought "here are where the delays are coming." Nope! Despite the computers being down and everyone having to do things manually we were through the line in about 20 minutes, then all we had to do was wait for our group to be called. That only took another 20 minutes. The whole time never did I see a Carnival Employee looking upset. In fact everyone we saw, including the lady that had to manually check us in, was downright cheerful! It made the whole experience that much easier to bear. Once group 14 was called we were in line for our embarkation photos then on to the gangway and finally the ship. Once onboard it was time to eat. Seeing how crowded the forward elevators were, we cut through the Chic dining room to get to the mid-ship elevators, they were in use moving luggage, so we took the stairs to get to the Lido buffet. The Lido buffet was crowded but everyone seemed to be in good spirits. The food on the first day is always the worst to me. I think it is because it is what was left over from the last cruise. No big deal though, it is just there to tide me over until dinner. While the rest of our group was eating I decided it was time for a DOD (Drink Of the Day). I headed to the aft Pool Bar and bought 2 Fun Ship Specials cards aka DOD card. These are a great deal, they cost $24 and you get 5 drinks, basically you pay for 4 and get the 5th one free.
Cabin - After lunch it was announced that our rooms were available so off we went. We headed to Empress deck 7, or as the elevator pronounced it "Impress Deck". I always found that to be a little bit funny every time I got off the elevator. Room 7341 is right near the mid-ship elevators making it really easy to get anywhere we wanted. We were able to meet our room steward Andreas. He made sure of our dining schedule so he could have our room ready for us each night. Room 7341 is a category 8C balcony cabin on the starboard side of the ship. It has two twin beds pushed together to make a king, and a sofa/bed. The room is a good size for 3 people. We were able to move around fairly easily while each one was getting ready. The balcony was nice because it gave us some extra room to go and relax if we wanted. I found it very relaxing to be able to go out and just watch the waves. Being on deck 7 was nice; we were sandwiched between two other guest decks so we did not have the noise of chairs or music coming from public areas. The one downside, that is also and advantage, is that the cabin is right across from the laundry room. Everyone was considerate and noise was not a problem, but it is easy to make a lot of noise in there just by talking.
Dining Room - After checking out the cabin we headed down to the Posh dining room to look at our table. We walked down the hallway to the aft elevators and went down to deck three. We went in to the dining room and found our table. We had been assigned to an early seating, as requested, for our group of 7. We were originally assigned table 505. This table is on the upper level of the dining room, right next to a prep station and the doors that lead to the lifeboats. Having been on a Conquest class ship (Carnival Glory) before, and being seated next to the windows at the rear of the ship I knew that the assigned table was not going to cut it. Of to the Chic dining room to talk to the Maitre D, Manuel. I told him that I wanted to move downstairs near the windows at the back of the ship. Without batting an eye he found us a table dead center right next to the windows. This gave us beautiful views throughout the week. The only issue we had was with vibration. Since most of our departures from port took place during dinner we would feel the extreme vibration from the aft maneuvering thrusters as we pulled away from the dock. This actually became a game as we would watch the silverware and plates vibrate across the tables and the waiters and their assistants would walk by and move everything back into its proper place.
Food - Our wait staff was great, our assistant waiter (Anak) was a little shy at first, but by mid-week she was talking and smiling. It was her third week aboard and she was even taking our orders by the end of the week. Our head waiter (Dennis) was wonderful he did everything he could to take care of us. On one night we had veal parmesan and it was so good that I asked for another order, even though the main courses were done he did not hesitate and off went Anak to get me another. The food at each meal was terrific! I was doing a good job at just ordering one entrEe until the veal. All the meats were tender, and the seafood was fresh. One of my favorite items was the chilled cream of different fruits. Several nights they had different chilled cream of fruit soups. One night was strawberry, another night was mango, another was bing cherry. It was like eating melted ice cream. I love the Warm Chocolate Melting Cake, but some nights I had to get something else. On the first night I got the Crème Brulee, another night I got the Tiramisu, and another night I got the Cappuccino Pie each one was fabulous.
We tried to eat in the main dining room as much as possible, I don't like to deal with the noise and the crowds at the Lido buffet. For breakfast I would usually get the French toast, ham & cheese omelet, and bacon. My wife would get the eggs benedict, and lox & bagel. All were very good and served hot, except the lox of course. Lunches in the dining room were good too. One day I got the Asian steak salad, the sauce was too rich for me but it was still good. We did eat lunch in the buffet a couple of times. Once was during the Mexican buffet and another was for the chocolate buffet. Each time the food was good but it was very crowded though with the excellent service of the wait staff it was not difficult to find an empty table. The pizza shop near the adult pool has great pizza. I am amazed every time I go to the pizza shop at the quality of the pizza.
Shows - The shows were really fun. I had an absolute blast at the Welcome Board show, the Big Band show, Jump Jive & Wail, The Legends, and the Bedtime Story after the Talent Show. Our cruise director was John Heald and he really made the shows that much more fun. My son went to the Ticket to Ride show and said it was really fun too. A big tip is to get to the show just as the last game of bingo is being played, then you can get a good seat.
San Juan - We book most of our excursions through Carnival since we knew that the excursions we wanted to go on were very long and we would be cutting it close on returning to the ship. In San Juan we did the bioluminescent bay tour. This was a long trip, it took over an hour just to get to the bay. The bus does stop at an area that has several fast-food restaurants about 20 minutes away from the drop-off so people can grab a drink and go to the bathroom. The facilities at the excursion are not that nice. When we arrived it was dusk and the wind was kicking up. The tour starts with an orientation of the kayak and an explanation of what we are going to do. Once we finish that we head to the kayaks and paddle out into the harbor to meet up with the guide. Once the group has gathered together we then start the journey up the mangrove lined channel toward the bay. This takes about 10-15 minutes and is pretty hard because it gets pitch black and you have low branches hanging over the water. My son and I were in a kayak and we brought some LED headlamps along. These lamps had the red lights that allowed our eyes to stay adjusted to the dark yet allowed us to see the low hanging branches. Once we arrived in the bay we all gathered together and the guide talked about the bay and what causes the organisms to glow. He also explained about the history of the area. We were then able to put our hands in the water and watch them glow under water, sorry no swimming is allowed. This was done to protect the organisms from the chemicals (perfumes, bug repellent, sunscreen, etc.) that humans have on their bodies. The real work came on the way out. Apparently all of the groups decide to head back to the origination point at the same time, thus causing major congestion in the mangrove channel. Added to the congestion is the strong tide we had to fight. Once back on-shore we were greeted by our bus driver who then returned us to the ship. We were given the option to stop on the return trip but everyone was so tired we opted to go straight back. The return trip took less than an hour because of the lack of traffic. While Carnival says the minimum age on this excursion is 8, I would not recommend any kids younger than 10. It is a lot of work and can be quite scary when paddling down the channel. Overall this was a wonderful excursion and should not be missed. Just bring some bug-repellant, we picked up some real strong stuff at REI and did not get bitten once, others on the trip were not so lucky. Next stop...St. Thomas.
St. Thomas - In St. Thomas we just did some shopping and took the sky ride to Paradise Point. Again, we picked up our sky ride tickets through the ship. This saved us a couple of dollars per ticket. For our shopping we waited until 9:00 AM because most of the stores don't open until then. Doing this also allowed us to miss the mass of people getting off the ship. A tip, when taking a cab downtown I walk out closer to the main road and get a cab there. Be sure to ask the driver if he or she is going to wait to fill up the cab before leaving. The cabs near the ship tend to wait until they have a full cab before they leave. You should even ask the cab driver the same question on your return trip. After shopping we were dropped off at the sky ride. The line was not too bad and it gives a beautiful view as you ascend the mountain. Once on top be sure to get the Bushwhacker drink, get the large you will not regret it. We then sat there and looked at the harbor on the 3 Conquest class ships in port. We headed back to the ship shortly after 1:00 PM and missed the typical 2:00 PM Caribbean shower that soaked most of the other guests. Next stop...Antigua
Antigua - In Antigua we booked The Eco Tour through Adventure Antigua (http://www.adventureantigua.com/tour.html#EcoTour). This tour came recommended by members of Cruise Critic and we were glad we took the chance. The boat met us at 9:50 AM just about 100ft away from our ship. The crew (Chris, Alex, and Tony) was very cheerful and helpful. There were already 2 guests on the boat and we picked up 6 more at the Sandals resort bringing our total up to 14 guests. It was wonderful, the crew was explaining things as we passed them and we had free run of the 52 foot boat. Being a catamaran it was very stable in the seas and was easy to get on and off for the snorkeling as well as the shore excursion we did. The crew was very knowledgeable about the environment and history of their island nation. We stopped in a mangrove bay and they explained how the mangroves protect the island from storm surge and how the trees can extract fresh water from the sea. We sailed by an island that was a rookery for many sea birds including Pelicans. We then went to Bird Island were we got off and climbed to the top to see the spectacular view and some more bird nests. Once back to the boat we had a lunch of BBQ Chicken, pasta salad, tossed salad, fried plantain, and a dessert of banana bread. It was all very good. After everyone ate Tony gave a quick snorkel lesson to those that wanted it. The rest of us just did some snorkeling in the immediate area. After that we all got back on the boat and went over to Devils Gate. Those that wanted to hike up could and the stronger snorkelers could snorkel in this area the currents were strong in the area so if you are not confident in your abilities do not snorkel there. We then headed to a more sheltered area to snorkel some more. This part had some beautiful coral and fish in it and it was much easier to snorkel. After about 30-45 minutes of snorkeling we were treated to a rum punch, fruit juice for the kids, and we headed back to the ship. The whole experience was amazing and a definite not to be missed excursion. Next stop...Tortola.
Tortola - In Tortola I booked my SCUBA excursion through the ship since we had a very tight window of time. The trip took us to the Royal Mail Steamer Rhone. It sank in a hurricane in 1867. The trip out to the wreck site took about 45min and the seas were rough. Unlike the Antigua trip this boat had a more traditional V hull so we definitely felt the waves, this proved especially so at anchor over the dive site. The dives were great, there was quite a current but the ability to dive on the wreck was unforgettable. I was really impressed with the amount of artifacts left in place; I was expecting to see the ship picked clean. The ride back was still rough but it was not unbearable. For those that dive this is an excursion to do. Next stop...Nassau.
Nassau - We arrived early in Nassau and there were already three ships in port, Norwegian Sky, Bahamas Celebration and Carnival Imagination. Shortly after we docked the Monarch of the Seas arrived and docked on the same pier as our ship, we were the largest by far. Once again we booked our excursion through the ship. Our son wanted to go to Atlantis and that was the best way to get a ticket. Since we got in early we had time to run to DI for my wife to get the charms for the bracelets for our nieces. After that we went back to meet the excursion on the pier. It was a madhouse; both ships had their pax meet in the same spot. We got our wristbands and signed our waivers and were told to wait in another area. I then asked one of the Atlantis reps if we could just take a cab on our own so we would not have to wait for the bus. He said we could so we did. This saved us about 30 minutes. Upon arrival at Atlantis we started our journey to the water park. It took us a good 15 minutes of walking to get there. Once we were there we got set up with some lounge chairs and headed for the pools. Unfortunately the pools were being closed due to lightning in the area. So we headed over to watch the sharks get fed and my wife went to get a drink. She came back and said that they do not take cash and that the Coke's were $4 each! So bring drinks with you if you do not get the lunch package. We tried to wait out the storm but Mother Nature had other ideas. With a promise to our son that the next time we went to Nassau we would go to Atlantis we headed back to the ship. Upon our return to the ship John Heald came on the PA and said that anyone who had purchased the Atlantis Aquaventure or Atlantis Beach Day through the ship would have the cost refunded to the Sail & Sign card. Atlantis is a beautiful place but it is so crowded it made our ship, sailing with 3600+ passengers, seem rather deserted. Next stop...Ft. Lauderdale.
Debarkation - Debarkation was pretty easy. The only issue we had was with having a port day the day before we disembark. This made it difficult to pack up and get the suitcases outside the door by 11:00 PM. Several other passengers missed this deadline and were still putting luggage out at 1:00 AM. Once we had docked we were off the ship by 9:30AM, we got our luggage and headed for the curb where the previous van driver told us to meet him upon our return. I then called the hotel for them to send the van to pick us up. I was told that the van would be there in 20-30 minutes. After 45 minutes I called back, the woman that answered the phone said that the van would be there in 10 minutes, this time it was. I flagged him down and directed him to our luggage. He then proceeded to drive to the other end of the terminal and picked up some other passengers. I went down and pointed out that he had missed us. Fortunately he did not let anyone else in the van and he came back around to get us. I was disappointed in the way the hotel handled the return of their guests, with 2 vans they could have had a constant rotation and it would have been more efficient.
Circle C - Our son enjoyed many of the activities and he said that the counselor was really nice. The biggest downside is that this age-group does not have a dedicated space onboard the Conquest class ships so they either go into an un-used bar or the upper dining area of the Lido buffet. He also said that the unsupervised activities were fun but some of the kids tended to bully and pick on the other kids, usually in the arcade. By the end of the week if the activity was unsupervised he would skip it. However, he did enjoy going to the Ticket To Ride show with Circle C because they had a reserved area near the stage just for the kids.
All-in-all we thoroughly enjoyed our cruise aboard the Carnival Freedom the drive to Ft. Lauderdale and the feeling that I was not on vacation until I was actually on the ship turned us off of sailing from Ft. Lauderdale anytime in the near future. The upside of sailing from Ft. Lauderdale is the extra ports that are within distance that are not accessible from Port Canaveral.