Embarkation - We arrived at the port around 12:30pm after an hour drive from northern Virginia. The process of dropping off luggage and paying for parking was quick and easy. You pay the $15 p/day for parking upfront, which really eased the process when we left. Parking was ample, even though there were still passengers from the previous week's cruise getting off the ship.
Check in once inside the terminal was also relatively quick. The line moved smoothly and since we had completed all of our documents ahead of time, our time at the check in counter was very short. Something to note: you go through security when you first come in the building. You're able to bring sealed bottled and canned drinks in, but we had an open bottle of water which we had to throw out. Kind of a bummer, since it was $1.50 to replace the water from the vending machine.
Once we checked in, we only had to wait around 45 minutes to board the ship. The boarding process was smooth and done by zones. Once we were on the ship, we went to the Mermaid Grille for lunch, which was crowded, but not impossible to navigate. We wandered around the ship afterward and were able to get in our cabin about 30 minutes early around 3:00 (it looked like other floors were still closed off though).
Ship - We were taken aback at first at the decor when we first walked on the ship. The atrium and public rooms were very dark, with dark woods and dark colored furniture. I commented that it looked like "the Haunted Mansion at Disney." The dEcor grew on me as the week went on, but it still felt misplaced to have a Renaissance themed ship in the middle of the Caribbean. I had heard a lot of talk about the nude paintings. They didn't bother me, but were certainly large and noticeable. We overhead several parents commenting that it was inappropriate. The main dining room was more light and airy though, which was nice. The Butterflies lounge, where we spent some time listening to music and participating in art auctions, had the oddest dEcor - neon, lit up butterflies on the ceilings and walls. It is supposed to be decorated Miami style, I think, but it actually just looks out of place. The LED lights throughout the ship that acted as directional signs to the public rooms also left something to be desired.
Cabin (#7188, 8H balcony, 7th floor, port side) - After having seen the dark public areas, I was nervous that our cabin would be the same way. We were in for a pleasant surprise though! It was tastefully decorated, with a large wooden entertainment unit with a TV, vanity, lots of drawers, a small safe and three large floor to ceiling closets. It also had a couch (which may have folded out to a sofa bed, not sure) and ours had a double bed with charming nightstands, which were perfect for storing books. I had heard a lot about Carnival's version of the heavenly bed and was disappointed to find that the bed was anything but. The linens were nice, but the mattress was HARD. I even like a hard mattress, but this was ridiculously hard. Couple that with the extremely soft pillows, and we had some major neck cramping going on!
The balcony was a great size, with two comfortable chairs that semi-reclined and a small table. We spent many hours out there. The bathroom was a decent size, with a stall shower and a vanity with a lot of shelves. Dining - We choose the late dining, which was at 8:15, since we are used to eating late at home and it worked out great for us. We were assigned a booth for four people and sat with another young couple from Baltimore. I appreciate that Carnival made an effort to seat us with people who we would enjoy talking with (turns out their cabin was also next to ours, but I think that was just coincidence). Putra, our head waiter, was absolutely fantastic. It was his first cruise back after a four month break at home and would never have known it. His food recommendations were always spot on and his service and friendliness were impeccable.
The food overall was good. The baby-back ribs, which we had the last night, were phenomenal - definitely try them! The warm chocolate melting cakes, of course, didn't disappoint. We also had great fish dishes throughout the week. The cappuccino pie was a great dessert and the pumpkin soup was also tasty. We only had wine one night at dinner that we bought at the table, but the bar waitress seemed to be readily available.
We went to David's on Thursday evening (our second formal night). After hearing so many raves, perhaps our expectations were a bit too high. The service was not up to par with the rest of the ship - our nightly service in the dining room was better than the service we received there. The food was pretty good, we both had the 9oz filet mignon, but my steak was overdone (my fault for not sending it back). The desserts were amazing - I had the chocolate torte, which is actually four shot glasses filled with different desserts, and my husband had a generous cheese plate. It's almost worth the trip for the dessert alone! Another disappointment was that an officer of the ship (maybe the maitre d'?) was dining with his wife and young girl (maybe around 8 years old). Despite it being 9pm, they were up and down from the table all night, with the girl hanging off the balcony railing right next to our table. I understand that it is a family cruise, but I was hoping the one place we could avoid children would be David's.
We ordered continental breakfast room service the first morning, but 30 minutes after it should have been there, it hadn't arrived. We called and they said they were running behind. We cancelled our order and went to the Mermaid Grille. However, we ordered room service sandwiches for lunch on Sunday. They arrived within five minutes of ordering. It would be nice if they had hot dishes available for room service.
Entertainment and Ship Activities - We went to two shows in the main Taj Mahal lounge (also decorated a little funky!): the welcome aboard show and the passenger legend's show on the last night. The welcome aboard show left a bit to be desired, especially the comedian. We skipped the comedy shows the rest of the evenings, after we heard nothing but negative things about them. My husband went to the legend's show on the last night and seemed to enjoy it.
Many evenings we went to the Butterflies lounge to listen to the Jafar Curry band. Definitely make the time to go see them! They are fantastic and they play all sorts of music, from Muddy Waters, to Michael Jackson to Maroon 5. Absolutely the best entertainment on board!
Having been on a cruise before, we were excited to see that Park West was holding art auctions on this cruise as well. We went to three throughout the week and bought several pieces of art. The auctioneer, Eddie, made everyone in the room comfortable with the art buying process, and recommended some great pieces to begin a collection with. He also made it fun, with great raffles and giveaways. Even if you're not an art connoisseur, go to at least one auction - there are some very affordable pieces there ($50!) and some great collectors pieces (Peter Max originals for $6,000!).
Staff - The one thing that impressed me most was how wonderful all the staff was. From the maintenance people on up, every staff member smiled and said hello when you passed them in the hall. Our waiter remembered us when we saw him in port and our steward was always warm and welcoming when we saw him (and did a fantastic job on the room).
Debarkation - We chose self debarkation, because we only had two small rolling bags, a suit bag and a shoulder bag. We pulled into port right at 10am and were off the ship by 11:30. It was frustrating, though, to see people struggling with huge suitcases they should have just checked (I actually carried mine and another woman's that was three times the size of mine down the gangway because she was falling over it). The whole process was well organized and we hung out in our room with the door propped open until they called our floor.
Misc. - We knew cruising during hurricane season was a risk, we didn't expect the fun of having two storms! Hurricane Bill stayed about 375 miles to the east of our ship on our way down to the Caribbean. We stayed on schedule and fought the 15-foot swells. They made the ship rock from front to back, which was less nauseous, more fun. Tropical Storm Danny stayed right on our tails all the way back and created some pretty choppy seas from about 200 miles away. It was the only time I felt nauseous, but a little Bonine, staying active and hydrated really helped that. Not once did I feel unsafe and always felt like Carnival had our safety and best interest in mind.
- I wished the ship was cleaner. I noticed a lot of trash lying around, especially on deck. Drink umbrella's and orange slices littered the deck.
- While the partitions between the balconies were ample for noise control and privacy, they did nothing to keep out the smoke from our neighbor's balcony when they went out there to smoke several times a day. I wish Carnival would have non-smoking room and balcony areas, although I'm sure the many, many smokers on board would disagree.
- The spa was great, but if you're flexible with time and procedures, wait until you're on board to book. We heard that they were offering massages for $75-$100 less than what we had paid by booking online ahead of time. Zane and Share were great masseuses. And DEFINITELY get the foot and ankle massage - it was worth every penny of the $39! It was one of the highlights of the cruise.
- We posed for several photos on formal night, but I was a little turned off at the fact that they had photography stations set up every single night. If I wanted a picture of myself lying on a fake beach, I'd go to Sears, not pay $20 for one on the cruise. I understand that a lot of people don't get the opportunity to have a good photo taken of them and their kids very often, it was just a turn off that these photo stations dominated the public areas every evening. Oh, and if you want to buy a photo, make sure you check out the price point before you fall in love with it. My husband and I went back and forth for ten minutes about which formal night portrait to buy, only to find out that it was $22 for one 8x10. In this economy and with 400 photos already on our personal camera? No way.
- Ladies, if you have normal to thick hair, bring your own hair dryer!!! The in room one is fine, but it will take you forever to dry your hair.
- Bring your own water bottle. We ended up buying Carnival water bottles the first day on the ship and it was the best $12 we spent the whole time. We were able to fill them up 24 hours a day at the Mermaid Grille and took them with us everywhere. This was especially great on the port days or when laying by the pool.
Half Moon Cay Port Review BEAUTIFUL! I had been told it would be, and it absolutely was the best port. The sand was like flour, fine and powdery and the water was so clear, you could go out up to your chest and see your feet clearly.
We decided to rent a clam shell for $17 for the day, which seemed like a good idea at the time. However, we barely used it, as my husband spent most of the time in the water and I spent most of my time in a hammock in the shade, reading (they're first come, first serve, but I had no trouble getting one). Make sure you stock up on your sunscreen, as there is very little shade on the beach (just a few small palms here or there). The lunch they served was good, although we got there around 1:45 (it ends at 2pm), and they were beginning to clean up. The jerk chicken was good (they also had hamburgers, cheeseburgers, hot dogs and veggie burgers available), as were the desserts. Take bottled water from the ship, or bring your own water bottle, as you will need it and they ran out of small cups the day we were there.
Walk down a bit before you find your spot. We were down by cabana 10, by the rest rooms, and it was great because there were less crowds.
The tender system took a bit of time, but it wasn't too bad.
Absolutely the best port! A++++!
We poked around the stores and then walked to the beautiful beach which was right off the ship. It was great to have the beach that close! The sand was soft and there were a lot of chairs available, even some in the shade. We walked down a bit to get away from the crowd and were able to find a relaxing, more kid-free area. The water was beautiful and absolutely crystal clear; however, the "floor" when you were in the water was rock, not sand like you might be expecting. But they were smooth rocks and it was still a great beach. You had a great view of the ship when you were on the beach or in the water.
After spending a few hours at the beach, we walked over to Margaritaville to watch the Flowrider and listen to the DJ.
We got back on board the ship around 1pm, and were able to enjoy the view of the beach from our balcony.
Overall, a great port and great beach. We were expecting more ports to be like Grand Turk, with easily accessible beach, so make sure to take advantage of it while you have it!