Pre-Cruise: We flew Delta, booked early and got a great rate on great times. Everything was on time through the ATL hub, luggage arrived, zero issues.
Hotel: We stayed at Holiday Inn- Bayside. Paid $138 for a 2 double/1 pull out room facing Bayside and the harbor. The hotel was great. A bit older, but clean, convenient, well kept and the staff was friendly. There's a CVS a block down that carries EVERYTHING (which I will remember and save myself packing space next time and take advantage of) and a McDonald's around the corner and down a few blocks (in a part of town I don't know that I'd walk to at night, but during the day was fine).
Bayside: We ate lunch at Bayside in the little food court area..nothing special but cheap and quick. Dinner one night was at the Hard Rock (where we've eaten twice before pre-cruise and had no issue). But tonight the place was almost empty and I think it must have changed managers or something because the food was not great (we had to send most of it back atleast once, and my husband gave up when he received a raw burger (that was ordered medium) not once but TWICE. The other night we had our big group dinner at Bubba Gump's, which was great. The manager there was really nice and worked with me ahead of time to develop a menu and was very accommodating and got back to me promptly. The food was good, but a little slow to be delivered. They had fun trivia for prizes and such with our group. It took a good 2+ hours for 25 of us to eat. Live music both nights at Bayside. I hadn't ever been there while the shops were open...not a ton to be had there, but some fun browsing.
South Beach: We took a cab from Holiday Inn to South Beach, was like $17 for 8 of us. Hit "Alvin's Island" (formerly "Wings") on the corner of Washington and Lincoln Rd. One stop shopping for all your Miami/South Beach needs. We shopped Lincoln Rd...grabbed lunch at Pizza Rustica and got the best meal and the best DEAL of the pre-cruise portion of our trip. A "slice" of pizza (that's so big it comes on 2 paper plates), a small side salad and a soda for $9.95. REALLY tasty. Got some chocolate for dessert at the Ghirardelli store (free samples, yum). Walked on the beach. We had a lot of fun.
Day 1: Embarkation 11/29/09 Got up early, ran to CVS for some doughnuts and juice and last minute supplies. Bought a few 8 packs of soda and some bottles of Vitamin water to carry on the ship. Headed to the pier around 10:15. Arrived, gave the porters our bags, entered the terminal, filled out the health form (stating none in our party was feverish or had contact with ill people recently), was shown to the counter to check in. Received our Sail & Sign cards, sat down to wait (we were in group 10). Only waited maybe 30 minutes before being called to board. Had our embarkation pictures taken and were onboard by 11:00 or so.
Walked around the ship, took pictures, tried to explain ship layout to newbies. Went to our cabins to drop off our carry-ons, which were open and ready. Headed up to Lido for lunch and our first onboard drinks.
Muster went off without a hitch, other than having to be done also in German (as there were a group of 550 Germans onboard) so it took twice as long. No lifejackets necessary.
Sail away went as planned, shortly after muster.
Dinner was fine, had some members of our large group opt to do buffet on Lido all week, so had to do some creative rearranging on tables so we could sit together. Our server was Komang from Indonesia, who was the best server we've had on any of our 3 cruises thus far. Family Dance Party in the Disco was lots of fun and DH won for "Best Dad Dancer" and my friend won for "Best Mom Dancer".
Day 2: Sea Day 11/30/09 Got up about 7:30, headed to Lido for breakfast. Took the kids to Camp Carnival (which, as predicted, they LOVED all week long. No matter how tired they were, they wanted to go to Camp in the evenings). Headed up on Deck 10, overlooking aft pool, to find deck chairs and did without a problem. Weather was great. Shuttled kids to and from Camp, grabbed lunch (dear lord, the chili dogs and fries...my favorite!). Took kids back to Camp. More sunning. Picked kids up from Camp. Got ready for dinner, first formal night.
Dinner was fine, I don't remember what we ordered. The quality was fine, nothing spectacular but hot and tasty just the same. And I didn't have to plan, cook or clean up afterwards.
Kids begged to hit Camp after dinner, which became the routine. Had some great pics taken before heading back to change everyone out and drop kids off at Camp. Big production tonight was OK. The singers were good, as were the dancers, but the production itself kind of cheesy.
Day 3: Cozumel 12/1/09 Got up early, had breakfast on Lido. Headed out to Cozumel itself. Last time we had docked at International Pier, although I preferred Puerta Maya. Shopping area was nice, and was decorated for Christmas. Found all we wanted right there and hopped in a van to Chankanaab ($30 for 10 of us).
Checked in at Chankanaab for our Dolphin Encounter without a hitch. A guide approached us and offered to take us on a tour of the neat things within Chankanaab, and we happily accepted. We got about 25 yards into the wooded area of the park and the SWARMS of mosquitoes attacked. We were literally smacking them off one another while running back to the main area where they sold insect repellant (I had packed some, but for the other ports, as I hadn't heard anything about there being a bug problem at Chankanaab). The poor guide wanted so bad to take us through, but at this point we were all digging at our bites and just wanted the water. So we tipped him anyway and ran towards the beach.
The snorkeling here ended up being the best of our whole trip (which was a bummer, as Tabayana and Belize were supposed to have great snorkeling, but the conditions didn't make for good visibility). We found some shaded chairs, rented some vests for my kids (who hadn't snorkeled before) and headed down the steps to the water. It was really, really fun. Although we only found one of the sunken statues (the Jesus statue), it was really neat. Saw lots of fish, and quite a decent variety of them.
We had a really good and reasonably priced lunch...my husband and I each had the tostadas and although I don't remember what the kids had, it was decent quality and portions. It was maybe $30 for all for us, food and drinks (and DH had 2 beers).
Dolphin Encounter was fun. The most difficult part was having the waves at your back, kind of nudging you toward the edge of the gated "floor" you were standing on, yet having to stay specifically behind the white line to interact with the dolphins as directed. Everyone had life jackets on, so controlling your position was atleast a 2 person job. And don't bother bringing water shoes...we lugged them the whole way just for this specifically and they ask you to take them off, so that was annoying. Be sure to bring a decent water camera to take pictures, because the pictures they take are decent but a RIP OFF and they were not willing to bargain, as I had read here. They were asking $110 for 9 pictures (3 poses of 3 of us in my family) and the lame video. I asked, since we had 5 others in our party, if maybe we could just buy 2 pictures of each person doing the swim, and they could keep the video, if they could make us an offer. The guy was pretty rude, said, "That's not how we do things here" and started picking the pictures up off the counter. Fine. Works for me. See ya later.
We did the 1:00 swim, and by the time we were done it was maybe 2:30-3:00, and the park was pretty cleared out. We headed back to the ship and just got back on.
Dinner was fine, our server Komang continued to provide excellent service. Kids hit Camp, we just wandered the ship and hung out in a few lounges til about 11:00.
Carnival offered the laundry bag special this day...all you can fit in the paper bag for $15. Since we had 2 cabins, and due to my proficiency in laundry rolling, I sent out 2 bags full of laundry (basically all of our dirty stuff from the cruise thus far, plus the 2 days pre-cruise in Miami, for four people) and 5 bags were sent back. WELL worth the money for us.
Day 4: Belize 12/2/09 Got up early, had breakfast on Lido. Went to Ebony Lounge for tender sticker. Was a fairly painless, reasonably quick and quite organized process. The tender ride itself took quite a while though, no real huge deal.
The little we saw of Belize City itself wasn't anything to "write home about". Even the standard tourist-trap shops weren't that great. We had booked the "Bannister Caye/Snorkeling/Manatee preserve" tour with Coral Breeze (as recommend here on Ports of Call board). We met at the appointed time, paid in cash, were fitted with our snorkel gear, were loaded shortly there after on to the boat.
The ride out was ROUGH. As in, "hitting our heads on the covered overhang of the boat" ROUGH. As in, "boat being launched and airborne while hitting waves" ROUGH. Not good. Originally, all of my group had been booked (and paid for) to do the optional snorkeling portion of the tour, but after the ride out to Bannister Caye, 2 adults and 3 kids opted to just stay on the island. Which turns out, would have been the SMART thing to do. The waves were quite large, and visibility was next to zero. The didn't have any snorkel vests or floats, or anything but an adult sized life jacket twisted around my 6 year old's waist to offer us/him. Swimming was next to impossible, and not once did anyone offer to bring the boat around to us. They had engine trouble, the boat was taking on water, the crew wasn't overly friendly or helpful, and we were jipped out of time at Bannister. The largest chunks of time we spent on the tour was swimming almost literally for our lives back to the boat and getting jarred around on the boat out to Bannister. I am happy to report, however, that Mark from Coral Breezes (who contracts Hammerhead Sports to do the tours) is working with me on a fair resolution to all of this. Mark himself couldn't be nicer, or more prompt in returning emails, and that isn't meant as a poor reflection on him, but the crew at Hammerhead Sports, which they are reevaluating at this point.
We tendered back to the ship after our strenuous day, and were looking forward to dinner in the Emerald Club/steak house. My husband chose to sit out the supper club, as it does state on the supper club confirmation (that we received under our door the day before our reservation) that shorts are not allowed. Which was fine, he ended up feeding the kids at the buffet and having a casual evening before dropping them off at Camp and meeting up with us in the lounges after we had finished dinner. All that I had heard about this experience was true. The service was OUTSTANDING, the food incomparable. It was well worth the $30 surcharge, as rumored. The steaks were tender enough to not have to use a knife to cut them; the little extras "compliments of the chef" were tasty. It took our group of 10 right around 3 hours from start to finish. I did choose to tip a little above and beyond because of the high quality of the service and food.
Day 5: Isla Roatan Got up early, hit the Lido for breakfast. Walked off the ship into the new, and much awaited, cruise ship center, "Mahogany Bay". It was gorgeous, the shops were nice and had a good variety of items (there were a few shops that had not been rented yet). We went straight to meet our tour to Tabayana (the only tour we booked through the ship) and they loaded us on to the shuttle (at our appointed time) and we waited. And waited. And waited. In the EXTREME heat and humidity. For maybe 20-25 minutes. Until I asked the driver how much longer and told him that we weren't feeling well because we were sitting there in the heat, inhaling all the other shuttle buses' fumes, waiting for them to load the group on in the shuttle ahead of us so we could depart. That stunk.
The ride to Tabayana was maybe 20-25 minutes, though different parts of Roatan. It was interesting to see just a bit of the populated part of the island itself. Then we arrived at Tabayana and it was HEAVEN. The facilities are gorgeous, the drinks tasty, the bar service at the chairs was great, and the water was wonderful. Just GORGEOUS. This was to be my favorite day of the whole week. The kids had a BLAST in the shallow and calm water near the beach. The snorkeling kind of stunk, though we did find a few places to see a few fish. The visibility just wasn't great. I wish we had more time there. According to someone at the pier, people left right away when the ship docked (meaning you don't have to wait til the time printed on your excursion ticket). I wish we had done that. They also had some local crafts people right on the beach with tents over tables...some jewelry and a few tshirts, some seashells. It was wonderful and I highly recommend that excursion.
This afternoon we attended a wedding vow renewal ceremony. It was just gorgeous, Carnival really went all out on this. The venue was decorated nicely, the food was gorgeous and delicious. Well worth the $500 for the package.
Dinner tonight was fine. Kids hit Camp again. We hung out and sang karaoke this night, it was a LOT of fun.
Laundry special was also offered today (the bag special for $15) but I passed.
Went to the "Justin Illusion" show tonight. The music was good, the tricks were OK. Something to do, but nothing spectacular IMO.
Day 6: Grand Cayman Got up a bit later today, as we didn't arrive in GC until 10:00 a.m. Had breakfast in the dining room, which was fine.
Headed to the Ebony Cabaret for tender tickets, which was again organized and painless. We had originally booked Nativeway "Rays, Reef & Rum Point" tour, but after our experience in Belize with open water snorkeling, combined with the fact the kids were getting a bit run ragged after our hectic touring schedule (and had the best day just being kids playing on the beach in Roatan the day before), we all decided to forego that plan and just cab it to 7 Mile Beach.
We got a van for 10 for $4 per person to Royal Palms on 7 Mile Beach. It was a good decision. The kids had fun riding the waves a bit, we got a few chairs ($7 a piece), the food was just OK at the Reef Grill...not a lot of selection on the menu, average over-inflated Cayman prices (lunch for 4 of us was around $75 with tip...having ordered some fried calamari, a fried fish sandwich, the kids splitting a $7.50 hot dog/fries, a beer and a blended drink). The only thing about this beach is that it was a bit tricky getting in and out of the water and the water itself had some decent drop offs.
Hopped a taxi/van back to the tender area downtown. Popped in quick to hit Margaritaville for some tshirts and scare up a Christmas ornament (we collect them from the places we travel) and hopped back on a tender to the ship. We were the only ship in port today, so that process was SPEEDY and nice. We also had to get back to turn in our forms for the "Luggage Express" service we opted to try out. The forms weren't delivered until turn down on Wednesday night, and had to be completed and handed in (with copy of your flight itinerary and passport) at the Guest Services desk by 5:00 p.m.
Dinner was fine, kids hit Camp. I let my 10 year old stay out til 1:30 for the "late night party" (that actually lasted til 3:30, but there's no way she'd be able to function if we pushed the envelope THAT far).
Day 7: Day At Sea Today was the only day that the weather didn't cooperate with us. It was overcast and rainy most of the day, and the seas weren't exactly friendly. Which was fine, actually. We had a leisurely breakfast, took the kids to camp, packed, lounged about. We had a cocktail party for our group this day, which was OK. It was complimentary, thankfully, otherwise I may have been upset if I'd have paid for it. Just for anyone's information that's curious, the cocktail party package that includes "dry snacks", translates to Cheez Its. As I said, no big deal for us...but for anyone who's considering booking a cocktail party, I'd consider upgrading to the warm snack package. Just kind of a lazy day all around and after the hectic week we had, it was welcome.
Dinner once again was pleasant. The waitstaff sang the "Leaving Our Funship" song, and I cried, AGAIN. Such a great week, although the fact that we had tentatively planned our next cruise for early 2011 helped a bit.
Watched the "Carnival Legends" show tonight. One of our new friends we had met onboard was in it...he was terrified but did a good job. Another fun way to pass an hour or so.
Morning of Debarkation: We opted to do the "Luggage Express" promotion through the ship. Basically, for $20 per bag (plus whatever your airline charges), you set your luggage out the night before (as you do in traditional debarkation), but then you don't see your bags until you land at your final destination. Carnival books them all the way through, prints out and delivers you your airline boarding passes and escorts you off and through Customs. Then you're responsible for your own transportation to the airport. It worked as promised and is something we'd definitely take advantage of again.
We ate breakfast at the buffet again. Met in the Amber Palace, as directed in our "Luggage Express" paperwork. We were off the ship and through Customs by about 9:00. Getting through security at MIA was AMAZING at that time of morning, absolutely NO lines whatsoever. I'll be looking to book around that time again (we had a 12:20 flight out on Delta).
Overall: The cruise was fantastic. The ship was in good condition, with no visible signs of wear or tear. The crew was friendly (though our stewards were kind of duds, but efficient at their jobs). Camp Carnival was adored by all the kids (we had 4 in all different age groups, one in the 2-5, one in the 6-8, one in the 9-11 and one in the 12-14). The food was plentiful and tasty, served at the right temperature. The waitstaff was efficient and friendly. Some ports were better than others, but this had to do with our own personal experience on excursions and such, I'm sure (although the one thing I learned was that if nowhere else, I WILL book a ship's excursion in Belize to eliminate a lot of the tendering). The shows that we saw were just OK. The cruise director, Ryan Fitzgerald, was witty and entertaining without having to hear himself talk 24/7. Roatan and Cozumel were by far my favorite days on this trip. Four thumbs up from my family!