Our fellow passengers were a true cross-section of the country... practically every age, gender, race, color, creed, nationality, religion, weight category, etc were represented... each bringing their own unique perspective to the entire experience. If you are the type of person that likes to stay in your own comfort zone cocoon (and thinks everybody else should be in that cocoon with you), then you might have some challenges enjoying your experience. However, if you enjoy talking to and getting to know different people, then your perspective and trip might be more enjoyable.
Embarkation and Departure - Driving to the Port of Baltimore is so easy... it is literally right off I-95 (from either direction). The only downside to the entire cruise experience was the operations by the port authorities from the time we arrived in the lot to the time we entered the terminal. After spending several extra hours on the road due to the road conditions following the snow storm, we spent almost two more hours in the car waiting in line to offload luggage, then to pay for parking. They only had one credit card terminal to pay for parking and it was a very slow process. I don't believe these operations are tied to Carnival, but they should be improved to get the cruise started off on the right foot. The security and check-in operations inside the terminal were fine. We boarded the ship at around 4:30 and headed straight to our rooms to drop off our carry-on bags.
An announcement was made at around 5:00 that the departure time would be moved to around 8:00 to accommodate those passengers delayed due to the winter storm. I wish they would have made this decision sooner, like when we were on the road heading to Baltimore and calling the emergency travel number. There was a message, however, on our home answering machine when we got home telling us the cruse departure time was delayed.
Since we got there later in the afternoon, and we were all hungry and frazzled from the long trip (we drove straight to Baltimore with very few stops), we went upstairs to Mermaids for dinner... The food line set-up was a bit confusing, particularly since there were so many people up there at the same time and all of us were trying to figure our way around the operation.
Our luggage was waiting for us when we got back to our rooms after dinner. After unpacking, we attended the registration and orientation for Camp Carnival (more about CC later), walked around and got orientated to the ship, visited the arcade with the kids and the casino with wife...
Days One and Two - On Monday we had to turn around near the Outer Banks of NC to take a very sick / hurt passenger to Norfolk. The only impact was the casino and shops were closed for a few hours once we entered Hampton Roads. Since it was pretty cold outside there weren't too many people hanging out around the outdoor pools, but there were various other activities planned on the sea days, pretty much something for everyone. We did the art auction (didn't buy anything, but learned a lot), food demonstration in David's, gambled, consumed some adult beverages, Love & Marriage show (hilarious), beanbag toss tournament, just to name a few activities... The dinner during the first day at sea was the first of two formal nights. Sailing was smooth and we didn't seem to have the rough seas that I've read about in other posts.
Day Three (Port Canaveral) - Instead of booking a shore excursion through Carnival, we arranged for a car rental and purchased Disney tickets from the military ticket office (all in all, saved us around $300). Had originally booked the rental through Enterprise, but they weren't there to pick us up when we got off the ship and the Hertz guy offered us $20 off whatever rate we had from Enterprise. Dive to Orlando / Disney couldn't be easier... just make sure you give yourself enough time to get back to the ship. Disney was PACKED!! Not much time to take in any rides, but did see the parade and people watch. It was great just to walk around and be with the family. Depending on what you do, this is a long day... You get up early and stay up late with activities once you get back on ship. If had it to do over again, would have probably still rented the car, but gone to Downtown Disney instead (wouldn't have been as crowded and less expensive).
Day four (Nassau) - Christmas Eve and temperature was around 82 degrees... Didn't book any shore excursions, figured we could just find something our own once off the ship. Wife and daughters did some shopping in the market and jewelry shops... Had some snacks and adult beverages in Senor Frogs... took a water taxi to Paradise Island and walked to the public beach. If had it to do over again, would take a regular taxi vice the boat (the public beach is a pretty long walk from where the water taxi drops you off) and would have maybe looked at one of the lower cost shore excursions to one of the resorts. We didn't take in any night life in Nassau, too tired from the previous day and all the walking in Nassau (can't say it's because we are getting old, the kids were beat as well).
Day five (Freeport) - Christmas Day and upper 70s and a bit windy... We were delayed in off loading, apparently a young teen on board for a "Make a Wish" trip passed away over night... very sad. The captain extended our departure time a few hours to make up for the delay. The ship docks in a pretty industrialized area (there is the obligatory basket market and trinket shops right off the boat). You either have to take a bus on a pre-arranged excursion or get a taxi to the different beaches (there were a large number of passengers waiting for cabs, best advice is to just be patient and not get caught up in the riot... there are plenty of taxis... it just takes a little bit of time). We were able to book a dolphin encounter for our kids to give them for Christmas at the last minute and they loved the experience. Wife and I went to Port Lucaya beach and did some shopping and had some snacks and a few adult beverages at Rum Runners. There was a Christmas show in the Taj Mahal after we get underway... it was very nice and featured the kids from Camp Carnival and a very touching singing of Silent Night that included members of the crew representing their various countries. After we left Freeport the seas were pretty rough... the dinner that night was the second formal night. Unfortunately, there were so many people queasy from the waives they had to get up from the dinner tables.
Day six - Similar to days one and two sea days, there are so many different activities planned on board to keep everyone busy. Went to Kirk's disembarkation talk... very informative and it included a nice recognition for the ship's crew. This was actually the only day we ate lunch in Normande and it was pretty good. One of the on board shops had a watch sale, men's and woman's watches for $20 each. I thought the mob scene waiting for taxis in Freeport was bad; this was worse... reminded me of a Black Friday stampede at Walmart the day after Thanksgiving. Pushing, shoving, grabbing, hording, all for a $20 watch... Dinner was nice and is a great opportunity for you to thank your waiter and assistant with a nice additional tip... during dinner they all sang a funny farewell song. We chose to check our baggage for the debarkation so we needed to have the bags packed and outside of the room before midnight. Day seven - As mentioned above, we checked our bags so we didn't have too much to carry for the debarkation. However, if you choose this option, be prepared to leave the ship after all the self-debarkation passengers. The key for this day is to relax and just wait your turn. A lot of passengers choose the self debarkation option and I can't believe some of them were able to carry all their stuff off the ship by themselves. There are porters in the terminal to assist you in getting your luggage to your car.
Few tips, notes, observations, and thoughts:
- The Ship - I've seen various posts from previous passengers who were taken aback or offended with the dEcor. Again, we aren't seasoned cursers, so don't have much to compare the dEcor against, but we didn't have much of a problem with it. My nine year old son did chuckle the first time he saw the David stature up in the Steakhouse, but hey, he's nine. We didn't think it was as bad as others have made it out to be. The atrium and other indoor common areas were decorated with some nine holiday decorations.
- Rooms - We were on Deck 5 and had two balcony rooms (8B category) next to each other, we didn't have an adjoining door (which was fine and worked out better for our situation). We requested through Guest Services that the divider between our two balconies be opened and it made movement between our two rooms easier. One room had two twin beds together and the other had two twin beds and sofa converted to a twin. The rooms were adequate and had plenty of storage (to include room under the beds for luggage). We found the beds surprisingly comfortable and slept great. You can't hear hardly any noise from the hallway and having the balcony is great. The in-room TV is fine and has a decent channel selection of both on-ship and cable channels (it does seem kind of odd that the CBSABCNBC affiliates were all out of Colorado). Our room steward, Cayaha, took care of everything. All you had to do was ask, and he was on it right away.
- Normandie Restaurant - We had the late seating. If had it to do over again, we might select open seating (but with that, you will get a different waiter each time and don't build a relationship and connection with a particular wait staff team). Our waiters were great... Dedi and Felix were terrific and did everything to make us happy. I've read other posts where people had bad dining experiences or complained about the food or the wait staff... I tell you, they must have been on a different cruise or are just never satisfied with anything. Those guys are working their tails off to make you happy and get all the meals out correctly. Treat them with respect and dignity, and you'll be amazed at how they'll treat you. Dinner portions were more than adequate and tasted fine. If you want one or all appetizers, all you have to do is ask. If something didn't taste right, just ask for another plate or another entrEe. They'll quickly take care of it. Many times we'd ask Dedi for a recommendation on a particular entrEe and he would give an honest opinion and sometimes would recommend another choice. Between the five of us, we tried almost everything, some stand outs include the jerk pork loin (was awesome), filet mignon, lobster tail, barbeque ribs (too many to eat - half of the order would have worked just as good), chicken/mushroom pasta, all the salads, cappuccino pie (surprisingly delicious), and of course the chocolate melting cake. We ate a few breakfasts in Normandie as well... and requested seating in Dedi's section. Just like the dinner, you can ask for as much as you want (for example two orders of hash browns or corned beef hash). I wasn't totally impressed with the eggs benedict, but realized it is hard to mass produce a dish like that... so I just got eggs to order the next time. If it's not too busy during breakfast you have a good chance to talk to and get to know your waiter.
- Mermaids - We ate a few breakfasts, lunches, and late-afternoon or midnight snacks here... And apparently most of our fellow passengers did too... it is a very busy place and can get pretty crowded at peak times. It is buffet style and there is a different theme each day for the main entrEe selections. You can get pretty much anything you want... for breakfast - eggs to order, omelets, hash browns, bagels, toast, pancakes, French toast, oat meal, grits, sausage gravy, bacon, sausage, cereal, fruit, danishes, etc... and for lunch and dinner - burgers, dogs, fries, deli sandwiches, themed entrEes and sides, pizza, salad bar, sushi (in the evening at the end of the salad bar - go easy on the wasabi, it will definitely clear out your sinuses), dessert, etc. Overall, food wasn't bad... just understand, it ain't the Normandie or David's. One downside, there isn't a wide sections of healthy options during non-peak times (such as late-night snack time).
- David's - My wife and I ate dinner there on the Wednesday night. I had booked this online before the cruise, but when I checked on the reservation on board, it wasn't in the books (don't know what caused this, but recommend if you want to schedule a dinner there, do it once you get on board). We originally made reservations for 8:30, but were able to change to 7:30. This is a first class experience that I strongly recommend, and well worth the $30 per person cover. Everything was perfect, from the small starter from the chef, to the appetizers, main course, desert, and wine. Don't go there expecting to get in and out in short order, this is an experience that must be savored and enjoyed. I ordered the 9 oz. filet mignon and my wife got the 24 oz. porterhouse (there isn't a similar smaller cut and that's her favorite cut of steak). The meat was prepared to order and beautifully presented. I wanted to try something different for desert and got the cheese selection, which was wonderful (although it didn't do wonders for my breath). We were seated in a location where we could watch the chefs at the grill and it was a pleasure watching them work. If it's not too busy in the restaurant, ask to talk to the chef... we asked to talk to the head chef during desert and had a real nice conversation with him. We told him how much we enjoyed watching the food demonstration the day before and complemented him on the entire evening (plus it was just cool talking to him).
- Cruise Directors - Kirk and Jamie were fantastic and worked great together, as were other members of their team... all of them had great personalities and full of energy.
- Entertainment - Again, I've see other posts where people really knocked the shows and entertainment (I sometimes think some people just like to hear themselves complain). In our opinion, the entertainment wasn't too bad. We went to many of the shows and thought the singing and dancing was fine. My wife and teen-aged daughters went to some of the comedy shows and said they were pretty funny, but not out of the park funny (but that is the way some stand up comedy acts are and the same when we go to comedy clubs at home). The singers in the various clubs and lounges (casino, atrium, piano bar, etc) were good, and guess what, sounded about like lounge singers (this isn't a critique, but its true). I didn't go, but I heard some passengers talking that they really enjoyed the piano bar and sing along. Go to the shows understanding this is a cruise ship, not Broadway. These entertainers are performing at about the right level (hopefully that doesn't sound bad, I meant for it to be somewhat of a compliment).
- Casino - Denver gave a great class on craps, blackjack, and roulette on day one. He is very personable and we really enjoyed talking to him about his home in Australia. My wife loves to play slots so she spent quite a bit of time (and money) in the casino. There are plenty of blackjack tables, two roulette tables, and one craps table. There is also a pretty neat electronic poker table. All the dealers and casino workers were professional and took the time to explain many of the games to the novices.
- Camp Carnival - This is a great service that Carnival offers. They had activities planned for the kids every day and evenings (even those days we were in ports, which I thought was kind of odd, but I guess is a need). Our nine year old son loved going and making friends with the other kids. He was able to sign himself in and out during the days and then we would arrange to meet him back in the room. They had late-night activities one evening and even brought him back to the room in the wee-hours of the morning when they were done. He had an awesome time. They also have babysitting services available at a very, very reasonable price.
- Tipping - The basic tips are taken care of on all your bar purchases and pre-paid on your S&S account, but you can always give more. We choose to give our room steward, waiter, and assistant waiter additional tips the evening of day six for the great service they gave us. The afternoon of day six your steward leaves you various debarkation paperwork, plus an envelope to put a tip in for the Normandie matradee; again, we aren't seasoned cruisers, so we thought this was a bit odd... considering the first time we saw him was at dinner that night standing at the door waiting for people to give him their envelopes (maybe we were wrong, but we didn't give him a tip... we preferred to tip the wait staff that actually waited on us).
- Weather - I've got a little secret for you, If you book a cruise that sails out of the northeast in the December, January, February timeframe, it is going to be cold outside and you should pack appropriately. Don't expect too much deck time on the Lido Deck to work on your tan... Even Florida isn't terribly warm during that time. Buy some kind of travel insurance, just in case...
- Passports are a must, but only seemed to be needed during the embarkation and debarkation in Baltimore... all other times you just needed a picture ID and your Sail & Sign card to get back on ship.
- Bring a bungee cord to hold your balcony door open to enjoy the sounds of the water and catch the sea breeze... however, be careful opening you cabin door at the same time...
- I wished Carnival would have scheduled some kind of service on board ship for Christmas.
- Follow the message boards on both the Carnival and Cruise Critic websites.