We've just returned from our Ontario March break cruise on Carnival Pride. My husband and I (early 40's) with my 15 year-old daughter and 14 year-old son, as well as a friend of the family (16 year-old girl). Taking advantage of some nice early booking prices, we splurged on a balcony for the first time ever. Since only balconies and Ocean-views were left to accommodate the three kids and there were balconies left cheaper than Oceanviews - they got a balcony too. We left Toronto early Friday morning, driving to Baltimore.
We decided to break up our driving by stopping to shop in Pennsylvania on Friday (no tax on clothes) and spending Saturday in Washington D.C. With three teenagers with us we spent way too many hours at the Prime Outlet in Grove City, Pennsylvania. We resumed our journey in the late afternoon on Friday and reached Washington D.C late in the evening where we spent the night at the Sheraton National in Arlington VA. We got a great rate on Hotwire for the Sheraton and were pleased with our stay. I had emailed them in advance to ask for a room with a view of the monuments (even numbered rooms 6th floor or higher) and they were able to accommodate us. Parking was about $18 a night and we needed a rollaway bed for the kids' room since there were three of them ($20), but we got such a great rate on the two rooms that I had no problem with that. For breakfast we ate at Bob and Edith's diner down the street from the hotel, then set off to see Washington DC.
Unfortunately, being the weekend of a crazy rainstorm that hit the entire eastern seaboard, the weather in DC was not cooperating -drizzly at best and pouring at other times - but I highly recommend a trip to the U.S. Capital before cruising out of Baltimore. With only a day, we picked out a few things in advance to do and for the most part stuck to the plan - there is just too much to see. Since admission to the Smithsonian museums is free of charge, this worked out well. If I were to do it again I would try to get at least two days for DC. First we hit the Museum of American history, namely the Star-spangled banner exhibit and the First Ladies' exhibit. We then hit a tip-based walking tour given by Tim from "DC on foot". He was excellent keeping young and old interested with historical facts and stories as he walked us through the monuments and memorials. Unfortunately, we didn't take our umbrellas due to the high winds that were forecasted, and had to bail a little early soaked to the bone and frozen. But I HIGHLY recommend doing Tim's tour. You don't sign up in advance, just meet at a corner as outlined on their website. We'll be back to Washington and plan to do his tour again in better weather (we hope). After going back to the car (parked in the underground garage in the Ronald Reagan Trade Center $10 flat rate on Saturdays) to change into dry clothes, we ate in the food court there and went to the Museum of Natural History. Again, we only hit some highlights, the Dinosaurs, the geology section, and the Oceans exhibit. Finally, we made a quick trip to see some of the sights and the Air and Space Museum before we called it a day. The kids crashed in the car while we drove to Baltimore Saturday night - under an hour's drive.
In Baltimore we stayed at the Sleep Inn for the Cruise and Park package. Again we got a great rate - the hotel offers a continental breakfast, parking for the week and a shuttle to the port. The hotel was clean but shabby and our room was in need of repair (hole in the bathroom door). It did the job - we didn't care but be warned. Since it was clean I was ok with it.
We found the staff very nice, and the shuttle drivers very helpful, but unfortunately we found their system to get the many cruise guests to port lacking. It's first come first serve on Sunday morning - which is fine, but there is no sign-in process, so people waited about the lobby for hours, and others just showed up outside and hopped on ahead of them. Yes, we all got there eventually, but some sort of process would have been a bit more equitable. No one wants to sit in the lobby of the Sleep Inn when they can be sitting on a deck on the Pride!
With only three port days, we succeeded in jamming them full of activities. I'll include some times in my review for those super-planners like me that want to have an idea of what to expect when planning their day.
We opted to rent a car (booked online in advance) with Budget. All the car rental places offer a free shuttle to the agency from the port, and we rented a full-sized car to fit the 5 of us for the day for about $45. We got off the ship at 8am and the shuttle came by a about 10 minutes later. By 8:30ish we were on our way in the rental to our first stop - a Manatee kayaking excursion with Fin Expeditions. There are many kayaking outfits in the area - we went with Tim from Fin because he emphasizes small group excursions. He charged $30 per person cash. The only issue I had with Tim was that we got there at 9am. We weren't supposed to start until 9:30 but pushing 9:45 we still hadn't come in contact with anyone. We saw a man downstream dealing with kayaks from a boat but from where we were it didn't look like we could get to him. We figured he saw us and would come to us if he were the right guy and he did not. Finally, my husband walked around the set of trees and discovered he could get a fair bit closer and that Tim was actually waiting for us. Why he did not approach us in the main dock area I'll never know - we're unfamiliar with the area it looked to me like the dock was the appropriate place to meet - especially since other tours were meeting there.
Anyway, we set off at that point and enjoyed the trip - but unfortunately saw no manatees or dolphins - the cold weather this year really did a number on them. It was also a cool day and warmer weather would have made the trip a lot better (no fault of Tim's of course). He was very knowledgable and respectful of nature, and suited us far more than any commercial outfit. It was a unique experience to kayak in the mangroves - felt rather Harry Potterish! We hope to go back one day and try encountering the Manatees again.
Feeling damp and cold from our inexperience with kayaking techniques (dribbling from the oars) and some drizzle that morning, we decided to make a quick trip back to the ship midday to change into dry (warm!) clothes. We parked the car in the parking lot of the security building you had to walk through to reenter the ship. We had intended to eat at Cocoa Beach but since we were on the ship anyway we gobbled down some Mermaid Grill fare and were back on our way in under an hour. We then drove to Ron Jon's Surf school at cocoa Beach (about 5 miles) and arrived there around 2:30ish for our 3pm lesson time slot. Vicki at Ron Jon's is super nice - we exchanged many emails in advance of the trip and she booked our three teens with Larry (21 years old surfing since he was a baby!). Larry was a big hit with the kids - patient, friendly and a typical "surfer dude". He did a safety and pre-surf lesson in the building while the kids put on wet suits, then all four of them out. They started the entire process well before 3, so the kids were hitting the waves by 3:15. We also lucked out because for the first time all day the sun came out and we were all finally warm!
A two hour lesson was more than long enough - it's exhausting work!!! The kids did great - two out of three got up on the first try and all three of them enjoyed great success. The cost was $65 per person for a two-hour lesson, and the three kids had Larry to themselves. Apparently the waves are best in the afternoon and by 3 they were just perfect. I think if we ever go back I'll give it a shot myself. There were other adults from the Pride doing lessons too.
In Nassau we did a Sea lion encounter through Blue Lagoon. The Island was wonderful - we can't wait to go back. We booked online with Blue lagoon directly - two observer tickets (for $25) and three Sea Lion Encounters (for $80).
With the Pride arriving at 11ish 1:30 was the earliest ferry we could catch anyway, so we went to the straw market when the ship docked and had plenty of time to shop. To get to the straw market you exit the port and port building and walk outside the fenced area to the main street. Turn right - a quick walk. It's a big white tent down the street on the opposite side.
We had intended to just take a taxi from the straw market to the ferry on Paradise Island, but since we were done shopping we wandered back to the ship at around 12:45 (reentered through security) and met the Dolphin encounter reps (wearing orange shirts) out in front of the ship. I didn't see them right away but asked the man waving a sign who was rounding up the passengers on the Carnival Blue Lagoon Beach Day excursion and he pointed them out for me.
The reps knew my name and were expecting me (from my brief email inquiring about transportation!) They were just finishing up with the passengers booking through Carnival so within 20 minutes the reps took us (my family and another couple travelling on the Fascination) to the dock (just steps from the ship) where they put us on a ferry. The ferry turned out to be the one that picked up Blue Lagoon passengers on Paradise Island. The assistant on the ferry was very nice, and told one of us to get off the ferry at Paradise Island to go pickup up our wristbands at the Blue lagoon ticket wicket for everyone else - then get right back on (which we did). It was all very easy. I don't know that they provide transportation to Paradise Island all the time, but it's a quick email and it doesn't hurt to ask. There are so may taxis around when you exit the port area that taking a one to Paradise Island would have been quick and painless too.
On Blue Lagoon, the kids LOVED the sea lions, and we also had time to check out the dolphins, and spend a little time on the beach. Even with all the Carnival passengers, the beach seemed deserted - plenty of room for all. I bought the kids the lunch package for $12 each. Everyone's wristband was yellow (carnival or not) - no one told us we weren't allowed on the beach even though we booked directly and the beach was supposed to be closed on Thursdays. Unfortunately, we had to leave the island around 4pm, but that is a short-coming of the Pride itinerary and we really wanted to do the Sea Lion Encounter. We don't regret it. If we had gotten to Nassau any earlier I would DEFINITELY had got on the very first ferry I could to spend more time on Blue Lagoon. Taxis are easy and plentiful and WORTH the $4 pp. It just didn't work out with the timing on the Pride. It would easily keep you happy for a full, beautiful day.
On the way back the Blue Lagoon people would have taken us back to the ship the same way, but we wanted to spend some time walking around Atlantis so we got off at Paradise Island instead. Again we were pleased with our late afternoon walkabout and I highly recommend it. We walked around the Marina, entered Atlantis through the Casino and spent some time in the underground aquarium. After hours they don't charge for the "Dig" - we're not sure what "after hours" is but this was March and we walked right in just before 6 since that's what others were doing. The sea life was really neat - but I'm not sure if I would have thought spending $30 pp was worth it. We then walked around the outside grounds before backtracking to the main lobby and catching a taxi back to the ship.
In advance of the trip we booked a tour with Barry for Dead Man's Reef/Paradise Cove. We exchanged emails but I did not pay a deposit. Not a bad arrangement since sometimes the Pride doesn't make it to Freeport due to weather issues. For $35 pp you get transported to the cove and snorkel equipment. They tell you to meet outside at 8:50 am and by 9:05am we were on our way in nice vans so you can't be late. The day was sunny but had a cool wind, so we opted to rent wet suits for $10 for 3 hours. Overall, $45 for the tour was still a fair price. I'll admit that the water was too choppy for me - I wimped out and never made it out to the reef but the kids and my husband went out and saw a lot. On a calmer, warmer day I think it would have been just perfect. It's a professional operation with clean facilities and good-quality transportation. They explain the beach and give snorkel instruction to first-timers. There weren't many of us on this beach - it was a nice, relaxing way to spend the time for me even though I was too chicken to snorkel! One could also go to Deadman's Reef by cab on your own - not sure of the prices but we opted for the convenience of the shuttle pickup. I think taking a cab would be pretty easy - I had been worried about a cab returning to pick us up but now that I have seen the people at Paradise Cove I'm sure they would have helped us get back to the ship one way or another.
As a group we agreed to leave around 12:30pm to make it back to the ship with room for error - and when the time came we reluctantly left our warm, sheltered sunny spot. (The kids joined me after they finished snorkeling and my husband went for a walk on the beach). We could easily have spent the day there too! I didn't see anyone eating but a few people ordered from the bar. I would have felt comfortable ordering food had we stayed there for the day but since we left by 12:30 we didn't feel it necessary to buy lunch.
As far as sea days are concerned, we like to do our own thing, reading and relaxing. We tried to hit the gym as much as possible and found going in the afternoon far better because it was less crowded. The kids went to O2 the odd time. They didn't spend much time there but they did meet some kids their own age there and hung out with them during the evenings. Other than that the girls liked sunning on deck, using the gym, and taking their time dressing up for dinner!
We ate as a family every night in the dining room - it was one of the best parts of the day! We don't eat out much as a general rule so it was nice to make every night a special occasion. For the most part we enjoy Carnival's main dining room fare, and with anytime dining we made it a point to be there every night for dinner. We usually had lunch in the Mermaid Grill - we found the food very tasty and tried to start with a big salad from the salad bar every day. My advice is to walk around first to check out what they are serving and only pick your favourite thing... Through the week we enjoyed Paninis, Indian, Chinese and American (burgers). Lunch desserts were deadly...but hey we're on vacation so I indulged but again I only picked my favourite thing - easy to gain a lot of weight in this too-short week of yummy eats. My husband and I ate breakfast in the dining room only on the sea days because we could order omelets and not wait in line for them. But upstairs was fine for breakfast too. All in all I never have any complaints about Carnival and their food services staff. I think they do a terrific job considering how monumental a task it is to feed and clear up after so many guests.
We did hit a few shows - they were very good. The kids went to the early comedy show and reported the comedian very funny - although we can't vouch for him.
Debarkation was easy enough. We kept our luggage and brought it out ourselves, as was an option. The (unexpectedly?) high ratio of Canadians to Americans this week was a pain - there were two lines for customs (Americans vs. non-Americans) and the non-American line was huge! I saw Carnival reps making suggestions to the Customs agents in an effort to make things move better. The process did take longer than we expected but it wasn't a big deal.
The Sleep Inn shuttle was very organized on the way back (you called to get the shuttle once you're out of customs, you get a number and that's your place in line). If they had implemented a similar "confirmation number" system to get to the boat a week earlier it would have been perfect. I know that next time I will hotwire a hotel and park at the pier - parking charges or not. Then we can arrive when we want and leave as soon as we disembark. For us it's a long ride home and we can use time saved.
Incidentally, I noticed when we picked up our car (just before noon) the lobby of the Sleep INN was almost empty - not like the week before, so I suspect a non-CDN-spring-break week is just fine.
We love cruising, and are always very pleased with Carnival. It is excellent value for the money. The staff, as usual, is wonderful. The Pride itinerary, at first glance may not be that appealing, but with a little research on cruise critic and trip advisor, we found many options and had a fantastic time. Being able to drive to port is great - not only did we save a lot of money, but it was very comfortable to get there with our familiar vehicle. I'm not sure I would have been pleased in the dead of winter, but spring to fall it's a great option. I must say although the balcony was not a must-have for us we really enjoyed having it and used it a lot. We are looking forward to doing cruising again one day soon and would be happy to sail out of Baltimore again.