Arrival DW and I (ages 49) flew down to Fort Lauderdale from Minneapolis the day before our departure on July 3, 2010. We stayed at the Hampton Inn North Cruise Port in Fort Lauderdale. After picking up our luggage at baggage claim, the hotel was given a call and their free shuttle arrived within a few minutes. During the ride to the hotel the driver pointed out where the cruise ships were located, and said that upon arrival when we checked in at the hotel to sign up for a time slot to make it over to the cruise terminal the next day. He also mentioned their free shuttle service to a restaurant at the pier. This was very important as, other than McDonalds and a Subway, there isn't much to choose from around the hotel. The driver also informed us of the option to have transportation arranged for with a local company upon our return to take us to the airport. We did this and the cost was $16 total. I should note that adjacent to the hotel is a strip mall with a Winn Dixie, and a liquor store.
Embarkation When we arrived at the hotel, the earliest time slot available for transport to the cruise port was at noon. Later that evening I called the front desk to see if there was anything earlier and was told that 10:00 am was available so I made the change. However, in the morning there seemed to be some confusion. Apparently to drive into the cruise port area, one has to have a special sticker on their vehicle. Apparently the hotel's did not. Nevertheless, another transport van was there and the front desk more or less convinced this guy to take us. So about 25 minutes later we were on our way. The cruise port is less than 10 minutes away so we arrived while there were still people milling about whose cruise ended earlier that morning. Turns out we ended up being first in line in the non-VIP line and when the doors opened around 11:00 am we went through security, got our sign and sail cards, then had to wait in a large air conditioned room until our zone number was called. This went smoothly and at 11:50 am we were walking across the gangway and onto the ship. Once on board, we headed to the Lido deck and had lunch. At 1:30 we made our way to our room (2117) and changed into cooler clothes we brought along in our carry-on's. The luggage wouldn't arrive until around 3:30 pm. No big deal though. However, Carnival did manage to find one of our bottles of Scotch. There was a nice note in our luggage saying they found it and that we'd get back the night before we disembark. Not all was lost though as our other two bottles managed to get through. This was in addition to the two allowable bottles of wine. By the way, the bottle of Scotch did show up on our last night. The cabin steward was there to greet us but never introduced himself. We didn't mind that as long as his service was impeccable which it was.
The Room The room was plenty big considering that each of us had one piece of checked luggage plus a carry on. The room had two port holes, which was kind of neat and we were able to watch the Gulf lazily go by. We brought along an outlet strip, which is a must have if you have more than one thing to plug in at a time. The outlet strip will only plug into the outlet in the room, and not the bathroom. In fact, only things that don't have a polarized plug (such as an electric razor) will plug into the bathroom outlet. Night lights, extension cords, hair dryers, etc. won't plug into the bathroom outlet. There is no clock in the room so we're glad we brought along a digital clock, which we plugged into the outlet strip. There is a hair dryer in a drawer in the room - one of those kinds where you have to sit on a chair to use. It didn't seem like it had a lot of power so we were glad to have brought our own. Our hair dryer would have only plugged into our outlet strip. The ship has Direct TV and the Cartoon Channel, CNN, TBS, etc. and the four network stations out of Denver were available to watch. I have no idea why they chose Denver. The bathroom had plenty of storage shelves. I read about maybe needing to bring along a hanging shoe rack to store things. Don't bother. In the shower there are dispensers for shampoo and body wash. They also supply bar soap if you want. Towels are changed twice a day. We did not encounter any problems with the room whatsoever. The ship does have Cellular at Sea phone service. So if you're concerned about needing to be contacted while abroad, your cell phone will work on the ship. Don't have an idea how much that costs but we'll find out in a couple of weeks. This is a separate service from being able to make calls from the room phone which runs about $7/minute. Before we left I purchased an ATT Go Phone. Theoretically it was supposed to have coverage in our port destinations. This wasn't the case. It only worked in Cozumel and it was 25 cents/minute which I thought was reasonable. I called ATT when we got home to find out why it wasn't working in Costa Rica and Panama. Apparently only their Go Phones that have the "contract" service will work there and not when you choose to add money to your account and pay as you go.
The On Board Experience DW and I pretty much decided ahead of time to just sit in the sun, read and drink adult beverages. Because of this, we didn't make it to any of the lounge shows, or other activities during the day. There are a ton of things to do if you want though. There was a wide selection of live music available in the evenings ranging from jazz, blues, country and western, classical, and contemporary. One of the first things we did when getting on the ship was to purchase soda cards. The adult card was $58, including tax and gratuity. Was it worth it? It's hard to say. We did bring along from home insulated coffee mugs. This was great to have as it kept the ice from melting quickly as opposed to the plastic tumblers that are used by the bartenders where the ice melts in a matter of minutes. The food and food service was great. We ate at the 6:00 pm seating in the lower Chic dining room which is toward the rear of the ship. The dancing the service staff does after the meal is worth hanging around for. They really have a lot of fun. The seas were extraordinarily calm except around Cozumel. In his daily announcement, the Captain said that we were in seven foot swells. However, it didn't seem bad at all and we didn't come across anyone who was experiencing any issues. One thing I wish Carnival would offer is to have a person that one can speak with to find out info about the ports of call. Sure, they have the excursion talk and the Cruise Director provides some brief info about what those tours entail but if a person just wanted to get on shore and lay on a nice beach, or do a little shopping, go to a restaurant, etc. you're pretty much on your own. Maybe Carnival figures you can search this out all on your own ahead of time but it still would be nice to get some first hand knowledge of things like this. Cozumel Here we caught a cab ($10) to Chankanaab National Park. It was about 10 minutes away. Entry to the park was $19 for adults. There are two small gift shops there but cash only. The beach is absolutely spectacular. Upon walking in you go by where people are doing the swim/ride with the dolphins thing (extra charge like $100+). There is a fresh water swimming pool, which we used when were done because it had some shade and let us cool off too. There are plenty of chairs on the sand and the snorkeling is fabulous. I don't know if this was OK or not but someone brought along small bags of Cheerios to use to feed the fish. This guy must have had 10 bags with him that he took from the breakfast buffet line on the ship. When he opened one up and shook out the Cheerios, there fish all over him. It was totally amazing. The tip of the day is to buy your sodas/beer at the entrance to the bathrooms by the restaurant hut. There is a woman there who sells them for only $1 a can and they were very cold. No ice though so you have to drink them fast. The food was cheap ($8 for a plate of nachos) and very tasty. As we were taking a dip in the fresh water pool on the way out, we were right next to where the sea lion show is put on. It was absolutely fantastic. The sea lion is trained so well and one of the things it would do is give you a hug. You would start out with your arms extended out and it had its flippers the same way. Then when you got up to it, it would put its flippers around you and give you a hug. It was so cool. On our way out of the complex there are taxis waiting for you. It was $10 for the ride back to the ship. By the way, the ship was docked at the Puerto Maya pier, along side the Carnival Liberty. There are two piers for ships at Cozumel and this is the older of the two and the shopping isn't as extensive as the other location. Nevertheless, we picked up the mandatory bottles of alcohol and vanilla. There is also a pharmacy there too where you can buy, without a prescription, amoxicillin, prednisone, and Imitrex, just to name a few. They're right there out on the shelves so there is no need to have them handed over to you from behind the counter. Theoretically you are supposed to have a prescription to bring them back into the U.S. I don't know how Customs and Border Control deals with this when you get back. Getting back on the ship was easy. It was neat to see the two ships parked side by side. Towards the departure, it was time to watch for the late runners catching the ship. There were 3 names called out. Once the last person was aboard, again to much shouting and applause, we departed. Usually there is more but it rained really hard about an hour before departure so most people just decided to cut their on-shore experience short and got back on.
Costa Rica Here we choose to take the Adventure Canals, Rainforest & Banana Plantation shore excursion offered by Carnival. There isn't an option to just get off the ship and take a taxi to a local beach. The trip was pretty neat I must say. The guides were able to see things along the shoreline that the average person never would be able to pick out. The guides were very informative and you could sense their pride of being able to tell us about their country. We did come across a crocodile and four howler monkeys hanging around the trees. The neat thing was the yellow butterflies that were everywhere. After that was done we continued on to the Dole banana plantation. If you've been to the Dole plantation on Oahu, it is absolutely nothing like that. This one is a working banana processing facility. You do a quick walk through and see how the bananas are taken from their large bunches, broken down into smaller bunches, then washed, labeled and put into their boxes. There is no gift shop at all and the whole tour was about 20 minutes. Then when you get back to the port, there is a shopping bazaar area which is all neatly organized and the prices were very reasonable. There isn't any shopping at all in the streets near the dock unless you are really adventurous.
Panama DW and I were debating which shore excursion to do for this port. Like Costa Rica, there wasn't any opportunity to just get off the ship and head to a local beach. We had originally made arrangements through myfriendmario.com which seemed to have good reviews. They were about $25/pp cheaper than the same excursion through Carnival. But in the end we chickened out and went with Carnival's. The only reason for this was that My Friend Mario had us coming back to the ship at 3:00 pm and Carnival wants you back on by 3:30 pm so that they can get out of there by 4:00 pm. We just didn't want to cut it that close. So we took the Portobelo and Gatun Locks tour. This started out with a short trip through Colon to make our way over to the locks. It was pretty awesome to watch those huge ships go in/out of the locks. If you've seen the ships come and go out of the locks at Sault Ste Marie, Michigan, the concept is pretty much the same. They gave us one hour at Gatun which was way more than enough time. There were tons of people there and it was very crowded. Oddly enough while up on the viewing stand DW got bit by a wasp. Go figure. Fortunately she had brought along some Benadryl so that kept the swelling to a minimum. From the locks it was off to Portobelo. It was about an hour drive there so we got to see some of the countryside. The focus at Portobelo was an old church there which has a lot of historical significance, then the Customs House which is where all the goods got processed when brought in/out of Panama in the early years. At the Customs House there was an opportunity to sit and watch a video which went over the history of the area. It was very interesting. Then we got to tour the old fort which was there to protect the city. On our way back to Colon, we could see a huge black plume of smoke rising over the horizon. After a while you begin to wonder if it is near the ship. Indeed it was. Turns out one of the warehouses in the duty free zone was on fire. Talk about black smoke! And never let up. It was burning for at least four hours like that. Found out when we got home that the entire warehouse area does not have any fire hydrants - something that has been identified before when other fires have occurred there. There was a fair amount of shopping near the ship. Plus, there was a nice large grocery store. Hertz and Budget had offices there so if one wanted to venture out on their own there certainly an opportunity to do so. Debarkation Carnival offers Luggage Express. This is an option for you to pay $20/pp and you'll get your boarding pass plus airline luggage tags ready for their final destination. We only choose to do this for one of us as we only had two bags and we could get DW's boarding pass at the airport. The idea is that you put the luggage tags on your bags the evening before your departure and leave them in the hallway. That will be the last you see of them until you arrive at baggage claim when you get home. The thing about this is that you have to make sure you'll have small containers of hairspray, etc., that will be OK to take through airport security. Normally you'd just put these things in your checked luggage in the morning when you get through customs, but with luggage express you don't get a chance to do this. That's the idea anyway. Turns out that Customs and Border Patrol randomly selects three passengers who are doing luggage express and wants to go through your bags. We were one of the lucky three. About ten minutes before our zone got called to disembark, we got a call in our room to come to guest services. So we were met by the friendly Carnival security guy who escorted us and another lady in a wheelchair down to the customs area. It was kind of like getting a back stage tour. Anyway, the customs guy checks our passports, and then quickly went through the two checked bags, never checking our carry on bags. They were doing a study to see if their random selection process was any better than picking out people their regular way. In a matter of minutes were done and the next thing you know we're outside on the sidewalk and it's 8:10 am. Our luggage express bags arrived at home just as advertised. The luggage tags given to us in the room must have been replaced at the airport with more conventional airline tags. The only thing about that whole process was that if the luggage was lost, you wouldn't have a luggage tag receipt that you normally get that has a tracking number on it. In fact, when we got the original tags in our room, it only had listed the first leg of our trip without any mention of our connecting flight. Obviously concerned I went to guest services to ask about this. They assured me that the bar coding alerts the airline of your final destination, and indeed this was the case. Nevertheless, I took pictures of the tag with the barcode info in case something went awry. Overall, it was a great vacation and look forward to another. Hope this helps.