BACKGROUND INFORMATION: 5th Carnival Cruise for my wife and I, who are in our late 40s. Two previous cruises on Norwegian. All previous cruises, except for our honeymoon in 1987, were with our children, so this was our first "empty-nester" cruise. Our most recent cruise was on the (then) smoke-free Paradise in 1998. After planning this cruise for six months and reading all these mostly negative reviews, we almost dreaded seeing how far down the toilet Carnival's ships and service had gone in 12 years. Not to worry--we were so pleased with the cruise and everything associated with it.
We had several goals on this trip: First, eat no hamburgers or pizza. We have those available at home. Second, don't use the elevators at all. We need to burn calories. Third, get a good workout in the gym every day. We succeeded on all these goals. I still gained five pounds, but DW managed to keep her smokin' hot figure. We knew we took a risk by scheduling a cruise in the height of the hurricane season, but the low fare was irresistible. Good gamble. The weather was great, with just some occasional showers.
TRAVEL TO PORT/EMBARKATION: Living in North Georgia, we wanted to drive to Mobile the day before. We took advantage of the Renaissance Riverview's Park&Cruise package. Great hotel, and right across the street from Veet's, a local bar with a great live band. The place was hopping, even on a Sunday night. The shuttle service to the port was prompt and carefree. Embarkation lines were long, but moved quickly. As long as you have your documents ready and sign the "I am not anticipating death from a communicable disease this week" form somewhat truthfully, you are headed up the gangway quickly.
DINING: We loved the Mongolian wok line near the pool. It's available every day at lunchtime, even while in port. Fresh ingredients are stir-fried to your liking in just a few minutes.
We preferred the dining room for breakfast. You may be seated by yourselves, or at a table for ten. We enjoyed meeting new folks. If you think you wouldn't enjoy this, at least try it. Service is so quick, your food is in front of you before you have to tell your life's story over and over to new people.
We ate in the dining room every night (early seating) and were assigned to a six-seat booth with couples from Missouri and Alabama. They were absolute jerks, and we dreaded seeing them every night (just kidding guys---I know you're reading this). Seriously, Carnival matched us up with two great couples of similar ages, and dinner was a highlight of every day. After reading previous reviews, I wondered whether the warm chocolate cake is worth all the attention. One word: yes.
Dining room service was flawless. I'd love to be able to point out even a small flaw, but I can't. Gama and Jajio remembered our names and our food/beverage preferences. I'm somewhat of a coffee snob, and the dining room coffee and cappuccino are both delicious. It is surprising that cola drinks are treated as bar drinks for an extra charge, but cappuccino is available without extra charge.
I ordered a few room service late night snacks and continental breakfast the last day of the cruise. Tasty and delivered exactly when promised.
In summary, the food was excellent. Maybe we had more time to enjoy our food since we weren't supervising two kids, but I was pleasantly surprised by the entire dining experience.
STATEROOM: We never saw our steward; nor did we need to. Service was impeccable. The mattresses and bedding were so comfortable.
ACTIVITIES/ENTERTAINMENT: We enjoyed the smaller acts and venues more than the Mikado Lounge production shows on this cruise. Chris and the Showband were accomplished musicians, and were comfortable performing pop standards in the Romeo & Juliet Lounge.
DISEMBARKATION: We did the "self-assist," which means we carried our own luggage off the ship. Self-assist passengers are able to disembark before those who leave their luggage for the porters. We probably couldn't handle luggage for a seven-day cruise by ourselves, but managed just fine. Customs was quick.
PORTS: We didn't purchase shore excursions in either Cozumel or Playa del Carmen (Calica). We cabbed to town and browsed around for a little while. The food at Pancho's Backyard in downtown Cozumel was very bland. Carlos and Charlie's in Cozumel is sleazy. Senor Frogs at the beach in Playa was fun and seemed very safe. I received the best massage of my life near the pier in Cozumel: $20 for 20 minutes. A fraction of the cost of the ship's spa.
RANDOM NOTES: 1. Many more photo opportunities than previous cruises—we became expert at saying "no thank you" after we posed for a few. We bought some, and they were of excellent quality. 2. The ship's gym is clean and the machines were in good working order. The cruise director and staff were great---just the right mix of cheese and decorum. 3. The Carnival "Past Guest" reception was well-attended, with plenty of free drinks and snacks. 4. The passengers were very well behaved. We saw only one boorish lout. I know his mama would be proud of him. 5. There were many more school-age children than I ever would have predicted. Are any school systems on break the week of September 20th? If not, why aren't your kids in school? 6. The bartenders say that passengers are more laid-back on a five-night cruise than a four-night itinerary.
SUMMARY: The cruise was a bargain and did not disappoint. We recommend the ship, the port and the itinerary.