First Carnival cruise...
No MANGO in the Caribbean, great entertainment
We are 44 & 55yrs, 13 prior cruises with preferred line a tossup between Royal Caribbean & Princess. Cruises are chosen based upon our work schedules, which typically dictate a November departure and our homeport is Galveston. I'm typically a look for the good in any situation type of person. We don't drink alcoholic beverages very often since we've grown older. Cruise lines tried previously: 1-Crystal; 4- RCCL; 1-Holland America; 3-Princess; 1-Other; 3-NCL (pre-Freestyle).
Drove 6 hours the day prior and spent the night at the San Luis Resort. Parking was free in the north parking lot behind the hotel for the week, which was a savings of about $50. Room was booked 8 months prior on the direct website at an AARP rate of $160. That same rate a month prior was double. Location was convenient with restaurants in walking distance, beach & pool visible from room.
Embarkation & Disembarkation:
We arrived around 10:30am at the port & went into the holding room after a quick check-in. It seemed to go rather quickly & pretty much standard. Every employee was pleasant & helpful. We waited in 2 different areas...electronic devices (cell phones, kindle readers) were not permitted...and I didn't have my real books since I was planning on reading cruise critic on my blackberry while waiting.
Disembarkation went as smoothly as it can...waited up on the pool deck around 8:00-9:15 watching the CNN loop on the big screen. We were off on time in the 1st group of 6 called. Luggage in its area & quickly found. We didn't need a porter & the lines were moving fast without one. Grabbed a rare taxi after a brief wait, there didn't seem to be many available. Apparently, since it costs about $100 to get to the airport via taxi, the taxi drivers (according to ours) say that Carnival passengers are bargain hunters (ok, I am) and typically don't tip ( I do) or take long trips. He said even the cruise personnel aren't big money maker trips, so they go other places before checking the taxi lines. We were some of the first to get a taxi & I would imagine that it might be difficult for the late comers to catch a stray taxi. He was in between long runs & decided to pick up a quick buck. So, in the future, I will keep this in mind. Using the hotels shuttle might have been more of a sure thing. On the interstate headed home by 10:30. Doesn't get any better than this from Galveston, coming or going.
First impression was unremarkable. The Conquest was okay, not spectacularly impressive, but not pretty either. To be fair, I don't like orange...and the ship was full of dull ORANGE & red everywhere. As the week went on, I was swearing at the layout. I never did find the easy way to the dining rooms. It seemed that both ends of the ship had the entrance on the wrong floor. Signage directing you to the dining rooms wouldn't always put you where you needed to be to get IN the dining room. I am directionally challenged on a good day, but I knew which floor I needed to be on and which end of the ship and STILL couldn't get into the dining room! Then, I'd find the way in only to find out that I needed to go up a floor or down a floor...or it was the OTHER dining room that was open. The ship design was crazy. Crazy bad. I think I read another reviewer say the designer must have been color blind as well. I agree. Any artist knows which colors go together or contrast...there are even color wheels to assist. BUT...the shapes aspect looked good on paper in cartoon for approval! I remember seeing them in books & thought they looked rather neat then...not so much live & in color. But, I could overlook ugly for practical, if it were. I prefer a ship where I can navigate it at the end of the week. Another bad idea...the casino bar had a nice dance space with a good band playing all week. BUT, the traffic flow through the dance floor in front of the stage meant if you were tempted to dance, you were in the middle of traffic. AND, if you were playing card in the casino, you couldn't hear the dealers if they tried to call the hands because of the loud music.
On the POSITIVE side: The main showroom lounge had some really good balcony seats. Comfortable with good sight lines. All of the seats in all of the lounges & dining rooms were comfortable. The ship FELT comfy. Like worn out old house shoes & sweat pants after a long day at work. I can handle that.
Booked a Guarantee Balcony room about 6 months prior to departure & were assigned a Deck 9 room on the Lido deck forward. Location was fine. When I booked the room, a room assignment with an automatic upgrade from a lower category to this one was available (on a higher deck) for a rate about a $50pp higher. I gambled knowing that we could end up with the lowest category balcony...and I didn't really care where we were located. Room stewards were adequate & seemed to always be around when needed. The hangers in the closet were odd & not user friendly. Storage space was limited for folded items, but plenty of closet space. The worst thing was the non-existent shower pressure.
On the POSITIVE side: We always had more towels than we needed! Chocolates still ended up at turn down service. The shower curtain didn't molest me. The bedding was comfy & there were decent pillows. The A/C worked very well.
Awful. Horrible! Luby's is better. This is the first cruise where 75% of the meals on the ship were barely edible. This is the one area that I will remember more than anything else... years from now, when I remember this trip, the first thing that will pop into my mind isn't the fun we had, it will be how bad the food was. The pumpkin pie that was more like a dull orange slimy slick rubbery jello snot comes to mind. Blech.
The first day's buffet is typically leftovers & unimpressive. That was NOT the case here...everything was flavorful, if not exactly visually appealing. I thought if this was the worst day of dining, I was in store for some surprisingly good food. At this point, I'm thinking we got a pretty good deal. The RCI trip we had originally planned 2 weeks later (work cancellation) was $500 more for an equivalent balcony. But, alas, things went downhill instead.
The first meal in MDR I chose jerk pork & DH chose Prime Rib. I don't remember how exactly the sides were described but the same Chinese fried rice was served on both plates. Prime rib was actually Pot roast. Huh? The lobster night...the tail was smaller than the steakhouse & it was cooked well...but, it hadn't had all of the sand cleaned out of it. The shrimp/prawns with it weren't cooked thoroughly. It seemed that any steak dish was chancy...either not cooked as requested &/or not the cut of meat it was supposed to be. The menus didn't describe what the entrEe's were adequately. By the end of the week, I had learned that instead of pacing yourself to reach dessert, you SHOULD fill up on the bread & salads...and if you were lucky enough to guess at a good appetizer, you might want to order another one. Skip the entrEe. Dessert offerings were limited. Maybe 3 choices...if memory serves me. I'm not a big cheesecake person, but I ate more cheesecake on this trip than I usually do all year. It was the only consistent thing on the menu...not too rich, but fluffy. In spite of almost daily cheesecake & not taking the stairs, I lost 5 lbs this week. We ate at the steakhouse 2 nights & would have eaten there every night if the menu had changed. Too much food, but it was good. We wasted a LOT of food in the buffet trying to find stuff that we could eat. NEVER was a good breakfast to be had...no biscuits n gravy...the eggs benedict was baked/burnt to the extent that you could see what USED to be hollandaise sauce. I tried both MDR & buffet, both the same. With Princess, you can always resort to fruit & cheese at the buffet...there were 3 types of cheese slices & the fruit was whole apples, bananas, oranges. Where's the fresh pineapple? I found a small container of mixed fruit (pineapple, watermelon, cantaloupe) one day...not there the next. Not a single MANGO on a Caribbean cruise? Maybe all the decent food was on the smoking side? Did I say this 130lb 5'3" not picky eater went hungry for the week? I don't think I've ever been so challenged on a cruise for food! I started listening for other diners to see if anyone was raving about any particular dish, food, restaurant....nothing. We hit the IHOP for a good breakfast/lunch on the way home.
On the POSITIVE side: Anytime dining worked really well. We never had to wait for a seat. We always took the first available & ended up sharing dinner only once.
I had one filet in the MDR that was really good, recommended by the Head Waiter, Gary. Fantastic service from him. And during lunch... a warm cheesecake fresh out of the oven. The Steakhouse had a surf & turf that was really good the first time & lobster bisque was great. The breads were always warm!
I hear about people thinking no one dresses on Carnival...and you see people disregarding the dress code & going in Jeans. (Air sucking out of the room.) Well.... the dress code SAYS you CAN wear jeans in the dining room on casual nights! The only night you can't is Elegant night...and then a tie isn't required. So, if you see jeans, they are allowed. I was surprised to read it, but it is clear on the website what the guidelines are. So, if you care about what OTHER people are wearing...pick another line. I don't...but, I tend to dress up or down to fit in, if I feel like it. I follow the rules, so I tend to READ the rules. In spite of all that...I found that people dressed UP, for the most part. And the 2nd formal/elegant night was MORE formal than the first. Most of the women seemed to bring their fancy stuff & after seeing others wear it on the first night, brave it for the second. The 2nd elegant night rivaled other ships.
This is the one area where Carnival is head & shoulders ABOVE THE REST. EVERY night there were LIVE bands playing in each lounge area that we walked through. One evening I counted 4 different live music options. Most of the other ships might have one live band playing for an hour or two, rarely at the same time. In addition to this, instead of the standard one comedian doing one or two shows, they had a total of FOUR DIFFERENT ones doing TWO shows twice a week. The lounge they were in was too small, but it was intimate & comfy! You had to get there 30 mins early to get a seat, but you could have a Snack Beverage while waiting. Tip: Don't sit at the front if you don't want to be part of the show...and go to the restroom prior to the start!
We did a Carnival excursion to YS Falls & zipline canopy. The bus was a smaller bus, which was nice. It was a little steep in price, but I knew that peace of mind in Jamaica is Priceless. Even having been to Jamaica several times, there are still things I'd like to do there that I haven't had time to do. It was raining heavily all day & the falls were beautiful. On the way to the excursion (1.5 hr ride each way became 2hrs) there was significant flooding in the farm areas. Our route was flooded & we had to detour. The bus driver & tour guide hadn't been on that road before (I was concerned & would have been terrified if it were a private tour) and the locals were directing us in the right direction. We ate lunch at a Doctor's villa that was simple but delicious. Rice cooked in coconut milk with beans, real jerk pork, chicken, cole slaw. The fruit punch had ginger & nutmeg in it...I will try to make it at home sometime. We climbed the falls (not for the faint of heart) & I went first on the zips. There were about 5 or 6, I think. Not many, but they were long and fast. We were in line in front of a firefighter & his wife. They had their camera with them, so my DH took a few shots for them since the tour operators weren't selling photos.
TIP: Wear your ball cap under the helmet. If you want to swim in the falls, WEAR your swimsuit. While we left our gear on the bus at the parking, you needed to bring anything you wanted to change into & leave it in an unsecure area at the staging area for the zips.
It was too cold & rainy for pleasant swimming in the falls & really there wasn't enough time to do both. I think there was another trip offered JUST for swimming at the falls. That would have been nice on a sunny day, but if you pre-book excursions, you don't have a choice when the weather decides what to do.
The drive itself is pretty bad. I have a lot of patience & don't mind long drives. The way down was fine...on the way back, even I was ready to get off the bus. It is constant turning back n forth for the entire time...up one way, down the next. Motion sick prone people probably shouldn't try it. We had one guy get sick on the way back. I don't think he normally suffered motion sickness...he sat in the back.
Speaking of motion sickness... there was only one night that was bad enough to wake me up in the middle of the night. Out of 14 cruises, I've gotten mildly sick 4 times, always during 12ft> seas. The ship was going back n forth in the side to side motion. I laid sideways on the bed & went back to sleep.
Jamaica has a bad reputation for their poverty/safety. In the 90's going through Kingston, it really was as bad as you hear. I don't know if it was just Montego Bay, but the economic situation is improved significantly over my last 3 trips. It wasn't as bad as Costa Rica or Belize. This time. In the past, it was worse. It seems like the Texas/Mexico border is worse now...maybe the difference is the type of drugs being trafficked these days puts Jamaica out of the running? Cuidad Jaurez MX makes Jamaica look like Disney world.
We made it back to the ship with 5 minutes to spare.
Too tired from the all day trip before to head out to our previously planned on our own trip to Cemetary Beach. Made it a ship day instead. Found a quiet set of lounge chairs on the upper deck & read a book.
Booked through Island Marketing & went to Nachi Cocum for the day. Awesome food! LOL. Fruit plate had something that looked like a Ruby red grapefruit on it. Sweetest grapefruit I've ever tasted. The only downside was someone didn't get the message (research) that Nachi is supposed to be a peaceful place where you can hear the ocean waves lapping at the shore line. They brought a radio. It wasn't blaring, but really...why can't you bring your earbuds & listen by yourself if you can't tolerate your own thoughts? If you need music with your beach, try the resort next door (Mr. Sancho's?). It's supposed to be more lively.
Now that we have basically tried all of the major players (except Celebrity), in my opinion, with the changes in economic factors, ALL of the cruise lines are tightening the belt, some more so than others. It seems to be more ship specific than line specific. The best indicator of what you may get is to read the recent reviews here on Cruise Critic. Before our trip on the Carnival Conquest, there were very few reviews on this ship. I have decided that post trip it is more of an "if you don't have anything nice to say, say nothing at all" mentality that was just keeping most people quiet. That is why I didn't review my (most likely only) try on the Holland American Zuiderdam. That was my first attempt at a suite category & was so disappointing that I went back to the standard minimum balcony cabin. The price wasn't worth it & promised amenities weren't delivered. And that was the first time that the food just wasn't up to expectations. Looking back now, 3 cruises later...the food wasn't THAT bad!
We would go on Carnival again simply for the entertainment options, which were significantly better than the other lines. We might be tempted to smuggle food, though. A Mango is more illegal than a bottle of rum, and maybe some real butter for the warm rolls... can you say jail? They do alcoholic beverages well...if you could live on alcohol for a week, you'd be in good shape. The Mocha Chocolate Getaway was a meal enhancer for me.
Our main determining factors are time of year & homeport options. That means that if RCI isn't there yet, we either need to travel to New Orleans & go NCL or suck it up & go Carnival again. If we didn't have to travel last minute (3-6 months prior), we'd probably go with Celebrity's Solstice or Equinox, or try the Oasis/Allure. Sometimes last minute November airfare isn't a reasonable option for us. Having said all that...if we have a choice, we will choose the Other Cruise Line, whoever they are. It's worth an extra $500 for the week to eat. Just my opinions. Take what you can use & leave the rest!
Best mixed drinks: Carnival
Best Private Island: Holland America (& Carnival)
Best Entertainment: CARNIVAL (NCL used to be the best)
Best Shower: Royal Caribbean (Voyager class)
Best overall MDR food: Princess
Best desserts: Princess (soufflE & ship made ice cream)
Best Ships: Royal Caribbean
Best specialty restaurants: Royal Caribbean
Best pools: Princess
Best Casinos: Crystal
Best Balcony: Princess (Caribe Deck balconies)
Best Overall Staterooms: Crystal
Best service: Crystal
Best Value: Royal Caribbean