First, as a point of reference, I am by no means a cruising expert. This was my third cruise in 10 years, so I only have a few points of comparison. My previous two were Alaska on the Norwegian Sky in a Suite (our honeymoon) almost 10 years ago and The Navigator of the Sea (Royal Caribbean) through the Caribbean about 6 years ago (inside cabin).
For some demographics, I am 34 married with one son (not with us). We travel a lot, domestically and internationally, and I consider myself a bit of a buff with the hospitality industry.
A couple things I will not be able to comment on. First, since we left our 3 1/2 year old with his aunt, i can't comment on the kids club, but I've heard very positive things from friends. Second, we had no interest in the shore excursions. The prices on these seemed out of control; $100 to go to the space center, $160 for a ride and ticket to Disney, really?
Boarding - Compared to Miami and Seattle, the Baltimore port is clearly the loser. It is primarily a cargo port and boy does it show. That being said, I was pretty impressed with how organized the process was. Boarding was supposed to be 1:30 - 3:30, but after getting there around12:45 we were on the ship by 2pm and snacking while our room was ready by about 2:30. While our experience was very positive, we read plenty of stories of people waiting a long time because the boat was late, and I can believe that given the itinerary.
The Cabin - All inside/outside/standard balconies are 174 square feet. That may not sound like a lot, but it is really quite comfortable. I remember Norwegian being bigger, but that was a Suite, and this felt a lot bigger than our inside window on The Navigator. Amenities were reasonable, but nothing stood out, it was roomy and serviceable. We originally had an inside cabin and were offered and upgrade a few days prior to a balcony for $300. In retrospect, this was a poor decision considering it was winter and we made almost no use of the balcony.
The Ship - The Carnival Pride is significantly smaller than either of the previous ships we've been on, and there is certainly a difference of focus. First, I could feel the movement of the ship. I'm not sure if this was something about the ship, where in the ocean we were or the time of year it was. I spoke to a number of people about this that had been on the cruise previously and they said this was unusual. But still, bring your motion sickness pill. Also, there is more engine noise and general noise than I remember on other ships.
Side Note: I was extremely disappointed that in addition to selling motion sickness pills ($8), they offered (placebo) bands. I should have asked if they sold leeches too.
We had heard/read mixed reviews on the decor, but I quite like it. There are reproductions of famous art everywhere, and they use a lot of darker woods. It actually gives it a more formal feel, not something that you'd expect from the Carnival stereotype. And yes, all that art means you will see some *GASP* renaissance nakedness. On the topic of Carnival, I have read that this ship, due to where it sales from, caters to a very different demographic than their normal target. The audience is significantly older with a lot more families and not so much the college and party ship. I would say my very unscientific observation finds this to be the case.
Because the ship is smaller, there are a lot fewer shops. Yes, there are the obligatory sundries and logo wear, liquor store, and overpriced jewelry store, but I remember a lot more on the other two ships. Personally, this is fine with me; I'm not on the ship to go shopping. There also seem to be a lot more bars and lounges on the ship as a ratio to other public rooms. This might be a result of the demographic they generally target, or might just be my perception. So far of what I've noticed, it is a nice balance of themes in the bars/clubs.
A quick aside and my first big complaint. On our cruise, Monday Night Football was a classic match-up between the (ships) hometown Ravens and the Steelers. I was really looking forward to watching the game in the sports-bar with a crowed who was really into it. Unfortunately, the Sports Bar and the Piano Bar were the only public rooms hosting the game, and both are two of the relatively few places you can smoke and boy were they smoky. At least I was able to watch from my room, but not the same. It would have been nice if there was a smoke-free public lounge with the game on.
Prices on the ship seem to be a bit higher than I remember or expected for some things. Cocktails and tropical drinks are essentially $7 - $9, which really seemed high, but maybe that shows how rarely I drink when out. Also, many of the daily specials come in fancy glasses or coconut cups that are a significant charge-up. $2 for a can of soda seems a bit high, but if you are going to drink a lot, you can get an all-you-can-drink for $6/day. Internet access is very expensive ($0.50/min?) which to me is outrageous considering their cost to run it. During the first day, third day and last day you are near enough to shore to get cell phone/data access.
The Food (Main Dining Hall) - Okay, food is one of my great loves. I love everything about the culture of food, the eating of food, the history of food. I seriously love food; please reference my much-in-need-of-attention blog: joelovestoeT.bloodspot.com. I also think I have very high standards and expectations of food. This is not to say i expect every meal to be 5-star, nor do I expect perfection. When I eat at a burger joint, I expect one thing. When I eat at formal dining, I expect another.
My expectation of the main dining hall on the ship is more toward the formal side. I expect a meal of the quality of a nice sit-down restaurant, and one that I would want to return to.
(Day 1) My starters did not meet expectations, but they were by no means bad. Shrimp cocktail was serviceable, but the shrimp was too small. The fruit was.....fruit. For my entree I had a vegetarian Indian meal. I ordered this because A) I like Indian food B) I figured it would be a good test. I have to say I was pretty impressed, the two curries were very well spiced and the sides were very nice. Only downside was the naan. It was tasty bread, but certainly did not have the texture of naan. My guess is they just can't make it right without a brick pit oven. My wife's fish was decent, but nothing exciting to me (except the Mac & Cheese was surprisingly good). Desert is another test for me. A sub-par restaurant will figure that sugar and fat removes the need to put in effort. My cake was very (surpassingly) good as was my wife's crème bru lay. Comparing to the other ships (remember, one was almost 10 years ago) better than Norwegian, not as good as Royal Caribbean.
The service was a bit disappointing. It certainly wasn't bad, but I do remember it being better on both other ships. Water refills were slow, and one side didn't come until after our meal. I rate the staff as average. Now, that is compared to my other cruising experiences. Compared to what you get at most restaurant and hotels, they are excellent. Our wait staff was attentive, but not exceptional. However, some of the other teams seemed to be much more animated and involved with their tables. They all seemed to be very drawn to kids, which as a parent can be a real help for those few minutes of the waiter entraining the kids.
(Day 2) This was one of the formal nights. We love dressing up, so I was in a tux and my wife was decked out. The majority of people at the dinning were in dark suits, and I think everyone had at least a tie on. Once again, the appetizers were a bit weak, not bad, just weak. The entree I had was the lobster and shrimp. The lobster was good, and the shrimp wad really excellent.
(Day 3) - Food today was a mixed bag, lunch was a very good sandwich while dinner was a mediocre at best beef rib. It tasted like a bad brisket. So far it is the first item I've had that I would consider sub-par. Based on a relatively small sample-set; I am starting to formulate a pattern that the more 'unusual' an item, the better they make it. This could be as a result of many of the cooks being foreign and what an American pallet considers exotic, they are accustom to making
The Food (Buffet) - We did not eat at the buffet very often, except for a few light snacks. For breakfast they have the standard affair: eggs, bacon, sausage, gravy, omelets, etc.... I give is a solid B (there will be no constancy of rating scale). For lunch/dinner they have a couple rotating stations (Asian, French, Mexican, etc...) I was actually a little disappointed in most of them, but there were some hits. At almost any time you can get sandwiches from the deli which were all very good and 24 hour pizza which was pretty good. I compared it to very well done frozen pizza (which I'm sure is what it was).
The Food (Other) - There is also a sushi 'bar' during the evening which was surprisingly good. At 3:30 on sea days there is high-tea which I felt was a bit of a letdown, but my wife was a fan. It was essentially herbal tea, a sandwich, and some cake.
The Food (Steakhouse) - On the Pride (and many carnival ships) there is a boutique restaurant you can eat at for $30/person. I would compare it to a high end steakhouse, very good food and outstanding service. I would recommend dinning there once on your cruise as it really is an excellent value. Many other liners have similar options, and some feel this is pulling focus away from the main dining halls.
The Food (Room Service) - Room service is fine and available 24-hours. You have a selection of sandwiches, burgers, soup, vegetables, fruit, and deserts. Expect a 30-45 min wait, but it's a really nice option at 11pm when you get the munchies.
The Gym - Most days we started with an hour work-out in the gym. The hope is we will only gain 5 pounds instead of the average 10 pounds a cruiser puts on. I'm curious if that number is from all the food or the incredible amount of fruity drinks I see people pounding. The gym was pleasant and the equipment was very nice.
The Entertainment - We did two of the main shows. The first was the main verity show. I am probably not the best judge of quality as it is really not my thing. From what I could tell it was decent, and the crowed seemed to quite like it. It was essentially dancing in a wide range of styles. The second was more music-focused, but once again, I did not get into it. Also, I thought some of the girl's outfits were unnecessarily skimpy. I hear there is a movement towards "real" theater, and I really hope this is true.
The ship has recently added a comedy club where two sets of two comics give a couple different shows. Over the course of the cruise you can probably see six or seven comedy shows. There was a range of talent, but overall I thought they were very good, but certainly not headliners.
While walking around we listened to a lot of live music. There really is a tremendous amount of live music. Virtually all the bars and lounges have live music at one time or another. There is also karaoke and karaoke with a live band (which I thought was a brilliant idea).
We spent some time in the karaoke bar, much more fun than i expected. The clubs and lounges are all very distinct in their look and feel, a very nice variety: disco, piano bar, karaoke bar, comedy club, etc...
We also tried the hot tubs at night. Not as hot as i would like, but I understand why. Also, boy is there a ton of chlorine.
Port Canaveral - I wasn't sure why the ship spends time in Port Canaveral, but according to the ship guide it is basically so people can take day trips to Disney (bizarre in my opinion).
Like I said, we found no interest in the shore excursions, so today was a chance to experience the ship in a quiet fashion. In the part we've enjoyed having the ship a little more to ourselves.
I have to say the ship is a little too quiet. Maybe this is because we've been on the ship so long and people were desperate to get off. Also, because of this some of the food facilities are closed at lunch, including the main dining hall.
Nassau - As the only real city you stop in we did get off the ship in Nassau to walk around. You can take a taxi/ferry to paradise island (where the Atlantis is) for $3-4 and walk around. Note you are limited on where you can go without being a guest or buying one of their day-passes which range from $39 to $119. We walked around the city a little bit, but did not go to any of the sites or museums.
Freeport - I have no idea why they stop here. You are a ways away from anything to see, and you leave by 2pm to make it back to Baltimore on time. The one positive, you are in a working ship-yard so it's pretty cool to watch the operation. I saw lots of cargo being loaded onto ships and a cruise liner in dry-dock being worked on.
Other Thoughts - For those who have not cruised before, things to keep in mind in regards to money. While it is (mostly) all inclusive, that mostly has some significant caveats.
First, this includes the obvious: Spa services (gym is free), alcohol (to some on the ship this was not obvious), gambling, stores on board, excursions, and tipping (which effectively adds $10/day/person)
There are other things you can spend money on: laundry service (very reasonably priced, and unless you are a master packer, you will use), various specialty dining options. On our ship this included a $30 steakhouse and the $90 chefs table (which budget precludes me reviewing). Photo services, exercising classes (yoga, pillages, spinning), special classes (scrap booking), bingo, temporary tattoos.
Also, the topic of drinks: You will pay for soda, bottled water and juice, and specialty coffee shop drinks. You will not pay for tap water, ice tea, coffee, lemonade, dispensed juice. At the main dining hall you can also get cappuccino and espresso. I would recommend bringing a nice water bottle with you to carry water/lemonade and such around. For $6/day for adults you can get soda and bottled juice.
I had one drink special that came in an over the top coconut monkey face. Very cool looking, but I didn't realize it was $17. Also with drinks remember there is a 15% service charge and tax. So the $7.95 drink special is about $9.
The spa is also quite expensive. We have used the spa on other cruises, but on this one they seemed to be focused on high-end services ($125-$175) with a lot of what I consider gimmicks. I was also disappointed to see they had "health" talks which I can guarantee had no scientific/medical backing and were probably there to sell products. They also had an acupuncturist which was disturbing because 1) the rolling seas 2) it's a known scam http://www.ncahf.org/pp/acu.html.The acupuncturist was the only one I saw wearing a lab-coat, though my wife says others had them .
Summary - So what is my evaluation? Let me start by saying that I think cruising is one of the best values in vacationing. Our trip for the two of us was $950 after taxes before our upgrade of $300 and tipping of $10/person/day = $140. So for room, board, and entertainment we paid about $1400 for a week-long vacation.
I break my evaluation into three questions: Would I cruise on Carnival again and would I cruise out of Baltimore, and would I cruise in December again. I feel Carnival offers a very good value. While not as nice as Royal Caribbean, it is cheaper. Their ships are more focused on game shows, singing waiters, and alcohol; none of which interest me, but that is purely individual taste. As for cruising out of Baltimore; for someone in the North-East it is amazingly convenient. Not having to fly before/after your relaxing cruise is a huge bonus. Right now there are three liners that use Baltimore and the itineraries are limited and it is not their premier ships. I really hope this grows with time. Finally, would I cruise in December again? On one hand, the price is about half what you might pay in the warmer months, but the fact that you are in very cold weather for half your cruise really does detract from the experience. I would recommend that if your focus is on shows and eating and other activities inside the ship, then it is a tremendous value. If you are into sitting out in the sun and having the tropical experience, then I would reconsider. Finally, I think the room upgrade was virtually a waste of $300. Good trip, fun times, we hope to do it again.