Having had enough of Ohio winter, we looked to find a seven day cruise that provided relaxation and warmth for us and our son, a college senior. Other than rest and warmth, our only requirement was that it involve only one flight from our Ohio home. While the usual Caribbean suspects were available from Florida,the beginning of Spring Break season had escalated the plane fares to Ft. Lauderdale and Miami to ridiculous levels. So, when we happened upon the Pride sailing from Baltimore to Port Canaveral, Nassau and Freeport on a Sunday to Sunday itinerary, it seemed perfect. Working with an online travel agent we have dealt with in the past, we snagged a Category 8E balcony room at a terrific price, with some on-board credit thrown in for good measure. The plane fare for the 75 minute flight to Baltimore was less than half the asking price for Ft. Lauderdale, so from a cost standpoint, we were well ahead of the game before leaving the house.
We landed in Baltimore without incident, and after a false step with a cab driver who chose to ignore our instructions (including pointing to the ship as we drove past), we arrived at the port very early, around 9:30 AM. We had been concerned that we would have problems gaining access, but these were quickly dispelled. A helpful security guard pointed to a luggage tram, where we deposited our bags, and after a brief check of our credentials, we were ushered inside. After a full-contact game of rummy, we were allowed to check in at about 10:30 AM, and boarding itself commenced right around Noon. Smooth as silk.
This was our second Carnival cruise (Freedom was the other), out of a total of 14 cruises, so we have a pretty good sense of what to expect from each cruise line. After the garish "circus tent" decor of Freedom, we were prepared for anything, and were actually pleasantly surprised. Pride is done in an Italian Renaissance theme, with walls, ceilings and some doors (including lavatory doors) done with reproductions of frescoes and paintings from the era. The lounge areas are filled with framed reproductions of paintings from the period (including descriptive nameplates), and the steak house sports a particularly bad reproduction of the David. Corridors in the cabin areas feature more stylized renderings of artistic themes, and while the whole thing is admittedly over the top, it is a unique look. Of course, it being Renaissance art, there is a dearth of clothing in the paintings, which will provide parents of younger children the opportunity to provide some anatomical explanations. While we heard some grumbling about this, in my view any dispute is overblown. You won't see anything here that you wouldn't see on a tour of the Vatican, the Uffizi or the Louvre, so it is really a non-issue for all but the most tightly wound. The atrium is dramatic, with glass elevators extending up through the center of the ship.
One feature/quirk of the Pride is the location of the primary activity centers on the ship. The main dining room, theater, lounges, shopping and related service desks are all situated on Decks 2 and 3, with the Comedy Club on Deck 1. An unfortunate side effect of this design is noticeable vibration from the engines, which is a bit disconcerting at first, particularly at dinner. While you get somewhat acclimatized to it over the course of 7 days, it is a nagging issue that is an unnecessary intrusion.
The staterooms were not available until after 2:00 PM, which was a minor annoyance, but understandable with the short turnaround. (Pride does not dock until almost 9:00 AM, and departs at 4:00 PM, providing 2-3 hours less turnaround time than most ships with 7 day itineraries). We grabbed a light lunch in the Deck 9 buffet, which is configured in typical Carnival style, with specialty stations for the Deli, Salads, hot meals and some specialized offerings. Poolside offered 24 hour soft-serve ice cream and yogurt, as well as the traditional burgers, hot dogs and fries during the day. A real find were the Nachos. The chips were home-made, light, crispy and delicious, and the cheese sauce was better than most. You add your own salsa, sour cream and jalapenos (which were terrific). The bad news is that the nachos, burgers and ice cream were the best food we had all week -- and that is only a minor exaggeration. But more on that in a bit.
As we found in our prior Carnival cruise, our cabin was clean and spacious, with plenty of closets and drawers, a full stocked mini-bar, a clean and roomy balcony, and comfortable king bed arrangement with couch. The bathroom was well outfitted and of typical size. The fan in the room was a bit loud, but the cabin itself was well insulated from surrounding sounds -- very important when you are on a ship that includes 400-500 college students on Spring Break. Of the various cruise lines we have patronizes, Carnival does rank in the upper echelon in terms of cabin room and appointments. Our cabin steward did a terrific job, though we never saw him during the cruise -- a first in our cruising experience.
As we had booked our cruise relatively late, we had been assigned late seating for dinner. We went to the dining room to request a move to early seating, and were pleasantly surprised to find virtually no line. Manuel, the affable Maitre d', took our request, but told us that there was a waiting list, and that we would have a note at our cabin, one way or the other, by 5 PM. True to his word, a card was delivered, and surprisingly indicated that our early seating request had been fulfilled.
When we arrived at the dining room, we found that our table was a hastily constructed three-top placed strategically in a corner, obviously as an after-thought. Still, we were appreciative, and had adequate room for the essentials without banging into others. Unfortunately, our waiter was apparently less enthralled with the added volume in his station. After delivering the menu with a perfunctory introduction, he disappeared. No water. No bread. No beverage service. No order placement. After about 15 minutes, he returned to our table, took our orders, and feigned surprise that no other service had been provided. Eventually, bread and water did appear.
The meals that first night were unremarkable, though my wife did say that the ribs were excellent. Based upon our prior Carnival cruise, we had ranked Carnival in the middle of the pack in terms of food quality. However, this cruise caused our assessment to plummet. While beef was usually cooked to the proper temperature, the cuts of meat were substandard. The food uniformly lacked seasoning and flavor. I'm not talking about spicy -- just basic, Day 1 cooking school seasoning -- salt, pepper, a few herbs. From the mushroom soup to the supposed Spaghetti Carbonara -- it all tasted similar. The Carbonara delivered to our table was so dry and lacking in flavor that it was inedible. Our waiter reluctantly brought more sauce, but that was too little, too late.
To be sure, the problems with the dining room food were exacerbated by our waiter, who set new standards in slowness. Mind you, we are not particularly demanding people, and I don't mind a leisurely pace to dinner. However, when it is clear that our food has been sitting under a heat lamp or similar for an extended period, and we are among the last out of the dining room every night, despite appearing promptly at 6:00 PM, there is an issue.
Unfortunately, the food issues were not confined to the dining room. The breakfasts at the buffet suffered from the same fate. There was a wild discrepancy in quality between stations, and overall the food was simply not cooked properly. Bacon ranged from slimy to carbonized, and there were a variety of sausage/onion combinations that defied description. The pastries tended to the dry side, and woe be to the person who dared the prefabricated scrambled eggs. Fortunately, there were multiple omelet/egg stations, and they produced a credible, if uninspired, product. At lunch and dinner, the Deli sandwiches were probably the best offering, and those were very ordinary, and delivered without much enthusiasm from the staff. Salad offerings were thankfully good, as our last few days aboard were spent consuming salad, nachos and burgers. (Full marks, however, to the cafe for some great cappuccino and pastry offerings).
To wrap up the dining experience, it was quite simply the worst food we have had in 14 cruises on various lines, and the only time we have ever been in the position to register complaints. Food quality is one thing, but the lack of service suggests a more fundamental problem in the operation of this galley, and I hope that Carnival addresses it soon.
Turning to more upbeat topics, the various lounges and entertainment options were excellent. The Pride is the first ship where we have seen a facility dedicated as a comedy club, and it was a big success. Family level and adult level shows were offered at multiple times most days on board, and the quality of the comics was very good. The staff did a good job of emphasizing that the adult shows were just that -- adult -- and the humor in those shows ranged from PG-13 to XXX. However, the humor was great in all of the shows, and they were uniformly packed, so getting there early was a must. My personal favorite was Al Ernst, but all were good.
There were the usual wide variety of activities during the day, and plenty to occupy everyone. Trivia and bingo were well managed, for the most part, and the entertainment staff showed a lot of enthusiasm and energy throughout the cruise. Kirk, the cruise director, was very solid all week, particularly in his hosting of The Marriage Game. Jamie was also excellent, and did a great job of playing off of Kirk's humor. Anna did a great job in her trivia assignments and her role as hostess for the comedy club. Karaoke, the night club, the sports bar and other venues all were very popular and well presented.
On other cruise lines, we tend to avoid things like the "Prior Guests" and "Farewell" parties, but attended both here. Carnival does do parties well, and these were no exception. Drinks were free, and a good variety was offered. Nobody was going to get plastered on the quantity of alcohol included in the drinks, but the supply kept coming. The "stage band" was excellent, and the lead vocalist, Wendy, was superb. It is challenging to appeal to the musical tastes of college students on Spring Break and the older set that frequents many cruises, but Carnival handles the challenge well.
We availed ourselves of the "Serenity" retreat on Deck 9, just aft of the buffet area. This is the "adults only" area of the ship, and offers a variety of deck chairs, lounges, etc., a pool and jacuzzi, and a less raucous environment than the other two pools. Again, our focus for this trip was sun and relaxation, but there was plenty of "action" when we were so inclined. The throngs of early Spring Break students unintentionally provided their own form of entertainment throughout the week. (I don't recall having the money to go on cruises when I was in college . . . and yes, that is jealousy you detect.)
The casino was a predictable hub of activity during the cruise. Carnival allows anyone 18 or older to gamble, which was a joy to some of the Spring Break crowd, and a source of despair to most others. The casino was roomy, but smaller than on Freedom. Unfortunately, the casino, and some of the other lounges, suffered from poor ventilation. The cigarette/cigar smoke became patently annoying relatively quickly -- and I am a former smoker.
While I will address the ports of call in detail by themselves, we have been frequent visitors to the Port Canaveral/Orlando area over the years, and have vacationed at length in Freeport, so these were very known quantities. The only planned shore excursion we took was a kayaking trip in Port Canaveral, where we spent much of it in an estuary surrounded by manatees. Chuck, our guide, was terrific, and guided us around the estuary and some parts of the Indian River. We saw and held horseshoe crabs, saw stingrays, pelicans and a variety of other wildlife. The manatees were the stars however, as they came close enough to pet, and would occasionally give our kayak a playful bump. Due to the wind, navigating the kayaks was more of a physical challenge than usual, but still well within the bounds of reason for virtually any age group. We were treated to a bonus when the space shuttle Discovery returned to land overhead, delivering its characteristic double sonic boom. This was a great 4-hour excursion, providing exercise, sun and a modicum of adventure. Other offerings included tours of Kennedy Space Center, trips to Disney World and Universal Studios, which are both popular and pricey.
In Nassau, we confined ourselves to self-exploration of the downtown area, which was enjoyable. Carnival offers the usual medley of beach getaways to the various resorts, as well as some snorkeling and related trips. Many of these focus on the Atlantis mega-resort, which has come to economically dominate the island. Large blocks of stores in the downtown area are shuttered, and one square block was recently victimized by fire. The bars and restaurants in the port area are predictably over-priced, and come complete with Bahamian service, which can most charitably be called "leisurely." Still, everyone was friendly, the sun was warm, and there were no worries.
Due to the scheduling of the cruise, the time in Freeport was limited to a few hours. Unfortunately, the combined effects of Hurricane Katrina and a depressed economy have taken their toll on the tourist industry on Grand Bahama Island. The former crown jewel of the island, the Bahamas Princess, stands idle and vacant after Katrina inflicted severe damage and the nearby Port Lucaya hotels, situated directly on the water, diverted tourist traffic. Even in Lucaya, one section of the Radisson stands closed, waiting for tourism to rebound. Still, there is a relaxed charm to the island, lower prices than in Nassau, and even the casino at the Radisson seems low key.
The cruise incorporates almost 4 full sea days, if you include the balance of the Sunday departure day. One of these is rather artificial, as the ship meanders along at about 10 knots for much of the first two days, taking the balance of Sunday, and all of Monday and Tuesday to reach Port Canaveral. In contrast, the Pride manages to get from Freeport to Baltimore in just a day and a half, leaving port at 2:00 PM on Friday, and arriving at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay late Saturday evening. Still, sea days provide ample opportunity for relaxation or on-board activity, as your mood dictates.
Debarkation was a snap. We chose to take our own luggage, and were off of the ship with no fuss within about 30 minutes of docking. The cab ride to BWI airport from the terminal is a flat $30, and takes 15 - 20 minutes. We arrived in plenty of time for our flight, with no stress.
The Carnival Pride is unquestionably a fun ship, as intended, and the entertainment staff works very hard to deliver a great travel experience. The quality of the food and the dining service are major detractors to the experience, however, and something that Carnival really needs to address. This cruise fit a particular niche for us, and we found the warmth and relaxation we were looking for. However, in the future, we are more likely looking to the other cruise lines that have served us well in the past. At minimum, we will be unlikely to re-visit the Pride unless the dining experience improves dramatically.