My sweetie and I stayed at the Hawthorn Suites in Charleston the night before. The cruise-and-stay package (free shuttle to port at 11:00am or 12:00pm the morning of the cruise, free parking, and a free shuttle trip back) for $159 wasn't a bargain (not when a taxi costs $20 each way), so we booked their ordinary rate of $89 instead. The breakfast was hot with decent variety. We were allowed to park our car for free while we cruised.
Arriving at the Port was an experience. The taxi driver didn't know this (hence, there was much driving around and getting conflicting information from area police and from port officials), but you have to drop off your luggage at the baggage collection gate at the very end of Concord Street, and then you should be dropped of right in front of the Customs House at 196 Concord Street directly opposite to the ship. You will then walk over to one of the tents set up in the gravel parking lot A and a security official will look at your passport before allowing you to board the shuttle bus that will actually drive you up the gangway to the terminal entrance. We were the first passengers that day (5/25/11) on the shuttle bus and the first to actually step on the ship as well, and we had to wait until 11:15 to be let off of the shuttle bus and be allowed to enter the terminal. Don't be tempted to get there earlier. The wait outside the shuttle will be hot and dusty and won't get you on board any sooner! We'd finally arrived in the taxi to the right place at 11:00 to drop off our bags, go the to Customs House and walk to the shuttle, and we were through security and boarding the ship within 20 minutes.
Dining options didn't start until 12:00 and our room was inaccessible (the key card literally wouldn't work in the door) until 1:30, so we just sat in the inside buffet area of the Lido deck and had the Drink of the Day ($7.50, or $6.75 refill in the souvenir glass) and waited until the pool grill fired up at 12:00. The line for the burgers and fries was long and was always long the rest of the cruise. Here's a tip: before getting in line, take a peek in the center of the grill area to see if burgers and hot dogs are already waiting in pans--once I figured this out, for the rest of the cruise I just went right to the middle to get a hot dog with chili and bun and chicken tenders; all the condiments are there, too. I don't know why people stood in line when hot food was available right there! Probably to get the fries, which you do need to be in line for.
Our cabin was comfortable and we enjoyed the oceanview window. There was a Murphy-style bunk bed in our room that we didn't use. It was mounted on the wall in an unobtrusive way. Tips: bring a power strip with you as there is a single outlet in the room and only one in the bathroom, which didn't work. Also bring a hair dryer and a clock, as these aren't in the room, either. Review Carnival's personal beverage policies about the amount of alcohol and soft drinks you're allowed to bring on board with you. I saw many people walking around with their 12-packs before being able to drop them off in their cabins at 1:30. I'm not sure that would be worth the savings; a canned soda costs $1.95. Unlimited soda cards can be purchased per day as well--it's $6.00 for adults and can be used anywhere on the ship (including the dining room) except for room service.
The pizzeria actually makes personal pizzas to order (8-10 minutes each), so expect a wait to get pizza, though you can go and get other buffet items and come back in 10 minutes to retrieve your pizza. The tubs of parmesan and oregano and red pepper flake made a nice addition!
Sushi is given to you three pieces at a time. Decent quality, with soy and wasabi, ginger, spicy mayo, and cucumber salad for condiments.
The Mongolian grill has bean thread noodles, which I love. The selections can be bland, so make sure you grab a bottle of soy sauce from the inside of the buffet!
A rotisserie was meant to be available, but I never saw that.
I highly recommend filling out the continental breakfast order card (there should be one in the room service folder--you can get more from your cabin steward) and ordering a room service breakfast for the mornings you're in port. This proved very handy for us because we had excursions planned for Nassau and Freeport, and we were able to write down exactly what time we wanted our breakfast delivered to us both mornings. You hang the order outside your door the night before you want your breakfast delivered.
Powerade is available via room service, though you have to pay for it and it isn't on the menu. Just call and ask. We had some stomach issues that required sports drinks!
The Bistro coffees are worth the $2.25 to be able to walk around with a large cup of flavored goodness. You'll be tempted to try the impressive-looking desserts there for $2.25. The carrot cake was good. Skip the cheesecake (tasted like it was made with the international boxed-sort of milk, with hints of sheep or goat) and the cookies. I didn't eat more than a bite or two of either.
The dining room lunch (served in the Celebration) is very good and underutilized. You can order up your own loaded burger and hot fries everyday--no need to queue up at the pool bar. Soups and Caribbean offerings are not to be missed. And neither, frankly, is the novelty of that much more pampering!
The dining room breakfast (also in the Celebration) is also very good, though the Eggs Benedict were cooked too long for my liking. I remedied this by ordering my own English muffin, ham (very good, ask for two pieces), and two eggs over medium with a side of hollandaise sauce. Skip the chicken sausage--it won the battle with my knife. The French toast is good: thick-sliced.
Dining room dinners were more about the experience than the food. We were given a light show with dancing waiters most nights--don't expect 'refined'. The food was average, though a few selections stood out. Baby back ribs the first night and escargot the last were very good. The Asian-style appetizers were surprisingly tasty, and Carnival's award-winning Martini marinated basa filet was also quite good. The dessert menu stayed constant except for one or two offerings each evening. The coffee at night was far better than what was available in the mornings, which tasted like the thin sludge of instant granules. The warm molten chocolate cake was more 'molten' than 'cake' but it was served with a little pot of vanilla ice cream to cut the richness. Ask for a glass of milk to go with it. Cheesecake in the dining room is good, especially with the warm strawberry sauce. Baked Alaska on the last night is served cold in an individual portion. It didn't elicit fanfare.
One fun, unexpected part of this cruise was the opportunity to pose for tons of pictures with no obligation to buy them. If some proofs came out really well, you could choose to buy them or not. There were lots of backdrops to choose from, including the Titanic staircase.
The spa experiences I had were good. Not great, just good, with a heavy emphasis on upselling or buying products. Lots of lukewarm smiles behind sparkly, tired false eyelashes. Teeth whitening was not worth the $150--the $40 2-hour Whitestrips actually work better. Facial, pedicure, and couples massage were expensive and not as good of quality as you'd receive from a local place in town. The one exception is the men's pedicure--the buffing alone is worth it because it can last upwards of 6 months, and my boyfriend loves his shiny, healthy-looking toenails.
The gym facilities were warm. No fans on the cardio machines, either. Changing rooms/showers lack privacy.
In Nassau, we went out on our own and took a taxi ($5 per person) to the Breezes all-inclusive and got a day pass for $60. We made full use of the pool bar and grill with conch fritters, ocean kayaking, and sailing their 2-man Hobie Cats. They also do water skiing and (in limited availability) a trapeze for no additional charge. The buffet there has been very good, but we didn't visit it this time. Too busy sailing! The day pass hours are 10a-6p and it inlcudes towels, food & alcohol, and all the water sports. There is a swimming beach (expect seaweed beds) and plenty of lounge chairs and hammocks. Some nice pool areas too, including one pool where you have lounge chairs right in it! It was a great day.
Our Freeport excursion was the kayak and nature/cave exploration in the Lucaya National Park. Gold Rock Beach is stunning and the mangrove tidal creek is a fun paddle. No critters to worry about at all. We saw colorful fish and a bird or two. A light lunch consists of a make-your-own deli spread and cookies and lemonade. The three resident racoons are very hopeful you'll toss them goodies too. Bring a small bottle of water to drink for the kayaking part. The ride to get out to the National Park is almost an hour long--you'll be hungry and thirsty by the time you get to Gold Rock Beach for lunch, and sleepy on the way back to the ship!
We have loved cruising on Celebrity and so we didn't expect too much from Carnival; we weren't disappointed. We enjoyed the relaxation and time away. We were comfortably appointed and enjoyed our vacation. Happy cruising!