This is a review of our October 2-9, 2011 cruise aboard the Carnival Conquest, roundtrip from Galveston, TX to the Western Caribbean. We are Josie & Al, semi-retired Realtors from Houston. The cruise was our ninth together in just over four years, my first with Carnival in about a decade. Weve sailed primarily with Princess and Royal Caribbean, the former being our cruise line of choice. This trip wasnt extensively planned. We just wanted a quick getaway, and Carnival made us an offer we couldnt refuse under $400 for seven nights was tough to pass up. My reviews tend to be long, so please bear with me. Each component is rated from one to five stars.
Embarkation **** Pretty much the usual a bunch of folks coming and going, long snaking lines that moved relatively quickly, considering the number of people. Baggage porters were readily available. We arrived just after noon, and were aboard within a half-hour. The cruise was sold out.
The Ship *** The Conquest is the first of its namesake class (sister to the Glory, Valor, Freedom and Liberty), launched in 2002, refurbished in 2009 and save for a little rust here and there, its in really nice shape. The architectural designs of Joe Farkas can be a bit over the top but its a cruise ship, not our living room. The Lobby (Deck 3) and Atrium (eight decks high) are particularly impressive.
There were, however, several maintenance issues during the cruise
An overhead leak developed on our deck. It took three days and made quite a mess, but was finally repaired. High-speed floor fans ran continuously, to evaporate the water from the carpet.
The hot tubs worked sporadically either cold or totally out of commission.
One elevator was out of service for most of the cruise ...the stuck passengers had to literally pry open the doors to escape.
Someone came up with the idea to refinish the wooden handrails during sea days, when so many people were on deck the fumes were overpowering (the crew wore masks), and not being able to use the rails was precarious.
The ship seemed to vibrate much more than others weve sailed not the type of motion associated with rough seas (weather was not an issue), but more steady and continuous. It was especially profound in the bathroom. I dont know whether its normal, but other passengers made similar remarks.
It took a couple of days, but we finally got the hang of the layout. Essentially, the Promenade Deck (5) is the major thoroughfare, and does get quite crowded, since the casino, shops, some service kiosks (future cruises, port shopping, etc.) and eating venues (sushi, coffee & pastry) are all located on the way to and from the clubs and pubs at the aft end of the ship. The hallway isnt particularly wide to begin with, but to further compress the crowd, there were at least a dozen photographers along the way, each touting a different backdrop and they were there every night! We should have gotten an immediate clue as to the emphasis on visual memories offered to Carnival passengers virtually all of Deck 4 is devoted to the Photo Shop.
The stench of smoke from the wide-open casino permeated the immediate area. Carnivals smoking policy is scheduled to become a bit more restrictive shortly hopefully this matter will be addressed at that time.
Our stateroom (8-321) was fine Verandah Deck, inside, mid-ship, away from the noisier venues. Apparently, location makes much more of a difference on these ships than on others weve sailed. Several people we spoke with were kept awake until the wee hours by the activity in the clubs so check the deck plans carefully before booking.
As Realtors, we needed to be tethered to our office, clients and other agents. The ship-wide wi-fi worked pretty well, and we were able to use our laptop in the stateroom. The cost is a bit steep (a two-hour package runs $59) and service is slower, since signals must bounce off satellites. But overall, it functioned as expected.
The Passengers *** Galveston is not your typical homeport, as the vast majority of passengers drive to the terminal. The closest major airport (Bush Intercontinental) is in Houston, at least 90 minutes away. Further, the additional cost of getting to and from the ship can be substantial. Given that the itinerary is nothing special, those folks who cant fly into Houstons other airport (Hobby International, basically on Southwest or JetBlue about a 40-minute trip to Galveston) are better off cruising out of Florida. What you wont encounter are large numbers of international travelers youll meet primarily residents of Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi and other surrounding states. All demographics were amply represented yes, even a considerable number of us older folks (contrary to the general perception of Carnival passengers). Surprisingly, there were a good number of kids onboard, but they were well-behaved and presented no problems whatsoever.
The Crew ** Ill address the dining room personnel elsewhere. As for the others, we found them generally friendly and efficient, although not quite to the extent of those on other cruise lines. This is not to say that they detracted from our enjoyment but they basically just did their jobs. Our stateroom steward was fine, although it took some time before our cabin was serviced each day. Were used to having everything in place by 10:00 or so. On this cruise, when we returned to get ready for lunch, we often found it as wed left it. He did mention that his regular morning hours are 8:00 to 12:00 in our case he made it just under the wire.
The Cruise Director, Hennie, and his assistant, Squishy, were nothing outstanding. More often, they acted like passengers, rather than those charged with overseeing our enjoyment of the experience. Speaking of which, except for the usual silly poolside activities (hairy chest contest, mortal combat with a towel as the enemy), a strange obsession with beanbag toss (every day in the lobby really!), obligatory Bingo, and a few trivia games, there was actually very little to do, even on the three sea days. This was a recurring topic at dinner. We surmised that Carnival is more focused on sales (free seminars on pricey spa-related services; pushing a bunch of cheezy jewelry and watches handcrafted by the skilled artisans of China; photo ops every few feet, etc.) than in offering any semi-structured activities which produce no revenue. If people need to pass the time, its better (for the cruise line) that they either be on deck (presumably enjoying a drink or three) or in the casino there wasnt much else going on. Thankfully, we brought our music and iPads with us.
Then theres Andrew, the shopping guru. He has obviously blurted out his spiel more than once he spoke rapidly, with virtually no expression, spewing forth the usual drivel about the ports on this cruise being the best places in the world to shop. It doesnt matter to these folks wherever we happen to be, theres no better spot to pick up those deals of a lifetime. Im continually amazed by people with absolutely no prior knowledge, who blindly head for the nearest Diamonds (or Tanzanite or Colombian Emeralds ) International (ever wonder why theyre located almost exclusively in cruise ship ports?), to eagerly spend thousands of dollars. Perception is reality, I guess and as long as they think that they stole that piece of jewelry , so be it. Incidentally, these shopping guides are not employees of the cruise line, but independent contractors whose income is derived from the commissions and fees paid by the shops in port (yes, being a recommended and guaranteed merchant comes at a price). Theyre generally free to negotiate their own compensation arrangements, and many do very well. Theres actually a school for these folks www.portshopping.com . Take a look its quite an eye-opener.
Food/Dining **** We were quite pleasantly surprised by the quality, variety, preparation and presentation of food in both the Main Dining Room and buffet. We try to eat vegetarian as much as possible (although we do take some liberties when cruising), and were offered some excellent options in both venues. Particularly outstanding was the Indian Vegetarian selection, available each evening at dinner ingredients varied, but we always found it to be tasty (and spicy). There was even a tofu steak one evening. Carnival recently revamped its menu, and most passengers remarked that it was definitely for the better. Interestingly, theres both a didja choice each evening (as in, didja ever want to try something a bit out of the ordinary escargot, frogs legs, alligator fritters, etc.) and a comfort food (mac & cheese, short ribs, etc.). Some of the every-day items include a flatiron steak, grilled fish (salmon and mahi-mahi), grilled or fried chicken, and even a build-your-own burger. Overall, it was a highly positive experience. But wait theres more!
One of the most popular food venues was Pauls Deli (actually just a walk-up window located within the buffet area) featuring made-to-order sandwiches (corned beef, pastrami, tuna, Reuben, etc.), various cheeses and breads, and a moment on the Panini press if desired. Its an excellent concept. Theres a dedicated sushi bar located on Deck 5, which was also wildly popular we loved the cucumber/avocado roll. In addition, theres 24-hour pizza (Papa John has nothing to worry about), a grill (burgers, hot dogs, and even veggie burgers, with all the fixins not bad at all) and a Mongolian-style barbecue lunch unusual and nicely done, right down to the woks.
The optional restaurant is The Point Steakhouse, at $30 per person. We didnt avail ourselves of this facility, but one couple told us that they enjoyed it immensely; another thought it wasnt worth the money go figure. If you want to spring for the big bucks, theres the Chefs Table, featuring a multi-course feast prepared by the executive chef himself. In all our years of cruising, weve never left a dining room hungry but its your vacation and your money.
The staff in all dining venues was exceptional. Our serving trio of Jose, Severo and Isidro were among the best weve ever encountered. Not being ordinary diners, we made several special requests (grilled vegetables, for example), and were accommodated without hesitation. We opted for Your Time Dining, and never experienced a wait. What we noticed was a greater number of tables for two than on any other ship weve sailed. Selections at the buffet were promptly refilled, areas were kept clean, tables emptied quickly no problem finding a place to sit.
A word about the dress code essentially there is none. On the five cruise casual nights, anything other than swimwear, tank tops, cutoffs and gym attire is permitted (yes, jeans, shorts and t-shirts are fine). The two cruise elegant evenings are barely a step up ... most men wore long pants and collared shirts; others donned sport jackets with or without ties. There was a smattering of suits and formal wear.
Entertainment ** Were not fans of cruise ship production shows, and this trip did nothing to change our opinion. There were two major performances Voila Paris and Point & Click. The former is self-explanatory, although it morphed into some bizarre vignettes with totally inexplicable costuming. The latter was supposed to be a trip through the Internet we didnt get it, nor did anyone around us. Both were entirely too long, and a good number of people left before the shows concluded. Scenery and costumes were major initiatives, with lots of changes but they did save money on the girls attire, generally thongs. The two lead singers were ordinary, and sounded like a dozen others weve heard.
There were a couple of high spots, however. Lady Hellevia is a stunning Venezuelan entertainer who combines the unlikely dual talents of magic and aerial acrobatics and shes quite good at both. Unfortunately, between feats, the dancers performed what appeared to be a series of mating rituals and to make matters worse, just before the early performance (8:45), out came one of the cruise directors staff to conduct a game of Bingo, right down to hustling $20 cards as people walked through the doors. Youve got to be kidding! Most of the audience was visibly annoyed; we were really taken aback by this ... as if there werent enough opportunities to play during the cruise.
Unlike other cruise lines, Carnival has a dedicated comedy club, where four performers alternate between family and adult routines. At best, they were amusing. Theres a reason why theyre not working Vegas. Theres also the usual Karaoke and passenger talent show, although Carnival puts a spin on the latter by having them perform as legends of show business. The participants displayed more bravery than talent. The house bands (save for a nice duo that performed in the lobby at dinner time) were forgettable.
Ports of Call *** The itinerary is the quintessential Western Caribbean run Jamaica (Montego Bay in this case), Grand Cayman, and Cozumel (the St. Thomas of Mexico). Most passengers who didnt spend their days shopping headed for the nearest beaches and/or water-themed activities dolphin and stingray encounters, rafting down a serene river although some endured the interminable ride to the Aztec ruins at Tulum, went zip-lining, did some touristy trips, etc. Weve been to these ports often, and didnt find anything overly enticing this time the ship was our primary destination.
Disembarkation zero! This was by far the worst, most ineptly handled departure weve ever experienced. We were asked to be out of our staterooms by 8:00 a.m., and the schedule called for us to leave the ship between 9:15 and 9:45. We were still aboard at 11:00, with absolutely no explanation from anyone other than, Were running a little late. We eventually began the process, slowly moving our way with half the passenger load (all of whose numbers were called simultaneously) through the one disembarkation point, finally getting off the ship close to four hours after we left our cabin. Of course, by that time, those boarding for the next cruise had arrived in droves, further hindering our departure from the terminal. We were picked up by a friend, who spent the better part of an hour in the congestion. By contrast, he dropped us off at the same time the week before, and encountered little resistance.
Conclusion: Overall, the cruise was OK. Its not something wed go out of way to book but given the price, it was an excellent value. Would we sail it again? Only if we could get a similar deal its a classic example of, You get what you pay for. There is a further enticement, though. The new (as in brand new) Carnival Magic will be sailing year-round out of Galveston beginning next month, with the Conquest moving to New Orleans.
To sum up, Carnival is not for everyone, largely due to its more relaxed, casual ambience its definitely not your grandpas cruise line. First-timers abounded and given that they have nothing to use as a benchmark, it was almost certainly a wonderful experience for them. We didnt see any evidence of the common perceptions that Carnival attracts a lower class of people, or that everyone aboard is in their twenties, and hammered most the time we did encounter one individual who was a bit unsteady, but he was at least in his forties. In absolute terms, I dont perceive Carnival to be better or worse than any other cruise line just different. The fact that its not our favorite does not detract from the product. With 24 ships sailing, and sufficient wherewithal to have acquired Holland America, Costa, Princess/P&O, Cunard and Seabourn, they must be doing something right. Its just that there are other cruise lines that are a bit righter for us.