Thankfully, the cruise industry, and especially Carnival, is reaching out to those of us who would rather not spend a significant portion of our cruise budgets on airfare. We live in North Central West Virginia, and our last 12 cruises have been from either New York City or Baltimore. Cost is far from the only factor in my anti-flying position; flying to Miami, or anywhere for that matter, can result in added stress, time off from work, and just plain old fashioned hassle, which isn't anything that needs to be associated with a vacation.
The Port of Baltimore is a wonderful facility. It's small, efficient, well staffed, and more importantly, a short three and a half hour drive from my house. The entrance to the parking lot can't be more than a quarter mile from I-95. From there staff leads you through luggage dropoff, on to payment, and finally to the parking area. I'm thinking we arrived between 11 and 11:30 which turned out to be fine. No lines or congestion outside at all. A slight line to get into the building and pass through security and then it was on to what is typically the longest of your embark day waits. But not this time.
For some reason, even though this was cruise 14 with Carnival for me and 16 for my wife, we had not experienced the VIP Check in service provided for Platinum Guests. This was a pleasant surprise. After clearing security, we noticed a sign that said VIP Check in which pointed not to the queues and agents but to a small room with low lighting, a couple of sofas, and couple of desks with two very nice agents ready to check us in. They spoke with my son (7) and asked him about his cruising history and made him feel special. I can't possibly say anything better about this part of the check in process.
It slowed down a bit after this when we were lead to a section of the large waiting area for the VIP Guests. The wait here was a good bit longer than it should have been. But, it was hardly enough worthy of a complaint.
Our cabin was an oceanview on Riviera Deck with queen and sofa beds. Nice sized cabin really, especially considering we've been sailing NCL a lot recently and their cabins seem to be a good bit smaller. No complaints about the room off the top of my head. There was more than enough storage which was nice and always necessary unless you want to live out of a suitcase for the week.
After initially thinking the location was less than desirable, we quickly grew accustomed to it when we discovered it was a very short walk on the same deck to Butterflies Lounge which also serves as Punchliners comedy club. .
My son and I kept up our cruise routine of hitting Lido early for coffee, croissants, fruit and yogurt. Other than that we'd maybe pick up something to eat out on deck, but the chaos at the Lido buffet during breakfast is a less than desirable way to start a day, so breakfast is rather light. That's not a criticism of the ship or Carnival in any way, it's just the nature of breakfast on Lido.
I will pick on Carnival a bit though, although most would likely consider this a plus, is that they have the pizza guy serving up omelets. Yes, it provides more omelet stations, but for early risers who may want pizza by 10 or so, it doesn't work when you walk up and have to stand in a line just to tell the guy you want pizza only to get the standard response of "Seven minutes." Separating into two lines would work, but I understand I'm in the minority here, so I don't expect that to happen.
Let me go ahead and hit on the pizza thing for a minute. You know how many times at various hours of the day you go for pizza when you have a seven year old in tow? A lot! And, no exaggeration, probably half of the times we'd hear "Seven minutes." Would it kill them to make a couple ahead, or have an warming oven nearby? I don't care if the pizza isn't absolutely fresh right out of the oven, although man does that make it good. The best practice was generally to send one person in to order and have another go back to pick up. Consider though that unlike a real pizza place, they don't have your name so if someone gets there before you, they're going to get your pizza. So that sucks. Its a far less than perfect operation, but the quality is very good so you tolerate it.
We had dinner in the dining room six of seven nights if I remember correctly. Quality and variety was always very good. Service was always excellent as well. Since becoming addicted to Freestyle Cruising and dining anytime, we took advantage of any time dining, or my time dining or whatever they call it. Basically, it's the whole upper level of the MDR and you can go any time from 5:45 to 9:30. I can't imagine ever going back to being restricted to a specific dining time. I don't think we're in the minority here either, because I believe a lot of lines are offering this option. Even Celebrity last fall had an option like that. I know NCL gets a bad rap for being the immature kid among lines, but I really believe they started something huge with Freestyle. I know I love it.
By the way, don't ever expect a Steakhouse review from me, because I refuse to pay to eat on a cruise ship. It doesn't get much more ridiculous than that popular trend. Its like the cruise lines are saying, "Well, we'll gladly serve you subpar food in the dining room for free, or you can pay to eat the really good stuff." I don't get it, although people certainly do it.
Well, Carnival reached both ends of the spectrum in the entertainment department this cruise. To the good side, Punchliner Comedy Club. Wow, this is the greatest concept and I really congratulate Carnival on its development. This was our first Carnival Cruise since its appearance. Butterflies Lounge transforms into a comedy club with up to maybe 6 shows a night, including all ages and adult shows. It's a simply brilliant concept, because in my opinion there is nothing more simple or enjoyable than a good comic. We hit every all ages show that was offered and if I could give more than 5 stars I would. However, you knew there had to be a "but" in there, two nights out of the week there were NO shows! This was devastating to us because we had developed our routine and the comedians were a part of it. I don't know if this was just a scheduling fluke or what, but it was a more than just a little annoying. All in all, its a great idea and while I don't exactly know what George Lopez is going to add to the mix, I have great hopes for it.
Now for the really bad. I'm not crazy about the traditional song and dance, main theatre shows, but uh...I do expect them and normally attend them. I'm not going to dig out the Capers, sorry, Fun Times, but I want to say there may have been 3 or at most 4 what I would call big time productions all week. How can that be? My sife suggests that some were at maybe 10:45 which again rules out a 7yr old. One of the entertainers was a juggler by the way who was excellent, he was the bright spot. Sorry, I knew I waited too late to write this. They do have the comedy option, but the two nights there were no comedians, happened to coincide with two of the nights there were no real lounge shows! Ugh, you talk about bad. There was dinner and whatever cheesy "entertainment" option they had assembled for the show lounge. Sure, some folks go drink in the small lounges, some folks hit the casino, and thats great, but thats not very good for the families.
We hit the poorly maintained arcade for some air hockey. Which is always fun, but could have been better if not in a dusty arcade filled with broken games. No kidding the arcade had signs on more than half of the games stating they were out of order. It was quite pathetic. Carnival would be better served to rope that area off and not have an arcade than to show an obvious lack of concern for the area's condition.
I apologize because I really should go get the Fun Times and see what these "cheesy entertainment options" were. I'm not kidding, it was those things like trivia, game shows, bingo, etc. You know what I mean, those inexplicable activities that are typically mid day, in the main show lounge in front of an audience of about 100 semi-interested folks. These are prime time entertainment options? I just couldn't make much sense of that.
Normally we don't take excursions, but since discovering it's an easy way to avoid spending any significant time at Disney, we do the Disney one. Disney is a nice place but about 8hrs tops us out for a while. Carnival's excursion is quite expensive but worth it in my opinion anyway.
We were off the ship and on a bus by 8 am and over to Disney shortly after 9. And being back in the US, the hour ride is tolerable because you have an hour to catch up on email, twitter, facebook, etc. Seven hrs +/- in the park and back on the bus for another hour ride back to the ship and there you go. Unless that is, you're like me and completely toasted your phone battery throughout the day in FL after two internet starved days on the ship. My trip back to the ship was a particularly long one this time.
Another note on the cost of this particular excursion. It's worth noting that Rainbow Tours did the excursion brilliantly and is the same company who provides the same excursion (exactly the same excursion, we just did it in June) as NCL. The cost, however, is considerably higher with Carnival.
Port Canaveral is a very good. They have a very nice terminal facility and access to about any kind of activity you could want from beaches to Disney. They'll even take you to Orlando to go shopping, but that seems a little silly. We chose the Disney excursion but there are also excursions to pretty much all the major attractions in Orlando which is just over an hour away. Nice port for families.
Nassau is a good port if you want to buy jewelry or liquor, but there isn't a whole lot else to do there. I guess there are beaches but few in walking distance are small and the good ones require cabs or excursions. Beaches aren't real high among our priorities so we don't pay much attention, but supposed its fine for beaches if that's what you're looking for.
Freeport is quite simply a dump. Let me rephrase that, it appears to be a dump. I don't understand why Carnival continues to go there. Perhaps Mickey owns it and has kept it a secret. ? Probably not though. There were quite a few excursions I believe although we stayed on board for the day. Self assist options are pretty limited I think, as it's a significant cab ride anywhere more attractive than a monster junkyard. Its eleven miles into town for shopping, and if I remember correctly, it really wasn't worth the trip once you got there.
Debark and conclusion
Once back in Baltimore the benefits of Platinum status were again evident as we were permitted to debark among the first passengers. Everything went smoothly, no lines to speak of and nothing out of the ordinary. We were off the ship by mid morning and home at a reasonable hour with another wonderful cruise in the books.
Don't misunderstand my criticism of the entertainment as meaning that the cruise was bad because that could not be further from the truth. We're cruise fanatics and its going to take a lot more than those things to ruin my trip. In fact I'd venture to say anything short of a Splendour situation, I'm going to be happy.
Again, I highly recommend cruising from Baltimore for those in driving distance. The port facility is simple, efficient and easily accessible right off I-95. You can sail to Canada, Bermuda, Bahamas and Caribbean. And you save the hassles, expense and time involved with flying. Seriously, what more could you want?
Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions. Also, if you want a more personal take from throughout this cruise, check out my posts from the week at my blog at spridlewv.blogspot.com.