Panama Canal Cruise -- Carnival Paradise -- November 28-December 12, 2011
Overall, this was a wonderful 14-day cruise on the Paradise with a somewhat unique itinerary (for Carnival) of passing through the Panama Canal from the Pacific to the Atlantic. This was my 10th cruise, and the 6th time on a Carnival ship.
The Paradise was a medium-sized ship (Fantasy Class), but compared to the newer ships I've been on (e.g., Freedom, Splendor, Magic) it felt quite small. The ship was built in 1998 and carries 2,000 passengers and 900 crew. She is definitely showing her age and is slated for dry-dock in 2012 where hopefully she'll receive some upgrades, refurbishment, etc. Overall there was nothing wrong with the ship -- she is just worn out in places and doesn't have that sparkly new look that so many ships have nowadays. My Oceanview stateroom (Category 6A) was on the Riviera Deck, cabin R216. It was close to the back of the ship and on the 4th deck. The cabin was of a standard size (approx. 175 sq. ft.), with a large window which added light and a feeling of space to the cabin. It had a very comfortable king-sized bed (two twin beds pushed together) with lovely linens, etc. There was no sofa in this cabin, just a small easy chair for sitting. There was plenty of closet and storage space. The bathroom was a decent size (shower only; no tub) with lots of room to put away toiletries, etc. The towels were plush and the bathrobe was very comfortable. There was a desk/vanity and chair, an old fashioned tv and no refrigerator. There was only one electrical outlet in the room (above the desk) and one outlet in the bathroom (up high near the ceiling). Hairdryers are not standard issue in the cabins, although I believe you could request one from the Guest Services desk. All in all, it was a very comfortable cabin. Because it was closer to the back of the ship and on a lower deck, the noise and vibration from the engines/thrusters was quite evident. However, I actually found the noise, etc. worse up on Main and Upper decks. There was a small laundry area on two of the decks (mid-ship on Upper and near the bow on Empress) with coin operated washers and dryers and irons/ironing boards.
The dÃ©cor of the ship was fairly understated compared to some of the newer ships. The colour palate was mostly brown, gold, and blue. There was an atrium in the center of the ship that went all the way from Deck 7 to Deck 12. Decks 4 (Riviera), 5 (Main) and 6 (Upper) were only cabins (ocean-view, interior, a few port-hole cabins near the bow and 2 dozen balcony suites at mid-ship) with no public areas. Deck 7 (Empress) had mostly cabins and the Atrium Lobby was located mid-ship with the Guest Services desk, Shore Excursion desk, a bar, and a small computer/internet area with about 12 computers. There were no "hot spots" with computers set up throughout the ship (as was the case on the Magic - a great innovation). Deck 8 (Atlantic) has all public spaces -- the main level of the Normandie Show Lounge at the front of the ship, with shops, small library, Circle C Club, and piano bar located towards mid-ship. The dining room is split in two with the Elation Dining Room at mid-ship and the Destiny Dining Room at the back of the ship. Similar to most ships, the galley is situated between the two dining rooms and there is no way for the public to walk between the two dining rooms. To walk from mid-ship to the back of the ship on the Empress Deck you need to either go up one deck or down one deck and use the hallways on those decks. Both Dining Rooms were only one level and there were a few windows along each side. There was not a wide variety of table sizes in the Destiny Dining Room -- just 6, 8 or 10-tops. I believe there were smaller tables in the Elation Dining Room which had "anytime dining" as well as fixed seating. Deck 9 (Promenade) has the Queen Mary Lounge (small show lounge) at the back of the ship, bars with dance floor, casino (very smokey), coffee bar, sushi bar, Club O2 and photo gallery mid-ship and the upper level of the Normandie Show Lounge at the front of the ship. The Normandie Show Lounge was on the small size (but certainly big enough for this ship) and had fairly comfortable seating. Because of the smaller size it felt more intimate and the sight lines, sound, lighting, etc. were very good. The Normandie Show Lounge was used throughout the day for various events (i.e., port talks, bingo, etc.) and each evening there was a stage show. Deck 10 (Lido) was laid out a bit different than other ships. There was no aft pool -- the Lido Buffet took up the space from mid-ship to the back of the ship. It was not large, but, again, suitable for this size of ship. There were various stations set up on both sides of the Lido serving the usual hot choices, salads, desserts, deli area, pizza area, and a Mongolian grill and hamburger/hot dog grill near the mid-ship outdoor area. Mid-ship was a small pool with a deck area surrounding it and a waterslide and also a stage area (hopefully it is removed during renovations and a larger pool installed). Deck chairs in this area were fairly easy to come by (the chair hogs were not out in force on this cruise). Deck 11 (Verandah) had outdoor spaces with lounge chairs set up overlooking the mid-ship pool and a fairly quiet area at the back of the ship set up with lounge chairs. There was also a "Serenity" (adults only) area at the back of the ship on Deck 9 (you could get to it either by walking down the stairs from the Lido deck or by going through an unmarked door at the rear of the Queen Mary Lounge. Note that on Deck 11 at the very front of the ship there is a small outside deck overlooking the bow. Not many people knew about this deck, so it was a great place to get pictures during sail in/sail away. However, by the time we entered the Panama Canal it was packed and fights were breaking out over space, etc. On Deck 12 (Sports) at the front of the ship overlooking the bow was the spa/salon and gym area. The gym was quite small, but had treadmills, elliptical machines, weights, etc. and it was always quite busy (especially early in the morning and on sea days). The children's area (Camp Carnival) was also in this area. Deck 14 (Sun) was half a deck located above the gym. There was a cushioned jogging/walking track that encircled the mini-golf area (11 laps to the mile).
Overall, the ship was easy to navigate and there were lots of elevators and staircases and wide hallways, etc. Therefore, it never felt overly crowded. For the able-bodied, the ship was great. For those with mobility issues, there seemed to be good access to all the public spaces, with room for wheelchairs, walkers, etc. There were some bottleneck areas near the elevators in the atrium, and also near the entrance to the dining rooms and to the Normandie Show Lounge.
Not so typical of Carnival, the majority of passengers were older. There were only 20 children on board and a few honeymooners, etc., but the average age was at least 67. About 80% of the passengers were from the United States and 400 from Canada and elsewhere. I think there were about 2,000 passengers on board. Overall, I found the majority of people on board to be friendly and kind.
CREW and CUISINE and ENTERTAINMENT:
I found all the crew members I dealt with to be friendly and professional. My cabin steward (Bagus) was amazing. The Guest Services desk staff were always very helpful. As were the Shore Excursion desk staff. The dining room staff were terrific (Gusti and Ida) and overall my dining experience was great. I was seated at a table for 10 in the Destiny Dining Room. Our maitre d' was Ian, who "ran a tight ship" and was well-respected by the staff. About every second evening the waiters got up to dance, sing, etc.. It was entertaining and lots of fun. However, entertainment in the dining room is not eveyone's cup of tea and there were some complaints. Personally, I really enjoyed it. The cruise director (Jeff Bronson) was good and his staff (Shawn, Mike, Rollie, Chris) were fun and energetic. Carnival makes a point of hiring staff from around the world and I expect that there were at least 30 countries represented. I found the staff on this ship to be the friendliest of any cruise I've been on. That is a direct reflection on the management of the ship and I commend the Captain, Hotel Manager and Cruise Director for their great work.
I thought the food on board the ship was very good. The presentation was good and the food was usually hot when it arrived at the table. The food in the Lido was also very good. I enjoyed all the variety of foods. I ate all of my breakfasts and most of my lunches in the Lido Buffet.
I went to about half of the shows in the Normandie Show Lounge. The staff singers and dancers were very good and the 2 "production" shows that they put on were excellent. The rest of the shows were typical...comedians, jugglers, singers, etc. The orchestra was comprised of a very good group of musicians and they were excellent. There were good musicians performing in the various lounges. All in all, the entertainment was above par.
PRE-CRUISE AND EMBARKATION:
This cruise left from Long Beach, CA. I flew into Long Beach Airport the evening before the cruise and stayed at the Best Western on Long Beach Blvd. There was a free shuttle bus from the airport to the hotel. The hotel was clean, quiet and my room was very comfortable. Breakfast was included in the price and there was a free shuttle bus from the hotel to the pier. All-in-all, it was a very convenient place to stay.
Embarkation was similar to what I've experienced in the past at other ports (although quite a bit longer). I had entered all my information online before hand, and it took about 1 hour to check in, clear security, etc. and then board the ship. The cabins were not available for occupancy until 1:30 pm, so most guests lingered in the Lido area having lunch, sitting beside the pool, etc. until that time.
PORTS and SHORE EXCURSIONS:
For this cruise I decided, for some ports of call, to book private shore excursions with some wonderful people who I had met on Cruise Critic prior to the cruise.
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
Nothing planned -- just took the tender to shore and walked about the town for about 2 hours.
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Nothing planned -- just walked about the town for about 2 hours.
Puntarenas, Costa Rica
We had an all day excursion booked with Okey Dokey Tours. There were 12 of us in a large van and we drove along the coast and into the rain forest where we got to feed monkeys, see crocodiles, enjoy the great views, crush sugar cane to make juice, walk through the rain forest, learn about flora and fauna, etc. We had a very good lunch at a local hangout. All in all it was a fun day and a well-run excursion.
Panama Canal Transit
This was the highlight of the cruise. We spent 11 hours travelling from the Pacific to the Atlantic. People were up at 3:30 am putting out chairs, etc. to secure a place by the railings -- which led to fights, etc. in the morning. Other than that, the transit was fascinating. There was a local person on board who gave a running commentary throughout the day with lots of information regarding the history, building, operation of the canal.
We had an excursion booked with Dora the Explorer. There was 22 of us split between to vans. We travelled up to the St. Augustin Monastery -- the road had been washed out and we were the only tour to make it up there that day. We also went to the old fort, walked through the old town, had a shopping stop, drove along the beaches, and had a very nice lunch at a local restaurant.
Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands
I did a Carnival excursion called "Grand Cayman by Land and Sea". It was o.k. -- but not great. We did the semi-submersible tour to the shipwrecks and reefs in the harbour area, drove to Hell, went to a rum cake factory and toured a turtle farm.
We had 9 "sea days", which was quite different from most cruises. I found the sea days to be very relaxing. The weather was hot and sunny, so I was able to be out on deck quite a bit walking or just sitting and reading a book, etc. There were lots of activities planned throughout the day, so there was never any chance to become bored. Some favourite activities were the arts & crafts classes in the early morning, bridge instruction and games, ballroom dancing classes, and the trivia contests held throughout the day.
Disembarkation was a bit of a hassle. I had to clear immigration in the Normandie Lounge at 6:45 am along with the 400 other foreigners on board. Once started, the process went quickly, but it was a long wait to get to that point. Because my flight was before noon I chose to do "self-assist". We had to be out of our cabins at 8 am and there never was an announcement saying the ship was clear and we could leave. I finally made my way to the gangway around 9:15 am and they were allowing people to leave at that time (I'm not sure when they got clearance, but I think it was only around 9 am or so). Once off the ship we only had to walk a short distance to the shuttle bus to the airport. It was so hard to say good-bye to the ship...I certainly wasn't prepared to leave.
As stated at the beginning, I had a wonderful cruise vacation. The 14 days I was on board certainly lived up to all my expectations. Carnival is known for their short "fun ship" cruises and so this longer cruise on a route that they don't normally travel, was a real treat. Seeing and transiting the Panama Canal for the first time was a great experience.