What I wish I knew before I took this cruise....
Europe - Western Mediterranean
My mother kindly took our family (me, my husband, 8year old, 13 year old) on a Western Carribean cruise on Dec 17th. Since this was my first cruise, I extensively did my research and took a lot of advice from the boards.
Here's what I learned:
1. Yes, the boards were right. Breakfast on the Liberty was repetitive - that being said, the same 30 or so items (with several other hot items being swapped in) were available each day. Come to my house sometimes - we have the same 4 or 5 things every day! I never got a chance to try everything.
2. Coffee was much better than I thought. I am a Starbucks fanatic. I brought a hot water immersion appliace and some Starbucks VIA (instant). Didn't need it. Now, not as good as Starbucks, but not quite the swill that I was led to believe.
3. Bring liquid detergent! What they sell in the laundry room is powdered and for some reason (probably to do with the mineral content of the water), it doesn't "melt" More
very well. I happened to bring liquid and was very glad. Also, several of the dryers seemed to be out of order (but without signs) - a minor annoyance.
4. We had 4 stops in 4 days (Cozumel, Belize, Honduras and Grand Cayman). Cozumel and Grand Cayman were awesome. Looking back, I think I would have done EITHER Belize or Honduras, but not both. It was a little difficult and less than relaxing having to hound everyone to be ready by 8am each morning. It would have been nice to hang around the ship on either of those days.
5. The boards are right - don't take the cruiseline excursions with very few exceptions. One of those exceptions is Honduras. At every other port, we met our independent tour guide right outside of the cruiseship terminal buildings - very easy. In Honduras, you need to walk up a hill, then down another big hill, probably about 1/2 mile from the main buildings. Once passed the secuirty gate, you are mobbed by people trying to get into your car. Someone was trying to tell my kids to get into their van! I have been all over the world and travel very well independently. This was incredibly overwhelming to be in this situation, especially since the tour guide that I had hired and PRE-PAID was not there. We ended up driving around with some other random guide who knew the man we were looking for. It mostly worked out in the end. All in all, in hindsight, Isla Roatan Honduras would have been better seen with one of the cruiseship excursions.
6. The "over the door clear shoe organizer" was a lifesaver - just handy to see all your stuff - ipods, chargers, camera etc in one place although I found Carnival's rooms were very large and we didn't even use all of the closet space.
7. Bring your own cheap towels from the 99 cent store. Those Carnival ones are nice, but I don't trust my kids not to lose them. The other thing is that they're REALLY thick. We took 3 excursions where we needed to bring towels and trust me, 5 of those things would have taken up a backpack EACH. We fit all 5 of the cheapie towels into one big beach bag.
8. BOOZE - there are endless threads about booze. I pre-ordered a bottle from Bon Voyage for about $40 for a bottle of bourbon. We also brought along the allowed amount of wine (1 btl per adult). Coming back from our first stop, Cozumel, everyone had brought a bottle from Duty Free and everyone was taking them to their rooms! I heard about 1 person whose alchohol was confiscated until the end of the trip but I personally saw about 100 people bringing alchohol back from Duty Free on the various stops.
9. The balcony room was worth it. Sitting out there was great (the smokers next door were less than great but it wasn't too bad). Having that extra space was priceless. If you can afford it, it really was worth it.
10. I dutifully brought the power strip to plug in all of our various electronics but never used it.
11. By far and away the best thing we brought was Ziplocks, water bottles and an insulated lunch box. On excursion days, we would fill up one of the baggies with ice, pack some snacks from the Lido deck (pastries, cold cuts etc), fill up our water bottles and that would get us through until we got back to the ship and coud have a late lunch. I honestly think we saved about $150 - $200 in lunches just by doing that!
12. The food in the dining room was not great - service was very nice but tt is NOT fine dining. I didn't have to cook it and I didn't have to clean it up, so I thought it was fine! If super-high end dining is high on your list of "must have's", then this is not for you. Less
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Cabin review: Carnival Liberty Balcony Empress 7341
Nice balcony, lots of closet space. Converted couch to 3rd bed and room still felt roomy. Near the elevators, but not too close. Across the hall from the laundry room which was convenient but not noisy at all. Was recommended this room for several reasons - only cabins above and below it (no public spaces which can get noisy at odd hours), it is located in the middle of the ship which can help with swaying, near the elevators and lastly, since this is on the same floor as the "fancy" suites, usually the best stewards are on this floor.
Port and Shore Excursions
We used Chichi Charters to book a private snorkeling excursion. As all the other reviews have mentioned, Amanda was great during the reservation process and ChiChi and Angel were great during our snorkel. Angel showed us tons of wildlife - octopus, barracuda, huge starfish, eels - I could go on forever. Chichi was in the glass bottom boat with my 71 year old mother, who had decided not to snorkel, all the while pointing out all kinds of different marine life, while keeping her as comfy as could be. The price was about the same for the 5 of us as being on one of the cruise snorkeling excursion, but the experience was far superior. You should note that you will have to arrange taxis at the port to the marina, and back from the beach club (which we didn't stay at). Not that it's difficult at all, but will need to be factored in while thinking about timing and price. It was about $20 each way for the 5 of us. All in all, an awesome way to spend the days with some true locals!
After doing extensive research, I decided to use Stingray Sailing for our excursion in Grand Cayman. I made the reservations with Michelle a few weeks in advance via email. We paid the $10 deposit per person, then a few days before the trip, I asked if we could just pay for the entire thing via Paypal to lessen the hassle of carrying money around. Michelle promptly sent us an invoice and the transaction was done in less than an hour.
Our ship (the Carnival Liberty) docked at 10am and we took an 11:15am tender off the boat, thinking it would give us plenty of time to shop a bit before sailing with Chip. While the boat ride was only 5 minutes, loading and unloading the tenders took about 15 minutes, we arrived just in time. So, remember to factor that into your time! Another thing, in her email, Michelle mentioned that the tour left at noon LOCAL time. The entire trip, we had stayed on SHIP's time (EST) while some ports were an hour ahead or behind us. In her email, Michelle mentioned that generally, if you came out of Florida (as we had) that the local time would be the same as ship's time. I went to guest services to ask what the local time was and they told me Grand Cayman was an hour behind us. I asked no less than 3 times if they were positive and they seemed very annoyed that I kept bugging them. I still felt unsure so I went down to the internet cafe and paid $4 to google "Local Grand Cayman Time" only to find out it was the same as ship's time - meaning that we would have been an hour late and would have missed the tour!!!!
After we met Chip and got on his very nice air conditioned bus, I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed. The bus was quite full, with about 22 people on board, and was the same size as the cruise ship's bus. I thought we were getting a more "intimate" experience. We drove about 30 minutes to the marina and boarded the Far Tortuga, Chip's fantastic boat. While going out to the sandbar, we passed many other boats, probably with the same number of people, but literally 1/4 the size of ours! Their boats were tiny fishing trawlers while we were sailing in a huge catamaran! I had to laugh at my earlier "disappointment"!
When we arrived at Stingray City, I was blown away. I had read the reviews and felt like I knew what to expect but it was unbelievable - by far and away the best experience of our vacation. My 71 year old mother was squealing with delight! Mark, one of the crewman had taken pictures of us with a particularly friendly stingray and I was a little worried that we were going to get the "hard sell" on those on the way home. This was Chip's hard sell - "Mark has your pictures on the laptop. Take a look and let us know if you want one". Some people bought (we did because the photos were awesome and reasonably priced at 5 for $30) and some people didn't even bother looking.
We then went to another small reef about 5 minutes away for about 30 minutes of awesome snorkeling - some in our group even saw a Nurse Shark! On the way back, we sailed home and it was beautiful and very calming. Chip had us back with time to spare. By far and away, the best excursion we took during our trip. Although the price was comparable to the cruise ship's, the experience was far better! I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the cruise - just make sure you factor in the long tender time and make sure you know the correct local time!
We went to see a comedian on the cruiseship the night before docking and he mentioned that Belize City was the Flint Michigan of the Caribbean. He got some jeers (there were a lot of people from Michigan on the cruise!) but said, 'Just you wait and see!". Now, not to be derogatory to Flint, since I have never personally been there, but this is a really poor country, and Belize City seemed to be extremely poor.
The tendering process for Belize was difficult on the Carnival Liberty. You had to go to a lounge at around 7:45am, get a tendering ticket, then wait in the lounge for about 45 minutes. You then boarded the tending boat. The loading and actual transit time was about 30 minutes total. If you are taking an excursion with the cruiseship, you have priority tendering and don't have to follow quite the same procedures as above. That being said, our tour was $45 and the same tour with the cruise ship was $103!
Once off of the tendering boat, you come to the cruiseship terminal. It's a series of low slung buildings with all of the same stores you see at all of the cruise ship terminals - Duty Free, several jewelery stores, souvenir stores and a few bars. There is a nice bathroom here - USE IT!!! You won't see another nice bathroom until you return.
We took an independent tour, as as you leave the terminal, you'll see all of the tour operators waiting to take people.
We went cave tubing, which was fun, but also very far away from the cruiseship terminal. This would not be a fun port to wander around in by yourself.
I believe that it's almost always better to book your own excursion rather than through the cruise ship - with the exception of Roatan.
Once docked, you are in the cruise ship village. It's the same as all the others with a few exceptions. There is a chair lift there that will take you to a beach. There's also a zipline right off of the parking lot. In every other port, as soon as you left the village, the independent tour operators were waiting for you. At this port, they make them wait outside of the security gate - located about 1/2 miles away, up a big hill. Once past the security gate - you're mobbed with people trying to get you into their car. It was incredibly overwhelming.
We went to the iguana farm, which was really cool. The admission price of $8 seemed a little excessive, but you could feed the iguanas and my kids really liked it. Just be careful, some like to sit in the branches and go pee. And if you've never seen an iguana pee, it can pee a lot!!!!
We then went jungle ziplining, which was really fun as well.
The price of the independent tour was similar to the cruise ship's tour and I think in retrospect, it just would have been so much easier and better to take the cruise ship's excursion.