Plenty to do, or not to do, in the glorious Western Caribbean! My husband and I had planned on an extremely relaxing six days away from current stresses, but in the end--and I'm not complaining here--we found it hard to keep up with the options. We had gone more for the snorkeling, sun, sea, and distance from reality, and much less for the somewhat "hokey" side of cruising: loud pool parties, silly competitions, the casino, and shop-till-you-drop. Well, we did steer clear of the casino and purchased next to nothing, but we found ourselves carried away by many of the on board activities that I had expected to shun. Cruise director Karl did a magnificent job, as did his assistants. Everyone on board was friendly, smiling, and welcoming. I don't think I have ever spent so much time with so many people, and seen so few frowns.
PRICE: We thought $350 per person, through Priceline, was an excellent value for this 6-day/7-night cruise with an inside stateroom, deck 1. However, when we went to commit, we discovered an extra $200 in fees and taxes, bringing our total to $900. Had we not already purchased our plane tickets, we might have changed our minds. So beware if you purchase through Priceline!
EMBARKING/DISEMBARKING: Well-directed and smooth. No major waiting or lines. We thought we'd get by cheaper via taxi from our hotel (near airport). Not! We caught a Carnival bus shuttle on our return (you can purchase on the spot).
STATEROOM: Our stateroom was very comfortable, as was the mattress. Plenty of closet space as well as shelf space in the bathroom. Everything was spotless. Housekeeping was wonderful.
WHO WAS ON BOARD: The ship carried a mixed crowd: seniors like us, families with young children, college students, newlyweds (of all ages). Mostly English speakers (US and Canada), but a good number of Spanish speakers as well. We heard many other languages too. (I'm a translator/interpreter, so I loved that!)
ENTERTAINMENT: There were always a number of activities to choose from on the ship, for adults and children. The pamphlet delivered to our stateroom every night provided a clear layout of the next day's entertainment options, reinforced by Karl's regular announcements of what was up next.
During the day while at sea, our preferred spot was the Serenity deck (no kids allowed), but we also visited the gym twice (good selection of equipment, though I missed the straight-on view of the sea on Royal Caribbean). Two of our table mates gave the spa massage rave reviews.
We had a blast one afternoon with Latin line dancing classes (Josh, the instructor, was a gem), and even found the courage to venture forth that evening to the pool party, where we were not the only "seniors" on board to try our hand at that. My first-ever conga line on a ship--what silly fun!
Loved the live music at the pool (guitar soloists). Even though we never ventured into those waters (ship pools: ugh!), it was nice to have this background music, going to and from the Lido buffet and the other bathing decks.
We never managed to catch any of the shows in the large auditorium unfortunately (again, too many options!), but our dinner companions brought back glowing reports. We caught two comedy shows. Don't miss Alan Ball! He did three shows in a row: family, R-rated, and X-rated. We caught the middle, and the only other live comedian I've enjoyed more was George Carlin. There always seemed to be one or two karaoke opportunities per night (including a sing-along-with-a-live band option). The Latin band was under-attended unfortunately, but we did enjoy dancing to them. The disco was lively, with a good DJ, but the smoke kept us from staying long. There were usually two other dance spots available at night as well. We made several stops to listen to Bob at the piano bar, where you could request a song from a list for a group sing-along (your request was best received when accompanied by a tip or drink). After 11 PM, R-rated.
FOOD: Not as exceptional as the Royal Caribbean cruise we took about eight years ago, but no MAJOR complaints either. The formal dining room was a bit of a disappointment (we only ate dinner there). My husband rated the salmon "sub-par in preparation and presentation" (one of the regular nightly options). The non-fish dishes were better. Dinner desserts were great. Don't pass up the melting chocolate cake! After-dinner espresso also top-rate.
I only discovered the sushi bar on the fourth day, and made that my stop for a late afternoon "appetizer." It also took us too long to discover the scrumptious sandwiches at the Deli (delicious smoked salmon with cream cheese on bagel; wonderful corned beef on rye; and one of our dinner mates said the pastrami was to die for). But my husband missed a greater abundance of fresh tropical fruit at the buffet ("I can eat melon in the Midwest").
DRINKS: Over-priced, surprise, surprise. Best drink on the ship: oh dear, I forget the name. It was the priciest of the margaritas, but well worth the extra couple bucks. (Expensive but plentiful tequila in it.) Also enjoyed a martini tasting at the Alchemy Bar (great idea!).
MED-EVAC: On our final day at sea, a passenger had to be med-evacuated by helicopter. The captain and crew handled the event superbly. Kudos to the Coast Guard!!!
FOUR PORTS: Cozumel is worth a week (gorgeous crystal-clear blue waters, great people!); what we saw of Belize was a piece of paradise (great people too); can't really comment much on Roatan--basically stayed on board; the waters of Grand Cayman can't be beat.
HIGHLIGHT No. 1: One of the best parts of the cruise won't be available next time around: our dinner table. Four couples with extremely different backgrounds (including a young couple from Turkey) who were all equally ready and willing to learn about and from each other, and make the very best of our time together. I think our table exemplified a marvelous facet of cruising: our shared human desire for laughter, kindness, and good times can override so many cultural barriers (which are not just between nations).
HIGHLIGHT No. 2: The other highlight was the snorkeling. We opted out of any Carnival excursions. I don't really know why; our previous excursions on Royal Caribbean were fine. I guess we just felt like looking for a little more "local color." It's well worth checking out the various sites for alternative excursion options. I wish we had started planning earlier.
A SIX-star recommendation in Cozumel for Roswitha Flury's "Mystic Snorkeling Tour" (http://www.cozumelmycozumel.com/Pages/CozumelSnorkelingTour.htm).
5-stars for Ecological Tours (not to be confused with Ecotour) in Belize City, which we booked with our Priceline discount ("Goff Caye Beach Break with Snorkeling"). Definitely would have been worth paying full price!
We took the day off from excursion-ing at Roatan; just got off the ship to walk around the touristy shops. Took a Moby Dick snorkeling and stingray city excursion in Grand Cayman; would not repeat experience. Too touristy. In retrospect, wish we had opted for Carnival's Sea Trek (our table mates went and loved it).
TENDERS: It's an unavoidable pain at Belize and Grand Cayman. Be patient, and DO be ready to wait. Get in line early! (No fault of Carnival's.)
WHY BASH BELIZE? I didn't like the fact that we were told not to venture outside the port compound in Belize because it was "too dangerous"; no further explanation. I've been researching since our return and don't really understand what that comment was about.
SHOP BUY SPEND SHOP BUY SPEND...always being encouraged to do so over the loudspeaker and by the plethora of pamphlets left on our bed. But you don't have to listen, do you? (Anyway, I guess it's the big consumers who help pay the way for the rest of us.) My husband was put off by the photographers, who he considered "pushy."
CONCLUSION: It was a great vacation!