Ports of Call: Port Canaveral, St. Maarten, San Juan, Grand Turk
This was our first cruise as a couple. My wife had been on a Carnival ship with several family members, about 10 years ago.
We had booked our cruise at a relatively low rate, so we had TBA cabin assignments and dining times. We were given a boarding start time of 12:30, but we arrived at 10:00 and were onboard by 10:30. Our porter assigned us to cabin 6348, but we ended up being upgraded to a Spa cabin on Deck 10 (perhaps because of our early arrival) and as a result, our bags were not delivered as expected. By 7:00, we went to Guest Services and they brought us to the luggage room, but our bags were not there. We went up to the 6th deck and were delighted to find our bags right in front of 6348 (good thing we had remembered the cabin number our porter had given us, because it wasn't written anywhere and hadn't been entered into any system.)
We had Your Time Dining, and I would recommend it to others who are laid-back travelers. I would recommend against it for finicky cruisers who like to eat on a schedule and would be irritated waiting a little while for a table. I suspect other reviewers will note that there sometimes was a line for YTD, and probably you'll read some complaints. Here is how YTD worked for us: we went to the assigned place on Deck 5 aft, where there was a table with 2 staff ladies (Zoanne and Julia) who had laptops with an application that displayed the open/taken tables, times each guest had been seated, etc. The first night, we waited in line about 10 minutes to receive a pager, and we sat down and listened to a performer for about 15 minutes before it went off. We tried to return it to the table, but the nice lady instructed us to bring it downstairs to Deck 3 aft (Sunrise Restaurant) and present it there. We did, and we were seated right away, at a 2-person table beside another couple (also at a 2-person table) who clearly had cruised many times before, based on their comments about the loud propeller sound and the fact they knew we were allowed to order multiple appetizers, entrees, and desserts. We noticed the propeller sound but it didn't bother us. The food was terrific and our water glasses were always filled.
The first 2 nights, several guests in line with us complained that YTD had worked differently (apparently better) on previous cruises. Indeed, there was a wait for us each of the first 2 nights, but the "waiting area" was in a prime bar/entertainment spot, so we were untroubled. Zoanne and Julia, however, did appear mildly stressed - either due to some glitches in the process, or perhaps because they had received complaints from others who were irritated about waiting in line.
On the 3rd night, we were seated at table 304, which happened to be at the front of the dining room (incidentally, it appeared to us YTD guests are seated around the circumference of the dining room, with assigned-time diners seated in the "inner circle." Whether true or not, we had excellent service every night and the only mild disadvantage was we were usually unable to see the nightly "show" which consisted of a head waiter singing a song karaoke-style while the wait staff lip-synced or sang along while doing a few choreographed dance moves - some more enthusiastically than others.) We fell in love with table 304, because its location and setup fit us perfectly: my bride is deaf in her right ear, and table 304 was set up so we were seated side-by-side, which allowed me to sit on her left side and both of us to observe the dining room better. It was also quieter there. Our wait staff, Yauheni (from Belarus) and Monika (from Slovakia), were very nice and attentive. Robert (from Romania) was also nice, but less talkative.
The next night, we decided to try requesting table 304, just for the heck of it. We told Zoey and Julia we would wait as long as it took. It was 5:30 when we received our pager, and after 1 hour listening to a great guitarist named Andy Ferguson, we checked again and the table still was not ready. They offered us a different table, but we told them we didn't mind waiting, and, while they apologized profusely that they had made us wait so long, we opted to continue listening to music until the table was free. After 2 hours, the table still wasn't free. At about 8:00, our pager went off and we brought it to Zoey and Julia, who both cheered excitedly and told us we were the first ever guests to wait 3 hours for a table! They didn't understand our insistence on sitting at table 304, but we all had fun commiserating on the challenge together. When we got to the table, Monika and Yauheni had been alerted we had waited a long time, and we just laughed it off and had another great meal.
The next night, without us asking, Z and J asked us if we wanted table 304, and we did. We expected a long wait this time, and again we found Andy playing in the pub and ordered drinks and played shuffleboard while we waited. By this point, when we were seated at "our" table, it felt like home. We continued to dine at table 304 the rest of the cruise and loved it.
The food choices were great. The menu was divided into 2 halves: Every Day, and Tonight. The Every Day appetizers, entrees, and sides were on the menu each night, while the right side of the menu changed from day to day. My favorite Every Day entree was the Indian Vegetarian option. There also was a "Didja" appetizer each night - one was ceviche (amazingly tasty uncooked fish in lemon juice), another alligator fritters, another escargot, another frog legs, another tartar, etc. Each meal had a beef, pork, chicken, fish, veggie, and "comfort food" option. Most nights, I ordered from the right side of the menu, usually fish or chicken.
The Lido deck had some good options, including burgers and fries, burritos, cooked-to-order pasta, sandwiches, and pizza. The sandwiches and pizza were open most of the day and evening. Sandwiches took a long time to get - 15 minutes minimum. The pizza was not good. The burritos were fine, but no cilantro - and the burrito bar usually wasn't open when we went by for a bite. The pasta was good, but be careful if you eat it for lunch lest you spoil your dinner. The burgers were very good (not Mickey-D's style) and sautéed onions, pickles, tomatoes, lettuce, and condiments were available buffet-style near the burger bar. Soft-serve ice cream, lemonade, unsweetened iced tea, coffee, and water were available 24/7 - all that was free. We didn't try sushi, steak, or a few other not-free restaurants on the ship.
I wished the lido deck had more variety for a light snack during the day or in the evening, such as cookies, fruit, bread, or something to tide us over until the next meal.
Room service was available too, but the phone hold time was long - 10 minutes or more. We did opt to have continental breakfast in our rooms a couple mornings, and the coffee, cereal, juice, toast, English muffins, and yogurt were nice to have in the quiet of our cabin. You could order it using a door hanger to be delivered anytime after 5:00 AM. The coffee was excellent everywhere on the ship.
We are not party-type people by nature, but there were always several types of entertainment to choose from. This included a live band that played 3 or 4 times a night. There were also two solo guitarist who alternated sets around the ship. Our favorite was a Buffalo-based singer songwriter named Andy Ferguson, who told us he would be moving to Nashville, TN soon. Andy's winsome spirit and wide ranging song lists, along with his beat boxing ability and masterful use of loop and harmony pedals, made him a delight to listen to night after night. He took requests thankfully and had a great attitude with the audience.
There were also outside movies, a comedy club every night, and other shows like a Newlywed Game, but we only attended one or two of those. The pianist at the piano bar wasn't very entertaining and a little awkward.
The live band was very good and they even invited audience members to sing songs with them karaoke style in an event called Superstar Karaoke. That was really cool to watch.
We played several games of trivia throughout the week, which were fast-moving (20 questions in 30 minutes) and always started right of time, with the exception of pub trivia, which was slower paced and had only ten questions in a hour time frame. No complaining though, we won free drinks each time we played.
We loved the water slides, which was a surprise because they don't look that big from the ground. They take between 10 and 20 seconds to get to the bottom and they feel very fast. You can race against each other on the green and blue slides and a digital display tells you your time (my best time was a little under 10 seconds, which felt blazing.) The yellow slide has several sections of total darkness. It was fun meeting little kids while we waited in line (never more than 10 minutes for us).
We played shuffle board on the deck several times and loved it. We never felt like it was too busy and we never had to wait more than 5 minutes to play. Some of our games lasted 30 minutes or more. We didn't play Corn Hole, although the ones who did looked like they were having a great time. The wind presented an added challenge for both games. The kids on the ship seemed to really like ping pong and basketball which were available all the time.
After one of our excursions, when the ship wasn't very full, we tried the ropes course, which was minimally challenging but a lot of fun. Note: bring closed toed shoes or they won't let you on the course (I had forgotten my boat shoes so I wore my wingtips.) Also note they will close the ropes course and water slides when it is extraordinarily windy, but there is always plenty to do.
We had Cloud 9 Spa privileges with our (upgraded) room. The eucalyptus sauna was awesome and sitting in there for 10 minutes or so helped clear my bride's sinuses each day. We also sat side-by-side on the heated tiled chairs (we were told they were designed by a chiropractor) for several hours while reading our books. The chairs were comfortable and looked out over the water. I wouldn't recommend paying for spa privileges, however; we did not pay for any extra services, massages, facials, acupuncture, because they were quite expensive. One night we received a call to our room to let us know my bride had been selected (supposedly by a raffle) to receive a $30 discount off any treatment. It turned out the least expensive service was a $50 hair treatment. Needless to say, we did not redeem the offer, partially due to our mild irritation at receiving what amounted to a telemarketing call to our cabin. We were looking forward to the partners massage class on the penultimate day of the cruise, but when we arrived for the class, one of the workers told us the spa director had a meeting and the class was cancelled. Probably the best part about the spa privileges was our matching Cloud 9 Spa robes, which were very high-quality and comfortable.
Ports of Call:
St. Maarten -
We had booked the Surf & Turf (ATV Buggy and Speedboat Adventure) Excursion ahead of time, and it was an absolutely wonderful experience for us. We got to see the entire island, meet locals, observe some wildlife, and experience the pleasure of an adrenaline rush more than once. Our guides were great and I would book this excursion again in a heartbeat.
After being led to a tender boat and taken to the excursion spot, the 22 of us on the excursion were divided into two groups. Half of us were selected to drive the buggies first, and the other half rode on the speedboat first. We were in the buggy-first group. There were 3 buggies available, and each held 4 people. My bride and I were paired with a mother and her daughter. I drove first. A major caveat: about 3/4 of the 2-hour buggy portion was city driving, in heavy traffic. The traffic consisted of a broad variety of good and bad drivers, aggressive and passive, both locals and rental-car tourists. For this reason, this excursion isn't for everyone. I LOVE to drive, and the (relatively intense) challenge of navigating a dune buggy through city streets on a foreign island, following closely behind the guide, was like playing a real-life video game. The buggy is a high-powered machine, and learning to use the brakes, blinker, and mastering the touchy throttle were great fun for me. The guide stopped several times to show us various features of the island, including feeding iguanas (there were at least 50 of them), holding sea urchins, and driving up a steep, rock-peppered trail. We drove through both the Dutch and French sides of the island, which were different from one another in noticeable ways.
After we reached the bar where we met the boat-first group, we got on the speedboat (the guide directed us all to put our shoes in a bag, we realized later it was to prevent getting sand in the boat) and we rode to a beautiful rock just offshore, where we snorkeled with flippers in water about 15 feet deep for about 20 minutes. It was glorious. We saw sea urchins (which we could identify because of the Urchin Man we had met earlier), small swordfish, and many ocean plants and fish. Back on the boat, we drank rum punch and toured the island, including seeing some of the most expensive yachts in the world, such as the one owned by Bono from U2 and another by the president of Victoria's Secret.
We got to see a plane land at the famous "most dangerous airport in the world" and, amidst sharp turns and accelerating, we rode back to port. Our top speed was 65 MPH, a speed that made communication (and practically breathing) impossible, but put smiles on our faces that lasted until long after we had gotten off the boat.
Our guide was so nice and his wife and daughter greeted us back on land. We loved this excursion and hope this review might encourage a few other daredevils to try it as well.
San Juan -
"The City of Cats" is how I will ever remember San Juan. This was a unique city. We began the day walking the perimeter, which consists of a huge wall that once protected the city from invaders. All along the path outside the wall, feral cats prowled and slept. Many were tame and allowed us to pet them. It was neat.
Inside the wall, we walked to the castle, but we didn't feel compelled to pay admission to see the inside (I am doubtful whether the inside was any more interesting than what we saw.) There was a beautiful cemetery that was open to visitors, and we spent an hour or so walking through it.
We ate sandwiches and drank mango mojitos (with puréed mango) at Mavi, which had friendly servers and free WiFi. We finished the day drinking Puerto Rican coffee before embarking.
Grand Turk -
A Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville greeted us as soon as we disembarked, and it turns out this is the only hint of civilization on the island. After walking nearly 2 miles toward downtown on the main road (during which a personal car passed us only about once every 5 mins) we were met by a Canadian couple walking the opposite direction who told us there was nothing downtown. The only other vehicles on the road were occasional shuttles full of cruisers, presumably belonging to an excursion company carrying passengers to their excursions.
We proceeded down a 1/4-mile dirt road to a completely empty, beautiful beach. We were baffled at the serenity there. As we walked along the shore back toward the ship, we encountered a rusted-out ship that had been beached. A young man approached us and told us he had gotten onto the ship and there were still captain's logs and other items on the ship.
It appeared he only occupation of the islanders - indeed, the island - was to do business with cruise ship passengers. We wondered whether the island had been hit hard by a tropical storm as had occurred in St. Maarten, but after doing some research, we found no such evidence. All the buildings - with the exception of Margaritaville - were boarded-up and in disrepair.
In short, while we had a special time during our couple of hours on Grand Turk, we would not book another cruise that included Grand Turk as a port of call.
It took us a day or so to learn to navigate the ship, and by midweek we had it mostly figured out. It was easy and quick to get from place to place, even while staying on an upper deck, and we rarely took the elevator.
Our cruise was in late November, and it was very windy and stormy for a few of the days, with some periods of 12-14-foot waves, and several excursions on Grand Turk were cancelled for safety reasons. The ship rocked noticeably, but neither of us experienced seasickness and I found it exciting. At night, it was comforting, like being rocked to sleep. During the day, walking felt like we had imbibed a few drinks, and we both stumbled around considerably. But we were on a boat, and that was part of the experience for us.
One interesting feature of the boat was the necessity of walking through the casino to get to the aft parts of the ship. Smoking was allowed there, and we didn't like smelling smoke each time we passed through. This was merely a mild annoyance though, as the walk only took 30 seconds.
A $12/day fee was added to each of our accounts automatically, and it showed up on the second-to-last day. We had been tipping as we went along - not to mention 15% was added automatically for each drink we ordered - so we asked Guest Services to remove the fee. They did so immediately, and we tipped our stateroom folks and dining staff generously instead.
We waited until our deck was called before we even made our way near the disembarkation deck, and in retrospect, this seemed like a good choice. We were impressed with the organization of the process, and there was no stress and we weren't irritated at all by the process, which took around 30 minutes.
Surf and Turf (ATV & Speedboat Adventure) - St. Maarten, 11/24/15
This was an amazing excursion for many reasons. The guide was very friendly and full of joy - he seemed to love his job - and I loved driving the buggy. A strong note of caution for anyone considering this excursion: the route consisted primarily of city driving, including driving on high-traffic roads at speed and pulling out across traffic onto busy streets. The same challenges with ordinary city driving presented themselves, such as cars pulling out in front of us, trucks crossing the center line, and driving at a speed that was by no means slow. The driving intimidated the other couple in our buggy to the degree that neither wished to drive. I was delighted the entire time, because I love to drive cars. If there was a highlight, it was when we took a true off- road route that no car, and few trucks, could have negotiated. It required significant driving skill to climb the hills and drive over the boulders we encountered in the brief (5-minute) off-road portion.
The speedboat/snorkel part was equally fun, but very different. We only snorkeled for 15 minutes or so, but my wife and I had a terrific time and saw amazing sea urchins and other fish. The other passengers in our boat were not interested in snorkeling and remained on the boat to drink rum punch.
After snorkeling, our guide gunned the motor and took some hard turns, to the mild dismay of one older lady who clearly was out of her comfort zone, but to the excited whoops of me and my wife. He got us up to about 65 MPH as we headed back to the port. He told me at that speed, the boat was only about 2/3 opened-up. We stopped by the airport and was able to watch one plane land on the famous runway.
We passed numerous enormous yachts, and our guide called out several of them by name and told us who the famous owners were. That was a pretty neat thing to see.
When we reached the port, the guide was greeted by his wife and young child, and he accepted our tips and praise with humble gratitude.
As a lover of adventure AND driving, this excursion was a 10/10. I would book it again given the opportunity. Read Less