I nearly forgot to write this review, part slammed by real life, part reeling from the last, intensely unpleasant hours of the cruise, and part performance anxiety after being a review groupie to Saint Greg and others.
I got the cruise bug from my coworker a couple of years ago , stumbled across the Vista before I realized she was “a thing” and booked a Havana Cabana Suite right out of the gate, two years ahead of sailing. Then I started doing my research. I had no idea what I was doing, but I had a very reluctant husband and the Havana area looked like something I could sell him on, and the swing chairs looked cool. I figured I had two years to save up.
After I came to my financial senses, and realized how separated from the water the lanai walkway would make me feel, I moved us to an aft balcony. For better or worse, I accidentally chose an early saver fare and locked myself into a non-refundable, non-transferable deposit. There were a couple of times over the past 300 or so days that I considered eating that $500, but I’m glad I held firm and stuck with it.
Mind you, when I booked this trip, I had never cruised before. I fell down some YouTube and podcast rabbit holes and was thoroughly ate up. Major shout outs to video channels La Lido Loca, Cruise Tips TV, and Cruise Radio, and to their associated podcasts. Matt at the Royal Caribbean Blog podcast and YouTube channel is also awesome.
Back in February, my sister and I went for a test run on the Valor (a first cruise for both of us), and I learned some things. I had a feeling I would love cruising with the right companion (or solo, my dream …), but I would need a balcony. My only previous experience on the water was as crew on a 46-foot sailboat in a regatta from Galveston to Veracruz, Mexico and back. We had to drop off two of our five-member crew in Port Isabel when they were unable to overcome their seasickness, so that left three of us to get down to Veracruz to pick up the return crew. We lived in the cockpit of that boat. Just clip on the harness at night and rotate catnaps. No sign of land or another vessel for days and days. Long explanation, but I ~need~ a lot of outside time on the water. I can’t get enough.
Where was I? Oh yeah … So growing up in Houston, Galveston is a sentimental favorite for me. Ugly fricken water, but a beach just the same. I discovered the webcams at Galveston.com and various others (ate up, remember?), and from there discovered Harbor House, where the Cruise Cam is situated. I had to have one of the harbor view rooms. I should mention that this was our 23rd wedding anniversary, we never got around to taking a honeymoon, and had been either pregnant or raising kids since our second anniversary. The youngest just moved out to go to college and it was time to celebrate. My VeryFrugalHusband-™ would never have splashed out on a room at Harbor House, but I was paying and he didn’t know about it until we got there. He loved it, of course. It was one of many highlights and totally worth the $280 pre-tax rate. However, if you are of a certain age and want to stay there, go check it out now! I got our room for next year and they have an AARP rate for $143 a night! Yes, I booked two nights.
So that was a little spoiler. Obviously, I have converted my spouse to the cruise life, but back to this review. I’m a watch-the-sunrise-from-the-road kind of traveler, but hubs, not so much. We spent a long, hot, traffic-y Friday driving from North Dallas to Galveston. When I met my sister there, I made it in exactly 4.5 hours. Tack on at least two more for leaving mid-morning. I’m driving next year. We did get to see the Thunderbirds (Texas’ version of the Blue Angels) practicing for an airshow, so that was a major thrill. So nice that we were sitting in traffic at that moment (eyeroll). We got to the hotel right at check in, so my plans for brunch at the Gumbo Diner didn’t happen. Still want to check that place out. Our room was amazing! Next year, I’d like to take advantage of their reciprocal relationship with the Galvez, since we’ll have more time. Harbor House doesn’t have a pool, but you can take their free shuttle up (down?) to the Galvez on the seawall and use their pool and swim-up bar, or even borrow complementary cruiser bikes. I’m a bit accident prone, born of not fully recognizing my limits. The surgeon who repaired my rotator cuff had the nerve to call me a fall risk, to which the clever man I’ve shared a couple of decades with replied I was a “winter, spring, summer, and fall risk.” Anyway, he’s very concerned by my fascination with biking the seawall. Humph.
We wandered around the Strand, bought souvenirs for our girls, and ended up at Willie G’s for happy hour and sunset. Highly recommend this, but be sure to specify that you want the happy hour. It’s a really good deal, several hours long, and they probably lose money on it. We had to be a bit persistent, but it was so good that we plan to get there early and stay late next time. We watched pigeons circle and roost and Coast Guardsmen play corn hole until well after sundown. Dolphin and sunset tours came and went from Pier 21 and all the harbor traffic was fascinating.
The hotel bed was comfy and the room absolutely silent, but it was hard to sleep with the beautiful night view out the window. Lots of sparkly, giggly homecoming groups having dinner at Willie G’s. Romantic as hell. So glad we have two nights next year. About 5:30, I got up to adjust the A/C and looked down the pier. I could see a whale tale and thought it was the Vista. Looked down at the A/C unit for a minute, and by the time I looked back up, the ENTIRE window was filled with “CARNIVAL VISTA” all lit up. H-U-G-E ship filled the window frame. I yipped, jumped on my sleeping husband, whisper-shouting, “it’s here! It’s here! Look!!! The Vista is HERE!!!” Luckily he was as excited as I was and didn’t kill me.
I realize this pre-cruise report is really long, but truthfully, I remember less about the actual cruise! The days all run together when you are relaxing in paradise. The hotel provides a continental breakfast, and while it’s not a huge spread, it gets the day started. We dressed, repacked, and headed out to MOD coffee for a real cuppa and split a power bar breakfast bread thing. Yummy. While we ate, we watched the Artoberfest vendors set up their craft fair booths and pet all the passing local dogs. Eventually, it was time to porter the bags and park.
It was pretty busy in the drop-off lane, as we had two Carnival ships in port. I believe the Dream was the other one. The port workers were all doing their jobs fine, but our fellow cruisers had things fairly well jammed up. I get it, though, not many of us knew what we were doing and it was our first time handing off our bags to a porter, for sure.
Parked at Galveston Park N Cruise. I know there are better prices out there, but I was still trying to minimize the annoyance factor for finicky husband (so I wouldn’t have to listen to the gripe and also to get him hooked) and they were right across the street. They not only took good care of my little VW bug last trip, they freaking remembered and greeted me by name this time. OK, I’m a sucker for that kind of service. Take my money.
We had FTTF (part of my ploy to lure the husband into cruising), so we pretty much walked right in. I had planned to hang out in the lobby and watch the funnel, but it was humid and stinky. Nope, Vista, that venue is better once under sail. On our drive down to Galveston, we had a pretty decent BBQ sandwich from Buc-ee’s (sorry, Saint Greg, not a Rudy’s fan), but we decided to check out Pig & Anchor on embarkation anyway. Now, we’re both native Texans and my husband has perfected smoking a brisket in the backyard, but I don’t get all the hate P&A gets. It wasn’t Cousins, but with a good sauce, just about anything will pass. Looking at you Rudy’s - blech. No line at the Pig as it was early and undiscovered and we had Ocean Plaza almost to ourselves. My plan was working …
After lunch, I took him out to the Havana hot tubs where we met our fabulous waiter, Yeltsin, who spoiled us rotten and never let us down all week. A double shot of Patron and a Corona in the hot tub and I knew the hubs was hooked. Once he saw our room, it was all over. One of the newbie moves I made was to book one of the little skrinchy aft balcony rooms next to the wrap balconies. The balcony space was the same, but the room was so small there was no couch, only the one chair at the desk, and the shelf unit was separate from the desk entirely. Plenty big enough for the two of us and he didn’t know any different, but after sailing in a porthole room on the Valor, I was aware of the size difference. Ahem.
Our room steward, Ron, was so very sweet. We confused him a little over our names, as my husband goes by his middle name and I had booked under his legal name (passport paranoia, newbie cruiser), but even that turned into a running joke. Seriously, by the end of the cruise, we were digging around for more cash to put into his thank you card because he was so great. I’m starting to think that your room steward is a make-or-break for your overall cruise experience.
We watched sail away from the front of the ship, decks 5, 6, and 7, because we were too excited to stay in one place. We even saw dolphins! After dinner, we went back out to admire the night sky and all the ships heading into the Gulf. I wanted to find one of the sheltered seating areas on deck 14, but we were tipsy and tired. You always think you’re going to have more time, or more energy later. Somehow, I never do ...
We had the Steakhouse booked for dinner first night. So good we booked it again for later in the cruise. Regret number one and the thing we’ll change on the next cruise - I’ll give the MDR a chance, especially on a ship like the Vista where you can experience the specialty restaurants for no charge at lunch. Frankly, I avoid the MDR out of second-hand embarrassment for the dancing waiters. Maybe they don’t mind, and they do look like they are having fun, but it feels a little demeaning to me. Regret number two - we just don’t get out much at night. We are older (dammit), but we’re also pretty mellow and this was a cruise to see if we still liked each other, so in that sense, I can’t really regret it, but we saw zero shows, zero comedians, and almost no live music. One of the first two nights (don’t remember which), we did watch the Latin band in the Havana Bar from our perch in the hot tub, and that was pretty cool.
We kind of don’t remember what we did for most of the cruise. We hung out on the balcony and in the Havana area a lot, which is definitely a No Regrets memory. I have to admit, the soot situation in the aft balconies is a thing. I was hoping the reviews I read were just picky people griping, but no, it’s real and it’s gross. We only had actual soot one morning, but by then we were not going outside (more on that later). But the worst part was something like an oily, diesel-y spew. Seriously, I thought someone on the balcony above us had gotten sick, it was that bad. Ron was an angel and got everything wiped and squeegee’d everyday, but we didn’t want to sit out there much while the ship was moving. Gotta wonder what’s getting into the lungs. I did get to watch every sunrise I was awake for and stand in the caribbean rain and that was great.
I had booked Chef’s Table because I’d enjoyed it a lot on the Valor. Unfortunately, it landed on Lobster Night (first cruise elegant), but we went for it anyway. Fantastic experience, but just too dang long. I believe that will be my last Chef’s Table. However … we did have a private magic show from the magician whose act we’d missed (during naptime, I told you we are old). Unbelievably good and not an opportunity we would have had any other way.
Our first port day was Montego Bay, Jamaica. I was a little nervous, never having been there, but I booked a private driver to take us to a local fish shack, Evelin’s on the Beach. Turned out to be ~right~ next door to Sandals, but somehow still really off the beaten path. Less than 100 reviews on Google and TripAdvisor, I think. Very sketchy-looking, but oh! the food! And the view! The water was like glass and the sand like baby powder. This was a local’s spot, though, and you had to pick your way past the kind of junk and debris you usually find in your uncle’s backyard. (Maybe that’s just my family, I don’t know …) Young boys out fishing with just a hook on a hand-thrown line. Catching, too. A stingray swam right past us and the boys put on a diving exposition off the rock wall. It was idyllic. $60 round trip with Ashton Pitt and Jason Tours. Probably as much for the lunch. We were advised to haggle, but just couldn’t bring ourselves to. We came back to the ship to admire the Jamaican hills from the Havana pool and watched sail away from our clamshell bed.
And here’s where my shipboard memory starts to get foggy. I think this was our second night at 555 and I know we enjoyed the Alchemy bar a bit. The next day was Grand Cayman. We took the water shuttle and then a local bus to Cemetery Beach to snorkel. Just magical. Very few people, plus some chickens and a rooster! I’ve never snorkeled before and my husband had never used the full-face masks. He had initially laughed at mine and said there was no way he was wearing that ridiculous thing, but once he tried it, he changed his mind. There were so many friendly, curious, cool-looking fish! They would almost swim right into your hands. I also saw a crab and a sea anemone. The first time I put my face in the water, I actually shrieked. I’m kind of amazed the fish would have anything to do with us after that. Had to float there a while to steady my breathing because I was so excited. It was unbelievable and another big highlight of the trip.
We stretched out to dry off, took the bus back ($5.00 for two, both ways) and had Guy’s Burgers for lunch before afternoon nap. I’m pretty sure this was our JiJi’s dinner night. It was alright, but I think we were just kind of tired of eating by that point. And Captain Frugal was starting to get worried about my Sign & Sail balance. In hindsight, I wish we’d had Cucina del Capitano on this night, but I was saving it for one of the last two dinners. Dinners which never came … dun dun dunnnn …
I had been to Cozumel on the trip with my sister, so it wasn’t as overwhelming to me this time. The gauntlet of the pier plus dufry’s plus port area plus taxi stand was pretty off-putting to the husband and I’m glad this wasn’t our first stop or I might have lost his good opinion right here. We got a taxi fairly quickly and zipped off to a Cozumel-famous and well-respected beach club. I’m not naming names here in case it appears that I’m blaming them for what happened next. It was a beautiful day, the food and drinks and service and venue were all just fantastic. I even saw a starfish (wow!) and I wasn’t even wearing the snorkel gear. Like, I can’t even tell you how great this day was, it was awesome.
But we got back to the ship and I started to feel weird. I thought I was having a sugar crash from too much sun and alcohol, so I asked my husband to get me another Guys or some kind of protein. Before he even got back, I was losing everything I even thought about eating or drinking and that kept up for at least 24 hours. I mean, I was under the impression that digestion happened a little faster than what I was re-experiencing, please forgive the TMI. So bad, so sick. Hubs had his own version, and we eventually headed to the medical center. They were unimpressed and frankly at that point, I still kind of suspected too much of too many kinds of alcohol in too short a period of time. They gave me some anti-nausea meds and a wheelchair ride back to my room, which is the worst walk-of-shame in my humble opinion. I still don’t know whether to chalk this up to Montezuma or Noro or something else entirely, but it’s a lousy way to avoid cruise weight gain and I don’t ever want to do it again.
So we missed dinner that night and the whole last sea day and night. Camped out in bed, watching movies, sipping water and hot tea and taking turns in the bathroom. Our poor, deeply concerned room steward was not allowed in, but he brought us fresh towels and robes and insisted on changing the sheets while we were visiting the med center. Angel. We dragged ourselves through the ordeal of packing up and opted to check our bags. No strength left to carry anything.
We braved one last coffee from Java Blue (love those gals) and tried to take advantage of priority disembarkation with our FTTF. Just as they called Diamond, Platinum, and suite guests, the power glitched. Like, an audible zzttt sound and the lights went out, came back on, and went out for real. Needless to say, things were hosed at that point. FTTF was out the window and we were all in a holding pattern. We discovered that the Library Bar was a very comfortable place to escape the crush of (very aggravated) humanity, so we snoozed and read in cozy armchairs and were actually able to hear when our deck number was called. It was a major cluster going down the stairs and out through deck 0 to the baggage area, but we made it without incident. Our FTTF luggage tags were for area 3, so we got to them pretty quickly and snagged a porter at the first opportunity. Seriously, do this, especially if you have little kids or members of your party are kinda woozy like we were. They got us right through customs and out the door, even tried to take us all the way to the parking garage, but we stopped him at the railroad tracks, gave him all of our remaining cash and got the heck outta there. Two hours from leaving our stateroom at 8:00 until getting on the road at 10:00, and we were some of the lucky ones. Poor ol’ Galveston.
So we discovered that we still like each other! 23 years, definitely some sickness, a good bit of health, quite a bit poorer, but rich in experience. And he wants to do it again! We’re booked in a spa cabin on the Dream for September 2020, and at his request (!) I’ve booked a Havana aft wrap balcony for September 2021. In fact, it’s the room right next door to ours. I only hope Ron will still be there. Read Less