The Never-Ending Cruise, The Never-Ending Review Inspiration 08/29/2004
The Players Myself: 30 years old, never cruised before Barbara, my wife: Celebrated the second anniversary of her 29th birthday on 8/30. Janet, Barb's mom, 50ish Lenny, Barb's dad, 50ish Barbara, Janet and Lenny have all cruised before in the late 80's. This was my first cruise.
Embarkation The embarkation process went fairly smoothly. After making a few wrong turns in Tampa getting to the port, we arrived at the curbside luggage check around 12pm. After tipping the porter $1 for each bag (which he was very gracious in accepting - no intimidation here), we quickly made our way inside the terminal to be guided by security to the check-in line. One curious note: Everyone seemingly was directed to the same line, whether they had used the Fun-Pass on line or not. The line moved fairly quickly, and there were personnel at every station at the counter busily getting everyone's documents in order. By 12:45 - 1:00 we were getting our embarkation photos taken and onboard the ship minutes later.
First Impression Upon entering the Atrium, I expected to be overwhelmed with a sense of awe or wonder. Surprisingly, this was not the case. The best way I can describe it is as a mass of excited confusion. With the bright dEcor and somewhat crowded layout of the public area of the Empress deck, combined with the small army of Carnival personnel waiting to greet you, our grand entrance was more akin to four absentminded people searching for their lost cars in the parking lot of the mall then the beginning of a great celebration. We entered with no idea of what we wanted to do next, as the announcements made during our brief wait inside the terminal all requested that we not go to our rooms until after 1:30. A Carnival employee took note of our dazed and confused state and asked if they could be of some assistance. He gave us simple directions to our quarters and told that there was no problem with us going early. And off we went...
The Cabin Both cabins were Upper deck. Barbara and I were in U29 and Janet and Lenny were in U33 - outside view with the large picture windows. The cabins were about what I had expected, after having read so many descriptions on the Cruise Critic message boards. The rest of my party was impressed with the size, having only sailed before aboard the Carnival Festivale and NCL Sovereign of the Seas. They all were of the opinion that the Inspiration had much larger cabins. As ordered by Janet when she initially booked, the room was decorated for Barbara's birthday. Foil streamers in Carnival red and blue hung from the four corners with an elaborate decorative cluster of small banners and smaller streamers at the center. Also hung from the ceiling were several small 'Happy Birthday' signs, as well as a banner in the window. In the corner, underneath the television was a stand-up centerpiece of red and blue tinsel with more 'Happy Birthday' signage. One small drawback, however, was that as someone who is 6'4" tall, I had to constantly duck to avoid entangling myself in the celebrative arms of the streamers. No price too large to pay for my wife's dream birthday celebration!
The cabin itself was Spartan in design and the designers had obviously made a valiant effort to make the best use of the space available. The two beds, already set up as one queen-sized bed, dominated the room. There was ample closet space for two people for seven days (nine too, but I'll get to that later) with both shelves and two separate hanging rods. Inside the closet with the double doors was the safe, measuring about 12" wide by 6" tall by 8"deep. There was also a small desk/vanity with four drawers to provide more storage space. Under the desk was a small stool, and a chair was in the opposite corner. Between the bed and the window was a foot and one half wide space with a small table. At the foot of the bed was the life-jacket storage compartment, which also served as a counter top to further spread out our 'stuff'. In their effort to use all of the space available, Carnival did overlook one small thing; the person sleeping on the side of the bed closest to the window either has to slide towards the foot of the bed or climb over the life-jacket compartment to get up while their partner is still in bed. In all, though, the room did not seem crowded.
The bathroom was not cramped, and the shower stall was of a reasonable size. Inside the bathroom was the 'goodie-basket', full of various sample sizes of toothpaste, breath strips, disposable razors, soap, and various headache and allergy medications. The room certainly seemed prepared to serve as our home for the next week (or more). Our luggage was waiting for us when we got to the cabin, and we pulled it inside to unpack later. With our luggage safely stowed atop the bed, we set off to explore the ship.
The Public Rooms Most of our first day is lost in the fog that being someplace new is often accompanied by. Our exploration was haphazard at best. We peeked inside the Paris lounge, walked the Promenade, stopped to take a look at the sculpture in the atrium, and stood at the front of the ship on the sports deck as we made our way out of the harbor. One thing that I made sure to do though was to see the receptionist at the Nautica Spa to schedule an appointment for a couple's massage on our first Fun Day at Sea, Monday. Although the price was certainly higher than any massage that we would have gotten on land, we were looking very much forward to it. As one fellow cruiser put it, "A massage at sea is always better than one on land." After scheduling our massage, we went down to the Lido deck to peruse the buffet. The outside eating area had plenty of space, with tables available in the sun, in the shade, in the smoking area, and in the non-smoking area. I'll address the food in a different section of the review. Inside the Brasserie, although I was forewarned that the dEcor was ahh... unique, I was still not prepared for the grotesquerie that awaited me. Whatever 'inspired' the designer to use 12" diameter purple undulating tubes accented with orange backlit domes at the tips as the central focus of the room must surely be a controlled substance. These purple tentacles, combined with their glowing 'eyes' seemed to be something from one of Jules Verne's more horrific nightmares. We grew used to them, I suppose, but in looking back, I still cannot help but shake my head and ask myself, "What was he thinking?" After our 'adventure in purple', Barbara and I excused ourselves to our room to unpack. From there, it was time to shower and get ready for dinner.
The dining room was one of the few areas where we felt cramped. We sat at a booth for six, with Peggy and Ricky, two friends of Barbara's parents. I haven't mentioned them yet, as they were very much into doing their own thing, and we rarely saw them except for at dinner. The dEcor was elegant, yet the room seemed very crowded. Even on days when there were fewer people in the dining room, the layout made it seem like the designer had added just a few too many tables. The aisle going to the tables were narrow, and if there were a member of the staff or another cruiser trying to make way, someone would invariably have to squeeze themselves to the side so that the other could pass by. On the first night, the mode of dress ranged from (gasp!) shorts and t-shirts to 3pc suits. Barbara and I decided not far into the planning stage that we would do our best to conform to what we thought was formal attire. We both felt overdressed for the occasion. I wore a jacket and tie. Barbara wore an evening gown. We did not let the underdressed nature of some of our fellow cruisers detract in any way from our experience. We enjoyed looking good for each other, and that was enough for us. On the following nights the dress code was more closely followed. We did see some people in slacks and a polo on formal night, but no jeans. The overwhelming majority of men wore dark suits and the ladies were also well dressed. Lenny and I opted for tuxedoes rented through Carnival. We looked sharp and the feeling of being some of the best-dressed people in the dining room was enjoyable. By the last few nights of the cruise, the dress code seemed to become more casual as, presumably, many passengers simply did not pack enough for a 9 day cruise. We wandered quite a bit throughout the entire cruise, but I somehow feel like we didn't see everything.
Some of the rooms simply held no interest for us; others were empty when we checked them out. A few thoughts about some of them: The Rock and Roll Disco - I should have known better, but it's certainly no place to try and have a conversation. Barbara and I met up with her parents here one night, where they had gone for the live music. The music wasn't terrible, although hearing classic rock tunes sung with an Asian accent was a new experience. It was too loud for me though, and I'm not averse to cranking it up to '11' when the song calls for it. The Rhapsody Piano Lounge - Interesting set up, where the piano is the center of the room, surrounded by a counter made up to look like piano keys. The entertainer here, Scotte, was good at his shtick, although at times it seemed that he had been doing the same thing for a little too long. Barb and I stopped in for a bit of 'Name that Tune', and it was a worthwhile diversion for a little while. The Paris Lounge - Used for quite a few different events, the room was spacious enough to accommodate all those who wished to be there without feeling cramped. Bar waiters made the rounds frequently, and were quick to return with our orders. I can see how some may find the lounges to be uncomfortably cold, although I prefer it as cold as possible.
The Candlelight Lounge - This was where the Karaoke was held, among other things. Again, like the Paris Lounge, there was plenty of room. Both lounges had a more 'classic' feel to them then most of the rest of the ship. It was cold here, too. The Galleria - The on-board shopping, one of Barbara's favorite places. We spent an obscene amount of money on jewelry here, much to the delight of the manager, Joe. Both Joe and one of her sales associates, Camelia, were helpful to the utmost. Having worked in retail all of my adult life, I can appreciate great service, and I was very impressed with both their abilities to make the right recommendations, as well as their generally pleasant attitudes. The Galleria as a whole can become somewhat crowded at times. I would recommend leaving your shopping for the last hour before the shops close, as most folks have had their fill by that time. The Photo Gallery - Whatever possessed Carnival to locate the sum total of their portrait-selling space to a small hallway in the middle of a busy deck is beyond me. At times, the gallery was simply packed with people searching high and low for their pictures. People were stepping on toes, lodging their elbows in uncomfortable places, and blocking the little precious walking room while discussing the varying merits of a picture with a dancer or a 'native'. It certainly was not my favorite place to be, but it was one of Barbara's favorite places to spend.
The pictures themselves were professional quality, with some of the formal night pictures destined to go on the wall next to portraits from our wedding. We bought quite a few...all of them, in fact. The Violins Bar - My favorite indoor 'hang-out' aboard ship, this little bar along the Promenade was simple, mostly quiet, and staffed by a few extremely generous bartenders from Croatia. Dubravsko, my personal favorite, spent quite a while regaling me with the cultural significance the Kamikaze (the drink, not the pilot) in his homeland. I think he might have been making this up, but after the first few, who cares anyway? He also made them rather potent. Also, at certain times during the night, there was a very good singer tucked away unobtrusively in the corner. He played mostly current pop tunes, as well as some of my favorites from the '80's.
The Monte Carlo Casino - Having only been to Vegas once when I was 16, I have little to compare to. I can say, however, that I felt quite at home here. There are certainly enough games to choose from, with plenty of slots (Barbara's favorite), a bank of 8 or 10 'multi-games' where you can choose from Keno, video poker, video blackjack and a few other games where you get to choose from a minimum bet of $ .25 and max of $1.25 or a minimum of $1 to a max of $5 (where I won a bit of cash at video blackjack). There also were plenty of table games. They offered two $5 min blackjack tables (where I gave them all of their money back), two $25 min blackjack tables, a roulette table, craps table, a few tables that offered some type of poker, and of course 'Fun 21'. The bar waiters also made the rounds here, and it paid to get to know the 'right' waiter/waitress. Some of them would simply wander the casino holding an empty tray, while others would actually ask if you needed anything. By the second night, two of the waitresses knew my favorites, and kept my glass as full as I allowed them to. Overall, the casino was my favorite place aboard ship.
The Service Staff Our wait-staff was made up of Jason the headwaiter and Ronald the waiter, both from The Philippines. Although it was difficult at first to understand Jason due to his heavy accent, by the end of the first night, we were conversing well. Some of our jokes (Lenny and I both have a rather dry sense of humor) went completely over his head, but that was part of the fun, I suppose. Both Jason and Ronald were very accommodating, and had to ask on only the first night what we preferred to drink. From that night on, he always had our favorites on their way as we sat down. They were also very accommodating in terms of our special requests. Barbara is a very finicky eater, preferring everything without sauce, seasoning or spice, and Jason made it happen with even the most difficult dishes. I cannot remember exactly what Barbara ordered from night to night, but many times, when it was the seasoning and sauces that were supposed to be the entire reason for the dish, Jason would manage to provide it plain. Ronald quickly discovered that I love my bread, and I found that I always had one more piece of bread on my plate. It was a privilege to be served by them. On one night when Barbara and I were just too tired from our day's excursions to be bothered getting dressed for dinner, they even provided me with take-out! I simply came into the dining room at the tail end of the first seating, explained the situation, and he was happy to bring two entrees from the dining room, in covered dishes, one even made to Barbara's peculiar tastes.
Our room steward was Rohan, a very friendly and garrulous fellow from Jamaica. He also had two other stewards as his assistants. I think that they did most of the work of actually cleaning the rooms, while Rohan spent most of his time attending to special requests, following up on their work, or just 'talking it up' with the passengers. I've always appreciated someone with a sense of humor, and Rohan did not disappoint. When we saw our first towel animal, an elephant, it became immediately apparent that it was under-dressed. Barbara and I gave it a pair of our sunglasses, a mini-sombrero and a cigarette in his trunk as well. Rohan thought this was a riot, and from then on, all of our towel animals were equally as well dressed, even including a troll wearing a bow tie. As far as service, Rohan and his crew excelled. Our ice was never empty, our towels always fresh (well until day 7, that is...more later.), and the room was always clean. Rohan even managed to find a cardboard box for us to use to pack some of the more fragile souvenirs we planned on bringing back, and even offered to wrap them in paper and pack them for us. I give two very enthusiastic thumbs up for Rohan and his assistants.
Other crewmembers around the ship were also helpful. I can honestly say, outside of a few disinterested bar waiters wandering the casino, that I did not meet a single Carnival employee that was less than friendly and more than willing to do whatever it took to make me happy. Special kudos goes to Daniella and Gayda in the Nautica Spa. The couple's massage that Barbara and I booked was so enjoyable, immediately after it was over, we booked another for the next day at sea. To say that their hands were capable of magic would be an understatement. Muscles that had been tense since I entered the real world of working for a living were suddenly free and relaxed. Also, they were not pushy in their 'after the massage sales pitch' as we had been warned that they might be. The entire staff of photographers was a pleasure to work with as well. Their patience is remarkable, as they would try to corral large groups into the smallest sets, or convince the most hardheaded passengers that they really did know best when it came to poses. The results speak for themselves, as we left the ship with a veritable cornucopia of portraits from the cruise.
Entertainment Organized entertainment has never really been my thing, but we gave the Vegas style shows a shot. The one we saw was very well put together, and the dancers were very good at what they do. It wasn't for me, though, and we left about 10 minutes into it. I've already mentioned Scotte, from the piano lounge, but I figured I'd put a plug in for his humor here as well. Sarcastic, dry wit is his thing, so if you like that type of humor, be sure not to miss him. Karaoke was hit or miss. It seemed that we didn't have too many people interested on our cruise. To me, the best part of singing karaoke is doing it in front of a large crowd, and on the nights that we went, the lounge was rather empty. Maybe our timing was off though, as I spoke to some other cruisers who said it was quite crowded earlier on. Oh well, maybe next time. We also hung around the Lido for the ice carving demonstration, which was interesting. It was quite impressive how a block of ice can be made into a swan in a matter of 10 minutes. You may have noticed little mention of our cruise director, Marascahl. Perhaps because Barbara and I were into 'doing our own thing' we didn't see much of him. In all actuality, we only saw him at the Captain's cocktail party and the disembarkation talk. We did run into the assistant cruise director, whose name escapes me now, at a few events, and found him much more lively and entertaining.
Dining I've never been one to indulge in the foreign or the exotic on a regular basis. I guess it wouldn't be exotic then, would it? At home, I'm a meat and potatoes kind of guy. Usually when we go out to eat, it's pretty much the same thing, although I will occasionally have a hankering for some seafood. I took the opportunity of having already paid the cost of the food up front to try quite a few different things in the dining room. I can't remember everything I ordered, but there was nothing that I found poorly prepared. There were some things I just didn't find to my liking, but those were few and far between. Overall the food quality in the dining room was very good. Barbara and I also ate at the Brasserie on the Lido deck a few times, when we were either too tired or too late to bother with the dining room. The choices here were varied, but themed to a particular region on certain nights. This meant that if you are particular in your tastes, the service of the dining room was the way to go. Twice when we went to the Lido, Barbara found almost nothing to her liking, as on one night it was entirely Indian, and another it was Mexican. We made due with room service. Room service was limited in selection, and the quality was adequate at best, and they did not make things 'to order'. Barbara loves a B.L.T. on a bagel, but when I asked if they could make one on a bagel instead of bread, I was told that the food was pre-prepared and they could not do so. So, we just ordered a B.L.T. and a bagel. When your tastes are as particular as hers, you learn to be creative.
Shore Excursions Although we certainly had fun aboard ship, the ports of call were what I was looking most forward to. We decided early on to book our excursions independently, opting for the more personal and less expensive options that the independent tour operators could provide in exchange for the security of the cruise line organized cattle calls. We booked excursions in Grand Cayman, Belize and Cozumel, leaving Costa Maya open for random explorations. Grand Cayman We booked the Stingray City / Coral Reef snorkel with Captain Bryan's aboard The Hannibal. We had a short walk from the pier (the directions were simple and very well explained) to the meeting place and arrived a few minutes early. If you have the time, get there early enough to enjoy something from The Olde English Bakery, right in front of the meeting place. The Hannibal is a trimaran, essentially a catamaran with a center hull. There were about 18 passengers on board as well as three crewmembers, and there was room to spare. Some passengers chose to lay out on the trampolines at the front of the boat, while most sat on the benches in the shade. The ride to Stingray City took about 30-45 minutes. Snorkel gear was provided to all, and the captain spent a good deal of time explaining how to handle a stingray in the water without hurting it or placing it in danger. And then, we were in the water!
There were two other boats at the site while we were there, but there were stingrays enough for everybody, and then some. They were everywhere, so much so, in fact, that it seemed you had to be careful to avoid stepping on them. The water was about 4' deep, and crystal clear. The captain and his mate were showing everyone how to hold a stingray and give them a kiss, as well as helping folks feed them and pet them. The videographer, Heather was getting shots of everyone doing this, as well as shooting the stingrays as they swam about. The whole experience was incredible. After about 25-30 minutes in the water with the rays, we all got back aboard the Hannibal to head for our next destination, the coral reef. A short ride later (maybe 10 minutes, at most) and we were there. Here the water was significantly deeper. I am not the world's greatest swimmer, but with the natural buoyancy provided by the saltwater combined with the buoyancy of the fins, I had no problem staying afloat, even when I grew tired and just stayed in one place to rest. I am somewhat unsure of the amount of time we spent at the reef, but my best guess is about 35-40 minutes.
There is plenty to see here. Whether you are interested in reef formations, tropical fish or moray eels, this reef offers it all. Heather filmed it all, spending a good deal of time with the eels as they were coaxed out of their holes by the captain and his mate to swim around for all to see. She even got one to come out so she could give it a kiss! My description is really doing this excursion justice. It truly is something you have to experience to grasp the full nature of it. The Hannibal, her crew and the entire excursion are highly recommended.
Costa Maya In Costa Maya, we did not have an excursion planned. After shopping in the pier area for a while, we decided to try something different. We rented waverunners from Mayawal tours for $70/hour per person. Janet stayed ashore as Barbara, Lenny and I all cruised about. Sort of. Barbara's waverunner stalled and then died completely not long after getting started. Since she wan't really enjoying it much, she gave it up, and was given a full refund. Lenny and I had a blast zooming about for the remainder of our time. One thing about waverunners - be careful. They can reach some impressive speeds, and it is quite possible to turn sharply enough to throw yourself right off of the machine. I came close twice while trying to see just how fast and sharp I could turn. The machine would start to fishtail, then hydroplane sideways for a bit and then suddenly catch itself in the water. If I didn't have a death-grip on the handlebars, I surely would have been tossed away. As it was, one hand came loose and one leg came off, but I managed to stay on the thing somehow. The waverunners were fun, but Mayawal tours seemed, at best, a rag-tag operation. I have no complaints, but there was certainly a 'rustic' feel to the whole thing. Again, not that it was a bad thing, but I just felt I should mention it. Next time in Costa Maya, I will probably do something a little more organized.
Belize It's a toss-up to decide which I enjoyed more, Belize or Cozumel. In Belize, we booked the Stingray/Shark Alley tour with Coral Breeze. We got to shore early enough to do some shopping and met up with them a little before our scheduled time. I'm guessing that there were somewhere between 15-20 people aboard. The boat was The Coral Breeze, a fully covered speedboat with plenty of room for everyone. The crew was very friendly and informative, sharing information about Belize, the stingrays we would be swimming with as well as the nurse sharks. Two people that I feel deserve recognition for their part are Monique, who was the person we met up with on shore, and the guide himself, who I can only remember his last name, Ash, because it was tattooed on his leg. The guide, I guess I'll just call him Ash, told us about the history of Belize, the culture, the weather, anything we wanted to ask. He was funny, personable and very friendly. After about a 30 minute ride, we stopped at Caye Caulker for them to pick up some equipment and to drop off our lunch orders. We were back underway shortly, and after about 5 minutes more were at our first stop.
Let me say this: Even though you know they are harmless, when you look into the water below you and see 10-15 black sharks swimming about, a sudden shiver travels down your spine. The nurse sharks know where the food is, as well as the rays, and not long after the captain dropped some food into the water, they were everywhere. The captain warned that the sharks were shy, and would swim off once we started to get into the water and he advised us to get as many pictures as we could while still in the boat. We did, and as he said, once we jumped in, the sharks started to swim off. The stingrays, however, are not so shy. The stingrays of Belize are much larger, travel in larger groups, and are more playful than those in Grand Cayman. Where the largest ray I saw in Grand Cayman probably measured about 4 ft across, there were some off the shore of Caye Caulker that were easily 6-7 ft wide. They also were everywhere. I actually had to wait a few minutes for a clear spot in the water to jump in, there were so many rays swimming about. Once in the water, it was surreal. We were literally right in the middle of a swarming mass of very large stingrays. They swam under us, around us and between our legs. They brushed up against us, pushed our feet out from under us, and occasionally tried to swim right over us. It was absolutely awesome. And during it all, right on the outskirts of the commotion lurked the dark shapes of the nurse sharks, patiently waiting for the calm to return.
I separated myself from the mass of stingrays and slowly swam towards the last place I had seen the sharks. They were somewhat uneasy at my presence, but when I simply stopped swimming and just floated nearby, they remained where they were for me to marvel at them. Eventually I decided to swim towards them, and all of them but one swam off out of my reach. The one that remained was about 7ft long, gliding very slowly along the sea floor. I was actually able to swim up above it and run my hands along its sides while it swam with me for a few feet. Then, with a flick of its tail, it was gone. I could go on and on and on and on about how much I enjoyed this excursion, but there was more to it than swimming with the rays and the sharks. After about 30 minutes in the water with the sharks and rays, we moved a little further from shore to the coral reef. Here we snorkeled in something resembling a line along a 'path' by following the guide as he led us over various coral formations, and around the taller ones where we might possibly damage the coral or ourselves. This was all very nice, but it didn't compare to swimming with sharks to me. Once we had our fill of snorkeling, we were brought to Caye Caulker for lunch and some shopping time. Lunch was at a small restaurant called, I believe, The Rainbow. One word of advice: Get the Chicken Burrito. It was delicious. Huge and delicious. The shopping was all right, I guess. Shopping just isn't my thing, but Barbara seemed to enjoy herself. She picked up a few trinkets of some kind or another, but we bought so many things throughout the cruise, that I can hardly remember what was bought where. After about 1 ½ hour on the Island, we hopped back aboard the Coral Breeze and made it back to the pier at Belize City with about 45 minutes to spare before the last tender.
Cozumel Cozumel was the one port that Barbara had been looking forward to the most. We had booked the Royal Dolphin Swim, the Sea Lion Swim and a sea lion show at Chankanaab National Park through Sherrie and Jacqueline at CozumelInsider.com. We had swum with dolphins before, at Sea World Orlando's Discovery Cove, and she had fallen in love with the idea. I believe that all of our other ports of call could have been cancelled and Barbara still would have been happy, so long as she was able to swim with the dolphins. Catching a cab from the pier to Chankanaab was a breeze, as cabbies are lined up waiting for passengers. There is a large sign posted with the rates per carload to go to the various places. The fare to Chankanaab was $5. The ride was quick an uneventful. Once at the entrance to Chankanaab, we were somewhat unsure of where to go. There were several lines formed at the counters for check-in, paying your entrance fee and for tours, but we had already pre-paid everything through CozumelInsider. After asking a few of the park employees we were guided to the correct spot, where a young lady quickly checked our reservations and let us through. We quickly checked in for all of our activities and received armbands to allow us entry and to mark the times. And then, we were off to swim with sea lions. Immediately after we were fitted with our lifejackets and on our way to the pool area where the swim would be done, a bright flash of lightning followed closely by an ear-splitting peal of thunder stopped us all in our tracks. We waited the storm out for about 20 minutes, during which time we met a group of Canadians who were seeking shelter under the same overhang that we were. Talking hockey with them, one of my favorite pastimes, made the wait seem much shorter, and suddenly, we were on our way. What an experience it was! There were 14 people in our group. We were invited to sit on the edge of a stage overlooking the pool area as the trainer gave us some information about the sea lions, and had them perform some basic tricks for us. Once in the water, the fun began. The sea lions swam by, allowing us to pet them, swam up alongside and gave us a kiss, and even jumped over us as we held hands and formed a 'gate' for them to jump over.
Photos and a video were taken of all of the action and were available for purchase inside the gift shops. Our sea lion show was scheduled for 1:30, and due to the delay caused by the rain, it had already begun by the time we had watched the preview of our video and made our purchase. Since we had gotten to actually swim with them, we figured 'No big deal', and shopped a bit while we waited for our dolphin swim. The dolphin swim takes place in a large area separated from the open sea by a series of fences. There are several pens separating the different groups of dolphins from each other. You are led down a long boardwalk, on the outside of which is the open water, complete with barracuda eyeing you hungrily and on the inside is the large area reserved for the dolphin swim. Once the dolphins have been introduced to you, the swim by much the same way as the sea lions to allow you to pet them. They also put their heads in your hands and wait for you to kiss them. Then they allow you to hold their flippers while they dance with you. But this isn't the half of it. All of this takes place on a platform in the water below the boardwalk. After you have 'played' with the dolphins, the trainer has you swim out to the center of the pen. Two dolphins come up on either side of you and you grab hold of their dorsal fins and they pull you in. The power that these creatures have is incredible. I weigh 230lbs, and they seemingly had no trouble hauling me in. They really impressed me with their power in the next exercise. Again, you swim out to the center of the pen, this time laying on your belly with you legs slightly spread apart and your arms extended in front of you. Then two dolphins again join you. This time instead of you grabbing a hold of their flippers, they start pushing you by the balls of you feet with their noses! They have such strength that you are actually lifted out of the water and are 'flying' like superman. What a rush! Again, the entire thing was photographed and recorded on video, which we purchased.
You are able to view the video before buying it, and I must say it was well done. One tip: If you intend on purchasing the video, be sure to go to the viewing area to see it before hand. The people who go to view it are all asked their names and the videographer adds your names to the title screen. One couple who I saw in the gift shop later was asking the attendant why their name was not in the credits, and that was the answer they were given. After all of the excitement of swimming with sea lions and dolphins, we were quite tired and hungry. A short walk from the dolphin swim area is a very good restaurant that I didn't catch the name of. Lunch for four cost about $40US, and was well worth it. After that, a short cab ride back to the pier and we were back aboard the ship in time for dinner.
Frances Comes for Dinner I have mentioned a few times how the cruise turned out to be a little bit longer than we had expected. Even before the cruise departed Tampa, we were all anxiously eyeing Hurricane Frances as she spun her way towards the Caribbean. Although the projected path did not show her heading our way, I was concerned that if she headed on a more westerly course than was expected, she would have been in Cozumel the same day as us. It turned out that the forecaster had this one right. Instead of making our lives miserable on the cruise, Frances made a turn towards our homes to make things difficult for the people there. All during the cruise, pictures of the hurricane's path were found throughout the ship, noting speed, direction and the projected path it would take. They were changed often to keep them updated. It seemed that the crew was well aware of the concern of some of their passengers and were doing what they could to keep us aware. The first impact that Frances had on our cruise was on Friday. As I mentioned earlier, we arrived in Cozumel on Friday. Before our excursion at Chankanaab, Barbara and I decided to do some shopping on shore. When we were on our way back to the ship to unload our purchases and grab our bag for the park, we met several people coming off the ship who said that we would be staying later. Not long after we came aboard, an announcement was made that due to the hurricane, and in an effort to avoid the rough seas associated with it, we would be staying in Cozumel until 3am with a planned arrival in Tampa late Sunday. We didn't think much about it at the time, and it seemed a wise decision.
Upon our return from our dolphin and sea lion swims, we again ran into another passenger who said that we would be staying the night in Cozumel. Once aboard, another announcement was made to confirm this, stating that Carnival expected the port of Tampa to be closed, and that we would wait things out in Cozumel. We were scheduled to leave at 3pm Saturday afternoon with out arrival in Tampa planned for early Monday morning. Again, 'No big deal', we thought, and went about our business. One drawback to the extra time in Cozumel was the fact that all of the ship's stores were closed, as was the casino. I had been having a great time in the casino, winning every time I played, and Barbara had been having a great time at the jewelry shop on the ship, spending my winnings. Many of our fellow passengers went ashore to enjoy the Cozumel nightlife, but we were simply too tired to do so and both would have enjoyed having the casino open. Instead, we spent some time at the Violins bar where we met Dubravsko and his heavy-handed Kamikazes. I must mention that the ship seemed deserted Friday night. Apparently everyone was either partying hard on the island or was in their cabins recovering from their partying. The few people we did see were at the purser's desk. From the time of the second announcement changing our plans, it seemed that there was always a line at the purser's desk. I assume people were trying to change their return home itineraries. We drove to the pier from home, so this was one headache we didn't have to deal with. We did see some people hauling all of their luggage to the taxi area in Cozumel, so I assume some people had arranged to fly home from Mexico. We did some more shopping on Cozumel on Saturday, and once again, when we arrived back at the ship, we were told via the loudspeakers that we would be leaving Cozumel later than anticipated because the port of Tampa had already been closed, and would stay closed for at least 24 hours. There was no reason for us to leave, since we had no place to go, it seemed, and the plan was for us to leave early Sunday morning. We finally left Cozumel sometime Sunday morning. I am not sure exactly what time it was, because I was asleep, but I do know that the casino was open at noon.
Sunday was a day at sea. The purser's desk was becoming more crowded by the day, it seemed. All around the ship, the conversation was turning towards the extra length of our cruise. Most people seemed to be fine with the idea, but a sense of tension could be felt at times. My feelings toward the matter were simply 'go with the flow', as there was nothing I could do to change any of it, and I was in fact getting extra time that I did not pay for as an added bonus to an already wonderful vacation experience. Others however, were not able to be so relaxed. It's difficult to describe. Mostly it was a strained look on people's faces, or extra harshness in the way in which they spoke to their children or other passengers. There were no overt complaints, per se, more just a feeling of uneasiness. Speaking of uneasiness, the seas were starting to get rough by mid-day Sunday. Seasickness bags started appearing, taped to the railings in the stairwells and in the passageways. The ship was rocking and rolling. I had posted a question on the boards asking how high do the waves have to be before you actually feel them. I got my answer on Sunday. The captain came across the loudspeakers again, informing us that we were sailing in approximately 16ft seas, and we would be spending Sunday at sea, with intentions on returning to Tampa Monday morning if the port was open. I must say that I was rather happy with myself. Having never cruised before, I was somewhat concerned at the outset that I might become seasick. The only time that I began to feel unwell was when I had all but closed the AC vent in our cabin because Barbara was cold and then tried to take a nap. The warmth of the room, combined with my lying on my back with the drapes closed was too much for me. Instead, I found our room steward, chewed a couple of Bonine he provided, and went topside to watch the waves. From then on, I was fine. I guess I finally got my sea legs.
On Sunday, during dinner, it was becoming apparent that the ship was not stocked for additional days. Folded paper towels unceremoniously replaced the heavy cloth napkins that had been provided throughout the cruise. The menu was the same as our first night at sea, but some items were unavailable. Jason, our headwaiter was very apologetic about it all, but we viewed it as something to be joked about, not something to be upset about. The joking increased when the captain came across the loudspeakers yet again to inform us that we would not be arriving in Tampa until late Monday night or Tuesday morning. The theme song from 'Gilligan's Island' was heard, and mention was made of a 'never-ending cruise'. When we returned to our rooms from dinner on Sunday, it became apparent that the room stewards were also running low on supplies. Where we would have a full assortment of fresh towels twice daily before, we now had two towels and two washcloths hanging in the bathroom. Monday was more of the same. At the breakfast buffet, bacon was usually put out in one of the trays but you now had to ask for it to get it. Apparently the supply was running low, and they wanted to make sure that there was some available for the omelet maker. The small paper napkins used at the bars had replaced the napkins on the Lido. Room service had run out of bagels and whole milk. And more people were running out of patience. I don't want to imply that things were getting ugly. Merely an increased level of tension was becoming obvious. Where people were friendly and talkative in the elevators earlier in the cruise, by day 8 the elevators were usually traveled in silence.
The ship was also far less active. Perhaps the rolling seas outside had a part to play in this as well, as those that were up and about were usually seen wearing seasickness patches or wrist bands, but the overall mood seemed much more subdued than earlier on. Maybe people were just getting tires. I know I was. During dinner on Monday, word came from the bridge that we expected to dock in Tampa on Tuesday morning by 10am. Relief was visible on the faces of the other passengers. Speaking only for myself, I was rather disappointed. I would not have minded a few more free days added to my cruise, even if we were using toilet paper for napkins by that time.
Debarkation Tuesday morning, we pulled into Tampa promptly at 10am. We were told to be at our disembarkation station, the Promenade deck, by 11am. We got there early to ensure that we had a comfortable place to relax while we waited. And waited. And waited. The entire disembarkation process seemed to have no organization to it whatsoever. When the people who were taking advantage of the self-assist disembarkation process were called, it became apparent that although it may have seemed like a good idea on the drawing board, the entire self- assist idea still needs some work. It seemed that half of the passengers were trying to use the self-assist process, many with 5 or 6 suitcases each. Apparently the idea that they would have to be able to handle all of their luggage by themselves down two flights of stairs was lost upon them. People who had checked their luggage the night before by leaving it outside their cabin were also trying to use the self-assist process.
Several announcements were made throughout the process stressing the importance that only those who could handle all of their own luggage, who had not checked any luggage the night before, were to use the self-assist process. Some people seemingly failed to understand. It took 3 hours for the self-assist passengers to complete the disembarkation process enough for the colored tags to start being called. From the first tag color called to ours (we were the fourth color called) was a total of 15 minutes. From that point, we were off the ship in about another 15 minutes. From talking to some of the porters inside the luggage claim area, it seems that many of the passengers who chose self-assist simply had too much luggage. According to one porter, they were dropping their luggage while on the escalator, blocking traffic and completely stopping the disembarkation process several times. I think that Carnival needs to set a limit on the number of bags that a passenger can carry to be allowed to self-assist debark.
Once we were in the luggage claim area, we found a friendly porter who said he would be glad to take our luggage to the curb while we got the car and pulled up to load it. For $20, he agreed to instead bring it all directly to our car. For 16 pieces of luggage for the four of us, this was one heck of a deal. I would have been happy to pay the guy $50 at that point, because once we saw the pile of luggage we had when it was all put together, and the crush of people waiting curbside to load their luggage into their cars, I realized that we would have been waiting for at least another hour before we were on the road. With his help, we were in the car and on the way home by 2pm. Conclusion For those of you who have the patience to read a review this long, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did my first cruise. The people were friendly, the ship enjoyable and the ports of call were as exotic and interesting as I had hoped. My next cruise is in the embryonic stages of planning, but rest assured, there will definitely be another! Read Less