Note: This review is in two parts. Don't miss Part 2
The cruisers in this report are myself (Mary) and my husband (Bob), both in our mid-40's. Are those our real names?... You will just have to guess! This cruise was planned to celebrate our 25th anniversary and although it was our "first" cruise, it certainly won't be our last! From start to finish this was an absolutely WONDERFUL vacation and the only "negative" part about it is that we had to come home
Planning this cruise was a year-long endeavor, but then I am one of those rare people who find the planning as much fun as the actual vacation. For me it was a wonderful diversion to come home after a long day at work, log on to the internet and plan, plan, plan. Eventually it was decided that a cruise on the Carnival Paradise going to the Western Caribbean would fit our needs perfectly! Four factors helped make this decision an easy one for us...1) The ship is smoke free...the thought of not being around ANY smokers for the entire week sounded heavenly. 2) Bob was recently certified in scuba and was anxious to do a "real" dive. The Western route of the Paradise would take us to Cozumel...one of the top scuba diving spots in the world. 3) The best time for us to cruise would be in June while our kids are away at camp (we were celebrating our 25th anniversary...do you think we wanted kids along???) Although the Paradise alternates between the eastern and western route, the week we wished to sail was a "western" week. 4) The price...the Paradise was one of the least expensive seven day cruises we could find.
I did lots of price checking both online and through "a" (or I should say "the") local travel agency...in a small town you don't have a lot of choices! Ignoring the advice that "newbies" should use a TA, I eventually booked with [a .com agency] based on recommendations from a personal friend and lots of good reviews that I read online. [They] were always quick to answer my questions and the only minor glitch we had (getting luggage tags for the Elation instead of the Paradise) was taken care of with a quick phone call.
Saturday, June 15th - Travel Day
Flying to Miami the day of the cruise was never an option that I considered. In recent months, we had two different sets of friends who missed their cruise due to their airline connections and both had even booked the air through Carnival. Finding a decent airfare was an ongoing quest, but in the end I settled for paying more than I had hoped. Bob did have a $500 voucher that we were able to apply to the cost so I guess I shouldn't complain.
We were up bright and early for our flight out of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Well...maybe not "bright" since it was well before dawn but it definitely was "early"! After the one hour drive to Sioux Falls, we grabbed a quick breakfast at Burger King and were at the airport the recommended two hours before our flight. Sioux Falls is not a "busy" airport at anytime of the day, and certainly not at 6 a.m. We settled down for what we figured would be a long, boring start to our day. The TV by our gate was preset to one channel and could not be changed so our only entertainment was an infomercial on some sort of video series that would help customers get rid of anxiety and depression. Contrary to the purpose, it became more and more depressing listening to one person after another talk about their problems.
Time was crawling by when we looked up to see some close friends walking by! Unbeknownst to us, Mark and Janet were boarding a plane at the next gate to fly to Arizona. Having their company turned the morning into a fun time and was just the first of several strange "meetings" of our trip. (OK...lets all start humming "It's a Small World After All"...)
There are no direct flights to Miami from Sioux Falls and since we were flying on American Airlines we made the customary stop in St. Louis. Only a half an hour between flights and of course our arrival gate was far, far away from the one where our next flight would depart. Running like mad (think OJ Simpson style) we made it to the gate just as our next flight was boarding. As we were waiting in line I noticed a large group of teenagers in matching green t-shirts with a Santo Domingo logo. I was somewhat curious about exactly where the group was going because our own church had sent our youth group to Santo Domingo seven or eight years ago. As we were settling into our seats on the plane, I looked up and standing right behind us was Greg, the former youth pastor at our church!! We had been close friends with he and his wife, Yvonne but hadn't seen them for several years since they had moved out of state. (Keep on humming "It's a Small World"... This will be our theme song for this trip!) After lots of hugging, we switched our seats around so that Yvonne and I could sit together and Bob and Greg could be together. Good grief...Yvonne and I probably did more talking on that flight than we did when we lived close to each other! Yack, yack yack....
Once in Miami, the wait to collect our luggage was l-o-n-g. There was one lone bag that kept going round and round and round on the carousel, but none of the luggage from our flight appeared for at least 45 minutes. As we waited we saw representatives from different cruise lines collecting their "passengers" and shuffling them off to busses for the ride to the port. Finally as the luggage started coming out we breathed a big sigh of relief to see the lime green ribbons that helped identify our bags. Knowing how close our flights were in St. Louis had me a little concerned that even though we made it, our luggage maybe wouldn't have.
Getting a taxi was no problem at all...they are lined up and waiting for you to hop in. It was raining cats and dogs that afternoon in Miami (we heard they had 6 inches) so I was glad to let someone else do the driving for us. Living in a small town, taking a cab is foreign to us but I must tell you that it was a bit disconcerting for me to watch the meter go up every time I blinked my eyes! At last we reached the Best Western Marina Park Hotel where we were to stay. After waiting for the driver of a van in front of us to unload a mountain of luggage under the hotel awning, it was our turn to unload. (I was surprised that the taxi meter kept rising the whole time we were waiting...I think it went up about $2 just sitting in front of the hotel!) I think our final bill was right at $20.
As I was checking in, I overheard the lady next to me complaining about how much she was being charged for her room. Armed with my email confirmation, I was a bit smug knowing that we were getting our room for $69 a night including a "deluxe" breakfast. When making the reservation online, I had requested a room on an upper floor facing the bay, and we weren't disappointed...we were on the top (10th) floor! At the time I made the reservations online I thought it was strange that you had the choice of either booking a room with or without breakfast but the price was the same!
The room itself was nice enough...king sized bed, easy chair with ottoman, desk, and also a separate table and chairs by the window. But the real attraction was the view...the street below us was lined with huge palm trees and the sidewalk was done in an interesting tile pattern. Just across the street was the entrance to the Bayside Marketplace and beyond that the Port of Miami. There were several ships in the port that afternoon and although the view of some was blocked, we knew they were Carnival ships by their tailfin smokestacks poking up from behind some buildings. Even though it was still raining heavily, we sat glued to the window taking in the sites. I had hoped to see the ships set sail, but fatigue from the day began to set in and we both succumbed to nap attacks!
We slept less than an hour but when we awoke, the ships were gone! Rats! At least the rain had stopped which meant we could wander over to Bayside Marketplace without getting soaked. Bayside Marketplace is made up of lots of little shops and restaurants...many of which you would find in any good-sized mall. But unlike other malls, this one had its own unique character about it. There was a guy with parrots and other brightly colored birds who, for a fee, would let you pose with the birds. And not only birds, but a huge yellow snake. That was enough to get me to hurry by quickly!
Bob did pose on the park bench (next to the suitcase and box of chocolates) in front of Bubba Gumps while I snapped a picture. We debated about eating there, but it was early and the place looked deserted. We wandered throughout the marketplace looking in the various shops while trying to decide where to eat. Eventually we wound up at the food court where Bob ordered Chinese and I got a plate of Cajun food. We carried our trays out onto an upper deck area overlooking the bay and enjoyed the view while we ate. There wasn't much happening as far as entertainment at this point so we went back to the hotel. Around 8:00 p.m. we made our way back to the Marketplace and enjoyed a live band called Viva! The evening was perfect...clear, not too hot with a nice breeze and we were on VACATION!
Sunday, June 16th - Embarkation Day
The day started out with a trip down to the lobby where breakfast was served. A sign said "deluxe" breakfast $7.50 (remember the cost of a room reservation was the same whether it included breakfast or not!) There was nothing wrong with the food being served but it was definitely not what I would consider "deluxe". The buffet consisted of the usual stuff...cereal, pastries, fruit, bagels, toast, etc. It also had cold sliced ham and cheese which I thought was a weird selection for breakfast. (The buffet on the ship also had cold ham and cheese, so maybe its just me that thought it was strange.) We were able to get filled up easily enough but I was glad I hadn't paid $7.50 each for what little was offered.
Around 11:15 we went downstairs and within a couple of minutes were loading our luggage into a cab and on our way for a "wild" ride! These cab drivers know all the tricks and aren't afraid to use them! This guy (and other cabs that we saw) would deliberately stay in the right hand lane although the signs said to be in the left lane to turn into the Port of Miami. We bypassed the long line of cars waiting to turn and at the last minute he started honking and butted into the line. On the way to the port we had to pass through a toll booth and for some reason our cab got picked to be stopped. I had to show my cruise documents which were in my carry-on bag in the trunk so that was a bit of a hassle (we weren't too popular with the line of cars behind us either that had to wait for me to dig around and find them!) I probably should have kept all of that stuff with me, but I didn't know. Once near the port, there was a lot of congestion with people trying to stop and unload stuff. Our cab driver got impatient and instead of waiting, he just started a "new" lane between the other two. Another coat of paint on his cab and we would have never squeezed through!
We had gambled and booked a 4A "guarantee" for this cruise. I had read about using the "Kelly Method" to try and determine your cabin assignment ahead of time, but it seemed like a waste of time to sit for hours typing in cabin numbers. I had been corresponding with another cruise critic person (Hi Gaines!) who had also booked a guarantee 4A and he had found out he was getting bumped up one level to cabin M45 on the Main Deck. So armed with this knowledge, a couple of weeks before we sailed I gave it a try. I started on the Main Deck and within 3 minutes, I typed in M36 and BINGO our names popped on the screen!
I was a bit disappointed when I discovered we had only been moved up one level because in the back of my head I had been fantasizing that maybe we would somehow miraculously be upgraded to a Category 12 suite with a balcony! Oh well...we were at least one level higher than what we paid for!
I didn't mean to digress from my story though....Once the cab driver dropped us off, the porter had to look up our names on the manifest to find out what cabin we were in so it could be recorded on our luggage tags. Sure enough...it was still M36 so no surprise there. It was around 11:40 when we entered the cruise terminal and there were very few people waiting in line. We joined them and within about a minute, a separate queue was opened which sped things up even more! Everything was in order with our documents so we were on our way up the escalator to the next step in the boarding process...getting our Sail & Sign cards.
We entered a very large room with many seats (most of which were already taken.) Going by the description I had gotten from the other Cruise Critic family that we knew was going to be on board, I couldn't believe it when they were one of the first people we spotted! We quickly got our Sail & Sign cards (no line here) and were told that we could begin boarding at 12:30. We had about a half an hour to wait so decided to stake out a place on the floor near the spot where we would board. Well 12:30 came and went and we were still sitting there, except by now the rest of the crowd had started to get impatient and were ever so slowly creeping closer and closer to the roped off area. Eventually we gave up our little patch of floor for fear we would be trampled and joined the masses hovering around the spot where we would enter the ship. It was after 1:00 p.m. before the rope was dropped and we lined up to get our security pictures taken. No explanation was given so I suppose there had been some hold up in the debarkation of the previous week's passengers.
You enter the Paradise in the Atrium on the Empress Level (Deck 7). Our cabin was on the Main Deck (Deck 5) so we took the stairs down and were able to find the cabin quickly. The cabin was in the front where the ship just starts to get "pointy". To our surprise, a huge bouquet of flowers was sitting on the desk with a note from my cousin wishing us a Happy 25th Anniversary!
After a quick look around the cabin, we put our money, passports, etc. into the safe. The safe was small, but big enough for the video camera and the other stuff that needed to be there. It is operated by using a card with a magnetic strip. Although it would work, we were cautioned to not use our Sail and Sign cards for the safe. The cards have your room number printed on them and if you lost the card, anyone finding it would have access to your room AND your safe. Instead we used a Wal-Mart gift card that had depleted funds. I brought along some lanyards with card holders and that made it easy to keep track of the Sail & Sign cards and also the Wal-Mart card.
Our "deluxe" breakfast had worn off so headed up to the Lido Deck (Deck 10) where lunch was being served in the Paris Restaurant. "Paris" is an appropriate name for this restaurant...in case you didn't know, "buffet" is a French word meaning "get it yourself" ;) A trip through the buffet line and then we settled into a table for two next to the windows in the rear of the dining room. For some reason we gravitated to this same spot throughout the whole week.
Following our late lunch we did a little exploring throughout the ship and then it was time for our "muster drill". We first had to report to the Normandie Lounge wearing our life jackets and from there had to go to an outside deck and stand at our muster station. The spot we ended up in was in the hot sun and we stood there crammed into three single file lines for what seemed an eternity. After taking the lifejackets back to the cabin, we made our way to the outside decks to check out the view of Miami and the other cruise ships in port that day. The Norway passed by us on their way out to sea, followed by the Victory. Cars driving across the waterway by the port that day would honk and wave to us as we were getting ready to sail. It was 5:30 or so before the Paradise started moving and I was getting anxious to get back to the room to get ready for dinner so didn't stay outside to see our ship completely clear the port.
All of our luggage, except for the garment bag, was waiting by our cabin when we returned to get ready for dinner so we were able to get unpacked. The cabin had plenty of storage space, but I was glad I had brought along extra hangers...only about 12 or so were provided in the closet. I had also brought along an "over-the-door" shoe organizer for extra storage space but I could have easily managed without it. I figured it would be a pain to have it hanging on the back of the bathroom door, so we hung it from the light soffet near the desk. Between the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, the closet shelves and the desk drawers there was plenty of storage space for all my "doo-dah". Once we were unpacked, the luggage fit underneath the beds. In the bathroom there was a bowl of various sample-sized items sitting on the corner of the sink ...shampoo, conditioner, body soap, razors, mints, etc. These were just foil packets for one use, not the small bottles of stuff that you get in hotels. No hair dryer was provided on the Paradise.
I was very pleased to see that we had been assigned the 6:30 p.m. dining time in the Elation Dining room...this was "exactly" what I was hoping for. The 5:45 main seating was just a little "too early" and both of the later seating times were much too late for people like us who are not "night owls". (A side note: at the galley tour later in the week, we learned that the cabins in the front half of the ship are assigned the Elation Dining Room while the rear cabins go to the Destiny Dining Room. The dining times are 5:45 and 8:00 for the Destiny and 6:15 and 8:30 in the Elation.) We hadn't bothered to check out our table (#143) earlier so I was a bit sorry to see we were at a booth for six. I had hoped to avoid the "booths" and also thought it would be better to be at a larger table so that hopefully there would be someone who we would be compatible with!
What is the correct seating "protocol" for three couples sitting in a booth for 6? I thought perhaps that each of the couples should sit across the table from each other, but when our first tablemates showed up, they made it clear that they wanted to sit "side by side". That was OK by me...Bob and I just sat side by side opposite them. That meant that the third couple had no option except to sit across from each other when they arrived.
Sharing our table that night were a middle-aged, engaged couple from Indiana. He was a truck driver and she was a first grade teacher in a small private school. Although it was her first cruise, the guy had done several cruises on different lines. They were excited because they had booked a category 6C outside cabin and were upgraded to a balcony suite! (That made our one-category "upgrade" seem pretty piddly!) Bob is a supervisor/quality control manager for a large animal feed company here in Minnesota and I am a jr. high math teacher so we seemed to have plenty in common with these other Midwesterners! The other couple was from New York City and he was a stockbroker...oops, not much common ground there! As the dinner progressed, it was apparent that the NY couple was very, very quiet and didn't take part in any of the conversations.
The food on the Paradise was "top notch" all week as far as we were concerned. Bob and I both tended to order seafood at most meals. Living in the Midwest, we have a freezer full of farm fresh beef and pork so we usually chose dishes that we don't have frequently. The one night that I ordered filet mignon, I was sorry I did because it just didn't compare to our home-killed beef that we fix ourselves. Each night the dinner menu had six appetizers which included two hot soups and one chilled soup. I often had trouble deciding between the appetizers so on a couple of occasions I just ordered two! (Oink, oink) Other times Bob and I would each order a different appetizer and then get a third one to share. The portions were small so I didn't feel too guilty! The salad choices were much more limited...only two salads were offered each night and one was always just a mixed green salad. Rather than set a bread basket on the table, our assistant waiter, Roland, would come around with a basket of bread and we would each "point" to what type of bread we wanted and then he would place it on our plate. If someone decided they wanted more bread later in the meal, then we would have to flag down Roland and asked him to bring out the bread again. I wonder if Carnival's "bread rationing" was worth the hassle that it caused the waiters!
One interesting note about our tablemate from Indiana...he was a heavy smoker (three packs per day!) His girlfriend had been nagging him to quit so he figured coming on the Paradise would force him to do it cold turkey. He said wearing a nicotine patch was helping, but towards the end of the week he seemed to be a little irritable which I chalked up to a lack of cigarettes.
After dinner, we made a fast trip to our cabin and were glad to see that our final piece of luggage had been delivered. There was also a flyer under our door cautioning cruisers to double check and make sure they did not have luggage that belonged to someone else because some people were still missing pieces. (Wonder if they didn't tip the porters??) We learned a valuable lesson that night...even though the trip to the cabin had been a "quick" one, by the time we got back to the Normandie Lounge for the evening show, the good seats were taken. The upper level seats we chose weren't awful, but they did require looking around one of the many poles in the lounge.
The "Welcome Aboard Show" was hosted by the cruise director, Josh Riffe, who was very quick witted and humorous. Music was provided by Braxton Hicks and the Paradise Orchestra along with singers Amy Sexton and Jon McNally...both very talented singers. Our cruise was Braxton's last week on the Paradise so throughout the week, he was the butt of many jokes. (Side note: I thought it was unusual that anyone would name a child "Braxton Hicks" since that is the name given to early labor contractions that many pregnant women experience! I recently read a post on the Cruise Critic board saying that Braxton is actually a grandson of "the" Dr. Braxton Hicks for whom the contractions were named!) The main feature of that night's show was a comedian named Gene Merola. Neither Bob or I thought he was exceptionally funny however.
A walk on the outside decks ended our first day. It amazed me that over 2000 people were on the ship (a sign at the purser's desk said the cruise was sold out) and yet when we took our late night strolls we were all alone! Before calling it a night, we stopped by the 24 hour/day pizzeria and had a late night snack. I've read other people rave about the pizza on Carnival ships and by golly, they are right! It was delicious! (One morning some of the Camp Carnival kids were in the Paris Restaurant having breakfast with their counselors and I overheard one of them say "You mean I can have pizza for breakfast?!" The look of amazement on the little boy's face was priceless!) I thought I had read that calzones and Caesar salad were also available too, but I never saw these (but then again I didn't ask either.) Soft serve ice cream was also available 24 hours a day which Bob liked, but I didn't care for...I thought it was a little too icy and not very creamy.
Monday, June 17th - Sea Day
Sleeping in an inside cabin means you never know when it is morning...not that I think that's a bad thing! It was just as dark at noon as it was at midnight! Following packing suggestions I had read, I took a night light along, but we never used it. We both REALLY liked the dark cabin and the light coming from under the hallway door was just enough to help us navigate if we needed to make a nighttime trip to the bathroom. We really didn't sleep as late as I expected, however, but since this was our first "sea day" there was no rush to get anywhere. It was too late to make our seating time (8:15 a.m.) in the Elation Dining Room so we ate at the buffet in the Paris Restaurant.
The breakfast buffet was exactly the same each day in the Paris Dining room. The hot choices were: ham slices, bacon, sausage, hash browns (more like Tater Tots), grits, scrambled eggs, French toast, and pancakes. There was an omelet station where a cook would prepare made-to-order omelets while you waited. I also discovered on the last day of our cruise that the "omelet man" would also fry eggs in addition to making omelets. Wish I had known it sooner! Rather than wait in line for an omelet, the first day I had the scrambled eggs...not a great choice. They were cold and rather runny...it was worth the extra couple of minutes to have a hot omelet instead.
At the "cold" section of the buffet there were bowls of honeydew and cantaloupe melon and a bowl with orange and grapefruit sections. It was a luxury to have the fruits peeled, seeded, sectioned and all ready to eat! Grapefruit halves were also available if you wanted to do the work yourself! I may not remember everything, but I do know there was cold sliced ham and cheese, tomato juice, yogurt, individual boxes of cold cereal and maybe lox. At the end of the serving area were various baked goods...croissants, Danish (yum!), muffins and also bread, English muffins and bagels that could be toasted.
Coffee, hot tea, hot chocolate, milk, orange juice, grapefruit juice, and apple juice were available in self-serve dispensers. Since trays weren't provided, it usually meant two or more trips to the buffet to get all of your food and drinks. One morning one of the dining room staff offered to go get my coffee for me which I thought was nice. Silverware was rolled into cloth napkins and was provided at the table. The staff were pretty prompt in removing dishes once you were finished with them.
After several attempts at finding other Cruise Critic folks who were taking this cruise, we had only come up with two others from the board...Gaines and his family and Bouldergal and her husband. We made plans to meet up with them along "Carnival Boulevard" just outside the Leonardo Lounge that morning at 9:30. Bob and I went there right after breakfast but no one showed up. Nevertheless, we still had an enjoyable time sitting by the windows watching the ocean go by. Having already met and identified Gaines and his family, we were able to visit with them on several occasions during the cruise. We never did get the opportunity to meet Bouldergal though and have since learned that they were at the late seating for breakfast at 9:30...by the time they had finished, we had already left. Our loss...they sound like a fun couple!
Bob and I split up for the rest of the morning...he went off to explore and I relaxed for a bit on the lounge chairs outside the Atrium on the Lido Deck before heading to the Normandie Lounge for cruise director Josh's shore talk on Cozumel. Having already booked all of our shore tours with private guides via the internet, I wasn't sure if it was necessary to attend this talk, but I did gain some useful knowledge. Unfortunately I wasn't able to stay long enough to hear the shopping portion of the talk because it was time for lunch. (The whole talk was shown on TV later that afternoon so I was able to catch it as we dressed for dinner.) We had decided to have lunch in the dining room today and I was to meet up with Bob in the cabin no later than 11:45. We both arrived at about the same time. After doing a bit of exploring, Bob had gone to the gym and worked out on the weight machines and then ran a couple of miles on the jogging track on the top deck of the ship. He grabbed a quick shower and we were still able to make it to the dining room by noon for lunch. (How I wish I could shower and get ready so quick! Of course the fact that Bob is almost bald means it takes literally no time to fix his hair!)
Twice we had lunch in the main dining room. I enjoyed being waited on plus the small portions helped limit our intake! When we ate at the buffet it was too tempting to want to just "sample" everything and before you knew it, you had a heaping plateful of food! The dining room was not even half full and the relaxed atmosphere gave us a chance to visit and get to know our head waiter, Patrick, a bit better.
The rest of the afternoon was spent lounging on the Lido deck once again. I am a fair-skinned redhead and my goal for the week was to "not" get sunburned. The area around the main pool and stage was where things were really "hopping" on sea days, but I knew that I was asking for trouble if I were to stay out in the sun. Instead we usually found our way to the lounge chairs underneath the lifeboats. The area was shaded and usually we could find a couple of chairs together without much trouble. Although I missed getting to hear Kooshal, the Caribbean band that played poolside, the spot we chose was so quiet and tranquil that I felt truly relaxed. We both did some reading and a little napping too!
Bob grumbled when I told him I wanted to take along big mugs for the cruise. The ones I chose were some that Bob had gotten from the hospital (he is a EMT in addition to his regular job) and they were very large with a lid and a straw. After numerous passengers and staff commented on our great mugs, Bob decided that it had been a good decision! We would fill the mugs with lots of ice and then either lemonade, ice tea or punch from grill area on the Lido Deck. The drinks would last all afternoon as we lounged on deck.
Monday was the first of two formal nights on the Paradise therefore I left Bob napping in his lounge chair on the Lido Deck so I could start getting ready for dinner. (Remember he can shower and change in 10 minutes!) After showering, I sat down at the desk to dry my hair. I had taken along a power strip as many had advised, but found it wasn't really necessary. Other than my hair dryer, the only other thing that needed to be plugged in was my video camera and these two things did not have to operate simultaneously. There was also a plug built into the light above the medicine cabinet in the bathroom with a note that said "for razors only". While getting ready, I could feel that the ship was really starting to "move". It was even more apparent when I laid a tube of lipstick on the desk and watched it first roll across one way and then back again!
This being our first cruise, neither Bob or I wanted to take a chance with seasickness. Rather than buy the higher priced Bonine, I had the pharmacist at Wal-Mart order a bottle of meclazine (same as Bonine) for us. She was able to get a bottle of 100 tablets (25 mg chewables) for less than $5.00. We had started taking these on Sunday morning before we boarded the ship and continued taking one tablet in the morning and one at night for the duration of the cruise. Not once did either of us have even a hint of seasickness...in fact, we both thought it was great when the ship began to rock and roll! I do think the tablets did make us both a bit drowsy...or maybe that was just the totally relaxed feeling one gets on a cruise!
After dressing, we left a bit early for dinner so we could have a few formal pictures taken. Numerous photographers had set up their backdrops in various spots throughout the ship and we went to several. In the end, I didn't buy any of the formal pictures although I regret that decision now. Even though I never like the way I look in pictures, we should have at least gotten one of them because who knows when we will ever have another formal portrait taken. I also wish we had gotten one of the "face only" shots taken instead of just all "full body" pictures...maybe I would have liked that better. The 8 x 10 pictures were $20 which may seem high, but still its much cheaper than going to a professional photographer. My other regret was not getting more pictures that night with our own camera. I did ask one lady to take our picture but it is obvious now that photography was not one of her talents! If we had gotten other shots, probably some of them would have been good. I found that people were very willing to take pictures for you and we often did the same for others.
The Captains Cocktail Party was held in the Normandie Lounge from 5:00 to 6:00 for people with early seating times and from 7:00 to 8:00 for those with late dinner times. The Normandie is on two levels and anyone wanting to actually "meet" the Captain were instructed to enter on the lower level (we passed on that opportunity and just went to the upper level.) Waiters walked about the room with trays of various types of drinks (all complimentary) and also hors'doerves. Braxton Hicks and the orchestra were there to play and some passengers enjoyed dancing on the stage.
At 6:15 we made our way into the dining room to table #143 and lo and behold, in place of the NY couple was a young, honeymoon couple! After introductions, we learned that they had been assigned late seating which they didn't like so they had requested a change. I suppose the same situation in reverse must have happened to the NY couple. Our new tablemates were from Virginia...he was in the navy and she was a teacher. Three teachers at one table! The whole dynamics of our group changed and the rest of the week we anxiously looked forward to seeing our new friends at dinner each night.
Being from a small, Midwestern town, I was worried about knowing what to do when dining formally each night. Let's face it...we are hicks and aren't used to having 10 pieces of silverware at one sitting! As it turns out I was very much at ease with our tablemates and anything we weren't sure of, we would just ask our waiter, Patrick, and he would "instruct" us all in the ways of finer dining! More often than not I could not even pronounce the names of the dishes on the menu but then neither could the others! Table #143 was full of laughs that week! I also changed my mind about sitting in the booth...I think it was just perfect having 6 people at a table. Had we been at one of the long tables for eight next to where we sat, it would have been impossible for people at opposite ends of the table to have a conversation. The round tables for 10 in the center of the dining room would have been OK for conversation, but then they missed being able to see out the windows like we could. The booths were open at both ends so were not hard to get into or out of.
Formal night also meant "lobster night" which we had been looking forward to! The guys at our table each ordered two lobsters apiece and they were delicious! I had a hard time deciding on appetizers that night so skipped the salad and got two appetizers instead. I had mushrooms served in puff pastry as well as the pumpkin soup that I had read so much about (I thought it was just OK). Dessert was cherries jubilee which we were all expecting to be served "with flames" but it was not. The waiters did do one of their singing and dancing numbers that night though. At the end of dinner Patrick showed up with a small anniversary cake for Bob and I and he and Roland sang to us! Great gesture, but we were stuffed and no one at our table was even remotely interested in a piece of cake. Instead, Patrick found a cover for the plate and sent us off with the cake and a couple of sets of silverware so we could enjoy it later.
The movement of the ship had continued to increase during dinner so I decided that I would be much more comfortable wearing some flat sandals instead of the heels that I had on with my formal dress. (This was prior to my bunion surgery and the heels were killing me!) Tonight was the Las Vegas style production show "Shout" and we wanted to get good seats so we made a VERY fast trip to the cabin to make the shoe swap and drop off the anniversary cake. Since the Captain's Cocktail party for the later diners was still going on in the Normandie, quite a crowd had assembled by the lounge waiting to get in. Although our intention wasn't to cut into line, we had no choice. The forward elevators which were near our cabin deposited us right by the doors to the Normandie...there was no way we could get through the crowd to go to the back of the line even if we had tried. The next 15 minutes or so were spent crunched up next to the elevators waiting on the lounge doors to open for the show. Ordinarily this might have been a drag, but with the ship swaying back and forth, it was quite entertaining to watch the crowd groan and sway in unison!
Bob and I both thoroughly enjoyed the show "Shout!"...and having great seats made it even more enjoyable. We were on the lower level near the center aisle about three rows back. Even though the view from these seats was great, I do have a minor grip concerning ALL of the seating in the Normandie. The bench style seats on the lower level all had very low backs which offered no support. I would find myself leaning on Bob instead...hopefully he just thought I was being romantic but the real reason was because my back was killing me! The theater style seats on the upper level of the theater were much more comfortable on the back, but were so high off the floor that my legs just dangled!
Anyway...we thought the show was great! The Paradise dancers had non-stop energy, great talent and must have changed their outfits a million times during the show (I am impressed at how quickly they made these changes too!) The show featured the lead singers Amy and Jon and also the duo of Maria and Dmitri who did an act that might be described as "pretzel ballet" because of the way they could twist and contort their bodies.
After the show we changed back into our shorts, grabbed the anniversary cake and found an outside table at the rear of the ship where we could enjoy the cake while overlooking the wake of the ship.
Back at our cabin, our steward had left the first of the nightly towel animals. Tonight it was a puppy dog! Our beds had been turned down with a mint on each pillow. (During the week I noticed that the beds were turned down a different way each night!) Before dropping into bed, we organized our scuba stuff in anticipation (or apprehension in my case) of the next day's adventures! Then we just let the sea rock us to sleep...
Tuesday, June 18 - Cozumel, Mexico
The day had come that Bob had been anxiously awaiting...he was going to do his first "real" dive since becoming certified in scuba last summer. Although we share many common interests in our marriage, when it comes to physical activity we are as different as night and day. Bob is the athlete...he enjoys rock climbing and mountain climbing, lifts weights, has run several marathons, plays ice hockey...you get the idea. My idea of a physical activity is power-shopping through the Mall of American in Minneapolis! I do enjoy swimming though so last spring we got the idea that maybe we could take up scuba as an activity that we could enjoy together. The process to becoming a certified scuba diver started with classroom sessions which included quizzes and a final test in combination with "confined" water dives that we did at our local YMCA. I did an excellent job during the classroom portion (I tell everyone that I'm a great diver "on paper".) However being in the pool with all of the scuba equipment was not something that I particularly enjoyed. Bob had a great time and could hardly wait to finish the certification by doing the "open water" dives.
Although Minnesota is known as the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" none of them are particularly places that you would want to dive. Our scuba instructor convinced us that we should do our open water dives in a former lead mine that is now a deep, deep lake. We were assured that the water was clear and we would have a great time. Unfortunately, only one of us had the "great time"...and it wasn't me! Right from the beginning I had trouble with my equipment, found that the "clear" water really had very limited visibility and that in short I freaked out and never made it through the rest of the certification process.
Cozumel is one of the top diving spots in the world and I wanted Bob to have the opportunity to dive here. (Getting to scuba dive was one of the reasons that I was able to talk Bob into coming on this cruise.) Also the fact that we were in port from 7:30 a.m. till midnight meant that he could dive in the morning and we would still have time to do something together later in the day. We had looked at several different options and had pretty much decided that Bob would book his dives through the ship and I would spend the morning either shopping at the stores on the pier or just relaxing on the ship till he got back. The afternoon would then be spent at Chankanaab Park for a little snorkeling.
A few weeks before our cruise I read many good reviews about the individualized service that Eagle Ray Divers provided in Cozumel. I emailed Chellie and Antonio (the owners) and explained that although I was a scuba "flunkie", Bob would very much like to dive. I thought perhaps that I could at least ride along in the boat while he dove so that that we would "sort of" be doing something together...after all, this trip was to celebrate our 25th anniversary and we should be TOGETHER! After numerous emails back and forth Chellie convinced me that I should try scuba again by doing a "discover" scuba dive. Although I wasn't crazy about the underwater stuff, I did want to share the experience with Bob so I agreed to give it one more try. My plan was to get the dives over with as quickly as possible and then spend a relaxing afternoon at Chankanaab Park.
Our day started with breakfast in the Paris Dining room. Knowing that we probably wouldn't make it back to the ship for lunch, I grabbed a couple of bagels and some yogurt to take with us. We had brought along a collapsible cooler so I made a quick call to our steward and had him fill it with ice to take with us. Besides the bagels and yogurt, I stuck in several bottles of water and some other snacks. Two large Carnival beach towels were left in the cabin the night before for us to use on our port tour. I didn't want to be responsible for keeping track of the towels so I took some that we had brought from home. (Your Sail & Sign card is charged if you lose the towels.) The Carnival Jubilee was docked next to the Paradise that day in Cozumel which means there would have been literally thousands of people making their way into Cozumel to see the sights. The ship was one hour ahead of Cozumel time so we did not have to rush and by the time we got off the ship, most of the large tour groups had already departed.
At the end of the pier was a line of taxis just waiting for passengers. As I told the driver that we wanted to go to the Caleta Marina, a couple standing next to us piped up and said "That's where we are going too!" Turns out they had also booked dives with Eagle Ray so we saved a few bucks and shared the cab. I thought it was so cool that out of all those people on the two cruise ships, that the four of us (the only ones diving with Eagle Ray) just happened to be catching a cab at precisely the same time! (Continue singing now..."It's a Small World After All"...)
The drive to the marina was very short (fare was $6 total for the 4 of us) and we got there by 8:30 a.m. local time. The dives were scheduled for 9:00 a.m. so we had a bit of a wait during which time we got acquainted with Nichole and Jeremy and also watched the morning activity around the marina. Eventually one guide showed up and said Antonio would be there in a few minutes (but he reminded us that those are "Mexican" minutes!) Another diver, Steve, (who was spending a week at Cozumel) showed up also. Two boats were being prepared and when Antonio arrived, he informed me that I would be going with him on one boat to do my "discovery dive" while Bob and the other certified divers would take the second boat. Chellie had made it quite clear that Bob and I would be together so I was disappointed that the plans were changed. Antonio said Bob could come with me instead but then he would miss the deep dive that the others were going to do.
Bob had been looking forward to this dive for so long that I decided to just keep my mouth shut and not make a big deal about us not being together. Once the boats were ready, Antonio told me that I should just get on the boat with Bob and the other divers after all. He apologized for the mix-up in plans...their computer had been zapped by lightening in a recent storm (which Chellie had explained to me also) and then Chellie had to go back to the States to be with her sick grandfather. Chellie is the one who handles all of the bookings so things weren't running as smoothly with her being gone.
Compared to all of the other boats in the marina, Eagle Ray's were very old and sort of run down looking, but I knew to expect this based on the reports that I had read. The boats were also slow, but we had all day and didn't feel the need to be in a hurry anyway. (This was Mexico...life was supposed to be slow and laid-back!) Due to the computer mix-up, Antonio had to pick up another group of divers from a dock in town. Apparently they had been waiting for some time because they made the comment "It's a good thing we like you so much or we wouldn't have waited!
As we headed out to our dive locations, we passed Chankanaab Park and some other nice resorts. During the trip, Antonio spent the time with me reviewing some of the basic scuba skills that I would need to remember. Eventually we met up with the other Eagle Ray boat that now contained a couple of related families from one of the resorts. The husband of one family (Ron) had just become certified and would be diving with Antonio and I...the rest of the family would snorkel with another Eagle Ray guide. Antonio and I transferred over to the second boat and Bob and the rest of our group went on to their dive along the Santa Rosa Wall. Eagle Ray makes it a point to take divers to spots that are not elbow to elbow with other divers so they may actually change plans once they get to a site and find it too crowded.
Antonio helped me get into the scuba gear and as soon as I got in the water I managed to swallow a mouthful and began to choke. My first reaction was to panic and get out of the water FAST! Antonio got me calmed down and didn't give me a chance to change my mind...the next thing I knew we were going down into this world of beautiful coral and fish of every size and color! As I concentrated on taking in all of the sights, I slowly started to relax and remember the scuba skills that I had learned. Antonio never left my side and often would hold my hand and guide me along. At one point we saw a "real" eagleray and began to follow it as it glided effortlessly through the water. Before I knew it, Antonio was motioning to me that the dive was over and it was time to surface. I had done it!!!
We joined the other families back on the second boat for a short time until we met up with our original boat. Ron and I transferred back to that boat while Antonio stayed on the other boat with the snorkelers. Bob and I both were so excited trying to share all that we had seen on our dives! His dive had taken him down about 90 feet along the Santa Rosa Wall where he had swam through huge coral formations and saw sites that I can't even imagine! By then it was probably already 1:00 p.m. and I realized that my plans to visit Chankanaab probably weren't going to happen but I didn't care! We still had another dive to do!
The second dive was to be at Paradise Reef closer to where the cruise ships were docked and this time I would be diving with Bob. Arturo, another dive master with Eagle Ray, would be diving one-on-one with me. My first impression of Arturo was that he reminded me of a Mexican version of Gilligan. (Sailing through the ocean on that old boat probably just helped reinforce that impression too!) How wrong I was...not only was Arturo understanding and patient with me (the world's worst diver) but I found out that he has a master's degree in marine biology!
The waters around Cozumel have very strong currents so once we went below the surface, we just let the drifts carry us along without any effort on our part. Although Arturo never left my side, I became more comfortable and was able to maintain neutral buoyancy on my own better. Our dive lasted about 50 minutes but the time just flew by and before I knew it, we were back on the boat headed toward land. Although it was extra work for Antonio to rearrange his day so that Bob and I could dive together it made the day just perfect for us!
The dock where we dropped off the others on our boat wasn't too far from the cruise ship pier so rather than go back to the Caleta Marina and take a cab, Bob and I and Nichole and Jeremy decided to walk back to the Paradise. It was further than I had estimated, but I was still so pumped up from the scuba dive that I was full of energy and could have walked further! There is a long line of shops on the dock so going back to the ship, we cut through to take advantage of the air-conditioning. Although I didn't look very closely, these shops seemed to have about the same stuff as many of the stores downtown. At the dock (here as well as the other two ports) there were security "agents" at the gangplank for the ship who would "wand" each passenger as they boarded. Once inside the ship, the next step was to insert your Sail & Sign card into the "ding, ding machine" which brought up your picture on a small screen. A few steps away was an x-ray machine that all bags and packages had to pass through. The extra security measures really didn't take much time but it often looked like they were just "going through the motions".
It was probably close to 5:30 p.m. by the time we got back to the ship which gave us just enough time to shower and dress for dinner. In all of the excitement of the day, neither of us had touched the food we took in the cooler and now we realized we were really hungry! After missing lunch, I didn't feel guilty ordering my two appetizers that night! The lobster bisque was very good but I couldn't force myself to finish the escargot (I wanted to at least try it though!) For the main course I had jerked pork loin with black beans and then most everyone at the table had the key lime pie for dessert.
Getting some food in our stomachs gave us our second wind so after dinner it was off to do some shopping in Cozumel! At the end of the pier we were able to find another couple who were willing to share a cab downtown and off we went! Our main goal was to get some Mexican vanilla and we found several of the stores that had some but no one was willing to negotiate on the price. About 15 years ago my parents brought us back the most wonderful vanilla from Mexico that they had purchased very cheaply in a liquor store and I was anxious to find more of the same. Unfortunately I have my doubts that what we bought is actually "pure" vanilla and it really wasn't any great bargain ($12 for 32 ozs. And $8 for 16 ozs.) Using our credit card to make the purchases did give us a small break in price because of the value of the peso compared to the dollar (don't ask me to explain because I can't!) We bought some for ourselves and a couple other bottles to take back as gifts. I encouraged Bob to buy a "diving" t-shirt to commemorate our day and we were able to do a little bargaining on it...eventually we paid $5 for the shirt. (I fully expect the shirt to fall apart the first time it is washed however!)
The heat and fatigue were starting to take their toll on me so we grabbed a cab back to the ship, getting there just before a big storm hit! It rained and rained and rained! The "sail away party" on the Lido deck was cancelled and we also missed getting to see the drunks returning to the ship at midnight (the highlight of being in Cozumel according to the cruise director!) We did go to the Mexican Folkloric show (put on by locals) in the Normandie Lounge but rather than being entertained, the music was putting me to sleep so we left. Even though the deck party was cancelled, the late night Mexican buffet was moved indoors to the Paris Restaurant and we sampled a few of the offerings. On our way to the buffet, we encountered the head "hotel manager" who was watching water pour in through the doors of the ship on the Lido deck! He said he had never seen it rain so hard as it was that night! He explained that when the ship docks it is at a "list" (slant) to make it easier for passengers to disembark. As a result the water was collecting on the decks on the "high" side of the ship and pouring in through the doors! Yikes...we were going to drown "inside" a ship while it was docked!! They were still running fans the next day trying to get the carpets dried out!
Climbing into our beds we felt the ship shudder as it moved away from the dock and onto our next destination!
Wednesday, June 19th - Sea Day
I liked the itinerary for the Paradise because of the way that port days and sea days alternated. After being so busy on Tuesday, it was nice to have a whole day at sea to relax! Following breakfast in the Paris Restaurant, my plan was to do some videotaping throughout the ship. After taping most of the indoor spots, we moved outdoors on the Lido Deck. The shock of going from the cold air conditioning to the warm, humid sea air was more than my camera could handle! Immediately it shut off and began flashing a warning signal..."condensation inside camera"! Nothing I did would fix the problem. I even resorted to holding the camera under the hand dryers in the women's restroom, but no luck (I got some strange looks though!) I'm not sure if it was just time or all of the fiddling I did, but eventually the camera decided it would start working and I was able to get some outside video of the ship's decks. One thing we saw (but I didn't get on video) was flying fish along side the ship! I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me, but Bob saw them too and later we heard others talking about the fish!
I left Bob snoozing on a lounge chair and went to the port talk on Grand Cayman and Ochos Rios that was being given in the Normandie Lounge that morning. Once again, in order to make it to lunch on time, I had to leave the talk early. At least I knew that I could see the entire talk later that afternoon on the TV in our cabin. Bob and I met up and went to lunch in the Elation Dining Room...no buffet for me, I was on vacation and wanted someone to wait on me! None of our tablemates were there so it was just the two of us! I think Bob had BBQ ribs that day while I had spinach and ricotta ravioli and then bread pudding for dessert. For someone with little self control (me!) the small portions in the dining room kept me from over-doing the food intake.
Just laying around watching the ocean go by occupied us until 3:30 when it was time for the galley tour. The tour started in the Elation Dining room with a talk by the maitre'd, Yusov. Hearing the amounts of food that are necessary to feed passengers and crew aboard the Paradise for a week was staggering! By the time we got into the kitchen area it was close to 4:00 p.m. and knowing that the first dining time was 5:45 I figured things would be really bustling...wrong! The galley was deserted...no activity whatsoever! Yusov explained that none of the food is prepared until the passengers see the menus and place their orders! All I can say is WOW! The galley tour finished up along Carnival Boulevard where staff members were demonstrating their skills...napkin folding, towel animals, food carving, etc. We noticed that "something" was going on in the Queen Mary Lounge that afternoon but wasn't sure what it was. Lots of crew members going in and out with trays of drinks and hors'doevres. Later we found out (from our tablemates) that the Carnival "past cruisers" party had been that afternoon. (Something for us to look forward to on our next cruise!)
After spending the day doing nearly nothing, I was exhausted! J A nap in our cool, dark cabin was just what I needed (and wanted). Bob opted for a workout instead (don't you just hate people like that?) and headed up to the sports deck to do a little running. When he returned later he said the wind had gotten so strong that they wouldn't let anyone on the top deck to jog for fear that they would blow off the ship! As an alternative, he used the treadmills in the gym and then did a weight workout. After my nap, I did find time to do a bit of "window" shopping in the ship's stores. I didn't buy anything until later in the week, but did have fun looking at some of the jewelry in the "$10 Boutique".
Continuing with the slow pace of the day, we showered and leisurely got ready for dinner while watching the shopping talk on TV. There was a trio (piano, violin, and cello) that played classical music in the atrium each night before dinner (and other times during the day) and Bob liked to go early to hear them. We would watch from above on the Atlantic Deck just prior to going into the dining room. Now that we were getting to know our tablemates better, it was always fun to meet at dinner and compare notes on how we had all spent our day. The newlywed gal at our table was allergic to all kinds of nuts so each night she would go through the menu trying to pick items that would be "nut-free". She tried to be "low-key" about it, but I think I would have been much more assertive in talking to the maitre'd, waiter, chef or someone! One night she ordered apple pie for dessert and assumed that it was a safe choice only to find it contained almonds. Luckily she noticed them before starting to eat the pie.
Bingo was always held in the Normandie Lounge just prior to the evening entertainment with the Paradise "dancers" doing double duty in "bingo card sales". Only one game would be played each night so Carnival must have really been raking in the dough. I think one card was $10 and you could get 3 cards for $20 (what a bargain!) The nightly jackpot ranged anywhere from $600 to $1000 during the week. Although we didn't play (we're too cheap!!) I enjoyed hearing the assistant cruise director call the numbers each night. She was from Australia and had a wonderful accent! The Paradise orchestra was also playing jazz and swing music before the main entertainment that night.
The Wednesday night entertainment consisted of an "illusionist" John Duffy (who was OK) and a comedian Adam Ace. Actually "lunatic" would be a better word to describe Adam Ace! I wasn't sure what to think of him at first, but he was so quick-witted and just kept getting funnier and funnier as his act continued. Adam also did a midnight "adult" comedy show but we didn't stay up to see that.
Up to this point, we hadn't even stuck a big toe into a pool or hot tub...it was time to give it a try! We changed into our swimsuits and joined two other couples in the hot tub on the Lido Deck. The other pools and hot tubs closed at 8:00 p.m., but the whirlpool on the Lido deck was open until 11:30 p.m. How relaxing to soak in the warm water while watching the moon peak out from behind the clouds above!
Thursday, June 20th - Grand Cayman
The sound of the Paradise anchoring in Grand Cayman awakened us. Like Cozumel, the Cayman Islands were one hour behind the ship time and since we needed to be at Captain Marvin's office by 9:15 a.m. (10:15 ship time) we had plenty of time to eat a leisurely breakfast in the dining room before leaving the ship. On sea days the early breakfast time was 8:15 a.m. so we never made it up in time. When the ship was in port, there was an "open" breakfast time from 7:00 to 9:00. The breakfast menu was pretty much identical to what was being served on the buffet in the Paris Restaurant plus a few extra items. We both ordered eggs benedict but this was misleading. Eggs (plural) implies that you get more than one but when it arrived we each had one puny egg in the middle of the plate. For breakfast, I decided I liked the buffet better.
There is no dock at Grand Cayman so cruise ships anchor in the harbor and passengers must take small boats called "tenders" to get to shore. The Carnival Capers newsletter cautioned passengers to allow at least 30 minutes for the process. Our cabin was on deck 5 (Main Deck) so we took the stairs down to Deck 3 where we were to catch the tender...except we didn't make it down to deck 3 because the lines were so long. People were backed up the stairs to Deck 4 waiting in line. It probably took us a half an hour before it was our turn to board the tender. A family in front of us was getting in a panic because it was time for them to meet their tour on the pier in town and they hadn't even gotten off the ship yet!
Once on the tender, the trip to shore only took about 10 minutes. It had been raining that morning when we first got up, but the weather cleared up and was very nice all day long. Once reaching the pier, we started walking to Captain Marvin's office a few blocks away. It was still very early, but we dropped off our stuff in the store (we were carrying all of our snorkeling gear) and checked in with Ruth who handles all of the bookings. Ruth had mentioned to me in one of her emails that she had previously lived in Minnesota. It turns out that her dad had grown up just a few miles from where we live now! (One more chorus of "It's a Small World...")
Rather than just sitting and waiting on our tour to start, Bob and I started walking up and down some of the side streets. Grand Cayman is a "rich" island (according to Josh the cruise director) and has many, many banks and nice homes! However, we knew we weren't back in the U.S. when we saw chickens and roosters running loose! It was still early when we got back to Captain Marvin's so I went into a Tortuga Rum store next door and sampled MANY kinds of Tortuga Rum Cakes. The same cakes were for sale at the same price on the ship so buying them in Grand Cayman didn't really save you any money.
Around 9:30 (island time) a couple of vans showed up to transport everyone to Captain Marvin's docks on the other side of the island...about a 20 minute drive or so. It gave us a chance to see a "little" of the island, but mostly just the resort hotels along the shore. Once there we were assigned to board "The Highrider" one of two boats that would be doing the snorkel tours. The boat had several areas to sit...some shaded, some not. There were a couple of coolers full of gallon jugs of fruit punch and water that we could help ourselves to and also a very small bathroom down some VERY steep steps. I've heard that Captain Marvin himself still does some tours, but we had a "Captain Paul"...a salty looking guy who looked right at home on the boat! Besides a younger guide that also went along, there was a guy in scuba gear who videotaped our tour. Snorkeling equipment was provided on the tour, but we had our own and didn't use their stuff. Although their equipment looked "ok", it was cheaper stuff. I was glad to have my own mask and snorkel that I knew were "clean" and fit well.
Continue Reading Part II of this Paradise Review. Read Less