My husband and I are in our late 40's. We have two sons, 18 and 15. We have cruised 3 times with two separate cabins. First was Carnival "Victory", eastern Caribbean (March break 2002), then RC "Voyager of the Seas", western Caribbean (March break 2003). This last cruise over the Christmas Holidays was to be our first 10-day cruise with balconies side by side.
Embarkation: Driving from Ottawa, Canada to Ft Lauderdale in two days went well alternating between 3 drivers. (took 3 days on the way back) The weather cooperated and there was no weekend road construction. We had a full day to rest and go shopping at "Sawgrass Mills" outlet mall before boarding on Tuesday. The hotel we stayed at offered FREE parking while cruising. The cost of taking a shuttle to and back from the port was still half the price of parking at the port itself. We arrived at the Princess terminal around 11:15, joined the line, when who should come up right behind us? The one person I corresponded with from the Cruise Critic's postings! We had arranged to get the 2 families together to benefit from a group discount for an excursion in Mexico. We were on the ship within 45 minutes. This was the fastest we had ever boarded. We went to our rooms, then to the front desk to have new keys made and finally to the Maitre D' desk asking to be changed to an early sitting in the dining room (were 27th on the waiting list).
Cabins: First thing we did was check out the rooms and drop off the carry-on luggage. We were in D-216 and D-218. Cruise lines always put one person under 21 with an adult per room. Our cabin steward, Andy, greeted us and directed the boys to the room with the beds already separated and us parents to the one with the beds placed together. He also opened the balcony panel between the two rooms. It makes quite a difference. We left the patio doors unlocked to access each other's rooms until the keys (shipboard credit cards) were re-issued accordingly.
These were the biggest and nicest rooms we have had cruising. The layout is the most functional. There was no love seat where you tend to pile up things. The closet and shelving unit, plus the drawers could easily accommodate 4. The washroom was your typical excruciatingly tight quarters with the smallest shower we ever had on any line. I am 5'8'', 136lbs and kept on bumping my elbows on the grab bar. We did spend more time in our cabins to relax because of the nice view and natural light. From now on I will always check the price of balconies first, with a window second, and will resort to an inside cabin only if I have to.
Food: Always ate breakfast at the Horizon Court. By day 10, we had enough of seeing the same old selection. When you are planning a day in port, you do end up having to eat the same substantial meal of eggs, French toast, bacon, sausage, hash brown over and over. At sea, I was always looking forward to the buffet lunch in the Horizon. The selection varied enough to keep me going back for seconds. The fruits and salads are plentiful. For our dinner we were assigned the second seating in the traditional dining room. With two teenagers, it was impossible to have them survive till 8pm. We just went to the Bordeaux dining room at 5:45 and asked to sit at any table available. We had a very nice dinner with two retired couples. We usually prefer being just the 4 of us since that is about the only time we get to spend with our boys to talk about the days events and plan our excursions for the following days or when to meet up for certain shows.
Fortunately that evening, we received a note at our door saying we were re-assigned to the Provence dining room at 6pm and had our own table. The food was good but rarely exceptional. (Carnival has the best). We returned 2 soups and one main course. In any case, since I am the only cook in this household...I greatly appreciated NOT having to cook and clean up! My advice to anyone is to ask for suggestions from your waiter/waitress. They are in a good position to know what is best. They have served the menu before and remember the reactions and comments of passengers. After asking for suggestions, my appreciation for the food went from acceptable to good and sometimes very good. On two occasions we had lunch or a snack at The Grill. Sometimes it does feel good to have a juicy hamburger or hot dog. There were wieners and sauerkraut with good fries. Had to purchase pop cards since there were no juices available at lunch or dinner (without an extra fee). The ice cream bar isn't worth it the additional price.
Pools: Wow! 4 pools! And plenty of hot tubs. I prefer this set-up with 2 descent-sized pools, one exterior and one covered. The Lotus pool being in the prettiest setting I have seen. There is plenty of quiet space to lounge in the sun at different levels also. The small pool aft, was always empty. Was it because it was next to the kid's zone? The setting is absolutely gorgeous. Parents felt secure taking their youngest one to the splash pool on deck 16 and having plenty of room to lounge while keeping an eye out on the little ones.
Entertainment: We participated and enjoyed the Scholar Ships @ Sea program. Complementary courses and lectures are given in different lounges and theaters. Some come at additional cost and are limited in enrollment. Check the list and register at the pursers' desk on day one. I attended culinary, graphology, digital photography courses. My husband went for computer & self-enhancement sessions. My older son took part in two Web design courses. Stage shows are geared towards an older clientele. Comedian Willy Tyler with Lester was good to see because I used to watch him on the Ed Sullivan show with my parents as a child. Kevin Hughes reached out to all ages in the audience. He was the best. We looked forward to going to all his shows; the teens would get together and go see him too. By the reaction of the crowd, he was the most entertaining on board. Production and cabaret shows were also good.
The crowd always sets the mood for a successful karaoke. On this cruise it didn't work out. Very few participated and sometimes just one person sang. I didn't give any donations to the casino but my husband tried his luck...and lost. He is an avid golfer and participated in most of the golf challenges. He won the longest drive contest! We enjoyed the Island night deck party and watched pool games. My men caught Terminator 3 and S.W.A.T on the big screen. Neil is the cruise director. He is pleasant and a good MC but did not contribute much entertainment material.
For kids: I warned my kids that this cruise was geared more to people from middle age to seniors...they still wanted to come. I was hoping other parents had the same idea as us to pull their teens out of school one week early. This is exactly what happened and we met a very nice family from Toronto with two boys the same ages as ours. There were perhaps 50 children on board with about 20 in the 15-17 age group. There were very few around the 18-21 bracket. Staff told us we were a much younger crowd on board because it covered X-mas compared to the previous weeks and that they were expecting 300 kids in the following week for the New Year day cruise. My youngest hung out at the"Off Limits" center. There are separate rooms dedicated to different age groups. He played free video games to his hearts content. As he stated if you participate you will have fun. Councilors supervise game areas and fun activities. He won a karaoke prize. Won a medal in the golf simulator. Went to the disco every night. Attended a teen dinner at reserved tables in the main dining room. My eldest played ping-pong, cards in the card room, attended shows with us or with some friends, viewed movies in the theater or on TV in his room.
Gym: The smallest facilities we have seen on a ship but had all the expected equipment. It was my first time not using the gym. My husband went 4 times.
Holiday specials: The atrium is full of garlands where some of the Staff sung carols. Xmas trees are by the elevators at each level and set up for portraits on formal nights. Holiday music is played throughout the ship, all the time. Some people decorate their cabin doors. Staff wears Santa hats. There is a special Xmas menu. We attended midnight mass in the Princess Theater. There are catholic, protestant and Chanukah services. Old Nick visits the children in person on the morning of the 25th. Each child received a Teddy Bear with a "Princess" scarf from Santa or from a councilor in the kid's zone.
Ports: Be aware that the ship sets its clock according to the local time zones. Take that into consideration when booking your own excursions. We took all of our tours independently. Jamaica: Second visit. Booked thru Peat Taylor again (firstname.lastname@example.org). My youngest was sea sick when we arrived in Ocho Rios and stayed on board all day. Peat was very accommodating; he accepted to change our itinerary and discounted the fare accordingly. First we visited Prospect Plantation. We returned to the ship for lunch on our balconies and to check in on our son. When Peat picked us up at 1:30 we went shopping instead of river tubing.
Panama Canal: Stayed on board for the transit in and out of the lake. Got up at 5:30am. We were one of the first ships to enter the locks at 6am while it was still dark. The sun rose as we were going thru Gatun locks. Once on the lake we went for breakfast and returned to bed. Woke the boys up for an early lunch and headed outside to view the locks at noon. Moved around the ship to get different perspectives. Not many people knew of or ventured to the front balconies of the ship on levels 10-11. We were on 10 to enter the gates. On the way out we shifted from the sides of the Promenade deck (the aft is closed off because the cables are in use to guide the ship thru the locks) to the back balconies on level 8 (more on 9-10-11) to get a real close-up view of the canal gates, walls, towing mules and the container ship behind us. In Colon, we stayed at the pier and shopped for souvenirs.
Limon: (Central time) Had no plans. Walked to the tour tent at the end of the pier as suggested by "Cruise critic" message boards and negotiated an excursion. It was raining quite hard at times (our ponchos came in handy). We headed out at 10am and returned at 4:30pm. For $45/person our cab driver took us to the entrance of a resort to view the bay and see an iguana in a tree; a villa's botanical garden where he pointed out the local vegetation and gave me a pretty flower that lasted the trip in my cabin; arranged a jungle river boat cruise; brought us to the "Chiquita" banana plantation and explained the whole process; then off to Cahuita National Park where we purchased something to drink, watched the locals surf and then walked part of the path lining the ocean in the jungle; on the way back he stopped by the road. Once to point out a group of black monkeys at the top of the trees, then to cut down a cocoa pod and cut it open with a machete to see the seeds inside, another time to have a baby monkey prance on our shoulders. Lastly, we stopped at a restaurant at the highest point in town just to take in the view from its terrace.
Grand Cayman: The waters were very turbulent. It took longer than usual to board the tender. Once on land we walked a few blocks and took a collective mini-van. We asked to be dropped off at Governor's beach along the 7-mile beach. Then went back to town to shop a bit. There were 8 ships in port and that created a massive traffic jam. You must be on board by 2:30. Taxis can refuse to take you to the beach if it is after noon because of the congestion on the way back to the docks. Reserve early excursions on your own or thru the ship if you want to go later in the morning.
Playa del Carmen: Met with our friends from the Cruise Critics' board and took the same tender. Took a collectivo taxi (passenger van) $2.50/person+10%tip to Hidden Worlds (www.HiddenWorlds.com) 35 minutes south of Playa del Carmen for and incredible journey snorkeling or diving in "cenotes" (underground caves and rivers). The tour was $35/person for snorkelers. That was the highlight and most memorable excursion of our trip. Then caught another collectivo back to Playa and shopped in town before boarding at 5pm.
In need of improvement: *Netting over the basketball court should be higher to allow better ball arc. *Most ship photographers need to be more attentive to details. *It would be nice to have an on/off switch to hear public announcements in our cabins instead of running out into the hallways to know what's going on. *It took 3 days before we had our key issue straighten out. The first 2 people I spoke to at the purser's desk refused to issue extra keys for security reasons. They didn't care that I couldn't get into my children's room. On the 3rd morning I approached a different person to report I had security issues of my own and insisted it was time to make up extra keys. Within 1 minute, I had them. *It was rude of comedian/juggler Rick Novell to say: "ok, I see I'm not on a Carnival cruise" when the audience didn't respond with laughter or applause...he wasn't that good or funny anyway. *It feels cramped in the main dining room because of very low lighting combined with low ceilings. *Need more personnel in the dining rooms to allow for a more relaxed and personalized service.
Overall: Cruise Critic's reviews always helped me so much in choosing ships ands itineraries. This was no exception. We were truly satisfied with this beautiful brand new ship with its luxurious dEcor. We are happy to record the Panama Canal in our travel logs. Our cabin steward was outstanding. He ran to make ginger tea for Stefan when he was sea sick. Told us about the great view from the front balconies. He was attentive to all our cabin needs and even got my kids out of bed when they slept in much too late!!!! Back home you can still hear me calling...Andy, where are you? We also met great people on board and will exchange photos through emails. We have only been back for two weeks...and are already looking forward to go cruising again as soon as possible. Truly hooked on cruising.
CDNcruisers Glenn, Louise, Yvan & Stefan