Spring Break Family Cruise: Carnival Liberty Cruise Review by jimbug

Carnival Liberty 5
Member Since 2003
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Spring Break Family Cruise

Sail Date: March 2008
Destination: Panama Canal & Central America
Embarkation: Fort Lauderdale (Port Everglades)
Background Info: I am Jimmie, and I am a 26-year-old female who has now been on 5 cruises. This was my first time on Carnival, and I was definitely pleased. I have enjoyed every single one of my cruises for different reasons, and I will certainly sail Carnival again if the itinerary, ship, and price are right. Traveling with me was a group of my extended family members: my mom, my Granny, my uncle Terry and his wife Liz, their two children (Tara [16] and Cody [12]), and Liz's mother, Heidi. This was my mother's third cruise, and everyone else's first. It was truly the "trip of a lifetime" for all of us, because it was our first (and probably only) time to vacation together with so many members of our family. We wish the rest of them could have been there, but we are truly grateful to have experienced this week together onboard the ship.

Quick thoughts about the experience before I get into the review: This cruise was extremely family-oriented, but at the same time, had the More best nightlife of any cruise I have ever been on. We appreciated that all ages were welcome into the Piano Man bar (but that doesn't mean that Vince kept things family-friendly...haha). One big negative the whole week: crowds. This ship had the most crowded feeling I've ever experienced...there was just so many people, all the time! Most of them were nice, but there were those few who stood out in the crowd for obnoxious reasons, and of course, they were the ones we kept running into over and over throughout the week. This was also spring break week for a lot of folks, but the ship did not seem to be overrun by college spring breakers by any means. There were a few small groups here and there, but I would say the vast majority of cruisers this week were families. There were lots of kids onboard, but apparently Camp Carnival kept them all entertained, because the only time we ever noticed them was on the last night after all the camp activities were over and they were just roaming the ship.

Now, on to the review...

Friday, March 14 - Getting to Fort Lauderdale: My journey to Florida started very early this morning as I drove to Fargo, North Dakota, to make my 5:40 a.m. United Airlines flight to Chicago. Fortunately, the weather was great (okay, typical North Dakota winter weather, but no snow!) and we arrived in ORD on time. I made my connection there with no problems, and flew Ted down to Fort Lauderdale. (Note: it was my first time on a United Ted flight, and I was impressed. We were given cookies, free headphones, and there was a movie. I can't complain.) We were about 10-15 minutes late into FLL because the tower had us do a "west approach" into the airport, which was kind of cool because we got to fly over the Everglades. No alligator spottings, but it was neat to see nonetheless. I was flying by myself, since the rest of my family was arriving later that day and Saturday morning from Oklahoma and Texas. I had some time to myself, so I headed over to the rental car facility at FLL and got my full-size car from Budget. The car turned out to be a new Saturn Aura, and I will never, ever buy this car. It was comfortable enough, but for a full size, not roomy at all, and the turning radius was complete crap. Every time I went to park the car, I had to back up and try again!

Since I had some time to kill and some shopping to do, I drove west to Pembroke Pines and spent a couple of hours at the Pembroke Lakes mall. It was okay, as far as malls go, and I probably should have gone to Aventura instead, but I wanted to go to Macy's, Dillard's, and Dress Barn, and this one actually had all 3. I was extremely tired by the time I got there, so really all I ended up doing was buying a new dress for formal night at Dress Barn, browsing around Macy's, getting an amazing slice of pizza and a drink for $2.85 at the food court, and leaving. I had gotten about 2 hours sleep the night before, and it was starting to show. So, I left the mall, fought rush-hour traffic, and finally arrived at my hotel around 5:00 p.m.

My hotel was the Crowne Plaza Hollywood Beach Resort, and it was really nice. I got it on Priceline about 3 weeks before the trip, and I was very pleased with the "win." It was very easy to find - right along the A1A near Hallandale Beach Boulevard. I pulled in, and the very helpful valet parking guys explained the parking options for me ($14 for self-parking or $18 for valet), and I went inside to check in. I've used Priceline several times before, and I am used to getting the "worst" rooms or poor service from the hotel staff because I booked through Priceline, but I have to say that the staff at the Crowne Plaza did not do this at all. The lady who checked me was extremely nice, and gave me a balcony room that overlooked both the Hallandale Beach and the Intracoastal Waterway. Not only that, but after I was in my room for about 20 minutes, she called to check on me and to make sure that everything was satisfactory and if I needed anything else. The hotel was extremely nice, and my only complaint was that the doors were not soundproof at all. I couldn't hear anything from the surrounding rooms, so the walls were well-insulated, but if someone was standing in the hallway talking (and the spring breakers across the hall seemed to do that a lot), I could hear them as clearly as if they were right in my room. Argh! I got a little siesta in, then got the call from some of my family from Tulsa that they had arrived in Fort Lauderdale at their hotel.

I went to pick up Terry, Liz, Tara, and Cody at the Marriott Springhill Suites in Dania Beach, and we made a Walgreen's run for bottled water and soda, then headed over to one of my favorite places to eat in the Fort Lauderdale area - the Moonlight Diner. The Moonlight Diner is in the shopping center with K-Mart and Old Navy along Stirling Road, and it's open 24 hours. It's typical diner food, but it's all so tasty! By the time we were finished eating, we were all weary from traveling, and it was kind of icky, rainy weather outside, so I took them back to their hotel and headed back to the Crowne Plaza. I promptly went to sleep, exhausted from my travels, but with the anticipation of boarding the ship the next day!

Saturday, March 15 - Embarkation Day: My mom and Granny were supposed to be arriving at approximately 9:45 a.m. Saturday morning on an American Airlines flight from Dallas. I got a text message from American early that morning stating that they were going to be late (grrrr), and couldn't really go back to sleep because I was worried they wouldn't make it to FLL on time. Fortunately, it only turned out to be 15-20 minutes late by the time everything was said and done! I checked out of my hotel around 9:00, drove back to Walgreen's for some Easter bunny gifts to pass out the next week, then met them at the airport. We picked up their baggage, then got in the car and headed to Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale for a late breakfast. I had done my research beforehand and decided that we would try out La Bonne Crepe. The online recommendations were right-on, and we had a great table outdoors where we could people watch while enjoying our food. La Bonne Crepe's prices were quite reasonable (less than $12 for just about anything on the breakfast menu). I got the crepes with bananas and pecans, Mom got the Eggs Las Olas (Eggs Benedict with spinach and tomato), and Granny got a Las Olas omelet (the omelet form of the Eggs Las Olas). The crepes were okay, but I think I was just too excited to really eat and enjoy it...haha. I tried Mom's eggs, and they were amazing. The hollandaise sauce was sooo rich and delicious. I had a few more bites because I knew this would top any of the eggs we would get onboard the ship the next week!

After enjoying a leisurely meal, we walked a couple of blocks around Las Olas just to see what was there. It's really kind of a neat area, and we hope to get back there one of these days and explore some more. We got back in the rental car and at the request of Mom, we went to see the beach! We took Las Olas over to the A1A and drove a mile or two up the coast, gawking at all the spring breakers and the beautiful sand and water. We finally decided it was time to head to the ship, so I drove over to the Budget car rental location on 17th Street in the Quay shopping center (across from the Port Everglades entrance). We returned the car with no hassle, and expected to take their free shuttle over to the port like we had done on a previous cruise. Well, it turns out about 20 other people (with about 50 pieces of luggage) had the same idea as us, and the lady at the rental counter estimated it could be another 45 minutes-1 hour before there was a shuttle available for us. We decided to forego the shuttle and just called a cab to come and get us. The cab was there in literally just 2 minutes and it was a $9 ride in to the port area. Much easier and quicker than waiting on a shuttle with a ton of other people. We arrived at the Liberty, and believe it or not, could not get a porter to come take our luggage for the life of us! Somehow our cab pulled up and no one paid attention, so we had to flag down someone to get luggage tags and to take our bags. We got out tip money, but the guy didn't even stay around to take it—too weird! Well, we just hoped our bags would make it onto the ship!

We walked down to the doors and saw a HUGE line...the biggest line I have ever seen in a cruise ship boarding process. Well, I thought, no problems - Granny needs a wheelchair and I'm pretty sure they will zip us right through the line. That was true, to an extent, but getting there was such a pain! I first asked a porter if they could get a wheelchair, and they said we had to ask a Carnival employee. Okay, fine. I left Mom and Granny near the baggage loading area and walked down to find the Carnival guy who was directing people into the line. I asked him about a wheelchair for my grandmother, and he said we had to go through the VIP line to get one. It was quite a distance from where I left Mom and Granny to the VIP line, and by the time we got there, she was really needing to sit down and rest, but there was nowhere to do so. The VIP line was also quite long and not moving very fast at all, so I finally found a different Carnival employee and told him that we needed a wheelchair for my grandmother because she cannot stand for long periods of time. It was so chaotic right there at the entrance, and it was unclear what we were supposed to do. The employee finally found the right door for us to go through, where we were finally in the air-conditioned comfort of the terminal, complete with chairs in the handicapped waiting area. Thank goodness! Once we were there, a very nice Carnival embarkation employee named Jerry took great care of Granny. He took her name and put her on the list for a wheelchair, and explained how the boarding process would work. Since the 3 of us were traveling together in the same cabin, we were able to stay with her the whole time, which was also great. I will just say right here that if anyone from Carnival is reading this, please, please make the handicapped entrance area more clear with proper signage and make sure all the embarkation employees are well-informed of this process. It really turned out to be a lot harder than it needed to be, and that really soured our first impression of the cruise, not to mention the fact that it really physically strained my grandmother since she had to stand and walk in the heat and humidity a lot more than we had expected.

Anyway, once Jerry took over, we only had to wait maybe 10 minutes for a wheelchair, and things got immensely better from there. Joseph, a waiter in the Golden Olympian dining room, "drove" Granny's wheelchair and escorted us through the whole boarding process onto the ship. Joseph was awesome, and we wish we could have had one of his tables for dinner! Joseph was great with Granny, and he really turned that sour first impression into a fabulous one. We were in a much better mood by the time he dropped us off in the ship's lobby! I will say that as we bypassed all the check-in lines, I was utterly thankful they allowed us to do so. The lines snaked through two sections of the terminal building, and people were having to wait more than an hour to check in. I've *never* had to wait that long to check in for a cruise, and I'd definitely recommend either arriving really early and being the first ones in line, or arriving much later (around 1:30-2:00 pm), when there are no lines. I think we arrived at around 12:00 or 12:30, which must have been the peak time, because it was nuts!

Wheelchair escorts only go as far as the lobby, so Mom and Granny took a seat on one of the couches by the purser's desk, and I took some of our carry-ons up to our room. We had cabin # 1051, which was a balcony cabin on the Panorama deck. I went in, expecting to find the mobility scooter waiting for us that we had rented from Randle Medical prior to the cruise. The scooter was not there, so I quickly called Randle Medical, and they confirmed that the scooter was delivered, but that it had gone to cabin # 8401 by mistake. So, I headed down to that cabin, and the nicest Australian couple answered the door and they did indeed have our scooter! Fortunately for me, the gentleman in the cabin had used a scooter previously and he was able to show me how to drive it so I could deliver it to Granny down in the lobby. I said good-bye to my new Australian friends, and maneuvered the scooter down to deck 3. I will say that I now have a newfound appreciation for those who require the use of wheelchairs and scooters. Most people were very nice and were glad to move out of my way and let the scooter get through, but there were those few jerks who rushed the elevator I could get off and blocked the hallways with their stuff and didn't seem too interested in moving it. Blah! Anyway, another note about the scooter—I had contacted Carnival's Special Needs department prior to the cruise, and they gave me the names of the medical supply companies that are approved to deliver to the ship. Randle Medical was on the list, and they had the cheapest price ($245) for an 8-day cruise. It was well worth it, because it allowed Granny to fully enjoy the cruise without having to worry about tiring out or not being able to walk the length of the ship to get to different venues. We did not require a handicap cabin, and we had a clearance of about 2 inches on either side of the scooter getting it through the door. It was a tight fit, but certainly manageable. It also wasn't as terribly crowded with the scooter in the cabin as I had feared. However, if you can get a handicap cabin, I'd definitely suggest it. The extra room and wider doors would really help out a lot.

Anyway, Granny got in her scooter and we went back up to the cabin to get settled. Our first impressions of the cabin were that it was very "orange." It appears that all of Carnival's cabins have this color scheme, and it's not that big of a deal, but man, those corals and peaches and oranges were really not that visually attractive. Oh well, it certainly didn't affect the cruise at all! The cabin really was quite spacious, and there was more than enough storage for all of our things. The bathroom also didn't seem quite as claustrophobic as the one on Royal Caribbean did last summer, and we all got along just fine. The Panorama deck was also a great location—one deck above the lido buffet, and one deck below the spa! We couldn't ask for anything better. Shortly after we arrived, the rest of our gang had also made it on the ship! They had taken the shuttle from their hotel and had to wait in line about 45 minutes to check in once they arrived at the pier. Terry and Liz had balcony cabin #1039, just 3 or 4 doors down from us, and Tara and Cody shared the inside cabin across the hall (#1041). Heidi had a room by herself, inside cabin #2414, and she said she really enjoyed having the room down there.

We started putting away our carry-ons and met our cabin steward, Iwayan, when we discovered that not everyone in our party had the same dining table. We did manage to get the 6:15 dining we had requested in the Golden Olympian dining room, but they had split us up into two tables. We really didn't want to dine with strangers (we don't know how to behave in public [haha] and we'd feel sorry for anyone who was stuck with our antics the whole week), so I headed down to the dining room to see the Maitre d'. The Capers stated that he would be available until 3:30, and I went down at 3:00 to find the door closed. I opened the door, and there was an employee promptly right there to tell me that "they were closed." I said I just had a question about my dining, and that the Capers stated that we could come until 3:30. She just responded that they were preparing for the muster drill and would not accept any more questions. Hmph. She was quite rude, but I wasn't going to let it ruin my day. I was on a cruise ship! We just decided we would work things out at dinner that night and see how things turned out.

Since Mom and I knew what a crowded mess the muster drill can be, we decided to take Granny down on the scooter and wait in the library on Deck 4, which was where Iwayan told us we would be going when the drill started. We waited down there for about 30 minutes, just relaxing and taking pictures, when the drill began. We headed over to the lifeboat station, where a wonderful employee told us we didn't have to go outside in the wind since Granny was in the scooter. We were allowed to wait just around the corner indoors, which was where they directed the other half-dozen or so handicapped folks for our station. This was really kind of Carnival, and they even sent us all to the elevators first before the masses were released from the drill. Awesome! One of my biggest fears of cruising with Granny was getting through the muster drill since we knew it was usually a huge stampede. Carnival really made it easy for us all, and we were back in our cabin relaxing on the balcony before anyone else had even made it up the stairs.

We went out to the open areas on Deck 10 for the sailaway party right after the muster drill. It was so much fun, and the weather was great! We were one of 8 ships leaving Port Everglades that day, and we were all dancing and waving and enjoying it all. Shortly after sailaway, we returned to the cabin to get ready for dinner. We headed down to the Golden Olympian for our 6:15 dinner, and were delightfully surprised to see that the two different tables for our group turned out to be adjacent 4-seaters. Yay! We didn't have to move anything around or dine with people we didn't know. Alexandra was our head waitress, and Eton was her assistant. They were a great team, and Alexandra said we became part of her family by the end of the week. We will really miss them!

I'll hit the dining room dinner food portion of the review here...all of the food we had the whole week was good, but there were a few things that stood out as very excellent and as not so great. The not-so-great items: chicken roulade entrEe on the spa menu, the vegetarian eggplant and zucchini parmigiana entrEe, and the filet mignon (very dry). The excellent items: fried shrimp appetizer, Caribbean chocolate cake, black bean and vegetable enchiladas entrEe, vegetarian lasagna entrEe, charred spring chicken entrEe, the chilled fruit soups, and the warm chocolate melting cake. Yum, yum, yum, yum!

After dinner, we had intended to go to the Welcome Aboard show, but ended up skipping it because they only had one showing for all guests that night and it was quite late (10:30 pm). Tara and I instead went to the hot tubs on the lido deck and watched part of "Ratatouille" that was being shown on the big screen. Note to self: stay out of the hot tubs when animated children's movies are being shown. They were completely overrun with hyperactive children who were splashing and kicking us, and I wanted to say something to them, but these were not the hot tubs that were for adults only, so I kept my mouth shut. We grabbed a slice of pizza after the movie and headed to our cabins for bed.

Sunday, March 16 - First Day at Sea: Sometime during the middle of the night (okay, maybe it was more like midnight, but whatever), our phone in the cabin rang. I rushed to answer it, thinking that something must have been wrong, but turns out it was the spa calling me. I had entered my name in a raffle for a free massage earlier in the day and didn't win that, but they had an 8:00 a.m. appointment available the next morning and were offering me any massage I wanted for half price. Heck yeah! I signed up immediately for a 60-minute Swedish massage and went back to bed since I had to get up so early. I do think it was kind of weird that they called so late, but since it turned out to be good news, I didn't mind.

Oh, and another note...since we had 3 people in our cabin, I slept on the sofa that was made into a bed each night. It was actually pretty comfortable, and I didn't mind at all.

The spa actually called the cabin again at around 7:15 a.m. to give me a wakeup call, which I thought was really nice, so I went ahead and got up and called to order some pastries and juice from room service. They were really prompt in delivering it, and I finished just in time to head upstairs to the spa for my appointment. Rose May was my therapist, and she was amazing. I could literally feel the tension in my back and shoulders being released, and when she finished, I just wanted to lay there and sleep. The product sell was very low-pressure, and I was actually considering buying some of the products she suggested, but decided against it when I realized I could have another massage later in the cruise for the price of one of the lotions.

After my massage, Mom, Granny, and I went down to the shore excursion desk to see about getting their tour in Cozumel cancelled. We had pre-booked the Sub-Ocean View excursion for the two of them online, but once we saw how quickly Granny was getting tired when she had to walk on her own, we decided against it. Even though we were less than 24 hours from our arrival in Cozumel, and the excursion tickets clearly stated that cancellations within the 24-hour window would not be refunded, the shore excursion employee gladly refunded both tickets when she saw Granny with us in her scooter. She agreed that it would not be the best excursion choice for someone with mobility issues. Oddly enough, the refund went as a credit to my sail & sign account, and not to Granny or Mom's, when they were the ones who paid for them originally.

After dealing with the shore excursion stuff, we decided to take a little tour of the ship and take some pictures. We saw pretty much everything there was to see. We then dropped Granny off at the cabin and Mom and I headed up to deck 12 to lay out in the sun with the rest of our family for awhile. Deck 12 is the best place to be on a sea day...it wasn't crowded at all and there were plenty of chairs and deck space. It's where you get on the water slide, and other than the line of kids waiting for the slide, there was hardly any traffic up there. Decks 9, 10, and 11 were extremely crowded, and you could barely even walk through them because of all the chairs crowded together. Really, though, I saw few, if any, chair hogs, believe it or not. There were actually people in about 99% of the chairs on the deck. After laying out for a bit and enjoying my first foo-foo drink of the cruise (a Dirty Banana), we decided it was time for lunch. We picked up Granny, and a few of us went to Emile's (the lido buffet) for lunch. I think we went around 11:45, and it was clearly the peak lunch time. It was quite busy, but it was easy enough to find an empty table. The main lines moved quickly, but the line for the made-to-order stir fry was long and slow. It was worth it, though--I ate that for my lunch and it was very yummy! My only complaint about the lunch that day was the dessert bar—we tried a little bit of everything, and they were all pretty tasteless and bland. No problem, though—there was always soft-serve ice cream!!

We ended up just sitting at our table in the lido for an hour or so after eating, just because it was nice and cool in there and the people-watching was great. We joked that if we sat there long enough, we could eat our way through the afternoon into dinner...haha. After lunch, I don't really recall doing anything specific other than just getting ready for formal night. We got ourselves all ready by 5:00 p.m. in time to take a few pictures and then go to the Captain's party before our 6:15 seating. The Capers stated that the Captain's party would take place in 3 of the venues on the Promenade, so we just chose the Piano Man bar. It turned out to be a good choice, because not too many people came in there, so we had quick food and beverage service, and we certainly took advantage of the free drinks. Most of the pre-made ones were kind of watered down, but Terry and I discovered that by ordering martinis (me) or scotch on the rocks (him), we were getting our money's worth (haha). Vince (the piano man himself) entertained us with some nice, easy-listening type piano music during the party and we had a really enjoyable time. The only disappointment was that we didn't get to meet Captain Nogara, who by the way is an extremely handsome and elegant Italian gentleman. The Capers didn't state which lounge Captain Nogara would be in, but it apparently wasn't the Piano Man. Oh well.

We went on down to our dinner and had another lovely meal with Alexandra and Eton. Afterwards, we decided to take in the main show in the Venetian Palace theater, which was called "Wonderful World." The singers and dancers were all pretty capable, but we kind of thought the show was quite cheesy. The real talent in the theater was Jimmy Boore, who led the Liberty Orchestra on trumpet. He's great!

After the show, the "old people" in the group went to bed, while Tara and I went to back to the Piano Man to experience the phenomenon. I had never been to a piano bar of any sort before, but I had read countless praises of Carnival's piano bars on CruiseCritic. Vince did not disappoint. We were able to secure 2 highly-coveted seats around the piano, and we sang and drummed our way through a couple of hours' worth of songs. Vince really knows how to keep the crowd involved, and bless his heart for having to deal with all the extremely drunk people who frequented his bar every night! After a few more martinis (unfortunately not free this time...haha), I was ready to stay for the long haul, but decided against it since I had to get up early for Cozumel the next morning.

Cozumel: We woke up, went to the lido buffet for breakfast, then got ready to disembark in Cozumel. We were docked at Punta Langosta today, right alongside the Seven Seas Navigator. The Carnival Freedom was docked over at Puerto Maya. So, we were quite fortunate that there were only 3 ships in Coz that day - it wasn't terribly crowded like it would have been had the usual 7 or 8 ships been there. We disembarked and were a little worried about Granny walking down the long pier to the shopping area where you catch taxis. No need to worry, though—there were bicycle taxis that were taking cruisers down the pier and they operated on tips only. It was kind of fun and it worked out really well.

My only complaint about Punta Langosta is that in order to get from the pier to the taxis, one has to walk through the entire shopping area - there are no shortcuts around it. It would be fine for a normal person, but with Granny, it was quite the hassle. We made it, though, and got a cab to Chankanaab Park for the 3 of us for $10 total. Chankanaab was only about 10 minutes from the pier, and we arrived to find the beach practically to ourselves.

I purchased our tickets at the window - I got the snorkel gear/t-shirt/2-for-1 drink combo for Mom and I (I think it was $28 each), and we just did the admission only for Granny, which I think was $16. One of the deciding factors for choosing Chankanaab was the fact that they had complimentary beach wheelchairs (you just have to leave a driver's license or ship's card with them to secure it). We loaded Granny up in the wheelchair and set out to find a great spot on the beach. We went down towards the far end of the beach down by the dive shops and found an unoccupied palapa and some chairs. The beach was really clean, and the water was crystal-clear turquoise. I couldn't wait to try out the snorkeling, but first up, we were ready for those 2-for-1 drinks. I actually only had a banana smoothie and got a Diet Coke for Mom, but the waiters were really friendly and the smoothie was delicious. After getting Granny settled in the shade with her CD player, Mom and I went down to the water to try out the snorkel gear. The reef has really been damaged by the hurricanes from a couple of years ago, and honestly, there's not much out there to see. I started out just close to shore where the sharp drop-off was, and I saw a few fish, including a barracuda, but that was about it. Shortly after that, I noticed that there were a lot of snorkelers out another 30 yards or so near the floating dock, so I swam out there to see what I was missing. There was a small coral formation, and there were actually quite a few fish hanging out there. I tried out my underwater housing for my Sony digital camera, and as it turns out, it takes pretty good pictures. I just wish there had been more to see underwater!

After snorkeling around, Mom and I headed back to the beach to check on Granny and to see about lunch. I'm not exactly sure if all the restaurants at Chankanaab have the same menu, but we just ordered from the one closest to our palapa, which was La Bucanera or something like that. Their menu was pretty limited, and the prices were kind of steep for Mexico, but it was in an obviously touristy location, so it's pretty much what I expected. We ordered the chicken tacos, cheese quesadillas, and an order of chips, salsa, and guacamole for us all to share. The food was actually really good and it was a welcome change from the "Mexican" food on the ship. I guess I forgot to touch on that from the previous day at sea - the lido buffet advertised a Mexican-themed lunch, so we went there expecting the usual Mexican fare of enchiladas, tacos, quesadillas, nachos, etc. The actual Mexican buffet was very disappointing...they had a lot of fish and some chicken that looked more like Italian food to me. None of the usual Mexican food one might expect, save for a make-your-own taco bar which didn't look all that appetizing.

After digesting our lunch and laying out in the sun for awhile at Chankanaab, we did one last round of snorkeling and decided it was time to head back to the ship so we could get some shopping in at the pier. Before we left Chankanaab, however, we were sure to venture around and see the botanical gardens, the lagoon, and the Mayan archaeological site. I don't know if it was the off-season or what, but I guess I was expecting the botanical gardens to be a lot more colorful, but it was really just a lot of greenery (which was still pretty, nonetheless). Don't forget I am coming from North Dakota - anything green and in bloom is a welcome change this time of year from the snow and bare trees! We also saw several really large iguanas hanging out by the lagoon, so that was pretty cool. When we returned the wheelchair and got ready to go, getting a taxi was no problem. There were several lined up, just waiting for the call. Our taxi driver was really nice, and he let me practice my Spanish and I was so proud of myself for being able to actually hold a coherent conversation with him!

When we returned back to Punta Langosta, we stopped by the seating area by Burger King to let Granny rest, and I ran into the little convenience store next door to buy something to drink. It was here I randomly selected my new favorite soda, Cristal Strawberry. Too bad I can't find it here in the states—it was so good! Mom and I left Granny in a shady spot with our stuff and we wandered around for a little while. I found a couple of t-shirts for some friends back home for a good price, then I decided to stop at Los Cinco Soles, since I always hear about it on CruiseCritic. It's not a bad place to shop - the prices are a little steep on everything except what I bought, though. They have a section of handmade pottery that is extremely reasonably-priced. I bought a beautiful clay jug that will look great in my entertainment center cabinet and it was only $5.95. After Los Cinco Soles, I decided there wasn't anything else I really wanted, so we returned to fetch Granny and to make our way back to the ship. We took the bicycle cab back down the pier and made it to our room in plenty of time to order some room service snacks (toasted PB&J and the cookie/brownie plate, yum!) and watch sailaway from our balcony.

Soon after that, it was time to get ready for dinner. After enjoying another wonderful meal in the Golden Dining Room and catching up with the rest of the family to see what they did that day (shopping, shopping, and more shopping!), I don't really remember what all we did that night (oops). But I do recall that tonight was the Carnival Colors bar hopping game (we were the white team)...we intended to go to all 3 stops (Sock Hop with Chris in the Casino Bar, 80s and 90s in the Hot and Cool Disco, and then the Sing-Along with Vince in the Piano Man)...but we only made it to the sock hop for a few minutes (very crowded) and then ended up in the piano bar the rest of the night. Sadly, we didn't get to spend the whole evening with Vince because the Carnival Colors game was ending on the lido deck with a huge party and he had to participate. We didn't really want to go up on deck, so it was bedtime. We had another wonderful day on the ship, and the cruise was passing by too fast!

Speaking of the Carnival Colors game, our Maitre d' (Fernando) assigned the colors the first night in the dining room. Other than that initial night and then the night with the bar hopping game, that was the only time I heard the colors mentioned ever again. I didn't even hear who "won" at the end. Tuesday, March 18 - Another "Fun" Day at Sea: We woke up early this morning to discover that the seas were rocking and rolling and it was extremely windy outside. Unfortunately, we also discovered that it meant that the outside decks 11 and 12 were closed, leaving 3,300 people to scramble for deck chairs and pack themselves in like sardines on decks 9 and 10. The seas really were crazy…I have never sailed in such high seas, and yes, the barf bags did make their appearance near the elevators and stairwells. I will also say that I am usually the first person who gets motion sickness—I get sick in a car sometimes, even—but miraculously, I was fine for the entire trip. I think I finally found the magic combination for me—I started taking herbal ginger from GNC and Dramamine a couple of days before I left for Florida. I'm going to give the ginger all the credit, though…Dramamine alone usually doesn't do it for me.

The whole gang of us went to the lido buffet for breakfast, and sat around trying to figure out what we were going to do for the day. A few of us decided to try our hand at finding some empty deck chairs, and we were mostly out of luck. We did end up finding one abandoned chair and were able to drag some other ones near it, but it was really too crowded to enjoy. So, after a little while, Mom, Granny, and I decided to check out the lunchtime offerings in the Silver Olympian dining room. By the end of the week, we had all determined that the best burgers on the ship were in the Silver Olympian at lunch. Now I know, most of you (including my mother) will tell me that all the burgers on the ship are the same, and they are all made out of the same frozen patties from the same freezer, but Tara and I beg to differ. The Silver Olympian has it down. I do also recall that the sugar-free lemon mousse offered on the lunch menu this day was absolutely delicious!

After lunch, I stopped by Harry's Supper Club to see about getting reservations for our group that night. They were able to accommodate us at 7:30 p.m., and we were all looking forward to that experience. I did attempt to make reservations online beforehand, but I never got an e-mail confirmation. As it turns out, though, they did receive one of the reservations I made online, but it was for later in the cruise, and we ended up canceling it since one night there was plenty.

I really do not remember what we did the rest of that afternoon, which means I'm going to have to start keeping notes when I'm on a cruise! I think I just ended up doing some browsing in the gift shops, then taking a short nap back in the cabin before it was time to get ready for Harry's. Oh, I do recall that I decided to check out the internet cafe for the first time on this day. I figured it was time to e-mail my husband and see how things were going at home. I made the mistake of looking at some of my work e-mails, and when I saw what a disaster one of our projects had become since I had been gone, I kept thinking about it the rest of the trip and it bugged me. (Note to self: don't read work e-mail on vacation.) The internet cafe itself was fine, except that to get to it, you had to walk through The Cabinet, which is the cigar/smoking lounge. It was also sort of a weird location because one of the other afternoons when I headed down to check my e-mail, it just so happened to be during high tea in the The Cabinet, and I felt a bit out of place traipsing through there in my beach wear among the string quartet, waiters passing out scones and appetizers, and people enjoying their tea from dainty little teacups. Oh well. The internet was 75 cents per minute, plus an activation fee of $3.95 the first time you signed on. I think I ended up spending $10-$12 max on the internet the whole week, which I can live with. The connection speed was pretty decent, as long as you realize this is not your cable or DSL from home. Also, it was never crowded, at least not when I was down there. They did have an "internet happy hour" on Tuesday (second sea day) from 4:00-6:00 p.m., where internet was half price. That was pretty nice, so I took advantage of that to e-mail hubby again and catch up on a couple of things.

Soon enough, it was time to start getting ready for Harry's. The seas were still rocking and rolling like crazy, and I was still amazed that I hadn't yet gotten queasy. (Mind over matter: don't think about it, and it won't happen…at least, that's what I kept telling myself.)

We arrived at Harry's just before 7:30, and were shown to our table for 8, which was actually 4 tables for 2 pushed together. No problem, though. Nikol was our waitress, and while she was certainly very competent, she did not have a very friendly or talkative personality. Heidi would ask her questions about living on the ship, etc., and she just seemed shocked someone would ask that and gave very cold, abrupt answers. But, that could just be the language barrier and her culture (she was from eastern Europe), more than having a cold personality.

The food was truly amazing. I had the crab cake, the onion soup, and the New York strip steak with mushroom sauce and a baked potato. While you would expect the presentation of the food to be awesome at a restaurant like this (and it was), the taste and the quality of the food were what took the cake, so to speak. The only little snafu we had was when Granny ordered her meal - she mostly eats only vegetarian, and she was perfectly happy with ordering the soup, salad, and a couple of the vegetable and potato sides as her meal. We understood that there would still be the full charge, even though she didn't have an entree, and that was okay with us. However, when she ordered, Nikol basically just could not believe that someone did not want to order an entree, so she sent the hostess/manager (Adriane?) back to our table to verify. Adriane was very nice and she wanted to make sure Granny was well taken care of, and said the chef could make her a vegetarian entree. Granny agreed to that, but still would have been perfectly happy with just the side dishes! They didn't really seem to understand that, but oh well. They brought her a mushroom entree in puff pastry with the creamed spinach side and some sort of an eggplant dish. They all looked amazing, so don't be afraid to ask for a special vegetarian entree if you go there.

By the time we had finished with our meal, we were stuffed beyond belief, but knew we had to go for the gold with dessert. A couple of our group ordered the tropical fruit because they were too full, but the rest of us went with what was named "Chocolate Tarte" on the menu. The menu description wasn't very informative, but we all decided if it was chocolate, it had to be good. Boy, did we ever make a good decision there! In fact, the two that got fruit were pretty jealous of our selection (haha). When they brought out our dessert, the chocolate tarte turned out to actually be THREE chocolate desserts for each person, served in extremely swanky glassware. One was a bitter chocolate pate (which didn't taste bitter to me) with some fruit and a chocolate crust, if I remember correctly. There was another fudgy-chocolaty-gooey yumminess with whipped cream, and then the final portion was a tiramisu. I actually hate coffee, so I skipped the tiramisu, but those that had it said it was awesome.

After we finished our dessert, of course, they brought out the "compliments from the chef" plates of additional desserts for us. There were white and milk chocolate truffles, a pistachio cheesecake, and some candied pineapples. The pineapples and the truffles melted in my mouth, but the pistachio cheesecake was ehhh, just kind of flavorless. Of course, what do I care, I think I gained 5 pounds that night just from the dessert alone!

After we all waddled back to our cabins, we were too stuffed and sleepy to do anything besides pass out, so off to bed we went.

Wednesday, March 19 - Adventures in Costa Rica: Mom and Granny and I woke up, got dressed, and went down to the Silver Olympian to have a leisurely breakfast while we were pulling into the port of Limon, Costa Rica. We pulled in between the cargo ships and fishing vessels, and ended up docking beside the infinitely smaller Spirit of Adventure cruise ship. The Holland America Volendam was just a short distance away, as well. I fell in love with the chicken sausage on the dining room breakfast menu. I know that's kind of random, but it was so delicious! It was kind of spicy and sweet all at the same time, and I do wish I could find something similar here at home! I had poached eggs and toast to go with my chicken sausage, and was delighted to find that I could get pineapple juice here. A note about the breakfast juices on the ship…in the lido, you can only get orange, apple, and in a few of the machines, a guava-passion fruit-orange concoction that tastes more like Sunny Delight than actual fruit juice. From room service, you can only get apple, orange, or tomato, I think (not quite sure about the tomato, but I *think* it was there). But, in the dining room, there are a ton of juices, including all of the above, plus grapefruit, pineapple, cranberry, and prune.

After breakfast, we went back upstairs to get our belongings for the day, and got Granny squared away at the spa for her "excursion." Cristina took good care of her for the day and Granny says that her day in the spa was her favorite excursion on the trip! Mom and I took the elevators down to Deck 0 to disembark—when the doors opened up on 0, our full elevator discovered that we were being trapped like caged animals (haha). Apparently the Costa Rican authorities had not yet cleared the ship, so all of the elevators that went down to 0 stopped there, opened the doors, and the ship's security personnel put a rope across the elevator door to keep us all in. It was actually quite humorous, and while we were waiting there, I had a nice chat with some people from North Dakota who had been on my flight from Fargo, of all places! After about 10 minutes or so, they released us to disembark. We had booked the Class III Whitewater Rafting excursion through Carnival, and we were very excited to get going! The excursion was operated by the Rios Tropicales tour company. (The rest of our group took the ziplining…just a quick note…they liked it, but there were far too many people there and they said they were only "in the air" for about 10-15 minutes, tops. Kind of an expensive roller coaster ride for that short of time…)

Anyway, we found the guide holding the sign for our excursion, and we were directed to a very nice Mercedes coach bus, where we waited for the other 48 passengers to fill it up. I admit that it was pretty nice going on an excursion with only 50-70 other people (there was another smaller bus that they used for the remaining people). Once we were ready to go, Cristian, our guide, provided us with a great commentary on what we were seeing, Costa Rican life in general, and how the rafting stuff would work out. Cristian was awesome…he really provided us with an insider's glimpse of living in Costa Rica, and he was quite entertaining, as well. The ride to the Florida section (lower section) of the Rio Reventazon (near Guapiles) was about an hour each way, and when we got about 95% of the way there, we pulled off on a dirt road and transferred to an old rickety school bus for the rest of the way down to the river banks. We kind of wondered why, but once we got going again, it was perfectly clear. Holy man, the roads were steep, bumpy, and had killer curves. Yikes!

I had read on a previous review of this excursion that there were lockers for rent if you brought valuables or dry clothing, etc., but this wasn't the case for us. We were instructed to leave all of our valuables or things we didn't want to get wet in the first bus with Manolo, the driver, and he would meet us at the end of the trip. So, while everything was perfectly safe, I wouldn't bring a ton of cash or your passport with you, just in case. When we finally reached the river banks, we went through an assembly line type set-up to get our lifejackets, helmets, and paddles. Then, one of the river guides started asking for groups and assigning us to rafts. We were in an 8-person raft, but most of the rafts held only 6. Michael was our raft guide, and he was great. He is only 22 and has been running the rivers in Costa Rica for seven years already. My mom and I were in the raft with another mother-daughter pair, plus a family of four. Michael took about 10 minutes to get us all situated and to explain some paddling techniques and safety information, then we were off! Mom and I had never been rafting before, but I am a kayaker, and live for the thrill of whitewater! I really wish I could have taken a kayak tour there, but the only one offered through Carnival was on flat water (boring), and I couldn't find an independent kayak tour that fit into the time frame we needed. Anyway, there were quite a few kayak guides going down the river with us for safety and to take pictures of us all.

We hit our first set of rapids almost immediately and got through them with flying colors. Michael quickly proclaimed us to be the "best group today" and we kept up our chant of "Pura vida!". Pura vida literally translates to "pure life", but it's used commonly in Costa Rica, just to mean "this is great" or "the good life." We made our way down several sets of rapids, able to regroup after each section and each time successfully conquering them. Michael pointed out the birds, plants, and points of interest along the way, and it was really quite informative. If you're considering taking this tour, definitely do it, but realize that you. will. get. wet. Also, when the tour description recommends wearing river shoes, take that to heart. As a kayaker, I knew what kind of shoes were appropriate, and I wore my Keen sandals that I use in my boat…they have a closed toe and are attached to my feet (i.e., not flip-flops), so I wouldn't lose them. They also have a tennis shoe-like sole, which is great for walking on the rocks. I was amazed at how many people were trying to get by with wearing flip-flops out there! We had to walk over several wet and slippery rocks to even get in the raft the first time, and getting out was a whole other story—tons of rocks, mud, moss, slippery stuff…the people in flip-flops had to end up going barefoot, which also probably wasn't the best idea. Also? When you fall out? Your $100 Juicy Couture flip-flops won't stay on your feet and they will become a donation to the river gods…which is what one of the women in our raft quickly found out…haha.

Anyway, back to our rafting…we were all having a good time, but I have to admit, it was almost getting a little bit boring because we were so good at it…lol. We hadn't lost anyone yet, and we seemed to have a pretty good paddling rhythm down as a team, so we were just sailing through the rapids. However…enter the last set of rapids (Lower Bamboo, I believe)…I guess the two paddlers in front decided that we were so good at this, we could lolly-gag through this set of rapids and gawk at the scenery on the river banks instead of paddling through! Michael kept yelling at us to paddle right, but despite our efforts, we ended up smack dab in front of the biggest rock in the river. I won't take time to explain the physics of it, but suffice to say, we ALL fell out! I love the water, and I'm a strong and comfortable swimmer, but I must admit that I panicked for a split second. I hadn't expected to fall out, so not only did I swallow about a gallon of river water, but I couldn't get to the surface for air because I had 3 other people and a raft on top of me! I did freak out for about 5 seconds after I was able to surface, then calmed down, got my feet up, and calmly floated down to where some of the kayakers and other guides were rescuing us. One of the other raft guides handed me his paddle, then he pulled me up in their raft to hang out while Michael righted our raft and got it ready again. I'm a big girl…definitely not light…but those skinny Costa Rican raft guides pulled me right up in the raft like I was a feather! Impressive…have to admit, I had my doubts about that working…haha.

We finally met up with Michael and our raft, and we picked up all the rest of our swimmers from the kayakers and the other guides who had rescued them. We all agreed that it was fun and definitely worth falling in! I can no longer say that the rafting excursion was getting boring! We finished our section of the river shortly after that, where we got out, returned our gear, and reboarded our bus to be taken to the Rios Tropicales visitor center. Before I get on with that section of the review, here are some thoughts about this excursion. Do not, and I repeat, do not take this excursion if you cannot swim or are not comfortable in rapid-moving water that will sweep you downstream very quickly. If your raft tips over, it actually can be very dangerous, especially if you panic. Michael even told us that yes, people have drowned on this section of the river before. The kayakers will not be able to rescue you if you are panicking or flailing, because it becomes even more dangerous (you will tip over their boat, and then there are two people in the water instead of one!)…and it is a lot harder for the raft guides to get to you when they have 8 other people in their raft that is probably downstream already. So, be sure that you can swim and be sure that you can maintain a calm composure despite the circumstances. As long as you are prepared for that, go and have a great time! It was a blast, and possibly my favorite day of the whole trip!

When we arrived at Rios Tropicales' visitor center, we were directed to the buffet line for lunch. The food was just so-so, but it was supposedly traditional Costa Rican food. The rice and beans were excellent, but nothing else really whet my appetite. The dining area was open-air with picnic tables, and there were several tv screens mounted from the ceiling, so we could see the slideshow that the photographers had just taken of our trip. Of course, we had to buy the photo CD they were selling, because they had captured our raft tipping over! It was $30 for the CD. Tory, the photographer, had taken over 600 pictures of the rafts, and had filled the remaining space on the CD with about 220 pictures he had taken in Costa Rica. He is really an excellent photographer, and all of the pictures were great! 60 of the rafting pictures were of our raft, and there were approximately 10 rafts, so it does work out to pretty equal exposure for everyone. We had a little while after eating to browse the gift shop, and for being such a small shop, they had a ton of great stuff. I bought a t-shirt for myself and one for my husband, and I also bought a Rio Reventazon sticker to put on my kayak once our rivers thaw up here in the arctic north.

We reboarded the bus once again to make the trip back to Limon, and about halfway there, Cristian had Manolo stop near a roadside banana stand. Cristian got out and purchased a huge bunch of little bananas for us all to try—they were the sweetest, most delicious bananas I have ever tasted! It's too bad we couldn't take them back on the ship! During the ride to and from the river, we saw a lot of banana plantations. Dole, Chiquita, and Del Monte all have a huge presence in Costa Rica with their banana operations, and it was kind of interesting to see how they work. Cristian told us a lot about it, and did you know that Costa Rica's number one export is actually not a food product? Their biggest export is computer chips, and Intel has a large operation there, as well. The things you learn…

Once we got back to port, I had intended to do a bit of shopping, but what I had neglected to notice was that there was no shopping at the port! None. At all. Hmm, oh well. So, I guess the point is that if your ship is stopping in Limon, then you should definitely book a tour either through the cruise line or through an independent operator, because there is nothing to get to by foot on your own. The town of Limon was very poor, and other than one arts-and-crafts store on the main road, there was really nothing of interest. However, I don't think that Costa Rica is a "scary" place, by any means. In fact, my husband and I plan to come back for an extended vacation when he graduates with his Ph.D. in a couple of years. It is a beautiful country with a lot to offer.

After we returned to the ship, it was time to get ready for dinner. We watched our departure from Costa Rica from our balcony, and almost immediately, we hit the rough seas again (blah). Dinner back in the Golden was wonderful yet again…Alexandra and Eton truly were a great team! Fernando, the Maitre d', was also cordial and friendly to us all. Every night, he would make a short announcement, usually regarding the next day's events or whatnot, but on a couple of different occasions, he made an announcement regarding the dress code. He point-blank stated that shorts were not allowed in the dining room at all on more than one occasion. (Go Fernando!) He also encouraged everyone to dress up for formal nights and stated something to the effect that his dining room would be a formal place the next night, and one should dress accordingly (or something like that). Anyway, I was pretty pleased at the attempt to enforce the rules. I don't know if they ever actually denied entrance to anyone for poor dress, but I do appreciate the announcements, at the very least. Additionally, the Carnival Capers talked about dress code each day. I didn't keep a copy (I should have), but they specifically forbade shorts and tank tops, and I believe they strongly discouraged jeans.

If I'm getting my nights straight, that night, some of our group went to see Eddie Capone's comedy act in the Venetian Palace. But first—it was Cheapo Bingo night held there right before the show started--$5 bingo with a $500 cash prize. Unfortunately, we didn't win, but it was all in good fun. Here's a hint to Carnival, though…on every other cruise line I have been on, about 15 minutes before the bingo game is to start, there will be a staff member in the front of the theater selling bingo cards. That way, everyone has a card BEFORE the designated start time and the game can start and end on time. This time, they didn't even start setting up or selling cards until the designated start time, and they were always rushing and saying we were running late with the game. Something to consider. Anyway, Eddie Capone's show was great. This version was pretty clean humor, focused mainly on poking fun at old people (haha). Apparently Eddie lives and works in Fort Lauderdale, playing the retirement community circuit. I thought he was kidding when he said that during his show, but apparently it's true—there really is a "retirement community entertainment circuit" in south Florida…lol. I think my favorite part of his show was when he started singling out passengers in the audience…there was an elderly lady who was wearing one of those clear plastic-type rain jackets in the theater. I'm sure she was just cold and that was the jacket she had brought to wear on the trip…but man, Eddie had some jokes about that!

After the comedy show, we had the greatest intentions of going to the disco for the 70s and 80s dance party, but didn't make it. We did make it as far as the promenade near the casino, though, and sat and listened to Chris Poulin's guitar and flute performance for awhile. I think I mentioned this before, but he's pretty good. That would be a hard venue to play as a performer, because right there on the promenade there is so much traffic that flows through there, and it doesn't really promote the "sit and listen to the good music" type of atmosphere. But, Chris does a great job nonetheless. More on him later. We called it a night pretty early because we had such a busy day planned for Panama on Thursday.Thursday, March 20 - Panama We had such a busy day planned in Panama, so we woke up bright and early to the sound of room service bringing our breakfast at around 6:00 a.m. We were due to meet our shore excursion group in the Venetian Palace at 7:30, so we had to get moving. (We had booked the Panama City tour through Carnival.) I packed up my camera gear, and Mom, Granny, and I went down to the Venetian at around 7:15. It was absolutely packed and I was starting to wonder whether or not we had made the right decision…I *hate* cattle-call excursions, and was afraid that all 500 people in the theater would be on the excursion with us. I couldn't have been more wrong - almost all of those 500 people in the theater were going on the Panama Canal excursion with Terry, Liz, Tara, Cody, and Heidi. Oh, poor things. They announced for everyone who booked the Panama Canal tour to get up and move outside, and just about the whole theater emptied out. Those five thought their excursion was interesting, but long, crowded, and hot. It was the excursion where you board a ferry-type boat and have a 8-hour day going through the locks of the canal.

Shortly after that tour group left, they announced that the Panama City people could go ahead and proceed outside to the buses. I have no idea how many were actually on the tour, because they had the best set-up ever. I do wish that all cruise line excursions that have a bunch of people would operate this way, because it was great. How it worked is that there were several small buses that held maybe 20 people each, and they were all lined up ready to take us on our tour. However, instead of staying together and ending up being a cattle call anyway, we each had separate guides and we were on our own schedule, more or less. All of the buses did not arrive at each destination at the same time (some did the tour in reverse or mixed-up order), so it worked out really, really nicely! So, we had about a 20-person tour for the price of a cruise line cattle-call, which was fabulous. The three of us got on a bus with Araminta as our guide, and our driver, Junior. Here's a hint about those buses—they are not made for Americans with wide rear-ends, so unless you and your seat-mate are stick-thin, head for the very back row in the bus…there's lots more room!

Araminta was warm and welcoming and took a special liking to my grandmother. She started out by explaining how the tour would work, and giving us a narrative of everything we were seeing along the way. We started our day at the Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal. Araminta handed us our admission tickets as we exited the bus, which allowed us to bypass the line for tickets. Our hearts sunk for a few minutes when we entered the visitor area and saw about 50 stairs up to the viewing platform and no ramp anywhere. We knew there was no way Granny would be able to climb those stairs, but Araminta came to the rescue! She showed us where a slightly-hidden handicap viewing area was on ground level, and it turned out to be the best vantage point for viewing the boats in the canal anyway! We were literally within maybe 10 feet of the workers on the canal and maybe 20 feet from the canal itself. Too cool! When we first arrived, the Fred Olson Cruise Lines ship "Braemar" was making its way through the locks. The passengers were out in full force on the decks, and I hope to have that experience firsthand someday. After the Braemar came a h-u-g-e container ship, the Evergreen "Ever Gaining." We got to watch it make its way mostly through the locks when Araminta announced it was time to go. The only unfortunate part about the Gatun Locks was the extremely loud and annoying announcer who was giving a narrative about the locks. His narration was informative, but it was SOOOO loud and obnoxious, and it kind of ruined the moment. Whenever a new person would come up on the viewing platform, he would ask them where they were from, and regardless of where they said, he would say "Oh, [state], home of the [popular college or pro sports team]!". That would have been fine for one or two people, but he did it about 50 times in the hour we were there! It was really cool to see the Panama Canal up close, and I even got a short, 3-minute video of the Ever Gaining's transit. Here is the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJ7L4HZfRkE

Some people may ask if we think we got to see enough of the canal in an hour at Gatun, and I would have to say yes. I wouldn't have wanted to spend much more time there. I mean, it might be cool to see the Miraflores locks, or to actually ride in a boat making the transit, but really, I felt like I got a good sense of the canal and how it works. It was pretty cool. I'm very glad we didn't do the excursion with the rest of our family where we were stuck on a boat allllll day long.

After Gatun, we had about an hour and a half ride into Panama City. The entire way, Araminta was telling us so much about her home country of Panama, and we really were learning lot, but dang, it was early in the morning. I guess more than one of us were starting to drift off, so Araminta gave us a 10-minute "sleeping break." It was much needed, because she really was interesting, and I didn't want to miss her talk, but we were all so sleepy! Junior drove like a bat out of hell, and I was just hoping the brakes on the bus were in good working order. The speed limits and stop lights/signs in Panama seem to be suggestions only, and on more than one occasion, I wondered how in the world we avoided an accident.

Once we arrived in Panama City, we immediately saw the vast difference between the poverty and the wealth that co-exist in the city. Huge, new high-rise condos are going up everywhere, and Donald Trump is even building a new hotel downtown. However, homeless people and the impoverished live all over the city, as well, in conditions that most of us could not even imagine. There is just such a huge gap between the two walks of life there, but not much seems to be getting done about correcting it. Our first stop in the city was at a museum. I forget the name of it, but its actual draw was its beautiful vantage point out to the Pacific Ocean and the Bridge of the Americas, rather than the museum itself. Araminta did take us inside through part of the museum, where we got a bit of Panamanian history and culture, but truthfully, that part was a tad boring.

Next up were the ruins from way back in the day. I'd like to pretend I remember the time period these ruins are from, but I don't…I just know that they were really, really old. It was actually pretty amazing how so many parts of these ruins were still intact, and UNESCO has named it a world heritage site. According to Araminta, UNESCO will soon require Panama City to close down and tear up the road that goes through the site, but it's sort of a main thoroughfare, and Araminta didn't know what they were going to if it had to be closed. Junior parked the bus and we all got out and walked around the ruins a little bit. Actually, Granny stayed in the bus because she wasn't sure about the uneven terrain, but we now know she would have been just fine. There were benches everywhere for someone to stop and rest if needed. We followed Araminta through about half of the ruins, then decided to turn back and go through the little arts and crafts shops back by the bus. I wanted to be sure I got a souvenir or two from Panama, and I knew we probably wouldn't have much (if any) time later in the day. They had a lot of beautiful, handmade items, and I ended up settling on just a magnet at this time. Right outside the shopping area was a little stand selling some sort of fruity juice concoction. The woman working there spoke zero English at all, and since I'm not entirely comfortable with my Spanish, I was grateful to see Junior, our driver, enjoying a beverage there. I asked him what to get, so he ordered for me. I ended up with a cantaloupe "milk shake", which is a ton of fresh cantaloupe blended with ice, evaporated milk, nutmeg, and sugar. It was unique, but quite delicious. There were other fruit flavors, as well, but Junior insisted that the melon was the best. It was only $1.50, and by the time I got mine, several others from our bus decided they needed one, too!

We got back in the bus and headed for downtown and colonial Panama. Since it was almost the Easter holiday, most businesses closed at noon on this Thursday, and traffic was horrendous with everyone trying to head out of the city. It took a little longer than planned, but we still got to see everything. We started out at a cathedral, which didn't look like much from the outside, but the inside was the most ornate and beautiful building I have ever seen. I've been to some pretty nice cathedrals in northern Europe, but I have to say that this one takes the cake. I can't remember the name of it, but I'm sure an internet search would turn it up pretty quickly. After viewing the cathedral for a few minutes, Araminta took us on a short walking tour around the colonial section. She pointed out features of some of the buildings, and showed us how they are restoring most of the run-down buildings to their original glory, but turning them into high-dollar condos. The restored buildings do look really nice, and the area will be just great when they are finished.

We hopped back in the bus for another short ride down to different section in the colonial district. This turned out to be just a photo-op, shopping stop, and bathroom break. Here I found a beautiful original watercolor-and-pen painting of the Miraflores locks at the canal, and I purchased it for only $15. There were lots of really nice ones to choose from, and I can't wait to get a frame for it and hang it on a wall in my house. Panama hats were popular here, and most of them could be had for $12-$15 each.

Back in the bus again, this time on our way to the restaurant for the lunch that was included with the tour. We didn't get to eat lunch until almost 2:00 p.m., so I would recommend bringing some snacks along with you if you think you might get hungry for them. On the way to the restaurant, Araminta pointed out one of the government buildings that currently being used to shoot the newest James Bond movie. They weren't filming that day because of the holiday, but it was funny because this government building had "Andean Hotel" canopies and signs on it for the movie. We also made a short photo-taking stop at a plaza where there were some beautiful REALLY old buildings from the 1600s and where some of the Panamanian Indians were protesting something to do with the river on their land. Araminta explained what was going on, but to be honest, I don't really remember.

We finally made it to the restaurant, which was called The Greenhouse, and was located downtown near all the big, swanky hotels. The restaurant itself was lacking in ambience, and the waitstaff paid us little attention. They basically just delivered the food that we had pre-ordered with Araminta (beef, chicken, or vegetarian entrée plus a salad), and brought a regular Coke to everyone (no refills). Heaven forbid someone might have wanted to drink water instead or not have been able to drink regular soda…there was not even an opportunity to ask. The food itself was pretty good—we had a lettuce salad with pico de gallo on top of it, which was tasty. Mom and I both had the chicken entrée, which was a grilled chicken breast spiced with curry and cumin, I believe, plus a pile of rice and beans, both of which were good. Granny had the vegetarian entrée, which was spaghetti with a lot of grilled vegetables on it with a creamy alfredo-like sauce. She said it was very good, and it actually looked a lot better than what we were served. (Hint: go for the vegetarian.)

We were the only tour group in the restaurant. Someone in the group asked Araminta if all of the buses on our excursion went to this restaurant for lunch, and she replied that they did not. I think we just got the unlucky end of the deal, because in a different review of this excursion, someone said they went to a fancy, waterfront restaurant and were served a chicken marsala that was better than anything on the cruise ship! They definitely didn't go to the Greenhouse, that's for sure. I guess I shouldn't complain too much—at least lunch was included, and it's not like the food was terrible. It's just that the service was lacking and the fact that we couldn't get something different to drink sort of irritated me. When we left the restaurant and got back in the bus, we discovered that some cars had parked behind us and blocked Junior in. Junior located the driver of one of the vehicles, but not the other. We thought we were just stuck there and started to worry, but never fear—this is where Junior earned his tip money, and somehow (who knows how!), he managed to get that bus back out on the road without hitting anything. It was amazing, because I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have been able to do it in a small car, let alone a giant tour bus!

Our tour was essentially over at that point, and we had approximately an hour and a half or so ride back to Colon. Araminta wasn't finished talking, though, and her narrative about Panama and the sights we saw continued. I really learned a lot from her about Panamanian politics, culture, history, current events, life in Panama, and the native people. We took a slightly different route on the way back and we went over Gatun Lake and got to see the large dam. That was a pretty neat sight to see.

I'll talk here for a bit about Panama and Colon in general. Judging from the reviews I had read on CruiseCritic before sailing, I was certain that I would be scared in Colon and that it would appear to be a very dangerous place. Truthfully, it didn't look that bad to me. I've certainly been in parts of U.S. cities where I've felt less comfortable. That said, I wouldn't set out on foot and try to explore it by myself. If you have a decent taxi driver or a guide, let them show you their country and enjoy it. In fact, I wish that we had a few more hours there (and that it wasn't a holiday), because there is a HUGE (second-largest in the world, next to the one in Hong Kong) duty-free shopping mall there. Every store you can think of, including Apple Computers and Columbia Sportswear were there, and I would have loved to have gotten some shopping time in. If I ever return to Colon, I will simply take a taxi to the duty-free area (or the zona libre, as it's called in Spanish), and spend a day at the mall. Araminta also showed us where Macy's is moving all of its warehouse and distribution operations to Panama and creating a bunch of new jobs.

Colon also has a very nice, new shopping area set up at the pier. However, because ours (and everyone else's) tour was a little late getting back, we had to board the ship right away and we didn't get a chance to shop. Plus, Araminta said that most of the shops would be closed anyway because of the holiday. We had a great day in Panama, but were definitely looking forward to the two days at sea that were ahead of us.

We re-boarded the ship in Colon and were serenaded by a group of young adult Panamanian dancers. Of course, one of the dancers had a large tip jar out, trying to catch every passenger's eye as they made their way up the gangway into the ship. I know this sounds goofy and cheap, but I don't like being "guilted" into tipping for something I didn't ask for. (Yes, we tipped.) They weren't that good, and it was clear they were not enthusiastic about their "job." (Not that I would be, either, but anyway…)

We were all extremely tired after our long day in Panama, and we contemplated for a split second just doing dinner in the buffet, but we decided we might as well go see Alexandra and Eaton again in the dining room. Plus, the food was been right on all week, and I wanted some more of the delicious warm chocolate melting cake! That cake was variable all week—always good, but the consistency was sometimes more like chocolate soup than it was cake-like. Oh, and I don't remember what night we had it, but if you see the Caribbean chocolate cake on the dessert menu—order it. In fact, order two. It was pretty comparable to one of the desserts we had at Harry's, and I would have eaten one every night if they would have let me.

If I recall correctly, I think Heidi and I hit the casino bar and then the piano bar for another night with Chris and Vince. Before we did, though, Mom and I went up to the spa to see what was on special for the next two sea days. They advertised a formal night special for the next day, and it was $89 for a spa sampler package that included a formal up-do for your hair. It was actually a great deal, so we wanted to sign up. The receptionist informed us that they were already all booked up…it seemed unlikely, though, because the special was advertised for the first time in that evening's Capers, which of course don't get delivered until dinnertime. We had early seating and went to reserve it directly after dinner. Hmm…oh well. We found a different package that was a little bit more expensive, but involved a massage and a facial, so perhaps it turned out for the best anyhow.

Also, there was Eddie Capone's R-rated comedy show at midnight on this night, but it wasn't printed in the Capers. We just happened to hear Steve Knisley's announcement that it was going on that night. Unfortunately, we didn't make it, but I'm sure it would have been great!

Friday, March 20 - At Sea Again Mom and I had our spa appointments at 9:15. She woke me up at what we thought was about 8:30, and I got ready quickly and we headed up one deck to the spa. We were behind a couple of elderly ladies who were checking in for their appointments. When the spa receptionist asked them how she could help them, one of them replied, "We have an appointment at 8:00." My mom and I both looked at each other like "oh, those silly old ladies—don't they know they're over an hour late?"…until we realized we were the ones who were an hour early. Oops. The previous evening's Capers had told us to set our clocks back, but Mom didn't realize that it meant the next night, not the night we received the Capers! Ha! Well, we had an hour to kill, so we decided to go to the buffet and have some breakfast. It was here I encountered one of the friendliest employees on the ship—I cannot for the life of me remember his name, but he was a "Chef Trainee" working in the made-to-order omelet bar. He was from India, and his name started with a "B"…he was so pleasant and made great conversation with all of us waiting for our omelets that he was cooking. I'm sure that "B" will make a great Carnival chef, and I hope that he gets commended for his great service and attitude. I did write this on one of the comment cards, so I hope they are able to figure out who he is and recognize him accordingly. I had a delicious ham, cheese, and pepper omelet and half a toasted bagel. I could get used to this—I'm not much of a breakfast eater at home, but it's really because I'm too lazy to get up early enough to cook anything in the morning. If I had this kind of selection every day, I'd probably eat a lot more well-balanced meals!

After enjoying a leisurely breakfast, we went back to the cabin for a little while until it was time to head up to the spa. I mentioned before that I had a massage with Rose May, but I don't think I touched on the spa itself very much. The services and therapists were all great, but I have a couple of minor complaints about the facilities themselves. For one, just the décor and atmosphere up there did *not* lead to the feeling of luxurious relaxation, if you ask me. If you've ever been on a Princess Grand-class or a Holland America Vista-class ship and have visited their spas, you'll know what I'm talking about. On those types of ships, the décor and colors used are very calming and surreal. There are beautiful plants, and the treatment rooms all have floor-to-ceiling windows so you can see the ocean while you are getting pampered. While you wait for your therapist to meet you, they send you to the thermal suite or a posh waiting room. Spa Carnival on the Liberty was quite different from the cruise ship spa experience I was expecting. The décor was very dark and Vegas-y, with the neon-lighted signs above the doors (similar to the rest of the ship, which is fine, just not appropriate for a spa). While waiting for your therapist, you have to wait in the outer section of the locker room, where there are only a couple of bland couches, and your great "view" is of the bathroom stalls and the cleaning supply cart. The treatment rooms themselves are nice, but are "inside cabins" in that they have no windows or natural light at all. Also, I haven't looked on the deck plans, but whatever is directly above the spa treatment rooms is very loud early in the morning. During both of my treatments that week, someone was banging something on the floor above us, and it was quite distracting.

Oh, and a few notes about the fitness center - it is sort of confusing to get to, because you have to enter through the locker rooms (males and females enter separately), and signage is not that obvious. The equipment in the gym is great - it is pretty much the same stuff we have in the brand-new gym I go to at home, and the only thing missing were the top-of-the-line Precor elliptical trainers that I am used to, but the Lifestride ones they had were okay. The weight machines are also really nice, and it seemed like there were plenty of machines to go around. Of course, I was never there during the peak morning rush, but I went at varying other times of the day, and I never had to wait to use anything. There were only two tiny unfortunate things about the gym - one, the ceilings were very low and I got a closed-in feeling up there, and two, it seemed like every time I went to work out, they were having some sort of fitness or detox seminar there. They didn't close the gym during the seminars or anything, it was just kind of weird huffing and puffing and working out while there were 20 other people in the room who were supposed to be listening to the seminar, but you know were secretly looking at all the suckers working out.

Okay, back to my spa treatment. I waited in the "waiting room" for the therapist, when Sarah from Ireland came to get me. I had attended one of Sarah's facial seminars earlier in the week, and she is really sweet. She turned 21 on this day of the cruise, and her coworkers had decorated her treatment room in style! The seminar I had gone to earlier was advertised as "Facial and Beauty Bar - Free Makeovers for All Who Attend." Now I have been to enough of these to know that they are just sales pitches for the Elemis and La Therapie spa products, but I have never seen them advertised so blatantly wrong. Sarah gave a 20-minute speech (which was actually a bit informative) about our skin and why it is important to use certain types of products, etc. They picked one lady from the audience and performed a quick facial on her. Then, the "free makeovers" for everyone else was simply Sarah and her assistant passing around a tray of lip glosses for everyone to try. Then, they came around with a blusher brush full of Sunglow bronzer and lightly dusted everyone's hands and faces. I'm not really complaining, because I sort of expected it, and you can't complain about something free, but really? They can advertise that as a makeover? Ehh, anyway. I am getting sidetracked again…back to my spa treatment with Sarah again, for real this time.

Sarah escorted me to the treatment room, where she proceeded to give me a shortened version of her speech about skin she had given at the facial seminar. I didn't mind, and I didn't stop her because I'd already heard it. She really is nice, and she is good at her job. I just wish Steiner would revamp their spa practices a bit. She started out with the massage, which was heavenly, then she continued on to the facial. It felt soooo good after a week in the sun, and I actually fell asleep by the time she was finished. Sarah had asked me what kind of skin care products I was currently using, and I told her I use Lancome. She told me they were great products, and I shouldn't switch. She didn't even try to sell me a single thing from their skincare line after the treatment, which I really appreciated. I also appreciated her honesty that Lancome was a "good" product line to use—I am used to having aestheticians tell me that whatever line they are peddling is the only good one out there!

After my spa treatment, I didn't want to do much else besides relax, so I put on my swimsuit and headed out to the open decks to find the rest of my family and get some sun. Well, the seas were still churning like crazy, and the wind was still strong, so that meant that the top two open decks were closed yet again. This was probably the worst of all the days in trying to find a deck chair, so some of my family members and I just rotated out using the couple of chairs we had scavenged. Soon enough, it was time to eat again, so my mom, Tara, Granny, and I decided to check out the Silver Olympian's lunch menu again. The food was all delicious, and the service was outstanding, as usual. I just really enjoy the dining room experience for breakfast and lunch more than I do the buffet. Maybe it's the lack of hustle and bustle, or the opportunity to try unique menu items, but hey, whatever it is, it's working.

After digesting our lunch, Tara and I decided we would go to the gym to try and get in another workout. Well, the seas were still so crazy that neither one of us could last longer than 10 or 15 minutes on the treadmills or ellipticals. The two different motions, from the ship in the waves and the moving equipment, made us both really dizzy and nauseous, so we had to go back to the cabin. Blah! I am actually participating in a research study on wellness that requires me to work out at least 3 times a week for 30 minutes each time. I didn't quite make my goal that week, but I did at least make it to the gym 3 times. That's 3 more times than I have made it on any of my previous cruises…haha.

We headed back to our cabin and turned on the in-cabin movie, Becoming Jane. I had actually watched it in the plane on the way to Fort Lauderdale, but Tara wanted to see it, so we watched it again. It's not bad…you definitely have to be a Jane Austen fan to even understand part of it, I would say. Between watching the movie and napping, the next thing we knew, the afternoon was gone and it was time to get ready for our second formal night.

We all put on our best jeans and headed down to the dining room (just kidding…we actually did put on formal wear again). We didn't take any more professional pictures this time, which is probably for the best, because we all spent a fortune buying a lot of our dining room and formal portraits over the whole week. After dinner, we headed to the show in the theater, which was Christopher Alan Graves' "Singin' with the Big Band." Graves is a pretty good performer, but my mom and I both admitted that "big band" brings to mind Glenn Miller and Count Basie…not the tribute to Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. that he performed. Don't get me wrong, he's a great singer and has wonderful stage presence…it just wasn't what we thought it was going to be.

After the show, we decided to hit up the grand gala buffet at midnight. I have never, ever, not once been to a midnight buffet on any of my cruises, so I was kind of excited about checking it out. I did realize in advance, though, that the point of the gala buffets were not about the taste or quality of the food, but more about the food art and the elaborate displays. Go with that knowledge in mind, and you might just be pleasantly surprised. There was a long line about 10 minutes before it started, but it moved quickly once they opened it up for serving. There were some extremely strange food combinations, and I left everything on the "regular" food part of the buffet alone, except for the "Potatoes William," which turned out to be deep-fried mashed potato nuggets. Interesting…and kind of good. You couldn't have kept me away from the dessert table, though, no way…they had some AMAZING looking cakes and pastries and fruit. I settled on a slice of chocolate cake and a slice of white forest cake. Both were truly melt-in-your-mouth amazing, and the taste of the white forest cake, in particular, certainly matched or exceeded its elaborate display. While we were enjoying our midnight buffet goodies, we noticed Eton, our assistant waiter from the dining room clearing tables. He came over to say hi, and we had a little chat about his work schedule. I was shocked that he had to work so late at night after working two sittings in the regular dining room. He told us that he comes to work at 1:00 p.m. each day, and works until 2:30 or 3:00 a.m. I'm amazed—these people work so hard, day in and day out, yet they still keep a smile on their face. Heck, I complain if I have to stay even an hour late, and I love my job!

We called it a night after the buffet, even though I was tempted to stop by and do some more piano sing-along with Vince. I'm getting too old for this late-night party-owl stuff.

Saturday, March 22 - Our Last Day At Sea: Mom and I got up at a relatively early time, and went down to the Silver Olympian to enjoy one more sit-down dining room breakfast. This time I had the French toast (with the yummy chicken sausage on the side), and it was to die for! I immediately regretted not discovering that French toast earlier in the cruise!

Finally, we were back in calmer seas, which meant that the upper open decks were once again open. Some of our gang went up to our favorite spot on Deck 12 and were able to easily secure some chairs and a nice spot away from the crowds. I kept meaning to go out one more time to work on my tan, but it seems like I kept getting distracted the whole day! First, we had some last-minute souvenir shopping to do in the shops onboard, then we had to fill out our comment card/survey thingies, and before we knew it, it was time for lunch. :-)

Mom, Granny, and I hit up the Silver Olympian again and had bacon cheeseburgers for lunch. I knew that soon enough, I'd be back to sandwiches or Lean Cuisines for lunch every day, and I was going to relish every bit of these last "gourmet" meals!

After lunch, we did go out on deck for a little while and basically just wasted the afternoon away. I definitely did not want this cruise to be over!!

We went to our last dinner with Alexandra and Eton, and delivered their extra tips and Easter candy, which Alex very much appreciated—I think we learned that she is a definite chocoholic!! After dinner, we decided we had better get to packing. I gave myself an hour, and just barely made it. At 8:45, I was to meet Heidi down on the promenade so we could listen to Chris on the guitar for awhile and watch Tara and Cody play each other in chess. The rest of our gang ended up down there eventually, but they all left us again to go to the 10:30 show. Tara and I stayed behind because we were having too much fun just people-watching and enjoying the music. It was on this night (much too late in the cruise!) that I discovered the most awesome bartender in the Casino bar (right across from the promenade stage/lounge area). I don't recall her name, but she poured the BEST martinis (heavy on the vodka!) and she was super-nice. She was Eastern European and had chin-length dark hair, so if you guys run into her, definitely order a drink—she will hook you up! After a few too many martinis for me and a bit too much sugar for Tara (from her banana smoothies), we became Chris's biggest fans. In fact, we were pretty much the only people left down there, save for the few passers-by in the casino, so he handed us his music list, and we got to pick his music for about the last hour of his set. We really had a good time, and Chris was awesome. I just wish we had discovered all these great things much earlier in the trip!!

Anyway, we finally called it a night around midnight and headed back to our cabins. Our whole group opted to do the self-assist luggage/debarkation program for the next morning, and we were starting to wonder whether or not we had made a good choice.

Sunday, March 23 - Easter and Debarkation: I had never participated in the self-assist debarkation option before, and I wasn't exactly sure how it would work. The reason we chose to do this was because we had early car rental reservations and we wanted to be sure we could get off the ship, through customs, to the airport to pick up our cars, and in Dania Beach by 10:30 for our Easter brunch reservations.

It turns out we had nothing to fear, and I'd definitely do self-assist again, except maybe not with an elderly person or someone who needs a little extra time and assistance. When Steve Knisely made the self-debark call around 7:30 a.m., we first headed for the elevators. Admittedly, we did have quite a bit of luggage, but we could all manage it. The kids and I were loaded down like pack mules, and we REALLY wanted to get on an elevator. However, it wasn't meant to be, as every elevator that came up to the 10th floor was already full. So, most of us started the trek down the stairs (with ALL of our luggage) to Deck 0 to disembark. Mom stayed behind with Granny to catch an elevator, which they finally did. By the time we got to Deck 2 on the stairs, traffic was backed up. We spent maybe another 20 minutes slowly progressing our way down the last two flights of stairs and through the debarkation area. Once we were off the ship, we literally just breezed through Customs in the terminal…they barely even glanced at our paperwork or passports, and we were on our way.

Before I continue with the chronological-type review, I want to stop here and say a couple of things about the end of the cruise. First, we didn't notice *any* types of religious services for Easter. I didn't expect that they would have something the morning of debarkation, but we were sort of hoping for a church service the night before or even on Good Friday, but there were none. I guess it just depends on if they have any clergy members sailing that week, and if they come forth to volunteer their services. We were a little disappointed, because I think it is the first time in my entire life I haven't attended church on Easter. Also, I was really, really sad to say good-bye to the Liberty that morning. I had just enjoyed myself so much that I didn't want to leave, not at all! Usually by the time the end of a cruise rolls around, I'm finally ready to go and not too sad about it, but not this time…I guess that just goes to show how much more FUN we had this time!

Anyway, it was somewhat of a madhouse outside the cruise terminal, with everyone looking for buses, shuttles, taxis, and other forms of transportation. We split our group into two taxis and headed to the Fort Lauderdale airport's rental car facility. According to our "interesting" taxi driver, he was not supposed to drop us off curbside at the car rental facility, but instead at the airport terminal across the street. We were supposed to either walk across on the sky bridge or take the rental car shuttle over. Well, we asked him if he could just try to drop us off (since we had Granny, who by this point in the trip, was a little beyond walking a long distance), and fortunately for us, he was willing to fuss with the security guards and he let us off curbside.

We had a pre-paid car rental through National that I had reserved through Priceline about a month prior. I don't know if it's because it was Easter or what, but the car rental rates were absolutely astronomical that weekend. I even have some pretty good corporate discount codes to use for car rentals, but even those weren't coming through. A compact car was running $140-$150/day that weekend, which was just insane. So, I tried my luck with Priceline and got a full-size through National for $65, tax and fees included. Although still quite high, it was at least do-able. When I checked in at National's self-service kiosk, they gave me the option to upgrade to an SUV for an additional $10. I figured oh, what the heck…we probably need the space, so I went ahead with the upsell. The one thing I really like about National (and I think Alamo is the same way) is that you get to pick your own vehicle from whatever ones are there on the lot. I ended up choosing a Toyota Highlander, but could have chosen from about 8 different SUVs on their lot that day.

The rest of our gang (minus Heidi, since she had an early flight and was already on her way back to Houston) rented a gigantic Ford Excursion through Royal. Although the price was really low for that day and the vehicle was brand-new and really nice, it seriously took almost an hour for them to get checked in and to get their vehicle. Once we both had our cars, we headed the few miles away to Dania Beach in search of our restaurant for brunch, Beach Watch.

I had researched Easter brunch options in Fort Lauderdale quite extensively, and we debated back and forth for quite awhile on which place to go with. Our first choice was the Renaissance Hotel in Plantation, but we ended up nixing that because it was highly likely we would be under-dressed for the occasion there. Next up was Trina Restaurant at the Atlantic Hotel, but I talked myself out of that because they only had breakfast food on the buffet, no lunch/brunch/dessert options. We ended up at Beach Watch (www.beach-watch.com) despite the "warnings" from some Fort Lauderdale locals over on the CruiseCritic Florida departures board. I decided to take a go at it based on location and menu, and it turned out to be a good move.

Beach Watch is located on the pier at Dania Beach, and is somewhat new. Their all-you-can-eat brunch (with mimosas included) was $22/pp, and was more than worth it. They had the BEST pancakes I have ever eaten, but they also had a ton of other things, like made-to-order omelets, carving board meats, all sorts of eggs, French toast, breakfast meats, etc., plus several lunch or dinner-type meat dishes. There was also a huge salad bar and dessert area. Everything was just delicious, and it was a great "last meal" for us all to share together before our vacation was officially over. After we ate, we went outside to watch the surfers and the pelicans for awhile, and watched a rainstorm move in just south of us. Little did we know that those rain clouds would bode bad news for us later…

Anyway, by the time we finished our brunch, we decided we might as well just go ahead and return the rentals and check in for our flights. I dropped Mom and Granny off curbside with their bags at American Airlines, with plans to meet up with them in the terminal after I had returned the car and checked in for my own flights with US Airways.

I returned the car and checked in for my flights with no hassle. In fact, the US Airways employee who checked me in was quite possibly the friendliest, most helpful airline agent I have ever dealt with! My US Airways flight was supposed to leave out of Concourse F, but I headed over to security to get in Concourse E so I could wait awhile with Mom and Granny before our flights. We had over 2 hours to wait at that point. When I got up to the TSA agent, she looked at my boarding pass and wouldn't let me in. She said I *had* to go through Concourse F since that's where my flight left from. I tried to explain to her that my mother and grandmother were waiting in there, and we both had later flights and wanted to wait together, but she wasn't having it. I was so upset—I didn't get a chance to tell Mom or Granny good-bye and give them a hug, and here was this stupid TSA lady who wouldn't let me on their concourse. I really have to complain about Fort Lauderdale's airport set-up here. Who ever heard of not being able to go between concourses in an airport once you were past security?? Even at a huge airport like DFW or Chicago O'Hare, you can go wherever you want once you have cleared security. Grrrr….anyway, I had to go wait by myself in the US Airways concourse and fume about the stupid regulations.

We boarded my flight to Charlotte on time, and I had high hopes for making my tight connection there. We even pushed back on time, and started to taxi out to the runway, when the captain came on to let us know we were just going to park the aircraft for about 30-45 minutes because of bad weather. Well, there goes my connection. I only had about 45 minutes to make it in the first place (not my choice—United cancelled my original flights), so there it went. Well, that original 45 minute wait turned into another 45 minute wait, because by the time the storm blew through, we were number 25 for takeoff. Everywhere we could see, there was a never-ending line of planes waiting to depart. I guess I should just be thankful that we weren't trying to get TO a cruise that day…the captain told us that they had diverted all incoming traffic to other airports to try to get the backlogged departures in the air.

We did finally take off from FLL at an opportune time…we flew right over the Liberty as she was making her way out to sea again. I said a silent "good-bye" to all of my new friends on the ship, and watched the sailaway for as long as I could from the air. We finally landed in Charlotte, 2 hours later than scheduled, and my fellow passengers decided that they were all more important than the next person and started a free-for-all trying to debark the plane and grab overhead carry-ons before we had even arrived at the gate. For goodness sakes', people!! Anyway, the flight attendants announced that if anyone had missed their connection, they had already printed new boarding passes for us and we could just pick them up at the top of the ramp. Well, I was one of the lucky ones who didn't get a pass automatically printed because the last leg of my flight was on United, so they sent me down to the US Airways customer service center.

I waited in line for awhile (but not nearly as long as all the people behind me, bless their hearts), and finally got "assisted" by an agent named Jon. Jon had already explained to the gentlemen in front of me that US Airways would not be paying for any hotels or meal vouchers because the delay was weather-related and was not the airline's fault. Although I can kind of understand this, I would also see it as a customer service—-if you can't get your passenger home that night, then you put them up in a hotel—-but apparently they don't see things my way.

Jon was clearly frustrated by the time he got to me, and I'm pretty sure I didn't help his day any. There was no way they could get me back to Fargo that night, but even worse, Jon didn't know how to get into United's system so that he could get me booked on a flight for the next morning. Everything was starting to unravel, when I finally had to "solve" things myself, because he wasn't getting anywhere. I convinced him to at least get me to Chicago that night on US Airways, and then I would get on the phone with United and get rebooked for the next morning. Although he should have been able to help me right there and given me new boarding passes, he wasn't able to, but my solution ended up working out as best as it could have.

I ran down to another concourse and barely made it in time for the last flight to Chicago that night. When I got in, my only option was a super-expensive night in a hotel, or to pay for a $34 roundtrip bus ticket out to Rockford to stay with my husband's parents. The latter was what I opted for, and I have to admit that a shower and a comfy bed sure felt good, even though I was only there for about 5 hours tops before I had to turn around and head back to O'Hare. The only bad thing was that a.) I didn't have any of my luggage except a carry-on, and none of my clean clothes or toiletries were in that carry-on; and b) I still didn't have a confirmed seat on a flight out the next morning.

Even though I had been on the phone off-and-on late that night with United trying to get things straightened out, they still weren't looking too good. So, I just headed back to O'Hare the next morning in time to make the first flight to Fargo in case I got lucky. Fortunately I did get lucky, but the funny thing was that when the agent checked me in, she asked me if I knew why there were FOUR reservations in my name for that day—-ha! What a mess things had become!! Fortunately I did make it onto that earliest flight back home to Fargo, and lo and behold, even my checked bags made it onto that flight with me! I was so shocked, but happy to see them coming around the carousel!

I finally made it home to Grand Forks around noon on Monday (only 12 hours later than planned—haha), and crashed. I was completely exhausted, and I'm just now starting to recover.

Final Thoughts: My final thoughts on the cruise—it was awesome. My mom and I both remarked more than once during the week that we were having just such a BETTER time than we had on any of our previous cruises, even though all of our previous cruises were still good. I admit that before I sailed on Carnival, I was skeptical. I had heard all of the "Wal-Mart" cruise line rumors and half expected to be disappointed, but I was more than pleasantly surprised. I just felt like I really fit in and had a good time. I participated in the nightlife and got to know some of the peopel onboard. We just had a great time overall, and I can't wait to do it again.

Here's the link to all of my pictures from the trip: http://picasaweb.google.com/mrskennedynd

Thanks for reading, and if you have any questions, I'll be glad to answer them! Less

Published 04/10/08

Cabin review: 8E1051 Balcony

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