I booked this 8-day Carnival Journeys cruise a month before departure! That is not my usual way of planning, but Cuba was so intriguing and the price for a basic cabin for my husband and me so reasonable, I convinced him to go even though we had last cruised in April. We have cruised Carnival on many different ships and enjoyed them all in varying degrees, but the smaller, older Paradise shined, mainly because of the service by the crew and the itinerary. Both were exceptional.
We flew from Charlotte to Tampa the day before the cruise. We spent the night at the Marriott Waterside on the vibrant Tampa Riverwalk and enjoyed the water taxi tour, strolling the riverwalk, and having dinner at Four Green Fields. After a buffet breakfast at the hotel the next day, we caught a shuttle for the short ride to the pier. Embarkation was quick and easy. We do have priority boarding as a loyalty perk, but this was the fastest we have ever boarded a ship. This was our first cruise from Tampa and every person in the check-in process had a smile for us.
Once onboard, we explored the ship and met some new friends until cabins were ready. I had chosen R42, one of the few cabins available to choose due to our late booking. I knew it would be an inside cabin on the bottom deck forward. It was small but there was adequate hanging storage and a shelving unit to augment the drawer space. It had been freshly updated during dry dock. It had a large, flat screen tv and a refrigerator. The only part that felt too small was the bathroom and its limited storage. I was glad to have a hanging toiletry bag that helped with storage. The cabin proved to be a good choice as it was quiet, well-serviced by our steward Wayan, convenient to the Your Time dining room, and convenient to the debarkation area for two of the ports, including Cuba. Seas were calm and we felt little movement the entire cruise.
The ship was easy to navigate and seemed in good working order except for some occasional elevator issues. The carpeting looked new and the decorating as cheerful and colorful as most Carnival ships. The Pixels Gallery had been upgraded to choose photo choices on provided tablets rather than searching rows and rows of printed photos. The Normandie Lounge had good seating and good viewing of the stage, especially on the lower level. The smaller lounge, Queen Mary Lounge, had good seating and adequate space for the comedians and guest lecturers. There was only one pool, so seating around it was crowded, but there were plenty of deck chairs on multiple decks. The Serenity area was small and had two hot tubs but no pool.
We decided to try Your Time Dining one more time, even though, in our opinion, the service in that dining option had declined on four previous CCL cruises. The service on Paradise was much better. We only had to wait with a pager one time the entire cruise, and that was about 5 minutes on the first elegant night. We were always seated at a requested table for two. We had a variety of wait staff in the Elation dining room and all were attentive, accurate with our orders, smiling, and eager to please. The food was good and the choices varied. We especially enjoyed the elegant night lobster tail and shrimp, and the Beef Wellington. We ate dinner in the main dining room every evening, and ate breakfast and lunch on Lido off the buffet on days we were on the ship, except for Sea Day Brunch. We ordered Reuben sandwiches from room service one time when we returned from an excursion mid afternoon and had not eaten lunch. The order arrived in less than 15 minutes.
We only saw one show in the main lounge, Amor Cubano, an outstanding performance that heightened the anticipation of our Havana port days. We also enjoyed the music of the Latin Connection in the Leonardo Lounge and the Aquaholics in the promenade across from the United States Bar. We saw comedians Seth Buchwald and Lowell Sanders and listened to karaoke one evening. We did not play in the casino or use the spa. We found Cruise Director Erin to be vivacious and personable when hosting the Motown Music Trivia Party.
We enjoyed every port but Havana was unique and our favorite. We had been to Cozumel before, but Grand Cayman and Havana were new for us. In Cozumel we took a small group Carnival catamaran snorkel excursion with lunch and drinks. We enjoyed it as the sailboat was beautiful, the people friendly, and the lunch good. There were two Carnival ships in port and we were surprised to meet people from both ships on the excursion. That was a first for us. The fish and coral were not as plentiful or colorful as other places we have snorkeled, but I did get some pictures and even photographed scuba divers below me during the snorkel, which was also a first!
In Grand Cayman we also took a small group boat excursion through Captain Marvin’s. We had originally booked and paid online through Shore Excursion’s Group and were scheduled to go with Captain Bryan, but once onshore, the representative walked us to Captain Marvin’s office because of a boat problem and took care of the expenses. We traveled by van to the boat with two families staying on the island. Only six adults, including us, four children, and three crew members were on this tour. Captain Marvin’s crew was exceptional and wonderful with the children. We snorkeled on the Barrier Reef, visited Stingray City Sandbar, where we stood in three feet of water to interact with the huge stingrays, and also stopped at Starfish Point. It was an excellent tour, and we enjoyed the varied stops in lieu of drinks and lunch. One thing we did notice in both Cozumel and Grand Cayman was the current was much stronger than in other places we have snorkeled.
The overnight in Havana was the highlight of the cruise. The ship docked right in the city near the Old Town. Through the advice of cruise friends who had already experienced Cuba, we booked small private tours with local companies not affiliated with the Cuban government and which met US requirements. We used Cubaoutings for our first day and toured Havana. The second day we used Cuba Among Cubans to travel to Vinales. Both were excellent and private at reasonable costs.
We started the first day with a long wait and snappy Cuban officials getting our visas processed and money exchanged at the port. It was the only place we encountered unfriendly Cubans! The young women in their super short uniforms and fishnet stockings did not look like government officials, but we never saw a smile or greeting! Carnival had no control over this process, so we waited patiently for clearance. Meanwhile, Mary, of Cubaoutings, also waited patiently for us to arrive at the meeting point in the square across the street. We were so relieved she was still there! She assured us it happenened frequently. We quickly walked a couple of blocks to a vintage green Plymouth convertible, where our driver was waiting. We drove through the city to Fusterlandia, where we enjoyed the tile work folk art. Mary explained points of interest and talked about Cuban life. We lunched in a local restaurant then walked the walking portion of the tour—the four main squares and the hotel that Hemingway frequented. We enjoyed the street musicians and the many sculptures and monuments. The architecture of Old Havana was lovely and the Spanish influence evident. The beautiful cathedral was a favorite stop. We took battery-powered necklace fans to be prepared for the heat and humidity and were glad to have them! The five hours on the tour was a good length considering the heat. After dinner onboard the Paradise, we walked on the Malecon and enjoyed the port area at night when it was much cooler.
The second day was much easier to get through security. Adrian, our Cuba Among Cubans guide, also met us in the square across the street, and also directed us a few blocks to meet our car. We walked a slightly different route, so we saw more of the city. Our driver was waiting in a beautifully restored, air conditioned 1954 Plymouth hardtop for our two-and-a-half hour drive to Vinales Valley. Adrian made the drive memorable with his commentary on Cuban history and Cuban life today. The countryside was lovely and we enjoyed seeing the vintage cars, horses and carts, and oxen. My husband even got to ride a bull (broken to ride) at one stop! The Cuban farmers we met at the tobacco farm explained and demonstrated the process of making cigars and offered visitors a sample. Part was in English and part in Spanish, but Adrian translated well and even took videos and pictures on his phone of the cigar-making process that he emailed us along with several other videos and other still photos from our day. This was a first from a tour guide! We enjoyed a delicious lunch in a farmstead restaurant and were invited by the owner to come into her home to see where she lived. We also saw a beautiful mural on the side of a mountain depicting the evolution of the Cuban people. The tour lasted from 8 am until 6:30 pm when we were dropped off at the port. We felt we had spent our time in the best possible way.
Debarkation was smooth and the porter helpful. He led us across the street to secure a shuttle for transfer to the airport. Our cruise aboard the Carnival Paradise was well beyond our expectations! That is why this is my first review since we began cruising in 2001! The only reason we may not cruise to Cuba again is because there are so many beautiful places to cruise in this world. Our plan is to see as much as we can for as long as we can!