May 14, 2005
Port of Mobile and Departure
We got into Mobile about 10:30 am Saturday. Coming off the 165 ramp into downtown (Water Street exit) we could see the ship at the pier. We easily found our way to the entrance of the parking area where a cop was already stationed. There was no traffic and the stragglers from the previous cruise were still saying their goodbyes and heading home. The officer told us that they wouldn't start loading new passengers until about noon. Later we found out that the previous cruise had docked about 2 hours late due to fog.
We wanted to freshen up after our long drive from Minnesota anyway, so we drove over to The Radisson Admiral Semmes Hotel. It is about 5 blocks from the pier and thanks to the CruiseCritic board, we knew that you can park at the hotel ramp for $5 a day as opposed to $10 a day at the pier. The hotel also runs a free shuttle to the pier and back. The plan was to get cleaned up, drop the family and the luggage (and my wife's 3-wheeled scooter) at the pier, park at the ramp, and take the shuttle back to the pier.
I walked into the lobby and met Eric at the front desk. I asked him if there was a good place nearby that we could freshen up he suggested that we use the lobby bathrooms, which were immaculate and spacious. He said that he would have let us use one of the meeting rooms but they were all booked. We changed clothes, did some repacking, met a co-cruiser from the CC board in the lobby, and headed over to the pier about noon.
The traffic was atrocious. There were 2 lanes of traffic going in our direction (from the north) that were routed past the entrance and then merged into one lane which made a u-turn back into two lanes of traffic coming from the south. People then attempted to merge into one lane again to make the right turn into the ramp area. I have no idea if this is normal or was due to the delay, but it was bad. We did some creative driving and were able to get into the ramp, where we contributed to the back up for those behind us. We had to unload the scooter and the luggage and check tags and take care of the porter and figure out where to meet before I could get out of the way.
I easily got back to the hotel, parked the van in the ramp (even though our car-top carrier scraped the ceiling), and found Eric waiting in the hotel lobby. I had missed the scheduled shuttle but he told me about the fog delay and that there was no need to hurry. Everything was delayed. We headed back to the pier, but as soon as we hit traffic, I jumped out and he turned around. Walking was much faster.
I found my family, and the airport shuttle had just dropped my sister and our friends who flew in from Minnesota so our party of 8 was all together as we entered the terminal about 1:15. It looked good until we got upstairs. There was a long line that led to the security scanners. This led to another long line for check in. Even though we had everything ready, it took quite a while to get checked in. Then we flew through the line for the pictures for our sail and sign cards. People were very nice and generally good-natured, but it seemed like the whole thing could have been done much more efficiently. The whole process took about 2 hours. Again, I don't know how much of this was caused by the delay and as first time cruisers, we didn't know what to expect, so we just made the best of it. We actually got on the ship about 3:15.
We had originally planned to meet our CC group at 2:00 for drinks and then take the ship's tour at 2:30. Because of the late boarding, we missed both and the tour was not offered again. We did meet some fellow CCers later on but it was only due to the fact that we all agreed to wear pink for boarding.
Muster drill was at 4:00 so we pretty much had to get ready for that as soon as we boarded. It was long. After we sat around the American Lounge for about a half hour waiting for everyone to arrive, we got a quick talk and then headed up to the deck where we seemed to just stand around in neat rows in our orange lifejackets for another half hour not doing anything. It would have been nice to get a little info about the ship or something while we waited, but our guide just seemed to disappear for 10 minutes at a time and then come back and tell us to keep quiet and stay in line.
Sail-away was a non-event, as we waved at a couple of bicyclists from muster drill, probably violating some maritime ordinance. We must have been quite a sight.
1) There is parking under the freeway overpass across the street from the parking ramp. When we were leaving I asked someone who had parked there and they said it was free. It seemed relatively safe and I would verify the legality before I left my car there for 5 days, but if that is an option, I'd use it rather than the pier ramp or the hotel ramp. (Did I mention that I'm cheap?)
2) Be ready at the drop off. Have everything ready to go and make sure (like they say) to have all your luggage secured and tagged. Tip the porters.
3) Be ready at security and at check in. Have your sail and sing voucher filled out with credit card info and have your ID ready. We did this one well but there were lots of folks filling out forms at the counter.
First Impression - The ship shows her age but wears it well. There were some areas that could stand a little spit and polish, but generally, it was very clean and well maintained. We were not greeted with glasses of champagne as we boarded, but everyone was smiling and charming. The décor in the public areas is a little dated, but it could be considered "retro." My wife's scooter barely fit into the elevators, but it did fit and I was able to squeeze in beside it. Our checked luggage was waiting for us in the hall by the time we got to our cabin.
Cabin - We had an inside cabin on the forward Empress deck and even though there were 5 of us, it was of sufficient size and felt cozy rather than claustrophobic. The bathroom was adequate and when it was time to get ready for dinner, my son and I got ready in the health club bathroom up on the Veranda deck (another great CC tip) leaving our cabin bathroom for the girls. Mind your packing list and don't forget your power strip, extension cords, and alarm clock. There is only one 110 outlet in the cabin. Bringing an over the door vinyl shoe holder was another great CC idea as we used it to store all the bathroom supplies. Carnival told us that my wife's scooter would fit through our cabin door but it did not. There wouldn't have been room for it inside anyway. We parked it in the hall and folks were still able to get by.
Even though we were far forward and relatively high up, we did not experience any uncomfortable movement of the ship. The first night out it seemed like we were trying to make up for lost time, and we rocked a bit, but it was not severe. We did notice the vibration of the engines at different locations around the boat, and it seemed to vary in intensity at different times, but I have no idea if this is normal or what to compare it to.
The beds were great. We all slept wonderfully the whole trip. Our steward, Svetlana, was fantastic. She kept our cooler full of ice and somehow managed to tidy up our mess once or twice a day. Towels were always clean and plentiful (lots of cute towel animals) and she gave us a tons of info about activities and ports. Much to my dismay, my kids also made great use of the in-room movies and cartoons on TV.
Food - We had the late seating in the Seven Seas dining room. Generally, the food was good but not great. The notable exception was the Filet Mignon, which came as ordered (rare) and was perfect. The Chateaubriand was tough and the Béarnaise Sauce was basically non-existent. The Lobster Tail was rubbery and overcooked. The lobster in the Seafood Newberg was much better but there was very little of it. I missed the Beef Wellington as my wife was too tired for dinner one night. The option in the Wharf Grill that evening was some strange eggplant/vegetable concoction over white rice with deep fried shrimp. I tried it, but ended up with pizza, which was very good.
Salads in the dining room were basically bowls of lettuce and the appetizers were only fair. The salad bar on the Lido deck rendered far superior results. Contrary to some posts here, requesting shrimp cocktail or escargot on nights that it was not on the menu got us only polite apologies. The shrimp was very good when we got it, but the escargot was disappointing. The DESSERTS on the other hand were lovely. Order several. They are small. We brought our own wine (in 1.5 liter bottles to minimize the $10/bottle corkage fee) which was not so much for selection as for value. It was well worth the effort. If you or your kids have pop cards make sure you show them to the beverage person or you will be charged for pop.
The dining room staff was excellent. Our waiter was Josalito and the assistant was Henry. They were both friendly and professional and seemed to actually enjoy the requisite singing and dancing. Of course, this may only demonstrate that they have learned to cow-tow to their Anglo masters, but they were convincing none the less. Our waiter was from the Philippines and has a wife and kids there although he spends 9 months at a time on board ship between 3 week vacations. All for our cruising pleasure.
We ate breakfast in the Wharf Grill (Lido deck) and it was all very good. I had an omelet every morning and my wife thought the scrambled eggs were great. I've heard that if you eat anything other than fried eggs they are powdered, but it didn't make any difference as far as I could tell. Naturally, there was plenty of bacon and sausage and hash browns and pancakes and whatever else you could want. Orange got replaced by "fruit punch" about 11 am but there was always apple juice available. Bring your own insulated mug if you want more than a small cup of coffee.
The various buffets during the day were also varied and tasty. The kids made good use of the 24 hour pizzeria and seemed very happy with it. The only really "bad" food I had was at the late night "gala" buffet where I tried a variety of sushi. It was uniformly awful and although it looked different, all tasted the same. I felt a little nauseous the next morning.
Room service was horrid. We tried to use it twice and it took over an hour and a half each time and they messed up both orders. On the other hand, how indolent do you have to be to lie around your cabin waiting for food to be delivered to you instead of walking down the hall and taking the elevator up 3 decks?
Activities on Board - As far as the activities went, I noticed them going on but didn't participate in many of them. There seemed to be quite a few folks screaming and laughing during the men's hairy chest competition and when I walked past the main pool area it seemed like there was often something happening.
We went to the newlywed/not so newlywed game, which was fun, and my daughter and I had a good time at the towel folding class ("c'mon 'becca"). We checked out the art auctions and my wife purchased a print. She also enjoyed the free champagne. The whole concept was rather odd to me as I don't know why anyone would "bid" against another person when multiple copies of the same work are available. I did see some nice pieces, but I couldn't afford anything I really liked. There is a 15% upcharge from the bidding price and a $35 delivery fee which they will waive if you let them mount your purchase in an ugly frame using Plexiglas for $170.
I went to three "shows." The only one I would recommend was the last night gala, which was called "Shout." It was really good considering the venue. It was an homage to different eras of American music and included a great variety of styles with good singing, dancing, and staging. The comics were OK but not great. Each of them seemed to really push their late night "adult shows" at the earlier shows and seemed to be apologizing for not being funnier due to the "family" crowd. The one late night show I did see was more crude, but not any more humorous. The foot juggler was talented (I guess) but the talent was only interesting for about 5 minutes.
Out on deck, the rubber facing was peeled off of most of the ping-pong paddles and there were many bent or broken shuffleboard poles in the cabinets that should be thrown away, but my son and I were able to have fun playing both games. There were plenty of available deck chairs all day long and nobody seemed to care whether anyone saved seats or not. The weather was perfect for the whole cruise and the Pina Coladas were indeed excellent. They had a special on Bloody Mary's one day and they were tasty, but I had to walk all the way to the casino bar to get the discount. It was brutal!
The young kids seemed to be having a great time with many activities. There was a core group of about 15 - 20 kids between the ages of 7 and 12 who always seemed to be together. My teenagers were pretty much alone and were happy to hang out together for a change. There were a few kids in the right age range for them, but none of them seemed to actually connect with each other. Maybe they were all too busy being cool to get to know one another.
The young adults also seemed to be having a whale of a time. They consumed mass quantities of alcohol during the day and went to the disco at night where they ground their crotches against one another in a rough approximation of dancing. The most consistently polluted and obnoxious drunk on board managed to win the raffle for a free cruise.
It would be nice if the kids could get pop somewhere other than the bars.
Ports of Call
Costa Maya - My family appears unable to do anything on a schedule so even though we docked about noon, we didn't get off the boat until almost 2:00. My wife's scooter JUST fit the gang plank although she could not ride it up the incline. She walked onto the pier and two of us managed to drive and push the scooter up the ramp. There is a shuttle that relays passengers the ½ mile or so to the Costa Maya complex but my wife scooted and I walked while the rest of our party rode.
Our group split up with 6 of us going to what used to be the fishing village of Majahual and 2 of us staying at the Cost Maya pier complex. The bus into the village couldn't take my wife's scooter so while 3 of us took the bus ($3 a head), 3 of us rented a golf cart. It cost $30 for the day (negotiated) which actually consisted of about 4 hours. We left the scooter at the rental booth. When we came back nobody was there. The scooter was fine and the booth was open, so we just opened the drawer where they kept the license we left for a deposit, dropped off the golf cart key, and left.
The village is 2 miles from the pier and it would have been nearly impossible to get lost. All along the way we passed construction sites of what will soon be the hotels, restaurants, bars, shops, and whatever else will make up the intended next big thing on the Mexican Rivera. As soon as we got to the town, we were assailed by the vendors. They were not obnoxious; simply ubiquitous. These folks were not all locals. A Canadian lady suggested knowingly that we return to her restaurant when we were ready to eat, "so you don't get sick." Since we were the only ship in port and there were only a few cruisers that came to the village, I can't really blame them. We were the only game in town. Once we politely told them all no, they went back to enjoying the perfect afternoon.
We brought school supplies so our first task was finding the schools. This was not hard as we had good info from the CC veterans and direction from some local children, who were the only people on our entire trip for whom I actually attempted to speak Spanish. I thought my, "Donde esta la escuella?" was flawless but they only looked at me quizzically until I asked them in English.
The pre-school/kindergarden and primary/middle school are both inside a fenced yard at the end of the main beach road and the high school is one block off beach road one block back toward town. School was not in session so we simply left our supplies in an unlocked storage area at the middle school and in an open classroom at the high school. The buildings might hold 2 classrooms each and the pre-school/kindergarden was new construction. The high school also looked freshly painted. The money the tourists bring in appears to be helping the area. We also found one small Catholic church on the same road as the high school with a bell on a tall pole and a wooden cross out front. Again, nobody was around.
We then headed back to the beach and found a spot in the sun. It turned out to be the much touted Tapas bar and it was indeed sublime. We had a wonderful waiter, Emir, who brought us plentiful and well-priced food and drink. Two little girls approached us to buy hand made bracelets for $3 a piece (we bought 2 for $5) and we did meet the guy with the giant iguana that charges you if you want to take pictures of it. I gave him a hard time about not negotiating price before taking pictures, as he got $4 from my daughter for the first picture. It was good natured and amiable and we got the next picture for $2.
My wife got her hair braided ($25 for her whole head with beads - her hair is about to the middle of her back) and the rest of the group got massages ($15 for 30 minutes). I sat on the beach grazing and drinking beer and was just about into the correct state of mind when Emir asked us what time our ship sailed. Sure enough, it was already time to leave and we had to scramble to get to the ship by the appointed hour. Just so you know, you need your ID to get back into the Cost Maya complex once you leave.
My daughter and I took a cab back to the pier and the others took the cart. We got there first and I immediately headed for the ship to let them know we were on the way. I walked all the way out the pier before I realized that I had the key to my wife's scooter in my pocket. I started to run back and met my son running out to get me. He relayed the key back to my daughter who gave it to my wife. This was when my son informed me that security almost didn't let them back into the Costa Maya complex because none of them had their IDs. I was holding them all. It was quite an adventure but our steward later informed us that the ship will wait a couple of hours for stragglers anyway.
Cozumel - We got to Cozumel at 8 am and we were surprisingly off the boat by 8:15 (thanks honey). The Inspiration was docked beside us at the pier. Once again, the end of the pier was a labyrinth of tourist shops. We got directions to the taxi stand and were able to get a taxi van to Chankanaab Park right away. It was $20 one way (about a 10 minute ride) and easily held my wife's scooter and our party of 8. Taxis that hold a max of 4 passengers cost $10.
We had purchased Package 3 from Dolphin Discovery via the internet so our itinerary was pretty much set. We paid $136 each for park admission, sea-lion show, sea-lion swim, and the Dolphin Swim Adventure, which is the middle dolphin program, between the 20 minute Dolphin Encounter you can get through the cruise ships, and the 40 minute Dolphin Royal Swim.
We were on the "list" at the entrance and were given our maps and wrist bands for the park immediately. We were there early so we had the park mostly to ourselves for a couple of hours. We checked in to the Dolphin area and they were ready for us. It would have been nice if we could have filled out the forms before we arrived, but it didn't take that long. Once we had all the wristbands for the various shows we had about an hour to wander around the park before the show.
The park was immaculate and looked very new. There was new construction going on in one area of the Botanical Gardens so we couldn't go through all of it, but it was beautiful. We got to the beach area but didn't really investigate it due to the scooter. We also went through the Archeological Park which featured many artifacts that appeared to be authentic. I enjoyed it much more than the kids of course. My wife was temporarily misplaced in the maze of paths but everyone was reunited just in time for the sea lion show.
This was pretty typical fare, almost identical to the "Sparky the Seal" show at our local zoo as far as the animal's role, although part of the show in Coz specifically showed off the differences between the two species. Anyhow, my wife was chosen to receive the kiss from Bingo the sea lion, so she was happy before we ever got into the water.
Once the show was over, we got ready for the sea lion swim. We got into life jackets and took turns holding a sloth while park employees took pictures of us (I can't believe they sell many of these). We also met Alphonso, who was a DD employee that helped my wife into and out of the water and stayed with her throughout the sea lion and dolphin swims. He was incredibly kind and patient and easily earned his generous tip.
We got a short intro and then got in the water. We petted Nena the sea lion as she swam by us and help up our arms for her to jump over. We held her in our arms and she kissed us (all carefully photographed and videotaped of course). It really was pretty cool. When we got out, we were immediately taken to watch the video of the event. DVDs were available for $29.
Then we got ready for the dolphin swim. We got lifejackets again with masks and snorkels this time (no flippers) and made our way down to the dolphin area. We spent about half the time on the platform while Triton the dolphin took turns letting us pet him, giving us kisses, and shaking flippers with us. Then we swam out from the platform and Triton came and got us and pulled us back in while we held his flippers and rode on his belly. It was amazing. Then we all swam out and floated in a circle while Triton came around and visited us and did different behaviors for us according to the hand signals that the guide had taught us.
Triton took a special liking to my wife and she got to hog most of his attention during the swim time but the rest of us thought that this was as it should be as it was her desire to go swimming with dolphins for her 50th birthday that was the entire genesis of the trip. This was without a doubt the highlight of the entire cruise. It was a remarkable experience. If I were to go again, I would pay the extra for the Royal Swim, just to get more time in the water with those incredible creatures. Naturally, when we got out of the water we were led back to the viewing area to watch the video of "The Adventure of a Lifetime." DVDs were available for $35.
This was my only real complaint about the place. They had to make us view the DVDs before we could buy them. They should have just asked us flat out if we wanted to buy them first. We knew we were going to buy them before we ever saw them. Between viewing both DVDs, and then going to the gift shop to buy them and view the 40 or so pictures they took of us during the day - available at $20 each (discounts for quantity), and then going to the cashier to pay the bill, and then going back to the gift shop to pick up our merchandise, we spent an hour and a half dinking around. This irked me because it meant that we did not have time left to snorkle, which was the one activity that the two husbands really wanted to do. Ah well, next time for sure.
The trip back from the park was as easy as the trip there. The driver on the way back wanted $2 more than the guy who brought us, but we just took it out of his tip. We spent the last hour before boarding at the pier, browsing the shops and people watching.
Debarkation and Final Thoughts
Getting off the boat was a breeze as we were in no hurry. We took pictures and passed out tips to the crew members that had been especially helpful, except the security guard who looked like a young Omar Sharif. His name was something close to Navajhai (maybe). He had helped us several times and let us into our cabin when my daughter double locked the door from the inside and couldn't be woken. He let us take his picture but refused the tip, even after multiple attempts. We did give him high marks on the comment card however.
Even though my wife's scooter got us bumped to the front of the line to get off the ship, we were among the last to leave the port. I walked almost all the way back the parking ramp before I realized that I had left the keys in my luggage, so I walked back to the pier and then back to the hotel again. The lady at the ramp didn't make us pay for parking, which was sweet, and after we packed the luggage and loaded the scooter and all, we stopped to gas up and take a final potty break on the way out of town. We left Mobile about 11:30 am.
Seriously, I never really got into that total R and R mentality I associate with vacation. I had to play (chose to play) cruise director for our group. It also seemed like the whole cruise experience, from the shows to the ports, was kind of typical American indulgence. Everything was a little too sanitized and a little too white bread for me. It seemed like the buffet kind of exemplified the experience. There was a ton of food and none of it was really bad, but then again, none of it was really exceptionally good either. I will say this even though I am cheap: tip your staff and all the folks you encounter in ports well. Redistribution of your wealth may be the only good excuse for cruising when it comes right down to it.