by Charles Seyffer
March 28, 2004
The first thing I should point out first that my wife and I prefer white table cloths to McDonalds, bottled wine to bottled beer, and service consistent with our willingness to pay a premium.
Carnival may not be the best choice for our tastes, but it may fit your needs. We have cruised four times, once 20 years ago on Carnival, twice in the last 14 months on Norwegian, and most recently on the Carnival Legend, a southern Caribbean itinerary that included St Marten, Martinique and Barbados. I choose the Legend based upon the itinerary and the availability of a balcony cabin. The cruise price per person was very reasonable, ($699 per person on Carnival for an 8-day cruise, same on Norwegian for 7-day cruise, but a suite).
I only booked the cruise about 3 weeks in advance and the paperwork arrived promptly. I recommend that you handle the informational requirements online as soon as you receive your paperwork as it speeds up the boarding process.
We live in upstate New York, so we flew to Fort Lauderdale a couple of days in advance of the sailing to enjoy the sunshine. We stayed on the strip in Lauderdale at the Double Tree Hotel. Keep in mind that the Double Tree is typically a higher end business class hotel, but units placed in tourist areas rarely offer the full amenities you may find at their typical locations. The Double Tree here has seen better days; the restaurant was palatable, but only opens for breakfast and lunch. There was another restaurant under the pool area fronting the beach but we choose alternative restaurants in town. All in all, Fort Lauderdale was interesting, but only worthy of a couple of days. The night scene (it was during Spring Break), was also interesting but beyond a couple such as us in our late forties.
Our cruise was scheduled for a Sunday departure. The Carnival paperwork noted an embarkation time of 2:30 PM for this port but when we arrived at the port at noon the line extended around the building and they were already loading people on the ship. Can't blame them for this because the sooner they get you on, the sooner you will start charging drinks, etc. This was similar to previous cruises we had taken. They leave themselves some time leeway but the loading process always seems efficient. From port arrival to walking on the deck took less than 45 minutes.
One thing we loved with Norwegian was their 'free style' cruising which allows you to choose when you eat, and if you dine with others at a 'group' table. Our first Carnival cruise, 20 years previous, gave us assigned seating and unfortunately the later seating. This part of the cruise agenda totally turned us off to cruising as we like to eat early and we are not late night players. We remember trying to change to an earlier sitting, but essentially being refused.
Our most recent Norwegian cruises were wonderful with multiple restaurant choices and multiple premium restaurant choices (you pay an added cover charge for a more intimate dining experience). The charge, depending upon the cruise line can be from $15 to $25 per person. One of the reasons I booked Carnival this trip was their new offering of a premium restaurant choice, they call it their 'Supper Club'. As soon as we could, we made a reservation for all cruise nights except one.
They tell you when you board that your room may not be available until 1:30 PM but ours was available earlier. Our luggage also arrived promptly, allowing us some time to get acquainted with the room. We had a hall-end room, with a cabin on one side but not on the other. The room spacing was more than comfortable with a balcony with one lounger type chair, one standard plastic chair and a small table. This room was better than the first Norwegian ship we were on, which was an outside cabin, but had no balcony. The second Norwegian cruise had a balcony, and was also a mini-suite. This Carnival room was similar to the Norwegian mini-suite, except the Norwegian room had a full bathroom (tub and separate sink area, instead of just a shower stall).
The steward service on both lines was wonderful. The rooms were made promptly, towels were always exchanged, and the amenity items such as shampoo, etc., were always stocked. My wife made some special requests, like an additional change of deck towels, and wine glasses for the bottles of wine we ordered for the room. The requests were filled promptly. Turn down at night, on both lines, always included some sort of special character, made from the towels, and their creativity was commendable. Steward service on both lines was virtually equal, but I would give a slight edge to Norwegian as their people were slightly more personable. Carnival also used that 'heavy knock' on the door to let you know they were ready to service your room, especially on the last day when the 'heavy knock' came at 7 AM (I guess that was our hint to get moving as we would be off the ship by 9:30). Our Norwegian stewards always seemed to be in the vicinity of their room assignments. Norwegian stewards also seemed to pick up on your personal timing, even generating small talk as we left or returned from dinner.
Unfortunately we were informed about 5:30 PM the first evening by Carnival that the premium restaurant would not be open that night as they did not take enough reservations. Oh well, at least our dinner seating assignment was the early one (5:45 PM, and printed on your onboard identification card). The dinner wouldn't be the premium type, but we had noted in the Carnival literature that they were now more inclined to accommodate those that preferred alternate seating arrangements. As we entered the restaurant my wife made a request for a table for two, at which point she was curtly informed that such requests would have to be made directly to the Matre D. We decided to bite the bullet and see where we would be placed. We were seated at a table for three couples, in the middle of the dining room. Only one of the other couples came that night and we made the typical small talk that fosters from being placed with people you most likely have nothing in common with. We ordered a bottle of wine, they of course choose water (soft drinks and alcoholic beverages always incur a charge and can easily add up to more than the cost of a cabin over 7-8 days). The entire meal took less than 45 minutes and the experience was just short cafeteria level. There was no small talk with the wait staff, presentation was lacking, and the food quality was mediocre.
Although we opted for the premium restaurants on the Norwegian cruises, we did use their main dining restaurants a couple of times. We were offered a table for two, or the option of sitting with others. We choose the table for two intimacy, and were very satisfied both times. The presentation was professional, the food was palatable, and we did not feel rushed at all. The staff also exhibited personality. I should also note that Norwegian did not close down their premium restaurants but accommodated the few that did make reservations the first night of the cruise. Despite 27 foot waves (the weather was rough for that particular cruise out of New York) we were able to enjoy a full level of service on night one, and through the entire cruise.
The Carnival itinerary we choose gave us two days at sea on the way to the islands and an additional two days at sea on the way back. Sitting on deck, going to any exotic location when you are escaping the cold of the Northeast is always enjoyable. In this respect Carnival and Norwegian provided plenty of locations to relax, chairs/lounges were comfortable, and there were always waiters to service your refreshment needs. We did find the drinks on the Norwegian had a little more kick to them. Norwegian also offered chairs on a lower deck which afforded a few of the ocean through an open rail barrier. On both lines, the upper decks had a Plexiglas barrier which inhibited the water view somewhat. Not a big deal and the feature was there for passenger safety.
The other thing we did notice on our days at sea was that Norwegian rarely closed any venue down. While at sea, you could choose any of the lounges to enjoy company or a drink as they were all operational. Carnival had 2 or 3 lounges that only opened only at night, even though the lounge number was equivalent ship to ship.
The second evening we dined in the Carnival Fleece (premium) restaurant. The service, the food preparation and presentation, were wonderful. We found the multiple servers and wine steward to be among the best we have experienced. The food quality and preparation was superior to the Norwegian, but Norwegian should be given the edge as their wait staff was slightly more conversant and personable. There was more of a language barrier on Carnival; the Norwegian attendants were more fluent in English. We would highly recommend that others make the premium restaurant choice on either of these cruise lines. Norwegian also provides multiple premium choices (IE: steakhouse, oriental cuisine, etc.).
I will not detail our onshore activity here as they are usually contracted services and can vary from port-to-port. We rented a jeep in one location, did some downtown shopping in another, and did one of those catamaran type sailing excursions in another (always a good choice). In Barbados we also enjoyed one of their special restaurants, Pisces, which we would do again if we return to Barbados.
My wife needs her beauty sleep so she enjoys room delivery (no additional charge) of coffee and light breakfast items. When we did this on Norwegian, we would receive a confirming call that they were bringing your room service. This was a nice touch as you could at least throw a brush through your hair or otherwise be semi-presentable when answering the door. You would fill out the typical room service card and request a specific time of delivery. Norwegian seemed to always be within 5 minutes of the requested time. On Carnival they did not call beforehand, and although given a half hour window of delivery they missed that window more than half the time. Although we did not avail ourselves of any other room service dining period, we did note that the Carnival room service menu for lunch/dinner items was very limited. Norwegian, virtually matched the dining room offerings.
On the last night we ordered coffee for the morning. It was supposed to be delivered between 6:30 and 7:00. At 7:15 I noted the message light on the phone. The message, noted as being left at 6:56 AM (we were both up and never heard it ring/buzz), said they were running 45 minutes behind and that if we still wanted the room service we should call back. I did, but they never delivered (we were in the room until 8:50 AM). I had the feeling they just didn't want to do room service on the final morning. If this was the case, they should just have said so, or noted that room service was not possible on the final morning of the cruise.
We choose to eat in the main dining room for breakfast on two occasions, and of course, we were grouped with others, once with two other couples at a table for six, and the next time with another couple in a booth. The first time, the food was good. I choose multiple menu items, including eggs benedict. It was prepared in the typical fashion with two English muffins, etc. Although not outstanding it was a pleasurable breakfast, including the company in both cases.
The second morning, we entered the main dining room only 1 half hour before they were scheduled to close for the morning. This time the eggs benedict included only one muffin, all other portions were much smaller and the plates were being removed almost before we were finished.
We also tried the main dining room for one of our lunches just to be sure we were giving the experience a fair chance. It was 12:07 and we were led to a long table that already had 10 people sitting at it. I looked at the menu, wherein I could not find a choice to suit my appetite (I think it was Indian theme day or something). With those at the table already being served, and trays of dishes banging over our heads, and less than two minutes at the table, my wife read my mind and we were out of there in a flash. The Matre D was local at that point and he questioned why we chose to leave so quickly, but we apologized for leaving and just noted we changed our minds and were heading for the buffet deck.
We went to the Lido deck, where although very crowded with long lines, the food was of good quality and prepared nicely. Tables were also cleared in a timely fashion and there was a good choice of tables for the number of people choosing to eat at this venue.
The next day we opted for a late lunch, and remembering the good experience on the Lido deck, we returned to this area. Even though we were only half way through the lunch schedule, most of the serving lines had already been shut down. This forced more people to fewer serving locations, and hence, longer lines. We stood in line for about 10 minutes, with no movement. We then left to find another serving venue and found that the line was much shorter by the pool service area. We noted through the rest of the trip that the lines were always shorter here although we did not eat in this area again.
I believe we were also spoiled by Norwegian with their scheduled entertainment. On every night, even through the rough water portion of the cruise, they ran two complete Las Vegas style shows. We have been to Vegas, multiple times, we have seen shows in New York City and other major cities, and we were as pleased by Norwegian Cruise Lines Shows as almost anything I have seen. Each night show was offered at 7:30 and 10 PM. The early show coincided with our dinner reservation standard of 5 PM (the Carnival did not serve in any dining room until 5:45 PM and the premium restaurant opened promptly at 6 PM).
We started to watch one of the shows on Carnival but the music schedule for that night was not to our liking (Norwegian also had one night where the genre of music was not our style). The rest of the week, on Carnival, sometimes one show was scheduled, sometimes two shows. From the show titles in the ships daily newspaper you could not determine the genre on Carnival. One Carnival show title was Take II. I asked the purser, and someone else at the information desk what the genre was and they couldn't tell me. (Norwegian would state that the genre was Andrew Lloyd Weber music, or 50s / 60s theme, etc., along with a show title). On Carnival, one night the show consisted of Karaoke from the audience, hosted by the cruise director (a man with a very entertaining personality). I think I have watched American Idol for a total of about 10 minutes, imagine my take on this entertainment offering.
One item that stood out on Carnival was the receipts that you received for drinks. The Carnival receipts were always totaled at the bottom, including the cruise standard of 15% gratuity per order. On the first bill we tried to tip extra and the server told us it was not necessary. On Norwegian they left an area for an additional tip on each receipt, which left you feeling that additional was expected. We usually tipped more, and even tried not tipping extra on a couple of occasions. The return service of those that were tipped extra was always at a higher level than those that were not. Norwegian should follow Carnival's lead here, although a couple of extra dollars on each receipt does not add up to a lot over the extent of the cruise. It was just an annoyance.
Another positive Carnival feature was the offerings in the gift shops (and daily trinket specials). We found the pricing on par with shopping at home with some items being in the class of a bargain. On Norwegian my wife purchased a watch (economy level) and a piece of jewelry. We considered both items reasonably priced but not necessarily bargains. On Carnival she purchased a watch (even though two were returned while we were shopping because the purchasers said they were defective). Ironically, when we arrived home the watch had already stopped working, no real problem here as it only required a $2 Radio Shack battery. It is our guess that the cruise lines purchase bulk, and that some of the items may not have been the hottest of sellers in stores, hence the battery expired based upon the length of time from product assembly to actual sale. Carnival offered logo tee shirts at 2 for $20, and other Carnival logo items at very reasonable pricing. They even offered a Carnival carry-on type bag (with wheels) for $24. On the last day of the cruise we also opted for a couple of 'professional' backdrop style photos for $20 for each 8x10. Earlier in the cruise they actually offered 8x10 'roving photographer' type photos for only $11, typical for both cruise lines.
Debarkation was very smooth and took less than an hour. Port ratings as follows: Boston # 1, Ft Lauderdale 2, and New York 3 or further down the list (terrible).
The overall performance of the cruise lines on a scale from 1 to 10 based upon our experience? We used this scale;
1 - Camping for a week in a pup tent, with rain the whole week
Summer 2004, Norwegian Majesty, Boston-Bermuda-Boston; 9
Fall 2003, Norwegian Dawn, New York, Bahamas, New York; 8
Spring 2004, Carnival Legend, Ft Lauderdale, exotic Caribbean, Ft Lauderdale; 6
Please enjoy whatever venue or line you choose. Carnival offers more bargains, and draws the first time cruiser. They also own Princess, Cunard, Costas, Holland America, Yachts of Seaborne and Windstar. I understand that Princess line is more like Norwegian. We may try a Princess cruise but most likely will avoid Carnival. Cruisers talk, and I heard interesting things relating Royal Caribbean experiences. We even docked next to their ships, and they were all impressive. As of yet I don't have enough to foster an opinion (we will try them someday). I'll be checking Norwegian for another cruise this summer.