by Steve R.
April 9, 2004
My wife and I just returned from our second cruise, a short three-day hop from Jacksonville to Freeport/Lucaya, Bahamas, and had a great time. This trip was our first on Carnival and "the newest cruise ship in the world", and the experience certainly was memorable. We previously sailed Royal Caribbean; however, we didn't take this Carnival cruise to make comparisons to RCCL, so we won't now either.
We traveled with friends (a couple celebrating their twentieth anniversary and taking their first cruise) and drove down from Atlanta the evening before our departure. Between us, we left seven children behind with our extended families; yee-haw! Embarkation was a breeze, with only 30 minutes interval between arrival at the port (there is road construction in process) and lunch on the Lido deck at 1pm.
Our friends took advantage of an early "balcony guarantee" room rate and were very pleased with their cabin. We wanted to have an aft-facing cabin and therefore paid a little extra to lock in our room. And we felt well-rewarded, as it was just terrific: Panorama deck eight accommodations (#8272 - category 8I), 50% larger balcony (at least), and just steps to the casual Horatio's Restaurant and the "adults-only" pool just one floor above. (Carnival staffers were even seen asking children to leave the pool on our sea day!) The extra balcony space was especially nice for entertaining our friends in the evenings, and many a "Bon Voyage" was heard. Our room was well-appointed and comfortable, and the bathroom layout really sharp. The only issue with our room was some periodic and unwanted vibration from the ship's engines; whether this is a ship-design issue or cabin location issue, I couldn't say.
Regarding the ship's interior design, the oft-maligned Carnival reputation for excessive and tasteless glitz may no longer be well-deserved. Except for some rather odd lighting fixtures and accessories in the main atrium, the overall look and ambiance of the ship was well-regarded (assuming one excludes the Bacchus dining room that looks, for lack of a better description, like a radioactive grape vine on steroids!). The ship's layout was easily grasped, the walkways never crowded, and the atmosphere relaxed. Wandering about and experiencing each of the ship's many venues was always an enjoyable experience.
As for the Bahamas, Freeport is not soft on the eyes, if you don't already know that; the container ships and cement plant do juxtapose nicely in color, sound, and texture, but all in all you're better off in most other ports (maybe all of them) if you're looking for a nice view. But we didn't take this cruise for the port. And by the way, Lucaya is a fun place to spend a few hours; shopping is varied with good selection, the casino energetic and busy, the beach pleasant, the straw market just normal, the tropical atmosphere omnipresent. The Rum Runners bar was packed at noon, the diamond and emerald exchange likewise humming along..
Back on board, our entertainment experiences were limited largely to the higher-energy shows, all of which were solid. The main theatre Vegas-style shows were entertaining, Music Unlimited provided thumping dance and rock music throughout the cruise, and the outdoor reggae band was (or course) jammin' late into the night. At all times the orchestra was tight, although the dancing and singing a little less so. Show production values, particularly the lighting and choreography, were top-notch and made each of the main shows outstanding, particularly the Beatles' tribute show. Cruise director Todd Wittmer was satisfactory, the games and activities about par for the course. Mike Panceni is a good comedian; the other comic act (her name escapes me) is not.
Food was reliable throughout the cruise though not remarkable, both in the formal dining room (dinner every night, breakfast once) and in the ever-open Horatio's. Choices were always plentiful, although I thought the quality and choices in green salads and fresh fruit below par. Presentation in the dining room was consistently good, and the mandatory (at least for Carnival) second lobster tail entrée was served just as enthusiastically as the first. Service in the dining room was such that we never considered Nick & Nora's, the reservations-only alternative restaurant. Indeed, all forms of service were good throughout the cruise, although somebody should do something about those ice buckets. (They're tiny! Go ahead and bring your own cooler; after all it's the "Fun Ship", right?) By the way, the crew appeared to be predominantly eastern European, of all things.
On the evening of our return to Jacksonville, a huge storm blew in. As we watched from our balcony and via closed-circuit TV, the crew navigated wildly to avoid the mushrooming storm, and zig-zagged across the Florida Gulf Stream in an effort to keep the ship dry; ultimately the ship was so dangerously close to the coast that they might have to close the casino, so the captain chose to brave the elements and plunged headlong into the storm, causing my wife to lose her dinner. Ten years from now, we'll have forgotten some of the pleasantries we enjoyed this weekend, but we'll never forget that wild joyride the last night..
Debarkation was rather slow; Carnival's new policy (allowing passengers carrying all their luggage to disembark first) might be good on many cruises, but resulted in excessive crowding in the main areas on this three-day itinerary. It's also possible that the problem was with U.S. Customs, though. Whatever the cause of the delays, people-watching at debarkation is always a hoot; come early for the best seats!