by Kevin Clark
December 16, 2001
For months prior to our cruise on the 12/16/01 sailing of the Carnival Paradise, I read many, many reviews and scoured the message boards for tips and advice. Now, almost 3 months after cruising, I'm starting to feel a little guilty about not giving a little back by writing a review of my experiences. So here it is!
I'm 26 (male) and was traveling with my sister Ally (22) and my dad (50). The cruise was my dad's Christmas present to my sister and I. We all live in different states (Colorado, Georgia, and Ohio), so it was also a way for us to be together before the holidays. It was the first cruise for my dad and I, while Ally had been on a shorter 4 day cruise last year on RCCL's Sovereign of the Seas. I was elected the official "travel planner" and spent a few months researching cruise ships and itineraries. We had originally booked on the Celebrity Horizon based on itinerary and price. After 9/11, and rates began to fall, we were able to get a better deal on the Paradise and thought it would be a better fit for us anyway, with a younger crowd and glitzier ship. The non-smoking aspect was also a huge enticement.
We had a 2-day pre-cruise stay in Miami. We stayed at the Holiday Inn South Beach (www.holidayinnsouthbeach.com) that we booked through Priceline.com for $30/night! The hotel offered free parking and even free beach chairs and umbrellas.
The hotel itself was very nice and recently remodeled. It was located right on the beach and was about 4-5 blocks (an easy and safe walk) from the heart of South Beach. There were two hotel restaurants including an Outback Steakhouse. There was also a large drug store onsite to buy soda and beer/alcohol if you're so inclined. The hotel was made up of two buildings, a 11 or 12 story tower and an adjacent 2 level structure housing rooms with outside entrances around a central jungle-like courtyard complete with caged birds and paths. We stayed in the tower. There was also a large oceanfront pool and hot tub with an outdoor Tiki Bar. Overall, I'd say that the hotel was nicer than most Holiday Inns and definitely a bargain for $30/night! I found www.biddingfortravel.com to be an invaluable resource for booking anything with Priceline. Be sure to check it out!
We took a taxi to the hotel from the Miami airport. The fares to hotels are pre-set and I believe it was around $20 or $21 to the South Beach zone. You could also take the Supershuttle (www.supershuttle.com) from the airport to the hotel if you wanted. It was $8 or $9/pp I believe and no reservation was required. Taxi fare from the hotel to the pier was around $20 as well and about a 10-minute ride.
Our taxi driver dropped us off right in front of our pier at around 11:00am. We gave our bags to the porters, who gave us a list of passengers and rooms so that we could look up our assigned room since we booked a guarantee. We booked a category 5A (porthole) and were upgraded to a Cat 6A on the Riviera Deck. We tipped them the porters the obligatory $1/bag, then preceded to the terminal.
We were expecting heavy security as others had reported post 9/11. Just to be safe, I applied for a passport about a month prior to travel and received it within 2 weeks. We also discovered that my dad had a hospital-issued birth certificate. Even though this is the only BC he's ever had, and had a raised seal, it is not valid for travel as it is considered a medical record rather than a legal record. Luckily we found this out about a week prior to cruising and he was able to have the state of Ohio overnight him a state-issued birth certificate. We put our carry-ons through the scanner, but nothing was searched. We walked right up to the check-in representative, as there was no line. I had a Passport, and my dad and sister used a driver's license/birth certificate combo. My Passport was not even opened! She didn't check the name or even look at my picture! I couldn't believe it! I kept thinking that maybe it would be checked at some other point, but it wasn't. I'm sure it was just an oversight on the rep's part, but it doesn't give you a very good feeling about their security in general as you hop on board. It seemed especially lacking when compared to the hoops we all had to jump through for airport security.
After checking in, we waited in the terminal for about an hour until they started boarding at 12:30. The terminal was very nice with plenty of seating and large windows looking towards the ship. Once the boarding process started, they would take everyone's picture for the Sail and Sign card, then again for the Sail-Away photo. Within a few minutes we were on the ship and in our room.
I had seen hundreds of photos and read dozens of reviews, so I knew what to expect onboard. That said, I was VERY impressed in general with nearly all aspects of the ship's layout and design. You board the ship right at the bottom of the 6-story atrium. There was a three-piece orchestra playing music and though it has been said many times in other reviews, you really do feel as though you've arrived in "Paradise."
We made a bee-line for our room so that we could drop off our carry-ons. We were on the lowest deck (Riviera) about 5 cabins aft of the aft stairway on the starboard side. I was initially disappointed with this location, but it turned out to be great. The room itself was very spacious and nicely laid out. The colors (orange and tan Formica) leave a little to be desired, but really aren't that bad. We had two single beds plus a single Murphy bed that pulled down from the wall. The bathroom was a nice size with a large shower and sink area. Everything was spotless. We were very glad that we brought a power strip. It was worth its travel weight in gold!
We then started exploring the ship. It seems that as we turned each corner we found something new and incredible. There were little twinkling lights EVERYWHERE.in the walls, in the floor, in the ceiling, and even in many of the tables and chairs! I thought it was very tastefully done, but I tend to like a gaudy "Vegas-esque" decor.
The theatre was spectacular, but as other's have said, has some obstructed seats. Get there early and have a drink while waiting for the show to begin.
The pool area was always crowded and usually had a live band. Many sunbathers gravitated towards other decks, specifically at the very rear of the ship above the Paris Restaurant. I never had a problem getting a deck chair and didn't notice any chair saving. The deck loungers were plastic-type with a stretched fabric part that you sat/layed on. They weren't particularly comfortable and didn't lower to a completely flat position, making it particularly uncomfortable to lie on your stomach.
The seas were very rough for most of the week. I was surprised at the amount of movement. We were really rockin' and rollin' for several evenings. Several times in the Dining room, there would be a particularly noticeable movement, and you'd hear everyone groan in unison. It was fairly amusing! On a couple of days, bags were placed in various places just in case. Even though you could almost always "feel" the ship moving, I never felt queasy, nor did I see anyone else who was obviously so. Dinner and shows were always crowded, so I guess that most people were ok.
Several nights the wind was VERY, VERY strong. They had closed the upper deck, but people would just take the ropes down and go up anyway. I went up a couple of nights and it was really amazing how strong the wind really was. There were times when it was a struggle to stay standing. It was like I was standing in a wind-tunnel.
While I didn't utilize any of the spa services, my sister and I did surprise my dad with a massage as a gift. He had never had one and thoroughly enjoyed it.
There was a very good mix of ages onboard. It seemed that the bulk of the passengers were 20-40. There were a good number of families as well, but considering that this was the week before Christmas, probably not as many as other times. There were also some seniors, but not the "old fogey" type I was expecting. They all seemed young at heart and enjoyed socializing with all of us "young-uns."
The disco was usually active until very late in the evening, when a lot of the staff would join in the party. I usually went to bed before midnight or 1:00am, but Ally would often "dance the night away" until the wee hours.
I didn't use the pool except to try the slide a few times. The idea of a salt-water pool just didn't sound all that refreshing to me. The hot tubs were plentiful, but always seemed crowded. I really don't understand why they close the pool and hot tubs so early. (before dark) I'd be more inclined to use the hot tubs late at night under the stars.
Being soda-fiends, my dad and I both bought soda cards almost immediately after boarding. This turned out to be one of the best purchases on the cruise. The card says they are for fountain drinks only, however, nearly every bar that we got sodas from would open a can of soda and pour it into a large glass with ice. In fact, only one bar (the pool bar) actually filled our glass from a fountain the entire week. It seems like Carnival could really save some $$ if they would just put soda fountains in more locations.
We were assigned the 8:00 dinner seating in the Destiny Dining room. Out table mates included three girls in their twenties from rural Tennessee, another two girls in their twenties from NYC, and a gay couple in their late 40s from New Jersey. We all had a blast and were the envy of our neighbors every night. Bill and Peter (the gay couple) were simply hilarious and instigated much of the fun. Peter had planned to quit smoking before the cruise, but didn't. At each port of call, he would put out his cig just as he was boarding. I WOULDN'T recommend doing this! J
The food at dinner was MUCH better than I had expected. I usually ordered 2 appetizers, two entrees, and dessert. I usually skipped the salad so I'd have more room for other things. The standouts were definitely the Escargot appetizer and the Lobster Tail entree. I had three of each!
Our waiter, Mr. Z., was also great. After we had finished, he would usually bring one or two of EVERY dessert for our table to split and taste. If there was a specific appetizer or entree that one person particularly liked, he would bring a few more of them for the table to sample.
My dad and I both had an official weigh-in on the scales in the fitness center the day we arrived and the day we left. I gained 8lbs! (I'm 6', 159lbs) My Dad weighs about 10 lbs more than me and gained 4lbs. Luckily, it only took a few weeks of "normal" eating to lose the weight.
We only ate lunch twice in the dining room. It was very good both times, but not as convenient as the Paris restaurant. It was also not nearly as much fun as dinner since most people ate elsewhere.
Speaking of the Paris, I would have to say that it's just OK. They serve the typical buffet-fare and often duplicate entrees throughout the week. The pizza is another story though! It was great and available 24-hours a day. We would usually eat pizza several times throughout the day. It was a great early day, mid-day, early evening or bedtime snack. J They usually had 2 or 3 types available all the time and would make one of the other types for you if you wanted to wait.
I thought that most of the singer/dancer Broadway-type shows were decent, but not nearly up to par with Broadway or Vegas. There was one really funny comedian and two that were really un-funny. The talent show had acts ranging from "outrageously funny and talented" to others you wished you could Gong.
Ports of Call
We took the Fiesta Party Boat excursion here. We booked through the ship and it cost $30/pp. (I think) The boat itself was a 3-level catamaran and was docked right next to our ship. All alcohol was included in the price of admission. They offered Rum Punch, Margaritas, and beer. On the way to Playa Sol Beach it started raining, so everyone was crowded into the bottom two decks. They had a band that played on the first level. The band did a good job of getting people involved in the festivities. Upon arrival at Playa Sol, nearly everyone had a good buzz going.
It rained almost the entire time at the Beach, sometimes very hard. My sister and I didn't care as we swam out to the floating trampolines and the "iceburg," which are both a sizeable swim from the beach. For most of the swim, the water is about 7-8 feet deep, so there's lots of treading water. Additionally, the iceburg was very physically demanding. Try swimming for 25 minutes (while tipsy) then pulling yourself up out of the water and up to the top of a 30-foot inflatable iceberg. Further, many of the handles on the iceberg had been torn off, making it even more challenging. Most challenging of all, however, was finding the strength to do it all again after the drunk guy near the top loses grip and takes you and five others out as he falls to the water.
by the time we swam all the way back, it was almost time to go. Although, my dad and sister did pay a few bucks to try the land-based trampoline, which looked like a lot of fun. I didn't think my stomach could handle any more action though, so I videoed. J
The way back was even more drinking and dancing. Most people were having a blast, though there were several who obviously didn't know what they were getting into when they booked the excursion.
We got back to the ship in time to shower and go to dinner. They moved all dinner times forward an hour for this night only so that people could go out in Cozumel after dinner since the ship didn't leave until midnight. We chose to go to Carlos and Charlie's. It was a $5 cab fare and a scary 10-minute drive. The new location of C&C had just opened that week, so everything was brand new. Lots and lots of wild stuff going on here. I was really shocked by a few things and I'm not easily shocked! J C&C's is definitely worth a stop, although I wouldn't bring the kids.
Grand Cayman was the only stop, which required us to tender to shore. This was a relatively painless process, although obviously not as nice as docking right at the pier. We booked a 10:15 Stingray City tour with Capt. Marvin. Captain Marvin's office is about a block to the right of the tender pier, but since I forgot to bring the address, we figured we would just ask people once we got there. Wrong! Even though everyone knows where the office is, no one will tell you, or they will lie. We asked a taxi driver and she said that she knew, but wanted us to get in the taxi. It was literally right across the street! We went to a bar that also was RIGHT across the street from where we needed to go, he told us that he had never heard of Capt Marvin, but that his company did stingray tours. Moral of the story - bring directions!
We did finally find it, and were bussed about 20 minutes across town to the boat. There were about 25 people for our trip, which was perfect. They have someone who videotapes the entire trip, and even gets into full scuba gear to take underwater footage. We bought one of the videos for $25 (I think) and it arrived about 2 weeks later. We were very glad we did.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
We booked a tour with Ionie Mcbeam (www.ocho-rios.com) and were very satisfied. We paid $25/pp plus gave a good tip. Since Ionie had another group that she was taking, her husband was our driver. He had a brand new van and, since it was just the three of us, we had no space problems. We first went to Dunn's River Falls. While hiking the falls, he waited for us in the parking lot, storing our valuables (cameras etc.) inside. We then just asked him to take us to places he thought we would like. It was amazing to see the levels of poverty that the people are subjected to. People literally live in shacks. He stopped at several little shops/stands along the way. At first we were really leery of this, but it turned out to be great. We stopped at a couple of places that sold wood-carvings. I almost felt guilty paying so little for these hand-carved goods. I paid less than $4 for most of the things I bought.
He also took us to a great restaurant that sat up on a cliff overlooking the ocean. We had some very good jerked chicken here.again, it was very reasonably priced.
To top it off, he had a cooler full of cold soda and beer that were available to us at no charge.
Overall, we felt that this was a fantastic value and would absolutely recommend Ionie!
We received early disembarkation tags since we had early flights. We waited for about an hour in the designated area before they finally started letting people exit. We then spent about another 20 minutes looking for our luggage in the terminal. Next time, we will be sure to put something wild and bright on our bags to help distinguish them from the hundreds of similar black suitcases. One thing that was amazing to me though was that they managed to take our bags (together) from our room and put every single one in a separate area of the terminal. Logically, it seems as though they would be relatively close together. Not so. I've heard that some RCCL terminals now use an airline-style conveyer for luggage, which makes so much sense. Hopefully other lines will follow suit.
After walking by customs without so much as a glance, we hopped in a waiting taxi (around $20) and were at the airport by 9:45.
I think all three of us agreed that this was one of our best vacations ever. I'm officially hooked on cruising and booked my second one within weeks of returning from my first. There really wasn't much that I would change about the whole experience. Everything was perfect: the ship, the itinerary, the service, the food, and even the price!