by Alan Whitt
July 17, 2002
Wow! That's about all that needs to be said about this amazing cruise, our best experience so far amongst our five voyages.
What made it so special? Three things.
1. We love the Carnival experience, and made sure that we never shied away from getting involved.
2. We were traveling with fun family and friends (except one) who all got along and had a great time together.
3. Alaska is probably the most magnificent state in the union when it comes to natural beauty. Words cannot describe what we saw. I've been to Hawaii twice, and overall, I like the Alaska scenery better.
Anyway, let's get started with our group of 15 family members and friends. We range in ages from 25 to 65, and there were NO KIDS OR GRANDKIDS, bless their little hearts.
Here are the members of our group:
--- Alan (that's me), Bristol, CT, flying out of Hartford, 5th cruise --- Ethel (my wife), Bristol, CT, flying out of Hartford, 5th cruise --- Alanne (my daughter), Bristol, CT, flying out of Detroit, 1st cruise --- Kaye (wife's sister in law), Novi, MI, flying out of Detroit, 1st cruise --- Barb (wife's sister), Lansing, MI, flying out of Detroit, 1st cruise --- Carmelia (wife's friend), Albion, MI, flying out of Detroit, 2nd cruise --- Marjorie, (Barb's friend), Grand Rapids, MI, flying out of Detroit, 2nd cruise --- Ivory (wife's sister), Hayward, Calif., flying out of Oakland, 1st cruise --- Shirley (wife's sister), Fresno, Calif., flying out of Fresno, 1st cruise --- Marlene (my sister), Chesterfield, MI, flying out of Detroit, 4th cruise --- Linda (my sister), Detroit, flying out of Detroit, 3rd cruise --- Greg (Linda's husband), Detroit, flying out of Detroit, 1st cruise --- Brenda (Marlene's friend), Detroit, flying out of Detroit, 3rd cruise --- Marsha (friend), Detroit, flying out of Detroit, 2nd cruise --- Josh (Barb's son), Pontiac, MI, flying out of Detroit, 2nd cruise
Only Shirley and Ivory booked their air through Carnival ... because it was cheaper, by a lot! That's a first for me. For everyone else we found better fares on the Internet. Josh & his original cabin mate (more on that later) were the luckiest. They were the last to book the cruise and I found a flight for them for $387 round trip, non-stop both ways!
We booked this cruise in January 2001 before the ship was completed, booking a category 8B balcony cabin on Upper deck. Little did we know that about half of the cabins in this category have a view partially obstructed by the top of the lifeboats. It was only after I looked at a close up photo of the ship's exterior that I realized this would be a problem.
My travel agent, Laura at AAA Travel in Livonia, contacted Carnival and had the situation resolved in one hour. Carnival, who I have always found to be very accommodating, apologized for the problem and upgraded us all to Category 8G and 8I (Verandah & Panorama decks) with the bigger balconies.
How's that for an extra benefit. This was after Carnival had already reduced the cruise price by $300 per person and gave each cabin a $60 onboard credit. All total, we saved between $490-to-$520 per person. But Carnival got most of that back at the casinos.
Now, in the 2002-2003 Carnival brochure for all three Spirit-class ships, they have a disclaimer giving you the specific cabins in 8B that have the obstructed view. It pays to read the fine print. Last place you want an obstructed view balcony cabin is in Alaska.
GETTING TO VANCOUVER
Ethel and I flew into Vancouver a day early. Our original plans called for us to take three connecting flights to Vancouver the day of the cruise. That's a looooooong day. So we changed our flights for $100 total with Northwest Airlines, cutting our flights to just two and knocking 3 hours off the flight time.
Approaching Vancouver was the first hint that this was going to be a magnificent adventure. The pilot alerted us to Mt. Rainier on one side, and another scenic mountain on the other. Then as you approach the city you see more awesome mountains and islands surrounded by blue water as the plane descends. Never has a landing been more rewarding.
So far so good. And It took us just 5 minutes to clear Canadian customs.
We had booked a room at the Hilton Vancouver Airport for $88 U.S. over the Internet, getting an extra 1,000 Hilton HHonors points in the process. The hotel is 5 minutes from the airport, offers a free shuttle and is within walking distance of several restaurants.
After dinner, we settled into our room, watched a little TV, and with Ethel sound asleep, the phone rings at 11 p.m. Pacific time (1 a.m. back east). It's Kaye, back in Michigan: "What happens if someone doesn't have a birth certificate?"
Seems Barb forgot hers and began the drive back to Lansing (66 miles) to retrieve it. We didn't know she had made it to the airport until 3:45 a.m. Pacific, 15 minutes before the flight was scheduled to leave.
The next morning it was back to the airport by 11 a.m., where we turned our luggage over to the Carnival attendants and waited for more of our group to arrive. And we waited. And waited. And waited some more.
Although both flights from Detroit had arrived on time within minutes of the other, it took about an hour to clear customs on this busy day because of Spirit and the of pre-cruise groups arriving for Royal Caribbean and Celebrity cruise lines. The airport was packed.
Finally, with eight of our group present (the rest of the group would arrive later), the real adventure could begin.
The bus ride to the pier is rather long, perhaps because we were anxious, perhaps because we never saw a freeway. We had to wind our way through city streets, getting a guided tour from the driver as we went along. Finally we snaked our way through Gastown (there is not a single gas station there), getting our first view of sparkling Carnival Spirit.
Once off the bus you're always inside at the pier terminal, which I'm sure is great if it's raining. No San Juan situations here.
It takes about an hour to totally get through the sign up process and U.S. customs. So in one day you go through both Canadian and U.S. customs. I like that since you get it all done and then can concentrate on your cruise.
And the mandatory muster drill doesn't take place until the next day, another plus as far as I'm concerned. Who wants to stand on deck right after getting on the ship, while you're tired and wishing you were on Lido deck instead.
I'll try not to hit on too many subjects that other reviewers have already talked about.
Spirit is an easy ship to get around. Unlike Destiny-class ships, you can get from one end to the other with no problem. Deck 2 and 3 are the most active areas, of course, and I would suggest using those if you want to get around because you may see something along the way that will interest you. You can just as easily walk the corridors along cabin decks, but you wouldn't see much.
If you are easily confused, just remember this simple rule on Spirit: No matter what deck you're on, food is aft, entertainment is forward.
Although I love Royal Caribbean's Voyager-class ships, the one flaw is that you have to go out of your way to go to many of their entertainment areas, such as the jazz club or the ice skating show. On Spirit that isn't a problem. On Deck 2, you can walk from the dining room, check out the jazz group at Artist's Lobby, another performer at the atrium bar, a country-western singer in the casino, fellow passengers singing karaoke in Club Cool, and snack on a real dessert or coffee at the Fountain Café before catching one of the shows at Pharoah's Palace, all within a 10-minute stroll. However, the entertainment is another matter, but we'll get to that later.
We all agreed that the ship is kinda "out there" in terms of decoration. But your eyes adapt after a few days. The brightest area is Lido deck. Classiest area is the Empire dining room.
Carnival cabin bathrooms are great, with plenty of room to move around. The shower could easily be used by a "big" person. I weighed about 205 pounds when I cruised on Voyager, and their wrap-around shower was really confining. Drop a bar of soap in there and you'll have to exit the shower to retrieve it. The entire cabin never felt small. However, like all cruise lines, I wish they could figure out a way to make those twin beds truly a queen bed. We're not Ozzie and Harriet, if you catch my meaning.
We booked tours at three of the four stops.
In Ketchikan, Carmelia and I did the Misty Fjords flightseeing tour with Island Wings Air. Michelle piloted the four-seater, landing by an island in the middle of a lake so that we could get out and take photos and video. No other tour company does this, instead just landing on the lake and letting you take photos from there. Awesome experience, and Michelle made the tour even more rewarding with her knowledge of the area. I never knew Ketchikan was an island and not on the mainland.
In Juneau, we went on the Awesome Orca whale-watching excursion with Captain Larry and Jim the naturalist. Great guys! Great senses of humor! Great excursion! Our group took over most of the boat, which holds about 25 people. Why bother booking the more expensive cruise line version with 125 people onboard? This is more personal, and we made the most of it, asking questions, joking with Jim and really making this the highlight of all our excursions. We saw whales bubble-net feeding a whooping six times! We must have seen 30 whales out there. And the scenery? Wow! When we docked, we had the option of going straight to Mendenhall Glacier or back to town. We chose the glacier and were not disappointed. When we returned to town to do a little shopping, I went back to the Orca office to let them know what a great time we had. Book this one if you want to go whale-watching ... you will not be disappointed.
In Skagway we took the White Pass & Yukon Rail excursion, arranged through Carnival. It was rather foggy and they gave us the option to back out and get a refund, but like I said, we were out to have fun and weren't going to let a little fog get in our way. Although this was third best of the three excursions, we still had a nice time, even though Alanne has a fear of heights and didn't enjoy climbing along the outside of a mountain. The rest of us, however, took in the lovely scenery, listened to the tour guide's stories and enjoyed another opportunity to be together.
We were in the second car, where the tour guide is situated. Her voice is carried through speakers throughout the lengthy train. Once again, we kept things lively and had a ball as a group.
Shopping was good in all three of these ports. Plenty of souvenirs with mostly the same items sold at each stop. Miss something in Ketchikan? Don't worry, you'll find it in Juneau or Skagway. However, in Juneau we did get a great Alaska photo album for just $6.99. We filled all 208 slots with photos from the 13 rolls of film I shot throughout the trip. I still have plenty left, not including the 100 digital photos I took.
Thank God we bought our souvenirs before we got to Sitka. There weren't many bargains there. Much of the stuff is overpriced, even though other items are worth what they're asking, such as items at the Russian American store. Wish I had the money to buy some of it.
My group had a great time in the casino ... even though they lost lots of money. You know how it goes. Win $800 one night, give it all back the next night. Marjorie was the smart one, winning $900 and keeping it. Way to go, Marjorie!
As far as the shows go .... well, they weren't very good. The first two shows at Pharaoh's Palace were just OK. The male dancers were very good. We felt the women dancers, although beautiful, were a little stiff. Each show they were screaming with excitement while dancing, which seemed kinda phony. The male and female singers had great voices, but I felt some of the songs they sang were all wrong for them. The final big stage show was awful. One by one, we walked out. I can honestly say it was the worst show I've ever seen on a cruise ship.
We enjoyed the entertainment in the smaller venues more. The jazz group at Artist's Lobby was good, and so was the duo at Nouveau Supper Club, thanks to the male singer. He has an amazing voice and is quite talented.
We liked and disliked the Nouveau Supper Club. A few months before the cruise I met a Spirit manager online and she was able to make advance reservations for my entire group. That was a real timesaver. We didn't have to spend time the first day making reservations. I had the best filet mignon of my life, and the Caesar salad was also very good. But the dainty desserts left a lot to be desired, and three hours is way too long for this. I like fine restaurants, but I felt I was missing something sitting there so long. The atmosphere is very relaxing, especially for an Alaskan cruise. Just watching as we passed the mountains along the coast - not to mention a whale sighting or two - is reward enough. However, for the $25 cover charge, I don't think I'd do it again. But that filet mignon was spectacular. Overall, Portofino aboard Voyager of the Seas was better. If you want a truly elegant setting aboard a Carnival ship, just to see how the upper crust lives, this is the restaurant for you. If you just want good food and service, see Rafael and Helen in the Empire Room.
The food in the Empire Room was typical Carnival. In other words, it was typically good. We enjoyed every meal in the dining room. We ate breakfast there once, lunch once and dinner six times. Our wait team of Rafael from Costa Rica (actually he lives in New Jersey) and Helen from the Philippines were extremely efficient and entertaining, with Rafael ("I'll sing for you, I'll dance for you") playfully flirting with the women in our group, especially Kaye. Don't worry Carnival, he was always courteous and respectful! We're making sure Kaye's husband gets a picture of the two of them in the dining room, and maybe he'll go with us next time to protect his interest. Rafael and Helen made us feel special, as did David the head waiter from Ireland, who stopped by our table several nights to check on us. Truly first-class service, each and every day.
The Lido deck food is the most varied of all Carnival cruises I've been on. We had to make tough choices every day to decide what to eat, especially at lunch. You had Chinese, Japanese, a salad bar, a fruit bar, a deli, rotisserie meats, pasta, pizza, burgers and other items each time. And I ate soft-serve ice cream every day, a good thing since the deserts were the usually light and airy Carnival variety.
ONLY AS FUN AS YOU MAKE IT
As I said, this was a fantastic experience. But you know what? It might not be for some people. Our group was quite outgoing and interactive. We met hundreds of people throughout the 7 days and always made sure that we called people - both passengers and staff - by name. We remembered them and they did the same.
by the way, our entire group is African-American, but it was never an issue. If you treat people with respect and carry yourself with dignity, people will be drawn to you. Two of the best people we met were elderly white ladies from North Carolina, who developed a relationship with Josh flying into Vancouver, continued throughout the cruise and through their flight home. I'm sure they'll all stay in contact even though the cruise is now confined to pictures, video, memory and expanded midsections.
Best part of the onboard experience had to be Josh - who was elevated to star status by the time the cruise was over - and Alanne. Both are quite gifted musically. They participated in karaoke, the talent show, and also performed with the small jazz group along the way in Artist's Lobby. Both had standing invitations to perform each night, and crowds would develop whenever they performed.
They were both awesome in the talent show. And Alanne, as the last act, left cruise director Shawn Bussey and her assistant speechless when she took over the post act interview.
We couldn't go anywhere on ship without someone coming up to Josh and talking to him, telling how well he sang or how well he played the sax & piano or just commenting on his charisma.
by the way, Alanne volunteered my wife and I to sing at karaoke, and even though I believe I can't sing a lick, everyone said that I was pretty good. Must run in the family.
One more thing, I had read last year that Shawn Bussey wasn't a very good cruise director. Well, she certainly must have improved since then. I found her very engaging and funny, and best of all she appeared to be having fun. She's not bad on the eyes either.
This is the one area -- other than entertainment -- that Carnival really needs to work on. We don't have a problem with the 3-hour bus ride from Seward to Anchorage, especially after our driver stopped at the Big Game animal reserve. But we all feel Carnival needs to alert the first groups getting the night before. We got up at 5:30 a.m. and made it to the dining room for breakfast at 6 a.m. We had literally sat down when our tag color was called, meaning we had to get back to our rooms, pick up our carry-ons and leave the ship ... all on empty stomachs. Of course, Carnival knew that our flight wasn't leaving Anchorage until 5 p.m. Why couldn't we have had breakfast first? If nothing else, let those groups getting off by 6 a.m. know so that they can eat breakfast when the dining room opens at 5:30 a.m. We saw no point in filling out the forms, alerting them to our 5 p.m. flight time, since it meant nothing in terms of when we got off the ship.
To kill time in Anchorage before our flight, some of us took a shuttle downtown. Looking for a good restaurant? Try Glacier Brewery down the street from the Egan Center. Also, I bought some last-minute postcards at a store, 10 for 88 cents. However, be aware that if you use the free Carnival shuttle, get a return ticket as soon as you get off the bus. Those tickets go fast and you could be left stranded, unless you raise a stink.
All in all, this was our best cruise ever. Only one person did not enjoy herself, but she came onboard miserable and left the same way. The rest of us had so much fun that we are planning our next group cruise for 2004, this time to the Southern Caribbean. Now that we have returned, other people who backed out before, now want to join our group. We're looking at about 40 people next time.
Which brings me to Josh's original cabin mate. Unbelievably, she backed out on him the day before the cruise! She said she "was busy." What a knucklehead, huh? How someone could cancel out on a once-in-a-lifetime Alaska cruise adventure is beyond me. But he had a great time anyway ... especially with his two "young" ladies from North Carolina.
He'll see the knucklehead in small claims court.