February 20, 2003
Here's a quick summary for those who don't want the detail: We had a great time, the ship is beautiful and kept remarkably clean. All the service was friendly, even the casino dealers. The Camp Carnival program for kids is excellent and greatly adds to Mom & Dad's ability to relax and enjoy. Food was plentiful and of good quality. It's hard to beat the value of this trip (or it would be if I didn't drink at all).
This was the third cruise for my wife and me; the previous two were on NCL's Norway and Carnival's Imagination. It was the first cruise for our daughters, ages 6 and 10. We had debated going to an island versus taking a cruise, and whether to bring the girls or go by ourselves. Finally we decided on a cruise with the girls, and booked just a few weeks ahead through vacationstogo.com, our first time using them. We have nothing but positive feedback on their site and service. We flew from Rochester, N.Y. to Fort Lauderdale a day early via AirTran. Since we almost missed our last cruise due to late/missed flights, and since Rochester had already received 120+ inches of snow this season, we didn't want to take any chances. It was probably a good decision as most of the Eastern Seaboard was shut down the previous weekend from major snowstorms.
We stayed at the Comfort Inn in Hollywood, about 15 minutes from the Ft. Lauderdale airport. It has a free airport shuttle, but if you're in a hurry you might want to price out a cab (or lie when you call the hotel and tell them you already have your luggage!). The cost for the night was $132, including a shuttle the next day for the four of us to the Port of Miami and a pretty nice buffet breakfast.
The shuttle ride to the port took about 30 minutes, and we encountered the usual chaos there. A Carnival rep directed us to give our bags to a porter, who was obviously expecting a tip, and who threw our bags into a cart approximately three feet away -- nice racket. We started the embarkation process about half an hour before it was scheduled to begin, along with quite a few other people. It didn't take long (don't forget to fill out boarding forms ahead of time!), and we were allowed to go right to our rooms. Our biggest surprise was that our room had been upgraded from ocean-view (probably on Deck 1 or 2) to a balcony room on Deck 5. The room was the same size, and the balcony is only about 3x6 feet, but the perception was definitely more elbow room. We had no room assignment until we boarded, and our contact at Vacationstogo.com had mentioned this might happen. With four people in one stateroom, every additional inch helped!
Carnival does a nice job with the 185 square feet claimed in the specs. In addition to the two twin beds that can be pushed together, there is a couch that converts to a bed and has two drawers underneath (some space taken by bedding), and a Pullman-type bed that drops out of the ceiling to form an upper bunk over the convertible bed. We had to let our girls take turns in the upper bunk to keep the peace. The guard that prevents rolling off the bunk was secure and long enough for us to feel it was safe, even with our accident-prone six-year-old up there. There was sufficient closet and storage space for the four of us, and my wife is not a light packer! There are leather thong pulls on the drawers and closet doors, which doesn't add much to the look, but does prevent you from catching clothes on knobs in the tight quarters.
The bathroom/shower was roomy for the limited space available, offering several rimmed shelves for storage, and the shower had sufficient room and plenty of water pressure. I generally prefer shower doors to a curtain, but this one wasn't bad.
We usually went to the buffet for breakfast. It was OK, but not outstanding. The scrambled eggs were OK, the bacon not as crispy as I prefer, the ham and sausages were good. After the first day, I usually had an omelet made, which
My wife and older daughter had room service continental breakfast a few times; the food was OK and the service quick. We never tried the dining room for breakfast. We only had lunch a few times, also from the Lido buffet. Again it was good, with a quite a variety. Sometimes it gets a little confusing with the multiple stations, especially if it's crowded. Offering different regional cuisine each day for lunch is a nice touch. The hamburgers from the grill by the pool were all right.
Because of the kids, we took early seating at dinner. We were happy with our table for four on the lower level. It was off in a corner, with a partition on one end, blocking off a server station. There was a nice view, and we didn't find it disruptive being next to the station; in fact, we were always able to find our servers! I was glad we weren't in the main part of the room as it seemed more crowded and noisy. The food was high quality, especially the vegetables. Portions weren't overwhelming, but there was no problem ordering an extra appetizer or entrée. I tried the seafood pretty regularly and was always pleased with it. The kids usually ordered off the children's menu, which was mostly the typical junk food, plus a smaller version of the adult pasta entrée offered as the kids' special.
We were happy with our serving team. They served us in a timely fashion, even on those days (most of them) when we were running late. The barmaid (bar person?) was friendly and accurate, but not available a lot. On a trip to the restroom one night I happened to see where she had to go for drinks, and it was quite a ways from the dining room, so it was understandable. All the servers treated our two daughters well, and asked about them the couple of times they had dinner at the kids' camp.
We never tried the premium restaurant, which costs $25 per person, but everyone I talked to that did so said it was well worth the price.
We hit the 24-hour pizza place a couple of times, usually after a late night in the casino. We come from a city with many excellent pizza places; these pies were OK, and tasted great sitting out on the balcony at 3 a.m.!
The kids enjoyed the always-available ice cream stations also.
We purchased soft drink cards for the girls ($25 plus gratuity), thinking they'd save us quite a bit of money, but I'm not sure it was much more than break-even. They usually had juice or punch in the Lido, and soft drinks were included at dinner, and for whatever reason, the girls didn't use them as much as I would have thought. They might be a better deal for older kids.
The Camp Carnival program was great. We had to take the kids from noon to 2 p.m. for lunch, and from 5-7 p.m. for dinner. Other than that, they could attend camp at no additional charge from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., and kids more than nine years old could sign themselves in and out. From 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. they would watch the two girls for $10 an hour. We loved the program, and all the counselors seemed both nice and competent. Just be sure to let them know at drop-off time if your spouse or some other adult can pick them up, and don't forget to bring your ship ID with you! They are very strict about following procedures.
Speaking of kids, there was not an overwhelming number on this cruise -- about 40 in each of four age groups, plus infants. There didn't seem to be large numbers of teenagers or rowdy partying types either. Most couples appeared to be in the 35-50 age group, and overall the atmosphere was pretty sedate. There were two average-sized pools and one small pool, all filled with salt water and never greatly crowded. The lounge areas near the pools were almost always crowded, but we always found some place to set up shop, and always found lounge chairs. One area where quality was lacking was the chaise lounges. The reclining mechanisms were shoddy, and they regularly fell apart. Even when functioning properly, they did not fold down anywhere near flat.
The water slide at the top of the ship was closed most of the way down due to high winds - and they were strong at that height! On the way back it was open most of the time and we used it quite a bit. The lines were not that long most of the time and it was a refreshing break and fun for the whole family. Obviously if there had been more children on board, the waits would have extended somewhat.
We only attended one show - a big band tribute to Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis
The casino is very nice, roomy, clean, and not real smoky. I usually could find a $10 blackjack table, sometimes $5, and I broke even up until the last night (you can guess how that went!). My wife played the slots and found a good variety of machines (not well paying for her, though). We both put in plenty of hours here without getting hurt too bad. All the dealers were friendly and would offer advice if asked without being condescending. There are a couple variations of Blackjack, Roulette, Caribbean Stud, and Let-It-Ride.
It was nice that all three stops were at cruise docks, so no tenders were involved. The St. Maarten pier was in a main shopping/beach area on the Dutch side of the island. The Barbados and Martinique piers were in industrial/commercial wharf environments. I wish the daily newsletter had provided some more general information about the stops, but it focused on cruise sponsored tours and excursions.
St. Maarten (7 a.m. to 4 p.m.). There is a water taxi from the dock that goes on a loop to 'uptown' and 'downtown' stops. Kids under 12 rode free and adults could buy an all day-pass for $5. We took it to the shopping area right off the beach and hit some stores. This is definitely the place for shopping on this cruise, especially for liquor -- e.g. Absolut and Tanqueray at $6-7 per bottle. The U.S. duty-free limit is two liters per family. We had four, and the Customs official looked right at it when we cleared back in Miami but didn't say anything. You are allowed two more bottles from Barbados, but the prices aren't nearly as good. Souvenirs were also very inexpensive and negotiable. After a little shopping, we spent the rest of the time at a small bar on the beach. They had beach service including lunches. We just rented some beach chairs and tanned and swam the day away. I can't remember the name of the place. Facing the beach, it's just to the left of the ferry stop furthest from the cruise dock.
Barbados (Noon to 10 p.m.). As noted, the ship docked in a rather grim wharf area; buses were provided to the main passenger terminals where taxis were available. Some sponsored outings did pick up right at the ship. It rained on and off most of the day, which I don't think is that unusual for Barbados. Everything here was more expensive than St. Maarten, and there was not much haggling. Cab rides from the terminal were posted at $20-$40 to go almost anywhere. We hired a driver for a short cruise of the island as it was raining when we started out. It was very lush and scenic. He stopped at a spot where a man had a couple of monkeys that would perch on you for pictures (and a small tip of course). The kids loved this. We had the driver drop us at Folkestone Marine Park, as we had read you could snorkel from the beach there. The park was small, without a big beach, but the swimming area is very sandy. There is a small dive/gift shop and changing rooms. It was a great spot to teach the kids to snorkel, as there were fish visible in shallow water. The cab picked us back up at the end of the day and we returned to the ship for dinner and gambling.
Martinique (7 a.m. 2 p.m.). My wife came down with an infection this morning so we got to visit the ship's infirmary for some antibiotics. The doctor and nurse were both very pleasant, and the wait was short. Since the ship was only in port a short time, and my wife wasn't feeling that well, we stayed on board and enjoyed the sparse crowds. From talking with other passengers that night at dinner and at the casino, those who went into town weren't too impressed, but those who went to one of the beaches said they were nice.
The usual process -- not real painful, but somewhat tedious. We had a late flight back, so we spent some time on the Lido deck before getting off the ship. The long lines through customs moved pretty quickly, and our inspection was fairly cursory. As I noted above, the official glanced at the four-bottle case of liquor from St. Maarten but didn't ask about it. He did question my wife as to how many cigarettes she was bringing back. It was confusing, and took a while to find transport back to the Ft. Lauderdale airport. The cost was about $40 for the four of us, but we had plenty of time so it wasn't too stressful. Once there, we found a little spot just past the airport with a picnic table under a tree, where we could have a leisurely takeout lunch. This was a nice find as our terminal was fairly small, and crowded, and not a good place to be with two tired kids.
Overall, we had a great time, and would definitely recommend this ship and itinerary, especially for families. There was plenty of at-sea time, great food and service, and interesting islands to explore. The roughest seas were about six foot waves, and no one experienced any discomfort. Since we've been home, we've already had 12-14 more inches of snow, plus an ice storm that cut the power for four days. I sure wish we were back onboard!