by Darryl Roach
December 27, 2012
It's been a week and some change since my body returned ashore in Galveston again, but I'm still not myself. I'm pretty sure I'm still out in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico aboard the Carnival Triumph and don't have any intentions of returning anytime soon. I was a first time cruiser on this journey so my opinion may be biased as I have nothing to compare it to, but regardless, I felt compelled to write about my wonderful experience. This will probably be lengthy, so feel free to skip through if you don't have the time.
I went on a four day cruise with my mother and sister. My mother cruised a long time ago when Carnival Cruise Lines was just the Carnival, and my sister was a first timer the same as myself. Just to be clear, we're both in our twenties, so we went as a fully adult family (no kids). My aunt and uncle had been out of Galveston twice in the past year or so (but on the Magic), so they had a lot of experience to share with us for getting through Port Galveston and utilizing time and money wisely on the ship. Just about everything they told us (except for the differences between the Magic and Triumph) was extremely accurate and made our experience wonderfully smooth. I recommend to any first time cruisers - regardless of ship and line - to find some family or friends whom have been at sea recently to brief you on your journey beforehand. It's extremely helpful!
Galveston was unseasonably cold and miserable on departure day, but for being a cruise during the holidays, things seemed pretty light at the port terminal. The porter was quick to help us with our bags and was the first of many very friendly Carnival employees we would come across. We were expecting gigantic lines for check-in through what were we told was a maze of a building and obstacles, but they breezed us through very quickly. I think we waited a total of five minutes to check in, and security was even faster than that. We were on the ship a lot earlier than we expected. We were also told that they wouldn't begin embarkation until 12:30 but we were eating lunch on the Lido deck by 11:30! They also made an announcement aboard the ship that staterooms would not be ready until 1:30, but being my inquisitive self, I left my family to continue eating as I explored the ship, and I found myself at our stateroom pretty quickly - and it was ready long before then (though the bags hadn't arrived yet).
There's really nothing to do while waiting for departure, and everything aboard the ship is closed except for the bars and food places on Lido, as well as the Lobby bar where everyone boards the ship. They are playing loud party music the whole time which is fun for a while, but you have to save some of that party for departure. Some people (including us) eventually went to their rooms to catch a quick nap or just learn the features of a stateroom. We had an exterior/ocean view room on Main deck near the bow on the port side - which gave us a good view of the boarding action and gangway. Once again a common theme, they said everyone should be aboard by 3:30, but people were still being allowed to board 10 minutes before the safety briefing. The crew of the Triumph seemed to be very lenient on scheduled times for important events throughout the entire voyage, which is fine, but it made for a late departure from Galveston as well as from Cozumel.
As far as organization goes, boarding was smooth and most everything while underway as well. However, there were a few times which the process seemed to be completely unorganized and the thousands of passengers aboard just flooded the stairwells and elevators. The first time this happened was for the mandatory safety briefing, which they ask you to report to your muster station so you can watch them demonstrate how to put on a life vest. One thing I noticed right away though, they do not make it very clear where the muster stations are even for someone who pays attention to details. I eventually found small signs near the stairs that depicted them, but that was long after we were underway. There is nothing in the stateroom that tells you where to go, and muster stations aren't really organized to staterooms either. It was for these reasons that you had people coming from forward cabins going to rear stations and vice versa, as well as crossing between port and starboard stations. It was pretty chaotic, and they lined everyone up shoulder to shoulder three or four lines deep, so it was pretty hard to watch the crew members demonstrate anything. I think a much more acceptable safety briefing would be to override all the TVs aboard the ship, including the big screen on Lido, and just let people watch it from where they are. It probably took a good half hour from our scheduled departure time to watch a five minute briefing, so most of that time was spent just getting people to the right stations and lining them up. I think that process can be streamlined big time - or in the very least provide each stateroom with a diagram of muster stations so people know where to go.
Once the mess cleared up though, the party was on and we left Galveston about an hour late. Other features aboard began to come alive as we made it into open water, but people were already attacking the bars and casino which were not allowed to open until international waters - because we left late they didn't get to open until around 6:00 that evening. We spent some time in the Lobby drinking, and of all the bars aboard I think I spent the most time there. It is in the middle of the atrium and there's constantly things going on around it, so it is not a quiet place to drink, but they seemed to be the most generous with the alcohol of all the bars during the voyage.
Dinner was quite a treat for us since we were allowed to dine in t-shirts and jeans on Casual nights, but the dining room and service is extremely formal. It takes some getting used to if you're not exposed to formalities too often. The food was good though, even though I have seen other reviews saying that it was bland, generic, etc. I found it to be very tasty, and the menu selection was pretty good for adults - and selection changes nightly. A lot of items offered I couldn't see too many children ordering though, but they have off-menu service as well if they can't pass on the chicken nuggets. The desserts are probably the best, and a lot of them are made with artificial sweeteners.
Afterwards I split from my family and went to the duty free liquor store. You can't beat 4 1-liter bottles of Bacardi products for $38 anywhere in the states! Of course you cannot have your liquor until it is delivered to you the evening before debarkation, but they delivered mine in time that we could have made some last minute drinks. A word of advice, though: be sure you know the allowances that U.S. Customs allows you to bring back, because if you're over the limit, you'll end up having to pay the tax on them anyway. Basically you can bring back 1 liter of alcohol per person of age in your group. I spent the rest of the evening exploring all of the bars aboard the ship, and I might have done a little gambling (which I don't really remember). Since you're isolated on the ship in international waters, the bartenders seem to have no problem getting you drunk as long as you remain civil and coherent, and of course can afford to keep paying $8/drink. Be careful - that adds up at the end of the trip, but I knew that going into it. I think I had some pizza on the Lido deck to end the night, and I managed to make my way safely back to the stateroom, where I found my family already fast asleep. Party poopers!
As far as bars go, I spent most of my time in the Lobby bar (which I think has another name but I just called it "Lobby"). There's lots of noise and people around everywhere, but like I mentioned they seemed the most generous on the good stuff. The bar in the casino is probably where I spent the least time drinking. It is always very busy and the staff seems to be the least attentive -but they do allow smoking on one side (cigarettes only as I learned - no cigars). Another bar I spent a lot of time in is the California Wine Bar. It serves wine, but it serves other stuff too (including a martini taster). I even saw some people angered by that fact. It is in a high traffic area but is often bypassed, so it's pretty quiet. Just behind it is the Big Easy piano bar, which is also nice if you're into that. There's going to be a lot of repeat songs in there, though. Club Rio is very much like a lounge, dark and drafty with velvety seats all around. It's a good place to drink while watching the comedy or karaoke acts, but tableside service is slow. There are also numerous smaller bars on the Lido deck, which are basically just poolside walkups. If you're looking for peace and quiet, the Oxford Pub is the best. It was always dead when I went there, so there's no one to talk to usually, but it's extremely quiet if you need a break from the noise and action of the ship. There are lots of comfortable seats, too. It is hard to find though, mid-ship on Deck 4, which is cutoff from the forward and aft parts of that deck.
The Fun Shops weren't exactly what I expected them to be, but worth a look nonetheless. The liquor store was my favorite, of course. It was small, though, which meant small selection - but they also have all your small dry good necessities, and some pharmacy items, on hand. The majority of these stores on one side were souvenirs and the other was jewelry. There was also a fragrance shop and clothing shop. Almost every time I passed them, one would always be jam packed full of people due to some promotion they were throwing, so one could hardly ever find breathing room to just browse. I suggest you do your shopping at port.
The Rome Lounge is more of a small auditorium stuffed into the forward part of the ship. I found it quite amazing something that grand would be in a ship (it took space on 4 decks and probably had close to 500 seats), but they didn't seem to offer very many shows of interest in there. Most of the time they were offering information about Carnival sailing and going ashore, and other times there was a lot of Bingo being played. In the evenings they did have some small productions. I caught the show that reviewed many of the Broadway hits, and the performers were very talented, but in general it just didn't keep my interest. I am a big fan of musicals too, but I didn't find it very entertaining. It is not formal theatre at all, either - people are allowed constantly to come and go as they please. It made me feel that they aren't utilizing the space to its full potential, because it truly is a grand theatre area.
The first sea day we went through some rough water, and sometimes would experience trouble walking. It wasn't too bad though, but the high wind forced them to close the mini golf and other activities on the upper decks. Otherwise, there was plenty of activity across the ship all day and night, and lots of activities offered. That was also the formal dinner night, or as they say, "Carnival Elegant". They even rent dresses and tuxedos for it, but I just stuck with a collared shirt and slacks. I didn't pack my dress shoes either, but I got by wearing my walking shoes. Most people stayed dressed well into the evening. I returned to Club Rio to watch the "family friendly" comedy act. Unfortunately, I think due to the self-censoring, the comedian I saw bombed horribly mostly because of lack of clean material.
The next morning we finally arrived to nice, warm weather in Cozumel. Getting off the ship was unfortunately the most unorganized mess I've had to wade through in a long time. As soon as people saw we were approaching the pier, they began to flood the stairwells, and so there was just a ton of people moving very slowly trying to squeeze through the small doors downstairs. Families were getting separated. No announcements were made other than a "welcome to Cozumel", and no efforts to organize the mess were being made either. In fact, there were even some employees in the middle of the chaos trying to sell $5 bottles of water. The only positive part of such an experience is that everyone was in such a good mood so there wasn't really any cutting in line, complaining, or anything else - just a lot of wise cracks and excitement. This was the part of the voyage where Carnival truly failed to impress me - everything else I was quite happy with.
Since this is a review of the Triumph, I will skip the details on Cozumel, only to say that it's so Americanized that you don't even feel the least bit out of place or unsafe - at least in the cruise ship area. I didn't go into town so I can't say what it's like there, but I assume it's very much the same. Getting back on the ship was the same nightmare as getting off - no organization and very slow security process. We departed about an hour late, but everyone was so drunk and happy that the entire ship was partying as we said goodbye to Mexico. They held a late night party on the Lido deck, which was a lot of fun, but we ran back into the weather we'd left behind and mid-party it began to get very windy and cold.
The second sea day was a rough one. Winter in the Gulf of Mexico at its finest. I was watching the waves from the outer part of the Lobby deck crash on the bow of the ship and then splash nearly twenty feet away from us. The rough seas were not unfelt throughout the ship. In fact, I could not really sit down for a long period of time because I'd begin to feel queasy. Walking around was tough for a lot of people, too, but everyone remained in good spirits. I stayed on the Lido deck most of the day, just because it seemed to be the least motionless deck, although the pools had been drained because it was so rough, water was going everywhere. Also, the list of ship's activities was much shorter than the outbound sea day's. There was hardly anything to do except drink and gamble. It seems like they should spend a lot of time that day entertaining people, because they'll all be sad the next when they have to get off the ship.
Carnival realized there were a lot of Dallas Cowboys fans requesting the game on this trip, so it made the big screen that evening as a planned event. So instead of dinner, my family and I took part in the dining room lunch for the first time. The menu was decent, but service was nothing like the evening dinner service. These were different waiters, and they were not as friendly or attentive as the evening crew. I would just stick to lunch on the Lido deck. So that evening in rough seas, my family went out on the Lido deck amongst a bunch of other Cowboys fans bundled up in warm clothes, blankets, and towels to watch the game on the big screen. It was not a scene you'd expect on a cruise, but everyone was making the best of it. This being a few days past Christmas though, there were a lot of kids on this trip. It seemed tolerable most of the trip for singles, couples, and adults in general, but the last evening things kind of got out of hand. There were a lot of kids just roaming free throughout the ship with no parents around. Yes, even in the casino. That wouldn't be tolerated in Las Vegas. I don't know why that evening was different from the rest, but it was enough to say I wouldn't go around Christmas again.
To counter that, I went to the late night "adults only" comedy show, where the comedian I'd seen before did a lot better material-wise. The second comedian was extremely funny, and had everyone laughing start to finish. It was a nice way to end the night and keep minds off of the rough waters we were all feeling. The host of the show also brought up an interesting statistic that made me think there were a lot of fellow Texans aboard. He said that the Club Rio bar for a standard four day trip usually takes in about $12000-$14000 in liquor sales, but this voyage being so near Christmas had over 1100 passengers under 18, they estimated a much lower take. By that night (and they weren't even finished serving yet), they had brought in $34000 on our trip alone, in that bar alone. I got a good laugh from that, too.
Information was readily available about debarkation across the ship, so they are most organized when trying to get everyone off the ship. Everything is done the night before - if you're checking your bags they bring tags, and they also bring your Declarations forms. They tell you to debark by floor numbers and stay out of the Lobby. Carnival means business for arrival. Everything except Lido is shut down, and we went to breakfast before getting ready to leave. When we came back, they had already started to clean our room. They were friendly about it, but it was obvious they wanted to turn the ship fast, as it was leaving again that same afternoon. Everything in that process went smoothly, except that the handle on one of my liquor boxes broke and one of my bottles went leaking all over the floor of the Lobby. I was very upset for a few minutes, but to anyone that was trying to step around that mess, I apologize. It turned out that I would have had to pay taxes on it anyway as I was one over my family limit, but of course I was willing to do that so I still considered it a loss. But getting through Customs was a breeze and again Port Galveston was a cinch. We were on our way home in no time.
That is where I'll conclude my inexperienced cruise review. I hope it offers some insight into first time experiences and the Carnival Triumph. Carnival has some issues here and there, and I don't expect perfection, but overall it was an amazing experience that left me high, dry, and begging for more. It was not nearly long enough for me and I am already trying to arrange to go on my second cruise for my upcoming birthday. This time I'll probably go it alone or with a friend, and on a longer trip with more ports of call. Would I sail on Triumph again? Yes. Would I sail on Carnival again? Yes. But would I consider another cruise line as well? Yes, if just for the perspective.