by Chris Owen
December 22, 2002
Why a cruise?-some background
"You'll be up and ready to go at 3:30 in the morning", Lisa said. She wasn't far off. At 4:30 I was up and ready to get going, although I had been awake since 2:30. Today was the first day of our Christmas holiday land and cruise vacation. Our flight was to leave Kansas City International Airport at 11:30 that morning, but the limo would be here to pick us up at 8 AM. This would be easily 2 extra hours of waiting at the airport but what the heck, better than waiting at home.
"You're like a kid on Christmas morning", she said. True.
I had been waiting far longer leading up to this day so a couple extra hours at the airport were nothing to me. Our last cruise vacation had been 6 loooooooong months ago. Due to school activities with the girls (we have two, Sydney17 and Whitney15) we had to skip our fall vacation. I (my name is Chris, the husband and father) am self employed. For the last 10 years, while we were building our business, we took about 8 days off. That was about it. Lisa (the wife),in the healthcare business for 30 years, has accumulated enough time off to take a walking tour of every city in Europe, at a slow pace.
In August of 2001 we celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary with a short 4 day cruise out of Miami on Carnival's Fascination. We opted for a shorter cruise because we didn't want to be "stuck" on a ship if we didn't like it. I mean, how many old people can you take? My idea of cruising was a boat full of senior citizens sitting on deck chairs, wrapped in shawls trying to keep warm while waiting for the next bingo or bridge game to begin.
The whole family went and, to make a long story short, we fell in love with cruising, Carnival Style. When it was over we all agreed that it was the best vacation ever and that the Carnival slogan of being "The Fun Ships" was totally on the mark, not just some advertising gimmick. This is comparing to our only other vacation in the past decade, a $10,000, no expense spared week at Disney world, promoted as the happiest place on the planet, when the kids were 10 and 8 years old and fought the whole time. I never could figure out how that was possible in such a happy place.
I dubbed it the Dreary World vacation.
Since that time I have learned that there are many other cruise lines, offering a variety of "products". In addition to critical and valuable information about cruising in general, I have learned from cruise message boards such as cruisecritics.com that there seems to be a hierarchy among cruise enthusiasts concerning which line is best suited for each individual. And the choices are plentiful.
We liked that Fascination cruise so much that we booked the Carnival Victory for Christmas 2001. That cruise was on a much larger ship and on a 7 day itinerary. The idea was to start a family tradition that could be carried on well after the kids were off in the world creating families of their own. This turned out to be a great idea. The kids made some great friends with some really nice kids that they still talk to online almost every day. We booked the Victory again for Christmas 2002 as soon as we got back home. In addition we booked Carnival's Ecstasy out of Los Angeles for spring break 2002 and the Victory AGAIN for Summer 2002, this time a different itinerary. We had a lot of time to make up on vacations that should have been and had found the perfect vacation experience in cruising and Carnival.We love Miami
On our first cruise we flew into Miami the day of embarkation (cruise talk for when you get on the ship). That made me, the planner of the bunch, crazy. I was sure our flight would be delayed and the ship would leave without us. Didn't happen but on the next cruise we opted to come into Miami a day early, allowing time for any airline foul- ups that might happen.
This decision would change our lives forever.
Coming from Kansas, and a cold winter climate in December, to Miami is simply intoxicating. We fell in love with this city and decided we would need to live here someday soon. Sydney, looking forward to choosing a college pretty soon, listed the University of Miami towards the top of the list. We decided to let the younger one, Whitney, finish high school first, then move. At least that's the plan. So instead of our vacation being just about cruising (as if it were not enough) we started adding days on before and after for time exploring Miami, framing the cruise which would always be the primary subject of what could almost be called a work of art.
And that brings us to now and this vacation.
On previous pre-cruise stays we used the Best Western Marina Park hotel, across the street from Bayside Marketplace, a fun shopping, dining and entertainment area of Miami and minutes away from the Port of Miami, where our ship would be. We had always been pleased with the hotel. It was nothing really fancy but a good value and great location. Since our last cruise they had begun the process of becoming a Holiday Inn. I have not heard bad reports of the hotel during this transition but I have not heard good ones either.
When planning our vacations, I spend a lot of time and effort researching and planning up to the point of embarkation then from debarkation (getting off the ship in cruse talk) to home to eliminate as many variables that could go wrong as possible. The time between embark and debarkation is intentionally left unplanned, promoting a leisurely cruse vacation that is right in line with Carnivals credo that "its your vacation, do what you want".
And we do.
This would be a good time to bring up the subject of cash. Bring plenty, in some form. Although Carnival warns you that the ATM machine on board may run out of cash during your cruise this had never happened to us before. This time the ATM machine was broken the whole time. Not a big problem as I had brought plenty of cash. The really important cash to bring is small bills. Ones and fives for baggage handlers and a little something for room service on the ship (tip not included here because it's complementary- 24 hours a day), tens and twenties because local merchants frequently cannot break bills of higher denominations.
If you fail to bring enough or just plain spend more than you anticipated, even if the ATM machine is on the fritz you are not lost. In the casino, you can still "buy" coins or chips to play with. There is a 3% surcharge for this but on, say, $100 its not all that much more than you might pay for an ATM fee. Also, if you're on the Western itinerary and can hold out till you get to Grand Cayman you'll be fine. There are banks all over the place with ATM's that dispense American dollars. Good luck finding one in Cozumel or Jamaica.
Make it yours
Lisa enjoys reading half a dozen books in quiet places on the ship, the girls meet new friends and think the disco is just great. I am a casino freak (only on a cruise ship) and find the facilities and staff on Carnival ships first class, not to mention their Ocean Players Club which I'll go into later. If you've heard that Carnival=rowdy you've heard wrong. I'm not sure where that comes from but it has not been our experience on any of our Carnival cruises. Surely, if you want to party dang near all day and night, you can. There are bars, lounges, shows and bunches of party hardy people on board. But at the same time there is Camp Carnival, an awesome program for kids that involves the parents as well. There is everything from an Afternoon Tea on days at sea to deck parties, golf excursions, vegas-style shows, a full service internet cafe, and, yes, bingo, to name just a few. You'll see people from all age brackets and all parts of the world on board too. Even in the bingo games. Ok enough with that, now to the details of this cruise vacation aboard the Carnival Victory.
Getting in town
We arrived Thursday afternoon at Ft Lauderdale International Airport (FLL). We choose to fly into FLL rather than Miami as the flight availability is generally more flexible and the prices are good. Our American Airlines flight was right on time and we were greeted by our chauffer from Holland Limousine at curbside. We had previously used ABC Limo service but on the last trip they had us waiting for about an hour for pick up. No good.
There are several options for transportation. If you buy air through the cruiselines you can buy transportation too. The big negative to that is that they take you in big tour busses (which I avoid like the plague) which is ok except that they hold the busses till they are full (logical) with passengers arriving from all over the place at different times (inconvenient) I don't like the lack of control but if everybody did what we do then there would be a shortage of limousines and cabs so please book your transportation through the cruiselines so I don't have to arm wrestle you for a ride.
We arrived at our new choice for accommodations, the Intercontinental Hotel, in about 45 minutes. The Intercontinental is a full service and first class hotel located across the street from Bayfront Park, which is right next to the Bayside Marketplace but closer to where the ships dock as far as viewing from your room is concerned. A must do is booking a room with a harbor view. Waking up on the morning of your cruise and seeing your cruise ship waiting for you is quite a thrill. Better yet, wake up early and watch as it pulls into port.
You'll need to get up right at 5:30 to see this but it's quite a sight to see your ship come into port, turn around and dock. On departure day for our Victory cruise, the first ship into port is Carnival's Paradise, a smoke free haven for those bothered by smokers. She (ships are ladies) arrives about an hour before the Victory and takes her place in the front of a line of ships that will include a couple of Royal Caribbean (RCL) ships including Navigator of the Seas, the one with the ice skating rink, rock climbing wall, miniature golf course and fast food restaurants for those who would prefer to believe they are at an amusement park, and the Norwegian Sun.
The Intercontinental has various rate plans and rooms or suites. We chose a club level room on the 30th floor which includes 24 hour access to the ship's health club (a good one) and services of the club concierge as well as access to the club level lounge. The lounge offers a nice continental breakfast and an afternoon happy hour both included in the price. In addition, their 24 hour room service is great to have and they do a very nice job.
We learned the hard way about the importance of room service when traveling into a strange city. When we took our spring break cruise on Carnival's Ecstasy out of Los Angeles we booked a hotel close to the pier. Unfamiliar with the area we quickly found out that the hotel was also close to a heavily gang populated area. That was pretty scary stuff for a nice little family from Kansas. The closest we get to gang activity here is when Whitney thugs around the house doing her best little suburban white girl gone hip hop routine. Room service has been important ever since then. I would highly recommend the Intercontinental and will use them again in the future, until we live there anyway.
We enjoyed the Intercontinental on Thursday night, Friday and Saturday, using it as a base from which to do our exploring. Since Whitney hates the beach (white as a sheet that girl is) we opted to check out the Miami Seaquarium on Friday. Don't waste your money. What a dump. Sea World in Orlando is much better. That out of the way, we spent time in South Beach (a must), Bayside and the hotel. The city of Miami was putting on a Christmas Village carnival/display in Bayfront Park. If you're in the area go see this. In addition to a beautiful holiday display sure to put you in the spirit of it all, they have a huge carnival with tons of typically lousy but awesome food. If you're a fan of traveling circus' and carnivals you know what I mean. If you're not then you think I'm nuts but you will before this is all over anyway so we might as well get that little issue out of the way right now.
I bring up this Christmas village mainly for one reason. What appeared to be an innocent fun-for- all amusement park turned out to be a great (and fun to watch) lesson in life for our naive and apparently sheltered teens. Today they learned about fast talking carnival workers. To the tune of sixty bucks each, trying to win a stuffed toy no doubt worth 69 cents.
"I can't believe you just stood there laughing while that guy took all our money", Whitney said. "That guy didn't take anything, you gave it to him!" I replied. Lesson learned. Not exactly a great memory to end our pre-cruise stay with but one that they'll carry with them for a long time I am sure.
The big day
The next day, Sunday, brought our ship into port right on time and the day of embarkation. We took a cab the short distance from the hotel to the pier. I think it was $7 and about the most cost effective method other than walking. We arrived at 10:00 as the previous cruise's passengers were disembarking. After giving our luggage to the porters gathering Victory luggage we proceeded inside the terminal. Surprisingly, we were one of the first ones there. On previous cruises we had arrived earlier and were not first. I think this was a fluke. I like to go early (duh) because I want the maximum amount of time onboard. About 11:15 we went through security, checked our cruise documents and proceeded upstairs to pick up our Sign and Sail cards.
The cruise documents are part of what is needed to board the ship. In the document package is the contract between you and the cruise line, boring but important reading. There are also several areas that require you to provide additional information such as the credit card you will use to pay for your onboard purchases. It always amazes me that there are people who have not filled this stuff out. What were they doing for the weeks before the cruise? Those people hold up what can be a very long line of other passengers who will be giving them dirty looks for the whole cruise if not arranging for them to "accidentally" fall overboard out of international waters and into the path of some Cuban patrol boat out looking for somebody to fill a vacant bed for life in a dreary prison.
The Sign and Sail card
The Sign and Sail card is your method of paying for stuff on the ship. Your cash is no good on board, till the end of the cruise. You can put down a cash deposit if you want to but you'll have to stand in the never-ending line at the purser's desk on the ship. Avoid this area except at 3 AM when everybody is asleep. If you're going to use cash you might as well use a VISA check card. We do, have never had a problem, and don't have to stand in any additional line. If you like lines you'll have plenty of other opportunities if you so desire. If you don't like lines the embarkation line can be the last one you stand in for a week. With a little planning this really is possible. Email me if you want to know how to do this and if I think you're worthy I will tell you how.
After picking up the Sign and Sail cards you wait in a large but comfortable room until the ship is ready to be boarded. The time varies on this wait and although it has not been our experience I understand that this can take quite some time if there is some problem with immigration or customs concerning the last bunch of passengers. If you come early and see a herd of people leaving, you're probably ok and things are going according to schedule. In our five Carnival cruises we have never been delayed and are usually on board between 12:15 and 12:30 as witnessed by the embarkation photo taken as you board.
This will be the first of many photo opportunities and I highly recommend you do a few things regarding this. Decide in advance what configuration your group will take to pose for candid pictures. On our first couple cruises the more aggressive members of our party were front and center and the more docile ones were but a head peeking over the shoulders of the others. Also, practice smiling at a moments notice. The mirror in your bathroom at home will work nicely for this and provide a fun activity to fill time during the dreaded "anticipation period" between when your travel documents arrive and the cruise begins. You might set up a ramp propped up on the tub or commode to simulate getting off the ship at a port if that helps. You local sporting good store can provide life preservers too. Buy one, paint the name of your hometown on it and hold it in front of you as you practice smiling. Remember, you're in the privacy of your own bathroom so no one can laugh at you. When you've mastered this, invite the rest of the family in to practice with you. When onboard, take advantage of every opportunity to get your picture taken. Carnival's photographers are great and you are under no obligation to buy any of the photos they take. Later in the day, your pictures are displayed with the hundreds of others in the ships photo gallery for your approval. They're not all that expensive (little ones cost six bucks) and make great Christmas gifts for relatives that either out of town or that you just don't like all that much. In addition to these candid shots that are unavoidable anyway there are opportunities to pose for a photo with various backdrops for a more formal look. Again, there is no obligation to buy. I only wish they had the ability to cut my head out and insert Brad Pitt or Jon Bon Jovi.
After the photo opportunity we stop to have an ID picture taken to associate with our Sign and Sail card. In addition to charging all your onboard purchases it is also used to get on and off the ship. Security scans your card as you leave to and then when you get back on the ship. I suppose when the ship is ready to leave a port if there are some passengers not accounted for they view the pictures and decide if they want to go looking for them or not. I'd bet the ugly ones and those that did not practice posing in the bathroom get left behind. Because Carnival IS the cruise line for beautiful people and if you were not beautiful and somehow managed to board anyway you will be beautiful before you get off with a few spa treatments and a couple acts of God (which is not reason to get cruise fare refunded as per that contract in your cruise documents should you not like the new you).
So the entire embarkation process was totally successful. I give it an A+.
After embarkation the first stop for us on the Victory is our cabin. We originally booked a category 11 suite, a very nice cabin with a little larger balcony than some other categories. A couple months ago a category 9 cabin with a huge wraparound balcony came open. Cabin 8428 is one of just a few all the way aft that sports a balcony that literally wraps around its corner location. So instead of us all being in a larger category 11 cabin we split up and put two of us in the corner wraparound balcony cabin and two in an inside cabin just across the hall. This is the first time we did this but it is surely the way to go when traveling with older kids. I wouldn't think of doing it with young children but with older, responsible teens this arrangement offers a lot of advantages. First and foremost it allows us 2 bathrooms for the group, a definite timesaver when getting ready to go do something, like formal night. 4 people bumping into each other getting ready for formal night, for example, is not a lot of fun. In addition, this arrangement lets everyone have their own bed. Not a rollaway, pull out, or hang down bunk but a real bed of their own. Those two reasons are ample to justify the nominal extra charge (I think it worked out to a little less than $200 as opposed to us all in one cabin)
I must mention too that their inside cabin was very nice. Other than the absence of a window or balcony, it was just perfect for two teens who like to sleep in. No annoying tropical sun or ocean surf sounds to wake them up. In fact, with our all the way aft location, foot traffic around our cabins was nominal, providing a nice, quiet cruise. If that's what you're looking for, I'd suggest picking a cabin that is not "on the way" to someplace like this one. Located on the Verandah deck, just under the active Lido deck, we found this area to be just perfect. I had heard some comments that noise from the area above could be annoying. I never heard a sound. Others, however, did hear quite a few sounds on occasion. Actually there were two occasions worth mentioning just for how well Carnival handled them.
One occasion was the night and early morning of the crew's Christmas party. I had remembered from last year that they closed off the aft part of the lido deck for this purpose from last year but never really thought much of it this trip. Remember, our cabins were located on the Verandah deck, right UNDER the lido deck. Well I guess that in other cabins on our deck the party was really loud with music, dancing and general relocation of chairs (musical chairs?) and some cabins complained to the Pursers desk (the 24 hour place to complain if you must). Our kids said they didn't sleep but kinda liked the music and that one passenger they knew of took their pillow and slept in the hallway in a more forward hallway. They went on to say that they had also called the Pursers desk to find out what was going on. Respectful of the crew's right to celebrate also they left it at that. The next day they received a letter from one of the Junior Pursers saying how sorry they were for the noise and offering a 10% discount on a future cruise. I thought this was dang nice of Carnival and would surely be put to good use. Actually, by then I had emailed our TA from the ship's internet cafe to order this cruise again for next year and wished I had that letter then. Oh well, we'll surely use it.
Another incident that happened by our inside cabins involves some of the what I thought were well behaved (for their age) kids on board. Somehow they managed to set off the fire sprinklers in their cabin and the adjacent hallway. My first thought on learning this was of a post I had read on some cruse bulletin board about some people who had a cabin with wet carpets throughout their cruise. I wondered if this was why. The I impressive part of this was how Carnival handled the situation. First, before the sprinklers had even stopped a small army of security personnel swarmed the area. I heard all the commotion in the hallway and went out to see what was going on. Within minutes of the sprinklers being turned off, they were attempting to extract the water from the carpets in the hallway and that room and had brought in giant fans to help dry the area out. Then, after working on that cabin for a while, I guess they decided that it would not be dry in time for the next guests coming on board so they replaced the carpet. All I can say is that I can't think of anything else they could have done to fix this situation any faster. Good work by the maintenance department (or whatever they are called). I wondered what happened to the kids that did that. I think they should have had to pay for it but I doubt that they did.
Carnival's policy is that you cannot book two kids in the same cabin without an adult, I wonder if this might not be a reason for it. But those two well handled incidents (hey things happen) aside, this is still my favorite location and agree with those who had recommended it to me.
I had also heard that this is a great location because it is located right next to a set of "crew only" stairs that open up right by the bar and pizza place on the lido deck providing a great way to "pop up there for a quick snack". I don't think it is a good idea to use those crew stairs. I did a couple of times and felt as if I had invaded their privacy. The crew, it seems, sneaks out there for a quick break from time to time. I felt like I was being rude using this area. Maybe it was just me but on this cruise I saw passengers popping out of "crew only" designated areas quite a bit. Not sure why that was but it seemed awkward.
Our Cabin Steward
As we were checking out our cabins, we met our steward JESUSCHRIST who was from BUMFUCKEGYPT and a really nice guy. His service was excellent but unobtrusive, just the way we like it. I must say though that if making animals out of towels were an art this guy should change his name to Picasso as he was surely a master. The monkey hanging down from the ceiling of our cabin that he made one night was truly incredible. I don't have any other specific stories to relate about him saving my life, making ornate towel animals that were dead ringers for muppets or teaching me his native language while cleaning the toilet but he did a good job. What more can one ask for?
I give the cabin and cabin service an A+.
Stuff we do first when we get on board
Our next stop is always the dining room to check our table location. Although I don't really believe that there are any bad tables in either one of the dining rooms we check anyway and like to meet the Maitre d' prior to the first meal. On this cruise, however, we had a real reason for going. Our travel agent had not linked the two cabins as far as dinner reservations were concerned (they CAN) and we had been assigned different tables. We like a table for 4. The maitre d', JESUS CHRIST, was happy to help and quickly solved the problem. More on the dining room staff and food later.
Now it was time to pop upstairs where we traveled down the promenade deck and were offered holiday champagne at every turn. Nice touch. The Promenade deck is where the casino, disco, arcade and shops are located as well as one way to access the Caribbean Lounge, the ship's showroom. From there you can also access the lobby bar, pursers desk, information desk and photo gallery. If ever in doubt as to which button to push on the elevator, pick the Promenade deck. All areas kind of flow from there and it makes a great starting place. Any elevator from this deck will go up to deck 9, the Lido deck, where most of the food is located.
Today they are serving the welcome aboard lunch at which one can try any of the various offerings available. I went directly to the Mississippi BBQ for a steak sandwich, one of my persona favorites. Kinda disappointing. Somebody made the mistake of deciding it was a good idea to precook the steaks then heat them back up on the grill prior to serving. In addition, they cut the steak a little thinner, to the point that it is not the same product I have raved about in these reviews in the past. I hope somebody fixes this. The overall food quality here was simply excellent. This stuck out like a sore thumb.
Due to the recent headlines citing "outbreaks" of this common virus on cruise ships we decided to take a few precautions just to be safe. We stocked up on hand sanitizer, a product we had never used before, to take along. One of the first pieces of literature we see upon embarkation is a letter from Bob Dickinson, president of Carnival, that tells me these hand sanitizers do no good against Norwalk and that frequent hand washing is a much more effective prevention. Makes sense to me and we do but I'll still use the hand sanitizer anyway because it makes my hands smell lovely.
We also decided to stay away from the buffets, knowing for a fact that many people are not fastidious about their hand washing and that transfer of ANY virus is most likely through touch. I knew this from my previous life in the restaurant business and Lisa knew this from her hospital work. I really believe that chances of the foodservice personnel washing their hands with appropriate frequency are much greater than the average guest. I guess this thinking goes back to my planning credo of trying to eliminate as many variables that could make things go awry as possible cited earlier.
I must say that I am not totally convinced of the seriousness of this "outbreak" and really believe that the media has blown the whole thing way out of proportion. I think they're just chomping at the bit trying to find a terrorist link in all this. Now that IS sick. Still, when dealing with the closed environment a cruise ship at sea provides, it is very prudent for Carnival to be concerned. This is something that star fleet has known about for years. No way Captain Picard would go on an away mission without being passing through the Enterprize's quarantine procedure to insure that some foreign virus or attached creature would not infect the ship. Heck, even old Dr McCoy from the original series knew that. I tip my hat to Bob Dickinson for bringing up the issue early in the cruise. In addition, I saw many more of the service crew working gloved than in the past, one obvious sign of their concern. Good job Carnival.
I guess the true test of all of this is the reported number of incidents of sickness on the cruise. There were none that I know of and there were a whole bunch of people using the buffets. With so many kids on board, the buffets were very popular.
Handling the Norwalk thing: A+
Being at sea is one of my favorite parts of cruising. To me, being cut off from land, surrounded by ocean as far as you can see, is just awesome. I don't need to do anything to have a great time, but the possible activities make up a daunting list. There truly is something for everyone. One of the more popular activities which is not listed anywhere is people watching. This takes place in places with almost as much variety as the people on board. From any of the lounges, seating areas or decks you can see this going on. If you like to watch people, you'll have an abundant supply of subjects on this ship.
Another popular activity is figuring stuff out. Where things are on the ship and how to get there, what to do in port, which shore excursion to take, where and what to eat and what clothes to wear occupy a lot of time. As you step foot onboard you are handed a pocket sized diagram of the ship that can be helpful with a few guidelines. I highly recommend that future cruisers go to carnival.com and memorize the deck plans. Better yet, if a flip booklet of all the decks ever becomes available before you cruise, get it or if its included in your travel documents, study it. Someday a good travel agent will start including this critical information in the stuff they all send you before your cruise and it will catch on instantly. On the Victory it is important to remember that not all decks run the length of the ship, a detail that is not real apparent in the little guide you get on embarkation. I like helping confused people find their way and often tell the nice ones some shortcuts that I have learned from our previous cruises on this ship.
People are so trusting.
I could have told them to go through a door that leads to the ships dungeon and they'd take it. Don 't worry about this though because even if I am not on your cruise there are members of the crew positioned all around the place available to ask for directions. I wish they were more aggressive about that though. You'll have to ask for directions. I have seen little family groups bumping into walls and tripping over each other looking for their cabin while the crew waits for the question. This might be a cultural thing though. With many countries represented in the international crew, looking bewildered might be a mating ritual in Borneo causing the crew to keep their distance (understandable).
All in all I would have to rate the crew as very helpful. This is one of the big reasons we have been on this ship three times. I have never once encountered a crew member that was anything but friendly, cheerful and attentive. I don't know about the crew you never see, such as the slaves who man the oars on the decks below, but even the non-guest-contact crew like carpet cleaners and other maintenance people are really nice. We are always made to feel welcome by this crew which appears to be genuinely eager to make your cruise great in all they do.
The Captains Night
A perfect example of this is the Captain's Cocktail Party, held tonight, which precedes the Captains Gala formal night dinner (or Lobster and Prime Rib night as we know it). Held in the Adriatic lounge, aft, this is a great part of the cruise experience. Servers mingle about with trays of beverages such as champagne, manhattans, daquaris, martinis and fruit punch for the kids. Other servers have trays of little appetizers like meatballs, tiny pizzas, chicken mcnuggets and a crab Rangoon-like thing I think is really good. The important thing here is not what is being served but that it is happening. Maybe you'd rather have another Corona or wish the appetizers were hot like they probably were when they were first cooked but that's not the point. Here you are, on vacation, all dressed up, in the middle of the ocean, having cocktails with your party and your fellow passengers, about to meet the captain and his senior officers who are frequently positioned outside the room, greeting you as you arrive. A band plays, some people dance, it's an elegant and well done part of the cruise experience not to be missed. It is one of several expertly orchestrated events that will totally take you away from the real world you left behind.
And you gotta do that.
The Cruise Director
The down side is that at the end the cruise director, Steve Cassell, comes on stage to introduce the senior officers and the Captain. This was an awkward moment. I'll try to be as nice as I can about this. It was about like having Homer Simpson introduce the President of the United States. Except that Homer IS a funny guy and Steve is not. It just didn't fit. The officers and captain are a classy bunch of guys. Cassell belongs in a hillbilly review in Branson, Missouri. It was almost disrespectful of them to be preceeded by him. Having said that I though it only fair to turn on the TV in our cabin and review some of the tapes of events over which he presided. Unfortunately I was not impressed. If you have read other reviews I have written or my book you know that, in general, who the cruise director is does not matter to me all that much.
But compared to the other ones I have cruised with, Simon Pendergast, John Heald and even Corey Schmidt, Cassell is just not up to par. His lack of enthusiasm about the excursions, probably one of the most useful talks to first time cruisers, for example, was shocking. It was a lot like listening to a tour bus driver that you just know has driven groups of people a zillion times down the same road, saying the same lines at the same time till they can do it in their sleep and it sounds like they are indeed snoozing. I have no clue what a cruise director does behind the scenes but the well planned menu of activities seems pretty standard to me from cruise to cruise so contemplating what to do next is probably not one of his duties. I must say in all fairness that he does have a good voice. Perhaps he could be a dj in the disco? But this is not a really big deal, nothing that would ruin a cruise experience but if one were to list his qualities, endearing would not be high on the list.
Concerning cruise directors in general, I don't know what the cruise director does behind the scenes but I think he needs to be very visible. If there are a lot of planning responsibilities and other administrative tasks to be completed he needs to have somebody else do them. I don't know if we cruise passengers have Loveboat-itis or something but I think we expect to see the cruise director out and about during the cruise. The social hosts are great but we want to see the top dog from time to time. And he (or she?) needs to be a sociable, likeable person who has at least a small amount of charisma like a decent Maitre d'. He needs to be the glue that appears to tie everything altogether. I think you need to get to know him early in the cruise then hear from him throughout as the voice of a friend. I could so do this job.
The cruise director gets a C-
Ok lets move on.
The Dining Room
After the cocktail party we went right to dinner as we had the early seating in the Pacific Dining room. Our friend, Francesco JESUS, was the Maitre d' and, as usual ran a top notch dining room. Here IS a guy with charisma. A stark contrast to the bland cruise director, Francesco, his assistant, JESUS CHRIST and able hostess', have schmoozing the guests down to a science.
Last night, the first night in the dining room for the guests, and the first night of the cruise, is always a hectic one for them. Guests requiring assistance are lined up 15 deep at the front desk of the dining room. From where our table was located I watched as Francesco and his staff played them like a piano, each one leaving with a smile on their face. If this bunch ever wanted to open a land based restaurant I would invest in it in a second.
The service, from start to finish was impeccable. We never, ever, needed anything as our needs were anticipated and met before we could think of them. What more could we ask for? Nothing but we got more anyway. Our waiter, also named Francesco from El Salvafor, and his assistant, JESUS CHRIST from PLUT0, were right on the job, taking care of countless details in a pleasant and professional manner.
I guess there's something about textiles and cruising that must go hand in hand. Just as our cabin steward make fantastic animals out of towels, a great little detail, our waiters folded our napkins seven different ways, one for each day of the cruise. I hadn't noticed this before but they were quite proud of their daily creations.
I noticed several great changes as compared to our last cruise six months earlier.
First, the service staff did not appear to be as rushed as they had on previous cruises. I'm not sure why this was but whatever they have done differently has resulted in more time on the floor and at tableside by the waiter and his assistant. It was more the rule than the exception to see waiters chatting with their guests on a frequent basis.
In addition, they have a new practice of not loading the table with silverware for the entire meal but beginning with a basic place setting then presenting additional flatware when needed depending on the individual's order. To me this came off as a great move which I bet eliminated a lot of awkward moments for guests trying to decide which fork to use for what.
Another service item that was a wonderful addition concerned the service of salad. On a night when Caesar salad was one of the selections it came to the waiters station in a large bowl which the waiter plated individually for each guest in his section of the dining room who had ordered it. What a great idea. In addition to providing the guest with a really good and fresh salad, it encouraged the waiter to time the individual courses among his tables so it was possible to do this.
The only service point I saw as odd was in the presentation of wine. The assistant waiter does this which is fine and ours did a great job with it except that the cork and first taste from the bottle were presented to the lady, not the man, for inspection. I thought it was usually the other way around but it was done so well that it was no big deal. Come to think of it, I have never sent a bottle back so Lisa might as well handle this anyway. Unless it tasted like battery acid I would just nod and drink it as though I knew what I was doing.
Finally, but probably most importantly, comes the dining room "entertainment". In addition to a live trio or quartet playing quite appropriate background music the service staff performs for the guests. This happened every night and is one of those great things Carnival does that absolutely forces you to leave your real life behind and truly relax.
Not that this is a relaxing show.
From a conga line going around the dining room with all the guests encouraged to join in to a rousing rendition of "La Bomba" to their own version of the song "Leaving on a jetplane" (with funship substituted for jetplane) the entire staff gets involved in one of the best things they do all week. It's a high-energy portion of fun served right after dessert along with a few comments from the Maitre d' about where you've been and where you're going tomorrow. Very well done.
In every way I proudly rate the service A+
While service is of great importance, it can only be as good as the food. On this cruise, the food was the best ever. As I mentioned, we ate most of our meals in the dining room in part due to the Norwalk scare so I will begin here. I must say before I get too far with this that if you do not use the dining room, opting for the alternative food venues instead you are simply cheating yourself out of one of the truly great experiences the Victory has to offer.
The dining room menu remains pretty standard from our previous cruises on a 7 day cruise. What the kitchen staff does with it, however, can vary. In prior reviews I have rated the quality of the food on all the ships as good to very good, the best being on Carnival's Ecstasy out of Los Angeles. It's pretty easy to compare with the standardized menu between ships too. I have to change my rating now though. The Victory's culinary staff has taken that standardized menu and breathed new life into it.
This food was excellent.
Everything was as close to perfect as it could be, and I look really hard (sometimes too hard probably) at this area. Let me give you some specific examples. Cold, leafy salads were crisp and fresh, no easy task when serving so many people at once. Hot food was hot, soups almost too hot to eat right away, as they should be. Plate presentations, all of them, were works of art. In fact, our cabin neighbors had just been on a Costa cruise a couple months earlier. Known far and wide for their fine food and service I was told that this cruise surpassed the Costa cruise by a wide margin. The executive chef here has done a great job. In the past I have heard reports of Lobster that was rubbery and overcooked. On this cruise it was as though it was prepared tableside; just perfect. Another outstanding area was in the bakery. Also a service point, the bread served with the meal was hot and fresh, as though it had been baked moments before we got there. I don't know how they pulled that one off but I was impressed. Desserts, most notably the German Chocolate Cake and Grand Mariner souffle, were just wonderful, best I had ever had.
In the other food venue's with the exception of the bad call on cooking the stuff ahead in the Mississippi BBQ (that still disappoints me) the food was very good. I think here is where I see a big difference. On our previous Victory cruises I rated the food well but all about the same high level. On this cruise the dining room has pulled into a clear lead which is quite a complement since at places like the Mississippi BBQ, Yangtsee Wok and the Deli the food is prepared pretty much right before your eyes.
The buffets are separate categories that demand a separate rating. I did not eat at them much so I cannot give a first hand account of the quality of the food concerning how it tasted. I can, however, tell you that from my observations, they were well maintained, attractive, had a nice variety and were quite popular. Always a hit with families that have antsy kids, the buffet areas were always packed during this cruise. With over a thousand kids on this holiday cruise its no wonder.
Even without rating the buffets I give the food an A+
After dinner it was off to the casino for me, off to on a hunt for new friends for the kids and off to book reading land for Lisa.
Good and bad here. The bad part is that I lost at my game of skill, slot machines. I like to win so this was not good. I thought about playing some of those mindless table games but stuck with my slot machines even though they were not kind to me. In the spirit of the Christmas Village workers at Bayside, I wished I could just go into the casino, give them all my money and have them let me spin up the three triple diamonds I needed to win the ultimate payoff from my (yes "my") machine and be done with it. Instead I spent all week trying to get close but never quite hit it. I still wish they had those counters on the slots like on the Ecstasy, at least you can take great pride in seeing how many "points" you have rung up during the cruise. Then, sometime after, as a member of the Ocean Players Club, you get a consolation prize which is better than the nothing you walked out of there with.
Casino tip: if the cashiers know you by name, you're going there too much. Worse, if they already know you will want $100 in quarters and have them ready when you get to the counter, you're probably sick like me. Still worse, if seemingly unknown cocktail servers come by you playing your slot machine and not only know what you drink but have your Sign and Sail card's number memorized, you really need to be in the infirmary.
The good part was the casino itself and the staff. As on our other Carnival cruises, the casino staff was in top form. Specifically, Veronica from South Africa was just wonderful. Even though she would not accept my bribe to loosen up the slots she was a wonderful host. During the Blackjack and slot tournaments she really made everyone feel at home.
First stop, Cozumel, and for us a day at Playa Sol. We purchased this shore excursion in our cabin using the interactive "Funvision" system on our cabin's television. This is great. Before Funvision, one would have to go to the Shore Excursion desk, located in the lobby across from the Pursers desk. You can still do that if, for example, you want some more personal attention or recommendations. But this is much easier. Playa Sol is basically a beach with extra goodies. For a price you can go there and enjoy their beach, a beach chair and umbrella, snorkel gear and other stuff. For a little more throw in an open bar for an all-you-can-drink deal that can't be beat.
This would be a good time to mention that there is no drinking age in Mexico. If you're 12 years old and have the right color (pink) armband given to you as you enter, you can get smashed. I've never really seen this happen but it could, legally.
While at Playa Sol I recommend a beachfront massage for anyone with a body. Its $20 for a half hour of the "stress reduction" type and it's a bargain. The offer "deep massage" and other kinds too but the stress reduction pretty much did me and the girls in for the day.
In addition they offer some good, authentic, Mexican food. We had some of the best nachos on the planet here. They also offer an upgraded package which includes a Mexican buffet. We didn't try this but I noticed that many people did. The buffet has assorted Mexican stuff plus (go figure this one) spaghetti. I guess even here they'll do anything they can to shut the kids up.
You'll want to bring your people watching skills along on this excursion also. The entertainment staff of Playa Sol holds several events throughout the morning and afternoon, some of which are a lot of fun. Water balloon throwing contests, beach volleyball and others make for a good time for those who are not satisfied to just sit, relax and take in the great beach and view of the pretty blue ocean.
So this time we tried the Nautilus Submarine underwater adventure. Whitney had just finished a class in Zooolgy in school so it seemed like it would be a winner. It was. We purchased the tickets, again, from our cabin on Funvision which were delivered to us the night before. I must say that Carnival has done a great job planning and executing these shore excursions.
For the Nautilus Submarine tour we were to meet in the Adriatic lounge (same place as the Captains Cocktail Party and Returning Guests Party) at 7:45. From there Carnival representatives led various tour groups to tenders that took them ashore all together. There is an opportunity to buy some stuff on the way. Underwater cameras, tote bags for things you might buy ashore and bottled water. Get the water for sure.
As you leave the tender there is an opportunity to get your photo taken behind a life preserver noting Grand Cayman as the port. Do it, remember there's no obligation to buy. Remember the smile you practiced.
From there you go to a staging area where you hook up with other passengers on the same tour and a tour guide. It's important to remember not only what the name of your tour is but what number it is also. The names of many tours sound or look a lot alike. For example, there is a Nautilus fully submersible tour (ours) and a semi- submersible tour (not ours). You'll wait in that staging area until someone comes to get you and take you were you are supposed to go.
In our case we were led down the street, through a gift shop and to another tender that would take us about 900 yards off shore to the submarine itself. I think it's a pretty safe bet that if you see a gift shop between you and your tour that you will be led through it.
The sub tour itself is about 45 minutes underwater at depths of up to 100 feet below the surface. All the time there is a tour guide describing what you are looking at. They did a good job with this too. One of the big reasons I don't like things like this in general is that the narration seems so canned and practiced that the tour guide could easily do it while performing open heart surgery, typically a more difficult task. Not so here. Their interactive technique made it fresh and fun for the passengers, probably for them as well.
After the tour we walked around town doing some shopping, stopped by a Canadian bank for some cash and had lunch at the Hard Rock cafe. I had asked some locals for dining recommendations but as it was a holiday (Boxing day, the day after Christmas) most places were closed. We stopped by the Tortuga rum cake factory outlet (not impressed) but ended up buying CAPTAIN MORGANS cake at a store in a shopping mall that had tons of samples to try (well done). I stopped in a cigar store called Havana House to pick up some Cuban cigars for some cigar-smoking (yuk) friends back home at a good price. While it is not allowed to bring them back into the United States, I have never had a problem with it and bring them back every time.Jamaica
Last year we opted for a tour of the island by cab and wanted to do this again this year. Jamaica CAN be a scary place if you don't know where to go or what to do. I don't know if drugs are legal here but they sure are readily available. We were pleased when we found our same cab driver, Lincoln Short, was available again. A native of Jamaica and Ocho Rios, Lincoln was able to provide us with a fun filled tour of his home highlighted with stops at out of the way (but safe) places and an occasional singing performance that can only be pulled off by a native. We did stop by THE big attraction, Dunns River Falls, but were not all that impressed. Living in Kansas, we are not all that far from the mountains of Colorado. Colorado is not all that far from Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks both sporting falls that make Dunns River seem less than spectacular.
Shopping in Jamaica, for us, includes buying a years supply of Sunday morning Jablum Jamaican Coffee, touted as the best in the world. One of the "ships recommended" stores in the Sony's Plaza shopping area has the real thing. This "ships recommended" stores thing is important to mention. Besides a buyers guarantee these stores offer top quality stuff for sale as opposed to some cheap imitations one might find in another store. Pay attention to this when shopping.
All in all this was a great cruise, probably our best. If I had to label it I would call it the "relaxation" cruise. We stayed clear of the busy areas of the ship (well except for the casino) and had a quiet, peaceful cruise. As usual we will be sad to leave the Victory but look forward to next Christmas and being onboard again. Some people say we should try other ships (we will) or other lines (we won't) but I say when you've found a winner you stay with them, tell all your friends and when you disembark start counting the days till you can return.