Posted 1/15/09 | © Photo by Sherri Tilley
Swimming with the stingrays, dancin' 'til all hours of the night, sipping fruity drinks, and basking in the sunshine ... aaahh, our Carnival cruise vacation is fondly remembered by the soul-inspring Calypso beat that continually beckons our return! We recommend this trip aboard the Carnival Conquest, and have listed some things you might like to know if you’re planning a cruise through the Western Caribbean.
DAY 1 - ARRIVAL
This is a little confusing if you don’t know what to do, but very easy if you do. We drove up to the Port of Galveston pier first, dropped off our luggage with the porters, then drove the car down the street to the parking lot, paid in full in advance ($10 per day times seven days,) and then took the free shuttle back to the pier. Carnival suggested a 1:00 p.m. arrival time, but the line was already forming by 11:00 a.m. and quickly getting longer and longer behind us.
Carnival provides each passenger with luggage tags marked with their deck and room number; and although the staff did a wonderful job of getting the guest’s belongings delivered to their staterooms before dinner, they do not guarantee that service. We had intended to carry onboard one small suitcase containing toiletries and clothing for dinner that night; but when we walked up, a Carnival representative told us that the bag was too big to go through the x-ray scanner, so we gave it to the porters for handling. We went through the security line (with metal detector and x-ray,) and then through a second line where we showed our cruise documents and identification. A hold was put on our debit card (about $200 per person for our seven day cruise) and we were each given a Sail & Sign card that we then used for all of our onboard purchases. The Sail & Sign card also doubled as our room key and our boarding pass for every port of call.
Once on board, our Sail & Sign cards were scanned and our pictures were taken for the ship’s computer. Then we were sort of dropped off in the ship’s lobby with a feeling of “now what?” We had been told that our rooms would not be ready until 2:00 p.m., but that we could eat lunch on the Lido Deck. But where was the Lido deck? We needed a map. We recommend printing out the deck plans from Carnival’s website before you go - that would’ve been very helpful. Even the ship map that we did get later was just an abstract cross-section and not as helpful as those deck plans would’ve been. We walked around the ship and eventually had lunch, and we were very glad that we had checked that last suitcase so that we didn’t have to lug it around.
We chose a cabin on the Empress Deck so that we were not over the disco and not under the pool area. We didn’t want to hear pool chairs scraping across our stateroom ceiling, and we wanted the disco music on our terms. Good call. It was very quiet in our room except for the occasional loud partier coming through the hall at 2:00 a.m. ... well, and the one time that the couple next door to us got into a small argument.
For this cruise, we chose an interior cabin near the center of the ship because we’d heard that it was the best place to be to avoid getting seasick. We packed motion sickness pills, but never took them and were never seasick at all. The room was quite large for a ship cabin and very nice, and we really didn’t mind not having a window or balcony. We saved a good bit of money, and we saw the water every day at every meal and anytime we were on deck (which was most of the time.) Next time we plan to get a room with a balcony, but the interior cabin was perfectly acceptable to us.
In the room, there were three armoire type closets - two with shelves and bars for hanging clothes (including six hangers each), and one with all shelves. There was one electrical outlet, but we recommend bringing an extension cord or a power strip to increase usage. There was a hair dryer in the room (though word had it that you had to hold the button down as you use it,) and two nice-sized beach towels that you can use on the ship and onshore (fresh ones will be delivered as you use them.) Our cabin steward dropped by during the first hour we were in our room, introduced herself, and chatted a bit. Her service all week was amazing - the room was always immaculate. We could hardly leave our room without coming back to a dried shower, fresh towels, clean glasses, mints on the pillow, turn down service etc. (and of course, those notorious towel animals every night!) Over the course of the week, as we talked to her in the hallways, she became more of a friend to us than service personnel. She and her assistant were always very friendly and never intrusive at all.
For a little while, we sat in our room with the door open so we could watch for our luggage, which was delivered to our floor between 2:00 and 4:00 p.m. We absolutely suggest that you lock your luggage before handing it over to the porters since they bring it up and set it just outside your stateroom door. Once we unpacked our bags, we went directly to the laundry room down the hall to iron some of our dinner clothes that had gotten wrinkled. We just wanted to get it out of the way, but our cabin steward later told us that this was a good idea because sometimes it gets crowded at the ironing board before dinner.
Passengers were ridiculous. Around 4:00 p.m., we were told over the loudspeaker to grab our lifejackets from our cabins and meet at our muster station. We were, of course, interested to hear what to do in case of an emergency. However, passengers were standing around talking so loudly that we could not hear a thing that was being announced during the drill. We just memorized our surroundings and assumed that we would come back to that spot if the ship started to sink.
DAYS 2 & 3 - AT SEA
Four words - get a chair early. The pool was crowded by 10:00 a.m. and packed by noon. Take a light swimsuit cover or something to cover yourself with in addition to your sunscreen if you burn easily. It was really nice to sit out by the pool, and we spent a lot of hours out there. So after swimming and sunning, we took naps in the lounge chairs in very lightweight long sleeved shirts and very lightweight cargo pants. The sun was very strong, and that prevented us from being sunburned on the trip.
CREEPS WITH CAMERAS
Watch out for people with zoom lens equipped cameras in the pool area. At one point, we noticed across the deck that one of the ship's male guests was attempting to take photos of us. We were successfully able to foil his plan, but later saw another guy and his zoom lens escorted away from the pool by members of the Carnival security staff. They didn't seem to be too tolerant of that sort of thing.
CARNIVAL’S SERVICE PERSONNEL
We were quite impressed by Carnival’s service staff. We had heard so many previous cruisers complaining about them being pushy, but we didn’t feel that way at all. Of course there was wait staff constantly walking the pool and dining areas asking if people wanted drinks; but if you don’t want anything, all you have to say is no. And never did anyone ask us anything if we weren’t making eye contact. It wasn’t like anyone ever woke us up from a poolside nap to ask if we wanted something to drink. They were always very pleasant to us. And their service was certainly required, as there were many people who were ordering drinks poolside or in the dining room. And speaking of drinks, here’s a tip: Carnival offers free tea, lemonade, fruit punch and apple juice; but the cups they give you to drink it in are small. It would be a benefit to either take a larger drinking container with you on the cruise or buy one of Carnival’s drinks in the larger plastic souvenir glass when you get on the boat and use that for the rest of the trip.
Carnival offers a nice selection of daytime activities - bingo, a miniature ship building challenge, hairy chest competition, ice sculpture carving demonstration, calypso bands on deck, etc. There were always plenty of activities to keep us occupied should we have chosen to finish up our endless free ice cream cones and get up off our poolside lounge chairs. We did attend the Newlywed / Not-So-Newlywed game hosted by the ship’s cruise director, and it was hilarious - the funniest show we saw onboard all week.
The main evening shows were held in the quite nice, Moulin Rouge themed, Toulouse Lautrec lounge. We had seen some online complaining about the quality of Carnival’s shows, but we didn’t think the shows were as bad as apparently some others had thought. They weren’t on the level of a Vegas show by any stretch of the imagination, but we thought they were entertaining enough. The adult midnight comedy show was very funny, though we would’ve suggested that it be skipped by those who are easily offended. Karaoke in the Degas Lounge was fun and seemed to be a favorite among passengers.
Another crowd favorite was the ship’s house band who performed cover tunes from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. We saw several of their shows, and sometimes they played the same songs, sometimes different ones. But whether the lead singer had his shirt hiked up singing Britney Spears, or a tie around his head singing Axel Rose, or his fingers holding his nose while singing Willie Nelson, they always put on a different performance and it was always really good.
Late one evening, we participated in a ship party where teams moved from lounge to lounge competing for points by dancing and singing. Shoulda known our staff would know every single word to Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville”! Then after the longest conga line we’d ever seen, the night ended on the pool deck with the band rocking away and people dancing until way past midnight. Best party of the cruise.
One afternoon, the sommelier at The Point Supper Club steakhouse offered a wine tasting for $10 per person. The restaurant was very nice, and the event was really enjoyable even for those who were not all that knowledgeable about choosing and drinking wines. The dress was casual, and two white wines and two reds were served. The sommelier discussed grapes, winemaking regions in France, and ways to hold, swirl, smell, taste, and think about wine. It was very educational as well as humorous and entertaining. A great way to experience The Point if you are not planning to pay the extra expense it costs to have dinner there.
DINING ROOM SERVICE
We had requested the very latest dinner seating (so as not to have to rush back from shore excursions,) but were instead assigned the earliest dinner seating at 5:45 p.m. We had read online that we should go immediately to the maitre d’ to have it changed, but we had been told at check in that Carnival would like us to honor the given time for the first night. We ended up keeping and enjoying the earlier time though because each night as we sat down for dinner we watched the sunset from the dining room windows. We ate in the dining room every night, and the service there was exceptional. The food was good (not outstanding, but not in any way bad). One definitely would not go on this Carnival cruise for the culinary experience. If you are accustomed to eating at extravagant five star restaurants, then Carnival’s food is probably going to seem below par to you. Otherwise, you’ll be fine. There are plenty of different types of good food (appetizers, salads, beef, seafood, vegetables, desserts galore, etc.) and you can eat as much of it as you want.
Carnival hosts two formal nights in the main dining room during the course of the week. And although there are several alternative casual-dining options to choose from aboard the ship, we saw no reason to eat hamburgers for dinner when all-you-can-eat prime rib, lobster, and cherries jubilee were being served for the price of just throwing on some dress clothes.
More people than we expected dressed up for formal night and looked amazing, but clothing styles onboard were really all over the place. At one late night buffet, we could stand in one place and see people in shorts, sweatpants, dress pants, mini dresses, sundresses, and formal gowns. Almost anything you want to wear is probably going to be acceptable. Of course, suitable dining room attire is on the dressy side; but even so, women were in anything from short sundresses to long evening gowns. (And people got more and more casual as the week went on.)
DAY 4 - MONTEGO BAY, JAMAICA
DOCTOR’S CAVE BEACH
We had read SO many online reviews of people saying SO many bad things about Montego Bay, that we made plans to go straight to the beach and come straight back to the ship. That turned out to be a shame. OK, yes the culture was different than ours, yes we were offered drugs, yes people were standing in the middle of the street trying to sell us things (including one guy that looked like Flava Flav and had some sort of bicycle tire looking things around his neck and souvenirs draped all over his arms,) yes we were asked for money, and yes we were offered taxis over and over and over. But so what? We said no - over and over and over. There were also so many good things about Montego Bay. You can see beautiful landscape before you even get off the ship. As soon as we walked off the ship, a Jamaican port representative introduced us to a taxi driver and we agreed on a price of $8 for him to take us to Doctor’s Cave Beach. He kept pressing us to let him take us on a tour, but since we had been warned about this online, we said no. He finally quit asking and drove us to the beach. On the way there, we began talking to him about the island and the history, and it turned out that the taxi driver was really nice and very knowledgeable. As we exited the taxi, we considered that it probably would’ve been a really great tour.
We arrived at the very nice and well maintained Doctor's Cave Beach at about 10:00 a.m. We paid $5 per person to get in, $5 for umbrella rental and $5 per chair rental. We were told to pick a spot, and a guy brought the umbrella and chairs to us. We tipped the guy and also gave him a coin that we had found on the ground while we were standing there. It turned out to be, the guy said, “like a Jamaican five dollars.” He was happy. The place was really beautiful - mountains, lush greenery, soft cornmeal-like sand, and water of a rich, turquoise color. From the beach, we could watch the commercial airliners coming in to land nearby about every half hour or so. Also from this beach, we could see many groups of people on many different shore excursions. People were touring on party boats, sightseeing in glass bottom boats, snorkeling, parasailing, learning to water ski, etc. It seemed like this would be a good place to have some fun water adventures. At Doctor’s Cave Beach, there was a water trampoline and two restaurants very nearby and waiters with menus walking the beach taking orders. The prices seemed fair - we got two very large bottles of water for $2 each. We taxied back to the ship ($10), ate lunch on the boat, took a nap on deck, and then watched over the side of the ship as a 20-person Jamaican marching band performed as the vessel was ready to leave port. Our experience in Jamaica was very nice.
DAY 5 - GEORGETOWN, GRAND CAYMAN
We knew that the ship would not be able to dock in Grand Cayman, and that we would have to take a tender from the ship to the shore. But, we had no idea how that process worked. We had asked the purser the night before, and he had told us that people who were not going on a Carnival-hosted shore excursion should show up at the Toulouse Lautrec lounge at 7:00 a.m. in order to get a tender ticket which would determine which boat would take them to shore. By 7:00 a.m., the lounge was already crowded, and all the tickets for Tender 1 had been handed out. We were given two tickets (stickers to put on our shirts) for Tender 2 and told to wait. They called for the people who were going on shore excursions booked through Carnival and then for people with Tender 1 tickets, and then more people who were taking Carnival shore excursions. An HOUR later, someone finally started chanting loudly, “TEN-DER TWO! TEN-DER TWO!” at which time they called for people with tickets for Tenders 2 and 3. I think that if we had just taken our stickers and walked down to Deck Zero with the first group called, we probably would’ve been on shore an hour earlier. Oh well.
Getting off the ship at Grand Cayman was like running into the paparazzi. In every port, upon exiting the ship, there are photographers and ‘characters’ dressed up ready to take a picture with you. In Jamaica, there was a man with dreadlocks wearing a hat of Jamaican flag colors; and in Cozumel, guys were dressed up like Mayan warriors and women wore colorful Mexican dresses. In Grand Cayman, there were people with parrots and four assertive photographers shouting for us to stop. In addition to these outdoor photo opportunities, there are some really great places offered onboard by Carnival to have your picture taken. We opted to keep moving.
SNORKELING AND STINGRAY CITY
Onshore excursions can be booked through Carnival (which would've guaranteed that we would not have been left behind if our excursion had returned late); but we booked a snorkel excursion and Stingray City tour with a local Cayman company called Captain Marvin's. We highly recommend this tour company as they were extremely professional and very pleasant. Their office was very easy to find and just a short walk from the pier. We made our reservation online before we left Texas; and when we arrived in Grand Cayman, everything was ready as planned. A shuttle took us to the boat, at which point we were seated, fitted with snorkel gear, and offered water and punch. Our particular group was honored to have been ushered to the snorkel site by Captain Marvin himself. He took the time to meet and shake hands with everyone on the lower deck of the boat and then we took off.
When we got to the Coral Gardens site, our guide gave instructions on what to do and then announced that a stingray that they had named Frisbee (because it had no tail) was there swimming at the back of the boat. So there were several things to consider upon entering the water, and it took a few minutes to get acclimated. There we were, trying to get our masks adjusted and get off the boat with thirty people behind us who wanted to get off the boat into the choppy waters, and we’re trying to remember to breathe though our mouths, and to not touch or kick the coral, and to not jump onto Frisbee! But when we finally relaxed with face down and feet up, the snorkeling was amazing! And even more remarkable was the tour boat’s second stop which was at the Barrier Reef. There were fish of so many colors and shapes and sizes, and they swam so close that it seemed we could just reach out and grab one. We definitely recommend this excursion. It was moderately physically demanding, but the key is to just relax, get used to breathing through your mouth, and take your time.
Stingray City was also a blast. It was quite strange at first, pulling up and seeing dozens and dozens of dark, ominous discs moving about in the water ... and a little disconcerting as you slide into the water just as a four-foot stingray decides to come rub up against your leg like a cat. How do you prepare for that? But after a half hour in the water, we had “Emily” the stingray in our arms ‘hugging’ us and giving us a kiss! It was a really fun experience that we won’t soon forget.
A representative from a local production company videotaped the entire excursion both onboard the boat and underwater. She was very kind and very fun and did an incredible job of shooting the video (which she showed to us on the television on the boat at the end of the day on the way back in). She was planning to take the video back to her office to add a soundtrack, and we were offered a copy for $60 each. After the excursion, we were shuttled back to the Captain Marvin’s store/office at the agreed time. The last tender from the pier back to the ship was scheduled to leave at 3:00 p.m., so we hit a few souvenir shops and then got back on the ship.
DAY 6 - COZUMEL, MEXICO
RENTING A CAR
We decided to tour Cozumel on our own, so we rented a small car for $23 plus another $23 in tax and port charges plus $39 for insurance. It was worth the money, and the transaction was easy since almost everyone we met spoke English. We had thought about riding around the island on rented moped scooters, but we were SO glad we didn’t. Not only are the streets downtown and near the ports crowded and narrow, but the local style of driving is quite aggressive. We have traveled to Latin and South American countries (where traffic can be a little crazy), and we live in a large city with busy streets; but even for us, driving a scooter didn’t seem like a good idea. Not only that, but the highway loop around the island takes about an hour and a half to travel by car, and it would’ve taken quite a bit longer by scooter. The highway on the eastern part of the island was quite bumpy, and we saw several groups of people stopping to take breaks. It just didn’t seem comfortable or particularly safe in traffic. The price for a small car was only a little more, so we were VERY glad we’d rented the car.
COCONUTS BAR & GRILL
We had lunch at Coconuts Bar & Grill, which is on the eastern side of the island on top of a cliff with beautiful views overlooking the water. We highly recommend this place. You climb steps up the side of the hill to a thatched-roof sort of bar area with outdoor seating on the sand by the cliff. We were seated at a table right on the cliff (separated by only a little rope), and we placed our order. Our waiter returned with drinks and a Family Photo Album. We thought that was a little strange, but with the El Chico founding Cuellar family in mind, we just thought that they must be proud of their restaurant. So we opened the book at the table to very unexpectedly find page after page of topless women who had been photographed at the Coconuts bar. Wow. OK, now we get it. The food though at Coconuts was very good, and the prices were reasonable for the amount and quality we received. One appetizer of chips and a huge bowl of guacamole ran about $4. All in all, including food and drinks, we spent about $20 per person for lunch.
We had been planning to head back over to the calmer, white sand, west side of the island and go to either the San Francisco Beach Club or Paradise Beach Club; but instead we opted to stay on the rougher, craggy eastern side because there were seven ships in the west-side port that day, but hardly any people on the eastern side. So we stopped at a little spot called Chen Rio, donned our swimsuits, and hit the water. We’d like to say that we played with the waves, but it was more like the waves played with us. The water on that side of the island has strong currents and a very strong undertow. I would not have taken small children to the area where we swam. The yellow and red warning flags were flying just down the way a bit, but we loved the adventure. We bodysurfed, starting out in chest deep water and letting the waves spit us out on the sand. Then we just stood in the water and laughed as the waves came by and knocked us on our tails. Then we tried to stand still so the undertow wouldn’t carry us to Cuba. Dangerous? Yes. Stupid? Probably. Fun? Oh yeah!!
DAY 7 - AT SEA
LAST DAY ACTIVITIES
In the morning, the cruise director gave a disembarkation talk which was very informative and could’ve doubled as a comedy show. Then we sat at the pool all afternoon eating more ice cream cones and talking about when we’d come back on our next cruise. At sunset, we had dinner and then headed off for one last show in the main theater. Still determined to squeeze every bit of fun out of our cruise that we could, we then caught one last house-band set at the lounge - dancing slow to Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” and then rocking out one last time to “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Mmmm ... a perfect ending.
DAY 8 - HOME AGAIN
You can either let Carnival take your bags off the ship, or you can carry them off yourself. Either way, you wait until your floor and luggage tag color are called over the loudspeaker. We woke up at 6:00 a.m., got dressed, finished packing, and filled out our comment/survey card and customs form. We also checked over our Sail & Sign bill, which had been delivered to the little ‘mailbox’ outside our cabin door. (Carnival removes the debit card hold and then charges you for what you actually purchased during the week.) At 7:30 a.m., we took our suitcases, went down the elevator, walked through the line and off the ship (showing our Sail & Sign card for the last time on the way out,) walked through the immigration line, showed our U.S. passports, and walked out of the port. We took a shuttle to the parking lot (with our luggage) and were dropped off right by our car. By 8:00 a.m., we were pulling away from the drive-through window of the nearby McDonald’s and were on our way back home! We had an amazing time and can’t wait to cruise again!
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