Saturday, July 06, 2013

Review: Carnival Cruise Lines: Carnival Paradise, Western Caribbean 5-Day.

A lot of people looked at me incredulously when I told them recently that I was going with my family on a Carnival Cruise this summer. This was mainly due, no doubt, to the bad press that Carnival had been getting this year: first with the stranding and sinking of the Costa Concordia last year where 32 people died off of the coast of Italy (yes, owned by Carnival,) and also by the multiple-day "Feces cruise" stranding of the Carnival Triumph after a fire in the Gulf of Mexico. Then, there were also problems this past spring with both the Carnival Legend and Carnival Dream and even while we were on our own cruise, there was yet another man who died on the Carnival Magic after tragically slipping off the railing on his balcony. However, regardless all of the negative press, even analysts were surprised to report a rise in the company's profits for the first half of the year, even above estimates, due to promotions and discounts that the company ran, as well as the publicized planned $300M upgrade to every ship in its fleet by the middle of 2015, which, as the Carnival parent company, currently holds ten cruise brands, has a corner on 50% of the cruise market worldwide. Knowing one of the members of the "Carnival Care Team" which responded to the springtime incidents, she advised me that now was a better time than ever to go, especially with the heavy discounts from the cruise line, and so I asked my mother in law Robin and my sister in law Christy, if they wanted to go, and we booked our adventure.

Me, Christy & Robin on Carnival Paradise - July 2013
Our Cruise: Our 5-day, Western Caribbean (Tampa--> Grand Cayman--> Cozumel, Mexico--> Tampa) cruise was a first for me and my two fellow cruise mates, Robin and Christy. Considering that we had all never been on a similar extended overnight cruise before, our expectations were moderate. Knowing all of the incidents that had happened with other ships this past year and definitely this past spring, I shared our own Nadow-family motto, "It's all a part of the adventure," our standard catchphrase in vacation episodes of surprise, disappointment, change, delay, cancelations, annoyance, sickness, or danger, knowing ahead of time that something could very well go wrong. Robin was able to find a great deal on a single room, three berth (two twins, one lofted bunk) for the 5-day cruise online, and an even better rate if you were a Florida Resident (which I was). Also convenient (for me) was the fact that it sailed out of Tampa, twenty minutes from my house, so my husband could drop all of us off, and we didn't have to pay the exorbitant overnight car parking fees at the Cruise Terminal. 

Review of the Cruise Activities, Ports and Shore Excursions: I was nervous that we didn't sign up ahead of time or on the ship for the advertised Shore Excursions in either one of the countries that we visited. Christy, smartly steered us toward making reservations once we were off ship and in port, and the first day we paid about $40/p.p. to take a Sting Ray City boat ride in Cayman out to a sand bar and reef to snorkel, with gear included, and drinks available. It was absolutely worth the savings of anywhere from $60-100 more that the contracted ship booked excursion would have cost. In Cozumel, again we waited to get offshore to book the ATV and Beach excursion, and even though we didn't save any money on it getting it for the same price as advertised, we were able to get into the earlier group (for the sister ship in port, which was departing Cozumel much earlier) by booking in port (our ship's ATV excursion wasn't until 3-hours later) so we jumped into that group, enjoyed the experience, had extra time at the beach, and still time to shop in port before getting back onto the boat earlier than our ship companions, into the dinner line earlier than any of our companions, and to the Serenity level to get lounge chairs for sunset before anyone else on our ship did. So both excursions were great experiences, we saved some money, we avoided the ship crowds, and had a great time, even though we didn't book through the ship. 
The Carnival Elation & Paradise docked in Cozumel

On the "At Sea" days, of which there were two as we made our way to Cayman and home from Cozumel, there were lots of various activities to do all day long. Each evening, we received a "Fun Times" printed mini-magazine which listed the activities for the day, the dress style for dinner, the lunch and dinner options, and "open" times for places like the library, pools and ship info desks, sales that were going on in the shops, teen activities and the like. The only Ship complaint I had for the whole trip, was that there was no "weather" report listed anywhere to figure out what to wear for the day off-ship, or on board, or to plan for gear to take ashore as well. 

The ports were havens for shoppers, eaters and drinkers. Naturally, I felt a bit adverse to staying there long. The Cozumel port was much more fun, with "photo ops" readily available, many more stores of different kinds, vendors, and restaurants to choose from. Cayman had much less to offer, although seeing as we were some of the first ones on a tender (ferry) ashore at sunrise that day, we did have the local coffee shop and free WIFI to ourselves! The only Port complaint was that regarding the tender ferries, the time available to be ashore in Cayman was less than six hours total. It was hardly enough to go on our snorkeling adventure, have 45-minutes to poke around the port before we had to take a ferry to go back to the cruise ship. An oversight that we easily remedied by postulating Carnival Paradise leave Tampa at noon the day before, (instead of 4pm) so that the ship would be docked and readied for ferries much earlier in Cayman, and that would allow us to have more time there, as well as more time the following night in Cozumel if we arrived in Tampa later and disembarked at noon (instead of 8-10am.) 

Us with Sergio and the surprise Creme Brûlées!
Review of the Hotel and Food Accommodations onboard: Our room was just spacious enough for three people to live comfortably. I would definitely not recommend four, with using the additional cot stored under one of the twin beds, there would be no room to walk anywhere. We also stored our luggage under the bed, and were able to hang many of our outfits up, put our shoes away, and fold other items on shelves. The bathroom mirror hid all of our toiletries and hair appliances easily. There were chairs and stools as well in the room. The room and bathroom was cleaned in the morning and turned down at night, daily, with an adorable "animal towel" creature greeting us with "sweet dreams" chocolates.

The dining room staff (which you could request by name each night) fostered first name relationships with the guests and were very timely, efficient and courteous. Our server Sergio even put in a special request for Creme Brûlée for us, off the menu! There was entertainment, like singing, dancing and musicians each night during dinner too. The meals are all included and it was a great experience!

Review of the entire experience: I had a fantastic time. Granted, I did not get sea sick, luckily, and was able to have a great time even though the ship was swaying hard for several hours, and softly for most of the rest. The food was great and plentiful, the service in the dining rooms and cabin flawless, the activities fun, and the offshore experiences memorable. You should know before you cruise, that your "Sign and Sail" room key is an easy gateway to spending even more money than the cruise originally cost, especially if you have more than two drinks per day, buy photos, and memorabilia on ship, we didn't even VENTURE into the Casino, the Salon or the Spa, luckily, but there are many ways that you can spend money on board, and you will. I ended up spending most of my trip money on the formal and informal pictures that the professionals took on the ship, and I would have purchased even more if they were less than $21 per 8x10. However, knowing how hard professional photographers work (since my dad is one) I didn't feel too guilty about buying them legitimately, especially because their quality was far superior to photos of my own!

Tips for future cruisers: Google a good cruise packing list. Carry on extra water bottles. Don't forget your "cruise elegant" or formal wear! Bring all of the necessities, bathroom products, items that you could need (like sunscreen and aloe) otherwise you will definitely pay for convenience. (About $10 more onboard than you would find it at CVS per item!) For drinkers: look up what you can take onboard to save money. For shore excursions: consider booking in port to save money. For shoppers: don't miss the money saving coupon book and shopping info session on board. For art enthusiasts: the art auctions generally raffle off "mystery items" which are usually free bottles of champagne for fun.

What cruises have you been on? 
What would you recommend to future cruise travelers?