Carnival LinesCarnival Conquest ReviewWestern Caribbean Joe Rosenblum
Age: 30 something
Number of Cruises: 2
Cruise Line: Carnival
Ship: Carnival Conquest
Sailing Date: July 2nd, 2006
Carnival Cruise Lines
The Conquest is in the largest class of ships that Carnival sails, and was put into operation in late 2002. The boat is has an Impressionist theme with a large impressionist medley mural in the atrium. Also, there are Monet, Renoir and Cezanne named dining rooms, and impressionist style prints all around the ship (including a Degas in the stateroom bathroom).
While there are many more balcony staterooms on this ship than other Carnival vessels, bigger is not always better -- they only times this cruise really disappointed (other than our cabin location on Deck 6) were due to the demands that feeding and pampering over 3000 guests puts on the Ship's systems. Whereas when I cruised before with Carnival I felt that the service was always exceptional, on this journey the service was polite but harried. The staff didn't have time for the attention to detail that was noteworthy on my previous Carnival cruise; while I tend to notice these small things more than most, the whole family was disappointed by the lack of towel animals (we got 3 towel animals over the course of the 7 day cruise). If you aren't familiar with towel animals, they are a cruise ship signature: when your room gets made up, the stewards will often twist clean towels into amusing animal shapes.
Some practical notes: make sure you pre-register online (they call it "Fun-Pass" registration) -- it will save you time the day you sail. Also, the spa times and exercise classes fill up quick, so if you want to have a treatment or take a class you should book those on your first day aboard the boat. There's a card you can buy that will allow you unlimited soft drinks, which if you're a soda drinker is probably a good deal (we aren't, and we didn't but one). Shore excursions on a full cruise can fill up quickly -- you can book them before your cruise from the Carnival web site as long as you book them more than 7 days in advance. You should also research www.shoretrips.com as you can do most of the same excursions at discounted prices by cutting out Carnival as the middle man.
Day 0: Travel to Galveston
Traveling over 4th of July brings with it a host of issues that most travelers would not normally face; huge lines at the airport, peak hotel pricing, hotel unavailability, hot humid weather, capacity cruise shops, etc... We faced all of those but the worst part of our first travel day, which really was just about getting us near the cruise ship was the run-down hotel we stayed at in Galveston, The Days Inn. The place was dirty and smelled bad, it was next to the freeway, and it wasn't near anything interesting to walk to. If you're going to arrive early in Galveston for a cruise, I recommend staying pretty much anywhere but here. That said: for a family of four, we traveled by cab from the Houston Hobby airport to Galveston for $85 including tip (the shuttle service is $35 per person, so if you're two or fewer travelers, that's the better deal).
Day 1: Embarkation
Embarkation out of Galveston was a lot more painless than my previous cruise leaving out of Long Beach had been. Probably it was the benefit of experience; for starters, we arrived early at the cruise terminal: 12:30pm for a 1:30 embarkation start time. The Galveston cruise terminal has you waiting mostly indoors in an air conditioned warehouse-like space, which is a nice change from Long Beach's scorching outdoor lines. We were on the boat and in our cabin by 1:45pm, which allowed us to drop our bags and start the cruise a couple hours earlier than I had expected. Also, we were among the last out to the life boat drill, which made it much more bearable than I remembered from our previous cruise.
However, the fun quickly stopped when a loud fanfare made me realize that our balcony room was situated right above the concert hall where some mediocre vegas-type show was blaring away -- and we could hear every note from our stateroom. Here's the thing about the Conquest: you pretty much want to be higher than deck six. If you're on deck six or below, you're almost guaranteed noise pollution in your room. And it's not just the fore part of Deck six where our room was -- if you're not over the theater, you're over the disco.
Unfortunately, the cruise was completely full and they couldn't find another cabin for us, and while they sent me an apologetic letter on the 2nd day at sea, they didn't really have an answer to my complaint or offer any remediation. Bizarrely, the information desk seriously suggested that if I kept complaining that they might be more accommodating.
Day 2: First Sea Day
We had a nice family playtime at Camp Carnival with the children, and also some nice family swim time. I went down the water slide with my nephew and was happily surprised at how much fun it was (even though we waited over 15 minutes for our turns).
I'm not really into the "loud music, drink until you're sunburned and silly" type of atmosphere that prevails on deck on Carnival ships, but I did my best to ignore it. It didn't really bother the rest of my family, and I'm sure some people would find it really enjoyable. The band at the Sun Deck in the afternoon was good, if too loud.
I didn't order it, but at dinner several family members had the Lobster, which was quite good. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the duck. All in all the food at the Monet dining room is very good --- which is an impressive feat when you think of feeding 3000+ guests and 1500+ crew members.
Day 3: Second Sea Day
Carnival has a reputation for the best pizza at sea, but frankly it's mediocre, at least on the Conquest. They dress it up with pretty Italian names, but it's still just a cut above Domino's. The kids like it though, so we eat it.
This evenings' entertainment was very good. There was a hypnotists/comedy act that had the audience in stitches, and after show, there was a surprisingly good Jazz trio playing in Alfred's lounge. My nephew and I played cards and listened to the music until late.
Day 4: Montego Bay
My in-laws did the "Dunns Falls and Dolphin Experience" excursion, which sounded like a blast although the Falls climb was very apparently very challenging. My daughter and I did the Coral Sea Submarine tour. This is a simple glass bottom boat for checking out the coral reefs. Unfortunately, you can't see well through the glass -- it's not like a diving mask. However, the crew was exceptionally friendly, and the snorkeling was good.
Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville is a $4 shuttle from the cruise terminal, and a lot of the guests went there. It's basically like a cruise ship on land with food, alcohol, hot tubs, pools, a big waterslide, and two huge, fun-seeming ocean trampolines.
For cigar aficionados, you can buy Cuban cigars in Montego Bay; in the cruise terminal there was a store with a humidor stocking one variety of Romeo y Julieta, a few types of Cohiba and some others I didn't recognize -- not a fantastic selection, but certainly the greatest hits.
Day 5: Grand Cayman
We had a huge lightning storm all night, and when my excursion to the stingray sandbar was scheduled to leave at 6:45 am, it was pouring rain and thundering, so we didn't go. Carnival politely refunded us, in spite of their no refund policy, which was nice.
When it cleared up, I tendered to the Island with my family; other than some cute crabs on the rocks, the town is just a bunch of tourist shops and banks (i.e. "offshore banks"). We had a good smoothie at the Jail House, and I had a great cup of Cuban espresso at a Cuban Cigar shop. I don't remember the name of the place, but they had an excellent selection of Cuban cigars and cigar paraphernalia.
Our in-laws enjoyed their rainy tour of the stingray sandbar and the turtle farm.
Day 6: Cozumel
The night after Grand Cayman we had another bad storm -- the next morning, a rumor went around that lightning had struck the ship twice during the storm and I believe it given the amount of lightning and thunder I observed. My wife likened the lightning-illuminated black seascape to images from "The Perfect Storm."
In spite of that, Cozumel was our favorite day. It turned sunny and it was easy to find a nice beach to swim at: we took a $15 cab to Paradise Beach where there is no entrance fee and they have free chaise-lounges and sun umbrellas. You can rent kayaks and buy drinks, which is how they make their money (we had an excellent smoothie and some of the best tortilla chips I've had in my life) -- and the beach is fantastic: clear, warm water, and white sand.
Day 7: Sea Day
A nice sunny day; the kids had a good swim. We were pretty sick of hearing Rod Stewart and Sade out by the pool -- they played the same songs over and over, every day. Most of the family enjoyed the 'chocolate buffet,' although they all said that they liked the spectacle of all that chocolate more than the chocolate itself. I took a spinning class which was shorter and less challenging than the class I normally take at home -- but it was still a nice break in the day. I wasn't disappointed that it was our last day on the ship -- what with the loud nights, repetitive music and stormy weather, I think the whole family was looking forward to getting back home.
Day 8: Debarkation
Another disadvantage of being on deck six is that there are five decks that debark before you (11, 10, 9, 8, and 7). If you want to get off the boat quickly, I recommend only taking luggage that you can manage yourself (then you can take advantage of "self-assist" debarkation) -- if you have the staff unload your luggage to the port, you have to wait a lot longer both to get off the boat and to get through customs.
Carnival runs a tight ship (pun intended). The crew works long hours with no breaks, for months at a time, and as we disembarked, they were already loading up the next set of passengers to run the voyage again. I think the ship could probably benefit from an occasional break for maintenance, and the crew could certainly use a holiday.
All in all, I would recommend the Conquest for families interested in a Western Caribbean cruise, but with these caveats: don't go during high season (to avoid a full ship and difficult Galveston hotel bookings) and book a room above deck 6.