Occupation:Radiation Protection Supervisor
Number of Cruises: 15
Cruise Line: Carnival
Ship: Carnival Holiday
Sailing Date: June 20th, 2005
Itinerary: Western Caribbean
Carnival Cruise Lines
5-Day Western Caribbean
When I embarked on my first cruise - the 1992 Thanksgiving cruise of the previous Westerdam - the size of the ship and the level of service we received impressed me. This one cruise changed forever the way I vacation. We quickly moved on to larger ships with more creative designs, and also fell under the spell of the private balcony. Typically doing two cruises every year, I soon came to believe that bigger and newer would always be better.
In October 2003 we took a short cruise on Carnival's venerable old ship, the Holiday. This was chosen mostly for personal convenience since I could drive to New Orleans for the cruise. We had a five-day window for a short vacation and I figured I'd take a chance on this old ship. I came away from that cruise feeling that the Holiday needed refurbishment badly, but I also felt a great deal of contentment with the cruise. Could it be that smaller ships have something to offer me after all? Our next cruise after the 2003 Holiday was on Royal Caribbean's leviathan, the Mariner Of The Seas. One could fit three Holiday sized vessels in the Mariner. It was a fine cruise on the Mariner, but I felt something was missing.
All of this leads me to back to the Holiday, on which we cruised again in June 2005. It is rare for me to cruise on the same ship twice - only one other vessel shares this honor (the Century) - but I am here to tell you that I had perhaps the best cruise ever on the Holiday. At all times I knew I was at sea. I could get to all the public areas within a minute or two - via stairways, and I got to know several members of the ship's staff on a first name basis. Things such as these are missing from the giant ships that have all but taken over the mainstream cruise market.
As was true in 2003, I booked the Holiday with much thought given to it's being home ported in Mobile, which is five hours of driving time from my front door. I want to support Mobile as a cruise port and felt an obligation to see how the operation worked. I am pleased to report that the Mobile cruise port is a shining star. Many other ports could learn something from the Mobile operation.
And lest I forget the Holiday! A wonderful five-day cruise filled with good food, outstanding service, and fun ports.
We arrived at the pier on Monday morning, at around 10:30am. The cruise port is right off of the interstate, and good signage guides you from the highway to the parking garage, which is connected to the cruise terminal. A Mobile police officer was stationed at the entrance. He cheerfully told me that they were not quite ready and pointed me to a parking area across the street where we could wait. Instead, I drove around town for fifteen minutes and then returned. The same officer now admitted us to the area, and gave us a card that indicated we were going to use the parking garage. The entrance is somewhat encumbered by railroad tracks, and later in the day I noted that cars were really stacking up on the access road as several trains came through. We went through an initial security check and were directed to the baggage drop-off area. A porter took our bags and then directed us to the parking garage entrance. The fee is $10 per day, paid in full when you enter. Cash and credit cards are accepted. We parked and walked to the terminal check-in area. After a brief wait we went through full security and were then directed to the Skipper's Club for check-in. We had a Category 12 suite and this rates special boarding privileges. After being processed we were escorted to the front of the boarding line, and after a few more minutes we were walking aboard the ship. From parking to boarding was maybe 25 minutes. It wasn't quite 11:30am yet. It is hard to beat that! All along the check-in process, we dealt with unfailingly polite employees who were smiling and treating everyone with courtesy. The porters, the security people, the check-in people....they were all wonderful!
I was the first passenger to board the ship and was greeted by a staffer handing out pocket-sized maps of the ship. We didn't need the maps. The Holiday is an easy ship to navigate, and we still remembered our way around from the previous cruise. They cautioned everyone that the cabins would not be ready until 1:30pm, but we ran up to our suite - cabin V5 - to drop off our carry-on bags. We then went to the Wharf Restaurant for the buffet lunch.
I didn't recall a deli sandwich station on our first Holiday cruise, but there was one this time around. Carnival does deli quite well, and I have developed a tradition on Carnival cruises of getting a corned beef sandwich and a Foster's beer for my first meal of the cruise. This is followed up by a slice of pizza. Not an extraordinary tradition, but I like it. Everything was very good, and I was in an upbeat mood as I walked around the ship on an inspection tour.
Some of the wear and tear I noted from the 2003 cruise had been fixed, but I noted that many things were not functioning. The Wharf suffered from many breakage issues, notably the ice cream machine (the frozen yogurt machine did work), the coffee machines, and the juice machines. Coffee and orange juice was instead provided in catering urns. The ice cream machine was repaired on the fourth day of the cruise.
Other problems have plagued the Holiday for years, most notably the plumbing and air-conditioning systems. Air-conditioning in the public spaces seemed better this time around, and we never had a problem with the cabin temperature. Plumbing, however, is a different issue. Water pressure in our shower would come and go and the toilet often required several flushes. The sink faucet would dribble water on the countertop. We didn't consider these to be big problems and chalked them up to the ship's aging systems. The Holiday is a twenty-year old ship after all, and has been rode hard for many years within the three to five day cruise market. Considering all this, I find the ship to be in better shape than one would expect.
Our category 12 suite was in very good condition with only minor wear and tear noted. At 350 square feet, it is the largest cabin we have ever had and it also had a very usable balcony. Two things to note about the balconies on the Holiday - some are obstructed by life boats and the forward balconies are so close to the outside stairways that passengers on the stairs could climb into the balcony. None of them are very private. The suites have Jacuzzi bathtubs. They are very tall bathtubs though, and getting in and out requires some concentration, particularly for those with lesser inseams! On the Holiday, only the ten suites have refrigerators and ours worked well. The room also has a walk-in closet.
The lifeboat drill was very tolerable for us. First off, our station was at the main pool, which meant we had a journey of maybe fifty feet. Secondly, the leader for our station didn't require us to wear the jacket through the whole drill. She said there was no sense sweating ourselves to death and only required us to don the jacket, get checked by a crewmember, and then remove the jacket. A very sensible and well-run drill.
We were soon underway and the transit through Mobile Bay was very enjoyable. The summer sky was beautiful as we glided south towards the Gulf of Mexico. After a couple of hours, we passed by the Sand Island Lighthouse and entered the Gulf of Mexico.
The Holiday has two dining rooms, and each has two dinner seatings. The Seven Seas is the aft dining room, and has the 5:45 and 8pm seatings. The Four Winds is the forward dining room and has the 6:15 and 8:30 pm seatings. We had the 8:30pm seating in the Four Winds. We had table 144, which is a four-person booth. We had the table to ourselves, which didn't bother me too much. Although I do like meeting other passengers, I also like having private family dinners where we can talk amongst ourselves. Our waiter, Lucio from the Philippines, was superb. He immediately established a fine rapport with us and was always cheerful. His service was impeccable and I made note of it on the comment card.
I think smaller dining rooms have better food and I was not disappointed on the Holiday. All of our dinners were very good. Hot food was served hot, and cold food served cold. Shrimp and beef figure prominently on Carnival's fleet-wide menus, and are used in many entrees. I enjoyed every entrée and was quite pleased with the portion sizes. I particularly liked the prime rib, and the appetizer soups were very good quality. They served a very tasty gumbo. Although not on the menu, filet mignon is available every night and it is quite good. Bar service was prompt and our drink preferences were noted on the first night. We never had to ask again for iced teas, sodas, etc. This is how is used to be on all cruise lines, but lately I have noted a general decline in basic dining room service on all the mainstream lines. It was nice to see things done right on the Holiday.
Dining room breakfasts were good, and I like that Carnival offers Eggs Benedict every day. I will eat an occasional buffet breakfast, and I always get up early and have coffee and sweet rolls at the buffet, but I have found that the dining room is usually the best choice when it comes to breakfast. This is especially true around 8am or so, when the passengers start stirring and the buffet lines get long. They think they are saving time at the buffet, but not really. After standing in line, and then wandering the buffet restaurant searching for a vacant table, they end up spending a lot of time. In less time, I get seated, get professionally served my coffee and juice, get a good meal on china plates, and am out and about in less than thirty minutes. I did eat a breakfast buffet one morning and it was decent. The Holiday has three omelet stations, and it is nice to see that they also will do regular fried eggs for the passengers.
I do succumb to the buffet for lunch, as it is open longer and there are many options. On the Holiday they had the usual burgers and fries, and hot dogs too although oddly they were only made when requested and you had to wait. The buffet featured Indian dishes one afternoon and I loved it. I like spice and was not disappointed. Many of the buffet cooks are from India and they seemed to enjoy my exuberance for their efforts. The buffet also had a carving station every day and a good selection of vegetables. And of course, the 24 hour pizza stand was there churning out those high quality Carnival pizzas. They are really good! It is nice to get hot pizza direct from the oven and Carnival excels at it fleet-wide.
As many of my readers know, I am no stranger to the bartenders on my cruises. I love to linger at a bar, sipping a drink and observing, chatting with the bar staff and other passengers who have stopped by. I also like to have a pre-dinner martini, and on the Holiday the only place to have it is the Bus Stop bar. This bar serves the casino, and its most prominent feature is an old bus. The bus used to house a snack bar but is now just an unusual part of the décor. They mix a very good martini at the Bus Stop, and I looked forward to it every night. One night they had an outstanding jazz group playing outside the nearby Tahiti's Lounge. They were superb! For some reason they only played one night.
The Wharf Bar was another popular hangout for me. It has both an inside and outside portion. The inside area covers the buffet restaurant and the outside part handles the aft pool deck. I like the idea of pools on the aft end of ships and the Holiday has a pleasant one. It is small and really just a dipping pool, but there is a large expanse of deck around it in which to broil under the hot Caribbean sun. The bar is covered and has some great music playing on speakers. A very soothing place to spend an afternoon.
The main pool area on the Holiday is cluttered and I didn't spend too much time there other than taking a daily swim. It can also be noisy. One popular feature is the pool slide, which was open every day - even in port. One day I helped the pool staff set up for the slide opening. I was in the water when they put the safety rope across the pool and happily obliged their request for someone to string the rope to the other side. Pool entertainment consisted of the usual things - ice sculpture demonstration, hairy chest contest, and so forth. The music was confined to a steel drum musician who played along to pre-recorded songs. I wasn't especially impressed by this act. I also thought it strange when he ended his performances by playing Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art. These were unusual songs to play at a place where people were drinking and wearing next to nothing!
Although the main pool area is cluttered, the Holiday has a surprising amount of sunning space one deck above. The area around the stack is huge - perhaps the largest open deck I have seen on a cruise ship. Similarly, the "topless deck" is also very large. The topless area is directly above the suites but during my daily inspection tours I noted many passengers did not use it. This probably has to do with the passenger demographics. Most of the Holiday passengers are from the southeast, which is generally quite conservative on the subject of nudity. I do wish to note that this conservatism does not necessarily extend to drinking, at least on our cruise. I have never seen so many "beer buckets" ordered! I of course aided in this endeavor. Hey, it was a vacation!
I think this cruise identified something about our cruising preferences. We did not go to any of the main shows and we didn't miss them. Indeed, this allowed for more relaxed evenings without feeling the self-imposed pressure of getting to the main showroom early so as to get a good seat. I am not saying the shows are bad, but we have seen them in one variation or the other on several cruises. Going on a cruise next week? I'll bet one of the main shows involves some sort of revue of Broadway musicals. They are designed for the new cruiser and are well staged. But for us they are not on the agenda anymore.
I prefer going to the smaller lounges and listening to the musical acts. On our cruise, we had the outstanding group "Music Manila" playing at Doc Holiday's every night. I have long admired the talents of groups from the Philippines, which started when I was stationed at Subic Bay in the 70's. Music Manila could play any song or style, and they did everything well.
Our days at sea were, for the most part, quite pleasant. We had some hit and miss showers but it was mostly sunny with gentle seas. The night prior to our first port saw some minor choppiness in the water, but I have definitely seen worse and the ship rode quite well. Winds were never a problem.
This five-day cruise had two at-sea days and two ports. The first port was Calica, which is a rock quarry pier a few miles south of Playa del Carmen. We have visited this place several times and knew what to expect. The pier area has nothing to offer to passengers, other than a small tent city of trinket vendors. It is really just a good place to dock and transport the passengers to the various tour sites. Please note that there is a bar in the tent city that offers some of the coldest beer I have ever had. A nice way to end a tour!
At Calica, we went to Xcaret. Xcaret is the "eco-tourist" theme park immediately to the north of the pier, although you can't get there without taking a circuitous route on a bus. This was our second visit to Xcaret. The first was in 1999 on Cruise Bash III. I was not overwhelmed then, and I have to say that my opinion did not change after the latest visit. It is a pleasant excursion, but does not rise to the nirvana-esque adjectives that many reviewers assign to it. Xcaret has a nice beach and some interesting exhibits. They also do the dolphin encounters, at extra cost. The park is beautiful, but it covers a large area and you will find yourself doing a lot of walking on seemingly endless rock paved paths. It is an easy place to get lost in, partly due to the poor signage. For example, we were ready to leave and could not find the exit. We were within 100 feet of it but could not find it. We spent several minutes wandering around before I found the path that led to the gate. Another annoying thing is that while they take U.S. dollars, they give you Mexican pesos in change. Obviously, the idea is to hope you don't want to bring a bunch of pesos home and will therefore spend them. One good thing about this tour is that your ticket gives you access all day. You can take the shuttle bus back to the ship and then go back to Xcaret. The buses ran every half hour.
The Holiday stays in Calica from 7am until 10pm, which doesn't make much sense to me. Looking down at the dock every so often from about 6pm onward, I didn't see a lot of passengers coming and going. Indeed, the ship was quite full as I am sure most everyone returned in time for dinner. I would much prefer if the vessel were able to leave Calica in the late afternoon, and spend the long day in Cozumel.
Cozumel is my favorite place in the Caribbean, and it was our second port of call. Whenever we have docked at Cozumel, it has always been at the International or Puerta Maya piers which are both a few miles south of the main drag in the city of San Miguel. On this trip I experienced something I had always wanted - we docked at the downtown pier. This pier is attached to an overhead walkway which goes over the main street, and to an open air shopping mall. Passengers can easily get to all the great little bars and stores of San Miguel. The shopping mall also houses the famous Carlos 'n Charlies and Senor Frog's bars. These bars offer non-stop partying and are popular with cruisers. In my role of cruise journalist, I spent a couple hours in these fine establishments. This is a high price to pay for you readers, but I take my duties seriously and am certain that you wanted me to visit these bars and drink tequila. I had a lot of fun and the margaritas were outstanding. Beware the "balloon lady" in Senor Frogs! Before you know it, you will have a custom-made balloon hat! She works fast too!
The main attraction for us in Cozumel was the Dolphin Encounter. I finally decided to spend the money for this tour, which at $105 per person is not cheap. We were shuttled to Chankanaab Park by taxis and then given a briefing by the guide on how to handle the dolphins. Apparently, dolphins can become quite sexually aroused if touched in the wrong manner and the guides wanted to make sure we didn't facilitate this behavior! The tour includes round trip taxi fare, use of lockers at the park, full use of the Chankanaab facilities, and the dolphin encounter. We were fitted with life vests (required) and then escorted to a submerged platform in one of the underwater caged areas. The platform is about four feet deep and you stand on it as the trainers introduce you to the dolphins and go about the program. Each person has personal time with the dolphins. You are instructed on the hand signals to use for the dolphin "kiss", and to "shake hands" with the dolphin. The dolphins also do many jumps and tricks right in front of you, and I have to say this was the most enjoyable tour I have ever taken. They are amazing animals and you can't help but fall in love with them. You spend around 30 minutes in the water. The tour operator takes video and still photos of your group, which are then sold to you. The DVD of our encounter was $29, which was agreeable to me. The still photos were priced at $16 for a 5x7, which was not agreeable to me.
We departed Cozumel at 5pm and I looked forward to another relaxing night at sea, followed by our last full day of cruising the Gulf of Mexico. I love the at-sea days. To me, the perfect cruise would be three days at sea, twenty-four hours in Cozumel, and followed by three more days at sea. But I know this will never happen.
As I wandered the Holiday that last night, I took note of the demeanor of the passengers. I was struck by the aura of contentment that everyone seemed to have. Laughter and good cheer were everywhere. I have lost count of the cruises where I found people who were angry or otherwise stressed out. If they were aboard the Holiday on our cruise, I didn't see them. It occurred to me that these feelings of well-being were enhanced by the charming crew of the Holiday. From the waitress at a nearby dinner table, who one night cut the steak and and fed it to a little girl bit-by-bit, to our own waiter, whom my son insists we must encounter again, to the gracious bar servers and cabin attendants - this was the best crew I have yet cruise with. The Holiday doesn't have a miniature golf course. There is no rock-climbing wall. No extra-fee restaurant. No extra-fee ice cream stand. No ice rink. In other words, there were no distractions to keep one from realizing they were at sea, on a ship. If you were hungry, you went to the buffet, or the dining room, or called room service. If you were thirsty you went to a bar. There is no grand atrium. It was so refreshing! How many people take a cruise and forget what the purpose of a vacation is? They run from one gimmick to the next, and never achieve relaxation. They return home worn out. This didn't happen on our Holiday cruise. Everyone was calm. We left the ship feeling great and most importantly we were refreshed and invigorated. The Mobile port staff was as gracious during our debarkation as they were when we first boarded the Holiday. "How was your cruise?" "I hope you had a good time!" "Ya'll come back and see us soon!" These are the first words I heard when I exited the ship and entered the terminal. All of the Customs and Immigration details are handled in the terminal, including paying extra duty. We went to our luggage and I hailed a porter. He stayed with us all the way through Customs, and on to our vehicle, which was on the third level of the parking garage. He even loaded the bags for us. He was smiling and just a great guy. No fast-talking and wanting to shed us as soon as possible, which is all too common at most ports. How many times do you see a porter spending almost twenty minutes with a party and not whining about it? I tipped him well. We were called to debark at around 8:40am and were on the Interstate a little past 9am. Amazing.
I am a realist though, and I know that the days are probably growing short for the Holiday. As newer ships are put in service, Carnival will most likely move a Fantasy-class ship to Mobile and the Holiday will be put out to pasture. It may be a few more years, but it will happen. And this thought saddens me. I am surprised to feel this way, but now know that I have been missing out on some mighty fine cruising for many years - those cruises offered by older, smaller ships. I'll cruise on mega-ships again. And I'll enjoy those cruises. But I think I'll always yearn for a return to smaller vessels and their unique ability to please. My highest accolades to the crew of the Holiday! As we say in the Alabama: "You done good!"