Number of Cruises: 1
Cruise Line: Carnival
Ship: Carnival Sensation
Sailing Date: March 1st, 2004
Itinerary: Western Caribbean
We just got back from our first cruise (Carnival, Sensation: Grand Cayman/Couzmel, 3/1-3/6) and I thought I would share some observations. Our ski trip got cancelled at the last minute and we booked our first cruise without any research, because we had one hour to decide if we wanted the last cabin on the ship.
Getting on the Ship/First impressions
We left out of Tampa on Monday and from the moment we stepped out of the cab at 12:30 p.m., everything went quite well. We picked up our paperwork with ease, entered the terminal and went through the boarding process without a hitch. Everyone was quite pleasant. The whole process took less than 90 minutes and we were walking on to the ship at about 2:00 pm. We could have gotten on earlier if we had arrived earlier, but we wanted to sleep in. The décor of the ship was dated, but for the most part the ship was clean and well kept. We were on the Rivera deck, in an inside cabin, in the back of the boat. We were pleasantly surprised with the size of the room for two adults, although I don’t know how the 4 adults next door faired-Yikes! The room was clean, and I know! I always bring cleaning wipes and I couldn’t find much after my wipe down.
Booking Shore Excursions
We couldn’t figure out why everybody was swarming the excursion desk first thing and since this was our first time on a ship we wanted to check things out, after lunch on the lido deck of course. We lounged on deck as we pulled out of port and eventually got around to seriously researching out shore excursion options. It’s now about 7 p.m. Monday night and we have made our decisions for shore excursions. We walk up to the desk to ask a question, before we drop our request form in the box, only to find out that the one excursion I really wanted to do had 10 slots and was full. Now I know why everybody was swarming the excursion desk at 2:00 p.m. Lesson: do this first thing if you’re going to book through the ship.
The Dining Room
We were assigned the 8:00 p.m. dinner seating and I made sure I drug my husband there early because I wanted to get a good table. Don’t laugh! So I find out after we stand there for 15 minutes waiting for the dining room to open, that the table is assigned and the table number is on the sign and sail card, Duh! Most people observed the dress code, but of course you always have a few… and they were let in, which surprised me. We sat with some very nice people, but we didn’t really click with them so dinner every night was uneventful. During breakfast and lunch, only one dining room is open and they have open seating, which means you can eat at any time the dining room is open and you sit with different people. We only ate in the other dining room once for breakfast, the last morning of the cruise. We sat with 6 of the coolest people, who actually engaged us in conversation and we couldn’t stop talking about how much we enjoyed our experience. In retrospect, we probably should have spoke with the maitre’d and inquired about being moved after the first night as opposed to just dealing with it. I think we lost out on an opportunity to connect with some people, which really enhance the cruise experience, as I will expand on shortly. We first night we ordered conservatively and by the end of dinner we were still hungry: the portions were small. From then on I always ordered an appetizer, soup, salad, entrée and dessert. Like I said, all of the portions are small. The one formal night we had was the night they served lobster and prime rib, and I ordered both. So did everybody at the table. The food in the dining room for the most part was good, but we never had anything great.
Our waiter and his assistant were very good; we were extremely pleased by their service all week long. I would highly recommend taking the time to talk to some of the staff. I found it very interesting to get a glimpse into their world and what they go through in the same week that I’m being waited on, hand and foot. I mention this because one of the things Carnival does is automatically charge each person a flat fee for tipping, which you can alter (up or down) prior to the end of the cruise. For a 5-night cruise, it was $50 a person, which at first seemed high. Well by the end of the cruise I not only left the $100 on the account, I gave a little extra to the assistant waiter, who makes considerably less than the head waiter.
The Other Eating Options
If you don’t want to dress for breakfast and lunch you’re going to eat in the Sea View Bar & Grill. The breakfast buffet was the same each day, except one day it would be French toast and the next, pancakes. The eggs were runny and the sausage was microwave; no Bob Evans here. Lunch was better. If you got to the salad bar early it was good, but they didn’t seem to replenish it often enough. Some of the food was good, but most of it was just ok. Lots of it, but just ok. The cold items never seemed to be even cool and the hot items were lukewarm. The hot items I can be a little more flexible on, but I don’t want to drink warm milk. Another irritant was the fact that they would advise you every night what time meals in the Sea View were being served, for example, breakfast 6:30 to 10:30 a.m. and we would get there at 10:15 (because we had slept in late) and everything was gone. That happened a number of times.
The one meal I would have liked to ordered (breakfast) I couldn’t. Well to be fair, if I wanted fruit, cereal or juice I was set. But the thing is, I like eggs benedict, French toast, omelets… none of which is on the room service menu. So needless to say it was a very limited menu and I never ordered room service. What a bummer!
We went to the show the first night, where we experienced Jorge the cruise director, who rocked. You talk about one funny man. Job well done Jorge!! Two of the three comedians they had on ship were very funny (Happy Cole and Carl Faulkenberry). The third was brought in at the last minute due to lack of interest in the talent show. They had two Vegas style shows during the cruise. The first one was cancelled 20 minutes into it and we never made it to the second one. There was a juggler/illusionist who was lame and that was the extent of the shows. Because we ate at the late seating we would always have to go to the late shows, but it worked out well because we like to sleep in, so choose accordingly. If you’re an early riser, request the early seating so you can go to the early shows.
Non- Smokers Beware
There was no restriction on smoking in public areas inside the ship, except for some lounges, at certain times. The first smell I experienced as I stepped on to the ship was smoke from the bar in the atrium. I could smell smoke as I walked to my stateroom many times. A handful of smokers were not aware that the outdoor eating/sitting areas on the starboard side of the ship was designated smoking and would come over to the port side to share with us. The main lounge was always non-smoking, but the plaza lounge would be smoking one minute, then a new show would start and the would actually announce that the lounge was now non-smoking, which brought shouts of joy from most. It wasn’t horrible, but it could have been a lot better. I’m just thankful my cabin didn’t smell like an ashtray.
Shopping on the Ship
Stay away from the Jewelry store! It attacked my sign and sail account without mercy. Go see Rita from India, she is the most pleasant young woman, who sold me a beautiful tanzanite ring (for a good price) and then sold me a smooth watch for the greatest husband in the world. We checked the price of the watch on the internet when we got home and we could have got it for the same price, except we would have paid shipping and possibly tax. We couldn’t touch it in a store back home for the price we paid.
I was hesitant to purchase a ring prior to our ports, but Rita told me that if I saw something in Cozumel I liked better I could return the ring. After shopping at a few jewelry stores in Cozumel, I was so glad I already had a ring I loved. What at pain in the you know what! No Booze Allowed! They have good deals on duty free alcohol in the shops on the ship, but you can’t buy it and take it back to your cabin. If you did they might not nickel and dime you to death on all the drinks.
Grand Cayman/Stingray City Tour
We were supposed to be in Grand Cayman from 7am until 2 pm, which would give us plenty of time to do a tour and get in an hour or two of shopping and or sightseeing. What they don’t tell you when they are taking your $50 a person, is that the ship could have trouble being cleared by local officials, and that you could wait over an hour in the stairwell to get on the tender, to be rushed to your bus, to be rushed to the boat, to sit out in the middle of the water, to wait 40 minutes to find a place for your large tour boat to park, to spend 35 minutes swimming with stingrays (which was cool) with 300 other people, to be driven back to the dock to wait 40 minutes for a bus to get you back to town, so that you can get there just in time to take the last tender back to the ship! I hope to see Grand Cayman some day! Do one or the other, but things happen, so don’t expect to do both.
Cozumel Mexico/Catamaran Snorkel Tour
They told us that there would be two exits off the ship, but only 5 of the 2300 people found the rear exit. I had another nice long rest in the stairwell. The great thing was that after waiting for over 45 minutes, there was a ships photographer right at the exit of the ship, to stop people before they could get out of the way of others, and take their picture. Ok, I know someone is saying, roll with the punches, which would be fine if we were not still standing in the ship 5 flights up at 10:05, with two tickets in our pocket for a 10 am catamaran snorkel cruise. No announcement as to the delay, no redirection from any of the 920 crew as to a different exit. Nothing.
We did frantically make it to the boat with 5 minutes to spare. This was the Fury Company and the crew was extremely friendly and extremely helpful. We pulled out to head off for our snorkel sight, and five minutes later we were there; approximately 300 yards from our ship, right by the city, close to shore. If you have never snorkeled before it was fine. My husband had never been and enjoyed it. I on the other hand had snorkeled in the Bahamas, off the shore of a truly private island, where there was the most beautiful sea life, etc, in the clearest, warm water. I was very disappointed by the snorkeling. We left there after 35 minutes and headed towards a private beach that this company runs. We had a nice long boat ride there (and from here on out we now have free Mexican beer and margaritas) and back, and the beach and amenities were great. They had volleyball, kayaks, rafts, food, restrooms, a silver jewelry stand and horseback riding for a fee. We were there for an hour and then headed back. By this time a lot of our shipmates were feeling no pain and a conga line started. It was a fun ride back to the pier. We went back to the ship to get cleaned up and eat, and then headed out to shop.
Cozumel Shopping/When to call it quits
The first store we hit after you exit the duty free mall that you have to walk through was Diamonds International. Long story short, I saw one ring I liked that started out at $950 and by the time I walked out 30 minutes later, they were yelling behind me $299? For people who love to invest a lot of time bantering back and forth, for anything, will absolutely love Cozumel. I bought an $8.00 (us) bag and the young girl was speechless that I didn’t try to chew her down. I just didn’t want to waste me time for .50 cents. The one time I made the conscious decision to commit to a bargain, it took me 20 minutes to get a bracelet down from $120 to $21 (us). The only problem was I didn’t realize silver is stamped, so I think I got taken, but I still like the bracelet. Note: Real silver is stamped (I’m pretty sure w/ .925). Check with Rita in the jewelry store or get up at the crack of dawn to go to Super Shopper Phil’s seminar. The cab ride to the shopping district is something that must be experienced. Be sure to tell them to take you to the Forum shops, which are at the far end of the shopping, and then you can start walking back. Other wise, if you say take to downtown to shop they will take you right to the beginning edge of town. Oh, and when they say they will leave with out you, they are not joking. I hope that girl got home ok!
Time to go Home
Depending on where you are on the ship dictates where you will be told to meet, to wait to be called to disembark. Makes sense, 2300 people can’t leave at the same time. So they tell you in your daily paper that you absolutely have to be a your assigned station by 8:45 am, and if your not customs will not clear the ship, insinuating that if your not there 2298 people are going to be waiting on you. So we are at the Disco at 8:45 only to stand out there for 35 minutes, while one immigration officer waits for one Canadian couple to check in with him. If it hadn’t been for this one renegade woman passenger, we would still be standing there. She took all she could take and then called the pursers desk, which got us the Canadian couple info, then she stormed the disco from the back entrance and proceeded to give the immigration guy the what for, because he was holding up hundreds of people from coming in to sit down. We finally got in there at 9:30 and by now I was thirsty, so I walked up to the Sea View (that they said was open until 10) to get something to drink, only to find the entire place, drink machines and all, totally closed up. No customs officials ever came to our area to make sure we were all there, so my final hours in Tampa (before I headed back to Chicago) were spent in the disco waiting for people who never came, as opposed to waiting out on deck for my group to be called. Like I said this was my first cruise, and maybe something changed at the last minute and customs decided to clear us downstairs in the warehouse, but I honestly don’t think so. I think we were lied to, to keep up in nice little tidy groups. Our group was called last and we finally got off the ship at 11 am.
Looking back, I’m glad I went on a cruise. It was on my list of things I wanted to do, and despite the many bumps, we had a nice time. We met a lot of nice people and got some rest. I can’t say it was the best vacation I ever took, but with each passing day I understand a little bit more the old adage, “You get what you pay for”. If you’re on a tight budget or like a really good deal and bumps don’t bother you and you can stay away from the bar, Carnival is for you. I will not cruise Carnival again, because I am at the stage in life where the details make the difference and I am willing to pay for them. Next time my trip gets cancelled, I won’t make any hasty decisions!