In the beginning
When Dawn and I reconnected after 30 years, we were not exactly in a place to take a honeymoon, much less go on a cruise. A few years into our marriage we had hardly left town. We had only been to a friend’s wedding in Madison, IN, and one other overnight stay at Hotel 21c in Louisville (which had to be deeply discounted at the time by a business acquaintance or we wouldn’t have been able to stay there either). So finally, after a few of years of hard work and focus we were able to plan our first trip together, and I wanted it to be fantastic. Having cruised with Carnival before, I knew that we could get a lot of bang for our buck compared to what folks around here traditionally do on vacation. Driving to Florida or Gulf Shores for a week of fun on the beach is no doubt fun, but I want to show Dawn as much of the world as possible while we still have time. Therefore, I would never trade a day in a cabin on the sea for a hotel on shore. Cruising takes you “there” in a way unlike any other type of travel. Cruising takes you places you may not think to go otherwise, and in a way that will make you want to come back time and time again.
Cruise ships these days are floating islands. Massive structures that somehow cut gracefully through the waves while offering dining, shopping, live music, spa services, a casino, loads of fun stage shows and virtually anything else you could want to do at sea. Want to do some mini-golf or shoot hoops with the kids? Head up to the sports deck. Want to relax away from the noisy kids? Head to the Serenity Deck. Or, you can embrace your noisy inner-child and head to the Waterworks area to splash and ride the slides for hours on end. Movie fan? How about free popcorn while you watch some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters at night by the pool? And by the end of 2020, Carnival Mardi Gras will offer the first Roller Coaster at sea. Opportunities abound for entertainment, dining or taking in some adult fun at the late-night clubs. And while you may get some of these options on a land based vacation, you rarely get it all, and hardly at a price so affordable.
Carnival Cruise Lines has an ever growing fleet of 27 ships over several classes, and not unlike hotels, different rooms have different amenities. If you want to cruise on the cheap, take an inside cabin and let the cruise line assign it for you. If you are more the penthouse type, then book the Captain’s Suite. You can have the couch folded out and a bunk dropped down in some cabins that sleep five, much like letting the youngest cousin sleep on the foldout couch at the beach house you might rent. Options range from simple to opulent and you can pick and choose at your leisure. Afterall, it is your leisure.
We discuss cruising a lot, and one comment we hear all the time is, “I am not sure I would like to be cooped up on a ship”. Response – Floating Islands. There are open spaces everywhere, and something to do always. We like to hang out by the pool and catch some rays. My friends prefer to gamble at the casino and play bingo. You can go sing Karaoke, or sing along at the Piano Bar. Show off your best Travolta moves at the Disco or laugh your bottom off at the Comedy Shows late at night. Shop, drink, eat, drink, gamble, eat, dance, laugh, eat, sleep and eat. If you can’t find something to fill your fun bucket, then you probably aren’t going to have fun on land either. Carnival Cruise Lines definitely knows how to have fun and if you allow yourself to enjoy it, the possibilities are endless.
The Destinations and Itineraries
Traveling to several destinations instead of staying at a land based resort is a huge advantage in our opinion. While our accommodations never change, our location does daily. We have now visited Mexico on several occasions while enjoying new and different experiences every time. We have made stops at Belize, Honduras, the Islands of The Bahamas, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. Our upcoming trips will take us to Turks and Caicos, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the US Virgin Islands. Our departure ports will include Charleston, Port Canaveral and New Orleans, so we will enjoy bonus day trips in those locales as well. Conversely, we have friends that visit the same beach house and same stretch of beach year after year, and while familiarity is a comfort to some, it is just not what we think of when we talk travel.
If you want to go to Europe, what better way to cross the Atlantic than on a Cruise Ship? You can see the beauty of Alaska in all its glory from the deck of a Carnival Ship, or you can hang ten in Hawaii depending on what kind of experience you seek. Cruise the Northeast Coast and into Canada if you so desire. BUT, if you are looking for the Traveling Bradburys, you should probably look in the Caribbean where there are options galore including private islands, and partial crossings of the Panama Canal. The bluest waters on the planet are claimed by the boat Captains we spoke to in the Bahamas, but we won’t know for sure unless we keep looking. You can count on us to follow up on that one!
Shore excursions are plentiful. You can swim with Dolphins, Sea Turtles or Stingrays. You can snorkel or scuba among the world’s greatest coral reefs. Zip line through a jungle canopy or down a mountain. Tour Mayan or Aztec Ruins or swim in a cenote. Go cave tubing or kayak thru a rainforest. There are a multitude of options for experiencing the culture and natural wonders at every port. You can book excursions in advance through Carnival’s website, or on your own through third party sites. You can make your own adventure at port if you choose, as there are plenty of vendors at the port offering similar experiences. Just make sure you stay on ship time and make it back to the port on schedule.
Dining options are hard to match when you compare a ship to a hotel in New Orleans, but let’s be more practical and compare the food offered aboard a ship to a all inclusive resort. Again, the ship is limited in the amount of dining space it can set aside and still house 3000 passengers and 1500 crew. So the main choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner are going to be the buffet where you can return to the food line as often as you like, or the Main Dining Room where you are free to order as much as you want off the menu. Want two entrees? Go for it. Want a dinner of just appetizers? Get them all. The waitstaff is accustomed to this and are not in any way put out. I would just suggest telling them they can serve it all at once to speed your dinner along.
Carnival also includes offerings from Guy’s Burgers, Guy’s Smokehouse and Guy’s Pig and Anchor (yes, that is the famed Guy Fieri), as well as the Blue Iguana Cantina for burritos and tacos, a delicatessen for your BLT, and 24 hour pizza and Ice Cream. For an additional charge of $38, you can dine in a 5-star Steakhouse. $15 per person gets you a wonderful dinner at Jiji’s Asian Kitchen or Cucina del Capitano. Bonsai sushi serves fantastic rolls and sake. Speaking of fantastic rolls, try a lobster roll from the Seafood Shack. And as the fleet grows, so do the options. Coming soon will be Shaq’s Big Chicken and the first Emeril Lagasse restaurant at sea coming to the Mardi Gras in 2020.
Not every breakfast has been a winner, but I can honestly say that we have never had a bad meal that was ordered from the menu, or ala carte. Buffets? Well, those are tough anywhere you go. The chef cannot spice a large dish correctly because for some it will be too much. You are always going to run into bland dishes, but there is plenty of salt and pepper to be had, and if you really want some zing there are bottles of tabasco sauce to zip up your plate. All in all, the food choices are abundant and always well prepared. Land based restaurants are often more hit and miss in my opinion as the staff don’t always take as much pride in their work (this observation comes from years of service industry experience). There are surely resort hotels with as many food offerings, and some that are probably a little better, but they don’t take you to different Islands surrounded by turquoise waters while serving you.
Hosted by one of Carnival’s top culinary artists, the Chef’s Table is a foodie’s dream. Course after course is paired perfectly and complimented by exemplary service. The cost is not included, but it is well worth the $95 for this culinary experience and gallery tour. Allow a few hours to enjoy rare delights prepared in inspired fashion. A magician often entertains between the starter and main courses to afford your system a little more time for the remaining offerings, but even the small portions make it difficult to sample everything. The same experience on land would cost hundreds of dollars, so in this case, the ship wins just about every time.
Do you enjoy a frozen libation while the sun kisses your skin? Do you like to kick back and watch the big game on Sunday with a fresh IPA brewed on-site? Fancy a Margarita while watching the waves pass, or maybe a Rum Runner while you listen to the steel drum? All that and more can be found on a Carnival Ship. There are poolside cantinas and piano bars. You can taste a new lager at the micro-brewery, or find a new favorite created by the mixologists at the Alchemy Bar. You can just sit back in your lounger and the drinks will find their way to you. Servers are easily found on the lido deck to fetch your Pina Colada while you people watch. Sunburned and can’t hang on the deck? Go to the sports bar or hang out at the Casino Bar. There are plenty of options, but like any club or pub on land, drinks come at a premium.
While alcohol is not included in your cruise fare, there are plenty of ways to enjoy adult beverages without breaking the bank, or the rules. We choose to purchase the CHEERS drink package. The CHEERS package includes 15 bar drinks up to $20. Yes, they will cut you off at 15 drinks, but that is usually a good time for one to be limited. The package also includes unlimited sodas, specialty coffees, energy drinks, and milkshakes. Debate rages on and on about the value, but for us it is worth the roughly $55 per day
Carnival Fun Shops offers bottle delivery to your room if you purchase pre-cruise. A liter of premium liquor runs between $75 and $100. You are allowed to bring a 12-pack of canned soda or juices for your mixer, so if you are a Jack and Coke lover, you could spend $95 and stretch that through your trip. That would be enough for 27 standard pours. I could definitely survive a short trip that way, but would miss the specialty coffees and milkshakes.
Nothing is better than tossing aside your insecurities and dancing like noone is watching. Get out there and enjoy the sail away party. Nevermind that you are blowing up the middle of the dance line, and literally hundreds of people are looking at you do the Wobble, HAVE FUN! That is a mantra to be taken seriously. Remove your silly shackles and let go! Carnival Ships are known as Fun Ships for a reason. From waterslides to dance offs, they throw a great party. Enjoy the infamous Hairy Chest contest or checkout an ice carving exhibition by the main pool. Bid on some art at the auctions, or play Harry Potter Trivia in the Ocean Plaza. Hot White Nights and the 80’s Glow Party take it to a new level at night on the lido, and on some ships the party continues late night on the Serenity Deck.
Carnival Productions offer a chance to sit back and watch a fantastic stage show. Energetic performers sing and dance to the Golden Oldies, or Rock-n-Roll favorites performed by live musicians. One of the more modern productions, Flick, includes a laser show and magic. Audience participation is often a part of the fun and the late shows almost always carryover to the Lobby and Atrium.
The Punchliner Comedy Shows can be fun for all ages as long as you show up at the age appropriate show. If you are easily offended, you might want to just listen to the string music in the Grand Atrium, or dance to the live music at Ocean Plaza midship. However, if you love good comedy they have it. Professional stand-up is an art form and they know how to do it right on Carnival. The club offers a PG show early for families, and then an adults only show later at night. Avoid sitting on the front row unless you have thick skin. Of course, that is a rule at any comedy venue, because you may very well become part of the show.
The Love and Marriage show is a Must See! I don’t care how many times I see this show it keeps me laughing. We always have a great time watching these three couples answering questions for their significant other. Time after time it is the oldest couple that make the show the most fun, but I suppose after 50 years of marriage their experiences just lead to better answers and they get funnier every trip.
Check out the Lip-Sync contest or Hasbro Game Show. Watch a movie at the IMAX theater, or try your skills on the ropes course. Spend the day being pampered at the Cloud 9 Spa. Take the kids to Build-a-Bear workshops. Ride the Sky-ride and pedal your way suspended about twenty feet above the deck. If you want to have fun, there are ways to do it at every turn. How you choose your fun is up to you, but there is a daily listing in the Fun Times and there is surely something there for everyone!
While still on board the Carnival Dream, on our second cruise, we realized we were hooked. So much so in fact, that we booked our next cruise at the onboard Future Cruises Desk to take advantage of the credits and value. Within two weeks of debarking, we booked our fourth trip taking advantage of savings again, and decided to start cruising two times a year.
We have now been on four cruises and currently have five trips booked with more to come. We have made new friends and have even booked cruises with some to meet again. Others we have met we will surely cruise with in the future, and then there are a lot more friends that we haven’t yet met. We can’t wait to see you guys at the sail away parties that lie ahead! Until then, we will be counting down to our next cruise.