The Setup – Although veterans of many cruises, we had never had the “Drive Port” experience. Just throwing everything but the dog into the SUV – bypassing the hassle and inconvenience of airports, airlines and transfers – seemed like a good idea. From Memphis the logical choice was Carnival’s Triumph sailing to the Eastern Caribbean out of New Orleans. (7 days-July 24 to 31)
Embarkation – Docs we printed out online indicated boarding was from 12:30p to 2:30p with ship sailing at 4:00pm. So, we got in line for pier-side unloading and parking at 12:20p. Once parked and out of the SUV we stood in line for about 45 minutes – outdoors – in 95 degree mid-summer New Orleans heat and humidity. (What logistical genius arranged for that little bit of torture?) From parking to boarding the ship took a total of 80 minutes – during which long lines with many switch backs were the norm.
We were told at the parking/unloading point that, yes, we could schlep our own bags aboard if so inclined. But, just before entering the blessedly air conditioned terminal building, we were singled out from the herd by Colonel Klink and told that three of our bags were oversized and must be checked. He pointed to a little airline type “carry-on-bags-must-fit-in-here-or-we-stab-your-mother” warning sign with size testing receptacle, the volume of which was just big enough to hold a medium sized lunch box. I’m thinking, “they have overhead bins on cruise ships now? So why wasn’t that sign positioned back at the unloading point?”
Accommodations – Once on board we were directed to our ocean view cabins on Deck One. The cabins were very spacious and quite comfortable – larger than on most ships – something for which Carnival is noted. Our decision not to splurge on balcony cabins was justified. Overall ambiance of the ship seemed spacious.
Our room steward was Jorge from Peru – a very gracious man who seemed eager to please – as did most of the staff.
Waiting in our cabins were bon voyage gifts from the Hotel Manager and our local Business Development Manager, fruit baskets, wine, etc. They were greatly appreciated and quickly consumed.
Departure – Noticing at 5pm that the gangway had been retracted but we had not yet sailed, an announcement by the captain explained that due to weather – tropical depression Bonnie – and heavy traffic at the river’s mouth, sailing would be delayed until 3am Sunday morning. But, we were reassured that the ship would still reach ports on time. And it did.
Dining – Even though we had officially requested a large table for eight or more, we were seated in a booth for four. The booth was comfortable and cozy, but this was still a disappointment for us – we cruise to meet people. The maitre ‘d was apologetic and said he’d try to remedy the situation, but did not. Understandably, most people want tables reserved for just their group of family and friends, especially during the summer months when traveling with kids. My theory? They probably originally had us booked for a large table… then they saw me tripping and stumbling my way up the gangway sporting a lime green Vampires Suck! tank top with “Bite Me” tattooed over my jugular. I’m sure they decided then and there that it was best to isolate us from the other diners.
The food ranged from average to very, very good. The biggest improvement to Carnival’s food service is in the presentation. Main dining room offerings were stylish and gourmet in appearance. However, in actual taste most dishes were about a half star short of deserving of that sobriquet. Some exceptions: the Chilled Avocado Soup, Mongolian Steak Salad, New Zealand Lamb Chops and the Chocolate Souffle were to die for.
Fish dishes, while well spiced and elegantly presented, were consistently served dry and overcooked. Thinking that it might be due to only frozen supplies being available rather than fresh, I embarked on a test. When the security guard at the Atlantis Aquarium was looking the other way I scooped up a rare Triggerfish… smuggled it back in my camera case… gave it to ship’s chef fifteen minutes before dinner. Yep, served dry and overcooked.
Just when I was about to give up on the Over-Cooked Fish issue, a ray of hope appeared. There on deck five… just around the corner from the casino… the Sushi Cart! But even here the delicacies are tweaked for southern tastes. The Chicken Fried Tuna’Cado Rolls were fabulous!
Entertainment – We took in most of the shows and most were quite good, especially the big production shows. Carnival is one of the few remaining cruise lines to still utilize full live orchestras rather than recorded tracks for these complex shows. Sound quality in all venues was excellent. Stage effects and mechanics, such as hydraulically manipulated stage sections and (nearly invisible) cable lifts enabling performers to “fly” were effective and not overly exploited. Site lines in all venues were good. Smoke machines, flash pots and laser strobes were used sparingly and not overdone. Well, maybe the smoke machine didn’t add much to bingo… the caller was new and couldn’t find the off button.
The Big Easy Show was one of the best production shows I’ve seen on a cruise ship… and this coming from someone who worked ships as an entertainer for 12 years. Clearly crafted for a predominantly New Orleans centric audience, my first thought was “this is a cheap shot – like playing the Star Spangled Banner at a VFW meeting – a guaranteed standing ovation.” But as the show unfolded the choice of music, the performances, costuming and special effects were outstanding. A very enjoyable experience.
Comedian – Todd Justice started out strong but began to lose us half way through the show. Todd kept looking at his watch – a surefire momentum killer. Not a good idea unless it is part of the act. It was not.
Magic – A big production/illusion type magic show in the main showroom was a bit repetitive and just OK. A close-up magic show was scheduled for the Venezia Lounge. Although we arrived 20 minutes early there was not an empty seat to be found. It was already standing room only and many were sitting on the floor. This show needs to be in a larger venue. We did not stay.
Specialty Act – Funniest show of the week was Asad, the stage hypnotist. To audience volunteers who were deep under, he gave many of the old tried and true but still funny suggestions with a few novel twists such as… “you desperately want to kiss the person next to you but they have horribly bad breath”.
Asad had a very original closing. Just before dismissing the volunteers he gave them one final suggestion… “you will not remember anything you have done on stage tonight… until the next time you look in a mirror. Then you will suddenly remember everything in vivid detail.” Of course immediately following the show sadistic friends and family steered unsuspecting volunteers into the restrooms to “powder their noses”. Screams could be heard three decks away.
On-Board Ambiance – With beautiful ships, good food and staff eager to please, Carnival is still all about relentless on-board merchandising and sales promotion – as are all cruise lines in the mass market category. The trade-off is lower fares.
But Carnival can be a bit crass about it sometimes. You don’t have to be a cruise snob to feel a bit put out when, for the umpteenth time, you have to walk the length of the ship to find an unblocked stairway or un-mobbed elevator to get from one deck to another due to photographers having set up another half dozen Photo Op stations.
These always seemed to be positioned in the middle of a major staircase or thoroughfare during peak stroll-about-the-ship hours. One night about twelve such setups were in evidence, all at choke points with correspondingly backed up crowds spilling over into on-board shops… where silver tongued sales people lay in wait!
(Biz Op – Someone could make a fortune selling Photographer Repellant. It could be spray-on… colorless and odorless but making the wearer appear constantly out of focus.)
Also consider that for the two hours prior to departing from Key West, passengers had to stand in line for an average of 30 minutes to get back aboard the ship… and you begin to get my point.
Why can’t CCL take a cue from the good people at Disney? Disney has mastered both in-your-face merchandising and crowd control. Carnival execs, are you listening? Can you say Fastpass?
Ports & Shore Excursions – there were three stops on this itinerary.
Freeport – There is a reason why it is called “Freeport”. It is totally free of anything to do. Beaches and shopping are a long cab ride from the ship and nothing to write home about once you get there. We stayed on the ship.
Nassau – One mistake that we can only blame on our own procrastination – not buying tickets in advance to the Atlantis Aquarium & Water Park on Nassau’s Paradise Island. Unfortunately, we waited until the day of arrival and everywhere we went, the Shore Excursion Desk, the Atlantis hotel itself, other nearby Paradise Island hotels – the story was the same – sold out, sold out, sold out.
But our determined girls weren’t taking no for answer and gave the go-ahead to our cab driver to do whatever it took to find us Water Park passes.
Tito was the man… a fast talking and (apparently) connected guy. With a grin a mile wide, a mouth full of gold teeth and a cranked up boom box with sub-woofer in the back of his Toyota mini-van, he was an instant hit with our 18-year olds. Meanwhile, I’m testing the van doors to make sure they can be locked and unlocked from the inside.
To add to my nervousness, while careening through the backstreets of Nassau in Oddjob’s sub-woofed ride, my wife is flashing around hundreds of dollars in cash – slowly counting it all out – right there in the open for all to see – making sure we had enough to pay for these bootleg water park passes he is about to score for us. (Tito made it clear he didn’t take plastic.)
Meanwhile, I’m about to panic thinking “My God, he’s going to pull into a back alley where we’ll be stripped naked and robbed of everything… at gun point… and left stranded.” (Robbery would be survivable… but I wasn’t sufficiently medicated for walking back through the Straw Market… naked.)
After numerous furtive phone calls and a back alley rendezvous with local underground operatives, we had the passes… and Tito had our cash. Miraculously, we did not set off any fraud alarms at the entrance to the Aquarium / Water Park.
Key West – Arrival here meant more shopping, as well as cheap or free Internet and cell phone connectivity. You can connect via the ship’s system but it is a costly way to feed your Facebook habit.
We booked the parasailing excursion, which was a hoot. The departure point is just a short walk across the pier from the ship.
Sea Days – We enjoyed our time on deck, the pools, water slide and the JumboTron (giant outdoor video screen). Yes, Agnes, yours truly got in line with the kids and went down the giant water slide. It was a thrill. Especially the sudden stop in the water trough at the bottom. I was regular for three days afterward.
Question – Who gets to decide what is shown on the ship’s huge JumboTron? Sometimes it featured commercials for Carnival or playbacks of highbrow fare such as the Hairy Chest Contest – sometimes a movie or concert video – but each and every morning it was tuned to a local TV station out of Denver. (Denver?) I kept looking around for a giant remote control.
The Spa – On the last day of the cruise my wife booked me for the ultimate makeover – a hydrating facial with full body massage. Admittedly, it did make me look a good six to eight weeks younger for a few hours. But, like the poor victims of the hypnotist, when I looked in the mirror the next morning… there staring back at me was that familiar 63-year old catcher’s mitt with ears. I screamed too.
Conclusion – All in all it was a good cruise and a welcome change of pace. Would I cruise on Carnival again? Yes, definitely. Would I do anything differently next time? Yes, a couple of things. First, I’d insist on getting that large table for eight or more in the dining room – we just have too much fun swapping lies with new people we will never see again. Secondly, I’d make sure to book the two or three most desired shore excursions in advance. And lastly, we need to rein in our on-board profligacy a bit. Oh, I’d also bring along a case of that Photographer Repellant. – LEC