Blog2NOLA Cruise / Fantasy Review 2.7.2009
Just The Facts:
February 5-12, 2008
Captain: Pier Paolo Scala
Cruise Director: Big Tex
Special Blogger Cruise Director: John Heald
Hotel Director: Andy Brown
Ports: New Orleans-Progreso-Cozumel-New Orleans
Weather: Very Good all week.
This is the John Heald Bloggers Cruise for fans of John Heald, the Senior Cruise Director for Carnival Cruise Lines and his very popular Cruise Blog. I am sailing with the CruiseMates Blog2NOLA group. This is my 14th Carnival cruise and 49th cruise overall. I am also sailing as a solo.
I rarely fly to a cruise anymore so this was a little different for me. I flew American Airlines from Waco to DFW for a flight to New Orleans. I was wearing a Blog2NOLA group T-shirt so I was spotted by others in our group who were on the same flight to New Orleans. The flight was delayed almost two hours so we did have some time to visit. Once in the air the flight was fine and we were greeted at the baggage claim area by a New Orleans style brass band. I was able to share a taxi/van from the airport to downtown NOLA with my new BFFW’s. My hotel is the Maison St. Charles and it is nice in the fact that it is a quaint New Orleans style hotel and not a mega-convention type of hotel. It is a bit further from the hot spots but on a street car line. A lot of the early arrivals in the CruiseMates group met at the Hard Rock Café and some explored Bourbon Street and the famous hurricanes from Pat O’Briens. Unfortunately I was one of them.
I had originally planned on doing some volunteer work this morning, but due to some recent stress at the ranch and drinking the hurricanes the night before I thought it best I slept in this morning. I don’t want a bug before even boarding on the ship. Some friends attended the volunteer project sponsored by Carnival Cruise Line and it went well. I went for an early lunch at Mothers, a famous New Orleans spot, for a Ferdi special. It was fantastic and worth the effort to get it. After lunch I visited Jackson Square, The Cibolo and St. Louis Cathedral. I took an afternoon cruise on the The Natchez, a paddle wheeler on the Mississippi River. It was very interesting and informative especially the engine room. This evening the CruiseMates group met at Mulates for dinner and a good time. The band was La Touche a very good Cajun group. I had a pink lemonade and the Cajun Seafood Platter which was excellent. Our group of about 50 had good seats near the front and the band and everyone had a great time.
It was a beautiful day in New Orleans. I took advantage of the fast internet connection in the courtyard of the hotel to update emails and news before heading for the ship. I shared a cab to the port ($7 set fee) and arrived about 11:15. A good arrival time as it was just behind the rush but earlier than most arrivals. There were a lot of VIPs for this boarding so the VIP check in line was as long if not longer than the regular check in line. I was on board by 11:45 or thereabouts. Since I brought the T-shirts for the CruiseMates group I helped at their check-in-table for a lot of the day before boat drill. The Captain came by and recognized me from previous cruises on the Ecstasy. I appreciated that very much. When I checked my cabin there was a “Welcome bottle of champagne and two plates of canapés. Very Nice. I did have lunch from the Taste of Nations station. It was Cajun Day and I had the Cajun Vegetable Soup, Corn Fritters, Spinach Cornbread, Chicken Creole, and grilled Fish Fillets, all very good. We set sail down river as boat drill ended about 4:15 p.m. I have never sailed down the Mississippi river and because of all the turns in the river it felt as though we were at sea. A lot more pitch and roll than I expected. There was a special cocktail reception for all the Blogger groups on board at 5:00 p.m. in the Universe Lounge, the main show lounge. They were very generous with the cocktails and John Heald made his first official appearance to the group. I have early seating for dinner so straight to dinner following. They have open seating for the Bloggers another new experience. I ordered the Fried Shrimp that was served with a very unique & tasty Plum dipping sauce, the Broccoli Soup, a Grilled Pork Chop served with vegetables and macaroni, and the Black Forest Gateau (cherry) for dessert. The Welcome Aboard Show was after dinner featuring Big Tex as a cruise director, and comedian Lewis Nixon. A Bloggers Pajama Party sponsored by CruiseMates was held in Cleopatra’s Piano Bar this evening. I’m sure the other passengers thought this had to be a crazy group walking around the ship in PJ’s. It was fun and there were probably 60+ who participated. John Heald made an appearance, judged the PJ’s and I actually got to meet him for the first time. He recognized my name from this humble blog of ours. Following the Pajama Party and all the first day activities I retired for the evening.
Day Two--Sunday--at Sea
I enjoyed a very refreshing nights sleep and the ship rocked just enough to make it very nice. Thanks Captain Scala. I had breakfast in the dining room, my personal standard 1st morning Carnival breakfast of: tomato juice (V8), a mixed fruit plate, Eggs Benedict with side of bacon, and milk. All were very good. After breakfast there was a Q&A session for the Bloggers with John Heald. During the comments, John expressed how important the port of Galveston is to Carnival. Even the possibility of a third Carnival ship. That’s positive news for Texas. I met Paul Motter of CruiseMates and Anita Dunham-Potter who writes several Travel Blogs. I later shared a table on the Promenade Deck with Anita who is very delightful and we shared information about cruising. It took me a minute to figure out that she was interviewing me in between our conversations. (Link to one of her blogs below) It was Italian day in the Tastes of Nations section. I did have a selection of items. The regular buffet featured roast turkey at the carving station. We had a special tea time with John Heald for CruiseMates at 2:00 pm. in the Celebration Dining Room. The tea was good and the scones were excellent. I spent some time at HQ and discovered a new option. The Fun Ship SPECIALS CARD is $23 but will get you one drink of the day and four additional drink specials. That will save you $8.75 and also gets you the drinks in a larger glass. Sounds like a good deal to me. Wish I had know before my initial Funship Special purchase at sail away. One can collect only so many of the souvenir cocktail glasses. The Captains cocktail reception was before dinner and I greeted the Captain, but only stayed for one glass of wine and left before the introductions. Dinner was very good. I had the pumpkin soup, the stuffed mushrooms, and the seafood entrée consisting of lobster and jumbo shrimp. The lobster was very good and the shrimp were excellent. I had the Bitter & Blanc for desert. The stuffed mushrooms are not as good as they were on the Conquest or Ecstasy. This is also the third variation of the Bitter & Blanc since they introduced it to the menu as part of the George Blanc signature dishes. Still good just different. The feature show was a production shows featuring the Fantasy singers and dancers Nightclub Express. It was very good and featured numbers from various nightclub venues such as: Cotton Club, the Copa, Capri, Crazy Horse, Tropicana, etc.. This production team just came on the ship last week and they were fresh and crisp. The show had excellent singing, dancing, costumes, and music. This show is not to be missed. I did think this production group of singers and dancers are as good as any I have seen on any cruise ship, kudos to them and their director. Some very nice canapés were delivered to the cabin this evening as a part of the Platinum ‘Concierge Club’ guest program. I also received a stainless steel thermos as a gift.
Day Three—Monday--Progreso, Yucatan, Mexico
Another very pleasant nights sleep. I heard people comment that they considered the seas ‘rocky’ last night, but to me it seemed fine. Captain Scala got the Fantasy into Progreso at our 7:00 scheduled arrival time. I had breakfast in the dining room: fresh sliced fruit, fried eggs with hash browns, bacon, & corned beef hash, toast, V8, and milk. I left the ship about 10:00 am and I took the free shuttle to town. I stopped at the Mayan craft store that DW loves (run by Richard) and purchased a bag I wanted for my computer cables and charger. The store has authentic crafts made by Mayans from Yucatan and Guatemala and a good place to get gifts. I saw friends and accompanied them to Buddy’s, but we moved to Le Saint Bonnet and I made that my HQ for the afternoon. We had a very nice table on the restaurant side and enjoyed a very nice breeze coming off of the Gulf of Mexico. The weather was beautiful. The best weather I have ever experienced here. Over the course of the day we were joined by fellow Bloggers from Cruise Critic and CruiseMates. I ordered a shrimp cocktail, and enjoyed their great guacamole & pico de gallo. I also purchased a few items from various vendors who passed. My favorite mariachi, Julio, approached and again recognized me from previous trips, he is the best if the many mariachi’s that play here. Progreso is probably the pirated DVD capital of Latin America. Charges for a DVD run about $3.00 on average per movie (a little less if you get more) and I again as on previous visits purchased a couple. I took the shuttle back to the ship and was onboard by 3:00 p.m. We sailed away at the scheduled departure time of 4:00 p.m. For those that stayed on board, it was Mexican day in the Tastes of Nations. We had the official group cocktail party for the CruiseMates group at 5:00 pm in the disco. It was a Pirate theme and everyone looked so great in their pirate costumes. It was great fun and attended by John Heald and other special guests as well. Dinner was again good. I had a green salad and two entrees, the Sweet & Sour Shrimp and the Chicken Breast, then Tirmasu for dessert. I really liked the shrimp and would do two of those at next opportunity. The Carnival Return Guest party was after dinner. A very unusual time, but perhaps because of all the extra activities this cruise. Big Tex and the Fantasy show band hosted the Guest Talent Show was this evening and it was very enjoyable. There were three CruiseMates / Evil Krewe group members of the six who performed. Big Tex did his five level dance routine and that was fantastic. At midnight they had a Men’s Nightgown contest (which from photos I’ve seen must have been hilarious), but I retired to the cabin after such a busy day.
Day Four--Tuesday--Cozumel, Mexico
Another good nights sleep. The sea was much calmer than the previous night and very nice as we sailed around the Yucatan peninsula and into the Caribbean. I had another good breakfast in the dining room We arrived and docked on time in Cozumel at the Puerto Maya pier. Another first for me on this cruise is that I have booked a ‘ships tour’, but really it’s the official Bloggers excursion for Cozumel. We met on the pier at 9:45 and were on our way to Playa Mia straightaway. We were met as we got off the bus with servers holding trays of drinks and given a quick orientation of Playa Mia. The package included mixed drinks, beer, a Mexican buffet, water toys, lounge chairs, swimming pool, ice crème, and more. The bar servers were very generous with the drinks and the food was good. The weather was ideal with a nice breeze to keep it cool. It was a great day in paradise. I had two dips in the cool Caribbean water, it was rocky as you first entered but fine and sandy just out a bit. I was very pleased with the tour, the resort of Playa Mia, and the great company. We returned to Puerto Maya about 3:00, but a group of us enjoyed some light snacks and cocktails at Poncho’s Backyard until time to board the ship at 4:30 pm.. It was Caribbean day in the Tastes of Nations section, another good choice. Dinner was again good, my selections were Escargot, Thai Chicken, Bing Cherry Soup, the Chateaubriand as an entree, and Grand Mariner Soufflé for desert. Our dinner ran late as there was a food problem in the kitchen and we barely got out before second seating began, but that took us to show time. The show was juggler Manuel Zuniga and comedian Al Ernst. Al has been ‘hanging’ with the Bloggers group all cruise and I was familiar with his act, but this was the first time to see him live. He is very funny. I’m not keen on the juggling. There was a special late show just for the Bloggers with John Heald, Al Ernst, and Lewis Nixon. They told stories about one another and reminisced about working together on Carnival years ago. It was very very funny. It was time for the Mexican buffet on Lido deck and it was a very nice set up on deck. The weather was wonderful and the band Music Manila played good rock cover tunes on the open deck. A long day. I checked emails late back in the cabin then retired.
Day Five—Wednesday--at sea
Another good night sleep and I had another very nice breakfast in the dining room. I attended most of the Q&A session for the invited press covering the Bloggers and the ‘new & improved’ Fantasy. I tried one of the hot tubs on the new Serenity Deck. The deck is adults only and located aft with a great view. It was American Day in the Taste of Nations so I had a bit of Salad, Fried Chicken and a baked potato. They had ham on the carving station. There was a scheduled competition at the water slides for CruiseMates at the new Evolutions of Fun water area. It is a fantastic area for families and people who want to have fun. Several slides and other nice water features. I retired to the cabin for a much needed little nap after the excitement of the past days. A Bloggers Talent Show was at 4:00 pm and we do have talented people in the group. John, Al, & Lewis also added to the entertainment. That was followed by the farewell Bloggers cocktail party at 5:00 with excellent hors d'oeuvres and generous cocktails. With early dinner at 6:00 a very busy evening. Dinner was good, I had the Crab Cake, Veal Parmesan, and Baked Alaska for desert. The feature production show was this evening, Ticket to Ride, a Beatle show featuring the Fantasy Singers and Dancers, Fantasy Orchestra, and the group Music Manila This is a fantastic show not to be missed. The last finale of the Bloggers cruise was a late comedy show. The Opening act was our own Kuki of CruiseMates making his comedy debut and featuring Al Ernst. A funny ending to a jammed packed five days of entertainment.
Debarkation --Thursday—New Orleans
Another good night sleep and we were docked very early in New Orleans. I went to the Windows on the Sea for a nice buffet breakfast. My first time to eat breakfast on the Lido deck. I filled out my customs forms and Return guests (b2b) were to meet at 9:45 to go through U.S. Customs and we did so without much trouble. There were just more people than they were probably used to having for a b2b as our group alone had 25. Since I’m staying onboard debarkation was a snap.
Ship / Crew
The Crew is top notch. Always willing to help, I was always greeted by name many times. I met Captain Scala on embarkation day and he recognized me from some previous cruises on the Ecstasy. He is a great guy and very professional Captain. By the end of the cruise everyone else knew what a fantastic captain he is as he was recognized by John Heald, the press, and the bloggers who crashed his Q&A session on the last sea day. I really enjoyed the bar staff at the Lobby bar and all the bar servers over the five days. With so many cocktails events over the five days some bar servers became well known.
I had cabin E-181, a 1A interior cabin. It is really one of my favorites on a Fantasy class ship as it is on the Empress deck and makes it easy for embarkation & debarkation. Also the lobby bar is close as well as access to the dining rooms. No refrigerator, but the cabin steward kept my cooler full of ice. No hair dryer and fewer shelves than newer ships, but lots of storage in the three wardrobes. Push button safe, flat screen TV, good WiFi connection, and a unique floor plan. I had a towel animal each night.
Breakfast in the dining room was very good and my first choice, but many prefer the buffet. There are a lot of options for lunch: the ‘Taste of Nations’ which changes daily and the regular buffet both in the Windows on the Sea, the Grill for burgers & hotdogs, the Deli, the new Mongolian Wok, or the Celebration Dining Room on sea days. The quality of food was good to very good. Some items better are than others. At dinner if you do not care for a dish or entree ask for a different item, the waiters really will help in any way they can.
Interesting / Unique
The most unique cruise I have ever taken has to be the John Heald Bloggers Cruise. With all the special events it was like taking two cruises at once. You could enjoy all the regular ship events and activities plus all the Blogger events and functions. Double the comedy shows, double the cocktail parties, all the unique events, and group functions. Certainly more than DOUBLE the FUN.
Of all the fantastic things on this cruise the thing I enjoyed the most was meeting all the wonderful people that I have communicated with online for many years. To me that was the highlight.