Just arrived back at home AARGH!! 90 in Grand Cayman, -11 with a Ė27 wind chill in Maine!!
QUICK SUMMARY: Our cruise was on Carnivalís Imagination leaving Miami on 2/8/03. We visited Grand Cayman and Jamaica with 3 days at sea. This was our 1st cruise. We went with friends that had cruised RC before.
WE LOVED IT!!!! The ship was ok, the excursions great, the food great, the drink even better, and the people friendly & fun! Our 5-day cruise was with picture perfect weather. The seas were calm with beautiful sunsets. The temps were 70s+ leaving, to around 90 in the Grand Cayman. Since it was before normal Northeast school vacation, we had a limited number of kids on-board. We enjoyed that.
We have traveled a lot, seen & done a lot of things, and have lived & enjoyed the weather of Florida for several years prior but we had never cruised. Big mistake!!! Where can you get a room with a view, eat for free, enjoy 1st class entertainment for free and generally have a blast! It was hard to beat the price per day we paid when compared to other vacation types. We will cruise from now on for our vacations. We would like to try a more upscale cruise company though unless maybe we travel with our children.
BOOKING: Booked back in Feb 2002 (we really wanted to cruise!!). Booked directly from Carnival but had to book our own air (not available from Carnival from our location in Maine). I would use a TA next time. Our friends were better informed about cruise info than us due to TA. They got upgraded 1st and told us, seating assignment confirmed, etc. Lots of waiting through Carnival reservations/customer service. Use a TA!! We watched the price of cruise drop from $725 to $329 and was able to negotiate a $500 on-board credit. Our friends then got a $400 credit. FREE MONEY!!!!
ARRIVAL FOR EMBARKATION: We flew into Miami on Thursday for a Saturday cruise. We didn't want to take chances on weather. We also knew we had a good chance of a volunteer air bump that could pay off since everyone goes South for North in winter. We were right, $200 each for flying into Ft Lauderdale instead of Miami and Delta transported us via Towncar to Miami airport. It added only 2 hours to our flight (I love free $$). Mistake #1 - I booked our hotel online after looking around ALOT!! We stayed at the Crown Plaza airport. Chose it based on free airport transfer, free shuttle within 5 miles of hotel, its upscale appearance & chain reputation, and our discounted rate of $95 night vs. regular rate of $149+ (I'm a frequent guest of this chain so lower rates, late checkout, etc.). The mistake was its location. Right in middle of little Haiti. No restaurants around, unappealing hotel bar/dining, very little to view or do. There was a multiplex movie theatre next door. The shuttle never could take us anywhere. They said it was to far away, etc. We walked to BigKmart and Dunkin Donuts. The pool and hot tub needed refurb but were ok though. I choose this over the Marriott hotels nearby thinking it should be excellent. This hotel is strictly convention/meeting hotel. Next time I would either go discount (Days Inn, etc.) or go for the South Beach local.
EMBARKATION: Called Carnival several times and was told could not get on ship until 1:30. Had read from others that they got on as early as 11:30. Took a chance and left hotel at noon, arrived at pier at 12:15. Paid porter to take bags, went right in terminal. Straight through carry-on checkpoint, small line to check-in (ID, etc.) and sign up for our Sign & Sail card. Small line to get our cabin keys and actual Sign & Sail cards. Waited about 10 minutes in 2 lines, 1st to scan Sign & Sail to get on ship ramp and 2nd to actually get on ship. By 12:45 we were in our cabin, by 1:00 we were drinking on the Lido deck!!! We talked & drank and mingled & drank and drank & drank & drank!!! Our friends flew in from Iowa by mid-afternoon and we all drank more. Oh Yea, the buffet was serving so we ate too, burgers, salads, pasta, fried fish (the beginning of lots of eating & drinking!). The ship set sail at 4:30 on a beautiful Miami day. Went back to our cabin and surprise, our luggage was already there! You have a mandatory life jacket drill at 4pm, which was a joke. We mustered on the Lido deck and basically stand around and watched the other guests practice (our location was in the center so we didn't have to).
OUR CABIN: We had an outside cabin located on the Upper deck. Our room was as expected from the web site visual tour. It was probably bigger then we thought. We had twin beds that you can push together but can't really use together unless you like the big hole between them and no full size sheets. We only briefly met our cabin steward and he did not speak English!! His service was good. Each night our beds were turned down, a mint on each pillow and a new towel animal. He always cleaned, replaced our towels and filled our ice bucket twice a day. Our friendís steward was outgoing and talkative and they ended up giving her the majority of their assigned tip money.
The cabin was a little worn and the carpet near the door needed cleaning but overall was comfortable. I was surprised by the free movies playing on 3 TV channels continuously (Minority Report, Banger Sisters, Transporter and others), the pay per view movies available, the ability to see what you had spent on your Sign & Sail instantly on your TV and the availability of regular primetime TV at night (resting before going out for the nightlife & midnight buffets!).
Hot water and water pressure was a little light on early morning showers though but still able to shower comfortably. We were also surprised by the basket of freebies in our bathroom. Crest toothpaste, body wash, hair conditioner, deodorant, and other samples.
We did see some of the other cabin styles as we walked the halls. I must say the suites on our deck looked very roomy and next time we will get one. They had a full size bed, couch and chairs. NOTE: The pillows are foam. If you prefer down/feather bring your own. They do not have any available, we asked.
DINING ROOM DINING: We were assigned early dinner, 5:45, in the Spirit Dining Room. 1st day is casual, shorts allowed. We were placed at table 286. We met our wait staff, actually again, I had talked to the person busing the tables on the Lido deck and presto, here he was. His name was Gopi, a nickname he told us to use. The assistant was named Dagmar. Gopi was from India and Dagmar from Slovakia (Gopi told us later that Dagmar had quit after 3 weeks and this was her last cruise). Our table was a small table for 6 (we had requested to be seated with our friends) in the middle of 4 large round tables. Mistake #2 - Since we requested this smaller table we were basically stuck between the bigger tables. We had no view and the other tables wait staff had dance around us. Our wait staff also had other tables further away from us thus our service was so so at best. We were constantly waiting for something, water, to place order, next course, etc. Our friends had cruised RC before and noticed many differences. Casual dining is not fine dining as on RC. Little things from placing your napkin on your lap, greeting at the door, removing settings/meal dishes, etc. It took us 2 days to finally get them to permanently remove the 2 extra place settings at our table. We never met the Maitre d' although he did leave us an envelope for a tip on the last day, NOT!! I must say though those are the negatives by far the food in the dining room was excellent. 1st class restaurant quality. We had 4 or 5 choices of starters, entrťes, desserts, etc each meal.
NOTE: Lobster is served but is NOT MAINE LOBSTER!! It is rock lobster, if you like that you'll die when you eat REAL Maine lobster!
The food was prepared correctly to our requests, was appealing to the eye, and if we wanted another choice or seconds they fulfilled our requests. We were disappointed with our staff though. The surrounding tables staff was jovial and entertained their tables. I guess if you went to another restaurant the service would be considered good but when we watched the others we were disappointed with not being entertained. We want to make it clear that his service was good (not great) but our location and lack of entertainment tainted our enjoyment. Our waiter was reserved and quiet. Our friends were VERY disappointed. They actually adjusted their tip downward at the end of the cruise. My wife and I compared the experience to a regular dining experience and were satisfied. We actually tipped Gopi well after the final meal because we felt that if we had paid for this quality of food, at this type of dining establishment elsewhere, the SUGGESTED TIP WOULD NOT BE SUFFICIENT!! (We have worked at jobs based on tips before!!)
NOTE: If you are celebrating anything be sure to let your TA or Carnival know BEFOREHAND. They will bring you a cake and sing to you. Also, Donít skip dinner because the servers entertain you on some nights.
OTHER DINING & DRINKING: We tried everyplace and everything.
The Horizon offers both inside and deck side buffet dining. Burgers, salads, different fast food type entrees, etc. Inside also has the 24-hour Pizza bar and the dessert tables. The salad selection is larger inside as well. They state they have early breakfast at 6am at the Horizon but actually it is only pastries, coffee and juices until 8am!! Breakfast is buffet style at the Horizon. They offer eggs, cereal, ham, sausage, pancakes, French toast, bagels, etc. Made to order omelettes are available too. Juices, coffees, and waters are free. NOTE: Wait until about 8:15am before getting your food. The food is luke warm at 1st until the steam tables heat up and the crowds larger. The Pride dining room offers regular sit down breakfast dining at 8am for anyone except the last day when you go to your regular dining room for breakfast, (7am early seaters, 8:30 for late seaters). I enjoyed sit down breakfast but the rest of the party preferred to get on deck ASAP and eat at the buffet. Room service has a limited menu but is fast, efficient and free (be sure to tip the delivery person!!).
The midnight buffets were ok but, it seemed like the main courses were made up of left overs from dinner. The desserts were very good especially the cheesecake on the last night (it looked like lemon cake with whipped cream frosting but was really excellent cheesecake!!). NOTE: The midnight buffet with the ice carvings is A MUST SEE! They made art out of all sorts of food.
The lounges were varied. Most were not busy and kind of dull until later at night. We enjoyed the Shangri-La best. Live band, small atmosphere, and good service. The Karaoke was large and since not many people were there it made it appear boring. The lounge singer at the casino bar was good but the smokers tended to hang out at that bar and drove us off. The piano bar opened later and was small. The smoke also was a problem there. The bars at the Lido deck are open during the day, 2 forward and 1 stern. Sometimes all were open, other times only 1 or 2 open, No real rhyme or reason it seemed. Lots of servers for drinks on the Lido deck. Always ready to sell you the drink of the day (larger with souvenir glass only available on Lido deck), $6.25, refills $4.95. The Dynasty lounge isn't really a lounge but a show room. All the big shows take place there and they have ample servers before and during the shows.
I have to say you will NEVER go hungry or be without a drink unless you chose to.
ENTERTAINMENT: My wife and friends went to all the shows, I missed a few.
The Dynasty lounge was the location for most shows. The music shows were the BeBop and Imagine It. Both were Vegas style with good sets, great singers and dancers, and overall entertaining. They felt a little much for this type of cruise though. Imagine It was a mishmash of music and dance styles. BeBop was very good though. The Dynasty also hosted the Game Show, Bingo, Scavenger hunt, Magic show, some comedy routines, the Captains cocktail party, the past cruisers cocktail party and a few other get togethers. The game show always left you laughing. Cindy had a way of making any contestant a fun target. The scavenger hunt (In the Bag they call it) was too easy. They only looked for common items. It was kind of funny though since the contestants had to find Cindy and deliver the items to her and she was constantly moving & hiding. The only problem with the Dynasty was seating. It is 2 levels with a glass half wall upstairs. Shorter people seated in front upstairs have to look through a metal rail. On the big shows the best seats are taken up early. Sometimes they had bingo, etc. before and if you weren't involved you had a hard time finding a decent seat. MAJOR DISAPPOINMENT: We were told to leave the Dynasty after the Captains party so they could clean up, thus our great seats were now lost to people waiting outside in line. This was the only time you had to leave after anything! Carnival claimed it was because they had dishes to clean up but the mess was no worse than after bingo or the past cruisers party!!! It was on the night of the magic show so I was disappointed.
Lots of contests and dancing takes place on the Lido deck. ALL ARE FUN!! Go to them!
The 1st late night comedy show takes place in the Karaoke bar. He started out great but a drunk heckler/participant got him flustered and he began to ramble. The 2nd comedian was much better only because of this. Both shows were great. As before the lounge singers in the ShangiLa and casino bar were very good.
SHORE EXCURSIONS & SHOPPING Carnival isn't very good at explaining the excursions. The descriptions were vague before we arrived and the FunVision booking/explanation TV system was not working correctly. We were told to book early but werenít allowed until after 5:30 on the 1st day. No biggie though, our friends had some ideas on what they wanted to do and we requested 2 tours and got both. Weird though, you don't know if you got your 1st choice until they deliver the tickets to your room. This was kind of nerve racking not knowing for sure what we are going to do. Also, because our room steward was not as attentive, our friends new several hours before what their excursions were.
We booked the Stingray City tour in Grand Cayman and the Jamaican Party Boat/Dunnís fall in Ocho Rios. THESE WERE THE BEST!!! THESE EXCURSIONS MADE OUR TRIP!!
In Grand Cayman you have to take a tender into the dock and we had to wait some especially on the return trip.
The Stingray city tour started out a little rough when we were loaded on an old school bus with no a/c. I'm tall and was kind of squished and the city part of the tour was nothing more than pointing out buildings as we drove to the marina where we boarded our boat for the ride out to the Stingray sand bar. The real excursion was the stingray swimming.
The boat is a 2-story open party boat style. It has a small restroom below and a little bar with chips, soda, beer (only after swimming, $4), and a few gifts. The boat crew was excellent. They were friendly and informative. They explained how to use the equipment, how to feed they stingrays and picture taking tips. They sell the squid you feed the stingrays for $2 plus a $2 deposit on the plastic cup (they want to make sure no trash is left in the water, good environmental sense). 1 cup is enough for 2 people. We ended up getting a 2nd cup after we had already fed the stingrays in the water. When I went onboard to get my $ for the second cup the girl just gave it to me and told me to pay her later. This saved me from getting my things wet. Excellent touch.
The ride out took about 10 minutes and we arrived at the clearest, bluest, 80-degree water I had ever seen!! They handed us each masks with snorkels attached from a big plastic pail that smelled like some kind of sanitizer (Carnival tries to sell you a snorkel for $5 saying it's better/safer, I was worried about using someone elseís snorkel but it was unfounded. Save your $5, use the boats equipment). The water was waist to chest deep. We climbed down a small ladder into the water one at a time. You basically hold the squid in your closed hand with it sticking up from your fist and the stingray smells it, swims on top of your hand and sucks its in. It was COOL!!! They crew is in the water taking digital pictures that you can buy on the boat trip back. They hold up a stingray so you can have your picture taken. We had our own waterproof cameras (bring one from home $8 at Wal-Mart because on ship itís $15, on shore $20+) and after watching how they held the stingray was able to do it ourselves. On the boat trip back we had a couple of beers (Caymans own Stingray beer, tasted like domestic, or Bud Light) and soaked up the perfect warm sun!!
The bus driver dropped us off in the middle of town and we shopped around. The shops offered the typical tourist trinkets, t-shirts, etc. Prices were a little high and varied from shop to shop. Look around and you can get some fair prices. Some liquor was available at about 60% of USA price. The currency is the Caymans dollar, which is about 25% above US dollars. Most places had prices listed in US dollars though and there is no tax on purchases.
The island was clean and friendly. I spent 1/2 hour talking to a police officer while the girls shopped some more & more & more. He was friendly and informative. I would go back and/or move there in a second!!
Our next stop was Jamaica. The ship docked in Jamaica and we de-embarked next to the smelliest run down pier I've seen. The line off the ship was huge and stretched into the halls as well as up the stairs. We arrived late and it was almost 8:30 before we started to leave the cruise ship. Not good considering we were supposed to leave on our excursion at 8am. Luckily the excursion tour waited and it was the first one right at the end of the pier. It wasn't looking too good. We boarded via a plank under the pier. I had to duck since it was only about 4 feet tall under the pier. The boat looked okay and we departed listening to music while the crew acted out to one of the songs. Immediately after, they began trying to sell us the CD of the music for $20 and offered to braid my wifeís long hair for $70 (yeah right!). It took about 25 minutes to get to Dunnís Falls. We landed on the dock and again walked the plank. We were introduced to our falls guides (you must have a guide to climb the falls). The guides explained what we were going to do and added jokes and laughter. You must have watershoes (you can rent at falls for $3) or sandals with secure straps, no floppy style sandals. You can leave your items you donít want to get soaked on a picnic table that a member of the crew watchers over while you climb the falls. NOTE: Everything you bring up the falls will get soaked!!!! (They do take wet money at the shops up top though HA! HA!). Bring a waterproof camera. The guides will take several pictures for you as you climb, just ask.
We were here to have fun, and our group was in the front of the line, so we started our own version of the wave. The climb up the falls was fairly easy as long as you step lightly looking for hidden rocks under the water. The water churns and is white as it rolls down the falls so you canít see where you are stepping. You have a couple of high climbs as well as some level/pool climbs. As you climb there is a videographer filming the trek and a few stops for photos, (Later at the beach they sell the photos for $6 and the video for $30). Once at the top the guides are looking for tips then they let you go.
There is a little flea market like shopping area, Jamaica style. That means everyone surrounds you, asks your name, heaps praise on you, tells you theyíre your friend, 1st customer, etc. and starts asking 4 times the price they will take for what ever they are selling. Almost all the vendors have the same items for sale. Hold on to your $$$ tight, split it up between your party & pockets (if they see it, they know what you have to spend!) and donít take the first offer. They have some good deals. You can buy everything from t-shirts to carved wooden giraffes. We bought some embroidered heavy t-shirts for $10 and some other small gifts. Later down at the beach we heard all sorts of prices paid for the same items from $5 to $25 for the same t-shirts!! Many vendors will give you something free just to get you into their lean-to type shop and all try to sell (or give 1, buy other) a set of mahogany fertility statues. They all ask about $40 but we bought ours for $10 just to get out of there, RUN, RUN, RUN!! (The best price we heard was $5). Remember how you got into the market because it is like a maze in there. They try to keep you in there. Keep an eye on others in your party because they try to divide and conquer!! You walk down to the bottom of the falls to the beach. The signs arenít very good but head towards the falls and walk the boardwalk down. Once at the bottom our fun began.
The beach is nice and the water warm but for our excursion we headed back to our picnic table where the free rum punch flowed. We spent about an hour drinking and talking and drinking and drinking and drinking!! I donít know much about rum but this was smooth going down!! It was rum with a hint of punch, MMM MMM good! We bought the video and a great picture of us on the boat. By the time we walked the plank back on the boat, we were ready for fun. A quick bribe/tip to the bar and to the girl pouring the punch made sure we were never without! They started playing dance music but there were chairs all over the bottom floor not leaving much room to dance. Our friends are from Iowa with not much rhythm but started to move their hips to the music. That was enough for me; I began to dance up a storm (maybe because of the rum!!). It was just us 4 dancing with the bar maid but with some non-stop lobbying I quickly got the bottom floor dancing, one by one. As they got out of their seat, one of us stole their chair, handed it to the captain who quickly stacked them up. No place to sit so you had to dance. The final couple sitting was an older (70ish) couple. I grabbed the lady and my wife grabbed her husband and there we were, dancing fools. The crew started a Conga line that went up the stairs. Once there the bar maid and a crew member began to teach the crowd some Jamaican dance steps. Well, I just couldnít see the point of her dancing with him so a quick leap up on the life jacket storage unit and Iím dancing above the crowd. Later as I walked the cruise ship many people recognized me but I had little recall of my antics (AH the rum!). We arrived back at the dock but again I donít recall arrival or how I got to my cabin. Tonight was formal night so as we lay in our cabin I asked my wife if it was time to shower and dress for dinner. She looked at the clock and announced ďHoney, itís only 12:15Ē (AH the rum). I couldnít just lie there so we went up to the Lido deck and found a table on the ships stern overlooking the pier. Needless to say, for the rest of the afternoon I entertained the arrivals and most of the Lido decks guests. People would later run into my wife or me saying it was fun and funny, I donít recall (AH the rum).
NOTE: I heard from other cruisers that Margaritaville in Ocho Rios, Jamaica is a happening place. I wish I had made it there. Well, there is always next time!!!
ON-BOARD SHOPPING: There are lots of shops on the ship. They vary from jewelry to liquor to trinkets. Liquor was cheap although you canít actually get it until the last day. Baileyís was 2 for $25, Tanqueray was 2 for $23, etc. Each day there is something for sale in the hall of the Galleria. Liquor the 1st day, t-shirts another, chains another, watches, etc. All purchases are tax-free. Consult your duty free schedule for your country for what you can buy duty free. We bought some liquor, gifts and I got a nice new leather wallet. It was all tax and duty-free.
All during the cruise someone is taking or asking to take your picture. The pictures are displayed on the wall in the Photo Gallery and divided by occasion (i.e. formal night, embarkation, etc.). We had several taken and ended up purchasing about $60 worth. The 8x10 are $20, 6x9 are $8 (I think) and 3x5 $5 (I think). You can have reprints or different sizes only AFTER you buy the picture on display. They also develop film onboard for $8.88, 24 exposure, 4x6 double prints, with next day service. NOTE: They also sell different photo albums in the gift shop. Look around before you buy your at the Photo Gallery. We liked the white ďCruise MemoriesĒ album only available in the gift shop.
CREW: Most of our interaction was with our dining room staff and the drink servers. Our cruise included a built in tip on our Sign & Sail card so the steward and dining staff knew what their tip was. When you ordered drinks they also added a 15% gratuity into the price. This made me wonder if they would have tried harder if they didnít know this. I liked it though not having to think about tips. We did increase our tip on the first day to our dining room drink server and after that whenever we showed up where she was, we had her there waiting on us. Her name was Dunka and she worked the ShangiLa lounge in the evenings. Our dining staff was fine. They did their job but not anything extra.
The Galleria (ships shopping area) staff was friendly but the gift shop itself seemed to be always under staffed. Each day, at the entrance to the Galleria, the staff had a special sale (liquor, t-shirts, jewelry, etc.). These crewmembers were very nice.
The Information Desk/Purser staff was efficient and friendly. They handled any requests we had very well. They also were understaffed though especially after Dynasty lounge info meetings and last night before arrival. They are open 24hrs except the last night. Plan your visits at off times.
The cruise director Marahscalh Stanton was excellent. He made the boring info sessions fun. The assistants AJ, Cindy, & Cindy (yes 2 Cindyís) were great too.
Although I canít recall names or specific locations, the rest of the staff seemed friendly and efficient.
DEMARKATION: I had heard horror stories about this. They were not true. You are instructed to pack your bags and have them outside your door the night before between 6pm & midnight. You have colored tags given to you that coincide with your cabin location. Be sure they are properly filled out and you remember the color. They take the luggage all through the night. It can get noisy at times. They also close the middle set of elevators strictly for luggage transport. We set ours out at about 8pm and it was gone by 9pm. We kept our carry-ons with a change of clothes for morning showers. You find your luggage the next day in the customs building. It has been divided by your tag color. We taped our handles with colored duct tape, which made it easy to spot in the piles later.
They deliver your bill under your door early a.m. (ours was there when we awoke at 6am). You are instructed to have your duty form filled out with your picture ID and your birth certificate or passport with you for exiting the ship.
NOTE: At the info meeting they instruct you how, where and when you have to be for getting off the ship. The non-USA guests had to meet at 6:30am in the Library to meet Immigration. If you do not show up on time it slows down the entire ship and you are fined $250 per person. Of course we had about 6 parties that had to be paged!
The day of arrival you can eat breakfast at your respective dining room, 7am for early seaters, 8:30am for late seaters. You can also eat at the Horizon. We ate at our dining room, which had hardly anyone there. That was fine for us, calm atmosphere and excellent service. We ate as much as we could because we thought we wouldnít get off the ship for a while and we wouldnít get fed on the 1st flight. I slipped Gopi an extra cash tip when we left.
You are instructed that you can hang out at the Lido deck, in the Promenade, or Photo Galley. They donít want you downstairs clogging up the area around the ramp. They call the handicapped and people with special needs 1st followed by the top cabins working their way down. We went to the Lido deck and hung out in the sun. If you want anything else to drink or gifts it is cash only now! Most of the shops are closed at 9 or 10am.
It seemed like they were always announcing someoneís name on the intercom (Did you max out your credit card?, miss immigration?). It wasnít until about 9:30 that they actually started calling decks/guests. I think it was because they were waiting for non-USA guests and people that had maxed their cc. Our deck got called about 10:15 and we went to the ramp. A quick scan through the ships Sign & Sail security checkpoint, down the ramp to the Customs Agent with our Ids. He asked a few questions from our Ids and we were on our way to the baggage area of the Customs building. I found our luggage in a flash, grabbed a porter and was on our way to the final Customs checkpoint. The porter breezed through, I handed the Duty form and walked right out. My wife was not so lucky, she got hauled aside and her carry-on checked. A few seconds later she was on her way to the bus with us. The whole process off the ship took maybe 5 minutes.
We had bought a transport ticket the last day of the cruise (something I didnít know I could do) for $10 each to Miami Airport. I was going to take a taxi but decided to play it safe instead. If I had a bigger party, I would grab a taxi. Itís about $20 to the airport. We waited on the bus about 15 minutes and were off. 2 plane flights later we were home to cold, cold Maine.