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A Most Pimped Cruise! – How I Learned to Love Long Lines, Open My Wallet & Get With the Program
Setting up – Although we are 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 from New Orleans to the Eastern Caribbean. (7 days – from July 24 to 31)
Boarding – The documents printed online indicated that boarding was between 12:30 and 14:30, with the ship departing at 16:00. So, we lined up to unload at the pier and park at 12:20 p.m. After we parked and got out of the SUV, we stood in line for about 45 minutes – outside – in the 95 degree mid-summer New Orleans heat and humidity. (What logistical genius arranged this little torture?) From parking to boarding took a total of 80 minutes, during which long lines with many switches were the norm.
At the parking/unloading point we were told that yes we could put our own bags on board if we wanted to. But just before entering the air-conditioned terminal building, Colonel Klink singled us out from the herd and told us that three of our bags were too big and needed to be checked. He pointed to a small airline-style “handbags-must-fit-here-or-we’ll-stab-your-mother” warning sign with a size-checking bin big enough to fit a medium-sized lunch box. I thought, “Now they have tanks on cruise ships? Why wasn’t that sign back at the unloading point?”
Accommodation – Once on board we were directed to our ocean view cabins on the first deck. The cabins were very spacious and quite comfortable – larger than most ships – something that Carnival is noted for. Our decision not to splurge on balcony cabins was justified. The general atmosphere of the ship seemed spacious.
Our room manager was Jorge from Peru, a very kind man who seemed eager to please, as were most of the staff.
Good travel gifts from the hotel manager and our local business development manager, fruit baskets, wine etc. were waiting in our cabins. They were highly appreciated and quickly consumed.
Departure – Noticing at 17:00 that the causeway was closed but we had not yet departed, the captain’s announcement explained that due to the weather – tropical depression Bonnie – and heavy traffic at the mouth of the river, sailing would be delayed until 3:00 Sunday morning. However, we were sure that the ship would still reach the port on time. And it happened.
Catering – Although we had officially requested a large table for eight or more, we were seated in a booth for four. The cabin was comfortable and cosy, but this one was still disappointing for us – we’re on a cruise to meet people. The maitre’d apologized and said he would try to fix the situation but didn’t. Understandably, most people want to keep tables reserved just for their family and group of friends, especially during the summer months when traveling with children. My theory? They must have originally booked us for a large table…then they saw me trip and trip up the lime green aisle. Vampires suck! tank top with “bite me” tattooed above my neck. I’m sure that’s when they decided it was best to isolate us from the other diners.
The food ranged from average to very, very good. The biggest improvement in Carnival’s food service is in the presentation. The main dining room offerings were stylish and gourmet in appearance. However, in reality, most of the dishes were about half a star short of deserving of this finesse. A few exceptions: the chilled avocado soup, the Mongolian steak salad, the New Zealand lamb chops, and the chocolate soufflé were to die for.
Although the fish dishes were well seasoned and elegantly presented, they were consistently served dry and overcooked. Thinking it might be because only frozen stock is available and not fresh, I started the test. With the Atlantis Aquarium keeper looking the other way, I picked up a rare Triggerfish…smuggled it back in my camera case…gave it to the ship’s chef fifteen minutes before dinner. Yes, served dry and overcooked.
Just when I was about to give up on the Overcooked Fish issue, a glimmer of hope appeared. There on the fifth deck… just around the corner from the casino… Sushi basket! But here too, delicacies are adapted to southern tastes. The Chicken Fried Tuna’Cado Rolls were amazing!
Entertainment – We did most of the shows and most of them were pretty good, especially the big ones. Carnival is one of the few cruise lines that still uses full live orchestras instead of recorded songs for these elaborate shows. The sound quality was excellent everywhere. Stage effects and mechanics, such as hydraulically manipulated stage sections and (almost invisible) cable lifts that allow performers to “fly”, were effective and not overused. Site lines at all venues were good. Smoke machines, flashes and laser strobes were used sparingly and not overdone. Well maybe the smoke machine bingo didn’t do much… the caller was new and couldn’t find the off button.
The The Big Easy Show was one of the best production shows I’ve ever seen on a cruise ship…and that’s coming from someone who worked on the ship for 12 years as an entertainer. Clearly designed for a primarily New Orleans-centric audience, my first thought was “this is a cheap shot – like playing the Star Spangled Banner at a VFW meeting – guaranteed standing ovation.” However, as the show developed its music choices, the performances, costumes and special effects were outstanding. A very pleasant experience.
Comedian – Todd Justice started off strong but started to lose us midway through the show. Todd kept looking at his watch, a surefire impulse killer. Not a good idea unless it’s part of the act. It was not.
magic – A big production/illusion type magic show in the main exhibition hall was a bit repetitive and just OK. A close-up magic show was scheduled for the Venezia Lounge. Even though we arrived 20 minutes early, there was not a single seat available. It was already standing room only, and many were sitting on the floor. This show needs to be in a bigger venue. We didn’t stay.
Specialty Law – The funniest show of the week was stage hypnotist Asad. To the volunteers in the audience, who were deeply oblivious, he gave a lot of old tried and true but still funny advice with some novel twists like “you desperately want to kiss the person next to you but they have terribly bad breath”.
Asad had a very original ending. Just before dismissing the volunteers, he gave them one final piece of advice… “you won’t remember anything you’ve done on stage tonight… until the next time you look in the mirror. Then you’ll suddenly remember everything in vivid detail.” Of course, immediately after the show, sadistic friends and family led unsuspecting volunteers into the restrooms to “powder their noses.” Screams could be heard three decks away.
On-board atmosphere – 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 prices.
But the carnival can be a bit cruel at times. You don’t have to be a cruise snob to feel a little confused when, for the umpteenth time, you have to walk the length of the ship to find an unblocked staircase or an elevator that doesn’t get you from one deck to another. photographers who have created half a dozen more Photo Op stations.
They always seemed to be placed in the middle of a grand staircase or highway during peak walking hours about the ship. One night saw around a dozen such setups, all at chokepoints with suitably supportive crowds spilling out onto the ship’s stores…where the silver-tongued salesmen were waiting!
(Biz Op – Someone could make money selling Photographer Repellant. It could be a spray…colorless and odorless, but the user constantly feels out of focus.)
Also consider that two hours before departure from Key West, passengers had to wait in line for an average of 30 minutes to get back on board… and you start to get my point.
Why can’t CCL take a cue from the good people at Disney? Disney has mastered both in-your-face marketing and crowd control. Carnival leaders, are you listening? Can you say Fastpass?
Port and shore excursions – there were three stops on this route.
Freeport – There’s a reason it’s called “free tail.” It is completely without any actions. Beaches and shopping are a long drive from the ship and nothing to write home about once you get there. We stayed on board.
Nassau – One mistake we can only blame on our procrastination is not pre-purchasing tickets to Atlantis Aquarium & Water Park Nassau on 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 didn’t answer and made our cab driver do whatever it took to find us water park passes.
Tito was a man…a fast talking and (apparently) connected guy. With a grin a mile wide, a mouth full of gold teeth, and a curved bar box with a subwoofer in the back of his Toyota minivan, he was an instant hit with our 18-year-olds. Meanwhile, I check the van doors to make sure they can be locked and unlocked from the inside.
To add to my nervousness, driving through the streets of Nassau on Oddjob’s ride, my wife flashes hundreds of dollars in cash – slowly counting it all out – right there for everyone to see – making sure he has enough of us to pay for these water park passes he’s going to score for our for the good. (Tito made it clear that he did not take plastic.)
Meanwhile, I was about to panic, thinking, “My God, he’s going to walk into a back alley where he’s going to strip us naked and rob us all…at gunpoint…and we’re going to be trapped.” (Could survive the robbery…but I wasn’t medicated enough to walk back through the Straw Market…naked.)
After countless undercover phone calls and backroom meetings with local underworld operatives, we had passes…and Tito’s was our money. Miraculously, we didn’t set off any fraud alarms at the entrance to the aquarium/water park.
Key West – Coming here meant more shopping and cheap or free internet and mobile phone connections. You can connect via the onboard system, but it’s an expensive way to feed your Facebook habit.
We booked a parasailing tour which was very enjoyable. The departure point is just a short walk from the boat dock.
sea days – We enjoyed our time on the deck, the pools, the 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 at the bottom of the water trough. After that I was regular for three days.
The question is, who gets to decide what’s shown on the ship’s giant JumboTron? Sometimes it would show carnival commercials or play popular foods like the Hairy Chest Contest – sometimes a movie or concert video, but every morning it was tuned to a local TV station from Denver. (In Denver?) I kept looking for the giant remote control.
Spa – On the last day of the cruise, my wife signed me up for a complete transformation – a moisturizing facial with a full body massage. Admittedly, it made me look six to eight weeks younger for a few hours. But, just like the poor hypnotist’s victim, when I looked in the mirror the next morning…there was the familiar 63-year-old catcher’s mitt with ears staring back at me. I screamed too.
Conclusion – Overall it was a good cruise and a nice change of pace. Am I going to the carnival again? Yes, certainly. Would I do anything differently next time? Yes, a couple of things. First, I insist on getting the big table for eight or more in the dining room – we’re just having too much fun swapping lies with new people we’ll never see again. Second, I made sure to pre-book two or three of the most desirable shore excursions. And finally, we need to curb our promiscuity a little. Oh, I’d also bring that Photographer Repellant case. – LEC
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