Jun 29, 2011

The Cruise: Highights from the High Seas

On board the Carnival Sensation at sunset

I've never had any interest in going on a cruise. I admit I'd always been a bit of a snob about cruises. They seemed, for lack of a better word, corny. The TV ads trumpeting the rock wall and the flow-rider did little to disabuse me of my smug sense of superiority. The experience just seemed too packaged, too limiting--literally being stuck on a ship for much of the journey. The cruise experience with it's casinos, showgirls, and man-made spectacle seemed reminiscent of Vegas, another place that's never had any appeal to me.

But now that I've actually been a cruise I can report. . .that it is a little corny. The overly-shiny decor and faux luxe details are reminiscent of a late-80's three star hotel. But it's also a lot of fun, and definitely something I'd like to do again. After all, if you're going on vacation, this is way better than flying coach on an airplane. Why not make the journey part of the destination?

The six 8th grade graduates along with Pastor Johnson, school principal Brenda Arthurs, and I met at the airport in Columbus late Sabbath afternoon, June 4. We flew to Orlando, FL arriving around 7:30 in the evening. There our group split up. Funds were tight, and I had agreed to flying rather than driving to Florida on the condition that we keep expenses to a minimum. So Mrs. Arthurs, and "The Rose", the one girl among the students (so named because our headwaiter on the cruise referred to her as "the rose among the thorns") headed off to spend the night with a family friends of Mrs. Arthurs. Most of the boys stayed with Pastor Johnson at the airport Embassy Suites, and "The Attorney" and I stayed at my mom's house. Sunday morning we all met up at the hotel for breakfast and then got a ride arranged through one of the local Adventist churches by Pastor Johnson to Port Canaveral. Herewith, some of the highlights from our time on the high seas:

The Sensation in port  at Freeport, Bahamas

The Ship 

Our ship was the Carnival Sensation and it was huge (though certainly not the biggest ship out there. At the next pier over was the Royal Caribbean Freedom of the Seas which towered over our vessel.) Walking into the huge main atrium, looking up five or six stories at the massive skylight above you're suitably impressed by the size of the ship. There's space for a jogging track, a mini-golf course, several waterpark-worthy water slides, and of course the swimming pool. Indoors there's the gym, spa, salon, casinos, various nightclubs and lounges, and an expansive entertainment stage where Vegas-style musical revues are performed each night. At first it was easy to get lost onboard, but after a day we began to get our bearings, and before long we could navigate the vessel from end to end with ease. We found the ship is big but gets smaller the more time you spend on it. But it never gets so small you feel cramped.
The view from the top.  We gathered here with a lot of our fellow travelers as the liner left Port Canaveral

Another view as we departed Port Canaveral
The atrium is a great place to get a sense of the sheer size of the ship as you can see muliple deck levels all at the same time here.

Looking up at the massive skylight in the main atrium.  Doesn't it seem like Batman should come crashing through there at some point?

It's also big enough that you almost never feel the ship moving--something I'd always had a little anxiety about. I've always been a little prone to motion sickness and didn't want to end up spending most of the trip curled up over the toilet returning all the free cruise food. I brought along a healthy supply of dramamine but found I only used it twice. One pill on the first night at sea, and one the last night. Neither occasion demanded the remedy, but I did notice some motion and figured I'd better be safe than sorry. Mrs. Arthurs and I were the only ones who were even slightly affected by the motion of the ocean, and it didn't impinge on our enjoyment of the trip at all.

This web photo of an interior stateroom on a Carnival vessel is identical to the one we stayed in, right down to the color scheme and flat screen TV.  The upper bunk folds away during the day.  There is another set of bunks located at the photographer's vantage point.  Very comfy.

The Staterooms
The staterooms were much better than I expected. I envisioned a closet of a room, a place to change, sleep, and shower and that's all, especially since we'd purchased the cheapest rooms available, windowless interior rooms down in the bowels of the ship. I figured stateroom was an overstatement, a marketing ploy to dress up steerage class, but was pleasantly surprised to find we got substantially more than that. The rooms were small, yes, bu big enough to be comfortable. Our room slept four, with two overhead bunks that were folded away during the day, opening up the room a bit. I actually found the room cozy rather than claustrophobic. A nice touch was the curtained wall-space which gave the illusion of a window, which was surprisingly helpful in preventing one from feeling penned in. The only drawback is that in an interior room it's all too easy to oversleep. 9:00 A.M. feels the same as 4:00 A.M. with no sunlight to clue you in. I shared a room with three of the boys--"The Attorney" (so named for his considerable debating skills--skills he employed on me ad nauseum for reasons big and small all school year long!), "The Quiet Man" (the verbal opposite of "The Attorney") and "Asian Pop Star" (so named because of his super-trendy style). Pastor Johnson shared a room a few doors down with "Freshboi" and his son who I will call "Youngmoney" after one of his many Facebook appellations. "The Rose" and Mrs. Arthurs were quite a hike forward on the same deck as the rest of us.

A view of just part of the gargantuan buffet on the Lido deck of a Carnival cruise ship.  I snagged this photo from the web, and our particular vessel's buffet didn't look exactly like this, but this gives you the general idea.

The Lido Deck
 One of the great perks of cruising is the free food! Indeed one of the key selling points when we decided to go on a cruise was that once you're onboard everything is free (well, almost everything--but the food--all of it--is definitely free). The first place we all headed after depositing our carry-ons (our larger bags would be delivered by the porters later on in the day) in our staterooms was the Lido deck where an endless array of food awaited us. Apparently all cruise ships have a Lido deck, where the outdoor pool and surrounding facilities are located.  For us though, the Lido deck meant a sumptuous buffet spread available at virtually all hours of the day.  Even though the main buffet was only open at meal times, those meal times were several hours in length each and in between the pizzeria and deli were always open.  There was so much food available that I did the opposite of gorging myself on my first meal.  I began with a simple plate of grilled vegetables, olives, and a little eggplant dish.  There was no need to stuff myself because I knew that a feast awaited me at my leisure.
Another view of the Lido deck buffet.  This is the serving line.  Again this is a web photo and not our actual ship.
The Lido deck became one of our favorite hangouts and meeting places.  Leisurely breakfasts of pancakes, scrambled eggs (and a veggie omlet!), hash browns, grits, yogurt, a couple of Danish pastries, washed down with OJ.  Quick snacks of a Rueben from the deli, a late lunch of burgers, fries and fried chicken from the grill, and ice cream—lots of ice cream from the soft serve machines any time you liked.  I confess I had three ice cream cones in a row. . . more than once.  Even when we weren’t eating, we often ended up on the Lido deck.  It was a great place to find a deck chair in the sun or shade and just relax.  Pastor Johnson and I kept up with the NBA championships on the TVs scattered about in the buffet area and the pool bar.  We’d outfitted each of the students with their own walkie-talkies to enable us to keep track of them while allowing them a measure of freedom onboard the ship, but I found that it was easy to keep an eye on them simply by staying on the Lido deck.

"The Rose" and Mrs. Arthurs contemplate their many delicious choices at dinner.  I suppose you could order everything on the menu if you wanted. It's all free!  On at least one meal,  I did order three items from the starter menu--a soup, a salad, and appetizer plus an entree and a dessert for a true full-course meal

 One of the high points of each day on the ship, was our seated dinner time. It was nice to come together with the whole group and share a meal together.  It was also a great opportunity for our students to learn the finer points of fine dining.   The setting was quite elegant—nice china, linen table cloths, and so on.  There is something very egalitarian about the cruise experience. Regular people get to feel rich (and if you're not careful, spend like you're rich). There's no Titanic-like restrictions by class. We cellar dwellers ate at the same table as the people who paid for the fancy high-end staterooms.

The menu was diverse with a couple new selections every night in addition to the “Carnival Classics” that were always available—of course everything on the menu was free. Monday night was Elegant Night and the dress code called for formal wear.  Our kids turned out looking sharp and carried themselves like true lady and gentlemen.  We were waited on by a team of three led by our headwaiter, Julie.  Julie was a friendly and solicitous Filipina and her familiar accent brought back fond memories of Saipan and all our friends in the Filipino community there.

Each evening the entire wait staff led by the maître d presented a short performance—a song or dance or both for our entertainment.  On Tuesday night, “Freshboi” provided one of the more memorable dinnertime moments of the trip.  The wait staff were providing an amateur dance number to the tune of “Apple Bottom Jeans” and of course many of the dinner guests joined in the fun.  “Freshboi” jumped out of his seat and started cutting a rug—and I swear, I thought this only happened in movies—the crowd stopped dancing, made a big circle for him, and cheered him on as he showed his stuff.  I guess all that jiving in the hall on the way back from the bathroom finally paid off.  I admit was more than a little impressed that his moves could command that kind of attention.  

Another enjoyable aspect of the evening was getting to know our tablemates.  You are assigned the same table for duration of the cruise and each table is filled so you usually get an opportunity to share your meal each evening with some of the other guests on board.  Our tablemates were Carol, her daughter Jennifer, and Jennifer’s two sons.  The family was from Orlando and had decided on the cruise as a last minute treat.  Getting to know them over dinner was a pleasure.

Passengers living it up on the Lido deck
The Fun Ship
 We cruised with Carnival. They did a great job from start to finish. I had a "personal vacation planner" who knew my by name and was my direct contact from the time I first enquired about the cruise, through our reservations process, and the months leading up to the trip. A big thanks to Roy at Carnival for all your help!  Once on board, the attention to detail and fantastic service continued.  The stateroom steward took the time to learn my name and always greeted me as we passed in the hall.   Guest services allowed “Asian Pop Star” to call his parents from their phone free of charge (Normally, it would have cost over $5 per minute.  And it wasn’t even a dire emergency—at least in my opinion.  He wanted to look even more like an Asian pop star and dye his hair an Asian pop star brown.  I --and the salon staff--wouldn’t allow him to do it unless I knew for sure his parents would allow it.  They gave the okay, but then it turned out he couldn’t get it done anyway because the dye allergy test wouldn’t clear before the cruise ended.  I was also very impressed with how the stylist broke the news to a deeply disappointed “Asian Pop Star”).   At  dinner the maître d arranged for us to change tables to escape smoke drifting down from the lounge upstairs and got us in for late seating when we missed our assigned early seating due to a late return from our day in Nassau.  In every aspect, I found the service and attention outstanding.

One of the neat things the stewards do each night when they turn down our beds, is leave a towel folded in the shape of an animal.  On this particular night, I think it was Wednesday night, June 8, they left us a towel crab.
Carnival bills its vessels as the “fun ships.”  And indeed the emphasis from the moment we boarded was to provide as many ways for the guests to have fun as possible.  Each evening we found a schedule of the next days’ activity choices onboard the ship and there was always something going on.  I’d say we took advantage of about 1% of all the activities they had available, and we were never bored.  Carnival cruise ships remind me a lot of the Pacific Islands Club resort in Saipan—a floating P.I.C.  They have the same international cast of young staff members and the same emphasis on keeping things exciting.   

For the first two full days of the cruise, we were ashore for most of the day.  Still we ate on board the ship and there was plenty of time in the evening to take advantage all the ship had to offer.  The last day of the cruise, Wednesday, June 8, we were at sea for the full day and we were able to take full advantage of everything on board.   The kids spent most of their time revolving between the Lido deck and Circle C, a youth club for kids 12-14 that provided a steady stream of activities and games throughout the day and well into the night.   They also made occasional forays to the gym, where I’d supervise them while they tried out the various machines.  Their main goal was social—to make new friends, particularly girls. (“The Rose” was content with privileging some of her classmates with the pleasure of her company as she saw fit—you can imagine the drama among the fellows on that count!)  

"The Attorney" above and "The Rose" below, working out in the onboard gym

Surprisingly the kids didn’t utilize the pool or the waterpark very much at all.  The boys swam briefly a few times, but complained that the water “didn’t feel right.”  I’m not sure what they meant by that, as I didn’t swim myself. The pool and the two whirlpools on either side of it were usually pretty crowded anyway.  I did try one of the slides in the waterpark though on our last day and found it quite refreshing after reading on a sunny deck chair for an hour or so.

On the full day at sea, I also popped into see one of the short shows/contests they had throughout the day.  The one I saw was a version of the newlywed game featuring one couple that had been married 51 years, one couple that had been married 26 years, and one couple that had been married for four days.  The game was hosted by Skip, the ship’s Australian cruise director.  It was quite funny, and I enjoyed trying to guess what Babs and I might have replied to the questions.  Unfortunately I missed the reveal of the couple’s responses as I was called away to deal with “Asian Pop Star’s” hair dye drama. 

It’s quite possible to fill your day onboard the ship and never spend a dime.  It’s also possible to spend quite a lot. If you want to drink soda, you can pay three bucks a pop plus gratuity or spend $24 for a soda card that allows you to drink unlimited  soda for the duration of the cruise.  Carnival also employs a small crew of ubiquitous photographers who take pictures of you as you board the ship, as you disembark at each port of call, and as you eat dinner.  In addition they have a multitude of backdrops set up along the promenade deck where you can have professional portraits of all kinds taken.  The pictures are displayed on a wall of photos in the main atrium and you can pick and choose which ones you’d like to keep.  A full-size 8 X 10 will set you back well over $20, so buying pics can add up fast.  At our last dinner, the students presented Mrs. Arthurs and me each with a leather bound professional photo of my students and me that we took during the Elegant Night.  It’s a beautiful photo, I must say—everyone looks like the most beautiful versions of themselves.  I’m sure it must have set them back a pretty penny, and I was touched that they used some of their personal funds that way.   Carnival also offers to book shore excursions for each of the ports of call.  The cheapest of these excursions, the basic tour of Nassau runs about $45 per person, with activities such as the Dolphin Encounter in Freeport or the visit to the legendary Atlantis resort in Nassau costing over $100 per person.  If you can’t be away from the web for four days, you can pay a hefty fee to use wi-fi or connect using one of the ship’s computers.  Likewise, cell-phones are functional throughout the cruise, but you’ll be charged exorbitant international rates when you make or receive calls (and, I’m told, roaming charges that are assessed even if you never make a single call).  We just turned our phones off for the duration of the trip.

In addition to these optional expenses, expect to be charged $10 per person per day for gratuities.  These funds go to the wait staff that serve you at dinner, the steward and other housekeeping staff, and other behind-the-scenes workers.  To be fair, if you’re going to leave a fair tip you’d probably spend that much or more anyway, but the $160 for gratuities that our room was charged sure hit the wallet hard.  You’re also expected to leave a generous tip in cash for the maître d on the last night of the cruise.  I don’t begrudge any of the gratuities but in the future I’ll be prepared for the added expense.  Even though I knew we would need to tip, I was still caught a little flatfooted with the amount we ended up spending.

Spending is dangerously easy on the ship.  Each guest is given a Sign and Sail card when they check in.  This card is used for any and all purchases on the ship—the soda card, gift shop purchases, photos etc—and the amount charged is assessed to your credit card automatically when the cruise is over, or you can pay in cash if you prefer.  Because charging is so easy, I imagine it would be easy to rack up quite a bill without realizing it.

The Sensation, right,  in port in Nassau.  In the foreground is a Royal Caribbean vessel, the Majesty of the Seas, I think.

When all is said and done, I have to say that I wouldn’t mind cruising again.  I think it would be a lot of fun with my family.  I might be interested in trying another line like Royal Caribbean, but I’ve heard that some of the other cruise lines skew towards an elderly clientele, and I like the variety of activities available for kids and families on the Carnival Fun Ships.  It’d be nice to splurge abit and get a room with a view or even a balcony.  There’d be lots we could do with the Feller and could even leave him at Camp Carnival (the kids camp/day care for children from ages 2-11) for a little while and spend some time together just the two of us.

 Congratulations, Carnival!  You’ve converted this cruise skeptic!  Hopefully sometime in the near future, I’ll have the chance to hit the high seas again.

Unfortunately, the only photo I could get of an entire cruise ship was of the Royal Caribbean vessel, which was blocking our ship.  You can just make out the water slide of the Sensation peeking out from behind the mammoth RC ship.


Mai said...

Looks like a fantastic trip! I love your ice cream confession! ;)

Our Canadian Union teacher's convention was on a carnival cruise, and I enjoyed it, but I'd love to go again with a group of friends because I think it'd be a lot more fun! Hopefully you'll get to enjoy it sometime with your family soon!

Daniel Sgrulloni said...

It is nice to read a blog that is written so well. I didn't realize that anyone remembered that punctuation and grammer still exist.
Your description makes us sorry that we were not there too.