Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Carnival Conquest Review Part 4--The Summary

If you had read all of the review up to this point, hopefully you see that I am trying to be objective and fair along with offering my opinion about certain things.  I hope you keep that in mind as you read this section of the review.

In summary, let me just say that we did indeed have a great time on this cruise.  It would take a lot for my wife and I to say that we thought a cruise was horrible and this cruise was no where near something like that.  We enjoyed the peace and quiet that our stateroom afforded us.  We enjoyed the time spent together up on deck enjoying the sunshine and the WATER-SLIDE!  We found the majority of the staff to be pleasant and helpful and again our dining and stateroom staff were superb.  We loved our dinner table mates.

But I do want to mention some things again that we noted as different than our previous experiences.  It seems that Carnival is doing everything possible to get more money out of you while onboard (I know other cruise lines do that too)  and they have kept their cruise prices lower than others in the industry which has created the need to nickel and dime you for everything that seems to be included with other cruise lines.  For example...we always purchase the soda packages.  With Royal Caribbean, NCL and Princess, you get the souvenir, refillable mug as a bonus for purchasing the program.  With Carnival...the price is about the same for the program, but then they make you pay an additional $6.00 for the mug.

I already mentioned the cookies and sweets found at the coffee bar and how they charge for any of their better-made desserts.   If you wanted some quality treats, you had to pay for it.

I had also mentioned the photography in an earlier post.  I have never seen such an abundance of photo ops in all of my previous cruises as I did here on Carnival.  The promenade is laden with one photographer after another waving you over trying to get you to pose in front of such cruise-appropriate backdrops as a rose garden or a flowery trestle or a grand piano.  And to my shock...hoards of guests were having their pictures taken with these.  Normally you will want to have your picture taken with something like oh...the cruise ship in the background which will help others see when and where you had your picture taken.  But for the life of me I could not understand why so many were lined up to have pictures taken with backdrops that you would find back home at your local Glamour Shots.  These photo ops were available EVERY night of the cruise and were EVERYWHERE!  This issue brings me back to the congested photo area where you could go check out your pictures and purchase any that you liked.  They were taking SOOO many pictures, that they ran out of room on the walls and had some of the older ones stuffed in plastic containers where you had to wait to rifle through them in hopes that you actually found the one with you in it.

It is obvious that it is a money-maker for Carnival which is why you felt like they were pushing you to stop and have your picture made at every turn.

We again found it surprising that the cruise director was not that visible.  We also found it a bit shocking that the dining room Maitre’d never ever came by our table to ask if there was any special food requests or to make sure we were all satisfied.  It seemed that he was more interested in putting on their dinner shows than he was making sure guests were actually satisfied with their dining.  If you do a little research about the employees of Carnival and the shows they are made to put on, you will find that most look at it as humiliating and degrading.  Not sure why anyone in a nice dining room needs to see service staff get up on tables and dance to the song “Apple Bottom Jeans.”  Is that an appropriate song for a family dinner or nice dining experience?

This was also the first cruise in which there was a need for the Maitre’d to make an announcement that ball caps are never acceptable in the main dining room.  I was thankful for his willingness to announce such a thing, but I was also noticing a large contingent of guests who completely ignored the dining room dress code completely.  This may have something to do with where this cruise embarks out of.  This was the first cruise I had been on where the majority of the guests were all from one State...Texas.  We saw a large amount of camouflage all throughout the ship.  I actually saw one gentleman wearing a camouflage baseball cap with a fish hook in it to dinner.  This was also the first cruise out of 6 where you could hear an abundance of country music.  The last thing I want to hear while cruising the Caribbean is honky tonk music, but if you like that sort of thing, then this was the cruise for you. 

Cruises that embark out of ports like Miami or Ft Lauderdale etc seem to be a bit more diverse and have guests from all over the Country and world.  Due to this port only offering a limited amount of cruise choices and being so far south in the big State of Texas, it seemed to mainly appeal to those from the region and to a large amount of first time cruisers.  Again...if you are from Texas and you were a first time cruiser on this cruise, I am not intending to offend, but simply point out what I observed from my perspective.  I personally like to be around a more diverse crowd which to me is one of fun things about cruising...meeting all types of people from all types of places. 

Some of the clientele also found it appropriate to have balcony-to-balcony conversations with one another.  I am not talking about connecting balconies...I am talking balconies far removed from one another which required a bit of yelling which again tends to take away from the peace and quiet of your own balcony.

I know some are not going to like what I am saying when it comes to the demographics onboard, but I would rather someone go into their cruise prepared than being surprised. 

I say all of that to say...this is not a cruise for everyone.  We found what made us happy and stuck to it for the duration of the cruise.  We enjoyed the cruise but I doubt we will ever sail again on the Conquest out of Galveston again.  This is not a reflection on Carnival as a whole, but only my opinion about this specific ship out of this specific port.

I hope this helps you when pondering your next cruise option.  Everyone has an opinion and this review reflects mine.

I am already looking forward to my next cruise which may either be on Holland America or Celebrity...I am still trying to decide.  Or I may head back to Royal Caribbean and give the new Allure of the Seas a try.  Thanks again for reading and feel free to comment or ask any sort of cruise related question.

Carnival Conquest Review Part 3

This edition of my review will cover the entertainment and ports of call.

The Entertainment:

Boo!  That should pretty much sum it up.  There were 4 comedians onboard during this cruise.  One was very funny (Mutzie), one was ok and 2 were simply awful.  This was also the first cruise out of 6 where there was not some form of show every night in the main theater.  They opted for “adult laser tag” instead on some nights.  But after watching a couple of the shows...I see why.  They tried to make up for the lack of dancing and singing talent by wearing practically nothing (at least for the ladies in the production).  These were not family shows.  These were Vegas showgirl style shows.  I am sure the costumes cost a lot of money, but maybe they should try to pay for better performers instead and go with cheaper costumes.  We always try to see the shows, but we missed at least 2 of them on this cruise and we wish we would have missed at least 2 of the comedians and one more of the shows.  We have seen a lot of shows at sea and these were the worst by far.

The cruise director was heard but not necessarily seen.  All of my previous cruises had a cruise director that would come out before each show and talk to the crowd and joke and sort of get things started.  Not on this cruise.  Chris Jefferson would be heard over the speaker as an intro voice, but rarely made an actual appearance.  The same was true for the comedy shows.  You would hear an announcement by him before the show, but it was always one of the assistants doing the actual introduction.  They played Bingo in the main theater every night right up until it was showtime. 

The musicians were good.  The calypso band (duo) that played out by the pool were excellent and kept things “groovy” as they liked to say.  The best entertainment we found on board was us actually going down the water-slide which was a real hoot for us.

But the overall entertainment onboard gets a C- grade and that is me being nice.

Ports of Call:

Jamaica.  We have been to Jamaica before so our intent with this port was to hop off the ship, buy some goodies in the cruise ship center, and hop back on to take advantage of a practically empty ship.  We stuck to our plan and did just that.  Jamaica is not a port that I feel visitors should get out and explore on their own.  Safety is a concern and I only recommend doing “planned and organized” excursions through reputable companies.  We heard a few comments from folks who did planned excursions and some were not thrilled with how far most excursions are from where the ship docks in Montego Bay.  Jamaica is not our favorite port which is why we opted to take advantage of the quiet ship

Grand Cayman.  In contrast to Jamaica, this is a port that is easy to get out in and explore on your own.  We opted for a nice leisurely day of shopping so we waited until about 9:30am to try to tender into shore.  Carnival’s tendering process went very smoothly.  We were actually “anchored” very close to shore compared to some of the other ships in port that day.  We were onshore in about 10 minutes.  We took in some of the scenery, shopped and then found “Breezes” for lunch.  You get good food and a GREAT view from Breezes so I recommend checking them out the next time you visit Grand Cayman.  The cruise lines need to skip Jamaica and offer an overnight stay in Grand Cayman my opinion.

Cozumel.  I love the Puerto Maya area where our ship docked.  Good places to eat right there by the pier and lots of shopping.  We chose to do an excursion that we booked through  We took a short 5-10 minute taxi ride ($10 each way) to the Fiesta Americana where we had full access to their pools and beach.  Lunch and open bar was also included.  The staff at the resort were great.  The food was good and it was a great day.  It was a bit windy, but still warm and enjoyable.  Give a try when looking into excursions.

Stay tuned for part 4 in which I will summarize the experience and give my overall grade. :)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Carnival Conquest Review Part 2

This part of the review will cover my overall impression of the ship as well as the food and dining venues.

The Ship:

The Conquest was the first one built in the “Conquest Class” of ships back in 2002 and therefore shows some of its age.  The Degas Lounge had some fairly outdated light fixtures.  The bathroom fixtures in our bathtub/shower were very outdated compared to what is being installed in newer ships today. There were a few stains in some carpeted areas which the staff was trying to get out during our cruise.  The one quirky area that I found was where the internet cafe was located.  You had to go down to deck 4 and then walk around and through one of the lounges just to find it.  Most internet cafes on other ships are located more centrally with some of the other public areas such as the library, coffee cafe etc.

The promenade on deck 5 is the main entertainment area on the ship.  The disco, the casino, the wine bar, one of the teen lounges, the sushi and coffee venues, the gift shops are all found along the promenade or forward on this deck.  If you wanted loud music and dancing, this was the deck for you.  There was either recorded music blaring or a live band playing each day and night.  It was also the area where so many of the photographers were perched trying to get you to take a picture with one of the hundreds of backdrops that we saw.  I will also come back to that also in a later post.

The pool and deck areas seemed to have an abundance of deck chairs and space.  We mainly found deck chairs early on in the day near the main pool area on the Lido deck.  This was also the area that featured the large TV screen and waterslide and 3 hot tubs (although I heard that only one of the hot tubs was actually heated).  On sea days, you needed to get out on the Lido deck no later than 10am if you wanted to get deck chairs near some of the action, which we did.

Overall, the ship is very nice and the public areas (not including the dining) seemed designed well for traffic flow with the photo area being the exception to that.  The photo area where you could go view some of the pictures you had taken was very congested at certain times and made it almost impossible to get around.  The ship’s staff was always out and about cleaning and sprucing which is always something nice to see.

The ship itself gets a B grade.

The Dining: we are getting to the important stuff.  This is where my perspective comes into play a lot.  I am going to compare the dining areas and the staff to what I have experienced on 5 previous cruises with 4 other cruise lines. 

First, the buffet areas were not designed well for the size of the ship.  Unlike Royal Caribbean’s Windjammer Cafe which has “food islands” or stations, the Cezanne Restaurant was designed more “cafeteria style.”  You get in line to get a plate and tray and then you wait with everyone else and you SLOWLY make your way through the food options, even if what you really want is more at the end of the buffet line.  Lines, during the busier parts of the morning and afternoon, were very long.  Seating on the other hand was actually better than I had seen on some previous cruises.  There was a lower and upper seating area along with more seating out by the pool areas.  You should not have a problem getting a seat once you actually have a plate of food.

The food in Cezanne was just ok.  After a few cruises, I have lowered my buffet expectations and the food on this buffet was similar to what I have seen on the last two.  It is what it is.  Everything that was supposed to be warm or hot was warm or hot and the staff was doing their best to keep things in stock.  Along with the normal buffet choices, you could also opt to visit a wok station, a fish and chips station or a deli sandwich station.  But again, depending on when you got there, the lines could be VERY long.  The fish and chips were good and so were the made-to-order deli sandwiches.  We never got a chance to try the wok station due to the crowd, but some friends of our did and said it was excellent.

2 things Carnival should simply eliminate; the "late night Mexican buffet" which now replaces the full midnight buffet and the midday "chocolate buffet." These were supposed to have been special occasions, but were pretty uneventful and lackluster. The "Mexican buffet" consisted of a few nicely carved fruit items on the 2 dessert stations and one ice sculpture. The food was no different than what you would have found during lunch or dinner in Cezanne. We walked down to see it and chuckled and walked away. The same goes for the chocolate buffet. It was a waste of money and resources.

The thing I wish Carnival and even some other cruise lines like NCL would think about changing is their beverage service in the buffet areas.  Royal Caribbean has staff that roams around asking if they can get you juice, milk, tea or coffee once you get your food and find a seat.  Carnival does not. You have to find a seat and then go to one of the drink stations to get tea, juice or coffee.  That can be an additional hassle after you have stood forever in the food line.  Just a little difference in service that I have noticed as I get more cruises under my belt.

You could also opt for the traditional hotdog, pizza or hamburger from those areas out by the pools.  Again...the food there was ok and edible. No complaints.

Now on to the dining room and specialty restaurant.  We ate dinner almost every night in the Monet dining room which is the “assigned time and seat” dining option.  The anytime dining can be found in the Renoir dining room.  The service was stellar.  Kate and her team were very attentive and the food always showed up quickly and at the right temperature.  This was the 1st time that we had at least 3 servers attending to our table (actually 4 when you consider we even had a “specialty beverage server” as I will call him).  The food was good overall.  Some dishes were better than others, but they were all good.  The one difference again that I will note is that it seemed that Carnival offers less in the way of dessert choices at dinner.  You were given 2 different options every night along with their standard offerings that are on the menu every night.

I was waiting for that “wow” dining experience when it came to the food with Carnival and I just never got it.  I had heard so much about the lobster tail that you get with Carnival and I was a bit disappointed when I saw the portion that you were given.

We did decide one night to try the Conquest’s specialty dining venue, the Point.  You pay $30 per person extra to eat at the Point, but I do recommend giving it a try.  The food was great and so was the very attentive service.  I had the best dessert of the cruise while dining here.  The only con to this venue was its location.  You were seated with a view of one of the outside decks on deck 10.  Other specialty restaurants on other ships are usually placed in a quiet area with a nice view of the ocean which adds to the ambience and experience.

We did order room service a few times.  They were very prompt.  We ordered lunch one day during a sea day and it only took 10 minutes from the time we place the order until the food showed up at our door.  We also opted to have breakfast in our room one morning and it showed up precisely at the time we had asked for.  The only negatives were that our breakfast showed up without a spoon which made eating cereal a bit of a challenge with a fork and I do wish they offered a better room service selection.  For example...we asked if we could get fries with our sandwich instead of potato chips and were simply told no.  I know enough about cruise ships to know that the food pretty much comes from the same galley and I am not sure why they would not try to accommodate what seemed like a simple request.

Before I end the discussion about the food, I need to touch on the sushi venue and the specialty coffee area.  I was excited about the sushi since I LOVE sushi.  But I was disappointed to see that you only had 3 choices each day.  Basically you had a tuna choice, a crab choice and a non-fish choice each day.  The good news is that it was included in the price of your cruise.  Not so though with any of the sweets from the specialty coffee area.  Unlike Princess, NCL, Disney and Royal Caribbean, you had to pay extra with Carnival for a decent cookie, piece of cake or any of the other food choices found here.  The prices ranged from $1.50 up to $3.00.  And after trying some of the dessert choices on the buffet, it really made you crave something decent as far as treats are concerned which must be Carnival’s plan.  Cookies on the buffet were very small and hard so if you wanted a decent, freshly baked cookie, you had to pay for it.  Again...same galley, but different levels of food quality.  I am not a fan of that practice at all.

The food and service in the dining room and and specialty restaurant gets an A- grade while the other food options get a C grade.

Stay tuned for part 3 where I will be discussing the entertainment, and the ports of call.

Carnival Conquest Review Part 1

I hope everyone has had a chance to watch the short video in the previous post so that you will understand the perspective from which I am writing this review from.  This part of the review will cover our most recent 7 night cruise aboard the Carnival Conquest and will discuss our pre-cruise hotel, the port of embarkation, and our stateroom. 

Pre-cruise Hotel:

We drove to the pier from our home in Missouri and spent the night in Galveston at the Four Points by Sheraton on Seawall Boulevard overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.  This hotel is brand new.  The rooms were comfortable and very clean.  The hotel is conveniently located within about 5-10 minutes of the pier.  I have read some reviews where someone was complaining of the price of sodas and snacks at the hotel.  For Pete’s is a hotel!  Since when is anything like that ever cheap at a hotel?  The hotel itself is close to fast food venues if someone is looking for cheaper food options so  I say that the cost issue is not really an issue at all.

The only thing that I hope they consider is some form of pre-cruise package including transfers to the pier.  It was not an issue for us since we drove down, but for others, they will have to call a cab to get from the hotel to the pier.

Port of Embarkation:

This cruise left out of the Port of Galveston.  We arrived at the pier at approximately 11:40am and dropped off our bags with one of the porters and then proceeded to park the car in the open air parking lot (lot B) which is about a quarter mile from the pier itself.  A shuttle bus runs every few minutes between the pier and the parking areas and we were back at the pier within 10 minutes or so.  The lines to get through security were getting quite long.  They only had 2 security areas open for general boarding which was creating quite a bottle neck.  Luckily we were considered VIP guests since we were staying in one of Carnival’s suite categories and we were escorted to a much shorter security line.  Once through security, we were then led to a nice quiet room where a Carnival employee was waiting to officially check us in.  This  again was due to the fact that we had VIP priority check in status.  Checking in was a breeze and we were quickly led up the gangway to the ship.  It took less than an hour from the time we dropped off the luggage, parked the car, checked in and were finally walking onboard the ship.  You could choose to park closer in one of the valet parking lots, but be prepared to pay for that convenience and service.  I can’t say enough about the benefit of having the VIP status.  I estimate that it saved us at least 30 minutes or more by not having to stand and wait in the security line for general boarding.  I am not sure why the only had 2 security scanners open with the amount of people trying to get through.  Out of 6 cruises, that was the longest security line I had seen to date.

The Port of Galveston, in general, is an easy port to get to and is close to several hotel and eating venues.  The only other issue or warning I will make about the port is concerning flying into Houston versus driving to the pier.  Both of Houston’s major airports are at least 45 minutes from the pier (assuming no traffic issues) and transfers can be quite costly so just be aware and plan/budget accordingly.  Driving to the pier was a breeze.  I give the port a “B” grade. 

Our Stateroom:
As I mentioned, we were staying in one of the suite categories.  We were in an OS category on deck 7 (Empress) and our stateroom number was 7273.  We were a little more forward than what we had been on previous cruises, but conveniently located to main lobby stairs and elevator.  The stateroom was GREAT!  It had a nice little entry way with hardwood flooring and a cozy seating area with a couch, small table and chair.   It had granite counter tops and crown molding throughout.  There was an abundance of storage and I mean an abundance.  Lots of room to hang clothes and tons of drawers to  keep everything else out of sight and neatly organized.  The bathroom had 2 sinks and an actual whirlpool bathtub/shower combo and a separate vanity area.  The balcony was large and came with 3 reclining chairs and a small table.

Tip:  when choosing a stateroom, make sure you know what is below or above you.  Deck 7 is sandwiched in between 2 other decks filled with nothing but staterooms which makes it a very quiet deck.  We never heard any of our neighbors next to us nor above or below us.  The only time we heard anyone was if they were out on their balcony where noise seemed to travel much further. 

We spent a lot more of our time in our stateroom than we did on any of our prior cruises.  It was a nice retreat away from some of the noise and people onboard (I will get to that in another post).  One of our sea days was very windy up on deck and we found out that our balcony was big enough for 2 adults to recline our chairs and enjoy the sunshine out of the wind.  If you ever have a chance to upgrade to a OS or GS suite category, do it.  Don’t listen to those who try to say that there is not much difference between a regular balcony stateroom and one of the suites.  That is simply not true. I give our stateroom an A+ grade.

Stay tuned for part 2 where I will be discussing the ship itself and the various food venues.