Vacation 2016: Southern Caribbean

30 December 2016

Synopsis

Notes and impressions from our December 10 – December 18, 2016 Southern Caribbean cruise on the Carnival Conquest.


I must admit that I was somewhat spoiled after our 2014 Eastern Caribbean cruise on the Norwegian Getaway—our first cruise in fourteen years. However, for this particular trip I was looking to cruise destinations that we haven’t visited yet since this would be our 6th cruise to the Caribbean.

I did some internet searching and noticed that Carnival has an 8-day cruise to the Southern Caribbean, including Aruba, sailing from Ft. Lauderdale. I wasn’t keen on taking Carnival again since our first Carnival cruise on the Tropicale didn’t measure up to our previous Premier cruise. Nevertheless, I decided to book the Carnival cruise primarily because of the itinerary.

Since we really liked our balcony stateroom on the Celebrity Silhouette, we decided to book a balcony stateroom again. Our stateroom was 8259, Verandah Deck 8, FWD (I’ll explain the reason for mentioning the stateroom number later). We signed up for Your Time dining in the Renoir Restaurant, Deck 3, FWD, which gave us the flexibility to eat dinner anytime from 5:45pm to 9:30pm.

Embarkation at Port Everglades went fairly smoothly without excessive delays. Our checked baggage all arrived at our room prior to the mandatory lifeboat drill. The lifeboat drill on the Conquest was something else again. Instead of having the passengers attend the drill in the theater and/or lounges as with other cruise lines, no, Carnival had everyone line up four deep on lifeboat Deck 4. It wouldn’t have been so bad except for the fact that we were out there for almost 45 minutes before we were dismissed—they also did a manual head count.

For those who are interested, the Conquest was built in 2002 and refurbished in 2012, so it’s an older ship and to some degree, I think it’s beginning to show its age. The ship feels older, especially when on deck. Also worth mentioning is the ship’s stability or lack thereof. We had strong winds and rough seas our first day out and ship movement was quite noticeable.

The ship’s interior is adorned in a French Impressionist motif as illustrated by many of my photos posted elsewhere on this site. I think this choice of motif definitely gives the ship its own personality and uniqueness.

The Renoir Restaurant had one of the best main dining room layouts of all the ships we’ve sailed on so far. It was large yet provided a cozy and somewhat intimate dining experience. The wait staff in the Renoir Restaurant were excellent. Since the food in the main dining room far exceeded our expectations, we never tried any of the extra cost specialty restaurants. In my opinion, hands down, the food was far better in variety and quality than the food we received in the main dining room on the Celebrity Silhouette.

The Lido Buffet was sort of average, but the variety improved after our first day out and seemed to get progressively better as the cruise went on. As is true on most ships, the Omelet Station in the buffet is the best choice for breakfast. We never ate dinner in the buffet. There is some good news in that whatever was lacking in the Lido Buffet was more than compensated for by the food from the BlueIguana Cantina, Guy’s Burger Joint, and the Pizza Pirate. The BlueIguana serves a mean taco and a killer breakfast burrito. Guy’s Burger Joint…I’m getting emotional here, serves some of the best burgers I’ve ever had or have had in a very long time. On the other hand, you wouldn’t expect much from a pizza coming out of a place called Pizza Pirate but don’t be deceived, the made-to-order thin crust pizzas from the Pizza Pirate are superb—and the pizza chef knows it.

All-in-all I would have to say the house bands and individual lounge performers were 50/50. I think the best band on the ship was Kudos Strings but they were never playing at a location and time that seemed to fit our schedule.

The shows were hit and miss, with some much better than others. My personal favorite was the Epic Rock show.

The Fun Shops on Deck 5, FWD were disappointing, yet still we managed to spend some money there.

The ship provided more than enough photo opportunities for those who wanted to have individual or group portraits taken. The photographers were plentiful, friendly, and accommodating. We only took one group portrait on our last night out. On the down side, trying to find your photos in Pixels Gallery, Deck 4, FWD, was challenging to say the least. It was like a fire drill during our last night at sea.

Unlike our cruise director on the Norwegian Epic, our cruise director on the Conquest, Haley Mac, was ubiquitous and vocal.

As I mentioned earlier, the main reason why we chose this cruise was the itinerary since Grand Turk, La Romana, Aruba, and Bonaire were all new destinations for us. We booked all our shore excursions, save for one, in advance through the Carnival website.

  • Grand Turk — Ultimate Snorkeling Adventure & Beach Getaway, $70/person
  • La Romana — Countryside Experience, $80/person
  • Aruba — Sunset Cocktail Cruise, $50/person
  • Bonaire — Eco Tour at Lac Bay National Park, $70/person and Trolley Train City Tour, $40/person

The snorkeling excursion included stops at Horseshoe Reef and Round Cay. One of the selling points of this excursion is the Grand Turk “Wall” a 7,000 foot drop off (See photos in my Photo Gallery).

The La Romana Countryside Experience excursion includes a stop at a sugar cane plantation where you get to taste fresh cut sugar cane.

The Aruba Sunset Cocktail Cruise concluded as an over-the-top drinking party. I don’t drink but I went along to photograph the sunset.

The Eco Tour at Lac Bay National Park was way overpriced for the value. We saw an hour’s worth of mangrove forest but no wildlife. Everyone felt calm and peaceful out in the mangroves but little else.

We finished out our day at Bonaire on the Trolley Train City Tour (booked on board) which turned out to be much better than we expected—well worth the money.

One of the unexpected surprises on the cruise was the passenger medivac at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard while in route to Grand Turk. Obviously, the ship needed to slow down but the Coast Guard helicopter still seemed to have difficulty maintaining its position at the stern of the boat. Thankfully, the sick passenger was taken off the ship successfully, with nearly everyone on the ship watching.

Our two days at sea turned out to be the calmest on the trip since we were sailing in the Caribbean Sea and not the rougher Atlantic Ocean. We spent at least half of our final 2 days at sea at the Sky Pool and SPAs on Lido Deck 9, AFT. Oh yea, remember earlier I said I would explain why I mentioned our cabin number, well it just so happens that that cabin is directly above the breaking lateral wake generated from the moving ship’s bow. That is, it’s loud and very noticeable especially at night when you’re trying to sleep. I will never book a cabin in the fore part of a ship again, no matter what deck. Next time I’ll follow the engineering-based recommendation to pick cabins located on lower decks midship.

Even though the captain got us back to Port Everglades around 5:30am, considerably ahead of schedule, we didn’t disembark the ship until nearly 5 hours later. According to Carnival there was a problem with the gangplank malfunctioning.

Reflecting back now on six Caribbean cruises it’s evident that there are pluses and minuses with every cruise line and cruise ship—none being perfect in all details. Overall I’d say the newer Norwegian ships have the best deck layouts and main lounge areas while Celebrity has the best buffet and shows. Norwegian has some very good lounge bands while the food in Carnival’s main dining room is exceptional. As far as shops on board ship, I would give the edge to Norwegian followed by Celebrity. Perfectly in agreement with many of the reviews I’ve read, Carnival clientele are more diverse and friendly; some might even say more down-to-earth. Anyway, which cruise line you pick and which ship you decided to sail on depends on your personal preferences.

So, will we ever cruise on Carnival again? Of course! We are already thinking about sailing on Carnival’s newest ship, the Vista.

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Copyright 2016 Gerard Sczepura