Okay, when I say 'not quite as fabulous', it was still fabulous. After years of being a Cruise Critic member and reading comparisons between Carnival and NCL though - especially the number of people who proclaimed Carnival's food to be superior - I just expected more.
Embarkation was a breeze; we arrived early, walked right through security and up to the counter, got checked in, and were seated with our 'number 3' for a wait of about 15 minutes. The whole thing took less than an hour. My only complaint was that we had to throw away all of the drinks we had with us that were open - an iced tea, a diet coke, and what was left of a 2 litre bottle of diet coke from my hotel room. It was as if we were boarding a plane, where people are required to pack their liquids in their checked bags because they won't have access to them... unlike a cruise, where we had access to our checked bags within a couple of hours. I have no idea why I couldn't keep my half-consumed soda.
We had our first encounter with the buffet after we were onboard, and I think we've been spoiled by NCL's 'action station' buffet. I eagerly ran out to try the Mongolian Grill but found that my carefully chosen vegetables ended up rather overdone and mushy, so I went and had a look at what the regular buffet had to offer and ended up with some salad because none of the very few hot items were appealing. Fortunately there is a sandwich window that serves delicious sandwiches. UNfortunately, we found that if we wanted to eat around 11am, that sandwich window was pretty much our only choice. As I said, the sandwiches were great; it just would have been nice to have some other choices. Again I think NCL spoiled us with their 24 hour comfort food restaurant where you can sit down and order great food any time of day or night.
Our cabin was wonderful. It was big and roomy and comfortable, our room stewards were terrific, and we got towel animals almost every night.
Our next meal experience was the Pointe, Carnival's steakhouse. We couldn't help but make comparisons to NCL's Cagney's, and I think we all agreed that if we could combine the two, it would be a perfect restaurant. The Pointe definitely has a more formal atmosphere, and the food was delicious for the most part. We missed having prime rib as an option, but the surf and turf with lobster tail and filet mignon was delicious. There were only a couple of things we weren't keen on. One was the onion soup, which was really really dark and had a very strong flavour that was not onion and didn't appeal to any of us; the onion soup served the next night in the main dining room was much more to our liking. The other disappointment for me was the Caesar salad. I often have salad instead of dessert, and when I saw our server preparing a salad tableside for some other guests I was quite excited to have a Caesar made from scratch, which are hard to come by where I live. Unfortunately, it was just romaine in a wooden bowl and he grated in some parmesan cheese and tossed in some croutons before adding the pre-made dressing and stirring it up. I again found that I preferred the Caesar salad in the main dining room - and when I say I preferred it, I mean it was absolutely fantastic. It was also available from room service and at the pizzeria and I ordered it every chance I got! :)
I missed Superstar Live Karaoke the first night, but made it in time for regular karaoke and I have to say, the host on the Conquest is the best karaoke host I've ever had the pleasure to see, and unlike our NCL cruises, he hosted every time it was offered. The song list was quite extensive, but the books are a mess; it was hard to find songs sometimes because you would see them in one book, then try to find them in another and it wasn't organized the same way or was printed at a different time or something. The only disappointing karaoke experience was the night of the Legends auditions, when for some reason the event was held in a smaller lounge than usual - even though there was nothing going on in the better location - and the place was packed, with people standing all over and sitting on the floor, and with pillars obscuring the view for many of the guests.
As for the Legends show, this was definitely a disappointment for me. How it works is that Carnival has chosen a list of celebrities, including specific songs, and if a guest wants to be in the show, they have to sing that one song and dress up as the performer (the ship supplies the costume). It was quite uncomfortable at times watching people trying to sing songs they'd never heard before, and when Kim (the awesome karaoke host) had to beg people to try out for certain celebrities. I have to say that I very much prefer NCL's version, which is simply a passenger talent show - you can sing, play an instrument, dance, tell jokes - whatever you do that is entertaining. It opens the experience up to more people and allows people who don't sing to potentially show off other talents. We had a boogie woogie piano player on one cruise that I could have listened to all night. There were some really talented people on our Conquest cruise who weren't able to participate in the show because they didn't know the songs, or the celebrity they might have imitated was not among the choices. There was one gentleman who did a phenomenal Elvis who was unable to participate because he wasn't as familiar with the chosen Elvis song as another passenger.
We booked our excursions on this cruise through Carnival. We went scuba diving in both ports, and when I did my research I found that the private suppliers charged exactly the same as Carnival, so I went with the security of booking through the ship. The excursion team was amazing. Without going into detail, they took care of a unique request for us, and then they were extremely accommodating in Cozumel when first we had forgotten our tickets in our room and then had to cancel for our daughter, who had gotten too much sun in Grand Cayman. I can't say enough good things about them. :)
Unfortunately, with our port days came our experiences with room service. Again NCL has spoiled us. On our prior cruises, we've used room service as a sort of 'wake up call'. On NCL, you place your order on your door handle, with a time that you want your breakfast delivered, and then at that time they phone your cabin and then promtly bring your order. We expected something similar on Carnival... I put the order out with a delivery time of between 6 and 6:30. The order didn't arrive until 7:05, as we were running out the door to meet for our excursion by 7:15. We barely had time to grab some dry bagels so that we didn't have to dive on an empty stomach. The next day, we had to be at the end of the pier by 12:30, and since we didn't feel like eating deli sandwiches again at 11am, we ordered room service at 10:45. It didn't arrive until shortly after 12!!! It took over an hour and fifteen minutes on a port day when a good portion of the passengers were off the ship!! I will say though, that the food was excellent.
The excursions themselves were phenomenal. The diving in Grand Cayman and Cozumel was some of the best we've ever done. I highly recommend both ports for certified dives or beginner scuba excursions.
I tried to make it to the main dining room for breakfast and lunch every day since I had been so disappointed with the buffet (and breakfast was worse than lunch). I did enjoy having eggs benedict every morning, but it wasn't the best eggs benny I've ever had... they had an extremely thick piece of backbacon that was a little overpowering, there was minimal hollandaise, and they appeared to have been baked or broiled as the sauce had a 'browned' appearance. Lunches were mediocre at best compared to what we're used to on cruises. Evening meals however, were wonderful. I enjoyed every single thing I ordered, with the exception of the frog legs - I was quite happy to see that we got to try them, but found out that they aren't my cup of tea. No, they don't taste like chicken. Ha ha ha I found them quite fishy, and they had a texture like a solid fish. I also really enjoyed the 'show time' every evening when the servers would sing or dance. It was expecially enjoyable because THEY appeared to be enjoying themselves.
I can't comment on the stage productions since they aren't our thing, but I can say that our daughter loved the seaside theatre. She met a very nice boy and they watched movies just about every night. Unfortunately, he was too old for Circle C and she wasn't old enough for O2, so the only time they participated in the organized activities was when they were combined. I don't really think they cared much, but as a result I can't comment on Circle C. The activities I saw in their weekly schedule looked like fun, in any case.
We did notice that there was a surprising lack of organized activities. A friend that we met on board who had cruised exclusively with Carnival in the past also noticed this though, so I got the impression that it was unusual for Carnival, and it may even have been unique to our sailing since it was a little different - last cruise out of Galveston before moving to New Orleans and six days instead of seven; the scheduling may just have suffered. The evenings seemed especially lacking if you weren't interested in a movie on deck, a stage show, or singing. Fortunately for me I love singing, and on the nights karaoke wasn't offered there were comedians who were really good. Superstar Live Karaoke wasn't quite as great as I was expecting it to be, but it was still fun. There were a couple of songs that were different from what I've ever heard on the radio, a few times the band simply wasn't playing the right part of the song, and on a couple of occasions the sound engineer had the band louder than the singer's feedback monitors, so they couldn't hear themselves, but otherwise it's always fun to sing with a live band, so overall it was a good time. The regular karaoke with Kim hosting really was the most fun on board though. He should get a raise. :)
Disembarkation was awful. NCL wins again, giving their guests the opportunity to choose their own time of departure if they don't want to self-assist and then wait in their cabin until their turn is called. On Carnival, we found our designated luggage tags at our cabin and learned that we would be among the last passengers off the ship if we didn't choose to self-assist. Since we felt 10:45 was cutting it too close to ensure we'd be able to pick up our rental car before they closed at noon, we had to carry off all of our own luggage. As it turned out the ship was delayed docking, so we very well may have missed our car if we hadn't done it the 'hard' way. To say that it was a zoo would be an understatement of epic proportions. There was one exit being used, with one path from one set of elevators and stairs, and the bottleneck was insane. Combine that with the passengers who chose to disregard the instructions on where to wait and where NOT to wait for their turn, it was just ugly and uncomfortable. (passenger behaviour is NOT Carnival's fault, I'm just describing the scene) Once in line for customs, it just got worse. (again not Carnival's fault) We were in the line for non-US passports, and it took over an hour for the four families in front of us to be checked through, while we watched the six lines of US citizens fill up and clear customs two and a half times before we were finally waved forward. The agent proceeded to flip through our passports and check each page multiple times for stamps, and then grilled us on why we didn't get stamps when we entered the US... as if it was somehow our decision whether the customs agent in Calgary stamped our passports or not. I've never been so happy to have never been to a country the US considers 'undesirable'.
So there you have it. As I said, we LOVED our cruise. Anything that comes across as negative in my review here just is what it is. We really have no complaints other than the late room service, and even that had very little impact on us other than to make us a little anxious about getting to our excursions on time. The Conquest is a beautiful ship with a wonderful crew and I'd sail on her again in a heartbeat. :)