Okay, so here we go with a review. 🙂
For this cruise there were three of us: myself, and my married friends John and Kathy, who I got hooked on cruising a few cruises ago. They're from Kentucky; I'm from the Atlanta area, so they drive down from Kentucky and pick me up in their big 2003 custom van and then we head south. This is how it's been for our last three Carnival cruises and it seems to work...although driving that big ol' van after being used to my little Ford Focus 5-speed is...challenging. 🙂
In addition to us three, our extended cruising party also included four friends from Virginia who we met a few cruises ago and now we book cruises together: Ashley and Todd (in Ashley's now-traditional aft-wrap stateroom), and also Eric and Jenna in a balcony near them. Sadly not appearing on the cruise this year were more of our Virginia friends, Jarrod and April, who cancelled the cruise because they'd bought a "unique fixer-upper" of a house. All six are involved in a band called Below Seven, and since they were recently signed by Sony Records, this cruise ended up being a surprise celebration cruise for them. 🙂
Travel to the pier:
It's my policy not to have to rush during a vacation, so I always schedule a stop about midway down just to the west of Jacksonville, and we stay at an inexpensive motel there (Red Roof Inn, in Macclenny FL). Then, we head the rest of the way to South Florida the next day and stay overnight at a stay-park-cruise hotel -- oddly enough, another Red Roof, by Miami Airport. Thanks to www.stay123.com we can park at the hotel for free during the cruise, and they also offer a free shuttle to the pier, so it's like getting a night's stay for free!
We'd booked the cruise about a year out and all three of our staterooms were able to get Faster to the Fun when it was originally offered. When we checked into our hotel the only pier shuttles available were 9 am, 11 am and noon; the 10 am shuttle was already full. We opted for the crack-o'-dawn, 9 am shuttle because we wanted to get there earlier than 11:30 am...and boy howdy, we did! We arrived at the terminal at around 9:30 and stood around uncertainly since the building wasn't open for arrivals yet.
"Are you Priority?" one employee asked.
"Congratulations, wait right here, you're first in line!"
And lo and behold, we were the first passengers from our sailing to enter the terminal building. This achievement, plus $1.50, will get you a cuppa coffee at the Waffle House. 🙂
Once through the security checkpoint a pleasant Carnival chap pointed us to some seats in the FTTF area. "They'll start boarding FTTF from here, so sit right here and you should be first to go." Thanks, buddy!
BTW, Carnival's new-ish policy of supplying Sign-and-Sail cards onboard in your stateroom's in-box instead of at the kiosks during check-in at the cruise terminal continues to impress. Unless you were establishing a cash account onboard, there was nothing to do except relax and wait for boarding.
Now, Carnival's pre-cruise email had warned us that boarding would be delayed by an hour, and I took it with the usual grain of salt. After all, they've often sent an email like that before, maybe to "spread the crowd out," and yet there had been no boarding delays.
--ButTHIS time they weren't kidding and boarding started a little after noon, but we didn't mind because all seven of us had our prime seats in the FTTF reserved area. We noticed there were still people debarking from the previous sailing even as late as 11:45 or later. 😮
Soon they announced Diamonds and Platinums for boarding and we got ourselves ready, and then we were next! As promised, we were the first of the FTTF pax to board, immediately after the last of the Ds and Ps. Just like last year, the gangway timing was impeccable. We walked along the gangway and when we got to the ship, I officially intoned "we're on board!" and made that old, much-missed "boing!" sound that the card-scanners used to make. Yay, we were finally onboard!
On the ship
I intended to book the Behind the Fun tour as soon as we boarded since it's first-come first-served and it often sells out, but ShoreEx wasn't open so we high-tailed it up to our cabin to drop off our carry-ons and pick up our room-keys. This was really easy since they had one or two of the atrium elevators marked "Lunch Express" and they were non-stops up to Lido Deck 10, where our stateroom was. Thanks, Carnival! Very handy!
Our stateroom was right near the atrium elevators, and it proved to be a really convenient spot, just steps away from the bars by the midship Lido pool (did I mention that we had all gotten Cheers? Yep, we had Cheers) and nice and close to Guy's Burgers and the Blue Iguana Cantina.
Our Grand Embark Dining Plan (tm) included a first stop at the Mongolian Wok. I knew the line would never be shorter than during our early embark and, unlike some of the other dining choices onboard that people don't discover until Days 2 or 3 (like the Cucina for free pasta-bar lunch, or Guy's Pig & Anchor on Deck 5), the Wok would get crowded and the line would get long even on the first day. OF COURSE it gets long: it's fresh Mongolian stir-fry cooked to order right in front of you. We got there and there were only two (2) people in front of us. Success!
I went back down to ShoreEx to book the BtF Tour...and they STILL hadn't opened. I went over to the Priority line at Guest Services to see if I could book the tour there instead and the associate there frowned. "They should have been open by now!" He walked back over to ShoreEx with me and sure enough, the ShoreEx lady had arrived and opened it up in the intervening four minutes! So, I booked the BtF Tour and also put myself down as a standby for the snuba excursion at St. Thomas, since it had sold out just before the cruise. (I missed booking it by a day.) So, speaking of Shore Excursions....
A few words about Shore Excursions
Two years ago we booked the "Secluded Villa All-Inclusive" excursion at Amber Cove. It was $100 pp...and we were actually pretty happy with it. We opted not to book it this time around because, well...why pay for an admittedly good top-shelf open bar and an excellent barbecue when we'd already purchased Cheers? John and Kathy went shopping in the port for alcohol and (for some weird reason, hot-sauce) and I just visited the pool area for a while, made one circuit around the "river" portion of the pool, got some photos, and got back on the ship. It was an overcast day and not very pretty, although it didn't rain.
Six years ago I did the snuba excursion at St. Thomas. It was my first experience with snuba and I didn't realize at the time what a great deal it is, there. It's only $85 when most such excursions are $100 or so, and it includes transportation across St. Thomas and admission to Coral World (I even got to feed some giant sea turtles), plus access to Coki Beach right next door. Naturally I wanted to do it again, BUT it sold out -- the only St. Thomas excursion that sold out pre-cruise; I missed it by only a day. 😞 Instead I bought a Paradise Point skyride excursion ticket on the ship for $20 -- it's $21 as a walk-up purchase, such a deal! Not only was it the cheapest excursion ticket offered for our sailing -- excepting that amazing "Home Port Advisory" excursion, priced at $0.01 😄 -- but it was a great ride up, the views were spectacular and, to my surprise, there were no high-pressure sales pitches at the top like I'd read about before.
At San Juan we walked. And walked, and walked some more. We walked up the hill to the San Cristobal fort and explored it pretty thoroughly, then we walked through Old San Juan over to the larger El Morro fort and walked through the upper portion. I definitely satisfied my cultural itch...and boy, were our dawgs a-barkin' and itching by that point. John wanted to walk back to the pier but I spied some waiting taxis. "How much for all three of us, back to the pier?"
GT is one of my favorite ports in the world. There isn't a heck of a lot of culture here but it's among the best relaxa-ports in the world. I got off the ship early to snag a free lounger by the cruise terminal and Margaritaville, walked down the beach to Jack's Shack to pay my respects to the most famous dog in the Caribbean (is there actually a Jack at the Shack or is it all secretly controlled by Topher the dog? 🙂 ) walked back and snorkeled off the beach by Margaritaville for a solid three hours. For the first time at Grand Turk I saw some squid (about 30 small ones) and a small octopus, hiding in his hole. There were plenty of other fish around, especially while one of our fellow cruisers was tossing Cheerios into the water. 🙂
For my underwater snorkeling videos, click here
Okay, rather than give y'all an exhaustive blow-by-blow write-up of our time on the ship, and anyway I've forgotten most of the details 😄 , I'll instead give you.....
Some Thoughts About the Carnival Magic
like the other Dream-class ships and the Vista class, there are some really nice outdoor decks that get you "closer to the ocean," like the Lanai outside deck on Deck 5. Norwegian has also been adding outdoor spaces like this, but one consistent complaint about Royal Caribbean's new-builds has been that you lose sight of the fact that you're on a ship, and not in a shopping mall. The drawback is that you really NEED good weather. On this sailing we had decent weather -- windy and a bit bumpy early on but really nice later -- and not too much rain. With rainy or cold weather, though, the charm of the outdoor spaces would be greatly reduced, as it was on our Vista cruise last October.
The two waterslides on the ship -- Drainpipe, a "bowl" slide, and Twister, a REALLY fast twisty slide -- are awesome! See videos here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLRBeGca8BgGG2vePeDmrbUoS_U-5FREsS
The entertainment on the ship was pretty top-notch. There was a really good violin trio performing in the Atrium lobby on most nights and we could hear them a bit through our stateroom door...and we didn't mind. (John, Kathy and I know an unusually large number of truly talented violinists.) There was a steel-drum player on the Lido deck above the pool at times who sounded so polished, you had to look to see it was live and not a piped-in recording. The other bands and performers, like in the Ocean Plaza and the Red Frog Pub, were good, too. My friends enjoyed the comedians at night although they said one guy's race-related jokes were a bit offputting.
We had YTD, and overall the food onboard was great. We DID have lackluster service on the first two days in the MDR, so we didn't express a preference for serving crews on Day 3 and we ended up in Ferdinand's section. His crew was so good we requested them every night thereafer, and we tipped them appropriately on the last night.
The "late night snacks" offered (11:30pm - 1 am) were inferior to those offered on the Vista last fall, just hot dogs, ham'n'cheese sandwiches and a buffalo chicken sandwich, plus cookies and brownies. The Vista had pasta dishes, meatball hoagies, etc. as well as other snacks.
The lines for food were sometimes long, but if you went where people weren't going, it was okay. Try the Blue Iguana Cantina for great breakfast burritos or breakfast bowls, Cucina del Capitano any day during lunch for the free pasta-bar, or Guy's Pig & Anchor BBQ outside on Deck 5 on embark day, when there was NO ONE there. Get back from port a little earlier than everyone else and enjoy no lines for food or the water slides, etc. During the entire cruise I never made use of the Lido buffet for ANY meal, a first for me.
The Magic has a HUGE casino. I'm not a gambler but there were two cash-crane machines -- always good for some cheap entertainment -- as well as the usual Cash Cube and Vault "games of skill." While there was cigarette smoke, of course, it didn't seem as prevalent as it was on the Conquest-class ships.
The Dream class only has two pools. These ships really need one more adult-only pool, and additional hot-tubs designated as adults-only besides the Serenity whirlpools, which were closed due to wind early during the cruise. Maybe designate the aft hot-tubs, or two of the ones on the lanai deck as adults-only? They could also designate the aft pool as adults-only on sailings while school systems are in session, as was done previously on the Conquest class.
The "secret" decks in front were really cool...when they were accessible. Due to high winds they were closed off on the first day. For great sky-viewing and stargazing, try Decks 9 and 10 right behind the forward "riding light" for the darkest nighttime spots on the ship. With a clear sky it was glorious, and I saw the Milky Way for the first time in years! Also, there are two electronic repeating gyro compasses mounted on Deck 9 above each bridge wing, protected by a velcro cover. Kinda nifty. The Vista-class has the same publically accessible viewing areas above the bridge wings, but there are no gyrocompasses there.
Our steward, Romi, was excellent. He offered -- and we requested -- both daytime and nighttime service and if there was a time when our room wasn't serviced, it was our fault for lingering, not his. We got towel animals each night, including only my third "hanging monkey" in 13 cruises! -- and prompt ice service. We tipped him some at the beginning, and a bit more at the end.
It is our tradition to tip $1 extra for alcoholic drinks, even with Cheers, plus I tip fifty cents when I get a soda from any bar. Bartenders tend to remember this and the bartender at the aft pool bar (he had a long name) and the bartenders at the Blue Iguana Bar subsquently gave us good service.
The Behind the Fun tour was...somewhat lackluster this time around. This was my 8th Carnival cruise and also my 8th BtF tour. Two tours were offered; I was slotted for the earlier tour, and we had 11 participants. One major change was that now, participants MUST complete a health survey before starting, MUST wash hands thoroughly when entering the galley, and MUST don caps before entering the galley; this is all probably overdue. Some of the choices of venue for presentations were problematical; for example the Chef de Cuisine gave his presentation in a loud part of the galley near the giant soup and sauce "tureens" when he could have waited a few minutes and done it in a quieter area, such as where the "carving chef" made his watermelon-carving demonstration. Also, for the first time on any tour, we were restricted to a cordoned-off side of the bridge instead of being shown the central console and the actual ship's steering "wheel." The Captain seemed a bit perfunctory as well, and individual photos with the Captain were NOT taken, just one group shot on the bridge plus another group photo on the prow by the ship's bell. For those interested in comparing, the Dream class does not have the same advanced-looking "starship bridge" Engineering Control Room as the Vista class; a pity, since the Vista's ECR was incredibly cool, touch-screen "chart-table" and all.
Speaking of Engineering, some of our friends reported a sewage smell in their parts of the ship or in their cabins. Based on suggestions from CruiseCritic's own resident expert and chief engineer ChEngKP, they poured water down every drain in their stateroom...and the odor was greatly reduced. CruiseCritic comes through again! 😄
There were apparently a few medical emergencies during our cruise, including one person evac'd by ambulance just as we were leaving San Juan, but our itinerary wasn't affected. We also encountered an item of floating debris on the way back to Miami, which turned out to be...a Jet Ski. We didn't stop to pick it up, which was a bit of a surprise because I thought they could have raffled it off as a prize in the casino. 😄
Debark and the ride home
So I'll wrap this up with a few words about debark. We arrived back at a different terminal, Terminal F, than we'd left from, but PortMiami offered free shuttles back to our embark terminal. This didn't affect us, though. We had Zone 2 for our luggage and after a quick breakfast, we headed down to Deck 3. Our Cruise Director Malcolm "whoo-hoo" Burns made a few announcements advising that, due to congestion in the terminal they'd have to halt debarkation a few times. There were two lines on Deck 3 but neither was all that long...yet, anyway...but we heard another "debark halted" announcement just after we joined the line....a lucky escape for us!
After stepping off the ship (always a sad moment) we were all stopped in the long hallway to Baggage Claim, apparently due to congestion ahead. There was also a short delay leaving Baggage Claim and going to Customs, but we were surprised to find that there wasn't a HUGE queue-line area before Customs, and we concluded that overall it was one of the shorter debarks we'd had.
Once outside I called an Uber for the ride back to the Red Roof Plus. The driver, an emigre from Cuba, had some trouble hooking up with us (the app's pickup location wasn't quite right) but eventually we were all settled and enjoyed the $30 ride back to the hotel, which I thought was quite reasonable since, unlike at Port Everglades, our hotel wasn't that close.
We picked up John and Kathy's van at the hotel -- someone had hit it during the week, causing minor cosmetic damage 😮 -- and proceeded to get the heck out of Miami, a city I hate to drive in. I'd wanted to stop for lunch at Rock'n'Roll Ribs in Coral Springs, but we decided to stay on the interstate and head back up to our en-route motel in Macclenny again. (I'm sure I'll visit there again in February on our way back from the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise.) The trip was uneventful and we got to the motel nice and early, checked in, walked to our traditional nearby Chinese buffet, walked back...and we all immediately crashed for several hours, out like a light. Guess we were tired from our relaxing vacation! 🙂
On Monday we headed out on the slightly shorter "leg" back to my house. We had no problems with traffic until we got close to Atlanta during rush hour, but the Waze app -- which John had introduced me to, several cruises ago -- gave us a nice alternate route and we got to my house a little after 5 pm. Not bad!
And thus, with me placating my over-anxious cat back at the house, my vacation came to an end. Overall, it was a good cruise...perhaps not the best John, Kathy and I have done together, but far from the worst. We are booked on the Magic again for October 2019, to Half Moon Cay, Grand Turk, Aruba and Curacao, and we're looking forward to an even longer cruise next year!
I DID keep all of the Fun Times and some of the promotional flyers, so if there's a clamor I can try to scan them in.
For an index to my photos and videos -- photos from Cristobal and El Morro are coming shortly -- click here !
Thanks for reading!