I did take photos and they're posted on Facebook in a public album, but it doesn't seem to be letting 'the public' (outside FB) see them. I'll see if I can insert some of them into the review later.
Some key points:
- Faster to the Fun was well-worth it, at least for us (See Day 3)
- We had serious stateroom climate-control issues (Day 3)
- For the first time on any of my three cruises, our service in the Main Dining Room was lousy
- The alternative dining options were often better than the MDR
- Roll Call Meet'n'Greet was pretty cool (Day 5)
- The Behind the Fun tour was really good, but could have been better (Day 9)
My sister Cindy and I booked the Liberty's Eastern Caribbean itinerary because my mom Loralee and her husband Gaylord had already booked the sailing and, knowing my fondness for "private island" ports, my mom suggested I book it, too. I booked it Early Saver for just myself, and then added my sister after she was able to come up with (some of) the money.
We're all located in the Atlanta metro area. This was my third cruise and second on Carnival, my sister's second cruise, my mom's 22nd cruise on various lines, and her husband's 12th.
My sister and I had originally booked an interior cabin on Deck 2, but I got an email from Carnival's Upsell Fairy offering an upgrade to an oceanview for $70 more ($35 each), so I took the offer. Heck, it's a bigger room and it has a window!
Since we had booked separately from my mom and her DH I emailed the Liberty's maitre'd about two weeks prior to the cruise, requesting that we be able to sit with them at early seating, at a big table (since my mom likes talking to other cruisers). I also mentioned that a window table would be nice, but optional. I never got a response back, but the email didn't bounce, either.....
My mom and her husband had made plans to fly down the morning of the sailing, but having done that before and not liking the early-morning wakeup -- plus the added stress of potentially missing the cruise -- I determined that I'd rather drive down and arrive the night before. Adding things up for two people and including extra baggage fees if we were flying, it would be cheaper for my sister and I to drive down to Miami and back, stopping en route at a good halfway point for an overnight stay.
Since my sister can't drive and my car doesn't have cruise control, I really didn't want to try to drive it in one day!
For our previous cruise in January on Carnival Imagination we had all driven down to Miami and stayed at the La Quinta Airport East because they offer free parking for the duration of the cruise and a free shuttle to the pier (but not back). $75 for a room overnight, saving $140 in daily parking fees at the port and a free shuttle? It's a no-brainer, and I'm happy to say I discovered this great deal thanks to CruiseCritic's message boards! So, we decided to stay there again for this cruise.
For the 'intermediate' overnight stop I chose Baldwin, Florida, just west of Jacksonville, because it was about halfway between Atlanta and Miami, the hotel room at the Best Western was a mere $55 including taxes, and the area looked reasonably safe according to Google Maps street-view.
After pooling funds from everyone I also booked a cabana at Half Moon Cay, our first scheduled port-call, plus a snorkeling excursion there because I just looove snorkeling and free-diving. I also booked a poolside cabana at Grand Turk.
When Faster to the Fun (F2F) was first offered -- and thanks to CruiseCritic for the heads-up! -- I shelled out $50 for the program, since my sister has mobility issues and I was worried about long delays at embarkation. (I encouraged my mom and her husband to get it also, but they couldn't find it on Carnival's site.)
Shortly before the cruise I also booked the Coral World Snuba excursion in St. Thomas because there were only 3 slots left and at $70, it was the lowest price I'd ever seen for snuba anywhere. Plus, the reviews on Carnival.com were uniformly great!
I had joined our sailing's Roll Call on CruiseCritic pretty early, and over time it had grown to a big group of cool, friendly folks...a lot bigger than the RC on my last cruise! We arranged a meet'n'greet through Carnival with an open bar -- it costs about $10/person/hour -- and after all was said and done, we had 60 people participating for a two-hour M&G on the first sea-day -- it even had to be moved to the spacious Victoria Lounge!
So, with all preparations made, hotel reservations in hand, a new GPS unit ready for the car, new tires, oil changed and a full tank of gas, we were, as Judas Priest would say, "headin' out to the highway"!
DAY 1, Thursday 9/27 -- Drive from Atlanta to Baldwin, Florida
This ended up being an almost perfect drive without any problems. We took our time and made the transit in about 6 hours, including a few stops along the way (my sister's illness requires her to drink liquids fairly often). We saw a few showers on the way down but nothing too bad, and as evening came on, we saw a few rainbows to the east. Then we saw a vivid rainbow seemingly touching down on the highway right in front of us. We hoped it was a good omen for our cruise.
Not only was the lady at the Baldwin Best Western really nice, but she had been on the same ship and itinerary (RCCL Majesty of the Seas 5-day) as my first ever cruise, so we had a great chat about cruising. I think I sold her on taking a Carnival cruise someday.
Day 2, Friday 9/28 -- Drive from Baldwin, FL to La Quinta Airport East in Miami
We left Baldwin and passed through Jacksonville just a little after rush hour and had no traffic issues there, or anywhere further south until we got to West Palm Beach. This was an easy drive all the way down the coast with just a couple of areas of construction. It's weird cruising along on I-95 and passing numerous cities whose names are pretty famous -- St. Augustine, Hobe Sound, etc. -- but making good time and zipping through at around 75-80 mph.
We encountered the first hints of traffic at West Palm Beach, but even so traffic kept moving fairly okay even into Miami, which we had reached before rush hour. Sadly that ended after we got within a mile of the hotel on the Airport Expressway, and in stop-and-go traffic on the Airport Expressway, it took us about 20 minutes to traverse that final, fateful half-mile.
..and then the real problems began.
The LQ Airport East is tricky to get to, especially via GPS. We drove in circles around it trying to get there. I think the GPS actually had the route correct, but since it can't suggest driveways or alleys or unofficial streets, it became a nightmare. Having been there before, I knew we were tantalizingly close but couldn't determine exactly how to get there using street-view. Finally I parked at the entrance to an Embassy Suites and called the hotel for guidance. "You're right near here -- we're right behind the Embassy Suites and the Red Roof Inn!" she told me. At about that moment I happened to tap the GPS map display and it switched to an overhead view and I instantly recognized where we were from looking at regular maps before the trip. "Ma'am, we're on the way!"
We were there -- finally -- about two minutes later, after over an hour's delay.
Sitting outside the hotel were two active members of our CruiseCritic Roll Call, Michael and Kim Justice, and they recognized me from my long hair the moment we rolled in. "You must be Paul! Good to see you!"
After THAT hell-ride, it was just the kind of greeting we needed and it really helped lift up our day!
By the time we got to the hotel, we had missed out on signing up for the first shuttle to the Port of Miami, which runs at 10am, but we got on the second one, which runs at 11. Mike and Kim were also on that shuttle, while others from our Roll Call had made the 10am shuttle. It was like a scene from the TV show The Amazing Race: "All teams must now make their way to the Port of Miami, but only the first five teams will get the first shuttle -- and a full hour's head-start!"
Having had a bad time with delivered food last January at the hotel, this time we opted to order from Pizza Hut (an easy decision to reach, since our hotel room-keys had their number on them ). I couldn't remember the name of the place we had ordered from before, and I really wish I had, because two other groups from our roll call ordered from them and had bad experiences. I could have warned people away. Oh, well.... (The place is called Franco's. Future travellers, ye hath been warned.)
A bit later in the evening I met three of the four members of the Allen family, members of our roll call who had driven down from Virginia. Glenn, the dad, had suffered a brain aneurysm the week before and was going to have to miss the cruise...but at the last moment he decided to fly down and join up all the next morning! Pretty gutsy and it worked out with no complications, but the Allens' trials and tribulations for the cruise were just starting.....
We went to bed kinda early, mindful of the morning shuttle. Tomorrow was embarkation day!
(to be continued, hopefully with pics inserted )
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