Sensation Eastern Caribbean Cruise May 31, 1997
The Goal:My wife and I were looking for something special to do to celebrate our 25th anniversary and a cruise seemed to be the perfect answer. We were both cruise neophytes, however spending time surfing the net and speaking with cruise specialists closed the gaps in our ignorance rapidly. As St. Thomas was an objective, an Eastern Caribbean cruise on Carnival's Sensation was the way to achieve it.
The Plans:We didn't book our cruise until May 8th for a May 31 departure out of Miami. We got a Category 9 outside cabin on the Empress Deck. We booked our own airfare to Ft. Lauderdale and ground transportation to the docks in Miami through Carnival.
Embarkation:Our flight got us into Ft. Lauderdale around 9:45 am and after gathering up our luggage we had a little wait for the buses to take us to the docks. It turns out that the Carnival people arrive around 10:45 and the buses start shuttling you around 11:00. There were about a dozen and a half other folks also standing around in the baggage area waiting so we started meeting people and passing time...people were in a party mood. The ride to the Miami Docks from the Ft. Lauderdale airport was about 30 to 40 minutes and very comfortable. These are full size, air-conditioned Grey Line Buses.
Upon arriving at the docks, based upon the tag on your luggage identifying your ship your bags get moved to a metal holding crate. You will meet up with your bags much later in your room aboard the ship. You continue on into the building marked with your ship's name and it is in there you show your tickets, show proof of citizenship and establish your credit line (Sail and Sign Card) aboard the ship.
The process for us was very slick and fast moving. We were through the process and on board in 20 minutes. When attempting to board the ship this will be one of hundreds of times Carnival will try to burn out the corneas of your eyes with flash photography...grin and bear it !
The Room:Our room was easy to find as it was on the same level you enter the ship on which is the Empress Deck. The room was bright, modern and larger than I expected. We had 2 portholes as opposed to windows, but they were large and let in a lot of light. There was a bureau with drawers and a mirror over it and on the bureau were 2 imprinted 'Sail and Sign' cards with my wife's and my name on them. You use these for anything you buy on the ship. Excursions, drinks, gift shop all use the Sail and Sign card. The only place they take cash money is in the casino.
In the cabin there are 2 closet doors, on one side it has shelves and the other side has a clothes rod, and an open area also to hang clothes, with some hangars in them. On one side of the closet is a built in safe which you open and close with a swipe of your credit card (No charge for its use). There is a bathroom with a toilet, sink and shower stall. Again I was surprised that the water pressure was strong and the hot water was plentiful and hot. There is also a TV mounted to the wall in the room which had ship channels that showed previous days activities, casino lessons, as well as two recently released movies that alternate every 2 hours and are changed daily.
While on the subject of the room I need to mention our room steward. A friendly helpful Jamaican named Peter Dixon. It would be enough to say he kept the room beautiful but he did so much more. A ready smile, a constant joke, lots of useful information. Not everyone we met on the cruise even knew what their room steward looked like, however no one had a complaint on how their room was kept.
The Ship:WOW ! It boggles the mind. A large 7 story atrium with glass elevators that take you to a myriad of choices in fun and entertainment. Swimming pools with a water slide, Jacuzzi, spa, beauty shop, health club, casino, restaurants, Vegas style shows, lounges, piano bar and even a library (if you're so inclined). It's glitzy, colorful and kept sparkling clean, which is no small chore. Discovering the ship is a lot of fun (and exercise). My wife complained that I never went to the spa or the health club. I saw the signs and I know they were there, anyway there are corners of the casino she can never hope to know.
Dining:The ship has 2 seatings, early and late, in 2 dining rooms. We were in the Fantasy Dining room for our meals. We had opted for the early seating and we were put with two other couples at a booth that held six. Each menu had a vegetarian and a 'Heart Healthy' choice to select from. The menus changed daily. The dinner menu followed a different theme every night (ie.Italian, Oriental, etc). Three of the nights the waiters and busboys entertained us and two of the nights we dressed up for a formal evening. We ate the majority of our lunches and dinners in the dining room, but did our breakfast generally at the SeaView Grille.
Now the important part ...how was the food ? I thought the food was very good and beautifully presented. Appetizer, soup, salad, pasta, entree and dessert, with multiple selections in each category were available daily, plus a kids section for the little ones. My wife is more picky than I and she loved her meals. I'm legendary for eating almost anything but that's part of my charm. On Thursday afternoon they offer a tour of the galley and it's pretty impressive.
One night they will have their Gala Grand Buffet. Prior to the buffet they allow you to pass through and take pictures and you'll want to do this. Words can't express the artistry that goes into this event. Quite honestly it was extraordinary to see.
I mentioned briefly the SeaView Grille. It is located at the back of the ship on the Lido Deck. It has casual dining both indoors and outside, serving a breakfast buffet from 7:00 - 10:30am daily as well as lengthy lunch and dinner buffets. At the furthest point in the back of the grille in the morning they make custom omelets and also run a 24 hour pizzeria. I haven't mentioned the nightly midnight buffet and the 1:30am crepe buffet but I think your getting the picture. (Travel hint-Bring a shoehorn with you to help you get your backside into your airline seat on the way home.)
The Entertainment:Frankly there was a lot of entertainment to choose from. The cruise director Art Whitlock seems very suited for his role. He was very humorous and kept you plugged into what was happening. Each night you get a 'Carnival Capers' delivered to your room describing your choices for the next day...you can't do it all. As you would suspect there was the usual outdoor stuff like ping pong, shuffleboard, a pool with water slide. But also there were pillow fights, hairy chest contests and other deck games supplemented by steel drum music in the background.
In the evening there were many lounges to choose from providing music from different groups who played country western, oldies, ballads etc. Each lounge would draw its own very different crowd. The cruisers in their 20's and 30's seemed to end up at the Kaleidoscope Lounge which rocked till 3am with lots of activity and contests. Those of us not in that age group looked in wonder and sought out easy listening...which could be found.
In the Fantasy Lounge major entertainment was provided by Vegas like acts. Singers, dancers, stand up comics and an illusionist all were on our cruise and we enjoyed it all. Of special note was a talent show put on by fellow cruisers.
The Casino:Predominantly slot machines from 5 cents to 5 dollars with the bulk of the slots in the 25 cent category. Blackjack, Caribbean poker, let it ride, roulette and a craps table. There were blackjack and slots tournaments on several days. The casino opened daily at noon with the tables opening a little later and stayed open till 3am. Generally this was a popular hangout I would presume by people not trying to sunburn themselves such as myself.
The Ports:You hit San Juan about dinner time so daylight is limited. Almost everyone felt that they could have skipped San Juan altogether and given more time in St. Thomas. Where the ship comes into San Juan it is old, run down and a little ominous. They direct you to what areas to stay out of but even when you go where you are directed it feels uncomfortable at night. If you were there for a day there seems like there are many things to see and do, but at night I can live without it.
St. Thomas on the other hand was a full day and we could have used more. We took the excursion to St.John's and Trunk Bay and it is gorgeous! We got rained on a little but it didn't spoil the fun. The seven bays of St. John are spectacular. The remainder of the time my wife shopped and I carried bags, paid for stuff and I didn't have any opinions (at least none that counted). We took a taxi downtown to shop ($2.50) and found lots of shops, friendly people, bargains galore and had a great time (at least that was what I was told).
The next day we arrived at St. Maarten. There isn't a dock for our ship so tenders (water taxis) shuttle you from the ship to the shore. We took an island tour that picked us up on the Dutch side at the docks in a bus and drove around the Dutch and French side of the island stopping several times for additional shopping experiences. When it returned to the docks we were able to walk around on our own on the Dutch side again for more shopping until we were ready to take the tender back to the ship.
St. Maarten is still pretty beat up from the hurricane they had in '95 as evidenced in the countryside. The resorts are back in operation as are many of the tourist oriented businesses. Also opened up by the docks is a small island casino with a small bar. This became our meeting spot prior to returning to the ship (Thank you St. Maarten !)
The People:Carnival makes it clear that they will do everything in their power to make this your best experience ever. I believe them. I already mentioned our room steward Peter. He would tidy up after every time we left the room, such as rolling up the cord on my wife's hair dryer, fresh towels, keep the ice bucket full, turn down service at night, etc.
Our waiter (Roderick) and busboy were personable, engaging and efficient. Their days and hours are incredibly long but their attitudes never faltered.
The Carnival Cruise Director and supporting staff were everywhere running contests and keeping things hopping. It's hard not to have a good time when everyone you run into wants to do things for you and keep you happy....they succeeded.
Debarkation:Here is where a little patience will go a long way. It's a tough process at best. Your luggage has to be outside your cabin door by 1am on the night prior to arriving in Miami and they whisk it away. Presumably you have kept clothes for the next day and have filled out all your customs information. Breakfast is at 6:30am and out of your room by 8:45am into one of the many lounges waiting for your luggage tag color to be called so you can leave the ship. Eyes are bleary, smiles are limited and senses of humor are at an all time low. We got out about 10:45 found our luggage which had already been screened by custom's drug dogs and back on the bus to the Ft. Lauderdale airport arriving about 12:20 at the terminal...and we were one of the first out. Flights before 2pm and flights out of Ft. Lauderdale seem to get off first.
Was there a Downside:There were some things that I would guard against in the future. Carnival has found lots of creative ways to turn a buck on this cruise. One practice is to offer you a welcoming drink when you first get on board. What sounds like a complimentary drink actually provides you your first opportunity to try out your Sign and Sail card ($5.75 in a Carnival tall plastic glass). Most drinks in a Carnival glass are $5.75 but are $2.50 in a returnable glass.
The cruise director holds a meeting in the Fantasy Lounge prior to your ports of call giving you information on the ports and Carnival's recommendation on good places to shop. It is my opinion that there is a business arrangement between these shops and Carnival. The prices and selections were no better and in some instances worse than what you would find on your own so take these recommendations with a grain of salt and use your own judgement. On more than one occasion an informative meeting sounded surprisingly like an infomercial. Nothing malicious on Carnival's part but you're a captive audience and they have stuff they know you want.
On Balance:Even with the couple of items I have just mentioned on the downside, what a terrific week. I felt we achieved what we had set out to do and although not a cheap week, a good value. We will definitely cruise again and perhaps try a different carrier for comparison. The Sensation is a fine fun ship and the people of Carnival did their part to make our week in the Caribbean really memorable. I hope these observations help you in some way enjoy your week as much as we did ours.
If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please