Cruising With Carnival

Posted: March 2, 2014 in The Roper Files
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The last month or so has been a hectic one for me; I got married on February 14th and two of my wife’s children (ages 21 and 30 respectively) flew down from their native Canada to visit for three weeks. Most people wouldn’t care much for having their spouse’s kids joy-riding along on the honeymoon and I’m sure I’d feel the same way if they weren’t such good kids. Not once in my life have I had a single desire to be a father, but I actually enjoyed not only having the kids around but showing them around Texas and playing Tour Guide.

Besides dragging them to the usual tourist attractions, we took them to a cross-section of our local restaurants, museums, our favorite stores and a very tiring day at the local zoo. But the icing on the cake for their visit was taking them along on a Carnival Cruise.

Now my S.O and myself had done this twice prior the first time being in December of 2012 on the Carnival Magic and then again last September on the Carnival Triumph, so we pretty much considered ourselves veterans of the Carnival experience. Neither of her kids had ever been, so they were in for a treat. Packing and preparing for these trips is always a bugger; getting the oil changed on the car, stopping the mail, the paper, conning a neighbor into feeding the cat and of course packing the bags. I always forget something or pack something that turns out to be unnecessary and since we had two extra passengers these lists had to be checked and double-checked. As the time of departure approached I could feel my blood pressure rising with the added stress of the responsibility of having two young adults “on my watch”.

We left pre-dawn on a Sunday morning stopping for breakfast at a local Cracker Barrel and after stopping one more time to top off my gas tank and coffee mug at a Loves truck stop we came to a sudden realization that it had taken us nearly three hours to get as far as Waco and that we had a whopping three hours to get to the Gulf Coast. “No Problem” I told my fellow passengers; we had a full tank of gas and I had a full 32oz cup of coffee. We took Rt 6 out of Waco to I45 ( a route my brother had recommended) with my foot to the floor slowing down only when cruising through small rural towns that tended to have a ticket-happy sheriff or deputy working their radar guns. Then fate decided to deal us a lucky card.

Carnival posted an online warning that because of an on-board medical emergency they had to delay disembarking that day in Galveston and were forced to delay letting anyone on-board the ship until “further announcement” So we had some extra time to get there and didn’t have to break land-speed records to get to Galveston; we took time to stop and let the kids look around Buc-eees, the WalMart of tourist traps although to give credit where credit is due they have much nicer restrooms.

From there we drove through the massive highway systems of Houston which gave way to the much more wide-open spaces surrounding Galveston. Galveston by the way still has a lot of areas that show evidence of the the destruction of Hurricane Ike way back in 2008; houses with portions of roofs gone, collapsed porches and boarded-up windows etc.

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The city was virtually underwater at one point and many home-owners simply left town and never came back. The city has bulldozed some blocks of houses out of existence, especially the ones on the main arteries but if you explore the neighborhoods you can still see many tell-tale signs of Hurricane Ike. I steered the car towards the dock where the monolithic profile of the Carnival Magic was now docked and pulled into the terminal.

The entire process of getting on the ship is a noisy and chaotic one at best; I certainly don’t recommend it for those with high blood pressure. First you pull into a long stop-and-go line of cars, trucks and SUVs in front of a loading/unloading dock and once you ease into a place to stop you have to flag down a porter and unload your suitcases and bags as impatient drivers behind you honk and make indecent gestures for you to “hurry up”. Then you have to go park your vehicle at one of the designated parking areas which are conveniently located several blocks away, then you are herded onto a bus or van and brought back to the terminal and on a good day stand in a long winding line that slowly leads to a security area similar to the ones you see at the airport these days complete with metal detectors and those friendly Homeland Security personnel we’ve all come to know and love since 9/11.

As we shuffled closer and closer to the metal detectors like so many cattle off to slaughter, I suddenly realized I had a knife on me that my late father had given me a full 30+ years ago; I took it off my belt and rolled it up inside a wind-breaker inside the back-pack I was carrying and hoped for the best as we went through the line. Since they were running hours and hours behind schedule, security was rushed and if they saw my knife on the x-ray machine, nothing was said about it. Once we made it through that hoop, we had the arduous hurdle of the actual check-in process to endure. At the check-in desk they examine your passports or show your drivers license and then they want to see a valid credit card and issue everyone a bar-coded “cruise card” which you have to have to get on or off the ship and on which they bill you for your drinks etc.

My wife had a valid passport but the last time she flew here from Canada she checked in at a self-serve kiosk at the Vancouver airport; the Customs people there waved her through the line but didn’t bother to stamp her passport. The clerk at the check-in counter arched his eyebrows and disappeared for a really long time with her passport (“I’ve got to go ask my supervisor about this”) which made cause for some momentary panic but finally he reappeared and issued all four of us our cards. Another hoop leaped through; now we had to climb through a steep series of winding ramps onto the ship that always remind me of those plastic tubes in hamster cages and FINALLY we were on board the Carnival Magic.

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The initial lobby area is a glitzy affair; lots of polished brass, marble and lights to stimulate the senses that is just as lavish as the inside of any Las Vegas casino. Loud bass-heavy thumping dance music assails the ears just to make sure you are excited to finally make your way on board the ship. There are no less than eleven floors to the Carnival Magic and usually the elevators aren’t functioning because of the crew loading the suitcases to the rooms. Fortunately for us our cabins were only a couple of flights down the stairs from the lobby.

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We always pay extra for cabins on the outside of the ship; the rooms are tiny and cramped and the balcony at least gives you fresh air and visible sunshine from outside. Personally I enjoy being on boats; I never get sea-sick even when the weather is rough and I enjoy drinking coffee, writing in my diary and staring out at the open water.

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Which brings me to another point: tea and coffee are free on Carnival. But one of the ways they make money are for drinks that are addictive. Some of my co-workers at my menial job I have never seen without a Coke or at best a Diet Coke in their hands. You can go into most grocery stores and get a 12-pack of them for about $4. Carnival charges about $2.50 or $3 for soft drinks and double that for bar drinks, even non-alcoholic ones. If you can’t live a week without a Coke or a Dr Pepper, I advise bringing all you can carry with you when you board the ship. Carnival however does NOT allow you to bring your own alcohol; they want to sell you drinks at their prices just like the Cokes. Fortunately for me I can get by just fine drinking coffee and tea for a week.

The food on the cruises is basically paid for with your ticket. They serve it cafeteria-style and unless you get stuck in line behind some really doddering senior citizen, the line moves fairly quick unless you make the mistake of getting in the longest and slowest-moving line in the dining room, the one for the Mongolian Wok. The Mongolian Wok is possibly everyone’s favorite on the cruises, the line for it is always long and doesn’t move particularly fast mainly because they only have one cook slaving away over three woks simultaneously but the pay-off is a bowl of freshly-cooked vegetables and meat if you have the patience to endure the wait. I’ve learned to get in line when I see them setting it up. The food in the regular line is okay and perfectly edible and whatever you do don’t fall for getting dressed up for their formal dining room. They serve the same exact food and the regular dining room often contains several seriously over-dressed diners who saw the line leading up to the formal dining room and said Forget It.

And then there’s the ice cream. They have ice cream machines that squirt out chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream for free 24/7. That’s right; you can get up at two in the morning and go get yourself an ice cream cone and I eat more ice cream on the cruises than I do the rest of the year. Can’t help myself; I just morph into Homer Simpson when I walk past the machine: “Ooooh … ice cream!”

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The immense ship has no shortage of activities for passengers who aren’t content with looking out their cabins at the rolling ocean waves. There is a gym, a spa, a miniature golf course, a casino and a giant waterpark on the top deck for the kids. At night the activities really get going: musical song-and-dance productions in their theater, a comedy club that features both “family-friendly” and “adults only” shows (this must be some sort of training exercise for up-and-coming comedians) and on the upper deck they have a giant JumboTron screen where movies are shown (“Dive-In Movies”; get it?) and of course servers are everywhere with trays full of $6-a-pop drinks. As I was watching some drunken doofus with a cowboy hat wearing a Speedo dancing by the swimming pool with a drink in each hand one day I couldn’t help but think of a line from Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas: “And someone was giving alcohol to these goddam things!”

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Of course the excursions are one of the main reasons to go on a Carnival cruise although you pay extra for those. You can go horseback riding, swim with dolphins, explore Mayan ruins, snorkel or scuba dive and many more activities when the ship docks at any of the many destination ports. Two words of advice from someone who’s done this. First : plastic water bottles are re-usable. Take some with you on -board and don’t throw them away. When you check in you will find bottled water in your cabin but like the beer, cokes and mini-liquor bottles in the “mini-bar” fridge you will be billed for them if you drink them. Take your own and save a little money. You can fill them up with ice cubes and water from the dispensers in the dining room before you get off the ship. I noticed in places like Jamaica and Cozumel (that are as humid in December as Texas is in July) that they would charge Gentlemens Club-prices for bottled water.

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Second: consult with a travel agent and hire an actual driver (not a taxi cab) to drive you around. In Jamaica for example they drive on the opposite side of the road and if that isn’t enough to mess you up, a driver will know the area, you won’t. And in places like Mexico do you really want to have to deal directly with the numerous (and sometimes very questionable) police check-points? Trust me a hired driver will cost you $100 or so for a day but is worth it in the long run. In Jamaica we have twice hired a “Mr Kool” who sped us directly to where-ever we wanted to go (as opposed to his family’s souvenir stand which most of the cab drivers tend to do) and went the extra mile to take us to places that were safe and kept a close watchful eye out for us every minute we weren’t in his air-conditioned van.

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The crews who work on the Carnival cruises by the way are some of the hardest-working people you will ever see in your life. The stewards who cleaned our rooms knew our names (half the people I work with at my job are “Hey You” ) and if I asked for something I didn’t have to ask twice. Sometimes I would get up pre-dawn and go to the dining hall for a cup of coffee and even at five in the morning people are everywhere working vacuum cleaners, wiping down the brass and chrome, picking up after slovenly passengers, mopping, sweeping etc. Tip anyone you deal with directly and tell the clerks at the service desk to remove the “gratuities charge” from your bill; you will save almost $100 a head if you do. But tip the person that brings you room service food, the server that brings you drinks and the guy that cleans your room; those people work hard.

One of the few complaints I have about Carnival is Internet service; you pay by the minute for Internet that is slower than the slowest dial-up on earth. Now mind you if you can live for a week without “tweeting” on Twitter, updating your Facebook page or sending or reading your e-mail, this shouldn’t be a problem but if you want Internet access you buy a “package” or pay 75 cents a minute to do any of this. The first time we went on the Magic it was $99 for unlimited Internet; on the Triumph it was $160 for 240 minutes and half of it got wasted for the lengthy time it took to log on or off of it. After repeated trips to the service desk to complain about it, they gave us another 240 minutes I think just to get me out of their face and shut me up. On our third trip they were total hard-asses and refused to budge on giving us a single free minute (“Sorry I’m not authorized to do that”)

My point is I suppose that Carnival is a multi-billion dollar corporation; I can go into any McDonalds anywhere in the US, order a $1 cup of coffee and get free wi-fi. Starbucks has it. Whataburger has it. Even the two-bit oil change place I use has free wi-fi; so does the privately-owned laundrymat I use. But on a Carnival ship our I-Phones are useless; I don’t know how the hell family members are supposed to stay in touch with each other and it’s easy to get separated on those massive ships in the blink of an eye. Granted a vacation shouldn’t consist of the kids bent over the laptop playing Fappy Birds but on the other hand I don’t think it’s fair that our cellphones are suddenly rendered useless if family members need to know where each other are.

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But all in all a week on a Carnival ship goes quickly. I wish the disembarking part of it ( the boarding process I described early only in reverse only with a services bill attached) flew by that fast. You get back to the hot car, hope it starts after sitting idle for a week, drive back to the terminal, sit in stop-and-go traffic to get your bags and speed off back to your home and menial job wondering where that week went. I came back from the last trip mentally, physically and financially exhausted and thinking that while the sailing and snorkeling etc was fun, I could use another vacation to recuperate from this vacation.

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