When I heard Carnival Cruise Lines would begin sailing year-round from Baltimore, I was not excited. I was glad that it meant more jobs and a boost to Maryland's economy, but a Carnival cruise wasn't going to be part of my vacation plans.
You see, Carnival and I parted company years ago after I took a disappointing cruise from Miami. The food was unappetizing, the passengers unruly and the ship unremarkable. It seemed most of the guests brought booze while I brought my mother. Mom and I haven't cruised together since.
But cruising has become such a growth industry for Maryland, mostly because home ports -- places where travelers can hop on a cruise ship without ever getting on a plane -- have been so successful. With a couple of ships newly arriving to the port of Baltimore this year, and with Carnival being the largest, I decided I needed to give it a second chance.
I'm glad I did. After my seven-day trip to the Caribbean aboard the Carnival Pride earlier this month, I'm convinced another family cruise aboard Carnival is in our future.
Whatever the Miami-based cruise line has done to transform itself over the past 10 years or so, it has got it right. Our cruise was an effortless, entertaining, epicurean experience that I found as delightful as it was surprising. Now that doesn't mean it was perfect -- there's still a lot of booze flowing -- but it was pretty close.
After all, Carnival bills itself as the "Fun Ship" for a reason: People have a good time -- sometimes, a little too good. But here's the thing: You can make your Carnival cruise what you want -- a floating party zone or a quiet, drifting oasis.
If you love socializing, you can join a group electric slide or karaoke night. If you're single and looking to mingle, you can rule the pool deck or the dance club. If you want family time, take the kids to play miniature golf on the sports deck or drop them off at Camp Carnival while you drop yourself off at the spa.
The point is to make the cruise your own, even though you're not on your own.
My husband, Todd, and I embarked on our cruise on a sunny Saturday afternoon. The boarding process, although efficient, was a trifle long, but soon enough we were on the top deck, sailing under the Key Bridge and watching Baltimore slip into the horizon.
The Carnival Pride is a beautiful, ornately designed ship. They call it Beaux Arts, but it's really an amalgam of several different styles, including Renaissance and Art Deco. If you prefer understated and bland, you're on the wrong boat. But if you like to see interesting scenes around every corner, you'll love it.
The staterooms are spacious -- some of the largest standard cabins at sea. This is where you'll find your classic decor, but the bathroom is turquoise and royal blue, so it's not exactly neutral. Our stateroom had a balcony that provided lovely sunset views and relaxing ocean sounds. We often propped the door open at night and let the music of the waves lull us to sleep.
Despite carrying more than 2,500 passengers, the Carnival Pride feels amazingly uncrowded and even a bit cozy. The ship has 12 decks with multiple public spaces -- some hidden -- for peaceful moments. The Secret Garden, an area of cafe tables for two with large sea-view windows, is so secret that it mostly remained empty. The atrium bar was well-attended, but there was almost always an open seat or two. The card room and Internet cafe we had entirely to ourselves on a number of occasions. We rarely encountered a single person in the hallways where our room was located, other than Benjamin, the cabin steward, who seemed to be within earshot 24/7.
There are exceptions, of course. The dining area at the Mermaid Grille on the Lido deck is one of them. If you have a need to be with people, hit the buffet around noon and you'll be among lots of friends. Ditto for the sun deck and pool area. On our second day at sea, we headed out to get some sun after a late breakfast and encountered a teeming wave of humanity. Still, we were able to drag our lounge chairs to a somewhat quiet corner. The next day, which was a bit more cloudy, we hit the deck an hour earlier and wondered where everyone had gone.
THE FOOD AND ENTERTAINMENT
The dining experience is often what sets apart a mediocre cruise from an exceptional one. Up until late last year, Carnival was working with renowned French chef Georges Blanc to train its chefs and create menu items for its dining rooms, including David's, a reservations-only supper club. Even though Blanc has moved on, those efforts showed in the ship's gourmet dinner selections. Most meals are four- or five-course affairs with just-right portion sizes. Overall, the quality of food was excellent, from the lunch buffets to the supper club to the sushi cart.
Unlike some ships, the Carnival Pride has only one main dining room, the Normandie Restaurant, which seats up to 1,250 diners. With that many people talking, laughing and lifting their forks, it can get a bit noisy. Besides the main dining room, a lunch buffet is served on the Lido deck, featuring a different international cuisine each day, as well as hand-carved meats, Asian-inspired specialties, deli-style sandwiches, pizza, salad bar and a grill for burgers, hot dogs and fries.
In the Normandie, our dinner options included "Spa Carnival Fare," dishes lower in fat, sodium, cholesterol and calories. As with most cruises, diners can order multiple salads, entrees, desserts or whatever. For example, you can have the pork tenderloin and the flat iron steak. Or both the baked Alaska and the warm chocolate melting cake. This is fine, but judging by the amount of food that I saw being cleared untouched - or merely sampled - from tables, I'm surprised cruise lines haven't come up with a small plates solution. Perhaps there's a "tasting" plate offering that would allow a diner to chose up to three entree options in tiny portions.
Our absolute favorite meal was enjoyed at David's. The tables are intimate and the service impeccable. If you're looking for a quiet, elegant dinner, this is the place to be. The cost is reasonable enough -- $30 per person -- to consider dining here multiple nights, but make advance reservations online since the restaurant gets booked up most days. David's is like a Ruth's Chris at sea. It specializes in steakhouse cuisine, including hand-cut, dry-aged prime beef, seafood and specialty wines served in a leisurely five-|or six-course meal that takes a couple of hours. The chef started us off with an amuse bouche and ended with a progressive chocolate tasting. Our Caesar salad was mixed tableside and my filet was tender as butter -- it was a meal that would be hard to improve upon. But one patron was somewhat irked by the lack of Heinz 57 sauce. The restaurant offers three delicious chef-prepared sauces -- why ask for anything else?
After dinner, many passengers headed for the casino, a stage show or a lounge. The Carnival Pride has 16 lounges and bars all on the same deck, spread from one end of the ship to another. Those looking for entertainment can simply float from the Butterflies cabaret lounge to the Perfect Game sports bar to the Starry Night karaoke party. Stage shows -- mostly song and dance numbers -- take place at the Taj Mahal, a large theater that holds more than 1,100 people. But it never seemed crowded, except for the one night when the hypnotist performed -- that's a show you shouldn't miss. For quiet evenings, the Ivory Piano Bar is romantic and relaxing.
For someone who is not a gambler, the slots and casino seemed more than adequate, if a little smoky. Getting a seat at a slot machine or the roulette table wasn't hard to do. The slots are cashless -- you play them using your room key. There's danger to that in more ways than one. What's important to remember is to cash out when you leave your slot machine. I forgot to do that once and someone claimed my machine and played with my money. I can't say how the odds are -- I generally lost money, but I heard that someone won more than $3,000 playing slots on our cruise. Lucky devil.
THE PORT CALLS
While our port calls were Grand Turk, Half Moon Cay and Nassau, Bahamas, Carnival sails to a variety of destinations from Baltimore. Each of the stops provided a wide selection of shore excursions, from snorkeling to biking to parasailing. Excursion prices vary by port, ranging from $19 per person for a nature walk to $200 for deep-sea fishing. We didn't take any excursions because our budget was limited and because we enjoy striking out on our own.
In Grand Turk, we rented a car for $60. We were warned by the cruise director that there wasn't a lot to see on Grand Turk -- and he was mostly right. Still, we had fun driving on the opposite side of the road and exploring the nooks and crannies of this very different landscape. We visited a church, discovered a store called Todds (my husband's name), shared the narrow streets with donkeys and golf carts and got lost on the way to Conch World before getting an escort from a friendly local. All for about $10 less than the least expensive excursion would have cost for the two of us.
If you aren't adventurous, you should definitely take an excursion at Grand Turk, since the beach is rocky and not the best for snorkeling. Another option -- if you're happy in a crowd -- is joining the huge pool party at Margaritaville. The Jimmy Buffett restaurant is the centerpiece of the Grand Turk Cruise Center.
Our next stop, Half Moon Cay, revealed a beach with white sand and teal blue water -- so beautiful that you won't want to leave. The excursions here include parasailing and a glass bottom boat ride, but the beach is the main attraction. It's also super hot with little shade, so bring the best sunscreen you've got.
The Nassau port call was the shortest of all, but some Carnival Pride cruises have longer stays in the Bahamas. There are several excursions -- including a tour of the Atlantis resort, a huge property that's overwhelming in size and scope. Still, the straw market and some downtown attractions are within walking distance of the port. Having visited Paradise Island, we were late returning to the ship and almost missed it -- a word to the wise, they will leave without you.
As we left the Bahamas and set course for Baltimore, we realized we were not ready to return home. We had enjoyed a week's worth of pampering and entertainment by a dedicated and friendly Carnival staff. It was going to be difficult to return to real life. But it was not going to be difficult to convince my mom to take a cruise next year.