John Heald, formerly head cruise director and now “brand ambassador” of Carnival Cruise Lines, is (in my opinion) one of the top five reasons for Carnival’s popularity. John is, to put it mildly, “a character.” Unlike the other major cruise lines, Carnival has a face and a personality and it’s John’s.
John has been blogging about all things Carnival since 2007 and for the past ten years, has been sailing on an annual “Bloggers Cruise” – which, contrary to the name, is open to any of his fans (who are not necessarily bloggers, although a few of us are). This event is part of a regularly scheduled Carnival cruise (traditionally a 7 day sailing) that anyone can book, but the special blogger events are limited to a few hundred people. Registration is on a first come, first serve basis and usually fills up within a day or two.
In 2016 and 2017, John experimented with doing two BCs per year – one from the east coast and one from the west. Last year’s BC9 West was from Long Beach to the Mexican Riviera and this year’s (dubbed BC10 Cool) will be from Seattle to Alaska.
This year’s first Blogger Cruise – BC10 “Hot” – was held on the February 4-11 sailing of the Carnival Glory to the eastern Caribbean from Miami. I was once again lucky (or quick) enough to get a slot for the blogger activities and this is my review of that cruise.
Counting down the days
I had a Facebook group that I’d created for BC9, and continued it for this year’s cruise although many of the friends who had joined us on that one decided they had “been there, done that” and weren’t interested in doing another BC. However, there was another contingent that was eager to get back together again, who really enjoyed the blogger activities, and who immediately booked this year’s BC as soon as its info was released.
We also picked up plenty of new members along the way, and interacted with various other groups (for the BCs, there are always several, made up of people who have sailed together and gotten to know each other on Bloggers and other cruises over the years).
Since so many of us booked immediately after BC9, we had almost a whole year to prepare for and count down to the cruise, and get to know each other better through our Facebook discussions. We who had been on BCs before shared our experiences with the newbies, and we planned a “meet and greet” on the first day on board, coordinated excursions, etc.
When we got to the “double digit dance” – with fewer than 100 days left before sailing – I started posting daily countdown graphics that I enjoy creating for most of my cruises. And by the time we reached single digit day, we were all more than ready to get the show on the road.
Changes of Plans
When you plan this far ahead, you have to expect changes. Some of the folks who were originally booked on the cruise had to cancel, and we also had a few who booked at the last moment.
I had a few changes of my own. Originally my husband was booked to go with me, but a few months prior, he found out he had to be in Seattle that week to give a presentation for a Microsoft event. That left me with two choices: let him be a “no show” and sail solo – something I’ve done before – or switch out his reservation for another roommate.
I’m a big fan of going it alone, as I discussed in a previous article, titled (appropriately enough) Going Solo. However, this time I had another idea. I’d had an absolutely wonderful time in October, sailing in the Mediterranean on the Vista with my daughter. She was in the Navy for twenty years and just retired, and getting to spend so much time with her was a luxury since for two decades I’d seen her for only a few days at a time once or twice a year (on good years). So I decided to invite her to come along.
I wasn’t really hopeful that she’d be able to make it, since she had a lot going on in her life as she transitioned from the military to civilian world, but to my surprise and delight, she was able to work it out. As if I weren’t already looking forward to it enough, that doubled my excitement.
Making it to Miami
Most of us were flying into Miami or Fort Lauderdale at least one day early. In February, it’s always wise to give yourself some cushion, because even though the weather in south Florida might be great, flights can be delayed by winter storms in other parts of the country. In fact, we had some people on the cruise who had a bit of a scare, stuck in airports up north and not knowing whether they would miss the boat. Luckily, none of my friends did.
My own flight went smoothly. I was there early and spent a little time in the Admiral’s Club lounge at DFW, where there was plenty of coffee to bring me to a semi-conscious state after only three hours of sleep the night before.
AA flight 19 turned out to be a big girl – a 767 with a 2/3/2 seat configuration. I was originally in 38B but when I checked in, was able to move ten rows forward to 28B. The guy who shared my little row was not large, and fell asleep almost immediately, so no problems there.
There were a couple of babies on board who were apparently not pleased with the flying experience, but my headphones helped. The plane didn’t have wi-fi (what’s up with that? I thought all of AA’s domestic flights had it by now) so I read my ebook and did a little writing. It’s a quick flight – around three hours – so I hadn’t felt it was worth it to spend miles on first class, and I’m glad I made that choice.
We arrived around 12:45 pm and I quickly got my bag, got a cab, and the ride to the hotel took around 20 minutes. When I checked in at the Holiday Inn, Port of Miami, I realized I had forgotten to change my reservation to a room with two beds when Kniki decided to come with me.Oops.
The nice lady at the desk (Florence), after hearing lament and learning that my daughter had just gotten out of the service after 20 years, said she didn’t have any deluxe rooms with two beds – so she was upgrading us to a suite. At no extra cost. Sweet.
There was a large living area with a kitchenette that had sink, mini fridge, microwave and Keurig coffeemaker, and a large bedroom with a big desk and a dressing area, a walk-in closet and a pretty granite bathroom. As if that weren’t enough, we had a view of the cruise ships in the harbor from both the bedroom and living room windows.
The hotel is right across the street from Bayside, a big mall area that sits on the Harbor. Since Kniki’s flight wasn’t arriving until 6 pm, I walked across to check out the shops and restaurants, take some photos and enjoy the view.
By the time Kniki’s plane arrived, it was well into Friday night rush hour and it took her almost an hour to get to the hotel due to traffic. It was almost time for dinner, and I was looking forward to that because I was meeting my Carnival PVP (Personal Vacation Planner) for the first time, along with his lady friend.
Chow Time, Cuban Style
We got cleaned up and headed back over to Bayside, to a Cuban restaurant there called Mambo. By that time, it was dark. Guido wasn’t there yet, so we got a table and ordered drinks. He called to say they were stuck in traffic, but we weren’t pressed for time and it was fun to people watch. There was also live music.
Guido and Anna got there shortly and we ordered dinner, which was delicious. Kniki was brave enough to try the whole cooked fish, which stared at me woefully from her plate all evening.
It was great to finally meet Guido in person, after a couple of years of dealing with him on the phone. In my opinion, he deserves an award for all the help he’s given me with booking (and changing) cruises, getting the exact cabins I want (I’m picky), and getting me the best deals. Like 99% of the people I’ve dealt with who work for Carnival, he’s a shining example of good customer service in a world where it sometimes seems to have been forgotten.
We talked about all kinds of things and had a splendid time.
Walking back to the hotel after dinner, we got to see the port area all lit up and alive as the city welcomed the weekend, but I was just ready to welcome a good night’s sleep – and ready to get on the ship and get the cruise officially started.
When we passed a cigar shop, I wished Tom could have been with us. I think he would have enjoyed the views, the music and the ambiance at the port.
That night I was a little bit apprehensive that all the noise on the busy street outside would keep me awake (I usually have difficulty sleeping the first night in a new place anyway) and I really didn’t want to be coming off of two nights in a row of sleep deprivation for the first day of BC10.
I needn’t have worried. Thanks to my noise-cancelling headphones and my “Relax and Sleep” app on my phone, I didn’t hear a thing and I got a good night’s sleep, almost seven hours.
I was already missing my puppies and Tom, but I was also thrilled to be with Kniki again for a whole week, and looking forward to being reunited with some friends I hadn’t seen since BC9 a year ago and others I cruised with regularly, as well as meeting some new people I’d only gotten to know through the Facebook group page.
It was going to be a great cruise.
Zero Day: Glory, Glory
I woke up early on Saturday morning to the view of not one but two Carnival whale tails outside the window. The long countdown was complete and now it was time to turn all that anticipation in reality.
I had a 10:30 check-in time but with Platinum loyalty status, I could get there whenever I wanted. We decided to go over around 11:00 since boarding was scheduled to start at 12:00. The taxi ride to the port was quick and easy and there were porters outside to take my checked bag. Inside the terminal, it was a bit of a madhouse but the priority line moved quickly and soon we were sitting in the VIP lounge, waiting for boarding to start.
And waiting. And waiting. Finally someone came to release us and we were moving in mass toward the ship’s boarding area. It didn’t take long to get on board, but I was a little disappointed to see that Glory wasn’t using the new handheld scanning equipment they’d had on both Vista in October and on Freedom in December to scan the Sail & Sign cards; those had really seemed to speed up the process.
No matter. Soon we were in the cabin – an aft extended balcony on deck 7. Thanks to my Platinum status again, we could go directly to the stateroom and didn’t have to wait around with our luggage in the public areas to wait for it to be ready (“Membership has its privileges”).
The cabin was nice, but a little more cramped than I remembered from previous stays in the same cabin category on other class ships. Maybe I was just spoiled by all those grand scenic ocean views, suites and the family harbor cabin on Vista.
But Kniki was the one who was really spoiled. She had only sailed on cruise ships twice before, first on Breeze – which at that time was the newest and largest ship in the fleet – and then on Vista, which was even newer (and larger). The first thing she said after walking around the cabin and out on the balcony was “This ship is old.”
And yes it is, compared to the ships she’s been on. Glory was launched in 2003; she’s a 110,000 gross ton Conquest class ship with a passenger capacity of less than 3000. Vista, in contrast, is 133,500 GT and holds almost 4000 passengers.
I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: when evaluating a cruise, my priority isn’t the ship. Nor is it the itinerary or the activities. For me, it’s all about the people with whom I’m sailing and the good times we have together. It’s about making great memories, and you can do that on any ship, in any port, but not necessarily with just anybody. I already knew this was going to be a wonderful cruise because I had wonderful people all around me.
The highlight of this cabin is the balcony. It’s twice as deep and big as the typical balcony, and because it’s on the aft of the ship, you can see on both sides. This is an excellent location for Alaska cruises, but also a coveted one on sailaway day and when leaving the islands.
The only down side (I guess there always has to be a down side) is that it’s less private than a regular starboard or port side balcony. Because the decks slant backward, you can see the people below and those above can see you, plus the balcony walls are cut back diagonally for better views so if you stand out at the rail and so do your next-door neighbors, you can see each other.
It’s a small price to pay for those views.
After we got settled and I had unpacked my carry-on, it was time to venture out in search of something to fill our stomachs and the first food porn pictures to send to Tom, who lives each meal vicariously through my photos.
We had both enjoyed the Seafood Shack on Vista – a new dining venue that has also been retrofitted to some of the Conquest class ships (and was, in fact, on Freedom when Tom and I sailed her in December). Unlike the buffet, it wasn’t crowded – most people probably didn’t even know yet that it was there. It took a while for us to get someone’s attention since they all seemed to be in the back, cooking or cleaning, but finally we did and placed our orders.
I got my favorite, the excellent New England style clam chowder in a bread bowl, and Kniki went all out and ordered the big seafood platter that includes fried clams, calamari, shrimp, fish and chips and maybe something else that I’ve forgotten. It hit the spot.
Wish List Item: Although the Dream class ships aren’t my favorite, there’s one thing that I absolutely love about them – the conch fritters served by the Red Frog Pub. The retrofitted RFPs on other ships don’t have kitchens and thus don’t offer the finger food menu, but why can’t Carnival add conch to the menu of the Seafood Shack/Seafood Corner venue? If any “beards” (Carnival execs) are reading this, I hope they’ll give it consideration.
Being a Blogger: Friends of John H.
For those not familiar with the BC concept: This is a cruise that operates on several different levels at the same time. It’s a getaway to the Caribbean with family and/or close friends like any cruise. Anyone can book it. It’s a reunion cruise for groups who know each other through the Carnival cruising community (which, big as it is, is also pretty close-knit) and it’s an “event” (or series of events) led by John in which he is the star of the show.
Those of us who registered as official VIBs (Very Important Bloggers) had some “extras” waiting for us in our cabins when we boarded. These included our VIB badges (which we had to wear to get into restricted BC events and activities) and the schedule showing when those activities would take place throughout the cruise.
As you can see, the first BC activity was the opportunity to buy raffle tickets (benefiting St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital) for a chance to win dinner with John at the steakhouse or Chef’s Table, or a consolation prize of chocolate strawberries and Prosecco. I wasn’t interested in the last one (which I already get anyway for being Platinum) but I would enjoy either of the premium dining venues for free and I wanted to help the cause, so I bought a few tickets. As usual, I didn’t win – but that was fine; more about that later.
The next event was the big welcome party in the main theater at 5:00 p.m. I met up with some friends and even though we were there early, many folks were there even earlier so we didn’t get great seats. No worries – we would rectify that at the farewell party.
John was his usual funny self as he welcomed us all, thanked those who helped put the cruise together – including his assistant Jacinta who wasn’t able to be there because of a family emergency; Calvyn, his former assistant who had been on BC9 but was recovering from an injury; and Mischelle, who works in the Miami headquarters and to whom I was especially grateful for getting Kniki Blogger credentials at the late date that she joined up.
The drawing for the raffle was part of the Welcome party, and as expected, none of my numbers were called. However, I was just as happy when my friend Nancy won spots in both the steakhouse and chef’s table dinners. The fact that she bought an amazing $1500 worth of tickets probably skewed the odds just a tiny bit in her favor. 🙂 She deserved the prizes.
One difference between this year and last that was noticed and commented on by many attendees (not happily) was that the drinks served at the Welcome party were limited to a few selections: beer, house red or white wine, a couple of cocktails and champagne.
Last year the waiters had a few standards they brought around on trays, but you could ask for and get different drinks of your choice (such as piña coladas). Those who asked this year were told they’d have to pay for them. I understand the reasons (John mentioned more than once during this cruise that he had a set budget and apparently it was a tight one), but it did sort of start things off on the wrong foot for some people.
Would I have liked a free piña colada to enjoy during the party? Of course. Even a virgin one would have been fine. But the drink choice wasn’t going to impact my opinion of the cruise or keep me from having a good time.
Wish List Item #2: I wonder if a majority of folks would prefer, instead of the Blogger gift, a couple of drink vouchers that could be used at any time during the cruise, including at the Welcome party. I liked this year’s gift a lot, but the gifts are sometimes hard to fit into an already-stuffed suitcase to take home. Of course, for those who don’t drink, the voucher would need to be good for specialty coffees, virgin drinks, etc. as well. Just a thought.
By the time we got out of the party, the main dining rooms had opened for dinner. We’d selected Your Time Dining (YTD), which means you can go whenever you want rather than having a fixed dining time. We were hungry, so we went to the MDR right after the party, along with our good friends (whom I’d met on the Freedom Repo cruise two years before) Bob and Gail and Elaine and Jimmy.
We were seated quickly at one of the long rectangular tables that have chairs on one side and a booth seat on the other. Not my favorite type of seating with a big group – not because I mind the booth (in fact I generally like booth seats when there are only four people – but because it makes it harder for everyone to talk to everyone. I did get in the middle, which made it easier for me.
Table configuration aside, service was fine and the food was delicious. I had the veggie lasagna, which is one of my favorites (but too large for me to finish), with fruit for dessert. Kniki had the Indian Vegetarian, which is also very good. I didn’t keep up with what the others ordered, although I know several of them got banana splits for dessert.
There has been much ado about the removal of tablecloths from the MDRs (except on elegant nights) and some people in the forums have gone so far as to say they would leave Carnival because of it – although I suspect those proclamations are acted upon about as often as those of people who threaten to leave the country if the politician of their choice loses the election.
Personally, I don’t miss the tablecloths at all. In fact, more than once I got tangled in one or someone at the table accidentally pulled it, at least once in memory causing a glass to fall over. If you spill something on it, you can’t just wipe it up – you live with that stain throughout the dinner.
I’ve been to many very upscale restaurants with some of the best chefs in the country, that have done away with tablecloths. Like it or not, that’s the fashion now and there are practical reasons for it.
On a ship, though, rough seas can cause glasses and plates to go sliding on a slick table surface. One solution would be place mats. Heck, if you’re really concerned about that, bring your own. They take up almost no room in a suitcase.
After dinner, the others headed off to the shows, but I still hadn’t caught up completely on my sleep so Kniki and I went back to the cabin, where I finished unpacking and spent some time on Facebook before falling into bed and sleeping like a baby, thanks to the rocking of the ship. I can’t sleep on planes or in cars, even on overnight trips. But I almost always sleep wonderfully on the sea.
I heard some complaints during the cruise from others who had aft cabins that they felt a lot of vibration, but I never did (except for the thrusters when we came into ports). I suspect those who did were on lower decks, or simply more sensitive to the vibration.
Day Two: Sunday at Sea
Our first full cruise day was what Carnival calls a “fun day at sea,” and we were up early to go to John’s Blogger Breakfast and Q&A – another reason I had wanted to go to bed relatively early. There was a nice spread of pastries and fruit and such, along with much-needed coffee. We found Nancy and Lambie and sat with them as John entertained us and answered questions from the audience.
Breakfast was scheduled to run from 8:30 to 10:00 but it actually went a bit longer. We barely finished up in time to go back to the cabin and change clothes to attend the Diamond “Meet the Captain” brunch.
Sparkling like a Diamond
No, I’m not Diamond status yet (working hard on it), but Bob and Gail kindly invited Kniki and me to be their guests, and I’m grateful to them, as we had a lovely time. John was there, flitting about the room, but mostly we enjoyed the company at our table – and the excellent fare they served up. Here’s the menu:
I had the mushroom cappuccino and the sea bass and barramundi, both of which were excellent.
This time, I took pics of other people’s dishes as well as my own. And at this party, although the servers were bringing around glasses of wine, they did take orders for other drinks, so I finally got my piña colada (and it was yummy. Not all bartenders make piña coladas the way I like them, but Carnival’s always do).
The big “oops”
Back to the cabin afterward for a few hours, to rest up for John’s special afternoon tea time for Bloggers. This was when I made the mistake of rebooting my phone. It was a mistake because two days before, when I was bereft of sleep and exhausted from the travel and frustrated that the fingerprint reader was taking two or three tries to unlock it, I had set up a pattern unlock, thinking that would be quicker.
Well, it would have been – if I hadn’t promptly forgotten the pattern I set. I learned the hard way that unlike with fingerprints as the primary unlock method where if it doesn’t work, you can enter your PIN instead, the pattern – and only the pattern – is required to unlock the phone after a reboot.
Ugh. I tried every pattern I could think of but couldn’t come up with the right one. I had a couple of choices: try to download one of a few programs that claimed to be able to bypass the Android lock screen security (over the ship’s Internet, which was excruciatingly slow since it was a sea day and everyone was using it) or do a factory reset, which meant losing all my data and having to reinstall at least some of my apps and reconfigure all of my settings.
That was not what I wanted to do, but I didn’t trust those apps and didn’t have enough bandwidth to research them thoroughly (and probably not enough to download them). So I bit the bullet and reset it and spent a couple of hours getting it set back up again. Thank goodness for Google backup or it would have taken longer.
A spot o’ tea (well, okay, actually coffee for me)
The afternoon tea is a Carnival tradition and I usually don’t go (I don’t like tea) but since it was a Blogger event, I figured what the heck. I’d gone the year before and it was fun. And yes, you can get coffee instead of tea.
This year’s spread was pretty elaborate, with many different sweets to choose from and some beautiful fruit carvings and a gorgeous ice sculpture.
It was crowded, but we stumbled upon Nancy and Lambie and sat at their table. We didn’t stay a long time, but I did get a quick photo with John while we were there.
Then we were off again, with only a couple of hours to relax and get cleaned up and ready to meet our friends for dinner at 6:00.
Super Bowls (of soup and other great food)
This was Superbowl Sunday, so Carnival decided to postpone elegant night – which would normally be on the first sea day – until the next day, so football fans wouldn’t have to choose between the two.At first I was disappointed about this, but it actually worked out well.
They were showing the game both on the big “dive-in” screen on Lido and in the theater. Jimmy abandoned us in favor of the game, so dinner this time was Bob and four women: Gail, Elaine, Kniki and me. Bob didn’t seem to mind.
It was another nice dinner, and this time we got a round table, which made it easier for everyone to interact with everyone else. Service was even more attentive than usual, since the usually spread-thin wait staff had few tables to handle in the over-half-empty dining room. Too bad we can’t have a Superbowl on every cruise.
For some reason, the lighting in the MDR had a reddish tint that night, so the food pictures didn’t come out as well, but I enjoyed the spring rolls and a Port O’ Call chicken dish, along with my banana split minus the strawberry part.
After dinner, Bob delivered the commemorative cruise coins he’d had made for this cruise. Many of us collect them for our special cruises and this one turned out beautifully.
We had an early excursion the next morning, so once again we stayed “home” and went to bed early in anticipation of a long day in port.
Our first stop on this itinerary was also the only one of the four ports that I’d never been to before: Amber Cove, Dominican Republic. I’ll tell you all about it in Part Two.