PART TWO: Embarkation Day Blues (and Reds and Whites)
Embarkation Day is usually a high point of the cruise. It’s the culmination of months of anticipation, planning, and dreaming. Maybe it’s normal to not be quite as thrilled by the sight of the ship or that first step on board when you’ve done it almost twenty times before, but familiarity had little to do with my mood that day. I was worried about Tom, worried about Suki, worried about the silly turtle. I was tired, I didn’t feel good, and minor hassles loomed like large obstacles.
Getting to the port was easy and the Uber driver found the entry gate quickly. It was odd in that they asked to see our ID at the gate to the parking lot/dropoff point. I’d never seen that before. Once we were inside, things got a little more confusing. The directions given by the gatekeepers took us to the parking lot quite a distance from the ship, not a dropoff place. For a bit we were worried that we were going to have to wheel our luggage all the way across the lot to the ship.
Luckily, the driver didn’t accept this and persevered. We came to a line of trucks loaded with luggage, sitting in the middle of the lot, where we were told to leave our checked bags. That was a little weird too. I gave the porter there a $5 to, I hoped, make it more likely that mine wouldn’t get lost someplace between there and the ship.
We proceeded around and finally located the line to drop off passengers. From there it wasn’t far into the terminal. Inside, again it was different from all the other ports from which I’d sailed before. It was, in a word, chaotic. There was no Priority lounge.
We wandered around, found the Priority line to check in and get our Sail & Sign cards, put our luggage through the x-ray machine at security (finding there was no hand check of the wine as at other ports; you could have brought liquor), and then faced a decision: wait in the long, long line for the small elevator or lug the carry-ons up the stairs. My cabin mate opted for the first choice. I, not being the patient sort (and thinking of stair credit on my fitness band), took a deep breath and hauled my bag up.
Upstairs, another line where we showed our S&S cards and had them scanned, then walked onto the ship. The process actually went very quickly; it just seemed totally disorganized.
A room with a view
On the ship, I made my way to the aft stairs and up to deck 7, where our cabin was located (7297). My first impression of the cabin: It was small. Smaller than the typical balcony; instead of a full length sofa, it had a shorter love seat – because that’s all that would fit.
One bed was up against the edge of the love seat and the other was against the opposite wall. Every other balcony (and oceanview) cabin I’d been in had at least one and usually two night stands in between the twin beds. This cabin had none.
On the bright side, it did have a small refrigerator. We had been told balconies on didn’t, so that was a pleasant surprise. The TV was not large but was wall mounted. It did have an extra empty power outlet behind it, and the desk/dresser had two 120 v. outlets instead of the usual one, so that was a plus.
The bathroom was a mixed blessing. The shower was larger than most OV/balcony showers – making the sink and toilet area smaller. I liked the extra room in the shower but it made the rest of the bathroom space feel even more cramped than usual.
Basically, instead of the toilet and shower being on the same wall, the shower went all the way across one wall. This left the toilet, laid out at a diagonal angle, taking some of the space on the wall that is usually dedicated to the sink.
It makes for less counter space on each side of the sink, which means less room for all those jars and bottles of hair spray, toothpaste, gel, makeup, makeup remover, moisturizer, and the combs and brushes and jewelry and myriad of other things that women store in the bathroom. With two women sharing a bathroom this tiny, well, let’s just say I had a sudden but lingering longing for a Dream/Vista class ship deluxe oceanview cabin – because it has a second partial bathroom. I would have traded the balcony for that extra 3/4 bath in a New York minute.
The condition of the cabin was okay; the carpet wasn’t worn or stained, the wood was in good condition. We both immediately noticed another difference compared to other ships when we opened the closets: the hangers were cheap plastic instead of the wood that we were used to on other ships. Not a big deal, but noticeable.
Storage space was adequate but not great. There were three drawers in the desk/dresser; the usual fourth shallow “desk” drawer was missing. There were three closets, but the shelves were spaced such that there wasn’t as much shelf space as usual. There was a sort of “bar” area on the other side of the TV that provided extra shelves, behind doors on the bottom and open on the top.
Another positive aspect was the thermostat, which was a digital touch screen type rather than the dial type found on many of the ships. And the air conditioning, although it was set high and was warm when we got there, worked very well and got cool/cold throughout the cruise without cranking it all the way up.
My cabin mate flagged down our steward (more about him later) and asked him to find us a nightstand to go between the beds. It really is an important bit of furniture since there’s no place for the person whose bed is by the window to put glasses, water glass, phone/earphones or anything else at night without it. To his credit, he came back not long after, toting a nightstand, and fixed that problem for us.
Another oddity was that since the cabin didn’t have the usual nightstand with a lamp built in that needed to plug into the wall, there was no power outlet behind the beds. On most ships, if you can manage to move out the beds, you’ll find a Euro plug behind one of them. I always carry European adapters and can unplug the light and plug a Euro power strip into this was we can charge phones on the nightstand overnight. Not this time. Not a big deal, just a minor annoyance.
That mini fridge was plugged into a Euro plug above the desk. The fridge itself sat under the desk (so you didn’t really have room to sit at the desk on the little bench; when I used my computer, I put it on the little table by the love seat and sat on the love seat). There was a hole drilled in the desk top so the cord could go through from the plug to the fridge. We were lucky, we found out later. Some cabin had the cord just running across the desk and down to the fridge underneath.
Some ships have doors to the corridor that will hold a magnet and some don’t. Most have walls that are magnetic but this one – or at least this cabin – didn’t. Again, not a big deal, but I like to bring magnets and stick my “important papers,” such as shore excursion tickets, drink coupons and the like, on the cabin wall. Only the bathroom door was magnetic (and not very strong), so that’s where the papers had to go this time.
Speaking of doors, both of us are big on door decorating. This time, we didn’t go in for elaborate decor like we sometimes do because a) we were flying and so had limited packing room for decorations and b) some of that room was taken by the “extras” that we were bringing on this cruise because it was a Journeys (more about Journeys cruises and what makes them special later on).
Nonetheless, we ended up with one of the most decorated doors we saw. It seems far fewer people bother to decorate these days, since Carnival enacted new rules -ostensibly for purposes of fire prevention – that make it harder to comply.
At any rate, we didn’t have any problem finding our cabin (which is one of the many reasons that people decorate their doors on a cruise).
Missing the boat on the first day meetup
I had ended up being the primary admin of our Facebook group for this cruise after its founder came to me and asked me to take over the reins, a month or two before the cruise, because he didn’t have time to keep up with it. He has a full-time job and managing one of these large cruise groups can take a lot of time.
Many of the activities had already been planned when I took over, and one of those was a first-day informal meetup at 4:00 pm at the aft of Lido, just to get to know one another. I had every intention of being there, but life got in the way. I was still sleep-deprived, still dealing with all the aforementioned stress points, second guessing my decision to be there, and feeling physically lousy. But I still intended to go.
First off, we set off to have lunch at Cucina, the Italian restaurant. I like their build-your-own-pasta and thought that would lighten my mood. We got there at 2:15 and the lady at the front desk told us to take a seat and the hostess would take care of us. We did, and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, my cabin mate hunted down the hostess – who informed us they were closed. They closed for service at 2:30 and it was 2:28. Well, that didn’t do much for my mood.
We were both pretty hungry by then so we went to the Lido buffet, which is open until 3:00, and ran into another dear friend who was having lunch there. We all got to talking, and being with them did help me to forget all the things that were going wrong. It also made me forget to keep up with what time it was. By the time I looked at my watch again, the meetup time was an hour past.
My phone, which I’d left charging back in the cabin, had messages from others who were at the meetup, asking if I was coming. So now in addition to feeling guilty about leaving the the hubby and pets back home, I could also feel guilty for letting down the group here who looked to me to organize things. I was batting 1000 on the guilt trip side.
At that point I really wished I had gone back to the airport that morning instead of to the cruise port, but my luggage was somewhere “out there” waiting to be delivered, and we were only minutes away from sailaway. It was too late to turn back now. I consoled myself with the thought that in the morning, I’d be more rested and it would all look brighter. And it did. Sort of. For a little while.
A side note about the Lido buffet on Sunshine: I noticed that first day, and it was reinforced by subsequent visits, that there seemed to be fewer buffet choices for lunch than I was used to on Carnival cruises. Or maybe it was just that the buffet had fewer things I was interested in eating.
There seemed to be chicken tenders every day (what, was it now McCarnival?) and a lot of other fast food/fried food type stuff, with less of the grilled fish, veggie casseroles and such that I’d always gotten before. A really weird thing: I traveled all around that buffet that first day and couldn’t find any fresh fruit anywhere. Fruit (melon, pineapple, etc.) is my lunchtime staple on a cruise and I was lost without it.
My friend ended up asking one of the kitchen staff if he could bring out some fruit, and after about ten minutes, he did and I got my lunch.
I had never, ever been on a cruise before where big bowls of chopped fruit weren’t readily available, or where there were so few buffet choices.
Of course, Sunshine has more specialty restaurants so there are options such as Cucina (Italian), JiJi’s (Asian), the “Cuban bites” at the Havana bar, and there is the deli, Guy’s Burger’s and the Blue Iguana Mexican food place. So I can’t say there’s not a lot to eat; there’s just less choice and (in my opinion) a lower quality of food at the Lido buffet.
Sailaway was at 6:00 pm. Muster drill went smoothly, thanks to the fact that Sunshine does use the tablet scanners to scan everyone’s S&S card and account for their presence instead of the time-consuming (and not very accurate) manual counting method still used on some ships. I accompanied my cabin mate to the library for muster.
After that was taken care of, we soon got underway. I do enjoy the feeling of being on a ship at sea. Back in the cabin, our luggage was all delivered and it didn’t take long to unpack, which I always do as soon as I have my bags. It makes me feel “settled in” to the place that will be home for the duration of the cruise.
Our cabin steward came back and we got to know him a little better. His name was Gusti, and he seemed eager to please. He brought us the big bucket of ice we requested, he got us that nightstand, he gave us his business card (I really like this new practice, which stewards started doing about six months ago).
He asked us if we wanted service in the mornings, evenings, or both. We found out that some of the others on the cruise had not been offered the option of both, and they said when they requested it, their stewards told them that they had to pick one. I’ve heard this from several people lately and have wondered whether this is happening to those at lower loyalty levels since there’s an assumption, perhaps, that they might not have been cruising enough to know that 2x/day service was standard.
Bottom line: Gusti wasn’t the most friendly steward I’ve had and I didn’t get to know him well as I have with a few, but he and his team were very polite, did a very good job and were very solicitous and were trying their best to anticipate and fulfill our needs. It was obvious, as it’s been on all cruises the past year and a half or so since Carnival cut back on staff, that they were overloaded and didn’t have as much time to chat as the stewards used to.
Embarkation day dinner is generally a little chaotic and this was no exception. Because many people haven’t received their luggage yet, dress codes tend to be relaxed. Our group was scattered so we weren’t able to all get together that first night, although most of us had the Your Time Dining (YTD) option that allowed us the flexibility of eating when we wanted and without whomever we wanted.
We did find one couple from our group and the four of us headed to the dining room. Sunshine uses a system similar to the Vista, whereby most passengers with YTD have to “check in” on deck 5 and get a buzzer, then wait for a table to open up. Diamond level passengers, though, are exempt from this and can go straight to the dining room and be seated quickly (on Vista, it was both Platinum and Diamond).
Thanks to my cabin mate, we were able to do this and bypass the long wait that some folks told us about later. We were seated immediately at a table for four in the middle of the room. Our waiters were hurried and harried, as is usual on the first night. They were fine but not outstanding. They, like the cabin stewards, seemed overworked.
I was so tired by that time, I was just going through the motions. I didn’t even take any “food porn” photos – which is my standard operating procedure at dinner. I ordered grilled chicken breast (I don’t remember the appetizer; it might have been mushroom soup). I was way too tired to go to any shows or meet up with friends afterward. I just wanted to collapse. And that’s pretty much what I did when I got back to the cabin.
My intent was to catch up on email and post some pictures on Facebook, but that proved to be somewhere between difficult and impossible. Another disappointment on this cruise was that the Internet connection was horrible, especially in our cabin, where often there was no signal at all. I had to go upstairs to Lido or to the front of the ship to get online, and even then, uploading a single photo took forever and often froze up and didn’t go through at all.
I had paid $109 for the “value” package (mid-level), since the cost of the “premium” package had gone up to $180 from the $150 I paid for it on a 10 day cruise with Carnival a little over six months before. Now, I remember the days when we had to pay per minute for a super slow connection (almost as bad as this one on Sunshine), but unlike some people, I need and expect a usable – albeit certainly not a super fast – connection. I was not a happy camper.
I would get much less happy about the Internet situation later on in the cruise, but at that moment, I just gave up and went to sleep. And finally actually got a full night’s sleep. The next day should have been a lot better as a result, and in some ways it was – but there were more unpleasant surprises still in store. Stay tuned for Part Three and the first sea day, which was anything but relaxing.