As avid “cruisers,” my husband and I have cruised with the Carnival Cruise Line about every other year since 2003. In fact, we have cruised with Cruise Ship Freddie ten times. Reaching that tenth trip, my husband anticipated some sort of “reward” for our loyalty to the line. Instead, we received two plastic Carnival sun visors and a one-liter bottle of water. Hubby was NOT impressed. Yes, we reached platinum status. But after ten cruises something a bit more substantial would be nice.
That being said, we opted to check out other cruise lines and their offers. We found the Norwegian Cruise Line who offered a choice of five reward options straight away. I confess, my husband and I like to party on our cruise vacations, so the offer of unlimited alcohol and $50. per stateroom toward shore excursions appealed to us. There were other offers as well, but we only qualified for two, and these sounded good to us. We booked an 11-day cruise departing from one of our favorite European cities, Barcelona, Spain, and hitting ports in Casablanca, Morocco, and ports throughout Spain and the Canary Islands. We had twice previously sailed from Barcelona with Carnival and toured Italy, ports in Monaco, the south of France, and Greece. So, how do the cruise lines compare from embarkation to debarkation?
Norwegian wins with embarkation. I have to use a wheelchair and even standing for extended periods is difficult for me. There was a place for passenger assisted cruisers to sit and wait for wheelchair assist boarding. The wait was not unreasonably long. One small complaint, (and it is very small), is the rush past several Norwegian shops in the departure area. I guess I could have asked to stop and browse, but I was eager to see the ship. The steward who transported me aboard told us about the Norwegian Spirit. Built in 1998 as a gift from a Chinese businessman to his wife, it was originally a casino ship. The décor is Asian and truly is stunning. The carpets alone are breathtaking. Being a fan of Asian design and interiors, I was delighted with the statues of Chinese warriors, artwork featuring Chinese landscapes, and an overall feel of Chinese creativity. One of the things my husband and I treasure are our photos taken as we board the ship for a cruise. We never got the opportunity for one of those memorable shots. That’s a minus for Norwegian and a plus for Carnival. We have always been offered the chance for one of those photos. While Norwegian does have boarding photos with backdrops of the ship, we never got to have ours done.
Our first stop was our cabin where we dropped off our carry-on luggage. Then the transporting attendant asked if we would prefer lunch at the buffet or in the dining room. We usually proceed to the buffet and had never been offered an alternative by Carnival. On Carnival ships, the line of arriving passengers headed to the all-you-can-eat buffet is offered a discounted “drink of the day” in a collectible plastic glass. Yes, it’s kitchy and tacky, but all in good fun. The idea of a nice lunch in a dining room was irresistible. It was a good choice. We enjoyed a tasty brunch, in a holiday decorated dining room, served by a wonderful woman named Jenis from Columbia who became one of the highlights of our trip. Here I would give kudos to Norwegian.
The cabin we had was on the 11th level. I like to be on the higher floors because I take photos from our balcony as we enter or depart ports and sunrises and sunsets at sea. Carnival has roomy cabins with queen-sized beds, a convertible love seat/couch, coffee table, a desk/vanity area with a mirror, drawer space, closets with shelves and room to store unpacked luggage, a decent sized bathroom with a shower, sink, toilet, and counter space with shelves. The balcony is large enough for two chairs and a small table, comfortable enough for breakfast for two while watching a sunrise. When I finally got into our cabin on the Spirit, I was speechless, and not with delight. There was barely room to move around, let alone store the wheelchair, and the cabin was dim and dully decorated. We managed to find space for things, but it was very cramped. The photo on the website looked nothing like the pint-sized cabin we were assigned. The balcony was hardly big enough for the two chairs, and a tiny table squeezed on it. There is a mini-bar, but it was never restocked after we used some of the items. Our steward actually commented on his need to do so. The night before we returned to Barcelona as my husband was showering and I was packing, the steward knocked on the door and asked if he could restock the bar! I was in a bathrobe and was so taken aback I allowed him to do so.
Our television didn’t work for four days. When my husband called guest services, he was told the entire ship was out. Finally, my husband asked our steward, and he came in and reattached the connection to the television which was located behind the set. We have no idea how it became detached, and no apology was given. Electric outlets became a real issue. The connector is US prongs for 110 V, and European style prongs for the 220 V. There is one outlet in your room next to the dressing table and another one in the bathroom.
The outlets are limited and are not located next to your bed. You may want to take an extension cord if you want to connect some device next to your bed.
The safe was in the closet which is common, but it was almost on the floor and difficult to see when using the combination to open and lock it. One of the housekeepers suggested we request to be moved to a handicapped cabin. By that point, I was exhausted and opted to stay where we were. I have to share responsibility for this with Norwegian. I should have been more observant when booking the cabin. But when they received my request to rent a wheelchair, it would have been a courtesy to notify me the cabin might not be suitable for wheelchair access. Even if I didn’t need a wheelchair, I would have found the size of the cabin claustrophobic. Carnival wins on this one with their bright, roomy, and pleasantly designed rooms.
A fun part and advantage of cruising is the opportunity to visit other countries and get a taste of different cultures. Being in a wheelchair does limit the activities I can enjoy, but Carnival has always offered a wide variety of options for all levels of ability. The Norwegian website offered very few shore excursions I could book, but I considered the possibility there were better resources onboard. I was wrong. When we went to the excursion desk, I was disappointed to find the same limited opportunities. After much discussion with the agent, we booked a few trips, a couple with the disclaimer that he would contact the excursion operators to be sure I would be able to use the wheelchair. After being assured he would let us know immediately if we’d be unable to go on any of the trips, we headed off to enjoy our first full day at sea.
Exploring the cruise ship, our home for the next eleven days, should have provided an interesting day. Carnival ships offer a multitude of activities as well as several shops. I happen to be a shopping queen. My husband always buys me a piece of jewelry on our cruises. To say I was disappointed with the shops onboard the Spirit is an understatement. The shops were not the large type you can stroll around in. Instead, they are more like storefronts. There was one high-end jewelry shop, a watch shop, a small liquor store, and one shop you could actually enter. The general shop was not set up for wheelchairs. There were ramps to enter, but displays and shelves were packed so close together there was barely room to navigate. The selections were limited, the shop was disorganized, and I had to practically scavenge to find anything. I definitely missed Carnival, although my husband did buy me a Michael Kors watch in rose gold. If the prices had been more competitive, I would have bought another as well. Carnival wins!
Carnival offers twenty-four-hour pizza, ice cream, cold drinks (iced tea, water, juice blends), coffee and tea, and even deli sandwiches. Everything on the Spirit seemed to close down at midnight. We’ve always enjoyed grabbing a slice of pizza and sitting out under the stars late at night. Instead, I was in bed. Another point for Carnival.
The buffet food was mediocre, and limited in variety. Hamburgers and bacon cheeseburgers were dried out, there was a lot of pasta and rice dishes, desserts were tasteless on the whole. The Carnival buffet is always very fresh with a wide variety of dishes. Another point for Carnival.
We made use of the Jacuzzi/Hot Tub located in the kid’s section of the ship, Buccaneer’s Wet and Wild, because it was never crowded. There are four other hot tubs near the Tivoli Pool, but they were always crowded. On one occasion the water in the Jacuzzi was cool, and we had to repeatedly ask for the temperature to be increased. Another “tubber” also complained. It never got very warm. That was our last foray into the bubbles. In all honesty, Carnival also has crowded hot tubs. I don’t think that’s something any ship can address. With so many cruisers it seems impossible to have enough hot tubs to accommodate everyone, especially if large groups decide to soak at the same time.
The Norwegian Spirit does have a well-stocked library where cruisers can check out books, sit and read, and pick up daily puzzles. It is connected to the Internet Salon which contains several computers and a printer. This was particularly useful in printing out boarding passes for return flights home post cruise.
The biggest plus the Norwegian Spirit has is the staff. Almost everyone was helpful; guest services Reiku, Olga, and Kim, specialty restaurant reservations, Fernando in the Shangai bar, Jenise in The Garden dining room, the maitre’d and staff in both restaurants, a crew member who insisted on helping my husband and myself at the buffet by carrying our plates as we chose dishes, the entire staff at the French specialty restaurant, Le Bistro, and several other crew members who assisted my husband getting on and off the ship for excursions.
We may try another Norwegian cruise but, it is more likely we will try Princess or Royal Caribbean in the future. If Carnival comes up with an attractive reward for our past loyalty, we will return to them. In a choice between Carnival and Norwegian, I would have to vote for Carnival.
My advice to cruisers is to check out the ship they would sail on, read reviews, and be sure excursions have good reviews too. Wherever you go, however you get there, enjoy your vacations.