As a former anti-cruise goer, I am happy to report that the last (and first!) cruise my family took was a great success. We enjoyed seeing different parts of the world, the variety of entertainment and daily activities, the international staff and the fact that everyone found something to do. Our days were full of sunshine, sitting by the pool, riding the waterslide and spending quality time together. There was also plenty for my special needs child to appreciate. My cynicism was squashed and it was decided that cruises for us a family work.
So this year when we decided it was time for another cruising trip, we decided on Carnival Cruise Line’s Freedom, one of their older lines that has been renovated, and sails to three ports in the Western Caribbean. We would be cruising out of Texas, a state we had not visited and were curious what the trip in total would be like. (You can find out about the Texas portion here on the blog.)
Filled with wonder, we all set out on our trip during the final weeks of summertime. The kids were curious if the food, movies, video games and waterslides would live up to their expectations. My husband hoped he would be able to relax on the ship and really utilize his time off work. And me? I hoped I’d find some solace, see a few beautiful places in the world, stay healthy and come home with new memories. Full of pre-conceptions about cruising and Carnival, in general, we set out on our seven-day journey.
As a mom, I can promise other mothers that they will enjoy cruising for one simple reason: the opportunity to truly chill. Once on board, a steward tends to your stateroom a few times a day, refreshing towels, making beds and picking your kids’ clothes up off the floor. Someone else makes all the meals for you – there is neither menu planning nor any cleaning up after dinner. You don’t have to be anywhere; there is neither schedule nor routine. I really liked our stateroom. The layout allowed us to spread out and not feel cramped. The balcony required several sittings a day to enjoy the ocean view.
However, during the day I found getting quiet time a slight challenge. The only pool my kids were allowed to swim in was very crowded. They weren’t gravitating toward the kid’s club. While I looked forward to our destination days, I found sail days more of a struggle. With the kids declaring boredom, which I can’t understand, I found more of a need than usual to find my own space.
But I managed to find my groove and I found my solace. On sail days, I had a small breakfast in the room (We loved the complimentary room service), and then headed to the gym, where I worked out and sat in the steam room and sauna with a good book (thanks to Jojo Moyes). I spent ample time at the Serenity Pool, the adult only pool, getting sunwhere my kids were allowed to sit. I went for walks on the 3rd floor deck, read the top deck and hibernated in the room when necessary. At night, I loved watching the Playlist Productions perform, sitting at the piano bar and watched Dive In films at the pool like Into the Woods, The Hunger Games, and Fault In Our Stars – complete with popcorn and a blanket.
Carnival is like any other cruise line, offering many options for cuisine. In addition to the buffet on the Lido Deck and the Posh and Chic restaurants, they have the Steakhouse, Guy’s Burger Joint and the Blue Iguana Cantina. The amount of food can be overwhelming, but it’s quite possible to eat healthy while cruising. I used such strategies as taking smaller portions, drinking a lot of water, avoiding fried food and dressings and the like.
I also tried to resist temptations, but it’s really hard with everyone around you eating a hamburger and fries in the middle of the afternoon (fortunately, I’m a vegetarian!). I let myself indulge once daily, generally at night for dessert, but quite often I ordered fruit, sorbet or simply tasted my family’s selections. After a few days, I actually gave in to my willpower a little bit and began to eat more than I’d planned, but you only live once. When the kids were hungry, they got frozen yogurt on the deck and avoided fried foods, but they indulged, too.
The one night my husband and I went out alone for dinner to the Sun King Steakhouse, I definitely let myself indulge. For a $35 surcharge, you get an appetizer, entrée and dessert. The restaurant is elegant; the meal first –rate. Appetizers include escargots bourguignonne, grilled portobello mushroom, beef carpaccio, ahi tuna tartar, jumbo shrimp cocktail, New England crab cake, lobster bisque with vintage cognac, and baked onion soup. The entrees consist of broiled prime New York strip loin steak (14 oz.), grilled prime cowboy steak (18 oz.), spice-rubbed prime rib eye steak (18 oz.), broiled filet mignon (9 oz.), surf & turf (Maine lobster tail and 4 oz. filet mignon), broiled lobster tail, broiled rosemary infused chicken, grilled lamb chops, Maine lobster ravioli, and grilled fillet of fish from the market. The meal was delicious and it was definitely nice to get dressed up and have adult conversation for an evening.
Carnival Cruise Line is a budget cruise line, and is known for that but is good value. Prices start at $189 per person for interior staterooms during their five-day cruises. Freedom, has been renovated and has completely overhauled its kids’ program, entertainment, waterslide, spa and restaurants.
But despite the low cost, once you’re on the ship, it’s important to control everyone’s expenses by limiting what they are allowed to spend. I used strategies, which really cut our bill down — like having the kids drink water rather than order anything other than what’s free (lemonade, iced tea, coffee and water). I didn’t give them access to an expense account on their sail cards; everything had to be requested through us. We didn’t book our excursions on the boat; rather we booked them in advance online or at the port. We tipped at our own discretion, rather than let the ship add automatic tips onto our bill. Most importantly, I talked to my family before we left so that everyone was in agreement about what we would spend so that it was understood and adhered to. While more money may have been spent on cocktails and video games than I would have liked, overall our bill was far lower than I hoped.
By the end of the cruise, I found myself enjoying it more than I thought I would. The offshore bits were really lovely and my kids had experiences that were truly unique and special – like parasailing in Mexico, jet skiing in Honduras and snorkeling in Belize. We fell in love with our wait staff in the dining room – they were a trio from the Philippines, all with families back home. They told us a bit about their lives and we were riveted by their “performance” every other night, when the entire wait staff danced around the dining room. My husband actually celebrated his birthday during the cruise, and it was a lovely, memorable way to celebrate.
I was able to find my solace and respite from the crowds and my kids, despite not going to the kid’s club, had a ball and found what they liked doing on the ship.
Disclosure: My family and I were guests of Carnival and most of her expenses were covered. However, all of her opinions expressed are her own.