There's nothing better than being a short taxi-ride away from the pier. During a visit to Manhattan this past summer, this ex-New Yorker absolutely reveled in the convenience of cruising from the Big Apple's West Side docks -- just a 10-minute drive from our hotel. With some friends, we signed up for a 4-night cruise aboard the 102,000-ton Victory to Saint John, New Brunswick, including two relaxing days at sea. As my friends were first-timers, and I the experienced cruiser, I was under some self-imposed pressure to make this a wonderful debut. I started trouble-shooting from the start.
Tip #1: To avoid long lines at the check-in desks in the terminal, board an hour or so before the ship sails. Human nature dictates that most people try to get on the ship as soon as possible, which is generally about noon or 1pm. The Victory was scheduled to depart at 5pm, so we all showed up at 3:30 and zipped right through the near-empty terminal; not bad considering we would be among 3,411 passengers on the ship.
I've always admired Carnival ships for their large standard cabins, and the Victory's digs did not disappoint us. My five-year-old twin sons had the choice of a Pullman-style berth that folded down from the ceiling plus a sofa bed underneath. There was enough room for a desk, more drawer and closet space that we could fill up, and relatively speaking, a roomy bathroom. Still, four people in a 180-square-foot room is still cozy.
Tip #2: If you can afford it, families should definitely book a balcony cabin, it's like having an extra room. Our cabin's (#8270) balcony came in real handy, especially the first night when the Camp Carnival playroom wasn't open for drop offs before 10pm. The adults sat outside chatting, while the kids watched a movie inside.
Another cabin plus was our super enthusiastic and helpful Indonesian cabin steward Putu. Tip #3: Be nice to your cabin steward, they can make your stay better. After some pleasant chit-chat, Putu was kind enough to fetch us extra ice for a bottle of champagne we wanted to share with our friends. He made the kids great towel animals each night and he always seemed to be nearby and ready to help me into the cabin when my keycard wasn't working. These guys and gals work long hours seven days a week, so a little appreciation and kindness go a long way.
Same goes for the dining room staff. Our waiter and assistant were very efficient and receptive to our requests, including our ordering extra courses. Before we even got to the table each evening, they remembered to lay out crayons and Carnival coloring booklets for our group's three kids. For the adults, our wine order was always taken a few moments after we sat down, as our waiters seemed to understand this was a key mood-enhancer when dining with five-year-olds. Tip #4: To avoid disappointment, make your desires known in the restaurant on the first day.
Still, don't expect everything to be so efficient. Tip #5: On a ship as large as the Victory that only offers two restaurants, be prepared for lines. While we didn't encounter any for the main dining room where he had dinner each evening -- we would arrive 5 minutes after our assigned seating time (6pm) and breeze right to our table -- breakfast and lunch in the more casual Mediterranean lido buffet was another story. We routinely spent 20 to 30 minutes inching along the line to grab eggs or a bowl of oatmeal, along with throngs of others. Coffee, juices and cold items like cereal could be picked up more quickly from separate stations, but otherwise, it was a waiting game.
Tip #6: Avoid buffet venue during rush hour. When we finally figured out that having lunch at 1:30pm meant much shorter lines than doing so an hour before, we saved ourselves some aggravation; though of course the kids were totally starving by this point. The separate pizza station always seemed to have a shorter line no matter when we had lunch, so that became our daily staple. Not a bad fate, considering the tasty pies included a goat cheese and mushroom number as well as standard pepperoni and margarita.
Our routine on the two sea days consisted of us ushering the children off to the Camp Carnival playroom after lunch for a couple of hours. Tip #7: Be prepared for your child not to want any part of being dropped off at the playroom. While my two guys are old hands and loved spending time in the playroom, our friend's daughter was not always so eager. On more than one occasion, she refused to go.
Tip #8: Have realistic expectations of the child care program.On a ship as large as the Victory, where 900 or 1,000 (or more) kids under 18 is par for the course, there maybe a line to sign in, so don't plan on dropping your kid off 10 minutes before a massage appointment. Keep in mind the age groupings -- Camp Carnival has five -- may be combined at times due to space constraints or numbers of kids, so your four year old could be playing alongside an eight year old. With expectations in check, though, my kids had a good time in Camp Carnival. They played with tambourines and maracas, joined a bingo game, and got their faces painted up like animals. One day they came back with Camp Carnival T-shirts and pillow cases they color on with markers, and another time it was Funship Freddy hats and drawings.
Though I loved the break Camp Carnival provided so that I could visit the spa, wander through the ship's shops or have a decaf coffee at the Coral Sea Café, the Victory is a great ship for adults and kids to spend time together. Tip #9: There's plenty for the whole family to do; embrace togetherness. The giant twisty water slide was a big hit with my husband, sons and I, and so was the mini-golf course up on deck and the video arcade. The goofy pool-deck contests -- a la the men's hairy chest competition and hotdog-eating contest -- were opportunities for us to be a gaggle of giggling voyeurs. The four of us, and our friends and their daughter, also enjoyed the production shows after dinner. Though the 10:30pm show was a bit late for our kids (there was also an 8:30pm show, but the kids went to the playroom for a few hours), they insisted on making themselves stay awake to watch the exciting feather boa- and sequins-clad dancers and singers do their flamboyant Vegas-style shtick.
The good news was potential late nights were easily be mitigated with a little pre-planning. We avoided any mandatory early morning wake-up calls by skipping the ship's organized shore tours in Saint John. Tip # 10: Organize your own shore excursions for greater flexibility and lower cost. A few weeks before the cruise, I went on-line and found a company that offers sightseeing boat rides to the port's most famous attraction, the Reversing Falls, where the mighty Bay of Fundy causes the tides of the St. John River to reverse (www.jetboatrides.com; speed boat rides are also offered). This worked wonderfully. We spent half the money it would have cost to book a similar trip through the ship, plus had the convenience of starting our day when we wanted to, which was about 11am.
Just a short walk from where the ship was docked, we hopped aboard the boat near the Market Square lighthouse and the Hilton Hotel, with just a handful of others tourists. It felt like a private excursion and we enjoyed a beautifully sunny day (a rarity in this port) and a great guide with a sharp wit and lots of Saint John facts to share. Afterwards we strolled around the brick and stone buildings of the 19th-century waterfront and lunched on fish and chips and a couple of pints of the local Moosehead beer at a nearby outdoor café called Saint John Ale House (1 Market Square). Later we strolled to the excellent New Brunswick Museum (www.nbm-mnb.ca), where the 20-something docents doted on our children in the Hall of Great Whales section; the whale skeletons and hands-on exhibits were a real treat for them. All and all, it was a fabulous day on shore -- on our terms.
For more on the Carnival Victory, read "Cruise Ship Show Down: Carnival Vs. Royal Caribbean."
For 2009, between June and October sister ship Carnival Triumph will offer 4-, 5- and 7-night Canada cruises round-trip from New York City, calling on some combination of Saint John, New Brunswick; Halifax, Nova Scotia; Portland, Maine; and/or Boston. Fares start at $349 per person.