Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Cruising into the New Year


In December our company unexpectedly decided to close on New Year’s Eve for the rest of the week. We suddenly had five days off in a row and weren’t about to let them go to waste! We started looking into short cruises and found a 4-day sailing on the Carnival Paradise that left out of Tampa on New Year’s Day. It sounded like the perfect way to start the New Year.

We got to the port at noon and were on board within minutes. This was our second trip on Paradise so we were already familiar with the ship, but this time it was decorated for Christmas with swags of garland and bows all around the atrium railings and a large Christmas tree next to the lobby bar. The greens and reds looked pretty with the colored glass and giant turquoise “eggs”. Bar waiters were handing out complimentary glasses of champagne. It was very festive.

Paradise atrium Christmas decorations
Paradise Atrium

Paradise atrium Christmas decorations

Paradise atrium Christmas decorations

Paradise Promenade
Carnival Boulevard Promenade

After lunch at the Lido deli, we headed down to our cabin. We had an ocean view cabin in a great location, just one deck below the lobby and close to the stairways. Our suitcase had already arrived so we unpacked and settled in. Paradise is one of the few Fantasy-class ships that hasn’t been upgraded yet so our cabin still had the giant wooden box in the corner that made it impossible to get to the window without climbing over the bed. I’d read on Cruise Critic that you could request that the box be removed so when our room steward, Semadi, stopped by to introduce himself, we asked him if he could take it out. He said he would have the maintenance team remove it that afternoon. Yay! No bumping my shins or climbing over Ron in the middle of the night to get to the bathroom. :-)

Soon it was time for the muster drill, otherwise known as “the part of the cruise where everyone loses their buzz.” After it was over, we went up to the pool deck to watch the sail away. Even though it was a cloudy day, we had some nice views of the Tampa skyline in the late afternoon light. Then Ron headed to a bar to watch the Florida State bowl game while I stayed out on deck to see the ship pass under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The bridge was especially pretty lit up against the darkening sky. When we went under, everyone on deck yelled, “Happy New Year!”

Tampa skyline

Susan at sail away

Susan and Ron at sail away

Tampa skyline and Harbor Island

Sunshine Skyway Bridge

Carnival Paradise pool deck

Dinner that night was at 8:15 in the Elation Dining Room. Ugh, I hate late seating dinner! We’d gone to see the maître d’ when we first got on board to ask about switching to Your Time Dining, but it was full. Oh well, at least with late seating I knew we wouldn’t be asleep in the cabin by 9 o’clock. We were seated at a table for ten. Usually Carnival is pretty good at putting similar groups together, but this time our table was kind of awkward. There was one older couple who had been on ten million Carnival cruises. I could tell that the older man really wanted to share his cruising wisdom and was disappointed that none of us were first-timers. Fortunately, our waiter Dennis and his team were awesome. Unlike our last few cruises where the waiters seemed frazzled and rushed, this crew looked like they were having fun. They even got into it during Showtime when they had to dance to “Apple Bottom Jeans”. Some of those waiters had pretty good moves. :-)

After dinner we spent a couple of hours singing along in the piano bar before calling it a night.

Paradise America Bar
America Piano Bar

Mark in America Bar

Carnival towel animal

Sea Day

We slept in until almost 8, then went to brunch in the Elation Dining Room. Carnival’s Seaday Brunch is a great concept. I wonder how long it will be before the other cruise lines copy it. I’d gotten the blueberry pancakes the last two trips so I decided to try something less carb-y this time and ordered a spinach and tomato omelet (with a side of cheese grits, of course). Ron had the steak and eggs and some of his favorite banana bread from the bread basket. While we were eating, the ship headed into a big bank of clouds and the next thing we knew, it was pouring rain. I said, “That should put a damper on the chair hogs’ plans.” Sure enough, when we went up on deck later there were a bunch of soggy towels and t-shirts around the pool.

But by 10:30, the sun was out and people started making their way out on deck. We found a couple of lounge chairs near the small aft pool and settled in for the day, only leaving to grab some lunch at the buffet and to watch the Mixologist Competition going on by the main pool. We’d had big plans to hit the gym on our sea days but we couldn’t seem to get motivated. In the late afternoon, I finally started to feel the need to move. I really wanted to put some steps on the Vivofit band that Jenny gave me for Christmas, so I went up to the jogging track on Deck 12 and walked for about half an hour. It was a beautiful 80-degree day and there were lots of people playing golf on the mini-golf course. Others were doing the Wobble Dance on the pool deck stage. I knew somewhere below there were people reading in a quiet corner or watching a football game. That’s what I love about cruising – everyone doing something different but spending their vacation exactly the way they want.

Ron and wake

ship's wake

That night was Elegant Night. We killed time before dinner taking pictures in the atrium and then hitting the casino. Ron wasn’t ready to part with his money yet so he watched while I played Black Jack. It was a $10 table but somehow I ended up with a bunch of high rollers putting down $100 at a time. And we were all winning. When we left for dinner, I was up $35. It’s been a while since I won in the casino so that was a nice change. :-)

When we got to the dining room, there was a whole new set of people at our table! We had to check the table number to make sure we were in the right place. I was really hoping we hadn’t done something to scare everyone away. (We did run into the older couple later and they said they switched to early seating. So maybe they found some cruise newbies to talk to, after all.) Our new tablemates were a couple about our age from Maryland and a bubbly, high-energy family with two teenage daughters who said they’d had a really bad waiter the night before. I told them they were going to love Dennis and they did. I think they were ready to take him home with them by the end of the cruise.

After finishing off our lobster and Bitter and Blanc, we went to see the adult comedy show in the Queen Mary Lounge, then listened to a few tunes on the Promenade before heading to bed.

Paradise Rotterdam Bar
Rotterdam Bar

Paradise casino
Majestic  Casino

Susan in atrium

atrium at night


Our original plan for the day in Cozumel was to take the Cozumel Bar Hop tour, but the tour was cancelled because we were the only ones who had signed up. Since we’d really been looking forward to seeing the east side of Cozumel again, we decided to rent a car and do our own Bar Hop. Around 10 o’clock we made our way off the ship and through the port shopping center to the rental car booths. Our rental was a strange Volkswagen which looked like a car in the front but it had a convertible roof and a truck bed. Ron called it the Mullet Car since it was “business in the front and party in the back”. It was also supposed to have air conditioning but the air conditioning didn’t work. Good thing it was January and not August!

One advantage to doing our own tour was that we could stop wherever we wanted. Our first stop was Punta Sur National Park at the southern end of the island so that I could climb the lighthouse. It was a cloudy, windy day and at first I was bummed about the weather, but once we got to the park I didn’t mind so much. The huge, crashing waves were wild and breathtakingly beautiful. The wind at the top of the lighthouse was a little scary but the views made it worth the climb.

Punta Sur National Park
Punta Sur National Park

Punta Sur

Celarain lighthouse

view from Celarain lighthouse
view from the lighthouse

view from Celarain lighthouse

Next we drove on to Rasta’s Reggae Beach Bar, where we stayed just long enough to try their specialty shot, peanut butter tequila. Very tasty! Our second (and favorite) bar was Coconuts, located on a cliff on the highest point of the island. We’d been to Coconuts twice before and it was just as good as we remembered. The building was a huge palapa with a ceiling covered with slogan t-shirts, bras and silly, somewhat risque signs. Several critters – a couple of dogs, a kitten and a chicken – made rounds under the tables, looking for treats. For lunch, Ron had fish tacos and I ordered the shrimp quesadillas, which were fantastic. We shared one of Coconuts’ famous blue margaritas. OK, I probably drank more than half. But fortunately Ron helped or I wouldn’t have remembered the rest of the day. It was strong! Our final Hop Stop was at Punta Morena where we swung on the swing chairs at the beach bar.  The sun had finally broken through the clouds, turning the water into that gorgeous Caribbean blue.  Ahhhhh.

Rasta's Beach Bar
Rasta's Beach Bar

Chen Rio Cozumel
Chen Rio

conch shells

Coconuts Cozumel
Coconuts Bar and Grill

martini sign at Coconuts

lunch at Coconuts Cozumel

Ron at Coconuts

Coconuts cliffs

Punta Moreno Cozumel
Punta Moreno

Punta Moreno

Poncho's Backyard Puerta Maya

Back on board the ship, we went up to the Promenade Deck to watch the sail away, which was supposed to happen at 5 o’clock. But at 10 after 5, we were still tied up to the dock and we noticed a group of officers milling around the gangway with walkie talkies. Apparently, not everyone was back on the ship yet. We watched for the "Dock Runners" and eventually we saw two people jogging down the pier. Now we could leave, right? Nope. Still more people showed up, then more. I couldn’t believe how many people were late! A large crowd had gathered on the top deck and were booing and heckling the late-comers. Then the captain started blowing the ship’s horn. I don’t think he was too pleased about the delay. Finally at 5:35, the last two people stepped on board, the gangway was pulled up and we pushed away from the dock.

pilot boat

When we left Cozumel, the seas had picked up tremendously and the ship started to really rock. It was the worst rocking I’ve ever experienced on a cruise and I started getting queasy. I took a Bonine but it didn’t seem to help. We probably should have just gone to the buffet at that point, but the buffet food hadn’t been very appealing this trip so we decided to hold out for dinner in the dining room. Mistake! By 7:30, the combination of the motion and an empty stomach got the best of me. We went up on deck and I sat on a deck chair as close to the middle of the ship as possible while Ron got me a banana from the buffet. In all our cruises, this was the first time I’ve ever been sea sick and it was not fun! I guess I wasn’t the only one having problems because I saw a few other people wandering around, looking as green as I felt.

FINALLY it was 8:15 and time for dinner. I sipped chicken soup and ate a little grilled chicken with fettuccine. I attempted the chocolate melting cake but could only eat two bites. This, I have to write down: “On January 3, 2015, Susan did not want chocolate!” That had to be a first. :-)  The mint herbal tea helped a lot though.

As soon as dinner was over, we went straight back to the cabin. I took another Bonine and was out like a light. During the night, the seas finally calmed down and stayed calm for the rest of the trip. Thank goodness!

Sea Day

It’s a good thing I had set my alarm clock or we might have slept right through our Behind the Fun Tour. We’d tried to take this behind-the-scenes tour on our Sensation cruise last year but it was cancelled. I definitely didn’t want to miss it again! We met for the tour at 9 o’clock in the Blue Riband Library, a pretty room with paintings of classic ocean liners on the walls and ceiling. The Blue Riband was an accolade given to the passenger ship that made the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing. Carnival’s designer Joe Farcas liked to theme his ships and since Paradise’s theme was “Famous Ships”, many of the lounges and bars were named after Blue Riband winners – the Normadie Theater, the Queen Mary Lounge, the America Piano Bar.

There were sixteen people on the tour. The first thing I noticed was that only three of us were women.  Maybe guys are more interested in seeing how things work on a ship? The tour was led by Giselle, the HR Director on board. First everyone had to be wanded down by a security guard to make sure no one had any cell phones, cameras or sharp metal objects. Then Giselle led us through the theater to the backstage area and the women’s dressing room. Renee, one of the dance leaders, showed us how they stage all their costumes before each show because they only have 45 seconds for costume changes. She called it “controlled chaos”.

Next stop was the galley. As our group trooped through the Elation Dining Room, a lady waiting to be seated for brunch gave us the evil eye and muttered, “Why do they get to go in first?” You’d think the ship was going to run out of food or something! :-)  The ship’s executive chef, Chef Murugan, met us in the galley. He seemed like the kind of man who ran a tight ship (literally), with lots of talk about how important it is to “control the cooks”. I guess you have to be pretty regimented to serve 14,000 meals a day. The chef told us that because of the holiday, the ship was at maximum capacity with 2634 passengers and over 1000 crew, all eating. That’s a lot of eating!

I got to ask something I’ve been wondering about – does Your Time Dining make things easier or more difficult for the kitchen? Chef Murugan didn’t really answer directly. He said that they had gotten used to it and that it was better for the guests. I took that to mean that the traditional two-seating system was easier on the staff.

Then it was down to the engine control room where we talked with one of the Engineers. We weren’t allowed to go into the engine room itself for safety and comfort reasons (it’s 100 degrees down there) but we got to see the engines on the monitors and watched a video clip showing the azipods and bow thrusters. The Engineer told us that Paradise was powered by six diesel generators, each able to produce eight megawatts. This was Ron’s favorite part of the tour because of all the equipment. It must have been a favorite of the other guys too because they asked a million questions and we ended up spending twice our allotted time there.

Next we walked down the long corridor that runs the length of the ship on Deck 3, also known as “I-95”. This is where all loading and unloading, food storage and recycling takes place. In the ship’s laundry room, Giselle pointed out her favorite piece of equipment, “the Mangler”, a machine that dried, pressed and folded sheets. Pretty nifty! Unfortunately, towels still had to be folded the old-fashioned way, by hand. We took a peek into the “beer, soda and wine room”. The beverage manager explained that liquor has to be stored separately in special lockers since it is flammable. Ron asked him why Carnival serves their soda from cans instead of dispensers. The beverage manager said it was partially for quality control and partially because cans use less space. Storage is always an issue on a ship. Giselle read us some beverage statistics: in a typical week, Paradise guests go through 12,500 cans of soda, 11,950 beers and 300 liters of rum.

Before leaving Deck 3, we visited some of the crew areas – the galley, lounge and a training room with a bank of computers. Although the crew has many of their expenses taken care of by the cruise line, they do have to pay for internet service. I guess that explains why you can always find the free Wi-Fi in port by following the crew. Giselle told us a little about what it is like to work on a ship. Crew members work a 70-hour week, typically 10 hours a day with a maximum of 14 hours. She told us that they are allowed to drink while off-duty, but the maximum blood alcohol level is the same as for driving in the States – 0.08. There weren’t any empty crew cabins for us to look into but Giselle showed us a picture of one, which was roughly half the size of a standard guest cabin with one bunk bed. I thought the crew area was one of the most interesting parts of the tour. It made me realize that while a cruise ship is a vacation for us, for the crew it is their home. As Giselle put it, a ship has all the elements of society, just in a condensed space.

Our final stop was the Bridge, where we met Captain Guilio Basso. Throughout the tour, everyone had been asking a lot of questions, but when the captain walked in it got very quiet. Finally I piped up and asked how long he had worked for Carnival. He said he had been with Carnival since the 1980’s and his first ship was the Tropicale. That was one of our first ships too! One of the ship’s paparazzi showed up and took our pictures with the captain (we had to do it in two shifts since our group was so large). Then we all headed back to the atrium, where Giselle handed out Behind the Fun baseball caps and lanyards. And there was even a plate of chocolate covered strawberries from the chef waiting for us in the cabin. What a fantastic tour!

Behind the Fun group photo

Behind the Fun treats

It was not quite noon by then so we still had time to make it to brunch in the dining room. This time I ordered the fruit plate and Huevos Rancheros, a chicken quesadilla topped with a fried egg. Then we spent the afternoon relaxing on the aft deck, napping and reading. I took another walk around the jogging track. The sun was shining bright and hot and the water was deep blue.

At dinner I made up for the previous night and ordered half the menu – crab cake, mushroom soup, sushi, mahi mahi, and chocolate melting cake.  And this time I ate the whole melting cake. :-)  We said goodbye to Dennis and our table mates. Sometime during the day, the elves had taken down all the Christmas decorations in the atrium. It was time to go home, take down our own decorations and start the New Year.

Happy 2015, Everyone!

Paradise whale tail


  1. Another fun time had by Ron and Susan. Well, fun other than the sea sick time. Susan not wanting Chocolate? You know she must not be feeling good.

    1. Fortunately, the sea sick time didn't last too long. It was a great trip, especially the day in Cozumel and the Behind the Fun tour.

  2. The behind the scenes tour would be very interesting. My daughter Laura's new boss in Austin, and his wife, and several of their friends I met recently are all former cruise ship employees, and it was fun talking with them about their experiences.