Having wrapped up our Navigator of The Seas, we have now sailed with each of the three massive lines focused on the American mass-market; Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean.
The big question for us is “are these three lines interchangeable, or is there a noticeable difference in product quality amongst them?”.
As far as we’re concerned, there are, indeed, differences and there is a clear best choice, so, let’s rank them, starting at the bottom…
Third Place - Norwegian Cruise Line. As compared to its two primary competitors, NCL offers a less homogeneous hard product, with a fleet which remains something of a hodgepoge. In our experience, we found that, not only was the ship crowded, but the cabins were cramped and there were few appealing public spaces. Food was disappointing and the bar offering didn’t really cater to people who enjoy decent wines or spirits.
Second Place - Royal Caribbean. If our reviews were based simply on the number of bells and whistles attached to the ships, RCCL would win hands down, they offer a modern fleet which is continuously renewed with vessels which set new records for capacity and variety of facilities. In contrast to NCL, we found plenty of places to sit in peace and quiet, despite the vast number of fellow passengers. Like NCL, food was nothing to write home about, but there were at least wine bars and cocktail venues catering to grown ups.
First Place - Carnival. In our experience, Carnival is in a different league from it’s principle competition. Yes, some of the ships, including Triumph, are older, but ongoing improvement projects keep them relevant. While there are noisy kids arcades and clubs, there was also appealing bars and quiet lounges. The staff on Carnival were friendly, attentive and enthusiastic - really contributing to a great atmosphere in places, notably the pool bars and casino. Food, perhaps because it has no pretension to being haute cuisine, is far superior to that offered on RCCL or NCL - the sea day brunch is particularly good.
The downside to Carnival is that, unlike both NCL and RCCL, they offer very infrequent cruises in Europe and almost never anything sailing from the UK. That being said, if we were already in the US for work or another holiday, we wouldn’t hesitate to add a short Carnival sailing on to the end of the trip.
Carnival was a very pleasant surprise. Decent food, which we really didn’t expect, a good shore excursion and really friendly staff who, magically, seemed to recall your name after serving you once.
Alcohol was expensive - the all-inclusive drinks packages are definitely worthwhile, especially if you’re on a short cruise.
Now, we’re not about to cross the Atlantic just to cruise with Carnival again and are even less likely to partake in any of the sailings offered as part of their sparse offering in the Mediterranean. However, if it was convenient, we wouldn’t hesitate to cruise with carnival again. With their huge selection of departure ports and short itineraries, there are plenty of circumstances in which we’d sail with them again:
From the Carnival side, disembarkation was quick and smooth.
Itemised bills were sent to each room and the majority of passengers, with a credit card attached to their accounts, only had to walk off of the boat.
Luggage was collected from outside of the cabin during the night and was ashore, waiting for us as we disembarked.
My only criticism of Carnival would be that they did not make clear that detailed disembarkation instructions would be delivered to each cabin - if they had, I wouldn’t have bothered going to the (tedious) meeting about it in the main theatre.
Things on shore were not so smooth - half a dozen US Customs and Border Patrol agents trying to process 3000 passengers is only going to end one way...
There is a tendency, is there not, among the “well travelled” to characterise alien behaviour among people from developing countries as a “cultural experience”, while dismissing a lot of American culture as beneath us. The plain facts are that Americans are more religious than Europeans and have a different view of the role played by the state - we can either haughtily dismiss this, or accept it, as we do when we wear sleeves in the 50 degree heat of Qatar.
Given that it was Spring Break, I’m not sure how representative this cruise was of a typical Carnival passenger manifest. Departing from a regional port, it was almost exclusively American and featured the full gamut of Hollywood stereotypes, from the ripped college jocks through to swarming mobility scooters.
However, without question, the majority were friendly. I had a great time with the people I shared a dinner table with and also had some fantastic conversations with strangers in the bars.
The, erm, charged political situation in the US right now was in evidence and I did witness a rather unpleasant scene involving some very drunk casino users having a, well, conversation about such edifying topics as “white privilege” and “faggots”, but I think there’s potential for that anywhere in the US right now.
All-in-all, for this sceptic, fellow travellers are not an issue on Carnival.
For those that hadn’t guessed, an environment which includes a “Hairy Chest Contest” is not one in which we would normally choose to spend time, even if winning would be a foregone conclusion. I think for Brits of a certain age, such activities conjure up images that we’re rather forget...
That being said, I found it pretty easy to avoid any enforced jollity that I didn’t want to take part in and Carnival clearly know what most of their customers want - people were having a great time and that creates a lovely atmosphere to spend time in.
For those who were partaking, the extensive list of daily activities aboard Carnival Triumph can be broken down into six broad categories:
A horror of group activity means that, up until now, we at CruiseSceptic have steadfastly avoided organised tours on cruises. In the interests of research, we decided to take one for the team and book a tour for our stop in Progresso, Mexico. As it turned out, Progresso itself is just a giant pier for various ships to dock at and a dusty town centre, so heading to something interesting was a good call.
Before sailing, we booked a tour described as “VIP Chichen Itza and Cenote Ik-Kil - mainly because the idea of swimming in a Cenote was irresistible. For the unfamiliar, cenotes are sinkholes that lead to underground rivers.
Again, praise goes to Carnival for the way the process itself was handled - the simultaneous departure from the ship of hundreds of passengers headed onto dozens of different tours was slick and well organised. There were, of course, still people complaining that they weren’t being individually led by the nose, but that’s the general public for you.
What we weren’t so happy about was the lack of advance information about the day itself. For example, we may have not chosen this tour had we known in advance that most of it (four hours out of seven) would be spent in a minibus. On the other hand, we may have been more relaxed had we been told in advance that the Cenote location had excellent lockers and changing facilities - rather than wondering about how to prevent valuables been stolen while we were splashing around in the earth’s crust.
The “VIP” part of the tour turned out to be the use of minibuses, rather than coaches, which travelled faster and so enabled us to visit the Cenote, rather than just Chichen Itza. The quality of the guide was however, also first class.
As it turned out, both parts of the tour were worth the time bent double in a minibus. Chichen Itza is simply incredible, even if packed with tourists and purveyors of tat. Our guide seemed able to navigate us around the worst of the chaos.
The lunch at Cenote Ik-Kil wasn’t worth tuppence, but the day would have counted as a triumph if all we’d done was swim in the Cenote - it was just a magical experience.
Booking an official Carnival tour, which guarantees that the boat will wait for you, was also worthwhile - it meant we remained relaxed even as we crawled back through Progresso’s rush hour with only minutes to go before the ship’s scheduled departure time.
I’m going to be charitable and suggest that the spa offering on the newer Carnival ships has evolved, but the Triumph is not the ship for you if spa treatments are a priority.
First, let’s talk about the decor. There has been no attempt at dressing the treatment rooms, so your massage takes place on, essentially, a gurney in a room lined in pale pink formica with green surfaces. Forget your incense and Balinese motifs, this is more of a death penalty vibe. At the very best, it feels like the sort of Black Sea health spa that senior Soviet civil servants enjoyed in the ‘80s. Although, I’m willing to bet those Black Sea resorts offered a deep tissue massage that de-stressed you to within an inch of consciousness, the massage on Carnival Triumph was sort of half-hearted and unenthusiastic.
There is also a large gym aboard Triumph, which was busy, but not too crowded, for most of the day.
It’s a cold hard fact that Carnival’s bar staff are excellent. This cruise was in the middle of Spring Break season, so the bars, particularly by the pool, were often heaving with people - the bar staff took and processed orders with a level of speed and efficiency that was amazing to watch. Oddly, though, other bars on the ship, notably the cavernous Oxford Bar, seemed to be completely devoid of either customers or staff.
The drinks themselves were a mixed bag. If you are in any way bothered about wine, Carnival is not the line for you. There were a handful of wines on offer with dinner, all drinkable, but nothing to get excited about.
Anything involving a drink and a mixer (e.g., gin and tonic) was generously poured, although full of ice, as is the norm in the US. Other mixed drinks were, for my tastes, far too sweet; Long Island Iced Teas, Daiquiris and even Margaritas were sickly.
The Alchemy Bar, newly installed on Triumph, is first class. There is a long menu of imaginative cocktails, but even standard martinis are expertly served by charming staff.
Drinks on Carnival are not, however, cheap - most alcoholic items seem to be around $10 a throw, which makes the unlimited beverage packages a very attractive option.
To be perfectly honest, I boarded this cruise feeling slightly apprehensive about the food. I anticipated the worst of tasteless, unhealthy commercial banqueting food and, given that this is an older ship, knew that there were no real “speciality”, extra-charge, restaurants available should I need to escape the awfulness of the main dining room.
I was wrong.
The food was, almost all, fresh, tasty and well prepared - at least it was when I made sensible choices.
Dinner in Main Dining Room took a night to get the hang of - portions are actually small, particularly of side orders, but the staff will cheerfully bring you multiple dishes. My first night dinner was shrimps in cocktail sauce which, to be fair, weren’t the best, followed by a perfectly fine blackened mahi-mahi and then Carnival’s excellent signature dessert - chocolate melting cake.
Unlike most Carnival ships, there is no separate steakhouse on the Triumph, however, a selection of items from the steakhouse menu are always available on the Main Dining Room menu for a small extra charge. The surf and turf was outstanding.
As a bonus, on some nights, the waiters in the main dining room will suddenly put on a choreographed song and dance number. I want to hate this, but it was actually fun.
Carnival makes a big deal of their Sea Day Brunch and I found that it could either be great or terrifying - the choice is yours. On the first sea day, I ordered sensibly, avoiding the “desserts for breakfast” items that some Americans are so fond of. Caesar salad was tasty and crisp, the huevos rancheros were tasty and a macaroni cheese topped with fried chicken (stop judging me!) was decent. On the downside, the bar service seemed to be having some sort of meltdown, much to the mortification of my waiter. A Bloody Mary took a full hour to arrive then, after the meal, it took a further 25 minutes for the bar bill to arrive.
On the second sea day I decided to go native at brunch. Cheerio-coated French toast had the texture and taste of raw evil.
I’m not a massive fan of buffets, but, in the name of research, had a couple of runs at it. The food is fine, if underwhelming. The dessert options are not particularly appealing, while breakfast is entirely as expected, as well as very busy, if efficient.
The most hyped eating venue on most Carnival ships is Guy’s Burger Joint, a brand tie-up with Food Network star, Guy Fieri. Does it live up to the hype or justify the, often, huge lines? Nope. That being said, I frequently saw it open with no line and it is a very well put together burger. Other reviews make a lot of play about the “incredible” Toppings Bar - it’s a selection of sauces and pickles - you’ve probably got a larger selection of open jars lurking in the depths of your fridge.
Blue Iguana Cafe serves burritos, tacos and salads. Again, it is serviceable but not great - you wouldn’t go two minutes out of your way to eat there if it was on land.
Finally, The Seafood Shack, is a recent addition to Triumph, offering a variety of fish and shellfish for an extra charge. Their lobster roll arrived and looked as if it had been drowned in too much mayonnaise, but, was actually very good - well worth the extra few dollars. The accompanying fries were also excellent. Later in the cruise I tried the mixed fried fish - that was less successful.
Triumph doesn't offer all of the bells and whistles of the newer Carnival ships, but it felt like there was plenty to do on a short cruise.
There are two pools, one aft with a sliding roof which, for the duration of this cruise, remained closed and a very busy mid-ships pool surrounded by hot tubs and bars. I should note that, early in the cruise, rough weather closed the pools as they’d turned into skull-crushing vortices.
In better weather, the pools were busy, but there is plenty of deck space on the ship and I was always able to find empty loungers. Speaking of which - there are no mattresses on the loungers, but they are made from a mesh, rather than hard plastic, which is comfortable with just a towel. It did, however, feel as if the ship could use more shelter from wind on the deck - I lay down to read for twenty minutes and then found my shoes forty meters downwind.
There is a single waterslide as a small mini-golf course high up on the ship, as well as a large screen suspended above the pool which shows movies of an evening. And, by the way, people seem to love that - sitting in deck chairs in a storm one night, seemingly oblivious to the driving rain.
There are also a lot of things aimed at keeping children amused, including a video game arcade themed, not wholly successfully, as “Underground Tokyo”.