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Copyright © 1995-2002 
Linda Coffman


Carnival Pride
Western Caribbean:
Port Canaveral, Key West, Belize City, Cozumel, Progreso/Merida, Port Canaveral
April 27-May 4, 2002

by Scott Abrahams

All week on the Carnival Pride, I never saw a pharmacy aisle, a garden center, or a McDonaldís. I assumed I was in the right place, because so many critics compare Carnival to Wal-Mart. Oops. Wrong. This ship had way too much great food and entertainment, wild dťcor and Fun Ship ambience to get confused with a Wal-Mart or even a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

Carnival has created another supercenter of fun, though, with the Pride. You will enjoy your week on the ship and at the ports. Carnival delivered on the cruise experience and ports as promised, with the bonus of perfect, sunny weather. The ship was full. The food was plenteous. The nightlife was at full blast. None of the tenders at Belize sunk. The only glitches I saw were some overtaxed ice machines and soft ice-cream machines, and several people who couldnít get back to the ship on time at both ports in Mexico. We very nicely waited, to the irritation of some.

Overall, the Pride is wonderful, beautiful ship. In fact, you will see the word beautiful in here many times. My criticisms, and I dare say most of the criticisms on this board, are made within a context of an overall good experience. I have been fortunate to travel on 32 cruises since 1980, with about 15 or 16 on Carnival, a couple on Royal Caribbean, three or four on Princess, three or four on NCL, two short ones on Disney and two on Holland America.

As nice as the Pride is, itís a rather odd duck, a kind of Holland America reinterpretation of the Carnival Fun Ship theme. On Holland America, you have real art. On the Pride, you have art representations applied all over he ship. On Holland America, you have dark bars. On the Pride, many areas are dark. Unlike Holland America, the Prideís dťcor is baroque in its overly decorated endlessness. Not a floor, ceiling, wall, support beam, elevator, chair or stairwell is left untouched by some sort of theme. It seems more theatrical than actual. Itís also fascinating, so this is not really a negative.

Most of the public rooms, the ones that arenít dark, are truly beautiful in my opinion. Check out the mosaics in the Sunset Garden area and in the foyers of the Taj Mahal. Much of the Renaissance "artwork" features nudity like we have all seen before in classic paintings. The topless-mermaid sculptures were up on Lido Deck were anatomically correct. Some people think this is Carnivalís attempt to tone things down, but I donít think so. Itís just "classier" than neon.

To me, Carnival hasnít "improved" over the years in order to supposedly rectify its party image; it has simply evolved along with the rest of the industry. One issue does stand out, however. In the late 1980s and early í90s, Carnival was getting known as "Fort Lauderdale at sea" during spring break time. CCL finally regulated that by requiring passengers under 21 be accompanied by at least one parent, grandparent or guardian at least 25 years old in the same cabin. Carnival needed this step. My understanding is that too many travel agents were booking cabins and cabins of unsupervised teens.

Carnivalís food has always ranged from good to excellent and back again, although the portions at dinner are smaller these days. The nightlife is as lively as ever, and the ships all have their Fun Ship themes. The party atmosphere is as strong as ever, although some things like the beer-bong contest on the pool deck and the Male Nightgown Contest in the main show lounge have disappeared. I guess those events werenít politically correct, although bolting sculptures of topless mermaids to the ceiling on Lido Deck apparently is OK. (Whatever.) The cruise director is quick to warn the audience if something coming up "is a little bit spicy" or "PG-13." R-rated material is saved for midnight shows only. In contrast, I well remember R-rated shows any time of the day or evening. A friend made a video of a male nightgown contest from about 1986, which was quite Ďspicyí and hilarious. Itís a historic document now.

Something worth mentioning is that Carnival offers a nice perk to shareholders: a $100 onboard credit. After making final payment, I mailed my documentation to Carnival in Miami and hoped for the best. Carnival did not confirm my request, nor did I expect them to ó theyíre too cheap. When my cruise ticket arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to find a $100 credit listed. On the second night of the cruise, the purserís office left a memo in my tree-mail container outside my cabin (a little Survivor lingo) confirming the $100 credit. Thank you, Carnival! At least this paid for the gratuities, one shore excursion and one or two drinks.

On the Pride, Carnival posts the suggested weekly gratuities of $68.25 to your account. I have no problem with this, and itís probably easier for the crew not having to handle cash at the end of the week. Apparently, too many passengers were stiffing the staff. This is understandable on Carnival, in that you do get some Wal-Mart types (that word again) attracted by the great value of a Carnival cruise who are too cheap, broke, stupid or ignorant to tip. Also, because passengers have more dining options these days, some guests might decide they ate too few meals in the dining room to justify tips. To me, the crew was as reasonably happy and friendly as ever. Iím sure the crew knows that passengers can go to the purserís office and have the automatic tip lowered or removed. Or increased.

The cruise started easily. I drove from home to the Port Canaveral terminal baggage drop-off zone in about an hour, found a parking space, paid $56 and walked back to the terminal. I was in line from about 1:30 p.m. to 2 p.m., which to me was longer than usual. The place was mobbed, but the confusion was organized and the lines moved along. FOR CRYING OUT LOUD, FILL IN YOUR DOCUMENTS AHEAD OF TIME. Still, I walked into my cabin just two hours after leaving home. That is hard to beat!

I purchased a 1A category cabin (guaranteed upper and lower) with likelihood of an upgrade. This means your luggage tags arrive TBA and you get your cabin number from a porter when you drop off your luggage. This ship has only five 1A cabins, so an upgrade of some sort is assured. Carnival upgraded my cabin four notches to 4D, which was a nice inside cabin, 7339, on Veranda deck. This was two decks below the Lido Deck eateries and the aft pool. It was a good spot. In fact, itís a good neighborhood, with lots of balcony cabins and suites nearby. Two women said they paid for a guaranteed category 8A, which is your standard balcony cabin. They, too, arrived with TBA tags and found themselves upgraded 10 notches to a category 11, a suite. My congratulations! The cabins all have safes that can be activated with a credit card or your Sail & Sign card, which also has a magnetic stripe.

The ship left about 4:20 p.m., just about as advertised. All was well until 8:15 p.m. at my first dinner, which turned out to be the lowest point of the week. If youíre in a hurry, you may skip the next many paragraphs. Iím going to spend way too much time discussing the Normandie dining room.

I had requested a large table on first sitting and was given a table for two on second sitting. Second sitting was OK, but a table for two is hardly a fun way to meet people when youíre traveling alone. Even worse, the other person never showed. So, I began the cruise in this beautiful room getting acquainted with no one. Meanwhile, I saw tables for six and eight with some empty chairs. If you want a table for two with a good view of the main floor below, request No. 397. Itís right along the railing.

After dinner, an assistant maitre dí consulted the computer and couldnít find a table for six or eight with an official opening. But, a few hours later someone left more tree-mail at my cabin with a reassignment to a booth for four downstairs near the main floor off to the side. Luckily, I met three wonderful women who happily accommodated a fourth companion. All was well, more or less. This was the first time I have ever asked for another table.

The Normandie is a throwback to the older days when the smaller ships had only one dining room. This is not all bad. For example, this allows for uninterrupted passenger flow on certain decks. Then ships got bigger, and designers put in two dining rooms. Some new ships still have two dining rooms, or more. But now, on the Carnival Pride, Spirit and Legend, and the newer Royal Caribbean ships, we are back to one great big humongous dining room.

The Normandie features a central open area under a decorated ceiling, with many semi-private sections along the sides and upstairs. This place must hold at least 1,000 people. It is meant to make people feel they are in a more intimate (or less humongous) setting, and to give people more choice of eating by themselves or with others. Carnival says this is in response to comments by people who wanted more seating for two. Well, they got their tables for two. There also are booths for four and the traditional larger tables for six or eight in the central open area. Some areas off to the side had long tables or eight, 10 or 12, which I assume is preferred by larger groups of folks traveling together.

All of which sounds great, but two issues to consider: First, you may not get the table you want. Carnival explicitly says that it wonít guarantee your choice of table or sitting. If you want a large table and donít get one, you may be out of luck. In contrast, tables for two abounded.

Second, Carnivalís traditional dining-room shows donít work well in this space because many people canít see whatís going on. The dining-team members are mostly confined to central area. A few members of the wait staff venture into the hinterlands as token representatives of the show. On a couple of evenings, the dining staff donned crazy wigs, and some danced on the serving side tables on the main floor. This was hilarious and fun, but I had to walk away from my booth to see it. Other people were even further away from the action and they didnít see anything.

On the Pride, this design is even more disadvantageous because the maitre dí likes to sing Frank Sinatra songs and work the room like it is a big lounge. The maitre dí stopped by our booth one night, just off the main floor, and he told us he would prefer to walk and sing throughout the room, but that the overhang from the second level cuts off his microphone.

As you can tell, I prefer the more open, communal dining areas, especially when traveling by myself. I went to several open-sitting breakfasts and sat at the large tables, and I definitely enjoyed the dining room more out in the main area. Besides, the dining room at breakfast almost seemed quicker than the Lido Deck buffets. Of course, the dining-room breakfast is served only from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m.

Finally, hereís a suggestion. The Pride takes "dining room reservation inquiries" in the Captainís Club (next to the dining room) from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. on the afternoon you arrive. If this issue is important to you, you can check your seating and probably get a change right then. And remember, as Carnival states in your ticket documents, "To be fair to all of our guests, your Maitre Dí does not encourage and will not accept gratuities to ensure specific dining reservations or arrangements." Good luck!

As for the dining-room food and service, I had an excellent, excellent prime rib one night, and two excellent lobster tails on another night. The seafood dishes were uniformly good, although some of the desserts were bland. The best dessert I had all week was up on the Lido Deck, a piece of incredibly good chocolate cake. Although on the last night, when I had some chewy chateaubriand for the entree, I had two wonderful desserts: a chocolate fudge cake and a cappuccino ice-cream pie. Yum. The service was fun and efficient, the dťcor elegant (more Holland America style) with none of the dancing tivoli lights that enliven the dining room shows on other Carnival ships ó which I rather missed.

Eight decks above the Normandie on the Lido Deck is the topless Mermaidís Grille, certainly one of the most beautiful informal buffet areas anywhere. The dťcor and atmosphere are impressive, and the food was generally good. As in the Normandie, Carnival has segmented this extended space between the center pool area and the aft pool area into different serving lines and small-scale sitting areas. It is confusing ó another quibble. Consider this: Early in the cruise, walk around the whole area and get an idea of which serving line serves what. Try to memorize that. You have four main lines (deli, rotisserie, Asian, Taste of Nations), plus the grill for hot dogs and hamburgers outside by the center pool, plus the pizza station toward the back and the free ice-cream machines even farther back by the aft pool.

Salad bar? Fresh fruit? On the Pride, it took me three days to stumble across the fresh fruit and salad stuff. Duh. The fruits and salads are split into three smallish serving lines in alcove-type spaces. You really have to look for them at first, and they donít serve many people at once. Hint: Find the pizza station. The fruit and salad lines are adjacent. I donít know why things have to be so difficult. I hope it was just me. (Carnivalís Fantasy-class ships feature a fruit and salad bar station in the middle of the Lido Deck buffet area. Theyíre big, theyíre round, theyíre obvious, and itís easy for many people to partake at once.)

If you like eating with views of the sea, this is the place to do it. Here, you have a choice of many tables for two, booths for four and gigantic tables for groups. The floor-to-ceiling windows are great, much better than the windows in the infamous Normandie dining room. Once you find your food, itís a wonderful place to meet friends or family, to sit and enjoy the passing parade of people, look at the port or watch the sea and clouds go by. The serving lines have trays, which other Carnival buffets apparently do not have according to other reviews.

Another stupid-design issue. The jogging track is confined to a rather small spot on Deck 11. The Fantasy class and Destiny class ships have much longer jogging tracks. Few people used the jogging track for walking or running. Itís too short and too boring. An alternative, especially for you exercise walkers, is Deck 10. This outside deck winds entirely around and above the Deck 9 pool area. You have plenty to see along this long route, and the walkway is surprisingly spacious as it goes past the deck furniture. The only close-in spot is aft where the water slide intrudes into the area where you are walking. You might get splashed a little. Meanwhile, serious runners should use the treadmills in the gym.

The pool area was great, with two separate pools divided by a bar serving area. Being able to see the deck games is a problem on all Carnival ships, but they seem to have fewer deck games these days so maybe it doesnít matter. Music plays in the center pools, but the aft pool is quieter.

Letís go back downstairs. The grand atrium is another design disappointment. Itís beautiful, but itís the least grand of any shipboard atria I have seen. The grand Renaissance artwork that goes up for several stories is all but impossible to see because of the narrowness of the soaring atrium. You canít really step back and view it, as the rendering in the Carnival brochure would have you believe. The only way is to get in a glass elevator and go up and down so it unrolls before your eyes. This is kind of fun, actually. But the Destiny-class atrium is far more impressive. Even the Fantasy-class atrium is more impressive. If this is supposed to be a grand focal point of the interior design, I think it fails. Even the staircases for those formal-night photo ops are kind of dinky. Nevertheless, the Renaissance lobby on the ground floor was a popular place for people to gather before dinner. On formal night, with everyone dressed up, that place really was splendid. No one is staring skyward anyway.

How about the disco, known as Beauties Dance Club? Again, this is odd. It is two decks deep. A bar and sitting area are upstairs, but the dance floor is reached by going down some stairs, where there is more bar service and seating. You would think the cruise line would be concerned about sloshed people injuring themselves going up and down the stairs as part of the normal flow through the place. No topless mermaids here, but lots of topless sculpted torsos instead. Those apparently are the "beauties." Anyway, the sound system is great and the video wall is great. Itís a nice dance club, just a little odd. Maybe thatís the point ó to experience something that is a little different.

The main walkway winds its way through the lobby, the casino and the various public areas on Promenade deck 2. Itís a great trek. Nonplayers can walk through the din of the casino without bothering anyone who is playing. Of course, the walkway is designed to lure you in, which is fine, but it also allows you literally to walk through the middle of the amusements without being a part of the action. An inviting bar/sitting area in the casino overlooks the action.

Carnivalís piano bars are entertaining, be they rock and roll type piano bars or quieter ones. Carnival almost always has excellent musicians/singers who keep the place happy and hopping. On the Pride, in the Ivory Piano Bar, "Jim" was vulgar and sang loudly into his mike. It got to be too much on the second or third night after some people around the bar were joking and conversing with him by yelling at him over the loudness of his over-miked voice. Itís too bad, because under all that cacophony, he was a good singer and pianist. Overall, the piano bar didnít look as busy as other Carnival piano bars I have visited. If Carnival evaluates entertainers by how well the bar does, this guy got maybe a C.

A word about the other pianist on board, cocktail music performer "JP." This is the type of performer who gets little attention because he doesnít sing or dance or tell randy jokes into a booming microphone. He just plays here and there throughout the week: at high tea in the Florentine Lounge or before dinner in the Renaissance atrium and the Piazza Cafť, providing background music for everyoneís conversations. He has a piano performance degree from the University of South Carolina. He is an excellent pianist and it was nice to make his acquaintance.

As for the main production shows, Wonderful World on Monday and Vroom! on Thursday, do not miss them. Carnival pulls out all the stops for these two Las Vegas shows. They feature the same medley-song anthologies almost all cruise-ship shows have, but they were so sophisticated and well-written and choreographed I almost forgot that I was hearing familiar things. These shows were better even than in recent years on other Carnival ships. Both shows lasted about an hour each with no interruptions. They were quite intense and well-attended. The two lead singers werenít outstanding but very adequate. The Taj Mahal show lounge is comfortable and spacious, more so than on some other ships, as well as being beautiful. As with other Carnival show lounges, you sometimes have to jockey for position to get a perfectly clear view.

Oh, yes, the ship did go to four ports.

Key West: The Pride docks at the so-called abandoned Navy pier, which is another quibble. At all the other cruise-ship piers in Key West, you can walk off the ship and into town. At the Navy pier, you canít walk into town unless you can walk across water. So, you have to take shuttles through the base. And you have to get the shuttle to come back. Because of security, you canít walk in or out, and it would be 2-3 mile hike to do so (just to go a quarter mile as the seagull flies into the heart of downtown Key West.) Anyway, Key West is fun and historic. Take the either the Trolley tour or the Conch Train tour to get oriented. I found the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum a fascinating look at Spanish history and a unique opportunity to see real Spanish gold and silver and emeralds. This museum ($7.50) is well located for cruise-ship passengers. Itís a good complement to seeing El Morro Castle in San Juan. The exhibits provide insight into how Puerto Rico, Cuba, Colombia and the Caribbean were so important to the Spanish in the 1500s and 1600s, when Spain was a major world power.

Belize City: The Pride anchors about four miles offshore, requiring a 15-minute tender ride into town. The people in Belize provide the tenders, which seemed to be adequate and speedy, but they do have to cover a fairly long distance coming and going. I wouldnít want one of these things to break down out there. Carnival offers quite a few excursions here, which recently have been posted on the Carnival Web site. I thought Belize City was bustling with people and activity, although some found it poor. Well, itís third world, is what it is. Itís partly poor and itís partly just undeveloped and itís not the United States. And itís not even Mexico!

I donít strongly recommend the Baboon Sanctuary and Belize City Tour, but let me describe it anyway. The trip was rather interesting in that we (all 22 of us) had an unexpectedly thorough look at the city and countryside in a decent air-conditioned motorcoach with a guide. We saw some of downtown, then drove on the paved main highway to the north and then down a rough country road at 25 to 35 mph for about 35 minutes to get to the sanctuary. We finally arrived and visited a small museum that schoolchildren were also visiting. The sanctuary manager, a soft-spoken, older Belize man who was very articulate but needed lots of dental work, took us into the nearby woods. From a long ways off, we could hear the howling of the baboons, which are known in the United States as howler monkeys. The "sanctuary" is not an enclosed area, but rather some forest and river acreage the landowners have preserved. We didnít see that many monkeys, but finally a couple of them climbed down the trees to get our guideís handout of fruit. If you expect to see lots of howler monkeys coming up and being friendly, youíll be disappointed. This is their actual habitat, not a zoo. Our guide also stopped to point out and discuss many native plants that provide folk cures for ailments ranging from depression to diabetes. I think we spent as much time on the plants as the monkeys. After a pleasant, 45-minute walk, we were back at the museum ready to leave.

Important note: The only bathroom at the sanctuary is an outhouse with four potties. This is the only facility available on this excursion, apparently. Hold your nose and use it.

We boarded the bus for another grueling, bumpy ride over that interminable dirt road. Finally, we arrived back in the city, and we had a surprisingly long tour through all the areas: rich, poor, middle-class, and downtown yet again. It was enjoyable, but most people were ready for the bathroom and something to eat. They provided bottled water, but no lunch was advertised or provided. It should have been, because you had to eat breakfast before the 10 a.m. departure from the ship, but the tour took until about 2:50 p.m. to get back the tender area. I finally got some lunch on Lido Deck by about 3:15 just before the hot line closed. It just seemed like a banana or some chips or a small sandwich should have been included. I enjoyed the grand tour we had of city and country, but it did get a little too rough and little too long.

Cozumel: This is your spot to snorkel, shop and take photos of many other cruise ships. I would have taken the Fiesta Party Cruise but it left at 8 a.m. Yes, 8 a.m.! I recommend Fat Tuesdayís by the pier for ice-cold adult beverages. A mall of shops is available on the pier, and an outdoor bazaar of shops is next to the pier. This place grows to be more like St. Thomas at every visit. All Cozumel needs now is a fake mountain with a tramway. And more shops at the top, of course.

Progreso/Merida: Wow. Interesting. Merida is the real Mexico and Progreso, the port city, is an up-and-coming Cozumel. Here you have the longest pier you are likely to see. Various estimates had it at four, five and six miles long. Letís just say the ship docks way, way, way out on the water. Very unusual. The cruise-ship section is new, having been dedicated in June 2000. The Mexicans are building a shopping area out by the ship for last-minute souvenirs. Only one shop was open for business at the first of May 2002, but more are coming. For those not on tours, a free shuttle takes you into town if you want to visit Progreso and the beach. Many people found Progresoís beach quite a nice spot, and itís adjacent to the long, seagoing causeway/bridge. Another visit to both cities would be nice. As others have written, public transportation to Merida is available.

The Merida City Overview and shopping tour was easy and fun. It was interesting to see the traditional, square Spanish "plaza major" and learn some Mayan history from our guide. Merida is the capital of Yucatan state, and the city was quite large and bustling. If you take this, you will have a little over an hour for some shopping. Lunch is not provided, but youíll find eateries around the picturesque plaza ó Internet cafes, too. This is the real Mexico that you donít necessarily see in Cancun or Cozumel. But folks speak English. They arenít totally ignorant of the tourists.

You donít see much of Progreso on this tour. As we returned, our bus proceeded straight through town to the bridge at the beautiful shoreline. We passed over the beach and rolled out to sea on the causeway. Our home away from home waited on the horizon to take us home.

Here again, some folks were late coming back. I heard one story later that we had to leave a set of parents behind looking for their 12-year-old daughter.

Port Canaveral: I walked off the ship at 9:30 a.m. and was home by 10:50. That is hard to beat!

This review has made many criticisms, most of which frankly arenít that relevant to your enjoyment of the ship and the cruise (except maybe for the dining room). Itís a good itinerary, perhaps best suited for veteran cruisers wanting some different ports. For example, many ships stay well into the evening at Cozumel, many until midnight ó the Pride left at 5 p.m. First-time cruisers might prefer a ship that stays longer. (A plug: Carnival has several.)

At any rate, the Pride is a wonderful ship even with its odd designs. I would go on it again. A seven-day cruise is a rich, full experience regardless of the quibbles (or even the cruise line, quite honestly).

Carnival has decided to move the Pride to Los Angeles and replace it at Port Canaveral in July 2003 with a Destiny-type ship, the 110,000-ton Carnival Glory, which will be new. Glory, Hallelujah! The Glory will probably more of a traditional Fun Ship. Carnival says it will have the same itineraries as the Pride. Sounds beautiful.

Scott Abrahams
Life is a cruise, so let's hit the Lido Deck now!


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Photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line