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cruising the caribbean aboard the carnival dream

by Elaine Sosa Labalme

I never gave much thought to a Caribbean cruise until a recent news story touting the next generation of superliners featuring, among other things, onboard waterparks.

“Mom, we have GOT to check that out!” shrieks my eight-year-old, Steven, as I pass along the tantalizing tidbit.  In a Cinderella moment, we soon find ourselves aboard the Carnival Dream, a ship whose 4,400 passengers and 1,600 crew make it more of a small town, albeit one where the neighbors change weekly and everything runs like a charm.

Ahead of our Port Canaveral, Florida sailing, we stop in nearby St. Augustine for a day of (beach) play as an entree to the cruising life.  Guests of the stately Casa Monica Hotel in the city’s historic district have privileges at the Serenata Beach Club on nearby Ponte Vedra Beach.  The oceanfront club has at its heart a meandering blue pool surrounded by graceful palm trees.  Bring the floats and prepare to lollygag, pausing for a lunch of ahi tuna or a juicy burger.  Active children report to Kids Cove for a slew of activities and in due course the endless beach attracts everyone, its zillions of tiny seashells glistening in the Florida sunshine.  End the day at the hotel’s 95 Cordova restaurant, where even the kids menu offers a perfect cut of steak.  http://www.casamonica.com/

Our seven-day cruise will call on four ports in the Western Caribbean and sets sail on a  Saturday afternoon.  Upon entering the ship, I’m immediately reminded of the Mandalay Bay, a gleaming Las Vegas hotel with its own beach.  The ship’s core is graced by the Dream Atrium, a stories-high space with golden walls as foil for glass elevators, circular, see-through staircases and music, shopping and cocktail venues.  Jaws agape, we sashay to our stateroom, a study in blond woods and copper accents.  The king bed is napped in soft white sheets and a couch doubles as Steven’s bed.  There is plentiful closet and drawer space and the balcony is a sweet perch from which to observe the sea.

After a quick safety briefing, we make our way to the Waves Pool and while it isn’t made for laps, it’s a refreshing dip.  An 8:15 p.m. seating in the Scarlet Dining Room is ours for the week and I’m pleasantly surprised to be dining in our own private booth, a configuration that’s available along with the more standard tables-of-ten.  Cascading chandeliers cast a rosy glow upon the expansive, two-level room and when Fen and I can’t decide between one of two appetizers, our waiter, David, smiles and says “you can have both!”  One gazpacho, two Caesar salads and countless plates later, we head back to Lido Deck for a welcome party hosted by Cruise Director Todd Wittmer.  A sea of humanity is dancing to the Black Eyed Peas’ anthemic “Tonight’s Gonna Be A Good Night” and before long, colorful lasers pierce the night sky, our signal for sleep.  The turndown is endearing thanks to a towel art seal perched at the foot of the king bed.

“Mom,” says Steven, “this really is a fun ship.”

I tiptoe out of the room on day two, excited about the possibilities for our day at sea.  On the Promenade Deck, I’m surprised to find myself the only jogger.  After a brisk two miles, I visit the Cloud 9 Spa for a Total Body Workout with Slobodan, a Yugoslavian with abs of steel.  Waking my men from their slumber, we head to Scarlet for the open-seating breakfast and my fresh fruit, muffin, eggs, potatoes, bacon and coffee are delicious, nutritious and far more than I’d ever eat at home.  We leave the food fest behind and, armed with a small map, set about exploring.  In short order, we find Circle “C” and Club O2 (teen clubs), the Fun Hub (computer central), The Warehouse (video game central), Wasabi (sushi bar), the Jackpot Casino, The Page Turner (library), Camp Carnival, an eighteen-hole mini-golf course, the Dream Team Basketball Court and an outdoor chess set composed of three-foot-tall pieces.

Cutting our tour short, we report to a previously-scheduled Bridge Tour where the Captain and his officers await.  The Carnival line was originally staffed by Italian officers and it’s a tradition that continues to this day.  Domenico Calise, a First Officer, tells us he spends four months on the ship then gets two months off.  With 6,000 passengers on board, even he is impressed at the size of the ship.

“There are more people here than the town in Italy where I live!” he exclaims.

The Bridge elicits sighs from Steven, Fen and me, its blue leather seating and polished controls juxtaposed against a bank of windows from which the officers keep watch.  Domenico has fun pointing out the tiny joystick that steers the ship.

“It’s like magic!” I say.

“No, the next ship is the Magic!” says Domenico.

“Okay,” I reply, “then it’s a Dream.”

Ready for lunch, we head over to The Gathering, a collection of dining venues on Lido Deck where a daily buffet is the main attraction.  A small sign announces “Caribbean Lunch” and it’s a fantasy of colors and textures.  The Jerk chicken is perfect and I pair it with beef stew, noodle salad, fresh greens and fried sweet plantains, all of it terrific.  The key lime pie is sublime and I’m preening at having chosen this venue over the BBQ on the Lanai.

Steven decamps for the fun and games of Camp Carnival while Fen and I make for the Waves Pool, where Impressions, a Calypso-infused duo, plays and the navy towels splayed across our chaises are soft and thick.  We reconvene at WaterWorks, the ship’s onboard waterpark, in the late afternoon and Steven rides on each and every slide to his heart’s content.  At our first Captain’s Dinner later that evening, we all order the special and our lobster tails with drawn butter are served alongside Black Tiger prawns, a Yukon mash and au gratin broccoli.  Because we can, we order a prime rib dinner and split it three ways, creating a surf ‘n turf meal.  The signature Warm Chocolate Melting Cake ends things on a sweet note.

“I think Carnival’s tag line should be ‘because we can,” I say to Fen and my husband laughs as he nods in agreement.

Arriving in Cozumel, Mexico on day three, I check the ship’s daily paper, the Fun Times, to see how much time we have on land.  Our destination is Chankanaab National Marine Park, a quick cab ride away and a haven for snorkeling and beach club play.  It’s only Steven’s second time snorkeling so we ply the waters for about an hour before he’s done and ready for lunch.  The choice is easy:  Mediterranean Lunch at The Gathering, where the food couldn’t be more inviting.  Duly sated, we walk back across the dock and browse Puerta Maya, a outdoor shopping concourse filled with temptations.  Resisting, we make it back to the ship in time for a swim and an afternoon screening of “Julie and Julia” at the poolside Seaside Theater.  Our pre-dinner entertainment is the Fun Force Acrobatic Show, where four hip-hop masters jump, hop and (break) dance around each other for an hour.  Post-dinner, the towel art is an elephant that has found Fen’s shades.  Steven grabs his sunglasses and poses for a pic with his new best friend.

The ship docks at Isla Roatan, Honduras on day four and we tote our beach gear a short walk to Mahogany Beach, a crescent of white sand hugging the turquoise sea.  Steven sets about building a multi-layered sand fortification worthy of the Maya while Fen and I swim under sun-kissed skies.  On our way back to the ship, we stop at Seashells, where a multi-colored table runner made by a local weaver rates a purchase.  Steven dances the macarena with an impromptu crew as we walk up the dock and I steer my men to another sumptuous lunch (this time Creole), where a chicken dish napped in a smoky tomato sauce is positively addictive.  The same can be said for corn-crusted lemon fish and assorted salads and I find myself unable to say whether lunch or dinner is my favorite onboard meal, not that anyone is asking.

Effortlessly, we’ve settled into our own rhythm:  after a leisurely lunch, Steven heads to camp and Fen and I make for the gym to burn off extra calories.  After a swim, we pick Steven up and indulge in a family activity such as deck-side chess.  The Scarlet Dining Room is on fire on this night thanks to dancing waiters and the invitation to do the same.  It isn’t long before we’re on our feet and the revels extend to Ocean Plaza, a clubby setting where Steven twirls me around the dance floor to the strains of Latin music.  Fittingly, we end the evening at a performance of “Dancin’ in the Streets,” a Broadway-caliber show whose musical dance numbers leave us swayin’ in our seats.

Our third port on day five is in Belize, the country formerly known as British Honduras.  After almost a week at sea, our languor matches that of the locals and we walk around Belize City for a good bit before hiring Dwayne White and his horse, White Prince, for a carriage ride around the city.  Dwayne is a mellow fellow whose command of facts and figures is breathtaking.  We learn that Belize is the only English-speaking country in Central America and that the British came here for logging.  Since Belize is three feet below sea level, there are no natural beaches and only one man-made beach.  There are but two stoplights in town, the national tree is mahogany and the national flower and bird are the black orchid and toucan, respectively.  Chinese immigrants are making a big push into Belize but they don’t own Belikin Brewing, a local beer that is wonderfully refreshing in the Belizean heat.  We criss-cross the city, White Prince clip-clopping all the way.  An hour later, the princes drop us off at the dock, where we catch a speedy tender back to the ship.

We miss our port on day six due to stormy seas and decide to sleep in, something we haven’t done since day one.  With the pools on Lido Deck closed due to excessive wave activity of their own, we climb one deck higher and reach the eighteen-hole mini-golf course, where wind gusts are exceeding 70 mph.  It’s a blast and we follow it up with pizza and ice cream at 11 a.m., because we can.

“Mom, I can’t believe they serve pizza and ice cream 24 hours a day!” squeals Steven.

“Hey,” I say, “it’s a fun ship.”

The seas are calm and skies clear on day seven so we waste no time in making a list of our favorite activities in order to relive them.  Breakfast in Scarlet is followed by a towel folding demonstration at 9:30 a.m. and a spirited game of deck chess (Steven wins yet again).  After lunch in The Gathering (Chocolate Buffet, oh my! This is lunch?), Steven heads to camp while Fen and I work out and pay a visit to Serenity, the adults-only sun deck.  I then treat Fen to a rum cocktail while Steven downs even more pizza.  The romantic music of Cool Breeze is wafting through the atrium as we waltz to dinner and we pause to listen to the pint-sized dynamo who’s been belting out standards all week.  Fen takes me by the arm and leads us to Wasabi for sushi, because we can.  As the lights in Scarlet are dimmed between courses, Steven asks his parents to kiss.  On the way back to our stateroom, Steven runs into his camp pals McKinley, Colby and Chesney, fast friends in this floating city.

Returning to Port Canaveral the next morning, Steven sums it up best:

“Mom, I’m not ready to go back to reality.  Can we do this again?”

Carnival Cruise Line offers7-day sailings year-round from Port Canaveral, Florida to both the Eastern and Western Caribbean.  For additional information, rates and reservations, visit http://www.carnival.com/cms/fun/ships/carnival_dream/default.aspx

Ease back into reality with a post-cruise visit to Busch Gardens, an amusement-cum-animal park in Tampa, Florida.  It’s non-stop screaming aboard Gwazi, a wooden coaster that twists, turns and burns the track at speeds of up to 50 mph.  The water rides are wet wonders, Zambia Smoke House serves surprisingly good ‘cue and the merchandise throughout the park is top-notch.  Pack a swimsuit and store it in a locker near the main gate – chances are you’ll need it in the thunder and lightning capital of the U.S.  http://buschgardens.com/Bgt/  Spend the night at the Westin Tampa Bay, where the junior suite’s pale green hues invite relaxation and a wall of glass looks onto a meandering bay; the ample pool is another plus.  http://www.starwoodhotels.com/westin/property/overview/index.html?propertyID=1505  Dinner is at Crabby Bill’s across the road, where the staff is anything but crabby and the delectable fish ‘n chips big enough to feed two landlubbers.  http://www.crabbybills.com/

Elaine Sosa Labalme
is a food and travel writer based in San Francisco, California. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and eight-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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