I brought two bottles of wine on my recent Carnival cruise. In retrospect, I don’t know what I was thinking. Did I figure I’d lounge in my 188-square-foot cabin, gazing out the porthole at the roiling sea while enjoying a nice glass of cabernet? Maybe I’d bring it to dinner. Carnival said that’s allowed, and doing so might buy us a night or two before we had to pay the restaurant markup on bottles of GIFFT. Yeah, that’s Kathie Lee Gifford’s wine that they carry. Pretty ritzy stuff, and probably pairs well with an omelet or a bowl of cereal.
Well, Carnival’s website states that at the beginning of the cruise, guests may bring one 750 ml bottle of unopened wine per person in their carry-on luggage. What the website does not say is that if that same bottle is in the bag they bring to your room, they steal your wine out of your luggage and replace it with a note scolding you. Somehow this bottle of wine is benign if you carry it but lethally dangerous if they do. My brief discussion of the matter with Guest Services did nothing to resolve the issue, but I think we each made our points—me about the clarity of the rules, them about not appreciating my language.
So we got off to a bad start, Carnival and I. But soon enough I settled down and stopped mentioning the wine injustice more than once or twice an hour. I resolved to have fun. And largely, I did. I threw myself into it—played bingo and trivia, went to a PG-rated comedy show and ate chateaubriand while possibly being served my own wine, not that I was still thinking about it
The high point of the cruise might’ve been when a woman asked me for directions to the gym, since that implied that I look like someone who would know. Granted, she happened to catch me at one of the rare moments when I wasn’t clutching a beer in one hand and a slab of pizza in the other, a situation known as Carnival Handcuffs. I pointed her in the right direction and then decided that maybe I should investigate a workout myself, if for no other reason than to mitigate the guilt over my sad carbohydrate-based hedonism.
Clearly, Carnival’s naval architects decided that onboard fitness was a low priority, way below “install shuffleboard courts with the friction coefficient of the La Brea Tar Pits,” a goal they handily exceeded. The Paradise gym was at the very top of the ship, all the way forward, the place where a ripple down on the Gulf of Mexico causes your treadmill to take a three-foot lateral lurch toward Cuba while you keep running in midair like Wile E. Coyote. The normal gym soundtrack of clanking metal plates and muffled grunts was punctuated every few minutes by the weighty thud of someone falling off a treadmill. The alternative was to run on the one-tenth-mile outdoor track one floor down, but bear in mind that you’re on a ship doing 20 mph into a 20 mph headwind. I saw people on the track run like Usain Bolt in one direction and then round the corner and look like Al Roker reporting live from Hurricane Wilma.
The gym crowd was interesting, because the people ambitious enough to exercise while on vacation were also the people whose faces bore a perpetual look of mild frustration and/or confusion, an expression that said, “How much more was Royal Caribbean, again?” I can tell you: a lot. That’s why we’re all on Carnival!
The ship’s staff was great, invariably busting their asses to keep the boat clean and its bloated passengers plied with jalapeno poppers and Bud Light Lime. Carnival’s dysfunction comes from the institutional level, from the place where they decide to ransack your luggage or deny you a seat on the tender unless you’re signed up for the Carnival Turtle-Tickle Trip.
About that: In the Cayman Islands there’s no dock, so you depart the ship on big water taxis. What they didn’t mention is that unless you’re on a Carnival excursion, it might take a couple of hours to reach shore. Which, you see, is a problem if you chartered a boat from 9 am to 12:30 pm. We all ended up sneaking onto an early water taxi, where I began chatting with the woman next to me and learned that she and her 20-person family were doing the same thing for the same reason. Stowaways, all of us! What thrilling subterfuge.
That was it for excitement. Which was fine with me. Cruises are not about adventure or testing your personal limits. They’re about getting out in the middle of the ocean and having someone make towel animals in your room. And in my sister-in-law’s case, they’re about winning $5,000 on a slot machine. That night, the GIFFT was on her.