Travel Photography – What’s In My Bag?

With travel season approaching, I’ve been working on changes to the photo and video gear I carry with me. There was a time when I would carry my Nikon DSLR and all of my lenses with me on vacation, but over the past few years I’ve gotten to the point where I wanted to go as light as possible and not have to carry a full camera bag around with me. It started with our Thanksgiving cruise in 2012, where I found myself shooting around 60% of our pictures with my Nokia Lumia 920 vs 40% with my Nikon, slowly edging up to the point where I was shooting 90% of our vacation shots with my Lumia 1020.

There are exceptions, as I enjoy shooting auto racing when I get the chance, and I have yet to see anything below a DSLR and a set of good lenses that can handle the speed and low-light requirements, but for everything else, the lighter I can go, the happier I am. So with a cruise on tap in a week aboard the Norwegian Escape, followed by Thanksgiving at Disney World, I figured I’d post a quick walk-through of the gear I’ve settled on.

Photo Gear

For the first time in a long time, I’m not taking a DSLR with me, even as a backup. I will have two alternate devices with me, however:

  • My Lumia 1020 with camera grip: This may be a bit long in the tooth, and might be a little slow on a per-shot basis, but nothing in the phone space beats the PureView imaging system. This thing has been a favorite of mine for shooting since the day I bought it, and that’s why this is going to be my main back-up camera.
  • Sony DSC-WX350: I picked this up on the cheap as an open box item at Best Buy a few months ago to use as a business camera  for things like ship/resort tours, so we’d have something either of us could just pick up and shoot with at the drop of a hat. The results are pretty good for a P&S, in my opinion.

I really don’t expect to have to use either unless something happens to my primary. So what is my primary? Well, it’s my iPhone 6s Plus, equipped with a few extras. A quick shot of my gear (including the backups and tripod):

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Of the main gear in the left hand shot, the case is a CamKix medium GoPro case with the CamKix customizable magic foam. What am I carrying inside the case? Well, a few things:

  • Shoulderpod S1 Professional Smartphone Grip: I needed a way to mount the iPhone to my Gorillapod if the situation arose. After a little searching, I knew I had to have this. The reviews aren’t wrong, the handle’s solid and really helps stabilize both still and video scenarios.
  • Moment wide angle and telephoto lenses: I spent a lot of time comparing specs, reviews and sample shots of the various iPhone lenses. I’ve used cheap lenses from other companies before, and this is definitely a category where you get what you pay for. I wanted high quality glass, and I definitely feel I got it with the Moment lenses!
  • Spigen Neo Hybrid Carbon case: Normally I keep the Spigen Slim Armor Volt on my phone (wireless charging FTW!), but it’s too thick to allow mounting of my lenses, so for the duration of the trip I’ll be using this case.

I’m looking forward to putting this gear through its paces over the next 2-3 weeks. Feel free to follow us on Facebook and/or Instagram to see how the lenses perform on our trips!

Video Gear

For land trips, I generally just use my phone for any video I take, but when we go on cruises I also bring along a GoPro to handle any situations where the camera may get dirty, wet, or may need to be mounted to me in some way. This trip will be no exception, as I want to be sure I get plenty of video from the excursion we’re doing on my birthday in St Thomas, the BOSS Underwater Adventure.  I’ll likely end up doing some snorkeling at the other two ports, Tortola and Nassau, so it’ll get plenty of use this trip. Here’s my video setup:

Video gear

The case is a Shineda Water Resistant Large GoPro Case, which fits just about all of my GoPro gear. The main items in the case that I plan to use this trip:

  • GoPro Hero4 Silver plus extra battery: I bought this a while back as a replacement for my Hero2, which I gave to my daughter to use while at college. I’m looking forward to having the LCD to frame my shots vs hoping I’m getting what I think I’m aiming at :).
  • GoPole Bobber Floating Handgrip: This is my first trip with it, so I’ll be interested to see how I like it versus the regular wrist strap I’ve used for snorkeling in the past.
  • Head strap: This isn’t the official GoPro one, my daughter took that one with her when I gave her my Hero2. This is a knockoff my wife ran across at Five Below for $5, and frankly I can’t tell the difference.
  • Random mounts: Not sure I’ll use any of them, but since the case can hold them all, I figured I’d throw them in.

Okay, so maybe I’ve failed the whole “carry less gear” goal, but at least it’ll be lighter. Regardless, I’m very much looking forward to putting the new stuff to work! After we get back, I’ll post my impressions of how the Moment lenses performed in real-world use.

Crons in the Capital – Day 3

For our final day in DC, Bayley and I started off by heading over to Arlington National Cemetery. Taking the DC Metro on the weekend is a very different experience than I expected. There are a lot fewer people riding it, and as a result (I assume), fewer trains running, which was really only an issue when we left the cemetery, thankfully.

On arriving, we slowly headed up a main road towards JFK’s grave site, taking time to read some of the headstones along the way, including that of Marine Staff Sergeant William Windrich, awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in the Korean War. That link’s an amazing read and well worth the time.

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After visiting the grave sites of the Kennedy family, we headed towards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. After a bit of a hike, as the hills and heat were a bit tiring, we arrived to see that they were just finishing up a changing of the guard, and as the crowd filed out, we found spots almost dead center to watch the guard walk and pay our respects. As we stood there, with most of the crowd being silent and respectful, one of the most maddening things I’ve ever seen took place. In this picture, you’ll notice the guard is off the mat:

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He came off of the mat to rather loudly remind the crowd that a level of silence and respect needed to be maintained (example of how they handle it here). So why did he have to do that? Well, because someone to my right was on his cell phone. Even after the guard resumed his walk, this person continued talking on it, at which point someone working there came over and demanded he get off his phone. He didn’t, he just walked up the stairs and over to the far side of the building behind us. Amazing lack of respect shown there. Regardless, we stayed for a few minutes watching the guard’s precision movements across the mat before heading back down the hill on a different path to see more of the grounds.

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We headed back to the Metro station, only to realize that due to the limited service, we’d have to wait ~25 minutes for a train, which while annoying did give us some time to rest in the shade. Our next planned stop was the National Archives once the train did finally arrive.

After reaching the Archives stop, we decided to get some lunch. We found what looked like a cool little burger place in the area, Plan B Burger Bar, and headed in. The place was dead, but frankly the whole area was. They had plenty of staff on hand, and while the food was pretty good, the service was horrible. Our server, who for most of our visit only had our table, was MIA most of the time. She got another table shortly before we finished, so it ended up taking almost 20 minutes to just get the bill and pay it. All this while three other employees were up at the main entrance chatting with each other at the hostess stand, and other employees were just wandering around trying to look busy. As far as the food itself, I really did like my burger, having selected the bacon cheese burger, sans onions, on a pretzel roll:


The fries were okay, but I wish I’d gone with the tots. Oh well, live and learn, although not sure I’d go back after the service issues. I understand stuff like that when restaurants are busy, but not when there are only two tables of people in the entire place.

Our lunch over, we headed over to the National Archives building, expecting some semblance of a crowd, but we were in luck! There was no line outside, and we got through security pretty quickly. We really only had one goal in coming here, and that was to see the documents contained within the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom.  We had no wait to get in there either, although it was a bit crowded inside the rotunda itself. No biggie, we got to see and read all of the documents. No pictures of it, obviously, since photography and video aren’t allowed in there.


After finishing up there, we headed back to the hotel to rest up and wait for Jen. Once she was done with her meetings, we hopped back on the Metro and headed for the White House, as we all wanted to walk around that area while we were in town.

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After making a full loop around to check out both sides of it, as well as take in the amazing architecture of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, we headed up the road to Elephant and Castle for dinner. I wasn’t super hungry, so I just got the Jalapeno Mac & Cheese, sans jalapeno. Twas delicious, and the service was much better than what we experienced at lunch.


That pretty much did it for us, as we were all tired from a busy week, and wanted to get some sleep before our long day driving to Baltimore for a ship inspection and driving home to Charlotte after that. It was nice to spend some time in DC and visit a few things we haven’t been to in a number of years!

Crons in the Capital – Day 2

The second day began with Bayley and I heading to a local Arlington “landmark”, the Apple store in Clarendon. The night before, there was a bit of a water related incident with her iPhone, with the device being terminal by the time we woke up. Fortunately she got AppleCare for it, and after she handed over a few bucks, they swapped it out for a new device and we were on our way.

Leaving Clarendon, we had one main goal for the day, to hit the National Zoo. By the time we made it over there, we were both pretty hungry, and decided to stop outside the park at a little Italian bistro just down the road, Lillies Restaurant and Bar. Ended up being a pretty solid choice. We were both pretty hungry, and started off with some garlic bread, which was pretty good. For the main course, I went with lasagna, which I really enjoyed. Good sauce, and the perfect amount of ricotta for my tastes. We’d definitely eat there again.


Our bellies full, we headed in to the zoo. Again, it’s nice to have the option to visit something like this without an entrance fee, but we did donate $5 for the zoo map as we walked in.


We didn’t plan to see everything, but Bayley did have a list of animals she definitely didn’t want to miss. One of those targets was the panda habitat. Most of the panda stuff was shut down, as one of the panda bears was getting close to delivering a newborn, which actually happened the day after we were at the zoo. All we managed to catch was a brief glimpse of one of them while over there, which I managed to capture in a shot I had to crop pretty tightly:

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Some of the other animal highlights included the tiger, who was out playing with a ball in his pond, which was pretty fun to watch, and the otters who were all out playing too, and were fun to watch as they showed off for the crowd.

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The only negative to the zoo trip was the terrain. Going in is fine, it’s all downhill all the way to the back of the zoo. The downside to that is you’re walking all the way back up to get out. It was a little humid, too, so we headed back to the hotel after that to rest a bit, clean up, and wait for Jen.

For dinner that night, we decided to head to Old Town Alexandria. On arrival, we walked from the metro station all the way down to the waterfront and see if anything along the way sounded good. When we got to the end, we ran across Virtue Feed and Grain, and after a quick scan of the menu, decided to give it a shot. Ended up being a good choice for the most part. They seated us at the high-tops near the bar area, which was a little too loud for our tastes, but we had a great server, and the food was excellent. We happened to be there during restaurant week, so I ate off that 3 course menu. After starting with the mac and cheese, which was outstanding (quite cheesy, and almost perfectly creamy). Being a meat and potatoes guy, I went with the NY strip steak for my entree, which was excellent, having been cooked to a perfect level of medium. For dessert, I had the icebox pie, which was just okay. For something with the word ‘icebox’ in the name, I expected it to be a lot colder than it actual was (it was almost room temperature).

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After dinner, we walked around a little more, even stopping for a couple of small cones at Pop’s Ice Cream before grabbing the King St trolley back to the metro station to catch a train back to our beds :)

Another fun day in the DC area in the books, with one more day on tap!

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Crons in the Capital – Day 1

As mentioned in an earlier post, we spent a few days in DC in late August so that Jen could attend some CruiseOne regional training on Friday and Saturday. We actually arrived on Thursday morning so Jen would have a little time to see the sights with us.

With our hotel in Arlington being right on the DC Metro orange line, we got the day started pretty quickly after arriving. This was easily the most packed day for us, since we wanted to be sure Jen got to see as much as she wanted to. She and Bayley had done some initial planning and had a list of things to see on day one, including the National Mall, a few museums, and Chinatown.

The Mall

We got off the metro at the Smithsonian stop and headed for the Washington Monument. It was a bit overcast out and a bit humid, but I don’t think it ever actually rained on us. We didn’t go up the monument, instead choosing to walk the mall towards the WWII memorial, and on to the Lincoln Memorial.

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We then headed over to the Vietnam Memorial to walk the wall and reflect. While it wasn’t super busy here, it was good to see everyone here being respectful, something I won’t be able to say when I get to Arlington National Cemetery in my ‘Day 3’ post.

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After which, it was pretty close to lunch, so we took a stroll a few blocks towards our next destinations, a couple of Smithsonian museums.

The Museums

We started with the Museum of Natural History, and had lunch in their cafeteria (nothing to write home about). After eating, we spent an hour or so walking different areas of the museum before heading over to the Museum of American History for a stroll. While I’m normally not much of a museum guy, it’s nice to have places like this to visit that don’t charge admission when you’re trying to not spend much on vacation.

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After our museum walks, we headed towards the archives with the hope that even thought it was late in the afternoon, we’d still be able to get in. No such luck, we’d just missed the cutoff time for the day. We decided at that point to head for Chinatown before dinner. We were all pretty tired, and it was a bit of a hike, but we made it over there with just enough energy for them to do some quick shopping in a little store in the area.

After a few minutes in Chinatown, we decided to head back to the hotel and clean up before finding somewhere to eat. While in the hotel, we scanned the list of local restaurants the front desk had given us, and came across one that sounded good by the name of Grand Cru Wine Bar & Bistro. Neither of us are wine people, but the menu sounded pretty good. I certainly wasn’t disappointed, as the Filet was pretty tasty, as was the Skull Splitter Scottish ale I had with it

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All in all a pretty successful day, and just the start of our trip. The next two days Bayley and I visited a few of the other touristy sites in the city, and had a blast!

Next up: Day 2!



Hotel Smackdown: Holiday Inn Express vs Country Inn & Suites

I enjoy travelling, but over the past two weeks we’ve done more driving than I care to do in such a short time having driven somewhere in the neighborhood of 3000mi in that time. Over the first week of that, we stayed in four different hotels, three of which I’m going to compare here.

Holiday Inn Express, Cambridge, OH

We stopped here for a single night on the way to our destination in Mansfield, OH, and in my opinion it was easily the best of the three hotels in this review. First, a few pictures of the room:

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Good, clean room, complete with a fridge, microwave, and DirecTV, which is a nice change of pace from the standard hotel cable setups that have no interactive on-screen guide.  Another big thing with this room (can’t say the same for the Country Inn rooms), there were plenty of outlets, including at least two on each nightstand. Lack of outlets in hotel rooms is why i carry two Belkin SurgePlus units with me, but neither were necessary in this room. For the type of hotel, the rooms have been done really well also, especially the beds. While none of the mattresses in the hotels I’m reviewing were bad, the pillows are what set the Holiday Inn Express apart from the other two, as it’s something few hotels get right in my experience. They included four pillows on the bed, as shown, with two being firm and two being soft. Nice labeling, too:


I had one of each, and was pretty happy with both. None appeared to be true down pillows either, something I’m allergic to that could have caused me to wake up with a nasty headache (I carry Flonase with me when travelling just in case). The other thing that set this hotel apart from the other two is the breakfast. Holiday Inn Express has really stepped up their game in this area, apparently. The usual choices were there, eggs, bacon, breads, etc, but the cinnamon rolls stood out. Wow those things were delicious. Additionally, the brand has what I can only describe as a 3D pancake printer:


The sign did not lie, 60 seconds after pressing the button it spit out two perfectly cooked pancakes on the right side of the unit. Wowza. Love it! No messing with batter or hoping that your waffle isn’t going to stick to the cooking plates, just magical pancakes that show up as if from nowhere.

The front desk staff was super friendly as well, even upon arrival sometime after 10pm. My only real complaint on the hotel would be the difficulty in finding it, which might not have been an issue during the day when we weren’t as tired. Both our GPS and our phones kept telling us where to go, but neither could really pinpoint the location, and the sign seemed a bit hidden to us, so my wife called the hotel and got clarification of where to turn. No biggie, though. Overall, a great hotel and a chain I wouldn’t hesitate to stay at again!

Country Inn & Suites, Mansfield, OH

We stayed here for four nights while visiting family. I recommended this while we were looking at hotels based on past experience with the chain, specifically multiple stays at the one in Bloomington, IL while on business in the past. I always liked that location, but was let down by the one in Mansfield. Again, let’s start with room pictures:

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The hotel itself looked pretty similar to what I remember the one in IL looking like, although the room appeared slightly outdated. It was clean, however, and the mattress was fine, but I couldn’t stand the small square pillows. They seem to be popular these days, with the Hilton we stayed at a few days later in Arlington, VA having the same type. My other main disappointment was breakfast. I recall the one in IL having a decent sized layout, a good selection of warm items every day, and never having an issue with keeping things stocked. That was not the case here. The breakfast area was small, with few warm choices. They did have the standard do it yourself waffle maker, and a few cereal choices, but they only had three warm selections each day, and of the stuff I had (eggs and bacon one morning, that was it), they really weren’t that good. The bread station was an issue too, as it wasn’t stocked very well, to the point that on our last morning, there was only a single donut left (I never saw more than 3 in there any morning), two plain bagels, a few slices of wheat bread, and nothing else.

As I said, it was clean, and all of the staff members we encountered were very friendly, but I think next time we’ll check out the Holiday Inn Express in town.

Country Inn & Suites, Frederick, MD

After leaving Mansfield, we stopped here for one night on the way up to DC. We’d booked this at the same time as the one in Mansfield, again mostly based on how I remembered the one in Bloomington. This location was slightly better, and it looks like it’s undergone a small renovation the Mansfield location hasn’t seen yet. The room:

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That last picture shows the welcome sign at the front desk for Club Carlson members, with my name second on the list. Not something that I look for or need in a hotel, but a nice touch. Again, a very friendly staff, so that piece was a wash for all three hotels. Also notice on the bed is a small plastic bag of goodies we were given on check-in with a couple bottles of water and bags of snack pretzels as another welcome for Club Carlson members. Again, nice touch.

The room was clean and comfortable, but they still have the square pillows that I don’t like. Other than that, no complaints on the room.

The breakfast area was bigger than the one in Mansfield, so I had my hopes up, but once I got down there in the morning, disappointment set in again. The same meager selection of warm items, plus a waffle maker, so I had myself another waffle. The bread selection was a little better than the previous location, at least. This was a better stay than the previous one, but still left me a bit disappointed vs the one I used to stay at in Bloomington.

Overall, you can probably guess where I’m going with this: The Holiday Inn Express was easily my favorite, and a chain I’ll look to in the future when traveling. You can’t go wrong with either brand in my opinion, but the pillows, breakfast buffet, and magical pancake dispenser easily push Holiday Inn Express over the top in my eyes.

Carnival Conversations – Tampa

After a quick two days at home following our time in Ohio and DC, we drove down to Florida yesterday to bring our daughter back for her second year of college at Eckerd. While move-in day isn’t until tomorrow, my wife noticed a few weeks ago that Carnival was doing one of their Carnival Conversations events on board the Paradise today, and really wanted to attend it. While these events are held on board a ship that’s getting ready to depart, just like the ship inspections we’ve done, this is nothing like the tours.

So what is it? Well, simply put, it’s a chance to hear from and ask questions of Carnival’s senior management. For today’s event, the main speaker was Christine Duffy, President of Carnival Cruise Lines. We’d never been to one of these events before, and since we were going to be in the area anyway, it seemed like a good opportunity to see what they were about, and to hear from the line’s leadership.

The itinerary for the event was pretty simple, but didn’t allow for any time to tour the ship, so there will be far fewer pictures in this post than the last :).

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When we got to the Queen Mary Lounge, we grabbed a seat next to a couple other agents and chatted with them for a bit before Mike Julius, Managing Director of US Sales got up to kick things off. He started off by introducing us to Seth Grunes, the Tampa area Business Development Manager, who gave us a quick update on Carnival, including a brief overview of their newest ship, The Vista. Jen’s been paying attention to all of Carnival’s announcements about the ship, she she was already up to speed on it, but having a full time job to focus on, I didn’t know a heck of a lot about it. I enjoyed getting to see what’s coming, and I have to say that I completely understand her excitement about the ship and desire to sail it. Those Havana suites sound amazing!


Next up was Christine, who spent a few minutes giving us an update on the line, and other business info specific to their travel partners (us). Having come up through the agency ranks, she’s in a unique position to make positive changes to the way Carnival works with their partners. Here’s hoping it happens!

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After that, a panel of Carnival execs, including Christine, gathered on stage listening to agent feedback and answering our questions. There’s not really much to say from this, as the discussion all centered around way Carnival can change to better allow agents to serve our customers when it comes to Carnival cruises. We’re both fans of the Carnival brand, having thoroughly enjoyed three straight Thanksgiving cruises on their ships, and the discussion today was validation of our trust in their product.

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Following the panel discussion was lunch, so we all headed to the Destiny dining room. The menu was identical to what we had on our tour of the Fantasy back in May, so I won’t waste space repeating the same food pictures in that post. While I would have liked another Guy’s burger, the food was excellent, and we did get to enjoy one of my favorite things, the warm chocolate melting cake, which is a must-have if you’re on any Carnival ship.

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Near the end of lunch they did a few giveaways, including a couple of free cruises, but we unfortunately didn’t win. Oh well, but congratulations to those who did win, we’re totally jealous!

Lunch ended right about the time we had to get off (the boat was getting ready to head out for an actual cruise, after all :)), so we headed back down the gangway, out the terminal, and back to our temporary home for the weekend.

Once again, I’d like to thank Carnival for their hospitality, including all the executives for making themselves available to us for a couple of hours, and to our dining room staff, who I’m sure could have used the break between sailings to rest a bit. One of the best crews at sea, for sure!

Ship Inspection Sunday – Carnival Pride

After spending a few days in DC for some CruiseOne regional training, we headed up to the port of Baltimore yesterday morning for another ship inspection before heading home. This time, we got to check out the Carnival Pride, one of their Spirit class ships. We’ve sailed on a ship in this class before, having taken the Carnival Legend out of Tampa in 2012. Even though the Pride is the same class as the Legend, it felt like a different ship thanks in part to the Fun Ship 2.0 upgrades it underwent during dry dock late last year. I don’t know that it got all of the upgrades, but it got the big ones, like the additional food choices.

The port isn’t much to look at, but it seems like it’s set up pretty well. When we arrived, we were directed over to a parking area off to the side for those not staying on the ship, but looking over the main parking, it looks like it’s all right there next to the terminal, making it one of the most convenient we’ve been to. After parking, we headed in the terminal to check in, and after a bit of a wait were led on to the ship by our tour guide, Kathy.

The ship underwent a dry dock late last year to add some of the Fun Ship 2.0 goodness, and while the upgraded areas were nice, there are plenty of areas still sporting the Renaissance theme the ship is known for. Much like the Legend’s urn-ish theme, I just wasn’t a fan. I get wanting to stray from the normal “cruise ship chic” theme so many of the older ships have, but there were areas where the theme just doesn’t work. None of the rooms underwent any sort of renovation during dry dock either, but the ones we saw were fine. We got to see the following room types while on-board:

Deck 1: Interior (Cat 4A) and Ocean View (Cat 6A)

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Deck 4: Ocean view Obstructed with French doors (Cat 4K – Accessible), Interior (Cat 4K) and Vista Suite (Cat VS)
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Deck 6: Extended Balcony (Cat 8J), Premium Balcony (Cat 9B), Grand Suite (Cat GS)
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For the most part, pretty standard rooms, but that Vista Suite was pretty nice, especially with the extended aft-wrap balcony and walk in closet.

After touring rooms, we headed upstairs and got a tour of David’s Steak House (one of two specialty restaurants on board), the spa, the main Lido food areas, Serenity (adults only area), and the waterpark. All pretty standard, although the waterpark was a new addition in last years’ dry dock. You can see some shots of these areas in the random ship pictures at the end of this post.

After that part of the tour, we were free to eat anywhere on Lido that we wanted, which was a nice change of pace from our tour on the Fantasy where we were served in the dining room. The main reason I was happy about this is that it gave me a chance to indulge in my favorite burger at sea, the Pig Patty at Guy’s Burger Joint:

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The downside to this is that we didn’t get warm chocolate melting cake for dessert, but hey, the selection on the Sweet Spot dessert bar wasn’t bad:


The cake pop was pretty good, the lemon meringue pie was okay, but the rest was just average, to be honest.

After eating, we decided to see the rest ourselves to speed up our departure since we had a long drive back to Charlotte, which pretty much meant walking decks 2 and 3 in order to see the theater, shops, and casino. All were pretty much what you expect on a Carnival ship, meaning if you’ve seen them on other ships in this class, you’ve seen these. Well, except maybe the Taj Mahal theater. Not sure if they were trying to continue the Renaissance theme in there (really didn’t look like it), but we just weren’t fans of the décor in there:

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The other thing to mention were the passageways on each side of the ship on deck 3 that lead back to the game room. Legend had one too, known as the enchanted forest, but this was a little brighter than that is. Honestly, not really sure what to make of these spaces. They come off as something Carnival just didn’t know what to do with, almost wasted space in our opinion:

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Overall, the ship was clean, nice (especially with the new food additions), and certainly better than the Legend in my opinion. I’d sail it in a heartbeat if I lived closer!

One last thing, a big thank you to Kathy and everyone on the Pride for an outstanding time. The Carnival hospitality always shines through on these tours!

Enjoy a some more random pics from around the ship!

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