Booked a 3-day cruise celebrating our wedding anniversary through Carnival website. Involved research (tripadvisor.com,travelocity.com,cruisecritic.com)and price comparisons proved website offered best price and which cabin would suit our wants. We did splurge ($1,050 total for both of us)for a Jr. suite with balcony and this entitled us to VIP embarkation at 11am. The VIP status meant that we were ushered straight from security into a private VIP lounge inside the terminal (away from the masses) and then being ushered as a group of 10 onto the ship first. This was very nice as it allowed us to be led straight to the dining room for lunch and then practically have the entire ship to explore by ourselves for 2 hours as other passengers were let onboard in batches. I am very discriminating (picky!)when it comes to shelling out hard-earned bucks for vacation. I was pleasantly surprised that is was better than expected. Carnival has perfected the mass cruise experience and some affectionately call it the "Walmart of Cruising" - I gotta say, sometimes Walmart just has everything you are looking for!
CABIN:Our suite was on the Verandah deck(level 11 - 2 decks from top and very near aft) - pre-cruise I was concerned about noise since I knew that this would be same level as waterpark on other end of ship. I really tried to hear some noise from our balcony and just couldn't hear anything except the lap of waves against the side of the ship. Couldn't even hear neighbors. Minor complaint about room - although all suites are non-smoking it is allowed on balconies. Upon entering our cabin we both immediately detected (as non-smokers we are very sensitive to it!)cigarette smoke indicating that whoever had just vacated had clearly not honored the code. We propped the balcony door open occasionally and it was tolerable. Had requested bed to be king set-up and linens were comfortable. Bed was slightly firmer than we like, but just our preference and wasn't uncomfortable. Flat screen tv offered several movie channels plus the standard local channels and a few Carnival specific stations. There is a close-circuit channel to watch different parts of the ship. 2 closets, 7 drawers, desk/table top, small couch (could fold out to double). Bathroom is really tiny - functionable, but tiny. Surprised there wasn't a hair dryer. Shower had built in shampoo/soap dispensers. Balcony was an interesting mix of Jenga and musical chairs to truly enjoy! There were 2 chairs and a small table, but a careful manipulation of "open door-scootch out-close door-shimmy over to chair-sit down" was required for 2 people to use balcony at same time.
FOOD: Horizon Grill is the buffet area of the ship and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner on a serve yourself buffet. Choices were decent - always a beef, chicken and fish option with assorted sides for lunch and dinner. Breakfast was pre-made scrambled eggs, waffles, pancakes, bacon, etc. There is a made-to-order omelet station - we had every day and its good! -Salad and dessert bar. Custom Pizza and hot/cold sandwich stations are in middle. Self-serve water, coffee, lemonade, tea and fruit juice stations with a Bar located in rear. We didn't have any issues finding something to eat that tasted good. There is a snack grill located at entrance to Horizon Grill. This line serves Mongolian Wok made to order (very tasty!) and burgers, hot dogs, carving station (turkey) and sides. This seemed to be the popular kids spot since it is also next to pool and the line could get a little long.
You could take all meals buffet style in the Horizon Grill if you choose. In addition, all passengers are also assigned to a dining room if you prefer to sit and have service - It was nice because it also serves a different menu than the buffet fare - depending on which time you choose: early - 6pm, late 8:15 or Choose your own time - between 5:45 - 9 - we didn't want to get tied down to a time so we (and everyone who chose it as well) were assigned to the Pride dining room. Smaller version of the big dining room and Probably accommodates 100 passengers at a time. Minor complaint - Hostess assigns you to a table based on if you choose to be seated alone or with other passengers. 1st night we were seated literally next to the silverware, plate prep galley and it was very noisy. 2nd night they attempted to seat us at the exact same table, but I objected and we were seated at a table for 2 that was right up close and personal to the table for 4 next to it! Server was pleasant and the menu choices were adequate and varied by night: Choices of Starter: soup, snails!, salad,alligator fritters, shrimp cocktail Main: Lobster, prime rib, chicken, Beef Brisket, Pork tenderloin, fish dish and came with vegetables. There is also a constant evening menu of comfort foods: fried chicken, cheeseburger, mac-n-cheese, etc. Dessert: cheesecake, diet option, icecream and the delicious chocolate melty cake.
POOL/HOT TUBS: Smallish pool with adjoining 2 hot tubs that were predominately occupied by kids. Plenty of chairs upper and lower to overlook pool. We used the Adults only Serenity section of ship. Very quiet location at front of ship. Only place that had comfy chairs with cushions and umbrellas plus 2 hot tubs. Again grown ups only - one couple tried to sneak their 3 toddlers into hot tub and probably would have been allowed to stay, but the parents made no attempt to quiet the kids as they screamed and yelled without abandon. Several couples complained to the steward and parents and kids were politely asked to leave. Waterpark was very cool with a short, medium and long slide for all age groups. Chairs up there too.
GYM: Yes, we brought workout clothes. Important to note we ARE NOT exercise nuts, but since we knew we would be overindulging every day we tried to leverage a little less guilt by visiting the gym everyday for a few minutes. Gym was well-equipped and never felt crowded ;-) there were elliptical, treadmills, bikes, circuit machines, free weights and sign up classes There is a full cushioned track on the deck above the gym which offers a nice, breezy walk. The putt-putt golf is in the middle section of the track.- Minor complaint: The Spa fronts the gym so unless you learn to sneak in the back door to the gym (like we learned on Day 1)you must get thru the somewhat pushy Spa salesgirls - we expected to be "hit up" to buy stuff on the cruise, but didn't expect the pushiest would be the Spa workers! I might have been interested in a service, but was so turned off by the pushiness that I declined all services.
ENTERTAINMENT: We saw the "Shout" show and it was ok. Very non-extravagant, but works for a free show. They offer different game shows with passengers that you can watch or get picked to participate in. The Marriage game is not PG rated, so don't take kids. Questions are definitely adult material and questions can get VERY risque depending on how much the participants have had to drink (funny for us tho!) The Trivia game is mild and still funny so kids can watch. Bingo is $20 per card unless you hit the 2-for-1 special early in the cruise. We didn't play, but they sold it as a $5,000 jackpot event. We did visit casino and played a little poker. Game is on an automated 10-seat table called Poker Pro. You use your Sail-N-Sign Cruise card to load money and plan poker or any other game (blackjack, slots, craps, etc.) Poker has a bit of a stiff 15% rake which applies if players exceed 3. It was fun, tho. Overall, there were plenty of events to participate in if you wanted and they ran all day and most of night. NOTE: kids clubs looked like kids were enjoying. Clubs were diversified by age group from 5 years old up to teenagers. I looked closely at these because I wanted to insure if I put my kids in there next time that supervision was adequate and activities were plentiful. Again, looked to be well-enjoyed by all age groups and well supervised. Small fee to use. There is also a game room with about 6-8 games (air hockey, driving games, claw-drop win toys thing and others. You have to buy tokens.
PHOTOS: oh man, do they take some pictures! I understand that it is a huge moneymaker, but they are everywhere. A polite "no thank you" was all it took to get them to leave you alone and after a couple of times they learned to recognize us and didn't even bother asking :-) Aside from a dress-up for dinner picture, we didn't need a picture commemorating our every experience onboard. We did see lots of folks spending lots of money on lots of pictures tho!
CREW: Never encountered a single hard-to-understand or negative one! As in life, a little politeness carried us a long way and we did have crew members remember us and go out of their way (we felt) to make sure we were comfortable. A shout out to our meticulous cabin steward, Nicole, who really did remember our names several hours after only hearing it once! Her nightly turn-down service occurred promptly at 6pm with ice bucket filled, towels replenished and cute animal towels and chocolates adding a nice touch. She blessed us with a cute heart-shaped towel design on our anniversary.
ALCOHOL/SOFT DRINK TAB: We knew going in that these were extra and could add up easily. We made a conscious decision to only drink free stuff with meals and save a glass of wine for dinner - We found prices to be comparable to a hotel($8 ea. for KJ chardonnay)and frozen drink ($8 ea.) for a special treat with gratuity already added. Our tab for 2 people at 3 days was $48. I did see a couple whose total bar bill included a COMMA in it - so keep tabs: easy to do because there are several machines that let you check balance - we found accuracy to be within an hour of charge.
DEBARKATION: We went a little rogue with this and it worked out for us. Since we had purposely packed light (each had a carry-on size suitcase since we flew to Miami) we knew that we could skip the luggage collection the night before the end and probably carry off our own stuff. There was time in the morning to pack, eat breakfast and VIP status got us escorted off ship first at 8:30 am. Waiting with the masses could have potentially kept us onboard until 10:30 and then waiting for luggage to show up on the other side of customs. We walked off the ship, straight thru customs, past the very pushy airport shuttle bus people (!) who wanted $18 a head plus the honor of sitting there waiting for them to fill the 50 passenger thing up. Instead we hopped straight into a taxi who got us directly to airport for $25 total. I tell ya', if you can swing the VIP upgrade thing it is a very nice treat!
HOTEL: We did fly into Miami night before because we didn't want to risk late flights, headache, etc. Thorough research landed us at the airport LaQuinta on Le Jeune Rd. Taxi there cost $10 and took 6 minutes. Late flight arrival (11:55pm) and this was perfect because since we carried on luggage we were literally out of airport and in bed within 45 minutes of arriving in Miami. NOTE - LaQuinta offers free shuttle from airport BUT ends at 11pm. Decent accommodations at $105/night - which is all we needed for a 12-hour stay - with standard minor stuff. Surprisingly, the bed was very comfortable with pillow top mattress and nice linens! Huh?! FREE Continental breakfast included typical cereals, waffles, coffee, bagels,etc. Alot of cruisers stayed here and the best part (aside from bed ;-) was FREE shuttle to Port of Miami - took about 30 minutes to get there and dropped each of us at our ship -so no walking. Really no need to pay more for hotel closer to ship unless you really want to see downtown or beach for upwards of $200++ per night.
FINAL THOUGHT: This cruise was meant for us to dip-our-toe in the water and see if it would be a good fit for our family next time. 3 days was really plenty of time to see that it would be a great time for all. As with anything, if you look for fault, you will find it. If you look for a very lovely, peaceful experience you will receive it. Happy cruising!