Wow, where do I start. Insanity is as good a place as any. As workloads and work hours increased and a milestone 10th wedding anniversary was close, I was caught in a bit of a financial bind between tax time, home improvements, dental work/crowns needing replacement, and major auto body repairs, and we wanted just to run away. I found a last minute cruise deal that was too good to be true, and after careful consideration and homework, pulled the trigger on a Wednesday evening before a Saturday departure date on what was going to be the best cruise experience of our lives.
This was my first cruise on the Carnival Cruise Line, and I found the last minute purchase experience a bit of a leap of faith, because there was little I could specify (waitlisted on early dining, we ended up late dining, and shore excursions would be considered once on board), but given the deal we received, we rolled with it. We made it down to Miami on time, and had no issues checking in. We dropped our carry-on bags in the spacious ocean-view cabin, and proceeded to explore the ship. Weather was beautiful, crowds were managed very well, it wasn't the "sea of humanity" I expected. Liberty was recently refurbished in 2011, and everything was super clean, super friendly, and the amenities of the ship were numerous.
From the time we boarded to the time we got home, it was the most restful, fun, enjoyable trip we have had in at least five years. The staff was incredible, but the absolute All-Star of the cruise had to be the Cruise Director, Jaime Dee, who pretty much "owned" the cruise for all 7 days. I've been on a few cruises before, and the Cruise Director was always a bit distant, there if you needed them for a specific event or concern. You'd have to go find them if you needed something. In this case, it was the exact opposite: Jamie found everybody, welcomed them, communicated with them, made them feel special, all +/- 3400 of us. A fair amount of people wake up with a cup of coffee and the Today show or Good Morning America, and for the next 7 days this captive audience woke up with a funny, crazy, upbeat, dedicated Cruise Director on the in-cabin TV, or the announcement system, or the poolside jumbotron big screen, providing a constant feed of news, information, comedy, events, special opportunities and more. I thought I had long hours, until I saw the effort she put into a day, from early morning announcements, to their version of the "Morning Show", to all the daily activities and events she and the entertainment staff administered to, poolside limbo parties at 10:30PM, to announcing the comic performing at the 11:45PM show. There has to be a huge I.V. of 5 hour energy drink somewhere on board, because there's no way in hell I could cheerfully and happily deal with the responsibilities and that many guests and keep that pace like they did for 7 days without something like it. I made the statement she "owned" the cruise. She had tremendous support of her entertainment staff/team, and Assistant Cruise Director Christian. Without them, it wouldn't have been the same. But she put her own personality and "stamp" on the "Carnival experience" that far exceeded any other cruise experience we've ever had. It's startling how one person can truly impact a vacation week in such a positive way.
Things I'd share with others considering this ship and the itinerary (St. Thomas, San Juan, Grand Turk):
Cabin: Spacious room, picture window (not porthole), hot water and good water pressure that can scald you (be careful) made showers as good as home. Staff cleaned/tidied up the room at least 4 times a day, ice bucket was always full. Ask to have the mini bar opened for you, there's room in the fridge to keep your beverages or snacks cold. Plenty of towels, storage areas for clothes, robes are in the closets, shampoo and shower gel provided (good quality!). 22"? LCD TV's with news, satellite broadcast (FOX, NBC, etc.) programming, movies, etc. The only downside I can think of in the cabin is that other lines have speakers and volume control in the cabin for announcements. We did not, so every time an announcement was made in the hallways over the speaker system, we muted the TV and opened the cabin door to hear the announcement.
Food: Lido deck buffet was standard on most meals, exemplary on others. One night a special dessert line was set up that could have put Miami in a diabetic coma. The wife is on a special diet and still had MANY choices for all the meals during the day. Dining Room was available for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Breakfast and Lunch menus never changed, so we mixed things up a little between the buffet and dining room. Dinner at the dining room was special every night, the waiter(s) catered to your desires/needs, and service was that of a 4 star restaurant. The lobster dinner was a little disappointing, but everything else was superb. Guy Alfieri's Burger Joint poolside gave temptation a challenge for a great home-made burger with the works, but not the most health conscious choice. We enjoyed the Blue Iguana Cantina's (poolside) breakfast burritos with the amazing topping/hot sauce bar. Ice cold fresh watermelon slices were the best! And helped kill the burn of a hot sauce too liberally used. Two coffee bars (Lido deck and Promenade) kept the skim milk lattes flowing when we needed them, and also offered DECADENT/deadly temptings of cakes, pastries, and more. Sushi bar (Promenade) was open 5 -- 9, and offered great choices with all the fixings. Never made it to Diamond's (steak restaurant), can't comment on it. Room service was TERRIBLE! Offerings were limited, delivery was on time, the order was not taken correctly and the food was similar to a school vending machine-type sandwich on old bread. I was truly shocked.
Beverages: You are allowed to bring 20? Bottles of water per person on board when you check in. Do it. At $5 a pop in the cabin, you can save enough money to hit the casino or bingo easily. You are also allowed to bring 12 packs of soda too. $3 a pop onboard, it adds up if you are a soda drinker. Also (didn't know this) you can bring one bottle of wine per person onboard ONLY when you check in. No liquor bottles, only wine. Any liquor or wine bought in the duty free store or in any port is held until the night before disembarkment, and delivered to your room. Count on cocktails running $10 a piece, beers $7. ATTENTION GAMBLERS: You'll find a classic cocktail menu at any bar on the ship. Buy any classic cocktail (like a Classic Margarita) for $10, take your receipt to the Casino Cash Desk, and they'll give you $5 match play for each one. $5 top shelf margaritas or mojitos are worth it.
Casino: Those who partake of gaming, go to the casino first and get the flyers on the events of the trip. You'll find valuable coupons there on the first day that saved me about $40. We played in the slots tournaments, came in third on one (First prize was $500, t-shirts for the 7 runner ups). Blackjack tables use mechanized/automated card distribution systems, no 4 deck shoe or shuffle anywhere. $6 low limit. Blackjack and Poker tournaments available. Crap table was busy. You can use your cruise card to buy into the tournaments. We left our donation, but had a lot of fun.
Activities: There's a lot going on all the time, we did all the Bingo games (one number short on three different occasions) and found them to be expensive, because they often only play one game, and at $20 for a 3 box card, for one game, it was a bit much. Spa and Gym events were great, we hit the gym early in the morning to get a treadmill or elliptical as they fill up by 9. They have LifeCycle equipment, so you can bring your ipod to listen to your music or just headphones and watch TV while you workout. Entertainment on the ship was of great quality, comics, magicians, production shows, something for everyone, and scheduled to allow you to not rush through dinner. Men's Hairy Chest contest, poolside limbo, Mardi Gras Party, Miss Carnival Liberty contest, a sports bar, Piano sing-a-long bar, dance bar, latin salsa bar, a lot of stuff geared for the kids, trivia games and more hell there's too much to mention, but it's all fun and entertaining thanks to the Entertainment Staff and Jaime. We had a blast.
Ports: St. Thomas -- we took a non-ship excursion off the pier, joined six others from our ship for a tour of St. Thomas by truck/cab/open air vehicle. Almost like a parking tram you'd find at Disney, only mounted on a Ford F-350. $25 a head for a four hour tour, covering Mountaintop (Banana Daiquiris the best), Megan's Beach, Blackbeard's Castle, another beach and eventually downtown with plenty of time for shopping and walking back to the ship. Never been there before, want to go back, great value that covered the places we wanted to go. San Juan -- Didn't do any shore excursions, we took off on our own, did the San Cristobal fort tour, awesome pictures and views of the island. Found our way into Old San Juan, great prices and good shopping (there's a Marshall's there!) and had lunch at Manolin Cafe (local diner with local specialties, highly recommended by the locals, very affordable, crazy busy at noon). Grand Turk -- Handful of shops on the island, very small island pretty much dedicated to water sports. Swimming, snorkeling, diving, hanging on the beach are about the best anywhere in the world. Water is gorgeous, sorry we didn't do a water excursion, we will come back. Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Resort was awesome, you can belly up to the bar while in the free form pool, enjoying music, margaritas, great food too.
Shopping -- Duty-free liquor in port and on ship was similarly priced to wholesale/membership clubs in US. Jewelry and souvenir pricing varies by port and vendor, if you're looking for jewelry, check with the onboard shopping specialist. Last day of cruise, look for specials in the Fun Shops onboard (2/$20 t-shirts, 40% off some watches, costume jewelry)
Tipping -- The crew really works hard for their guests. Some people have issues with tipping, thinking the service is included with the ticket purchase. When someone goes over and above the normal expected level of service, I believe they earned a gratuity. From the cabin staff to the wait staff, these guys took the extra step every single instance to make sure our experience was the best. I was a little apprehensive of Carnival automatically whacking the cruise bill with the entire estimated gratuities for the trip on the second or third day. This being my first cruise with Carnival, and always tipping on prior cruises in cash on the last night, I went down to the Guest Services Desk, and had them remove the estimated gratuities. They gave me envelopes to use for tipping, and on the last night, I gave each of the respective departments their gratuity in cash, and exceeded the recommended/estimated amounts because they earned every nickel of it.
Highly recommend the cruise, hope everyone has the incredible time we had!