I want to preface this review by noting that this was my first cruise and that the majority of the readers of this review are most likely seasoned crusiers, so please bare in mind.
This cruise set sail on May 29th, 2012 from Seattle, headed towards Alaska. The process of getting on the boat wasn't bad, aside from the long lines. However, once aboard it's a little overwhelming as what to do next. My first inclination was to head towards our room to drop off some things, but rooms weren't ready until later that afternoon. In the meantime all of the staff directed us, as well as everyone else, up to the 9th deck (Lido deck) for lunch. This area was completely packed with people and open seats were non-existent. We had to make our way with a try full of food through packed hallways up to the 10th deck where we eventually found a few open deck chairs. I'd have to say this was one of the low lights of the entire cruise. I think that everyone is just so excited to start vacation/the cruise that they grab way more food than is necessary and if you're lucky enough to find an open table, you'd find a mess of food left behind.
I believe at about 2pm we were allowed to get into our rooms. We were on the 8th floor, starboard (right side) towards the front of the ship. As a first time cruiser, I was a little taken aback by the smaller size of our balcony room, but after a day I adjusted just fine. All in all, the room was very good. The only exception being the bathroom, which was cramped and our sink had a very slow drain.
The ship itself is in good shape. The cheesy decor was way too over the top in places, but everything was clean and maintained. The temperature was too cold for people to enjoy to outdoor pools and most of the time I saw the water slide area completely abandoned with people. The Serenity area on deck 9 was great. No one under 21 is allowed in this area on the back of the boat (which wasn't a problem since they were barely as kids on this cruise). There were two hammocks and several large wicker "pods" to lounge around in. Also, this is where the best hot tub on the ship resides. Once you get to good scenery on day 3, spending an hour in here with a 360 degree view of nearby snow capped mountains is a must.
The food. I still don't know what to think about the food as a whole. My wife was immediately leery of food safety, but I never once got concerned. For breakfast you have 3 options, order from a limited menu from room service (mostly baked goods and cereals), have a seated meal on deck 2 in the Empire Restaurant, or an ala crate breakfast on deck 9 in the Lido deck. Lunch is same deal. For dinner you have 4 options, the 3 mentioned and the steakhouse, which will set you back $30 per person per visit. Breakfast was fine all around, no real complaints there. It seemed like most people opted for the Lido deck for lunch and that got old after about 3 days. Imagine that your local mall gives you an unlimited pass at the food court and you pretty much get the idea. Dinner was hit or miss. The Empire Restaurant has consist standbys like fried chicken and burgers, and then a daily list of specials. The food wasn't bad, but I never felt like I was eating in a five star or even two star restaurant. Again, maybe I had my hopes up being a first timer. The steakhouse is the best option for restaurant quality food, but at an additional cost. The nice thing about the Empire was that you could order a few different meals to sample from and eventually find something you'd enjoy, but at the steakhouse, you get what you order and if you don't like it, then that's too bad because you're not getting a different entree. All in all, the food was good considering everything you ate lived on a boat for 7 days...but I was more than happy to eat off the boat at the end of the trip.
Now for the good parts. Alaska is really incredible. Whether you enjoy the boat or not, only a cruise could take you through this beautiful landscape in such a short amount of time. On the 3rd day you get to Tracy Arm Fjord which is spectacular. Skagway is next, where you can actually get off the boat onto land for the entire day. The "downtown" is almost exclusively designed to accommodate tourists, but there are some really nice spots like Starfire and Skagway Brewing Co. We did 2 excursions through Carnival, nature hike from the old train and zip lining. Both of these were great and I would recommend them. Next stop was in Juneau. Here we setup a non-Carnival excursion, a helicopter ride to a glacier. This was easily the highlight of the trip. Simply incredible. Afterwards we paid a local bus company to take us up to Mendenhall glacier, which was also incredible. Definitely go see it. The next stop was Ketchikan and only lasted about 5 hours. We opted to do snorkeling (in full wet suits) which was a lot of fun, but not quite as much as I hoped for. Finally, we stopped at Victoria, B.C. Now I had very low expectations here. You don't arrive until 7pm and then depart at midnight, so there's very little time to do anything substantial. We thought ahead and made dinner reservations at Il Terrazzo and it was one of the best meals I've ever had. Victoria was very clean, friendly, and refreshing. The walk to the downtown area is a bit of hike though, maybe about 25-30 minutes.
Once we got back to Seattle, debarkment was smooth once were told how it worked. You can either check you luggage with Carnival and receive a specific time slot to leave or bring everything off yourself and leave as early as 7:45am. Customs took all of 10 seconds to get by.
In summary, I was very excited about this cruise and looking back it was great, but I also couldn't of been any happier to get off the boat the at the end. The staff was always helpful and friendly. Fellow shipmates were a grab bag. It was depressing seeing people in rascals with 5 pounds of food at their disposal at all times, but that's how it goes. Elevators were at times packed because people wouldn't use the stairs to go one floor. The sights were awesome and really made the trip. None of the ports were bad, but with the exception of Victoria, all rely on tourism and accordingly feel a bit "touristy". Carnival is a bit pushy with extras in which they want extra money, whether it's through photos (enough already Carnival), special drink services, jeweler tables, or spa advertisements. I don't think I'll be on a cruise for awhile but am happy to say I did this one.