We flew to Miami the night before and stayed at the Marriott's Spring House Suites. This hotel has a free airport shuttle and also a shuttle to the cruise terminal which costs $5 per person. I thought this was great deal. Free ride to hotel and only $5 per person to the boat. Most hotels with an airport shuttle are too far from the boat to have a shuttle to the boat. This hotel was about half way between the airport and the boat so it had both shuttles.
We got there around 11:00 (which is prime time) and the terminal was crowded and the lines moved slowly. There is the line for the initial check-in. Then you wait to be called to board. Then another line for security (this moved fast). Then another line to board the ship which moved very slow. As soon as you step on the ship they take your picture for security which gets assigned to your sail-n-sign card. So just be prepared for the lines, so you don't get surprised and frustrated. Or get there early or later for less lines.
Security x-rays your carry-on bags and will inspect every single bottle in your bag looking for alcohol. I saw lots of confiscated water bottles on the table that did not contain water. They will shake the bottles and if it bubbles then you lose it. So don't waste your money.
But you are allowed 1 bottle of wine per 21 year old in your carry on. My oldest is 22 so we brought 3 big bottles of wine. It was nice to have drinks in our cabin before dinner and we would walk to dinner with a full glass of wine. They will open the bottle at the table but they will charge you a $10 corking fee. If you do this don't forget to bring your own bottle opener. There are nice glasses in the room to use.
I did see people carrying 12 packs of soda and water, so they let you bring that on, but you have to lug that through all the lines.
For any skateboarders bringing their skateboard (Grand Cayman has the world's largest skate park $18 USD cab ride 1 way), security at first took the skateboard and said we would get back after the cruise. Then later they called said we could have it. Security just didn't know current policy that is was ok.
Overall we had a great time and the service from everyone was excellent. The lido deck waiters/waitresses will learn your name and find you every day, all day asking if you want more to drink. The dining room staff was great and made dinner a really fun time.
Ocean view on main deck (level 2), nice clean, comfortable, no bad smell. Cabin steward was very friendly. It seemed every time we walked out of the room he was in the hallway with a big smile and a greeting, asking if everything was ok.
2 small problems in the room that were fixed quickly. The sink drained very slowly, told cabin steward, maintenance main was there in 10 minutes and it was fixed. 10 minutes !!!. The soap dispenser in shower had a whole at the top which made it not dispense. Went out for the day and came back it was fixed. If you have any problems, even small, tell them and it will be corrected.
We loved the food in the main dining room. Remember you can order as much as you want. One night I had 4 of the appetizers along with the entree. My sons each ordered 2 of the lobster entrees when it was offered.
The buffet food was your regular buffet food. The same as Golden Corral, maybe a little better but not much. This is what I expected so I was not disappointed. The deli sandwiches were very good. You get these at a separate window and this line was usually short. I like a good New York style pastrami sandwich I was very happy with theirs.
The problem with the buffet is that the lines are VERY long at the prime-times. We would use the buffet only for snacks at off times like 4-5 before the big dinner crowed. The better option for your meals is to eat in the dining room for ALL your meals. For breakfast and lunch 1 dinning room is open, and it is open seating. The food is better than the buffet and there is NO LINE!!! These meals were great an relaxing. Why stand in line for 10 or 15 minutes at the buffet for turkey and mashed potatoes? I could not understand why the buffet was more popular. Go to the dining room for these meals, you will be much happier with your experience!!! The dress code for breakfast and lunch in the dining room is shorts and t-shirt. So just walk down from the deck and go eat, no worries.
For the formal dinner nights (there were 2) I wore a coat and tie. A few wore tuxes, a good amount had a nice suit coat or jacket, plenty wore just a nice shirt. My wife likes do get dressed-up so I wanted to as well.
Ship: The ship was fine and looked nice. Ignore any complaints you read about the decor. I can't even tell you what the rooms looked like. Why? Because I was having a great time with family, new friends, and the staff. Silly that anyone even mentions it.
On board spending:
Keep track of you spending on a regular basis so you are not surprised by your bill. I saw plenty of upset people with sticker shock. Remember they automatically charge you the tips for the staff. It's 11.50 per day so that is $57.50 per person. I was with a family of 5 so that is $287.50 without having 1 drink. This will hit your account on the 3rd or 4th day. You will see a big line at the service desk when this happens from all the people who didn't know about this. Every drink order gets a 15% tip added and the drinks are not cheap, so your bar bill will add up fast. Having a few drinks during the day, a few more at dinner, and few more at night, you can easily spend 350 -- 400 a person by the end of the trip. Be prepared to spend this money so you are not sick when you walk of the boat. You don't want to have to tell you wife to stop drinking and make her drink the free ice-tea or lemonade for the last 2 days of the cruise. If you have to do this then you will not enjoy your cruise. This happened to me on my first cruise so I was planned for it this time and was not surprised with a $1,200 bill (this did include a $100 massage and $100 duty free vodka purchase).
Dunn's River falls was great and worth the money. Bring you own $5 water shoes from Wal-Mart, otherwise you will rent them for $15 or buy them for $15!!! And must have rubber water shoes or you will fall and break something. You can get your own cab to the falls and you do NOT need to book the excursion (too much $). We got off the boat early (in a line of course), as soon as you walk past the gates there will be drivers asking to take you on a tour. For $20 a person they will drive you to the falls, then pick you up, and take you for a tour of the island. You then have to pay $20 at the falls person. At the falls they have guides that you will have to tip but you do NOT need a guide. If they ask, just say no thank you. You can walk up the falls by yourself just fine. By getting there early we beat the crowd and had a great time walking up. We could go where we wanted, stop when we wanted, total freedom. By the time we finished there was a huge line waiting for lockers and guides. I assume these there the big tour groups. We walked back to the bottom of the falls and now the falls will full of these groups all walking up in the same line following the same path. Don't get caught in that. Get your own cab early and beat the tour groups.
We thought the island tour after the falls would be just a car ride looking out of the window, so we asked to be taken back to town for shopping and a good place for lunch. The driver took us to a nice place but I felt it was for tourists and he probably got a free-lunch or a kick back. The town itself was kind of crummy and there are lots of very poor people and it can be very depressing. Here you are on a nice cruise and you have people asking for a dollar, or asking to buy the same t-shirts, necklaces, and wood carvings you can get anywhere. Do NOT go to the open-air market. 100 stalls selling the EXACT same junk.
You can probably get a better price for a ride to the falls if you tell them you just want a ride up and back, no tour or anything else, and maybe a better fair from a street cab instead of the mini-busses lined up to get the cruisers. Once back in town, you can find a plane restaurant that is probably cheaper than the tourist restaurant, or just go back to the ship and eat for free.
Sting Ray City was a good time and worth the money. Again, you can get your own tour on the island and don't need to book through Carnival. On the island the price is $40 per person. This gets your transportation to the boat (15 min ride), 20 minute boat ride to the site, then time with the sting rays, then 2 minute ride to a snorkel spot. An alternative is to go to a restaurant on the water on the left after you exit the gates. For $10 you can snorkel off the beach and there is supposed to be a ship-wreck just of the beach. The town itself is very nice. Grand Cayman is an island with money so it is completely different than Jamaica.
You can take all your bags off yourself of leave your bags for the crew to take off. Let them take the bags off, but to do this you need to leave them out the night before between 9 -- 11. So much easier this way. I don't know why anyone would lug their bags off the ship. The server breakfast in the morning. If you go early enough you can leave your carry bags in the room while you eat or bring them with you. If you have all your big bags, this could be a pain. If they take your bags then you get a zone number and are called to leave the ship by zone. Twice, they called numbers but then said it was too crowded and told you to wait even if you were called. We were staying the night in Miami so we were in no rush, so we ignored our called number and just waited to the end. We could look over the railing and see the line in the terminal so we waited until there was no more line. It was nice day so waiting on the deck reading a book was better than standing in line.
There are plenty to transportation companies asking to give you a ride to the airport or hotel or wherever in their vans/mini-buses. It is a flat $32 cab ride to the airport. We were going to south beach and a guy with a van wanted $10 per person, I had 5 people so I said no figuring a cab would be around 30. He said $40, I said $30 and he said OK. So you can bargain with these guys because they need to fill their vans. The same guy took all 5 of us to the airport from a south beach hotel for $30. It was a van so more room than squeezing 5 into a cab.
Hotel in South Beach: South Seas hotel. Used Hotwire.com to get a $145 rate. This is a small but nice hotel on the beach with nice pool and sitting area with hammocks and palm trees. Close to lots of restaurants and shopping. There are bikes for rent on lots of different corners. $5 for 1 hour and you can leave the bike at any of the bike stands. There is a nice walking/riding patch along the beach so it is a nice ride.