This was my tenth cruise but my first one sailing on Carnival, so I really didn't know what to expect. I had a vision in my mind of rowdy crowds and mediocre food. It turns out that nothing could have been further from the truth. Just to tell you where I'm coming from, I've sailed on Royal Caribbean's Marnier, Majesty and Jewel as well as Holland America's Oosterdam and Westerdam in addition to a few others. I really wanted to try out Royal Caribbean's Allure or Oasis, but the fare would have been nearly four thousand more for my family for the same week, so the decision was made.
Prior to booking the Liberty I read the reviews here top to bottom. I learned to read between the lines a long time ago when visiting any critic site, whether here or TripAdvisor. I find it almost comical that a one star review could be sandwiched right between two four star reviews. While the reviews for the Liberty are good overall, they are not stellar. I'm here to report that my overall experience was better than I would have possibly expected.
First item of business, everything that you read here about embarkation is absolutely, 100% true: it's a nightmare. After waiting in line to get into the terminal, we finally made it to the check-in desk where we proceeded to hand over our passports and pre-filled paperwork. That part went very quickly -- but for a reason (read on). We sat for nearly two hours waiting for our number to be called. When it was called, we took the escalator up to the gangway only to be met by two long lines that roped around. While waiting on the line for another forty minutes, it finally dawned upon me what the problem with boarding was. I couldn't figure out why boarding my Holland America (a Carnival company by the way) cruises, which had the identical number of passengers, took less than an hour from arrival. Then it hit me like a brick. When passengers check in for Holland America, or Royal Caribbean for that matter, the passenger security pictures are taken at the check-in counter. That means that if there are 25 employees checking people in, there are 25 pictures being taken at a time. On Liberty, the passenger photos are taken when entering the boarding door of the ship. You may ask, what's the big deal, well the answer is simple. There are only four cameras to take the picture of 3000 passengers. To add insult to injury, the line we were in was shut down because the family being processed had problems with their key cards and my line was merged into the line beside it, meaning there were now three cameras to take care of everybody in line. It was pure insanity and inefficiency at its absolute worst. This was the craziest thing I had ever seen while cruising and since Carnival hasn't addressed this bottleneck by now, chances are it's acceptable to them and they never will.
Once boarded (nearly 3 hours after arriving at the terminal), we made our way to our cabin which was located on deck 7. I was pleasantly surprised to find it much larger than I thought it would be. My wife and I had a balcony while our kids an inside. The cabin was absolutely spotless and shined. It was not only wider than I would have thought, but longer. The bed was extremely comfy and the cabin itself was absolutely silent, day and night. I attribute this to it being located above and below decks which housed only cabins and not nightclubs or other public areas. The only thing that I took exception to (and minor at that) was the bathroom. I like to bring a nightlight and place it in the bathroom so we don't have to turn on the bright fluorescent light in the middle of the night. On the Liberty there's no power plug in the bathroom other than a shaver plug, and it has two short prongs on it, not the long and short one that's supposed to save our life somehow. This was obviously no big deal.
Next it was up to the Lido for a long delayed lunch. Here we faced our next frustration. Since it was now so close to departure time, all of the buffet stations were closed due to the pending muster drill. We had left the house in the morning, arrived at 1:30 and now were refused even a morsel of food.
Things got a whole lot better once we set sail. Since we had late seating there was plenty of time to walk around and explore the ship. The overall decor was nicer than expected, but it didn't have the classiness and elegance of the Holland America ships that I've grown accustomed to. I found navigation around the ship very easy and was impressed with the main pool area, which sports a giant screen along with stadium seating. This was a really nice feature.
Every cruise comes down to one thing: the food, and again, another pleasant surprise. We had dinner in the dining room all but one night and the meals were very good, not exceptional as with Holland America, but quite good and considerably better than I had expected. Others have written here about sub-standard meals but we didn't experience any of that. The daily menu selections were broad and tasty. The appetizers were very good (with the exception of the drowned out Caesar salad which reeked of anchovies) as well as the soups. The entrees were prepared as ordered and arrived hot (I still don't know how they do that). Ordering more than one of anything was not frowned upon at all and the service was excellent. The Indonesian crews really know how to do their job and they do it well. So well in fact that on the last night I handed over a few greenbacks to the service staff in addition to the pre-arranged tips that I paid for at the end of the trip. There were three daily dessert selections on the menu each night in addition to the basic items which appeared every night, such as sherbet and ice cream. The cheesecake was just awful. Thinking it was only me I turned to the other tables and on each one the cheesecake was placed aside. Cappuccino is free by the way and was actually good.
We split breakfast between the dining room and Lido. The dining room was very civilized and had the same menu selections each morning. The good news here is that everything is cooked to order, but it's not as quick as the Lido for obvious reasons. Breakfast on the Lido was good but the lines could be problematic at times. My favorite was the breakfast burrito station, which did an excellent job. Coffee was good, moderately strong but certainly not weak.
We had lunch each day on Lido and the selections were very good. My favorite, however, was Guy's Burger Joint. The burgers were excellent, so this is not a good place for a diet. The Fish & Chips on the second level of the Lido was great and shouldn't be missed for those that love this delicacy. Also of honorable mention is the taco bar. The only tasteless item I encountered onboard was the pizza. Other than the look and shape, it had nothing in common with what pizza is supposed to be and think it may have been manufactured by DuPont.
Like most cruises, the entertainment was hit and miss. During ours we had the usual floor shows, which were good overall, but the highlight was the comedy club. On our journey we had the good fortune of seeing Happy Cole, who was outrageously funny to the point where I had trouble breathing. The other comics were just OK.
The ports of call were typical of the eastern Caribbean, St Thomas, San Juan and Grand Turk. This was my first time to Grand Turk and while the island itself is nothing to write home about (don't waste money on the island tour, there's nothing to see), the beach right alongside the dock is really nice and has a Margaritaville attached. The lounge chairs are free of charge, just get to them as soon as you can.
My last point of frustration was with the private island, Half Moon Cay, which I've been to many times before as it's leased by Holland America. The island and beach are very nice and tranquil, however, the tender service to get there was just awful. We had to wait in the main showroom for two hours waiting for our number to be called. We were told that a few tenders were out of service but I'm not sure what to believe and nobody from the ship was very apologetic. Once on the island it was nice and loungers were plentiful. As usual on the island. the lunch was just OK. I thought by now they would figure out a way to take care of the excessive smoke at the b-b-q building, but after coming here several times over the past decade, nothing has changed so I guess they don't deem it a problem although the staff are constantly rubbing their eyes - in addition to the guests. Getting back to the ship via tender was just as painstaking, waiting in line under the hot sun for a little over an hour.
We had our final meal in the Diamond Steak House. We always enjoyed our "up-fee" dinner at the Pinnacle on Holland America and looked forward to this one as well. While the meats were good, we didn't find it as outstanding as we did on Holland, and at a new price of $35, I'm not sure it's a worthwhile expense. The Pinnacle on our last cruise in December was phenomenal and cost only $25, so I'm not sure what's going on here.
Our cabin steward (Andri) provided excellent service and as with the wait service, I gave him an extra tip in cash. He always knew when we were out and fixed up the room by replenishing the ice and replacing the towels when needed.
Disembarkation was smooth and quick and we were off the ship by 9:00am.
All in all I think Carnival has a very good product. The cabin, crew and condition of the ship were very, very good. As I said earlier, I was surprised and felt good about the ship and our whole experience. If anyone is out there having trepidations about going on the Liberty, let me put your mind at ease by saying that I would highly recommend it.