We are a couple without children ages 34 and 53. I have cruised twice before with Carnival (Inspiration in 2003 and Valor in 2005). My husband cruised once with Carnival in the 1990s. We have not cruised on any other cruise line.
Embarkation in Miami:
Since we are Florida residents, we drove to the Port of Miami. We arrived at about 1:45 PM and parked in the parking garage ($20/per day). It was a safe, secure garage and we felt comfortable leaving our car there. We dropped off our luggage with the porters before parking and made sure to tip $1 per bag. The lines were pretty light by that time and we probably waited about 30-40 minutes to get on the ship. I will say that the ship was already rocking by the time we got on, so if you want to get there at the beginning of the party, try to be at the port around 10:30 AM. Even though Carnival called us 4 days before our sail date and instructed us to arrive later (between 1:30 and 3:00 PM), I know many folks got on the ship way before that. We had zero problems with embarkation and all of our luggage was delivered to our stateroom by about 5:00 PM, so we were off to a good start!
Since we booked at the last minute, we were assigned an interior room on the Verandah deck (Deck 8). Our room was 8394 and it was technically mid-ship but towards the aft elevators. We really liked this because we could walk up one flight of stairs to the Lido deck and get to the Versailles pool (adult only area), pizza, and Emile's (buffet) very easily. We would take this room again in a heartbeat! Felix, our room steward was great. I found the room to be small but thoughtfully laid out and comfortable. Plus, we didn't spend much time in the room, so we weren't too concerned with a view. I also found the hairdryer to be conveniently located near the vanity, and we used our room safe often to store our valuables and passports.
Ship Style and Atmosphere:
The staterooms were pretty plain compared to the loud, gaudy style of the rest of the ship. But the layout was easy to follow and I only felt like I was on a sold-out ship with over 4,000 people a couple of times. You can tell which areas were upgraded as part of Carnival 2.0. Their decor was modern and less gaudy (particularly the EA Sports bar and Alchemy bar).
I knew there would be lots of kids on board for this July cruise, but I really did not notice an overabundance. They seemed pretty occupied for most of the time and were not present in the adult only areas. Honestly, the kids were better behaved than some of the adults! Karl (the cruise director) was very energetic and hosted many daily activities in the showroom and on Lido Deck. I would say that this is what I remember about Carnival cruises overall -- there is lots to do, but if conga lines and pool games aren't your thing, you may think some of the activities in the evening or on sea days are a bit cheesy. There is an overall party-like atmosphere, except maybe in the Serenity (adults only) area and the spa. If you are looking for a super high-end, luxury cruising experience, Carnival probably isn't the cruise line for you.
Dining -- Main Dining Room:
Since we booked at the last minute, we did not get our preferred assigned dining time (we requested Anytime Dining but got early seating in the Golden Olympian dining room). However, when we went to dinner the first night, we asked the Maitre d' to change it for us and he did. From then on, we went to the first floor of the Golden Olympian dining room (Deck 3), where all guests with Anytime Dining have to eat. We only waited for a table more than a few minutes on one occasion, and we always wanted a table for two by the window. The service was good, however, the bar service in the MDR was terrible. My suggestion for Anytime Diners is to go to the lobby bar on Deck 3 (which is right near the entrance to the Golden Olympian), get a cocktail there, and take it in with you. Dinner in the MDR was probably our least favorite meal, but it was still good. We ate there 6 out of 7 nights. From what we could tell, the food in Emile's is very similar to the menu in the MDR each night. Lobster on the first formal night was great!
Dining -- Casual:
We never ate breakfast or lunch in the MDR. Emile's breakfast buffet and lunch buffet were good. Fish and chips and 24-hour pizza were a hit. Guy's burgers were the best food on the ship, but it is only open from 11 AM until 6 PM most days, so don't plan on it for a late night snack. Blue Iguana had excellent breakfast tacos and the burritos were good, too. Origami, the sushi bar, was a disappointment. The late night food was hot dogs, grilled ham and cheese, and a breaded chicken sandwich ?(Loved These!). I was excited for the Chocolate Extravaganza buffet, but most of the items had that pre-packaged, cardboard taste. Honestly, the desserts on the ship were not very good at all. I did really like the fact that there are automatic hot chocolate machines available all day throughout Emile's on Lido deck. I could easily grab a cup in the morning or before bed.
The Lido bars mid-ship (Red Frog Rum Bar and Blue Iguana's Tequila Bar) were good (although Blue Iguana was closed for the first few days of our cruise for some repairs). If you can find Muriel in one of these bars, she is the friendliest bartender on the ship! I got kind of bored with the Red Frog guitar guy and the DJ on the Lido Deck. I missed hearing steel drum music! (Carnival -- please bring this back, at least for a few hours a day, maybe near the Versailles pool and bar!) We spent lots of time at the Lobby Bar listening to Two's Company. MaryAnne, the singer, was SENSATIONAL! We listened to her each night they were playing. She remembered our names and always asked the audience for requests. The piano bar was fun, and the band that played in the casino bar (Music Asia) was AWESOME! We did go watch karaoke one night and even stayed for SuperStar Live, where you can sing with the live band. The EA Sports Bar and Alchemy Bar were nice, but we really didn't spend much time there.
I thought the big production shows were average and kind of cheesy. I thought Just Rock was the best show out of all of them. We went to comedy one night (the adult show) and that was okay. It was extremely crowded and we had to stand in the back. We were going to stay for the next show so we moved down to the regular seats after folks had cleared out. But they announced that they had to clear the theater to set up for the next show, so everyone had to leave. We didn't feel like standing in line, so we left. Get to the comedy shows early and then leave as soon as the show is over so you can get back in line outside the lounge to see the next comedian!
The casino had better payouts on the slots than I remembered. I saw a lady win nearly $700 on one slot (max bet of $3) in about 30 minutes time. Roulette is our game and there are two tables, one smoking and one non-smoking. Dushaun, the dealer on the non-smoking table, was AWESOME! He was very friendly and we always had a great time at his table. There are also plenty of opportunities for Bingo and the last night they did the raffle for a free cruise for two. They also sell these pull-tab lotto type tickets for $5 each. I only saw one woman win and she only won $5.
We had two Cruise Elegant evenings. I would say that about 75% of the ship dressed for the first. Plus, there was a huge Quinceanera group on the ship and there were lots of tuxedos and long gowns in that party. I only saw one man not in this special group wearing a tux. I saw lots of cocktail dresses and men wearing suits or dress pants and button-up shirts. There were far less people dressed up for the second Cruise Elegant evening. I would say only 40%-50% dressed in actual elegant attire. But on each elegant night, I saw people dressed very casually and still be admitted into the Main Dining Room.
There was a healthy mix of all ages and several nationalities represented on the ship. I loved the diversity of the passengers. This cruise had an especially Latin feel to it, I guess because of the large Quinceanera group. There were lots of opportunities to listen to Latin music, from the DJ on Lido deck to live performances in Promenade venues.
I will say that there were some folks in serious need of cruise etiquette lessons. The folks in the cabin next to us insisted on having lengthy, loud discussion sessions right outside our door at 8:00 AM and into the late evening with their friends who were staying across the hall. With all the places to mingle on that huge ship, did they have to scream and cackle right outside our door? The walls are so thin on these ships that you can hear a louder than normal conversation in the next room as plain as day. The second morning, I peeked out of my door and politely asked them if they would please be a little quieter because we were still trying to sleep (we did have our bright red "Do not disturb" sign on our door, as did many of the surrounding cabins). I got a very hostile and rude response. So I informed them that I did not want to have to call anyone, but if the behavior continued, I would. Since I basically got a big "F U" I called our room steward and security. They were quiet for most of the rest of the cruise, but on the last evening, they decided to scream in the halls at about 2:00 -- 3:00 AM and thought it would be funny to remove our do not disturb sign. While this low-life behavior was annoying, we certainly did not let it ruin our good time!
Days at Sea:
We had two days at sea on our itinerary. We spent the first one lounging on Lido Deck, mostly in the Versailles pool aft (adult only), and in the Serenity adult only area (forward on deck 11). I was up at about 8:15 AM and only saw a few (maybe 20) chair hogs saving seats. I would say most of the good chairs were gone by 10:30 AM. The Lido pools are small and get very crowded.
It was lightly raining on the morning of our second day at sea, so the chair hogs' plans were foiled. But when the rain stopped, the good chairs were all taken up by 10 AM or so. My husband and I decided to get spa services on this sea day. He got acupuncture for the first time and absolutely loved the guy doing it. I got a massage/facial combo. The service was good, but not remarkable. I didn't get the full minutes of massage I was promised and I absolutely hated the hard sell for products at the end. It totally ruined the relaxed vibe of the experience!
Ports of Call:
I was very excited about our Exotic Eastern Caribbean itinerary. The only port I had been to before was St. Thomas, which I absolutely loved and could not wait to go back! We are not really tour/shore excursion people (we like the freedom to do what we want), and sadly, I am still learning to swim, so we did not so any scuba or snorkeling (except in mostly shallow water near the shore). So my discussion of the ports might be good for folks who don't want to spend a lot of money on excursions or have a set schedule at every port, but still want a good experience. One tip -- we were in port early every day, so plan to be up and ready if you want to be the first one off the boat! Another good tip -- cruising Carnival in July means that you are often the only ship in port, since most other cruise lines (except RCL) divert their vessels elsewhere so they don't have to deal with the hurricanes and can take advantage of warmer weather for Alaskan cruises. I could not imagine competing with passengers from two or three other ships at some of these places. (See separate port reviews.)
You have two options to get your luggage (and yourself) off the ship. 1. You can place zone tags on each bag (your room steward will give the tags to you the last day of the cruise) and set your bags outside your room between 6:00-11:00 PM the evening before debarkation day. Your bags will be picked up and taken off the ship for you. On the morning of debarkation, you wait until your zone number is called so you can leave the ship and go to the luggage carousels. 2. You can choose to carry your bags off the ship yourself (self-assist). In this case, you do not set your luggage outside your stateroom the night before debarkation, nor do you put the zone tags on them. On the morning of debarkation, you wait for your deck number to be called and you just take everything with you.
Keep in mind you leave the ship on Deck 3, so if you have a lot of stuff you may not want to use self-assist. In fact, they say that if you have large bags, you cannot use self-assist. However, we told our room steward that we were uncomfortable leaving our luggage outside our cabin because of the unsavory folks staying next door. He said it was no problem, just use self-assist, even with my two HUGE rolling duffle bags. It worked out fine for me, and there is an elevator at the terminal to use in lieu of the escalator.
In either case, they do request you be out of your stateroom by 8:30 AM (although we didn't leave until our floor was called at about 8:40 AM). There is breakfast in Emile's and at the Blue Iguana on debarkation day, so you can wait there, or go to the Venetian lounge or Promenade deck and wait. We didn't get kicked out of our stateroom, so we stayed there until Deck 8 was called.
Getting off the boat was way easier than I thought it would be. However, some passengers with little experience with US customs held up the line in the terminal. The group in front of us apparently did not declare anything on the declaration form, but when asked if they purchased anything, someone in the party said "Nothing really, just a watch." Um, no. Don't do that. Even if it was a $10 watch, just put it on your form. We declared $140 in miscellaneous souvenirs (photos, a hat and t-shirt). But the agent was annoyed by the folks in front of us and inquired about my diamond necklace. He asked, "Where did that come from?" My husband said that we bought it in the US. That was not good enough for the agent. He wanted to know where specifically it came from. It wasn't until we said "It was purchased at Tiffany & Co. in Orlando for Christmas 2010," that we were allowed to pass through. So if you are wearing any jewelry, you may be asked about it. Also, don't forget they can decide to check your bags at random!
I like to think I am a pretty easy-to-please cruiser. Most of the problems I encountered on the ship were due to other passengers, not the ship, ports or Carnival employees. We loved all the ports of call and were thoroughly entertained on the ship most of the time. The low points of the cruise for me were the tendering situation at Half Moon Cay, the hard sell at the spa, the bar service in the MDR, and the desserts. Everything else -- our cabin, the room steward, bartenders, Anytime Dining, MDR servers, ports of call, casual dining options, live music, drinks, casino, etc. were awesome. We did put $100 down as a deposit towards another Carnival cruise in the future.
In fact, we had such a great time that we decided we wanted to go on another cruise right away. The Carnival cruise we wanted was sold out, so we are going to try Royal Caribbean for the first time this coming Sunday (7/22/12 -- yes only a week's rest between sailings!). We are doing a Western Caribbean trip on the Freedom of the Seas. We are very excited to try a different cruise line, but we will be back cruising with Carnival very soon. For the value, experience, and beautiful destinations you just can't beat a Carnival cruise.