Pre-cruise - Friday, 7/6 Miami Just for some background, this was my ninth cruise and my wife's seventh cruise. I have previously cruised on Carnival and Royal Caribbean and have found them to be comparable in quality. I've also cruised on Norwegian Cruise Lines which I found to be slightly lower in quality than Carnival or Royal Caribbean but still enjoyable. This was also our first time cruising with another couple (I'll call them H and C to protect the innocent) who are good friends of ours.
We left on Friday, July 6 for the quick flight over to Ft. Lauderdale on American Airlines from DFW. When we booked the flight several months ago, the aircraft was scheduled to be an MD80 with two seats to the left of the aisle and three seats to the right so we had booked two seats just in front of our friends. Unfortunately the aircraft changed to a 737 so the seating was three and three and we were crammed in like sardines. That's par for the course though flying these days. Other than the lack of room the flight was uneventful and fairly good. We made it to Ft. Lauderdale at 2 pm and American didn't lose our luggage so I couldn't complain too much. H doesn't like to fly but survived relatively intact as we only had one brief period of turbulence!
It was hot and humid in Ft. Lauderdale and we called SAS shuttle to pick us up after we retrieved our luggage (I had made a reservation with them in advance) to take us down to the Intercontinental Hotel in Miami. SAS quickly showed up and charged us $15 per person which isn't bad and I was satisfied with their service. We were on our way and the drive took about 40 minutes to get to the hotel for our one night stay. The Intercontinental is a very nice hotel ideally located for cruises out of Miami. We had a two room suite on the 32nd floor with a fantastic view of the Miami harbor. The room was very nice and had a living room, bed room, and two bath rooms. The main bathroom had both a bath tub and a separate shower stall while the second bathroom had a large sink and a toilet of course. There was a deluxe coffee maker in the living room and two large screen Samsung HDTV's. Our friends were in a normal room on the 28th floor and they really liked their room too. We enjoyed our stay at the hotel as the room was clean and luxurious, the staff friendly, and the location excellent.
We decided to take a taxi to South Beach as everyone wanted to check it out (I had been there before on a business trip but tagged along anyways). We stopped at the Catalina Hotel (my step daughter watched the reality show "The Catalina" and wanted us to take pictures). It was actually a pretty dumpy looking place but still fun to check out. Then we walked down to the beach which is very wide with nice soft white sand. I could see three cruise ships sailing out (one was the Carnival Imagination and the other two were a Royal Caribbean and Norwegian ship respectively. It was getting really hot so we found a nice cool burger place called Five Napkin burger. It was a little pricey but the burgers were really good. We stopped at CVS for C to pick up some water and soda to carry on board but after that we were getting tired so took a taxi back to the hotel and called it a night. H and C went back out and wandered around the neighborhood near the hotel and had an enjoyable walk.
Day 1 -- Saturday, 7/7 Embarkation
We woke up around 9 am and I looked out the window and saw both the Carnival Valor (our ship) and the Carnival Liberty docked at the cruise ship port. It's always exciting to get that first glimpse of the ship!
We checked out of the hotel at 10:45 am and took a short taxi ride to the port arriving around 11 am. It was a bit hectic when we arrived but we easily found a porter to take out luggage. There was a short line outside waiting to get through security but it moved quickly. I had read that there were automated check in machines at the Miami port but I didn't see any. It didn't really matter though as there was no wait to check in. We took the obligatory photo and were soon aboard the Valor! The whole process had taken about 30 minutes so it wasn't bad at all.
The Carnival Valor is a nice ship with plenty of deck room and a nice central atrium. It also has several pools and a waterslide, a basketball court, jogging track, lots of hot tubs and some pool tables. It's definitely a good ship for those who are active! I had read about problems with chair hogs but never noticed any of that occurring during our cruise. Maybe we just got lucky with a nice group of people for our sailing!
We were pretty hungry so headed upstairs to Rosies Cafe (the ship's buffet) for lunch. The buffet area itself was just okay and felt cramped to me (tables were too close together) but we always managed to find a table when we came here. The buffet featured a standard buffet type line and separate lines for burritos, grilled sandwiches, Mongolian wok, and fish and chips (which were very good). There was also a pizza station and soft serve ice cream station nearby. It seemed to me that the quality had declined slightly from our previous Carnival cruises but it wasn't bad by any means.
Our rooms weren't supposed to be ready until 1:30 pm but we tried at 1 pm and our room was all made up and ready to go! We had an outside stateroom (#2284) and our friends were right next door (#2286). The cabin was nice and had plenty of storage and was quite adequate for our needs. The room consisted of a bed and a sitting area with a small couch and table. There was also an interactive TV with limited stations (CNN international, an ABC station from New York City, TNT and a few others as well as a bunch of ships channels and two channels that showed current movies. There were also pay per view movies available and there were channels to check on your ship account, view menus, and book shore excursions. I enjoyed watching the ships navigation channel which showed the ships location, as well the time and weather. The bathroom was pretty small but it was manageable. The cabin was fairly close to the elevators and didn't seem as sound proof as cabins we had on other ships. There seemed to be a lot of loud people tramping down the hallways but fortunately I brought ear plugs and slept fine. I never heard any noise from adjoining cabins, or from above or below us all week so only the hallway noise was an issue.
We met our room steward a little later and he did a great job with our room all week and kept our ice full (I had also read that Carnival no longer provides ice for staterooms and that is also incorrect) and our rooms clean so we were happy! We also had towel animals every night including some animals that we'd never gotten before on other cruises. At 3:45 pm, we had the obligatory life boat drill which I always dread, but this one didn't seem too bad and only lasted 15 minutes or so (and we didn't have to bring our life vests).
After the drill, we went up on deck for the sail away. I enjoyed sailing from Miami and it seems pretty festive. Cars honk and people wave at the ship from a nearby roadway which is fun. We also passed the Carnival Liberty which hadn't left port yet and everyone waved at each other from the two passing ships!
Our luggage didn't arrive in our rooms until 5 pm so I decided to wear shorts to dinner since I didn't feel like unpacking and changing yet. We had traditional dining early seating at 6pm each night upstairs in the Washington dining room. We found our table and had a table for four for us and our friends which was perfect! Our waiter for the week was Joseph from the Philippines and he was fantastic (in fact he is the best waiter I've had on all of my cruises) He was personable and remembered our names after just one meal and also was quite efficient at delivering our food in a timely fashion. We finished dinner by 7 pm most night and a little later on a couple of occasions (but only because I ordered an excessive number of appetizers on those nights). I found the dining room food to be good, and sometimes great depending on the dish. The quality of food in general was very good, but the choices weren't always that great. On at least two of the nights, none of the entrees really appealed to us, but they always had steak, chicken, burgers and pasta available. C loved the warm chocolate melting cake and ordered it each night with an extra scoop of ice cream! Drink service was excellent and after the first night, my diet coke was always shortly delivered to me by Kate from Belarus (and H always had a soda waiting for her).
After dinner we went to the Welcome Aboard show which was entertaining and featured comedians Al Romero and Jason Blanchard as well as the Carnival singers and dancers. We had actually seen Al Romero before on the Destiny in 2008 and he does a funny routine about Cuba. Jason Blanchard was funny too so it was an enjoyable show. We stayed up for awhile after the show and then turned in for our first sleep at sea!
Day 2 -- Sunday, 7/8 At Sea
Today was a day at sea and C and I had decided to get up early at 7:30 am to workout. We went to the workout room but every machine was occupied so we went to the jogging track instead. I did 1 Â½ miles of mostly walking (with a little jogging at the end) and it was a relaxing setting with the ocean breeze keeping it fairly cool. We woke up the girls and went to the Washington dining room for breakfast. We had just sat down when we heard someone call our names. It was our dinner waiter Joseph. He recognized us after only one dinner with him the previous evening. He asked why we didn't pick his section for breakfast and we told him we wouldn't make that mistake again! Breakfast was quite good. I had Eggs Benedict and it was well prepared and hot and fresh. Yet another complaint I had read recently about Carnival was that food in the dining room was served cold and we never had that problem.
After breakfast we sat out on the deck for awhile and got some sun and then also had lunch in the Washington dining room which was also excellent. This time we asked for Joseph and the service was awesome! We ate lunch several times in the dining room and it was good everyday but one. On one day it rained a bit at lunch time so more people than normal ate at the dining room and I think they were overwhelmed as it took over an hour to get our food. But that one day was the exception as every other time the food arrived quickly.
We decided to play Win, Lose or Draw which was fun and then some "name that tune" Broadway trivia which we won. I had always wanted to win a ship on a stick (they now call it a vessel on a trestle) and my team graciously let me keep the prize! We loved the trivia games and ended up playing quite a bit of it during the week. The trivia games were typically played as teams (although one could play solo if they liked) and were on the honor system (no one checked answers to see if a team was actually correct or not). We only suspected a team of cheating once out of all the many games we played so it worked out okay. During the week we played sports, movie theme, name that 90's tune, name that 80's tune, and many other misc. themed games. We also decided to try the drink of the day each day (although we missed day one's drink) and we got one drink and four straws each time. We ended up only like 3 of the 7 we tried through. I think the ones we liked the most were called the Caribbean Breeze and Bahama Mama. We all particularly disliked the Blue Margarita.
Other activities we tried during the week were Cha Cha dance lessons, mini golf, karaoke, bingo (I didn't win this time though) and movies under the stars on the big screen by the pool. We wanted to play ping pong but the tables always seemed to be occupied. Some movies they had during the week included Grease, Armageddon, Jurassic Park, The Lost World, How to Lose a guy in 10 days, and one of the Bourne movies among others. None of the movies were newer releases though but it was still relaxing to watch them and Carnival had the volume turned up enough so you could hear the dialogue fine. They also had free movie theatre type popcorn available which was a nice touch. H and C tried the water slide and the disco but I skipped those. We also all enjoyed the Serenity deck and used the hot tub there one evening. I never saw any kids in this adult only area so that was good! I also got a picture with Fun Ship Freddy one night which was awesome! My wife and H played the gender game (male vs. female) and H was the team captain and won her own ship on a stick as her team won!
We discovered a secret deck that we really liked on deck 10 forward. This area was almost always deserted and had plenty of deck chairs so was our oasis when we wanted peace and quiet! We came here several times during the week so it became our special spot!
Tonight was the first of two formal nights and we chose to go more semi-formal as I wore business casual type clothes. C dressed the same as me and quite a few were dressed like I was so I didn't feel out of place. I didn't see anyone wearing shorts and a baseball cap. We also got a photo with the captain before dinner tonight. I'd get to meet him again later in the week. The show tonight was Nightclub Express but I realized that we had seen this show before also on the Destiny in 2008 (I realized it as soon as I saw the talking couch). I'll comment more on how long Carnival runs a show later on in the review.
C and I wanted to see the comedy show so we caught Al Romero at 10 pm for his adult show. It was hilarious. There was a comedy club in the lounge on deck 5 aft that functioned four nights during the cruise and featured both family and adult shows with four different comedians. Although we only saw one comedy show, I appreciated the number and variety of shows they featured.
Day 3 -- Monday, 7/9 Grand Turk
We arrived in Grand Turk at 7 am this morning and had room service for a quick breakfast. The Valor was docked very close to shore (the closest I've ever seen a ship docked) and the water was incredibly clear with varying shades of blue. The dock area is very nice with a large beach with free beach chairs, some shops and a Margaritaville which includes a large pool which is also free. We docked at every port on the cruise so didn't have to mess with tendering.
We had a Reef and Rays tour booked with Carnival scheduled for 8:30 am. We usually book tours independently but this itinerary just worked out in a way that we ended up booking all of our tours through Carnival (The companies that we wanted to use for our tours both in Grand Turk and Aruba both had deals with Carnival where you had to book through the ship). We arrived a few minutes early for our tour and then had to wait 30 minutes for a couple that was late. Apparently they were already on Aruba time! But we were finally underway and walked a short distance to a small but comfortable boat. Our first stop was about 30 minutes away and was a snorkeling area where the water was about 10 to 15 feet deep. After some instructions we were in the water and it was a perfect temperature. Everyone was given snorkeling gear including a vest (that one could choose to inflate or not) and they also had flotation noodles available which made my wife happy!
A short swim from the boat there was a shark hiding under a rock (she had just had babies) and one of our guides lured her out. Anyone who wanted to could swim down and pet the shark which was neat. My vest was inflated too much so I didn't get to touch the shark but H was excited to do so and succeeded! I wouldn't call the snorkeling here great but it was still an enjoyable experience and I had never swum that close to a shark before.
We then headed to Gibb's Cay to see some stingrays. The boat docked right on the beach and the rays were in knee deep water. They are much smaller here than at Stingray city in the Cayman Islands. Everyone got to hold a stingray and have the stingray give them a back massage which the kids on our tour loved! There was also a professional photographer who took pictures both at the snorkeling site and at Gibb's Cay. Pictures cost $10 each.
It was then time to head back to the ship. I enjoyed the tour and would recommend it although I think I would have rather spent time snorkeling at an additional site.
We did some shopping back at port and then decided to have a snack and drink at Margaritaville. We ordered some nachos which were huge and delicious and I had a pina colada which was very tasty. There were lots of rowdy partying types at Margaritaville so I wouldn't recommend it for families. After our snack we got back on the ship and relaxed for a bit before dinner. After dinner we had our usual assortment of fun (trivia, a drink of the day. etc). We skipped the show tonight and soon day three was over!
Day 4 -- Tuesday 7/10 La Romana
I had read that La Romana wasn't a great port but we were determined to make the best of it. We arrived at port at 9 am so after breakfast in the dining room with Joseph we made our way off of the ship. In Grand Turk we walked right off the ship with no waiting but today was a different matter entirely as it was a mob scene. I felt like cattle as we slowly but surely walked off the ship and finally made it ashore. We were splitting up from H and C today as we had the Santa Domingo Express tour booked and they went with the speedboat tour. The port area where the ship docks is certainly nothing special (just one very small shop) so this is a port where you definitely need to plan an excursion.
We found our bus for the tour and it was very cool inside which was a great thing for me as I get hot easily. The bus was a bit cramped but otherwise comfortable for our 1 Â½ hour ride to Santa Domingo. The scenery was interesting along the way and our tour guide imparted many interesting facts about the Dominican Republic. We passed numerous baseball fields with kids of all ages playing baseball as it's the national sport of the Dominican Republic. We made a rest stop after an hour and then continued on to Santa Domingo. We made a brief photo stop at the building where Columbus is buried. I would have liked to have gone inside but time didn't permit it. Then we arrived at the old town where we got off the bus for a walking tour. We toured the Columbus house, a government building and a cathedral, all of which were interesting to varying degrees. It was extremely hot though and the walking was tiring after awhile (but manageable). Finally we stopped at a shop for souvenirs but it wasn't that great a store. We had walked through a square during the tour that had multiple shops and restaurants and would have made a much better rest stop. I did buy a few cigars though. I wanted to try the local beer Presidente but didn't have time. Fortunately they sold it back at the port so I got to try one when we returned. After our souvenir stop, we walked back to the bus and then had another 1 Â½ hour ride back to the ship. It was definitely a long day but it was interesting to see and learn about some of the country.
We got back on the ship and were starving as we had only had a snack (bread and cheese) on the tour. We ordered room service and had a nice nap before dinner. The MLB all star game was tonight so C and I found a spot in the sports bar to watch it while the girls went off on their own. The game was a dud though so we gave up when the National League was winning 8-0. We went to the Piano Bar for awhile which was fun but were really tired from a long day so turned in fairly early.
Day 5 -- Wednesday, 7/11 Curacao
We weren't arriving in Curacao until 2 pm today, which made it difficult to book any independent tours (and Carnival's choices were limited). Thus we decided to make today a beach day. High winds delayed our arrival in port so it was almost 2:40 before we got off the ship. We found a taxi to take us to Cabana Beach which is about 15 to 20 minutes from the port.
Cabana Beach turned out to be nice although a bit crowded. It cost $3 per person to enter the beach and then there were all sorts of varieties of beach chairs available, from lounge chairs to beach beds. There were also awnings for shade and even some tiki type huts to sit under. H and C found some chairs under the sun and we found two nice lounges under a tiki hut. A woman came by and told us the chairs were $15 per person and included bottled water and a fruit bowl so we paid up. No one ever asked H and C for money for their chairs though. The sand was nice and smooth on the beach and the water clear and a comfortable temperature. There was a rock wall a bit away from shore that blocked waves from entering the beach so the water was quite calm. There were also no rocks once you entered the water. A hut nearby sold jet ski rides but it was expensive ($75 for a half hour) so we passed on that.
After a couple of hours at the beach we took a taxi to the downtown shopping area and found some t-shirts. We wanted to cross the pedestrian bridge but it stayed closed for a long time so we finally took the ferry across instead. Just as we exited the ferry though, the bridge opened and we took a quick walk partway across for some pictures. We then walked back to the ship.
Near the port was a shopping area and we tried to enter a shop that my wife really wanted to go to but it was closed. The shop closed at 6 pm and it was now literally 6:01 pm. In fact, most of the shops in this area closed at 6 pm which seemed a bit ridiculous to me on a day when a ship is in port until 11 pm. There were many people who wanted to shop but could not, so these shops definitely cost themselves some revenue.
Since we missed dinner (it was now 6:30 pm when we got back onto the ship) we decided to try the steakhouse for dinner. I always like to try the steakhouse at least once but I wasn't happy about them raising the price to $35 per person. On our last Carnival cruise in 2008 the price was $25 per person and I felt that was an appropriate price. The steakhouse was empty when we got there for our 8 pm dinner so the powers that be at Carnival may want to rethink the pricing. Regardless of the price, the meal was excellent. I had escargot, lobster bisque, and the five spice rib eye steak, all of which were delicious. I of course had the chocolate trio for dessert which was great! Service was impeccable and the chef even stopped by to chat with us for a bit.
We met back up with our friends (they had gone to the buffet for dinner) and attended the More Than Magic show with Rand Woodbury. This is yet another show that we had seen on the Carnival Destiny back in 2008 but it is an excellent magic show.
Day 6 -- Thursday, 7/12 Aruba
Today was a more normal time period in port as the Valor would be in Aruba from 8 am until 4 pm. We had the North Coast Jeep Safari tour booked for 8:30 am. The tour was with ABC tours, which I had read great things about but had to be booked through Carnival.
We took a short bus ride to our jeeps, which were more like range rovers with two seats in the front for the driver and a passenger and bench type sideways seating for 8 more in the back (there was a cover over the back seats). It was comfortable though and I never felt cramped or hot. We headed out as a caravan of five or six jeeps for our tour through the Aruba countryside. The terrain varied from smooth to some fun bumps (I caught air one time) but I never felt in danger. Our driver was excellent and made sure we were having a good time. She also let us take turns sitting in the passenger seat if we wanted to. Water and soda was available throughout the tour.
Our first stop was at a rock formation which was interesting. I had heard that Aruba was desert like but I was surprised by the number of cactus we saw. The second stop was at an ostrich farm where a separate tour guide took us on a tour. There was a photo opportunity where on could hold a feed dish and several ostriches would peck at the food from behind. We also got to see an ostrich egg and some baby ostriches too.
The next stop was at a small church in the middle of nowhere. ABC allows passengers to drive for part of the tour if they want to and C drove for a bit as we left the church area. He hadn't driven a standard for a long time but did a good job (except for one small stretch where we went through some sticker bushes) and it was fun seeing him get to drive.
We next arrived at the collapsed natural bridge which is a scenic area where waves crash in spectacular fashion over jagged rocks. After this was a lighthouse and then finally we arrived at a beach for those who wanted to swim. There was no shade at the beach so we waited in the jeep. H and C swam though and said the water was fantastic here.
When all the passengers in our jeep were done swimming our driver brought us back to the port after taking a small detour to show us the big hotels which we wanted to see. We finally made it back to port at 2:30 pm. The tour was supposed to end at 12:30 so I had expected more shopping time. I didn't mind getting a longer tour than I signed up for but I had planned the day out expecting to be done by 12:30 pm so was slightly miffed that Carnival didn't estimate the tour time correctly. Fortunately we did find some nice crystal fish to buy in the short shopping time we had though so all turned out well.
We were hungry and tired from another long day so once again ordered room service and took a nap before dinner. Tonight's show was titled "Gravity Defying Comedy" and featured a juggler/comic who was pretty entertaining.
Day 7 -- Friday, 7/13 At Sea
The last two days of the cruise were days at sea which was a relaxing way to end the trip.
We spent some time on the serenity deck, played bingo, played more trivia, ate lunch in the Washington Dining Room, and relaxed! It was 80's theme day so the trivia games were related to the 80's which was fun for all of us. After dinner, we attended the Far From Over show which was also 80's themed and was my favorite show of the week!
Day 8 -- Saturday, 7/14 At Sea
And just like that, it was the last day of our cruise. But we had one more fun thing to do which was to take the "Behind the Fun" tour. I had always wanted to take this tour and finally got the chance! H and C weren't with us as they wanted to relax by the pool so it was just the wife and I. We met in the library at 8:45 am for our almost four hour tour.
Security checked everyone to make sure that no one had any cameras or cell phones (photography is not allowed during the tour as sensitive areas of the ship are visited) and then we were off.
We visited the crew deck, the crew gym, the crew mess hall, the laundry, went backstage in the theater, visited the engine control room (but didn't see the engines themselves), the storage holds, the crew galley, the main galley, the steakhouse and the bridge (where we met the captain and got our picture taken with him). At several of the stops crew members spoke about their respective areas and they were all interesting to varying degrees. We learned that Carnival runs their shows for ten years usually and the only time they introduce new shows is when a new ship joins the fleet! I also found it interesting in the galley that there were pictures of each and every dish that they prepare for the week.
We received a bag with a hat and wrist band and also received a soap carving and recipe for the warm chocolate melting cake. When we returned to our room later, there was a tray of assorted pastries waiting for us and our photos from the tour. The tour is a bit pricey at $95 but I really enjoyed it and was glad we chose to finally check it out!
After dinner was another of my dreaded activities on a cruise; packing to go home. We decided to do "self disembarkation" as we were on deck two and only had to get our luggage to deck three in order to get off the ship. Thus we didn't have to put our luggage in the hall by midnight which was good. Sadly, the cruise was about over.
We were really enjoyed the cruise and I didn't find Carnival's quality to have dropped off from our last Carnival cruise on the Destiny in 2008. As mentioned I had read reports and reviews mentioning that Carnival had chair hogs, no Funship Freddy, no ice in the staterooms, no candy at bed time, no towel animals, no live music, cold food in the dining room and slow service in the dining room. I found all of these to be false and we had a wonderful experience on the Valor!
Day 9 -- Sunday 7/15 Disembarkation Miami and Home
We had a flight home today from Ft. Lauderdale at 6:55 pm so scheduled an Everglades tour through Carnival that would drop us off at Miami airport (they didn't have an Everglades tour that dropped off at Ft. Lauderdale). We met in the theater at 7:45 am and were called to disembark shortly after 8. We were off the ship and through customs in mere minutes so disembarkation was a breeze. There was only one escalator to haul our luggage down and no stairways so it was pretty easy. We had a fairly long walk to our tour bus but finally found it.
We drove to Everglades Safari Park for an airboat ride and alligator show. The airboat was fun and amazingly smooth as it cut through the swamp with smooth wide turns. As for wildlife we only saw a turtle and one alligator sunning itself. After the airboat ride, we saw an alligator show and got to hold a baby alligator which was pretty neat. We then had some free time to shop and eat. The gift shop sold a lot of alligator type souvenirs here including alligator jerky and the snack bar also sold an alligator appetizer.
The tour was fun but the tour guide could have been better. I asked him the cheapest way to get from Miami to Ft. Lauderdale airports for four people and he referred me to a shuttle service which charges $35 per person. A taxi costs $80 total for the same trip so his information was way off. Also, at the Safari Park he didn't bother to tell anyone that there was a separate section of the park with crocodiles and other wildlife. One woman was pretty angry about this and didn't tip the guide at the end of the tour. All in all though, it was a good way to kill some time.
After the tour bus dropped us off in front of Miami airport, we took a taxi to Ft. Lauderdale airport and arrived there around 1:30 pm. We couldn't check in our luggage yet as it was more than four hours before our 6:55 pm flight. We waited, ate some lunch at Chili's, checked out luggage and waited some more. Finally we boarded our American Airlines flight home, which was just as cramped as our flight to Ft. Lauderdale.
We arrived at DFW at 8:30 pm, found our luggage with no problems, and made it home, intact. Thus another trip was in the books and I'm already thinking about our cruise next summer!