Pre-cruise: This was our fourth cruise with Carnival. DH and I and our two kids (ages 15 and 20) flew from Chicago to Miami the night before and stayed at the Comfort Suites near the airport. The room was huge, clean, and a good value despite the morning breakfast buffet chaos. With the breakfast chaos spilling over to the lobby, and with us impatient to get on with our vacation, we opted to take a taxi to the port instead of queuing up for the remaining shuttle bus seats.
Embarkation: At 11:30, the taxi driver dropped us at the Port in the middle of the biggest mass of chaos I've ever seen (are you sensing a theme to our morning?). I've got to give big props to the porters, I have no idea how they keep it together like they do with all those bags coming and going. Eventually we found the end of the line and 30 minutes later we were shuffling our way through security. A few minutes later we shuffled our way to the check-in desk and shortly thereafter we were shuffling our way onto the Valor. We had some lunch, explored the ship, and found our rooms. Then we were off to sign up for the Steakhouse, Club O2 for our 15 yo, purchase a wine package for us and bottomless bubbles for the kids. With all the hard work out of the way (ha!) it was time for the safety drill. That many humans crammed into such a tight deck space had us overheating quickly but an icy sail away DoD cooled us down directly after.
The ship: I admit I did not much care for the decor of the ship. I kept comparing it to the Dream, which I loved. The Valor is a disjointed mix of stuff that is supposed to be... well... valiant, I guess. The layout of the ship was familiar... it floats a lot of people but there are a lot of public spaces, too. We never had a problem finding deck chairs or a place to have a drink. The Lincoln dining room was pretty and I liked the lobby bar on deck 3. There's a cute little sports bar right off the casino with two pool tables nearby, which we thought was a fun surprise. We also enjoyed the jumbo-tron on the Lido at night. I've never paid much attention to it before but with the Olympics in full swing during our cruise we loved watching it before bed.
Club O2: Summer vacation means kids and the club seemed to attract a ton of them. My son made a lot of 'friends' and had a blast. Adrian, the host, was fantastic. My daughter, 20 yo, was a little envious since there was no good way for her to meet young people her own age. I was surprised there wasn't at least a 'mixer' offered for the 18-20 crowd... this seems to be a tough age for young cruisers who are stuck between kid and adult activities.
Dining Room / Buffet: We tried Your Time Dining for the first time. We loved the flexibility but missed the rapport with the service team. There was only a wait on the first Elegant Night, the other nights we slipped right in. We always had a bottle of red wine and a bottle of white on the table for dinner and the waiters kindly corked the unfinished bottles for us to finish the next night... this system worked out really well. The food was pretty good for what is essentially a banquet service. I couldn't resist trying the variety of chilled soups every night, they were so good! We tried the main dining room for breakfast on the first sea day but it took an hour to be served for food that was comparable to the Lido, with scarce refills on water or coffee. After that we stuck to the Lido for breakfast. The Lido at lunch was a bit of a zoo but that's to be expected. Deli was good, fish & chips were greasy but the tuna/watermelon was good, burrito bar was just ok. Would have loved to have tried the Mongolian Wok but just couldn't face the long lines. Pizza was not as good as I remembered and they never had the more exotic pizza offerings available. Enjoyed the Java coffee daily, it was much better than the Lido coffee. Of special note: After three cruises with non-existent bar service in the main dining room we had a sweet and very attentive bar waiter this time, one who didn't mind refilling our kids sodas. Much appreciated.
Steakhouse: The four of us dined at the steakhouse one night. Service was good, the food was not. This was the exact opposite of our experience on the Dream, where the service was abysmal and the food was out of this world. I am a ribeye girl and it's hard to do wrong by that cut but somehow they managed it. Tough as can be for 3 of us. My daughter had the lobster (3 small tails instead of one nice rock lobster tail, they looked the same as what was served en masse on elegant night). A disappointment but I get the feeling these steakhouses are kind of hit or miss.
Cabin: We had two inside cabins, 8243 / 8247. Standard rooms, great location. Sudi, our cabin steward, was efficient and consistently pleasant. Cabins were cleaned twice a day without fail even though my late-waking kids and their afternoon-napping parents made that a bit of a challenge. Ice buckets filled daily. Towel critters each night. Prompt laundry service.
Ports: Somehow we evaded the fallout from Ernesto which was hugely lucky since we planned this to be a beachy vacation. We went to Magen's Bay beach in St Thomas, Turner's Beach in Antigua (my favorite), Cane Garden Bay beach in Tortola (DH's favorite), and Cabbage Beach on Paradise Island, Nassau (the kids favorite). We didn't book formal excursions via Carnival or any other vendor this time, just did a little internet research in advance and grabbed taxis off the dock. The night before Antigua I realized I had forgotten to check the currency there so I inquired at the Purser's desk. The staff woman looked at me like I had IQ points pouring out of a hole in my forehead so I guess that's considered a stupid question at the Purser's desk.
Entertainment: We did Punchliner's twice, it was funny and a very comfortable venue. We caught one show in the Ivanhoe, the 80's musical review... I think it's the same we saw on the Dream but still fun to hear that old music and we loved the dancing Madonnas. We had a ridiculously good time dancing at the disco one night, the first time we've ever seen a disco that packed on a boat, great energy. We tried the piano bar finally, something we've always meant to do but haven't gotten around to... it was very quiet and subdued.
Disembarkation: Back to chaos. Goose woke us up bright and early for it only to have disembarkation activities slow up and then stall around zone 4 (we were zone 11). After a long breakfast I made some calls for work and the kids got some extra time with their new friends. Things finally resumed and eventually we shuffled our way through baggage claim, customs, and out the door in search of the Hertz van.
Post-cruise: Our return flight was through Ft Lauderdale on Monday so we booked a night at the Hilton Beach Resort. It's a very nice property right across from the beach although by then we were so spoiled by all the perfect white sand Caribbean beaches that nobody wanted to spend time there. We spent our time at the gorgeous pool instead.
Final Thoughts: Any day at sea is better than a day at work but this cruise seemed a little 'off'. I noticed that the crew appeared tired, overworked, and thus sometimes apathetic, and that the service -- for whatever reason -- was not what we experienced just a few years ago (exceptions noted in the review above). Decks and public spaces not as clean. Bar service slower. Lido tables not wiped down. Buffet guys pretending not to notice you struggling to reach food that's been purposely positioned out of normal reach. Less live music. For every cost cutting action there's been an equal and opposite service impact. DH has told me he would rather do a resort next time -- a real bummer for me because I love being on the water -- but I can hardly disagree with his reasoning. The low cabin price is nice but we usually spend quite a lot once on-board -- all very expensive -- for which we expect more value, not less.