Carnival Valor Cruise Aug 4, 2012 8 day to St. Thomas, Antigua, Tortola and Nassua
Travelors: Husband and wife (34), Son (9), Grandma (53) - Disclaimer: I can be detailed and wordy ?
We are all from Texas and usually cruise out of Galveston. This year we(really meaning I) decided to do something different and go out of Miami. We have never been to Miami and I wanted to go somewhere new. Side note: My husband and son had never flown on a plane before, so that definitely added to the anxiety, I mean adventure :)
We left DFW airport on Thursday to fly to Miami. We stayed at the Marriott in Biscayne Bay. The hotel itself was beautiful! We had originally booked our room through Priceline, but we found out we did not have a room with a view. We ended up cancelling that reservation and booked through the Marriott. For $20 more we could have a room overlooking the bay. It was WELL worth the $20!! We were hungry after we checked in and decided to try out the hotel's restaurant, "The Catch". We were rather disappointed. The atmosphere was nice. They have some outside dining over the bay, but it was full so we sat inside. It took a rather long time to bring us our food, no one visited our table and our drinks remained empty until the food came out and we asked for refills. The food was only average for their prices. (All entrees averaged $26-34) After we finished eating we had to flag our waitress down and ask for a desert menu... and a drink refill again. It then took an additional 20 minutes for our dessert to come out. The food and service definitely do not live up to the atmosphere and prices. (IMHO)
The next morning for breakfast we decided not to go do their breakfast buffet... which is located in The Catch. We searched on our phones and found Enriqueta's Sandwich Shop that was not far. It promised authentic Cuban food, which we wanted to try. Taxi ride was $8 each way. The atmosphere was awesome and the food was great and cheap! Special breakfast (2 eggs, bacon or ham, bread, coffee and OJ ) was $5.35!
That afternoon, we found a connecting door from the Marriott that led over to the Doubletree Hotel. There are several shops and salons in between. There is also a small bar, convenience type store, liquor store and steakhouse there. Those places are all connected and a true hidden gem. We ended up having lunch (pizza and sandwiches), dinner (steakhouse) and breakfast (a la cart, hot breakfast, fruit, muffins) there. All the food was much better than The Catch and reasonably priced. The steakhouse had a wonderful surf and turf. All employees were helpful and friendly!!
We had been torn between finding a hotel on the beach in South Beach and ended up booking the Marriott in Biscayne Bay. It was a wonderful decision. The bay was so pretty. We could walk out our hotel and be on the water. We did take a taxi to South Beach and did not regret our decision. Our hotel was nicer and cheaper.
On Saturday we took a taxi ($12) to the POM. We arrived about 11:15-11:20. (I was too excited to check my watch) Porters immediately took our luggage and steered us in the right direction. Once inside, the line to check our passports and boarding pass ran rather smoothly. (5-10 minutes) We went up the escalators and waited maybe another 5 minutes to get up to the Carnival folks to check in. After that process was finally complete we waited about 20 minutes in the infamous chairs before we were called to board. The line to get on the ship and have our picture taken was maybe 10 minutes. All in all embarkation went well and we were finally ready to set off on our cruise :)
The muster station drill could use some "work". We have sailed several times and this one was awful. Once we were in our zones we literally waited over 20 minutes before they started. Miami was already hot and humid before we packed on the deck like sardines. (Thank goodness you no longer have to take your life vest!) After all the instructions were given we still were not cleared to go back inside. They started calling 2 zones at a time. They started at the front of the ship and unfortunately we were at the back. We had been standing outside close to an hour when I looked at my mom who was pale and sweating. She was trying to sit down on the railing. I thought she was going to pass out. At that time they did have someone come and escort us to an inside crossway for the crew where there was some cold air and stairs she could sit on. I fully understand the importance of the muster drill, but this one was the longest and most un-organized I have seen.
Finally... we set sail!! My husband headed immediately to the casino. Mom, son and I headed for the Spa Tour and Raffle and Camp Carnival Check in and then dinner. We had early seating but ended up switching to Any Time Dining. That is certainly the way to go! The only issue was formal night. We had to wait in line about 30-40 minutes before we got a table. All other nights were a breeze! All but one night we were set at the same table with the same wait staff, which was nice. All nights we had a table by the window so we could see the ocean. (Our original table was upstairs with no view)
We did not attend any shows and not really for any particular reason :) Just didn't happen this time.
I had read about the infamous "Drinks are on us" cards that you could score in the casino if you played the slot machines enough. It is based on a point system. We always spend a large amount of time in the casino... and money. It was somewhat disheartening because we never qualify for the casino "perks" because we are table game players... not slot machine players. Well... Under this new plan... leave your husband unattended for several hours on the first night of the cruise drinking mojitos and apparently they will give you one of those little cards ? The next night when I joined him in the casino he was presented with one of the "drinks are on us cards" by the casino host and all these people and dealers were telling him Hi and calling him by name. He couldn't remember any of them! Ha! Also, if you order a premium drink from the bar (such as a mojito) you can take your receipt to the cashier in the casino and they will give you a $5 match play coupon. You better believe I was going through some pockets after I found that out... lol.
All the regular games were there. 3 card poker, craps, roulette, Caribbean stud, Face Up Blackjack, several Blackjack tables with varying limits. They also had the new Poker Pro Computerized Blackjack. I did not personally play it because I kept watching and people would sit down and 20 minutes later were all gone. It didn't seem like anyone was winning. My mom tried it out and said she lost her money. So we just stayed at the dealer tables.
The only poker table is the automated Poker Pro and it is fine. It looked empty a lot a first, but someone basically has to just sit down at it and then all of a sudden, it will fill up. It is 1-2 no limit. Min buy in is $20 and max is $200. The money can be charged to your sign and sail card and your winnings will go back on it. To claim your money you go the cashier at the casino and cash it out.
Past Guest Party: It was nice, they had a little show production with music and invited people up on the stage to learn a couple of dances. My son was hilarious! Free appetizers and drinks were plentiful. They showed the usual Carnival ships and everyone cheered if they had cruised on it. Seems we might have been the only Texans in the room... Our past ships that normally get all the cheers were pretty quiet ? It was a nice time.
Food: I had read several reviews of people complaining about the food. I personally thought it was fantastic... all of it.
Breakfast we went Rosie's on the Lido deck. I was pleasantly surprised. There was a special "egg" entree that changed everyday. (I do not remember this on past cruises... could just be me though) They had anything from eggs benedict, to egg quesadilla, quiche ... there was always something. It was all delicious and I think I gained 5 pounds just from eating the breakfast potatoes alone! They also had pancakes, waffles, French toast, fruit, cereal. They were constantly refilling the bins so nothing looked like it had been sitting there forever.
Lunch we opted for Rosie's as well. Fish N Chips never disappoints, we also tried the burrito bar (fantastic!) and the sandwich bar (wonderful). We did have to stand in line, but not for any amount of time. It seemed to move pretty quickly and they made your order right in front of you. The buffet lines in Rosie's were good as well. Never ate anything I thought wasn't fresh or worth it.
Chocolate Buffet was nice as well. Lots of options. They were even making smoothies in the middle, but we didn't stop for those.
Dinner: we ate in the Lincoln Dining Room. Service was wonderful. Food was always hot. I really love the option of Didja Ever: always something new there that perhaps you have heard of and never tried before (shark rolls, fried alligator, frog legs) ... Personally not a fan of the frog legs but everything else I got there was amazing! The lobster on the first formal night did not disappoint!
Sushi: One of my favorites! It was all really, really good. It is open 5-8pm. At 5 the line is rather long, but around 7 or so you can just walk right up. Our nine year old was even scarfing it down.
Chef's Table: This was a truly amazing experience and one not to be missed if you can fit it into your budget. $75 per person. The chef met us in the main lobby, took us through the dining room and into the galley. We were with a group of 8. We were served champagne and several appetizers. The Chef had asked for allergy information the day before and had adequately prepared for someone with gluten intolerance and a shellfish allergy. I was impressed. Next we took a tour of the galley, showing us all areas and how the food was prepared. It was eye opening! We also stopped in their bakery section for a lesson on how to make the warm chocolate melting cake. After that we were taken to a small room off the side of the dining room and served an amazing presentation of food. All of it was delicious! And by saying ALL, I mean all 147 courses! Well... maybe not quite that many but it was soooo much food. The chef is very friendly and engaging, answered any question we asked. He had the magician come in during the middle for us to "take a break from eating" haha. The magician was really good! He fooled everyone including my extremely skeptical husband. He had a whole silver dollar hidden under my husband's watch. Which led me to attempt to take his wine away with the "How did you not notice that huge coin under your watch! Really?" lol He was awesome! By the time dessert came around I was fearful someone would have to roll me out of the room! We were also served our choice of red wine, white wine, or both during the dinner, which was included in the price. Awesome experience... we will definitely do this again. Sooo worth it. My mom and husband had no idea what it was and walked/rolled away in awe :) (My little surprise was a success!)
Spa: I enjoyed the spa tour on the first day. It is amazing how much they do and the services they offer. The gym is also very nice. The first day they offered a special that was for 75 minutes. (full body massage, foot reflexology, head massage, and facial for $129) I jumped on that and booked 2. One for my husband and 1 for me. It was wonderful and did not disappoint.
Camp Carnival: This was my son's first time in the 9-11 age group. I was shocked when I saw that 9 year olds could sign themselves in and out of Camp Carnival without a parent present. (With parental approval). My initial thought was No Way Jose! The catch here was they have Scavenger hunts 2-3 times a day. The kids are separated out into groups and then sent on a little hunt around the ship. This is not adult supervised. My son is an only child and quite responsible, but I am still the "over protective mom". I did finally agree to let him do this and over the course of the week allowed him some more freedom. His age group was often in the Capital Room which was 2 floors below our room. I did end up allowing him to call me and say "Mom, I'm coming home ? Sign himself out and come to the room. It was a huge progression for Mommy :) He enjoyed all the activities and dinner with the kids.
Room: We booked balcony rooms and had the divider opened between the 2. We had rooms 6398 and 6400. This was the perfect set up. Our son could sleep in the room with grandma, have his own bed instead of a couch and still move freely between the 2 rooms via the balcony. Unfortunately, these rooms were located right above the One Small Step Dance Club. This proved to be a disaster :) You could not hear the music, but the base from the music was sooo loud it vibrated the floor, walls and bed from our cabins. You could even see ripples moving through the water in our glasses. We could not turn the TV up loud enough to drown out the noise. We made multiple complaints to guest services at times begging them to please turn it down as it went full force until 3:30 am each morning. My initial frustration is the guest services attendants appeared amazed that there was a complaint. Carnival did address our concerns appropriately. The ship was initially full, but someone debarked on the first port and we were given their balcony room. We no longer had the adjoining balcony set up we were so happy about, but they did give us 3 keys to the other room so our son would have a key to both. The cabins were on the same floor and relatively close ... just the new one did not come with additional noise. All 4 of us were refunded some money on our accounts for the inconvenience and we all thought it was a fair amount. * I would hope in the future Carnival would treat these rooms like an "obstructed view" and add a disclaimer during booking. I am certain there is a population of their customers that would not be bothered by the noise... however, I feel comfortable saying most unsuspecting grandparents and families are. On the upside, our room stewards were so friendly, accommodating and truly do a fantastic job. We always tip extra, but these guys got even more this time. Well deserved!!
Ports: We never book ahead of time. I always look through the excursions and have an idea, but have never really run into anything we wanted to do being sold out. (knock on wood)
St Thomas: My original plan was to do a snorkeling excursion, but do to the inability to go to sleep before 4 am I opted not to pay for this. I was seriously afraid we would not be able to get up early enough for the excursion and if we did everyone would be grumpy! That's no fun on vacation. So we woke up when we woke up and got off the ship. We walked around the port and found a taxi that took us to Magan's Bay. The taxi ride was $28 each way. I believe the price to get into Magan's bay way $8 a piece? My husband paid. It was reasonable anyway. We bought some water at the little restaurant, avoided the outside bar (due to the 9 year old being present) and then changed into our bathing suits. Magan's Bay was beautiful! The weather was nice and the water was perfect! Our son was just ecstatic to be on a beach. After several hours of fun in the ocean we took the taxi back to downtown. We asked for a place to eat authentic food and were told to go to Cuzzin's. It was a few streets off of downtown. Cute little place. We ordered spicy jerk chicken, which lived up to its name. *Side note: refill of your drinks are extra, but completely necessary :) After we left there, we ran across a man dressed as a pirate (I hope it was a costume) with a shopping cart full of fresh coconuts. They were only a couple of dollars so we got 1 for our son. The man/pirate took out a huge hatchet looking knife and went to whacking away at this coconut. In the end he had carved a little cup out of the coconut for our son to hold and drink out of. Pretty cute :) From there we hopped a taxi back to the port and called it a successful day. * St Thomas is really something to experience. The mountains, hills ... I'm from Texas... whatever they were are beautiful. The houses built into the side of them is just amazing. The roads going up and down seem a little narrow and scary, but the views are phenomenal! We attempted to go to bed early this night to get a head start on the music and base, but were woken up at midnight. 1am we got the call they had another room for us. The keys were delivered to our cabin and we happily trucked across to the other room in our jammies to get some much needed sleep!
Antigua: We booked the Champagne and Lobster Catamaran Cruise. My husband had been looking forward to this excursion for a month. No way, sleep or no sleep we were missing this. We were extremely thankful for our new room and left the boat this morning well rested! On the reviews this excursion had all 5 stars... and we now see why! Antigua is beautiful. Cruising around on the Catamaran you were really able to see so much and there just are not words to describe it. We were taken to the first beach which had some vendors selling dresses and jewelry. They didn't really hassle you. Beach chairs were available for rent. The water was so clear and amazing. Seashells were abundant. Someone did say they saw some jellyfish in the water. We kept our eyes open and stayed close to our son, but never saw any. After an hour or so we boarded the Catamaran and sailed to another beach. I did not think the first beach could be topped, but I was wrong. The color of the water here was something off of a postcard. It hardly seemed real! There were little huts on the beach where you could kick back and relax in the shade. My husband took full advantage and was snoring in no time! The crew broke out the grill on the back of the Catamaran and grilled the most amazing lobster I have ever eaten in my life! I am now officially a lobster snob. Holy Moly! They had side dishes too... potatoes, cole slaw, salad and rice and beans! They cleaned up after lunch and broke out the music. People were dancing and had canon ball contests on the back of the boat. There was one "elderly" couple on the cruise. The little man was dancing away with all the women and the little lady was judging the canon ball contest! It was a great time. The boat also included all the water, soda, full stocked bar, champagne and a rather deadly (if consumed in large quantities) rum punch. Best 6 hours ever!!
Tortola: We decided not to book an excursion here either. 2 days straight on a beach (with sunscreen) but I kinda felt we needed a break from the beach. No one objected :) This was a short port for us. We had to be back on the ship around 3:30 I think. We ended up getting off and walking a little way. There was a flea market type of stuff set up. Tortola was very HOT... compared to the other places. We ended up taking a taxi a little further into town and walking through some shops. It was not your usual shopping type area. Most of the shops looked like little houses. It was fun. We visited Sunny Carabee the spice and tea shop then started making our way back to the ship. There were chickens running around everyone and one man with a donkey under the tree. He would ask you if you wanted to pet the donkey, and then would inform you it was $1 after you were done! Lol Oh well
Nassau: Everyone in our party had always wanted to visit Atlantis so there was no question what was happening this day! I had read some horrible reviews about how busy it was and how it was not worth the money. There were 4 ships in port that day so I had prepared myself for a disaster ? Once again, pleasantly surprised! The line to get our wrist bands was rather long (apparently it was popular) After that, we walked a little way and boarded an airconditioned bus to Atlantis. Downtown Nassau looked very dirty and sad. Cross the bridge though and you were in a whole other world! After we got off the bus they handed us a map and wanted everyone to wait to get some lengthy informational talk and tour. I had read all about this so we just asked the tour guide if we could go on our own and they said yes... so we were off! We visited the Dig, Gift Shop and Predator Lagoon. Had a nice little lunch in an outside area and then set off for the water park. We ran into some people we had met on the ship and they informed us they took a taxi over and just walked right in. Didn't pay a thing. I can see that because our wrist bands were never checked or acknowledged. Oh well... probably still wouldn't risk that if we went back. (I would get caught somehow!) The water park was wonderful. It really did not seem any more crowded than any water park we go to in Texas. The lazy river... which is not lazy at all, more like the roaring rapids river, we walked into and were able to get inner tubes immediately. It was a lot of fun! We played in some of the pools and then my son wanted to go down a water slide. We stood in line for the Abyss... probably not more than 10 minutes. The down fall here was I had no idea what I was about to do. As we got near the slide I saw the disclaimer sign that read if you have a fear of heights, darkness, speed, have a heart condidtion etc, etc you should not go on this ride. I told my (barely tall enough to ride son) I am not sure this is a good idea. He assured me it was not steep (though we had just climbed a skyscraper worth of stairs). He goes down the slide and I don't hear a peep out of him. Ok... time for mom. Oh my Jesus! Prayers started immediately! You sit down and as you let go are whisked away in darkness as the slide drops out from underneath you and you are free falling. About the time I thought I was falling through a black hole never to be heard from again my bottom touched the slide long enough for me to inhale before I dropped (free falling) again. Thankfully I was then dumped into a pool of water, to which I discovered I was in fact still alive (only half naked) as my swim suit was in no place it was when I first started this journey. I was able to collect myself and make it out of the water, but my legs were jelly and my son was laughing so hard he was crying. No more... It's time to leave. I am sure of it. Atlantis was worth the price and proved to be a memorable and highly enjoyable family day.
Debarkation: We saw an option for $20 per person Carnival would pick up your bags, take them to the airport and check them in for you. We were all over this. Who wants to mess with their luggage at the end of vacation? We exited the boat that morning in a leisurely manner. (Translation: as we were being kicked out of our rooms ? Walked right passed everyone searching for their luggage in the baggage claim and straight up to customs. 2 seconds later we were exiting the terminal. No lines ? We paid the $16 airport shuttle transfer in advance. Walked around the corner and boarded the bus for the airport. No lines and no waiting. The true test was if our bags were waiting for us when we got off the plane at DFW and they were. Success!
I have never had a vacation that was truly perfect, but it is how you look at things. Our cruise was wonderful!! We really enjoyed the new ports and new experiences that came with them. I can't wait to book the next one :)