This is our 30th anniversary trip -- just the 2 of us. We read previous reviews of this same ship/itinerary and saw a mixed bag in many areas so we weren't sure what to expect. Some of the negative reviews were about things we weren't overly concerned with so we went with an open mind. We viewed this as a great vacation where we didn't have to cook, clean, plan (too much) and got to see great ports and have built in entertainment. We went on a New England/Canada cruise in October 2012 on Royal Caribbean so we had a recent trip to compare it to.
Demographics of this particular cruise ship: Not sure if it is typical but since we left from San Juan, over 1/3 of the passengers were from Puerto Rico and many of them didn't speak English which I thought was a little unusual (but not bad, just different). We were also surprised to have 700 kids on the trip as we thought we chose a time of year when kids wouldn't be there. We learned PR schools just started their Xmas vacation. So only a few kids from the US and all the rest from PR. The kids were relatively well-behaved but a little rowdy in the pools and whirlpools.
Ship: the decor was not as elegant at the RCI ship but it was overallfine and clean. The ceilings were low and the main steps to each floor were a little uncomfortable to walk on. Not a fan of the metal strips at the end of each step, and it didn't help the decor. This is pretty typical of some of the other reviews we read. Again, not a deal breaker for us. It was still pretty nice.
Room: we had an interior room by choice -- we prefer it to be dark. The bed is very comfortable, and the nice robes in the closet to wear during the trip was a plus. The room looks small but everything fit in the closets and drawers. We really liked the shower -- the RCI shower was smaller if you can believe it! This shower had great water pressure which added to the relaxing part of the vacation.
Layout of the ship: overall ok but we didn't think the flow of traffic made sense in a few key areas. The walkway through the Casino was also an entertainment spot and where you met the Captain/officers one night. It was hard to be there because it was also smoky from the Casino. It made it difficult to walk from the lobby area to any of the lounges (or to the stairs down to the main Pacific dining room. There was no easy way to get to this dining room so you had to walk up stairs and then walk downstairs a short distance away.
Dining Room: low ceilings in the upper room and parts of the lower room. The decor was fine; nothing that stood out as great but not bad. We had the late seating at a table set for 8 but only one other couple joined us for dinner. A 3rd couple who only spoke Spanish came for one night but never came back. They were polite but it was obvious we couldn't converse so it was a little awkward. Many tables were relatively empty so maybe more people were at the anytime seating or chose the Lido Deck buffet. Most of the food was pretty good; especially the desserts (not that we needed so many desserts, but they were good). The steak and lobster and shrimp dishes were good; some of the other fish dishes were just ok. We didn't go hungry so honestly we can't complain. We know what to expect in terms of food quality. The servers were very good but not very outgoing which is different from previous trips we have taken. Again, not a complaint, just an observation. We enjoyed several sit down breakfasts in the dining room. Good opportunity to meet new people as well.
Housekeeping: similar to the Dining Room staff -- very good but not very engaging which is not a problem for us. I kept moving the trash basket out from under the chair and the staff kept moving it back under the chair. A little inconvenient but not a deal breaker by any means.
Lido Deck: food choices were decent - some food better than others. Salad bar was decent; grill food was good (tried not to eat too much of it but the burgers, fries and chicken nuggets were tasty. We liked the deli and tried some new foods (Caribbean style, curry, Italian) -- some were good; some were just ok. We wanted to like the Chopsticks (Asian) food but it was very oily. The 24 hr pizza is really good. The soft serv which isn't good for you was also very good. Even some of the desserts were pretty good. Favorite beverage was unsweetened iced tea with just a topping of lemonade (available on other ships too). The coffee was good which was very important to us. The lines at times were longer than we would have liked but not horrible -- with the exception of the omelet station which had a separate line so if you were in a line for other breakfast foods and wanted to also order an omelet you had to complete one line and then go into a separate line for the omelets. After 2 days we chose to eat breakfast in the dining room and glad we did.
Drinks: we are not big drinkers but we had wine with dinner a couple of nights -- oddly reasonable price for wine; the mixed drinks were much more expensive. There was a drink plan for $43/person/day not including tip. Every adult in the group would have to participate. You have to drink at least 4+ drinks to break even. 15 is the limit and we heard some people came close. I don't know how people used this because we were at 5 ports so not much time to drink THAT much. Plus many excursions provided alcohol (and non-alcohol drinks). Carnival used a good cross-Marketing strategy in the Punchliners Comedy Club. If your bar tab was over $10, the wait staff would mark it on the receipt which you could then take to the Casino that night to use as cash. We didn't do this, but it's a good strategy. One negative thing to note: since we cruised with Carnival before we received vouchers for a free drink but it could only be used at breakfast or brunch which was hard to do. We tried to use ours on the last morning but the server either lost our order or forgot about us. I sought her out and she said she was sorry and offered to fulfill the order but it would take a while. At that point, we already finished breakfast and had to get ready to disembark. So we never got the chance to use the drink vouchers.
Serenity Deck: this was the most pleasant surprise for us. Nice cushion seats, plus a couple of hammocks and quasi-cabanas (with an overhead covering to protect from the sun and wind. It was sometimes hard to get a seat here but we were successful a few times including the day we were at St Kitts and we stayed on the ship and read and napped in the cabana. Unusual location as it is right next to the start point of the water slide.
Spa: normally I don't partake in these services because I have access back home for a lot less $...but we went to a couple of spa "lectures" which were really great, and I ended up trying 3 sessions of the Ionotherapy which were great. The staff were pleasant and knowledgeable and professional. The gym was fine too (did the treadmill to counter the desserts!)
Activities: not as many offered at reasonable times. We were at port 5 days so I guess it was hard, but we usually go to trivia and other games but didn't get to any this time as they were offered less and at times we were either at port still or eating dinner. We saw the Newlywed Game which was ok -- we've seen it so many times it gets kind of old, but it was ok. We saw bits and pieces of the mixologist creation and did a little of the line dancing.
Entertainment: another pleasant surprise -- there was a punchliners comedy club in one of the lounges featuring 4 comedians during the trip. 3 of the 4 were fairly good; one was just ok. The main shows were good but we have seen better. The juggler was really great; the magician was good but had a little unusual attitude and didn't do as much. The dancers were very good as was the mail lead singer, but it appears they were missing the female lead singer so the shows were a little off because of this dynamic. Not very crowded for the shows -- possibly due to the demographics of the passengers. Other cruises we have been on had a much higher attendance for the shows. You can see the downsizing of the entertainment as there was no show on Day 1, and the last day was a karaoke performance by the passengers (with some of the dancers). No Broadway or Movie theme show. The holiday show was cute and involved the kids. The piano bar was good; the Latin lounge was pretty full and had great music. We didn't do karaoke because it was located in an area within the Casino which was odd. The few outdoor concerts on the big screen were good but the screen wasn't used too often even though it was on all the time (not sure why). The lobby singers were also good and they sometimes performed on the Lido Deck as well.
Logistics: boarding the ship was the easiest and we thought our last boarding from B'more was pretty easy. We flew in that day and took a taxi to the port. 2 people via taxi is almost the same price as the Carnival Shuttle so if you have more than 2 people, the taxi is definitely less $. Most of our luggage arrived early; for some reason the tag was missing from our large luggage and we had to find it at the front desk to "claim". A little worrisome at 1st, but the staff was very nice to deal with. Exiting/entering the ship for ports was also relatively simple. Final disembarkment was a little slow but overall not a problem.
Shopping experts: they were nice and were on board because we went to several ports known for good shopping. These experts do not work for the ship. They work for the shops. Not a bad thing but interesting to know to see who has your best interests in mind.
Cutbacks: It appears the midnight buffet is not offered now at all. Years and years ago there was one every night; The last 10 years, there was one at the end. Neither RCI or this cruise had one this year. There was one Mexican buffet at 11 pm and it was nice and not over the top by any means. A lot of people ate fruit -- we had just eaten dinner at 8:15 so we weren't hungry but went to check it out. No free drinks with the Captain this time (there were on RCI's); shows were scaled down; not as much entertainment.
Pricing: the trip itself was fairly reasonable. The cruise lines make money on the bar, casino, excursions and the spa. The excursions and spa services were overpriced (but see above because I enjoyed the spa) so there's a price for everything. We booked all of our excursions on our own after researching both Carnival's offerings and those recommended on Cruise Critic/Trip Advisor.
Ship Schedule: I saw 2 other reviews noting that the port dates changed. We did not notice this so maybe they booked much earlier than we did. We always had the correct dates so not sure what that's about.
Cruise Critic: it was nice getting to know some people in advance and making excursion arrangements with them. Also had a nice meet and greet. I had my Cruise Critic imprinted bag that I won which generated interest by other passengers who were not previously familiar with Cruise Critic, so Cruise Critic, you are welcome for the free advertising. Ironically, I sell imprinted items so it was funny that I won a backpack (that I actually sell to clients).