We arrived at the Miami airport about 12:45 on Sunday and caught a taxi to the port ($21.00 per cab w/o tip). In the future I think we'll try to fly in a day early, but we already had our flight reservations made this time before we thought about doing that. Traffic was heavy near the port and as we got close to the Victory and Valor we could not see any activity on the Lido decks (not a good sign). The cab driver dropped us off and we checked our bags with a porter (giving him about a $2 tip per bag).
Embarkation: There was a long snaking line (that wasn't moving) into the parking lot that got much, much longer shortly after we got in it at about 1:15. The saving grace here was that it was overcast out so we didn't have the hot sun beating down on us. I guess you could stand there and complain, but I didn't figure that would move the line any faster, so we talked with those close to us while standing there. I also wandered around a bit and talked with a group that was there on a family reunion and had t-shirts made up for the occasion (pretty cool, I thought). Apparently the delay was due to immigration (not Carnival's fault) and about an hour later the line started moving (around 2:15). I thought at this point it would take a couple of hours to get on the ship, but by 3:15 we had dropped our stuff off in our room and were headed to the Lido deck for some food. Once the line started moving I thought Carnival did an excellent job of moving us through quickly. We did receive gold S&S cards because we had both sailed on Carnival before. Not really any perks in having a gold card, but I liked the idea anyway!
With all of the people in front of us I didn't think we'd find too much to eat on the Lido because of the lines, but we walked right up to the East River Deli and got a couple of very tasty sandwiches and later I went out back to the Mississippi BBQ and got a steak sandwich and fries (also quite tasty). The muster drill was about 30-45 minutes late starting because of the boarding delay, but it went OK. It's not my favorite activity, but not something you should miss either.
Room: This was our first time with a balcony (we were upgraded from an 8A to an 8E), and our cabin was 1023 on the Panorama deck. Nothing bad to say here; it had plenty of room, was very clean, and had the new bedding (very nice). The bed had a pair of small reading lights and (as usual) a switch for the main cabin light. Allen was our room steward and he did a nice job of cleaning twice a day, keeping our ice bucket filled, etc. We noticed very little noise on this deck and really liked the balcony.
The ship: This was the largest ship we had been on to date, and we found it to be in very good condition. I would often see workers shampooing carpets during off hours and did not see any signs of neglect at all. At each port there were also workers out there touching up the paint on the hull of the ship. We didn't have any trouble finding our way around the ship because we knew that deck 3 and 4 did not go the length of the ship because of the dining rooms. I also made up some small deck plans that came in handy....... see this link if interested:
We did get concerned because our assistant waiter said the ship had turned around and was heading back to Miami during our first dinner. By the time we finished eating we were headed back out to sea, and the rumor was a gentleman had a heart attack so they took him back to port. I hope all worked out well for him, you hate to hear about these things happening, especially on a cruise.
Food: The food was good! Our main seating was at 5:45 in the Pacific dining room at table #434 with 3 other couples. We had thought about requesting a table for two, but decided to just take the table we were assigned and make some new friends. One couple was from Arizona and the other two couples were from Virginia (they were traveling together). "Pop" (from Thailand) was our waiter and a girl from Romania was his assistant (sorry I have her name written down but can't find it right now)... together they did an excellent job. Water glasses were kept filled, fresh bread was always in supply, and there was never a problem in ordering more than one item.
Breakfast and lunch in the dining room are open seating and you should really try it at least once, that way you don't have to worry about lines on the Lido deck. At peak times there were lines for food on the Lido, but we usually went there a bit late to avoid the lines. The best thing I liked about breakfast on the Lido was the made-to-order omelet bar at the end of both breakfast lines. It was a separate line so you didn't have to wait if all you wanted was an omelet. There was also an island in that area that had cereal, fruit, and pastries so I was all set most mornings with a fresh omelet, some pastries, and a bowel of cereal.
As mentioned earlier there is also a deli with great sandwiches, the Mississippi BBQ with hamburgers/cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and steak sandwiches. There was also the Yangtze Wok for oriental fare (I didn't try that), along with the 24 hour pizza. Different people like different kinds of pizza and while this wasn't bad, it wasn't my favorite either. I think it's great that they offer it 24 hours and there were plenty of pax who loved it!
We didn't order room service a lot, but when we did it came quickly and the food was good.... Be sure to try the BLT's and the cookie/brownie plate. Also don't forget to tip ($1 or $2 per person depending on how much you order) when they deliver your food.
Casino: The ship had a nice sized casino that was open whenever we were not in port. Along with the standard table games there were a lot of slots. I found the casino staff and blackjack dealers to be friendly and eager to answer any questions. The slot manager would often walk around at night and buy players a free drink. We did find the slots to be rather tight, but we both hit a $450 jackpot on different machines on different afternoons. I also made some money playing on the $10 BJ table, but alas, our winnings eventually wound up staying with the casino. The casino is really hopping on the last night and the atmosphere is almost electric.
Captains Cocktail Party: This was before the first formal dinner and was a nice event to attend. It was held in the Adriatic lounge aft from the casino on the Promenade deck. There was a photo op with the captain then into the lounge where cocktails and Hors d'oeuvres were served, although you were limited to the drinks the servers had on their tray... I asked but they said they couldn't bring any other type of drink. When leaving we noticed they were also serving in the piano bar so we stopped in there for one or two more free cocktails before dinner.
Past Guest Party: This one could have been scheduled better, but since this was our CD's first cruise I'll cut him some slack. It started at 7:15, but our table seemed to be the last one served and we seldom left the dining room before 7:30. Anyway, by the time we got up there (same place as the Captains Cocktail Party) it didn't look like there was any seats left, so we didn't stay. No big deal in the grand scheme of things, but I hope they do a better job of scheduling it in the future……. I don't know how someone with a 6:15 dinner seating could have made it at all.
Ports: San Juan: We got to San Juan a little before 5:00, so we ate on board and then went off on our own into the city. You couldn't see a lot since it was already dark, but there is a Sheraton Hotel very close to the pier that has a casino. We wandered over there and played the slots for a couple of hours…… they are not as tight as on the ship, but you won't get rich. I came out ahead about $150 and it was kind of neat to be around some of the locals and to chat with them a little. Right behind the hotel is Senor Frogs so we headed over there for a little while. Two tips: 1. You have a line for seating if you want to eat, but if not you can go right to the bar. We didn't find the food that great so if I ever go again it will be right to the bar. 2. Do not order a beer in one of the "yard tall" plastic cups. I let the waiter talk me into this before I had time to think that a tall plastic cup with a thin neck being filled with draft beer = foam! Just order a beer in a bottle, plus the first tall cup they brought me had a crack and my pants got soaked. I love Carlos n' Charlie's but Senor Frogs just didn't do anything for me personally, but hey, we were on a cruise and it was a thousand times better than being at work!
St. Thomas: They made this the second port instead of St. Maarten to avoid having to go through immigration, which was fine with us. We had booked a shopping/island/beach tour with Godfrey (do an internet search for Godfrey tours and you'll find him), which worked out great. At only $20 pp (paid after the tour) you can't beat it. They will meet you at the port at 9:00, 10:00, or 11:00 ship time and have a sign with your name on it. The earlier you go the more shopping time you get. We picked the 10:00 tour which worked out fine….. we didn't have to get up too early and it left plenty of time for shopping. First stop is the shopping area; Godfrey will lock your beach things in the truck while you shop if you wish (we did). There is an open (or straw) market, but they do not haggle much on prices, we found much better deals on St. Maarten in their open market where they bargain down in price. There were also some jewelry and other stores which we wandered in but we didn't really buy very much. Then at 12:00 you leave on the tour of the island, where he stops often for picture taking. He goes up to what he calls the Mountain Top which has a great view of the island and a small shopping area with a bar that sells a world famous Banana Daiquiri ($7.50 if I remember correctly), then off for the rest of the tour and on to the beach of your choice. Shortly after we left the shopping area it started raining quite heavily, but died down before we got to the beach. Everyone in our group went to Coki beach, which is right beside Coral World, has a lot of fish to see, and very, very clear water. You get to spend about 2 hours at the beach and then it's back to the ship in plenty of time so you don't need to worry about being late. For the short amount of time you're on the island the Godfrey tour crams in about as much as possible w/o feeling rushed. Godfrey is really nice, is very knowledgeable about his island, and I would highly recommend his tour to anyone going there.
St. Maarten: We got off the ship, took the water taxi over to town and did some shopping. As I mentioned in my review of St. Thomas the prices are much better here. You just start looking at something and they start dropping the price. The day we were there it was VERY hot! After shopping we took a local taxi to Orient beach, rented a couple of lounge chairs/umbrella and just kicked back. The beach is beautiful, the water was great and there are a number of bars that will bring you food and drinks. I even saw them wading out into the water to deliver drinks! One end of the beach is "clothing optional" so you might see a few women or men wander by in the buff. The women will only be topless until they get to the nude area, and if you don't pay too much attention you might not even notice it. We had arranged for the taxi driver to pick us up between 2:30 and 3:00, and the waiter at the bar came out to tell us when he arrived. The wife picked up some last minute bargains before we caught the water taxi back to the ship.
Shows and lounges: We didn't do many shows on this trip, but we did go to the one on the last night with a comedian and a singer from the Platters. Our tablemates went to all the other shows and were very pleased with them. There was usually a band we liked in the Black and Red Seas lounge that played classic rock (it was more like oldies, but there was some BTO thrown in also) and dance music. The Irish Sea Bar is the piano bar, which was also a lot of fun (Scotee was the piano man). Service from the bar staff, no matter where we were, was quite good, and I often tipped a bit extra on top of what is included in the drink price.
Service: From the room steward, the wait staff in the dining room, the bar staff, and all other employees we ran into the service was very good, absolutely no complaints at all. This was the first for Ronen Vilenski as a CD, but you would have never guessed it, he did a very good job. The last night I added extra tips on my S&S card for the wait staff and room stewards.
Debarkation: Pretty painless; we put our luggage out in the hall on the last night to be picked up, then the next (last) morning we went to the dining room for breakfast about 8:15 and left our carry-on bags in the cabin. When we returned they had started to strip the linens off the bed so we took our bags to the casino bar to wait for our deck (color) to be called. Ours was the last group to be called (about 10:45 or so) and it was a pretty quick exit off the ship in a quick moving line. The worst part was getting a taxi, there seemed to be multiple lines, with not too much organization to it (some people were cutting to get in front), but with a little patience we finally got in a taxi and made it to the airport with time to kill for our 3:00 flight. Carnival is building a new terminal building in Miami so hopefully when that opens the embarkation/debarkation process will go a bit smoother.
Conclusion: This was a great cruise and I wouldn't hesitate to do it again. Was everything perfect, no, but I've never went anywhere on vacation where it was and this was close enough to perfect for us. The only two downsides for me was catching a cold around Thursday night which slowed down my eating a bit, and having to leave the ship at the end of the cruise. The last dinner is so sad when the wait staff sings to you and you realize your cruise is almost over. I'm sure I have forgotten a few things but hopefully other reviews will cover what I missed.