Our cruise experience began early in the morning on Sunday, December 4th. My fiance and I arrived at Miami airport at 9 am. I had spoken to a Carnival rep the week before to find out what time the airport transfer reps would be appearing so we could buy our transfers to the port. I was originally told 10 am. By 10:15 am, there were at least 3 dozen Carnival passengers walking around aimlessly looking for any sign of a Carnival rep. We were all told different locations to wait by the various airport reps. The true answer is that the Carnival reps show up around 10:30 am at a desk by baggage claim carousel 10. You have to wait for the actual bus by carousel 8. We were on one of the first buses and arrived at the port at 11:45. If I had known how long I would have had to stand around the airport, I would have taken a taxi. The drivers were quoting $25 for the 15 minute ride for the 2 of us. The Carnival transfers were $12/per person/per way.
Embarkation just is bad. They really need a more organized method. Even with us arriving at 11:45 am, we had to wait outside the building in the hot sun for 20 minutes. There are quite a few lines to go through inside so try to be patient. We also had several groups cutting lines which caused some angry comments. The whole process took us an hour. I can't even imagine how long it must have taken for the people who showed up well after we did. My best recommendation here is get there early. It pays off because you are on the ship early and can finally relax.
We headed straight for our room to dump off our carry-ons. The rooms are a bit small, but the balcony was a welcome delight. We spent most afternoons sitting on their enjoying ourselves. We were located on Deck 8 forward which was nice because we were close to the stairs and one deck below Lido where all the breakfast and lunch is served.
The biggest problem we initially encountered was that we felt all we were was an open wallet prime for the plucking. You could not walk 2 feet before a server was trying to dump a drink in your hand or lap. We knew that these were not free, but many passengers were quite surprised to find out that as they started sipping, the server was writing up a receipt for $6.75. The same thing happened when we went to take a tour of the spa and gym. They would not allow us to just tour the gym. They said those tours did not start until 7 pm. The only way to view the gym before 7 pm, was to take a tour of the spa first. We agreed because we had considered having a couples massage. The basic element of the spa tour was to hold you captive while they tried to sell all the various services the spa offers. They took us around in groups of 8 where we had to listen to all the various speeches about why we needed to have hot stone therapy, massages, etc. Half of our group left because they were not interested. We stuck it out so that we could finally get to see the gym. This was one of the nicer gyms I have seen on cruise ships. The classes they offered were not as great as ones I have taken in the past, but the equipment was in good shape.
We did end up signing up for a couples massage the next day which was a must do. We enjoyed it quite a lot until the end of the massage. The 2 massage therapists told us to get dressed, and they would be right back. We thought they would come back with our bill. Instead, they came back and proceeded to try and tell us for 20 minutes about how we aren't taking good enough care of our skin, and if only we spent the $150 on their products would we be healthy. I had had enough of this lecture and firmly told them no and all we wanted was our bill. Be careful of the sales pitches. Just ask for your check ahead of time.
Other than these encounters the first day and morning, the rest of the trip I did not feel any pressure to spend more money than I desired. The staff seemed to settle out of their "must sell modes" and helped make the trip quite pleasant. Unfortunately, my fiance and I both got sick right at the start of our trip with bad colds which diminished how much we could do. We had a late seating dinner (8:30) which meant by the time it was done at 10 pm, we were ready to fall asleep instead of heading to the shows. We did manage to see the magic show on Thursday night which was okay. I heard from friends that the R rated comedian was fantastic. We also knew someone who took part in the hypnotist show and loved it. As a lot of other people mention, try hitting the Irish Sea Bar at least once to sing along with Vince. The place was always crowded and lively.
I think the best meal offered was the dinner. Breakfast was your typical waffles/french toast, eggs, bagels/toast, or cereal. Not much variety there. Your best bet is to just order room service for breakfast. Less fuss. We were disappointed in the lunch buffet and often ended up getting sandwiches from the deli, pizza, or a burger from the grill. The buffet's choices never really looked appealing. You also have to make sure you hit is before 2:30 otherwise it is all cleaned up. If you get hungry after 2:30, your only options are burgers, hot dogs, pizza or room service. The one time we did order room service was quite annoying. We ordered at 6:15 a sandwich and salad and was told it would arrive 30 minutes later. I called an hour later to find out the status of our order. They said it was still being prepared. The food finally arrived after 75 minutes. We ate it just in time to get ready for our late sitting dinner.
Dinner was just fantastic. Even though we weren't feeing all that great, we made a point of going to dinner each night. We had a fantastic server, Robert, who made each meal enjoyable. We were seated at a table for 8 with 3 other young couples. All 8 of us really liked the food selections. Each night it was hard to narrow down my choices so often I would just order 2 to get a small taste of each. There wasn't a meal I didn't like. Be open minded and try new foods.
The ship decor was interesting. At first I thought it was quite novel to see everything decorated in a sea theme. However, it did begin to be a bit much after a few days. A lot of the decor ended up getting covered up during our week with Christmas decorations which was a nice twist. It helped put me in more of a Christmas mood.
On to the ports. We had nice weather for almost all of our days expect Jamaica. The nice weather helped because we were fearing rain but planned all excursions for outdoors. The first port day, Tuesday, was Costa Maya. Like many other people, we were supposed to go to Cozumel but found out a few weeks before that this had been changed. My fiance booked a Mayan Ruins excursion while I chose to go into the shopping center right off the pier and look around. He loved the ruins, and the excursion was short enough to allow him time to shop. My best advice for shopping in this port is go further into the shopping area. The first section is set up a lot like a flea market, and the prices are too high. You can purchase most of the same items just a little further into the area. It's true that this port is just a set up city by the cruise ship companies. Other than the ruins or the beach, there really isn't much else to do. My shopping trip lasted about an hour, and I headed back to the boat for lunch.
Our next port day was Thursday, Grand Cayman. We really enjoyed visiting here. We booked the Grand Cayman Island Tour which was a great way to see the island. We also got a chance to go to Hell which is a cute tourist spot that allows you to send postcards. We also stopped at the Turtle Farm. We had a great tour guide who gave us a lot of insight into the area. The island is still suffering the affects of Hurricane Ivan which was a year ago. Many buildings are still under construction. There are tons of shops to stop into right outside where the tender drops you off. The streets got pretty crowded as the afternoon progressed. I would recommend shopping early. We didn't find any good deals on jewelry but did get purchase some alcohol at great prices. The water was so blue. I heard from other passengers who went snorkeling that it is a great port to do that in.
Friday's port was Jamaica. We were supposed to do the Sonara Snorkel, Swim and Dunn's Falls excursion. When we arrived in Jamaica, it was raining. Because we were both still not feeling 100%, we decided to skip the tour and just walk around Ocho Rios. Be very careful if you decide to do this. If any locals offer to take you to their booth at the craft fair, pass. We heard several stories about pairs of people being mugged if they did this. There are 2 decent shopping centers right by the pier that are the best places to shop, Taj Mahal and Island Village Center. We were able to pick up a lot of trinkets here. Many taxi drivers approached us offering to take us for tours of the island. Don't even consider this unless the driver has a red license plate. Red license plates are issued from the government. Any one else is just going to rip you off. We stopped for lunch at Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville which is in the Island Village Center. Get there early if you want a good seat and a chance to relax. Since we passed on our excursion, there really was not much else for us to see. Ocho Rios is a pretty run down and dingy city. Don't stray too far from the main road.
This is my second Carnival cruise and my fiance's first. We both have also cruised on other lines. We found this one fun but lacking. It was a decent deal for the price, but we felt it wasn't exactly what we were looking for. A lot of things on the ship felt cheap. Also, we saw a few encounters of drunk passengers almost starting fights with others. We are both going to hold off on taking another Carnival for awhile. We would prefer to try Royal Caribbean or Norwegian next.