First of all, we had a fabulous time on this cruise! You can't beat Venice, Cannes, Dubrovnik and Rome as ports of call. Unfortunately, the ship was unable to dock in Livorno because of rough weather, but frankly, I think those passengers who were planning on spending just a few hours in Florence should re-think this anyway and go back when they have more time.
The ship is enormous, and if you can't find something to do any time of the night or day, you're just not looking. Most of the music acts were top-notch. We especially liked the group "Play That" that performed in the lobby bar each evening. We went every day before our dinner seating to hear them and watch the couples dance. The male singer has an amazing ability to sound just like the original singers of the numbers they perform, from Sinatra to Elvis to the BGs. There was also an outstanding country singer who performed near the casino and a group that did Beatles' numbers in one of the lounges.
Our dining staff was wonderful and the menu selections were varied and well-proportioned. We ate one night at Harry's and highly recommend it, although we got in way over our heads with the degustation menu. We were OK with the appetizers, first courses and grapefruit sherbet, but by the time we got the chicken (with wonderful mushrooms), we were full, and still had the filet mignon and dessert to go! Nevertheless, this was a lovely dining experience.
A few suggestions: Book with a private travel agent, not through Carnival. Our Carnival agent promised us a lot of things, including an upgrade and a welcome basket in our room, then stopped returning our calls and didn't come through with any of it. Our feeling was that she was not our advocate as a travel agent would be- she didn't care whether she kept our business or not. The pursers office on the ship just sent an apology letter, but no attempt to make good on her promises. By the way, two of the three in our party were repeat Carnival cruisers, and we convinced 5 other people to book this cruise through the same agent. One of them booked a month before the cruise sailed and received an upgrade on his cabin. We had booked 10 months earlier. We had also tried to book an expensive pre-cruise excursion through her, but could never get any information about whether we had it booked or where to go to join the excursion (That was about the time she stopped returning calls), so we just arranged other transportation from Rome.
We stayed at a charming B&B called Caesar's Rooms in Rome. Just 3 rooms, which Stefano, the proprietor, renovated himself. It's just two blocks from the Vatican, but very quiet, with breakfast included. The 3 rooms are all down one hall and accommodate different numbers and configurations of guests, so it's a great place for a family or extended group. Stefano was very helpful in recommending restaurants and arranging transportation to Civitavecchia and to the airport on our way back.
On the shore excursions, some are worth the money and others aren't. The information given at the "mandatory" meetings on how difficult it was to get to places of interest on your own wasn't always accurate. In Naples, you can easily catch the boat to Capri on your own. In Dubrovnik, take the cruise line's shuttle to the center of town and back (5 Euros). In Venice, you can walk to the head of the pier (you can see it from the web cam pictures if you're watching those) to catch the vaporetta into Venice. Cannes is charming all by itself, or you can rent a car or take the train to Grasse or Nice. (Grasse was lovely- we ate at the most wonderful restaurant called Gazon). We booked the tour in Messina to Taormina which is difficult to get to on your own. In Barcelona, take the shuttle, then walk up La Rambla or take a taxi to La Sagrada Familia. We had a rental car reserved in Livorno to visit Lucca and Pisa, but, as I said, the ship was unable to dock there. We heard of some people who had private guided tours scheduled for which they had prepaid, so they were just out that money. This is a real danger- there is always the chance that the cruise ship may have to change itineraries because of weather or other uncontrollable events.
Our only real problem on this cruise was with the customer service on the ship. Some of the staff need much better training in U.S. style service. They dealt very poorly with the complaint we registered about the Carnival Agent (frankly, a fruit basket sent to our room would have shut us up permanently - as it is, we're writing letters to the corporate office and posting our complaint all over the internet).
In Cannes, where we had to be taken in by tenders to the port, there was a real problem because the people who had booked cruises through Carnival were taken off first (and they were short 1 tender) while the rest of us waited. We were not the angriest people on the ship about this- those who had been planning to catch a train to Nice were furious. We sat in the big auditorium for two hours waiting to get off, although we had been told by the purser the night before that we would be sent off with the tour groups according to when we showed up at the designated room. A young crew member, Abra, told us that of course the tour people were taken off first- they had busses waiting for them! We pointed out that we had trains that wouldn't wait and cars reserved. We said we had heard that a few people on their own had been able to get in on one of the early tenders. She said, "They talked to me." When we asked how we were supposed to know to talk to her, she said, "Well, apparently some people managed to figure it out!" When we told her what the purser had told us (2 different groups, 2 different pursers), she wanted to know the name of the pursers to report them! We lost an hour and a half of time in port because of this and weren't able to see everything we had planned. I hope this system will be streamlined in the future- there was just mass confusion, milling about, and, eventually, some screaming on our cruise. This was the second cruise of the season, and the same itinerary was followed last year, so you'd think they'd have been prepared for this problem.
A real highlight for us was the Italian Countryside tour, which we took from the ship ending up in Rome. We visited Castel Gandolfo, the summer home of the Pope, which is an absolutely charming little town in the hills. Then we went to the estate of a count, who received us on his terrace for a glass of wine. He was delightful and not at all condescending. Then we had a farmhouse style lunch on the grounds of the estate. Our guide, Romano, was sweet, funny, and informative. I think there were fewer people doing this after the cruise than before (we were a group of about 15) which also made it feel less like the usual herding that happens on these tours. Once again, however, the information we were given on disembarkation was not entirely accurate. The envelope sent to our room with the luggage tags said to wait in our rooms until the tag color and number was called. But they never called the people with excursions, and this delayed our leaving for 45 minutes.
Highlights at the ports: Taormina, going to Anacapri in an open taxi, drinking prosecco at Cafe Florian on St. Mark's square in Venice at sunset (so it cost $60 for a bottle of sparkling wine for 4 people- a group was playing classical music, we sat outside and watched the people- it was worth every penny), the lunch in Grasse, discovering the medieval center of Venice (not St. Paul de Venice, which is overrun by tourists), the textile museum in Barcelona (next to the Picasso Museum, which had long lines), taking a boat ride in Dubrovnik that went around some islands and cooled us off. And gelatto everywhere!