Let me start off by saying that this was the vacation that beat all vacations. If you're looking for a negative review, you may want to pass this up.
Our family consists of two parents aged 45 & 41 with our two teenagers ages 17 & 15. We are from Indiana, so our appreciation of the ocean may be greater than that of someone who lives near it.
We departed out of Indpls. International Airport on Saturday 6/10/06 (flying in a day early). We stayed at the LaQuinta on LeJuene (formerly the Baymont Inn). It was an adequate hotel/motel. It was clean, but is located VERY near the airport. I will say that their soundproofing was quite amazing and you heard very little of the air traffic from inside the room. This hotel is completely nonsmoking. The pool was clean and well-kept. It is within easy walking distance of a Bennigans (for that precruise meal). Included in your room fare is shuttle service from the airport, shuttle service TO the pier, and breakfast. This isn't your standard continental breakfast though, also provided are waffles, eggs, bacon and sausage. Our room rate was $80 before taxes. Figuring in transfers and breakfast for the 4 of us, this was a terrific deal. It's a fine place for a precruise stay, but you wouldn't want to spend much time there. We did tip the shuttle driver both after the airport trip and the pier trip and he took very, very good care of us and our belongings and was very appreciative of the tip.
Since we were late in arriving to Miami, we weren't able to get on the list of the 11:00 a.m. shuttle and were put on the 12:00 shuttle. We arrived at the pier at 12:30. We tipped the shuttle driver and tipped the baggage handlers at the pier. No, they did not threaten us with the line "We're the last people to see your luggage". It was pouring down rain and quite frankly, I think they deserved tips for hustling that luggage in that downpour!
We couldn't get in the 'front' door for the Valor, and were directed to a garage. (The same garage where you'd find your luggage after the cruise.) I think this was because it was raining so hard and they were trying to get us all out of the rain. I thought it was considerate of them, but it didn't give us a very good first impression of the surroundings! A Carnival employee came out and explained that they were running behind in embarkation because they were being inspected by the Coast Guard and couldn't load passengers until the inspection was completed. Although this made us have a lengthy wait, I didn't mind because I knew that this ship would be in tip-top shape for the inspection.
Because of the backup, the embarkation took a pretty long time. We didn't make it to our cabins until 2:30 p.m. All the Carnival employees were extremely friendly and apologetic as we made our way through the 'rat maze'.
I was to meet my CC roll call friends at 2 - 2:30, but didn't make it up there until about 2:45. I waited around (in the rain) and around 3:15, Ashley came by and introduced herself. Unfortunately, I didn't meet anyone else at that time. (I'm sure the rain played into this.) Note to others arranging meeting places: pick a place that is dry! LOL
We decided that we'd better get something to eat before they took down the buffets, it would be a long wait until 8:30, our seating.
I did not find the decor to be garish. But, I've been to Las Vegas many times. If you think the Valor is garish, stay away from Vegas! I thought the ship was immaculately clean. I never saw dirty dishes remaining on any surface, i.e. floor, tables, rails. Late each evening, I'd see a couple of guys painting something. There was constant cleaning. Quite a feat when you think 3,000 people are constantly dirtying up! I thought the decor was quite lovely and I liked the theme. I did find the fiber optic lighted signs a bit hard to read at times.
I must confess that I spent the first day or so totally lost. But, late the next day (first full day of cruising), I found maps at the Purser's office. A couple of days w/ those maps and we didn't even need them anymore. My hint is to use decks 9 and 5 to travel from forward, mid, and aft and then the stairs to go up and down from that point. Both decks 9 and 5 go completely from one end to the other. This was quite easy for us as our cabins were on deck 9.
Sunday: We watched the ship sail away from Miami, unpacked and wandered around the ship. Our dinner seating time was 8:30 in the Lincoln Dining Room. There are pros and cons to both early and late seating. The early seating is hard to make when you're in port, but the late seating is just a little too late. With the late seating, you're full and sleepy after dinner and don't feel like going to a show. We did all dinners in the dining room excepting one night when my daughter and I had spa appointments that conflicted with dinner.
Our dining team was outstanding. Agnelo was the headwaiter/wine steward and Gergely was his assistant. The 'drink waitress' was Simona. I wanted to bring each of them home with us. Agnelo did a fine job of recommending dishes. I took the CC advice that I'd read and asked him each night, "What do you like tonight?" Or, "How do you like the filet mignon tonight?" He'd be so coy and polite in his answer, never stating outright that something wasn't up to excellence that night. He'd answer, "I'm not so liking the beef tonight. But, that's just me and my tastes. I would prefer to have the fish." I'd order what he recommended and usually wasn't disappointed. Gergely was from Romania and his accent cracked us up each night. He was very sweet and sincere, but with his accent, things sounded like threats. He said, "You will enjoy Belize tomorrow." Because of his accent, it sounded like a threat, not a promise. He worked the Lido deck in the evenings, clearing up dishes and would speak with my son. I'd ask him at dinner if there were things I needed to know about what my son did the night before and he'd give me some kind of noncommittal answer. This would start a whole debate (in jest) over who tipped better, my son or myself! As if I could bribe him for information on my son's behavior. Much laughter and much teasing. We tipped the wait staff (and the drink waitress) very well, they really, really deserved it. (Whether or not my son tipped Gergely, I'll never know!)
We got last night pictures with all of them. When we asked Simona for a picture and I gave her the envelope with her tip, her eyes welled up with tears and she took my hands into her's and thanked me. I guess people forget about them? In the tip envelopes, I wrote them each notes, expressing the things they'd done that impressed me and added the personal touch. I verbally told them that the tip was in addition to the amount on my sail and sign account and was for them personally. (And the reason that I tipped them in person, in cash.)
The room steward actually wrote a note back thanking me and wishing us well on our journey home. Nice touch.
Speaking of room stewards: We never saw our room steward much, but she managed to do what she was supposed to do. We did have to keep asking for more Cokes for our room fridge, but each time she brought them very promptly. We tipped her well at the beginning, informing her the the kids across the hall were with us. (So, we were tipping for two rooms.) We tipped her a smaller amount at the end, again letting her know that we had not adjusted the amount on our sail and sign account. (I don't know if they are informed about the amounts on the s&s account.)
Monday, full day at sea: I'm ashamed to admit this, but I spent most of this day asleep in the cabin. I'm sure it was a combination of exhaustion, Meclizine and the ship's swaying. We had tropical storm, Alberto, lurking out there and it made for rough seas. I was not sea sick, but just found it disorienting. My son had already made friends and spent the day palling around with them. Hubby and daughter explored the ship, participated the games and had a great time. It rained most of the day, but didn't diminish any of their activities. All that rain just made me even more sleepy!
Tuesday dawned bright and beautiful and Alberto was well behind us. Grand Cayman was my least favorite port. It's not to say that I didn't like it, just was the least favorite. We didn't have a tour booked prior to sailing. When we anchored, we were not in a hurry to tender off. I figured I'd let all the people with plans get off the ship and then we'd meander off. On our way to breakfast the assistant cruise director announced that there was no waiting to tender off, so if you were wanting to go ashore, now was a good time to do it. We made our way down to the tender station and immediately aboard the tender. After getting ashore, we booked a local tour of the Governor's Residence, Hell, Tortuga Rum Factory, and the Turtle Farm. This was $20 per person. It was a little rushed, but worth the twenty bucks. This left us plenty of time to shop. We shopped a bit, but we were holding out for the other ports. Grand Cayman seemed too commercial to me. There were 4 ships in port that day and I felt like there were thousands of people in the shops. (Oh, there were?!) I'm glad I saw Grand Cayman, but wouldn't break the bank to get back there.
Wednesday was Isla Roatan and I loved it. We did the zipline tour/beach break booked through Carnival (booked online before the cruise). The ziplining was unique, but a little harsh on the groin area. It was more work than I'd imagined. I figured we'd just slide our way down to the beach. It was quite the workout! The guides were very helpful and safety was very important to them. At no time did I feel that we were in any danger.
The zipline ends and there is a short ride to Tabayana Beach. This is a breathtaking beach. White sand and clear blue water. My daughter had her hair braided for $30. A small tip to a local and he produced 4 chairs and shade. (Well worth the price!) This was a wonderful day.
Thursday was Belize and we did the cave tubing tour through Cave Tubing.com. We managed to tender off the ship on an very early tender (2nd tender, I think) with all the Carnival tour cave tubers. We met up with Yhonny and set off on the adventure. We ended up being in a group with all Carnival Miracle passengers. (I guess we were that far ahead of the Valor passengers.) This turned out to be a blessing, as the Miracle passengers needed to be back earlier since their ship sailed before the Valor. This was the port I was most concerned about. Originally, I had emailed numerous times with Yhonny working out the details so my husband could participate. Ultimately, he decided to not join us and chose to go on a fishing trip instead. This turned out to be a very wise decision. If you have mobility issues, this is not the excursion for you. (Or take the ship's tour.) The cost of cavetubing.com was $45 vs. the $94 through Carnival. But, cavetubing.com's hike is a brisk hike. I saw the ship's tours and they were just strolling along. Also, imho, Carnival's cave tubing tour is just too big. They include too many people to be very effective. Our group consisted of 17 people, but usually they're only about 14. The bus ride to and from the cave is a bit long, about an hour and 15 minutes, but the bus is well air conditioned. It's a very bumpy ride, especially the last 15 minutes. We decided that Belize means "Bumpy". Between the tender ride and the bus ride, it was a bumpy day! (Keep this in mind if you have back issues - we don't.) The kids enjoyed the cave tubing greatly, but didn't like Belize outside of the pier (after we were dropped off). (Their first experience with third world countries and begging.) The pier area is well guarded and you have to show ship identification to enter. Once inside there they felt comfortable again. Daughter and I got henna tattoos and shopped. Son went back on the ship.
Friday was Costa Maya and this was my favorite port. We didn't stay in the tourism village and grabbed a cab to Majahual. ($5 round trip/pp) I LOVED Majahual.
Let me interject something here. I had selected this ship and this itinerary for its stop in Cozumel. I had planned to take the ferry from Cozumel to Playa del Carmen. I fell in love with Playa del Carmen two years ago when we stayed near there. I was so disappointed that Cozumel was changed to Costa Maya. So much so, that I almost cancelled my reservation on the Valor. My PVP promised me that I'd love Costa Maya. I'm really glad that I'd read on CC about Majahual and the short cab ride. I didn't care much at all for the tourism village, but Majahual was just like being in Playa del Carmen.
Hubby and I got beach massages ($25 for 45 minute massage), drank a Corona on the beach at the Cat's Meow and had lunch. Oh, and shopped until we dropped! My kids picked up on the whole bargaining system and took to it like fish to water. It was funny to see them in operation. My son, especially, was ruthless. Of course, this was THEIR spending money and they wanted to squeeze out each and every dollar. Bring lots of cash here. These types of 'shops' (I use that term loosely) don't take credit cards. But the bargains are well worth the cash incentive. To use one example: I bought a silver bracelet for $10 in Majahual. I saw a very similar bracelet in the tourism village for $80 and there wasn't any bargaining. Daughter bought several silver bracelets for $5 each, and they were $20 - $30 in the tourism village. (But most merchants in the tourism village DO take credit cards with no bargaining. Cash will get you a little discount.) I bought a huge amethyst stone in a handmade silver mounting ring for $30 in Majahual. I just prefer the more native flea market type rather than the commercial gift shops in the tourism village. This, of course, is just my preference. (And now, the preference of my family, too!) I think our next vacation will be land based to the Mayan Coast. I just love it there that much. The beach at Majahual isn't as great as Tabayana. It's a bit rocky, but nothing that can't be managed. It's fun to eat at the local places with your chairs in water. I love local food (although I'm VERY careful about what I select when dining local).
It sprinkled on and off while we were there, but didn't ruin the day. In fact, it felt good since it was so hot.
I found that the farther down the 'strip' you wandered, the better the bargains. Also, bargaining is better later in the day. (They're pretty well aware what times the ships sail.) Luckily, the Miracle, again, sailed ahead of us. (We shared 3/4 ports with the Miracle.) Left those last minute bargains to us Valor passengers! Majahual was everything, and more, than I wanted. I'm so glad it was the last port of the voyage. What a way to wind up a great itinerary!
I heard some grumbling from fellow passengers that they thought 4 ports in four days was just too much too fast. I have to say that I really like the itinerary. We had a sea day at the beginning and a sea day at the end with the 4 port days sandwiched in between. It was like a relaxing break at the beginning and a relaxing break at the end. I wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
The last sea day was a day of relaxing for us. Since the other 3 of my family were all sunburned, they stayed out of the sun that day and participated in shady activities. I wisely applied my sunscreen and hung out around the pool and read a good portion of the late morning and early afternoon. After lunch, I had a nap on our balcony and enjoyed the cool breeze.
Other interesting tidbits:
IMHO, a balcony cabin is well worth the money. There were times that it was so loud on deck that I longed for a little solitude. Our balcony provided that amply. Because it is a floating hotel with 3000 people, sometimes you just need a little time with nobody around. I loved late evenings sitting out there and watching the water. Early mornings, I grabbed my book and a Coke (we're not coffee drinkers) and read and watched us pull into port. The kids were in an inside cabin across the hall and they had a hard time knowing what time of day it was. I'd call to wake them up and they wouldn't understand why I was waking them up in the middle of the night. BUT, they did say it was the best night's sleep they ever had. With a balcony cabin, you have the outside to set your internal time clock.
The Carnival bedding is all that everyone boasts. This was the first vacation that I didn't miss my own bed. Between the comfortable bedding and the ships subtle rocking, we all slept like babies.
The hair dryers in the cabin are exactly like what others have posted. They're comparable to a travel hair dryer in power. You have to hold down the button constantly for it to work. I ended up using my own travel hair dryer just because my thumb got tired of holding down the button.
The showers must have some kind of instant hot system installed. Hot water was there almost instantaneously and the water pressure was more than adequate. The bathrooms are small (think RV) but it's not like you spend much time in there! The toilets flush VERY loudly and I never conquered the fear that it was going to suck me down with it. I swear the reason the flush button can only be depressed when the lid is down is solely for that reason. How many people have been sucked down? I can only imagine.
This ended up being even more expensive than I had thought. I knew it would be expensive, but even still underestimated it. It didn't stop us from enjoying it. I treated this trip like we'd never do it again and we did everything we wanted and bought much of anything we wanted. As each event unfolded, I recognized it for what it was, a once in a lifetime event and a memory being made. I know these memories will last us the rest of our lives. With the children being 17 & 15, we don't have very many family vacations left (if any). We waited a long time for this and were not disappointed in the least. We did spend the extra money and booked cabins on the Lido deck and I am so glad that we did. We were so close to everything that it was easy to pop back into the cabin for whatever we needed. We were in cabins 9250 & 9252 and they were very, very quiet. (Except for the occasional passenger who felt obligated to yell down the hall to whomever was still back in their cabin.) The only traffic were the people who had cabins in that hall. There were cabins on all sides of us and very rarely did I ever hear anyone else.
The only negative things I can find are very incidental. I thought the music on the Lido deck to be too loud and I'd get a headache after too much of it. (Again, this wasn't a problem for me, I had a balcony I could escape to.)
I found it very hard to find beverages (non alcoholic). There ARE drink machines in Rosie's but were frequently empty or out-of-order. One particular afternoon, I went to two machines that were empty, one out-of-order, and finally the 4th (located at the very back of the ship) was full. Since we were all the way forward, it was a long hike just to get something to drink. I resorted to just drinking tap water with the ice that our steward left. We drank so much Coke out of our fridge that we would have saved a lot of money if we'd purchased the soda card. We did purchase them for the kids and they certainly got their money's worth out of them. (The kids soda cards could get them Shirley Temples - my son's favorite.) We would have been happy to drink lemonade and iced tea if we'd been able to locate it easily. (But, I know my husband and he wouldn't have hiked to a bar to get a free coke when there is one right in our cabin's fridge. That's just him.) They're $1.75 a piece, so do the math and figure if it's a good value for you or not.
I never attended any of the late night buffets. Since our dinner seating was so late, I just wasn't hungry at those times. Also, most nights I was well in bed before they began. I'm not normally such an early-to-bed type of gal, but after dinner I was ready to retire for the night. (Probably because the bed was so comfortable!)
I only attended the first show, the Vegas type show. Again, I'm ashamed to admit this, but I fell asleep. Daughter and hubby loved it, said it was great. I can vouch that the Ivanhoe has very comfortable seats! Hubby and daughter went to the last show, Legends. They said it was awesome. I had to pack (we did not do the self-assist thing) and with not getting out of dinner until 10:30, I had a lot to do in a short time. Even still, the porters were standing outside my door at the end while we frantically crammed dirty clothes into any spare pocket on our suitcases! (Imagine Beat The Clock!)
I didn't participate in any of the games or the art auction. Hubby thought the art auction was overpriced. It's not that they didn't look fun, it's just that I spend much of my normal life on the go and wanted this cruise to have time to kick back and relax. It's easy on this type of trip for each family member to be happy. Hubby and daughter got to participate in all the corny games, son got to hang out with friends, and I was able to have a little "me time" and kick back and relax. I cannot think of any trip we've ever taken that so well accommodated each person's individual likes and dislikes.
Since we didn't do the self assist debarkation, our deck wasn't called until 10:00 a.m. (Lucky us, we were last.) This didn't matter as our return flight didn't leave Miami until 6:30 so we weren't in any hurry. I didn't choose the 11:00 a.m. flight, just in case something went wrong and we were late docking into Miami. I'm not sorry, I have no regrets. At least we weren't worrying the whole trip if we'd make our flight (and I did see people in the airport who did miss flights - glad to not be one of them). It was a loooong wait in the airport. We claimed a piece of carpeting and camped out. (Miami airport is under construction and chairs were scarce.) We all had electronic toys to keep us busy. I never saw the part of the port where you could shop and see a movie. I'm not doubting it's there, I just didn't see it. It's so rushed at debarking, it's a wonder you don't forget a child along the way.
Clearing customs was easy, I'm VERY glad that I'd got passports for the kids (hubby and I already had them). I saw the people with birth certificates and it looked like a criminal investigation. We just breezed right through. I'd filled out my declaration form to the dollar on what we purchased, even listed one carton of cigarettes to be claimed. (You're only allowed one carton per person.) I don't think the custom's agent even looked at it. IMHO, spend the money, get the passport. You're going to need them soon anyway. It even makes the airport process easier.
I found shopping on the ship to be a good value for the most part. Sure, there are some items that are overpriced, but the duty free shop had terrific prices on jewelry and perfume. I bought both Kenneth Cole fragrances that I like and ended up saving about $40 on both of them. Hubby bought a Kenneth Cole watch at an awesome price. (Which is why we spent more than I figured!!!! LOL) It was just too hard to pass up that good of a deal.
The casino slot machines were tight, just like others have said. I only spent about $120 gambling. I'm not one to throw good money after bad. I didn't take this trip to gamble. (And with all the great shopping to be done, I wanted to save my money!) I didn't play any table games (I love roulette and blackjack) only because I just didn't have the time. I'd play the slots for a little before dinner.
The sushii was good, but the hours were hard to navigate. It was only open 6:30 - 8:30. If I had it before dinner, then I wasn't hungry for dinner. I did have it 3 different nights and the sushii chef was very, very funny.
I wasn't able to try the fish and chips until Saturday. Again, it was the inconvenient hours. 12:30 - 2:30 (maybe 3:30 some days). On port days I wasn't back in time. It was VERY good and it's unfortunate I didn't have it until the last day at sea.
I'm sure I left out some stuff and probably was too verbose. (My curse.) I just hope I was able to convey what a wonderful time we had and would readily recommend this ship and itinerary to anyone. We had such a good time and it will be a very long time before we stop talking about it.
To sum it up, I'll use what I told the kids when we got home: "This was such a terrific trip. All future trips will be compared to it. If we ever cruise again, we're set up to be disappointed. When you hit a home run on your first time at bat, there's no where to go but down. These are mighty big shoes to fill."