The embarkation process was very smooth. From the time we arrived at the terminal to the time we were on deck eating lunch, it was only about an hour. We arrived at the terminal at 10:30. I would recommend getting there between 10:00 and 10:30 or wait until about 1:00. The lines get really long during peak embarkation hours. We boarded the ship on the 3rd level directly into the main lobby. Wow, what a view! I couldn't believe how big and beautiful it was. We were told to explore the ship and that lunch was being served on the Lido Deck. The staterooms wouldn't be ready until 1:30, so we had to tote our carry on things with us. In the future, we will check all of our bags when we arrive at the terminal!
Shortly before embarkation, we went through the mandatory muster drill. One point of advice that I have is don't go to your muster station until they make the last call. The life vests are very hot and if it is hot outside you will roast. We got there right before it began and were only there for about 10-15 minutes! Others who went right away, were there for about a half hour!
Our ports of call were Nassau, St. Thomas, and St. Maarten. We were only in Nassau for 6 hours, so we didn't plan any excursions for that port. We decided to explore it ourselves which worked out for us. We took a taxi to the Atlantis hotel on Paradise Island and explored. There are several areas that non-guests are not allowed to visit. Since these are not marked by the hotel, you have to wait until someone asks you to leave the area. I know the pools and beach are off limits and this makes sense to me. Other areas I couldn't figure out though. After visiting the Atlantis hotel, we decided to shop downtown. We just browsed around and visited the straw market. That was an experience! It was very crowded and hot and people were constantly trying to sell you things. We bought a few T-shirts and then left. There is a bar in Nassau called Senor Frogs. Unfortunately, we didn't make it there, but it came highly recommended by fellow cruisers. If we ever return, we will definitely visit it!
Our next port of call was St. Thomas. We were told the day before that we would have to go through immigration whether we were leaving the ship or not. This was due to the fact that we went to a foreign port of call (Nassau) first. We were also told that the immigration process could take 2 hours! Yikes! All in all, it only took us about a half hour. It was very highly organized and went very smooth!
In St. Thomas we booked the Atlantis submarine excursion. We had read mixed reviews, so I was a little leery of this one since it cost $98 a person. I am glad we did it though. The submarine dove down 85 feet and we saw all kinds of underwater life. Two sharks swam right by the sub. We also saw stingrays, sea turtles, and thousands of fish. We were able to take pictures and the tour guide was great! Definitely gave this one two thumbs up!!!
After returning to the ship for lunch, we decided to do a little shopping. There is a nice shopping mall right next to the ship dock called Havensight with many nice little shops. We decided to do our shopping there rather than spending another $16 to go downtown. This worked out nicely because the only thing we were really shopping for was souvenirs and these were very plentiful at Havensight. There were also many jewelry shops and liquor stores as well! I had been told to do my liquor shopping in St. Thomas and decided to purchase a liter of vodka for $10. At the time, I thought that was an excellent price, but later found out it was much cheaper in St. Maarten. Keep that one in mind!
The next day, we were in St. Maarten. Again, we didn't book any excursions here. We did want to go to a beach though, but the only information we could find out about beaches were the excursions that were going to cost another $100. I asked at the front desk if one could take a taxi to a public beach. They said the public beach was right downtown and we could take the water taxi right there. I highly recommend using the water taxi. It cost $5.00 per person and you can go back and forth from downtown to the ship as many times as you like. A definite bargain in my opinion being that a regular taxi is $8.00 round trip per person and that is only one trip! The beach was beautiful and was not crowded at all. I think there was a total of 8 people there including us. The beach was clean and they had very nice beach chairs you can rent (2 for $15.00). If you want to go snorkeling or scuba diving, then I would recommend doing one of the excursions, but if you just want to spend some time on the beach, use the downtown beach. After going back to the ship for lunch using the water taxi, we returned to downtown to do some shopping. This is where I found out that alcohol is much cheaper. Absolut and other comparably brand name vodkas, were around $7.00 a liter. They were $10 at St. Thomas and onboard the ship, they were $12.00. St. Maarten was probably my favorite port to visit. It was fairly clean and the people were friendly. The water taxi made it very nice!
The ship itself was great. It was mammoth in size and I was sure I would get lost. It didn't take long to learn your way around and even if you got lost, maps are posted by every elevator to help you. The casino is on the 5th floor mid-ship. This floor goes from one end of the ship to the other. The main lobby is beautiful is open from deck one all the way up to deck nine (maybe ten, I am not sure on that one). Many times, there are musicians playing in the lobby. We also visited the Piano Bar and that was fun. The piano rotates around while people sit on the outside. Our piano player was Ron and he was awesome. I was amazed at the talent that guy had! I am sure his parents put some big time bucks into piano lessons, but they definitely paid off! There are bars everywhere, but most of the activity happens on the Lido deck mid-ship, the Casino or in the Ivanhoe theater. Activities are planned from about 8:00 A.M. - midnight, so check your Carnival Caper. You have no excuse to be bored! There were only a few stores on board which kind of surprised me. I had been told that the T-shirts went on sale on the last day of the cruise and low and behold, they were advertised in the Caper being 2 for $20 on Saturday. (The rest of the week they had been 2 for $30) But, I was disappointed to find out that it was a misprint and they were not offering the 2 for $20 special. So, there was no sale after all. There were plenty of adult shirts left, but the children's shirts were pretty picked over. So, if you want shirts, buy them at the beginning of the week and you won't have to battle the crowds! I could go on and on about the activities, but if you just keep in mind that there are things to do for every type of person, you will be happy!
Something new that Carnival has (I am not sure how new though), is the use of the Sail and Sign card. Basically, no one accepts cash on board. Everything is billed to your Said and Sign card and you pay the balance at the end of the week. This can be dangerous if you aren't careful. You can check your balance as often as you want on your stateroom television though, so you have no excuse to not know how much you owe at the end. All they ask is that you report a lost card immediately. I did lost mine. It blew out of the plastic protector I wore around my neck when we went up top. I immediately went to the main desk where they issued me a new one.
We chose not to take our children on this cruise, so I can't speak much about the children/teen activities. I know they had many planned and even though there were hundreds of children on board, they never really got in your way. One thing that would have been nice though, is if Carnival had a pool and hot tub that were only available to adults. Obviously, children like to swim, so the pool were constantly crowded with children. They also have a large water slide. Kids are obviously attracted to this, but my husband and I went down it and it was great fun. Adults and children both enjoyed it.
We ate at the 5:45 P.M. seating in the Washington Dining room. We chose the 6:15 sitting, but didn't get it. That was okay though. All the dinners were great and the waiters were awesome! Our waiters were Hemant and Humberto and they were great! Remember, you can always order a second entree if you don't like your first one or are just hungry. The portions are quite small, so you might want a second one. I think they are small so so much food won't be wasted. We never wanted a second one and were full at the end of dinner. We chose to eat at Rosie's Buffet on the days we were in St. Thomas and St. Maarten. After spending all day off the ship, we just didn't feel like getting dressed up when we got back. It was great to have that option. I think I might choose the later dinner seating (8:00 ish) the next time. You can always eat a snack in the afternoon to get you through dinner.
I was surprised at the storage space in the staterooms. Our room consisted on two twin beds pushed together to make a queen size bed, a desk, several closets and drawers, and of course the bathroom. We extremely overpacked for this cruise, but still managed to find a place for all of our things. Our empty suitcases fit nicely under the bed. Carnival has two bathrobes for you to use while onboard, so you don't need to bring one with you. One piece of advice that I was given was to purchase an over the door shoe holder for the bathroom. This was an excellent idea. You hand it on the inside bathroom door and put all of your toiletries in the pockets. This way things are piled all over the sink area and you won't have to worry about things falling down when the ship rocks. The cabin steward will love you for it!
Speaking of the cabin steward, we brought several candy bars with us. Each day we left one out for him with a nice note. These guys work so hard and they deserve it. Mario was very thankful for the candy. We also brought along 3 hats from our home state to give to our cabin steward and both waiters at the end of the week. They do so much for you and even though they do get tips, it is nice to do something nice for them.
I won't go too much into packing. I went to a website that told exactly how and what to pack for a cruise. This guy knows what he is talking about. The address is http://www.geocities.com/Calgon1/UPL-2_Adults_Warm.html . I highly recommend visiting this site for all of your packing needs!
Our cruise director was Brett Alans. He seemed like a nice guy. A little stuffy though. (Someone on the message board compared him to Al Gore if he got a job on a cruise ship!! Ha!) But they were right. He was always either in a suit, or had khakis with a button up shirt (buttoned all they way up) with an undershirt. I just wanted to remind him that he was on a cruise ship and to relax!!! But despite that, he is a very talented magician (he does a show during the week with his pet birds) and has worked for Carnival for over 20 years. Unfortunately, you don't see him out and about at all. The only place I saw him was in the Ivanhoe Theater. He did have an assistant, Darcy. She was around the ship a lot and interacted with the guests. There were also two social hosts, Jenny and Dan, that you ran into several times. I am sure the cruise director job on such a large ship is a "behind the desk" type job trying to get everything organized and running smoothly. So, no real complaints here.
The only negative thing I can say about the entire trip is the debarkation process. What a nightmare it was for us. We now know what to do in the future though. We were told that you could either put your bags out the night before and then get them the next day in the terminal warehouse or you could do it the "easier" way and just carry your luggage off with you. Our cruise director assured us that this was much easier than putting your bags out the nigh before, especially if you had an early flight. We did, so we decided to take our bags with us. Since we had an early flight, we were told to meet in the Eagles Lounge at 8:30 A.M. and someone would come get us. Sure enough, one of the social hosts (Dan) arrived at 8:30 and told us to follow him. Mind you, we did overpack so we had three large suitcases, two smaller carry on types, a camera bag and my large purse/carry on. The Eagles Lounge is on the 5th floor. Take the elevators you say. WRONG!!!! Dan proceeds to take everyone down two flights of stairs and then cuts through the formal dining room to the main lobby where we were led off of the ship. We weren't done yet. After leaving the ship, we were able to use one elevator, but also had to take all of our luggage down two escalators and back up another one. Where did we end up after all of that, you ask??? In the warehouse that was holding all of the luggage from the people who put their luggage out the night before!!!! Smart people they were! It was all organized by the floor your room was on, so it would have been fairly easy to find it. But in the end, we made it to the airport on time. it was just a nightmare to get there. So, do not listen to them when they say it is easier to carry your luggage out with you!!!!
I highly recommend cruising on the Valor. I will probably cruise another ship next time, so I have something to compare it to, but I would definitely recommend going on this ship! Happy cruising!!!!