Four of us, 2 couples in the vicinity of 50, took a cruise on the Carnival Valor, departing from San Juan, in March 2013. Two of us, my wife and I, have cruised before with Princess. My wife's sister and her husband were first time cruisers.
We flew from Dayton to San Juan via Air Tran. We connected through Baltimore BWI and had about a 3 hour layover.
We were surprised to find that when we moved from our arrival terminal to the departure terminal we had to leave the secure area and pass through the TSA checkpoint again. Who thought this was a good idea? On our flight home we had a very tight connection because of a change made my Air Tran after we'd purchased the tickets. We went from having a 45 min. layover to 25 min. Air Tran assured us it would be plenty of time to make the connection. Looking at the BWI terminal map, which showed Air Tran using just one terminal and not 2, which seemed reasonable.
On our return flight we notified the gate agent and flight crew about our situation. They were able to move us to the front of the plane and after landing they asked the other passengers to let us off first. Turns out there were 10 or 12 of trying to make the Dayton connection. It seems they moved our arrival to the same terminal that we were departing from so we didn't have to pass through security again. They held the plane for us and we made it just fine.
We quickly claimed our bags at SJU and found a cab. Our hotel was the SJ Suites on Calle Fortaleza in Old San Juan. We drove past it once because it's actually above a jewelry store. The lobby is on the 2nd floor and it just has a single door on the street level and isn't very well marked.
After we were dropped off, we found the door was locked and had to hit a buzzer to get in. Another couple came along who were staying there and they let us in. The elevator is tiny so 1 of us and the luggage rode up to the 2nd floor and the rest of us walked.
We'd used Priceline so the rooms were already paid for. Check in was smooth and Raymond, the desk person, was very helpful. He gave us a good map of the area and marked places to eat and sights to see.
Our rooms were on the 3rd floor. They were clean and well maintained but not at all fancy or cool or hip or anything. Our room and most of the rooms don't seem to have any windows. Some people seem to care about this because it's mentioned a lot on Trip Advisor. Overall this is a great precruise hotel or as a base to explore Old San Juan. It's not luxurious or resort like in any way. They were friendly, hospitable and we got a good night's sleep before our cruise.
Raymond suggested 2 places for dinner that were just a block or 2 away. The first was Raices. We went there and there was a 45 minute wait. The other place he'd suggested, Mojito's, was just a couple of doors down so we tried them. They got us seats in just a few minutes. We thought the food there was good. I had mofongo, which I'd not had before. It was really tasty and I'm glad I tried it.
The next morning for breakfast we went to Cafe Manolin which was right around the corner. It was freezing cold in there but the food was good.
Before breakfast, my wife and I woke up early to walk around Old San Juan. The San Cristobal fortress is about 5 minutes from the SJ Suites. We walked past the fortress and past the capital building and along the Atlantic shoreline for a while before turning back toward the center of OSJ. We walked to the pier area and our ship, the Carnival Valor was in port. It was about 7:30am and we didn't see any passengers debarking yet.
At the SJ Suites Raymond told us you could get a lot of great views by walking around the outside wall of the old city from the pier area up to El Morro fortress, so we did that. This was a beautiful walk. We went past one of the doors to the city used in colonial times. Following the wall led us to the huge expanse of lawn that's between the old city and El Morro fortress. This is a spectacular vista. We sat around the area overlooking the entrance to the harbor then headed back past the fortress toward our hotel.
After breakfast all 4 of us walked up to El Morro again since my wife's sister and her husband hadn't been there yet. It's such a cool area on a Sunday with families flying kites, having picnics and just hanging out enjoying the sunshine.
We decided that we could walk our luggage down to the pier. It's all downhill and the only issue is the sidewalks are really narrow and can get a little crowded around midday.
We arrived for check-in around 12:30p. We dropped our bags with the stevedores and got in line. There were lots of lines but they all moved pretty quickly. We didn't experience any snags or delays. We got our Sign and Sail cards, stood in more lines, went through the carry on check, just like the airlines except you don't take off your belt and shoes. It was about and hour from the time we showed up and dropped our bags to the time we set foot on the ship.
The first thing we did was buy the "bottomless bubbles" program. This gives you as much soda pop and juices as you can drink for the duration of the cruise. It runs about $55 per person. If you drink 4 or more beverages of this type per day it's worth it.
This program illustrates one of my beefs with Carnival and what I think is one of the big differences between Carnival and Princess, which is the only other line we've cruised with before. Carnival seems more inclined to nickel and dime you on things. In the similar program on Princess the insulated cup is included. On Carnival you pay an extra $5.00 for it.
As I mentioned all our previous major cruiseline experiences have been with Princess. We were a little hesitant about booking with Carnival (this was well before all the problems they've had recently) based on the image of their cruises being tacky, rowdy and loud.
Our first impression of our cabin (1226 on the Riviera deck) was that it was every bit as nice as Princess. It was small and compact but we had plenty of room for everything. There's a ton of closet space and the bathroom had lots of shelf space. I think the shower stall is roomier than Princess and we didn't experience the problems with the shower curtain not staying put and letting water spray all over the place.
We didn't use the mini bar other than to store a leftover beer there and a Diet Mt. Dew that I bought on St. Martin.
Our room steward was Trevor who was from Dominica and he was excellent. He was very personable and helpful. Our room was perfectly kept the entire time.
My only real complaint about the room was the safe. It's an electronic safe but not one where you set your own code. You open it with a credit card. Which means you can't lock your credit card in the safe while you're out. I don't understand why you can't open it with your S&S card but you can't. It just seemed like a screwy setup but we made it work. I'm sure we hid our CC in the same spot all the other passengers did.
We liked being on Riviera. It was a short trip up or down one flight of stair to embark/debark for shore excursions. After the muster drill we had to walk down 2 flights of stairs to get back to our rooms. That beats walking UP 10 or 12 flights as we've done in the past! The only downside was the bow thrusters become your wakeup call. We were nearer the bow and you can definitely hear/feel them from up there! Upside is we never had to worry about oversleeping.
The Valor has a hero/patriotism theme for its decor. There were giant golden eagles all over the place. The floor tiles were representative of an American flag. There were weird relief sculptures of what I assumed were American heroes all around the main atrium area. I swear one of them was Lee Major's, TV's "Six Million Dollar Man". After a few days I began to feel like I was at an American Legion convention. I like the understated, more elegant decor of the Princess ships we'd been aboard better.
Again, comparing Carnival to Princess, we thought the Princess ships (Crown and Caribbean Princess) were easier to move about and find your way from one spot to another. Onboard the Valor we'd have to go up a couple of floors, walk toward the stern, and then back down to the floor we started on. I was also disappointed that there was on exterior Promenade deck where you could walk around the ship. I did like Princess' Piazza area more that Carnival's atrium. I thought Princess had more quiet places to relax inside than Carnival did.
Overall I thought the Valor was very well maintained. You always saw somebody cleaning something wherever you went. There were plenty of bars and places to get a drink onboard. The elevators never felt overly crowded and the waits were minimal.
We did breakfast every morning between 7:30 and 9a depending on what we had planned. Twice we ate in the Washington Dining room for sit down service and other times we ate in the buffet on the Lido deck. I thought that the buffet was less crowded than we'd seen on Princess. We never had a problem finding a table on the Valor. On Princess we'd frequently have to make multiple circuits of the dining area before finding a spot. Carnival also had a lot more outside tables than Princess did.
The food at the buffet was good with lots of fresh fruit and a wide selection of cereal, pastries, pancakes and breakfast meats. Omelets were available too. The orange guava berry juice was my favorite. I'm just disappointed that it wasn't available all the time!
It was a nice change to eat in the Washington room for breakfast. The service was good and everything was made to order. Sometimes it's nice not to have to deal with crowds and such a huge array of choices.
We ate all our lunches in the Lido buffet. The grille was good, serving burgers, fries, hot dogs, etc. A helpful suggestion would be, at busy times, have someone dispensing French fries. The tongs were a little challenging for small kids and some of them took forever to get a few fries on their plate. The Pirate Pizza near the aft pool was good and very popular. My sister in law and her husband had the Mongolian Wok for lunch one day and they liked it but thought it was a little slow.
One thing that stuck us was that Carnival didn't push the use of hand sanitizer the way Princess did. In the Princess buffet area they had a person stationed there to ensure that you took a shot of hand sanitizer. Carnival had dispensers in and around the buffet but they weren't very prominent and we didn't see a lot of people using them.
We ate every dinner in the main dining room. We chose the Your Time dining option and it worked well for us. We were assigned to the Lincoln Dining room. We usually ate between 6:30 and 7:30. A lot of times when we'd be leaving the dining room around 8 there would be a long line. We always got a table for 4 and were usually seated right away. Only once did we have to wait and that was maybe 5 minutes.
We had a different server every night and all but one was really nice. The one we weren't so crazy about was an older man and he just seemed a little slow and confused. The waitstaff always made it a point to use our names which I thought was a nice touch. We never saw that on Princess.
We all thought the food was very good. We tried the "didja..." items several times. None were bad but none were outstanding. All were interesting. We ate a variety of things from the menu. I only retreated to the safety of the "everyday" menu 2 times. I thought all the beef dishes were good, properly cooked, tender and flavorful. I had a shrimp cocktail almost every night and they were good sized and tasty.
Our hands down favorite dish was the Warm Chocolate Melting Cake dessert. It was incredible! They serve it was a small portion of vanilla ice cream but I found that ordering a standard dish of vanilla along with the Warm Chocolate Melting Cake made a better chocolate to vanilla ratio.
As I said, all 4 of us bought the "coke card" and thought it was a great value. I'm not sure why they dispense all their soft drinks from cans but they do. They have Coke products only including Coke Zero and Sprite Zero. The card also gets you juices which was a nice change of pace from soda.
Based on methods we read on Cruise Critic we were able to smuggle a couple of bottles of booze that we purchased in the cruise terminal on board. Malibu coconut rum is an excellent mixer with pineapple juice. It makes a great tasting, non-frozen pina colada. We'd pour the rum into our new Carnival insulated mug then get a pineapple juice from the bar, take a sip then refill it with the rum. That is an excellent drink!
I bought a bucket of beer. This nets you a 50 cent per beer discount. You go from $6.95 a beer to $6.45. Steep but what are you gonna do. They are 16 oz aluminum bottles so that helps a little. We also tried the signature drink, the Kiss On The Lips, which was really good.
Most of our bartender contact was with Benji at the aft bar. He was a good guy, very quick and friendly. We also liked the Bronx Sports bar since they had college basketball playing on the TVs as well as European football.
Overall I was impressed with our Cruise Director, Felipe. He was upbeat without being too annoying. The rest of his team was pretty good as well. Sean, the Asst. CD seemed like he could have become a bit too much if he were the CD. Lexi, one of the team members was very personable and fun.
We took part in several of the trivia contests on board and I'm proud to say we earned 3 of the coveted Ships on a Stick. I asked and they are well aware of Cruise Critic and they regularly rotate the questions and answers to prevent people from posting this info on the message boards.
We went to a couple of the shows in the Ivanhoe Theater. The 80's Review was very entertaining. We saw a juggler once and he was so-so. He had about a 20 minute act that went on for an hour. The Welcome show was good.
We saw 2 of the comedians in the Eagles Lounge do their adult set. Both were funny (one guy's name started with M and the other was Happy Cole) and I'm not an easy audience for a comedian.
We went to the casino a couple of times. I played the electronic blackjack and found the touchscreen not that responsive. I missed a couple of plays I wanted to make because of that. I never got to play with a dealer because the tables were either full or there were no other players at the time. The slots were okay.
We bought a couple of things in the shops. My wife was cold in the evenings and needed a paschmina. We also found a great deal on Crown Royal in the duty free shop. You could get 2, 1 liter bottles for $33.99....$17 apiece. That is crazy cheap! We bought them and they were delivered to our room on Sat. night before Sunday departure.
We used the walking track on the topmost deck and although we enjoyed the Promenade deck on Princess more, this wasn't too bad. I think 9 laps equaled a mile.
We by no means did everything on the ship but there seemed like there were always tons of activities going on.
Ports of Call
On our first stop in St. Thomas my wife stayed on board. She's not a big shopper and my sister in law is. The 3 of us took one of the shuttles into town and left my wife at the pool. The shuttle was $5 a person, each way and took about 10 minutes. We got dropped near the post office. We made one trip down and back the main shopping street then went down one of the "alleyways" that have, or should I say had shops. We were last there in 2009 and I was surprised at how many vacant retail spaces there were. We didn't buy much, just some odds and ends, a postcard, etc.
We looked at the flea market area a little then headed back to the ship.
We really enjoyed out sea day. We started out in the Serenity area which is an adults only area near the bow that has padded chaise lounges as well has hammocks and multi person padded loungers. There are 2 hot tubs and a bar but what this area really needs is a pool. Again, on Princess, they have a pool near their adults only padded lounger area.
The lack of a pool caused us to move to the aft pool, which we discovered was adult only. I'm happy to say this was enforced in spite of the fact that there were a large number of kids on board. One concern we had about taking a cruise during Spring Break time was the large number of kids who'd be aboard. We really didn't notice them and overall they were well behaved and not a problem at all.
We debated prebooking a tour of Barbados or just waiting until we debarked to find a taxi driver to take us on a tour. We found Carson Moore's tours through the Cruise Critic message board. We e-mailed back and forth and set up a 3-4 hour private tour for just the 4 of us for $150.
We met our driver, Coleridge, right outside the terminal. We gave him an idea of what we wanted to see. He had some things on his list to show us as well. We saw Sandy Lane, Holetown, Speighstown, St. James Church, Cherry Tree Hill, Bathsheba and the eastern coastline.
We wanted to try a flying fish sandwich and to spend a little time at a beach. Coleridge took us to the Harbour Lights Beach club which had both. It was very close to the ship so anyone who wanted to do something without venturing too far from the ship, this would be a great choice.
We were very satisfied with Coleridge and Carson Moore's service. One nice touch was Carson Moore himself called Coleridge's phone right after he picked us up to make sure he'd found us. He asked him to put me on the phone to verify that we were there and that everything was okay. Nice touch!
We used Cruise Critic and Trip Advisor to plan our day in St. Lucia. My wife and I had visited there before and really wanted to get a good view of the Pitons since we'd missed them before.
We chose the Spencer Ambrose Land and Sea tour. It promised a trip via bus to various points of interest including a banana plantation, a sulfuric volcano area and a waterfall. Then we'd transfer to a boat for a ride to Jalousie Beach, situated between the Pitons. At the beach we'd enjoy a buffet of island food, get some time to relax and snorkel, then board a speedboat for a ride back to Castries and viewing various points of interest along the way.
The land part was great. Our driver, Big Al was very nice and we made several stops for photo ops. The volcano and waterfall were interesting. The bus had a cooler full of drinks including beer, pop and water as well as a container of rum punch. Big Al told us the punch was made with 160 proof rum!
We stopped in Soufriere and boarded the boat to the beach. At the beach instead of a buffet, we were handed styrofoam containers of food that had come over on the same boat we did. It did not look appealing so we didn't eat it.
The section of the beach with chairs is very small and was quite crowded. The snorkeling, I thought, was poor. Poor visibility, not much to see anyway. There were lots of dead crabs and fish floating around. My wife got a few jellyfish stings from some loose tentacles in the water. We didn't see any actual jellyfish. We moved down to the resort beach and it was much nicer. We couldn't use the resort's chairs or facilities but it wasn't crowded and chaotic like it was on Spencer's end.
Spencer chooses not to collect payment for the tour until you're at the beach. We paid but when it was time to get on the boats for the trip back, 2 or 3 people hadn't paid. We had to wait and wait for these people before we were allowed to board. All the while Spencer was argumentative and surly when questioned about why it was taking so long, shifting blame to factors other than his lack of organization
While waiting we were able to watch several people who were falling down drunk, literally. One chick was barfing over the side of her boat. One guy did a face plant in the boat and another on the dock. Maybe 160 proof rum isn't the best choice for rum punch?
So finally we got on board the last 2 boats, which were much more crowded than when we came over. Apparently some people stayed at the beach longer than they were supposed to so we had 6-8 more people than we came with, which is a lot in a 26 -28 foot boat.
Our boat guy was really nice pointing out interesting things along the way, again with plenty of photo opportunities. Then the boat broke down. We were bobbing around while the driver tried to fix the problem. We put out an SOS and another tour operator came to our rescue. They were able to take most of the occupants. I guess another boat came back for the others. After a slightly dicey boat-to-boat transfer on a rocky sea, we were on our way. We made it back to the ship a little after 4.
The land part of the tour was nice and all the personnel working for Spencer seemed very nice. Spencer seemed very poorly organized and eager to shift the blame in directions away from him. I'm used to how things go in the islands. Things are different and work at a pace and manner that sometimes befuddles and frustrates Americans. Even factoring in these cultural differences, I really could not recommend Spencer Ambrose tours.
We didn't really have a good idea what to do in St. Kitts. We got off the ship and walked around Basseterre a little. It's not at all tourist oriented like a lot of Caribbean port cities which I find appealing. We went back to the "circus", the main intersection of town and found a cab driver, Matey, who agreed to take us to Brimstone Hill fort for $50, round trip. He was a very nice guy telling us a little about living on St. Kitts. He showed us the town he'd grown up in which was along the way.
At Brimstone Hill, which cost $8.00 each for admission, he waited while we toured the fort. The view from up there is amazing. It's easy to see why the British wanted to put a fort there. You can see the islands of Saba and St. Eustasius from there as well as St. Kitt's sister island, Nevis. Even if you're not big on history, it's worth a visit just for the view.
We knew we wanted to make St. Martin a beach day, we just had trouble deciding which one. We settled on Orient Beach based on the advice of Trevor, our room steward. We found a cab at the cruise terminal to take us there for $7.00 per person. The driver, Green, took us to a beach bar. I'm not sure what its name was because the sign was faded but it was next to a beachwear stand called Sexy Fruits. We rented chairs and umbrellas there for $8.00 each and got a token for 1 free drink per person. Not a bad deal we thought! The prices weren't bad either. A beer was $3.00, a soft drink was $2.00. We saw a guy get a pack of Marlboros for $3.00. You might know that the French would offer cheap smokes!
The beach is really beautiful. The sand is soft and cool, the color of the water is what you see on postcards. It is a picture perfect beach! Being on Orient Beach we had to stroll down to the nude end. We found that all body types were represented there except for supermodels. Good for these people for having being able to celebrate their freedom!
The water was really refreshing and we had a great day there. We'd arranged with Green to pick us up at 2 pm and that time came way too soon.
As I said, we were a little leery about Carnival with its downscale reputation from Princess. We were afraid that my wife's sister and her husband wouldn't like it and that we'd be continually disappointed if it didn't measure up to Princess. We had no cause to worry. The itinerary was great. The Southern Caribbean route has the best ports of call, I think. The ship and its crew were very accommodating. If they can correct whatever issues are going on in terms of mechanical problems don't think we'd hesitate again about booking a Carnival cruise.