Our cruises are usually planned to maximize our relaxation time before, during, and after the cruise. We try to pick ports that are easy to get to and offer relatively hassle-free planning. After cruising out of Miami on the Fascination in 2008, we swore off cruising from there unless the cruise itinerary was really spectacular. For our 2012 cruise, my in-laws decided to come with us. As a courtesy, I let my mother-in-law pick the cruise after sending her the list of the ones we were considering. Of course, she picked the one cruising from Miami. Aside from Nassau, I liked the itinerary, so we agreed. Unfortunately, the pre-planning for this trip took much more time than I like to spend.
Last time, we flew to Miami and headed straight to the ship. This time, after months of looking, a reasonable airfare was not to be found so we grudgingly accepted the fact that we were going to have to drive 12+ hours to Miami. It was also difficult to find a reasonably priced hotel that offered a cruise shuttle or the option to park your car at the hotel. Sure, there are hotels that let you park your car there but it's not included in the hotel rate and the shuttles were often an additional charge too. Yes, it's cheaper than parking at the port but not cheap enough for me. The $20/day Miami port parking fee was something that we were just not going to pay.
I ended up using my rewards points to book the Marriott Residence Inn in Miami. We had a wonderful one night stay. It was close to everything and we were able to easily get to the CVS and Kmart for some last minute items and enjoyed a wonderful dinner at the Latin Cafe that was within walking distance. Finding cruise parking was the most time consuming part and the solution was under my nose the whole time. I noticed this small box at the end of my cruise documents offering a parking special for Carnival customers. I clicked on it and lo and behold, Park 'n Fly Miami is offering a special rate of $1/day! It was off-site parking from the airport but their shuttle took us to the airport so that we could catch our pre-arranged transportation to the port.
It's over 4 years later and the embarkation process in Miami has not improved one bit. The only good thing I can say is that although the line stretched around the building, we got through Security fairly quickly. After that, it was the usual long wait and disorganization. For reasons unknown to us, they had the passengers split into two lines and the other line moved much faster. At one point, we looked over and there was no one standing in the other line. But the staff made no attempt to try to shift people from our line to the other line. It was just bizarre. We promptly hopped into the other line where one of the attendants tried to tell me that we couldn't go over there. I explained the obvious to him -- it makes no sense to have people just standing when there is an empty line and counter agents just standing there that can serve them. Regardless of the hold-up, you should be doing something to get people through the line. We continued to the virtually empty line, checked in, and got on the ship.
Overall, the Valor is a good ship and if it weren't for the crazy layout on the lower decks, it would be an easy ship to navigate. The only lower floor that leads straight to the dining room includes a trip through the smoke-filled casino that cannot be avoided. So, in an effort to avoid walking through the casino, we would go up or down (still can't remember which) a floor to get to the dining room. The first few days it was hard to remember which direction we needed to go and we constantly got lost. We eventually just started walking to the very back of the ship from the deck our cabins were on to get to the dining room for dinner. The Lido deck was also arranged rather strangely and it seemed constantly congested during meal times. The wait for an omelet was horrendous and seating was hard to come by. I honestly think the passenger capacity for this ship compared to its size means that every common area is congested with people. It seemed like everywhere we went; there was a throng of people already there.
The food was another issue for me. The food on the buffet was just not good and substandard quality. The service on the Lido deck wasn't much better. After eating the omelet on the first day, I decided I couldn't eat it again. I've had the omelets before on other ships and I know it's an egg mix and not real eggs. I have always been able to eat my omelets with no problem. The omelets on the Valor tasted like a powdered mix of some sort. The cheese tasted like plastic -- truly horrible. After eating it one time, I went to the omelet station and asked for 2 real eggs scrambled. The cook told me if I wanted scrambled eggs, I could get them off the buffet. After giving him a stare that I hoped would let him know that I was not pleased, I told him in the calmest voice I could muster, that I wanted real eggs. He made my eggs the way I wanted them.
Thankfully, the lunch buffets were better (still not great) and we enjoyed the fish and chips (the fish more than the chips) restaurant. Despite the limited menu, the food in the dining room was probably the best we had on the ship. After the 3rd or 4th day, we started going there for breakfast and lunch too. We chose early seating for dinner and had an awesome wait staff that took care of us every night. All of our entrees were very good and we really enjoyed our meals in the dining room.
There was a time when Carnival had shows in the theater every night. We've noticed on our past few cruises that the shows are now offered about 2-3 times during the week-long cruise. They have now filled-in with comedians. The theater shows they did offer were top-notch -- probably the best we've seen on any cruise and the singers are awesome. The comedians were hit and miss. I only saw one comedian -- believe it was Marla Schultz -- and I am sure that she would be very funny if she told jokes that her audience could relate to. I remember one of the comedians from our 2008 Fascination cruise so they are certainly not freshening up the comedic talent. They also had a juggler one night that we saw on the Legend. Our 3.5-year-old enjoyed his act but we'd already seen it.
The days were light on scheduled activities but we loved the Christmas decorations and the random Santa sightings. The "snow" falling in the atrium was also very nice. Otherwise, it was the standard activities that you get on every cruise, just less than normal. The movies on the Lido deck was a waste because they showed movies that were old. It was the same in the cabin, movies that most people have seen already. The captain was also pretty silent during this cruise. We had a rocking ship for most of the trip and it would have been nice to get some reassurance from the captain. The captain on the Legend gave a daily report each day telling us what to expect as far as weather and sea conditions and we really appreciated that. It would have been nice if the captain on the Valor did the same.
Our cabin steward was good as usual although there was a persistent smell of urine emanating from our toilet. I never mentioned it to the steward because I'm sure the scent wasn't caused by his lack of cleaning. With a few exceptions, the staff was overall friendly and helpful. We had grown accustomed to disembarking on Deck 0 but for some reason, the staff decided to have everyone get off the elevators on Deck 1 and walk down to Deck 0 in Grand Turk. That is all well and good but, how about letting the passengers know that the night before? There was mass confusion the following morning when people kept getting on the elevators and pushing deck 0 and having the elevator inexplicably stop at Deck 1. I also had to call the Shore Excursion desk about the horrible excursion we had in Grand Turk - more on that in my port review. I was prepared for a fight but they graciously refunded a portion of the money we paid for the excursion.
Overall, this was another great cruise for us. Carnival's cutbacks are evident but we still managed to have a good time. We like waking up in a different location every day and we just enjoy being on the ship and sailing on the ocean. The cutbacks haven't affected that...yet.