The Southern Caribbean has always been high on my cruising wish list. When my boyfriend announced, after finally getting his passport, that he wanted to (a) leave the country for the first time and (b) take a relaxing vacation, I jumped at the chance to plan a cruise for the both of us. I am not a fan of repeating ports, so armed with my favorite travel research sites, I selected a few voyages that have off-the-beaten path itineraries in the Caribbean during this particular week in May. The Carnival Valor sailing was an immediate front runner and really, the others had no chance. I was slightly concerned about sailing on Carnival (not because of negative press recently more so because I am not a fan of raucous deck-parties and hairy-chest contests that one hears about being main-stays on the line) and about the one sea day (hate being exhausted from a vacation), but after reading a number of reviews raving about this itinerary, I pushed those doubts to the side and booked then spent the next six months waiting not-so-patiently for embarkation.
Finally, the day had come for us to leave for Puerto Rico. We had a non-stop flight on Saturday morning, and spent the night at the La Concha resort in the Condado. I really wanted to stay in El Convento in Old San Juan, but they require a two night stay. Anyway, I was happy with La Concha - its a very pretty resort and Id recommend it. The rooms look like they have been somewhat recently renovated, which is always a plus.
On Sunday morning, I woke up early, anxious to get to the ship to drop off our stuff. I knew we couldnt really get there until around 10, so we took our time eating breakfast and getting our stuff ready to go. We grabbed a cab and were at the port in 10 minutes. We dropped out bags off with a porter, checked-in in record time (about 10 minutes), and were told we could board around 12:30. We walked around by the port area for a bit then grabbed a bite to eat at a restaurant overlooking the ship Punto de Vista. I made my boyfriend try mofongo (one of my favorite foods ever), and this restaurants was excellent try one with shrimp and garlic sauce. Yum!
We were back on the ship at 12:30 to drop off our carry-on bags. We had booked an aft-wrap as a special treat room 7445. The balcony was amazing, and I would totally book it again. We felt like we were all alone on a ship of thousands (in fact, we never felt overcrowded on this ship)! After that, we left the ship again (its really easy to get on and off the ship to explore) and headed to Old San Juan via the free trolley which stops right by the Punto de Vista restaurant. Be aware that you may have to wait through two trolleys to get one with an open seat. We got off at El Morro, wandered around a bit before my boyfriend accidentally dropped my relatively new camera on the very hard floor of the fort. Now, I love taking pictures, and this was almost devastating to me but I quickly calmed myself down and we grabbed a cab and headed to the nearest Best Buy. It was a comedy of errors that day , did you know that almost everything closes in San Juan on Mothers Day? I did not and we actually ended up in a pawn shop of all things to buy a cheap replacement camera. Anyway, what started off as being an upsetting event ended up being a hilarious tour of parts of San Juan that are off the tourist path. Carpe diem.
Once back on the ship that night, with a new camera in tow, we got changed and headed to the steakhouse for dinner. I would highly recommend the steakhouse on the first night , it is open seating in the dining room on the first night so you wont miss meeting your wait staff or table mates AND you get a free bottle of wine. This was my first experience with alternative dining on a cruise ship and I think I am a bit spoiled now it was so good! We headed back to the room and my boyfriend was shocked to see his first towel animal. We had towel animals on this cruise that Ive never seen before so good job Carnival on keeping ahead of the other lines in towel animal research and development.
And now for the ports of call. Note that we did our own tours in each port no ship excursions.
St. Thomas: We opted for just a beach & shopping day. After the camera non-disaster, I wanted to check the stores in St. Thomas for a camera that could take a beating and go underwater. Ended up getting another new camera for relatively cheap boyfriend claimed ownership of the one we got in San Juan. After this success, took a cab to Magens Bay. $8 per person for a group of 2 or more. The beach was beautiful and water was very calm. Easily grabbed a cab back to the ship from the beach.
Barbados: Also another beach day. Took a cab to Carlisle Beach. I asked the driver to go to Lobster Alive, but he recommended Harbor Lights. Its all on the same beach, but I really did like the Harbor Lights area. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring enough money with us to take a snorkeling tour to see the turtles vendors will ask you on the beach if you want to go out. This was an amazingly beautiful beach. The sand was so fine and soft and the ocean was calm and clear. I could have spent forever out here. Our taxi driver waited all day at the beach for our group, so it was easy to get back to the ship.
St. Lucia: I knew I was in for something special when I opened up our curtains and let out an audible gasp at how green this island was. It was like something out of a dream. We had our first tour scheduled here on Spencer Ambrose doing the Jalousie Beach Break. I chose this tour vs. the Land and Sea tour because I had heard that St. Lucis roads are not for the faint of heart - this tour was a boat ride both ways between the beach. We had a hilarious tour guide, Terry (I think), who made the boat ride to the beach fun and informative. Once we got to the beach (which is smallish, and the area for the tour groups is small), we borrowed some snorkel gear from Terry and explored the protected coral habitat area right by one of the pitons (lots of colorful fish and we saw an octopus). Oh, and I should mention that the Pitons are incredibly beautiful. One couple on our boat climbed one of them, which is not something that I would try in that heat but good for them! This was by far my favorite island on the trip maybe my favorite in the Caribbean and our favorite tour.
St. Kitts: Its almost unfair to follow St. Lucia, at least in my opinion. This was the island I knew the least about before the trip. We had an all-inclusive type tour with Thenford Grey. The bus he drove us around in was very nice and he was very informative. Id highly recommend him. I do not know how he got the bus around some of those curves going up to the fort. He drove us around town, then to the batik factory, then to the fort (which is a UNESCO world heritage site) and then to the beach (with a couple of stops in between). The beach he took us to is very nice, and had a cute little beach restaurant. There were also monkeys wandering around in the foresty area right near the beach one jumped right next to my boyfriend and scared him. The water here was also calm but the sand was hot not shocking being that it is volcanic sand - make sure you have your shoes on when you walk on the sand. The restaurant is cash only, which was kinda annoying because we did not have enough cash to rent snorkel gear. There is a reef near the swimming area of the beach and it would have been interesting to check it out. My boyfriend and I decided that we need to actually buy our own gear so we dont have to rent anymore.
St. Maarten: We had a tour scheduled with Barnards tours. Mailman was our guide, and the rum punch was flowing (for others, we opted out for water as we were feeling a little dehydrated, but I heard it was yum). We went all over the islands, with stops at Orient Beach, Marigot (long enough to get French pastries at Sarafinas), and Maho beach for airplane sightings, among other quick stops. I would definitely recommend this tour to others. I really wish we had another sea day to unwind before packing, because after we got back from St. Maarten, we immediately started packing up our stuff.
Because of the rather port-intensive schedule, we didnt do much of the nightlife on board. I can comment, however, on the food. I have to admit that I was VERY impressed by the food on Carnival at least on the Valor. This may have been the best food Ive had on any cruise, and thats saying a lot. Also, my boyfriend really liked trying everything on the menu.
Disembarkation on Sunday went very smoothly. They were running 45 minutes ahead of schedule. We easily found our bags and went through customs. Some tour company was offering short tours of San Juan and rides to the airport, which we took advantage of because we had a later flight. Im glad I didnt catch the name of the tour company, because our driver was kind of unprofessional complaining about the tour bus owner and driving erratically. He also didnt seem to know as much about Old San Juan as you would expect. We werent really upset by it it was an easy way to spend the last day. We got to the airport on time and were at our gate with an hour or so to spare.
I had a wonderful time on Carnival, however, *complaint disclaimer* I do have one bone to pick. On Monday, I was hit with one of the worst flu bugs that Ive ever had. I had to take a week off of work and my fever didnt break for days. My doctor said I that I got it on the cruise (I thought it was on the flight home some lady was coughing up a lung in first class). Now, obviously, this is not Carnivas fault but I did notice throughout the trip how lax everyone was about hand sanitizer usage. On every cruise Ive been on, there has been one or two employees mandating usage of the hand sanitizer before you go into the dining room (sometimes even preventing people from coming in) and as a result, it becomes a routine for all passengers. This time, the sanitizer was barely used ignored basically. With all of Carnivals bad press lately, they sure dont need a norovirus outbreak on top of all the issues.
That being said, I highly recommend this voyage. If you are considering booking, do yourself a favor and book.