Before we booked our cruise, I reviewed numerous critics and found most of them useless. Either the critic was describing the all-time-greatest-best-perfectest(sic)-travel experience, and I just couldn't believe a word. Or I read the other extreme as in we-will-never-again-use-this-cruise-line-because-of-bla-bla-bla-and-the-weather-was-bad. This does not really help anyone trying to make up his mind, which cruise line, which ship and which cruise to book. I hope to do better by writing truly about everything that we experienced during this cruise. If I do not voice an opinion on something, I either did not use this feature or forgot about it.
I'm German living with my Puerto Rican wife in Germany, so I had to include the flights into the consideration, which cruise we should take. We wanted direct, non-stop flights to/from the cruise port to a western Caribbean cruise. The main concern was the price, as money was tight. Our choice finally was the Carnival Valor sailing out of Miami to Grand Cayman, Roatan / Honduras, Belize and Costa Maya / Mexico.
We were warned that there would be long lines to get on the ship. There were, but they moved surprisingly fast. In less than an hour we went through security and the whole registration process and had our first drink at the bar. TIP: Complete your passport details online (or let the travel agent do so) before going to the port and print the Fun Pass, which confirms that the data required is complete. This saves you one of the lines. Large bags must be left with the baggage handlers on the pier (a tip of USD 1.00 per bag is recommended). They arrived two hours later at the cabin, but this could take longer. TIP: Identify each of your bags with at least two baggage tags provided by the cruise line giving your name, sailing date and cabin number. Have some clothing in your carry-on, maybe including bathing suits, to get through the first hours on the ship.
For my taste the ship is decorated a little too colourful. Some of the paintings are really bad and golden plastic eagles are looking at you all the time. This is not American style, this is weird. I also wondered, why the theatre was decorated like a medieval castle with armoured knights standing around. But the cabin and most of the public places are really nice, still colourful, but with some more taste.
On our last cruise we had a balcony that we never used, so this time we booked the cheapest outside cabin (with two portholes). Besides the fact that you can check the weather before getting out of your cabin, these state rooms are much larger than the inside ones (220 sq.ft instead of 185 sq.ft.). This does not seem like much difference, but believe me, it is. Be aware that the normal balcony cabins also have 185 sq.ft. only (plus 35 sq.ft. balcony). Our room also was much bigger than the ones we had on other ships. There was enough space and enough hangers for all clothes (and we always take a lot of clothes). 4 bags did nicely fit under the king size bed. Ladies will enjoy the large make-up mirror with good lighting. A hair dryer and 2 bath robes are also provided. The safe is free of charge and functions with any card with magnetic strip. The bath room had space for my comb, tooth brush and deo stick. Plus around 100 bottles, things and tubes that my wife travels with. Razors, soap, body lotion and other stuff are provided in a basket. If you need more, your cabin attendant will be happy to deliver. The shower is not what you are used to, but I had no problem showering my 250 pounds. I was surprised to have good Dove shampoo available (not the oil stripping type that you get even in good hotels) and shower gel. TIP: Bring another card with magnetic strip so that you do not have to use a credit card for opening and closing the safe.
Breakfast is either served in the Washington Dining Room with limited choice (good are salmon and bagel) and under-average service or in Rosie's self-service Restaurant, which we used most of the time. A wide variety of breakfast fare is offered, even made-to-order omelettes. Quality is mostly good. Should you care for real coffee, you can get that at the Espresso Bar in Rosie's or the Java Cafe: Double Espresso or tall Cappuccino at USD 2.00 each. For lunch we always used Rosie's including Deli, Fish & Chips, Grille and Oriental. I doubt that anyone would stay hungry there with so many choices of different foods. Quality is mostly good. Even the hot dogs are something special. Dinner we always had on our reserved table in the Washington Dining Room Upper Level. Service at dinner is much better than at breakfast. The quality of the food is always between good and excellent (maybe except for the sirloin steak that was not really medium, but the filet mignon was perfect). Most of the seafood is excellent and getting a second serving of lobster is no problem (where else do you get such a service for free). Dinner really is a high light of this cruise. As a teaser before dinner you can get some sushi at Togo Sushi. One more thing: Eating good pizza at 0430am is a hit. Try it. TIP: Try to get the second sitting for dinner (2030hrs in Lincoln or preferably 2000hrs in Washington Dining Room). The first sitting may be okay for parents with kids, but is much too early for my taste. You have lots of choices to bridge the hunger gap until 8pm. If you are planned for the Lincoln Room Upper Level, try to change to any other location, as this level is used by lots of people as a walk-through from the theatre to the back part of the ship.
Many critics complain that the drinks on cruises are too expensive. Considering the fact that you have nowhere else to go, cruise lines really could ask for much higher prices than they actually do. Some examples: Daily cocktail special USD 3.50, specialty cocktails like Margarita USD 4.25, frozen cocktails like Pina Colada or Miami Vice USD 4.95, most scotches, bourbons, vodkas, rums and other stuff USD 4.50, 16oz beers USD 4.50, 750ml Foster's Lager USD 5.95 (all drinks plus 15% tip). At dinner you can get a decent bottle of wine (not the Californian stuff from 2 litre bottles, but a wide choice of good US, French, German, Australian and other wines) from USD 19.00 to USD 30.00 (also plus 15% tip). Compared to what I am used to in the USA and other countries I believe the prices for the drinks are fair, compared to South Beach or the Grove they are cheap. Many cruise critics have also voiced complaints that the drinks are watered down. I don't drink liquor or cocktails, but have seen many drinks being prepared for others, also for guests that were not sitting at the bar and watching. Most of the time the bar keepers added a little extra. You will most probably exact measures at the lobby bar and the most extra at the casino bar. Also my white wine glass was a little fuller there. When you plan to drink more than 3 cans of soft drinks or club soda per day, it would make sense to buy a Fountain Card at USD 5.50 for adults (plus 15%). In Rosie's you have water, ice tea and other drinks free of charge most of the day. TIP: If you want to buy a Fountain Card and a souvenir cup and can get by with the free drinks at Rosie's for some hours, wait until 1 hour after the ship has left Miami. Before that 7% Miami state tax is added to all bills.
The shows at the theatre are good, better than on most ships. The Carnival cast: Good dancers, good choreographer, good male singers (no, I'm not gay or chauvinistic, but the lady singer must have some other qualities than singing and should use her mouth for talking only). Do not expect a 100 Million Dollar Las Vegas show, as you also will not have to pay a 140 Dollar entrance fee. Other shows at the theatre: Two very good Motown singers, especially Marcus Anthony, who most probably was called that before Marc Anthony hit the stage as Menudo kid. The two comedians were okay, but making too many jokes about being hit by their mothers when they were kids. Lindy Hop Piano Bar: Ron is a great entertainer, especially after midnight when his songs get so seedy that the doors must be closed. Very unfortunate for Carnival that he will leave for Las Vegas in December. Be aware not smoke free as other critics said very smoky. Paris Hot: Good decoration dedicated to Josephine Baker. Average band with limited repertoire playing 50s to 90s for dancing. Eagles Lounge: Can't say much about that as been there only once. Average big band??? One Small Step Disco: Very good dEcor, lots of monitors, good overall experience. Good DJ with sometimes erratic changes between Latin, Reggaeton, Motown, House, Techno and other music. (Yes, even we old guys enjoy such music, as long as we don't have the feeling to qualify as grand parents of the other dancers). Dancing during heavy seas adds a lot of fun and leg muscles. Bronx Bar Sports bar: several large screen TVs to watch the games. Winston's Cigar Lounge: Good jazz, but heavy with smoke. Casino: Well, it's a casino. Sorry, can't tell if the slots are tight never used them. The odds at other casino stuff can only be the same as in Vegas. I nearly forgot, but there is also nice classical music in the lobby bar.
The Fitness Center is excellent with a good variety of machines to work out.
Shopping: The usual cruise stuff, mostly overpriced. Beware the cheap watches are cheap - what did you expect?
Visiting ports - shore excursions: We were a bit unlucky with the weather. As we no longer snorkel or swim with walruses (or whatever marine fauna is around), the only excursion we planned was to the Mayan ruins near Belize. It was raining so hard that we skipped even that, hoping to have better conditions to visit the ruins near Costa Maya. But there we couldn't even anchor due to strong winds and currents. So the only things we saw during our shore excursions was the same souvenirs at similar souvenir shops at the different ports. Last year in Grenada I bought a T-Shirt saying Different Island, Same Stuff. This is true also in the Western Caribbean.
Besides the fact that you have to search for your bags in a huge warehouse and stand in a slow moving line for immigration, all went okay. TIP: Travel with only one bag per person and take this off the ship yourself. For debarkation there is no size limit as for embarkation. You will be allowed to leave much earlier when lines are not that long already. If you do need to let the baggage handlers take your bags off the ship, take a porter from the warehouse. Somehow they always find a way to save you lots of time by jumping the queues.
Overall it was a very good week of vacation. We can highly recommend to cruise with the Carnival Valor.
One last note: For this 7-day cruise we paid USD 1198 for the two of us, less than USD 86 per person per day. That much vacation value you only get on cruises.
Priscilla and Holger