I (37) sailed on the Carnival Valor from January 12-19, 2014 with my husband (32) and another couple (42/47). This was our fifth Carnival cruise (yay Gold!) and we only cruise Carnival. Overall, we loved the cruise, but it differed from our 'average' Carnival experience in two key ways.
First, there are five ports, so you have only one full sea day. This results in a four straight days in port. While very exciting and lots of fun, it doesn't provide any scheduled 'down-time' for sleeping-in, lounging around doing nothing, or all in all just being a lazy slob - something I do enjoy on a full week of not cooking or cleaning indeed!!
Second, the ship leaves port at 10p, which results in a 9:20p muster (joy), and no assigned seating with your assigned waiter in the dining room for dinner. This occurs because there are 1-200 folks who actually embark/disembark in Barbados and San Juan is merely one of their ports. Weird.
Of lesser importance: Lido is deck 9, not deck 10. Weird.
There is a strange deck-chair layout by the big-screen - it's tiered. It takes up a ton of otherwise usable space, and renders it difficult to hold larger events like the Mexican buffet or the hairy chest competition.
It's awful trying to find the entrance to the dining rooms! You cannot walk around a promenade on decks 3 or 4 AND you cannot walk from the atrium to the back on deck 3, so to get to the breakfast dining room entrance on deck 3 aft, you have to go to deck 5 aft and go down two sets of stairs, or walk through a strange corridor on deck 4 with, of all things, a conference room. I still hadn't memorized it by day 7; I got lost trying to get breakfast...
The location of certain foodstuffs is weird... the burrito bar is in a high-traffic hallway and, there is no beverage dispensary in the main pool area. Finding strawberry frozen yogurt or ice cream was like a treasure hunt; It was rarely found.
We were in 7201, which is an interior obstructed view cabin. The bridge was above us, with rooms on all other sides; the room did not 'connect' with an adjoining room. It was very quiet at all times. Our friends had the neighboring 7203 and it was identical. Using this room sort-of provided us with a private balcony; It's a public balcony of course, but barely anyone uses it and it's right there. We made frequent use of this space with our friends all by ourselves right at the front of the ship. We're big fans of deck 7 in general as there are rooms above and below, the stewards are always wonderful as deck 7 has the biggest bestest suites on them (why would Carnival assign 'poor' or new stewards to those rooms, right??), and the deck is reasonably close to the decks you visit most often - 9/10 and 5. Our room was clean, but these rooms are a tad smaller than a 'standard' interior, rendering one of the three wardrobe closets unsuitable for hangers as the cabinet wasn't deep enough. I didn't complain, but the A/C didn't seem all that cold and the 'exhaust' fan in the bathroom didn't seem to have a lot of power either. Good rooms; would book again.
Generally an American theme, though the theatre is Ivanhoe, with knights, and there is a Winston Churchill bar. I didn't find it over-the-top like some of Carnival's ships. It seemed tasteful enough to me. Lots of eagles though.
On all cruises, we always do sit-down meals when offered and when our schedule allows. The food is superior, and we enjoy feeling pampered. As always, the sit-down meals were wonderful and the service was excellent. We barely used the buffets since we were in port five of seven days, but when we did, the food was just fine and the lines were short. There is no pasta bar on this ship, but they do have 'Fish N' Chips,' which serves primarily fish related items including - tada! fish and chips and this is located 'over' the buffet just like on the Dream. My personal favorite buffet food item - the breaded chicken tenders and honey mustard sauce, was available in the 'Off the Grill' buffet. It was not available on the Carnival Dream; This is one of my super-picky things:) The Carnival dinner menu hasn't changed compared with any ship I've been on since my first cruise in January 2011.
My husband enjoys tormenting the dinner wait staff by ordering chocolate melting cake with a side of peanut butter. First of all, it's fantastically decadent and I don't know why this isn't a standard side offering. But the real fun is watching the waiter try to figure out what you're asking for. We mentioned this to a group at a bar, so they tried it. Their water brought a peanut butter and jelly sandwich! Hah! Ours figured it out quickly and it was a nightly staple. I highly recommend trying it.
Oh yes, we did try the steakhouse for the first time on any ship, so I can't compare this one with any other ships, but it was fantastic. We signed up the first night and got a free bottle of decent wine. The place was half empty. Since there isn't a 'normal' sit-down meal on the first night of this cruise, it made sense to try it this night. All things are 'plus-1' on the quality scale, and there are different options including brioche for bread and a chocolate sampler for dessert. Even the pepper mill was different. I'd do this again on the first night, assuming I can get the bottle of wine for free again;
VERY mixed. Lots of nationalities and generally younger than the typical Florida embarkation cruises. Due to the date of the cruise, there were few children (yes!).
Relaxed. All around. The photo folks are not pushy at all, and all of the ports of call folks - security etc, are pretty laid back. Being an east-coaster, it initially comes off as lazy, but you quickly learn it's just a low-stress way of life.
Seven. Two in serenity way up top at the front of the ship, two in the party pool area, one under the water slide, and two on the back deck under a retractable roof. The water was decently hot, unlike the Dream's port/starboard 'wing' tubs. They were often all full, but the one under the water slide seemed to be the least popular.
There are two song-and-dance numbers, my favorite events, both on formal nights. One was 80's, the other was just popular music styles under the guise of a trip through various twenty-something dance clubs over the past century. Both of the lead singers - male and female, were by far the best singers I'd had on any Carnival cruise - they were truly superb. I'd seen the 80's show on the Fascination in Jan/Feb 2011, but this was a completely different show. We also had a magician, which I skipped, and the juggler Dana Tison.
About Dana... Somehow, this is the third cruise I've been on with him on it. Huh? I've done different ships and different itineraries every time yet on each of my seven-day cruises, he's been a performer. Same show. Every. Time. Oh he's fun and all, but jeesh - my luck eh?
The last night had the Legends show. Meh. The rest was unmet potential. This is an area where I believe Carnival needs improvement, but I may be in the minority here. I much prefer a show to cruise guests singing or playing family games. Magicians, hypnotists and jugglers are just fine, but trivia shows and talent contests? Pass.
All have proper docks with no tendering. All have very long port times, which allows for a full excursion with plenty of time to pick up souvenirs. The islands in general have a similar feel to them, which is they primarily exist, today that is, to serve cruise guests. They are small islands with nice beaches and wonderful views. The same cruise terminal shops are in every port, and some shops have multiple locations in the same port.
I prefer seeing beautiful things to shopping, so my favorite island was St. Lucia and the wonderful Pitons. We did a land and sea tour, which allowed us to see all of the island, including swimming/snorkeling between the Pitons. Gorgeous. St. Kitts was my second favorite. You will have a hard time finding a more spectacular view than from atop Fort Brimstone. You *must* make time to get up there, but skip the gift shop; it's sad.
St. Thomas has a few nice things to see; Maagen's bay is a fantastic beach and I wouldn't mind spending a day there. (There's a bar with STRONG/inexpensive drinks and typical bar food). I found the shopping portion of the day tedious and awful. There are endless diamond shops, and the locals have some very clever ways of getting you into their shops. More than once we had what looked like a typical cruise ship tourist asking us for information, only to have them switch it up quickly to indicate we should see their shop. Sketchy. There wasn't much local craft items downtown, which is what I prefer to buy while on vacation. I wouldn't bother with shopping downtown ever again. Though, I will say, there was an island lady in the local hut-style vendor area selling home made burgers and local beer which,while expensive, was fantastic. The rest of the vendors were selling primarily the same Chinese-esque made stuff.
We did a catamaran in Barbados. Swam with turtles, ate good food, drank free rum punch all day. Didn't see the island however, the catamaran and the snorkeling were wonderful.
St. Maarten. Well, it was the last day and the fourth port in a row. I was tired and I was a bit cranky. That will happen after running around all day for three days. Not a bad thing but, you know. The sea day could have been scheduled more centrally, yes? There is no grand visual scenery like in St. Lucia and St. Kitts, and the island is largely developed. It's fun to see the two different parts of the island: French and Dutch. There is a DISTINCT difference. We ate at a French bakery shop; had a panini and eclaire - wonderful! The Dutch side is, in my opinion, a party-palace. We did the airplanes at Maho beach - it's worth doing, but not worth staying more than 30 minutes. Very crowded and lots of drunk screaming party-types. Like I said, I was getting cranky. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if it were earlier in the trip.
All in all, a beautiful itinerary. You can beach on all five ports if you want. Maagen's Bay in St. Thomas was the best, in my opinion, though there were no truly awful beaches.
Old San Juan:
We came in two days early to spend a lot of time in Old San Juan, and it just may have been the best idea we've ever had. What a beautiful city! Unlike the five ports, OSJ survives on its own and we cruisers are mere visitors to their world. Beautiful buildings, fantastic coffee and dining, great shopping, friendly people, and everything is in walking distance. The two forts are must see, but if you have to choose one, choose El Morro - it has the better view. We stayed at one of the many small 'boutique' hotels in the middle of it all. Beware you 4 and 5 star hotel lovers; these they are not. And as a bonus, they're all expensive. Our elevator didn't work, the walls might as well have not existed (we heard everything),and the free coffee was truly horrible. Bring earplugs. Our friends stayed at a different hotel of the same type and they had similar issues. I didn't care as the location was perfect, but, if you want a typical 'American' hotel, pony up the big bucks and hit the Sheraton.
We got on by 1p. The rooms were ready; we waited in line about 20 minutes. Luggage was in our room by 4p.
With NO announcement, self disembarkers can leave at 7a. They don't start paging until 8a. Deck 7 was paged for the 'regular' non self disembarkation around 9a. We had a nice, non-rushed sit-down breakfast (open from 6a-8a) and relaxed on our 'private balcony' until we were paged.
I know Carnival ditched the steel drums but I will write them every cruise I do to complain until I die or they come back. This ship had DJs everywhere. Meh. Too loud for a relaxing vacation. Thankfully you can't really hear it in Serenity. There was the occasional solo performer, and there was a band in the casino (odd) which was by far the best music on the ship; shows notwithstanding. But steel drums + Caribbean = no brainer.
-Game prize was a medallion, not a ship-on-a-stick
-Theatre did not fill on show nights
-EVERY announcement, including the muster, is repeated in English and Spanish
-The news is played on the big screen at 7a. I would recommend avoiding this at all costs, unless you don't mind hearing about the prior 24 hours of murders and child abuse as you stroll to get your morning coffee while on your week long tropical island vacation
-It's hot, humid and very sunny, even in January. Bring lots and lots of high-SPF water/sweatproof sunblock. This is not the eastern Caribbean folks...
So, to summarize, if you want a casual culture with beautiful things to see and you like being busy nearly every second, this is your cruise. If you want to lay around all day, you can do that too, but you may feel guilty about missing the Pitons or Fort Brimstone!
I would do this itinerary and ship again without question, and I don't have the same opinion of my prior cruises.