My wife, 10-year-old daughter and I sailed on the Carnival Valor out of San Juan on Jan. 19. This was my 10th cruise overall (my wife’s ninth and daughter’s third) and third on Carnival, but second on the line in the last 13 months. We sailed on the Dream in December of 2012 out of Port Canaveral to Cozumel, Belize City, Roatan and Costa Maya.
I had read a lot of views before we left – some very positive and some negative – but we found the Valor to be a fantastic vessel with a warm and friendly crew. From my research and talking with members of the crew, the Valor is ranked No. 2 in customer service within the Carnival fleet and I now understand why. We had ZERO complaints about the crew or service. My daughter was in tears when we left the ship on Jan. 26. She absolutely loved the crew and made friends with the wait staff and folks in the shops, especially the jewelry shop.
After the sailing, I only have two minor complaints, which I will get to later in the review, and they don’t have anything to do with the service, and it certainly wouldn’t prevent me from sailing another Carnival vessel.
In fact, Carnival has exceeded my expectations. When we sailed the Dream in 2012, I was skeptical, but have come to enjoy the service, food and accommodations.
The Valor was very similar to the Dream in its design minus the 2.0 upgrades. The Valor doesn’t have Guy’s Burgers (Dream doesn’t either) nor does it have the Rum and Tequila bars by the pool. It also only has one waterslide compared to two.
Otherwise, the setup is similar. MDR on Decks 3 and 4 aft, the showroom on Decks 3-5 Forward and the Punchliner Comedy Club is on Deck 5 aft. The pools are on Deck 9 (adult pool is aft). The Serenity area is on Deck 11 Aft. There were two pools in the center of the ship, although one was up higher. There are also plenty of hot tubs in each area. The Serenity hot tubs are on Deck 12 forward.
The Casino is on Deck 5 Mid, with the shops a little more forward. The photo shop is on Deck 4 Fwd and the Guest Services desk is just below on Deck 3.
Another cool feature, at least for me, is the Paris Hot Lounge (Deck 5 Aft) allowed cigar smoking. The lounge is indoors, so you don’t have to fight the wind when enjoying a stogie. You can also smoke cigars on your balcony. On the Dream, the designated public cigar lounge was outside in a covered area on Deck 5 Mid.
Valor scores major points by having an indoor public cigar/smoking lounge. You can also purchase cigars here (non-Cubans), but I brought my own stash, plus picked up a few Cubans in St. Kitts.
One other issue that I read a lot about before departing was the difficulty some guest had in finding the hand sanitizers. Really? They were located in every public area, including the entrance to the MDR. What’s appalling is a lot of guest ignore them completely. Given what happened to the Explorer of the Seas, I would think every passenger would seek out a hand sanitizer before eating and/or drinking. It only takes a few seconds and for the sake of the passengers and crew should be utilized.
Perhaps an announcement could be made by the cruise director along with all the hawking of bingo, casino tournaments and photos. Another spot for this could be the muster drill before departing. Carnival could also inform passengers on the Fun Times.
Nobody wants to come down with the Norovirus or other disease while on vacation.
Now on to the details.
Because of the late sailing out of San Juan – the ship departs at 10 p.m. – we decided to fly from Newark to San Juan on the day of departure. We normally fly down the night before, but figured we would chance it this time. Luckily, the weather in Newark was nice and we left and landed on time. One couple in our Roll Call had their flight canceled from Nova Scotia and they were hoping to catch the ship in St. Thomas, the first port of call.
The only rough part of the day was dealing with the traffic from the airport to the port due to the San Sebastian Festival. What normally takes 15 minutes took close to an hour, but we got to the ship by 2:30 p.m.
The San Juan airport is quite nice. Our luggage arrived quickly off the conveyor belt and we were on a tax within minutes. The fare is $19, plus $1 for each piece of luggage and a $2 fuel charge. It cost us $26, but I gave our driver a generous tip for dealing with the L.A.-freeway type traffic.
Once we got to the port, embarkation was a breeze. We purchased the Faster to the Fun excursion ($49.95 per cabin) and it took no more than 20 minutes for us to get our Sail and Sign cards. We packed one suitcase with our wine and soft drinks, so we didn’t need to make a stop for our water/soda/Gatorade.
When we went through security, they tagged the bag for inspection prior to entering the ship. You are allowed to bring one bottle of wine per eligible adult. While they did want to look at my wine, they never thoroughly looked at the other contents. I talked with people who were able to get beer through their checked luggage.
I did smuggle some scotch and tequila in my checked luggage without the use of rum rummers. You can email me at email@example.com for more information. All of it arrived in our stateroom without any problems.
Once onboard, the ship we went to our stateroom on Deck 8 (Verandah) aft. Everything was made up, including the sofa bed for our daughter. We were in room 8422, which is just below Rosie’s Restaurant (buffet), but we didn’t hear much noise. There was the occasional movement of chairs. Our balcony was small, but it had a table and two chairs. We had an aft balcony on the Dream and it had two lounge chairs as well as two regular chairs.
Since our luggage had yet to arrive, we went and grabbed a quick bite to eat in the buffet. We then ventured to the pool (Deck 9 Mid) to purchase the Bottomless Bubbles (soda) package. It wound up being around $89 for the week for my daughter and wife. We only purchased two and shared. There was a small desk set up near the bar. You can also purchase a souvenir cup for $4.95.
We are not huge alcohol drinkers so we didn’t get the Cheers package or the wine package. Wine packages started at $114 for five bottles. For the week, I think I bought six or seven drinks at the bar. I mostly drank soda, which was from our cards or what we brought onboard.
We also signed our daughter up at Camp Carnival. She used the services a few times during the week and like it. Keep in mind, Carnival does charge for Camp Carnival after 10 p.m. She went to a couple Night Owls parties, which cost us just under $15.
By the time we returned to the room, our luggage had arrived. We unpacked and stored everything. There was plenty of closet space for all of our belongings and the bathroom also had ample room for our stuff.
My only complaint about the stateroom was the lack of ESPN on the television. You get all three networks from Miami, CNN, CNN Espanol, TNT, Boomerang and Cartoon Network, but no ESPN. ESPN can be found at various bars around the ship and in the workout room. One crew member told me it’s because ESPN comes from a different satellite. My theory is Carnival doesn’t want people watching ESPN in their room. Makes more sense to get passengers to a bar and buy drinks while watching their favorite sporting event. But I did get to see the Arizona-Colorado college basketball game on Thursday night in the Bronx Sports Bar.
We also had an issue with our remote control. I politely found our room steward Sudama and he took care of it within 5 minutes.
Again, if you treat the crew with respect and courtesy, they will do the same. If you confront them and yell and scream, they are likely not going to be as helpful.
We also didn’t have an ice bucket and Sudama quickly took care of it for us. We wrote him a nice note that we wanted ice each morning and evening and it was there the entire cruise. We also moved the contents from the refrigerator to make room for our sodas/water/Gatorade and white wine. We told Sudama and he was fine with it. We put back all the mini-bar contents on debarkation day.
Because there was open seating in the MDR the first night, we booked the Steakhouse for the first night. If you eat there on embarkation day, you also get a free bottle of red or white wine. The cost is $35 pp and it is well worth it. My daughter and I had the surf n turf and my wife had a ribeye. Everything was delicious and the service is impeccable.
We chose Late Seating for the rest of our meals. We enjoy having the same wait staff serve us for the whole cruise. They get to know you and by the second night, they knew all of our names and knew that my daughter wanted an orange soda and my wife wanted a coke (actually I took her coke) and she had my ice tea. Just had to use her card for the sodas.
We also heard a lot about cutbacks in the dining room, but I certainly didn’t see any. Tablecloths were on all the tables and the menus provided plenty of choices. I’m a very picky eater and I found something to my liking every night.
Ahmad was our head waiter, Misho our waiter and Kristina our assistant waiter. They were unbelievably fantastic and we loved chatting with them. Ahmad is from Indonesia, Misho from Macedonia and Kristina from Hungary. The food was terrific. And on formal night, I ordered two helpings of lobster/shrimp. Ahmed was also kind enough to bring me another serving of Oysters Rockefeller.
And one night when two of my mussels failed to open properly, Misho went to the kitchen and brought me a plate of mussels.
The menus do change every night, but you can always find a pasta and vegetarian dish. They also have items they serve everyday such as shrimp cocktail, Caesar salad, salmon, flat iron steak and hamburgers.
My favorites were the lobster, prime rib and seafood pasta.
Of course, there’s the Warm Chocolate Melting Cake each night on the dessert menu. You can’t go wrong with that Carnival staple. They also have ice cream and sherbet every night as well.
My only complaint about the MDR is Carnival doesn’t adhere to its stated dress code. On casual night (all but Tuesday and Thursday) they ask guests not to wear flip-flops, sleeveless t-shirts and cut-off shorts. Yet I saw plenty of guests doing so. Even t-shirts really shouldn’t be worn in the MDR. I also saw guests wearing baseball hats and ski-like hats. C’mon people, show some etiquette.
Now this may sound snobbish, but to me, going to the MDR for dinner is an experience. You want to be pampered by the staff and enjoy a good mail. If you want to dress like you’re still at the beach, then go to the buffet.
On formal night, some guest continued to dress as if it were casual dining. Does it really take a lot to put on a dress shirt and tie for an hour or so?
My beef is Carnival doesn’t enforce the dress code. They just let people walk right in. And it’s all printed on the Fun Times.
I did pack my tux for the first formal night. I own one, so I figure I might as well get some use out of it. We also got some nice family portraits taken. Pictures on the ship remain pricey (too pricey if you ask me), but we bought three we really liked. An 8x10 will set you back $21.99.
As for the ports, we visited St. Thomas, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and St. Maarten with one sea day. I kind of liked having one sea day, although my wife would have preferred at least two.
I booked all of our excursions privately. We did not have an excursion for St. Kitts, one of two islands I had never visited.
In St. Thomas, we booked a waverunner/snorkel adventure through stthomasexcurions.com. We took a 15-minute taxi from the port to Coki Beach. Be prepared to pay $9 pp each way. Coki Beach was very nice. Since we had an hour before our scheduled excursion, we purchased a pair of beach chairs for $5 apiece and enjoyed the beautiful sand and water. We also paid $5 for a locker.
The waverunner experience was fantastic. Got a nice view of St. Johns and Jost Van Dyke. We snorkeled just off the coast of a private island and then had a nice ride back to the beach. The whole 90-minute excursion cost around $220 for 3 people. My daughter didn’t like the waverunners too much, but I had a blast.
When we returned, we did some shopping and I found Al Cohen’s Liquor Store, where I bought a 6-pack of Pepsi for $3.99. The ship will charge you $2 per can. We also got some water as well. Total bill came to less than $10.
The only sea day is Tuesday, which is when we had our Cruise Critic Meet N Greet. It was nice putting the faces to all the posts in our Roll Call. We met at 10:30 at the aft pool bar.
In Barbados, we booked a beach experience at the Hilton. It was around $130 for three people, which included lunch. I also rented a waverunner here for $65 (30 minutes). The beach was beautiful, but it was a windy day and the waves were a little rougher than normal. We spent more time relaxing around the pool. The last time we visited Barbados, we went to the Boatyard, which features very calm waters. The ocean was like a bathtub. I think we would do The Boatyard again. The Hilton, while very nice and away from some of the hustle and bustle, just didn’t have the same calm waters. A little more exposed to the wind and Atlantic Ocean here.
St. Lucia was our third stop and we booked a zip lining tour with Tree Tops Adventures. It was $177 for the three of us and well worth it. We zipped in St. Lucia six years ago, but the adventure area was closer to the ship and didn’t feature as many lines.
Tree Tops met us on the pier at 8:30 for a 30-minute drive across the island to the Atlantic Ocean side. Along the way, we saw plenty of banana plantations as the fruit is one of the island’s main exports. We then went up into the rainforest. Shedy and Winny were our guides and they were great. The zip line course features 12 lines, some very long and fast. Our daughter, who was skeptical and scared at first, wound up loving it, and quickly asked when we could do it again.
There is some strenuous walking to reach some of the platforms, but it turned out to be a nice workout. We were back in town by lunch and did some shopping. Bought some water/sodas.
Then it was off to St. Kitts, where we walked outside the shopping area to hail a cab. We met Elvis, who took us to Cockashell Beach and the Carambol Beach Club. It was very nice and modern. We spent $30 for two chairs and an umbrella, but compared to the other beach places in the area, it was money well spent. The chairs were very nice and the beach was really nice. Drinks were more expensive, so I walked down to another restaurant/bar (about a 5-minute walk) and got two beers for $4.
Elvis picked us up at 3 p.m. for the return drive to the ship, where we did some shopping in port. Bought a bottle of Glenmorangie scotch and five Cuban cigars.
In St. Maarten, we booked through stmaartenexcursions.com. We had a three-island snorkel tour, and we also paid for transportation. It’s about a 20-minute ride from the port to the Oyster Bay Beach Club.
We met our captain Francois and his first mate, Eon. Francois was born in France and Eon is Dutch and a native of St. Maarten, which is split. The Dutch side is independent from Holland, while the French side remains a part of France.
The ride to the first snorkel side was a little rough, but fun. We went to an uninhabited island to see sea turtles. We saw a couple of big ones. We also had some brief down time to enjoy the island, which is protected.
Then it was off to a coral reef and finally Pinal Island, where we enjoyed a beautiful beach and lunch. My wife and daughter loved this excursion. There were only 12 of us on board and we enjoyed chatting with passengers and both Francois and Eon. I would highly recommend this tour if you like snorkeling.
We loved St. Maarten and hope to return again. One Canadian was with his son and they had come to St. Maarten on a cruise and loved it so much that they booked a week’s vacation on the island.
As for the ship’s entertainment, we went to several shows in both the main theatre and Punchliner club. The best comic was Happy Cole, who was an African-American from Tampa. He was with us until Barbados. I saw two of his Adult-only shows and he was fantastic.
Scotty K and Jason Endors, who joined the ship for the final two nights, were just OK.
The magician, Rand Woodbury was also very good as was the juggler/comedian Dana Tison. I also saw the Welcome Show on the second night, which featured the dancers and first two comedians.
Felipe served as our cruise director. He is from Brazil and as usual, made plenty of announcements during the day. He was fine, but wasn’t as good or charming as Jamie on the Dream. She, by far, was the best cruise director I have seen on any cruise ship.
I also did sports trivia each day at 5:30 p.m. in the Bronx Sports Bar (Deck 5 Fwd). I won a pair of medals. They don’t give out the Ship on a Stick anymore. Or at least on the Valor, they gave out medals. It was a lot of fun. They have other trivia games throughout the day as well.
We didn’t play Bingo and I didn’t spend much time in the Casino. I won $20 the only time I sat down at a slot machine. My wife lost around $125. You can also rent pool tables for $3 per half hour. You rent the sticks and balls at the Bronx Sports Bar.
In terms of chair hogs, I didn’t notice them. We didn’t have trouble finding a deck chair. The main pool is laid out like an amphitheater and there are plenty of chairs.
For breakfast, we often ate in the MDR (Washington) on Deck 3. I liked being able to order salmon and bagels every day. On the sea day, they have a brunch from 8:30 to 2 p.m. and I ordered Steak and Eggs. Yummy! My wife had huevos rancheros and our daughter ordered pancakes with chocolate chip syrup.
As a VIFP member, we also got a drink coupon for a free drink at either breakfast or brunch. We used those tickets at the brunch.
For lunch, you could get food at the buffet or pizza, deli or burrito bar. They also had a grill set up by the pool where you could get hamburgers and hot dogs.
Debarkation was also a breeze. Since we purchased FTTF, we had Zone 1 tags. We put our luggage out the night before and by 7:45 we were off the ship. It took only minutes to clear customs and walk out to get a cab.
With a late-afternoon flight, we went to Barrachinas in Old San Juan, where they will store your luggage for free (just provide a tip). There was someone there at 8:30 even though the restaurant/bar didn’t start serving until 11. We walked around Old San Juan and did some shopping. I found a cigar lounge (KEK), where I tried a Puerto Rican cigar.
Barrachinas is also the home of the original pina colada. Lunch and drinks ran us about $63.
We then hailed a cab at 2:30 to the airport and came home. It was tough leaving San Juan and the 80-plus degree temps and arriving home to temps in the low 20s.
Overall, we had a fabulous cruise and would not hesitate to sail on the Valor again.
Feel free to send me any of your questions.