This was our 4th cruise and after a good experience on our last Carnival cruise, we had high hopes. Although it was a good cruise, there were some surprises!
Our first Carnival cruise had a higher percentage of young people (3 day weekend cruise) while this full week cruise had many more older people. There was only a handful of children on board, which also gave the cruise a different element.
We stayed at the Airport Embassy Suites based on a cruise critic review. It was a good choice. They have a great managers cocktail hour where the rum punch was double fisted at each order and the snacks were abundant (nachos, popcorn etc.). The hotel also has a small casino and an Outback restaurant as well as the hotel restaurant. We ate at the hotel restaurant right outside the bar. The food was good - nothing to write home about, but not just an average meal.
Be aware that the room taxes in San Juan are excessive. We booked at $219 a night and ended up paying $270 because of the suite fee and room taxes.
The next morning we took a 20 minute taxi ride to the pier. A porter picked up our luggage at the curb and we the embarkment process was pretty easy and painless. They scan your bags and didn't open them at all to check our alcohol or beverages..
We headed up to the 9th floor pool area and Rosies Restaurant Buffet. There is a huge tv that plays all day, gives you headline news and a florida station in the morning, some sitcoms during the day and best of all, late night movies. We were there for Superbowl, so it was great for that (until it started raining!)
When facing the TV screen, be aware that the left side of the ship is a smoking area. Since we were with a friend that smoked, we sat there too often. And if I never smell another cigar for the rest of my life, I will be happy! We could have moved and sometimes did, so I can't complain.
On the first day, be sure to walk past the busy first buffet. The buffets are repeated a few more times as you had to the end of the ship. So mornings, I would always go to the back buffet, where the food wasn't picked over and there was no wait for eggs. There is only lemonaide, water and ice tea to drink other then coffee unless you bought a beverage package (which we didn't). Mornings there are two types of juices.
We eat organic and whole grain at home, so this was a tough buffet. I ate more white flour products in the past week then I had in the last year! Not saying I didn't enjoy a white bagel or english muffin, but just not what I was used to eating anymore. There are also few good "green" options. Yes, there was a salad bar (iceburg lettuce) and occasionally some mixed lettuce on certain days...but the produce seemed to have lost its energy...it wasn't bad, just not fresh. They had a great variety of "salads" made with mayo if you like that.
There was a great assortment of meats, although the cold cuts were not Boars Head brand...I didn't touch these, so I have no idea if they were any good.
Overall, the quality of the buffet will seem wonderful to those that eat this kind of food on a regular basis. For me, I prefer wholewheat, fresh produce and less proccessed foods, so I struggled a bit here.
There is pizza all night..which is on an extremely thin crust and is quite good. The process for ordering and serving seems a bit backwards and there is always a wait.
The burgers were excellent and this is from someone who doesn't eat a lot of red meat! But I ate a half a hamburger and thoroughly enjoyed it! The Mongolian wok was another nice option. Different days, there were different "bars" open like a burrito bar and a grilled sandwhich bar. The ice cream machines are always open and I found myself dipping too often into a softserve cone. I think I just liked making the swirl on top! LOL
We ate in the LIncoln dining room during the early meal and although we had anytime dining, we alwyas went back to Marcelo's section. Ask for him. A remarkable man, who loves his job and is a wealth of information about what to order and where to go the next day. We enjoyed his company and his team as well. After the first day, they know your name and what you like.
We at in the Washington dining room 3 times and never got a meal we were happy with,so we went back to the buffet. Eggs benedict were broiled....tasted ok...but not what I was expecting. Nothing about breakfast including the menu really was spectacular. Even the presentation was strange with the use of little serving dishes on the plate. We missed Marcelo on these mornings, as the service wasn't as good as it was at dinner.
We did eat at Scarletts Steakhouse on Wednesday night. We had orginially planned to do it during the day at sea, but when we saw there was steak and lobster on the menu in the dining room, we decided to to to the steakhouse the next day. DON'T MISS THE STEAKHOUSE. This was the best meal of the trip and by far the best steak I have ever had (I eat red meat only on occasion and am very picky about it). I cannot say enough good things about this meal. The staff, presentation, execution of the meal and the meal itself was beyond my expectations.) Two of us had primerib and one had lobster..no complaints and the primerib melted in your mouth. Beware of the cheesecake. It is a 14oz piece of cheesecake that we chose to take back to the room...we ate it for two days. We brought a bottle of wine and paid the $14 corkage fee. Ask for Ben Benn...she was a fabulous waiter.
Our room was 8240 - GREAT location. One floor below the buffet and pools. The only thing I would try next time is to do the odd side in the same location. We always seemed to be on dock side and got the morning noise. We had a balcony with 2 chairs and a small table. Very tight, but we used it daily and enjoyed it tremendously. Harvey was our room steward and he worked hard to keep us stocked in ice and towels.
There was good entertainment on the ship. The singers could be found rotating from the casino bar to the lobby and other small bars. I found myself singing songs I hadn't heard in years! The comedian shows ranged from great to raunchy. The stage show was hokey but fun - show tunes from the 80s. The final night they did an American Idol kind of show where guests got to showcase their talent. THIS was fun. I was sorry that I didn't go see the auditions.. We shyed away from things like the hairy chest contest and bingo, but from the video it looked like people did enjoy themselves.
Excursions - we did not buy any on the ship as the reviews we had read before we left said you could find much of it cheaper on the island. Here is the key to this success. It depends on how many ships are docked at the port you are going to. If there are 5 ships, it is harder to get last minute reservations. If you are the only ship, you are golden.
I often felt like we were being herded like sheep and the people doing the herding had no regard for us. In fact the disdain was often palatable by their response and demeanor. They seemed intent on getting as much money out of us as possible. This was particularly noticeable in St. Thomas and St. Lucia
So here is our itinerary:
ST THOMAS - we chose to take the trip to Coki Beach for some beach time and snorkeling. When you debark you enter their "customs" building which is filled with little overpriced shops. FREE WIFI is available in the middle of the concourse, so if you want to touch base with home, this is the place to do it. You can get off the ship, run down use the wifi and then get back on the ship easily enough. Don't forget both your license (photo id) and ship card on this island.
So we are herded to the taxi area which is a complete cluster buck with people yelling and screaming about who is going where. We are quoted a price of $9 per person to go to Coki beach. The next couple that gets on is told its $10 pp...everyone gets their own deal. They use modified pick up trucks for taxis. It resembles a safari ride in disney land. Bench seats, no seat belts and it is open air. They drive on the left side of the road and the roads are in poor repair and very narrow. Did I mention very hilly and mountainous? (If I was going to start a business in St. Thomas, it would be brake repair business - there are serious mountains to climb there.)I should have taken a Xanax before I left, because by the time I got there I was out of my skin in anxiety. We stopped for photographs at his friends food truck and we could have taken a photo with a donkey with glasses (for a price of course) and then for an additional price, YOU can take a photo of yourself or family holding a monkey. Suck some more money out of the tourists. Finally we make it to the beach and I see the signs that say it is a public beach. Yet as I go to walk away from the taxi, the driver is herding us up one more time to pass us along to his friend who is at the beach. I notice his friend has a handful of singles and I'm thinking "what do you want me to pay for now?" Anyway, we wander away from the group and go buy 2 chairs for $5 each. The beach is crowded, so we are in a walkway.
The beach is narrow, the water is beauiful, with mountains surrounding it. There are several huts serviing food and the locals are competing with each other hawking beers and french fries. We brought our own snorkeling equipment and on the right side of the beach there was some decent snorkeling. Not great, but there were fish. In fact there were people feeding the fish dog bones, so they were coming in easily enough to see them with your bare eye standing up in the water.
The beach got progressively more crowded as the day went on and the tide came in, making the beach even smaller. Go early. This is not a quiet carribbean beach experience...its loud, mostly americans and crowded. I did find a beautiful necklace made by a local woman that I now regret not buying. Tip - $20 is really cheap for that beaded necklace..it will cost you 3x as much on other islands.!
The taxi home was a woman van driver who immediately started yelling and asking us if we were wet or sandy? She then disgustedly put some of her clothing on the floor and seat for us to sit on. Mind you were were damp and had just come off the beach (she was picking us up at the beach!!!) - nothing I would not have gotten into my own car with. She was not a happy woman and luckily we got back to the ship without much problem. Remember that a taxi will cost you more if its not full, so try to piggyback your rides with others going in the same direction. Don't let them push you around.
The next excursion was Barbados. Based on another review, we chose to go to The Boatyard. Its a pretty slick set up. Its near downtown and for only $12 you get one welcome drink, two chairs and an umbrella, your transportation back to the ship and some activities on the beach like a diving box and rope swing. There are others walking around selling snorkeling, and other water activities. The water was beautiful, and we decided to try a snorkel, swim with the sea turtles excursion in a glass bottomed row boat (ok, I'm exhagerating). $20 bucks each and we saw one small sea turtle not the hundreds they hawked to us. We did go over a wreck and snorkeled that which was fun to see, but there wan't a ton of fish. The area where the wreck is can be accessed by walking to the left, down the beach from the Boatyard. Stop where you see the boats anchoring and all the snorkelers. If you have a vest, it is easy access right from the beach. This beach had the best sand. They also served lunch and had a bar with a great summer vibe. At the end, the taxi's are waiting and they whisk you right back to the ship. Nice beach day... not private or remote.
It was raining on the morning of St. Lucia, so we stayed on board the board. No regets.
The next trip off the boat was to St. Kitts. Another one of these places where you are sure that they are going to squeeze lincoln off your pennies. We chose Carambola beach resort because it had been recommended in another critic review. GET THERE EARLY or you will not get a chair....loved it. It's very close to the port and a cab ride was only $4 pp BUT they insist that you pay the return fare and that they will come back to pick you up. The taxi drivers claim that this is the law yet the resort is telling us they never heard of such a thing. There was big argument..the taxi driver got our $8 and then he did come back at 3pm to pick us up. He also stopped at a few of his friends places for photo opportunities. It is a beautiful beach where there is a nice restaurant and bar. You can rent lounge chairs and umbrellas ($10 each). The food was a little pricey, but very good. I had the fresh fish sandwich with coleslaw...EXCELLENT..
If you want to save money and get away from the uppity resort, walk to your left and you will find shacks selling $2 beers and space to lay out on the sand. Some even have chairs to rent. BUT we found the beach is better at the resort..no rocks...all sand (and these pesky little crabs that like to bite your toes) There is snorkeling as well but not much. We pitched our towels and enjoyed the day here.
Finally my favorite was St. Martin - known as the "friendly island" for good reason When we got off the boat I approached the information desk and told the woman we were interested in going to Maho beach to see th planes land over the beach and also to ride a segway. She suggested we take the water taxi across to the boardwalk and we would find the segway companies there. Water taxi was $5 one way $8 round trip. We did as she suggested and turning left after the water taxi let us off, you will find Fun and Roll Tours. Patrick is our tour guide while Normand is the managing director. Ask for either of them - they gave us excellent service. One of our friends has a bad leg and walks with a cane. Patrick got him riding and then even gave him a segway with a seat when he got too tired. We took the $30 for 30 minute tour (compared to the ships $80 for 45 minute tour). We went early in the morning, so the boardwalk was not too crowded and we had a blast zipping up and down the boardwalk and back roads. You are also offered discounts on various shops along the boardwalk by booking with them. Lots of fun..worth the money. They have longer tours. This was the first island that I didn't feel like I needed to be guarded. The people were nice. No one was attacking you to buy their products...At the end of the tour we mentioned that we needed to get a taxi to go to Maho beach. Normand called us a taxi and then walked us around the block to connect us with the right one. No tip asked for ....just being nice...which is what we found to be the case in St. Martin.
Maho beach is a narrow strip of beach at the end of the runway at the St. Martin airport. SMaller planes don't need to land at the end of the strip, so they come in a little higher. The large planes need all the runway they can get to stop, so they come in incredibly low and loud right over your head at the beach. The most dangerous is when the jets are taking off. They park at the end of the runway and when they gear up the engine, the wind and heat blows everyone around the beach. Check out the youtube vidoes on this. We ate at the Sunset Bar and Grill just off the beach and with great viewing of the airport and beach. Sort of the best of both worlds. I was pleasantly surprised to see the prices were reasonable and the drinks were hearty. The only souvenir we bought the entire trip was here. The road between the beach and the airport is narrow and well traveled by taxi. Be careful. This was a fun stop..not a day destination as the beach is not long or big enough to accommodate all the people there. From what I understand the locals didn't think it was crowded...so I expect it can be much worse!
If none of this sounds like fun, a couple years ago we did the racing regatta with the America cup boats... it was great fun then and I know some people that did it this trip and enjoyed it as well.
A quick review of the highpoints - Room placement...loved the 8th floor toward the front of the ship. Service on board....crew was very accomodating. Steak House - cant say enough good things about it. Beds and bedding ... very comfortable. Ice cream and pizza....yum
Lowpoints - occasional sewage smell in the room and hall ways....doesn't last long, but its vile. The food on the buffet..would have liked to have seen more vegetarian options....dresscode....too bad CArnival does not enforce their dresscode. And the tourist herding on some of the islands.
We had a wonderful time. This isn't really a quiet vacation, but I got a book read, some sightseeing done, spent time with family and friends and it was reasonably priced. Each cruise is different depending on the time of year and even time of week you go! 3 day weekend cruises are a lot louder and more roudy then this 7 day cruise. Know what you want and what is important to you when you book! Hope this review helps.