This was my 2nd cruise, but my husband's first (and his first flight). We went alone for our 10th wedding anniversary. My husband was very skeptical, as he has never really gone a vacation like this. We had a WONDERFUL time, and he is ready to book another cruise! I will review the ship to the best of my ability and include things that I looked for in the reviews I read. I hope it will help you with making your selection/decision.
Booking the cruise and flights: After selecting the cruise line and itinerary I wanted I searched all of the internet travel agencies and Carnival to book. I chose to book my cruise online, as they had the best overall deal, down to the trip insurance. I also chose to book our flights, separately from the cruise, through Orbitz. Being that my husband was a first time flyer we wanted a non-stop flight, this will not be guaranteed when booking flights along with cruise. I am glad we did this because I was able to purchase our tickets for $139 PP roundtrip. The price of booking with the cruise was more than double this amount.
We flew from Charlotte, NC to Ft Lauderdale, FL (FLL). Our flight was on time and we arrived at FLL at 9:45 am. Our bags came out within 15 minutes. I wasn't sure how to get to the ship and what time we could board (according to the paperwork it was 1pm, but I have always heard that you could board earlier.) I saw a counter that Carnival had at right at the baggage claim, so I asked the clerk what time we could board she told me they call her when they are ready, but she thought it would be around 11 am. We grabbed a bite to eat and at 11 we checked back with Carnival and we were ready to go!
Transportation to Port: Have no fear! Taxis are ready, willing and able to take you to your ship...and it is so much better to pay the $7 PP than to wait for a bus to fill up, and be all crowded in the Florida heat! The taxi diver asked what ship and drove us right up to it, the cruise bag porter pulled our bags out and we were on our way to embarkation. By the way, I read you should tip the bag porters $1 per bag...there is a sign on the building that Porters are salaried and tips are not necessary...we still tipped however. Oh, have your passport handy! The taxis have to drive through an entrance gate and everyone must flash their ID.
Embarkation: Again, have all your ship boarding passes and ID's ready...you will show them as you enter the building. They have this process down pat. There were long lines, but they kept moving. It took approx. 45 minutes to get through the long winding line. Make sure to fill out your sign and sail paperwork and any required entry forms prior to this point...it will make things easier for you. You may want to freshen up a bit ladies; there is a picture station you must pass through. I recommend completing the Fun Pass online prior to your departure; things went very quick at the check in counter.
Boarding the ship: The first thing we had to do was stand in another line to complete the sign and sail process. The sign and sail card is your gold on the ship...it is your room key, it lets you on and off the ship and is your personal charge card on board. You can opt to put cash down or link it to a credit card. We linked it to a credit card, which made things very nice at the end of the cruise. Nothing to do but leave the ship.
We were told the rooms would not be ready until 1:30, but they were serving lunch on the Lido deck (9). We went and grabbed a bite; they had burgers, fries, hot dogs, and wings...all very good. We decided to explore the ship a little to see where things were and before we knew it, it was time to go to the room.
Cabin: We had an inside cabin. Cabin # 8333 on the Verandah deck (8). It was midship and right under the happenings on the Lido deck. We could hear the thump of the band and other happenings, but it was never too loud and was not a bother to us. Our room was small but very spacious at the same time. The closet space was plentiful, as there were 3 full-length closets, 2 to hang things (nice wood hangers are provided) and one with 4 shelves and a full-length mirror. There were four drawers and a vanity/desk. The bathroom was surprisingly spacious. The shower was small in the corner, making it a little tough for us women to shave our legs...but the shower spout does come off, this helps a bit. There was Lever 2000 shower gel and Dove hair care dispensers in the shower and they were kept full our entire cruise. There was a drying line in the shower for wet bathing suits; that was a nice plus. The bathroom counter/sink area was a nice size and there were shelves for your toiletries on both sides of the mirror. There were also 2 hooks on the door for your needs. The bathroom disappointment was there was not an electrical outlet...it was located at the vanity in the room. THERE IS ONLY ONE PLUG I TOOK AN EXTENSION CORD AND GLAD I DID! After unpacking I discovered our empty luggage fit under the bed. TV is provided. The stations were out of Denver, CO which was good in a way, if you didn't stay out all hours of the night, it allowed you to see some of the primetime shows that you would typically have to miss. There was always something playing about the shore excursions, and you can even book them straight from the TV. They had a few channels that showed videos from the daily/weekly activities on the ship (even some of the shore excursions that guests went on). There were free movies played several times daily on 2 different channels, and they changed the movies on a daily basis. You also had the capability to rent movies for 8.99 a piece, and you get it only one time. You don't have the ability to pause or rewind it either. The TV also allows you to view the dinner menu for the evening...It was only wrong one night.
Dining: Due to the majority of our port times being from 7:00am to 6:00pm we chose the late seating so we would have the opportunity to nap and get cleaned up before dinner. We were assigned to the 8:30 in the Gold Olympian Dining room, this is way past our normal dining time, but it worked well on the cruise. Our servers were wonderful. Food was great! There were 2 formal nights, the first being the 1st full day at sea (Sunday-which interfered with the Superbowl) and the second being the next full day at sea on our way home. The dress ranges, some very formal, some not so formal. I was disgusted that a couple, who was obviously rebelling by wearing a rather large bushy wig and very short shorts to dinner on the first formal night, was allowed in. If they tell you no shorts in the dinning room, they should stick to it! Obviously Carnival is definitely out to make their guests happy, as they won't approach anyone that is so obviously disobeying their dress code. I did see shorts on other nights, but it wasn't very common.
Entertainment: There was a lot offered. However, we are not into "shows". We heard very good things about them from our fellow diners and others we met upon the cruise, but it is just hearsay. There were comic nights and I heard great things about them too, but one of the comics must have offended some French people and that was the big joke around the cruise ship for the rest of the week. Sorry I am not much help here. Now the casino I can tell you about...I am a huge Texas Hold'em lover. They did have 1 table. However, according to the dealers they were doing away with the real deal dealer table and were going computerized at the end of our cruise?! The table stayed busy during its hours of operation and there was typically a waiting list. The first night was impossible to get in the game with its low limit games. The rest of the cruise was a $5/$10 limit with $2/$5 blinds. There was complaining from some of the players that there should be a no limit game, but I was very happy with the 5/10 games! Some of the players had some very deep pockets, of which I don't have :). There were several blackjack tables, 2 roulette tables, 1 craps table, a few specialty tables, and a ton of slot machines. They usually had a slot or blackjack tourney going. Most of the tables allowed smoking, however there were tables designated as non-smoking, Texas Hold 'em was one of them.
Public rooms: I thought all of the public rooms were very nice. This ship is very pretty. There were lights above the lobby that changed color, which messed with my mind for a minute because I took a picture and when I reviewed it on my camera I thought it was broken because when I looked up they were a different color...then I saw them change again.
Spa & Fitness: Again, hearsay...the gym was wonderful, plenty of equipment, fairly large gym. Heard nothing about the spa.
Family & Children: Don't have any, but saw a fair amount of children who seemed to be having a great time with "Camp Carnival". All of the children I saw were very well behaved. I don't know if they were pretty much out of sight because of Camp Carnival or if there just really weren't that many on the cruise.
Infirmary: Yes, I had to visit the infirmary...the one thing you don't want to do on a vacation. I realized on our flight that I was getting a sinus infection due to the pressure I was feeling. The next day I began having drainage and a cough. I bit the bullet and went! I got a "Z-pack", was charged $60 for the Dr. visit and $102 for the medicine - OUCH, but worth it as I was fine in time for my excursions. My husband also had to visit the infirmary, but not for the same reason. He caught the infamous cruise ship 24-hour bug! Thank God, it was after all of our ports of call and was our first day back at sea heading home. He ran a low grade fever, vomited and had diarrhea; he was extremely nauseous and just had no energy. They gave him a shot, Tylenol and Imodium-AD then confined him to the room. There was no charge for this visit and the purser's desk called when we got back to the cabin and told him to call room service for ANYTHING he needed. They provided sodas and movies at no charge. I am sure this is to help keep him in the room in hopes to help keep the spread of the virus down, and I think they still want you to enjoy yourself as much as possible. I was very anal about washing my hands, and I kept telling my husband, who is a smoker, to wash his hands more frequently...but you men just don't listen sometimes, LOL!!
Shore Excursions: Finally to the best part!! We opted to book our shore excursions online prior to going. This way there were no lines to wait in and we were not spending a lot of our time figuring out what we wanted to do during the cruise, not to mention running the risk of the excursions we wanted be sold out. The process was very easy on Carnival.com. We only booked one excursion outside of the ship, and will provide details later. If you are going to book through the ship, I would highly recommend booking online ahead of time, as I heard a lot of them were sold out when people went to book them. Our shore excursion tickets were delivered to our room the first day at sea. We did have a small issue that occurred from booking online. The time difference was not allotted for and so we did have a discrepancy, which caused us to change our excursions around a bit. The excursion desk was very easy to work with, I had no problems exchanging and getting refunds. As a matter of fact we were happier with the excursion change we made.
Let me assure you that if you don't want to book something through the cruise ship, there is ample opportunity to go almost anywhere you want as soon as you step of the dock in all of the ports of call on this trip (with the exception of San Juan). They are there and ready to take you to do what you want at varying prices. Just know that there is more risk involved. You don't know whom you are dealing with and the ship will not wait on you if you aren't back in time. They will if you booked through them however.
San Juan, PR: We were in port during the hours of 5pm - midnight. Not many shore excursions were offered and the popular rum tour had been cancelled due to the filming of a commercial. We did not take an excursion, but just decided to walk around a little. Because of the port hours not much was open and I wasn't impressed. The ship's Dr. told me of an excursion called Bioluminescence Kayaking that sounded amazing, but we didn't book it because there was a moon and he said it really needed to be a dark night to get the full experience, and we had a full moon. We weren't all that impressed with San Juan in the evening. I heard from several dealers that it is a much better port during the day. They recommended the casinos, but we weren't interested.
St Thomas, USVI: Port hours were 7 am - 6 pm. We booked an excursion called "St Thomas Snuba". We loved it. It is like scuba diving without all the gear and you don't have be certified. We took a bus to the dive shop and picked up the masks and flippers and headed to Coki Beach. Chairs are for rent for $5 each. I was just going to set my stuff on the rocks until I saw these scary looking bugs all over them; I paid my $5 and my stuff stayed clean and free of critters! We were placed in groups and matched up with an instructor. In the water and breathing under it in no time. We are both strong swimmers, but I will say I was a bit nerved at first. The thought of breathing under water was implorable! I was shocked to feel this way, but took my time and became very comfortable with the whole process; and then of course it was time to go. We had a great time, but it was over sooner than we wanted. The dive instructors really appreciate tips!
I didn't expect St Thomas to be so littered upon. I am sure there are pristine sights, but they sure weren't on the way to Coki beach (which, by the way, was very clean). I was told Meagan's Bay was gorgeous, but getting there early was the key, according to our dining mates. We didn't get to see it, as we had to get some shopping in. We took a taxi to Main St to do some shopping. Let me warn you here about the taxis...they will wait to get as many people as possible before leaving. A couple had to get off the taxi before the driver came over and said we will leave now. So, back to the shopping. I have never seen so many jewelry stores in my life! We visited Trident Jewelers and they were amazing! They were very good to us and we purchased several nice pieces. All in all we thoroughly enjoyed St Thomas.
Antigua, West Indies: Port hours 7 am - 6 pm. Ok from the things I read I was not expecting much of Antigua. Maybe it was the shore excursion that really changed my mind. We originally had the 4x4 Jeep Safari scheduled but we had to re-arrange some things for Tortola and we wanted a sailing trip of some sort we ended up taking the "See Antigua by Sea" excursion. It was AWESOME! The excursion was 6 1/2 hours long at $99 PP, but soooo worth the $$. We stepped off the boat; the rep was waiting for us and pointed us to the boat, which was right around the corner - no transportation needed. We were on a catamaran called the Excellence. The crew was great; very friendly, informative, and loads of fun. Drinks (rum, vodka, rum punch, beer-only what they had on tap) were included and were available the entire trip. Lunch was also included in the price. They took us around the entire island, pointing out beaches, famous homes, told us the fables of the lands and really showed us a good time. We stopped at Green Island Beach to swim, snorkel, sun, or whatever. Lunch was served while we were anchored at the beach and it was wonderful. You had your choice of chicken or red snapper. We both chose the chicken; you could choose with or without BBQ sauce, I chose without and tried the hot sauce they had on the table - YUMMY. There was salad, cole slaw, pasta salad, rice and bread; all of which were great (and I don't even like cole slaw).
After lunch our adventure continued for a few more hours. Antigua is a gorgeous island. Breathtaking scenery, beautiful waters and beaches. Some serious yachts in the harbors. Great photo ops on this trip! T-shirts and CD's of the music they had been playing were available for sale at $20 ea. Tips were also appreciated by the crew and they deserved them!!!
I will say the Antiguans are very pleasant. They could take no for an answer and still wish you a great day. We visited some of the street vendors looking for a specific item and though they didn't have it they directed us to store that did. You won't find that in a lot of places...sometimes not even here in the US! The prices are a little high here. Antigua had St Thomas beat in our opinions.
Tortola, BVI: Port hours 7 am - 6 pm. So, the water gets prettier and prettier as the trip goes on. Tortola has amazingly turquoise waters. Tortola is not as populated as the other islands. They are nice, but not as pleasant as the Antiguans. Originally we were to have 2 excursions on this island. Our first we had to cancel because of the time discrepancy, so we walked to the street vendors and did a little shopping. The best deals are here, but very touristy items - which is great for the souvenir shopper.
Off to Dolphin Discovery!!! This is what we were very excited about. We chose to book this excursion on our own because Carnival didn't offer the Royal Swim, and they were quite a bit pricier anyway. Booking through Dolphindiscovery.com saved us $20 PP and gave us a better swim package with the dolphins. We were worried that we would lose our savings in our transportation, but that was not the case. We paid $4 PP on the way for a private taxi (a minivan) and $3 PP on the way back for an open-air bus (we were by ourselves though). They had restrooms for you to change in (they didn't smell real nice, but the door did close). They had open lockers for you to store your stuff.
Swimming with the Dolphins was an amazing experience that I would recommend to everyone. They are very powerful creatures and yet so sweet. They love interaction with humans. The Royal Swim offered us a chance to be pulled through the water by their fins and to have them catapult us with their noses through the water by our feet (called a foot push) and to spend limited free time with them. No, sharks cannot get it (that is one of the first questions I get). There is a fence around the waters in which you and the dolphins swim. Dolphin Discovery also has some beautiful exotic birds that you can take pictures with. They will video and photograph your session with the dolphins and you can view and purchase after your swim. The video was $50 and we bought 3 pictures for $36. Unless you purchased a package the pics were $15 ea. NOTE: They will tell you if you call and ask that you cannot bring any sort of underwater camera - This is not true! I didn't bring mine because they told me this and when I got there, there were underwater cameras everywhere; they even sold them in the souvenir shop. I was very disappointed, but nevertheless we had an extraordinary time. One other note...I am not sure if it was just dumb luck or what, but I think booking on our own allowed us a more personal experience as there were only 4 of us in the group with 2 dolphins. I noticed that the groups before and after were much larger with approx. 18 ppl per group.
All in all we spent quite a bit on excursions, but we were very pleased with everything we got and what we were able to experience.
Debarkation/Customs: Again, they have this down pat. You receive a certain colored tag the last day to attach to your bags (this will be how you are called off the ship in the morning) along with a Customs declaration form. The night before you place your luggage outside your cabin door with the colored tags, or you have the option to do self assist debarkation and you keep your luggage. Self assist gets off the boat first (about an hour earlier), but you must be able to carry everything on your own, no luggage carts are available. The next morning they ask you to be out of your cabin by 8:30. They begin serving breakfast very early and start calling general debarkation at 8:00, again by tag color. This goes very quick. They tell you to have your sail and sign cards and passport in hand as you will have to scan your card as you leave the ship and your passport at customs. You will also need to have your Customs declaration form completed showing a total of your purchases. Once you pass through the checkpoints you claim your baggage which is placed in groups by the tag color. A bag porter was right there ready to load our bags and as we walked outside a taxi driver asked if we needed a taxi to the airport ($7 PP for a Lincoln Town Car-same price as a taxi, but a lot nicer ride).
We arrived at FLL by 9:30 am - way before our 3:50 pm flight. You cannot check in earlier than 4 hours prior to your flight, so we had a while to wait. Next time I will know I do not have to book my flights with the suggested 6-hour difference between debarkation and flight time. Once we could check in there was quite a bit of chaos. FLL does not have a great system as you check in and then go to another line to check your baggage. I had never seen this and everyone in line was quite fussy and frustrated about it. They had very long lines and had to let people cut in to avoid missing their flights, which didn't go over well with some.
We will definitely look at Carnival Cruise Lines for our next cruise. One last note...I bought 2 photos from the photo gallery and some family had a fit to have a copy, when going to obtain copies I was told they couldn't because they were copyright protected. I made a simple call to Carnival Guest Services and they emailed me a release form so I could have copies made.
I hope I have helped you find answers to questions that I had when I was doing my research!