We cruised on board the Carnival Valor on the Western Caribbean itinerary, sailing on March 4, 2007. We are a family of five, with three kids: 1 daughter age 11 and two sons aged 9 and 6. We were cruising with a group of folks celebrating the 20th anniversary of a singing group known as the Pyrates Royale (shameless plug: www.pyrates.com). There were about 65 people travelling in this group.
I should say some preliminary observations about travelling that reflect our experience. First, there are a group of people who go on travel with a bad attitude. They expect everything to be perfect, that they will not have to wait in a line, and that their hands will be held through everything. These folks also tend to not like ports of call in third world countries because things do not "work" like they do back home. On the other hand, we tend to travel in the other group. These are folks who go on vacation, recognize that we will face lines, some inconveniences, some hiccups, and take it all in stride. We also know that in foreign countries, particularly underdeveloped ones, things operate different than they do at home. And with that qualifier, on to our experience.
We arrived from Baltimore into Fort Lauderdale. The transfer from the airport to the ship went well. Travelling with three small children means a lot of bags and the need to make sure that they are where they are supposed to be. Throughout I would say that the Carnival folks were understanding and helpful.
Embarkation: All told it took about an hour. Things were pretty efficient. Yes, you had to wait in a bit of a line to get your Sail and Sign card set up, but I did not think it was poorly handled. Other people were grumbling, but I thought that their expectations were unreasonable given the number of people that were coming aboard. After reading Cruise Critic, we carried on some of our bags, but I thought we carried too much on board. We pretty much went straight to Rosie's to get something to eat and were able to get to our cabin before the ship set sail, so I don't recommend carrying on too much. We also had to go through the required muster drill, and I was surprised to find people grumbling about that as well. I thought it was handled efficiently and that the only reason it took as long as it did was because people did not pay attention to the announcements and slowed things down.
First day at sea: We were not very lucky with the weather. It was rainy and stormy the first few days, and that first day at sea was quite an experience. Valor is a very large ship, but it still rocked in the waves. People were noticeably low in energy for the first half of the day because I think many were at least slightly sea sick and still getting their sea legs. I know we were, but a little dramamine and we were fine. However, because the weather was not pleasant, you had to occupy yourself below decks. Since the shows are in the evenings, it meant that things were pretty quiet during the first day. Once the evening came around there was plenty to do. Between the clubs and the impressively large Ivanhoe theater, there was plenty to keep one occupied.
Grand Cayman: As we arrived at Grand Cayman, we were told that the seas were too rough to allow for the tenders to bring people to shore. Therefore, after waiting long enough to receive some people's luggage that had been lost by their airlines we were off for Isla Roatan. I had heard on the ship that this was not an infrequent problem with Grand Cayman. I had been there on a cruise 20 years ago, and back then the ships docked. To be honest, it was not my favorite port back then. Frankly, I think Carnival should consider changing the itinerary to another port; since Cayman is a wealthy place I am not sure that they are that accommodating for cruise ships anyway. Carnival did credit every passenger $25, which I thought was a nice touch since they cannot control the weather.
Isla Roatan: We docked at Roatan in a driving rainstorm. It let up for a little while so we signed up for an excursion from the ship. We left the ship to walk around the port area (which is the usual collection of people trying to sell you things or take you on an excursion). But after a few minutes the rains came back with a vengeance so we reboarded. To Carnival's credit, they freely refunded you for an excursion even if it was not cancelled. The island looks like a very beautiful and unspoiled place. It lacks all of the usual overdevelopment you see around ports and vacation locations. It is a shame we could not go see more of the island; hopefully we can go back some day. The dock itself is a total mess. They are doing a lot of construction at the port on the dock and it made for a very messy arrival area. I am sure this will be different in the coming months.
Belize: While you have to take a LONG tender ride into Belize, we really enjoyed this port. Based on reading Cruise Critic we booked our own cave tubing excursion through www.cave-tubing.com. First of all, the cost is 1/2 that of the cruise-sponsored excursion. Second, the cruise had an age requirement that would have prevented two of our kids from going. Third, the cruise only goes through one of the caves. And finally, the cruise excursion does not guide you through - they pretty much chuck folks in the water and tell them to make their own way. Not only was Yhony and his team from cave-tubing.com entertaining, they also made sure that everyone was safe and had a good time. They guided us through the caves and made sure to yell "Butts up!" whenever we were reaching the shallows. Yhony personally made sure that my family, with the youngest kids in the group, were safe and had fun. They got us back to the dock with time to spare, even with us having to return to the restaurant we stopped at because a passenger forgot something. The experience was excellent!
Costa Maya: We have been to Cancun numerous times and I had been into Cozumel on a cruise ship years ago. We love the Caribbean coast of Mexico. The dock at Costa Maya was brand new, and three cruise ships arrived that day: Valor, Carnival Miracle, and a ship from Holland America (forgot the name). Even with three ships in port, the area built up at the dock was not overly crowded. It was clearly purpose built for cruise ships and an excellent way to get off of the ship. We originally were going to book an excursion with Carnival to go to Overo Beach for the day. However, that excursion filled up. The excursion desk on Carnival said that you could take a cab, but this turned out not to be true. Overo is private and they won't take you there. So we snooped around and found a booth near the bus stop area for Playa Maya. The woman at the counter (I forget her name but she was Dutch) told us that they had a private beach with hammocks, palapas, bar, food, etc. There was another Canadian family that we had met through my daughter on the ship and they joined us. We were taken by van to a private beach area run by an unrelated Dutch gentleman who had opened it two weeks previously. There were only 25 or so people. They provided goggles and towels if you wanted them, and you were given one free drink. All this for $23, and $18 for the kids. Compare this to the Overo Beach cost of $43 for everyone. What a steal! It was an excellent choice and I highly recommend it. You can even see the cruise ships in the background as you swim and have fun on the beach. Note that no vehicles can travel very fast as the Mexicans have put speed bumps in all over the place. On the return trip to the ship we even saw a wild monkey eating up in the trees.
Final day at sea: The weather at sea this time was excellent. We spent the day around the pools, particularly on the water slide. The slide was a great deal of fun and as many adults as kids rode the slide. There was always something going on around the deck, even an ice sculpture carving that was very cool. While Carnival does have a policy that people are not to "reserve" deck lounges with towels and stuff, there is no question that people would get up early in the morning to reserve them. It was very irritating, but such is life.
Debarkation: Carnival recommends self-debarkation. This means carrying off all of your stuff early in the morning. After reading Cruise Critic and knowing that we were carrying lots of stuff due to the kids, we did things the traditional way where you leave your bags out late the night before and Carnival takes it off for you. This worked great, allowed us to get up and have an unrushed breakfast. You also did not have to crowd yourself with all of your bags trying to get off the ship, which I am sure lead to some really cranky folks. Once we had breakfast, we waited for about 40 minutes in the Ivanhoe before we were called to get processed off of the ship. Customs and immigration were MUCH better than what I have experienced in airports. The only part that was no fun was Fort Lauderdale airport. I actually ran into a friend there who had never seen it so crowded. The lines were unbelievable, including the security line. You would think that this was the first weekend they had ever had cruise ships coming in! This is something that really needs to be fixed.
Camp Carnival: Overall, the kids enjoyed Camp Carnival. Our 11 and 9 year olds were free to check themselves in and out of the program, which they really liked. The only glitch was an evening where our 6 year old wanted to hang out for the "slumber party" that they have in the late evenings. We asked the camp to call us if he wanted to leave or was by himself. When they called, he had been by himself for a while and they had neglected to call. It was irritating, but the only glitch we experienced.
Cabin: We had two connected cabins on the Rivera Deck (Deck 1: cabins 1424 and 1422). This was more than enough room for all of us. The Steward was outstanding and the rooms were always keep in great shape. In particular the kids loved the towel animals that the steward made. While we did not see or talk to him much, he took care of everything we asked for. I was pleased with the service and with the cabins.
Ship Layout and Decor: As has been mentioned many times on this site, the layout of the ship can be rather confusing. Thankfully the Rivera Deck goes end to end on the ship. Other decks, however, suddenly end, causing you to either go up or down a level or to walk through the Lincoln dining room. While it was allowed to walk through the dining room, it just seemed strange. Other than the issue of deck levels, the location of the main venues were easy to find once you got the hang of the ship. While most of the ship was very nice from a decor perspective, some of the "valor" motif came across as a bit cheesy to me. In particular the use of so much pink in the Washington, Lincoln and Scarlett's dining rooms was really over the top.
Dining: It is amusing to see the range of viewpoints of the food on board the ship. Those who think it is not good clearly don't realize they are on a ship with almost 3,000 passengers. Those who rave about it either don't get out much or value quantity over quality :-) All kidding aside, I thought that the food was quite good considering the number of people on board. We ate in the Lincoln dining room at the 6:15 seating. It was a little loud and busy, but our waiter Emmanuel and his assistant were OUTSTANDING!! The kids loved dinner. By the second evening, they knew our preferences and there was always a decaf cappuccino delivered at the end of dinner. The singing was a tad hokey but fun. I thought the food in the dining room was pretty good. Most breakfasts we had in Rosie's, which is where we had most of our lunches as well. Basically, Rosie's is like the food hub on board the ship. There were always a variety of things, both healthful and indulgent. Our kids loved the 24-hr ice cream machines. We did eat one evening at Scarlett's. First, another qualifier. Working in Washington, DC, I eat at many of the famous steakhouses that are supposedly the model for Scarlett's: The Palm, Sam and Harry's, Smith and Wollensky, Morton's, Ruth's Chris, etc. Overall, the experience was quite good (perhaps better than expected). The food was good and the service was excellent. Just like in the main dining room, the wine selection was decent and the prices were not too bad (restaurants usually charge twice retail at a minimum for wine; the ship was about 50% over retail, sometimes less). I would recommend a trip to Scarlett's. While not quite at the level of those famous restaurants, it was still enjoyable and worth the $30 per person (we added a little more than than for the service). The sommelier was excellent as well. I just wish they would kill some of that pink! We did eat one sit down breakfast at the Washington Dining room as well. This was also pretty good, but I think I preferred the variety at Rosie's.
Drinks: I have read some people complain about the drinks on board; like being watered down. I thought that the drinks were plenty strong and I drink a lot! Also, if you just bought the drink without the souvenir glass, the prices were not bad. For the folks complaining about the prices, I am not sure where they live. In the DC area, liquor-based drinks can run three times what Valor was charging. My complaint is with the non-alcoholic beverages. Last I cruised, non-alcoholic drinks were free. You could get iced tea, milk, coffee, lemonade and juices free at Rosie's. Other than that it was pay. We did get soda cards for the kids, but I don't think that turned out to be a bargain since our kids did not use them enough to justify them. Perhaps it was because they ate so much ice cream. One note about the Carnival bar staff: if the kids were at the bar to get a soda, they received precedence over the adults (which was nice since kids are generally more timid), and the staff always said "Miss" or "sir" to them, to make them feel special. We thought it was a nice touch.
Spa Carnival: I surprised even myself and made it to the gym on 5 days. Perhaps the weather had something to do with that. The gym was better than expected. They had plenty of treadmills, cross trainers, and bikes to do cardio (although if you got there too late in the morning it did get crowded). The free weights consisted of dumbbells and benches, which was fine. My only complaint about the dumbbells is that they should have used ones with hexagonal weights. When the ship was rocking, if you put them down they would roll away from you. It was also fun watching people on the treadmills struggle to retain their balance while running on the treadmills as the ship rocked :-) They also had resistance machines that mapped to many of those in my gym at home. Overall I was pleasantly surprise by the gym. The whirlpool spa that was in the gym area was a tad strange: it was in a close enclosed area in the middle of the gym and had a motif of rocks and waterfalls. Why in the middle of the gym? My wife and I also scheduled a couple's massage, which was very nice if a tad expensive. The only complaint was at the end when the therapists came back with recommendations for products that dealt with our specific issues. Every bottle they recommended cost at least $50, with many over $80. That was part of the general trend of too much focus on selling, which leads me to...
Selling: I am a sales director by trade. So I am not generally put off by sales and people selling if done well and tastefully. However, my biggest complaint about the ship was almost the constant sales focus. They tried to find ways to part with your money in every conceivable fashion. I don't mind being sold to. I do mind being on vacation and having every activity associated with some upselling angle. I paid enough for the cruise that I don't think they need to lay a hard sell on me every ten minutes.
Cruise Director: The new Director for Valor is Christopher Jefferson from the UK. While some people made fun of him, I thought he was great. He was lively, funny and energetic. It was clear that the staff liked working for him. He apparently came from another ship, and I get the impression that Carnival put their first tier guy on Valor due to past problems that were being reported on the ship about the Cruise Director. He definitely gets my kudos!
Staff: I have seen a few comments about the staff on Cruise Critic and through some people on board. I did not see any staff that were rude or unhelpful. The only grumpy person was the officer in charge of Rosie's. I think the issue is more of a language barrier. There are over 60 nationalities represented on Valor, which I personally think is great since it gives you a chance to meet people from around the world. However, I do think for some of the staff that English is a bit of a barrier to full engagement and results in an appearance of not being friendly. I certainly did not meet any unfriendly staff (officer excepted) on board.
Other Notes: One of the parts of our group cruise was a discussion of astronomy. When you are at sea, you are very far away from light pollution, so it is generally possible to see an amazing number of stars. Most of the nights we were on the ship it was cloudy, which kind of put a damper on our viewing. However, the Valor is so lit up at night, it is virtually impossible to see the night sky. On the NCL cruise I went on 20 years ago, they left the bow area of the ship dark, which enabled you to be able to look up and star gaze without all of the lights. I wish Carnival would provide a "dark area" in which to view the skies since it is one of the treats of cruising.
Overall: We were quite pleased with the trip. Carnival can't control Mother Nature, and who would bet on so many cloudy, rainy days in what is supposed to be the dry season. Given the number of people on board, I think they made things pretty smoothly. The food was decent and there was plenty to do. My recommendation is to book excursions off the ship if you can find reputable operators (like www.cave-tubing.com) since I think the ship's excursions are the most overpriced stuff on board. We would cruise on Carnival (and Valor) again in the future.