My wife & I just returned from our first cruise. We booked directly through Carnival in December of 2006 and I can't say enough good things about the booking agents I spoke to. All were pleasant and very helpful. I should probably start by saying that I was very reluctant to go on a cruise feeling that I would be bored and "locked" on a ship with nothing to do. Many of the reviews I read here and on other sights made me question my choice of Carnival AFTER I had already booked and paid for the trip. I hated the experience so much that we booked another Carnival cruise 3 days after returning home.
I can't say that the entire experience was perfect, but any low points were more than offset by the positives.
We arrived in Ft Lauderdale the day before sailing and stayed at the Sheraton Yankee Clipper. We arranged ground transportation through Carnival (They recommended a car service) from the airport to the hotel. I wouldn't hire a car service again as they charged $20 pp for our friends and son, who arrived 2 hours after us, while I paid $15 plus tip total for my wife and I in a taxi.
The hotel was nice, right on the beach with great views of the ocean, barbeque area and volleyball courts. Service and staff were average.
At 10 am the morning of the cruise all 8 of us again boarded the car service van ($20 pp) for the ride to the port in Miami (Take a taxi, it's MUCH cheaper). We arrived at the port at 10:50 and were met outside terminal C by a very friendly porter who helped unload and tag our bags ($20 tip for 18 bags). We were in line inside the terminal 5 minutes later. I would estimate that we were in line behind approximately 50 other people. VIP and group boarding began at approx. 11:30. At 11:45 they opened up the desk for regular boarding. As soon as the first 5 or 6 people headed to the counter a Carnival employee dropped the rope in front of where I was standing and pointed my wife and I to a waiting clerk at the now empty VIP check-in area. At the counter we made arrangements for our sign and sail cards (put a credit card as deposit). I explained to the clerk that my son was traveling with our friends and that I wanted to set up his sign and sail on the same credit card, she called their whole group of 6 over to the counter and checked everyone in at once. We proceeded up to the waiting lounge and by 12:20 we were boarding the ship. 15 minutes later, my wife and I were headed to our room (8454 Aft Balcony). We ran in to our steward (Jaime) and asked if we could leave our carry-on bags in the room. He said it was no problem and that our room would be ready in 30 minutes. From there we headed out to explore.
The ship is beautiful. The dEcor is very reminiscent of a Vegas resort hotel. The Atrium lobby is very nice and had a piano player and a violinist performing throughout most of the cruise. It served as a very comfortable and convenient meeting spot throughout our cruise. We got sandwiches from the New York Deli in Rosies and ate by the aft pool on the Lido deck. The sandwiches and fries were very good. From there we headed up to Scarlett's (The supper club) to make reservations for Tuesday night (more on that later). Our bags were in our room before 2 pm, muster was quick and painless and we sailed by 4:30. The Ship: The ship is big. It took almost 2 days before we figured out we didn't have to go up 2 decks then down 1 in order to get to where we wanted to be. The ship was extremely clean and staff were consistently cleaning and polishing throughout the cruise. At times (lunch on sea days) Rosies (the buffet) got a little messy but there were always plenty of staff cleaning and doing their best to keep up with 3,000 people eating and leaving dirty dishes. The public areas were all in excellent shape and very clean. The pool deck was kept nearly spotless the entire cruise. During the late night buffets on the Lido deck, some of the tables further from the buffet line were a little sticky and needed to be bused more frequently, but we just stopped one of the staff who immediately came to clean the table.
The Staff: In a word, outstanding. In two words, friendly and helpful. Our room steward spoke very limited English but we managed to communicate our requests without any difficulty. Our room was cleaned and made up twice per day. I think they wait until they see you leave before cleaning or doing turn-down, because he never once came to our door to clean while we were in our room. The food and beverage staff were quick and polite. Service at the bars was very quick in all areas of the ship. Once or twice on deck we placed orders that never arrived (not a big problem, we just flagged down another server). The first time we ordered drinks during a show, we never got them, so I just got up and went to the Atrium bar (took less time than ordering from the wait staff) and got them myself. I would especially like to commend the casino staff. My wife and I spent a good amount of time in the casino and the entire staff from dealers to pit bosses, to wait staff were extraordinary. If you've been to Vegas, AC or one of the casinos in Connecticut, you're in for a pleasant surprise. The staff was very patient and forgiving of mistakes by new players who didn't know the games. If you've ever been intimidated by the atmosphere around a table game you've never played (for me it has always been craps and roulette) then this is the ship to learn on. Special thanks to Daniel and Eugen who were very patient and instructive to my wife who had never played any table games. We looked for them anytime my wife wanted to try a new game and they talked her through the learning process.
The Room: Aft Cabin, need I say more? Sunrises on days 1-3 and sunsets on days 4-7. The cabin was large enough for us and our luggage. The big window and large balcony made the room seem larger than it was. So now we're spoiled. We booked an identical room one deck down on the Triumph for next April. I had heard (read) horror stories regarding aft cabins directly under the Lido deck and the amount of noise from above that we would have to endure. We only heard deck chairs scraping on the deck above 3 or 4 times the entire cruise. It's only fair to mention that as non-drinkers we weren't trying to sleep off hangovers until noon, so it may have been noisy after 8 am (the latest we left our room in the morning). Our room was one floor below and 40 feet aft of the 24 hour pizza.
The Food: I'll start with Scarlett's. If you like good food and you don't go to Scarlett's while on the Valor there's something wrong with you. Let me qualify by saying that I've eaten at Morton's, Ruth's Chris, Smith & Wollensky etc. and the food was of equal quality and quantity. The presentation was flawless and the service makes an honest effort at being 5 star, let's call it 4 ¾ stars. The wait staff (Manila) the hostess (Uliya sp) and Sommelier were extremely friendly, helpful and efficient. All of them remembered my name when we returned again 2 nights later. Do yourself a favor - GO. Spend the $30, don't kid yourself into thinking that you're getting a "dining" experience by eating in the restaurant. The dining room is average food served by a very nice, over worked understaffed, group of people trying their best. Ah yes, the dining room. Where to begin? Tried it for 2 nights. The food was so-so. The waiter thought that the rubbery rock lobster he served my wife was Maine lobster. I won't say that I could see the whip marks from the jockey who rode my sirloin steak into the kitchen, but... Seriously, the food was ok at best. The soups were bland, the appetizers, unappetizing (on the plus side you could order as many as you wanted, try the tiger shrimp app or meal), The salad was a wedge of iceberg lettuce or limp Caesar salad with anchovies in the dressing (can't get it without anchovies). If I were going to eat in the dining room regularly I would recommend the Prime Rib (tell them you want it every night at your first dinner and they will arrange it) and the baked potato. My son asked for filet mignon every night, he said it was good half the time and undercooked half the time. Take the dining room for what it is: decent food cooked for a couple of thousand people at a time. The other 4 nights we ate at the buffet in Rosies. We ate when we wanted, sat at a table by the window every night and tried the different items until we found the ones we liked then ate as much as we wanted. Between 6 and 8 pm it was very quiet in Rosies, no lines and the food was very good. On the last night they served T-bones that were better than the steak I got in the dining room. Try them both and make up your own mind. Breakfast at Rosies was outstanding. The bacon was incredible, pancakes that rivaled any I have had, fresh fruit and on and on and on. Don't miss breakfast. For lunch try the burgers and fries on the aft Lido.
Shore Excursions: First let me start off by saying that the Carnival staff will tell you that those who purchased excursions from Carnival will get off at tender ports first. Not so. If you want off the boat to make an early non-Carnival excursion then get a tender ticket (or don't, we didn't) and get in line. No one checked tender #'s. We booked 3 excursions on our own and all went well (see below) and we were never in danger of missing the tender or ship. Have faith and have fun. The people that run these "outside" excursions know all about cruise critic and won't risk making you miss your boat. Believe it or not this is what they do for a living, they know when that ship is leaving better than most of the crew on board. Grand Cayman: Tender port. If you have an early excursion, get in line early. We booked a waverunner, stingray city tour through Island marketing ($70 pp). What a blast. The waverunners were fantastic and when we got to stingray city the 14 people in our tour got to spend 45 minutes with 2 very knowledgeable guides and all the stingrays we could hold. Meanwhile those on the Carnival tour ($69 pp) rode in on a crowded double decker boat of 50 or so people all of whom had to jockey for 30 seconds with one of the guides so they could maybe hold a stingray. Our guides were shooing away those who couldn't get close to their own tour guides. We then jumped back on the waverunners for a great ride to a nice beach bar/restaurant for lunch and some sun, then back to Spotts to get on the tender. The ships could not anchor in Georgetown so they anchored in Spotts. The wait to get back on a tender (We were told last tender would leave at 3:15. It didn't leave until 5:30) Hundreds of people waiting in line in the hot sun with no restrooms, water or shade for up to 2 ½ hours. Carnival should be ashamed of their performance. This can't be the first time they have anchored away from Georgetown. Best part of this nightmare was absolutely NO apology or even an acknowledgement of the fiasco by the Cruise Director or anyone else. Picture standing in 85 degree heat with several small children with no food or water or shade for two hours. Way to go Carnival! Roatan: Beautiful Island. Very poor but friendly people. Went Scuba diving (Resort Course) with another couple on the far side or Roatan. Again, not a Carnival excursion. Excellent instructor and great reef dive. Belize: Cave Tubing/Zip line combo (Carnival does not offer both on one excursion.) Once again Island Marketing hooked us up. Our guides, J.P and Taz were excellent. Instead of being one of 50 people on a Carnival excursion (our son was), 12 of us had two very friendly knowledgeable guides at our disposal. Great day. Oh, almost forgot, the Captain got the ship stuck on a sandbar for almost 2 hours trying to leave. Wasn't a big deal. Only those of us on the rear balconies really new what was going on as we watched them crank one engine at a time trying to get the ship loose from the sand. Costa Maya: Skip the Carnival shopping area at the dock. Run, don't walk out the gate of that overpriced rip-off. Get a $2 taxi into Muahahual (sp) and shop or swim or eat or lie in the sand. 1 hour massages on the beach for $20. $2 Corona's ($5 inside Carnival Land I think) Great prices on silver and t-shirts etc in town. Inside Carnival Land the prices are OUTRAGEOUS.
Ship Shops: Don't buy anything until the last day, unless you really think they will run out before. Everything goes on sale the last day.
Shows/Entertainment: Excellent. Go as often as you can. Very talented group of performers on board. The comedians were worth seeing.
Debarkation: Self-Debarked (carried our own bags off) In line at 7:30 am and standing on the dock waiting for a taxi at 8:10 am. Arrived in Ft Lauderdale by 9:30.
The Bottom Line: If you think you can find a better vacation for the money, please tell me about it. Like I said earlier, I had such a lousy time that I waited 3 whole days before booking another cruise with Carnival. If you have any questions send me an email.