BACKGROUND This is our first real family vacation and our second cruise. My husband and I first cruised with HAL Zuiderdam on our honeymoon 4 years ago. We then had a baby soon after and couldn't really travel or vacation for a while. Since our daughter is almost three years old and I am pregnant once again, we decided that it's time to have another vacation because the new baby (and a growing toddler) will keep us very busy for the next two years or so.
We chose Carnival because of their kid's program. They're the only cruise line who will accept non-potty trained two-year olds and change their diapers without bothering the parents. We then found a great deal on Victory on the internet. We normally like to go on more port-intensive itineraries. However, since we were traveling with a toddler and I was six months pregnant we wanted to take it easy and just relax.
PRE-CRUISE We flew in from Toronto to Fort Lauderdale a day prior to our cruise and stayed at the Radisson Miami. The hotel is old and needs updating but the rooms had fantastic views of the Port. Also, at $70/night at Priceline, the price can't be beat.
After checking in at the hotel, we rushed to Bayside Marketplace for lunch. It's a nice touristy mall where you can do some sightseeing. But the shops are typical and are a little expensive. My husband wanted to do some serious shopping so we went to the Dolphin Outlet Mall several miles way to get the best deals.
EMBARKATION Embarkation was a breeze. The official check-in time was 1:00pm but we had no problems checking in early. We dropped off our car at Dollar and they gave us a free shuttle to the port. The shuttle dropped us off where your drop off your suitcases. The porters told us outright that we should give them a tip right there and there. We walked in the building to check-in and where inside the ship in less than 30 minutes. The lines moved very fast and there was hardly any wait.
We had lunch at Lido and our rooms were ready by 1:30pm.
CABIN We had an outside cabin on the Riviera Deck. Our cabin was quite spacious with plenty of storage space. The King-sized bed accommodated all three of us perfectly and we didn't even need to use the extra sofa-bed anymore. I was a little anxious about the engine noise and vibration prior to our cruise but I didn't find it to be a big problem most of the time.
A few exceptions were during docking and sailing. The engines were noisy and vibrated a lot whenever we would get in and out of a port. Also, our cabin was near the aft elevators across the steward station. On our last night, the steward bringing a lot of supplies in and out of the room all night long and that was quite annoying. But most of the time it was fine.
FOOD Overall, the food was good but nothing spectacular. Pizza and hamburgers were quite good. Calzone was extremely good. It takes 10 minutes to make but well-worth the wait.
Dining room food was hit and miss. The steaks in particular are quite stringy and tough. But if you don't like one entrEe you can just as easily order something else. There are plenty of options.
Our waiters, Redi and Ida from Indonesia-4, were very nice. The made my daughter paper roses and mouse napkins. Crayons and coloring books were already waiting for us at the table every night. One night, our daughter was being particularly cranky so we had to leave early and miss our entrees. The waiters insisted that we bring our food back to our cabin.
Since they don't receive a regular paycheck and only work on tips, we gave them extra tips on our last night.
CAMP CARNIVAL Despite all our efforts, our daughter refused to stay at Camp Carnival so our plans of a quiet time alone were dashed. However, the counselors seemed nice and the activities also seemed fun.
PORTS OF CALL
SAN JUAN We arrived late in San Juan so there was nothing much to do. We just walked around Old San for a couple of hours then headed back to the ship when it got dark. We did notice that some people opted for an early dinner then left the ship late to party and go to the casinos.
ST MAARTEN St. Maarten was extremely hot and humid. We took the water taxi to town but you just easily walk there if you can stand the heat. There were 4 ships docked and the line to the water taxi can be long and the boat quite crowded. We were the last ones on the boat and had to squeeze ourselves in. I found it a little rude that none of the able bodied men offered me a seat or held my hand considering I was six months pregnant.
We walked around Phillipsburg to look for souvenirs but most shops were selling jewelry. There was a nice beach near the water taxi terminal, we considered hanging out there but the heat just drains your energy and our daughter has had too much sun after walking around the shops as is. We sat down at one of the nice restaurants, had a few cold drinks and went back to the ship.
ST THOMAS St Thomas was beautiful. We took taxi to Coral World. Taxis cost $9/person but our daughter was free. Entrance fee to Coral World $18/adult but you can download a $3 coupon off their website. It's so much cheaper doing it on your own rather taking the ship's excursion. It's especially a good deal if you plan on going to Coki Beach after Coral World because you can then use their washroom and other facilities.
There were plenty of taxis waiting at Coral World for people who want to head back to the ship. We wanted to buy some souvenirs before going back to the ship so we asked that we get dropped off at Havensight Mall instead of our ship. The taxis were going to charge us $3 more per person had we wanted to go straight to the ship. This is ridiculous because the Mall is just right across the docks.
We found that most shops at the Mall were selling jewelry rather than souvenirs. We found one shop that was selling souvenirs at good prices but customer service was terrible. When we were paying for our things, the cashier told us that one of the shirts we took was much more expensive than the others we got on sale. So I told her that I'll just exchange it for the ones that are on sale. She frowned at me and said, "But then I'd have to enter these all over again!" I shrugged and told her, "Then do it again if you have to." So I grabbed the expensive shirt and quickly exchanged it for a cheap one. This took me 20 seconds to do. But she had started to ring other customers and ignored us. So we just walked out of the shop rather than subject ourselves to such rude customer service.
DEBARKATION Debarkation was a nightmare. We had an early flight off Fort Lauderdale at 11:45am. With 4 suitcases between us, it would be very difficult to self-disembark considering only my husband can carry all our suitcases. So we opted for the next best thing which was to wait at Ionian Lounge with the rest of the people taking the ship's excursions in Miami. They were supposed to be disembarked right after the self-disembarkation process.
We arrived at the Lounge long before 8:30am as was required but it was jam-packed. Most people were sitting on the floor. We couldn't hear any announcements from there. There were no Carnival official to give out instructions or information. We had no clue what was going on. By 9:00am we were getting very nervous. One carnival tour guide appeared out of nowhere and overhead him mention to some people that the line-up would start near the mid-ship elevators. We rushed towards the elevators to line up and 15-minutes later the line started moving. We ran towards the luggage area and hailed a porter as soon as I can. We made it just in time to the airport.