Flew in the night before and stayed at the Crowne Plaza MIA, free shuttle from the airport. Very nice hotel, great deal on Priceline. Took a taxi to Bayside, ate at the Hard Rock Cafe (again...always good food) and hung out at Bayside listening to the live music until about midnight. Cab ride to/from Bayside and Crowne Plaza runs about $20+tip.
Had the buffet at the hotel for breakfast the next morning, adequate but a bit overpriced. They called a shuttle for us to the port, $10 per person. Arrived between 11 and 11:30 a.m., and were in for a very pleasant surprise! The embarkation process has IMMENSELY improved since our last cruise (in fact, that and debarkation were the only 2 negatives of our last cruise). It only took about 20-30 minutes of standing in swift and efficiently moving lines before we were board.
Rooms weren't going to be ready until 1:30, so we grabbed some drinks and CHILI DOGS on Lido, took a look around the ship and snapped some pictures. Went down to our cabins at the appropriate time, met our steward, Rodel (who was very nice and couldn't have asked for a better steward). Relaxed, unpacked, headed up to Muster. Got that done fairly quickly, and rushed, rushed, rushed to head up for sail away, which was supposed to be at 4:00. And waited. And waited. Captain came on, said we were waiting for some passengers whose plane was running late. Which raised some eyebrows, but hey, we were ondeck, foo-foo in hand, so no huge deal. What he failed to mention is that it was over 100 passengers, and the REASON their plane/s were delayed is that Air Force One was landing at MIA and all other planes slated to land were put in a holding pattern until the area was secure. We didn't end up pulling away from the pier until about 6:30 p.m. Interesting...
Anyway, we had a 6B/OV on Main Deck, 2386. We've had a cabin in that location previously and really enjoy the convenience of it. Very close to the end of the Promenade/bars, dining room, Lido (aft) pool/buffet/bar, etc. Would highly recommend the location to anyone. It's technically under the galley, but we've never heard a thing.
Overall, it was a really great cruise. Being that our only other cruise was on the Valor, when it had only been in service for a few months, I think we were quite spoiled. There were some rust spots and some sink holes in the hallway carpet here and there, but nothing major. No noticeable stench, as others have noted in their reviews. I did smell it on RARE occasion in a few places, but it always dissipated quickly. The entire staff and crew were super efficient and friendly. Ship was easy to navigate.
Chair hogs weren't a problem for us...we got up about 8-8:30 on sea days and went up on deck to scout out some chairs (4). Never had a problem. We then took turns going down to Lido to grab a tray of breakfast and ate it up where we prefer to lay out (Deck 10, aft, near steps to pool bar).
Food overall was average to good, with a few outstandings here and there. Among our favorite dishes were: escargot, lobster & crab cake, prime rib, green bean & tomato salad, Chateaubriand, ****BABY BACK RIBS****, wilted spinach with mushrooms salad, stuffed mushrooms, jerked pork loin, teriyaki short ribs, lobster bisque, mussels & shrimp provencale, grilled marinated pork chop. The only thing I ordered and honestly did not care for was the "Neptune Platter"...which was an assortment of fried seafood. Just gave me flashbacks of fish sticks from school and wasn't real appetizing. Pizza was always good, as were the offerings from the Grille and the sandwiches from the deli. Room service was always prompt and orders were correct. As much as I hate to do it, I must report that indeed, the lobster was as tough as some say. To the point we couldn't cut it with our knives and it was more trouble than it was worth to struggle with it. I think it may have to do with the fact that they BROIL it instead of boiling it. Our head waitress was Oleysa from Russia, who was a DARLING and a wonderfully knowledgeable and attentive waitress. Our assistant waiter was Danny from India, who was lots of fun and very efficient.
The one thing I'd say was lacking were the quality of the production shows. We actually got up and walked out of the "Wonderful World"...it was nowhere near a professional quality production. The choreography, sets and talent were definitely sub-par. And I'm not a "Broadway" critic by any means, although I've seen quite a few performances at various levels before. The exception to this was the "Kevin and Caruso" magic shows...EXCELLENT. Interesting thing was that they produced and choreographed their shows themselves, and is what I was used to expecting from the actual Carnival productions on Valor. I'd definitely recommend going to see them.
Paul Stantley as Cruise Director was OUTSTANDING. He was actually VERY, very funny and involved in many aspects of daily ship life. I didn't usually make it to many live shows (with the exception of the "Newlywed/Not So Newlywed" show, which was HILARIOUS), but watched the replays of his shows on the ship's channel.
We hadn't ever been through the Western Caribbean route before and were looking forward to it.
COZUMEL...we hired a private van from Island Marketing. Our driver was Pedro from Yaxkin tour company. He was very nice and knowledgeable, we had a great time and it was a great value. He showed us around the island, went to the Tequila Hacienda, eastern side of the island to look at the beaches, through El Cedral (a Mayan village), to a local supermarket and dropped us at Paradise Beach. I cannot say enough good things about Paradise Beach. We went there, based on the good reviews I'd read on the Cozumel ports of call board here on CC. The food was probably the best we had the entire trip (on the ship and off), it was reasonable, the snorkeling was decent, the waitstaff was friendly and PB Tom was GREAT. We had actually wished we had just gone straight there, and that's the plan for next time. Took a taxi back into town, did some shopping, popped in at Carlos & Charlie's, headed back to the ship. Watched the show from up top, when it was time to pull out from the pier and the stragglers were running the marathon to get back to the ship. Quite entertaining. Skipped dinner this night (although it was open seating) and opted to grab some pizza and fries from the Lido offerings.
GRAND CAYMAN...we went through Island Marketing again and this time chose the Jeep Caravan tour. Although it proved to be valuable to have someone pick us up at the pier and take us to the Jeep rental place, and also someone who knew where he was going and to lead us through traffic and such, as far as guides go, Geno was a bit disappointing. He really didn't offer any information about the island, unless I asked, and then 50% of the time he didn't know the answers to my questions. Although it was mildly interesting to see other parts of the island, there honestly wasn't a whole lot to see. Then we went to Rum Point Beach, which was GORGEOUS. Did some snorkeling there, which was decent. And had a run in with a stingray, which was honestly a bit nerve-wracking. I was out snorkeling by myself and the thing would NOT go away! My friend was watching from the pier was laughing at me, as she could hear me yelling through my snorkel. The food at the Wreck Bar was good, but quite expensive. $20 for 5 golfball-sized conch fritters with a small salad and a strawberry daiquiri. We really only had a bit over an hour here, and is another place we wished we had just skipped everything else and hung out here. We were also quite bummed for the short port time, especially considering it's a tender port, and will look more closely at port times when planning our next cruise. Headed back to the Jeep rental place, and their courtesy can drove us back to the pier. Had time for about half an hour of quick shopping and then started to consider getting in line for tendering. The deal is this...the line, most of the time, is like 2 city blocks LONG. We decided to wait until the line went down to a reasonable length (especially since it's right outside in the BAKING sun, with no shade or anything). And inspite of the ship stating the "last tender 3:45", we got on the second to last one about 4:05 and were back onboard, in our cabin and in the shower before we felt the boat moving.
Last port was JAMAICA. I was honestly quite worried about it, after reading all the heresay over on the Jamaica ports of call board here on CC. We had booked a tour with Phil Lafayette (based on recommendations over on the Jamaica CC board). We entered through the doorways that sort passengers on the pier (as to who has ship tours, which private tours you have booked, etc.). We stood outside and the pier employees were quite helpful on updating us on Phil's ETA to pick us up. He was there within 10 minutes of when we arrived and loaded us onto his tour bus. I cannot recommend this man highly ENOUGH. He was friendly and BRILLIANTLY knowledgeable on ALL things regarding his homeland. Very patriotic and encourages those taking his tour to be so as well. The man has lots to say and many ways to say it, many things to show you and everyone we were with (6 of us travelling together) agreed this was the favorite tour of the entire cruise. The first part of the tour we climbed Dunn's River Falls, which was moderately physically challenging. It wasn't so much the climbing part, it was attempting not to slip on the moss-covered rocks that was tricky. The guides and videographers were a bit pushy, but nothing real offensive. TWO IMPORTANT NOTES ON DUNN'S RIVER FALLS: DO NOT exit to the right at the top of the Falls, this will take you running through the gauntlet of pushy shop keepers and locals. Go left and back the way you came in. Exiting was a BREEZE and nobody said a word to us. Do not pay the $40 per DVD they start out asking for, I got our videographer down to $20 without even really trying.
After that, we did the tour of Jamaica, then Phil deposited us back in Island Village. This place was GREAT. Clean, plenty of shopping, beautiful, friendly shop keepers and employees, and Margaritaville here was great. I didn't get a chance to go down the waterslide or take advantage of the pool, but really wished I had. The drinks and food were OUTSTANDING and not SUPER outrageously priced. We all really enjoyed Jamaica, but quite honestly it was probably because we had limited exposure to REAL locals, not those whose jobs and livelihoods depend on being nice to tourists. Again, felt the port time REALLY rushed our day and will pay closer attention to that next time when planning our next cruise.