This was our first cruise and I used Cruise Critics to review our choices of ships/destinations and excursions. My husband and I traveled with our three kids and my son's girlfriend (teenagers between 15-19) My family had begged me to cruise for over 5 years, but since I get motion sickness very easily, I did not want to be "trapped" on a ship with motion sickness. I was very surprised that I did not get sick once. Nauseous a couple times when the ship got a little rocky, but Bonine took care of that in no time. I am well past my cruise seasickness fears.
We flew into Miami the day before and stayed at LaQuinta Airport East on LaJeune. The rooms were adequate, and clean. They provided a shuttle to the hotel from the airport, and then a shuttle to the Port of Miami from the Hotel and breakfast (bagels, waffles, cereal, yogurt, fresh fruit) was included. Only drawback was the loud roar of the planes overhead while we were in the outdoor pool. But the noise didn't keep us awake at night.
Embarkation was easier than I thought. Not having a clue what to do, we were directed very well and were on the ship about Noon. The rooms were larger than I expected, we had an oceanview and an interior, both were sufficient and you didn't feel "stuffed in". The ship is nicely decorated in "Americana" motif based on American Heroes. We thought it was lovely. I have seen others on this site criticize it as tacky, but I don't agree. I wouldn't decorate my home in the same manner, but you're on a ship and on vacation. One small drawback is that on some levels you cannot get from one end of the ship to the other. Sometimes we had to walk through the dining rooms to get to the other side. But we took it as an adventure in finding how to get where we wanted. We always knew how to get to Rosie's diner upstairs!!
Speaking of food: this was one area that we were a little disappointed. We've always heard about cruise food and how extravagant and plentiful it is. The food was good and plentiful, but nothing close to extravagant. There were times when buffets were closed down causing longer lines at the ones that were open. I only saw two carvings, a watermelon shaped like a rose and cheese that was a fish sculpture, that's it. Not that I need to be impressed with carvings, I just thought there would be more. Food in the buffet was not always as hot as it should be. We only ate in the formal dining room twice. We didn't really want to "dress up" for dinner. Both times the experience was mediocre. Our waiter tried, but he was not that great. My family was content to eat in the buffet whenever they pleased. We did not eat at Scarlett's (again, we didn't want to get too dressed up).
We didn't participate in many of the on-board activities, but did watch a few. The song/dance/comedy routines were good and entertaining. My husband and I went to the Newlywed and not so Newlywed game and that was fun. Our cruise director, Chris Jefferson was very upbeat and he was entertaining also. He had meetings that were recommended (but not mandatory) about the ports and about debarkation later. They were informative and helpful. Our teens had a good time for the most part, however their teen club was not very attractive to their ages. Also, the video arcade had games that were broken, and some were old and not as up to date as they would have liked.
Overall, I would rate the ship a 4 on a 1-5 scale. There were activities to do if you wished, if you stayed in your stateroom to read, or watch TV, you didn't feel trapped. The pools were small and usually crowded, but we would swim at the dinner seating times. The shows were fun. Our cabin steward was terrific! They cleaned twice a day, and we'd have the towel animals at night. Also employees were always cleaning throughout the day. There were times we saw cups or trash, but they were in places that inconsiderate guests left them for someone else to clean.
We did not book excursions through Carnival, but I booked them online from home using Cruise Critic reviews. Our first port was Grand Cayman. I booked swimming with the stingrays through Captain Bryan's Catamaran. It was not difficult to find, and our guides were great! Swimming with the stingrays was wonderful, then we took a short sail to the coral reef to snorkel. The kids had a blast, and it was beautiful! Our second port was Roatan Island, Honduras. This is a very poor country. We did not have a planned excursion, and chose to debark and just shop in the local little huts. My son's girlfriend got her hair braided, we bought some earrings and little souvenirs. Our third port was Belize, and we booked cave tubing with Cave-tubing.com. This too was great. I've recently had knee surgery, so I did not go, but my husband and kids went and said it was awesome. The guide, Richard, was funny and attentive and showed them the caves. They enjoyed this very much, well worth the money and I would book through them again. Our last port was Costa Maya, and we booked a tour to the Chacchoben Mayan Ruins using David and Ivan, the Native's Choice. We went on the Ruins Extreme tour. This tour included the ruins and then a side trip to Laguna Azul. The description in the website states it is a hotel, but it is more like a campsite. However, I would HIGHLY recommend this side tour as it is both beautiful and relaxing. It was very hot while on the ruins tour, but sitting at the lagoon it was cool and breezy. The kids went swimming in the bright blue clear water. The owners of the property make lunch--homemade tortillas, taco chips, beans, rice and salsa and fajitas--all truly Mexican and delicious. Our family were the only ones there from the tour and it felt very exclusive and personal. In fact, our guide had to get us moving so we would not miss our ship! Also, on the way to the ruins we stopped at a roadside stand and bought fresh cut pineapple that was incredible! And I don't even like pineapple!! By booking our tours on our own, we saved over half of what Carnival offered for basically the same tour. Debarkation was also easy. We did the 'self-assist' which means carrying off your own luggage. We got a cab to the airport and were basically at the airport by 9am. Had we known, we would have booked an earlier flight, but we waiting in the airport til our flight home. In all, it was a great trip, beautiful, relaxing. We have some truly beautiful pictures and many memories. We would cruise again, perhaps trying another ship or another cruise line, although we were quite happy with the Carnival Valor. Maybe an Alaskan cruise.....?