This was a wonderful cruise and ship. There were a few minor irritations but nothing major, and I enjoyed myself tremendously. I'm sorry if this is quite long, but I found the longer cruise reviews to be more helpful before my cruise.
Precruise -- I was nervous about possible Canadian winter air travel disruptions so I departed Ottawa for Miami two days before my cruise on Air Canada. As I have learned to expect from them, what should have been a smooth 6 hour journey turned into a 14 hour North American "odyssey"! I could go into detail on this but it is a cruise review, so I will skip it.
I arrived in Miami at 7.30pm, a full 7hrs past my scheduled arrival time, and took a taxi from the airport to the Sheraton Biscayne Bay in downtown Miami for 19.50 plus tip. I had read some negative reviews about this hotel, but I found it to be a beautiful hotel, with helpful and friendly staff. I booked a room with Hotwire for 73.00 per night. Priceline might be cheaper, but unfortunately Priceline demands a US permanent address, so not available for use by Canadians. After my flight ordeal, it was a pleasure to arrive at the Sheraton. The beds were comfortable with a big fluffy duvet on the bed. There was an in room coffee maker and you could get internet access via a provided wireless keyboard for 10.99 per 24 hour period. The hotel restaurant was fine, but a bit on the pricey side. Just across the street from the hotel was the "Coffee Beanery" and they had great sandwiches, wraps, bagels, coffee and pastry for reasonable prices. You could eat in or take out. On Friday I took a taxi to Bayside Marketplace for 4.00$ and spent a pleasant few hours strolling and browsing the shops. These are mostly touristy shops, but there are a few very interesting looking restaurants here. You can also book boat tours from the dock area. Back at the hotel, the pool area was very pleasant and uncrowded. There was a walkway beside the waterway, and it there was a sign saying that it was a Manatee zone, so you may see one here.
Embarkation/Saturday -- I took a cab to the Port of Miami for 9.00 plus tip. Gave the porter 2.00 for my bag and proceeded to check in. It was 11.00 and went very fast. I had filled out the info on Carnival's website in advance, so that may have sped up the process. Went upstairs and waited about an hour, then boarded the ship. We were told not to go to our staterooms till 1pm, so as advised went up to the Lido deck and had a very nice buffet lunch. At 1pm, I went to my room. Lifeboat drill was at 4pm and was well organised and quickly over. Then back up to the top decks for sail away. It was a breezy day, but sunny and pleasant for departure.
Stateroom -- I had booked a cat 1a inside stateroom, and expected to be on deck one or two, but was surprised to find it on "Upper" deck 6. It was room #6232 near the front of the ship. It was smaller than my room on the Sensation, but adequate for one or two people. Bathroom was also smaller but fine. I have read previous reviews where people complained that Carnival doesn't provide shampoo. I am pleased to advise that on this ship there were shampoo and shower gel dispensers in the shower stall. The hairdryer worked fine too. One noteable thing was that the cabin stewardess didn't appear to introduce herself ever. I am accustomed to them introducing themselves on the first day or evening of the cruise, therefore I cannot give her name, to say that she did a wonderful job at keeping my room clean, stocked with ice and towels, not to mention the adorable towel animals on my bed each night. I only saw her in passing in the hallways.
Ship -- The ship was exceptionally clean. I had read previous complaints about stained carpets and sewer smells, but none of this was evident on my cruise, or anywhere that I was on the ship. The ship is huge, but I had no trouble finding my way around. Plenty of elevators and never a long wait, except for days in port when everyone was wanting off the ship at once. The atrium and Capital Bar were very nice and there was a nice deck area off this area (The Lobby deck) on both sides of the ship where you could relax on a deck chair reading or snoozing unpestered by the poolside "hairy chest" contests etc. The upper decks near the pool were crowed by 10am, and chairs were very close to each other. Sadly people didn't follow the ship's policy of not hogging huge numbers of chairs for their "entourages". We saw many chairs with towels on them, but no one came back to them for long periods of time, so I can only assume that the policy is not enforced, and I'm sure it would be hard to do so. You could usually find some chairs up on the next deck up near the back of the ship.
Dining -- The food was certainly quite good with lots of variety. It was not as good as Celebrity, but was acceptable and in some cases surprisingly good. The buffet on the Lido deck was fine. There were salads, including a great caesar salad and several hot entrees and there was a carving station with ham, beef or jerked pork on the days I went. One of the buffet surprises was a very good Grouper dish. One doesn't normally find fish at a buffet that is not overcooked and dried out. There were many varieties of pizza, a calzone and caesar salads available 24 hrs/day. The NY deli, had great sandwiches, (Reuben, smoked meat, smoked salmon on a bagel and tuna or turkey salad on a country roll). Hong Kong noodle place looked fine, but I didn't try it. The hamburgers, hotdogs and fries were also good. Desserts at the buffet were a little bland, but usually I had no room in my stomach for them anyway. I had main seating in the London Dining room (6.15pm). The waiter Ninand from India and his assistant Sanja from Croatia were excellent. Their service was entertaining as well as efficient. Carnival did a fantastic job at matching me with a big table of great people. On my previous cruise on the Sensation, I thought I would never again have such a great group, but to my surprise this table was just as wonderful. The food in the dining room is definitely a cut above the buffet. I really liked the sweet and sour shrimp, the jerked pork, and prime rib. The lobster tail was a tad bit overdone, but not bad at all. The only disappointment in the dining room was the chateaubriand. I requested medium, but what I got was well done, no sign of pink. Ninand offered to replace it, but I just can't stand to throw out my food, and afterall it was edible, so I declined his offer. Room service was available 24 hours a day. I had it for breakfast two mornings and it was delivered on time and of good quality. (Breakfast is continental only.) One thing I wish Carnival would do in the buffet restaurant is to have trays available for you to carry your plates on. If you have salad on one plate, and hot food on another, you have to bring it to your table and then go get your beverage. My friend had her full plates of food removed from the table by the wait staff in the time it took her to go back for butter for her bread, and I twice just caught someone beginning to clear my table as I returned with my beverage. This is really only a problem for those of us who travel or dine alone in the buffet.
Bars -- there a lot of these and all are attractive with good service and entertainment. I liked the Capital bar in the Atrium on the Lobby deck. At times there was a man playing the piano, and other times were three young ladies, one on piano and two playing violin. This was a classy touch. A word of warning re drinks! If you drink mixed drinks like gin and tonic, scotch and soda, rum and coke etc., make sure you specify the house brand of liquor, otherwise they will give you the premium brand at a 1.00 something more than regular drink. Gin and tonic with Beefeater gin was $4.75 and with Tanqueray it was $5.95. Tasted the same to me, anyway this is the case unless you particularly like premium brands and are willing to pay extra. You could get drink of the day for $2.95, ie; bahama mama, yellow bird, planters punch, but up on the pool decks, unless you specify it will come in a big souvenir glass for $6.95. The big Easy bar was nice, but I liked the Venezia lounge where I went for captain's cocktail party (you will get a couple of free cocktails here), and the duo entertaining were called "2 Slick" and really enjoyed their music.
Casino -- One of the biggest I have seen on a ship. It has a good variety of slots and video poker. I didn't play any table games so can't comment there. If you play video poker, all the machines have a double up feature, and I don't recommend trying this, unless you like to gamble twice on the same bad odds play! Casino staff were friendly and helpful.
Entertainment -- I attended two Vegas type shows and they were excellent. The stage settings, costumes and the entertainers were all very impressive. The first show was on the 2nd night out of Miami and the seas were still quite rough, but these folks were able to dance and maintain their balance under difficult conditions. The cruise director, John Heald was great. He lives up to his wonderful reputation. His talks on the ports of call and tours were both informative and entertaining. The first two nights of the cruise were rough, but he managed to make light of the situation and had everyone laughing in the aisles. As for poolside entertainment, the Caribbean band by the pool was very good, but what I didn't like was that there was too much emphasis on the tacky "Hairy Chest" and "Survivor" type games, but this reflects only my reserved tastes and I have to say that most people poolside were really enjoying themselves at these spectacles.
Ports of Call -- I can't comment on tours, as I didn't take any. I had been to all these places before. The first port was San Juan. Because of the rough seas, we were 2 hours late arriving. As it is already a short evening stop, it was now shorter due arriving at 7pm and many excursions and tours were cancelled. No one has control over the weather, so there is no point in complaining. Most people made the best of it anyway. It was very pretty though, sailing into San Juan, passed the fort and Old San Juan. Next day we were in St Thomas. There were open sided canopied vans as taxis and it cost 3.00 each way to town. A regular taxi brought me back to the ship for the same price. I love St Thomas, especially those narrow walkways that run down from the main street to the waterfront. There are some great little shops and restaurants tucked away in there, and are worth exploring. I didn't shop for any jewelry, but liquor prices were very good. Next day we docked in St. Martin. Here you could take a water taxi from the pier to town for 5.00 all day, back and forth as many times as you want. I know of one nice tour called Two Countries One Island tour, that I did last year. It shows you the both the Dutch and the French sides of the island (separate countries) and the differences are noticeable. My friends did the excursion to Divi beach resort and had a great time. We met some other passengers off the other ships in port, that they had had some ports cancelled due to the rough seas, so we were lucky not to miss any of ours.
Debarkation -- This was probably what bothered me the most. Being a non US resident/citizen you must turn in your passport at check in. This is standard practice and is understandably necessary for customs formalities. On debarkation day you must claim your passports in a lounge on the ship before anyone is permitted to go ashore. I found this process to be very long on this cruise. It took almost an hour and a half of sitting waiting for your number to be called. On other ships, including on the Carnival Sensation, this was accomplished in about 30 mins. We didn't start getting off the ship until past 10am, and once having found my bag, I went outside to look for the bus to the airport. There was a big construction ditch of soft gravel and rocks and you had to get yourself and baggage across this in order to reach the bus. This could be dangerous for elderly passengers. Miami airport was also a madhouse. Next cruise I will not choose Miami to leave from, maybe Tampa or Ft Lauderdale instead. And I'm sorry I have to add this; Once again..Air Canada managed to RUIN my day bigtime! There was pandemonium at their counters!
Conclusion -- The cruise was wonderful. The negative things I have mentioned did not affect my experience in a major way. There is room for improvement in some areas, but the value received for the price is excellent. Carnival is still the only cruise line that doesn't gouge me financially to travel solo, and for this reason alone I will choose them again. I still like Celebrity better for those extra little touches, for the food and ambiance, but their prices are for the most part higher. All of this is only my humble opinion and is not meant to influence anyone, one way or another. I found most of the cruise reviews on this website and others to be of great help to me when I was preplanning my cruise. You will likely read some nasty reviews of your chosen ship before your trip, as I did, but all I can say is take what those totally negative reviewers say with a "grain of salt". Go with an open mind, and go determined to have a good time and you will. If there is something you don't like, note it, but don't dwell on it. You will have a wonderful cruise! Bon Voyage! HelenW