My wife and I cruised the Carnival Valor from 2 - 9 December. We are 37 and 32 and this was our first cruise. We have previously stayed at all-inclusive resorts and wanted to try a cruise. We thoroughly enjoyed the cruise and Carnival more than met or exceeded our expectations.
Pre Cruise: We flew from St Louis to Miami the day before and stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel near the port. This hotel is first-rate and is conveniently located near the Bayside Marketplace and the port. There were plenty of shops within walking distance and a Walgreens is just a few block away and is a good place to get some inexpensive water and soda. We spent some time at the Bayside Market Place and took a Thriller (high speed) boat ride which was well worth the $27 a person.
Embarkation: We arrived at the Port around 11:30 got processed in right away. Everything was very well organized and it took very little time to get on the ship. We were very impressed on how quick the lines moved and the friendliness of the employees. We entered the ship at the lobby level and were handed little maps of the ship. We also had the opportunity to meet with the Maitre' D to see about changing tables. It turns out we got the dining time we wanted and a nice table for eight in the middle of the Lincoln Dining Room.
Food/Dining Room Experience: We were very impressed with the quality and presentation of the food all week in both dining rooms and the buffet on the lido deck. We ate many breakfasts in the Washington Dining Room and also had lunch there a few times. The service was very good everywhere we went to include the fish in chips and the deli. We had the 6:15 dinner at the Lincoln Dining Room and our wait staff was simply amazing. They were very friendly and never missed a beat. I couldn't believe how hard they worked and that they also worked on the lido deck in addition to the dining room.
We were also very impressed with our Maitre' D Paul of the Lincoln Dining Room. He was always visible and made his way to each table nightly. He also ensured the dining room ran like clock work and orchestrated good entertainment after the meal was served. He spoke every evening for a few minutes and you could tell he was on top of his game. The dining room food was very good and always had a wide variety each evening and the lobster was plenty big and good. I ordered two entries twice during the week but was not able to get them on the same plate, but rather one at a time. We also ate at Scarlet's one evening and found it to be just okay and not really worth the extra money since the dining room food and selection was always great! We got along well with our tablemates Bob & Rita, Jim & Irina, and the newlywed couple Joe and Kristina. The first two couples were from Canada and the newlywed couple were from Philly. It was great how well we all got along and ran into each other all over the ship and in the ports.
Cabin: We had cabin number 1051 on the starboard side of the Panorama Deck and really enjoyed the location. It was very quiet and conveniently located to the lido deck and the gym. We originally booked an 8A cabin and were upgraded to an 8E cabin for free. I wouldn't pay much extra to stay there, but it was nice to have a balcony with no others above us.
Ship: The ship is maintained quiet well and we did not note any discrepancies. It is due to go to dry dock soon and will get the seaside theater installed along with some other enhancements. The ship was decorated with holiday decorations of Christmas and Hanukah. The layout of the ship is a little confusing at first, but is really pretty easy to figure out once you transverse it a few times.
Smoke: My wife and I are both non smokers but didn't find the ship to be too smoky. There were areas and times you could smell smoke, but it was never bad enough to negatively impact our vacation. I was surprised Carnival decided to hold afternoon tea in the Cigar Lounge, and that it was located next to the internet place. I did smell smoke on the balcony a few times but it honestly was not nearly as bad as I expected. This could change from week to week though depending on the makeup of the passengers. There were plenty of non smoking areas to include bars and lounges.
Kids: There were not a lot of kids on this cruise and most of the ones I encountered were very well behaved and were not unattended.
Entertainment: There was always something to do at all hours of the day. You could do as much or as little as you wanted to each day and there was always something to do for everyone. The pools and water slide were fun but the hot tubs were not very hot, but were nice to relax in anyway. We didn't use the casino, but it always seemed to have a lot of crowds when it was open. The production shows and other entertainment were pretty good and enjoyable. It is amazing how nice the theater is considering it is on a ship. Carnival brought in different entertainers who were all pretty funny. One night neither act made the ship and the entertainment staff came up with something on the fly. It wasn't the best, but at least they made an effort and something for us to watch. We did not participate in any of the games outside on the lido deck, but they did seem to be fun. We did take the galley tour on the last sea day and were amazed at the size of the kitchen and what the waiters go through each night to deliver our meal.
Cruise Director: Our cruise director was Chris Jefferson and he was funny and full of energy without being annoying. He did a good job and was able to role with the punches and adjust as necessary.
Staff: We were very impressed with every staff member we encountered all week. The cabin steward Marvin from Costa Rica has been with Carnival for 18 years. He kept the room clean and the ice bucket full at all times. We never encountered a rude person or someone who was unwilling to help.
Ports of Call: We visited Nassau, St Thomas and St Martin. We booked the dolphin swim at Blue Lagoon with Carnival. The excursion was $185 with Carnival and $165 if we booked directly with Dolphin Encounters. We chose to pay the difference and book with Carnival since they would take us straight from where we docked. We took a tour with Godfrey in St Thomas and it was okay but nothing special. We also took a tour with Victor of SXM Tours in St Martin and were very impressed. There were eight of us on the tour and Victor gave us the VIP treatment and took us all over to include an island tour, beach time, and plenty of shopping time.
Disembarkation: We had a late flight scheduled and were given group number 22 out of 26. We were off the ship and through customs by 10:30 and it was an incredibly smooth process. Carnival does a good job in getting everyone off the ship in an orderly fashion and they also explain the process well. The new terminal is very nice and easy to navigate and in my opinion is worth the $1.29 per person charge. It was also easy to get a taxi to take us to the airport.
Overall: We had a great time and were pleased with our experience on the Carnival Valor. We did run into some passengers who were very rude and had unrealistic expectations considering Carnival is a mass market/budget cruise line. Some people were just very cranky, rude, and obnoxious (very small number thankfully). We would cruise with them again or try one of their other lines such as Princess. I did find myself having to guard the wallet the entire trip since Carnival makes it very convenient and enticing to buy things on the ship. I thought the photographers and the photo thing to be a rip off but did purchase one 5X7 and one 8X10. Some of the stores advertised special sales that really were not sales at all.