We just returned from our first Carnival cruise aboard the Valor. We had 5 in our party, and this was our 15th cruise (17th for one of our party). We have sailed on Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Holland America, and Princess. Ages 77, 50, 49, 19, 17.
Ports included Belize, Roatan, and Grand Cayman with 3 sea days.
We stayed at the Holiday Inn, Port of Miami. We stayed there once before and in both cases were not disappointed. An excellent hotel, just across the street from the cruise port. Although close, you can't walk to the port from the hotel, but there is a shuttle for $5 per person that you arrange through the concierge that will drop you off at the ship. The hotel is just across the street from a huge mall with shopping and many restaurants. We walked across and had a late dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe.
Embarkation was a breeze. We arrived at about 11:15 and dropped our bags off with the porters. (Remember to give them $1 per bag). Scooted through the scanners and into the main embarkation area. Right up to an agent, got our cards, and were on the ship in less than half an hour. The rooms weren't ready, but they never are on cruise ships until early afternoon, so, as anticipated, we just made our way to the upper decks and got something to eat.
The kids started exploring, and went to our rooms at about noon and found them done and ready.
Food: Excellent quality and selection. One of the things we all commented on was that throughout the cruise, the lines for the restaurant were never more than a few people, even during the busy times. The design of the buffet lines is such that it tends to split everyone up into different areas, so it isn't as crowded as on other ships (and our ship was full to capacity as it was a Christmas cruise).
There are also alternatives to the buffet line such as the Sushi Bar, the Deli Bar, Fish and Chips, Pizza, and, of course the main restaurants. The deli wraps at the deli were the best. Better than most restaurants on shore. The pizza was great. Service was fast and friendly.
Food in the main restaurant was as good or better than on other cruise lines. The service staff was great. No complaints. Try the warm cake and ice cream desert! It's not listed on the menu each night, but it's always available if you ask. The bread rolls were outstanding. We all commented that they were better than on any other cruise we've taken.
We ate at Scarlet's Restaurant one night. It was worth the $30 cover charge. Very personal service and excellent presentation and quality. One note: The earliest you can get reservations is 6:00 pm. That's the best time as you will probably have the place to yourself for a while. Also, the restaurant is directly below the basketball court, but the court closes at 6:00 pm. We heard the end of the game for a few minutes with the sound of people jumping and the ball being bounced. The usually let the people finish their game and close the court, so you might hear the noises for a few minutes. I like to remember that those people are having just as much fun as you are, and they don't mean to be making noise in the restaurant, so there is no reason to get upset because they are having fun, too.
If you go to Scarlet's, save room for the deserts...some of the best we have ever had, and the presentation is without equal! Incredible, and they are BIG!
Bar Staff: Overall good. Some are outstanding, a few aren't, but that's about par for the course. We found that the deck service was far superior to that of other lines. Much more personal and frequent. On some lines, if you are on one of the upper decks, you may never see a bar server come by. Not so on Carnival.
One complaint: The unlimited cola package is like most ships and lines, except on the Valor they dispense the cola from cans instead of from the "well" that you normally see on ships and in bars. This caused a problem as I usually take an insulated cooler (the same size as the one that Carnival will sell you) with me and just have it filled with cola using my cola card. A few of the bartenders were pretty stingy and would only put in as much as would fit in a glass. Some were much better and would fill it right up. I brought this to the attention of Guest Relations, but I don't know if it will do any good.
A hint: If you go to the same bar and pick out a good bartender, and tip them well on the first day, you will get MUCH better service throughout the cruise from that person. An occasional $1 tip here and there through the week will also help.
The cola package is more expensive than on other ships and lines, but the drink prices were somewhat less.
Entertainment: We don't usually go to the production shows, so no comment on those. The juggler was fair to poor, the comedians were fair except for one who was excellent and one who was above average.
Casino: Didn't spend much time here this cruise. For the time we were there, we noticed that the dealers were very inexperienced. Lots of problems at the roulette table where people weren't getting paid off correctly, dealer missing wins, calling no more bets too soon and so on. Perhaps they just had a new crew of casino workers. Of note: Carnival is the only line we've been on to have penny and nickel slot machines. All the others have quarter and up. Slots were as tight as on any ship. One person did win $5000 though.
Ship: Overall, very clean, and comfortable. One of the quietest ships we've ever been on. Very little vibration, no outside noise to speak of when the cabin and verandah doors are closed. Only occasional propeller noise in the dining room when maneuvering from port.
This ship has more elevators that any other ship we've been on. Almost never a wait for a lift, even when the large tenders get to the ship.
Security: Security people are everywhere on the ship. This is good, and probably that Carnival is doing everything it can to improve it's reputation. They weren't in the way, but were very visible.
Belize: Tendering in Belize is a 15 minute ride to shore. We booked a shore excursion through www.shoretrips.com and went to the theater to wait. High praise for Carnival here. They announced that you needed to check in if you had a private tour arranged, and then made sure that the private excursion people got on the right tender to make it to shore on time. Ten tips of the hat to Carnival for this one, as we've been on ships that act as if you have a disease if you don't book your excursion through the ship, and will actually delay your departure if you don't. We did a scuba trip and the kids did zip lines and cave tubing (you could only do one or the other through the ships excursions, but can do both through www.shoretrips.com. My mom did a tour through the ship for the sights of Belize. All were great. The people in Belize are some of the friendliest on the planet.
Roatan: Docked here, so no surprises with getting off and back on the ship. Four of us did a couple of dives and one did the sights of Roatan. Beautiful island.
Grand Cayman: Short tender ride. The only time on the ship to have long lines and slow departure. Once to shore we found that in the last year since we've been to Grand Cayman, they have added a couple more tender piers, and a bunch of stores at the pier. The kids did jet skis and we did the Stingray City Scuba Dive, both through www.shoretrips.com.
Back in Miami: Debarkation was fairly easy. There was about and hour hold-up because customs got behind, but other than that, very easy. We always take our baggage with us off the ship to save time and the hassle of going to the baggage clam to get it. The transfer purchased through Carnival to the airport was uneventful and pleasant.
All in all one of the best cruises we've taken, and we will certainly book again with Carnival.