These back to back cruises were our sixth and seventh cruises, and our second and third time on Carnival. Since our 2004 sail on Carnival Valor we can say decidedly that Carnival has cheapened the entire experience except for the food on the Lido deck. The worst addition is a giant screen TV blasting CNN most of the day on the Lido deck. Who wants to go on vacation to watch CNN while trying to relax on the Caribbean? Not us. The food in the main dining room has gotten much cheaper in quality. Our first waiter has been with Carnival for over 15 years, and he admitted that the food is at an all time low. Our second waiter was incompetent, and didn't know anything about food. The new stir fry station and Indian food station on lido are both really good. Breakfast in the lido buffet and in the main dining room is exactly the same everyday, and is very boring. Breakfast for us was just a chore to get some nutrition, and was never once enjoyable whether on lido or in the main dining room. We tried room service three times for breakfast but they never showed up because they never picked the order form off our door!
Overall ranking of cruise: 5 stars maximum Main Dining room - 2.5 stars Lido Specialty (Indian, deli sandwiches and Stir Fry) - 5 stars Lido Breakfast - 1 star Main Dining Room Breakfast and Lunch - 1 star Gym - 2 stars Room 7453 - 4 stars Room 8208 - 3 stars Entertainment in Theater - 0 stars Jazz, Classical Trio and Piano Bar - 5 stars Pay for dinner club - 5 stars
The cruise director was extremely annoying. Everyday, several times, he would come on the PA system which was EXTREMELY LOUD and talk about gold by the inch, bingo and other stupid things. He usually talked for a 5-10 minutes. We hated this guy and his loud disruptive nonsense.
Bar snacks. Each day the bar snacks are different and enjoyable. On Celebrity Summit they don't have any bar snacks, which is silly.
We went to two shows in the main show room, and they make everyone sit through an unbearable 30 minute bingo game before the show starts, even though the Bingo might be scheduled at 10pm, show at 10:30 they always ran 30 minutes behind in order to increase their earnings of $10 Bingo cards. We got so angry both times that we got up and left and told the staff exactly what we thought about being promised a show but instead being sold bingo. That was totally unacceptable. They said, wait, it will be over in 20 minutes. We told them off.
The remainder of this review deals with our day-to-day experiences.
DAY ZERO. We arrived a day early and stayed at the Hyatt Regency downtown Miami. The Carnival people at the airport were idiots and said "we don't use that hotel". Duh! We have stayed in +100 hotels and this was the noisiest hotel we have ever been in. They have apparently no sound proofing between rooms or hallway, especially with a connecting room door. The TV was new high-definition, but the signal was analog and everything was distorted. Again, the place is staffed by lazy idiots except the concierge who was helpful in directing us to a drugstore and liquor store with discount coupons.
DAY ONE. The embarkation process in Miami is much improved from 2004. The new terminal is beautiful and while the lines were huge and daunting we were on board in less than 20 minutes. Despite being repeat cruisers we were put in the early dinner spot even though we had requested late dinner seating: if you want the late seating show up at 1:30 at the main dining room to reschedule your dinner time. We arrived at the waiting area at 3:15 and had to wait an hour to get rescheduled. With 3590 people on board there were no free seats - the most passengers in the ships history due to many families for Christmas vacations. Double occupancy is <3k.
Our recommendation to the entire cruise industry: upon registering for the cruise let people opt out of dinner in the main dining room. There were many, many tables in the main dining room open the entire cruise, while many others wanted those seats. We do not want to see Carnival going to open seating like Norwegian as we prefer having consistent dinner companions and wait staff.
The luggage arrived really quickly. We got onboard at 12:30 and luggage was at the room by 2 pm.
Surprisingly, Carnival appears to have relaxed its insane restrictions on liquids. We both came on board with a bottle of water and nobody was there to check if they were in fact vodka. Had we known that we would have brought more booze onboard. The booze in our luggage made it to the room fine.
Upon arrival we ate at the Fish and Chips restaurant above the lido deck because we heard on cruise critics how popular it would be. On our two weeks the place was always abandoned because the food was too greasy and salty, and also most people do not realize its location because of no elevator service to that area. The fresh salads were not properly seasoned or flavored.
Dinner on day 1 in the main dining room was an excellent rack of lamb (but they ruined the same menu item on week 2 by cooking the lamb well done). The lamb was fantastic, with fresh herbs, and done a nice rare/medium rare. The hickory smoked salmon with fish roe and capers was an excellent appetizer (but had a completely different sauce (Ranch Dressing) the second week).
The alternative menu in the main dining room is a bit strange in that one day it is different, and offers barbecued pork ribs. These were extremely sweet, but still OK. Our waiter brought a hot towel to clean up after the ribs and a fresh napkin, which is a really nice touch. As we said, one waiter was experienced and knowledgeable, the other for the second week was a complete amateur that knew nothing about service or food.
The PEPPER SHAKERS suck. The holes are too small and no pepper comes out. This is a huge problem everywhere on the ship. They need to toss these pepper shakers and get new ones.
DAY 2. The breakfast lines at lido were extremely long. How can people be so stupid? How hard is it to get food from a buffet? Idiots were standing there for up to a minute trying to decide what to take. The fault was the passengers, not Carnival. By day three people weren't so slow.
Lunch in the main dining room was gross. We ended up not eating lunch in the main dining room again, whereas on other ships we never ate lunch on lido. The soup was disgusting, the bread cold, and service was terrible.
The Captain's reception. Nice, lot's of free booze. We went to the bar and ordered exactly what we wanted. Appetizers were horrible, clearly frozen big store fare instead of being something fresh from the galley.
Afternoon Tea: good classical music. Desserts were really disappointing and tasted flat.
Cigar Bar. The live jazz before and after dinner was great. The only way to get to the internet bar is through the cigar bar, and we were continually disrupted by annoying people complaining about the smoke-filled cigar bar. Carnival needs to relocate the Internet site on future ships.
Formal Dinner. The majority of people dressed up. There were few men in Tuxedos, but lots of suits. There were tons of really noisy children. You must have a tolerance for them to enjoy your dinner. The lobster was overdone to the rubbery stage and we couldn't eat it. The fake butter along with it was the most disgusting thing we've ever been served on a cruise. It was some horrible fake oil product that had turned rancid. The stuffed mushrooms were swimming in bEchamel sauce (as was most the food throughout the week), and that made them gross. The grilled Tiger Shrimp were good. The inappropriate use of bEchamel sauce and other mistakes make us believe that there was no senior chef on board. The duck was good, nice and rare. The sauce was way too sweet because of a huge excess of raisins, definitely the sauce was terrible. The strongly flavored turnip/potato mash accompaniment was excellent with the lamb. It is nice that the waiters come by with warm bread instead of dumping a basket on each table, which just leads to waste.
Ron Pass in the piano bar. www.ronpass.com. He is awesome. He was the best thing about our cruises. Buy him an absolute Citron martini. In hindsight we should have tipped him more often.
The MAIN DINING ROOM has a lot of booths, like a cheap burger joint. It is IMPOSSIBLE to properly serve food in a booth; they are unacceptable and incompatible with fine dining. Carnival should rip out all their booths and replace them with tables or banquettes.
The midnight adult comedian was OK, we skipped the main show.
DAY THREE. Cozumel. We booked a shore excursion through Carnival visiting the ruins of Tulum. There is lots of waiting around so be sure to bring water, a hat, sun screen and perhaps a book. We always suggest ear plugs to drown out the few noisy idiots on the tour bus. The bus stops at a cheap trinket shop with expensive prices - a lot of down time that we spent reading. The Mayan ruins themselves are nice, but are surrounded by shops with lots of high pressure salespeople trying to get you to buy their cheap crap. They are very annoying and bothersome. Fortunately, the salesmen are not allowed in the actual historic area. There is a nice swimming area right in the historic park. You can purchase a ride to the ruins from the shopping area for $2, we highly recommend this as then you are not bothered by salespeople on the ¼ mile walk.
The Ultramar Ferry crossing from Cozumel to the mainland is quite rough even with smooth seas. Take some motion sickness pills if you are susceptible. Once again bring ear plugs as annoying commercials play the entire time, along with salespeople on board.
Dinner. The French onion soup was very good (but not fantastic like that in the pay for supper club). The prosciutto had very strange accompaniments such as cold eggplant and fried, greasy zucchini. A classic presentation of prosciutto would have been much better. The penne seafood entrEe as an appetizer was good the first week with a rich seafood flavor, but watery and not edible the second week.
The entrEe of BEEF SHORT RIBS was not ribs, but just pot roast. Apparently they have never actually served ribs on Freedom. We do not like it when the menu's are complete fabrications. The resulting pot-roast entrEe was terrible. The JERK PORK LOIN was also terrible. It was not jerked at all. Instead it was flavored with two incompatible sauces: one was Indian (garam marsala) and the second was yet another heavy dose of bEchamel tarragon sauce. Combined these two sauces were really gross. The same pot roast also appears in place of Chateaubriand later in the week.
We ordered the cheeses for desert, and they are the same every evening and of very poor quality. On Valor just 3 years ago the waiter would come around with a tray of nice cheeses that changed every day, now it is just the same four cheap boring cheeses daily. This was our greatest disappointment about how Carnival has cheapened their dining experience. It's really sad that even when special cheeses are part of entrees they still don't offer them for the desert cheese course. There is goat cheese available on pizzas on the Lido deck but they wouldn't put Goat Cheese in the main dining room. Because so few people order cheese for desert it wouldn't cost them much to keep something classy.
Day FOUR. The people in the balcony above us kept throwing cigarettes overboard. Idiots.
At the piano bar on Christmas Eve there were several out of control drunks totally ignoring the music, very annoying. Security had to be called and that was the first time we've ever seen that have to happen. The Piano Bar is a popular location due to Ron and if a person doesn't wish to participate with the music around the bar they should give up their seat on the revolving piano bar to those of us who enjoy the music.
LUNCH at the deli sandwich shop on the Lido was fantastic, better than many cities like Minneapolis, LA, Austin, etc. Sorry, but we can't compare to delis in NY.
We discovered that near the central lido pool there is an INDIAN FOOD COUNTER. It is excellent! Too bad it is the same each day, but they have wonderful tandori chicken and their fish is fantastic. Their roasted garlic dip is awesome. When they open and close isn't posted so that is annoying and seems to change daily. The people working in the Indian place were among the few rude crew members.
CHRISTMAS DINNER. The Tuna/salmon sushi starter was pretty to look at and overall quite good. The duck confit was a nice duo of duck with breast on top. It was served over guacamole, which is unusual but a surprisingly good combination. The consomme was over salted and could not be eaten, the other consommEs during the cruise were all excellent. On other cruise lines the consommEs were typically just commercial broths containing an incredible amount of salt. The Chilean sea bass was cooked properly and delicious. However, it was served in a bowl of beurre blanc sauce, like a disgusting butter soup. A little sauce would have been OK, but a bowl full? What were they thinking? Clearly, there is no experienced head chef on this ship because the mistakes are so shocking. The jumbo scallops are rather small, about the size of a quarter, and the entrEe only comes with a few of them. They were placed on an enormous pile of plain rice, enough for a family. There was no saffron in their saffron rice. Also on the plate was a big dollop of thousand island dressing as a sauce, which is unacceptable for fine dining. The desserts were terrible. There was a strawberry cake with strawberry coulis that turned out to be just canned strawberry jam - it was terrible by any standard. There was goat cheese in one of the entrees, but it didn't make its way to the desert plate once again.
DAY FIVE. At a lido breakfast we discovered the worst sausage ever made: some cold greasy thing next to the sliced cold ham (which is OK). (The sausage in the hot area is OK). We wanted room service this day, but they never picked up our order card from the door, and this happened three times to us. So, breakfast room service on board Freedom is unacceptable because it is non-existent. We noticed several other breakfast orders also had not been picked up from other rooms.
Grand Cayman. They use local tenders which is much faster than using the ships life boats. The kayaking tour was OK, but the area was devastated three years ago by hurricane Ivan. There is a platform for convenient snorkeling, and there is some living coral, lots of new small coral, sea grass, sting rays, HUGE lobsters, and we saw a 5 foot nurse shark.
The shopping in Grand Cayman is very nice as nobody hassled us. It was so pleasant compared to the annoying pressure and poverty of Mexico. You can buy alcohol at the duty free that is delivered to your room at the end of the cruise (or start of your back to back second cruise). We found a restaurant called Breezes (near the pier) that served excellent spicy conch fritters and strong drinks.
DINNER. The mussels and shrimp duo was simple but tasty. The wonton soup was NOT wonton soup, it was not Chinese at all, and the dominate flavor was Thai fish sauce. The langoustine entrEe contained no langoustines, but instead they were crawfish. The tiny tasty pieces of crawfish were accompanied by a good fennel salad. The mahi mahi entrEe was completely over cooked like canned tuna and was inedible. The beef Wellington was properly prepared medium rare, the crust was crispy, the mushroom compote was excellent. Probably the Beef Wellington was among the best dishes in the main dining room over our two weeks. The tiramisu for dessert was a strange interpretation and not good. The bitter and blanc vanilla bread pudding was crispy on top, creamy inside, and without a doubt (we didn't expect this) it was by far the best dessert of the two weeks at sea.
DAY SIX. Ocho Rios, aka, "Taxi? Taxi? You want a TAXI?" There are police on every second street corner, all within eye sight of one another, with shot guns. It appears that this level of policing is necessary in this terribly poor country.
Breakfast in the main dining room. The menu is the same everyday, so don't expect anything special here anymore. We had the disappointing Eggs Benedict that were prepared in advance so the egg yolks were hard and the hollandaise was dried out. Last time on Carnival the eggs Benedict was perfect. There is grapefruit juice in the dining room which is not available from room service or on the lido deck. Since so few people order poached eggs they were typically properly done, unless you ordered the Eggs Benedict.
In Ocho Rios we found the local post office to mail postcards. The lines were frighteningly long, but most everyone was there to pay their utility bills. In the corner stamps are sold and there was no line there. We tipped a local guy $1 for helping us, but he was upset that we didn't tip more. It cost $16 to mail 19 post cards. The postcards took 3 weeks to make it to our friends and family The beach costs $3, and unfortunately once inside you still can't escape locals asking you for money, selling you cheap souvenirs, or to rent you a chair for $5, or a boat, etc. Very annoying. The water and sand was very clean. The jerked chicken being sold on the beach smelled fantastic, but when we realized that they were using the same tongs to pick up the raw chicken and then directly serving the cooked chicken we decided to skip.
We found a nicely stocked supermarket and bought a bottle of local rum for only $3. It was tasty, and Carnival let us bring it on board in our back packs. We had a drink at a hotel right near the pier that was weak and over priced. The drinks on Grand Cayman are much better and cheaper.
For lunch we had Indian again from the lido deck, and it was excellent.
FORMAL DINNER. Once again the menu didn't actually match the food that arrived. Everything was boring. The delice of the ocean appetizer consisted of one shrimp, one tiny scallop and a bit of hickory smoked salmon. The smoked salmon flavor didn't go well at all with the other items, which were good. The lobster bisque was poor and barely acceptable. It tasted a bit like dish water. The fish entrEe of grouper was boring, but grouper is difficult to ruin or over cook. The jumbo shrimp entrEe was good but the potato served with it was boring.
DAY SEVEN. LUNCH was at the stir fry station. We had to wait 45 minutes to get through the line (only 18 people in front of us), so bring a book with you. The selections were very good, with snow peas, sea weed, three kinds of cabbage, and some American stuff. The sauces are very authentic, spicy, tasty and hot.
We also sampled the Chinese station (opposite the sandwich bar) several times, and their food was never good.
The escargots at dinner were excellent, but a piece of bread served with it was saturated in butter and absolutely disgusting. The wild mushroom soup was not as advertised, it was just simple button mushroom soup, possibly from a can. The crab/lobster cake was acceptable. The quail was way over stuffed and terribly overcooked and dried out. But, if you get two entrees you can find enough good bits to make you happy. The vanilla soufflE was acceptable.
Day 8/Day 1 of cruise 2.
At 7 am loud announcements begin for debarkation by 'zones' (we were anticipating these announcements as all major cruise lines also do this). Breakfast lines were OK. For back to back cruise debarkation we were told to meet in the lobby at 10:15. After a short wait they brought us off the ship, through customs, and then right back on before anyone else got on board. We got our new ship cards handed to us while we were waiting briefly in customs . The process took 55 minutes because of an unnecessary 30 minute delay due to another passenger not leaving the ship (not a Carnival problem), but otherwise the process is very smooth. We switched rooms, and our luggage was moved to the new room, and clothes didn't have to be removed from hangers.
We immediately made dinner reservations at the pay-for specialty restaurant Sun King (excellent). Make your reservations as soon as you get aboard or it will be full. It was strange being on board right away as the lido deck was empty... and there was no line at the stir fry station. The cook was surprised to see us again. The purser delivered a bottle of Champaign and fruit basket to our room in appreciation of back to back cruising. We did some laundry on this day ($2 for 26 minute wash, $2 dry for 48 minutes).
DAY 9. Sea Day. We got drunk. Lots of fun!
DAY 10. Puerto Rico. We arrived around 4pm (scheduled was 5:30) Their old town reminds us of Pasadena or any city that has turned its old buildings into upscale shops and expensive restaurants. It was nice, but there's no reason to go back there. The Coach factory outlet store had good deals.
Dinner was at Sun King (the pay for supper club). The service is well below average for an upscale restaurant. They kept screwing up the flatware and glasses, and they kept mixing up our bottled water with tap water. We made a special request on our lobster, not wanting it overcooked, and the chef himself came out to inquire about what we wanted. The result was among the best lobster we've ever had, slightly translucent in the center and very tender. The French Onion soup is FANTASTIC. One of the best foods we have ever had the privilege of enjoying, and definitely world class. There's no comparison to the same soup in the main dining room. The beef Carpaccio is now just tenderloin, no longer Kobe beef (or Wagyu beef), which was disappointing. Skip it and just get a rare tenderloin steak. The Caesar salad is a stupid deconstructed interpretation, skip it and get another appetizer instead. With the bread that is served there is a trio of toppings - butter and two delicious sauces, one tomato and one egg plant. The tomato is amazing, just like I remember from my garden years ago... Breads were all authentic, but too rich with all that food, we suggest the simple baguette. The surf and turf was excellent. The pumpkin tortellini was delicious and properly sauced. The fennel in puff pastry was bitter and a nice counterpoint to all the sweet lobster/steak and pumpkin on the plate. We had the cheeses for dessert, much better cheeses than are served in the dining room.
NEXT DAYS: We got bored and stopped taking notes.
We had nice balconies for our trip, but at times it would have been nice to spread out more on Lido. However, the lounge chair hogs had essentially every chair "reserved". What's up with all these rude people? Carnival should make a clear statement that saving of chairs is not allowed.
Comments for Carnival: Replace your pepper shakers, bring back good cheeses in the main dining room.
The tissues on the back of the restroom doors to cover the door handle upon exiting are a good addition but most people have no idea what to do with them (they try to dry their hands with them). A small sign posted on the back of doors would be a good idea. We also strongly recommend that hand sanitizers be brought back to the Lido deck as most people are slobs. That is, anything taken from Lido with a tongs contaminates your hands, but most of the food is "hand food". If you really want to avoid getting sick use alcohol hand wipes after getting your food but before you touch it. Just think if it, a thousand people might have touched those tongs before you, and most haven't washed their hands.
Dining Room: In comparison to three years ago on the Valor service and quality of food has diminished significantly. There was no pheasant this cruise, no squab, lamb served only once a cruise (and overcooked once to the point it was ruined), no frog legs, and escargot only one night in two weeks. The breakfast menu being the same everyday is extremely boring, they should go back to having at least one special for breakfast everyday especially in the main dining room.
GYM: The quality of the elliptical machines is unacceptable. They are already worn out after less than half a year. There is no sign up sheet so getting a machine is a bit like a free for all, which is uncivilized and completely unacceptable. We were in the gym every day, but never once did they wash any equipment, and the male gym director smells bad. They also have a big TV in front of the elliptical exercise machines playing CNN. If Carnival insists on having the big TV on they should turn off the sound and use closed-captioning. There is no typical motivating gym music, just the blathering from CNN. The second week the gym was extremely warm, like the thermostat was broken.
All cruise ships should make it an option for guests to opt out of formal dinner since so many people never go anyway.
In summary, we think that consolidation in the cruise industry has allowed them to stop offering many of the little extra perks that made cruising special. So far our least favorite cruise line by far is NCL (Wind, Hawaii 2005), and our favorite experience was Carnival Valor (Eastern Caribbean). Otherwise, we think Carnival Freedom, Celebrity Summit and Golden Princess are all essentially identical, except that Carnival and Princess have more nightlife than NCL or Celebrity. The food on all of them is now the same, except on NCL, where the food is really terrible. One thing Carnival does much better than NCL, Princess or Celebrity is the pay-for supper club. The food is fantastic and well worth the extra price, whereas on the other cruise lines the food in the supper club was actually worse than in the main dining room.