My Fiance and I, along with 22 guests, met in South Beach the night before departure. Everyone came together to celebrate our wedding, which was to take place on Megan's Bay, in St. Thomas. We chose an Eastern Caribbean Cruise, with ports in San Juan, St. Thomas and St. Martin.
Everyone stayed at various hotels in South Beach. We, along with four couples, stayed at Essex House. It was a nice hotel, conveniently located to numerous activities in South Beach. Many couples had great difficulty with air travel. We highly suggest traveling to the departure city the night prior to cruise.
We left for the Port of Miami at approximately 11:00 am. We all took taxis to the port, which cost approximately $20 per taxi. The taxi dropped us off at the terminal, and we dropped of our bags. We then headed inside the terminal to begin the embarkation process.
It was not the smoothest process we have experienced; however it went smoothly. For example, we were VIPs (we did not know this) due to our wedding. We stood in line with everyone else. Once we were registered, we were informed that we needed to visit the VIP lounge in order to pick up our sign and sail cards. Once in the VIP lounge, we were told to return to the registration counter. Eventually, we received our cards, and we boarded the ship.
After reading many negative reviews regarding the decor of the ship, we were pleasantly surprised with the ship. The ship is fairly easy to navigate, if you know the layout prior to boarding.
We had a balcony room, on the Panorama deck. The room was spacious and inviting. During our stay, our Steward, Imade, kept everything looking great. He was very personable and friendly.
The first night of the cruise, we had to attend dinner in our "travel clothes", as our luggage had not arrived. However, after a great dinner, we returned to find our luggage in our room!
The food was average, as to be expected with mass production. It was probably better than most reviews give credit. The lido lines are long, but they move quickly. There are numerous options for those who are picky eaters. We never had a problem locating a seat, and they were quickly cleaned after use. We highly suggest trying the Fish and Chips bar, and as always, we greatly enjoyed the pizza bar. The Sun King is something everyone should experience. The dessert was AMAZING!
The entertainment was above average. We greatly enjoyed the first comedian, as well as the ventriloquist. The shows were great as well. My fiance greatly enjoyed the NCAA Finals on the seaside theater.
We spent several nights in the piano bar, which is always a great time. My fiance donated money to the casino several nights as well. The only real complaint regarding entertainment is the fact that most bars/lounges allow smoking. The smoke filters throughout the fifth floor. It is a little frustrating to walk through all of the smoke on the way to the dining room.
The first port of call was San Juan. Most of our group did not book excursions through Carnival. Instead, they completed individual tours. There are many tour guides waiting outside the ship. We took a group tour for $10 each. We had a great time.
The next port of call was St. Thomas. We are kind of impartial to this port, as we were married on Megan's Bay. We used Sunny Liston Tours, which was a great experience. They went above and beyond to meet our needs. It is very easy to navigate the island without booking at Carnival excursion.
We had our reception in Scott's Piano Bar the night we left St. Thomas. We used Carnival Group Services to book our reception. We were not satisfied with this process. First, our tables were not assigned as we requested. This was easily corrected by our group. When I met the sing along piano guy, he informed me that he no longer does private shows. We had been informed that we would have a sing along piano player for our reception. Carnival told us (once on board) that we would not have this option. This was a huge disappointment. In fact, had we known this going in, we would have skipped the reception on the ship, and would have celebrated on the island. Also, the group sales dept. requested that we send a picture of the cake we wanted. The cake looked absolutely NOTHING like the picture. Not at all. However, it tasted great. (Luckily, we used a private wedding coordinator and photographer for our wedding). I highly suggest hiring private professionals in order to ensure you get what you request.
Our last port of call was St. Martin. My new husband and I decided to break away from the group for a lazy beach day. Once again, we used cabs, which were $6 each way. We spent the day on Orient Beach. It was perhaps one of the most beautiful beaches we have ever visited.
We decided to do self-assist debarkation, as we had a 10:45 flight out of Miami. They began self-assist at 7:15 am, and we were in the cab at 8:00 am. Very smooth process.
Pros: Friendly staff, nice itinerary, variety of activities, variety of dining options. The Sun King is great...an amazing experience. We also highly recommend the Spa Staff. They were very professional and competent. I found John Heald's blog to be very beneficial in securing appointments and reservations. Please take a look at his sight if you are using Carnival. The cruise director, Todd, was very funny and witty. Carnival usually has a drink special that is reasonably priced. Carnival Freedom has interactive TV, where you can book excursions and check account activity from the comfort of your room.
Cons: DO NOT USE CARNIVAL GROUP SERVICES!!!! This was a major disappointment, and we will not use them again. Dining staff was rather slow. We had a group of three tables. Two tables were normally finished with dessert by the time we received our entrees. However, the servers were friendly. The music on lido deck is too loud! We spend most of our time on lido deck, near the back of the ship. We found this area to be much more peaceful.
Overall, our group of 24 had a great time. We would highly recommend this cruise to anyone...just stay away from the Group Services. We had such a great time, we are planning another group vacation for our anniversary!