This was our first cruise, and we decided on Carnival for their family fun reputation. We're a family of four consisting of myself-38, my wife-39, our daughter-12, and our son-7. We definitely weren't disappointed, but did find some room for improvement, as I'll detail later.
We flew Southwest into Fort Lauderdale Friday night and stayed at the Hilton Fort Lauderdale International. Wonderful hotel as far as we could tell, as we had a late arrival (10pm). The staff was extremely friendly, the room nice, and the proximity to the airport is unbeatable. If your schedule allows, eat breakfast at the hotel. Pricier than average of course, but the food was spectacular!
Saturday morning, off to Miami. We rented from Enterprise, and they have a drop-off at the Hilton right on Biscayne Blvd where you can get a shuttle for $20 for the whole family to the ship, with a ride of only 6-7 minutes. Embarkation could not have been simpler, not to mention comfortable, with the large and well staffed terminal. Breezed through check-in, then straight to the Lido deck for lunch and drinks. Those refills just seemed to appear whenever our drinks got low with the extra bar staff covering the masses gathering on deck. Our room was ready by 12:30, and being so close to the main pool/pool bars/buffet was great. The door separating the main hall from the stateroom hallway made for a few precarious juggling acts of drinks, bags, etc to open, but cut down on noise almost completely. The balcony was a nice luxury, and my wife and I locked ourselves out there shortly after leaving port to enjoy Champagne and canapes while the kids explored the camp schedules inside the room. One serious drawback to our room; it is actually UNDER a portion of the deck 10 and 11 pool areas, making for a lot of noise from overhead on the couple times we tried to take a regenerative nap. We explored the ship a good bit on Saturday, got the kids registered for camp, then off to dinner, which brings us to the food. I'll start from the Lido deck and work my way down and back to the dining room.
Lido and Grand buffet; cafeteria food. Not great, but nothing to seriously complain about if you think of it as your least gourmet option, which is exactly what it is. We really disliked the midnight buffet, however. Wonderful to look at, but amongst the four of us, we sampled 5-6 regular dishes and the same amount of desserts, and found nearly every item to be long on presentation, and VERY short on flavor. Anything chocolate based was delicious, everything else tasteless. The New York Deli, Pizzeria, and Burger Grill were always fresh and delicious for quick and easy lunching. My wife and I had dinner in the Paris dining room every night (three times as a whole family), and twice for family breakfast. The food was four-star flavor, with three-star presentation each and every time. We recommend you try any and all of the Georges Blanc selections. Every one we tried was delicious, even the lamb chops, which my wife normally isn't fond of. Only item disliked during the entire seven dinners was the Grand Marnier souffle. Soggy, too eggy, and bland. You must try the baked apple with waffle for breakfast. Stellar combo!
The rest of the ship; didn't shop onboard at all, except photos, some of which were exceptionally well done. The photo shoots were sometimes annoying on the Promenade deck, creating pedestrian traffic jams, but as a photographer myself, I recognized the staff was adept at getting decent shots quickly, and a few really took some professional quality, which we were willing to pay for. Enjoyed the casino, mostly during the day when it was neither busy nor smoky, and won at blackjack all but once, and broke even that time. Always more fun when you're winning.
The spa staff was top notch, but the services not nearly as good as we've experienced elsewhere, and the prices were steeper than all but the best spas we've been to. Save your money here, and just use the gym/steam/sauna for free at your leisure.
Our favorite place on board was the California Wine/Martini bar. Anton you are the best! Folks, Anton's got a great personality, makes sure everyone is having a great time, won't let you order martinis off the menu because his are better, and all the ladies think he's hot. This quickly became THE hot spot after dinner for dozens of us lucky passengers that stopped to check out this little corner of deck five.
Camp Carnival; Both our kids loved it. The staff again was great, but all of the scheduled activities, with the exception of the scavenger hunt, are indoors. We wouldn't expect them to be able to take the kids to the pool for obvious liability issues, but some outdoor time is really necessary. Not even a round of mini-golf or a water balloon toss was on the weeks activities list. Heard Disney is much better...
Ports; Didn't see much of San Juan with the late arrival of 5 p.m. Parrot Club for dinner, which was excellent food. Try the empanadas appetizer. Delish! A couple shops, then back to the ship to have a martini before retrieving the kids for a somewhat early night before our arrival in..
St Thomas; Beautiful sight to watch the sun rise over the islands. Freedom had arrived before us, providing some great photos as we arrived in port. We immediately headed for the taxi to the ferry to St Johns, as we planned a morning of beach bumming and snorkeling at Trunk Bay. St Johns is so THE idyllic Caribbean island. Tropical hills, crystal clear waters, friendly locals. Trunk Bay is incredible. Make sure if you go to have your driver stop at the outlooks for some postcard perfect photos. The beach itself had powdery white sand, a great view, and completely uncrowded. Good, not great snorkeling, but nice for our kids first time. Also decent food at the snack bar, before heading back to the ferry to St Thomas where we luckily ran into Rudi. Rudi is the ships shopping expert, and you would do well to attend his seminars, or watch them in suite later the same night. We aren't foolish enough to miss the fact that he steers you to the stores that pay Carnival for recommendations, but they exert enough influence to ensure a great price, with minimal haggling, and Carnival backs this up with a purchasers guarantee. All you have to do is fill out a simple form at the shopping desk after returning to the ship.
Grand Turk; Small, flat, quaint and quiet. This is the place to book excursions, as there is little else to to beside shop for whatever you didn't have time for in St Thomas, or hang at Margaritaville where the food is mediocre at best, and the drinks are overpriced. We did the horseback ride and swim, and we all loved it.
Disembarking went smoothly, even though we accidently packed our daughter sign and sail card. They simply pulled up the room number, matched the face to the pic, and off we went to the long wait in customs lines, a slow bus ride back to FLL, and an easy flight home.
All in all, a wonderful first cruise experience. We'll definitely cruise with Carnival again, but not necessarily as a whole family. The next on of those will likely be on Disney, and then we'll see from there.....