Embarkation: Arrived at the port at approximately 1100. We dropped our luggage with the baggage handlers who immediately loaded it into the containers to go on the ship. It was pretty busy and somewhat crowded inside the terminal, but since we were early and inside the terminal, there was no standing in the sun and baking. The only delay was when they stopped processing people for about 20 minutes inside the terminal when all the chairs in the waiting area were filled. The processing continued once they began boarding the ship (at about 11:45) it was a quick trip through the obligatory picture takers to the desk where our Sign and Sail card was handed to us, and then on to the ship. That early, I didn't notice any special lines for "fun pass" holders. We were sipping cocktails on the Lido deck by about 12:00.
Room: we had an 8A balcony on the upper deck (6). Our room number was 6442 and if you can get this room or one of the three other "twins" to this room (6450, 6473 or 6481) you are getting an awesome deal! The room is "L-shaped" so the balcony goes along the entire long axis of the room which nets you double the balcony space of a regular 8A cabin for the same price. The only downside is that you do not have a sofa in the room (just a small chair and table) so it really only works for two people (which was perfect for us). Our room was right over the Victoria Room stage and dance floor and one night we heard music past midnight (brought earplugs....problem solved). The rest of the nights we either heard nothing or it ended prior to midnight, which is about when my wife went to bed. The bathroom is small, but is no where near as small as one on an RV (as has been implied in some reviews) and was "roomy" enough to get the job done. Nice touch was all of the shelves on the mirror. It meant we could unpack our stuff and not have to have our toiletry bags on the counters. Water pressure and temperature was great in the shower (although the red and blue dots were reversed on the sink so for the first 3 days I shaved in cold water until I let the water run once while brushing my teeth and realized the issue). Toilet plugged once but our steward got it fixed for us. Beds were comfortable but the bulky "duvet" meant we had to turn the A/C all the way up to avoid sweating to death at night. A/C worked great so it really wasn't an issue, just a bit cool in the room in the morning. Balcony was the best part of the room and we had coffee and ate our breakfast taken from the Lido Deck there every morning. Each day the staff washed salt residue and grime from all of our windows and the deck railings so it was very clean and clear. If I had it to do over again, I'd look for the same size/shape balcony room, but try to get it on the Empress (7) deck because then it would be "sandwiched" between two floors of staterooms.
Food: I've read many Carnival reviews that talk down about the food. My wife and I loved it. Granted, we didn't like everything offered (e.g. the goat cheese pizza so many folks fawn over, etc...), but they offered plenty of variety and quality. We had all our dinners but one in the Golden Olympian Dining Room. The food was excellent. The only exceptions were the Caesar Salad (limp and mushy) and the NY Strip Steak (a bit tough) but I'd read about the "don't get the steak in the dining room" issue before, and I just wanted to confirm it myself....it's confirmed, don't get the NY Steak in the dining room. Same with the Caesar Salad, some at our table said they loved the Caesar, but I got two limp salads so I chose other starters the next nights. As for the good....well, the Chateaux-Briand was awesome, all the seafood I ate (and I'm not a huge seafood fan) was fantastic (Snapper, Tilapia, Lobster, Shrimp, Salmon, etc...), heck, I even tried, and liked the Escargot! Deserts were, of course, fantastic and our server brought us extras every night just to "try". Wine was reasonably priced ($25-35 for decent bottles) and seemed to be only marked up about 70% ....which is a heck of a lot less than many other good restaurants I've been to in Vegas or DC charge. We ate one night at Harry's (the supper club) and that was ABSOLUTELY OUTSTANDING. Well worth the $30.00 pp charge. The Filet Mignon was perfectly cooked and expertly seasoned. If it wasn't the best steak I've ever had it is definitely top 2 and I get the Filet everywhere I go! The atmosphere and service was top-notch as well! Just a great meal all around! We would have gone again, but we were having such a good time chatting with our dinner-mates that we decided to take the rest of our dinners in the dining room. We attended both formal nights and I was impressed how everyone got dressed up. Some parents even rented tuxes for their kids. I did notice one young man (probably 17 or so) wearing a ball cap on in the dining room but it was clean and "glittery" so it was probably his "dress cap". I never saw shorts, T-shirts or anything "NASCAR" like any night at the dining room as some have complained about on other reviews. Our seating was late at 8:30 which at first ticked me off, but later proved to be perfect as we never felt rushed to get ready for diner and I could have a couple of cocktails relaxing in the Casino while my wife got ready. We ate lunch on Lido each day and enjoyed the variety of the buffets, grill, pizza, and fish and chips. We never ate from the deli (although the Panini looked great) and our favorite was the Mongolian-style BBQ which we had 3-4 times. On the first morning, I ordered room service (put out the tag the night before). It arrived right on time (if not a few minutes early) but the coffee was cold and the milk was luke-warm so that was our last try at that. It was just as easy for me to take a tray from the Lido buffet every morning with coffee, cereal, fruit and bagels for my wife and I to enjoy on our balcony.
Excursions: We pre-booked excursions at each of our ports via Carnival. I'm sure we paid far more than if we'd gone on our own, but I wanted the security and assurance that we wouldn't be left behind. At Cozumel, we were scheduled to take the Tolum Mayan ruins tour. We embarked the barge for the 45-minute ferry ride but the seas were pretty rough due to the wind and we were expecting a miserable ride until the Carnival rep came over the PA and announced that if we wanted to get off due to the rough sea we could and we'd get a full refund. My wife and I looked at the already half-green rest of the passengers and scooted right off the boat. I doubt if a local tour would have fully refunded our money as Carnival did that afternoon. Anyway, we enjoyed a leisurely day in Cozumel and back on ship we took advantage of the in-port specials in the Spa. At Limon, we took the "Rain Forest Canopy Adventure" tour (zip-lining) it was awesome! We had a great time! It did involve a 2 hour bus ride each way, but the bus was very nice, with a bathroom, and our guide pointed out interesting highlights along the way (banana plantations, pineapple plantations, etc...). The zip-lining itself was really fun (I only wish we could have done more!) and involves seven separate "zips" from tree platform to tree platform over the rainforest and river. Their gear all appeared to be first class (made in USA and or France) and they had a double line/double pulley system-so if one line or pulley failed you were still hooked-on as well as a third safety line that kept you attached to the rig or platform at all times. Their procedures and guides at each tree platform were very professional and I felt very safe doing this excursion. In Panama we did the Kayak Adventure. The best part of this tour was the 1 hour we spent at Gatun Locks on the canal watching two huge ships pass through the locks and getting a very informative brief from the tour guide. The kayak part was fun too on Lake Gatun outside an old Army hospital converted into a resort. All I can say is that 1 hour of kayaking in 100 degree weather sure makes beer taste good! Fortunately they have beer for sale at the hotel...Oh, and if you do this, wear a swimsuit as your butt will get soaked since the kayaks are very low to the water!
Entertainment: We went to a couple of the shows and they were good...not great, but not bad either. The production shows bored me...but they do the same in Vegas (unless it's Cirque' du Soleil). The ventriloquist was hilarious (and normally they give me the creeps!). We also enjoyed the "Liberty Idol" show where the passengers with talent get to compete "...hey honey, check it out, it's the fat guy who cut you off in the buffet line. He can sing really good!...". We played trivia a couple of times in the Cabinet lounge and also enjoyed bingo...although we never even got close to winning. I was happy to see that it was "card" bingo, and not the electronic version I read about on some reviews where people could have something like 50 cards on one machine. Basically the most I saw were people playing six cards (at $20 for each 3) so it seemed like even buying one card gave you a fighting chance.
Casino: Spent a good deal of time in the casino. Slots actually paid me about $400 over the week which is amazing in my book. Table games were great too. I played mostly "Let it Ride" (which also has the 3-card bonus bet) but also played blackjack, 3-card poker, Craps and Roulette. Table minimums were low ($3 the first day $5 after that). Craps only offers double odds and some of the payouts are at a house advantage (e.g. 3-1 on a 3-card Poker Flush vice 4-1 and low Let it Ride bonus payouts) but overall I felt the Casino was fare and fun....and I actually won money overall during the trip! Be a bit careful on the craps table though as when it gets crowded, the dealers sometimes get confused so you have to watch your bets and ensure that your "neighbor" doesn't get paid your money (this happened at least once to me...since it was only $15 I didn't make a federal case about it but I was disappointed in the dealer for screwing it up and for my fellow passenger for taking the money and claiming that my bet was his). My wife didn't like it because she thought it was small and while there was a variety of machines, there was only 1-2 of each specific type so availability and ability to move around or away from obnoxious smokers was an issue. Overall, I had a great time in the Casino and on the nights that I came out ahead, I put the extra money on my bill at the purser's desk so in the end my bill was far less than it could have been! They let you pull up to $100 against your sign and sail card each day without a fee on the slots. You can also take an advance of up to $1000 a day (so long as you don't exceed your credit card limit) for 3% (which is a bargain compared to most casino's fees for credit card cash advances). The few times I ran short of cash, I simply took the advance on the slot machine, played one spin and then took the card to the cage to get the cash...that way I avoided the 3% fee. This became a moot point when I started winning (about the 4th night) as I had a good bankroll after that.
Spa: My wife and I spent a good deal of time in the spa/fitness area. We signed up for Yoga ($30/each which included 4 classes) and loved the classes. We probably would have done pilates instead but those classes were in the afternoon and I was into my third cocktail by then usually! We also each had several treatments each and ran up quite a bill there (it was our number one expense....three times as much as booze!). After the first treatment, we each got the "hard sell" from the therapists to buy a bunch of products. I didn't appreciate that at all, but once I said "no thanks" they didn't ask again. Overall, I'd say the Liberty spa is as nice as most 4 star hotel Spas in Vegas. Not as nice as the Venetian, Caesars or the Bellagio, but still pretty nice...and much better than the Paris or Planet Hollywood spas!
Bars: One thing we noticed was that about half of the bartenders and bar wait staff were just not very friendly or quick. Exceptions were "Tommy" in the Paparazzi wine bar (he's awesome!), a few of the bartenders on the Lido decks, and the late night bartender in the Lobby Bar. Otherwise, I wasn't impressed with the outgoingness of the bartenders which was somewhat of a shock since liquor is such a profit maker for Carnival, I would have thought they would be a bit more outgoing and friendly. I wouldn't rate them as negative....just not at the same "outstanding" level as the rest of the crew we encountered. Also, unless you want to spend $5 extra, don't order your drink of the day in the cup that looks like the Carnival "fin" smokestack. I did, thinking it was the same as the other colored "freebee" cups that the drinks come in and was shocked when my drink cost $12!
Debarkation: This was really the only negative part of the cruise. While the debarkation process was smooth (in my opinion) the baggage claim process is flawed. Bottom-line; someone took one of our bags by mistake. No one from Carnival checks to ensure that you only take your bags. Anyway, the lady who erroneously had our bag did not notice the error for a day and a half so we returned home without one of our bags and a lot of our clothes. 10 days later, Carnival shipped us our bag with all of our contents inside. It was a pain in the neck tracking it down and frankly, I was disappointed in the initial lack of effort by Carnival Guest Services, but once a supervisor got involved, the bag was located and returned at no cost to me. Advice: elect for the self-assist debarkation first thing in the morning...I sure will next time!
Overall, this was the perfect vacation for my wife and me. We had a wonderful time, met some fantastic new friends and really felt we got our money's worth on this trip. We never felt rushed since we had 8 days and a late dinner seating we could do what we wanted, when we wanted, and we just relaxed and had a blast. 4 sea days meant that if we missed an event one day because we wanted to take nap or just sit on our balcony then chances are, we could do it again another day. The ship was clean, nicely decorated, and we really felt like we got first-class treatment throughout.
We've already booked our next Carnival Cruise for the Spring of 09!