14 years ago I cruised for the first time. It wasn't a voluntary effort - I was the best man at a wedding that had morphed into an elopement and honeymoon at sea. We sailed aboard Carnival's Celebration, a robust enough ship if not first class, and while the experience was memorable from the camaraderie of our group as well as some lively times at sea and in port, I still wasn't quite sold on the idea of cruising.
A decade on, I'd been married and traveled Europe and North America extensively with my wife, and, in looking for a warm-weather getaway from the Canadian winter, we decided to try a cruise. The rest, as they say, is history. That cruise, aboard Celebrity's Constellation, was truly special, and since then we've developed a pattern of alternating land and sea vacations.
We'd tried other lines, toggling between Celebrity and a list of industry stalwarts such as Princess, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian; but somehow had regarded the original player in the market, Carnival - with whom I'd sailed that first time - as more of a 'party boat' and not a serious contender for our ideal cruise of good food and service.
A pitch by an energetic and entertaining Carnival rep at a cruise trade show, though, did put a positive image of Carnival in our minds, a successful endeavor by the line to change its reputation. For a couple of years we'd at least included Carnival in the mix when considering various itineraries.
Finally this year, in looking at what to do for Jen's 35th birthday in June, a Carnival itinerary emerged to the forefront, its only competition being an all-inclusive resort vacation in either Mexico or Costa Rica. In the end, we did the math and decided that, for a comparable per-diem, we would go with the Carnival cruise.
Knowing what little I allegedly do about writing and supposedly even less about reading (though I do own a library card, so does that not place this writer in exclusive company?), it is painfully clear that rough adventures make for better entertainment than smooth travels. Thus it would have been much easier (and sickly pleasurable for you the reader) if we'd experienced ptomaine poisoning in an otherwise abhorrent dining scene, been exposed to ghastly god-awful decor, and been tormented by downright belligerent service (see our review of Grand Princess). Would that I could come in and do a hatchet job, looking down from my lofty perch casting smarmy observations of the ship's decor and the nasty clientèle who emerged from under god-knows-what rock; be deliciously evil in critiquing what the cruise line tries to pass off as cuisine; or telling tales of being hijacked on the Belize Highway or chased by ferocious monitor lizards in Roatan. With great regret and sadness for my once-entertained audience, however, I will not be able to do any of those in this article. After a smooth journey (sigh) to Miami we enjoyed a superb dinner at Grimpa, the Mary Brickell Village venue of a Brazilian rodizio house, whose wide array of meat, seafood, gourmet antipasti bar and mighty caipirinha cocktails - not to mention service rivaling that aboard ship - got the holiday off to a proper start.
Inevitable throughout the region this time of year is the heat -- actually it's not so much the heat that gets you, of course, but the humidity. In the absence of cruises departing from the desert, though, we'll take Miami and find ways to acclimatise. Actually we enjoy Miami very much, always have. Its multicultural flavours and colours make Miami one of the most enticing destinations in North America, with scenery, dining, shopping and nightlife famous the world over for good reason.
Carnival Valor home-ports out of Miami year round, and was launched in 2004 specifically for cruising in the Caribbean. She alternates with Eastern and Western itineraries, and we'd opted for the latter, meaning a seven-day sailing out of Miami that would call on Grand Cayman; Roatan; Belize; and Cozumel.
Our first impressions of Carnival in general, and of Valor in particular, were quite favorable. Embarkation procedures were simple and smooth, and while we waited in the large reception area for boarding to commence, Carnival staff were running a trivia game and acknowledging weddings and anniversaries being celebrated this trip. Here we met a couple, Josh and Harumi, who were in the process of relocating to Okinawa, Josh having just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. We'd get to spend more time with Josh and Harumi throughout the cruise -- hope you two have arrived and are settling in well!
And while sitting in the boarding area, I spotted a blonde-haired Carnival employee in a blue polo shirt - remember the aforementioned energetic sales rep? This looked just like her. But what were the odds? And yet Jen saw her from a distance as well, and noted that she looked awfully familiar. Later once aboard ship I saw the same woman in the Lido area, approached her at the coffee stand and asked if we'd met at a cruise show in Ottawa a few years back. Indeed, we had - small world! I thanked her for planting the seed in our minds about giving Carnival a try, and she thanked us for remembering. We don't often get to see the fruits of our labour in such clear terms, especially years down the road in seemingly random occurrences, and the rep's enthusiasm at that show was matched by her genuinely pleased reaction of our presence on this cruise. Seemed as good as anything to be a sign of positive experiences to come.
International maritime standards -- law of the sea, if you will -- require all cruise passengers to proceed immediately on boarding to the Lido deck for a meal. This is done so that the safety of the crew will not be jeopardized by starving passengers creating a stampede at the close of the muster drill. And judging from some of the PAC at that muster, the secondary benefit of said meal is so that people can begin their drinking early and not on an empty stomach.
Lido dining options on Carnival, however, provide more than the meat-and-potatoes for which the line once had a certain reputation. We counted nine different venues from which to procure lunch, beginning with the standard burgers and fries by the pool as well as the buffet (four lines, actually, which we're counting as only one venue) which rotated themes on a daily basis and whose offerings were fairly standard for the industry. Our first meal aboard ship was a bit of this and a bit of that, shared by a table for four to sample what we were in for during the next week. While I'll save much of the details on dining for later, suffice it to say for now that we were not disappointed.
Lest I should go along, however, with the clichE that Carnival's 'Fun Ships' are a nonstop party. The reputation that the line earned some time ago has taken quite a while to live down, and some die-hard aficionados of other cruise lines swear they will never set foot on Carnival for this very reason. Times change, however, and cruising has evolved with the times. The booze-cruisers tend to flock to the 3-, 4-, and 5-day cruises, while on sailings of a week or longer it is far more common to see families, couples, and those who are looking for more than simply a rum-fest.
The new Carnival, without sounding like a marketing campaign, competes for the cruise passenger's dollar (or pound, euro, yen, or kroner) on the same stage and scale with rivals Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and yes, even Celebrity. Carnival's dining has won several awards as of late, and we found the selection, presentation, food, service, and ambiance to be above-par in most areas. Again, more on the food in a bit.
What hasn't changed about Carnival's ships is a penchant for wild dEcor, bright colours and whimsical features which bear the signature of the line's longtime interior architect, Joe Farcus. You can't help but notice you're on a Farcus ship, be it on Carnival or sister line Costa, as the experience is more akin to being at a them park - for some, "It's a Small World After All," while for others it's "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride."
With Carnival Valor, Farcus chose the theme of 'Heroes and Heroism.' In viewing photos of the ship pre-cruise, what often stands out at first are the use of American icons such as eagles and the Stars and Stripes. 'Too American' have been the comments of more than one who's either sailed aboard her or simply seen the previews. We had our thoughts going in, not that it would be overly patriotic necessarily, but that these dEcor themes can and do sometimes yield some fairly kitschy results.
In walking through at first glance, however, the Atrium and its surroundings did not scream out 'tacky' or 'over the top' - yes, the schemes were bright and lively, and while not every item or idea worked for us, (and when does something please everyone?), the composite reaction was one of "yes, we're on a cruise ship." No, this was not a Celebrity ship, no mistaking about that; nor was it Royal Caribbean or even NCL. That is what branding is all about, creating an identity that uniquely identifies the product in the mind of the consumer. Mission accomplished for Carnival.
The nine-deck-high Atrium serves many functions, primarily as the hub of the ship's social life. The shops, photo gallery, theatre, purser's desk, shore excursions, the casino, and one dining room ring the lobby on three decks, while a bar and a stage on the main level are the centerpiece. A boulevard leads from the lobby toward other entertainment venues of the ship, such as the nightclub, piano bar, jazz bar, cigar bar, sushi, coffee, and aft lounge. Certain venues, such as the aft dining room, are accessed from different decks, and with the midship dining room taking up decks three and four, one has to do some walking and detouring in a 'can't get there from here' manner. This is a sticky point for some passengers, who complain about a lack of flow. Others - and I'll put myself in this latter grouping - have come to the conclusion that, as on other ships of this size such as Grand Princess, breaking up the flow actually helps create more intimate spaces.
At times, such as immediately before each dinner seating, the lower level and some of the galleries can get a bit crowded. A factor in this crowding, and a detracting point of the ship as we found, was the lack of access from the Atrium to exterior decks. Only two doors, in fact, allow access to the promenade on deck three, one each on port and starboard; with no passageway via the aft or bow of the ship, these decks are used only as an afterthought, forcing more traffic through the Atrium and interior corridors. Traditional cruisers who seem against the whole 'Profit Centre' movement in the industry would lament this deck issue far more than would we. Still, it would have been nice to have a wraparound promenade deck, either in full or at with access to other interior areas from another end.
Leaving the elevator/stairwell lobbies, which are decorated in bright yellows and oranges with brass eagle gargoyles and red-white-and-blue marble inlay floors, the corridors to the passenger cabins are relatively subdued in comparison. The cabins themselves continue the burnt orange scheme, and have more space than those offered by the competition (10-30% more in comparison to Celebrity, NCL, and Royal Caribbean). Closet and drawer space is ample, and the washroom is functional if a bit bland (Celebrity's is nicer with more amenities, and NCL's is perhaps the best with its separate shower and toilet areas). In-cabin television had more channels than offered by Celebrity or NCL, and offered in its 'services' the dining room menus as a preview (because one has to think about eating when not eating). Our stateroom attendant, Ellsworth from Belize, was a cheerful fellow who did an outstanding job of taking care of us -- he even set up the room decorations for Jen's birthday, which took her by surprise as we were returning from shore at Grand Cayman.
Our original dining assignment was in the aft dining room, preferable because of its two-story wraparound windows, but at a larger table. Being a birthday cruise and because of the frame of mind we were in this time, we waited through a bit of a queue for the maitre d' and with a "buona sera" and a "grazie" we arranged a table for two on balcony rail of the upper level, right above the captain's table and looking out onto the whole dining room. My partial colour-blindness may have come in handy, as I'm told the room's scheme came out a bit pinker than some had hoped. With the evening sun streaking in, however, the early sitting was a pleasurable ambiance. And despite the need to turn around for a second seating, the crew never seemed to rush us through or out of a service. Leila from Estonia and Putu from Bali were our wait team, and while we had enjoyed the 'dine when you want, where you want' style on NCL, it was a pleasure to have a team for the duration of the cruise that got to know us and we got to know in return. Thus, while 'anytime dining' is becoming more common in the industry, it is this aspect of traditional cruising that we perhaps most enjoy.
With all that said, you the reader are asking, what about the food?
Succinctly put, the dining room put on a consistently strong service every night.
From the first appetizer after embarkation straight through to dessert on the last evening, the food was consistently served at the proper temperature, consistently timed with neither wait not rush, and consistently had the flavour and depth that one would desire in shipboard cuisine. Noticing a 'consistent' theme?
Standout soups included the asparagus veloute, lobster bisque, French onion soup, Thai 'tom ka gai,' and corn chowder. Outstanding apps ran the range of stuffed mushrooms, prosciutto and melon, smoked chicken quesadilla, 'study in sushi,' smoked duck and caramelized oranges, escargots, lobster-and-crab cakes, and a 'delice of the ocean' comprising shrimp, ahi tartare, and hickory smoked salmon. The always-available shrimp cocktail and Caesar salad were sound, while other salad offerings were somewhat standard.
Another anytime dish, the filet of fresh Norwegian salmon, was a good fallback, which at our table can translate into a third entrEe in case one of us gets something disappointing. Alas, we did not encounter disappointing entrEes. The sweet and sour panko shrimp was perhaps the most common or un-cruise-like of the items we encountered, but it was still a strong beginning to the cruise. Subsequent nights gave way to a supreme of Hudson Valley duck, prime rib cooked and spiced just right, rack of lamb dijonnaise, seafood Newburg, chateaubriand with sauce BEarnaise, and grilled jumbo tiger shrimps with beurre blanc (sided with a stellar leek fondue enhanced mustard potatoes).
On the first day in talking with Putu, our assistant waiter from Bali, we mentioned enjoying Balinese and Indonesia cuisine, and asked if they ever served this on-board (Princess, for example, occasionally has Indonesian and Filipino dishes in the buffet). He shook his head, and we said something to the effect of "that's too bad; if they served it, we'd eat it." The next night, Putu said they'd be able to put something Indonesian together, just give a day's notice. And so on the third night, along with our starters and dessert from the regular menu, we enjoyed a chicken curry and a rice dish with ginger, coconut, carrots, other veggies, and shredded chicken. Ask and ye shall receive -- that's the service level that we often find on cruises, and Carnival was no exception.
Desserts were perhaps the least consistent of the dining room fare, though far from sub-par. The cakes with 'diet' in front? Let's be honest, "diet" and "cruise" hardly go together. And throwing the word "cake" into that three-word mix does not make it better. Other sweets, however, more than compensated. The vanilla crème brulee was remarkable, again served at the right temperature and crusted enough on the top without being overly hard. We also gave higher marks to the caramelized apples on puff pastry; warm fig, date and cinnamon cake; tiramisu; amaretto cake; and Grand Marnier soufflE (served in the ramekin, not scooped out as Princess seems to insist on). The main dining room also offers an impressive assortment of cheese, including Port Salut, Brie, Gouda, and Danish Bleu. A smooth (if Jen can drink it, it's smooth; if Jen orders it, it's extra smooth) dessert wine, California's Quady Electra was also available in both the dining room and specialty restaurant. Sadly, we've been unable to locate it here in Ontario. Our favourite, however, was without a doubt the signature Warm Chocolate Melting Cake, a heavenly chocolate soufflE-like creamy event in a cup, available every evening and served with vanilla-bean ice cream. We miss it already. Espresso and cappuccino are also offered as part of the dining room service, whereas on many other lines this is an added-cost. Civilized, indeed.
A longtime Carnival signature has been singing and dancing waiters, all part of the "Fun Ship" concept. Each night after dessert was served, the dining room staff would take their positions and sing tunes such as "That's Amore," often while wearing wacky hats or sunglasses. The last evening evolved into a conga line with passengers joining in. All this went along with the fairly jovial atmosphere in the dining room -- some passengers were dressed casually, some dressed formally, but all seemed to be having a good time. Civilized AND fun? How dare they?!
Breakfast in the Lido appeared to be fairly ordinary buffet, but we eschewed this for breakfast in the aft dining room instead. Again, no disappointments here -- fresh fruit; toasted bagel with smoked salmon, cream cheese and capers; eggs poached just right with sides of a smoky turkey bacon or a flavourful chicken-apple sausage; and a decent cup of coffee. One of our morning waiters was named Ari, and we had a good laugh together about that. On any sea day I'd highly recommend this as the way to go for breakfast; even on a port day, if you can make the time, it's a great way to start the day.
Lunch in the dining room we're told was good. Unfortunately, on a seven-day cruise with four days in port, this was only offered twice, and frankly we were too busy either enjoying ourselves out on deck or exploring other options.
With our first full day spent at sea - and we've come to enjoy the sea days more and more - our first port of call was at Grand Cayman. They say that high winds can sometimes prevent cruises from calling on Grand Cayman, where the harbour is too shallow and ships must anchor off shore and have passengers tender to and from the town. This was our third time here, however, and all three have gone off without a hitch. Having experienced the island's beaches and diving previously, we decided to make it a leisurely day and play it by ear. The sky was clear and the winds were calm - a bit too calm, if anything, as the late June heat and humidity were enough to limit our desire to go very far. After some walking around the back lanes and shores of George Town, and a bit of shopping for (and 'sampling' of) our favourite rum cakes, we spent the rest of the day aboard an uncrowded ship. This is the advantage of cruising on a previously traveled itinerary - go where you want, when you want, or just relax if you feel like it. And with the state of mind we'd been in coming into this holiday, relaxation was highly in order.
A mostly cloudy sky greeted us as we sailed around the Bay Islands, breakfasting in the main dining room, and into port at Isla Roatan. The clouds proved to be a great relief from the heat, and our day turned out to be quite pleasant. We'd arranged an island tour through Victor Bodden, highly recommended on sites such as cruisecritic.com, and were met by Victor at the pier and introduced to our driver for the day, Anthony. Honduras is one of the poorer countries in the region, though Roatan is considered to be better off as it has been the recipient of an influx of visitors and part-to-full time residents from North America. We saw quite a bit of development taking place, from expansion of the port and marina to houses and condos being built at a rapid pace. The island is attractive with rolling hills and lush greenery, and in some ways has a feel of the Jamaica of yesteryear. Our first stop was the iguana farm, where I realized too late that the battery for our Nikon was resting comfortably in the cabin, probably ordering room service while we were out and about. The iguanas, meanwhile, were in a feeding frenzy of their own, and over a hundred surrounded us as we gave them a peace offering of fresh leaves on the branch, sans the beurre blanc of course. Walking down the hill we reached the tranquil waterside, where we fed the barracudas and dipped our feet in the water -- no, just the feeding actually. The fish farm business in Roatan seems to be getting off the ground, so to speak, and accompanies their exports of fruit. We spent the afternoon at two different beaches, one in a protected cove and the other in what would have been an idyllic Caribbean beach setting were it not for the cruise passengers and massive construction, but not before stopping by Victor's house. Here we spent time with a number of monkeys, both spider and howler, and held some of them including a one-month old baby spider monkey -- his tiny hands could barely wrap around one finger. Two three-month-old baby monkeys took to Jen, one sleeping on the other's back as Jen held both. Sailing out of Roatan we passed through a brief storm, taking pictures out on deck as the sun returned and we searched for the rainbow. With our dinner reservation pending, it was time to get dressed up.
For Jen's birthday, we splurged and reserved (ahead of time, on-line, civilized again) a quaint table at Scarlett's Supper Club, Valor's specialty restaurant. While not as elegant as the specialty venues on Celebrity, or as clubby as the rooms on Norwegian or Oceania, Scarlett's holds its own in the department of cuisine.
The trio of escargots -- one each baked in brioche, stuffed in fondue potatoes, and Classic Bourguignonne -- provided a fair contrast to the traditional style served in the main dining room. The sushi platter was artistically presented and worthy of any higher-end Japanese eatery. While crab cakes and shrimp cocktail in the main dining room were also good, their counterparts at the Supper Club stood a head above. The French onion soup "Les Halles" (does this have something to do with Anthony Bourdain?) was an achieving entry. The Caesar salad was prepared table-side, but not made completely from scratch as we've always had at Celebrity's specialty restaurants. Yet the lobster bisque was on par with what we've been served on Celebrity.
Our birthday girl opted into the surf and turf -- four rectangular smaller plates on one larger square dish -- with an average filet mignon but the lobster coming out sweet and succulent, with sides of pumpkin ravioli and cardamom braised carrots. Bringing in an appetite I consulted the advice of many staff and made the leap for the Supper Club's 24-ounce porterhouse, cooked to perfection and accompanied with one classic side, creamed spinach, and one modern twist, the Yukon Gold wasabi mashed potatoes.
One would be amazed that we'd have had any room left for dessert, but Jen ordered the "trio" of chocolate tarte, butter chocolate pate, and tiramisu. I, meanwhile, went with the less intensive choice of a cheese course and a selection of fresh tropical fruit. I'd like to think that the fruit came aboard in Honduras that day, but knowing the cruise industry most everything gets loaded in Miami. And the Quady Electra dessert wine appeared again -- damn, why can't we get this stuff at home?
As said earlier, the Lido buffet itself is comparable to what's seen on Royal Caribbean or other lines (and nowhere as aesthetically pleasing or varied in offerings as the buffet on Norwegian). The departures from usual fare begin, then, with the Mongolian grill, a concept we had talked amongst ourselves more than once as a fine idea to take to a ship. The queue does move a bit more slowly here, mainly due to the lack of high-heat burners that Mongolian grills on land would have (simple limitations of being on a ship). Still, big points to Carnival for implementing the concept, and we'd have gone back on a longer sailing -- too many other places to try, too few days at sea.
Heading toward the aft, Carnival's signature Deli is located on the port side, a diner-style stainless-steel cutout that generally serves a takeaway line of 5-6 minutes waiting time. The Reuben is well worth the wait, and when your wife wants you to procure a grilled cheese sandwich (off the menu) with the crust removed, this is the place -- "no" is apparently a word on this ship reserved for questions such as "is there a limit on the number of lobster tails we can have?' -- and you can even return to your cabin with the goods AND a bonus mug of hot chocolate. Starboard, at about the same position as the deli, is the Asian counter, which looks much like its American counterpart but serves up ready-made portions of pad thai, Chinese chicken (or beef) noodle salads, spring rolls and friend wontons in a to-go cup with kimchi, and other regional favourites.
The aft portion of the indoor Lido seating area opens up into a two-story atrium, with a giant tile-mosaic of Rosie the Riveter, the central theme for 'Rosie's' restaurant. The execution of the 40s diner theme is effective in some places, not as much in others. Still, seating is adequate, and the tables as well as the common-use areas were kept clean at all times by the efficient and cheerful staff.
Two buffet lines grace the atrium on one side, while desserts and other stations (often rotating, such as make-your-own tacos) are in the middle. The biggest secret, at least at the beginning of a cruise, is the upstairs portion of the Lido (technically Panorama Deck), where a Fish-and-Chips counter serves up its namesake along with fried oysters (mmm, Po Boys), calamari, seared ahi tuna, ceviche, as well as rotating seafood apps and entrees. The line forms and grows as the cruise goes on, but again the fare is worth the wait. Also the upstairs seating area tends to be quieter and more airy, a nice place to relax before hitting the jogging track (more in a bit on what's on deck) to work off some of that lunch.
But wait, there's more! Yes, folks, for a limited time only (Kay, limited for as long as the ship is in the water), not only do you get access to the seven eateries mentioned above, but if you act soon (or act 24 hours a day, in the case of the pizzeria), you'll get an additional TWO places serving up food on the Lido.
By the aft pool, port side is the Pizzeria, throwing and baking deep dish around the clock; and starboard is the Grille, featuring meats cooked to order such as the popular minute-steak sandwich. In the same corner is another popular station, the soft-serve ice cream and frozen yogurt - make your own cones or sundaes morning, noon and night.
Our arrival into Belize was much like the first time we'd been here -- a cloudy day and a 10-12-minute high-speed tender ride form the ships (three are anchored offshore beyond the many sand bars) into town. On that first sailing with Grand Princess in 2004, we'd arrived a day late due to technical problems and had nobody meeting us ashore as had been planned. This time Margaret Montero, whose name we'd seen on some Cruise Critic reviews, was at the pier holding a sign with our names. We'd wanted to combine the Xunantunich ruins with a visit to the howler monkey sanctuary, but were told the distances were too much to cover without jeopardizing our timely return for the last tender from shore. Thus our itinerary for the day was the howler monkeys plus a visit to the Belize Zoo, both fairly inland and not far from one another as the crow flies -- but, as one encounters in Central America, map distances and actual driving distances (either on slow roads or barred by roads that do not exist or are not passable), time is a relative term. We were the first to arrive in the morning at the Community Baboon Sanctuary, and had a private tour into the rainforest where we met up with a troupe of howler monkeys. The name is fitting, as you can hear their howl -- hardly monkey-like in the way we normally think -- from great distances. Seeing the bananas in our possession, the monkeys approached us by climbing and swinging down from the tree branches, and approached Jen first to take the pieces of fruit right from her hand. We spent fifteen minutes with about a dozen monkeys, and even with a steady rainfall upon us and bugs biting us with far greater intensity than the monkeys were biting into the bananas, it was something we'll never forget. Driving about an hour out on the main highway, which is a two-lane road at best and narrower in places, we reached the Belize Zoo. "The Best Little Zoo in the World" is a remote collection of over 125 animals all native to Belize, and were either orphaned, injured, born at the zoo or donated by other institutions. The gentle tropical showers followed us here, making photography a bit less attractive, but the animals were special nonetheless, highlights of which were: the toucan, Belize's national symbol; spider and howler monkeys; crocodiles; parrots; and several jaguars. On the drive back we stopped at the Belize Marina, where we saw a yacht with a Canadian flag and 'Hakim 7' spread across the back. Canadians will know the owner as Sir Karim Hakim, pimp galore and owner of Canada's largest optical retailer. Conversations with our driver, Wallace, were interesting to say the least -- when someone in a former colony says "it would be better if the British were still here," one takes heed. His view of Belize was pessimistic, saying that the country is going backward and what little progress that takes place is led by non-Belizeans. Of course the sample size was far too small to be scientific, but the views offered an interesting glimpse.
Back aboard ship, we were supposedly stuck on a sand bar and slightly delayed in departing, but with the next port only 200 miles away this did not become a factor.
The topside (sorry, not topless, not anymore) decks on Carnival Valor are essentially divided into four areas. Forward is a series of sunning areas, generally quieter and not as windy as one might expect thanks to effective partitioning. Midship are the main pools, hot tubs, and stadium-style seating and sunning area. This tiering helps out as the 300-sq-ft LED screen over the pool becomes a 'seaside theater' in the afternoons and evenings, with a 50,000-watt sound system and recent movies as well as specials such as concerts (Ray Charles was playing, on the screen that is, as we sailed out of Roatan). The midship pool area can get crowded especially on sea days, and has the usual array of activities such as the 'hairy chest contest.' Aft of this is a jogging track and sports court, with volleyball and basketball to keep us moderately active. In the very aft is another pool -- the one with the pizzeria, grill, and ice cream -- which is designated as an adults area. A magrodome is slid open every morning to have the two-deck pool area exposed to the warm Caribbean sun, and slid back shut again in the evening for cleaning and party-type activities. One activity that we were happy to see and participate in was the Walk for the Cure, Carnival's contribution to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. The event probably could have been publicized better, but Carnival has raised nearly $400,000 thus far and has goals of $2 million. One buys a t-shirt and pink wristband at the Atrium shops, and then on the last day at sea a walk-a-thon is held on the jogging track for one mile -- of course with cookies and drinks served afterward (God forbid they don't feed you).
last trip to Cozumel 18 month ago had been a great day with tablemates Paula and Chris, with whom we'd rented a jeep and explored the whole island. This time, especially with the heat, we were content to stay in town for a while. We revisited a restaurant called La Choza, whose chicken "en mole poblano" I'd enjoyed previously. Chips, two different salsas, several rounds of cerveza, a zesty chicken dish and a great garlic fish later we were "satisfechos" and headed down the street to two different pharmacies, neither of whom offering prices low enough to make a purchase worthwhile. One customer on the way out, though, did make mention of all the mosquito bites on Jen's arms and back, and recommended an ointment as a remedy -- got it in the room, thanks.
ENTERTAINMENT AND CREW
A ship in port is most often quiet and relaxing to experience, and we did just that after our lunch in Cozumel. The excitement starts up again about 20 minutes prior to scheduled departure time, when the purser's desk begins to page passengers who have not yet returned to ship. I was out on the bow balcony, along with several passengers both from our ship and from sister ship Carnival Conquest docked next to us, who greeted the returning drunk guests with cheers and jeers. "It's the Walk of Shame!" I yelled across to one family from Texas over on the Conquest. As we pulled away from the dock, they screamed back "we're gonna miss y'all!"
On a ship the size of Valor -- 110,000 tons -- one expects a large theatre and a high-caliber entertainment program. The former was certainly true, with a three-story theatre at the bow that seats 1300 in both cocktail configuration (downstairs) and movie-style (upper decks). The program itself was varied and gave quality results in the area of "fly-on" entertainment, with two Comedians (both did late “blue” shows in the aft lounge); a ventriloquist (who may have had the best joke of the cruise: "I come from Mexico originally, you may have noticed my accent – actually I used to speak English very well, then three years ago I moved to Miami”), and a hypnotist. With a large theatre and a stage featuring hydraulic maneuverability, the production shows carried much anticipation – yet it is with regret (or glee? Evil author!) that we can say we particularly enjoyed either production performance. Not that we're prudes, but neither show carried any billing of being ‘for adults,’ and yet with plenty of children and families in the audience, the dancers in both shows wore outfits that were appropriate for something out of Vegas, and not the new sleek Vegas but the old, seedy Vegas. And the “’80s – Far From Over” show? If we have to reminisce about the 1980s, at least throw in some of the better music, or the music that was so disturbingly bad that it went beyond bad to almost good.
Cruise director Chris Jefferson and the all-Brit entertainment and activities staff did a fine job of keeping folks occupied. Our biggest thanks may go to the Camp Carnival staff, though, as although plenty of children were aboard ship, nearly all were well behaved and most were invisible throughout the day. The captain made one daily announcement, and although announcements for other events and activities were more prevalent than on Celebrity, they were on par with those of Norwegian, Princess, or Royal Caribbean and not over the top. Nearly all of the crew and staff both on-board and in Miami were pleasant, smiling, and aiming to please. The morale of the ship seemed happier overall than on many cruises we’ve experienced. This is remarkable considering Carnival operates with a crew-to-passenger ratio that is considerably weaker than that of the competition – translation: the crew on Valor are working even harder. And speaking of translations, we went our of our way to tip extra knowing that the value of the US dollar is becoming less and less and thus the staff are seeing actual reductions in their take-home pay.
With a hard-working and energetic crew, a “Fun” mentality pervading throughout the ship, and extensive dining choices, who could go wrong with this cruise?
I’ll answer that question, actually, even if it was rhetorical.
It’s not for everyone, though Carnival achieves very effective results in appealing to a variety of demographics, in that those who seek a more ‘elegant’ or ‘refined’ experience would probably feel as though time had passed them by on this ship. We’ve been on the elegant-and-refined ships (Celebrity, to a good degree, though Oceania better fits these terms) and have enjoyed our encounters with them – enough so to the point that our next cruise is booked with Celebrity. And yet the last two ships we’ve sailed, with Norwegian and Carnival, have been casual and fun. Differing experiences, in other words, and not necessarily one better than the other.
What stood out about Carnival was similar to what we’d experienced on our previous cruise with Norwegian – exceeding expectations. We hadn’t gone into this cruise with a ‘Why can’t Carnival be more like (fill in the blank cruise line)?’ attitude; in fact the alternatives we’d considered were land-based vacations, specifically all-inclusive resorts. Can’t tell you how glad we were not to have chosen an all-inclusive, especially in the oppressive heat and humidity of summer? I’ll leave that comparison for other discussions, and all-inclusives do have significant appeal to some. For us, however, having the ability to explore ashore and then experience comfort aboard ship is a tremendous draw. Not only did Carnival accomplish that, they went above and beyond in providing a superior experience in the important areas of food, service, and heck let’s introduce the “Fun Ship” wild card factor. While our next cruise is booked with Celebrity for New Year's out of San Juan, we will sail again on Carnival, currently booked for a 12-day next summer on sister ship Carnival Liberty out of Dover and sailing the Baltic Sea.
Post Cruise Syndrome can be a serious issue. We always make an effort to keep the fun going, and this trip we had a night in South Beach post-cruise, and two full days in South Florida to explore and relax. The weather cooperated, with the thunderstorms holding off until we were wheels-up out of Ft. Lauderdale the evening after the cruise. We spent a morning at the Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, which is free the last Sunday of every month. Built in 1916 by industrialist James Deering, Vizcaya has ten acres of manicured gardens; a 34-room Italian estate-style house with antique furnishings from the 15th to 19th centuries; an orchid garden; and a waterfront promenade reminiscent of Venice. After lunch at the venerable Versailles in Little Havana, which reminded us of the simple delights of Cuban cuisine without the impositions of Communism, we paid a call to The Biltmore hotel in Coral Gables. "Are you here for the historical tour?" a guide asked us as we were gazing into the birdcage in the grand lobby. We were now, and were treated to a private viewing of two ballrooms as well as the 15th floor penthouse suite, the view from which stretched from the Everglades to the beaches. Dinner at Grillfish in South Beach featured a whole yellowtail snapper, sweet onion sauce on the side, which I savoured head to tail. Strolls up and down Ocean Drive, Collins, and Lincoln Road gave way to dessert at David's, tres leches and flan that were as good as we'd enjoyed here the last time. Our hotel, $50 on Priceline.com, was the funky Catalina, whose red-shag-carpet and stark white lobby were perhaps something out of an Austin Powers movie, while the room had walls of bright orange and comfortable Tempur-Pedic beds. Some have complained about these hotels on Priceline, saying they're not adequate for the business traveler -- no, they're not intended for business, try the Hyatt in Coral Gables (we did pre-cruise, and though I left a pair of khakis in the room, they had them ready and waiting when we passed by after the cruise). Though we'd not want to live in Miami -- traffic, crime, hurricanes, and hot-and-humid summers are a bit much -- it's always a great place to visit.