As a fan of cruising and a frequent researcher / reader of cruise critic boards, I thought it only right that my wife and I provide detailed feedback from our cruise for others to consider / benefit. To level set, let me introduce ourselves. Both my wife and I are in our late 30's and we live in Atlanta Georgia. I am a manager in the technology field and a bit of a work-a-holic. My wife is a home maker and has the harder job of raising our two young children. This was our fourth cruise, but first with Carnival. (Other cruises: Princess to Alaska, Celebrity to Southern Caribbean and Holland America to Western Carri bean.) We took this cruise to celebrate a friends 40th birthday traveling with us and to keep our relationship "fresh".... thus we did not bring the kids.
In order for folks to see the information most relevant to them, we are going to organize this review like a report card. A= Excellent, B=Good, C=Average, D=Bad, F=Unacceptable. Plus or minus = on the verge of the next grade. We will also provide detail around the grades. Hopefully, this will prove useful to your research.
Hilton - "B" Long Beach - I travel quite a bit and use Hilton almost exclusively. As always this Hilton was quite nice and the room was well appointed and comfortable. That said, this is not my favorite Hilton property. I am Diamond status with Hilton and was surprised that the property did not have executive floors or an executive lounge. Nothing big, but little perks you like to have for your significant other when traveling. The other thing was the view.... Now I don't sit there looking out the window, but the room I had faced the local Oil Refinery. Not exactly the romantic scenery I was looking for on my first day in California. On a positive note... the breakfast buffet in this hotel was quite good and the waitress we had that morning was outstanding. She was truly a breath of fresh air and really started our day out well!!
Embarkation - "B" We arrived around noon and there was a porter right there to take our bags. My wife went ahead to check in and meet our friends and I took the car back to the airport. When I arrived I went through the process and it took about 45 minutes. Everyone was friendly and I thought the process worked quite well. The only two negatives of this experience were that the "overflow" area where they were queuing folks was quite warm and the shore people and ship people are not in sync on their processes. Since my wife and I checked in separately, we were told that we would have to go to the pursers desk to tie my card / key to the account... otherwise I would be listed as "cash" and not on the credit card on deposit. So we went to the pursers desk and waited 15-20 minutes in line to find out that the shore resources were incorrect and that I was already tied to the credit card.
Ship - "B-" - Upon arriving on the ship, I like to look around. The ship is pretty and unlike many of the other reviews that I read, I liked the art and decor. The lack of the "Vegas" motif is one of the main reasons I considered this ship. Upon initial inspection, everything seemed to be very clean and in good repair. Later in the week, however, we started to notice little things like several burned out bulbs and more disturbing, unclean public restrooms around popular spots. (Especially the women's restroom late in the evenings close to Beauties night club.) There is a nice gym area. There are several pools and jacuzzi's. (jacuzzi temperatures were very cool.) I glanced in the Spa and salon and was not impressed, however, I will be honest I did not venture in as the prices were MUCH higher than what we found in port. The casino was the largest & nicest of any ship that we have sailed. And if you are in search of an alcoholic drink, you are in luck as there are bars everywhere. The main disappointment that I had was around the ship's layout. The photo gallery was taking up some prime real estate at mid-ship and the coffee bar and shops were shoved forward in less desirable areas. Further, the Atrium was nice... however, it went though cabin floors with small windows from those floors. I think that this area could have been much better designed to be even more open and shift some of the public area around this core of the ship. (At least put full glass instead of those small windows...)
Cabin - "B+" - Our cabin was 6267 towards the back of the ship. It had an extended balcony. The cabin was of decent size and the bathroom was what I expected for the cabin class. (Bulk Shampoo, plastic floor, etc.) Actually the shower was larger than I expected and was of a nice size relative to my past cruise ship experiences. The cabin was well laid out and had LOTS of storage. The bed was comfortable. The balcony had 2 chairs... one of which that reclined back quite a bit. The cabin was clean and in very good repair. The only negative thing I could indicate about this cabin is the vibration from the engines, which at times as strong enough to wake me. Note: Most of the time you are "cruising" at sea, the engines are going 18-22 knots... which is pretty fast.
Cabin Service - "B+" At first I was a bit disappointed as our cabin steward never came and introduced himself. On past cruises we were always approached almost immediately by our steward to check on us and make introductions. That said, once we were underway our cabin steward was pretty good. The room was always made up quickly after we left the cabin. The cabin was always cleaned / maintained very well. And unlike many of the other Carnival staff, he always said hello and had a large smile on his face. The only minor issues we had is that he never called us by our name and he never cleared our mini bar... even after two separate requests. Note: I am not one that believes that we should pre-tip as a tip is for service rendered.... however... we saw a different level of service from both our cabin steward and waiters after they were tipped for other requests. It seems that an early tip will greatly enhance your experience on Carnival.
Main Dining Room - "B-" The food on Carnival was quite lacking in overall quality. Most of the items that I had were average to good on taste. Food temperatures we usually off.... most of my hot dishes were luke warm at best. The salads were not very cold. Then to add insult to injury we were in a booth where we had to slide to get in and out. Kind of like a Denny's restaurant... The only saving grace to the experience was the "chocolate melting cake" which was excellent. The waiters we had were outstanding and after we tipped them a little for such great effort... they were even better. This was the only staff on the ship to recognize us and use our names.
Mermaid Grill - "F-" I am not sure where to begin as I saw this as such a complete and utter disaster. I heard the food described in a couple of other reviews as cafeteria quality. I personally think that rating is a bit high. Most everything was very bland and not very original. As with the dining room, serving temperatures were not quite right, The serving stations are so spread out that just finding something that you want can take quite awhile. The desserts are nothing better than the generic cookies that you can find at the grocery store. The dishes were brought through the lines and I was almost run over on more than one occasion. The biggest complaint I have, however, is breakfast. What a joke!! The selection was limited as all the hot stations server exactly the same thing which consisted of eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, toast / bagels, an omelet station and a few other things. And every other day they alternated french toast and pancakes. The cold & pastry stations were average to poor as well. They could have done so much more with this meal. The one bright spot in this area is the pizza bar. This was by far the best food in the area, however, still a long way from the best pizza I ever had.
David's Supper Club - "A+" - Wow what a difference. The food, service and atmosphere were all on an order of magnitude better than anywhere else on the ship. This experience is well worth the extra charge and I would recommend that you go at least one evening to experience at least one exceptional meal.
Entertainment - "C" - This was an area that I had really hoped would be better. We searched the entire ship for what would appeal to us. We checked the Starry Night Club and it was ok and had a live band, but nothing outstanding. We checked the Sports Bar and it was full of cigar smokers, so we took a pass on that venue. We tried the Ivory Bar as we usually love piano bars... however, this was some sing along type venue and the singer was a bit "off". Finally we found Beauties. This is where we wound up on most nights and had a lot of fun dancing. That said, even this venue was quite frustrating. The DJ would take requests, but not play them for HOURS. Example: We got in the club about 10:15p one night and made the second request. He played it 3 hours later and only after several reminders. The reason? The song I requested was quite popular and he wanted to wait for more people. And one more downside.... If you are not a Michael Jackson fan, then get ready to be a bit aggravated as one night I think he played 9 songs!! I checked on some other things like the shows, comedians, etc... but based on other reviews, we decided against them. I even checked out the golf program on-board... but this wound up being a driving net up on the top deck. (Princess had an incredible simulator on their ship to Alaska!)
Itinerary (Sea Days) - "C" - When booking this cruise, 3 sea days really appealed to us. When in port we often feel rushed to see everything and just wanted to relax by the pools, read and work on our tans. Out of the three sea days... only one was workable for much outdoor activity. The other two were overcast and cold. The third sea day was so windy they closed the very top decks off to outside access. Now we know that the cruise lines can not control the weather, but we asked some crew and they indicated these were pretty normal conditions. This would have been good information to know as it would have probably changed our decision.
Service (not room steward or dining waiters) - "C-" - I was not impressed with the overall crew. While there were a couple of pleasant exceptions... the overall demeanor of the crew was that they were going through the motions. Most smiles seem forced. Few folks used your name. It was very average. And while I did not have any major issues... our traveling companions did and I saw first hand that Carnival could really care less about the passengers when something did go wrong. Without getting into all the details.... all that I can say is that from what I saw, don't expect any consideration or resolution if things go sideways for you.
Debarkation - "A" - I will have to say that I was a bit scared after reading about the crew inspections. We got lucky and this was not one of those days. As a matter of fact, this was one of the easiest disembarkation processes we ever went through. Once we cleared customs, our bags were right there and the transfer buses were ready to whisk us off to the airport. I have experienced a couple of disembarkation messes in the past and I will say that Carnival had their act together when we got off the ship! (This is an area I wish they could teach a thing or two to some of the other cruise lines.)
Ports - General
Puerto Vallarta - This is a nice city. I will say that the Walmart across from the port takes away from the ambiance, but as you head toward town it gets more authentic. As part of one of our tours, we stopped at a beach in downtown and the beach was quite rocky. Not like the soft powder sand I am used to in Florida. Terminal notes: There are a few vendors right in front of the ship, inside security. One is a place to grab a beer. The deals get better as the day goes on, so if you want a few reasonably priced beers before getting back on the ship, wait until the last couple of hours before departure. Also right outside of security, there is a market area. Be warned the vendors are quite aggressive and their favorite term is that "it is almost free".
Mazatlan - In this port you dock at a commercial dock and they shuttle you to the terminal. One warning, at the shuttle stop you have to run the gauntlet of vendors trying to sell timeshares, tours, etc. Once your get through the initial wave it is not too bad. We did not go into the city proper, instead, we went across to Stone Island. See more in shore excursions.
Cabo San Lucas - This is by far the most commercialized port of call. Most of the resorts and area around the dock is fairly new. As usual there is a team of taxi drivers, tour operators and associated street vendors right outside security. There is also lots of shopping right there at the dock, so husbands beware. Note: In this port you will tender into the dock, so plan for a wait to get off the boat.
Millennium Massage - (Inside the Krystals Resort) - "A" - This was an activity that we found surfing around Cruise Critic and the Internet and was not an offer from the Cruise Line. They had several offerings, but we decided to go basic and elected to book the relaxing couples massage for 75 minutes. The price as cheap, just $75 total.. so our expectations we not too high. When we arrived, we went through the gates of the Krystal Resort and we went to the area at the beach where they do massages. The resort was quite pretty, however, when we got to the massage area... the setup was temporary and looked sort of like large plastic rooms... but they were right at the beach. They asked us if we would like our massage here or indoors. We elected indoors... so we walked about 5 minutes to a private villa with music and air conditioning. Very nice!! I had never had a "relaxing" style of massage.... but I wish I could find them in the states. Both my wife and I agree, these were the best massages that we ever had. These women were exceptional. They used aromas, different oils and were quite strong. The only mistake we made was not having a couple of bloody mary's before hand!! I highly recommend this activity.
Jeep Safari & Beach Excursion (Booked though Carnival) - "B" - On this excursion, you drive your own jeep through the area. You stop in a small village, at a tequila factory (with several samples), have lunch and stop at the beach. This is quite fun and you get to see areas that you are not going to see on most of the other excursions. Further the host / guides are very friendly. The only downside is that we wished that they would give us a book or something with information about what we were passing. The host tried to "catch us up" at the stops, but it was hard to remember and put things in context.
Randi's Happy Horses - "A+" - This was another non-ship sponsored activity and another one that we found on cruise critic that we found outstanding!! Randi and her staff pick you up at the terminal and then take you to water taxi's over to Stone Island. Then taxis pick you up and take you to the horses. They match you with the proper horse based on experience and off you go. You go through some palm groves and then you are at the beach. From here, you do pretty much what you want. You can gallop the horses, trot them, break into groups, etc. It is up to you. The guides give you lots of freedom and are very good at taking pictures and watching for problems. At the end of the ride, you dismount at Victors. This a thatched area over tables. Randi buys you a drink and chats. We like it so much here, we stayed the rest of the day eating, drinking beer and lying in hammocks. (The pricing was quite reasonable!!) We told Randi what we were planning and while we had to pay for our transport as it was outside her contracted runs, she helped make sure that we had rides to get back to the ship. I can not recommend Randi and crew highly enough. Probably the best time we had on the whole trip!
Cabo San Lucas
Sea of Cortez - Snorkel Expedition (Booked Through Carnival) - "B-" On this excursion you go by a medium sized catamaran sailboat to a snorkel area. The scenery is nice and the ride is fun. They play music and serve soft drinks the whole way. Lots of opportunity to get some sun as well. In route the crew also distributed the gear. Once anchored, you can snorkel if you like. In my opinion where we were at was not very good. The water was not too clear, there was not an abundance of sea life and there were quite a few jelly fish in the water. Once back on the boat however, the party continued. Once out of the water they started serving beer & alcoholic drinks and lunch and the party started for the trip to the arch. Once at the arch, they stay in the area for pictures and then head back to the dock. Overall the snorkeling was average to poor, but the party and service was pretty good.
So a few other odd & end notes:
Announcements - We had never been on a Carnival cruise before and had no idea about the number of announcements. My goodness, there seems to be one an hour during the sea day from about 10am until 6pm or so. They are trying to sell everything on these announcements.... bingo, casino, drink specials, photos, etc.
Photos - I have never been on a cruise line with so many photographers. Getting off the ship is like running a gauntlet of photographers. And of course, the pricing is absurd. We found one that we liked... but the only way that would sell it to us was a $35 package. We just wanted two 5x7s of a particular picture and did not want the package. We were told... quite directly... it was the package or nothing. It was their loss as we just took some similar pictures with our own digital cameras, that came out better than theirs. Given the age of digital cameras, I am quite confused how the cruise lines can still demand these prices. Oh well... they did not get any of my money this time.
Consistency - Since we traveled with another couple, we had the opportunity to see first hand another cabin and level of service. They had a cat 11 "suite" (cabin 5295) with a wrap around balcony (which really is not that large) on the back of the ship. They paid a substantial amount more for their cabin, however, their room was not much larger than ours and their cabin was in worse repair. They had broken drawers and the overall cabin maintenance seemed worse. Further, their service was also lacking. Their breakfast was not delivered on time the morning they ordered it. Their cabin was not cleaned as quickly as ours. They asked for ice and were directed to the Mermaid grill as their steward was off duty. One day he called "room service" for a pitcher of orange juice to be delivered and they informed him they could only give it to him by the glass - something I've never heard of. I saw all this first hand. Another area of consistency is things like drinks. I had one Bloody Mary that was pretty good and I had another that was borderline awful. The only point I am trying to make here is beware as it seems that you really seem to be throwing the dice on what you'll get on this ship.
Summary - We had a good time, but much of it was our own doing. We will definitely cruise again, just not with carnival.