8th cruise for me (41), 3rd with my husband (49), 1st for my 9 yo daughter. We also cruised with my mom (76) and my sister (56) who also have been on many cruises. We've previously sailed on NCL, RCCL and Carnival. We booked this cruise 10 months out and paid less than $500 pp for my mom's inside cabin.
I am originally from Miami. We stayed at the Fairfield Inn in the Doral area and were transported to the Port of Miami by family members. We always stay in the Doral area when we visit Miami, it is very centrally located, close to all the parkways and has many restaurant options.
Embarkation: We got to the port at 11AM. We had to wait for a while for passengers to debark, there was obviously a problem. Security and check in took less than 20 minutes but we waited for almost an hour for the ship to be cleared. We were on the ship by 12:30. A roll call friend told me that she happened to check under her seat in the waiting area and found priority check in passes and was one of the first on the ship. I had read about this and she was lucky enough to stumble across the passes!
We went straight to lunch and since most stations were relatively empty, we enjoyed the mongolian grill and the fish and chips station. The mongolian grill is good, but I suggest you order extra sauce, as the dishes can be rather flavorless without the sauce.
Our cabins were ready by the time we were done with lunch and our luggage had also started to arrive. I unpacked what luggage had been delivered and changed into bathing suits and we hit the pool. The pools were clean and empty, I recommend hitting the pools on the first day.
Muster drill was quick and uneventful. I had read on CC that sailaway had been occurring during the drill so I was happy that the ship did not move until after we were done. We had early dinner so after the drill, we went back to our cabin and got ready for dinner, while watching sailaway from our balcony. We met our cabin steward, Miguel, and asked him to empty the fridge and to keep our soft cooler filled with ice and to please deliver my sharps container for my injectables. Everything was kept up with during the week and Miguel was always prompt and efficient in everything he did.
We were hoping for a table for just our family of five but were seated with another family of 5. Although dining alone would have been nice, I can only say good things about dining with the other family, who were very friendly. Now, about our waitstaff...we fell in LOVE with Sergey and Eka. They were absolutely wonderful and we grew very fond of them. What touched us was the manner in which they treated our daughter. Forget us; treat our kid well and you will capture our hearts. Sergey would cut her food, show her tricks every night, dance with her, talk to her...the attention he paid to her really was special. HE was special, period. You could see that he cared about her experience and that he was missing his own kids. Eka was sweet, attentive and just a lovely person. Our waitstaff really made our trip. The food was fine, some things were great, some good, some just ok. My favorites of the week were lobster, prime rib, rack of lamb, asparagus soup, Tom Ka Gai soup, and the escargot. My favorite desserts were the creme brulee, bitter and blanc, cappuccino pie and the warm chocolate melting cake. Breakfast in the dining room was good, lunch not so much. We stuck to Rosie's for lunch after trying the dining room and being disappointed.
I am not a buffet person but I found Indian day and Caribbean day at Rosie's to be very very good. The asian window was ok. The deli window was good. Pizza was pretty scary to us NYers but the chevre pizza was very good. Room service is what it is, but our favorites on the menu were the roast beef and brie sandwich, tuna salad, shrimp salad and BLT. We also enjoyed the afternoon tea, it was relaxing, elegant and a nice break from all the commotion.
Shows were ok. We are not really show people but we enjoyed the ventriloquist, comedians and the Legends show. The disco was way way too loud. We spent most of our evenings at Karaoke! Make sure to get your seats early for the midnight comedian shows! Standing room only if you wait too long.
In Nassau we did the dolphin encounter which was excellent. In St. Thomas we took a public bus to Sapphire Beach for $3 pp. You catch the bus in front of Walmart. Sapphire beach was beautiful and the snorkeling was perfect for a beginner (my daughter). We hand fed fish and saw a lot of coral in very shallow water. My daughter was thrilled and it was special for me to be able to share that with her for the first time. In St. Maarten we took a taxi to Marigot for $6 pp. I went straight for my favorite items to shop for; spices and soaps. I got some very good selections at the spice market like cardoman, herbes du provence, very fresh vanilla beans (10 for $15!) a very good roasted dark chili powder, an excellent tandoori and jerk mix and a 5 peppercorn mix, everything for $35. We hit the mall and found a shop that sold my favorite french soaps, Rogers & Gallet, where I found the soaps to be much cheaper than in the US or Paris. We then hit the shops next to the port and my mom bought a huge round of gouda cheese, very inexpensive. St. Maarten was our favorite stop, it was very charming. St. Thomas was also very pretty and the beach was beautiful. Look for the iguanas, they are everywhere!
My daughter did not enjoy camp. Some of the counselors were a little on the serious and frustrated side. To be fair, my daughter was two weeks shy of her 9th birthday but we placed her in the 6-8 group. The kids in that group were very rowdy and loud, which she did not enjoy. The 9-11 group was a little too "tween" and clique-ish. She is on the quiet, slightly shy and mature side, and neither group suited her. She was annoyed that she was not allowed to play her Nintendo DS while the group was doing things she was not interested in, which I agree with. What would it hurt to just let a child quietly play their gameboy while others are busy? All in all, she spent a total of 4 hours in camp, which was hard on Mom and Dad! We needed a break sometimes and found it hard to get one.
My observations: Comparing the three cruiselines I have been on: Carnival did not push drinks as much as NCL, which was nice. Service was always very good, better than NCL and not as stuffy as RCCL. Decor is not very important to me, but the ship was very colorful, albeit a little over the top, but not obnoxiously so. Food was fine, but I missed the various options on NCL, especially after hours. I would choose Freestyle dining every time, the set dining time with Carnival is not my favorite, and I am looking forward to the entire fleet adapting Anytime dining. The relaxed dress code was nice and we wore jeans and nice tops to dinner several times. On elegant nites we did dress up for pictures. Mary Grace was the best photographer, by far.
Debarkation was a breeze. We waited in our cabins until about 9:30 (when we got kicked out by our steward), then waited in the lobby until last call, which was about 10:00. We were off the ship and done with baggage claim and immigration/customs in less than 15 minutes.
My tips: Get early to the port and look for the VIP boarding passes under the seats. Hit the fish and chips place and the mongolian grill on the first day before everybody discovers them. Hit the pool and slide on the first day while they are empty. Ask for the drink specials, they are just a little over $4 each. Do your research on the boards to save $$ at the ports of call; we paid $3 pp each way to Sapphire Bch, our friends paid $10 each way pp.
All in all, a good cruise.