Background Information - Cruisers: My wife and I (both 31). This was our 2nd cruise, our 1st was on Carnival Paradise (7 Day - Western Caribbean) seven years ago.
Travel To Port of Embarkation - We flew out of the Twin Cities the day before our cruise. Flying Delta, we connected in Atlanta before arriving in Miami (on time) about 2 PM. Hotel Info - We stayed at the SpringHill Suites (a Marriott hotel) in Miami. Shuttle service is provided from the airport to the hotel. We called the hotel as soon as we had our bags and waited no more than 15 minutes for the shuttle to arrive. It was about a 15-20 minute trip to the hotel. The king suite (standard) was very nice and clean. The kitchenette area contains a microwave and mini-refrigerator, however, no utensils or plates were available to use. Bed was comfortable. There is no restaurant on site, however, a continental breakfast was also included which consisted of the normal breakfast fare. The hotel shuttle does provide transportation to nearby restaurants. The hotel rate was $79.99/night which I felt was a great value compared to other hotels in the area.
Instead of taking a cab to the port, we opted for the shuttle service coordinated through the hotel. It is not provided directly by the hotel but they arrange all the details with the service. Transportation was $10/person (cheaper than taking a cab for the two of us) with pick-up times of 10:00, 11:00, or Noon. We decided to take the 10:00 time as others at the hotel were doing the same. We checked out at 10 minutes to 10:00 and the driver was waiting for us. Transportation is in a passenger van with trailer attached for luggage. Took us no longer than 15 or 20 minutes to arrive at the port, with stops at each ship.
I greatly recommend the hotel and optional shuttle service. Embarkation -
This was the only real disappointment of our cruise. We did arrive to the terminal early (approximately 11:00). We went through the check-in line and received our S&S cards rather quickly. We then proceeded to wait in the cramped terminal (with limited seating - we ended up sitting on the floor) for approximately 3 hours before boarding the ship about 2:00. We received boarding number 9, so a number of folks were waiting for much longer than we had been.
We booked an inside guarantee and were given an inside room on the Empress (7th) deck (Cabin #7218, Category 4D). Location was near the front of the ship, right underneath the bridge. Our room was fairly quiet, with the exceptions being the neighbor's toilet to our right and the occasional closing of the door (also known as the "secret doors" which occasionally slammed loudly due to high winds) to the front of the ship. We utilized this door often to have a nice view, usually to ourselves. The only downfall of the room was the electrical room on our left. It was not noisy but made the bordering walls vibrate. This would make the pillow vibrate slightly if it was leaning against the wall/headboard. The room was sufficient, containing a TV (no VCR/DVD), chair and foot stool (which we didn't use due to small size of the room), plenty of closet space, two bath robes, and normal bathroom "goodies" (Aleve, razors, toothpaste, as well as the shower gel and shampoo dispensers in the shower).
I was surprised to find that the mini-refrigerator/wet bar was locked. We were going to ask our steward to unlock it so we could put in the few sodas we brought along, however, another couple mentioned that there was now a charge to unlock it. It really made no difference to us as our steward always had our ice bucket well stocked, but I did not confirm the charge.
Ship Information -
Layout - To us the layout was fairly simple to manage once you discover that the Lincoln dining room (mid-ship) prevents passage on decks 3 & 4. We pretty much stuck to our cabin deck (7) and deck 5 to maneuver the ship front to back. Public Areas -
Casino - A decent amount of slot machine offerings. I would estimate there are about 25 penny machines, 20 two cent machines, 25 nickel machines, and the rest 25 cent, $1, and a few $5 machines. The slot machines were not the tightest, nor loosest that I have played. A few smaller jackpots ($200-$500 was the most we saw) were won. I played using the Sail and Sign card which is very simple to use and eliminates the need for carrying buckets of coins to the cashier line.
There were about 8 blackjack tables ($5 min -$200 max) with one high stakes table with a $25 minimum. There was also a "Fun 21" table. One note, all blackjack tables had automatic shuffling machines that are used after every hand. Caribbean Stud, 3 Card Poker, and Let-It-Ride (1 table each) rounded out the card games. There were 2 roulette tables ($1 minimum) and one craps table ($5 minimum) as well. There were reduced table minimums ($3) on the first night and a few slot and blackjack tournaments sprinkled in.
The only poker offering was the computerized $1-$2 no limit Texas Hold 'Em. This table was not utilized often, as the general consensus seemed to be that players would rather play in a "live" game with a human dealer versus playing on a machine.
Shops - Other than a necklace my wife purchased, nothing really caught our eye in the on board shops.
Internet - I only used "The Web" for a few minutes here and there to catch up on sports scores. Rate was $0.75/minute unless you used one of the multi-minute packages (I believe the lowest package was 100 minutes for $55). Anyone using the internet was charged a $3.95 fee (one time only) the first time they used the service. The internet connection was very slow, about the same as dial-up service here on land.
Sports Area - The basketball and volleyball areas were quite small. The volleyball court was roughly the size of a badminton court with about a six foot high net. The basketball court was just over the length of the three point line, with the width not more than two thirds as normal. Only the left side of the court (looking at the basket) was fully extended to the three-point line. The mini-golf course was nine holes, pretty basic and not difficult. All sports equipment is available for rent (free) from the towel hut by the pool on the Lido deck (9).
Pools - The only swimming we did was in the main pool (salt-water) on Lido deck. Water was fairly cool, which we found refreshing. As far as deck chairs go, many were still available around 9:00-9:30 on sea days, however, most (close to the pool) were used/held by 11:00.
Dining Room - We were slightly surprised that we were seated in the Washington dining room (rear of the ship) since our cabin was in the front of the ship, but it really made no difference. We were seated at a table for four for the main seating. We thought the majority of the offerings were quite good and the staff were excellent.
Lido/Rosie's - Breakfasts and lunches were fairly standard fare. The usual was offered for breakfast consisting of fruit, cereal, scrambled/hard boiled eggs, toast/bagels, danish, grits, and french toast/pancakes (alternated each day). I tried the alternatives to the main buffet lines for lunch as the buffet selections typically did not excite me. The Deli, Asian, and Fish and Chips selections were usually very good. The "Chocolate Buffet" was sub-par to my taste.
Room Service - This was the only disappointing "dining" experience. We ordered twice during the cruise and both times had to wait for about 45 minutes to an hour. Neither of the orders were correct.
Service - Along with the Dining service, our cabin service was tremendous. The only issue was that a bottle of water was charged to the room which we did not use. A quick trip to the purser's desk straightened the issue out. All of our interactions with other crew members was pleasant as well.
Entertainment - The music/dance reviews were good, with the 80s music review besting the Welcome Aboard show/review. The break-dancers were a surprise hit! The comedians were fine, no one was outstanding. The ventriloquist was quite good as was the juggler. We did not attend the final show consisting of cruisers demonstrating their singing talents.
Shore Excursions -
Nassau, Bahamas - Due to the short time in port and few activities of interest, we spent an hour or so browsing the shops on Bay Street. We did not purchase much as we were assuming the shopping was better in St. Thomas and St. Maarten.
St. Thomas - We privately booked a tour with Godfrey's Tours. We can not recommend this excursion enough if you are new to the island. The tour included a couple of hours for shopping and then a two hour tour of the island. You can also spend a couple of hours at one of the three main beaches (we did not do this). Excellent tour and excellent value. We did the majority of our shopping here (liquor, perfume, souvenirs) and we were glad we did not shop much in the Bahamas.
St. Maarten - As with our tour in St. Thomas, our privately booked Rhino Rider excursion with St. Maarten Excursions was also tremendous. You are driven from the Hertz stand at the cruise terminal to the site (about 25 minutes). You take a two person power raft for about an hour to a snorkeling site. After an hour of snorkeling you have another hour on the rafts. This was a great activity and was about half to two-thirds the price of booking through the ship.
This was quite the opposite of embarkation. We did self-assist and were given luggage tag #6 (tags were numbered 1-31). Our number was called by 8:20 (arrived at 8:00) and we were done with customs within a half hour. We would have been done sooner, however, our customs line was quite slow compared with the others. A quick $25 taxi ride to the Miami airport and we were to our gate (virtually no wait for security/TSA) by 9:15. One note, if you have a flight out of Miami prior to 11:00, you can go to the purser's desk to obtain #2 luggage tags.
The luggage/airport service was available for $20/person. This services transfers your bags to the airline directly from the ship without the need to carry it off or claim it at baggage claim off of the ship.
Summary - We thoroughly enjoyed this cruise and would book another cruise with Carnival in a heartbeat. The weather could not have been better despite going during hurricane season. The weather preceding our cruise, however, left us with some anxiety so I don't know if I would book a September cruise again.