Please excuse me in advance for the poor grammar and spelling, English always was my worst subject. I wrote this review as my way of giving back to this forum - the other reviews and advice here was fantastic while we were planning our trip, and hope you can find something in this review that helps you plan yours.
We're a couple both working professionals in our early 30s, with no kids. We are fairly well traveled to the Caribbean (10+ trips) and other tourist destinations. However, this was our first cruise. We booked this trip directly through Carnival only three days before departure date for a highly discounted fare (80% off book rate, less than $50/pp/pd). We departed from Miami for 7 days on the Western itinerary during the last week of September 2008.
Embarking: We got to port around 1:30pm and we were on the boat within about 30 minutes, and the Port Security scan line took up about 15 of that. We carried our own luggage on, went straight to the room and unloaded our bags without issue.
We were on the Main deck (2nd floor) in an inside cabin toward the front of the board. The room is just big enough for the "queen" sized bed (which is really two twins pushed together) and about 2 feet around it on all sides. A small desk, safe, and more closet space than you would think for such a compact room. We were directly under the main theater, so there was lots of stomping around in the evenings from 7pm-11pm while the shows were happening, but we were never really in our room at that time so it was a non-issue.
As most others have stated, it takes a bit of time to learn how to navigate around the boat since lots of floors don't go all the way from the front of the boat to back. But it's part of the adventure, unless your mobility is restricted you should try to explore the entire boat. Even with 3500 people on the boat, it is easy to find parts of the ship that are virtually unused at various times of the day.
The food was WAY beyond our expectations, especially since we'd become accustomed to the tough beef and questionable food quality you normally get even on 4.5 and 5* resorts in the Caribbean. The mongolian grill was excellent, select your own ingredients and have it cooked right in front of you. The buffet on the Lido deck was about on par with a 4* Las Vegas Buffet, but the dining rooms were AMAZING. We were at early seating in the silver room, and the food was simply fantastic. The main dining is about the equivalent to eating at one of the top restaurants in our city every night of the week. Filet Mignon, Lobster, Chicken Breast, Salmon, Prime rib, it was great! We were sort of expecting Applebee's quality, but it was much better than that. For desert the Creme Brulee and Melting Chocolate Cake got ordered 7 days straight! Every night we had to roll ourselves back to our room because we had eaten so well. We paid less for the entire cruise than it would have cost us to eat out at this quality level for 7 nights. Again, the main dining VASTLY exceeded out expectations, and I would return to this boat for another 7 day cruise just to eat, even if it never left the home port!
(Tip) If you try something that you really like in the dining room and you just must have again, you can special request it for the next night even if it isn't going to be on the menu. We did this for the Creme Brulee, even though it was only on the menu 2 of the 7 nights. The head waiter was more than happy to make this happen for us.
Staff: A+ all around. Everyone we encountered was helpful, smiling and friendly. I've been to 5 star hotels and restaurants where the service wasn't half as good. Our waiter and assistant pulled out chairs, kept drinks full and had our starters/entrees/dessert at our table within 5 minutes of ordering. The room steward was helpful, called us by name from the first day, and managed to sneak in to clean the rooms when we were out. The towel creatures always made us laugh when getting back to the room. As they say on the commercials, the staff was "always nearby, but never intrusive". The cruise director Steve was funny and entertaining.
Shows: The rock show was great, the other show wasn't my type of thing but it was well done I suppose. Very elaborate costumes and stages considering this is a cruise ship. I've read some reviews where people are pretty hard on the dancers, but consider they are on a moving boat and this is a "free" show, I think that's pretty harsh. The final 'guest show' was quite worth watching for both the good and the horribly bad.
Gym: I used it 4 of the 7 days, and I was impressed with the equipment. Very nice, although jogging on a treadmill on a moving boat does take some getting used to. There is a nice cool down pool and jacuzzi in the gym, which means no kiddies allowed.
(Tip) Bring some ear buds, the treadmills have LCD TVs built into them but you can only hear it if you bring your own headphones.
Internet: Insanely expensive. Setup your mail program on your notebook so you can work offline. At $0.75 minute, don't even think of surfing the web on the boat.
(Tip) From some of the ports you can pickup unsecured wireless signals from the nearby apartment buildings and shops if you go to the top deck of the boat. Hardrock Cafe in Ocho Rios Jamaica has free wireless, and it's a short 5 minute walk from the pier. I'm sure other ports have similar hotspot if you really must access the web while on vacation.
Drinks: We don't really drink alcohol, so we didn't order anything. Normally we drink way too much coke, so we used this week to "cut back". We didn't buy the coke card. The free drinks were more than enough to keep us happy (lemonade, punch, ice water, juices, coffee and hot chocolate).
There we a decent amount of kids on the ship, and for the most part were well behaved. We saw one kid eating the sprinkles for the sundaes by the scoopful with the serving spoon. Yuck. The first time I saw him do it, I gave him a finger wag and a polite "no, no, you can't do that!". He hear me, made eye contact, then went back for another scoop, with his father standing directly behind him. His eyes opened pretty wide and he dropped the spoon when I said it again at full volume. Only after becoming the center of attention, dad decided to do some parenting of his own. Kids will be kids, but bad parents have no excuse.
Ports: Cozumel - It rained the only day we were in port, so we did a little exploring of the port shops on our own but that's it. Carnival sells little blue rain ponchos with the Carnival logo on the chest for $3 each on rain days. It made for a funny sight because you could instantly tell who your fellow cruiser were while walking the streets.
Grand Cayman - We did the snorkel and sting-ray half day tour with Captain Marvin and this was hands down the highlight of the week. Swimming with brightly colored tropical fish in a reef and then getting to feed and hold the giant stingrays is something we'll never forget.
Ocho Rios - We should have done a tour, but we didn't. We had a drink at the Hard Rock Cafe and then walked around a bit then returned to the boat. Jamaica is beautiful, the view from the boat was the best of the three ports. Locals in Jamaica are really pushy and won't take no for an answer. Cabbies are relentless, they just won't give up. We got multiple warning about not buying drugs in Jamaica, I guess some people are dumb enough to try to bring pot back onto the boat.
Disembarking: We got up early (7am) and carried our own luggage off. It took them until nearly 8am to let people off the boat, but we walked right off and through customs, 20 minutes tops. (Tip) If you are able bodied and without kids, carrying your own luggage on and off the boat will save you a world of trouble and you'll skip all the lines.
We had an absolute blast on this trip, and we are counting down to our next trip. There is so much going on during the week that you can't possible see and do everything.
From reading the other reviews, one thing jumps out at me. Those that tend to have a low rated vacation usually have a balcony room, and those that rate 5+ often in an interior room (or they are on their honeymoon!).
Inside room on this class of ship can regularly be had off-season for under $350 per person for a week. The suites even at the steepest discount offered go for over $1500 per person. The food, boat, service, excursions, and itinerary are going to be the same, regardless of the 'class' of your room. I have a hard time getting my head around the fact that a family of four would pay $6000 for a week vacation when they could have the same week on the same boat for $1400, minus the extra couch and balcony. I suspect that the people paying the big bucks for the suites and balconies may be a little bitter towards us common folk who paid 1/4 the price and seem to be having just as much fun with the inside/outside view rooms. If you see a low rated review, be sure to note the type of room the person was in. Perhaps those "just can't please" people would be better off saving their extra pennies and booking with the Yachts of Seabourn. That way they can eat caviar and have a butler nearby to wipe their bottom should the need arise.
A vacation is what you make of it. This boat is clean, new, very well equipped, the food is great, you are in the Caribbean, and that staff is fabulous. Now really, what more can you ask for?
In closing, for the price we paid, I was shocked at the value we received. I would go back in a heartbeat.
I was surprised to see some methods that are apparently common on ALL cruise lines. This isn't Carnival specific, you'll find the same complaints from others about Royal Caribbean, NCL, Celebrity, etc...
If you can ignore and laugh off the constant attempt to empty your wallet, you'll will have the time of your life.
They are always trying to sucker you into paying insanely inflated prices for silly things on the boat, and some truly dangerous big money scams. It is a soft sell, so it is easy to ignore it if you want. it's not shoved down your throat like the time share sales pitches you see on all the land based resorts. But it is ever present.
Of course, I understand that the real profits come from selling these trinkets and additional revenue sources, but I can see how it could really rub some people the wrong way. We laughed it off, but if my grandmother got sucker on the following things I'd be hopping mad.
They use all kinds of slimy sales techniques that I would consider below a large corporation like Carnival. Our first shady deal came on day 1. You are encouraged to tour the spa and enter a draw to potentially win a $500 credit at the spa. Fine, fair enough. But of course, the draw is just a ruse to get you to put your name and room number down on the ballot so they can call you the next day. Sure enough, we "won" twice. How lucky! No, we didn't get the main $500 prize, but we won some small discount off some insanely overinflated spa service. Why make it a bait-and-switch scam? Why not just say you're having a one day sale on an service we thought you might interested in? I should have known better than to fill out a 'free draw'. I'm sure everyone on the boat "won" something in their draws. We didn't fill out any other ballots for the duration of the trip.
The art auction is another scam, I feel sorry for anyone who attends this "auction". Preying on people's trust and lack knowledge on collectible art, they have some slimy shyster try to con you into buying worthless prints for insane prices (think many thousands of dollars, sometimes as much as $20,000-$50,000!). If you take nothing else away from this review, please open google and search for "art auction cruise ships scam" then click the first link for a detailed description of this outright fraud.
Friendly but annoying photographers will approach you 3-4 times per day to get you to take a picture that they'll later sell back to you as an 5x7 for $20 each. Are you kidding? In the age of digital photographs? We would always smile and politely decline, but in the back of my head I was thinking "get out of my face, I'm on vacation!". We never found a shortage of fellow travellers who were willing to take our picture for us for free.
Diamonds and expensive "semi-precious" jewelry is pushed hard, again all at ridiculous prices. jewelry by the inch is a deceiving way to sell you $5 worth of 14k plated lead chain for $75. And people were lining up for it! They have a "shopping expert" who gives you tips on what to shop for, but of course his real job is to steer you to the shops in port that have paid the highest price to Carnival for advertising rights. There is even a disclaimer on the handout that clearly says all the shops list have paid a "promotional fee" to Carnival. Diamonds International was pushed so hard that I would be surprised one bit to find out that Carnival owns the franchise.
On board excursions are sold at twice the price that they can be booked for on land. We book a snorkel tour ourselves for $39 that the ship wanted $95 for the same trip. Visit the forums on this site to find out who the best tour operators are.
People were just eating this stuff up. On one hand, I wanted to grab them and shake them and say "you're GETTING SCREWED, don't BUY IT!". But on the other hand, I realize that these people handing over buckets of cash to Carnival are the reason I can take a cruise for such an insanely discounted price. If they're having fun spending their money, who am I to stop them from spending their way to their own perfect vacation?
If you have any questions, or if you want to send hatemail, you can reach me by email at fordexc at gmail dot com