This was our first cruise with Carnival. I've read a lot of negatives about Carnival, but we tried to keep an open mind and a positive attitude when we booked the cruise last February. I'll also confess to being a bit more upbeat about this cruise experience because of the heavily discounted fares that were being offered.
Embarking: We've done a similar Southern Caribbean cruise out of OSJ on the Crown Princess two years ago. Sailing from OSJ instead of Florida gives the ships a much greater cruising range into remote ports like Barbados and St. Lucia, for example. We came in two days early on a direct American Airline flight from Connecticut; and spent two very enjoyable evenings at the LaConcha resort (Priceline bid; we did two nights at the Hilton, also a Priceline bid, on our previous cruise.) We enjoyed being able to kick back and relax after a long flight, and being able to spend some time in Old San Juan. You can spend a full day in OSJ exploring the old city and the forts; and the Body Works exhibit was being featured at the museum near the Sheraton Hotel.
We arrived at the dock at 1:30PM, about one hour early. Big mistake. The ship was still disembarking passengers; and they didn't allow embarking until the official 2:30PM time. All-in-all, it wasn't too bad of an experience, although I feel Princess has the edge here.
Muster Drill: Absolutely the pits. I can't imagine experiencing anything that was so poorly conceived and executed as the muster drill for the lifeboats! Carnival: get your act together here.
The Ship: After reading some of the other reviews, I am wondering if we were on the same ship? I looked for wear and tear, and signs of poor maintenance, but the ship glistened from stem to stern. The Victory is one of the best kept ships that I have sailed on. The crew was constantly doing upkeep, including replacing carpets, etc. The decor is a bit bold and brash, but I thought it looked rich and had a European feel. Some folks hated it, others loved it. We loved it. A personal thing... The hardest part was learning to navigate the ship! Deck 3 and 4 are blocked midship by the multilevel Atlantic dining room, and you have to learn how to get to the right section of the ship above or below those decks to get to the correct dining rooms, atrium, or Caribbean Theater. Our cabin was kept clean. Our stewart knew our schedule to a tee, we always returned to a clean cabin, a cute towel animal, and the ice bucket was always filled.
Dining: We avoided the buffets like the plague. The lines were horrendous, especially for the first few days! Carnival needs to revisit the buffet layout, and the ability to handle large crowds. Also, the dining rooms are closed for lunch on port days, adding to the number of folks using the buffet midday. We did use the Lido deck dining options on the days we stayed on board.
We preferred using the dining room (Pacific, early seating) for breakfast and dinner. I noticed some complaints about the length of the diners. Dining could take up to 1-1/2 to 2 hours, IF one ordered all of the menu choices (appetizers, entree, coffee, desert, etc...) Many folks came in and only ordered an entree and the desert, and were in and out within 30 minutes. The length of the meal was up to you. We enjoyed the time in the dining room, and being pampered by our waiters. What's the rush? The food was better than expected: prime rib was offered on two nights, lobster tail and shrimp, filet mignon, etc. The food was good, but not exceptional. The buffet choices were much more limited and quality was spotty; and you could waste a lot of time waiting in line.
Dining room service was a step or two down from previous cruise experiences. The waiters appear to care, and to try hard to please, but at times they seemed overwhelmed by the number of tables that are assigned to them. There were no specially restaurants (steakhouses, etc. with extra charges) on this ship.
A few more positives: lemonade, coffee, iced tea and self serve ice cream available on deck 24 hours a day. Pizza was also available 24 hrs. on deck. There was always something to eat or pick at. The hot dogs and hamburgers were okay, but the string french fries sucked.
The Ports: We've done most of these ports before, and whatever excursions you find on one line are the same ones offered by the others. Since we visited most of the islands numerous times before, we mostly went ashore to look around in the shops, but we did a quick tour on Dominica and visited a beach on St. Thomas. All of the islands start to look the same after a while :) The ship docked at all of the ports no tendering, and Carnival seems to have the pick of the better pier locations in many ports; and these are all great ports to visit. The itinerary was the highlight of this cruise!!! Well done, Carnival! Also, the times in port were more than adequate. The ship meet all of the published arrival and departure times no coming in late or leaving early.
Entertainment: In general, it left a bit to be desired. The Victory Dancers and Orchestra were great, and put on two good shows. On many evenings only one show time was offered. We missed the magic show because it was at 10:30PM, one night only, and we were too exhausted to stay up and watch it. There were two comedians who were not funny, and it was almost embarrassing to watch them. Victor, the comedian/juggler was excellent, however. One or two more shows, or a few different options each night, would have been nice. We were getting ready to strangle the singer/guitar player in the main atrium by the fourth night. The same songs, over, and over, and over.....
Negatives: The open decks seemed to be much more crowed on this ship than on others. We were told there were over four hundred children on board; although it didn't seem like there were that many. Spanish was the predominate language since many Puerto Ricans took advantage of being able to sail from a home port. For whatever reason this seemed to bother some folks? There were several rumors of a virus spreading through the ship, and the buffet items were being served by the ship dining staff about halfway through the cruise. The on deck movies were a bit lame, and they could have offered a few movies in the Caribbean theater, like Princess does.
Disembarking: A total disaster! Carnival is using a zone system based on your departure flight time. However, many, many passengers rushed the exits and ignored the protocols. This greatly delayed getting folks of the boat; in fact they weren't able to board passengers until 3:30PM because of the delays. To their credit, Carnival opened the pizza and deli stations at around 11:00AM for folks who were waiting to disembark. That was a nice gesture. Passengers had the use of their cabins or the lido deck while waiting, so it wasn't as painful as it could have been. We had a late flight back home, so we didn't mind lounging about on the ship and being the last ones off.
Cabin: We had an 8A cabin, located midship on Upper Deck. The cabin was larger, and the shower area in the bathroom was much roomier than we've had on other lines. Ditto for the size of the balcony. The cabin had a couch and king sized bed (I think the couch opens into a bed.)
Lasting impressions: Based on the itinerary, condition of the ship and discounted price we were well pleased with the cruise. We had a great time. Had we paid full brochure rate, I'd probably feel a bit different. There were negatives (there is always some on any cruise....) but we didn't let them detract from having fun and relaxing! We would sail on Carnival again.