Pre-Cruise: We flew into Miami Int'l the day before the cruise left, on American. Nothing exciting to note here. We paid $25 incl. tips for our cab ride to the Marriott Biscayne Bay downtown, where we were able to check in an hour early and received a room overlooking the Port of Miami where we could see Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian ships in Port. We ended up taking the Metromover (free) from the hotel down to Bayside Marketplace. I don't recommend walking in this area, especially after dark. As a single female, I would not have taken the Metromover, although I did feel safe with my husband in the daytime. Bayside was very touristy a mix of indoor and outdoor mall overlooking the Port. We had a quick dinner, then headed back to our hotel. Sunday morning, we slept in and then went to the deli in the mall between the Marriott and the Doubletree. You can buy bottled water and sodas there, but in all honesty, they are cheaper to buy on the Ship. Overall, I would recommend the Marriott Biscayne Bay if you just need a place to sleep.....but don't expect to sleep long, as they are still renovating the bottom floors and the construction noise is a bit maddening. It's not in a very walkable part of Miami, and there really is nothing to see or do in the general vicinity. However, the view is stellar and these beds give the "Heavenly Bed" a run for their money.
Embarkation: We took a $12 cab ride to the Port of Miami, where things happened very quickly. Our taxi pulled up to the terminal, and while I was paying him, the Porter grabbed our bags and started putting tags on them. We had forgotten to attach the pre-printed bag tags from the Carnival documents, so we had to fill out tags right in front of the incoming taxis. It all happened so quickly that I didn't have time to grab my "porter" tip envelope.....but I did managed to find $3 in my bag and I handed it over to him. (2 bags and he was going to stand and wait there until I tipped him!) We went through the Security line at the Port in less than 10 minutes, then went to our line in the terminal for another 5 before they handed us our FunPass and allowed us to board. It was probably 12:15 at this time, and we were up on Lido deck by 12:30pm. Very quick embarkation process I was expecting a lot worse.
The Ship: Our room was surprisingly large for an interior. We'd booked a 4A guarantee and were "upgraded" to the 4G on the Riviera deck, midship. It had two twin beds pushed together, two nightstands, a nice vanity with seat, plenty of closet space, and a pretty efficient bathroom. My only complaint with the room, aside from those heinous pale pinks and oranges, were the lamp shades. They were brown from being burned/old/who knows what. If they changed them, then I would say we felt like we'd done pretty well for ourselves. The bed was very comfortable, and the sheets definitely satisfied the thread count snob in me. Our steward introduced himself to us at this time, and that was pretty much the last we saw of him aside from a few "hellos" in the evening. Hubby called him the "ninja," as he was so stealth but everything was always perfect in our room, from the ice in the chest to fresh towels when we needed them. I must add for the ladies out there that the complimentary toiletries on board the ship aren't like standard hotel toiletries....you get shampoo, body wash, razors, and toothpaste. Be sure to carry on your own body moisturizers and hair conditioner. I learned this the hard way and had to buy these items in the ship's store because they were not available. I walked around with the Valor map for an entire day, but am happy to say that I didn't find the Conquest-class ship to be difficult to navigate at all. When in doubt, use the hallways with rooms to move the length of a deck. Since we were on a staircase-only mode of transport (we swore to never use the elevator on the Valor), this never created a hassle. Everyone talks about the over-the-top Farcus designs, but I wasn't shocked by the Valor's eagles, liberty bells, or lighting. In fact, it seemed appropriate. I particularly enjoyed the Eagles lounge and the Ivanhoe Theatre....they were my favorite escapes.
I used the gym several times during our trip and found it satisfactory. Nice weight stations for upper and lower body circuits, in addition to a plethora of treadmills, some bikes, and ellipticals. I really wanted to use the spin bikes (they are more adjustable and take cleats), but they don't allow you to ride them outside of their $10 spin class. While the gym was nearly always busy, you didn't have to wait long to get on the equipment, and you saw people of all shapes, sizes, and clothing (purses included!) in there.
Dining: We had the late 8:15pm seating in the Washington Dining Room. This gave us plenty of time on the trip to prepare for dinner and to stay on shore as long as possible. It took a few days to get used to eating so late, but the salad bar at Rosie's was a lifesaver for an early evening "snack." Our head waiter was a very proud and professional gentlemen who treated us very well. He knew after the second day that I needed a cappuccino for desert, so he would send it out with the desert menu every night thereafter. Our wine steward took very good care of us, even though my husband was using the dreaded soda card and I rarely ordered a glass of wine. She came to us every night with a smile, knew our names, and always had a Diet Coke at the table waiting for us. Dinner was always fun because it felt like we were back amongst friends. Our maitre' d was always present, walking around and talking to the tables to make sure we had what we needed. Although this was a nice gesture, our waiter took incredibly good care of us, so it was almost offensive if he implied we weren't being taken care of! He would do announcements between the entree and desert every night, and sometimes the waiters would get together and sing. I thought it was fairly subdued and not as over-the-top as I had read. Our waiter had a great voice, so it was fun to see him smile and show it off so much! Dinners themselves weren't bad. I can't say I was expecting much considering that they were feeding 3000 guests in 3 hours, but there was always something on the menu that looked appealing and I really didn't have anything that was unpalatable. (OK, maybe the diet pumpkin cake, but our waiter warned us it would be bad and sent out an alternative desert with it!) I found the chefs to be very imaginative when it came to their sauces and side dishes.....I had everything in the main dining room from tilapia (mediocre) to rack of lamb (sinful) and pasta with seafood (the very best). I found the Bitter n' Blanc desert to be my favorite. I wish it were on the menu every night! My husband is a picky eater, but he had a different cut of red meat every single night....I didn't think it would be possible. How would I rank this to real-world dining? For sure, a step up from chains like Chili's and Applebees. The buffet on Lido, Rosie's, was our standbye when we got back from excursions and had not had lunch. We tried out everything the fish & chips stand, Mongolian BBQ, the pizza, and the deli. Ended up liking the regular buffet the best, as there was always a fresh salad bar and fresh fruit available for an afternoon snack. They also had deserts that were very similar to those served in the dining room, so you never really missed out. My husband lived on the pizza, and while he complained about the 5-minute wait every time, he never complained about the pizza itself. My only complaint with Rosie's was that they shut down the buffet lines RIGHT at the time that's listed in the Caper, even if there were loads of people in line. If you are at the late seating, it's hard to eat lunch right at 12:00pm.....sometimes we'd head up around 2:00pm and we couldn't eat a slow, leisurely lunch for fear that everything would shut down at 2:30. There was also 24-hour soft-serve fat free frozen yogurt available. I didn't discover this until the comedian on the fourth night made fun of all the people gorging themselves on the ice cream. We had dinner one night at Scarlett's. It was very small and intimate, and the waiters and waitresses were all very professional and formal. Almost a bit too formal for us. If I could describe it, I would say that our dinner was "overdone." A lot can be said for simplicity, and I found that Scarlett's liked to overcomplicate their dishes and menus. It was definitely a good value for the money, but I can't say that I would return. In fact, my husband preferred the main dining room to our evening at Scarlett's.
We ordered room service on every morning we had a shore excursion. So, 3 times. You are able to request a certain time frame with which your breakfast will be delivered, but I learned the hard way after the first morning that those times mean nothing. Our first day, breakfast came 20 minutes early. I was still drowsy, in bed, in my nightgown, when room service knocked on the door. While I had a tip on the nightstand, I was so disoriented that all I managed to do was grab my robe, open the door, and take the tray. I remember him standing in the doorway looking confused as I shut the door in his face. I believe I woke up 10 minutes later and felt horribly guilty. :) The second day I was prepared and got out of bed and dressed a 1/2 hour before I'd requested room service. This time, they were 10 minutes early. And on the last day, they were 15 minutes early....but alas, I grew smart. The menu was simple not much to choose from for breakfast - but it was enough to get us late risers up and running so we could get off the ship first. On Board Activities: Our cruise director, Chris Jefferson, did an incredible job at keeping us informed and busy while on the Valor. He emceed every show, and was on the loudspeaker every morning giving us directions on tendering, returning to the ship, or disembarking. We spent lots of time attending the different trivia sessions with Asst. Director Dave in the non-smoking areas, although it was a shame we never got to do the Sports Trivia as it was in the Bronx Bar. (so much smoke!) We liked watching the deck parties, and on the second to last night I finally gave in and joined the dancing on Lido when Matt led us all in some cheesy line dances. Overall, I think we were busy ALL the time and saw and did as much as we possibly could. I credit Chris and his team for seeing to it that we were never bored and always well-informed.
Disembarkation: We opted to skip self disembarkation and to just receive a number, as we had a flight out of Miami the next day and were not in a rush. We tried to sleep in a little, but received a wakeup call at 5:45am. Chris didn't come on the loudspeaker to start the process until 7:30am, though. We were group #30, so next to last. We left our room at 8:30am and then went up to Rosie's for a leisurely breakfast. Right about the time when we started to get bored, our number was called. 10am, I believe? We waited in the American Lobby for another half hour, as Miami customs put a halt to our disembarkation. Finally, we were off by 10:30am and through customs by 10:45, en route to our new hotel, the Courtyard Marriott Downtown.
Post Cruise: I will also review this hotel, as I think it's a more suitable choice for a pre-cruise stay. It's very close to Bayside Marketplace and within a block or two of both a Walgreens and another pharmacy. So you can stock up on supplies pre-cruise there. The neighborhood felt much safer to me, and it's a little closer to the Port. Our room was just fine, although there's also construction across the street so you won't get much sleep on weekdays.
We toured South Beach on Sunday afternoon (taxi from Bayside was $16) and then on Monday morning had a leisurely walk to Mary Brickell Village before heading to the airport. Overall, it was too much time in Miami, and we wished we'd been able to book a Carnival tour from the ship on disembarkation day because it turns out they were cheaper than what the guides on the street were selling!