Cruise: San Juan to VI, Barbados and back. Embarkation: Chaotic. We arrived around 12:30pm only to hear that we couldn't board yet because there were still 800 passengers onboard. We were directed to a small 'waiting' area that was already full of people. There were enough chairs for about 30 people, which were filled when we got there. Over the next hour or so, more and more people jammed into the area and it was standing room only. At 1pm and 1:30pm, they reiterated that there were still 800 passengers on board. At 2:30, they started to board, using the 'group' system. We had group 18 and saw more and more people getting into line before their numbers were called. After about 15 minutes, the Carnival Rep said they were discarding the group system and anyone could board. Once we were on board - around 3 - it wasn't long before we could get into our staterooms. Luggage arrived shortly thereafter, which was nice. Suggestion to Carnival: either make it clear that boarding isn't available until 2:30 or use a larger waiting area if you aren't letting people on the ship right away.
The ship: Decor - On the verge of being gaudy, definitely colorful. However it was clean and our stateroom (#9241) decor and layout were just fine, as was the attendant. Our room size was generous and the extra closet came in handy. We still needed to use some of our own hangers. Our RCCL bathroom was so tiny we could sit on the commode and stick our feet in the shower. Carnival bathrooms are much larger and nicer - accommodating two people... and with extra room. Some of the carpet by the elevators was stained and in need of replacement. All in all, I liked the 'under water' theme, sea horses (watch out for those on the stairways) and mermaids, etc. Our balcony was nice, albeit small, and we loved watching the ship pull away from land away from the chaos on the decks.
Food: Most of the food in the dining room was acceptable and some of the buffet choices were actually decent. We were booked on late seating for dinner, and somehow our reservation was changed to early dinner. We needed only to see the maitre de and we had our dinner plans back in place. We ended up at a full table with people who had the same situation. Service was ok but definitely could have been better. Water glasses stayed empty a bit too long - even after asking for water - and some of our table mates were 'shorted' salads or bread. I asked a passing waiter to send over the bar person and he said this wasn't his table. Pizza Station - the pizza was good / the Caesar salad was good except it always had too many croutons. Deli - The Reuben was downright disgusting and could have been wrung out. I never saw the chinese station open. Grill - Burgers and Fries were decent. Room service breakfasts were satisfactory; choices are limited to cereal, fruit and bagels/muffins/toast. The bagels and toast were never warm. We did try the buffet for breakfast; the omelet was good, however the syrup and condiments were in the middle of the line...logically you'd pass them before you got to the pancakes, causing more chaos. On that last morning, we had the buffet for breakfast and couldn't find a glass of water or soda.
Suggestion to Carnival: Adjust the 'condiments' / break apart the lunch/dinner buffet line into separate stations ... or add a separate station for those of us who just want a salad. Smaller stations mean less waiting in line. Entertainment: The few shows we saw were not disappointing. The variety show was enjoyable. The comedian was funny but his after hours show wasn't - not that we had a problem with the 'adult' humor, he just wasn't funny. The juggler was funny. The movie trivia game was fun. Don't bother heading to the casino or playing bingo, unless you have money to throw away. Bingo - $10 a card or 3 for $20 and there were only two games. Bars: We didn't frequent the bars, but when we did stop in the Arctic Club once or twice around 11pm, it was nearly empty. Much different than the last cruise on Carnival (out of Miami) - the club was packed every night. As always, the drink of the day was overly sweet. Waiting for dinner required everyone to wait in the Seven Seas bar and although the entertainer had a good voice, the songs were always the same. Each bar has its own set of prices for drinks, which doesn't make sense. Very few of the bar staff actually made much effort to hurry over to wait on us when we had our soda passes in hand. However the staff at the Seven Seas bar was always pleasant!
Extra Expenses: Carnival tacks on $9 per person per day if the NYMEX oil price exceeds $70 per barrel. I checked a few other cruise lines and Carnival is not the only one doing this.
Debarkation: The same, chaotic. The group system was implemented and then discarded again. We were staying in San Juan for a couple days and were not in a hurry to get off the ship so this time we waited with the rest of the passengers. We just happened to be sitting at the bar in the Seven Seas lounge, playing cards and just after group 5 was called (we had group 11), someone came over and told everyone they needed the area cleared and we all were able to leave the ship. It was around 12:30.
Excursions: optional of course; my advice, skip the cruise line options and do the research yourself. We've been disappointed with most of the excursions we've booked with cruise lines - and pleased at those we found ourselves. Some people hired taxi drivers for private tours, or to be taken to beaches. Here's the three we did. 1. Dominica - We booked the 'Rainforest and Emerald Pool' tour through Carnival. Don't waste your time, it was a disappointment. They were both beautiful, of course, but the three hour excursion consisted of driving way too long through Dominica's residential area (I don't really need to see people living in tin roof hovels and homeless / toothless people sitting on streets). By the time we arrived at the Rainforest, we had a total of 30 minutes to see the Rainforest and Pool. The pool was a 15 minute walk from where we parked ... thus we had nearly NO time and had to rush through it. The other half of the pool area led to the rainforest with great views of the coast, but we had no time to take that path. In a nutshell, book with a private Tour Company instead.
2. St Lucia - Cosol Tours - we found them out on trip advisor and were considering it but decided against it as it was a 6-7 hour day and we would miss time for shopping. Not to mention I wasn't looking forward to being in a van for 7 hours ... given the fact that I have motion sickness. Anyway, when our 'cruise critic pals' decided they were going, we joined in and although I had problems with the winding roads early on, we absolutely loved it. Food, unlimited rum punch, and local beer, and of course water. The food and rum punch were awesome! Cosol's special "Viagra" in a bottle, you HAVE to try it! It did cost $1 to use the bathroom.. what choice did we have? We were lucky enough to have Cosol himself and were not disappointed! Don't miss it.
3. Best of Antigua - booked through Carnival again - Fantastic scenery, and we got to see Admiral Nelson's Fort but I am certain we could have had a cheaper, not to mention better trip, had we researched a bit. A note about Barbados: The port is on the poor part of the island and there is no nice strip mall to wander. The shops were pitiful - we walked off the ship, and within 30 minutes walked back on. Either use this day as a day of relaxation on the ship, or book something from a private company. My two cents: We were told that Carnival was selling rooms for $200 per person at the last minute just to fill the ship, which may account for why there are so many children on board. The people ahead of us in the check in line were a group of 4 adults and 7 children under 8 years old. Both Carnival cruises that I've been on have had too many kids running around the ship, playing in the elevators, jumping in the hot tubs - yes literally JUMPING. The last Carnival cruise we were walking across the deck at night and were nearly hit by a flying plate thrown by one of the kids. I was surprised at the number of passengers who didn't speak English, not 'broken' English ... NO English and by the way, they were loud and rude. I've been to a good many places and this was my first trip where most of the people had no idea what I was saying. Every other place I have been, people at least understand some of what comes out of your mouth. Not so much on this cruise...
After our complaints about Carnival last time, our Cruise agent (not through Carnival) said we would "encounter a better class of tourists" when sailing out of some place other than Miami. She suggested sailing out of San Juan as there 'wouldn't be so many kids on board'. Well, it looks like we'll be finding a new cruise agent now.
In closing: We know Carnival is the lowest priced cruise line, so we don't expect luxury. We selected Carnival because the rooms are larger and ultimately the ship takes us to the same place as more expensive cruises would. We're more interested in the ports than the ship itself and can live with somewhat gaudy ships, and some kids ... to get there. Logically, I can book a cruise and a half for what I'd pay for on a higher priced cruise line, so we'll sail Carnival one more time before we take them off the list, only this time we'll stay away from Miami and San Juan.