ARRIVAL IN PORT: We took a direct flight into San Juan out of Chicago on the day of embarkation, Sunday Jan 18th 2009. Fortunately, the weather in Chicago was fine and we got to San Juan at about 3:00PM with no problems. We purchased Carnival's Airport Transfers (to the cruise ship terminal) for $30 per person, and found a person holding a "Carnival Transfers" sign at the baggage claim. This was not a Carnival employee, but a local agency hired to complete the transfer for Carnival. The man had everybody line up and he looked through everyone's papers. His English was very poor and it was hard to understand what he wanted. After about ½ hr., he started pulling people out of the rear (why? I don't know. Those people had gotten there last) of the line and sending them through the baggage claim checkpoint. It was very confusing as to what was going on, but we all eventually met outside where our bags were loaded onto a big cargo truck and the passengers were loaded onto a bus. Alert: Make sure you have your Carnival Victory Boarding Pass or FunPass with you at this point and not in your bag. You will not see your bag again until it is delivered to your room aboard the Victory. There was a couple that had boarding pass in their bag and did not realize it until the cargo truck had taken off. Not sure how they got on the ship, but they were very worried. Nobody from the transfer service tells you this either, so make sure your documents are on your person. We then boarded the bus and proceeded through San Juan to the cruise ship terminal. What should have been a 10 minute ride turned into over an hour as there was some kind of festival going on in SJ, and every street was gridlock. The bus was very old, gross, dirty, and smelled like a stale locker room. My wife was deathly afraid to touch anything. To make matters worse, there was no air conditioning (except for the driver), and it was hot and unbearably stinky. Not off to a good start. We were first time cruisers, so at this point we were a bit nervous.
EMBARKATION: We finally got the cruise ship terminal and checked in and received our Sail and Sign cards and got our security picture taken. It was a breeze and we were in our cabin in about 10 minutes. The cabin was great. We were midship and up high with a great view of the San Juan harbor. The cabin was clean and stocked with complimentary toiletries (razors, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, body wash). We got settled in and went out to explore the ship a bit. The 9PM muster drill was very hard to take. It was hot, steamy, sweaty, and they have you packed in all against each other like sardines. Very uncomfortable and we couldn't wait until the necessary evil was over. We then went out on our balcony for the 10PM departure and enjoyed pulling out of the harbor under the stars. It was warm and breezy and romantic, just perfect.
THE SHIP: The ship is lovely and very clean. It's very glitzy and reminded us a bit of Vegas. The color theme in greens and blues was great. There were constantly people scrubbing, painting, cleaning, etc. They obviously take pride in their maintenance. We thought the ship was a bit difficult to navigate at first, but we got used to it after a day or two. Decks 3 and 4 do not go completely through because of the Atlantic Dining Room, so if you are trying to get to one end of the ship from the other end, you will have to use levels other and 3 and 4.
OUR CABIN: We stayed in Balcony Cabin 8309 on the Verandah deck. The cabin was actually roomier than we expected and had a table and two chairs out on the balcony. The bed was very comfortable. The bathroom was small, but suited our needs fine. Ben was our cabin steward and he seemed to have a 6th sense for when we were out and he promptly cleaned it several times a day. He took care of a few minor needs we had (more toothpaste, replace a dirty bathrobe that was given to us) and we gave him a little extra tip at the end of the week.
THE FOOD: We ate our dinner the first night in the Atlantic Dining room, and were seated with 10 folks from all over the US as it is open seating on the first night. That was fine for that night, but it's not really our style, so after dinner we checked in with the maitre d and found out that our assigned table was also for 10. We requested to have a table for 2 and he said he could not guarantee it, but it was likely. We were pleasantly surprised the next day when we found a new table assignment card in our room, with our request granted. The food in the Dining Room was absolutely fantastic, and we ate our dinners there every night. The menu changes every night, and there were several things I wanted to try each evening, and I am a pretty picky eater. Some great meals included: Caribbean Jerked Pork (best meal of the trip, just awesome!), Lobster, Filet Mignon, Salmon, Baby Back Ribs, Sicilian Chicken, etc. They were all gourmet, as were the starters. We have heard folks complaining about the food, but cannot see how. Maybe some people are used to eating at Fleur de 'lis or any other $150 plate restaurants. We usually dine at Applebee's, Chili's, etc. and the Victory food was a major league step up from that. The desserts were great also. The service was fantastic, our waiter was Rittirong from Thailand, and he was very polite and hard working. Our bar waiter was Marco from Serbia, and he was great as well. Several nights the waiters all got together and danced, sang, etc. It was really neat to see. Nothing but great things to say about the dining room.
The buffet food on the Lido (9) deck was just okay. The quality of the ingredients was average and we did see long lines several times. Some people in the buffets were rude and inconsiderate (more on this later), so we generally stayed away. I would go up there in the AM, get our coffee and some bagels, fruit, scrambled eggs, bacon, juice, etc. and bring it back to the room where we ate in peace. We ordered room service on the first morning and it never came, so we didn't experiment with that again. We only ate breakfast in the Dining Room on the last day and it was pretty good, definitely better than dealing with the buffet crowds.
ENTERTAINMENT ON SHIP: We went to the show the first night in the Caribbean Lounge and left about 20 minutes into it. It was very sophomoric and the dancers were lame and pretty suggestive and revealing for a family cruise ship. The singing was bad and we did not waste our time at a show again. Karl with a K is the cruise director and he is very good. Even I laughed at a few of his jokes several times. He has a lot of energy and was just very happy all of the time. You have to be cut out for that position, and Karl definitely is. We only went to the casino once as we are not big gamblers. But, I had a $5 match play coupon and I used it and promptly lost a few games of Blackjack. I then played $20 bucks worth of quarters and was out after 5 minutes or so. My wife got $10 worth of quarters, and she was pretty much wasting her time while I played Blackjack, and hit a $250 winner on a slot! So we cashed out right away and left. The casino is smoky, so watch out if you do not smoke. We had a drink once in one of the lounges before dinner, some sweet Jazz was playing and it was very enjoyable. Otherwise, we didn't spend much time in the bars onboard.
DAY 1, ST. THOMAS: We took Carnival's Shopping/Megan's Bay Beach Getaway Shore excursion for $33 pp, and it was pretty good. A short bus ride from the dock to the downtown shopping district, where we were met by very aggressive and sometimes rude sellers trying to coax us into their stores. There were high end jewelers mixed in the low end ABC type stores. They would stand out front of their stores, saying things like "Quit the aimless wandering and get in here and spend!" "You came here to spend money, so what are you waiting for?" Not the most enjoyable, and it was all overpriced tourist junk. I suppose if you were in the market for Rolex or Diamond jewelry, you could have gotten a good deal as it is all duty free. The better half of the Shore excursion was the trip to Megan's Bay Beach. It was a short bus ride to the other side of the island where we spent 2 wonderful hours on gorgeous Megan's Bay. The sand was clean and white and it was very picturesque with palm trees and bright blue, calm swimming waters. It was a great beach if you are a beach person, as we are.
DAY 2, DOMINICA: We did the Carnival's Kayak/Snorkel Shore Excursion for $55 pp. and it was well worth it. A small tour van takes you to a local dive outfit, where we got in Kayaks and kayaked along the coast for about 20 minutes to Champagne reef, where we snorkeled among the bubbles. The bubbles come up from the bottom by the volcanic activity underneath and they are very cool. There was a lot of colorful fish and plant life that we snorkeled over and the guide was very informative. Dominica is a very raw and poor island, but beautiful. It was very lush and tropical. The locals crowded around the dock when the boat tied up and they were very, very aggressive, pushing shore excursions, taxis, trips etc. It was hard to walk around without being constantly bothered. We did not venture far as we did not feel too safe away from the ship (with the exception of the shore excursion).
Day 2 was also the Captain's Cocktail Party and the first of 2 formal nights onboard. We hit the Captain's Party a bit late a grabbed a few cocktails. This is the only time you will get free cocktails onboard, so we obliged. To no surprise, they were so watered down that I doubt there was any alcohol at all in them. But, we had a good time and everyone was all dressed up and they served some good hors d' ovores . Of course, we then went to the dining room and had a very nice dinner.
DAY 3, BARBADOS: Barbados ended up being our favorite of all of the islands because of its sheer beauty. It's hard to tell that from the docking pier (where it is very industrial), so make sure you get out and explore the island. We took Carnival's Coast to Coast Panorama Tour for about $60 pp. and it was also well worth it. We had a very informative and funny tour driver (Alex) who had a very soothing island voice. He gave us much history on the island and how far they have come. The bus was clean and comfortable. We went to St John's Cathedral up in the hills overlooking Bathsheba. The church was very peaceful and serene and lovely on the inside. After that, we went down through some rural areas to Bathsheba, which was very pretty. Huge boulders on the shore, where the waves come crashing in. We thought it was quite spectacular. After that, we drove some old farming settlements, saw cane and other crop fields, before returning to the cruise ship terminal. Please go out of the city and see Barbados as it is a gorgeous island. The terminal itself was very large and had some of the better shopping on the trip inside. We mailed some post cards at the post office inside, and just browsed around for souvenirs.
We then had a few hours to kill, so we took a taxi to Boatyard Beach for $6 pp. The beach was pretty, with pink sand and all, but very crowded and I didn't feel too safe. Keep in mind that we were not in the area that requires a $15 admittance fee. That may be better/safer. There were many groups of local boys (15-20 year old thugs) roving the beach, in my mind looking for easy victims. My wife saw one boy grab an unattended camera and run. I certainly didn't leave my belongings. It was cloudy and started sprinkling, so we went out to the street and got a taxi back.
DAY 4, ST. LUCIA: St. Lucia was very lovely, lush, and tropical when the Victory pulled in, and we thought we were going to love it. It ended up being just okay, in our opinion. We took Carnival's Breathtaking Soufriere and Warm Mineral Bath Shore Excursion. It was a pretty large group of about 30 people and we took an hour and a half roller coaster ride through the hairpin turns up and down the hills of St. Lucia. We stopped at a banana plantation. The guide was informative and friendly. There was literally hundreds of hairpin turns and we were both very motion sick and feeling nauseas by the time we finally arrived at the mineral baths. I would never do it again. The mineral baths themselves were great, and located in a very picturesque setting, right underneath the Pitons. We soaked in the warm bath after a short walk through the rainforest, and we felt much better then. The water was refreshing and who knows, maybe it does have healing powers. We then geared up for the ride back, which was just as bad. Fortunately, we took a break at a restaurant with a scenic overlook and got a complimentary juice. Others purchased local chicken that was cooking on a grill and they said it was very good. My stomach wasn't ready for any food at that point. We finally got back and walked around the shopping area outside the cruise ship dock. They were selling Piton beer, 2 for $3. The tour guide had earlier told us that it had won some Gold Medal somewhere, so I figured it was worth a try. Must have been the Skunk Piss competition, as this beer was horrible. I had a hard time even choking one back. Otherwise, the shopping was okay and we headed back onboard. A note here for coffee drinkers: The Piton Beer gardens in the shopping area did have one redeeming feature. They also sold an 8oz. bag on "Green Gold" St. Lucia Coffee for $5 (which is much cheaper than the rotgut coffee you find in the souvenir shops). We picked up a few bags and hoped it would be good. We were pleasantly rewarded once we tried it here at home. If you are a coffee-snob, like we are, you don't want to miss these local beans.
DAY 5, ANTIGUA: We were getting shore excursioned out at this point, so we wanted to find a quiet beach to lounge the day away. The Taxi Stand recommended Turner's Beach, so we took a taxi there for $8 pp. It was just awesome. There was one bar/restaurant on an otherwise quiet beach. We found a very remote spot under some palm trees and just got some serious sun for the day. The sand was powder fine and very white. The swimming was awesome as the waves move you around a bit and roll you ever so slightly. My wife collected many beautiful shells along the beach that had washed in. For a refreshing break, we walked back to the bar and had a Pina Colada. There was a small boat, jet ski rental there as well as some chairs/umbrellas for a nominal fee. We saw other cruisers from our ship there and there may have been 40 or 50 people on the entire beach, but they were all crowded around the bar. Walk down the beach if you want some quiet solitude. By the late afternoon, were sun burnt (even though we had put on SPF8), so we reluctantly grabbed a taxi back to the boat.
This was also the second formal night, and again things went off without a hitch, and we had a wonderful dinner.
DAY 6, ST. KITTS: After the wonderful beach day on Antigua, we were looking for a repeat performance on St. Kitts. We took a taxi for $8.50pp to Cockleshell/Banana Bay. It was a relatively quiet beach, with one bar/restaurant and a local resident 600 pound pig "Wilbur" at the beach. Wilbur is harmless and friendly. I thought he was pretty cool, but my wife ran when he approached. Cockleshell Beach was black sand mixed with white, and the beach was a bit dirty with flotsam and seaweed that collected on shore. It was however, pretty. It was lined with swaying palm trees and the water was blue. The swimming was not the greatest due to vegetation in the water here. We walked across the rocky point (to the right) over to Banana Bay, which was more deserted and quieter. We caught some good rays and did a little swimming. Shells galore on both of these beaches for the treasure hunter. At about 2PM, we took a taxi back to the cruise ship dock, where we spent the last few hours shopping. The shopping on St. Kitts outside of the ship was the best on the cruise. A wide variety of items, high and low end, and not bad prices.
Speaking of shopping, the shopping on the ship we thought was pretty expensive and we generally avoided it. "James and Ashley" your onboard shopping specialists, I think work for Diamonds International and Tanzanite International. They have stores multiple times in every port of call, and they push you to go their stores. An item in the Barbados Capers said "Be sure to stop by the shopping desk to pick your VIP Shopping Card for Barbados. You don't want to be shopping here without it!". Against my better judgment, I went to the shopping desk, where James gave me a BS card for "manager's lowest price" at ... you guessed it, Diamonds International or Tanzanite International. Like you couldn't have gotten the same price without the joke of a card. Also, there is a shopping insert in every Capers, where they recommend certain stores. Read the fine print on the back, as these stores pay a fee to on the shopping guide. It is basically and advertisement for those stores. They are no cheaper or better than any of the other stores you will find in port. We discovered it's wise to just generally ignore the shopping insert.
Back on board, I went to the Debarkation Talk as it was heavily stressed to attend. Do not waste your time. It was mostly a plea for additional tips and high marks on the comment cards. Also, it was played all night long on the TV in your cabin. So, if you want to see it, you can at your leisure.
DAY 7, DEBARKATION: We were assigned Zone 14 (based on your flight departure time), and we were a bit worried as out flight left San Juan at 3:48PM. They were going so slow in the morning and by 10:30AM, they were only up to zone 5. People were sitting around all over as you had to be out of your room, so they could prepare for the next cruisers. Lido deck was very crowded. Of course, people whose zones had not been called were trying to leave the ship, slowing down the process for everyone else. They closed the buffets and the "24 hour" pizza/burger stands at about 10AM. They also closed down the lemonade/iced tea dispensers! Please, it's a bit hot on Lido deck. They should have at least left the free drink stations open. They had to reopen it all about 11:00 as everyone was complaining. We finally got off of the ship at about noon, and made our way through customs without any problems, even though they were concerned with the coffee we were bringing back. Outside the terminal, there was a Carnival employee directing those with pre-paid transfers to the bus, which was even worse than the one that took us there. Fortunately, the trip to SJU airport was quick this time. A short wait for our flight and we were back into FREEZING Chicago by 7:00PM.
CONCLUSION: All in all, it was great cruise and we really don't have any complaints with Carnival other than the transfer service. Our only real complaint is with some of our fellow passengers, as we experienced a fair amount of rude and inconsiderate behavior.
• Someone reaching across your plate to grab something at the buffet. This was accompanied by the usual line jumping, cutting in, etc.
• People who congregate on stairs, in tight halls to chat, and look at you like you have a problem when you say "Excuse me" to get by
• People who wait in line 10-15 mins to get back on ship, finally get up the card scanner and x-ray machine, then decide to look for their Sign and Sail card, take off their packs, etc., unnecessarily holding up the line.
• Gluttony at the buffet, we saw many examples of waste and sloth behavior. One that stands out was a heavy, young (14 or so) year old girl in front if me at the burger stand. She piled scoop after scoop of fries onto 2 plates. It was taking so long it was holding up the line. She finally just pulled the tray out of the holder and emptied all of the fries onto her plates/tray. There was literally a foot high 5 pound mountain on each plate. As is that wasn't enough, she then ladled tons of cheese onto it all. We later saw her sitting alone with about half of one pile gone.
• Inconsiderate people who use the Atlantic Dining Room as a walkway while people were eating! This was especially bothersome on formal night. We would be sitting there enjoying our meal, when some gross fat hairy guy walks by from the pool in his flip flops, daisy dukes and wife beater tank, usually taking the time to check out your meal and/or your wife. This happened quite often. Carnival needs to keep people out of the dining room who are not there to eat. They also need to enforce the dress code in the dining rooms, as they claimed they would.
• The nightly yelling/screaming/carrying on in the hallways from the drunks when they would return to their cabins each night. We got woken up by this behavior several times each night. The noise in the halls is heard surprisingly easy from the cabins. People at 2AM (or 10:30PM for that matter) need to respect that others are sleeping when they are cruising the halls.
Like others have said though, attitude is everything and we tried and succeeded at not letting the behavior of some ruin it for us. Fortunately, they were the minority. Most people on the ship are considerate and respectful. We certainly don't hold Carnival responsible for the boorish behavior of those on board. With that said, it was a great time, a great itinerary, and well worth the money we spent!