My wife, Sandee, and I were presented with a golden opportunity when my parents asked to take our 3 youngest children to Tennessee for a week. Immediately, the wheels started turning and my mouse was smokin' looking for cruise deals. I have the opportunity to book under military discount and we soon nailed down one of three cruises that we found appealing. We were considering Carnival Glory from Port Canaveral (on an Eastern Caribbean itinerary that week), Carnival Legend from Tampa (Grand Cayman, Costa Maya, Belize and Roatan) or Carnival Valor from Miami. We had sailed on Valor last November, with the kids and my Mother in Law, and were favorable to doing it again. After careful research, we chose Valor again and not just based on cost which was slightly less with the other costs factored.
We booked our cruise fare through the same travel agent as we did in November. She always will beat or match what we find online. I will provide her information, upon request, to any interested parties. We booked our airfare through the discount site du jour with us arriving in the area the day prior. I was tongue lashed by a lovely lady on our port transfer about how dumb I was for not paying the premium (and albeit) guaranteed airfare through Carnival. We flew from Philadelphia to Fort Lauderdale non-stop, which was drastically cheaper than straight to Miami, 24 hours prior to the cruise departure. I took my tongue lashing like the man I am and politely told her that there were no less than 12 additional routings that we could have taken to South Florida and still made the cruise with a lot of time to spare. Carnival does do a fine job with the FlyAweigh program but I didn't feel like paying a premium rate for airfare. Funny, my travel agent thought I had a good deal.
After our flight down, we stayed at the Sheraton Ft. Lauderdale Airport / Cruise Port Hotel. Not only was the complimentary shuttle convenient and pleasant, but the accommodations were outstanding. We arrived a little late and had some insignificant problems with the room. The hotel staff made Herculean efforts to make amends, far surpassing any type of commensurate compensation. I was using Starwood Preferred Guest points and they essentially "comped" me the room. They provided supremely good customer service graciously presented by a remarkable staff. We will use this facility again for cruises from Port Everglades (which is extremely close) or from Miami.
After returning to Fort Lauderdale Airport to pick up our port transfer, which we DID book through Carnival, we were greeted by a friendly and energetic transfer staff which shuffled us right to the designated meeting spot. We were a bit early so we did sit awhile prior to loading the transfer bus operated by Cabana Coaches. We did have a bit of excitement enroute to Miami when we lost a tire. Cabana rapidly sent a replacement bus to our location, and after a
45 minute delay, we were Southbound again. I am well aware that we could have saved money with other transfers but Carnival does a great job with this and a guarantee prior to the cruise soothes the nerves. Maybe next time, we will book through an alternate source for the return which I will discuss in detail toward the end of this review.
Upon arrival in Miami, our bus was offloaded, porters tipped, and documents out as we entered the lines. We had driven down to Miami last November and parked. The parking cost $160.00 for "eight days" and was secure and convenient. This time the luggage dragging was kept to a minimum and the process was very low impact. The line process is just that: lines. We did a number of things differently than we have in the past. After going through the metal detector, we were shuffled upstairs for the check in process. It's worth remarking about two completely different scenarios between November and June. In November, I carried on three 750ml bottles of wine and security demanded to physically verify each one. In June, they didn't even remark about them. The check in process was fairly quick. We had never secured with cash before, but this time I contacted Carnival in advance and placed a shipboard credit against our reservation. It actually worked really well. We had prepaid our excursions as well and we actually received a check for $2.04 on disembarkation day. If you know your spending habits (read as don't drink, gamble or shop too much), it works well.
Carnival moved the passengers a little better in November; June was a bit of a cluster. Eventually, we were through the lines and onboard. We had been delayed due to the bus and other things, so it was straight to the Lido Deck for lunch. We didn't really wait around that long before we ventured down to our deck and tried the room key. We put away the majority of our luggage (3 out of 4) that we had received prior to the always exciting lifeboat drill.
Our departure was actually slightly delayed from port. We were hammered by a line of pretty nasty thunderstorms. We were watching hail bouncing off of the windows as we soaked in one of the adult only whirlpools. They had closed the roof over the rear Lido Pool area so we watched in comfort until the storms passed. The remainder of the evening consisted of looking around at the various activities on board prior to dinner. I do have to mention the new Carnival Laser Tag system. We did not play it, but it was normally pretty busy. It looked real impressive on the main stage in the theater but if you are over 6 feet tall like me you might get tired of ducking. For $5 a person it's comparable to most laser tags games you find elsewhere and I didn't hear any negative comments.
One of the rare things that I am not going to speak about in glowing terms is the food. Now read this carefully, the food was very good but it was better in November. The Lido selections were delicious and well prepared but I wasn't impressed. The courses in the Washington Dining room were excellent but not outstanding. Carnival does a fine job in the cuisine category but this was not our best fed cruise. If you let this review dissuade you from taking a Carnival cruise, you are going to miss out an extraordinary and reasonably priced cruise experience.
One of the main advantages of cruising as a couple only is getting to meet a lot of other people. We met three fantastic couples at our dinner seating. One couple were originally from were we live and now live in Florida, another were South Floridians who escaped from Ohio, and the others were soon to be retired Ohioans who hadn't made it South yet. We had a blast nearly every night and ended up on some of our excursions with some of our dining mates.
Our wait staff was fantastic. Our head waiter was Jose from Honduras and his assistance was Frandy from Haiti. Frandy was a featured dancer during the dining room staff performances. The wait staff loves doing this for their guests and we enjoy their efforts. One of the highlights of the first night at sea was the liquor tasting. The duty free salespeople are awesome and I would be remiss by not singling one of them out for recognition. We met Brent last November and he is an absolute blast. For some reason, he took a liking to us. He made some great suggestions for shopping and places to see on our excursions. He is a big fan of Tabyana Beach on Isla Roatan and told us some good places to snorkel there. After dinner, we chose to keep the revelry to a minimum so we could be 100% for our first day at sea.
The next day, we got up at really odd time and had breakfast during open seating. Those breakfasts are often fun. We ended up eating with a couple from Pittsburgh that we were stuck on the bus with. It's nice to not have to fight the Lido crowd at Breakfast. Sandee went up on deck while I began my day of Fun Ship games. I take these a little too seriously at times, but I love it. After some games, including Super Full Contact Trivia, I met Sandee for some water slides and then lunch. I also took in the port shopping talk so I could get my free swag coupons for Grand Cayman. I always enjoy the first sea day, we do a lot so we get a full day in.
That night was the first elegant night. We had stopped in at one of the lounges for the Captain's Reception. Captain Cupisiti is quite the charmer and we enjoyed the formality of the reception. As usual, the gauntlet of photographers was out and we took many, many photos. These ended up being ones we did buy. One thing that Carnival has improved over the years is the photographic sales policy. When we find one we like, we typically buy it and the Photo CD. The CD gives you the rights to the photo and then we have many more made at the local Walmart.
We arrived with the usual lack of fanfare to Georgetown, Grand Cayman. We were the first ship into port that morning by what seems to be seconds. There were two other ships in port with us: Carnival Destiny and Carnival Legend. This made for a not so crazy day in town. We have been in port with more (and larger) ships which wreaks havoc on the narrow and crowded streets. We had been in GC twice before but that didn't mean that Sandee didn't take full advantage of the shopping. We tendered in a little early to take care of the obligatory souvenir hunt. After a short while, with shopping bags in hand, we wandered back over to the tender pier to meet up with our tour group.
We had chosen to finally take a water based excursion in Grand Cayman. On our two previous trips there, we were land bound and it was time to change that. We booked the Reef and Wreck Snorkel excursion through Carnival. I have booked through third party excursion companies before and I know that money can be saved, but I just don't like the risk when you are there to relax. Our group took a short walk down to the Cayman Sun, operated by Don Foster's Dive Company. Our crew did a great job getting us prepped to snorkel, starting with a fish feeding at Cheeseburger Reef. Cheeseburger Reef is appropriately named because it is directly across from Georgetown's Burger King. The crew tossed in some fish food and the cameras started snapping. There was an amazing assortment of reef fish came out of nowhere. We spent about 45 minutes in the water prior to hopping back aboard to head to stop number two.
The second stop was over the wreck of the "Cali". This wreck has a neat tale of misfortune and dumb luck. The wreck is scattered over fairly large area in about 25-30 feet of water. The sea life has claimed the pieces and the snorkelers get the benefits. We had about another 45 minutes in the water, got some great photos, and then back aboard. The site over the wreck draws a lot of attention. The one semi-submarine tour views the same area, as well as SNUBA and other snorkeling companies. Over all, the tour is a great day on the water. We were heading back to the boat launch and I stated that I could use a Margarita to kill the salt water. Our dive master stated, "Do not go to Margaritaville!" I have to say my inner touristo was a little puzzled until he explained. Supposedly, the locals don't like the chain. They don't give local dive masters a discount, which is a crimp in style for a diver's paradise like GC.
We ended up taking the suggestion of our dive master and going to Breeze's which is next door to Margaritaville. We had a round of large and pricy frozen drinks. It cost us nearly $25 US for a daiquiri and a margarita. They come in 23oz glasses and are poured strong. It was a good deal for GC and we had a blast on their patio, which overlooks the harbor. We did go into Margaritaville to look around and take photos. It's a neat place but I'm glad we didn't patronage. We met a couple the next day who ate and drank there. I politely inquired about their bill (OK, I'm nosey). Two Margaritas (12oz) and 1 Cheeseburger in Paradise basket (split) = $50 US.
The remainder of our day consisted of Fun Ship activities and a buffet dinner. We watched the sunset and got some incredible photos. We hung out with some people we had just met and had a great evening. We gave up early that night, they hadn't really started the shows yet. We retired early and got some needed rest.
We woke earlier than we wanted the next morning to a little choppy water. It felt like a cat jumping on the bed. It wasn't bad but Sandee is a light sleeper, so we got up and had coffee and fruit. We did some miscellaneous FUN SHIP activities and had a real breakfast prior to arriving in Roatan. We took some excellent photos coming into the Bay Islands. Roatan is still semi underdeveloped and that suits us fine. The last time we were here they hadn't opened the port market yet. We looked forward to browsing after Tabyana Beach. We docked and waited to disembark. We found the girl with the Tabyana "lollipop" and boarded an air conditioned van for Tabyana Beach. We were lucky because the majority of people ride there on an old school bus.
We arrived at the beach, got the briefing and then off to find a chair. We lucked out and got a centrally located and strategically shaded area to camp out. We considered doing SNUBA which they offered for an additional 40 bucks a person but we chose to snorkel instead. Word to the wise, I bought Sandee a new dry snorkel. Don't waste your money, get a good semi-dry instead. She ended up using mine after the first GC snorkel stop - lesson learned. We had a great time doing a simple shore snorkel. Tabyana has great pieces of reef and decent sea life a few hundred feet off shore. The wave action is so light that you can drift along and enjoy the view. We had one bad experience, though.
Stupid people should not have snorkel equipment rented to them. These brain donors were bobbing along, dragging their fins on the bottom ruining the water clarity. I said, actually screamed a few choice words at them while the male was STANDING on the coral. Between that and running into us and blocking our way out of a coral formation, they were model guests.
We finished our visit and reboarded the bus for town. We had time to shop in the pier shops. We found one that was substantially cheaper than the rest. We bought all of our souvenirs in this place. Sandee and I finished our browsing and had a really good laugh. Not unlike Mexico, Honduras has a liberal pharmaceutical sales culture. The pier's pharmacy was selling generic versions of an infamous "little blue pill" prominently displayed in the store. I grabbed a Guatemalan Pepsi for Sandee which she drank in the shade before we boarded the Valor closing another great day in Roatan.
The remainder of the day consisted of formal dining, enjoying the people watching and relaxing. By this point in our cruise, I had reached contentment. As far as I was concerned, the rest of the trip was a bonus. We were scheduled to have a big day in Belize, so we didn't over do it too much. I know it's a vacation but we know our limits and when to rest up for a big port day.
We arrived at the "parking lot" in Belize at a very early hour. In November, I got up way too early and took some phenomenal photos coming down the channel. The cruise ships have to do a "conga line" down the channel into the parking area. This time we were at anchor before we came up on deck. Belize is a beautiful country and we were set for an awesome day. We booked a Barrier Reef Snorkel excursion. I had snorkeled on a different section of the reef in November but Sandee didn't. I was able to get on a side trip from our excursion to Bannister Cay courtesy of Hammerhead Watersports. Those were a great group of guys and I had a blast. This trip proved more exciting.
We rode out on a catamaran, complete with restrooms, to a nice section of reef. Belize has the second largest barrier reef system in the world. The reef life is supreme and I took some outstanding photos. Sandee and I had a wonderful time in the water. We saw rays and tons of fish; including Senor Barracuda. We climbed back aboard and they took our gear. The next thing they handed us was rum punch, that's when the fun began. Sandee asked our bartender, Noble, what was in it. He replied, "It will make you feel GOOD."
Many years ago, the forefathers of the Belizean dive masters handed down a secret recipe for delicious rum punch. The forefathers told of using moderately priced rum, adding in sweet, tantalizing mixers, to make a delicious and deceptive beverage. People sing the praises of this concoction which we fell prey to on this wonderful June day. We arrived, half tanked up, at Bannister Cay for the second part of our excursion. We had about an hour so swim and goof off at this lovely beach. This was the site of our November 2008 excursion, so we knew the lay of the land. We grabbed some chairs in very nice spot. Sandee went on a seashell hunt while I took pictures of the scenery. It was noticeable in later review of the photos that I did my best to include several well endowed, scantily clad women in my photos. I later attributed these "oversights" to the beverages; that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Sandee found my photographic artistry to be quite funny and was forgiving, courtesy of the rum punch. That was one of the quickest hours I've ever experienced and we were right back on board the catamaran. Once again, the rum punch flowed. Many of the passengers became quite friendly; people were forming life long friendships, courtesy of the famous rum punch.
We reboarded the Valor and performed a quick turn around to we could go ashore on the mainland. We had not visited the mainland last November, so we felt compelled to do so. The tender port area, which is highly secured to keep out the panhandlers, has a large variety of shops. We had picked up some free gift coupons during a shopping talk and redeemed them for earrings and a jewelry bag. We were approached by a very nice salesman at Diamonds International who attempted to sell us a $3700 Breitling watch. We did not bring that souvenir home. We bought our T-shirts and then back on the tender.
We finished up the day in Belize doing the usual ship board activities. Actually, this is a fine time to discuss one of our routine cruise activities: laundry. We purposely under pack; it's a fact of life when luggage costs 15 bucks or more to check at the airport. We carried on a small bottle of detergent and two rolls of quarters. We always wash up some of our clothes when we get breaks in the action. It costs $3 to wash and $3 to dry. Not having moldy swimsuits and towels are worth it. We do not use Carnival's towels ashore. I am skittish about $22 towels walking off with someone. It's a piece of cake to put the clothes in the dryer, grab a sandwich and then go down to fold.
The final port day really turned out to be a big (but good) surprise. We had been to Cozumel twice before. The last time, I took my mother in law and one of the kids to Tulum. Crossing the channel and riding the bus seriously eats up your day. When we went there in November, my daughter and I had time to take about two quick photos in Puerta Maya. No shopping, no site seeing, no time. The majority of the mainland tours take all but a scant few minutes of your port time to accomplish. The tours they offer on the mainland are supremely good but you lose a little of the Cozumel experience. I have discussed with a number of other past visitors to Cozumel who agree that a cruise that does an overnighter in Cozumel would make serious money.
Since I have my podium here, I will do my sales pitch. Carnival has an overnighter on other cruises. The catch with Cozumel is that you can't get more than a mainland tour in on your average visit. If Carnival were to arrive at the same time as they normally do in Cozumel, cruisers would be able to go across to Playa Del Carmen visit Xcaret or Tulum, etc. and then return to party it up in Cozumel. The next day time would remain for fun on Cozumel, whether it be snorkeling, beach time or visiting Chankanaab. Carnival could easily fit this into one of their 4 or 5 day cruises and sell them out.
We decided this time to revisit Passion Island. We were there in 2004 and loved it. The last time, we had to ride a bus through town and then take a pontoon boat over to the private island. They changed it up a little by incorporating what used to be a separate excursion: Twister. Twister is one of several high speed, high maneuverability boats who whisk you to Passion Island in about 25 minutes. The catch is that once you get to the lagoon by Passion Island, they spin you silly before docking. After six or more spins, you are ready for that dry land. It's crazy, wet fun and really gets the blood flowing before hitting one of the best beaches I have ever been to.
Passion Island has greatly improved their facilities in recent years. I'm not sure if it was from demand or urban (hurricane) renewal but all of the structures are fairly new. There is an abundance of lounge chairs, hammocks, and patio tables. The tour includes a decent buffet lunch (chicken, mahi-mahi, rice, fruit, salad) and domestic (but limited) open bar. I like Dos Equis, which was served on draft. The staff says that they use up about six kegs a day. They have a cash bar as well for the high maintenance crowd. The staff is very friendly and accommodating.
It is imperative that you tip well here. The whole excursion including the Twister is less money now than it was in 2004. The food is decent, the drinks cold, the water is supreme and the price is right. Overall, I think I enjoyed this excursion the most of the four we took. We caught the Twister back to the pier for some speed shopping. Cozumel makes American money go pretty far. We gobbled up a bunch of $4 T-Shirts, had a Pepsi and headed back to the Valor to beat the drunken crowd. I call the staggering mob: the Cozumel Death March. The drinking age is a little bit lower and you can normally tell the Carlos and Charlie's crowd by the beads and funky balloon hats. Again, the night life is another reason to make Cozumel an overnighter for one of Carnival's ships.
The last port day is currently the last elegant night. We prepared and dressed for dinner. Sandee and I played TV theme trivia, which we nearly won. This is a signature event and drew a large crowd. We joined our tablemates, who surprisingly ate in the main dining room nearly every night. Each couple cashed in one of the nights but overall we dined together. It even got to the point where we were sharing entrees with each other. Call it strange, but we loved dinnertime on the Valor. That night was one of the featured shows "Far From Over", a tribute to the 1980's. Very well done and I was impressed, mostly since we rarely attend the shows onboard. This was topped off by an adult version of a guest hypnotist who put on a great and hysterical show.
The last sea day gave us the final chance to score on the FUN SHIP activities. We joined up with Super Full Contact Trivia crowd for round 2. There was pretty solid trivia crowd onboard. The same people took their chances. We did surprisingly well, bringing in five "ship on a stick" trophies. Our cabin steward must have thought we were strange with them all in the room. I attended the "mandatory" disembarkation talk. I like these because you get to applaud the crew members that attend. The day flew by and soon it was the evening which was completed by the passenger talent show. They do a great job with this and it brings the cruise to final, bittersweet close.
The arrival day in Miami is an exercise in "hurry up and wait". We had a higher number to disembark. The number tags were delivered the day prior and we were 29 of 36. I had gotten information from our transfer company about the sequence to return to Fort Lauderdale. The short version is if you don't have to get off early, don't. We had a nice sit down breakfast in the main dining room prior to wandering the top decks and the promenade. We watched the crowds and we watched CNN on the Jumbotron. Then we had to go.
The trip back to Fort Lauderdale was uneventful. We had time to dine in the airport before boarding. Soon we were home and looking forward to downloading the camera which yielded some amazing shots.
This concludes my summary of our Carnival Valor cruise with snippets from November 2008 included. Please do not hesitate to use the email links, as I will help you increase the enjoyment factor any way I can. Have fun with your planning, do your research and most importantly prepare so you can relax onboard.
Kevin and Sandee Chambers