We should preface this review by saying that we are not picky people. Our travel philosophy has been that you make your own good times and you shouldn't let minor irritations bother you. However, certain things definitely bothered us this cruise that we should mention.
Embarkation: No problem. It was well organized and the lines moved well. We were on board by 2:30 (we had an early morning flight from NYC), our room was ready, and we were having lunch by 3:00. Helpful hint embarking passengers are allowed one bottle of alcohol per person. As we had a balcony, we knew we would enjoy a glass of wine on the balcony. There's a small liquor store at the San Juan pier, right as you enter the building. You can save a lot of money by stopping in there first. We also stopped at the convenience store next door for bottled water. The water on board is expensive.
Food: We were disappointed with the food. We don't remember any issues with the food 3 years ago.
Breakfast at the Lido was boring. There were the usual staples, but nothing ever changed. This sailing, there was a staff person doling out the bacon and sausage. It surely appeared that Carnival was economizing by rationing the goodies. If you don't like to get up early, expect long lines at breakfast. We tried the Pacific dining room for the sit down option and enjoyed this much better. Although the dining room breakfast menu didn't change either, there were numerous choices that you couldn't get at the Lido.
Lunch at the Lido was just not good. We did realize towards the later part of the week that the outdoor portion of the Lido buffet (by the pool before you entered the air conditioned area) served different ethnic food each day. This food was interesting and tasty. We often skipped the long lines at the lunch buffet and went straight for the ethnic entrees or the burgers/hot dogs and pizza. Expect long lines, especially in the late afternoon when the shore excursions end.
We ate in the Atlantic dining room at the second sitting. Dinner entrees were usually fine, but the portions were small and not always served hot. On the first night, it seemed that our waiter/assistant waiter team couldn't get its act together. We were waiting for our appetizers while our neighboring tables with about 30 people, served by a different team, were finishing dessert. When the maitre d' asked how everything was, we were compelled to complain (and we are not complainers). After that evening, things went smoothly and our waiters were always eager to please. We loved the melting chocolate cake dessert. Yum!
Carnival's food didn't hold a candle to Norwegian's. On NCL, there was always a variety of fresh fruit (here pineapple was served at only one breakfast), a variety of breads, and delicious desserts. Not so on Carnival. Don't expect any fun midnight buffets. This sailing, there was only a midnight Mexican buffet.
The Staff: The staff worked hard. Our room steward did a great job. We loved the towel animals. We were glad to see that the pool staff enforced the rules by keeping children out of the adults only pool and stopping some wild teens from diving into the other pool.
Camp Carnival: Our son LOVED it. If he could have spent every minute there, he would have. That should be all that matters, but as parents, we had some issues. Whenever we signed him in, we never got the feeling that the counselor knew who he was (and he as there A LOT). The camp closed every day at 5PM (sometimes at 4PM) and reopened at 6. On Norwegian, the camp did not close during the day.
The facilities: The water slide was a lot of fun, but it had limited hours. On port days (this cruise was all port days), it was only open from 12-5. There is only one ping pong table. The 9 hole mini golf was actually a lot harder that it looked and also a lot of fun. Forget shuffleboard. The shuffleboard court is not maintained at all. This cruise was loaded with kids, many of whom roamed unsupervised if you can, stick with the adults only pool. There were always chairs available, but there is no shady area. If you want shade, you'll have to sit at one of the tables set out for lunch. The large screen over the main pool is quite dramatic. You can watch CNN all morning (but who wants to hear bad news on vacation). It's very relaxing to lay down on the chaise lounge after dinner and watch a movie under the stars. Every afternoon, there was a different group playing live music at the pool. The music was very good, but also VERY loud. If you just want to read a book and listen to your I-pod, you'll have to do this on your balcony or go to the very back of the boat to get away from the music.
Entertainment: We were too tired after busy days to go to the shows. Our son went with the camp to 2 shows and said they were good. There's live music all over the ship in the evening, all of it good. We didn't go to any of the lounges, as smoking was permitted and they got very smoky.
The cabins: Carnival's rooms are bigger. Our son loved the pull down bed. The bedding is very comfy. The bathroom is a good size and there's plenty of room for your clothes.
What is that smell?: We noticed a really bad smell at the lifeboat drill and thought it was seaweed (helpful hint-get to the drill as late as possible-if you're early, you'll just end up standing around on a hot deck. As more people come, you get pressed to the back wall and packed like sardines). But then the same smell was outside our balcony (8th floor) for the whole cruise and sometimes in the elevator area. It was like rotted seaweed, suntan lotion and roach spray combined and not pleasant. If you're a non-smoker, you better hope for non-smoking balcony neighbors. For some reason, even though the ship is moving and the wind is blowing, the smoke can still be pervasive.
Disembarkation: This is done by numbers assigned to your cabin. If you have an early flight, they'll give you an earlier number. It was orderly and relatively painless.
Shore excursions: We took this cruise because of the destinations. We didn't want to worry about local taxi drivers or wonder if we'll get back to the ship, so we don't mind paying a little extra for the security of an organized shore excursion. We're glad we did after hearing some taxi stories from fellow passengers. Here are the highlights:
St.Thomas/St.John-we took the ferry to St. John and while everyone else went snorkeling, we just enjoyed the beautiful beach and calm waters.
Dominica-The Emerald Pool. It was cool to get rained on in the rainforest. It was a pretty treacherous walk on the path to the pool. When they recommend good shoes, they mean it.
Barbados-we were here before, so just took a cab downtown (5 minute ride) for some browsing.
St. Lucia-the aerial tram through the rainforest is not to be missed. An amazing experience.
St. Kitts-the scenic railway is good for families and gives a tour of the whole island.
Overall, we enjoyed our cruise. The cruise director and the staff do really work hard to ensure that you have a good time. But would we sail on Carnival again? Probably not. When we cruise again, we'll spend the extra money and go with a more upscale cruise line.