I am only about 6 months late writing this review, but better late than never, so here goes.
We had a large group on the Carnival Valor on the 10/24/09 sailing from Miami to the Western Carribean (Grand Cayman, Belize, Roatan Island and Cozumel). We were celebrating one member of our groups 30th birthday. In all, we had 17 people. Ages ranged from mid 20's to mid 40's. Some of our group had cruised many times and we also had several first timers. We also had people book various cabin types from an Interior to a Balcony. Our group was mostly from the Kentucky/Ohio area, with some joining us from Montana and California.
For me, this was my 11th Carnival cruise and first time on the Valor. I had previously been to all of the ports except for Roatan Island, Honduras. Many people in our group (including myself, previously) worked for a commercial airline. Many of us flew in the day before standby. For the first time since my 2nd cruise, I booked confirmed airfare. Me and three others from our group flew into Ft. Lauderdale the morning before our cruise. We flew Delta non-stop to FLL and arrived right on time. I had arranged sedan service to pick us up from FLL and take us to our hotel in downtown Miami. When researching different types of transportation, I found this to be the most bang for our buck. I got a taxi quote for about $60 not incl. tip. And we did not want to do a long shared shuttle service that stopped at multiple hotels. We were able to secure the sedan for approximately $65 incl. tip. A couple days before we left our group of three flying together went up to 4. So I called the company and they upgraded us to an SUV for no extra cost. While we were waiting for our luggage, I received a text from our driver and he said that he was at the airport and to call when we had our bags and he would drive around to baggage claim and pick us up. We had our bags a few minutes later, so I called him and he was curbside in about 3 minutes. It only took us about 20 minutes to get to our hotel. I would highly recommend this service instead of a taxi or shared ride. In 30 minutes from the time we stepped off the plane we were at our hotel. Totally worth it. Other members of our group, used the ride share and it took them 45 minutes to an hour to get from MIA to our hotel.
Our group stayed in several places for the night before the cruise. Some stayed with friends in Ft. Lauderdale and some were at the Courtyard Marriott downtown. We also had 4 rooms booked at the Intercontinental Miami Downtown. I stayed at the Intercontinental, which I booked on Easy Click Travel for on $84/nt. per room. This hotel usually goes for $250+ on other hotel sites. It is a beautiful hotel and in a great location. The rooms are spacious and we had a teeny corner view of the port. A real harbor view would have cost us much more. This hotel is just a short 5-10 minute walk to Bayside Marketplace. Those of us already in town, walked over to Bayside for lunch and a few drinks. Bayside is a great spot for different types of resturants and shops. The weather was beautiful as it had just stopped raining right when we got to our hotel and the sun had just come out. We spent the afternoon at Bayside and then waited for the rest of our group to get to town. We ventured out downtown to find a liquor store to stock up on some liquor and wine to take onboard the ship. There are several liquor stores within walking distance of the Intercontinental. Once our whole group had made it to town, we walked back to Bayside and had a great Italian dinner.
I had arranged a shuttle van to take those of us who stayed at the two hotels downtown to the Port the morning of the cruise. The van picked us up at 10:00AM and we were at the port by 10:20 after making the pick up at the 2nd hotel. We left our bags with the porter on the pier and proceeded to the security checkpoint. There was no line at the checkpoint and we were through it and checked in within 15 minutes. We waited in the holding room until boarding began and were on the ship by 11:45.
Ship: The ship was wonderful. It was being cleaned constantly. Our room steward was one of the most attentive and sweet that I have had in my 11 Carnival cruises. He intorduced himself to us immediately and always stopped to chat when passing us in the hallways. Our cabin was 1220, a Category 4A on the Riviera Deck. It was your standard Interior cabin. It was more than sufficient in size for me and my sister. There is ample closet space, which included more hangers that I remembered having on prevoius ships. I always bring a decent supply of extra hangers, but barely needed to use them this time. The bathroom has a standing shower and large vanity. Shampoo and Shower Gel are provided and there are samples of other items (toothpaste, rolaids, etc.) in a basket on the counter. Bring a small power strip with extra outlets tho, as there is only one standard outlet at the vanity in the main part of the cabin. All of the ship's crew were outstanding. We never received less than great service and crew members were also quick to say hello when passing in hallways or riding in elevators.
A couple quick shout out's to a couple crewmembers who helped many our cruise that much more memorable:
Benjamin - Our waiter in the Main Dining Room, was outstanding. He was prompt, funny, sweet and took great care of us. He also was a willing participant in the many pranks some of our group member liked to play on each other, including putting a boost chair in the seat of one of our group before he came to dinner one night and bringing the other a small bowl of butter with a candle in it on his "non" birtday! He was a great sport.
Pinky - She was a server in the Piano Bar and was an absolute delight. We made a point to go in there each evening to have a drink just to see her. And by the end of the week, she was giving us big hugs everytime we came in.
Food: I thought that the food was really great. We usually had the buffet for breakfast and lunch. The wait time was never more than it should have been. And any wait can be avoided by avoiding the peak times. We had dinner each night in the Main Dining Room at the late seating. We had two tables of 8 adjacent to each other. And we were able to put a chair at the end of one of our tables for a person in our group who booked his cruise a week before sailing and did not get seated with us initially. As I mentioned, we had Benjamin and he was fabulous. Some favorites of the food were the Warm Roasted Pumpkin Soup, Escargot, and any of the pasta dishes. Everything I ordered was prepared as I wished and I never had to send anything back. I am not a huge dessert eater, so I can't comment too much on those. The only dessert that I had was the Cheesecake. But several members in my group got the famous Warm Chocolate Melting Cake several times and raved about it. I brough a bottle of wine on board with me and had that with my dinner. I also ordered several times through room service and usually had the grilled cheese sandwich. Of the specialty eateries on board, I really enjoyed the burrito bar and deli. I never ate at the Tandoori Grill or the Fish N Chips spot.
Entertainment: We saw both comics and they were good. They were not the best that I had seen on Carnival but they were way better than the worst. We also spent quite a bit of time in the Piano bar on this cruise. I have a love/hate relationship with Carnival's piano players. Some I love (Ed Rocks from years ago on the Triumph) but more often than not, I have not enjoyed the piano bar much in recent cruises. The piano player on the Valor, Larry, was really great. He really interacted with the crowd and was great about taking requests and getting to know the crowd. When he asked us the first night where we were from, we told him Kentucky, but almost from Cincinnati, OH. So the rest of the cruise he called us Almost Ohio! He was a lot of fun. We also spent alot of time in the night club and also in the casino.
Halloween: This was my first cruise over any major holiday and I was really excited for it. We all brought costumes to dress up for Halloween. And the ship was decorated all over the place. They had Trick or Treating for the children all over the ship and there were a lot of passengers dressed up. But unfortunately, I came down with a terrible sore throat that day and by the time dinner was over, I was feeling so bad that I spent the rest of the night in my cabin. Others in our party went to the Costume Contest...the winner was a woman who dressed up as one of Carnival's Towel Animals. :)
Grand Cayman - I had been to Grand Cayman several times and had already been to most of the "must-see" places: Stingray City, Hell, Turtle Farm, Rum Factory, etc. And since we had pretty active tours planned in the next two ports, we just had a lazy beach day here. We took a taxi shuttle to Seven Mile Beach for about $5 per person. This is a very inexpensive way to get to the beaches, but they won't leave until the whole shuttle is filled. We sat in this hot, unairconditioned shuttle van for about 15 minutes waiting for more people. She finally left, when we threatened to get off and look for other transportation. We were dropped off at a nice beach club where we spent most of the afternoon. The weather was beautiful, sand was soft and the water was clear and calm. We had a nice lunch for about $15 US. Most of the day was just spent goofing off in the ocean and relaxing on the beach. You can rent lounge chairs or umbrellas for an extra cost. The beach itself was free to use. Although, I didn't find out for myself, a couple in our group said the restroom facilities were pretty gross. Grand Cayman really is a great island due to it's beaches and unique activities such as swimming with the sting rays. Due to the amount of wealth on the island, you do not have to deal with agressive vendors in the shops or on the beachers, which is nice.
Roatan Island - In Roatan, we booked the Pirates, Birds and Monkey's tour through the ship. This tour took place at Gumbalimba Park and you had to buy the tour to gain access to the park area. Several members of our group wanted to just try to meet up with us after our tour at the park and they couldn't without paying the same amount as the cost of the tour. We were taken to the park in shuttle vans. The driver stopped along the way to point out different places of interest and allow us to take pictures of the gorgeous scenery along the way. Gumbalimba park is part jungle, part beach, part resort. There are some little "shops" selling some locally made items like hammocks, artwork, etc. There is also a pool with a walk up resturant/bar and a little beach area. The tour itself started out with a walk through the bird sanctuarys. Some of the birds are in large natural setting cages and others just roam around. You can pose with a bird and take photos. Most of these are Macaw/Parrot type birds are very beautiful. They are very used to people being around and many seem to actually pose for photos. We then went up further into the wooded area to see the monkeys. Some of these monkeys are chained. The chain allows them to go only so far within the trees. One of the monkeys that was chained had been a little more agressive lately. Others just roam free in the trees. They will come right up and jump on your head or shoulders. You are advised by the tour guide to not wear hats or large earrings as they are attracted to shiny objets and the little button on the tops of ballcaps. My sister had on small hoops that the tour guide said should be fine and one of the monkeys ripped an earring right out of her earlobe. As soon as he had it, he scurried back up into the trees and began chomping on it. The guide coaxed him back with a peppermint and he dropped the earring in favor of the mint. So she got it back...dented! It was pretty funny. The pirate part of the tour was informative but not all that entertaining. Maybe because it came last and my feet were hurting from all the walking, but I couldn't pay attention to it at all. I would make sure to wear comfortable shoes as you are walking and standing for the duration of the tour. I had on flip flops and my feet and legs were sore by the end. After the tour, we went to the pool and ordered lunch from the restuarant. Lunch was decent and inexpensive. There were people walking around trying to get us to sign up for a massage on the beach. They wanted $25/per person. We got them down to $30 for two of us, so we did it. It was NOT the best beach massage I had ever had. They had me lay on a hard plastic beach chair and it was more rubbing on my back and legs than actually massaging them. But the ocean breeze was nice and I couldn't really complain about the price. After the tour, we headed back to the ship. We didn't really see anything else in port due to the duration of our tour.
Belize - I had been to Belize once before and had already done the Cave-Tubing/Zip-line tour. This time we booked the Raiders of the Lost Mayan Ruins tour. I feel like you really need to do a tour in Belize or go to a reputable beach. There is not much near the port area and many areas of the city are not safe for tourists. The tour itself was great and a lot of fun. Not so much fun was the nearly 90 minute ride each way to get to the tour location. We were in an old school bus type vehicle for the ride. The last 30-45 minutes was on a gravel road. And the tour guide told us everything we could ever want to know about Belize on the ride. To make matters worse, my stomach was not feeling good on the way out there. Luckily, I had grabbed a cuple boxes of dry Cheerios from the buffet before leaving the ship to help settle my stomach during that long, bumpy ride. The tour is pretty intense and physical, so those who have mobility or endurance issues might have difficulty completing it. The tour starts with about a 10-15 minute hike uphill through some pretty rough terrain. There is no clear path and what path exists is obstructed with trees and rocks. It was a pretty taxing hike. Once you get to the hike, you are guided through the ruins in various ways. Some areas you have to rappel down the rocks or crawl through small openings in the caves or wade through knee deep water. There are a couple ziplines and wobbly suspension bridges. It was really neat. Dress comfortably though. I wore long yoga type pants and a T-Shirt with tennis shoes. If you have older shoes, wear them instead of news ones because they WILL get wet and dirty. Also bring bug spray and use liberally under your clothes and over them. I thought I used it pretty thouroughly but I still got pretty bit up especially around my ankels. The tour group provides all safety equipment including helmet with lamp and harness. The tour guides are really great. Very informative and entertaining. Like I said, the only negative to this tour is the long drive, but that can't really be helped. Just be prepared for it. After the tour, they took us to another part of the area for lunch. Lunch included some shis-ka-bobs, rice and fruit punch. You can also buy photos that they take of you throughout the tour if you choose. After lunch, it's back on the bus heading for port. This tour took about 6 total hours, so there is not much time for anything else.
Cozumel - Cozumel is one of my favorite ports and I have been here probably about 8 times. We usually spend most of the day at our favorite beach, Playa Mia. Cozumel tends to be our drink and party day. So we hopped in a cab for Playa Mia and our cab driver told us about a deal on the all inclusive package if we book it through him. We ended up getting the all-inclusive package for around $40 including the buffet lunch. I love this beach. The beach is great and so is the pool area. The food was actually really good. Large variety on the buffet and the quailty was really good. Our waiter kept the drinks coming and was very sweet. He totally took care of us.
All in all, it was another great cruise and we had a fantastic time. Shortly after returning, we booked another cruise, this time on the Splendor out of LA down to the Mexican Riviera for my brother's 15th wedding anniversary. So far we have 18 booked on this one and we still have 6 months until sailing! I will write another review of that cruise when we return (hopefully it won't take me 6 months to write that one).