My wife and I (both 25 years old) went on a 6-Day Caribbean Cruise on the Carnival Freedom. The ports we stopped at included Key West, Grand Caymen, and Ocho Rios (Jamaica). This was our first time cruising with Carnival. We both cruised with NCL about a year prior.
The Saturday night before the cruise we stayed at the Best Western in Ft. Lauderale on State Hwy 84. The room was clean and the place was decent considering we only stayed one night. Biggest complaint was hot water, there was none, hotel was around $100 for the night. A good majority of people staying there were taking cruises the next day. The hotel offered a shuttle service that would take you and your luggage to the cruise port for $11/person. The line for this shuttle service was really long. The line started outside and there were still about 30-40 people in the lobby also waiting for it. A taxi service with two young men and a full size van swung into the front of the hotel and offered to transport us and our luggage to the port for $5 a person. My wife and I decided to go this route. Even with giving a tip, this option was still a cheaper and faster option than the shuttle.
Getting onto the ship and going through security was quick and easy. It looks overwhelming when you first walk into the cruise port and see so many people boarding, but it really does go by fast. Not much hassle. Don't freak out about the lines.
My wife and I really didn't know what to expect with Carnival. Please keep in mind to take my review with a grain of salt because we have only experienced NCL prior to this trip with our Honeymoon. Overall the food, service, and entertainment was good. Comedians on board were extremely entertaining. In regards to the food in the main dining room...when in doubt, order shrimp. I was not impressed with the steak. Lobster, shrimp, and other seafood was very good and well prepared. Personally my wife and I enjoy the free-style dining that NCL offers.
The ship itself was pretty nice (Built in 2007). I know that before we left we read a lot of reviews where people were critical of the decor of the inside of the Carnival Freedom. I'm just a 25 year old guy so I really don't care much about what the interior design of the ship is...however...I do agree with the previous reviews I read. My wife and I thought the colors and design were dark and random. My suggestion...go out on deck and don't look at the decor if you don't really like it. The main dining rooms were very nice and elegant, no complaints there.
There is a lot of deck space. Never an issue finding a chair. The deck however is very loud, even when the band is not playing and they are just playing music...volume is very loud. That's fine if you want to party and you are cruising with a group...but if you are going to the deck to relax, lay down, and maybe fall asleep, you will not be able to escape the volume of the music. I had to turn my iPod up pretty loud to drown out the music on deck. They offer an adult only deck near the front of the ship which is nice, but you will still be able to hear the deck music at a significant volume.
Also, I wondered why about half of the buffet lines would be closed during peak eating times (3-5pm when people are coming back on board from a port). This created very long lines at the only 2 or 3 short buffets that were open.
As for the ports:
Key West: We took a taxi to Fort Zachary Beach from the port (cost about $5/person). The beach was nice. We got there at about 9:30 am and there were only about 10 people on the beach. When we left by around noon there was probably over 200. My suggestion is to get there early if you want to make Key West a beach day. The rest of the day we just walked Duval Street and went into stores and bars. We thought it was pretty cool because we've never been to Key West. A LOT of tourists on Duval Street.
Grand Cayman: This is the part of my review that I feel the most strongly about. If you plan on going to Grand Cayman and want to swim with Stingray's...visit http://stingraysailing.com/index.html. This excursion was extremely fun and enjoyable. Anyone who has been on a cruise and has done excursions can agree that there are some tours out there that are very sketchy and there are some that are very safe and reputable. This tour was extremely reputable. The owner of the business and tour guide (Chip) is awesome. He is knowledgeable, polite, and very engaging. He has two other guys who assist him with the tour who were the same way. I was shocked that there were only 12 people on our tour. I thought this was great considering when we arrived to the sandbar to swim with stingray's, you could see other tours where there were 40-50 people in a group. Much more of an enjoyable time when you are part of a smaller group. I can speak for everyone on this tour that they had a great time and that the excursion far exceeding anyone's expectations. You swing with the stingray's, get to feed them, get to have pics taken with them, and then after you can go snorkeling at the reef (very beautiful snorkeling). The price for the excursion was very reasonable. When you book shore excursions through the cruise line (any cruise line) they tend to be a little more expensive. This is something that my wife and I definitely plan to do again if we travel to Grand Cayman. Before we booked this excursion I read a very positive review about it on CruiseCritic, and I'm very thankful that I booked through stingraysailing.com!
Ocho Rios: I can't believe all the dreadful reviews I've read about Ocho Rios. My wife and I did do an excursion through Carnival (just because Jamaica can be a little more sketchy). We did the Bamboo Beach break. We did enjoy it however I did not think it was worth the $60/person....that in unless you drink a lot of alcohol. Free rum punch, mojitos, and Red Stripe tap Beer. Any group of friends who want a party type excursion to drink, swim, and hang out may want to consider this one ($60 of alcohol on board the ship doesn't get you much). My wife and I did go shopping for a few souvenirs. Yes the sales people are aggressive, but they are still respectful. If you don't want something just walk away (they are not going to chase you down and tackle you....at least I hope they won't). We spent about $35-$40 and got a lot of different nik-naks (shirts, bracelets, key chains, wood carvings, etc). Advice: When they say something costs $20...you can really get it for less than $10. Never pay their 1st price, or their 2nd price on any item.
Overall we did have fun and enjoyed ourselves. When you go on a cruise, much of what you enjoy is the mindset you have with everything. I believe that we would cruise with Carnival again if we go with another couple or a group of friends. If my wife and I cruise alone, we will lean more towards NCL. We both really enjoyed there ports. Tip: if you want to save money on alcohol, fill empty water bottles with liquor and pack in in your checked baggage. You can purchase unlimited soda for about $45 and make plenty of mixer's.