We sailed on the January 9-16 sailing of the Carnival Valor. My review got pretty long - I guess I have to re-live the vacation now that I'm cocooned inside to avoid the snow outside.
I'll start out by saying our first cruise was on the Nov. 7 sailing of the Carnival Splendor. That was the ship and sailing that incurred an engine fire. After being assured that such an incident was quite rare, we decided to try again, using the credit that Carnival provided us. So this cruise became our free makeup cruise. And overall, it did make up for our 4-day ordeal with a memorable experience that let us realize cruising is a fun and affordable way to visit some exotic locations. The Western Caribbean itinerary was great, and included stops in places I had never before considered visiting -- Grand Cayman, Cozumel, Belize, and Roatan. So we got to visit four Caribbean and Central American countries in 7 days. To describe a little about us -- we are in our mid-30s. My wife is expecting (we met the pregnancy deadline by one day). We travelled on both the ill-fated Splendor cruise and this cruise with our kids ages six and eight.
We opted to fly to Orlando the day before and rent a car. The airfare was nearly half of what it would have cost to fly directly to Miami, and the car rental was only about $50. So that added up to quite a bit of savings for the four of us. After driving the car to Miami International, we stayed at the La Quinta Inn East near the airport, and took the free shuttle to the cruise port the next morning.
Embarkation was pretty smooth. We were on the ship within about an hour of arriving at the port. That was much faster than the process, with less waiting in line and less overall chaos, than what we experienced boarding the Splendor in Long Beach, CA. We were on board by about 2 p.m. and our inside cabin on the main deck (level 2) was ready immediately. We dropped our carry-on bags and got lunch. Our luggage was delivered in separate pieces between 3 and 5 p.m. Our stateroom was immaculate, and our steward was excellent. I did notice some of the carpets in the hall were stained, but that's the only thing I noticed related to the cleanliness or dEcor of the ship that was not in top shape.
The ship itself was nearly identical to the Splendor. We had gotten to know that ship quite well during our four days at sea, since the elevators were not working and we had to walk everywhere. Still, I found myself at times getting turned around while on board. The ship's layout doesn't always make the most sense. For example on levels 3 and 4, the galley location makes it impossible to pass all the way through without going to either level 5 or level 2. But that's a minor nit on an otherwise splendid (pun intended) vessel.
During sea days, the lido and pool area became very crowded. It was nearly impossible to find seats near the pool. But by going up a level or two we were able to always easily find deck chairs to rest on. The first sea day I took the kids swimming. The pool was filled with salt water and water temperature was on the cool side. After a while we went and tried the water slide, which was very fun but crowded, and then finished off with the hot tubs. Mini-golf would have been fun, but it was so windy the balls kept blowing around on the greens. The same thing happened when we tried to play table tennis. I used the gym on several occasions. I found the equipment to be top-of-the line and in good condition. With the exception of the first morning, the gym was never too crowded. I also used the jogging track a couple times. It was nice.
For dinner, We originally had the late seating, but the maitre' d was able to find us an earlier seating, which worked out better for us since we were with our kids. I had my first taste of chocolate melting cake, and it was as good as advertised. I was very impressed with the dishes offered each night at dinner. The portions were not huge, but that was ok. I was usually not too hungry because of the food available at the buffets. We also at lunch and breakfast once each in the dining room. Though the quantities were smaller, the quality and uniqueness of the food was even higher than at the buffet. Formal nights were pretty fun. Our kids were complimented for looking so nice and for their manners, which made them happy and also helped encourage appropriate behavior in the restaurant.
We never had to wait too long for food from the various stations on deck 9. There were so many choices that we didn't get to try half of what was offered. I tried to hit at each station at least once during the trip. Besides the "Taste of a Nation" buffet, choices included the deli, pizza station, grill, Rosie's Restaurant on level 10, the Mongolian Wok, burrito bar, and of course the ice cream stations, which we ate at multiple times a day. I also tried the sushi bar on three occasions - usually after dinner before the evening shows began. I found the food to be consistently well prepared and high quality. There were only a couple items I did not care for. That had nothing to do with preparation or quality -- just my personal taste. The deserts available at each meal were unbelievable both in quantity and choice. The breakfast buffet didn't change too much from day to day, but the food was good. I loved the apple turnovers, raspberry danishes, and sticky rolls. Yum!
The entertainment was pretty good. Our kids had a blast in camp carnival. After the first day they ended up circling all the activities they wanted to do, and the circles ended up taking most of the page. They got to do a lot, but not everything, because there just was not time for that and other family activities. Overall Camp Carnival is a great idea. It allowed us to book a family vacation, yet still enjoy some time away from the kids. I'm surprised it is free.
We are not big fans of dancing reviews, so we didn't go to any of those. We did however go to each of the four family-friendly comedy shows. Our kids loved them and began choosing to attend those over camp carnival activities. For the most part they stuck to the PG rating, with a couple of routines that made me slightly uncomfortable having the kids there. We also went to a magic show one evening in the main theater, and the magician was quite good. On the day we ate lunch in the main dining room, another magician came to our table and performed tricks for our kids. They loved that.
We arrived in Grand Cayman on time. We tendered into port with no problem. After browsing a couple shops, we took a taxi to Seven-Mile Beach. After taking the taxi, I realized we could have taken the bus and saved a couple bucks ($2.50 vs. $4.00), but not a big deal.
Our driver dropped us off at the Royal Palms Resort. We just headed for an empty spot on the beach and spread our stuff out. The weather was fine that day. The water was calm enough for our kids to put on their snorkels and swim near the shore with no problem. There was not anything to really see close in. I went a bit farther out, where the water was over my head and saw some fish. But our particular spot was not spectacular for snorkeling. The air temperature was about 80 degrees. It was Perfect when partly cloudy and hot when the sun came out and hit us directly. The water temperature was a bit chilly upon entry, but it was easy to acclimate to after a couple of minutes.
We intended to take the local bus back to the tender dock. However, a taxi driver bargained with us to go for $3 a person, so we took him up on it. We opted not to buy the overpriced Americanized food in Grand Cayman and instead chose to eat the free food aboard the ship. That was the right call as it was Caribbean buffet day, which was great. Because we ate around 3 p.m., that also meant weren't hungry at all for dinner that night. So we skipped the dining room and snacked a bit for our evening meal.
Cozumel / Tulum Mexico
We arrived in Cozumel on schedule. I turned on the cabin TV to see a report that a "few showers" were possible in the vicinity of a stalled cold front over the Yucatan. Having jogged on the track as dawn was breaking, I had noticed the clouds and a few showers in the distance. It made for a really nice sunrise actually.
We booked the Tulum land tour through the cruise line. We had previously considered going with a private guide, but given we had only 8 hours in port, we decided to play it safe. We met in the Ivanhoe Lounge with the other mainland excursion passengers. We were given preferential disembarkation times and walked from the cruise dock to a ferry dock. By that time, the skies had grayed considerably and I noticed the ferry was rocking quite a bit even at the dock. Nonetheless, we boarded the ferry. That was a big mistake. The seas were terrible. Within a few minutes, our 6-year-old lost his breakfast, followed by my wife, and about 25 percent of the other passengers. The rest of us nearly did. The interminable ride lasted for nearly an hour instead of 35 minutes as promised.
When we got off, the rain really started pouring down. We had to run about 200 yards to the waiting busses, and were completely soaked by the time we got there. Unfortunately, boarding a bus with 60 soaked people, also meant that the windows fogged up. The only recourse was for the driver to turn on the AC at full blast. So there we were - recovering from sea sickness, soaked, freezing, and behind schedule. After about 45 minutes of driving, we stopped by a gift shop. I bet half the people on the bus bought new t-shirts just to have something to warm. When we arrived at the Tulum ruins the rain only increased. There were vendors selling 50-cent ponchos for $5. Not liking the feeling of being ripped off, we walked on until someone offered us ponchos for $2.50. We took them up on it, only to discover that the $5 ponchos were indeed superior, as all of ours ripped to various degrees putting them on. Mine ripped completely and I just gave into the tropical showers and quit worrying about trying to stay dry.
I give the tour guide credit for being enthusiastic despite the conditions. However, given the limited time we had in the area, he talked too much. When he finished, he left us only about 15 minutes to walk around the ruins by ourselves. Then it was time to return and endure the journey back.
Due to the seas, the ferries were running late. It was still a not fun and rough ride back, but slightly better. Thank goodness we booked through the cruise line or else I would have been panicking because the regular passenger ferries didn't appear to be running at all. We finally made it back to the ship an hour late at 7 p.m. After a quick change into dry clothes, we rushed down to the dining room where they did accommodate our late arrival and we were able to eat a nice dinner. Overall, this was somewhat of a lost day due to what we endured on the tour. Many passengers, including ourselves complained. They did at least compensate us with a 25 percent refund of the tour price, but I think 50 percent would have been fairer. The bottom line is Carnival should have cancelled the tour. The seas were just too rough, resulting in major sea sickness and the loss of precious time at the ruins. As we left port, we could really feel the ship rocking as the rough seas continued.
The rough waters continued. I thought we were going to miss this port. Two hours after arrival, we still had not been cleared to enter the port. But we were able finally make it. Getting on to the tender boats was an adventure. They were really bobbing up and down. I was able to get on, but I couldn't coax the kids on to the boat. The boat ended up leaving without my wife or kids. So I ended up on the dock in Belize City without knowing if they would make it. My concern was they would not get on the boat and we had no way to communicate what was going to happen. However, after two tenders my wife and kids finally came.
By this time we were an hour and a half behind schedule. We had previously booked a cave tubing tour with Vitalino Reyes tours. We went out of the terminal. After being approached by numerous vendors and tour operators, we found Vitalino and his guides still there. I asked if it was too late for cave tubing, and they said no. So off we went. They drove us through Belize City and gave a brief overview of the town and its history. After leaving the shoreline area, it became apparent from the housing and environs that Belize is a notch below Mexico on the economic totem pole. I didn't realize how far the cave tubing site is from the city. It was at least an hour drive. The first 45 minutes is along a well-maintained road. However, when turning off to go into the mountainous area, the road is really poor. The driver said it suffers a lot through the rainy season, which had just concluded.
We made it to the cave tubing site around noon. After getting our light helmets, tubes, and life jackets we were ready to hike through the jungle. The hike is not too rough. My wife, who was 4 months pregnant made it with no problems. On the way we hiked through a small cave where we saw some bats. We found a termite nest and were invited to eat. My son and I tried them and found they have a minty flavor. The guides also pointed out many jungle plants. The jungle was spectacular, with giant palms and thick growth. After about 30 minutes we arrived at the entry point. If we had more time we could have gone even a bit farther and tubed through two more caves. But as it was, we only got one.
The water was cool, but not shockingly cold. We started through the cave. We saw a large lizard on the wall, and many stalactites and stalagmites. Since our family added a pregnant woman and two kids, we had two guides with our group of 8. For the most part, they swam and guided us so we didn't hit the sides of the caves. The actual time in the cave was under an hour. After exiting we floated for about 20 more minutes. The guides gave us leaves to eat and asked us to identify them. After many incorrect answers, it turned out to be all-spice - thus it tasted like a lot of things but nothing in specific.
After getting out and changing clothes, we headed to Vitalino's house/restaurant for lunch that was included in the tour price. The food was delicious and we were offered as much as we wanted. However, by this time it was about 3:00 p.m. We were paired with another family on Royal Caribbean. They had their last tender at 4:00 p.m., and we had ours at 4:15. Because the drive from Vitalino's place is about 45 minutes or more to the dock, I was concerned about the time. I was wondering why the other family was eating so leisurely when they had to leave even before us. It turns out that we were on different time zones! They had left out of Houston and were on Central Time, as is Belize. We left out of Miami and were on Eastern Time. So that miscommunication made our time even shorter. We got in the van and began booking it back to Belize City. I could tell the driver was hurrying for us, but I was sure sweating it out as I saw the minutes tick by. As we approached the outskirts of Belize City, Vitalino called a contact at the port. The contact assured us that there was a long line for Carnival's tender boats and we would make it. Vitalino also said no one on their tours had ever missed their tender. That reassured us a bit, but it still was not a good feeling. We got to the port about 10 minutes past last tender time, but there was indeed a line and we made it back. Overall, this was a great excursion and a really good time. I only wish that that we weren't so rushed. The nearly 3-hour delay in tendering to port really cost us.
Looking out the ship's window, the landscape seemed immediately more wild and interesting than the other stops. Basically we could see the Mahogany Bay resort that Carnival has built, along with the nice sandy beach, against a backdrop of jungle hills.
We exited the ship and walked up the dock. The dock area is secured and controlled by Carnival. There are a number of nice, new, and expensive shops. We didn't linger there, as we were supposed to meet a driver with whom I had previously arranged to take us to Tabyana Beach and to see some monkeys for $20 per person. We were instructed to leave Carnival's enclave and walk up the hill outside. We did, but when we got outside the gate we could not find the driver, despite his promise to be there with a sign. There were plenty of other people willing to drive for us. One guy, Walde, offered to be our driver for the day for a total of $40. Since that was considerably cheaper, we took a leap of faith and accepted the offer.
We had heard from our cave-tubing companions that we should not miss the monkeys. Our driver told us he could take us to an Iguana Farm that also had monkeys. When we got there, the owner reduced the price from $8 per person to $5, because the Iguanas were camped out in the trees, due to the temperatures in the mid-70s. There are also monkeys, anteaters, turtles, and large fish, but all in cages. This was definitely not the stop our fellow travelers had recommended. In retrospect, it wasn't really that great and we could have skipped that stop. We moved on, and our driver showed us a few towns on the Island and took us to a grocery store and souvenir shop in Coxen Hole, the largest town on the Island. We got a few trinkets, and were able to bargain about 30% off the list price.
After the shopping stop, we went to the West Bay to check out the water. The waves were choppy and it was too rough for kids or snorkeling. We did buy two yellow coconuts from a vendor for $3. They were filled with milk that we could sip from straws. We moved farther down the West End of the Island and made our way to Tabyana Beach.
The water was definitely calmer there, and the calmest spot was at the farthest end of the beach among some rocks and coral in the water. There were quite a few people snorkeling there, and that is where we headed. The water was somewhat warmer than Grand Cayman had been. The kids and I put our snorkels on and headed in the water. Close to shore we saw thousands of minnows in the water. The slope was very gradual, and about 20 feet from shore, the water was not even over my 8-year-old's head. Out there we were surrounded by about 2 dozen blue fish that were about 8-inches long. They were not afraid of us and just circled around us. If we were very fast we could touch them.
I went out about 20 more feet and found myself above the coral. The snorkeling was fantastic - so much better than Grand Cayman. There were scores of tropical fish - yellow ones, red ones, blue ones, eels, and more. The coral seemed in much better health than at Grand Cayman as well. I had a waterproof dry bag for my camera and began snapping pictures. I also discovered that the very farthest point of the beach, against the lava-rock cliff was more protected and the coral was in very shallow water. My daughter swam over and was fascinated to snorkel among the fish. The only slight downer was the water was still slightly choppy. Both she and I cut our hands on the coral when waves pushed us around. Nothing too serious though.
On the way back, Walde, our driver, took us to the highest point on Roatan - 1,300 feet above sea level he said. From there, we could see both sides of the Island. There was also a boy with a monkey. He was letting people hold him for tips. I asked him how much and he said $3, not specifying if that was for our family or per person. So we let the kids hold him. When it was time to pay, he tried to get $3 from each of us, even though my wife and I had not held the monkey. I told him no way, and he accepted a $5 bill. From there we drove back to the Carnival port.
Overall Roatan was my daughter's and my favorite port, mostly because we snorkeled, while my wife and son did not. It truly seemed like a less commercialized tropical paradise than the other stops. My wife said Belize was her favorite port due to the cave tubing.
A few random thoughts - I'm not sure how the cruise line makes its money for the fares they charge. We did buy one excursion which probably would have helped their bottom line if they hadn't refunded some of the price. We aren't drinkers or gamblers, so they didn't make any money off of us for that. As far as itinerary, each port is interesting to stop at. I do wish we had some more time in each one. Lastly, the seas were rough some of the days, which left each of us with a slight malaise on those days. But overall it this cruise was a great experience and we just might take another one soon.