There are two types of cruise reviews we seem to get on Cruise Critic. First there are the glass half full reviews where everything on the cruise was just perfect but they offer no real insight about the cruise. Then there are the glass half empty reviews where a stain on the carpet or smudge on a window deals the entire cruise a death blow. I am going to try neither approach and just go with the facts as I see them and hopefully convey a nugget or two of info that might help make your cruise better.
Let me start by saying that I have never been a big fan of Carnival cruises. We went on this cruise because my 21 year old son was tired of cruising on lines dominated by elderly people. He wanted a younger crowd which Carnival seems to draw. We had cruised Carnival once before on the Fascination and had some ups and downs as far as how that went. So it was with a bit of trepidation that we chose the Liberty for our spring adventure.
We begin our cruise out of Miami. We booked the Hilton Garden Inn NW74th street. They have a park and cruise package for about $220. I know that may sound steep but when you factor in that Miami port charges $20 a day to park it really evens out. The hotel was excellent. Very clean with a staff that were very accommodating. Rooms have quality linens and comfy mattress and pillows. The room has interactive flat screen TV as well as microwave, mini fridge, coffee maker and free wifi. The pool is heated and the hot tub is wonderful (both are in a private setting). Two things I liked best were the full breakfast included with cooked to order omelets, eggs, pancakes etc. Also when you reserved your shuttle to the port you can pick from any of the times you want. In the past we were stuck with whatever time was available. We chose the 10:45 since we wanted to get there early to book our Half Moon Cay cabana. All in all I highly recommend this hotel.
We arrived at around 11am to embrace our first of many cattle lines. A winding maze leading up to the scanners and metal detectors. This is where we first encountered the infamous Liquor Gestapo. Normally I wouldn't make a Nazi reference but when the name fits you got to use it. First they harassed my wife about our prescription meds in our bag. Next they asked my wife if her sun tan spray had hard alcohol in it (at which point they hollered to stop the line). Really? How do you smuggle alcohol in a spray on sun tan lotion?
We proceeded to the check in counter which was a mad house of people. It is here I have to stop to make a comment. In previous posts various people have said that there is a shore excursion desk in the check in area. This is in fact incorrect. We asked about it but the check in person said we had to go to the one onboard. We had some confusion over credit cards but we got it all cleared up and received our Sign and Sail cards and headed on board.
Note to people wanting to secure a cabana at Half Moon Cay:
First off you better book on line first to secure your cabin. When I arrived at the shore excursion desk all cabanas had booked. Also try to get to the shore excursion desk ASAP. It is here you get to pick the number of the cabana you want. I would recommend cabanas 10-15. They are further down the beach but offer more seclusion. They offer a free tram ride to your cabana so don't worry about the walk. Since it is first come first served it is essential you book early lest you be stuck with a cabana surrounded by heavy crowds.
Upon boarding and after settling our cabana stuff we headed to Emile's for lunch. We took some previous cruisers advice and headed straight for Fish and Chips on the second floor. This is a great idea even if you don't want to eat there. It was very secluded and relaxing while waiting for our room to open. The food was really good too. I had the fish and chips and they very very good. Better than your Captain D's/Long John Silvers varieties. Tasty fish in a crisp batter with shoestring fries which I of course doused in malt vinegar. I also tried the bouillabaisse which was very good as well but it is hard to go wrong with yummy seafood in a tomato broth.
Here is a video of our Fish and Chips experience:
OUR CABIN (Inside 1456):
We arrived at our cabin a found it to be pretty spacious. Plenty of places to store our belongings and hang our clothes. The TV is not a flat screen but is interactive. You can rent movies at 8.99 a pop. You can look a the menus for the day (however they posted the wrong menu on day 2). You can also check your stateroom account by inputting your folio number. There is the standard overpriced water and mini bar. A lighted vanity area. The shower is big enough to accommodate and has a shampoo and shower gel dispenser. I would recommend packing your own soap however since they only give you 2 bars for the week. There is also a basket of sample products (razor, antacid, etc). Our room was hot the first night so we called the front desk and the maintenance guy quickly corrected the problem (score one for Carnival). Our room steward Pierre was very nice and did a good job with the room and towel animals. We had ordered a bucket of ice and he made sure we got a fresh bucket each night in addition to the metal bucket already there. Being at the very back of the boat we had some motion as well as engine rumble but found it to be not much of a disturbance.
Best of all the elevator was nearby providing easy access to the adult pool where we would be spending a lot of time.
HENRYS STEAK HOUSE:
This is where we dined our first night and it was a mixed bag overall. While the meats and desserts were excellent the appetizers and sides were pretty bad. I started with the shrimp cocktail which contained good sized shrimp but I thought they were a bit bland. Next I had the baked onion soup which was good but extremely rich. The red wine in it was almost overpowering and it came in a rather large bowl which made it hard to finish. My wife had the crab cake and the lobster bisque and was not happy with the quality of either.
Next I had the Caesar salad tossed at table side. The romaine was fresh as were the other ingredients but the dressing was way too flavorless. In the end it tasted like romaine covered in parmesan cheese with little other flavor.
Both my wife and I got the surf and turf. The lobster was tasty enough however I felt it remiss that the waiter didn't remove the lobster from the shell for my wife (I know that is nitpicking but I think it shows a level of class).
The Filet Mignon was good tasting but by the time they cooked it all that was left was maybe 4 or 5 good bites. Granted I was pretty full anyway but if you are looking for more you may want to go with just the Filet or another cut.
A major down point was the baked potato. It was hard and dry and rather than top it for you they give you little bowls with sour cream, butter, and bacon. Again it may be nitpicking but even in the dining room the waiter comes by to top your potato. For a high class pay experience you would think they would do this.
Dessert was very good. They offered a chocolate sampler with 4 different desserts well presented and flavorful.
In the end I have mixed feelings about plunking down $30 a person for this dining experience. The steaks are good but the lack of little touches and the poor execution of sides and appetizers left me regretting the decision to dine there. The steaks in the dining room are all prepared very well so paying extra for steak seems pointless.
DAY 1 HALF MOON CAY:
Our first stop is Half Moon Cay. The weather was a perfect 75 degrees with a light wind. We got to disembark with the first tender since we booked a cabana (#13). We made it to shore and was met by the staff who took us to the shuttle which takes you to your cabana. This was nice being that my daughter-in-law was about 5-6 months pregnant and didn't need to be making long hikes. The cabana was very nice offering a lot of touches. There were two comfy loungers, a misting fan, private outdoor shower, beach floats, and snorkle gear. They also gave us a cooler with sodas (which you get to pick ahead of time), two large bottles of water, fresh fruit (tropical and regular), a veggie tray and finally chips with salsa and guacamole. We had plenty of privacy and enjoyed a relaxing day on the beach.
Here is our cabana:
Here are all the cabanas in order (avoid #5)
We opted to head back at 2:30 so we could enjoy the burrito bar before it closed and to avoid the cattle lines. We arranged to shuttle back to the main area but we certainly didn't beat the crowd. There was a huge cattle line waiting to get back on the boat. The tenders hold a lot of people so it takes a good bit of time for them to load and unload. We finally got back to the boat only to get in another cattle line to get off the tender and go through screening. Since there was only one screening area being used this caused a huge back up. They then harassed my wife for not looking at the camera properly when entering our room cards. They were very rude about it.
Finally back on board we made it to the burrito bar. You have to make a solemn promise at this point that you will try the burrito bar. It is awesome. One of the best places to eat on the boat. They have steak, chicken and shrimp with a number of ingredients to add. On port days they are open until 3:30pm and are not terribly crowded. However on sea days you may want to get there at 11:45am to beat the inevitable line that is going to form. Even with the line it is well worth the wait. See the deliciousness in the video below.
That evening we decided to try the "Your Time" dining. What a joke. It should be called "Their Time" dining. We went to the dining room at 7pm only to stand in line for half an hour just to get a beeper to let us know when the table was ready. You are not allowed to call ahead and make a reservation which is what most cruise lines offer.
One hour later our table is ready so after waiting since 7pm we got to sit down at 8:30pm to finally eat. It was a huge disappointment. I had a chicken tender appetizer which was lukewarm and way over sauced. I then had the fried shrimps which were frozen "Mrs Paul's" quality. The entre was ok however. We then sacked out early to get ready for our first sea day.
DAY 2 AT SEA:
We started out with breakfast in Emile's. It was less than stellar. Your best bet is to grab "safe" stuff such as cold cereal, bagels, fruit, in general stuff they don't prepare. The scrambled eggs were consistently watery. The bacon was stuck together in a wadded grease ball. The pancakes and waffles are frozen. The grits were watery with no salt used (you have to cook grits with salt). The made to order omelets were a safe bet and they will also prepare fried eggs fresh to order.
We headed to our oasis on the ship, the aft pool area on the upper level at the very back of the boat. When it comes to where you want to lounge for the day it really is a matter of personal preference. If you are looking for music, activities, and lot's of people the main pool area in the center is for you. We on the other hand were just looking for a quiet place to soak up the sun. The aft pool is best for this. Granted you don't get the music but you also avoid the crowds and screaming children.
You best get there early though as chairs fill up fast. There are a good bit of chairs around the ship though so even if the two pools fill up you can usually find a chair on the sides or upper decks.
Here is where we camped out (the two chairs at the end were out spot):
At lunch we tried the pizza bar. I must say the pizza on this ship is quite good. The pizzas had a crispy crust, gooey cheese, and just the right level of spice. Now granted there is better pizza out there ( as any New Yorker will tell you), but for cruise ship pizza it is some of the better pizza I have tried. You can either have a slice of what is currently available or you can request a pizza or calzone and wait about 5 to 10 minutes for them to fix it for you. It is worth the wait. The pizzeria is open 24 hours so don't be put off if it appears closed. They sometimes remove all the pizzas from the display case and linger in the back room. There is a bell you can ring to get their attention.
Here is a look at the pizza bar:
As long as I am talking about food I might as well mention the deli bar. I would have shot a video of it but hey, it's guys making sandwiches. You can probably get a good idea of that. There is a nice selection of both hot and cold sandwiches and of course you can request your own meats and cheeses. The turkey wraps were quite good and had a lot of meat in them. I had a reuben which was pretty good but a little short on the meat so the next time I ordered it I asked for double meat which they obliged. The deli has the longest hours so it is a good alternative when you can't find anything else.
DAY 3 ST THOMAS:
We booked a shore excursion with "Fury Tours" , www.usvisailing.com . It was a half day sail and snorkle on Buck Island. We went on the 12:30 to 4pm tour for $80 a person. It was so worth it. First of all they only book about 20-25 people so you are not crowded together on the boat. You sail out on the pristine blue waters to the snorkle site. One of the staff serves as guide and shows you where the sea turtles are and where the reef is. You are then let loose to snorkle where you want. When you return to the ship there is a fresh water shower awaiting you. Then you can help yourself to all the soda, beer, rum punch you can drink while the captain sails back to the mainland with island music playing. They have some light snacks to nibble on (pretzels, granola bars, etc). The staff was very friendly and accommodating. I was very impressed when they had to help a little 4 year old boy don his snorkle gear and jump into the water. They were very helpful and gentle with him. The whole experience was quite awesome and well worth the money. Their meeting place is very close to where the ship docks so you don't have to worry about finding them.
WARNING TIME CHANGE!!!!!! There is a time change here that the ship does not notify you about. If my eldest son hadn't noticed it we would have missed our tour. So 9am ship time is really 10 am island time.
DAY 4 PUERTO RICO:
We opted to stay on the ship this day since we have been to Puerto Rico before. It is really nice when cruising sometimes to just stay on the ship and have it all to yourself. No lines or crowds. I would give this a try if you don't have anything planned at a port.
This is not saying Old San Juan isn't worth a visit. It has beautiful architecture. Spanish moss hangs from the trees and the rum samples flow freely. If you have never seen this port it is an easy town just to stroll around and soak up the scenery.
DAY 5 GRAND TURK:
This is one of my favorite ports next to Half Moon Cay. All the amenities are right off the boat. The beach is right there. Margaritaville is a short walk and the shopping area is very nice. I am a big Ron Jon fan so I was happy to get to pick up some new tee shirts. We booked a cabana here as well and while it was not as stocked as Half Moon Cay's it was much cooler inside. This is due to the fact that there are glass doors that close the cabana off providing a nice frosty AC cool down area. You may want to book this as it gets pretty hot around the pool area. It seems that all the buildings around Margaritaville tend to block the breeze. If you are planning to go down to the beach this is probably not as much a problem.
I do feel the need to add a warning to parents with small children about Margaritaville. Granted we were on a spring break cruise but I felt some of the goings on were a bit too adult for a mixed crowd of people. There was plenty of dirty dancing, rump shaking and general lewd behavior. Now I am no prude mind you, but I think you should have fair warning and maybe take the little ones to the far side of the pool away from all the adult entertainment. Maybe after spring break this will tone down.
Can't complain overall though.
Grand Turk cabana tour:
DAY 6 AT SEA:
Just relaxed at our oasis at the back of the ship. Last chance to fill up on our favorite munchies. Deck chairs were in shorter supply as everyone had figured out that getting them earlier was a better idea.
The poolside grill was very good as well. They offer fresh grilled hamburgers (as for a double cheese burger) with whatever toppings you like. They have chili and nacho cheese as well as grilled onions and sauerkraut. You can make you own chili cheese fries or nachos. The only downside is they precook the hot dogs and place them in a bin rather than fresh cook them and they are too thick for the buns they give you. There is a grill at both the main pool and the adult pool as well. The main pool grill is open longer than the adult pool.
I was not happy however with their liquor policy dealing with liquor purchased ashore. While most lines will hold your liquor till the end of the cruise only Carnival makes you claim it the morning of debarkation. They will deliver liquor purchased on the ship the evening of day 6 to your stateroom but not liquor brought in from ports. Also if you purchase liquor on day 6 after 4pm you can carry it right to your stateroom.
Port purchases have to be picked up after 6:30am from the teen club on deck 5 (side note: we got there at 6:15am and they were already handing them out so you can beat the crowd if you go early).
DAY 7 DEBARKATION:
Debarkation actually went pretty well. We chose to self debark so we could get an early start on the road. They self debark by floors so floor 1 goes first followed by 2 etc. We were set to go at 7:30am and made it totally off the ship around 8:10am after navigating the long cattle line. This went fairly smooth.
OVERALL THE GOOD AND THE BAD:
Desserts, especially the chocolate melting cake
All beef dishes
Pizza Bar (24 hours)
The poolside grill
Fish in Chips (both for food and location)
Staff were friendly and attentive (however dining room seemed short staffed)
Elevators (fast and not crowded)
Adult pool area
Your time dining
Salads, soups, appetizers and sides
Photographers were obnoxious and there were way too many
Smoke in public areas especially deck 5 where all the bars and casino are located
Hot tubs were luke warm and not very clean (water green and smelly)
I am not bashing Carnival but for my wife and I it was just not the right fit. We like the quieter ships with the elegant little touches. Carnival is the party cruise. If you are looking to dance, party and get loud and rowdy this is the perfect ship for you. If you are a first time cruiser however I would ask that you try the other cruise lines to see what is the right fit for you.