First of all, let me lay a little groundwork, so you'll know where I'm coming from and what this review is and is not.
I'm not a Carnival cheerleader - I've loved every cruise I've ever taken, and I'll always say that the worst day on a cruise is still better than the best day in the rest of your life. I've cruised Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Cunard before, back in the 80s and 90s, so although it's been a long time, I'm still a veteran. I marked first-time cruiser because it was my wife's first cruise. And she loved it!
I am a guy who starts from the negative and works his way to the positive, so read knowing that. I'd like to clear the slate about a few things, too, right off the bat.
First off, what is the deal with the great PIZZA reviews? I cannot for the life of me understand why many folks think the 'za on Carnival is the best ever. I've had better out of a box. Sorry. Second of all, what's with people letting their (little) kids go to shows, contests and events that are quite obviously NOT family friendly. They are clearly promoted as adults-only. I was concerned about 10 year-olds leaning over to their folks and asking, "Mommy, is 'whoopee' what I think it is?" Finally, I don't get all the "Jen-bashing." (Jen Baxter was Cruise Director for the liberty on this cruise) I was not particularly fond of her or her voice, but it's her place to be the cheerleader for the cruise, and she did her job. Yes, her voice is a little grating, but for the 3 minutes per day I had to hear it, I was not annoyed. She's good at what she does.
Okay, now the review. We arrived in plenty of time to board comfortably. I'd say we probably spent 30 - 40 minutes standing in line, all told, before we were on the Liberty. I'm sure it helped that were feeling pretty chill already, having spent a couple of pre-cruise days in South Beach, where we had a blast. We'll definitely return to SoBe! I was a little nervous about boarding, because I'm an idiot and decided to use my birth certificate as proof of identity, and did not realize until the last minute that the names on my driver's license and birth certificate were not an exact match. But that turned out to not be a problem in the end, so it was all good.
STAFF: Staff and crew were friendly, gracious and helpful. Service was very efficient. Even room service, from which we did not expect a lot, was fast and the food prepared as I would have expected it. It's obvious that our crew was trained to under-promise and over-deliver and that is the way good service goes, so props to the Liberty crew. Dining room staff had a great attitude, but it was obvious much of the time that they were scrambling and that things were not going as planned behind the scenes. I was told by someone in-the-know that they had recently changed the wait-staff scheme and were still getting used to the new system, but still, confusion seemed to reign in the Silver Olympian dining room, and that's something passengers should not have seen.
SERVICE: When we arrived, our bed had already been made into a king. Not a big deal, but I had expected to have to make a request for this. Nice. And the bed was comfy. Also, upon arrival the stopper in our sink was stuck in the closed position so that the water would not drain. We made a call before leaving our cabin for a while, and when we returned 1.5 hours later, it was fixed. This kind of thing should not ruin a person's cruise, rather, it instilled confidence that these things would be taken care of in a timely manner. We had no other issues with the stateroom or facilities. No rattles and no trace of the room having been smoked in. Excellent cabin!
NOTE: Based on several exchanges on the Cruise Critic board, I was under the impression that smoking was allowed just about everywhere, but this was definitely NOT the case. There were a fair amount of smoker's areas, but the majority of the ship seemed smoke-free. Nice. And I am a smoker.
FACILITIES: The ship was beautiful. DEcor (which I feared based on descriptions would be gaudy and/or tacky) was actually quite well executed, and there were subtle touches everywhere that supported the obvious theme and made the look and feel of the ship elegant. The public areas were rarely crowded - Carnival seems to have mastered traffic management, which, on a ship with this size population, is no small feat. The Venetian (the large theatre) was spacious and the seating most comfortable. We do not dance so did not try out the disco, but it looked cool. Actually, I don't think I ever saw anyone dancing in there, but perhaps I was not there during the hours people like to dance. Sadly, we never got to spend time in the Piano Man bar. Once again, just a matter of timing and priorities. You can't do everything on a ship this big and still have time to sleep. Speaking of sleeping, the cabins were a pleasant surprise. Quite spacious, especially for an inside stateroom. The casino was well laid-out and the slots were relatively friendly.
FOOD: Most of the time food was delicious and if not gourmet-quality, typically very good. I'd take issue with those who say it's banquet-quality; there were many meals that were much better than that, and at worst, perhaps banquet-quality. There were many offerings that exceeded my expectations, particularly the Mongolian-style buffet (made to order and with lines that evidenced its popularity), the fish and chips, and the desserts in general. Dining room offerings such as the chateaubriand and panko-crusted shrimp were excellent. Some of the accompaniments were a bit mystifying, such as potatoes with shrimp rather than rice. But that's a chef's prerogative.
ENTERTAINMENT: Uh-oh. Don't hate me. I'm a musician and entertainer and worked for many years in a show band with singers and dancers. Although I know what it takes behind the scenes to put on a good show and appreciate the effort of the show crew, the "big shows" fell flat, and we abandoned that activity after about 1.5 shows. There was so much more to do and see. The Punchliner comedy club was a good thing, and we laughed our butts off in there. The other musical entertainment around the ship consisted mostly of sequencer-enhanced (playing along with pre-programmed backup tracks) duos and a single, and again would have been much better if they had just hired competent 4-piece combos. There are plenty of capable musicians who would have filled the bill well. I would have, back in the day, been happy to play for 8 - 10 hours a day for cruise pay. If you aren't in the music industry, you might like the entertainment. This just gave us an excuse to spend more time chilling on the deck or walking about. Bingo and other contests are as fun as you make them, and we had a great time at these as well.
Everything they've been saying about Half Moon Cay is true - it's a slice of paradise. We actually skipped our planned snorkeling after finding ourselves surrounded by hundreds of fish just while wading. The water, sand and sun were so relaxing, we just didn't want it to end. We've decided that, in one form or the other, water was the "star" of the cruise.
St. Thomas was wonderful, and our mission to walk the streets and photograph architecture (that seems a bit of a large word for old buildings in the Caribbean, but that's what it is) was easy to accomplish. A beautiful island with wonderful people. We stopped for lunch at a local joint called Gladys', and had Roti, which is something of a curry burrito/chicken pot pie type of affair. Wow! Gotta do that again.
San Juan is a city that's just not doable in 6 - 8 hours. We'll need to return to get a true taste. What little we did see (although the forts were awesome in the brief time we had to see them) seemed very commercialized and tuned to grab the tourist buck. That's our bad for planning only a day there, and not going more "deep." We will one day cruise from San Juan, and then we'll get a chance to spend at least a couple of pre-cruise days there. The people were, again, great and very excited to show us their home. There's so much going on there! We had lunch at Barrachina, birthplace of the Original Piña Colada. Yes, we had one and it was, like, wow! Interesting to note that the original was not an alcoholic drink, and that you have to ask for the booze if you want it. So, being ex-drinkers, we loved that. Had Mofongo for lunch, another first, and very tasty. You have to try the local stuff to really get the most out of travel.
Grand Turk is, well, kind of an ugly little island, and, despite all that we were told by our tour guide about how hard hit they were by the recent hurricanes, it's obvious that there wasn't much going on there prior to the storms, either. A beach day, at most. And great if you like the party atmosphere of Margaritaville. A spring-breaker's paradise, for sure.
PASSENGERS: There will always be good and bad, and although there were a lot more kids on the ship than I had expected, they seemed well-behaved enough, and for that, credit goes to the parents and to Carnival for providing kid-friendly spaces and activities. The more annoying 18 - 22 crowd (3 beefy, shirtless dudes constantly trolling for way-too-young chicks) were there in force. I guess college Spring Break wasn't completely over. We were able to find our own space throughout the cruise, however, and loved the majority of the crowd. Our biggest highlight: We were seated at a table for 4 with a wonderful couple from Lake Charles, LA, and have already made post-cruise contact, based on the great dinners we shared together. We will surely keep in touch. This is one of the best things about cruising!
SUMMARY: This was a wonderful cruise, and I cannot think of more than a moment or two that I felt that I wasn't in pampered paradise. Carnival did a good job of seeing to our pleasure, and had things very well in balance. I know there are some negatives I've mentioned, but there's not enough room for all the positives. Some are: the ship itself - outstanding and lavish; the service and cabin - as good as it could possibly be; the vibe - casual, relaxed, fun; and finally, on that last sea day, the wishing it weren't about to end. That's how you know how great it really was.
FINAL NOTE: I can't recall how I stumbled onto Cruise Critic, but I'm so glad that I did. The information I found there, as well as the great folks I met (a couple of them later on the ship, too!) made my cruise experience all the richer.