We arrived at the cruise port at noon. Embarkation was smooth. We were told that the main gangway had broken down and we would be entering the ship through the deck# 2 access. We brought 2 bottles of wine and a 12-pack of bottled water through security without a problem. We were onboard within 45 minutes. We went to the Oceanview Cafe [buffet] for lunch and to kill time. Our room was ready at 1:45pm. We really appreciated that smoking was limited to only a few areas and prohibited on the verandas.
The room was large enough for 2 adults and 1 small child, well organized, large LCD TV [check out the free on-demand movies], Pullman bed, just enough storage space, and a standard size balcony; the bathroom was a pleasant surprise with the sliding glass doors on the shower. The room is not soundproof. We could hear our neighbors' [either side] TV and muffled conversations. Luckily, we did not spend much time in the room.
This was the first cruise that we were not impressed by our steward - Luella. We are probably spoiled from our previous cruises but there were no towel animals on the bed at night. She kept the room clean but used drinking glasses were not removed consistently, used towels were removed but not replaced consistently, bath soap was not replenished before needed, and [worst of all] a used band-aid [THAT DID NOT COME FROM US] was stuck on the upper right corner of the headboard. We found it on Friday night. It was still there when we disembarked on Sunday.
Oceanview Cafe: The high quality of food and variety of choices make this the best cruise buffet I have experienced. During breakfast, it was a nice touch for a server to wheel a coffee cart around to the tables. The servers always did a good job of clearing tables quickly. We met a very nice assistant waiter. (note: I wrote down his name but lost my note.) He was very friendly and to our delight created an origami jumping frog for us at our table.
Mast Grill: The usual choices of burgers, hot dogs, bratwurst, fries, onion rings, etc. but a slightly higher quality than what you will find on other ships.
Main Dining room: The food was always good to very good but nothing special. I and several of the other passengers suspect that the cruiseline keeps the MDR quality at this level to encourage/force passengers to use the specialty restaurants. Our waitress - Ebru was always pleasant but her thick accent was, at times, hard to decipher. The only great meal was the Friday brunch buffet. [On formal nights, the dress code was not enforced.]
Murano:[French] We ate at Murano one night. The food was excellent. We had the lobster and the chocolate soufflE. The service was good. It is an interior location, so no ocean view. When the restaurant was nearly full, the noise level was significant.
Tuscan Grille:[Italian] We timed our reservation for when the ship was leaving St. Maarten. We were given a window table and thoroughly enjoyed watching the sunset and the island slowly fade away. The food was excellent. We had the filet mignon. The service was good.
Silk Harvest: [Asian] The menu was limited and the food was over-spiced. The service was good but not exceptional. If you want PF Changs-lite, this is your restaurant.
Tip: All of the specialty restaurants allow and encourage you to try more than one main entrEe. They do not charge any additional fee. Go to Murano for the lobster and the soufflE. Go to Tuscan for the ocean view and an excellent meal. Check the MDR dinner menu each afternoon. If you are not impressed, have dinner in the Oceanview. The specialty restaurants do keep some tables available for last minute walk-ins. Do not miss the MDR Friday brunch buffet - filet mignon, omelettes, ice sculptures, etc.
No real bargains except the liquor. The regular pricing for liquor was below what Carnival was charging a few months ago. They will also match the pricing from stores on the islands. You only have to show them the stores' advert or their business card with the liquor and price filled in. Phil ["the new guy"] and James in the liquor store were very professional and easy to work with. They were very helpful in showing me different ways to spend money.
The art and glass auctions had some nice pieces but people were consistently overbidding. Side note- On Thursday, a woman won the $20,000.00 Solstice necklace with a spin on a special slot machine.
Children's Program- "Fun Factory":
Our 6 year old loved the program. They always had something fun to do in a safe and secure environment. There were 240 children on this cruise. The program director and all the counselors were great. Rather than being nickel&dimed for all the extras [e.g., special tours, lunch and dinner parties, after hours care], we opted for the $100.00 - Kid's VIP package. It includes all the extras and a small knapsack, a pillow, & a water bottle.
Solarium - Adults only & tranquil. If you want to go somewhere quiet but still have a pool, this is the place.
San Juan - The best way to see Old S.J. is to take the free shuttle that circles the old town. You can pick it up between piers 3 & 4.
St. Thomas - For a quiet beach with facilities, take a taxi [$6.00pp for 3 people] to Morningstar Beach. It is Marriott Frenchman Cove's beach. There is no charge to use the beach. Check out the liquor prices at the K-mart. It is half way between the ship and downtown, on the right.
St. Maarten - Do not waste your day with the Grand Circle island tour [3 hours]. Orient beach is pretty but crowded. The open market in Marigot [French side] is worth a look. We looked at some beautiful handmade garnet jewelry. I was told by a number of the crew that the liquor prices in Philipsburg were better than the ships' or any of the other islands.
Bug Infestation? - A couple we met on the ship told us about their ordeal. On Monday, the wife woke up and found that she had 31 bites on her legs and back. She immediately reported the problem to guest services. They told her to see the ship's doctor. After a lengthy discussion, guest services agreed to pay for the doctor's services. When she arrived at the ship's infirmary, she found two other passengers with the same type of bites. Housekeeping checked the bed for bed bugs but did not find any, and sprayed insecticide in the cabin. The next morning she only found 6 additional bites and by the following morning, no additional bites were evident.
Disembarkation was smooth except for the Captain deciding that the starboard-midship elevators should be turned off. Consequently, anyone that could not make it down the stairs with their luggage in-tow was forced to wait at the few remaining elevators. We waited about 30 minutes before an open car arrived.