This was my first cruise and my girlfriend's second (she'd previously done a two-week Baltic cruise aboard a Norwegian cruise ship). We sailed on July 31st from Baltimore.
Day 1 - As we live in Annapolis, sailing out of Baltimore was wonderful! It was so nice not to have to worry about catching a plane or making hotel reservations. I will say I wasn't expecting to have to pay over $100 to park at the terminal. Just one more way that cruises nickel and dime you to death I suppose (more on that at the end). Checking in was relatively quick and straightforward. No complaints there.
First Impressions: As other reviewers commented, the dEcor felt overdone and really dark and the public spaces were much smaller and tighter than I expected. Most of the public spaces did indeed feel overcrowded. My girlfriend, who does have some cruise experience, felt the same way.
Cabin: While our cabin was right off of one of the main stairwell/elevator areas, it wasn't nearly as loud as we expected it might be. The room itself was nice although there were a few times that it got very warm even though the thermostat was turned all the way down. The biggest issue was that the balcony doors aren't sliders, so every time another cabin slammed their balcony door (which isn't hard to do since they're very heavy doors), it reverberated throughout our cabin. It was extremely annoying to say the least. The towel animals and chocolates every night were a nice touch. It was fun to come back after an evening out and see what our towel animal would be. We ordered breakfast room service a couple of times and had no complaints with either the fare or the delivery (delivered right on time). The highlight though was our cabin steward Vance. He was very responsive, personable, and took very good care of us. An all-around nice guy!
Days 2 - 3 - At Sea
We spent the majority of these days just touring the ship and sunbathing. We did attend the art auction in the Butterflies Lounge one day for something to do. We felt that the majority of the art was sub-par and overpriced and couldn't believe some of the money that was being shelled out for it. I saw some previous reviewers complain about the ship rocking. While there was some slight rocking (this is a ship after all), we didn't think it was excessive. I guess some are just very prone to motion sickness.
Day 4 - Grand Turk
We really liked this island. If you're looking for a lot of shopping or a town to visit, you're in for a disappointment. Grand Turk is all about the beautiful beaches and water. My girlfriend and I went on the scuba diving excursion (my first time!) which was simply awesome. While we were scuba diving, a Princess cruise vessel arrived, so as you can imagine, every available beach chair quickly filled up. We therefore decided to take a cab "downtown," where we had a local brew and walked down the beaches away from the cruise ship crowd. We had lunch at a small local hotel (you have to try the cracked conch!) and made our way back to the ship as it was sailing at 2:00 pm. We really wish we could have spent more time at this quaint little island!
Day 5 - Half Moon Cay
As a previous reviewer commented, "If Grand Turk was GREAT, Half Moon Cay was INCREDIBLE!" While it was a little irritating having to take a launch to shore, the crew really has the process down to a science and it went quickly and efficiently. As an active duty Navy officer, I've taken countless launches from aircraft carriers into foreign ports and the Navy could really learn something from Carnival. It's never this efficient on a Navy ship! We had an early excursion planned, so after arriving ashore we made our way to the meeting area. Our excursion in this port was parasailing (another first) and it was a blast! From 600 feet up you can see the entire island. After parasailing we made our way down the beach and found a nice area away from the crowds. The beaches and water at Half Moon Cay are simply amazing! We spent most of the remainder of the day frolicking in the crystal clear waters (which led to some significant sunburn).
Day 6 - Freeport
We originally had another excursion planned for this stop, but as I mentioned, we got so sunburned the previous day, we couldn't possibly spend another five hours kayaking and snorkeling. Kudos to the Carnival Excursion personnel on giving us a refund although we were well inside the 24-hour no-refund window. So, with no excursion planned, we decided to take a taxi to the main shopping area. Big disappointment! As the previous reviewer stated, we could have skipped Freeport entirely! Since we got to the shopping area before most of the stores opened, we decided to check out the public beach behind the police station. To say it was a big letdown, especially when compared to the beaches at Grand Turk and Half Moon Cay, would be an understatement. We walked down to the beach and immediately turned around and left. We spent the rest of the stopover hanging around the shopping center and having lunch. We'd been to Nassau previously and Freeport doesn't come close to Nassau. We practically couldn't wait to get back to the ship.
Day 7 - At sea
We spent most of our last day simply napping. We'd been around the ship so many times at this point that we were bored with it. We just couldn't think of anything else to do. Sad but true.
Departure: Our zone wasn't scheduled to check out until nearly 11:00 am, so luckily we brought books to read. It would have been nice to spend the time waiting in our cabin, but they wanted us out so they could prep it for the next guests. Luckily we ended up being called a bit earlier than expected and the departure process went quickly and efficiently.
Mermaid Grille: We quickly tired of the lines and crowds in the Mermaid Grille. It was a hassle making our way from station to station spread throughout the large, crowded eating area and finding a seat during peak times was frustrating. As for the food itself, it ranged from good (Indian meal and sandwich station) to mediocre (most every other meal).
Normandie Dining Room: I've always heard from others how good the food is on cruise ships, but I must admit, I was not overly impressed. We chose the Your Time Dining option which others complained about, but we actually liked it. It was nice not having to worry about being at dinner at a certain time and we were glad we didn't have to stand in the long scheduled dining lines. There were a couple of times when we were given a pager, but our wait wasn't all that long and it gave us time to have a before-dinner drink. For us, Your Time Dining was the way to go.
David's Steakhouse: The highlight of our dining experience! While you do pay extra to eat there, what you get for $30 makes this option a bargain in our opinion. From the appetizer to dessert and everything in between, the food is delicious! So good in fact, we ate there twice. It was also nice having a little ambience at dinner and not hearing a thousand other people talk. Our one criticism would be with the music selection. A Muzak version of YMCA is still YMCA. They need to play music that's more fitting of the elegant atmosphere.
Activities: We dropped in on a couple of shows in the Taj Mahal, but found them so hokey that we didn't hang around long. While most of the older passengers seemed to like them, I guess we're not old enough yet to appreciate musical reviews put on by so-so singers and dancers. We did take in several adult comedy shows and with one exception, really enjoyed the comedians. The little red-headed assistant cruise director/magician/comedian we could have skipped. If you do intend to take in an adult comedy show, get there early as the seats fill up early, up to 30 minutes prior to showtime. We're not gamblers, so I can't comment on the casino. The karaoke bar was somewhat fun. While we're not courageous enough to sing in front of others, it was a hoot watching others do it.
Pools: While the adults-only Serenity Pool area looked very nice, we never got an opportunity to experience it first-hand as it is very small and always filled up early. We thought that all of the pools were small and trying to find anywhere to lay out on a sunny day was frustrating. Everywhere was just so crowded! Drink service was non-existent in our experience.
The bottom-line: While many people love cruises, this will probably be our last experience for quite some time. While it's nice to visit more than one locale, we feel we get more bang for the buck at an all-inclusive resort. Our prior vacation was to Jamaica, which cost us around $2500 for four days, including airfare. As it was all-inclusive, all meals were included (I believe there were seven restaurants at the resort), but more importantly, all alcoholic beverages were also included. For the cruise, we paid around $2800 for balcony stateroom a week (would have been more had we required airfare), but then we tacked on another $100 for parking, another $400 or so for two excursions, and nearly another $1000 for our end of cruise bill, much of which was adult beverages and overpriced cruise photos. When you're paying $7-8 for each mixed drink and $30-40 for an average bottle of wine, you can see how easily it adds up over a week's period.