I had been on a number of cruises before but had never traveled with Carnival. I guess I still had their old "party-ship" reputation in my head. Still, wanting a balcony for my other half, I went with Carnival due to price. Any hesitations about the line were immediately dispelled.
Overall, the trip (Exotic 7-night Western Caribbean) was a great way to unwind and the locations were different enough to provide a variety of choices for excursions and yet all were relaxed and, with the exception of Roatan's Mahogany Beach, I never felt surrounded by a bunch of other cruise passengers.
Us: A gay couple in our 40s, interested in getting away from our small Oklahoma ranch for a memorable week of fun, sun and relaxation. Oh, and no chores.
Other passengers: They seemed to be a great cross-section of America. I never met a snooty person on the ship. Most people truly seemed to want to spend their time having a great vacation, as opposed to telling others how much better other cruises on other cruise lines were. We had conversations with a number of couples - from teachers, corporate execs, retirees, and someone who worked with NASA.
Ports/Excursions: We arranged one shore excursion with a private company in Belize for a trip to the Lamanai Mayan ruins, and would recommend working with Belize Cruise Excursions. A truly stunning sight. Aside from that "excursion," we mainly walked around.
In Cozumel, we stopped in at little shops, a local panaderia (bakery), as well as a little cafe, both far off the beaten track. My partner's Spanish came in very handy in Cozumel, but English speakers will be fine in the more-touristed areas. Cab from port: $7 total per stop. There is a clean bathroom in the big, two-story yellow building in the center of town. Fifty cent entry cost to pay the woman who keeps the restroom clean.
In Belize City, we headed immediately for our excursion van, and spent all day on our tour, so I can't comment on the city.
In Honduras (Roatan)- If you really want to see Honduras, you need to get out of the very touristy Mahogany Bay/Mahogany Beach area. We were tired and really just wanted to lie out, have a margarita and get some sun and this was a great place to do so. If you are wanting more than that, I would recommend a shore excursion that day.
In Grand Cayman, we again headed off the beaten track. We found some local shops on the main drag, but also found a shop selling homemade ice cream (both the pistachio and the chocolate were great). After some more exploring (and purchases for family), we stopped at a local cafe/bar and had a bottle of the local beer and a shrimp burger (it sounded interesting, and tasted great). Next to the cafe, fishermen had set up an area to sell filets from that day's catch to tourists or locals that the cafe would prepare for you. Note: the super-low prices you see in Cozumel, Belize and Honduras are not present in the Cayman Islands.
Stateroom: We definitely enjoyed our balcony room. I ordered room service (coffee with bagels and lox) each morning, and we spent a few times out on the balcony each day - a great place to unwind, as well as sit and watch the ship approach or depart from each port. We traveled with one carry-on each (we're guys - what can I say?), so we had plenty of space for clothes, and I think others who packed more clothes would also have enough room for clothes and other belongings. We never saw our Steward/Stewardess, but the room was always in great shape, which is truly what mattered.
Shipboard Dining: We had to compromise on this one. We did the buffet for breakfast and lunch, and then took advantage of Your Time Dining in the Main Dining Room each evening. Yes, there are lines at the buffet, but the wait in line is a chance to talk with the folks who are also waiting in line and, soon enough, you get your food. Note: the omelet station will also prepare eggs in other ways. I ordered a couple of eggs over-medium each morning and saw others do the same thing. The first night, for the Your Time Dining (upstairs in Main Dining Room), we were seated in Clive's station, and he, Ivanno and Davor were tremendous. Every night thereafter, we asked to be seated in that same station, and my double espresso appeared each night just prior to my dessert. The soups are quite good, as are the vegetarian options. The rest of the food is good, not excellent, and I didn't have to prep, cook or wash the dishes!
On board Activities: We didn't do any organized activities, but really took advantage of the range of offerings that were available all day. I used the gym a few times, went in the pool and played in the casino (broke even - woo hoo). We also turned into 6 year-olds when we played putt-putt golf (get clubs/balls/score cards at counter immediately in front of forward pool). The wind plays havoc with your golf ball, and I don't know if we had more laughs or do-overs. I haven't a clue who won. Also, at the rear of the ship is the loop-the-loop pool slide. Go on it at least once and you'll take twenty years or more off your age. I must have gone down it five times.
Lounge Chair Advice: The ship must not have been at capacity, or there weren't that many folks out in the sun. A great, quiet spot with plenty of deck chairs is right in front of the red funnel on deck 11. It's somewhat hidden, but by waling to the back of the ship on deck 9 (near the serenity pool), take the stairs up to deck 10, walk forward a bit to another set of stairs and you'll be there. We sat up there at some point each day and there were only two other couples there - ever - and fifty or so empty lounge chairs.
Add-ons: We took advantage of the Steakhouse one night: It seems like the all-female staff of the breathtakingly beautiful Truffles Steakhouse were Serbian, and that they were incredibly fun, welcoming and professional. Tracy had the Lobster and Petite Filet Mignon and I had the Rib Eye steak. The portion size was incredible and my partner was too full for dessert. They put something odd into my martini other than Gin and dry vermouth, so I had to ask for them to remake the drink, and they happily complied.
I also booked the Chef's Table Experience. The Executive Chef of the ship met our group (just six - normally up to twelve) and took us into the ship's galley and showed us the work stations and gave us an overview of its operations. We stood at an unused prep table and were served perhaps five different hors d'oeuvres and champagne. A pastry chef stopped by and showed us how he made the cruise line's infamous Chocolate Melting Cake, and then we were led into a private table on the dance floor of the disco. Eating with two other couples you have never met can be a challenge, so I got the conversation started off with a short story and soon enough all of us were talking like good friends. Chef Panda came into the room and introduced each of the seven courses (yes, seven) and it became clear quickly that eating everything on each plate would not be possible. They also sent the ship's magician to the table to show us some card tricks and slight of hand illusions. A photographer also came into the room and took a group picture of us with the Chef, and at the conclusion of the incredible dinner (including the three desserts in the final course), we were presented with a copy of the photo, a souvenir menu and the recipe for the chocolate melting cake).
Public Rooms: The public rooms were nice and the ship was easy to navigate. Would I decorate my house that way? No. But I was there to have fun and not critique the ship's decor.
Tips for you: 1) Due to our flight times, we arrived at 2:30 or so, and breezed right through the port. There were four couples in the whole port area, and we were able to get our Sail and Sign card, go through security and go directly to our rooms. In the time it took to do a quick walkabout around the ship (okay, we went and ate), our bags were waiting at the door. Perhaps waiting a while to board will cut down the amount of time you are schlepping your carry-on bag around with you on the Lido deck. 2) To avoid heavily trafficked areas, we would save time and walk forward and aft along our deck (Deck 7- just staterooms), then go up or down to our desired deck. 3) If you have an privately-booked tour, get to the theatre (departing area for tours) early, as Carnival tours get priority for ship tenders. Private tour-goers take any remaining seats. 4) Go local. We made sure to try food and drink at local restaurants - sincronizada, pollo asado, postres and horchata in Cozumel, typical Belizian food, and Cayman beer. You get "regular" food and drink back on ship. We asked locals where to find a good local restaurant and got some really great recommendations. 5) Extend some courtesies. Hold an elevator for someone; get off the elevator so the group behind you on the elevator can get out, etc. What comes around really does go around.