Carnival once had poorly organized cruises with mediocre food and good entertainment. Things sure have changed. Our experience on the Valor was exceptional.
We used Carnival's airport "shuttle" from Ft. Lauderdale to the Port of Miami. The trip was quick and trouble-free. Embarkation was really smooth as well.
The ship is beautiful. The decor is a history motif. There are statues and pictures of presidents, scientists, war heroes and sports personalities throughout. It is a huge ship but easy to "navigate," and all the public areas were always spotless. The crew do a fabulous job of cleaning 24/7 and they are really friendly to boot.
Our outside cabin was roomy and comfortable. Our cabin steward could not have been better. Not only did he provide excellent service, but he was creative way beyond the norm. Of course, he kept the room spotless, every day he provided towel animals, but he also, involved a stuffed toy (Scooby Doo) we had with us in various cute and funny "scenes" he created on a daily basis, and he always took the time to show a genuine interest in how our day was going regardless of how busy he was.
The food on our cruise was extraordinarily well-prepared. The dinners in the Washington dining room (early seating) were always delicious. I have been on 12 cruises, and the food on the Valor was as good as any of them (including that of Celebrity Cruise Lines). The wait staff was competent and friendly and always addressed us by name. For breakfasts and lunches, we dined at the buffet on the Lido deck. Food there was wonderful as well. There were lots of choices, and there were also two stations for "custom" orders -- a gourmet burrito stand and a deli. We even found a pleasant surprise of fish and chips along with other seafood upstairs from the Lido Deck buffet restaurant toward the back.
The entertainment on the ship was top-notch as well. The Carnival productions were the best I've ever experienced on a ship. A friend traveling with us, who had been on 36 cruises, also said it was the highest quality production she had aver seen on a ship. The production, the singing, the dancing, and the costumes were just incredible. On one night, there were even awesome breakdancers that had been hired by the line. The live music around the ship was also really great. There was a band that played/sang mostly 80s tunes, a classical piano player, another band that did various pop music, a soloist that did pop music, a couple that did romantic pop music, and a Caribbean music band. All were really talented. The only disappointment was that there weren't shows every night at the main theater (Ivanhoe). On those nights, we went to the comedy club or to watch karaoke.
There were various activities on the ship...the standard art auctions, trivia contest, and hairy chest contests, etc. However, there were fewer activities than we've seen in the past. Luckily, most days we were at port, so we did not run out of things to do.
We visited three ports (Key West, Grand Kayman, Jamaica (Ocho Rios)). Grand Cayman is a tiny island with no topography (flat as a tabletop). Also, it can be frustrating to get to/from the island as you have to tender. The tendering process can take an hour or even two when you went to get back to the ship (because so many passengers are all trying to return to the ship at the same time). Grand Cayman is really good for jewelry shopping and especially for watches. There is a phenomenal selection of luxury watches at really good prices, and there is no sales tax. If you've been looking for a fine watch, check the prices at Grand Cayman. You are likely to find a great deal. We took a Carnival excursion to visit the Sea Trurtle Farm. It was a great tour. We learned about the Green sea turtle; how it breeds, how long it lives, its habitat, etc. We got to hold and touch turtles of various ages and got to swim with them as well. Swimming/snorkeling the man-made reef was a great experience. We saw lots of fish and several turtles. We also had a nice island lunch where you had a choice of a hamburger or island BBQ chicken with rice and beans an coleslaw. The food was very good.
Key West was a really pleasant surprise. I had expected it to be just a tourist trap with no character. Boy was I wrong. The place is adorable with old houses with tons of character. The atmosphere is really laid back (despite all the tourists. We did not take an excursion but decided to pay $20 each to get a pass for the Trolley. There are eight stops on the trolley (at various historic and tourist sites), and you can get on-and-off the trolley whenever/wherever you like. The trolley is more than just transportation. The driver is also your guide. The different drivers all provide you with talks about the various location through which you drive, the history, and some great humor. We stopped first at the Hemingway house. It is where Ernest Hemingway lived for part of his life. The tour of the house was fascinating and informative, and the 44 house cats (half of them poly-dactyls -- having more than five toes -- are all descendants of Hemingway's cat, a poly-dactyl). We also stopped for lunch at Loui's Backyard near the southern-most point of the continental U.S. The place had an awesome view of the Atlantic ocean and fabulous seafood. It is a bit expensive but worth it for the food and view. We then went to the southern-most point just to take a picture. It's not that exciting, but at least we could say we were there. Then we went to the original Margaritaville (Jimmy Buffet's restaurant) for, what else, a Margarita. It's not a remarkable place but it is historical if you're into Jimmy's music. We also visited Captain Tony's bar (which used to be called Slopy Joe's and was a hangout of Hemingway's. The place is a "trip" with great atmosphere. There are countless business cards of visitors pinned to the ceilings and rafters and also many bras hanging from the ceiling (I guess from female visitors who didn't have business cards). We also went to the new Sloppy Joe's across the street, a bar that has the name of the original bar the Hemingway frequented. Lastly, we looked around the shops and bought Movado watches at Little Switzerland (they have great deals on and exclusive designs of Movado watches). Our visit to Key West was absolutely charming, and we want to return and stay several days in the future.
In Jamaica, we took a Carnival excursion to a plantation and the Dunn's River Falls. A tour of a plantation sounds lame, but it was actually a great experience. The plantation is in the mountains and in the middle of a lush tropical jungle. The scenery is breathtaking. There are also views of incredible canyons and of the sea. We toured it by jitney tractors. On top of that, the tour guide is great. He is funny and informative, and he lets you sample Jamaican coffee, Jamaican punch, including rum punch (delicious). The plantation itself is interesting. Among other things it has a tree planted by Winston Churchill, a college for talented and needy Jamaican kids (tuition provided free by the owners for 10 students each year. Then we were taken to Dunn's River Falls. Our experience there wasn't quite as good. Yes, the falls are beautiful, but there are so many tourist climbing them that you really can't see them that well. In addition, our Jamaican tour guide took off leaving half his group in the dust. We never found him again and had to find our bus on our own. Luckily, our bus driver (a different Jamaican tour guide)recognized my mom (who was traveling with my wife and me), and ran across the crowded parking lot to retrieve us. The worst part of this tour was that we only had an hour at the falls which was barely enough to tour them and certainly not enough to climb them (which is what most tourists want to do).
Overall, Carnival did a great job, and we truly enjoyed our vacation. We were all sad to see our wonderful cruise end as we had a really awesome vacation on the Valor. Our debarkation was quick and trouble free.