This was our 11th cruise, 5th on Carnival. Our cruise vacation on board the Victory began with a Saturday night stay at the Biscayne Bayside Marriott in Miami. We've stayed there before and had a great bay view room over looking the cruise ships in port. It has a great pool and hot tub and is only a $5 taxi ride to Bayside for shopping and dinner. The hotel also provides 2 welcome cocktails and 2 breakfasts or room service free, if you buy the pre cruise package.
Much of this review will be compared with Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas and Princess' Grand Princess. These are the mega ships of the other two cruise lines that we've sailed recently, so we are definitely comparing apples to apples.
Early Sunday morning when we woke up there was the Victory, Voyager and the Norway in port. We were really excited about our 11th cruise coming in a matter of a few hours. At 10:40 AM we jumped in a taxi for the 5 - 10 minute ride to the Victory in port. When we arrived, there were still many passengers getting off the ship so we were not able to be dropped off as close to the terminal as many of our other cruises, but the ship porter was right there to take our bags and put them into the containers that are loaded onto the ship. Now, before you can do this, there is a security person there making sure that the bags going into this container were ours. We had to show picture ID and tickets and the tags on the bags were stamped showing that they had been checked. Then a short walk to terminal 8. Check in was very fast because of our early arrival. Only a few people in line. Went to the ticket check in counter after that, and were happy to see another short line. 10 minutes later we were up the escalator and a 5-minute walk to the large waiting area where you receive your sail and sign cards. Then the waiting began. It was now 11:15 am and boarding was scheduled to begin at 12:45 pm. We knew we'd have to wait somewhere and this would be by far the most comfortable of the choices because of many seats and air conditioning. The other choice was to wait later to arrive and possibly have to wait in very long lines that stretch outside just to get through security. Then another long line to get checked in. We made the right choice. At about 12:30 pm the gates were dropped and the herd quickly began moving toward the ship's entrance. Then another long wait. Cruise lines insist that you get your picture taken when boarding, causing long lines. After another 20 minutes or so, we were finally on board.
The best in the business at getting passengers on their ships is Royal Caribbean. There are very few lines except at the busiest times of the day. You can show up at the port at 10:45 am and be enjoying lunch or a drink on deck at 11:15 am. Why can't Carnival manage to do the same?
We went to check out our Category 11 suite (14x20), which Carnival had upgraded us to a couple weeks before the cruise. It was very spacious with lots of storage and a long balcony (4x20). The bath was larger than non-suite cabins and had a whirlpool tub. The fridge was stocked with the usual items, beer, wine, soda, and peanuts. And of course if you take it out, you bought it. There was a great vanity makeup area, which my wife liked. We've had suites on other ships, but she liked this one the best of all. Then up to the lido deck (Mediterranean Restaurant) for lunch. The first impression that I got was "this is it"? There was less to choose from than there was on RCCI and Princess cruises. After awhile, we realized that there were other things and places to eat such as pizza, Chinese, a deli, and burgers. Deserts were not as good here as in past Carnival cruises and not as good as recent RCCI or Princess cruises. The service here though was excellent. There were waiters waiting to assist you by bringing a beverage to your table if you wanted. We saw a lady sit down for breakfast and someone brought over a bowl for her cereal. The lady didn't ask for it and didn't even realize that she'd forgot it. Now that's service! The free beverages available included lemonade and punch, tea, and coffee, not just lousy iced tea that the other lines give you.
For overall food choices on deck, the nod goes to RCCI and Princess. They have a much larger number of choices and the presentation is nicer. Service goes to Carnival. Always smiling and willing to help out.
We had the early 5:45 seating in the Pacific dining room. We wanted early, but not that early. Oh well. When we arrived, we found our assistant waiter Victoria, and waiter Henry waiting for us and our tablemates. We found out later in the cruise that our waiter and assistant were awarded team of the month so we knew then that we had the best and they were. Service was excellent. Food was not, in my opinion. I usually order beef dishes and for some reason even when cooked medium, the prime rib and filet mignon seemed dry. My wife however liked the food that she ordered. She especially liked the Long Island Duck and one of the fish plates. We both agree that the deserts in the dining room were very good, but not as good in the Mediterranean Restaurant. We would consider the food and presentation to be better on RCCI and Princess.
Entertainment was less in quantity and quality on this ship than on other lines that we've sailed. There were 2 main shows as with other Carnival 7 day cruises and we enjoyed them. They were both very good. There is a piano player near a bar outside the casino and he was very good, but didn't sing many different songs. We really got sick of hearing Bad Bad Leroy Brown after about the 3rd day. Also the smoke was terrible in all the bars. There were 3 comedians that did shows that were pretty good, but why 3? Why not a singer instead of one of them. There was a magician one night that was very good, but I swear he was drunk. Many nights there was only a 10:30 pm show. If you like trivia, you'll love this ship. It is almost every day just as is bingo. The first night there is a Welcome Aboard Show, but not until 10:30 pm. Nothing before that except trivia, bingo, and music in some of the lounges. And the music in some of the lounges is another story. The band "Unity" that played in the Adriatic Lounge was terrible!
Our cruise director for the week, Steve Cassel was subbing for a month so that the regular CD could get a vacation. He was our least favorite of our eleven cruises. He is a very good juggler, which he demonstrated one night before the magician show, but other than that we could see why he was the "sub". Definitely funny in his own mind.
The first day at sea we explored some more, as it wasn't particularly a very nice day outside. This ship is very difficult to get around. And the decor is really wild as with all Carnival ships. In the stairways you'll see prints behind glass unlike actual paintings on many RCCI and Princess ships. Deck 5 goes the whole length of the ship, but if you are on deck 3 or 4, forget it. The Atlantic dining room is right in the middle of the ship; so you have to go to Deck 5 and back down to get to the other end. It was formal night and the captain's cocktail party was at 5 pm, just before dinner. We went to that for a couple drinks then on to dinner. After dinner was the 1st of the 2 main production shows, "Livin In America". Very good! The 2 main singers were top notch. Very excellent! After dinner nothing to do. Didn't care for the band as I mentioned. The Adult comedy show was not until midnight. So my wife read a book on our balcony and I tried out the casino. The casino is very large. Very tough to get near the craps tables when they're going strong and the black jack tables were very busy too. Picked up the wife at 11:30 and went to the show.
Tuesday was mostly an at sea day. Arrived San Juan at 4 pm just in time to see all except the recommended stores close. Most of the excursions were very expensive, so since we've been here before we opted to stay on the ship. Well here we go again. Ate dinner in the dining room and after that there was a very quiet ship with nothing to do until a show at 10:30 pm. Another comedian. Nothing open on the ship either because of being in port. The sail away deck party was at 11 pm and of course that is always fun.
Wednesday, St Thomas. A cloudy day so we went straight into town to shop. We usually shop at the stores right next to the pier, but we haven't been into town for a few years so we decided to give it a try and see what's new. Nothing. All the big name and recommended stores are right at the pier and unless you want to shop in the smaller stores, don't bother. Back to the ship for lunch, then to the beach. We've been to Megan's Bay a couple times and Sapphire Beach once, so we wanted to try a new beach. We took some recommendations from posters on Cruise Critic and went to Morning Star Beach. It's only 5 minutes from the ship by taxi ($6 pp). It was a very cloudy day, but the beach was very nice. Almost had it to ourselves. It's at the end of Marriott's own private beach. If you walk down to where that beach begins, you'll see beach lounges and umbrellas. We sat in them several hours expecting to have to pay, but they never came to collect. Nice day even with no sun. We went to the magic show at 8:30 pm. Pretty good as I stated before. After that, except for bingo or bad music in the lounges, not much to do until a 12:15 am comedy show.
Thursday, St Maarten. A really bright sunny day, we went straight to Orient Beach. Taxi van is $6 pp if full. If not at least 5 people in it the price goes to $9 pp. We got there at 9:30 am our time, 7:30 am local time. The beach was all ours for quite awhile. Found nice comfortable lounges to sit in and could have stayed all day. After 3 hours of baking, we were done, so back to the ship for lunch and shopping after. The shows after dinner were as follows. The knobby knees contest at 9 pm and the Guest talent show at 10:30 pm. Only Carnival would consider this a night's entertainment for its guests.
Friday and Saturday, nice sunny days at sea. Up to breakfast and then out on deck. Both nice sunny days, we found no problem finding a lounge in a shady area under the big communication ball on one of the top decks. Friday was formal night so all dressed up we got and off to dinner. The second main production show, Vrooom was at 8:30 pm and was the better of the two. After the show, zip. No midnight show. Just the casino, or the lousy music in the Adriatic Lounge, or the smoky piano bar etc.
Saturday night there were a couple contests in the Caribbean lounge called the Love, Sex, and Romance Game. After that was Carnival's version of the Millionaire game. Basically time killers until the one scheduled show for the night. Yes another comedian at 10:30 pm the last night. It was just OK this time.
During the week we visited the Internet café and found that .75 a minute just to email someone is ridiculous. RCCI is .50 a minute, much more reasonable.
Overall Carnival is not comparable in entertainment quality and quantity. On the RCCL Voyager class ships, there are 3 main production shows including the ice show. On Princess (Grand Princess) there are also 3 main production shows. On the other nights on both lines there are also comedians and jugglers, but they are often also musicians, impressionists and are of higher quality. Also there is usually a celebrity guest. On RCCI and Princess cruises, there is always much more to do every night. You sometimes have to hurry between shows and games, activities, etc. because of the way they are scheduled. You can do them all or just selected ones. Unfortunately, on Carnival, there is nothing to rush to.
Outdoor activities on Carnival are the usual pool games and so on. The survivor game is plain stupid. Some of it isn't even done with any audience participation. Royal Caribbean has mini golf, a rock climbing wall, a basketball court, and in-line skating. Carnival has..hmm?.a slide? As with some previous posts regarding stained carpet, yes there is, especially in the cabin hallways. Of course the lighter the carpet, the worse it looks. On deck 7 Empress, where we were, it was very dirty. No kidding, a stain or spot every 6 feet. Except for the dirty carpet, the ship is immaculate.
Debarkation is another sore spot for Carnival. Why is it that RCCI can get its Miami passengers off the ship starting at 7:15 am and Carnival can't until at least 9:30 am (9:55 am on the 9/22 sailing)? I realize that customs can foul everything up on any cruise, but RCCI wins again in this category by far.
Even though we thought that Carnival should have done a better job with some of the things that I describe, we had a great cruise. If you are already booked on the Victory, don't worry, you'll have a great time. If you're on the fence, just realize that there are better choices in our opinion.