Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Carnival Valor Cruise Review

Carnival Valor Cruise Review
February 10-17, 2013

Just The Facts
Ship:  Carnival Valor
Captain: Ettore Bovo
Cruise Director: Felipe Vultaggio
Ports: San Juan, St. Thomas, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Kitts, St. Martin
Weather:  Fantastic!

This is my 34th Carnival cruise, 79th cruise overall, and my 1st time on the Carnival Valor. I am cruising with DW (dear wife) and my regular and close group of cruise friends: the Snoozemates.  I am recovering from some major oral surgery so that will influence my menu selections this trip.

Day Zero--Saturday--Travel
Caribe Hilton - San Juan
We left the ranch at 5:30 am for the two+ hour drive to DFW airport.  We parked at a local hotel and shuttled to the AA terminal for our 9:30 am direct flight to San Juan.  We landed at 3:45 pm local time, a four+ hour flight and two hour time difference.  We took a taxi ($23) to the Hilton Caribe resort arriving about 4:30 and several Snoozemates who had arrived earlier were there to greet us at reception.  One of the fun traditions of our little group.  After we were settled in our room we met at their famous lobby bar for a classic Pina Colada.  There is a local argument as to who was the first to serve the traditional drink, this hotel bar or the Barrachina Restaurant in OSJ (old San Juan).  I believe the bartender actually worked at both places many years ago.  I did have my first real Pina Colada at this very bar exactly 30 years ago although at that time the bar was in a huge Palpa just outside the lobby.  The Barrachina still serves the original recipe and the hotel serves a slightly more modern version using a blender.  My personal choice for best Pina Colada is here...either way this signature drink is not to be missed.  After a very nice Happy Hour we had dinner at the Italian restaurant located at the hotel.  I had the Pasta Arrabiatta.....a pasta in a hot (spicy) tomato sauce.  After dinner we walked the beautiful lighted grounds and enjoyed the Caribbean air.  They have a great little pier with a low light that lights up an area of clear water and coral. The light attracts bugs that then attract beautiful fish that leap from the water to feed.  I have seen game fish do this, but never tropical fish, very interesting.  After a wonderful evening and long travel day we turned in for the evening.

Day One--Embarkation--San Juan
Rosie's - Lido deck buffet - Carnival Valor
We had a very restful sleep and slept until 9:00 am.  The hotel has a private beach in a cove and a wonderful three level swimming pool with a full swim up bar, beautiful grounds with palm trees, parrots, and all the resort features you would expect.  Very nice place for a pre cruise night. We checked out about 11:00am and split a taxi with friends to Cruise Terminal Four in OSJ.  They were still debarking the ship when we arrived about 11:30 so we went through security and waited in the VIP lounge.  They had sandwiches, cookies, pastries, lemonade, and water for us during our wait.  We began VIP boarding about 12:30 and as we entered the ship we were greeted by four Snoozemates that had been on the ship for the previous cruise. Cool tradition.  Since they have FTTF and knew we could go direct to our cabin we didn’t check our bags and rolled them onto the ship ourselves.  We took our bags to the cabin and began settling in strait away.  We went up to Lido aft our usual meeting spot for the group and had lunch and visited.  I had a very nice bowl of fried vegetables, beef, angel hair noodles, and chicken from the Mongolian Grill, I was very pleased that I could eat one of my favorite Carnival dishes.  I purchased a ‘Bubbles’ soda package (~$50)  and enjoyed my first diet cokes in weeks.  The meet up turned into an extended happy hour with group members coming and going through the afternoon.  The diet cokes soon became Cuba Libres with the addition of Spiced Rum.  Since we have a late sail away some went into OSJ for liquor or other goodies for the cruise.  At 5:30 we went down to the lobby for a surprise entry of some Snoozemates that no on else in group knew were coming on the cruise. A successful surprise.  Since they had open seating tonight on the ship for all dining rooms we all ate at Rosies, the Lido deck buffet.  I had a very generous portion of the Tiger Shrimp with Sweet and Sour Sauce for dinner.  They had boat drill at 9:30 pm, our boat or muster station is G on deck 4.  The drill didn’t seem to be well attended, but was adequate for such a late time.  We enjoyed sail away from one of the aft wrap balconies on deck 8, the usual cabin area location for our group members.  Sail away was very nice, San Juan is very pretty at night.  After a long busy day we retired to the cabin although they were having a big sail away party on lido deck.  I did purchase a small internet package and was able to contact my source in St. Thomas late to make arrangements for the following day.

Day Two--Monday— St.Thomas, USVI
Snoozemates - Mountain Top - St. Thomas USVI
A short nights sleep, I was up late and then early this morning, but fair seas overnight.  I had some blog time very early then called my contact to confirm a jitney for today as soon as we docked at 7:00 am.  I then went up to Rosie’s for a buffet breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon. I had arranged a private tour using Islander Taxi.  Our driver was Conner and we had a nice jitney that held all 15 of us easily.  After leaving the dock area and Charolette Amaile our first stop was the popular Mountain Top lookout where we enjoyed the wonderful view and their famous Banana Daiquiris.  Next stop was Megan’s Bay beach for a relaxing 2 1/2 hours to enjoy the beautiful beach and have lunch.  The water and weather was fantastic.  Next stop is Utter Delights a local dairy that has a retail location selling specialty shakes, I had the Rum Raisin, very tasty. Next stop was Secret Harbor a very nice resort hotel with a small nice beach.  It was beginning to sprinkle rain so I only hit the water to test the beach area and headed to their very nice bar for one of their specialty drinks: a Key Lime Pie cocktail, very different and very good.  Our final stop was to be Duffy’s Love Shack, but since we ended up doing cocktails at Secret Harbor we just returned to the ship a bit early arriving back around 3:00 pm.  A very FUN tour.  After clean up and a shower we received our room service order: DW had a grilled cheese, I tried a BLT that I wasn’t able to eat, but enjoyed the Tuna Salad.  We had a very smooth sail away about 5:00 pm and shortly after I had a nice nap while DW had a salad from the buffet.  After my nice rest I went to my first dinner in the Washington Dining Room.  We have two nice tables with a good view of the restaurant area and MDR activities I ordered: Shrimp Cocktail, French Onion Soup, Braized Short Rib of Beef, and Strawberry Cheesecake dessert.  The feature show tonight was The Welcome Show @ 10:15 pm, but there were a lot of other activities that friends were doing including the Comedy Show and Casino.

Day Three--Tuesday--at Sea
Washington Dining Room - Carnival Valor
Calm seas overnight and I slept well.  Also each day I am getting more feeling in my lips and mouth too.  I ran into friends on the elevator on the way to the Washington dining room so they joined me for breakfast.  On our only sea day the Valor is basically offering the new Punchliner’s Brunch; however, they are not branding it as Punchliner’s and just calling it brunch.  I ordered my favorite from this menu:  the Steak & Eggs (it’s identical to Carne & Huevos) served with a grilled tomato, ranch potatoes & curly fires, a great vinegar dressing, and a bernaise sauce.  I added a side of bacon for a wonderful breakfast and it was very good.  After breakfast I went up to Lido deck aft bar to get a coke and soon was joined by a Snoozemate, then another, then another, and soon most were there and we were enjoying our traditional Bloody Mary happy hour.  This turned into a party and we were there several hours enjoying the great weather and company. Since this was the only sea day we had prearranged a 12:30 meet for lunch in the Washington dining room primarily so we could use our complementary cocktail vouchers. There were 12+ of us so we actually had the Captains table as it’s the largest in the MDR.  Having already had breakfast this also gave me the opportunity to get more of the ‘brunch’ items on the menu.  DW and I both ordered Cosmopolitans as our cocktails and for brunch I ordered the wonderful tomato soup, a very good pasta dish, and banana creme pie for dessert.  After lunch the group went to Veterans meet, Trivia, Casino, Lido deck, or afternoon Naps.  I tried the nap and DW did the salsa dance lessons.  A Fun day already.  Tonight is Elegant night and they delivered the Platinum h’orderves to the cabin and the Captain was available for photographs on Promenade deck.  We had a Fun combination Balcony Party and Birthday Party on deck 8 before dinner.  Most of the group dined in Scarlett’s Steakhouse, but I dined in the MDR.  Tonight I ordered: the Stuffed White Mushrooms, Spaghetti Carbonara, Prime Rib of Roast Beef, and Cherries Jubilee for dessert.  After dinner tonight’s production show was: Nightclub Express featuring the live Valor band, the Valor singers, the Valor dancers and hosted by CD Felipe and an animated couch. They have a nightclub theme and sing popular music or dance from the Cotton Club, Crazy Horse Saloon, Grand Ole Opry, Las Vegas, Copacabana, and more.  It was a very enjoyable show.

Day Four--Wednesday--Barbados
Happy Anniversary in Barbados!
Calm seas and good sleeping overnight.  I went to Rosie’s and had a nice omelette from the omelette station for breakfast.  We arrived in Bridgetown on schedule and we are the only cruise ship in port today.  We have an all day private group catamaran tour planned with Cool Runnings so the group met at 8:30am on deck three. We went down to the pier and met the transport as arranged and they took us to the Cool Runnings office at the city pier where we paid for the Day Lunch Cruise and boarded our cat for the day.  Our 15 made up about half of the passengers.  There is a nice bar with draft Banks beer, wine, and a good selection of rum drinks. Soon we were off and the first stop was a snorkel stop to swim with turtles in Carlisle Bay.  We moved further down the bay to snorkel over two sunken wrecks that were very interesting and there were numerous tropical fish.  I had taken my own snorkel mask and used their fins so it was easy to gear up.  The water was beautiful and clear.  Next we made sail and sailed up the west coast and anchored near Sandy Lane.  Here we were served an outstanding lunch:  green salad, macaroni salad, shepherd’s pie, bbq chicken, and flying fish.  We could also swim here and I was first in the water after lunch. Soon a turtle came up to check me out and kind of hung with me for a long while.  Soon others hit the water in order to see the turtles.  It was really better than our earlier turtle stop.  They crew was very generous with the drinks and even brought me a beer while in the water.
Drinking a Banks Beer with Turtles 
We sailed back down the coast to Bridgetown and as we approached the pier they had everyone up and dancing.  They also gave DW and I a half gallon of Mount Gay rum as an anniversary gift.  I really highly recommend Cool Runnings, they are a first class operation: crew in matching shirts, great food, great bar, friendly crew, and very nice boat.  We were bussed back to the ship about 3:00 pm and it was nap time for most including myself.  Tonights production show was Gravity Defying Comedy featuring comedic juggler Dana Tison.  The entertaining show in the Ivanhoe Theater was before dinner for late diners. I actually prefer the earlier scheduled shows.  Dinner was good.  I ordered a Shrimp Cocktail, the Tom Ka Gai Soup, Farfalle Pasta with Turkey, the Beef Stroganoff, and Tiramisu for dessert.  The Beef Stroganoff I didn’t care for, but the rest was good.  They did bring a dessert and sang “Happy Versery” to us at the end of dinner.  They had the Mega Deck Party on Lido deck this evening as well as a Mexican buffet.

Day Five--Thursday--St. Lucia
Saman Tree - Town Square - St. Lucia
I slept very well and since we had no plans for St. Lucia the goal was to sleep late, but I was up early enough to see us tie up to the pier and then watch the Adventure of the Seas sail into the beautiful natural harbor.  I was off to the Washington dining room for a nice MDR breakfast with my usual Eggs Benedict, Potatoes, Bacon, Mixed Fruit, and my Leche Caliente.  We did leave the ship about 9:30 for just over an hour just to see the big Saman tree in the town square and the old church.  They were very interesting, the church had (I believe) a painted mahogany ceiling and upper walls and the tree was perhaps the largest tree I have ever seen.  We then walked through the public market that had primarily souvenir and craft stalls before heading back to the ship.  After returning we took a nice dip in the aft, still adult only, pool that was a relief on this hot and humid tropical day. I had a nice lunch from the Mongolian Grill and relaxed on deck most of the afternoon.  The group had a nice aft balcony sail away party that lasted from the 5:00 pm sail away through sun down.  DW and I had our Valentines day ‘Kiss on the Lips’ apéritif before dinner.  This is the second scheduled cruise elegant evening although it’s black Hawaiian shirt night for the group.  Dinner was good, I ordered the Escargots, Eggplant (not good), Braised Basa Fillet of Fish, Chateaubriand, and the special Valentines Day Chocolate Dessert.  The production show this evening was Far From Over.  I had visited with Matt the feature singer earlier in the day in line at the Mongolian Grill and he said that tonights production show was one of the best in the fleet. He was right!  It was a very high energy show featuring music and dance from the 1980’s.  I thought the Pee Wee Herman bit was great.

Day Six--Friday--St. Kitts
Nevis from ShipWreck Bar - St. Kitts
Calm seas overnight and a good nights sleep.  I went to the MDR for a very nice breakfast before meeting friends for a mini island tour.  We hired a private van for four ($25 pp) and did an auto tour of Basseterre on the way to Romney Manor Gardens.  The gardens are beautiful with tropical plants & flowers, large palm fans, and a large Saman tree.  On the grounds is the Caribelle Batik Studio where they make various batik fabric items. I did get a batik fabric shirt.  Next stop is the Brimstone Hill National Park, a designated UNESCO Heritage Site.  This   is a huge fortress built on a volcanic peak over looking the Caribbean.  Built by the British it took 103 years to complete primarily using slave labor from the local sugar plantations.  A very interesting site with museum and fantastic views.  Final stop is the beach so we made our way to South Friars Bay where we met all our Snoozemate friends+ at the ShipWreck Bar.  There is a volcanic sand beach and the ShipWreck is a great beach bar with very good food.  I had some lightly fried plantains that were very good and perfect for me.  They have a local Caribe brewery on the island so that was the beer of the day.  We had to return to the ship a little earlier than sail away as the VIFP party was scheduled at 5:00 pm.  After cleaning up from the beach we met in the Ivanhoe Theater and set as a group in the area of our favorite cocktail servers.  They were very very generous with the drinks...I had the Funship Specials as it’s a good Carnival signature drink and easy as it’s already on the servers trays. They did recognize me and the other Diamond guest (and FB friend) and took a photo that they later delivered to the cabin.  Wanting to continue the party we all went to the hidden away Bronx Sports Bar, a beautiful bar replicating Yankee Stadium.  They serve Thirsty Frog here so that was a good change from the Funship Specials.  Just to mix it up at dinner tonight the girls sat at one table and the guys at another. I’m afraid we all may have been a bit rowdy after the afternoon of partying.  Dinner was good tonight, I ordered the Mushroom Soup and the Filet Mignon & Short Rib combination.  The beef dish is one of Carnival’s better meat dishes IMHO.  After dinner the gals (sisters) hit the One Small Step dance club (disco) and  the Dream Bar (casino) for some dancing and had a Fun evening.  The feature show was More Than Magic in the Ivanhoe Theater, but Snoozeman’s magic was disappearing to bed for the evening.

Day Seven--Saturday--St. Martin
Courthouse - Phillipsburg - St. Martin
Calm seas overnight and I slept in as long as possible this morning.  We were already docked next to the P&O Azure when I awoke.  I had breakfast in Rosie’s on Lido deck and we prepared for our final port call of the cruise.  The group was off on another adventure to Maho beach, but we planned a slower day. We went down to the nice port area skipped the water taxi ($7 pp) and walked into the downtown area.   Phillipsburg is right on a beautiful beach so there are beach facilities as well as tourist and city oriented businesses.  The water here is beautiful and the town is very clean and a good place to shop or have lunch.  We ran into friends and had lunch  and drinks at the Blue Bitch Bar, a very interesting place on the waterfront.  After some shopping we shared a taxi back to the ship about 2:30 pm and changed for our 4:00 tea time on the Bridge.  The two Diamond guests were invited to have a bridge tour and tea with Captain Bovo. It was nice and I really liked visiting with the Captain.  We had to leave the bridge as it was time to sail away at 5:00 pm, but our group had our final sail away party on the aft balconies.  Always fun.  Dinner tonight was very good, We had a special order of Spaghetti Carbonara and I also ordered the Panko Crusted Jumbo Shrimp, the Prime Rib, and Gran Mariner Souffle for dessert.  Final farewells to wait staff and friends as usual on the final night.  The Carnival Legends Show was the feature show this evening.  Also last chance for the comedy club and casino.

Old San Juan Cruise Terminal
We arrived back in San Juan about 6:00 am. My final Sail & Sign bill and refund check was under my door by 7:00 am.  I packed this morning and went to breakfast in the MDR, for a final Eggs Benedict breakfast.  We hoped to time a smooth transition off the ship and going to deck zero after the self debark and 1,2,3,4, & 5 tickets were called.  There are too many VIP’s now to make the VIP debark a smooth process so we try to time it so that you don’t meet in the VIP area, but attempt a smooth flow direct from cabin to pier.  We did and were off the ship in ten minutes. Nailed It!  Customs took a little longer but was smooth and soon we were at the taxi stand and on our way to the Sheraton Convention Center.  We were of course very early, but they put us on a list for an early room.  We went to the internet center and spent an hour, then to the very nice pool area on level four with a nice view of the city.  Soon they called me on my iPhone and we had a room just about noon.  The room is on the Club level and fantastic.  It was very large with great decor, big screen television, large bath area, fair view, great high speed Wifi, and more.  We decided to chill out and enjoy the room and not tour today.  About 2:30 we went to the lobby restaurant for a salad and a wonderful Cuban sandwich, it was both very good and the first sandwich I have been able to eat in more than three weeks.  I worked on this blog and more importantly was able to update all my computer software and iPhone applications  (50) during the day here.  This I had not done in months as I have limited bandwidth in Bosque county.  This hotel is not the most scenic location, but has five-star amenities and rooms.  We took a taxi to the airport early on Monday morning and arrived home about 3:00 pm Texas time.

Having spent so much cruising time on the new Carnival Magic and even newer Carnival Breeze sailing on the Carnival Valor is in a way stepping back in time in my cruising experience.  The Valor is a Conquest class ship that has yet to get the new Carnival 2.0 upgrade so there are a lot of features I certainly missed.  The itinerary from San Juan is very good, for me it’s a rare opportunity to sail the southern Caribbean. I liked the “Heroes’ theme of the ship and the unique architecture of the public rooms.

The crew as on all Carnival ships are very good.  I do believe the Guest Services Department was somewhat lacking in answering my queries though, but as soon as GS Manager Ari became involved it was straightened out immediately.  All the Bartenders and Bar Servers were very friendly.  The bar server Ionuts from Romania was fantastic, I hope to have him serve me again on a future cruise.  He never failed to bring me a diet coke at dinner or breakfast.

We had cabin 8427 a category 8C balcony on Empress deck aft, but nearer the elevators than our aft facing friends.  It had a double bed, standard Carnival 3-section closet unit, mini fridge bar, card slide-open safe, couch, table, and standard balcony.  Overall a nice cabin although there was more noise than usual or expected from above.  I believe it was too close to the automatic door between the lido aft pool and Rosie’s.  You could hear carts rolling through at odd hours.

As mentioned I had had oral surgery the week prior so that influenced my eating choices.  There were plenty of options from the standard MDR menus for me to choose from and even test my situation.  Lot’s more pasta and fish this week.  Carnival always has a good selections of soft desserts and I had all of them this week.

The Paris Hot Bar is beautiful and I hate seeing it wasted as a smoking lounge, I believe more could enjoy it if it didn’t have that heavy smell, but this is just my personal opinion, if it functions for them, fine.  The Barbados catamaran excursion by Cool Runnings was very special, the best shore/excursion day of the cruise although St. Thomas was very good too.  The best part of the week is the group of regular cruise friends who sail together twice a year.  Woo Hoo Snoozemates!

Another Fantastic Fun Cruise!!

FTTF = Fastest to the Fun, a service that allows you to board early for a fee.

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