For a non-cruiser like me, embarking on my first cruise is truly a travel milestone. Just the idea of sailing on what's basically a pimped-up floating hotel, unpacking once and yet seeing different places is totally new for me.
In our case, we had Carnival Valor as home for one whole week. Make that 8 days and 7 nights of pampering. Now I know why loads of North Americans (US and Canadians) prefer this kind of trip.
A day after flying into San Juan, we drove our car rental into Hertz' office at the Sheraton right in front of the pier. It was 12 noon. E-mail sent to me by Carnival indicated check-in start at 2:30 PM, or a full 8 hours before sailing time. But not really so. After depositing our pre-labeled bags to the porter (who asked for a tip), we found out check-in was already underway. The line was long but moving. Past airport-like security, we were up on the gangway, entering the ship just before 1 PM.
|On the Empress Deck|
At check-in, we were issued cards with our names on them. It's what Carnival calls "Sail & Sign Card" - it doesn't only serve as our boarding cards and keys to our staterooms, it's a way to charge anything and everything beyond what's included shipboard. Carnival and their ilk sure wants to make more money. This could be for purchases on shops, spa treatments, casino games, eating at fine dining restaurants or drinks at the bars. My mind wasn't set on doing any splurge - the cruise after all was a splurge already.
Upon entering the ship at Deck 3, our sights were immediately drawn by the main lobby called The American Atrium. Warmly welcoming us was a Pinoy security officer who checked our boarding passes and took our individual photos. There's a steady buzz in this cavernous lobby. Its theme about "heroes" and "patriotism" is echoed all over the Valor's 14 decks. Gaudy and splashy at times, almost like a marquee on Broadway. Since Carnival is all about fun, then perhaps the flashier the interiors are, the better it is. Built in 2004, the Valor got refurbished in 2011.
|The American Eagle as part of the theme|
|A bas-relief of Lincoln and Washington on the Atrium|
|The American Atrium|
|The American Atrium|
Our hunger brought us to Deck 9 - the Lido Deck - where "Rosie's Bistro" offered sumptuous lunch buffet in a very casual setting. With the exception of watered-down beverages, Carnival delivered well with making good first impressions on our palate. We were so stuffed. In the next 8 days, we will see people who just couldn't stop putting loads of food on their trays here - either they're so hungry after a day of shore excursions or just feel "it's part of what we paid for".
Besides Rosie's, the Valor also has food stations on the same deck. There's the Grill, the Pirate Pizza, the Burrito Bar, the Carnival Deli, the Mongolian Wok and an ice cream station. One deck up is the "Fish & Chips" station and the for-a-fee fine-dining "Scarlett's Steakhouse". A 24-hour free room service is also available. With so much variety available and fearful of gaining unwanted pounds after the trip, we merely limited ourselves to breakfast & lunch at Rosie's and skipped the quick bites offered at other food stations.
|Rosie's Bistro on Lido Deck|
|Buffet selection at Rosie's|
Proper sit-down dinner is either at the aft-located Washington or midship Lincoln dining rooms. Three options for dinner seatings were offered: early (6 PM), late (8:15 PM) and "your time" (5:45 PM-9:30 PM). We chose "early" so we didn't go to bed so full. There were two formal evenings where everyone was expected to look their best. A specific table was assigned to us at the "Washington" along with a trio of excellent wait staff: Charles (from Barbados), Viktoria (from Hungary) and Gilbert (from the Philippines).
Having dinner at the Washington is such a delightful gustatory experience I always look forward to it after a full day ashore. For added entertainment, certain wait staff even had their own Gangnam style dance number mid-meal. The menu has "everyday" and "today" choices for both starters and main courses (with healthy options thankfully). It was surprising to find something besides the usual: frog's legs, escargot, shark roll, alligator fritters! My mother could only look in mild horror as my sister and I gleefully tried them all. The dessert menu is another calorific story.
|Washington Dining Room|
|Lincoln Dining Room|
|Shark & Langoustino Fire Cracker Roll|
|Lobster Tail with Tiger Shrimps (dinner)|
|Banana Cream Pie|
There's this promenade area called "King Boulevard" (where the prevalent theme of American heroism reverberate) offering as much distraction from sea as anyone can get at land: late night comedy at "Eagles Lounge", booze and music at "Lindy Hop Piano Bar", dancing at "One Small Step Dance Club", a video arcade for gaming aficionados, teen hang-out at "Club O2", more booze and smoking at "Bronx Sports Bar" "Dream Bar" and "Jeanne's Wine Bar", casino games at "Shogun Club Casino" and of course, shops selling duty-free goods from alcohol to watches.
|Pinoy band in action at the King Promenade's "Dream Bar"|
|Jeanne's Wine Bar|
|Carnival Fun Shop|
|Carnival Fun Shop|
|Shogun Club Casino|
One deck below is another area where Carnival wants you to part with your money. The Photo Gallery is where they display all gangway photos of passengers at various ports of call, always posing with one crew member costumed to look like a pirate or Bob Marley. While we gamely posed for them everyday, we merely tossed our unwanted photos (costing $11 apiece) to a bin so provided. My memory cards have enough storage for me to take hundreds of photos of ourselves anyway, thank you.
Capping the night with free Broadway-esque entertainment at the Ivanhoe Theater was enough for us. For several evenings, Cruise Director Felipe (whose voice we always hear on the PA for the most part of the journey) will always remind us of what's coming up, never mind if the Valor's own newsletter with its wealth of activities info has been delivered to our stateroom. The shows offer a variety of musical extravaganzas, magic and one amazing juggler. Bravo to Carnival for keeping us entertained.
|Forrest Gump on the big screen|
More fun can be had on the Panorama Deck where sun-worshippers congregate. There are pools, jacuzzis and a twister waterslide. An adults only "Serenity" area on the highest deck insures no kids will be around to disrupt the peace (kids have their own "Camp Carnival" enclosure anyway). For the active set, the sport's deck offers volleyball and basketball courts, a jogging track and an 8-hole mini-golf. A huge screen above the pools has movie screenings at nights - if one still has time for it.
Staterooms vary as the budgets allow but this being our first, we decided on getting a balcony room. A warm destination such as the Caribbean is something we want to see from our room first thing in the morning as the ship slowly sails into port. Reading cruise forums gave me an idea: the best decks are always those where the suites are. In Valor's case, this was the Empress Deck. Only two balcony staterooms there were available when I booked this trip late in January this year.
|I'm afraid I'll get used to this|
As we stepped out of the room to explore Old San Juan more, our room steward appeared to introduce himself. An OFW from Bulacan, Troy is the epitome of a hardworking Pinoy crew. He'd clean our room twice daily, keeping it spick-and-span. Many times over I saw him and his Indonesian partner still working till 9 PM. When asked if he still has time to visit the ports of call, he could only say he'd rather take his time to rest. All ship crew have their own quarters way down on Deck 0.
|Diners at Rosie's are undaunted even as a crippled Carnival Dream is docked next to our ship at Sint Maarten|
Returning to ship later at 6 PM, we found Troy busy with his cart on the hallway smiling as always while greeting us with our names. Considering it's our first day onboard and he's got other staterooms under his care, it's amazing how Troy managed to remember our names. Such a gesture made us feel so welcome. Carnival may have been sailing lately on rough seas of bad news (after Carnival's Triumph, Elation and Dream suffered engine troubles) but truly, it is the Carnival crew that help make a cruise as memorable for first-timers like us as it is for repeat guests.
Promptly at 10:30 PM, the Carnival Valor pulls away from San Juan and into the inky darkness of a choppy Caribbean sea. A "Mega Sail Away Party" with blaring Latino music is underway on Lido Deck. The night has just begun. The night owls are all in a party mood. Let the fun times roll.