There's "Ship of Fools," ship of state, and ship of the desert. For us, Carnival Valor turned out to be "Ship of Surprises."
The theme of the ship's decor is "Heroes and Heroism," paying homage not just to Americans, but to heroes from the virtually every corner of the world. Nonetheless, Americana -- and America's heroes -- form the glue that unites the various rooms and public spaces. Passengers are first introduced to that theme as they board through Deck 3's atrium lobby.
One would think that America's colors, red, white and blue, would hand Carnival's interior designer Joe Farcus carte blanche to indulge in his favored bright, bold primary colors, splashing blindingly bright whites and eye-popping reds and blues throughout the ship. And there comes the first surprise. While you won't think you've strolled into the foyer of a Wall Street Bank when you board, this lobby is subdued for a Farcus design. Broad marble floors capitalize on an American flag motif, with alternating inlaid stripes of dark burnt orange (representing red) and pale gray (for white) abutting a navy blue rectangular field set with small pale gray squares (in lieu of stars). A small dance floor fronting the bar is fashioned from wavy stripes of inlaid burgundy and white-colored hardwood. And wood is used freely and copiously elsewhere in the ship, instead of brass for banisters and glass, mirrors and chrome for many wall surfaces.
To be sure, there is still plenty of Farcus bling in the details: All around the ship are gaudy molded gold leaf-gilded eagles on simulated pedestals; coffered ceilings of shiny, reflective materials; and enough blinking lights and flashing video screens to trigger a 1960's strobe light flashback.
Valor's architecture is a conventional sandwich with most public rooms on Decks 3 through 5, most fitness, spa and casual dining on Decks 9 and above, and most passenger cabins in between, or below the public room decks. This basic design has been a template for Carnival new-build construction since the introduction of Carnival Destiny in 1996 -- which is why we were so surprised to find Valor should be plagued by serious passenger flow problems, kinks that should have been ironed out years ago.
Simply stated, when you want to go from Point A (as in "Aft") to Point B (as in "Bow") on one of the three public room decks -- a necessity, for example to get to the Ivanhoe Lounge (the main showroom, all the way forward) after dinner in the Washington Dining Room (all the way aft) -- you will run into a blockade somewhere amidships that will force you to detour. On Deck 3 it's the galley; on Deck 4 you don't necessarily have to climb or descend a deck to get through, as long as you don't mind having to walk through a low-ceilinged oxygen-challenged cigar bar or wind your way through a busy dining room, snaking between tables while people are giving you dirty looks over their soup spoons. On Deck 5, you can make the trip, but only by passing through another of the ship's smokiest areas, "King Boulevard," the main promenade, which is squeezed between the casino, karaoke and live music lounges, disco, and piano and wine bars, all of which are smoking-permitted.
This was, for us, an area of surprise and a serious case of "What were they thinking?" The location of many public rooms, their size, or designated use seemed ill-conceived. Consider, for example, the Internet cafe, whose sole entrance is buried inside Winston's Cigar, the ship's lounge for cigar aficionados, forcing anyone who wants to use the ship's computers to wade through a miasma of stogie smoke. Fortunately, there is Wi-Fi available shipwide at the same rate as the cafe (40 to 75 cents per minute depending on packages) so it makes sense to bring a laptop.
The choice of placement and size for Winston's, itself, is another head-scratcher. This lounge -- a convivial, leather paean to Winston Churchill and British 1940's men's clubs -- stretches the entire width of the ship, and seats 147. We never counted more than six actually partaking of cigars, but that was enough to make passage through the room unpleasant. On the other hand, Bronx Bar, the ship's sports bar -- always a major attraction on Carnival vessels -- held only about a third as many as Winston's Cigar, and was always overflowing on days sports events were televised.
Of course, Carnival is mostly about fun, and, in addition to the musical entertainment provided in the lounges, the Shogun Club Casino does a bang up job with a slew of slots and just about every table game you've ever encountered. In addition, for those who want to get on the real poker (as opposed to Caribbean Stud, Let it Ride and their ilk) can indulge in a true Vegas poker room-style Texas Hold 'Em game at one corner of the casino.
Valor has four dining venues: the two main rooms, dubbed Lincoln and Washington; Rosie's, the huge, sprawling two-story Lido Deck restaurant (which doubles as a casual alternative dinner spot); and Scarlett's, the ship's for-fee upscale alternate nighttime eatery, an utterly charming supper club.
Rosie's is a bright and sunny spot that graphically pays tribute to that legendary icon of World War II America, Rosie the Riveter. There are several buffet lines, plus plenty of room to maneuver with your tray. But for the guest requiring assistance carrying their food to their table, it is limited in availability at best. Indoor seating is available on Lido Deck (Deck 9) and the mezzanine one deck above. Outdoor tables are plentiful around the central pool, or on the fantail surrounding the aft pool, which is topped by a closeable dome.
The two main dining rooms are virtually identical in decor, save that each carries different bas-relief plaques of its namesake president. The lower levels of these rooms stretch the entire width of the ship and are open in the middle, allowing those not along the outer walls a quieter, less claustrophobic dining experience. Of the two rooms we recommend Washington, specifically the upper level, which is less intense and seems relatively more intimate. However, we strongly suggest asking specifically not to be seated in the Lincoln upper level, for reasons mentioned earlier. Both dining rooms have numerous banquettes accommodating parties of four, and an adequate number of tables for as many as 10. It should also be noted that Valor has an unusually high percentage of tables for two.
Serving format is traditional, with two set dinner seatings at 6 and 8:15 p.m. Service, from a dining room staff that is becoming increasingly Eastern European in makeup, is friendly, patient, professional and refreshing.
Scarlett's, located on Deck 10 and isolated from the rest of the ship's nighttime hullabaloo, is an island of low-key quiet and refinement. The name refers to the headstrong Ms. O'Hara of Tara. We might question who, in that novel or movie, qualifies for Carnival's thematic sobriquet, "Hero," in the same way we might quibble about the elegance of using plasticized imitation marble columns meant to convey the decor of a genteel antebellum plantation. But given the superior quality of the service, food and wine list, frankly, we don't give a damn. Scarlett's is a true supper club, with a small combo that plays at a volume level that doesn't annihilate conversation, so on the dance floor, before dinner or between courses, it's possible to chat and cha cha at the same time.
But the biggest -- and most pleasant -- surprise for us about Scarlett's was the fact that the bar and dance floor are open to all passengers, even those not dining there. This was a godsend for a ship that has nary a single intimate lounge to enjoy a quiet pre-dinner cocktail or a late night tete-a-tete where you aren't pummeled by acoustic levels that would drive deadheads to order earplugs or cigarette smoke clouds so thick they created a new category of pollutant: third-hand smoke.
The menu at Scarlett's emulates the great prime meat houses like Smith and Wollensky or the Palm. There is a $30 per-person charge to dine here, plus optional gratuity. Reservations are required, but we found the room lightly booked. For those who want to play it safe, there is a signup desk in the lobby on embarkation day right at the end of the gangway. Dress code for Scarlett's is "upscale casual" (no jeans, shorts, T-shirts, etc.).
If we were to pick Valor's biggest surprise it would be the food itself. It was superior by orders of magnitude in variety, concept and execution from any Carnival ship's cuisine we'd experienced in the past. The only weak spot was breakfast, which lacked any innovative offerings in both Rosie's buffet and the sit-down Washington Dining Room. To be sure, all items were well-prepared: bacon and potato patties were crisp; pastries, though limited in variety, were fresh; and the chefs at the cook-to-order egg station at Rosie's managed to move the orders along efficiently.
Lunch at Rosie's includes the four buffet lines, but adds windows for Asian, pizza, deli, burger/hot dog grill and fish and chips.
As one would expect, the grill and pizza stations' quality corresponds to how busy they are. When they are slammed, the quality increases, as their output goes straight from grill or oven to plate; when the lunchtime rush is past, you are likely to find dishes that have spent the better part of their lives under heat lamps. The deli and Asian stations did an excellent job. The deli's sandwiches were piled high, and the corned beef and pastrami were high quality and heated to just the right temperature. The Asian window served a variety of palate-pleasing pan-Asian delicacies that changed daily. Spring rolls were crisp; vegetables nicely stir fried. Preparations -- and this is a compliment -- did not cater to Western tastes. Spicy, sour and pungent dishes were unabashedly what they purported to be.
But the real diamond in the rough for lunch at Rosie's was the upstairs fish and chips restaurant. Try this one early in the week, since most passengers fail to discover it for at least half the cruise, meaning no lines and no waiting. "Fish and chips" is a misnomer. They do serve fish and chips, the fish deliciously battered and fried (and French fries the freshest, most cooked-to-order found anywhere on the ship). But that's only one choice. They also have a very nice Bouillabaisse, seared rare tuna served atop a fresh square of watermelon, fried oyster sandwiches and a bunch of other seafood delicacies.
Dinners in the main dining rooms were inventive, made use of quality ingredients, and invariably arrived at the proper temperature. This was a cruise during which we had not a single meal we would deem a disappointment. Many menus had international accents, and there was frequent use of such trendy ingredients as feta cheese, caviar, rosehip, jicama, Yukon Gold potatoes and baby bok choy. Fusions proliferate, such as Seared Pike Perch on Minted Couscous with Artichoke Foo Yung in Crayfish Vermouth Jus. Each dinner menu included an arrangement of courses that qualified as a "spa" menu, and vegetarian selections for each course.
Most unusual are "degustation" entrees, offering a selection of numerous small portions of a variety of dishes. "Essence of Japan," which was served at the Captain's Welcome Dinner, included: Jumbo Shrimps in Filo; Salmon and Kelp Tempura Roll in Truffled Yuzu Sauce; Petite Filet Mignon with Wasabe Pepper Sauce; Bonito Crusted Green Beans; Poached Tofu Steak on Tosa Zu and Watercress Salad.
There is continental breakfast available during breakfast hours through room service, and there is a 24-hour typical cruise line menu of snacks, desserts and sandwiches. All room service is free of charge.
Also available on all of Carnival's ships is The Chef's Table dining experience, which affords a dozen passengers a multicourse dinner with a master chef, a private cocktail reception and a tour of the galley and its operations. This dining option usually takes place in a nontraditional venue, such as the galley or library, and it can be booked onboard at the information desk for a per-person cost of $75.
Carnival Valor's predominant color scheme continues throughout the passenger accommodations. The burnt orange color is carried by the carpeting and accented by the pastel orange upholstery. The reliance on wood as the major design accent is echoed as well. Cabinetry, end tables, moldings and other accents are natural-finished cherry. Sixty percent of standard outside cabins have balconies, though the verandahs are really too small for enjoying sunning or dining. (Ours had two reclining chairs and a small table, but there wasn't enough space to completely recline either of the chairs.) We found the amount of storage space available in both the bathroom and closets and drawers to be the most generous we've encountered on any other mass-market ship.
Each year Carnival ratchets up the in-cabin amenities, the newest addition since we last sailed being bathrobes. In the bathrooms -- all with stall showers except for suites -- there is a bowl of promotional samples, the sort that appear in your mailbox about the time Procter & Gamble launches a new product. Our selection included toothpaste, pain relievers, moisturizer and face cream, mouthwash, antacids, and disposable razors. Shampoo and body wash dispensers are in the shower stall. One nice inclusion in bathrooms was a swing-out magnifying makeup and shaving mirror.
Cabins include television with satellite feeds of the major networks, CNN and cable movies -- and a host of infomercial-style offerings hyping everything from onboard shops to casino, spa and shore excursions. There is also a channel devoted to re-broadcasting talks, activities or other events in the Ivanhoe Lounge. Interactive choices include onboard account review, and shore excursion descriptions and booking.
Each stateroom also has a safe and a minibar stocked with a good selection of beer, wine, water, juices, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages, as well as snacks. Cabin stewards check the fridge once or twice during the cruise and refill as needed.
Suites are slightly less than twice the size of standard cabins, and include the additional amenities of bathtubs and VCR's.
There are 18 family staterooms with floor-to-ceiling windows (so parents need not worry about Junior deciding to play "I am the king of the world!" while balancing on the balcony railing) located on Deck 11, one deck below the kids' pool area and Camp Carnival.
Prospective passengers should exercise care when booking to avoid surprises. Six Category 5A standard outside staterooms, for example, have portholes rather than windows. There are a few Category 6B outside cabins with obstructed views, and a good number of cabins with twin beds that can't be combined into a single king bed.
Carnival recommends $11.50 per person, per day. The guidelines allocate $5.80 to dining room services, $3.70 to cabin services and $2 per day for alternative services, which include kitchen, entertainment, guest services and other hotel staff members. The amount is automatically added to your shipboard account, but can be adjusted in either direction at the guest services desk. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar bills. Tipping for room service at delivery is expected (and appreciated) by the service staff.
|Fitness and Recreation|
A trait inherited from Carnival Destiny, the line's first 100,000-plus-ton ship, the open sunning area on Carnival Valor is maximized by structuring eight tiered plateaus from just above Deck 10 to the surface of Deck 9, creating an expanse of space to place chaises. (Not that it makes enough difference that there isn't still a problem with books and towels mysteriously appearing on lounges at 7 a.m., though no actual guests show up to use the chairs till after 11). As for adult pools, there are three: two on Deck 9, each with two whirlpool spas, and one, basically a splash pool at the end of the waterslide, on Deck 10. Kids have their own wading pool on Deck 12 right outside Camp Carnival.
Valor's spa is a Steiner franchise operation offering sauna, massage and salon services, as well as a fully equipped gym with loads of modern workout machines, free weights and a whole area devoted solely to spinning. The facility faces forward, offering dramatic views through picture windows. New offerings from the spa include tooth whitening and men's barbering.
Other fitness options include a jogging track on Deck 11 with nine circuits equaling a mile, and basketball and volleyball courts. There is a golf-driving cage, and instruction is offered through the ship's onboard golf program.
Every year, especially with the launch of new classes of vessel, Carnival's family programs and facilities are expanded.
Kids are broken into groups by age. There are three groups under the Camp Carnival banner, ranging from preschool to preteen (2 - 5, 6 - 8, and 9 - 11). There is an additional young teen group for 12- to 14-year-olds. A new program, Club O2, has been developed in conjunction with Coca-Cola for older teens (15- to 17-year-olds). Generally, the younger the group, the more their activities are conducted in the Camp Carnival playroom; the youngest ones are there for 90 percent of their supervised activities; the Club O2 kids' programs utilize the entire ship.
The playroom measures 4,200 square ft. and features a video wall displaying nonstop movies and cartoons, a soft play area for children under the age of 2 (admitted only for supervised nighttime group babysitting), and ample space and equipment for arts and crafts -- everything from the standbys of papier-mache and painting to devices that make spin and sand art and even candy. There is also a shift to more educational activities: a computer lab with educational games, SeaNotes (a music program), H2Ocean (science), and EduCruise (culture, history and geography of the Caribbean).
For preteens and teens there's the Caboose, an 1,800-square-ft. facility featuring a huge video arcade, a non-alcoholic bar and dance club with its own DJ. On port days there are "just for teens" shore excursions for the 12- through 17-year-olds.
Dining options in the formal dining rooms include the usual kids' menus and a daily kids' special. Kids can also dine nightly with the youth counselors sans parents in Rosie's.
Group babysitting is available nightly at a rate of $6 per hour for the first child and $4 per hour for each addition child from the same family.
Expect a largely American, high energy, casual group with a penchant for having fun. The demographics for Caribbean sailings tend to skew to the younger end of the scale. (Carnival estimates only 30 percent over 55.) Though Carnival's passengers tend to be fiercely loyal, because of low fares this is very much an entry-level cruise for many, so there is always a large number of first-timers.
Casual, casual, casual. Though blue jeans are now off the verboten list, shorts and t-shirts are still no-no's at dinner ... but that's about it. Even Scarlett's does not have a dress code beyond the nebulous "dressy casual."
There are two formal nights, and a larger percentage of passengers go to the dressier end of the scale: men in tuxedos, women in cocktail dresses and gowns.
On Carnival Valor sea days mean fun and games. There are the usual staples: bingo, horseracing, trivia and pool games. There's also a subset derived from popular television shows: "Survivor," "Family Feud" and "The Newlywed Game." For those who like to compete on a different level, there are the ubiquitous art auctions where passengers can butt heads to see who can snare the most objets d'art. The few lectures and seminars were really not-so-thinly disguised promotional presentations mounted by the boutiques or spa.
When in port, the ship mounts a very efficient shore excursion operation, though few of the offerings seemed unique. One exception was the "Rapid Explorer high-speed ferry to St. Barth's," offered in St. Maarten, allowing passengers who would rather spend their time in that less-visited, chichi port a way to get there in 40 minutes. It is also unique in that it is offered at a price through the shore excursion department which is lower than the price the operator lists on their brochure! Shore excursion personnel don't regularly accompany guests on excursions as they do on some ships, but ship's photographers often do.
Valor has a complete range of musical offerings from heavily classical to heavy metal. For those who enjoy spending their days soaking up rays around the pools, there is a requisite island band that plays from after lunch till just before dinner. A classical trio holds forth at tea in Winston's Cigar and before dinner in the lobby. Other choices on our sailing included a solo blues guitarist (who performed just outside the casino), a jazz trio performing nightly in Winston's Cigar, a rock band in the Paris Hot Jazz Club, and a pianist at the rotating piano in the center of the Lindy Hop Piano Bar. We found all these performers to be excellent at their craft.
The Eagles Show Lounge was home to a nightly round of karaoke, and the One Small Step dance club was disco-central late nights. It is in the decor and execution of theme in these lounges that the typically quirky, whimsical Farcus style emerges: Lindy Hop, commemorating Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight, has the piano bar sandwiched between three-dimensional models of the Empire State Building and Eiffel Tower on opposite walls; simulated stars twinkle in the black ceiling under which a model of the Spirit of St. Louis spins its propellers and an animated pathway of lights trace the route of flight. One Small Step pays tribute to Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon, with reproduction volcanoes that periodically belch clouds of mist, while planets and stars adorn the ceiling. The illuminated white marble floor is decorated with black "footprints," as are the tabletops.
Ivanhoe, the main show lounge, covers an expanse of three decks. We found a substantial number of seats less than desirable due to intervening columns or being under a claustrophobia-inducing balcony overhang. Seating is in banquettes with fixed small pedestals for drinks, or wide, theater-type seating in the balconies. The theme refers to the hero of Sir Walter Scott's medieval period novel, and is executed with faux tapestries and simulated wood beams. The proscenium is masked by a representation of a medieval castle, and fiberglass knights in armor line the walls. The whole thing is a bit kitschy, even for Joe Farcus.
The ship, however, does make good use of the room's capabilities, with two production shows (one for each formal night), a tribute to nightclubs around the world, and a review based on the music and trends of the 1980's. Other nights saw various variety acts: singers, comics, jugglers, etc.
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