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Cruise Ship Review

Carnival Valor - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

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.

Public Rooms

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.

Cabins

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.

Entertainment

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.

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.

Family

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.

Fellow Passengers

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.

Dress Code

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.

Gratuity

$10 per person per day is automatically charged to guests' shipboard accounts. This amount can be adjusted either by requesting the purser to do so, or by augmenting the automatic charge with a little extra cash in an envelope. Maitre d's are not included in the $10 daily charge. An automatic gratuity of 15 percent is added to drink orders.

--By Steve Faber. South Florida-based Faber is a longtime contributor to Cruise Critic. Beyond Cruise Critic, Faber's work has appeared in a myriad of outlets including Cruise Travel Magazine, "The Miami Herald" and "The Total Traveler Guide to Worldwide Cruising."

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