Number of Cruises: 20+
Cruise Line: Carnival
Ship: Carnival Fascination
Sailing Date: January 7th, 2002
Itinerary: Western Caribbean
This 4 day Western Caribbean cruise aboard the Fascination was one of those short getaways that was designed as a short respite from the cold weather in Cleveland, Ohio. It was also a way for my daughter to unwind, and de-stress before she had to return to college. She loves cruising as much as I do, but something she enjoys even more, is introducing the cruise experience to friends. So, my daughter, her “cruise novice” friend, and I made our own air arrangements and flew to Fort Lauderdale two days early. We spent the first night in Ft. Lauderdale with relatives, and ate at an absolutely fantastic local Italian restaurant. On our second day we were driven to Miami and chose to stay at the Best Western Marina Park directly across the street from Bayside. The hotel was not 4 star, but it was highly secure, clean, and comfortable, had a small pool and the location was ideal. We also snagged a great rate! On Monday morning, the day of our cruise, we checked out of our hotel, and took a quick (less than 5 minutes) cab ride to the port (cost $5 + tip).
Embarkation was a breeze. We arrived at the pier about 11:30 am, gave a porter our luggage, and entered the terminal. There was absolutely no line and we were processed immediately. We proceeded to the gangway where we picked up our sail and sign card, and got in line to get our photo ID. It took about 15 minutes to get through that line. We were greeted, welcomed on board, and directed to our cabin by noon.
Cabin: We were on Empress deck, ocean view, cabin #182. We had paid for a category 6A and upgraded to a category 6D, but other than deck level, all cabins in this category are exactly the same. The location of the cabin was great for easy access to all public areas. The orange/red décor of the cabin was a bit too garish for my liking, but it was very good size and easily accommodated the three of us. The furnishings were sparse and institutional like, but functional. The beds were in a twin configuration, with a recessed berth in the ceiling for the third passenger. There was limited drawer space, but this was not a problem for us, as I was traveling with 2 teenagers who never unpacked the clothes from their suitcases, other than their formal wear. There was ample room for them to slide their suitcases under the bed, when not digging for clothes. There were 2 good size closet areas and open shelving. The bathroom was not large, but sufficient. It had a well- lit double mirror with cabinet, but absolutely no counter space. I became good friends with the shower curtain that had a tendency to cling to me. The water pressure and shower controls were excellent. There was no hair dryer in the cabin. The cabin had a safe that was activated by use of a credit card (Hint: As added security, bring an old expired credit card that can be used just for the safe). The TV had limited viewing choices, along with 3 different movies running at various times throughout the cruise. It was not interactive, however, so you are unable to monitor charges on your sail and sign card, or book excursions, as you are now able to do on many newer ships. The air conditioning unit was on the ceiling and had limited temperature control. Be aware that the person sleeping in the upper berth must enjoy cool temperatures for sleeping, or ask for extra blankets.
Public Areas: As the ship was built in 1994, there are places where it is beginning to show its age. The carpet in the halls is worn, and definitely needs to be replaced, but is still kept very clean. A six- story atrium, with lots of chrome and neon greet you as you enter the ship. The shops, purser’s desk, excursion desk, casino, library, photo gallery, and piano bar surround the atrium on various levels. Hollywood is the theme to the ships décor. As you walk down Hollywood Blvd. (the main venue on promenade deck to get from one end of the ship to the other) you will encounter a number of mannequins that are supposed to be replicas of stars. These are probably the worst examples of “art” I have ever seen. Not only are they tacky, and detract from the ambiance of the public rooms, but they utilize valuable seating space along banquettes, and on bar stools.
There are numerous bars and entertainment venues on the ship. “Bogey’s”, along Hollywood Blvd., is the internet café. It was open 24 hours and had numerous terminals. Although it was frequently busy, there always seemed to be a terminal open for use. I found the “Club 88 Piano Bar” pleasant, but very quiet. The pianist/singer was excellent, but did not play music that was conducive for the audience to join in and sing along. The “Beverly Hills Bar” at one end of Hollywood Blvd. had numerous chairs and couches placed in separate conversational arrangement, but I never saw more than 4 or 5 people in there. This also served as the cigar bar and martini bar for the ship. The “Stars Bar” outside the casino was a popular place to congregate. A very good light jazz combo, and a fun trio performed there daily, which kept things lively. The “Passage to India” Lounge was where you would go to Karaoke. You entered the lounge through heavy doors guarded by huge elephants and entered a room that was much too overdone. “Diamonds are Forever” was the disco. It was definitely the place you would find the 18-25 year old crowd. My daughter and friend rated it a 5 on a scale of 1-10 for atmosphere and design, but gave the DJ an 8. There were 3 other bars around the pool areas that catered to the sun crowd (like me). At the pool, a calypso band entertained most of the afternoon. As a side note, I think this is one example of how Carnival is attempting to change and refine their party image. The music played at the pool was very laid back and mellow, not the kind of band that would play “Hot! Hot! Hot!”, “The Dollar Dance”, etc. Even the pool games that I remember from previous Carnival cruises have changed. Gone are the games that center around beer guzzling, and sexual innuendo. They have been replaced by friendly family activities. “Puttin’ on the Ritz” is the large show lounge where big band music, dance music, and comedians performed. Acoustics in this room were exceptionally good, as were site lines for any shows. The main theatre was the two tiered “Palace Lounge”. At first glance this appeared to be a great theatre, with large circular sofas and conversational areas, as well as traditional theatre seating. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Site lines on the second level were very poor. The sofas were very comfortable, but too low to see the stage well. The first two rows on each side of the main stage were also not good seats, as the large speakers on the stage floor blocked your view of much of the stage. The 2 production shows were both excellent, however, as was the comedian Tim Harkleroad. His family- friendly show in the main theatre, was better, however, than his x-rated, midnight show.
“Tara” is the library and appeared to have a nice selection of books. Don’t take my word for it, however, since I briefly poked my head in just to look around, as I had brought my own reading material. Its location, surrounding the Grand Atrium, on the same level as the galleria shops, did not give it the quiet, comfy ambiance that I find most appealing in a library.
The casino was large and tucked along Hollywood Blvd. My daughter and her friend spent time at the blackjack tables and the slots before heading to the disco each evening, and actually did quite well. It is interesting that on Carnival ships they impose the 21 drinking age, but allow 18 year olds to gamble. That is another area in which I see Carnival working hard to revise their image. The minimum drinking age was strictly enforced. Although I am sure that, if they wanted, those under 21 found ways to circumvent the rules, Carnival employees did their best to uphold the policy.
There was one large pool with a waterslide, and 2 hot tubs on the open pool deck. Deck chairs could also be found surrounding the main pool on verandah deck. The main pool area got very crowded by noon, and chairs in this area could be hard to come by. There was a separate children’s playroom and pool area. Speaking of the children’s pool, that is a great place to sun if it is a bit windy on deck. It is well- protected and felt about 10 degrees warmer than on the open pool deck when the wind picked up. Our cruise had very few children on board, so it was actually very quiet there. Very few people had discovered this secret, at least on my cruise, as there were only about 10 of us out there, and it was a fully booked cruise.
The fitness center rounds out the public areas. It was fairly large with about 35 different machines. I cannot tell you about the quality, or kind, as this is not my area of expertise. I do know there were 6 treadmill machines that faced out over the ocean, and a separate 1/8 mile jogging track. I did enjoy my mile walk each morning, however, followed by a relaxing hot tub in the spa Jacuzzi (It was just the right temperature, and not at all crowded). I went out about 7:00 am, before the group scheduled Body Walk, then, enjoyed the Jacuzzi before the 8:00 am step class arrived for a workout. It was a wonderful way to enjoy some quiet time by myself.
Dining: This is an area in which I feel Carnival has truly improved. We were assigned late seating in the Imagination Dining room, and I was very pleased with the food and service. The 3 of us sat at a booth for 6. Our tablemates could not have been more compatible, as we were joined by a father and his 2 teenage daughters (19, and 18). As it turned out, all of the teenagers were picky eaters, but the waiter did his best to keep them happy. After the first night he brought slices of pizza to the table along with our bread, just in case. I thought the food was beautifully presented, tasty and offered a nice variety. They were quite accommodating about bringing more than one selection from the menu, for us to sample. We enjoyed both prime rib and lobster one night, and then offered seconds. I chose the coquille St. Jacques one night and it was excellent. The desserts, however, were unimaginative, and not exceptionally flavorful. Of course, that may have been a good thing, since it kept me from overeating. In addition, to 2 main dining rooms, there was alternative casual dining at the Seaview Bistro and Coconut Bar & Grill. Breakfast and lunch buffets at Coconuts were the typical fare, served in the typical lukewarm fashion. The exception at breakfast was omelets that were cooked to order, and some very good French toast. A pasta special of the day was prepared right at the serving station and offered a pleasant alternative to the standard fare. Burgers and hot dogs were also a daily staple for lunch and were pretty good, by teenage standards. The 24 hour pizzeria was also an option, and my daughter’s favorite.
Ports of Call: Our first stop was KEY WEST. This was a short stop as we arrived about 8:00 am and had to be back on board by 1:30 pm. The Fascination docked at the closed US Naval Base on the edge of town, and as we were not allowed to walk through the base, trolleys took us directly into town. We arrived in Key West the day they experienced record - breaking low temperatures, so we revised our original plans for the day. We took the trolley tour of Key West and is actually a tour I would highly recommend for a first visit. It’s a great way to get your bearings and for seeing the sites. It is just as easy to do this on your own, as to pay the extra money for the same excursion offered by the cruise line. What is nice about the trolley tour is that it offers 9 stops from which you may disembark and then rejoin the tour on another trolley. They run a continuous circular route with pick -ups approximately every half hour. After the tour we did some mandatory shopping, ate lunch at a great little restaurant (recommended by a local for a non-touristy experience), and grabbed a trolley back to the ship. By the way, the restaurant served excellent seafood, and had a unique selection of entrees. If you want to know more about this great find, e-mail me and I will be happy to give you more details.
Our second stop was COZUMEL. By now, we had left the cold temperatures of Key West behind and were basking in sunny 78 degree weather. We arrived in Cozumel earlier than scheduled, so we were on our way to the beach by 11:00 am. Our first stop was Playa Sol Beach Club. My daughter and her friend had checked this out on the web before we left home, and were anxious to try the water trampolines and climbing iceberg slide. Although this is an excursion offered from the cruise line, we again chose to do this on our own. The cab ride was $12 and we paid $6 at the gate for the basic package, which did not include lunch or drinks. It was a nice beach with plenty of chaises, a pool, kayaks, and rafts. We had arrived early enough to enjoy ourselves for about 2 ½ hours, before the party boat descended on the beach. It became crowded very quickly, which was our cue to leave. Since it was still early we stopped at San Francisco Beach on the way back to the ship (cost $2).
It was a very nice beach and much less crowded. Apparently it had been closed for a while because there were big banners announcing that it was open again. As a side note about Cozumel, be careful when snorkeling. Although my experiences have been wonderful (some of the best snorkeling I have done), all 3 times my daughter has snorkeled in Cozumel she has been attacked by tiny jellyfish. This is not uncommon in these waters, so just be cautious. We headed back to the ship about 4:30, cleaned up and took a $5 cab ride into town for some souvenir shopping and our obligatory stop at Carlos ’n Charlies. Carlos ’n Charlies has just recently moved to a new location on the strip - Carlos ’n Charlies is downstairs and Senor Frogs is located upstairs in the same building. Since our ship did not set sail until 11:00 pm, we had plenty of time to enjoy ourselves. Personally, I think the old location was more suited for the craziness they are so well known for, and lent more of a Mexican flavor to the experience. The new location reminds me of a TGI Fridays.
Debarkation: Other than needing to be out of our cabin by 8:00 am, the morning was stress free. An early and late seating breakfast was served in the dining rooms, as well as a buffet at Coconuts. We chose to eat in the dining room (8:00 am/late seating), where service was efficient, but not at all rushed. We then proceeded to the pool area where we waited for our color luggage tags to be called for debarkation. As we had flights leaving from Ft. Lauderdale, we were in the first group to leave the ship, at 9:15 am. Finding our luggage, and going through customs was quick and painless. By 9:40 a Carnival transportation bus was whisking us off to the airport.
Overall Experience: I would not rate this as my favorite cruise, or ship, but it was certainly great fun and an overall good value for the money. For a short cruise, it exceeded my expectations. The staff was friendly and accommodating, especially in the dining room. Although I did not have “white glove” treatment, the cruise staff made me feel welcome and comfortable. As I have already stated, I think Carnival is working hard to improve their product and their image. If I could make one suggestion for improving my experience it would be to revise the lifeboat drill. I know this is mandatory, but it would be nice if Carnival took the lead from other cruise lines and conducted this drill BEFORE we leave port. No matter how often I cruise, being out on deck, watching us slowly sail out of the Miami Port, with a calypso band playing in the background, and South Beach as a visual backdrop still gives me a rush. Instead we were stuck inside one of the lounges, wearing life jackets and herded off to our muster stations.