12 Things I Discovered ...
...during my Carnival Fantasy trip
By Susan J. Young
Travelers who are thinking of a southern vacation should check out a new year-round cruising option on Carnival Fantasy from Charleston, SC. We sailed on this 2,056-ship during a Carnival Cruise Lines press trip in June.
Along with about a dozen journalists from other publications, we sailed on the ship's shortest itinerary -- a five-night cruise to Nassau and Freeport in The Bahamas, with two days at sea.
For those seeking a longer time afloat, this ship also sails six- and seven-night voyages that, alternatively, include a combination of the ports mentioned above with Key West, FL; Half Moon Cay in The Bahamas; and Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos.
In 2011, the ship will also operate some Bermuda sailings.
Our goal for this short cruise was to gain first-hand knowledge for readers about the cruise experience on Carnival Fantasy.
We also wanted to learn more about the embarkation process and the cruise embarkation city. Charleston is clearly one of the most appealing East Coast locales for pre- and post-cruise stays.
Here are "15 Things We Discovered on our Carnival Fantasy Trip."
1. Older Doesn't Mean Tired
Carnival Fantasy launched in 1990, so it's not a new ship. That said, it received a multi-million dollar "Evolutions of Fun" renovation in late 2008.
Today, the ship still fields a fresh look from that renovation. Carpeting and soft goods appeared new or very neatly kept.
Our oceanview cabin featured the latest bedding perks such as comfortable pillows and duvets, Carnival's Comfort Bed and modern decor.
Public areas also sparkled. Yes, some features do "date" the ship a bit, such as thin bands of blue neon ringing the atrium.
But glitz is always prevalent on Carnival, even on its newest ships. And, besides that, we loved the marble staircase within the lobby (see photo at right*).
Red metallic trim within our oceanview stateroom was definitely dated, but we liked it. However, one blast from the past we didn't like was a plastic panel with a red tacky drawing, located beneath the new flat screen television.
But guests will enjoy many new features added in the 2008 drydock including a razzle-dazzle WaterWorks area with slides and water fun atop the ship.
The public area above -- which had previously sported a "space-themed" decor reflective of the period of the ship's construction-- was completely renovated in 2008 to field soothing, attractive Roman-styled decor (shown above*).
2. Bring on the First Timers
If you're new to cruising, this is a great ship. You can try out cruising for as little as $379 per person, based on double occupancy, for dates in early 2011.
Carnival Fantasy is also a decent sized ship at 70,000 tons. While not the largest or newest out there, by any means, it's still in very good shape.
We met many first time cruisers onboard. Many hadn't a clue about what cruising was all about or what to expect.
But one thing was clear. They were into fun and activity. The library on this ship (shown at left*) was one of the least frequented venues throughout our cruise.
On our cruise, we met many new cruisers from Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina.
It’s always interesting for those of us who have cruised a lot to experience the cruise and see the sights through the eyes of a first timer. Everything is new, everything is a wow. That's fun for all.
3. Carnival's Food Rocks
(One of the main dining rooms is shown above.*)
The cuisine on Carnival is very tasty and diverse. It's also great value for money, considering it's included in the affordable cruise fare.
Room service features a good selection of sandwiches as well as a nice continental breakfast. And it's free...
So are the dining choices in the Lido restaurant, comprised of various areas. The 24-hour pizzeria created mighty tasty pies.
You peruse the options, make a choice and they'll create a pie for you -- if they don't have hot slices of your selection already made. If no one is at the counter, just ding the counter bell.
I couldn't get enough of the Mongolian Grill, located just outside the entrance to the Lido buffet. Pick your veggies, pick your meat, pick your sauce, and presto, they whip up a great made-to-order wok entree that's incredibly tasty.
For those who are salivating for a burger fix, the outdoor grill has those with all the fixins including grilled mushrooms and grilled onions. It also serves chicken fingers and fries.
The main hot entrees in the Lido are found on two traditional serving lines. That means you have to get in a line and wait for everyone to grab a bunch of items before you even get to the main courses.
For example, at breakfast, people selected yogurt, milk, fruit, butter and many other items -- in a line moving incredibly slowly at times -- before they reached the hot entrees.
Scrambled eggs; bacon, sausage or Canadian bacon on different days; potatoes and grits were among the breakfast choices. Or, guests could head outside for made-to-order omelettes.
Charleston is a storied southern city and attracts a southern drive market crowd so it's not surprising grits are a breakfast staple.
The same antiquated process occurs at lunchtime. We hope that at some point, they can remove these lines and add real "stations" in this dining room. While the process isn't our favorite, the food itself exceeds expectations -- it's tasty and diverse.
For lunch, one buffet line offers American-style food all the time, while the other typically serves international sections. On Caribbean day, we savored the yummy shrimp and conch fritters. We also loved the Jerk Chicken.
The Lido is also open for casual dining in the evening. One night we enjoyed fried rice, coconut shrimp and freshly roasted turkey (the full bird with its glowingly crisp outer skin was magnificent to behold); my mother, a turkey afiscionado and a great cook, deemed it incredibly moist and delicious.
Given the ship's size, this Carnival ship doesn't have the space for the line's signature Steakhouse alternative restaurant that's a huge favorite on the line's newest ships.
Carnival Fantasy does have two main dining rooms, both elegant and colorful. We dined in a late seating within the Jubilee Dining Room. Our wait staff were very attentive.
Assigned seating is also available in the Celebration Dining Room, but that dining room also accommodates those who wish more flexible dining. Guests simply show up anytime between 5:45 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. for dinner.
Carnival told us that more tables of two and four have been added within this flexible-time dining area. So if guests want to dine as a couple or with their own family, and not sit with others, they don't have to.
The beauty of the dining situation is that guests may choose assigned dining or the dine anytime option.
As for the food in the dining room, we savored the lobster and salmon, our tablemates enjoyed the lamb and chateaubriand, and the vegetarian entrees were appealing even to non-vegetarians.
4. I Admit It: I Can't Go Back -- Balconies Rule!
This ship doesn't have many balconies -- only 54 in total. Those are all in suite accommodations.
The lack of a balcony in the typical outside stateroom is likely not an issue for many new cruisers. They'll have a great time onboard this ship with activities around every corner.
But for many experienced cruisers -- myself included -- a balcony has morphed into an essential element of the cruise experience.
(Carnival Fantasy is a very nice ship, although it has only 54 balcony accommodations in suites.*)
I love a private balcony for quiet relaxation, reading, dining al fresco, taking great photographs, watching a sunset or just going out in my "jammies" with a cup of coffee to enjoy the ship's scenic approach to an exotic port.
I had a very nice oceanview room on this sailing. Even so, I admit it... I'm spoiled. As most travel agents will tell you; once the client sails in a balcony cabin, they never want to go back to booking an inside cabin or even an oceanview.
As a reporter, I've been writing about that trend for many years. Now, I've experienced the phenomena first hand.
So, if you must have a balcony and don't want to pay for suite accommodations or none are available on the date you want to book, you might consider checking out Carnival's newer balcony-laden new ships sailing from such southern ports as Port Canaveral or Miami.
But if you're new to cruising, this is a great starter ship. It's also a good option for party animals. Guests who wish to spend every waking moment exploring the ship, participating in activities or dancing the night away often don't care about a balcony.
5. Fantasy Has Really Nice Bathrooms
Carnival Fantasy doesn't have the standard bathrooms found on newer Carnival ships. It's an older ship. And, in this case, that's actually better for you!
First, we liked the neutral coloring within the bathroom -- more soothing than the royal and aqua blue coloring found in bathrooms on many newer Carnival vessels.
Fixtures were modern. But most importantly, the shower compartment was much larger than those in standard oceanview or even balcony cabins on other newer Carnival ships.
Overall, the bathroom was a big plus. While we know a bathroom isn't the main reason to book any cabin, certainly, it's nice for guests to know that when they cruise they'll actually be able to turn around in the shower.
6. Educate First Timers about Time Matters
In the midst of the cruise -- during a Freeport shore trip -- one first time cruiser made what he felt was clearly a serious pronouncement. He didn't know my occupation as an editor/writer, but simply believed I was just another tourist.
"I’ve learned one thing on this ship," he said with a tone of incredulousness. "When they say a certain time they really mean it. This is not a vacation for time challenged people.”
While it's not a problem to spend as much time as you like in the Roman-styled lounge (shown above*), it is a problem if guests aren't back on board at the appointed sailing time.
Interestingly, I never really thought much about this or about how serious an issue this can be for new cruisers.
From an educational standpoint, it bears repeating -- and particularly for those of us who recommend cruising to those who have never done so.
Yes, cruise lines do run a tight ship. The ship almost always sails on time. Dinner, shows and just about everything on a ship run like clockwork.
It’s amazing really to think that lines can put two complete dinner seatings through their dining rooms every night -- with everyone ordering off the menu.
Surprisingly, on this cruise, the ship returned to the dock for a few wayward guests at one port. But that's extremely rare.
Yes, cruising also offers significant flexibility while you're onboard. You can do what you want, when you want -- but there are hard-and-fast deadlines for certain processes like assigned dining, embarkation and leaving a port of call.
Given our fellow guest's concerns and comments: Don't miss those deadlines or you'll miss the boat, so to speak.
7. Onboard Revenue Is Alive and Well
People absolutely love to spend money on vacation. From souvenirs to clothing, from photos to gifts for family members back home, vacationers love to collect stuff -- whether on land or at sea.
For that reason, the line's onboard revenue flow is clearly alive and well.
From the moment we stepped aboard Carnival Fantasy there were plenty of opportunities for guests to separate themselves from their wallets.
Restraint is required unless you want to spend more than the cruise itself.
Waiting in line at the purser's office (not far from the murals shown at left*) , a woman behind me said (on the first day of the cruise): “I’ve bought four drinks today and do you know how much that is already? We’re spending a fortune.”
Carnival is one line still offering art auctions -- enticing people into the bargaining arena by offering a complimentary glass of champagne. Gift shops sell everything from gold to tee-shirts, from watches to photo albums.
Deals abound, brought to you in your Fun Times daily program or in promotional hand-outs. You might enjoy a slots tournament or a specialty spa treatment.
It’s clear the lines have perfected the way to get guests to part with their funds, if not in the fare, then onboard and even ashore. But of course, it’s a guest choice.
8. Never Say "Been There, Done That"
Even if you’ve been to a port several times, never assume you've seen it all. You might be surprised, as I was with the tours available from Carnival Fantasy to Freeport in The Bahamas.
For example, the "Western Heritage" half-day tour explores sites along the western side of Grand Bahama Island.
Priced at $99 per person, this tour takes cruisers by small motorcoach to several interesting sites on a less trafficked route -- to places many frequent Freeport cruisers have never seen.
You'll stop at the island's restored Pinder's Point Lighthouse (see the photo above*); take a tropical nature walk through a Fern Gully (shown below*); and stop to peer down into "The Boiling Hole" (shown at left*) by the sea.
You'll also view several "settlements" -- very modest village areas often housing members of the same family.
At the end of the Western Heritage tour that encompasses the sites listed above, you'll also spend about two hours at a pristine beach area, where you might relax or snorkel.
Guests enjoy a guide-led 1.5-hour snorkeling trip out from the beach. The snorkelers swim around rocks and over a reef.
Snorkeling gear rental is included in the tour price. If you need a life jacket to feel comfortable, just ask.
While the snorkeling looked "easy," several snorkelers felt the current was quite strong. Snorkelers viewed many colorful fish and a huge manta ray.
If you don't want to snorkel, alternatively, the tour includes use of a beach lounge chair.
As it was very hot the day we visited, I opted to sit in the shade at the beach cafe and soak in the tropical aura; several others did the same.
This beach site is quiet, not crowded, has drinks and food for sale, and had clean restrooms during our visit. (Snorkelers are shown heading into the water, at right*)
The tour includes lunch -- such as conch fitters or a cheeseburger -- and a drink.
Our guide, Wellington, was fantastic; he was knowledgeable yet funny.
9. Leave Plenty of Time for Check-In at the Port of Charleston
Arrive early if you're sailing from Charleston and driving to the port. We arrived in the middle of the embarkation window -- about 2 p.m. -- and it was very busy. Translation? It was a bit crazed.
It took time to navigate the multi-step luggage off-load-and-park process -- and that was BEFORE we even made it inside the terminal.
Drivers are steered into make-shift lanes separated by weaving lines or orange stantions. At times, it was a bit difficult to ascertain exactly where the lanes were, despite an abundance of port staff waving us on.
You first stop at the documentation tent; have your passport and cruise documents ready for inspection.
Next, you motor through more stantions to a spot where porters unload your checked baggage.
It's a good idea to have your bags tagged in advance with tags provided by the line. It's also prudent to keep your hand carry luggage separate from checked luggage to be sure you have what you need when boarding.
Next, you motor through more lanes and around the port area to a car park area. After parking and retrieving hand carry luggage, you then board a shuttle bus to the terminal.
If you’re used to parking in a garage across the street from a cruise pier and then just walking a short distance to the terminal, this isn't that process. Be prepared for lines of cars, lots of weaving around the port and a multi-step process. .
Editor's Note: Charleston is a great city but this is the first year-round cruise operation from that port so infrastructure for drive passengers is not yet up to par with other East Coast cruise operations. People are quite nice, for sure, but the process for handling guests with handicapped plates or stickers was quite poor. We were sent to the same parking area as all other guests despite our wheelchair and handicapped sticker -- and after repeated questions to officers about handicapped assistance. There were more problems which we won't detail but the port needs to solve this issue quickly. One reader who has accessibility issues and uses oxygen also wrote us a few months ago to similarly complain about the port's lack of handicapped access assistance.
10. Gotta Grab a Group
If you're planning a vacation with a slew of people, all of whom like to do what they want, when they want, consider a cruise. It's the perfect multi-generational family or hobby-group vacation.
And with the affordability of the Carnival Fantasy's product, this is a good product for groups seeking value.
(Several guests are shown transiting decks in the photo at left*)
On the disembarkation day, we ate breakfast in the dining room, and it was heartwarming to watch aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and other family members from different parts of the world say "goodbye" and hug.
What a great vacation experience?!
And, I'd like to extend my personal thanks to the Carnival PR team who understand that the best way for reporters to cover a ship and its product is to let people experience the cruise based on the requirements of their publications.
They don't fill up every waking moment (as some other lines do) with special briefings and required events, many of which reporters attend out of obligation not because they can or will cover those features.
At times on other lines, I'm so exhausted from covering onboard scheduled events I'll never write about, that I don't get to experience the cruise and write about it the way our publications expect.
(The atrium area and how it opens up into the top deck is shown below.*)
Carnival PR people are absolutely the most professional in the business. They simply "get it" which is most appreciated from an editorial standpoint.
In turn, it improves coverage for the line as we get to see and do what's necessary for our own publications.
11. Shore Tours Give a Great Overview, but Repeat Visitors Might Explore on Foot
Nassau, one of the stops on the Carnival Fantasy’s itinerary, is one of those destinations – particularly if you’ve been there in the past -- that makes a good walking tour. Our senior contributing editor, Marcia Levin, did a walking tour story several years ago, which you may find useful.
From our perspective this year, we found good infrastructure in Nassau for touring if travelers opt to forego the cruise line shore trip and venture out on their own. (The walking route from the ship to the city is shown above.*)
Plenty of taxi cabs and horsedrawn carriages await outside the pier. Instead, though, we opted to walk around the downtown to view government and Colonial buildings.
We strolled by many jewelry and souvenir shops, a few museums, the temporary straw market (and the new Straw Market building under construction) and a mix of eateries. You might hike uphill to Fort Fincastle.
But we’d been here many times, so our destination was the British Colonial Hotel, recently restored in a $15 million renovation. I wanted to see what the old hotel was all about.
A lovely mural atop the lobby's staircase gives a snapshot of the destination’s history. Simply go behind the staircase on the lobby level to find an explanation about each section of painting.
If you go, also take a peek inside Bullion, an upscale yet comfortable bar with British Colonial and Art Deco decor.
Head outside to the garden for views of the pool and water area. We could view the Carnival Fantasy across the water.
If you’re not a guest of the hotel, you should not use the pool or beach area. No one, though, seemed to have a problem with us just walking around.
12. Carnival Makes Cruising Fun
Carnival makes one appreciate the simple things in life. I see that every time I sail on Carnival.
The experience embodies the smiles of guests having a good time (including a trip down the WaterWorks slide above*); the happiness of people who don’t know each other swaying, clapping and singing along with the dining room maitre d' to “That’s Amore"; and the unbridled enthusiasm of first time cruisers eager to explore sites ashore.
One big feature of any cruise is "sharing the cruise experience." For example, most of the audience on our cruise enjoyed the "Ticket to Ride" production show, which celebrated the music and eras of the Fab Four.
Yes, it moved slowly at a few points in the beginning and the dancers were average (although one adagio pair was quite skilled), but the singers were very good, the show was creatively designed, and the audience had fun sharing remembrances of a past musical era.
Toward the end of the show, Carnival handed out glowing green wands, and had the entire audience swaying and waving the wands skyward.
Yes, other lines do much of this too, but somehow I never forget I first learned to have fun at sea on Carnival.