Background: We've traveled widely with several cruises but mostly flights to resorts on land. We have fallen back in love with cruising with our Miracle cruise last Christmas since it is so easy and a great value. We chose the Carnival Fantasy for two simple reasons; it is based in our hometown and our cruise fare was roughly half of just what one plane ticket would cost to Jamaica. Given our experience, I think the Fantasy is a great option for anyone who lives anywhere in the Carolinas/Georgia and wants to avoid the hassles of flying and have a great time. We are already planning our next cruise on the Fantasy with some other couples who are ready to go.
Hotel/Charleston Info: We live about ten minutes from the port but if anyone has any questions about area hotels, I am happy to advise. Our area (Charleston, Mount Pleasant and surrounding areas) offers everything from some of the finest hotels in the world (Wentworth Mansion, The Sanctuary, Charleston Place among many) to some inexpensive, clean, safe convenient hotels in Mt Pleasant and elsewhere that may even let you park your car with them. Charleston is presently an extremely popular destination so you will find very high hotel prices on the peninsula but if you have the time and the cash, a night or two here before or after a cruise is a great experience. It is unlikely that you are going to be on a cruise that will take you to a better shopping destination than King Street in downtown Charleston. King Street was named along with Rodeo Drive and 5th Avenue as one of the best shopping streets in the Country.
Embarkation at Port of Charleston: We were amazed. This was the easiest, fastest, least stressful arrival/check-in/boarding process we've ever experienced on any cruise line. We arrived at the entrance to Main gate which is in the corner at Concord and Laurens St, where you will be directed, at about 1:00pm and were unpacking our bags in our cabin at 1:35. Every port employee were encountered (from Port Authority to Charleston Police to Carnival reps) seemed to be extremely nice and helpful. It was the exact opposite of our experience at Port Everglades last December where the port personnel were bitter and the Carnival Check in agents seemed confused and unhappy. Maybe it is just a southern thing. Our port facility in that area was not designed for passengers, it was built for cargo, and while it isn't presently much to look at, it sure is efficient. We will hopefully be getting a new Cruise Terminal within the next couple of years. It is in the works and it is a long story.
Ship Info/Stateroom: Although the Fantasy may lack some of the innovations of the newer, larger ships, most notably the giant screens that most ships now have on deck, it is in surprisingly good shape, particularly for its age (22 years). The only feature that the Miracle had that I missed on the Fantasy was the steakhouse.
The biggest surprise was the bathroom in our cabin. All of the bathrooms were gutted and redone in 2008 and it shows. They look great. Water pressure is weak but tolerable and the shower was larger than expected. We were expecting to be a little disappointed in the room since we had an Ocean Suite on the Miracle last December and were in a regular outside room on this ship but we were not. We are very glad we did not pay to upgrade to one of the limited number of suites on this ship. I will use the money we did not spend on a suite for the next Fantasy cruise. Despite its age, the ship was clean and no funky smells anywhere. Even the casino didn't smell too smoky. Mattresses and pillows rival those at expensive hotels, they are great. Elevators were not as plentiful or fast as those on the far newer Miracle but were in great condition.
I did use the gym, steam room and shower facilities just forward of the spa. The equipment is in good shape and the men's shower facilities look new.
Dining: If you can't find something you like, you are not trying. We are foodies and love Charleston's fine dining but we do not expect to experience fine dining on this kind of cruise at this price. The best food on this ship is that which is made to order, most notably the deli sandwiches and the Mongolian wok. I think the freshly sliced corned beef and swiss grilled on rye is the best food I had on board and they were as good, if not better, than you get at any good deli. Once you get the hang of choosing the best veggies and sauce to suit your taste, the Mongolian Wok dishes are truly excellent!
The soups are almost all good. It makes sense. It doesn't matter whether you are making soup for 2 or two-thousand. Fried shrimp for 2,000 is a different story. The biggest problem in the MDR is that the entrees are almost all served at room temp. It doesn't really surprise me or bother me, it is just a fact. Carnival definitely shines when it comes to soups and desserts. We did the Chef's Table (a good group and the head Chef is a great guy) and I now have the recipe for the melting cake and my teens expect me to make it over the holidays. The Grand Marnier Souffle served on the last night was a lot better than I expected, that is not an easy thing to prepare in large quantities.
The most common food related complaint I heard was about the bacon served during breakfast on the lido buffet. They bake their bacon to a translucent medium-rare. It is a mass production thing I guess. The little english style sausages made up for the limp medium rare bacon. The scrambled eggs are probably powdered so I just solved that problem by getting my eggs from the omelette man. The French toast was surprisingly very good as were the pastries.
Activities: Exactly what we expected.
The Cruise director Risa Barnes is wonderful and her assistants do a great job, particularly the Jamaican guy (Orlando) who looks a lot like Will Smith. We think it is great they have a charming southern woman as the CD on a ship that sails from South Carolina and has mostly southerners aboard. We talked with Risa a lot, she has never met a stranger. That woman can improvise on stage and she works all the time.
Service: Extremely good from start to finish(with one exception) from the port employees to the Cruise Director. Cabin steward was excellent, he kept our cabin clean and our cooler packed with ice. Bartenders and many of the people we encountered did an amazing job of remembering our names. Casino staff, especially manager David and host Alexandra were great. Nearly every time I walked up to a bar, a bartender would greet me immediately. I never waited for service. I had to use Guest Services to sort out a room matter at the very beginning of the cruise, they were great. The only time we were not extremely happy with the service were the last two dinners in the MDR. We had about 30-40 minutes pass between the wait staff removing our entree plate and anyone coming back for a dessert order. It appeared they were waiting for everyone in the entire section to get to the dessert course so they could take all of those orders at once. I thought Freddy Verwaal, the Sr. Maitre D', was great. Really professional.
Entertainment: The singers and dancers in the two main shows were very good, better than on our longer cruise last year. Piano guy "Larry" was excellent. The Philippine band (Music degree) are amazing at covering classic rock songs. They attracted a big following. The one comedian I saw, Merle Hobbs, was pretty good.
Port & Shore Excursions: We did not book any "Excursions" as we did our own thing. My main comments on these ports (Nassau and Freeport) are: 1)Nassau had too many ships in at once so re-boarding involved a port security checkpoint line that took about 40 minutes. Getting anywhere on the island is going to take a while because of extremely bad traffic gridlock. Freeport was a nice surprise. I was last in Freeport more than 18 years ago and Freeport has always had a "big plans gone bad" thing going. There have been so many developments planned for that area and nearly all have failed, most notably the proposed Billion dollar+ "Ginn Sur Mer" that was started in West End and bankrupted its developer. Freeport turned out to be our favorite stop. We were the only ship in Port, I don't think that more than two can dock at one time anyway. It was so easy off and on the ship. The little marketplace at the port was decent and Senor Frog's had quite the pre-departure party. We took the shuttle van ($10pp roundtrip) to the Grand Lucayan hotel, bought the grounds access band for $10 and enjoyed their pool area. It was worth that minimal price to have the nice loungers and umbrella. We got a conch salad from Billie Joe's on the beach and that place was great, I could spend the day at that rustic beach bar.
The Lucayan beach is in excellent shape and gorgeous. The Port Lucaya Marketplace has been around for about 25 years but looks good and it is easy to walk around and enjoy with a reasonable number of people, quite unlike the day before in Nassau. I saw several fellow Charleston passengers enjoying the $2 shots in the marketplace bar.
Disembarkation: Well coordinated and fast. I like the fact that Risa, the CD, was on the job coordinating with her walkie-talkie. It didn't seem like anyone waited in much of a line, the "silent debarkation" was great. We found our luggage in a minute and the line for Customs/Immigration took no time at all. The Customs guys in Charleston have realized I think that it is extremely unlikely that anyone from the Carnival Fantasy is smuggling anything. They ask you a quick "do you have any agricultural products or any liquor above your limit?", we said "no", he asked "did you have a nice time?" we said "yes" and he said have a nice day. Done, out and gone. Far more pleasant than any commercial airport experience.
Summary: Sailing from Charleston for residents of the Carolinas and Georgia makes for an easy cruise experience and the Fantasy, despite its age, has been maintained well. The ship's staff is superb and I cannot imagine encountering better crew on any cruise line at double or triple the price.
In short, we will definitely be sailing on the Fantasy out of Charleston again.