**Warning** Really long review to follow!! Let me start chronologically to provide as much detail as possible:
We flew into Jacksonville the night before our cruise. BF booked a room at the Travelodge near the airport because it offered a complimentary shuttle, and a shuttle to the port as well (I think it was 8/pp, each way). Travelodge complex was HUMONGOUS, and didn't look as decrepit as other motels in its category. They offer a complimentary breakfast (that we didn't partake in), and is generally just a good option for a low-budget place to crash before a cruise. Travelodge instructed us to call them for a pick up at the airport once we landed. While checking in, we told the desk clerk that we'd also need a ride to the port. She told us the time that we should be ready by (11 a.m.), and sent us to our room.
For those of you who desire to bring your own bottled water/soft drinks onto the ship, there are a few local convenience stores to choose from. The one we went to was parallel to the office, and was separated from Travelodge by a fence. They had cases of bottled waters, and various Coke items to choose from. We grabbed two twelve-packs of Coke Zero. If you need water that smells like water, I HIGHLY SUGGEST that you pick up your case of water here, too.
We got ready and went to the main office to wait for the shuttle. The shuttle was one of those commuter-type vans. After the driver loaded our stuff, he proceeded to drive to Springhill Suites, and then another hotel I can't remember the name of, to pick up more guests. Only when we were at the security gate of the Jaxport cruise terminal were we told that we needed to bring a boarding pass ALONG with I.D. We already had ours, but some couple thought that they'd just print out their documents while at the terminal. PLEASE DO NOT DO THIS. You will just make the wait inside, and outside, even longer.
Got in and it was really painless. While there were long lines, it didn't take too long to get through. Getting through security was a breeze as well. Except, of course, for the guy who decided that he'd smuggle a bottle of liquor in his carry-on. Security: You're not supposed to have this. Him: But we're allowed a bottle of wine. Security: Yeah, but this isn't wine.
Had the fun pass so we were able to get to our cabins right away, so we dropped off our carry-ons and headed to the lido deck to find food. The only thing open at that time was the buffet on the deck which consisted of burgers, hotdogs, fries, etc. On the other side of the buffet was the Mongolian BBQ area. You stand in line, grab a bowl, and proceed to fill it with your choice of noodles, veggies, and protein (that the cook adds). On embarkation day, I saw beef, chicken, and shrimp on the menu; on another day, I saw beef, chicken, and salmon. You hand the cook your bowl, tell him which sauce you'd like added, and voila. Instant yumminess!
Your Time Dining:
We selected the Your Time Dining and while it was convenient, what I missed was having the same wait staff every night. As such, service was very hit-or-miss. Our first night, we had Marislova (sp?), and she was the best head waitress we had during the whole trip. That woman got things done right, and done quick. She was friendly, and efficient, and made the meal very pleasant.
Two other times, we received this one waitress who just looked P.O.'d the whole entire time. I don't want you serving my food if you're just going to scowl at me. I mean, who wants that? But whatever. Since we didn't see her much anyway, we just sucked it up.
We had dinner in the Sensation main dining room every night and it was pretty good. The first night, I ordered an Indian vegetarian dish (Carnival offers this option every night). It came out pretty flavorless and cold. On the formals night, we were offered lobster, prime rib, and other proteins I can't remember right now. Lobster was good. Ordered escargot and it was practically swimming in butter! That is one dish that I do NOT recommend anyone get. On the last night, we both ordered a sushi appetizer that came with a salmon tartar, one piece of tuna nigiri, and something else that I can't remember. Well! The rice that the sushi was made of was HARD and gross. I think they may have made them the night before and stuck them in the fridge overnight. Really, if they're going to serve sushi in the dining room and have time constraints, they should just stick to the raw stuff only (sashimi, tartar).
This is where it's at. The drinks here are good, and stiff. BF got a drink during a comedy show one night and that thing was so sweet that it was disgusting. Good thing we bought a bottle of whiskey through the Bon Voyage program, and had our own supplies as well. Point is, I shouldn't have to pour alcohol into my own alcoholic beverage. Yeah, sure, things get watered down to save costs, but if an $8 drink tastes like syrup, you can be sure that Carnival ain't gettin any more of my money!
Stateroom & Steward:
Oh, the stateroom, how do I choose thee? Well, since I'm a broke grad student, I chose to go the cheapest route and get the inside cabin, but when I found the porthole cabin for not much more, we "splurged" for that. Little did I know that for our anniversary, and a surprise to me proposal, BF had Carnival deck out the room. There was "Happy Anniversary" tinsel attached to the ceiling with magnets, a bouquet of flowers in a vase, a single-stemmed rose, and champagne along with a bottle of whiskey from Bon Voyage. Later on during the trip, he also surprised me with a plate of strawberries & chocolate, as well as a unbelievably large tray of canapes. It probably had around a hundred pieces. Next time, I think the smallest tray would suffice.
The stateroom itself was comfortable. We had our comfy bed made twice a day, room kept all spick and span, and our cooler filled with ice. Our room steward's name was Rommel, and he was GREAT!! He made some really cool towel animals, like a pair of swans, and for our last night, he made a heart. =/ I miss Rommel. We tipped him a $20 at the beginning of the trip, a few dollars here and there whenever he refilled our cooler, and $40 more at the end of the trip, in addition to the automatic gratuity tacked onto your bill.
Staying on the ship while in Freeport:
I didn't get off the boat because BF was going scuba diving and I have a fish phobia. How did I while away the hours all by my lonesome? Well, there were spa specials that I could have taken advantage of, go to the gym (which I opted for), or hang out by the pools and hot tubs and not have to fight with others for a spot. One thing that totally sucked was the lack of dining options. The main dining room is closed on port days, so all I had to choose from was lunch at the Lido deck, the buffet inside, or room service. Turns out, the indoor buffet closes during certain hours, so that was out. I didn't want to eat a hamburger, or a hotdog, and already had Mongolian earlier that day. My only option then was to order room service. I ordered a caesar salad, a grilled cheese sandwich, veggie sticks, and a BLT. The only thing that was edible were the veggie sticks. The caesar salad was covered in this mayonnaise-like dressing. The smell of anchovy was overpowering, and the lettuce was kind of soggy. That was a no-go. I moved onto the grilled cheese sandwich, and that was a disappointment as well. The sandwich was soggy, and cold. The BLT had WAY TOO MUCH MAYO. It was so bad that I peeled the bread off of my grilled cheese, and stuck my BLT fillings inside of it. Lunch was a total failure.
Sea days were a chance to catch up on shows, do a little duty free shopping, and stroll around to enjoy the view. There were always a lot of photographers on hand, and they're always asking if you'd like to take a picture. At first, we were hesitant, but once we got into it, it was kind of fun, actually. I was disappointed that I missed out on some really nice backdrops from earlier in the week. It doesn't cost anything to get your picture taken, and they even had a Wild West theme complete with costumes! Prices were exorbitant, however, but we did end up buying one photo we took on the formals night.
Sushi cart: BLAH. I was SO disappointed with the sushi here. I was on the Carnival Paradise a few years ago and their sushi was a lot better! The flavors were just off, and the quality was meh. This is one dining option that I would gladly pay for.
AKA Coconut Grove? What do they call that thing? Either way, we went there once near the end of our vacation and we did not set foot back in there again except to grab pizza or a sandwich in the other section of the room. The quality of the food wasn't all too good (that's to be expected, I guess). I read somewhere that someone called Carnival the "Wal-Mart" of cruises? Well, folks, this is where you will find those Wal-Mart frequenters. He noticed that many of the people there were overweight, or just plain obese. There was a girl who got reprimanded for not wearing shoes (safety reasons like potentially broken glass, he pointed out). WELL, 5 minutes later comes a full-grown woman without her shoes on. I mean, this MAY be your vacation, but there ARE other people on the ship. PLEASE use hand sanitizer everything you head to the buffet to prevent transmitting the dreaded norovirus, and PLEASE have all necessary footwear for health reasons, if anything!
Nassau: After having read countless reviews, articles, and sites on Carnival Fascination cruises, Bahamas excursions, and everything else our cruise-related, I decided that we NOT go the $100 Atlantis Beach Day Pass route, and to go to Sandals instead. Because I've always wanted to see Atlantis, we jumped into a shuttle to Atlantis for $4/pp, one way. Maybe it's because I didn't plunk down hundreds of dollars to indulge in its offerings, but I didn't find it impressive at all. It looks REALLY nice across the water, but once you get there, it's meh. From Atlantis, we got a cab and were driven to the Sandals resort. Sandals is a couples-only resort that, for $110 per person, will sell you a day pass so that you can experience all that Sandals had to offer. And boy, did it offer! I thought it had MUCH more bang for the buck than the Atlantis option I was considering. For $110, you got to use all their non-motorized sports stuff, eat AND drink all you want, and you also had the option of hopping onto a little ferry that takes you to their private island. The food was great (got to try conch for the first time), and while the drinks were stronger than Carnival's pool/lounge drinks, they weren't THAT strong, but that was all fine with me because I could drink as many as I wanted! The cab ride to Sandals from either the port or Atlantis should run you a total of $20 each way.
The best discounts are always on the booze and cigs--everything else can wait 'til the last day. If you CAN wait until the last day, you will find that many items in the gift shop on sale. I got a cute swimsuit cover-up for an extra %25 off. The jewelry store on deck sold stuff that I'd probably find at a wal-mart (or walmart online/sam's club). Gentlemen, if you're looking to propose, I suggest you buy the ring BEFORE you get on the ship.
We decided to go the leisurely route and chose the debarkation option where they grab your suitcases (which are to be parked in front of your room), and bring them onto dry land for you. After we had our last breakfast in the main dining room (which pretty much had the same options every morning), we went and sat in the lounge to wait for our group number to be called (had the fun pass so got to debark first--but after the VIPs, of course). Once our number was called, we took the elevator down to the gangway. THIS is where it got chaotic. Several elevators opened at once and people just cut in front of other people when there obviously was a line.
This was BF's first cruise, and he thoroughly enjoyed it. He was impressed by the quality of the shows (Divas & the comedy one with Just June), as well as the food in the main dining room. Carnival Fascination is a good choice if you're looking to just get away for a week and have some time away from work to relax. Even though we went during Spring Break, we weren't accosted by drunk frat boys/sorority girls. There was no puke to be found on the floors, and if there were, the staff cleaned things up RIGHT AWAY. The ship is exceptionally shiny and clean, and it's all thanks to the great crew that they have.
What makes me hesitant about booking another trip with Carnival is the industry-wide practice of paying extremely low wages to their crew. You can read a bit about that here: http://www.lipcon.com/news_archive/news_article3.php I can not, with a clear conscience, have a truly enjoyable vacation when I know that the makes around $1/hr, working over 80+ hours a week, and are just plain exploited. This is a problem that plagues not only Carnival, but other lines as well. For my next cruise, I will be sure to do my research and to find a ship that doesn't treat its staff so poorly.