Remember when you were back in school and you wanted to go to the school dance because you didn't want to stay at home, but at the same time, you really didn't want to go with the date you had?
Admittedly, a cruise on Carnival's Fantasy was not our first choice for Spring Break. Previously-made plans evaporated with less than a month to go. We immediately noticed the Fantasy's perfect departure schedule and easy access in Charleston, South Carolina. But we spent a week investigating cruise options from Florida ports. More appealing ships and itineraries (along with better values) were plentiful but grossly expensive last-minute airfare forced us to choose the Fantasy.
The biggest pre-cruise concern about us taking any cruise was the fact that eight months earlier, our family (parents and two boys ages 8 and 12) had taken the "perfect" cruise aboard Holland America's Nieuw Amsterdam to the Mediterranean. We were worried that any cruise would be disappointing in comparison.
No one can argue, Carnival has a reputation for offering a certain kind of vacation experience and tends to attract a clientele looking for "Fun" times. As much as Carnival may try, it's impossible to be everything to everyone. Different people have different ideas about what constitutes "fun."
Our previous Carnival experiences ran the spectrum. One eight-day cruise was fantastic in every way. The other seven day cruise reminded us why Baskin-Robbins has 31-flavors; some people prefer chocolate, some people prefer vanilla and others prefer butter pecan. Thankfully, there are several different flavored cruise lines to choose from.
With that said, any cruise is better than no cruise at all.
The Fantasy's homeport is Charleston, South Carolina. Getting on the ship was easy and quick. Previous passengers had posted notes on cruisecritic.com that security in Charleston was tight. We carried a 12-pack of soft drinks with us. Security opened both ends of the box and inspected every can before allowing us to board.
The Fantasy is Carnival's oldest and smallest ship. I'm told an extensive renovation took place two years ago. By appearances, the renovation looked like it happened two weeks ago. The ship is clean, modern and attractive. The carpet looked brand new and did not show any wear. You could have blind-folded me and put me on that ship and I would have sworn it was a new build... except for the atrium which still sports the original molded plastic futuristic space-age design (think the 70's inspired look of Disney's Space Mountain).
The Lido restaurant sports wood mixed with chrome and fabrics of blues and grays. Two buffet lines are supplemented with pizza, deli sandwich, salad and dessert food stations. Soft serve ice cream machines are scattered in several different places and are available 24-hours a day (no toppings).
A "Roman Street" connects the main dining rooms with several bars, disco venues, casino, shops, a coffee bar, a sushi bar and the Space Mountain plastic atrium.
Honestly, the food was impressive. The quality ranged from quite good to absolutely fantastic. Compared to other cruise lines, there seemed to be less variety, but what was offered was well prepared. A true test of a mass producing kitchen is always the fish. We sampled the fish at every lunch and dinner, and in every case, the fish was fresh, flaky and in several instances, was off-the-charts excellent. Carnival does pizza well (much better than Holland America's). Desserts were tasty but lacked variety. For example, the dinner dessert menu stayed almost the same every night with only one changing option (a diet sponge cake, sherbets and ice cream were offered each night). The Chocolate Melting Cake was delicious (we had it three different nights).
We have a meal-time game on family vacations. The goal is "how long can we go without our kids ordering chicken fingers and fries". Our boys ate from the adult menus and enjoyed pasta dishes, lamb, duck, Asian, shark, frog legs, alligator. A side of macaroni and cheese came with one of the entrees one night that was incredible. We later found that it was offered at the Lido Pool food station for lunches and we couldn't resist another helping.
Some food tricks we learned during the course of our cruise: The homeport is Charleston, South Carolina, a southern port, so grits are served every morning for breakfast. We added cheese slices from the continental breakfast line and mixed in cut up sausage. Warm fruit compotes and hot syrup are available for pancakes and waffles at the outdoor Lido food station. At lunch, warm nachos are available at the grill side of the Lido outdoor food station. Grab some nachos, some melted cheese sauce, salsa and sour cream, and then go inside to the salad bar to add lettuce and other items for a taco salad. The other side of the outdoor food station is a Mongolian Wok where guests pick which meats, vegetables, noodles and sauces they want in their stir fry.
A big gold star goes to Carnival for providing decent sized drinking cups in the Lido. On other cruises, the Lido drinks are served in smaller juice-size cups so everyone ends up grabbing two at a time.
Experienced cruisers will find plenty to like, and even love, with the food on Fantasy but should set temper their expectations in a few related areas.
We found there is less customization that's easily available. For example, we ate in the dining room for lunch one day and they offered guacamole on the menu (I guess to go on the burgers). We asked if it was possible to have a serving of guacamole alone with some nacho chips (remember, nacho chips are available directly above our heads on the Lido deck but the daily nacho bar does not offer guacamole). We were told nachos are only available on the Lido deck. We also asked if it was possible to have a small dish of raspberries (raspberries were being served on a dessert I might add). The waiter explained that special requests had to be made 24-hours in advance.
Our intention was not to be difficult. I didn't think raspberries would be difficult to prepare since there would be no cutting or cooking. This was lunch when the dining room was not busy and there was a very limited menu (we ordered a salad and burgers).
Experienced cruisers might also be surprised at the limited options on the salad bar. The same two types of melon were offered everyday (no pineapple, mangos or watermelon). We saw the same two sandwich ham and turkey deli slices (not cubed or shredded for a salad) with no variety of other meats like chicken, tuna or small shrimp. If there was any shredded cheese, goat cheese or buffalo mozzarella, then I missed it. Nor did I see any roasted vegetables, cold seafood salad or walnuts.
Deli sandwiches were pre-made and ready to be toasted instead of the "build-your-own" option.
Of course, none of this should not stop anyone from enjoying the cruise. But experienced cruisers may notice.
Outside on deck, the main pool was festive and packed with kids on spring break. Two hot tubs (one for adults only) were always full. A large chess set was under a shelter. The water slides were one deck up at the back of the ship and provided fun for kids and adults. A small and quiet adult-only area (serenity) was also located at the back of the ship a couple of decks down. It offered plush lounge chairs and two hot tubs. We didn't spend any time there because it seemed full.
This was a Spring Break cruise and the ship was packed. On the first sea day, every single inch of deck space was taken. People rolled out towels on the ground and even sat on the artificial grass on the sports deck where the putt-putt course is located. I imagine there would not be any space problems on any other week. Complimentary putt-putt, ping pong and board games were a hit. We saw all used constantly.
Before I go any further --- yes, there was the infamous hairy chest contest. We give one gentleman credit for bowing out when the staff explained that the contestants had to allow themselves be pawed and touched by other passengers. And while we are on that subject, let me kindly say the display of body shapes and tattoos would be enough to put Joan Rivers in her grave.
Music can help set the mood to any event. On deck and in the atrium, recorded music was played at a high volume. It's not so much the music selections that bothered us, it was the LOUDNESS. We did not see any live musicians or steel drum bands playing on deck. A live guitar player stood on a stage behind the atrium bar inside and again, the volume was high.
We enjoyed the two production shows (The Brits and Motown) in the Showroom. The small cast of seven did a nice job. However, the shows were void of extravagant sets and gee-whiz special effects (no show will ever beat Cantare' on several Holland America ships--a production show that appeals to young and old). We were disappointed that during our five night cruise, there was no headline entertainment in the show lounge for three of the nights. There was a comedian in the smaller lounge and cruise staff-hosted entertainment, but no "headliner."
Because we booked this cruise so late, we didn't have many cabin options to choose from. The Fantasy only has a handful of balcony cabins to begin with. We found ourselves split between two inside cabins (U36/U40). While they couldn't be described as "roomy," they were absolutely fine.
They did lack a true sofa area for seating. Instead the interior cabins had a small wooden kitchen-table sized chair. The bathroom was the same size we've had on many other cruise ships with a shower. Based on peeks in other cabins as we were getting off the ship, most of the "outside" cabins appeared to be the same size except they of course had real windows.
Our cabin steward, Muhammad, was probably the happiest and friendliest guy that I've ever met in my entire life. If I could bottle up his attitude and sell it, I would be rich. He had more than two dozen cabins assigned to him and he knew everybody's name immediately! Again, the carpet in the cabins and hallways looked brand new and the beds were in excellent condition. Nothing looked worn or "used," not even the interior of the closets.
Another standout employee to us was our dinner waiter Michael. The Fantasy offers both traditional (Jubilee Dining Room) and anytime dining (Celebration Dining Room). We were automatically assigned anytime dining when we booked. The first night, we walked right into the dining room and were seated in Michael's section. He was perfect. He exuded the highest professionalism while at the same time not being stuffy. As we left, we asked Anita, the Hostess at the podium, if it would be possible to make reservations for 6:30 each night and be seated in Michael's station. She nicely explained that reservations are not possible on Carnival (we had made reservations during anytime dining on Holland America just a few months prior). I told her I was disappointed because Michael was so good. She told me to come back to her the next night at 6:30 and "it would not be a problem." The next night at 6:30, there was a huge line to get into the dining room. After waiting a few minutes, I made my way up to the podium and asked Anita if she thought it would still be possible to sit in Michael's section. She quickly said in her sophisticated Croatian accent, "yes, I remember. Give me a few minutes," and handed me a pager. In less than ten minutes, we were seated with Michael. This procedure worked four out of the five nights. Anita tried her best to accommodate our wishes.
They told us in the dining room that they were a bit surprised at the line each night because normally the "anytime" crowd is more spread out over several hours. Maybe the spring break family crowd all wanted to eat between six and seven??
This was the first cruise in which our boys fell into two separate groups. Our twelve year old was in the Circle C Club (12-14 year olds). The group had only a few activities during the day hours. Most of the activities were geared toward night. He didn't love it, but he didn't hate it either. Twelve year old boys are too big for the "kid" activities of the younger group but most of them aren't quite at the point of wanting to go the dance club that their Circle C activities were focused on. He enjoyed the computer game time but was disappointed in the water slide races and putt-putt time (there was zero structure).
I think an athletic male camp counselor who could rally the boys would help. The girls who work as counselors, as nice as they appear to be, just don't know how to relate to boys this age. The major events for this group did not get started until 9 o'clock at night and often went to midnight. Being on spring break, our son's body clock simply could not handle staying up that late (summer yes, spring break no). In addition, he really wasn't interested in going to a lounge and sitting there with the boys sitting on one side looking at each other... and the girls on the other side of the dance floor chatting away with each other.
Our younger son was in the Camp Carnival group for 9-11 year olds. He still enjoys the kid games and activities and was eager to rush out of the dining room at night to participate. One activity that they did several times was a scavenger hunt. Groups of children roamed the ship (unsupervised) and had to ask passengers questions (for example, they had to find a passenger from California and get them to sign a piece of paper). While this was innocent enough on the surface, we started questioning the wisdom of letting these young kids roam and intermingle with strangers.
The gym had all of the usual equipment but it seemed that several of the TV's on the machines did not work. In addition, the air was stuffy and hot and the music was LOUD.
Port Stop in Nassau: We made arrangements ourselves with Bahamas Segway Tours (http://www.bahamassegwaytours.com). Van driven by an entertaining lady named "Meeks" picked us up just outside the port terminal and drove us to the other side of the island. Meeks had the best sense of humor and was full of personality and made the drive go quickly. None of us had been on a Segway before. The tour took place on undeveloped land where a mega resort was going to be built before it got sidetracked by legal battles. It took us five minutes to learn how to ride. We rode on dirt trials through trees, saw where fishermen stored lobster boxes and along the ocean. We stopped for about 20-minutes at a small beach where the water was the most beautiful clear blue. We were told the water was shallow enough to walk out to an island during low tides. This is an area where the opening sequence for the latest James Bond movie (Casino Royale) was filmed. After winding our way back to the start of the trail, we waited under a wooden shelter for our return shuttle ride for about 30-minutes. I wish they had allowed us to continue riding for a few more minutes on our own right there in front of the shelter. Our guide, Ashley, was nice but seemed bored and was nowhere near as entertaining or engaging as our bus driver Meeks. The tour was $65. The cruise ship also offered a Segway tour for around $90 in the urban area near the port.
Port Stop in Freeport: Our cruise excursion of choice was sold out (kayak and nature tour). We opted not to book anything else and just walked around the small market near the dock for a few minutes. After returning to the ship, we had a great time on the slides and pool without fighting crowds.
It was overcast and windy on our last sea day. A few showers passed over but we were still able to go out on deck in the afternoon. The ship was amazingly steady... every now and then we felt a tiny bit of movement.
Getting off of the Fantasy took a little more time than getting on. There are no disembarkment announcements. You have a choice of carrying off your own luggage around 7:30 or waiting until your assigned time (assigned by decks). It took about an hour and a half from the time we were allowed to get off until we reached our car (10:40am). There was a long wait on the ramp once you were off the ship to get into the terminal to clear customs. Parking for our car was $85. Our car was outside... early parkers get sheltered parking in old warehouse buildings.
The fact remains, this was a Carnival cruise. The Carnival reputation lives on in many ways. We saw a lot of people drinking, we saw way too much flab and enough tattoo art to fill a museum. As you can imagine, the Carnival reputation also lives on with what people wore.
Overall complaints are small and minor. The music was way too loud. We wish Camp Carnival had been a little more engaging for pre-teen boys and we wish we could have gotten a few raspberries. ;-) We were pleased with the ship and the parts of our cruise Carnival had control over. Our need was a convenient getaway and the cruise provided that. Would we go back again, knowing that we don't fit the usual Carnival passenger profile? Not quickly. ...but one should never say "never."