Let me start by saying Carnival has definetly had it's share of misfortune and bad press. But, it appears they've been taking making steps to not only improve their public image but are also focusing on the total guest experience.
I've cruised with Carnival many times and have had experiences ranging from being trapped in a 24/7 frat party, peering down the vast deck hallways wondering where the service staff was to having a perfectly adequate experience. I think you see the theme here - overall pretty inconsistent experiences. I've learned to not expect much and be happy with the fact that I was on a ship not behind my desk at work. The bad run of luck has prompted some really great cruise pricing. I was able to find a value cruise on Carnival Fascination out of Jacksonvill; five days to the Bahamas. Seeking warmth from the midwest cold my buddy and I booked it and set off with no other expectations of Carnival other than having a bed, three meals a day and warm weather.
Upon seeing the Fascination docked at Jacksonville pier I quickly noticed she was an older ship and appeared a bit worn. We were greeted with smiles, "welcomes" and hospitality from the moment we dropped out bags off with the porter. Embarkation was a breeze and took us 50 minutes from arriving at the JAX pier to fillinging our plates for lunch on the lido deck. Upon boarding it was evident the Fascination was rough around the edges but clean and had many of the features of the classic liners from previous days: Brass railings, smaller lobby/rotunda area, teak wood decking, subtle lighting features, comfortable decor and colors.
Something that I quickly noticed and payed attention to were the smiles, friendly greetings and attention to guest needs. Having experienced inconsistencies with Carnival service in the past I honed in on this for the remainder of the cruise.
After eating we proceeded to explore the ship. The Lido pool area is a bit small but pretty neat with it's coconut palms and rounded teak deck. Kinda funky but comfortable at the same time. While not a mega ship the Fascination has all the amenities of the larger more modern ships but on a smaller scale, . The layout of the ship is easy to navigate. The while a bit worn, the Fascination was clean and tidy. Again the pleasant smiles, greetings and overall staff courtesy outshined the cosmectic dings of the ship.
We made our way to our cabin and dropped off our bags. Cabin M32 is a forward cabin on the main deck. Easy location to navigate. A smaller cabin but clean and comfortable. Our cabin steward was very courteous, effecient and exceeded our needs and expectations. At times we had requests and would approach whichever steward was in the hall at the time. Not once were we met with resistance or were we put off by the steward we approached. Our requests were always fulfilled with a smile and a "can I get you anything else" desire to help.
We ate most meals in the Coconut Grove casual restaurant. The food was what I expected, not bad, not great but edible, tasty and of sufficient variety. No complaints at all. We ate two evenings in the Sensation dining room with the Your Time dining option. In the past I've experienced long waits for a table, less than attentive diningroom staff and a cattle car mentality when using Your Time dining. This was not the case at all with the Fascination. We were seated both times within five minutes of arriving, always had a nice table and the wait staff was very pleasant, professional, courteous and eager to please. The food in the main diningroom was a step up from the casual restaurant, not five star quality but again very good, a good variety, served quickly. I had no complaints.
Entertainment on the ship was very good. One thing that stood out was the quality of the production shows in the main showroom. The Divas and Motown shows were both very well done. The variety of live entertainment throughout the ship was pleasant and welcomed. Once again this reminded me of sailing on the older ships that didn't have all the attractions of the new larger ships but provided a variety of entertainment and comfort.
The ports - well Nassau is Nassau. A fun place to visit but once you've been you've probally seen everything. Not a bad port just not my favorite place. Little Stirrup Cay was nice and relaxing. Note there is a small straw market on Little Stirrup Cay that has exactly the same merchandise as that of the Nassua straw market. However the prices are considerablly higher and they do not haggle over prices at all. No discounts, not haggling, the higher prices are what they are, period.
Summary - I believe Carnival has been learning from its misfortune and are placing focus on where it should be - the guest experience. I was very impressed with the consistent level of service provided by the staff of the Fascination. I heard repeatedly from other guest that the staff was always very pleasant, responsivle and really made the difference on the older Fasicination. While not one of the glamorous mega ships in the fleet, sailing the Fascination was like staying the week at the home of a comfortable old friend. We felt welcomed, we were taken care of, fed well, wanted for nothing and above all else truly felt like we were appreciated and welcomed. Carnival truly exceeded my expectations and provided a great cruise experience. it wasn't five star cruising but I didn't pay much for the cruise and expected very little. In return I got a heaping helping of hospitality. Well Done staff of the Fascination. Well Done