BACKGROUND: This trip is the 2nd trip for my husband and me on the Carnival Fascination. Also accompanying us were our 20 year old daughter and 16 year old son. We booked the trip about 2 weeks before we sailed and opted for a 4A GTY. We were assigned cabin R219 at the aft of the Riviera deck. It is a quad cabin. This was my 6th cruise (3rd with Carnival), my husbands 5th cruise and my children's 3rd cruise.
PRECRUISE: We flew down to Fort Lauderdale airport two days prior to the cruise. Because our flight landed at around 9pm at night, we opted to spend the night at the Candlewood Suites Cruise/Airport hotel. The hotel was clean and spacious and very adequate for our needs. Only negative was the fact that we had to call to get a shuttle to come pick us up at the airport (contrary to what is posted @ the courtesy center). Because of this, it was after 10pm when we finally reached the hotel. The following morning we took the shuttle back to the airport and picked up our rental car and headed for Miami Beach. Again, since we were still a day away from our cruise, we opted to stay at a hotel near the cruise terminal and Bayside Market. We chose the Courtyard Marriott Downtown Miami location. They were wonderful and allowed us to check in early. We had a room on the 11th floor that had a balcony with a wonderful view of the terminal area (we could see a couple of the ships at dock there from the balcony). The room was spacious and clean. There is a roof top pool on the 7th floor - my daughter and I enjoyed it by ourselves that afternoon. Never saw the pool crowded at all. The hotel does offer the ability to leave your vehicle in their secure garage for $15 per day (versus the ports $20 per day), but by the time we would have paid the cab fare etc. it worked better for us to just park the car at the terminal.
BOARDING: We got to the terminal around 11:15 or so. We very quickly handed off our luggage to the porters and headed on in! Security and check in took no time at all and then we sat down to wait for our zone to be called for boarding. This is new - when you check-in you are given a zone number from 1 to 20 (I think). They then call you by zone to board so they can control the traffic flow. This worked very well (also, they had 'priority' boarding tickets taped to the bottom of several chairs in the waiting area and if you were lucky enough to find one, you got to board first!) and we were on the ship and 'dinging' our sign & sail cards before 12:00. We headed up to the Lido deck for lunch and to introduce our children to the wonder that is a Carnival Farcus designed ship! My daughter was like "You weren't kidding about the purple, were you?". Food was adequate - try the Mango Mousse, it was very tasty. Pizza was available and so was the deli. The Lido Pool Grill was up and running (my daughter loved the chicken fingers they served here!) but always had a line. If you get a chance, try their homemade flour tortilla chips with the cheese sauce (I added the taco meat to mine and it was yummy!). Strange thing - to this point we still have not seen a drink server offering the DOD! That would be a trend through the entire trip. Quite a few times, we had to get up from deck chairs or our seat in the theater to go and get a drink. My children started getting their soda or juice PRIOR to going to the Sensation dining room for lunch, because bar service was very slow in the dining room at lunch.
CABIN: We were in a quad cabin on the Riviera deck. The cabins were available to enter right on the dot at 1:30pm. Upon entering the cabin, I saw that the king bed was together. I sought out our steward and asked that he separate the bed and place the twins under each of the Pullman berths (effectively making bunks). This really freed up floor space and made the cabin very easy for 4 adults to live in for 4 nights. Storage is adequate for four people, but you might want to bring some extra hangers (I had to double up some items on a hanger). We put the life vests on the top shelf and freed up the rest of the shelves for clothing. I strongly recommend bringing some sort of over the door type thing to hold toiletries etc. in the bathroom to keep it under control! Nest your suitcases and store them under the bed to make even more space.
KEY WEST: Key West is a beautiful place. The last time we visited on a cruise ship we docked at the Westin Pier. This time it was the Outer Mole Pier at the Naval Station. Because of this you are shuttled from the pier to Mallory Square at no charge. I had purchased tickets on line from the Old Town Trolley company (the same company that provides the shuttle service) for their hour and a half tour that allows you to get on and off as many times as you'd like. Carnival doesn't offer this option and by purchasing it on line, I saved over $10 per adult! We enjoyed the tour very much. We decided to do the entire tour at one time and then poke around Mallory Square, Front Street and Greene Streets. My husband wanted to find the Conch Republic Cigar Factory on Greene Street. Once we found it, he spent a bit of time looking at some cigars before deciding which ones to purchase. After that, we went to Kermit's Key Lime Pie shop (just down the street from Conch Republic) and got some chocolate dipped key lime pie on a stick - oh yummmmmy! This was so very good! We made sure to be at the Mallory Square trolley pick up location in plenty of time to make it back to the ship. There is a CVS right near Mallory Square that is very convenient for picking up batteries and last minute "oops!" type items.
COZUMEL: This was our second trip to Cozumel. My husband and son signed up for the certified 2 tank dive through the ship and enjoyed it very much. My husband is eagerly awaiting the DVD of the dive that was filmed - he can't wait! My daughter and I went on the parasailing excursion (again through the ship) and found it to be very exciting. After my daughter and I were done, we returned to the ship and enjoyed the "ghost town" feeling of the ship. We didn't have to share the pools or hot tubs with anyone and it was a great time to take pictures of the ships interior without people in them! My husband and son returned from their dive around 6 and we decided to do some shopping in town. My husband was on the hunt for tequila and cigars. He found both with no problem! We returned to the ship around 9pm and got ready for sail away. This was also the night of the midnight Mexican buffet. The food was good and we'd worked up an appetite shopping. We watched sail away from the very front of the ship on the Sport Deck. It was so beautiful to watch the lights float away from the ship. I would recommend this spot for port watching.
SHOWS/ENTERTAINMENT: We got to see the "Welcome Aboard" show and the two late night comedians. The first one, Happy Cole, was absolutely hilarious - word to the wise, his show contains some very graphic sexual descriptions so be prepared. The second comedian, sorry I can't remember his name, put me to sleep. Very boring and predictable act. As my son said "He's using the old trick of throwing cuss words around to make people laugh. He's really not funny." The highlight of the act was the end when he had an audience member help him with some improv and she flipped the audience off unexpectedly - that got the biggest laugh of the show! Karaoke is available every night, but make sure that you've got the early seating for dinner. Most nights it started around 7 and ended around 10, making it very hard to get to if you had the late seating. We really didn't bother with any of the other shows or lounges etc., since our kids were with us and didn't enjoy them or weren't old enough to enter.
FOOD: The food was definitely acceptable. It wasn't the best I've ever had, nor was it the worst. As usual the Chocolate Melting Cake and the Grand Marnier Souffle were my favorite desserts. Just like our last time on Fascination, the Baked Alaska was horrible. The seated lunches in the Sensation Dining room were our favorites. They have a build your own burger on the menu that puts the burger from the Lido Grill to shame. Seated breakfast was just so-so. We generally only eat in the buffet area for breakfasts and snacks and found the food to be just okay. If you're going to get eggs at the Lido Buffet, seek out one of the omelet stations and get your eggs cooked to order. There are two at the Lido Grill and an additional one (seldom busy) back by the deli. Our favorite place to eat was behind the buffet dining room on the little "fins" that overlook the children's pool and the fantail. It was always quiet and not as windy as the tables on the sides.
SEA DAY: I must say that I was very disappointed by the lack of activities on the sea day. I am used to having activities (other than Bingo) available throughout the day. It was like they figured from 11 am to 5 pm everyone would be on the pool deck soaking up the sun. My children spent most of the day in the cabin watching movies, that's how bored they were. Based on this both of my children have said they prefer Royal Caribbean over Carnival.
DRINK/SALES SERVICE: I was very disappointed in the service that was provided by the bar servers and the staff in the onboard stores. It seemed like they were either very short staffed or the servers were not going to the back decks or the sides of the theater. As I said before, quite a few times we had to go and get our own drinks. Similarly, in the stores it also felt understaffed. Perfect example was the morning of the "Debark Talk". Of course when everyone leaves the talk they hit the stores right there. There was only one associate in each store. If you really wanted to look at something up close (jewelry), good luck.
DEBARK: Since we were last on Fascination they have changed a few things about debark. They now give you luggage tags with a zone number on them (they are big on these zone numbers now!) and that is how they call you to debark. It was pretty smooth going. We docked around 7:30 or so and were off the ship around 9:30 (we were the last zone because we didn't have a flight or anything to catch). Got our luggage with no problems. Now comes the next change. This one is in the way they handle customs in the terminal. Last year, we were able to pay a porter to take our luggage and they zipped us through a "porters only" customs line. This made the customs drill ultra quick and we were prepared to do the same thing this year. Well, apparently some people (who didn't want to pay for a porter) complained that those of us who were willing to pay for a porter were getting preferential treatment. Now your porter will stand in line with you while you wait your turn. They do a have a few tricks up their sleeves, but it was no where near as fast as last years' trip. Even with this, we were still in our car and heading for our hotel around 10am.
POST CRUISE HOTEL: We opted to fly back to Maryland on Saturday morning to save some money. I was able to book a room at the Marriott Hollywood Beach Hotel. This is a boutique type hotel in an area that feels like South Beach did about 10 years ago. It's beginning to be revitalized but was absolutely gorgeous! We had a room on the 8th floor that overlooked the ocean. We spent the day lying on the beach in front of the hotel or in the hotels pool or hot tub. It was a great way to wrap up our trip and detox before we flew home the next day.
OVERALL: On the whole, we enjoyed the cruise. Of course, I haven't run into a cruise I haven't enjoyed yet! There were aspects that were very good and aspects that were disappointing. I am sure we will cruise again with Carnival, but it the children are traveling with us, this trip might cause me to think twice before I book them on Carnival again.