We sailed on the Carnival Fascination out of Jacksonville to Nassau and Key West over Thanksgiving. Since we have cruised out of Jacksonville before on a similar itinerary over Christmas a few years ago, our expectations were not unreasonable. We knew the ship was smaller and older. We also knew it would be crowded. Even so, we were sorely disappointed.
Embarkation went smoothly enough. Jacksonville does do a fairly good job of getting you on board quickly. We arrived at about 11:45 and were on board by 1:00. Since our cabin wasn't ready until 1:30, we headed up to the Lido for lunch. We knew enough not to stand in the long, long line on deck by the pool. We made are way to the back of the ship where the line was much shorter for the buffet. At the very back there is also pizza and a deli where they make sandwiches to order -- nice. The salad bar was always very fresh as well.
We explored the ship and found what we expected. It's nothing fancy. She's an older ship, but well maintained. The casino, shops, and fitness center are all pretty small. The grand atrium is nice, but nothing spectacular. The highlights of this ship are on the upper decks. The pool is small and basic. But the water slide and water park for the kids on the top deck are awesome. Unfortunately, we had no kids with us and had no use for it. What we did have use for was the Serenity Deck which is a quiet adults-only area. It has great padded lounge chairs, umbrellas, and an adults only hot tub. Its a very peaceful place- unfortunately is was also pretty crowded on this trip.
We always opt for the late seating at dinner so that we do not feel as though we have to rush back on board after being in port. Unfortunately, on this cruise it also meant that we did not have the option of attending a lot of the entertainment since many things were scheduled during the late dinner seating. More on that in a minute. We ate in the Imagination Dining Room. The ceilings were very low in there and left me feeling a bit claustrophobic. The decor was average, but our waiter was phenomenal! He was the highlight of our cruise in terms of service. The food was average. Not at all bad, but nothing outstanding either. There was a good selection of main courses, appetizers were excellent, but dessert choices were a bit limited and generally weren't all that great. Overall we enjoyed the service, most of the food, and good conversation at our table with our new friends.
Our first "Fun Day at Sea" left a lot to be desired. This is where our real disappointment began. We are used to a lot of entertainment on a Carnival cruise and a lot of fun interaction with the staff. We did not get that on this cruise. There was a whole lot of nothing going on. The staff was not enthusiastic at all. The CD, Squishy, was just as his name implies... squishy. Not sharp and exciting, just kind of there. If you're into laying by the pool surrounded by 1000 of your friends and their screaming kids, you're in luck. If not, you won't find much else to do. Unless you are into downing very, very outrageously expensive drinks -- there are plenty of poolside bar staff ready to bring whatever you want - just keep that sail and sign card handy! But beware -- I asked for a drink of the day by the pool and was served a disgusting concoction is a plastic sippy cup (which can't be refilled by the way) that looked like the ship's funnel then charged $14 for the one drink!!!!
Don't expect the entertainment to pick up at night either. The evening shows have always been a favorite part of our cruising experience. We were highly disappointed on this cruise. There were only two full production shows and neither was all that good. If you're into karaoke though, there seems to be plenty of that going on... cheap entertainment for Carnival I guess.
What about the ports of call you ask??... Nassau is okay if you've never been there - but you have to be back on board at 2:30 -- you arrive at 7 and nothing opens until 9 or 10, so you don't have much time. We booked an independent charter through Flying Cloud on a 52' catamaran to snorkel on Rose Island. It was awesome - not at all overcrowded and we actually sailed. Most trips of this sort put 100 or more people on the boat the use the motors to get to the spot. Not ours, we had a comfortable number of about 30 on board and we truly sailed -- it was great! Our snorkel spot on Victoria's Reef off of Rose Island was very nice -- live coral and lots of fish. The rum punch was yummy too.
A quick word about getting off the Fascination -- it is utterly unorganized and ridiculous! There is only one line to get 3000 people off the ship. It's stupid! If you have to be somewhere, you'd better get in line early... and if you're claustrophobic, you'd better take some Valium!
Key West is just fun - its the highlight of the trip if the weather is good. Unfortunately it rained on our day there (Thanksgiving Day). We enjoyed poking around the shops for the day. We were supposed to enjoy a sunset cruise on a schooner with Danger Charters. I pre-booked online. But the weather was not conducive, so I asked for a refund. I expected a hassle but got none -- even though they were still going out, they cheerfully said no problem and gave us a full refund. We will definitely go back and do the trip with them!
All in all this cruise is what it is... a quick budget getaway. The lines are long, the food is mediocre, the entertainment is sparse and the staff is disinterested. But you are not at work, you don't have to cook or clean and someone is always more than willing to poor you a drink!