This was my second cruise, both with Carnival. (the first was in January 2010 with DW) A group of five of us guys drove from Cleveland to Jacksonville for the sailing on January 21, 2012. The drive down went well and we were quickly at our motel at the Super 8 on University Park Blvd. Yipes. You get what you pay for, that's all I will say. Still, we each had a bed for the night, and the main attraction was the cruise! Our voyage was a five nighter with stops in Nassau, and Half Moon Cay, Bahamas.
Jacksonville really has it together. The cruise terminal is small and well organized, and security was thorough and efficient. From arrival to Lido deck we were there a total of maybe 45 minutes. The only hiccup we had was when one of our cruisers had to be pulled aside at the gangway because his boarding pass had his name as "Alex" while his passport had his birth name. (Alexander) Nobody's fault, and to their great credit security had everything cleared up quickly, with Carnival issuing a new Sail and Sign Card immediately. Once that was done we were on the ship!
The prevailing theme of the Fascination is Hollywood, and you can see the inspiration through the ship. The Sensation dining room is evocative of old Beverly Hills restaurants. I could picture Carey Grant or Lauren Bacall being seated more so than Angelina Jolie or Tom Cruise. The room had a classy, if slightly chintzy feeling. (I know that chintzy is normally negative, but in this case I mean it to be more fun, and not taking itself too seriously)
If you've seen one show room on Carnival, I suspect that you've pretty much seen them all. Certainly, the decor is different, but the layout is pretty much the same, albeit slightly smaller than the Valor. The Galleria shopping mall featured exactly what you'd expect: jewelry, t shirts, cigars, liquor, sundries, and Carnival branded souvenirs. Unfortunately, the placement of the shops right near the entrance to the Palace Theater (and the subsequent "sidewalk" style sales outside of them) led to a great deal of congestion immediately before and after shows. Formalities, and an "Everything is $10" shop were located far away from the Galleria, on Hollywood Blvd.
The casino, also on Hollywood Blvd. is well laid out and accessible, but not in the direct way of access to everything else; it features penny slots on up, and your standard table games, along with a crane - type machine that looked deceptively easy: bundles of money of varying denomination were there for the grabbing for $1 a play. Needless to say, I never saw anybody come close to winning. One of the nice promotions in the casino was that for every classic cocktail you bought, you would receive $5 in match play on table games. As I'm not much of a gambler, but one of my buddies is I gave him my match tickets from purchasing mojitos.
The clubs were all well appointed, but as is typical for the two cruises I've been on the hours vary. Passage to India, aesthetically speaking was the most beautiful to me, with alcoves built into the windows and an Indian - style scheme throughout. I would have loved to chill in here with a drink and just have great conversation. Sadly, it seemed that it was only open when there was something specific going on. (ie, karaoke, kids club function, etc.) To my great puzzlement, I never saw the 88 Piano Bar open.
My two favorite public areas (besides anywhere I could get food!) were the Tara Library (indoor fave) and the Serenity Deck. (outdoor fave) The Tara is very well laid out, with a private little desk that I spent time looking out over the water at night writing poetry, while the Serenity Deck is an adults only area that was very well (and kindly) monitored to make sure it stayed that way. It was the perfect place to lay back, and read a good book. I would say to enjoy it the first couple of days of the cruise before it gets "discovered." After day three the volume of the music seemed to be cranked up a bit, and the place had a more decidedly "party" feel to it. Perhaps I'm just getting cranky in my old age. :p One complaint I do have is that one of the hot tubs on the Serenity never got very warm, though the other was just fine.
We had five guys in an interior cabin. (Two twins lower, two pull down bunks upper, and a trundle bed that slid out from under one of the lowers.) Three out of the five of us are big guys. Sure, the cabin was small once everyone was in there, but not uncomfortably so. We were on the main deck, with cabins above and below us, so we weren't kept up by activity. As we were aft, however, I did notice that I was awoken whenever we came into port by the engines. To be fair, this is not anything exclusive to this ship; it's common knowledge to try and book more mid ship. None of the other guys seemed to be awoken like I was, and had I chosen to I probably could have gone right back to bed.
For an interior stateroom we paid $173 per person about 10 months before the cruise. I thought this price was more than fair for a five night trip.
Ranged from very good to completely puzzling. Most of the meals were very competently done. The Mongolian Grill (noodles, choice of meat, vegetables, sauce made to order right in front of you) was absolutely fantastic. I highly recommend waiting in line for it at least once, well worth it. Meals in the dining room were similarly quite good. Elegant night (Sunday) featured excellent lobster with Carnival's signature mashed potatoes (spiced with just a touch of nutmeg, yum!) and a perfectly cooked prime rib with steakhouse style onion rings. I only raise objection to the "au jus" on the prime rib, which was rather more like a light sauce (slightly thickened) than a true jus. Full disclosure: I used to be an executive chef, so I can be nit picky about things like that. Bottom line though, the meals in the dining room were always flavorful fresh, and well presented.
And then there's the Lido deck buffet. Oh boy, the buffet. For the most part, I loved the buffet, which usually had most of the same things the dining rooms had. Breakfast, however, was a puzzler. Quite often you'd see your standards, (ie eggs, bacon, ham, potatoes, etc) but by day two we were seeing some "interesting" dishes such as cut up hot dogs and sausages with grilled onions, baked beans, and deep fried breaded hard - boiled eggs. Now, if these dishes were indicative of things commonly found at breakfast in our ports, or even things that certain crew members remember from their homes then TOTALLY COOL :) I love expanding my horizons. However, they felt more like "hey chef, what should I do with all these leftovers?" Mostly, all three meals were quite good. I had a wonderful pastrami Reuben sandwich from the deli, which was cooked on a panini press and was quite tasty. The pizza station on the Valor and now the Fascination has always been a point of contention with me. While the pizza has 100% of the time been quite good, on both ships I've noticed that the pizza oven is in the back, out of view of the public. As such, the chefs in that area tend to "disappear" through no fault of their own for what seems like an eternity as they prepare pizzas to go into the oven. As such the chefs never really develop a rapport with the guests, who get impatient as it can appear that no one is there to assist them.
The sushi bar on Hollywood Blvd. was a big hit with members on our group. Each night featured three new selections, and the chef in charge made sample plates featuring a combination of all three. Each piece of handcrafted sashimi and sushi was exquisite.
I didn't have much in the way of desserts due to my diabetes, however reports on the chocolate melting cake were (as almost always) excellent. I did indulge in a diet lemon mouse one night and WOW! I mean WOW! It ate like a light lemon cheesecake. Spectacular!
And fear not, true believers: the midnight buffet has not completely disappeared! The night of the deck party (Tuesday night, after Half Moon Cay) featured an awesome Mexican buffet from 11:30 P.M. till 1 A.M. served while there was dancing and music on the Lido Deck.
There are two main shows put on by the entertainment staff of the Fascination, and a good number of other activities to keep passengers entertained. The two main shows are "Far from Over: the '80s," and "Hey Mambo." The 80s show is a musical review of that decade that we all know and love and features music from Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson, etc. The cast's version of "Purple Rain" was outstanding, and the duet between the male and female lead (Cassandra) was excellent. Speaking of Cassandra, people have mentioned her in a few reviews, so I might as well too. When she has a song that works to her strengths, she is fabulous. Unfortunately Carnival often saddles her with numbers that are way out of her vocal range, and the results are rather lackluster in those cases. I felt that she did her best work in the Latin revue "Hey Mambo," where her stronger, deeper voice fit very well with the musical style.
Speaking of Hey Mambo, it was excellent, lively, fun, incredible! The only thing I would have wished was that "Hot Hot Hot" was saved till the end. To me, that was the high point of the show, and would have been an excellent end. Everything after that just seemed anti - climatic. A simple rearrangement, not elimination of the the latter songs would have done the trick, imho.
Aside from the main shows, there was also the fun of karaoke, with an awesome twist: Carnival now features something called "Superstar Live" where a (very good) live band performs behind you. What a cool thing! In regular karaoke I sang "Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash, and with the band I sang "Summer of '69" by Bryan Adams. What a fun element and energy the band adds!
Of course there was also plenty of bingo, towel animal folding lessons, chess, talent shows, trivia, games, etc. The entertainment staff made sure everyone had a good time, and if you wanted to just chill, there was plenty of opportunity for that, too. I even "won" two more ships on a stick and a bottle of champagne! =)
The Cruise Director is Trevor Block, a Canadian by way of Pennsylvania. Trevor was genial, competent, and made it a point to say "God bless" after each of his informative announcements. I appreciated hearing that; guy's a believer, and Carnival lets him express that.
Let's start with the dining room since that could easily be merged with entertainment. We were assigned for Anytime Dining in the Sensation Dining Room, and if you've ever eaten there then chances are you will never forget Josef, "your super - charged maitre d." Josef was fun, flamboyant, full of energy, and his staff was exceptional. We were treated like friends, though to be fair on one night a fellow cruiser was miffed because our waiter snapped his finger at him to hurry up with his order. One of those things that I'm sure the waiter didn't mean insultingly, and we never said anything as it was the only blemish. (and my friend WAS taking awhile to order)
Our cabin steward was Rick, and he was great. You can imagine the mess (and stink!) that five guys could leave in an interior cabin, but rick and his staff cleaned our cabin exquisitely twice a day, and always remembered our names and would chat us up in the hallways. Carnival staff are so very friendly, and make it a point to take time out of their days to say hello and talk. Whatever they're getting paid, they should get more :)
We did not do any organized shore excursions but let me give a quick two cents on the two ports, Nassau and Half Moon Cay:
Nassau: Yuck. I had a really bad experience with a Cuban Cigar there, which colors the rest of my time there. From my own inexperience I developed cigar sickness from a smoke that may or may not have had more than tobacco in it. If you haven't smoked cigars too often, like me, don't make my mistake and try to be a big shot in 90 degree weather. It will ruin your vacation that day. Oh, and if a woman tries to give you a "free" bracelet or necklace, with the only request being to give a "small" donation, "for the children" walk in the opposite direction. You will not get out without somebody having to be rude. The big plus for Nassau for me was the Christ Church Cathedral. Ornate, beautiful, and calming, I really needed to visit it and pray after getting sick. Definitely felt the peace of the Lord there.
Half Moon Cay: 180 degrees better than Nassau! Perhaps my favorite little vacation spot in the world :) While part of it is built up with tourist things, much of it is undeveloped and decidedly "untouristy." One of my cruise mates went parasailing (ok, so one excursion was purchased) and one lounged on the beach while the other three of us went exploring along the island's nature trail, searching for birds, blue tailed lizards, curly tailed lizards, and chameleons, all of which were in abundance and made for some great sight seeing. There is also a small farm off the beaten path that raises chickens and grows bananas, sugar cane, grapefruit, and other crops. While there was nothing to say the area was restricted it absolutely felt out of the way and peaceful. And yes, HMC's legendary sand is as good as advertised; soft like a mixture of babypowder, sugar, and flour. The water too, is excellent, clear as glass, impossibly blue, and clean. Right when we were getting ready to leave I took 15 minutes to swim in it, after most of the passengers had clear out and it was delightful. Best swim I've had in my entire life.
The buffet on HMC was also very good, provided free to Carnival passengers. Sadly there were no ribs as had been previously reported. (they were served on the ship the next day) Still, there was a very good Jerk Chicken, serviceable burgers, (and hot dogs) excellent salads, fruit, and desserts. As HMC is owned by Carnival no cash is required at any of the bars or gift shops, your Sail and Sign card is all you need.
Value for Money:
At $173 a person, this cruise was an excellent value. Certainly there are plenty of things to pay for on the ship should you so choose, but one can be very satisfied at the base price.
The crew has worked very hard to keep this nearly 20 year old vessel in nearly pristine condition. Where her age shows is not in the look of the ship, but the amenities. You will find no steakhouse, (I was fine with that) and many of the areas seem to close early. (Serenity deck hot tubs, Lido deck pool area) Still, this is a very good ship to cruise on a budget, and would definitely recommend it and consider it again.