While we are first time cruisers, we made sure to do our research and I think had realistic expectations. If anything we had low expectations -because we were pleasantly surprised all the way around with the great service, food and all the experiences the Carnival Fantasy provided.
CHARLESTON: We stayed at the Best Western Kings Inn Downtown - found an Internet special for $80.00 for a queen-sized room. $89 with taxes. With its four poster bed, sitting chair with hassock, Charleston magazine and area guide book, magnifying makeup mirror in the bath, to name a few things - it was more luxurious than most Best Westerns. Parking is free and you can continue to park through 4:00 PM the next day if you want. Checkout was 11:00 AM. They have a happy hour with a cheese, cracker and fruit plate in the afternoon, $5.00 wine and other bar drinks for sale. You can charge your drinks to the room. The house Merlot was perfectly nice. If you are a tea drinker, be sure to check out the selection of gourmet tea bags in the coffee station in that same lounge area. I think in the summer when the fountains and pools are going it would be very nice. I wouldn't recommend spending the extra money for a king or to sit out on a balcony...your view is of the parking lot :-) And the queen, despite reviews I read was a perfectly adequate size.
We walked to dinner - The Swamp Fox in the Francis Marion. Had reservations but on a Sunday night in January they were unnecessary. There were only a few other diners there. Service was fabulous. Food was tasty, but honestly, IMHO, no better than what we were to have on the Fantasy later in the week. We used a restaurant.com certificate and it was accepted graciously.
Same with Virginia's on King the next morning - the waitress even added on a .03 cent charge to get us to the required $35.00 expenditure. It's hard to spend $35 on breakfast there unless you are big eaters! I had the shrimp, sausage and grits platter and found it filling and a perfect low-country send-off for embarkation.
If I were to do it again? I would skip dinner out and spend the evening in the room treating myself to home-made spa experience and get some rest! Charleston is nice but we aren't shoppers so the area around the hotel, while architecturally quite interesting, didn't hold much appeal.
EMBARKATION: We drove to port around 11:45-12:00 and after getting pointed in the right direction by a very nice policeman we made it swiftly through the whole process. Everyone was friendly and I think we were on the boat by 12:30-12:45. They checked our wine and a bottle of sparkling water I bought, sort of looked at the coconut water and protein drinks we brought - but it was painless and they were quite nice about it all. Once on deck, on a pleasantly slightly windy and cool day, my partner in crime panicked realizing he'd left his cell phone in the basket during the scanning. Off he ran, but was back in 25 minutes with phone in hand - long enough for me to enjoy a "drink of the day" while watching the dolphins play. Later discovered he'd also left his sunglasses, but they were cheap so he let it go. One warning: they paint that day while ship is in port - I got paint on a new pair of pants leaning against the railing. Not the end of the world, just a minor pout. I never did refill my drink of the day although I knew I could for cheaper later...other drink of the days later in the week came in a fish and then I saw in the "whale tail".
Room was perfect - we did a lot of research before choosing U-10. A porthole on the port side for price of interior. Great window seat that we enjoyed a few times. We also used it to store stuff like robes and our room service trays. Loved having a view of the outside. In our opinion the room was spacious - but we full-time RV'd for several years so our opinion of what is spacious may be quite different than most people. One thing I loved is there is a chair rail around the room with a bit of a lip - plenty of room to store things like glasses, lip balm, small tubes of lotion, etc. I did bring four hangers - eight would have been better. We put the robes to good use. I also brought one of those hanging shoe hangers, that came in handy for everything from shoes to organizing "fun stuff" like the disposable camera and bubbles and glow-sticks. There is a pull out clothesline in the shower - again 8 clothes pins rather than 4 would have been ideal. Samples were just toothpaste and a bit of lotion. Never had any issue with shower curtain sticking to my bits...but I suppose the clothespins might have helped there if needed. Safe is a programmable one in the closet - doesn't need a magnetic card...and worked perfectly. Couldn't have fit a laptop, but it was fine for wallets, phones, papers, etc. it was a little cold, but it helps to be able to turn off the blower (look for dial in the middle of the ceiling) and despite the comforter being thin it was exceedingly warm so we never suffered.
Muster was boring - recommend you bring a book and your patience. It's so hard when all you want to do is go explore! If you have the Universal Lounge, if you sit downstairs in the front by the stage you are the last to go out to the lifeboats and once you are in place you are pretty much dismissed, so we recommend sitting there. The staff did a nice presentation but there is a lot of waiting. Sail Away we just explored the ship and found all the decks - just got oriented and enjoyed the experience of it all.
Two Bon Voyage gifts which I ordered for ourselves - the small chocolate cake and a bottle of Champagne. First the cake was really good, but we ended up not even eating the first piece until three days out and never even ate half because there is just always so much food. Champagne was nice and our room steward Noervi iced it for us without us even asking, but again I feel it was wasted. I think you need a nice glass to enjoy it, and you can't have glass on decks...I think both the cake and champagne would be better in a room with a balcony, you know? A better use of the money in retrospect would have been a bottle of liquor. A cocktail once in awhile would have been nice - the ones on board are just too expensive and I didn't feel they were very potent. Course I like a nice strong drink!
One last thing on the room - there is a door tag for your room - one side says "Snoozin" the other side says "Cruisin". Apparently you only need to put it out twice a day. In the morning - so the cabin crew knows whether to leave you alone or to make up your room and in the evening, again in regards to turn down service. If you put out the "Cruisin" side any other time it is supposed to be a signal you need room service - ice in your bucket, or whatever.
Noervi (I hope I get that spelling right) was awesome as was his crew - they knew both of us from hour one and always used our names - much better than us knowing theirs! Friendly and efficient they were exceedingly polite and helpful at all times.
THE FANTASY: Following are just my "in general" notes...
- Yes there was a sewage smell in the front atrium staircase and on top a couple of places on the sports deck. It was worst on in port days. Was it horrible? No - but it was there. We just avoided it when possible (used other staircases) or ignored it. Certainly didn't ruin our trip. Just was what it was. Other than that, it's a miracle of science that you are out in the middle of nowhere and you have lights, food, flushing toilets, hot showers, Internet and all this stuff!
- Food was amazing - we have eaten at lots of 4- and 5- star restaurants and this was more than comparable. Even the freakin' burgers and pizzas were good! There was so much to try. Were there a few misses? Sure! No problem - go get something else I say. Mongolian Grill - I recommend the Thai BBQ sauce over the Black Bean sauce. If you miss the sushi bar check the Windows on the Sea later in the evening. I think the same menu is put out there at least one night of the cruise. We had anytime dining and enjoyed it. We liked going to dinner when we wanted. I did miss meeting folks though - even when we asked to share a table we ended up sitting by ourselves at a four-top. Favorite dinners - the lasagna Bolognese Florentine, the Chateaubriand (medium rare) and the Penne Maricosa. Lobster was too salty for my taste but other people we talked to raved about it. Warm chocolate melting cake too heavy for me but I loved all the other desserts. Fortunately most are very light and fluffy.
- Dress...I don't know, but this wasn't a big deal to me. I never noticed or cared what other diners were wearing. I liked dressing for dinner and when little kids ran by me in their bathing suits and bare feet to get ice cream in Windows, I didn't think twice. Lots of folks dressed up for elegant night and it was fun watching families get their pictures taken. What would I do differently? Get those pretty cocktail flipflops for wearing to dinner. They were perfectly in place in the Celebration dining room and would have been so much more comfortable than my little heels.
- Smoking...we are not smokers but never really noticed it - even ate on the port side Windows and found if you sat up against the wall all the smoke blew away from you and so we sat on either side respectively, wherever there was room. The casino was a little smoky but not bad. Lots of folks enjoyed the piano bar I noticed.
- A few places we found late I would have liked to enjoy more of - the quiet elegance of the Majestic bar to watch sunsets and board games before or after dinner in the library. Yes, the reading selection is always locked up (I believe they have hours listed in the Fun Times) and if you are a reader - laughable. But it's a nice place to people watch and just enjoy a childhood game like connect four.
- Entertainment...we never did any shows, even the comedian show. Didn't do any games, auctions, etc. Didn't do the disco or lounges. Even missed the afternoon tea and the farewell party - we were interested but it seemed we already had eaten or were tired or wanted to do something else when the time came. Personally we found the music not to our taste. But again, did it matter? Of course not! Lots of people were enjoying it! On a cruise each to his own. For example we found the Lido too noisy, but enjoyed Serenity most times, and the back dining areas of Windows. We had several opportunities to enjoy the hot tubs and watch the moon - and there were several times the loud drunks instead that sent us in search of another spot. No big deal, there was always someplace or something new to try.
- Guests...a little bit of everything - families, partying 20-somethings, seniors, middle aged couples, etc. A few kids being kids but certainly no horror stories. Course we picked this date for that reason. The afternoon in Nassau we checked out the water slide - I think there were "maybe" 6-7 kids there? Fair warning on the water slide - the seems in the panel are no fun on a sunburned back! It is fun though and worth trying. Maybe wear a t-shirt?
- Motion of the Ocean. My partner never had an issue. I did for about half an hour both the first and second day for about half an hour. We brought candied ginger to nibble and that seemed to take care of it for me. Interestingly I "felt" it - but couldn't physically detect any motion. In fact the first two nights at sea we were amazed because we couldn't tell we were moving. The last day back was choppy - lots of whitecaps and it got worse as the night went on. Somewhere between midnight and 1:00 it was a little like being on a roller coaster. Others the next day said the same thing, so I don't think it was just our room position in the bow. We wore our Sea Bands and didn't get sick but it was a little uncomfortable for me. I couldn't sleep if I were on a roller coaster either! What is so funny though is I've been off the boat now for over 24 hours and I can't stop my house from rocking! Everyone is laughing at me as I sort of walk around like a drunk.
- Gym - I thought it was hot - my partner thought it was just right. Go around lunch for a quieter experience. Mornings are a bit busy, but we still had no problem getting machines. The wet sauna - wish I had tried that first day - I would have done it every day. It's free. The dry sauna woman's side - the light didn't work so never tried that.
- The Ship...we liked the Fantasy. Decided we wouldn't like a mega-ship. This was "just right". A little wear here and there but 99% in good shape, colorful but not garish, and a nice experience. In five days didn't get to try everything.
DISEMBARKATION - ugh. Bring your patience. We did relaxed disembarkation and when we got to our designated time they were already two zones past ours. At that point we should have just waited until they kicked us off. From the time we left the the Universe Lounge and made it to our seat in the shuttle bus it was an hour and 25 minutes of standing in line. I thought my partner was going to go mad. Lines are not his thing! Customs was easy, and we found all our luggage with no issue. Just read the paper they put in your room - we didn't go to the disembark talk or watch it - and did just time.
What would we do different? Probably do self-assist as the noise from getting into port gets you up early anyway. Take less luggage. Maybe pay a porter to get through lines faster and maybe do the whole take a cab to the hotel you left your car at thing...lots of maybes though. It was what it was and I think they do a good job considering all the people they have to route in and out on the same day.
I ended up losing my cell phone somewhere during disembarkation (shades of embarkation) but someone turned it in and Carnival is mailing it to me.
SUMMATION: So all in all, while we had a few misadventures, we would recommend the Fantasy and the experience for a first cruise, a week getaway or for those on a budget. It is just a superb value and we had a five star time.
However, would we personally do it again? Probably not, because of two things. First we don't have a lot of disposable income and we would want to spend it doing something different. Second we learned a lot about what we like on a vacation (understand we have only taken one short trip in the six years we've been together) and that was as far as cruising goes, we'd like to try a cruise that offered more intellectually stimulating programs on board - we're just not big drinkers and partiers and couldn't for the life of us just figure out how to sit and relax! HAL for example has self-guided art tours and culinary workshops and is still doable for our budget. We'd also choose a different itinerary. If you suspect this in yourself, and you are taking this cruise, one thing you might consider is adding in the Behind the Scenes tour - that would have been a nice addition. I find the whole concept of cruising, a self-contained floating city, fascinating.