2014 CRUISES FROM CHARLESTON-CULTURE CITY SAILINGS

Historic Fort Sumter still dominates the approaches to Charleston

Historic Fort Sumter still dominates the approaches to Charleston

When you consider an east coast cruise from America, your attention almost certainly focuses on the busy ports in Florida, or perhaps New York. But, as the desire for homeland cruising continues to rise, there is now a new, year round contender for Caribbean sailings, in the unlikely shape of Charleston.

South Carolina’s legendary centre of charm has a huge amount going for it. As home port to a single, year round mega ship- the Carnival Fantasy- it has none of the congestion of the southern ports on sailing day. And, if Miami is a sizzling, salsa fuelled, perma tanned colossus, then Charleston is the very epitome of demure, elegant warmth and welcome. Very much a well mannered lady, Charleston makes for a fantastic, two centre holiday with any Carnival Fantasy cruise.

Here, the crucible of America’s still divisive civil war can be seen in all of its petrified, stubborn splendour. Fort Sumter still looms across the entrance to the port, its stunted walls and windswept terraces still pock marked with the scars from scores of cannon balls and incalculable rounds of rifle fire. Charleston is also home to the resurrected wreckage of the Hunley, the first American submarine to sink an enemy vessel in action. Her story is one of the single most epic in maritime history, a titanic tale in stark contrast to the diminutive, doomed reality of the real thing.

But Charleston is far more than just a melting pot of half unseen, uneasy memories. The city has a sublime park front setting, and row upon row of antebellum masterpieces, best typified in the colourful cascade of architecture known as Rainbow Row. And the city’s legendary hospitality to strangers is no exaggeration. It truly is a city that everybody should see- and savour- at least once in a lifetime.

Carnival Fantasy serves up some sizzling cruise options from Charleston

Carnival Fantasy serves up some sizzling cruise options from Charleston

Carnival now offers year round cruises from the city aboard the recently refurbished, 70,000 ton Carnival Fantasy, the namesake of the eight ship Fantasy class. Though no longer among the very biggest or most amenity laden ships, the popular, well maintained Fantasy still offers a mind boggling array of sizzling, sassy bars and lounges that features the line’s renowned, late night party atmosphere right through until the wee small hours. There is a huge casino, and  a vast show lounge for the typically lavish floor shows that Carnival is known for,

Carnival Fantasy has two main dining rooms, an alternative lido buffet, and a slew of other dining and snacking options on board, as well as two pools, a quartet of hot tubs, and ample deck space. Even the inside cabins are of a generous size, and the recent refurbishment grafted a slew of balcony cabins onto the ship where none existed before. The ship also boasts a piano bar, a small, upper deck golf course, and a shaded, aft situated, adults-only Serenity Deck, complete with hot tubs and padded sun loungers.

Carnival Fantasy offers two different, five day options and one seven day cruise itinerary from Charleston to the Bahamas and the Caribbean. Here’s how they break down:

FIVE DAY CRUISES TO NASSAU AND FREEPORT: Forty four departures in 2014, running from January through to December.

FIVE DAY CRUISES TO LITTLE STIRRUP CAY AND NASSAU: Eleven departures between May and December inclusive.

SEVEN DAY EASTERN CARIBBEAN CRUISES TO NASSAU, GRAND TURK AND HALF MOON CAY: Nine cruises from January to December. Note that no departures are scheduled in February, June or September.

Atrium, Carnival Fantasy

Atrium, Carnival Fantasy

Combined with the natural warmth and charm of Charleston, these cruises are a real, very viable alternative to the options offered from ports both to the north and south. And, with a capacity of around 2500 passengers, the Carnival Fantasy offers a relatively more personalised cruise experience, without sacrificing anything in the way of facilities or fun things to do.

PETITE PRINCESSES- SHORT CARIBBEAN BREAKS IN A LOVE BOAT STYLE

Grand Turk is one of the offerings on the Princess winter menu

Grand Turk is one of the offerings on the Princess winter menu

In Florida over the winter, and in need of a short little add on cruise to charge up the batteries? Princess Cruises have introduced some great little, fun filled four and five day itineraries out of their Fort Lauderdale home port that are certainly worth a look.

These are unusual in and of themselves; traditionally, Princess has always stuck more or less rigidly to the seven night round trip sailings to the eastern and western Caribbean. It left these types of short, four and five night itineraries to Carnival, Royal Caribbean and- at one time- Norwegian. But now the line, famous as the operator of the recently deceased Love Boat, is hoping that the travelling public will fall under the spell of their unique brand of style and service.

Why now? Partly as a result of increased tonnage becoming available, in the shape of the pioneering new Royal Princess. This allowed some deft reshuffling of the Princess pack, and the creation of these new itineraries.

Plus, with the economy on both sides of the Atlantic still critical to flat lining, more and more people are looking out for short, good value breaks that are both price and time sensitive. In that respect, Princess is playing catch up with the opposition.

Still, they have come up with some excellent deals. Here’s a look at what’s on offer.

Royal Princess: The aforementioned, groundbreaking new flagship makes her Caribbean debut on October 29th this year, with a five night round trip sailing from Fort Lauderdale to Grand Turk and the company’s private island, Princess Cays. Prices start at £387. 

Ruby Princess: Another recent, state of the art megaship. A four night, western Caribbean itinerary calling at Cozumel sails on December 14th. Fares are from £299.

Winter? Where?

Winter? Where?

She also offers a four night eastern Caribbean cruise on December 18th, calling at Grand Turk. Fares from £299. A similar, four night Christmas Cruise sails on December 22nd, and calls at Princess Cays.  The prices are from £519.

Another, four night cruise to the western Caribbean, calling at Grand Cayman, sails on December 26th, and is priced from £519.

The New Years Eve cruise aboard Ruby Princess is a five night, festive fling, sailing from Fort Lauderdale on December 30th, and heads out to the eastern Caribbean staples of Grand Turk and Princess Cays. Fares for this voyage start from £589.

Should you be looking more in terms of options for early 2014, Ruby Princess has you covered again, with a total of twenty four different four and five night sailings, running through until April 22nd, and featuring all the ports mentioned above.

Sister ship, Caribbean Princess will then take over the Fort Lauderdale run, with some sizzling options on offer running right through into the early spring.

Princess has an on board product that offers the experience and amenities of big ship cruising in a series of more intimate scaled venues, plus signature activities such as the lines famous Movies Under The Stars programme. The product is an excellent, well balanced choice overall, and equally suited to the novice cruiser looking for a first time experience, to the veteran cruise traveller in need of a short break.

Your escape capsule awaits...

Your escape capsule awaits…

It’s a well thought through and deft little programme, and one definitely worth a look.

Please note: All prices quoted here are based on inside cabins. For fares on outside and balcony cabins, please contact your travel agent.

TRIUMPH RETURNS TO SERVICE

Carnival Triumph returns to service today

Carnival Triumph returns to service today

Amid all the ballyhoo and euphoria of today’s inauguration of the brand new Royal Princess at Southampton, the return to service today of the Carnival Triumph will probably go relatively unremarked upon.

Yet this was the self same ship that last generated Carnival corp it’s last tsunami of press and media attention, when the 102,000 ton ship drifted without motive power for several days earlier this year, following a fire on board. More than four thousand passengers and crew were stranded aboard the Carnival Triumph for several days, and a massive media feeding frenzy ensued.

The fallout from the accident was enormous; Carnival took a huge public and financial hit as a result, and some serious rethinking ensued at Coral Gables. One of the far reaching results of that thinking was last week’s return of former Carnival CEO, Bob Dickinson, in an advisory role. Long acknowledged as a savvy operator and a steady pair of hands, his presence should help to realign the company towards the core concepts that made it the front runner in mainstream cruising.

And today, the Carnival Triumph herself returns to service, embarking on the first of a series of four and five night cruises from Galveston, Texas, to some of the highlights of the western Caribbean. Four day itineraries feature a call at Cozumel, while the five day voyages showcase both Cozumel and Progreso, on the Yucatan.

The ship comes back to service with a whole new raft of fire detection and suppression systems installed. In addition, Carnival has installed a backup emergency generator to ensure that such vital functions as light, sanitation and heating systems can continue to operate in the event of an engine room failure,

Carnival took the opportunity to upgrade the Triumph with the full range of Carnival 2.0 Fun Ship enhancements during her enforced absence from service. The work was carried out at a dockyard in Freeport, Bahamas.

For instance, all cabins now have new beds and bedding, right throughout the ship. A vast amount of new carpeting has been fitted throughout all the main public areas. The line also took the opportunity to add a swathe of new dining and drinking venues.

These include the free for all Guy’s Burger Joint, featuring prime quality cuts of beef; the Cucina del Capitano themed Italian family restaurant, and the Punchliner’s Comedy Club. There is also a branch of the popular Red Frog Bar, with its own, specially brewed ‘Thirsty Frog’ beer, as well as the Blue iguana Mexican Cantina. The popular Alchemy Bar and EA Sports Club will also feature aboard the revitalised Triumph.

Serenity Deck, Carnival style

Serenity Deck, Carnival style

These upgrades go hand in hand with a range of new themed shows that are being rolled out right across the entire Carnival fleet. The revamped Carnival Triumph should prove to be a spectacular floating playground for these short cruises, scheduled to run right through 2014.

Sister ship Carnival Victory will receive a similar, comprehensive series of upgrades next year, as Funship 2.0 is rolled out across the fleet. Interestingly, the next scheduled upgrade is for the Fantasy class  Carnival Imagination in September.

CARNIVAL’S WORKHORSES- THE FANTASY CLASS REVISITED

ImageRecently, the Carnival fleet has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons. There were the very well documented breakdowns on both the Splendor and the Triumph and, more recently, some problems with the brand new Dream.

ImageMeanwhile, in another part of the Carnival galaxy, the eight almost identical Fantasy class sisters go (relatively) quietly about their work. Each week, they carry upwards of forty thousand passengers between them on short, fun filled runs to the Bahamas, the western Caribbean, and Pacific Mexico.

ImageHaven’t heard about them? Why would you? They are a largely unsung success story, the ships that actually built the Carnival empire. The profits they made- and continue to make- funded every successive generation of the ‘Fun Ships’ to sail in their wake.

ImageAnd, thanks to some pretty substantial, class wide renovations, there’s still a lot of life in them yet.

ImageStarting with the 1990 built Fantasy, another seven siblings- Ecstasy, Imagination, Fascination, Sensation, Inspiration, Elation and, lastly, Paradise- came out of Finland’s MASA shipyards. These were the days before Carnival contracted newbuilds exclusively to Italy.

ImageThe 70,000 ton sisters were a direct, dramatic response to Royal Caribbean’s wildly successful, similarly sized Sovereign class trio. Maritime purists loathed them from the start.

ImageThe angular, boxy hulls were all about function rather than form; great, rigid white monoliths, each one topped with the by now familiar Carnival trademark ‘winged’ funnel.

ImageInside, they were amazing or infuriating, dependent on personal taste. Joe Farcus, Carnival’s interior designer, let his imagination run riot to create a series of fantastic, whimsical playgrounds at sea, each one more over the top than the last.

ImageVast, eight story high atria were shrouded in shimmering neon. and featured an almost fairy tale grand staircase on the lower few levels. Casinos the size of zeppelin hangars were overrun with thousands of slot machines, and even more different colours.

ImageA vast indoor boulevard featured a string of bars, cafes and music venues in a myriad of eye popping shades. Each one of those ships was a stunning, swaggering piece of fun fuelled bravado afloat. Brash, sassy, and brimming with good things, they were instant hits with the travelling public. They dominated the Caribbean in the nineties to a large degree.

ImageFarcus also went against accepted wisdom by creating the largest standard cabins in the industry for this class; on average half as large again as their rivals. With only a handful of upper deck veranda cabins, and some balcony suites carved into the lower superstructure, they were very much the trendsetters for mainstream cruising.

ImageBut as the sisters approached early mid life status, times and tastes were changing. Balconies became all the rage. Then, in the wake of 9/11, people no longer wanted to fly to pick up ships in Miami or Puerto Rico any more.

ImageCarnival got round the latter, bigger problem by moving the ships to smaller ports, so that people could simply drive to the ships. This ‘homeland cruising’ was a huge success, and still is. Nowadays, you can board a Fantasy class ship in New Orleans, Charleston, Los Angeles, Mobile and even Jacksonville, as well as Port Canaveral and Miami.

ImageWith bigger, more spectacular and more amenity laden ships coming into service across all the main cruise lines, Carnival gradually relegated the ships to shorter, three and four day cruises, where the lack of facilities would not be such an issue. Then, a few years ago, the line came up with an ambitious life extension plan for all the ships.

ImageOne at a time, they were taken out of service and spruced up with some dramatic cosmetic surgery. Best of all was the creation on each of a stern facing, adults only Serenity area. Complete with padded loungers, bubbling hot tubs and a much more relaxed vibe than the main pool area, these are popular and welcome additions.

ImageEach ship also had a number of ad hoc balconies grafted onto the midships and stern superstructures. These are not big; but certainly big enough to give them a leg up in terms of cabin comfort and, more importantly, passenger choice.

ImageThe level of in- cabin comfort was enhanced, with plush new bedding and flat screen televisions. Some of the original decor has been softened down as well, especially in the public areas. While still brimming with fun, colour and sheer verve, they are no longer as strident as when new.

ImageJoe Farcus is, without doubt, the Andy Warhol of interior cruise ship design. His work is whimsical and distinctive, in an Alice through the looking glass kind of way. And while some of the Fantasy class interiors might still be too much for some, each of his ships is as individual as a fingerprint. And they are never, ever boring to look at.

They have been by and large lucky ships, as well. There was a fire on the Ecstasy, but that was put out quickly without loss of life or mobility to the ship. And a brave, early attempt to make last-of-class Paradise the world’s first cruise ship for non smokers was, alas, just that. Brave, and too early.

ImageAnd while they have a uniform design, there were some gradual innovations down through the years. The 1998- built Elation was the first major cruise ship anywhere fitted with azipod propulsion, as opposed to the traditional propeller/rudder combination.

Spruced up and with a lot of that old-style Carnival pizazz still intact, it’s a safe bet that these ships will still be making thousands of happy passengers for years to come.

CRUISING ON CARNIVAL

Anyone with more the three brain cells will be aware that there are many cruise passengers that would rather commit hara kiri than board a Carnival ship. The idea of being afloat with thousands of people in an environment sometimes compared to a floating frat house is anathema to them.

And that, of course, is fair enough. Because the true beauty of cruising lies in the fact that there are types and sizes of ships out there to suit every taste, from the raucous to the reserved.

But it is also a sad fact that many of those who sneer at Carnival have never set foot on a Carnival ship in their lives. My first Carnival cruise was back in 2000 and, for sure, I went with very mixed feelings. But I was also prepared to keep an open mind.

And the truth is that I had a great time. I met some absolutely wonderful people- a recurring theme from all of my dozen or so Carnival voyages to date. Yes, sometimes lines for getting on and off are maddening, as are the buffet lines. But you do not have to be Hercule Poirot to realise that these are the inevitable consequences of putting to sea on what is, in essence, a small town with propellers/azipods.

Sure, there are elements I find unappetising. The on deck games can be banal. So I don’t watch them. The ships have enough space and options to allow you to find your own personal happy space. Don’t like Country and Western? OK, go listen to some Jazz. Not a jazz fan? Fine- go check out some live rock. I’ll stop there because you undoubtedly get the gist.

Food not quite gourmet quality? Think about it in terms of what you pay for your trip. The value is certainly there. It might not be six star, but you’re not paying those kind of prices, either. Carnival’s food in general is pretty damned good, and occasionally outstanding. The dining rooms are as much entertainment venues as any bar or club on the ship, so you’re not going to enjoy the kind of  hushed, hallowed repast as on, say, Seabourn or Silversea. is that really a deal breaker for you?

So, what is it actually like on board? The Carnival ships are stunning, swaggering slices of Vegas-On-Sea, with casinos the size of zeppelin hangars, and all the round the clock fun and frivolity you could ever shake a cocktail stick at. The upper decks are liberally sprinkled with pools, hot tubs and chaises, plus thousands of bodies draped across them. There is live music everywhere.

Too much? Sometimes, yes. But Carnival have clocked on to this, and each ship now has a dedicated, adults-only Serenity area with padded loungers and umbrellas, and sometimes a couple of hot tubs. On my last Carnival cruise, I eschewed the bubonic joys of a day ashore in Ensenada and just hung out here all day instead. Sheer, copper bottomed bliss it was, too.

I’m not mad on their on board discos, but this is more down to the music policy than anything else. And it is understandable that the young and young at heart want to hear the current stuff. Having grown up listening to the Temptations and the Supremes, it’s pretty obvious that the ‘sound’ of One Direction and Girls Aloud is not going to be honey to my ears. But again, it’s a generational thing. I have a theory that the first Caribbean line to have the odd, Motown/Philly/Soul themed cruise would clean up quite nicely at the bank. Food for thought. Soul food. Hold that thought!

But again, there are other options. Each Carnival ship has a bar dedicated solely to good, live jazz, and I love chilling out in them. The young can keep their hip hop and their Budweisers if I can get some cool jazz and a decent martini. And thankfully, Carnival serves up both with some aplomb.

Some shudder at the bright, neon fuelled decorative excess that typifies Carnival interiors. They are mainly the work of the brilliant Joe Farcus, Carnival’s very own Andy Warhol. These actually work perfectly for the famously monickered ‘fun ships’, and contribute immensely to the brash, breezy vibe that permeates those Carnival colossi. Fun is seldom subtle, and Farcus even less. But his ships are always beguiling, in an Alice through the looking glass way. Each is as distinctive as a fingerprint; and they are never, ever boring.

Cabins are fine and roomy, though the suites are not generally as expansive as the competition.The newer, bigger builds flaunt avenues of balconies atop their snow white hulls. Those balconies are not big, but definitely big enough for two. And it also gives you another options to escape the hugger mugger on the noisy upper decks.

Yes, there is a hard sell for extras such as bingo, shore excursions and the rest. The photographers can be annoying, but the truth is that it is no more prevalent on Carnival than on any of its rivals these days. You’ll find a blizzard of flyers for shop sales, both on board and ashore. if this annoys you, that’s what the waste bin is for.

Truth be told, all of these things are options on the whole smorgasbord that is the experience of a Carnival cruise. As with any buffet, you pick the stuff you like, and disregard the rest. This is not rocket science, but it’s amazing- and a bit dispiriting- to realise how many people don’t get that.

And of course, you’ll always find career, professional moaners on any cruise. The sort of people that would probably have more fun at a hanging than a wedding. Nothing will ever be good enough for them but- again- the size of the ships means you can neatly sidestep these miseries intent on raining on your parade.

Like anything else, a smile and a decent attitude will generally sugar your coffee. Just go with the flow, as it were and, chances are good that you’ll have a great time. I have had some of my best times on Carnival ships- the people that I have met, both passengers and crew, have often been a delight- and I fully intend to go again.

Wherever and whenever you go, have fun. It’s a party, not a punishment. See you out there somewhere!

  Carnival’s distinctive funnels are their trademark

This piece was originally written prior to the incidents with the Carnival Triumph and Elation, both of which I have sailed on. I have very happy memories of both ships.

Does anything that has happened change my opinion on cruising Carnival? No. Things go wrong on any ship from time to time. That said, Carnival’s PR department has it’s work cut out for it in reassuring the travelling public that all is well with their ships.

There’s been a very vocal, ill informed barrage of media feeding on what they see as a prime target. That does not mean that there are not issues that need to be resolved- and permanently- in the public eye. Stupidity on one side does not excuse laxity or lack of clarity required from the other one if it is to get back on track.

The great bulk of these breakdowns seem to be happening to the bigger, Italian built hulls. By contrast, the eight ships of the earlier Fantasy class- all built by MASA in Finland- seem to lead largely charmed lives.

All of these now tend to sail on shorter, three to five day circuits and are, in truth, never too far from land anyway. But they are not the problem.

With Carnival upping it’s presence in both Scandinavia and the Mediterranean this summer, the company really needs to get it’s act together if it is going to compete effectively in those arenas with longer, better established rivals such as Norwegian and Royal.