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Cruise Line Review

Carnival Cruise Lines - Cruise Line Review provided by Cruise Critic

About

Carnival, founded in 1972 and headquartered in Miami, is the world's largest cruise line. The line's humble origins pigeonholed it as the cruise industry's version of a floating fraternity party for a long, long time. But that was yesterday, and while Carnival still commands a certain reputation for a flashy, neon-esque atmosphere -- and by no means skimps on elaborate lounges and discos -- its ships continue to evolve.

In particular, Carnival's earned kudos for enhancing cuisine (never a high point in the old days), investing in a top-notch children's program, and expanding its itinerary offerings beyond its traditional Caribbean and Bahamas trips to regions like Alaska and Atlantic Canada. It offered its first European itineraries in 2002 (Carnival Legend sailed a few cruises after its inauguration in Harwich), and in 2005, Carnival Liberty spent a full season in Europe -- a first for the line. The line has also taken advantage of the fastest growing cruise segment in the United States, short vacations of three to five nights, and has deployed most of its Fantasy-class ships to those markets.

Carnival is one of the world's most innovative cruise lines. In 1996, Carnival debuted the first passenger vessel to exceed 100,000 tons: Carnival Destiny. It was also the first major cruise line to build and operate a completely smoke-free cruise ship, Paradise. After nearly six years of butt-free sailings, the ship, now deployed in California, has gone to a "limited smoking" policy where guests can light up in the casino and just a couple of bars and lounges, but not in cabins nor most public spaces, even outside -- except for midship-only on the Lido deck. 2005 saw initiatives to upgrade two additional aspects of the Carnival cruise experience. Standard cabins now include robes, and the "Carnival Comfort Bed" sleep system features deluxe new plush mattresses, soft duvets, high quality linens and upgraded pillows. (Suite passengers have a "suite pillow menu" from which to select a specific pillow of their liking.)

But perhaps the biggest potential improvement is the quantum leap in culinary quality due in part to the new partnership with Michelin three-star chef, Georges Blanc, who is developing new menu entrees fleetwide and instituting training for Carnival chefs both in his Vonnas, France, restaurant and aboard the ships themselves.

Carnival also pioneered the concept of building regional drive-to ports, expanding its embarkation centers beyond Miami to places like New Orleans, Mobile, Jacksonville, Port Canaveral, Galveston, Norfolk, Charleston and New York. It has built a cruise port in Long Beach, California, to take advantage of sailings to the west coast of Mexico.

The company offers a vacation guarantee program that allows passengers unhappy with their cruise the chance to disembark at the first port and get a refund. They also provide senior discounts via AARP, as well as very successful weddings at sea and golf offerings.

Onboard Atmosphere

Carnival offers an incredibly diverse range of onboard activities, from traditional napkin-folding classes, Vegas-style revues and kitchen tours to funkier fun like belly-flop pool contests and water slides. All of its ships offer size-appropriate spa and fitness facilities and have multiple pool areas. On Destiny-class ships and subsequent new-builds, one pool always lies under a retractable roof so it can be used year-round. Casinos on Carnival ships are elaborate, Vegas-style rooms with all the neon and flash one would expect.

Carnival is increasingly experimenting with dining venues on its ships. The revamp, which falls under the umbrella "Total Choice Dining," includes a four-tiered staggered dining time arrangement in select ships' main restaurants -- passengers can choose 5:45 p.m., 6:15 p.m., 8 p.m. or 8:30 p.m.

Beyond traditional dining, Carnival is gradually introducing specialty eateries, such as an Asian-themed restaurant, a New York-style deli and a pre-dinner sushi bar. Spirit and Conquest-class ships have an upscale "supper club" alternative restaurant (cover charge applies). Other new concepts include a patisserie.

Other new concepts include a patisserie (Fantasy, Ecstasy, Elation, Paradise, Carnival Destiny, Carnival Triumph, Carnival Victory, Carnival Spirit, Carnival Pride, Carnival Conquest, Carnival Glory) and the Nouveau Supper Club, an upscale boutique restaurant (Carnival Spirit, Carnival Pride, Carnival Legend and Carnival Conquest, Carnival Glory).

In the spa arena, Carnival has renamed its Nautica Spa. The new moniker, adopted fleetwide, is SpaCarnival. Other highlights include Internet cafes and the recent introduction of in-cabin amenity baskets.

Editor's note: The additions vary wildly between vessels with the newer, bigger liners having the more sophisticated accouterments for the most part. Despite much uniformity, this is definitely one cruise line where ship-by-ship research is a good idea if there are particular features that interest you.

Itineraries

Carnival's "bread and butter" remains the Caribbean, but the line has ventured into fairly new territory of late, with Carnival Freedom visiting Greece and Turkey in 2007, and Carnival Spirit offering cruises to Hawaii and Alaska. This year, Carnival Destiny sails out of Aruba, Barbados and San Juan, offering exotic Southern Caribbean sailings, while almost all of the Fantasy-class ships will be deployed on short cruises ranging from three to five nights, visiting ports in the Bahamas, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Fellow Passengers

Passengers are a broad crisscross of (mostly) middle America; according to Carnival, 30 percent of its passengers are under 35, 40 percent are between 35 and 55, and 30 percent are over 55.

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