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By PAUL MOTTER
You cannot argue with success, and having just returned from a cruise on Carnival Freedom, it is easy to see why Carnival is an industry leader. The ship has extremely comfortable and utile staterooms, arguably the best entertainment in the business and cuisine that is often described by Carnival initiates as "much better than expected," which is to say, "it's really good."
I have to admit, however, that the ship's decor is not exactly what I would choose for my personal living space. It has heavy bronze plates bowing out at you from every wall, and the ceilings. These arching panels are punctuated with bright glowing globes with colors of light that slowly rotate through a series of hues from green to orange, red and blue. The color rotation is slow enough that you don't really notice the effect unless you watch for it.
Everywhere you look, the walls are bulging out at you like a 1950s jukebox ready to burst, especially the heavy, rounded door jambs finished with mirror tiles. The patterns of the carpeting against the drapes and furniture fabrics is like plaid on checkered on paisley. Like a drunken duffer got dressed in the dark.
At least give them credit for going well beyond the concept of "a distinct personality for each ship." Each of Carnival's twenty-plus ships has a thoroughly different interior design. Obviously, taking the concept of "unique" to unimagined levels works for them. The ships are always full and abuzz with with people having fun. It certainly is a better concept than other cruise lines where the one you walk aboard in Miami looks like the one you sailed in Alaska the year before.
So, the decor on Freedom isn't my cup of tea. One thing I noticed is that its outlandishness actually has a mood-lightening effect, solely because it is so over the top you can't help being amused by it. Secondly, late at night when a lot of people would be thinking about going to bed, the decor seemingly breathes vitality into the rooms. The line is named "Carnival" after all and that word imbues a certain image.
So, having said all that, ironically I have to ask you to ignore the decor to truly enjoy this ship. The food is nothing like you would get at a state fair carnival. The steaks are perfectly grilled to melt in your mouth tenderness. The lobster has just the right texture, flaking on your tongue. The cold fruit soups, bing cherry or strawberry, have genuine fruit flavor, not like melted ice cream.
And has cruise ship entertainment actually gotten better in the last few years? The "Tribute to the Beatles" show was fun to watch and creative, mixing technical innovation with true individual talent.
Can a cruise travel web site actually present a 12,000-word investigative article on the rise and fall of a cruise line? We tell it all in our article "Windjammer, End of an Empire." When Captain Burke started his cruise line in 1947 he had no idea how successful it would eventually become. But when the time came for his six children to take over, the phrase "too many cooks ruins the stew" could not be more appropriate.
Today, the line's finances appear to be in a shambles, and the web site has been all but abandoned in favor of a non-affiliated message board where management dukes it out with its own customers about how the business should be run. Customers who have laid out tens of thousands of dollars in pre-paid cruises face the distinct possibility of receiving nothing for their investment.
We expose the entire history, from Captain Burkes' Miami Beach castle with live sharks swimming in the moat to the rare sinking of the line's flagship Fantome during Hurricane Mitch in 1998. This true family drama has more intrigue than a television soap opera. And it is still unfolding on a daily basis.
Where the Bargains Are
According to Carnival's new president, Jerry Cahill, the Caribbean is "coming back." Indeed, for the last few years cruisers have appeared far more interested in Europe and Hawaii than Caribbean vacations. We actually saw prices for 7-day Caribbean cruises as low as $329 per person a year ago. But new indicators suggest that pricing is firming up again.
Why? According to Cahill, it is partly because the competition has put so much focus on other places, especially Europe, and not on the Caribbean. Carnival specializes in Caribbean cruising with the vast majority of their ships there year-round. To keep it interesting they are moving a few vessels to different home ports, and they are trying a new 6-day, port intensive itinerary for Carnival Destiny. According to Cahill, not everyone who goes to the Caribbean is just thinking about laying by the pool, some people want to see what these islands have to offer.
We agree with that statement, and as time goed one we are finding that more and more people are discovering cruising is a great way to travel, to exotic places, as well as a great getaway vacation to relax and rejuvenate. ON these new port-intensive Caribbean itineraries, you can have the best of both worlds.