By Karen Rubin

The joyous prospect of a celebration of a milestone anniversary swiftly morphed into a frightening image of cramming 10 people (including four teenagers) into my parents' small household; waits for the bathroom; a three, four or five-times daily feeding frenzy (think of the grocery bills and hours of shopping, preparing and cleaning up, let alone restaurant tabs!), and the difficulty of coordinating departures for even modest outings. Just calculating the dollar expense, and trebling damages because of hardship and mental anguish, a four-day cruise seemed like the answer to a prayer.

So, our three families set sail over the winter holiday from Miami on Carnival Cruise Line's Fascination, for a four-day voyage bound for Key West and Cozumel. Clearly, many others had the same idea; our 2,052-passenger ship was chock full of happy multi-generational families like ours celebrating milestone anniversaries, birthdays, reunions or simply enjoying the chance to be together (as well as apart) that a cruise affords. (Think about it, people love to vacation and with adequate preparation, it is not a financial hardship for families to take a cruise together). Indeed, while we were away over the Christmas holidays (picture palm trees with twinkling lights, holly, poinsettia and bundled up Santa in 80-degree weather), so were 17 family members of Florida Governor Jeb Bush with his father and mother, the former President and First Lady, on a Disney cruiseship, bound for the Bahamas.

Our first night at sea proved I was right.

After a pleasant (stress-free) dinner, there was so much to do on the ship that we could all enjoy together but also many activities to appeal to our different age groups and interests (by the way, you can rent walkie talkies onboard so you can keep in contact because you can expect older kids will go off on their own). All of us enjoyed the marvelous shows. Indeed, Carnival is known for truly spectacular entertainment) such the "Fascinatin' Broadway" musicals review, truly spectacular in every respect, and the greatly entertaining "Hollywood!" revue which make use of dazzling laser lighting, elaborate costumes, moveable stages, fog and special effects, stunning choreography and a talented group of dancers and singers. Before and after, the teens went off to karaoke, the teen club, the disco, and such, the adults checked out the casino, the piano bar, the karaoke, and the midnight "R"-rated comedy show, and such.

Families love the Carnival ships, which more than 30 years ago pioneered the "Fun Ship" concept, because of Camp Carnival. The counselors are terrific at easing the kids into the program and the kids really have a good time; and in fact, a record 400,000 kids are expected in Camp Carnival programs throughout the fleet this year. There are four programs, depending on age: Toddlers (2-5) have activities like sponge painting, sing-alongs, face painting; Juniors (6-8) enjoy a puppet show, cookie decorating, beach party, T-shirt painting; Intermediate (9-11) do things like Ping-Pong, dance class, jewelry making, scavenger hunts, Go Backstage, photography workshop, and talent show; and Teens (12-15) have events like a pool party, volley ball, pizza pig-out, talent show, slide & sun, photography workshop, and video games. The Camp schedule varies depending upon the time in port, but sometimes there is overlap (such as an afternoon Camp activity) which would free up parents who want to do something that the youngster would not enjoy); in general, Camp Carnival activities are scheduled until 10 p.m., when babysitting is available until 3 a.m.

The cruise concept is particularly ideal for teens, who have many opportunities to have their own space and meet new friends. There are special activities at the "Backstreet Club" (located just off the arcade) like a slam-dunk competition and karaoke, as well as dance parties in the Diamonds disco for 16-18 year olds.

Adults also enjoy the karaoke in the stunning "Passage to India" room; piano sing-a-longs in a fabulously decorated room where even the tables, chairs and walls resembled pianos or keyboards; an "R" rated midnight comedy show in a smaller theater (preceded by an amazing rock band from the Philippines), with sufficient fair warning that if you were easily offended you should be somewhere else (I wasn't the least offended); an excellent casino (even 5c slots); well outfitted, and good-sized fitness center (with giant windows looking out to the ocean) and spa (massages, as well as special classes at an extra charge). The sports deck had a special track, as well as shuffle board, volleyball, and a basketball hoop; there is also ping pong. The ship offers three pools (larger than we have seen on other ships) including one with a big water slide, as well as whirlpools. There is also one (isolated) sundeck for topless sunbathing.

There are plenty of activities geared to adult travelers, such as a Singles Party, dance class, game show mania, cocktail piano music; "Intro to Pilates" seminar.

The superb programming for the youngest passengers is one of the reasons propelling the growth in cruising by grandparents taking their grandkids on their own (a concept known as "grandtravel"), as well as the three-generational trip such as our family took. (Seniors have been cruising on Carnival in record numbers, with or without the rest of their family: nearly 900,000 guests over the age of 55 - almost one-third of the line's total passengers - are expected to sail with Carnival in 2003.)

The staterooms on the Fascination (and its sister ships) are larger than most and extremely comfortable, with ample-sized bathrooms where we found an amenity basket. Aim for the Empress deck (deals will upgrade to this level). There is TV (you will be surprised to find a New York station), which also delivers movies including a Kids Channel (but the same three movies are repeated way too much). Or, if you would like to splurge, book one of the gorgeous balconied suites on the Verandah deck.

The 855-foot long, 70,367-ton Fascination is in fact awesome. You walk through the gangway into a center atrium that rises up seven decks, with neon and lights, glass and metal, some 20 varieties of marble and eight rare wood types. From here, there are so many different places to explore--it takes almost the entire trip before you really know where you are going, and then it is time to leave.

The Passage to India lounge is probably the most dramatic, with life-sized twin-tusked elephants in ceremonial regalia at the entrance, and inside, a domed shrine and statue of multi-armed Hindu deity and floor-to-ceiling pillars.

The Piano Bar, called "88" is sheer delight. Giant, neon-illuminated piano keys of white glass with overlays of black keys emerge from the ceiling and line the walls. Mirrored tabletops, shaped like miniature grand pianos complete with keyboards, echo the theme, wall sized piano keys and a circular keyboard surround the centerpiece, a candelabra-lit grand piano. A few steps away, the ship's traditional Library is instead a richly-appointed salon named "Tara", where you can find a selection of books and popular board games. There is also a card room which got plenty of action during the day spent at sea.

The casino also has a Hollywood theme, taken from the James Bond "Casino Royale" with a Monte Carlo feel (a first for Carnival, where the Fun Ship casinos are mostly styled after Las Vegas). The James Bond theme is also followed in the disco, called "Diamonds Are Forever," a high-tech, high-glitter room arrayed with brilliant images of sparkling gems. There are color-changing acrylic diamonds on the walls, fiber-optic diamonds sprouting from the mirrored ceiling, and imitation diamonds in clear resin on table-tops. The dance floor of blue pearl granite has wavy rings of automated, sparkling Tivoli lights.

Indeed, the Fascination offers many delightful nooks and crannies-lovely little lounge areas--where you can sit and chat with friends or family, especially along Hollywood Boulevard; some where there are big-screen TVs with programming from New York and Miami (we were happy we did not miss the Sarah Hughes television special that aired on Christmas Day). There is even an Internet Café.

Dining is, of course, one of the main appeals of a cruise. The Fascination has two full dining rooms and four different seating times for the convenience of passengers. The food, however, was perhaps the only shortcoming.

The buffets served in the pool-side, informal Coconut Grove Bar and Grill (the most tropical looking room on the ship) on the Lido Deck, where you go if you miss the seating in the dining room, were mediocre, and because we were inadvertently placed in the early seating, we found ourselves here for breakfasts and lunches. Each night, the Coconut Grove was also the venue for elaborate themed midnight buffets (the Christmas buffet was stunning with Santa Clauses made from tomatoes and gingerbread houses decorating the dessert table). However, you will also find a 24-hour pizzeria here that serves decent pizza. Another recourse is to order Stateroom Service, which is provided with no extra charge.

The cuisine in the dining room was much better, but still inconsistent, with the presentations exceeding the preparations. We did appreciate that each menu had the "chef's recommendations," as well as relatively low-calorie "Nautica spa" selections for each course. The best meal was Christmas dinner, featuring among the choices a starter of ragout of wild mushrooms served with goat cheese crostini; Caesar salad; a supreme of chicken in a hazelnut crust on a light ginger sauce with jasmine rice; and a strawberry yule log for dessert. The spa fare for this meal consisted of fresh tropical fruit and berries on mango coulis; asparagus vichyssoise; mixed garden and field greens; broiled fillet of pike perch with purple risotto, balsamic reduction and cilantro emulsion, and poached pear on strawberry coulis.

We made use of the Fascination's "Formality Shop" (where you can rent tuxedos), to arrange for champagne, chocolate-covered strawberries, and special glasses to be delivered to my parents on their anniversary.

It is worth noting, as well, that even though this ship was filled to capacity, you didn't have the feeling of being overwhelmed, nor overrun by kids.

The appeal of cruising is that it is supposedly all-inclusive, but that refers to your basic needs-transportation, accommodation and dining. Nonetheless, we were a bit put off by what seemed to be nickel-and-diming. You get on board and they sell you a drink card for the kids, at $12, so they can get as much watered-down, flat soda as they would want instead of paying $2 a pop; there are stands set up at the entrance to the show to sell duty-free items and t-shirts. You would expect to pay extra for a massage but there was a $10 charge to take classes at the gym. Like a mix between Las Vegas and the Catskills, you can buy a pony (owners had the obligation of dressing them up and 'promoting them' in order to get one-third of the gate and bet on the pony races which was amusing up to a point); bingo, cleverly timed right before the show so that there was a room full of people with nothing to do. Even the daily newsletter, which on other ships offers interesting information about the port you are about to visit and tips on how to get the most of your time ashore, was one big shopping advertisement.

One bit of vending that was appreciated, though, were the many, many photographers who would do studio-style set-ups (the photos from the formal evening were cleverly done as 8 x 10s so the price was $20 instead of $10 for the 5x7s).

My pet peeve is that there is very limited advance information about the shore excursions, and no information about the prices until you get onboard. In many cases, with advance preparation, you can do-it-yourself at a fraction of the cost, and even go ashore and buy the same excursion from a local operator at 30 to 50 percent less than the price onboard. The problem is that there is such limited time, you need to know in advance what you can and can't do on your own. The fact is, some shore excursions are worth the money because of the logistics and timing (for example, on this cruise, the excursion to the Mayan ruins of Tulum was impossible except through the shore excursion, and even dollar for dollar, was not that much more money), while others are not (more on this later).

As a rule of thumb, though, Carnival has done an extremely good job of offering a selection of more active tours, such as kayaking, scuba diving, snorkeling, horseback riding, biking, and greater emphasis on visits to ecological and nature parks.

What drew me particularly to the Fascination, indeed, was that the four-day western Caribbean cruise featured calls at Key West and Cozumel as the ports of call (the Fascination also sails a three-day Bahamas cruise). What we found at the destinations greatly exceeded expectation. And, all in all, the pricing of the cruise, putting it in an affordable, mass-market level, was well worth the modest shortcoming in the food. Indeed, I would happily take the same itinerary again-even the same ship--because the destinations had so much to offer.

Pricing: Prices on cruises vary widely depending upon sailing date and cabin type. Carnival is advertising rates starting at $249 with a free cabin upgrade for most sailings, before port charges (which are over $100). Carnival ships typically have a good selection of cabins accommodating third and fourth persons, which means that rates for children sharing the cabin can start at $179 (a good cruise-only agency typically has good deals or upgrades). You may well be able to take advantage of senior discounts (you have to ask and the rate would apply to the whole party; also AARP members can take advantage of special discounts, see the www.AARP.org site); also, returning Carnival guests are eligible for discounts, so ask. Carnival also offers trip cancellation insurance at a modest amount, as well as an exclusive Vacation Guarantee, whereby a guest who is not satisfied for any reason can disembark and receive a pro-rated refund for the unused cruise far and airfare reimbursement for the flight back home. Carnival also offers a "Fun Finance Plan;" a three-day cruise at $299 would amount to a monthly payment of $14 for 24 months.

Carnival offers round-trip air transportation supplements from more than 170 North American gateways through its "Fly Aweigh" program, and prices vary according to departure city, but you should still compare these air add-on rates to promotional fares that you might be able to obtain on your own.

Carnival, the largest cruise line in the world, operates 18 "Fun Ships" on voyages of three to 16 days in length to the Bahamas, Caribbean, Mexican Riviera, Alaska, Hawaii, the Panama Canal, New England, Canada and Bermuda. Four new ships are scheduled to enter service between now and 2005. Best to contact a cruise-oriented travel agent, or for further information, call 800-CARNIVAL, or visit Carnival's website, www.carnival.com.

(For more on family cruising, check out FTN's Family Cruising Area.)


(1) Trolleys and trams deliver passengers back to Carnival's Fascination after sightseeing in Key West (photo by Karen Rubin).

(2) The water slide on Carnival's Fascination proved extremely popular with kids during the day spent at sea on the four-day cruise (photo by Karen Rubin).

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