We arrived in San Juan about noon via an on-time, non-stop US Air flight from Philadelphia. The skies were clear and smooth. Since we used frequent flyer miles for our air fare, we needed a taxi from the airport to the ship. This was quite easy because the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (basically, a visitors bureau) has a desk in the baggage claim area of the San Juan Airport. You merely tell them you need a cab to the cruise port, and they provide you a slip of paper with the authorized price. You then walk outside and hand this to the cab driver who is next in the queue. We paid $16 plus $.50 per bag with the first two free. Tips are extra. The seven mile ride took us almost 25 minutes due to traffic and construction. We arrived at the ship about 1pm, and took about ten minutes to check in (there was no line.) Upon boarding the ship, we were greeted by an assistant purser, and a room steward gave us directions to our cabin. Finally, our vacation was actually starting!
Our cabin (U78) was a clean and spacious inside cabin on the Upper Deck, just forward of midships. The beds were standard Carnival twins that pushed together and locked. We found them quite comfortable. The large bathroom had a shower roomy enough to pick up the soap without bumping against the wall (not a small feat in many of the cruise ship showers I've encountered.) The medicine cabinet had twice as much room as we needed, and there were ample towels. Please be aware that Carnival does not supply the little bottle of shampoo, so be sure to bring your favorite brand. The closet space was so roomy that my back hurts just THINKING of how much luggage we would need to take to create a space problem! The small safe worked with our card keys, so it was convenient to keep valuables in the room. A small desk, chair, and vanity stool completed the arrangement. Hats off to the designer who put together the cabins on the Fantasy-class ship! We were very impressed with the comfort and attention to detail built into the cabin.
After stowing our belongings, we went up to the Lido Deck to visit the Coconut Grove Bar and Grill. There was a very nice meal available, but we just had something to drink since we weren't tremendously hungry. Guess that airplane food was so good........naaah, the heat and excitement must have gotten to us. It was certainly hot enough! Although the thermometer only read in the low 90's, the humidity and the bright sun really wiped us out!
One of the great advantages of catching a ship in San Juan, is that you normally have plenty of time to enjoy the city before your sailing. Most ships leave no earlier than 10pm, so an early-arriving flight gives you plenty of time to tour the old city. We wandered around for a couple of hours, buying some last-minute items (including a 2-liter bottle of soda) in the Walgreen's drug store on Calle Cruz. Most of the worthwhile places of interest in Old San Juan are within 20 minutes walking distance of the ship (including the Hard Rock Cafe, Senor Frog's, and McDonald's!) The walkway around the old wall of the city was particularly beautiful and well-maintained.
The Fascination's theme decor is oriented toward Hollywood. The most visible manifestation of this is the roughly three dozen manequins depicting famous stars of the silver screen. Some are easy to recognize, while others test the powers of movie addicts. It is really great fun to try identifying the manequins (and also the source of a few wagers, I noticed!)
Meals on the first night are served either open-seating in the dining room (5:30 and 8 p.m.), or in the Coconut Grove Bar and Grill (luncheon menu until 8 p.m.). We chose the early dinner in the dining room (which was excellent), and then opted for a nap to catch up on some lost sleep (going away on vacation is always a drag at work!) After a few hours of intense eyelid study (assisted by bonine), we caught the late night buffet (reasonably good) for a few bites as the ship entered the open sea.
During the first night, you have the opportunity to attend a number of orientation meetings (gaming instruction, Camp Carnival orientation, Nautica Spa tours, snorkeling slide show, art auction previews, etc.), as well as the Cruise Director's first port talk. The shore excursion desk was also open. True to form, we missed everything to catch a few zzzz's.
By the time we awoke from our snooze, the Fascination's Captain had decided to evade the approaching Hurricane Hortense by reversing our itinerary. Our original first port of call was to be St. Thomas, which, coincidentally enough, was a likely port of call for Hortense as well. Discretion being the greater part of valor, the Captain followed the sun to Aruba for our first destination. In retrospect, it was a great decision! Although we had some rain the first night, we never felt a drop the rest of the cruise, nor did we miss the sun on any day.
Our first day was spent at sea (ahhh...more time to relax!) This worked out very well, actually, because it gave everyone time to get into the swing of things on the ship, and prepare for the formal night that evening. (Well...my wife prepared while I read a good book!)
There were a million things to do this first day, but we started with the Life Boat Drill at the civilized hour of 10 a.m. The drill took place without incident (one of the easier boat drills I have attended because the staging areas tend to be lounges where you can sit down to listen. No cramming onto the promenade deck!) It would be difficult to describe all the activities that went on, so those of you who think you will be bored on a ship, take heed: You can't come CLOSE to doing even half the available activities. By the way, the slot machines opened at 8 a.m., followed by the full casino at noon. There was even a class entitled "Learn the Art of Massage" (How did I miss this one?) Personally, I took in the cruise director's port talk, did some walking, took a nap, and made great headway in my book. I'm really a fun guy! My wife sampled some of the spa's services.
We made an appearance at the Captain's cocktail party, where white-gloved waiters served well-made drinks and champagne along with some very tasty appetizers. Unlike some Captain's parties I've attended in the past, this one was quite nicely done, with drinks and food flowing freely (you didn't need to look for a drink waiter at all!) We danced to the beat of Greg Ridlington and the Palace Orchestra which, I should add, was a VERY talented group of twelve musicians. It was, frankly, the most impressive orchestra I've encountered in many years. I couldn't believe their versatility!
Formal night in the Imagination dining room was excellent. My hopes were not high when I saw that this was Italian Night, but I was pleasantly surprised. The pasta was served as an appetizer, where it should be, and the main dishes included chicken, veal, and seafood. Our service was excellent and we were fortunate to draw very interesting and pleasant table partners. By the way, vegetarian dishes are available every night, and children's menues contain dishes attractive to younger passengers.
Night life after dinner was great during this evening! The feature show, "Fascinatin' Broadway" was an amazing production. I've always enjoyed show tunes, so this collection of hits from ten musicals was great entertainment. The Palace Orchestra outdid itself once again, and the Fascination Dancers (all fifteen of them) were fabulous. Singers Cynthia Ziesman and Matthew Dulian were excellent, and the special effects were astounding, particularly on a ship. I was even more impressed when I learned afterwards that this was the first time the cast had performed in this production.
We greatly enjoyed the piano bar ambiance of Cecilia. Live piano bars have a real attraction, particularly when a pianist has the ability to gab, joke, sing, and take requests (sometimes all at the same time!) Some people spent every evening in the piano bar because it was so entertaining.
Music is truly one of the strong suits of Carnival's ships. The disco provided heavy-duty dance music, of course, but the well-aimed speakers kept the floor hopping while the table areas were a little calmer. The Puttin' on the Ritz Lounge (the alternate show lounge), featured a Latin band that was versatile enough to play easy-going dance music as well. Guitar music on the promenade provided quieter music for those who wanted to sip a drink and listen, or perhaps do some cheek-to-cheek dancing. In the Passage to India Lounge, "Overboard" played Top Forty Music. (This was the one band we did not especially like. A bit too loud and heavy, copying the disco instead of complementing it.)
Aruba........was our first port call (don't forget, we did our itinerary backwards because of the hurricane.) Great place! Too bad we couldn't spend an extra day here. Palm Beach (where all the big hotels are) is beautiful! Anyone can swim on the open beach, and take advantage of the hotel facilities (restaurants, bars, casino's, etc.) Reminded me of Waikiki beach, where you can walk down the continuous sand from one hotel's area to the next. Some people stayed here all day. Check out the Hyatt if you go to Palm Beach. It is very well done, and, I understand, the nicest hotel on the island ..... Ample shopping is available within easy walking distance from the ship. From simple crafts stands to fairly elegant stores, Aruba is developing as a shopping haven. There are several stores close to the ship where you can buy large bottles of soda, etc. Most prices are marked in Aruban dollars. Since US dollars have a higher value, note that most things are significantly less than what they appear to be marked.
Other activities in Aruba.....Golf at the new Tiera del Sol Golf Course. It features a beautiful club house and a well-manicured grass surface. Landscaping off the fairways is still quite rough, reminiscent of playing golf in Arizona (don't forget, Aruba is essentially a desert island with most of its water coming from a desalinization plant.), but this will improve with time. Another eighteen hole course is planned adjacent to the current course. (Golf must be done on your own.)......Tennis is also available, at Tiera del Sol (if you can stand the hot sun!).....The Town and Country Shore Excursion for three hours is the tour to take for an overall view of the island and physical attractions like the natural bridge......The DePalm Isle Snorkel Tour offers "serious" snorkeling over shallow and deeper reefs, while the Pelican 1 Snorkel tour serves unlimited rum punch (closer to a booze cruise, I suspect.).......Certified and Beginning Scuba tours are available from the ship (at Palm Beach - you could also do this on your own by locating the dive shack near the Hyatt.)......Glass-bottom boat and Submarine tours are also available.
After a day walking around in the hot Aruba sun, we were pretty well drained of energy. A late afternoon nap quickly solved our fatigue (if you can't take a nap on vacation, you're working too hard at playing!) That evening there were a number of activities designed to make things more enjoyable. The drink special of the day was a "Goombay Smash" for $2.50. I tried to get someone to describe the drink, but anyone who had already finished the drink was too unintelligible to provide anything close to a succinct response! After sampling it myself, I didn't need any bonine to prepare me for my nap! The casino also provided a run swizzle party from 7:30 to 8:15. The shows for the night included the comedy of Eddie Capone, "The Godfather of Comedy;" and the magic and mystery of "Justin Illusion." Lot's of fun, and very entertaining. We really enjoyed the Karaoke from 11-1 that evening. (Actually, I really enjoyed it, and my wife pretended she was alone. I really do sound like Sinatra. She just won't admit it for fear it would go to my head. She keeps saying that there was nothing in our wedding vows that referred to Karaoke!) Of course there were dozens of other activities, including Bingo, a Silent Art Auction, "Design Your Body" Seminar in the Nautica Spa, and the usual musical variety. There was a Pizza Buffet at 12:30 am, and then the nightly Mini-buffet at 1:30 am.
La Guaira/Caracas, Venezuela............Don't be put off by the looks of the dock areas in La Guaira. This is a commercial port first, and a cruise port second. There are no facilities for cruise passengers in the immediate vicinity of the ship. Walking is not recommended due to the distance and commercial nature of the area (it reminded me of the dockyards in Bayonne, NJ!) The best course of action is to take a ship-sponsored tour. The third choice would be to pick up a taxi tour at the transportation center about a mile from the ship (free shuttle to the transporatation center, but you need to ask for it.) There is no second choice, in case you are wondering. (There IS a crime problem in Venezuela, so you should limit yourself to LICENSED taxi's only. Check out the situation before getting in any cab or vehicle with a "guide." There have been several unfortunate situations with cruise passengers in Venezuela, and the best way to avoid these in the future is to TAKE A SHIP-SPONSORED TOUR.) By the way, all three tours offered by the ship were very economical....$38-40 for an 8-hour tour, including a very nice lunch.
We took the tour of Caracas, as did the great majority of passengers taking tours that day. Caracas is 15-20 miles away from La Guaira. The four-lane limited-access highway twisted and turned through the high mountains (over 7000 feet) stretching along the coast of Venezuela. Caracas is located in a wide, beautiful mountain valley, with delightful weather (low 80's with moderate humidity.) Since Caracas is 3000 feet above sea level, it enjoys moderate weather year round. The Caracas tour consisted of four components: a walking tour of the Capitol building/shopping area in the center of Caracas; a visit to a glass factory/outlet in the hills south of Caracas; a visit to a beautiful historical museum (formerly the home of a protege of Simon Bolivar, liberator of Venezuela); and a catered lunch in a large, beautiful hall used for special events given by well-to-do Venezuelans. Other sights were seen, in passing, from the bus, with excellent commentary by our US-educated tour guide. We were very pleased with this excursion, and would recommend it highly to anyone visiting Venezuela by cruise ship. Our guide put forth a great effort to answer questions, explain customs, unusual sights, etc. I'm not normally someone who enjoys excursions, so this is high praise, indeed!
The other two excursions offered were to Colonia Tovar and Hacienda La Florida. Colonia Tovar is a small colony founded by German immigrants in 1843. German is still spoken here, and the climate at almost 6,000 feet would remind you more of Europe than South America. Architecture, food, and culture remain teutonic. Quality European ceramics are available for sale, and lunch is included in the tour price. Colonia Tovar is about a two hour bus ride from the ship. The Hacienda La Florida tour includes a two-hour drive in a four-wheel drive vehicle over very bumpy terrain. The destination is a small mountain estate with outstanding examples of Venezuelan mountain flora and fauna. You can swim in a small man-made pool, or a natural fed by a mountain stream. A guide takes you for a tour of the natural sights in the area. There is some strenuous walking involved, and the ride to the Hacienda can be uncomfortable. This is the most adventurous tour of the three.
Night time activities included a Guest Talent Show mc'd by the Cruise Director, who did some great stand-up comedy as well as a couple of songs. I guess if he can't find enough passengers to enter, it's up to him to make up the time. What great motivation! Actually, there was some great talent among the guests. Coupled with the accompaniment of the Fascination orchestra (once again, excellent), this was actually a very interesting and fun evening. At 11:30 there was a Lido Deck Party with music by "Overboard," and a Mexican Buffet. If you had the desire, during the late afternoon you could attend a bridge tour, watch a towel folding demonstration, participate in a trivia contest, or compete in a volleyball tournament. Cruise ship horse racing took off at 8:30 pm with $3 bets. Definitely too many things to do. I did not forget to take my nap, though! Whatever you do, don't miss Gary in the Piano Bar. He only plays on Wednesday nights, and has a repertoire that is truly unbelievable. He was the best (and most personable) pianist I've heard on a cruise ship. Raised in Grenada, Gary had some great recommendations for the next day as well.
Grenada...........is a short (4 hours) day on shore. The size of the Fascination precludes docking in St. George, so the day is shortened even more by the 20-minute tender ride. We chose this day to wander around the picturesque port area, although three tours were offered. From the area where the tender drops you off (directly across from the tourist office, by the way), you can take about a half-mile walk around the Carenage, St. George's natural harbor. There are a number of shops, some of them interesting, along this walk, and also several seafood restaurants. A large number of street vendors and taxi drivers offering their wares along this walk, particularly in the area adjacent to the tender dock. We decided to stop by the Grenada National Museum (on Young Street, just off the Carenage), which was small but interesting. The fort (Fort George) on the promontory overlooking the harbor is an excellent destination, although the walk is longer (and hotter!) than we would have imagined! The view, however, was worth the walk, and we were able to take a number of excellent pictures of the surroundings and the Fascination itself. Fort George serves as the police headquarters, so it is quite safe. From Fort George, it is an easy walk to Market Square, where you can view and purchase Grenada's famous spices as well as a wide variety of fruits. We purchased several spice gift packs as well as some larger sizes for our own use (including a bottle of nutmeg pancake syrup!) We wandered back to the tender at this point. If you check in the tourist office when you land, you can obtain a pamphlet describing the "Historic Walking Tour of St. George's, which would take 3-5 hours to complete depending on how many stops you made.
The three excursions offered were the Royal Drive (the same route taken by Queen Elizabeth when she visited Grenada), The Rhum Runner Cruise (a party cruise with live music), and a Snorkel Safari. Those who took the Royal Drive were treated to a general tour of the Island in smaller tour vehicles. If you want to see a significant amount of the Island, this is the tour to take. Since tendering 2000 people to the island is time-consuming, taking a tour offers an advantage because tour participants gain passage on the first tender. The water in Grenada was quite clear, and people who took the snorkel excursions were pleased with the water quality and abundance of underwater life. Golf and Tennis are also available on the island, and information is available at the tour desk.
Featured entertainment this night included the music of Jessie Lopez (Trini Lopez's younger brother) who gave an unbelievable performance. He sings and plays about six instruments, including the meanest harmonica I've ever heard. A comedian ("Philly") followed Jessie with some great commentary on cruise ship life (without the stale cruise humor we've come to know and love!) The midnight buffet (at 12:30 am) featured dozens of tempting desserts (billed as a Dessert Buffet.) A wine tasting ($1 per glass) was conducted at the Beverly Hills bar at 4 pm, and the casino put on a guacamole and salsa happy hour from 5-8:15 (who needs dinner?)
Guadeloupe..............(Pointe-a-Pitre) offers a French flavor to this voyage. There is a shopping area immediately opposite the ship's docking platform, or you may walk through town to check out the various shops. If you speak French, this could be a very enjoyable town, however, non-French speakers may find it less hospitable. There is a fair amount of shopping within easy walking distance of the ship, and an open square with gardens (Place de la Victoire) is also within easy walking distance. The tourist office is located on this square, and you may obtain a rough map of interesting sights in Pointe-a-Pitre here. Two museums (Schoelcher and St John Perse) are within walking distance of the ship, and three churches are also relatively close. All these landmarks are listed in the map available from the tourist office. Since Pointe-a-Pitre is quite a large town, you wouldn't be likely to walk into the countryside.
Because Pointe-a-Pitre is somewhat limited as far as interesting things for tourists to do, taking shore excursions makes a lot of sense in this port. The Guadeloupe Island Tour was the most comprehensive. It features a three-hour tour of the island, particularly the National Park area, and a tour of an old distillery still operated by water wheel. The King Papyrus Boat Tour is a voyage to Ilet Gosier, where you can swim, sunbathe, and drink complimentary planter's punch and fruit punch. The presence of music and dancing on the boat puts this excursion into the "party" category! The Carbet Falls Adventure is a somewhat strenuous climb for 30-45 minutes through the rainforest to visit Carbet Falls. Once you arrive at the falls, you can swim in the natural pool underneath the falls. This is probably the most interesting and physically challenging tour offered. None of the tours on Guadeloupe use air-conditioned busses.
The entertainment this evening was provided by the full show troupe, and featured a production entitled "Hollywood." Once again, a marvelous show with live music, great vocal talent, and some spectacular dancing. The professionalism and enthusiasm displayed in both shows was notable. Although I've seen some good cruise ship shows (particularly on NCL), the size of the cast and the live music during these two shows made them the best I've seen.
St. Thomas.........The shopping mecca of the Caribbean! The Fascination listed fourteen different shore excursions from a Shopping Tour to the Five Star Tour of St. John. I won't go through the many tour options in this review, but I will tell you what we did. First, we spent a couple of hours shopping in down-town St. Thomas (experiencing sensory overload!), and then had a cool drink at Gladys' Cafe in Royal Dane Mall (between Palm Passage and Creques Alley.) The Rum Coolers we had in Gladys' were smooth and lethal on a hot day! We almost missed half our day because of those things! Gladys' also serves lunch and dinner with a continental and West Indian cuisine. By the time we tripped (the cab driver called it crawling) to the taxi stand, we decided to have something to eat on board the ship (a good choice in our condition!) Finally recovered, we took a cab (actually, an open-air bus) over to Magen's Bay for the afternoon to relax on the beach. Magen's Bay is an idyllic spot for picture-taking, a cool dip, and perhaps a quick nap on the beach (still working off those rum coolers from Gladys'!)
It would be tough to get bored in St. Thomas for the one day you spend there on most cruises. From golf to scuba diving, if you can do it in warm weather, it's generally available in St. Thomas. For a listing of things to do, there is a slick magazine available in your cabin called "St. Thomas Guide." You could also pick up a copy of the booklet "What To Do, St. Thomas and St John" at the tourist office next to the pier. This booklet has a large number of coupons bound into it, so it may save you some money!
In case you haven't figured it out by now, we had a really great time on this cruise. Sure, a few things went wrong. Doing the reverse itinerary due to the storm played havoc with some of the shore excursions because the tour operators, tender services, etc. needed to change their schedules to different days. Since the ship normally picked up fruits and vegetables in St. Thomas, salads and fruit were not as fresh as they could have been, and a very few items were not available from the menu. We also couldn't get off the ship in St. Thomas until customs had been cleared, causing an unexpected delay. But overall, none of these minor problems detracted from the fun we had during our cruise. We've never had a perfect vacation, and probably never will.....but we usually have fun! This vacation was, however, in my wife's words "the best vacation we've ever had!" After twenty years of vacationing, that's high praise.
All good things come to an end, and, unfortunately, so did our cruise on the Fascination. We docked in San Juan on Saturday morning, had a leisurely breakfast, bid good-bye to our waiter, busboy, and room steward, and reluctantly left the ship. Although we waited for an hour or so before the ship was cleared, there was no pressure to vacate our room or clear the dining room. Once we debarked from the ship, we arranged for a taxi/walking tour (three hours ran $35 combined for the two of us), and then headed for the airport. Our flight was on-time and smooth, and we touched down in Philadelphia airport half an hour early. The end of a great vacation! (sigh) Time to start planning for our next voyage......
If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please