Let me get one thing clear at the outset: for any non-smoker, especially one who has cruised before, Carnival Cruise Lines (CCL) has provided a little bit of Paradise with its newest ship. The single most important factor in considering this cruise is that Paradise offers passengers the opportunity to enjoy all parts of the ship and all on-board activities without a hint of tobacco smoke. That aspect alone made this a uniquely wonderful cruise experience.
For the record, this was our sixth cruise in the past four years and our first with Carnival. All of our previous cruises were with Royal Caribbean (RCI) aboard Nordic Empress, Majesty of the Seas, Sovereign of the Seas, Rhapsody of the Seas, and Grandeur of the Seas). We traveled with three other couples, one of whom was a first-time cruiser; the other two couples experienced their first cruise with us a year ago aboard Grandeur of the Seas. To be fair to Carnival, let me acknowledge my prejudice: I like RCI. All of our cruise experiences with RCI have been terrific. Nevertheless, I will make every effort in this review to focus on this cruise, which we enjoyed very much. Some comparisons are inevitable, however, and often are insightful, so caveat emptor!
Paradise is the eighth and final ship in the Fantasy class, and is laid out virtually identically to its seven predecessors, so it is not necessary to describe this impressive ship from bow to stern and from keel to mast. From a design standpoint, the theme of Paradise is great cruise ships of the past. Many of the public rooms were given such names as the Normandie Theater, Queen Mary Lounge, Leonardo Lounge, America and United States Bars, Majestic Casino, Isle de France Café (really an ice cream fountain serving upscale treats), and the Rex Disco. The latter is designed in a jungle-like motif more akin to The Lion King than the Italian liner the room was named for (I thought CCL was stretching the theme here just a tad). The Blue Riband Library is named after the prize awarded to the cruise ship making the fastest transatlantic crossing. For the two formal dining rooms, Carnival has followed the tradition of using names of other ships in its fleet (Destiny and Elation).
The décor of the public rooms very much reflects the style of designer Joe Farcus and is a mix of clever theme-related nautical features combined with the traditional array of lighting technology and glitz. With respect to the latter, I had heard that Carnival had toned down the emphasis on neon and glitz with the debut of Elation last year) and Paradise. I cannot speak for Elation, but the interior public areas of Paradise have some form of multi-colored lighting wherever you turn. Whether it's for illumination purposes, or signage, or just decoration (such as the pinhole-sized lights adorning walls, ceilings and columns), the ship has an impressive array of neon lighting with ever-changing colors.
Like its earlier Fantasy-class cousins, the six-deck atrium lobby on Paradise is very introspective, focusing on the many public rooms and shops ringing it, and featuring dark wood trimming on each deck. Window space is at a minimum here and the only significant natural light filters through the skylight (which provides quite extensive light with the midday sun but otherwise not much). In general, the atrium design is in stark contrast to the Centrum lobbies on the newer RCI ships, which are bright and airy and have glass walls with sea vistas wherever possible. The overall effect of the interior public space on Paradise, then, is somewhat similar to that of a Las Vegas hotel, and undoubtedly reflects the personality of CCL. From my personal perspective - and everyone's tastes are different - when I'm on a cruise, I want to know that I'm at sea and can experience the maximum relaxing effects of the cruise from as many parts of the ship as possible. It was difficult for me to fully enjoy that feeling in much of the interior public areas on Paradise. I recognize, however, that the ship's design reflects a CCL tradition that appeals to many folks. More power to them.
The remaining public areas on the ship are essentially the same as on the other Fantasy-class ships. As a first-time Carnival cruiser, I was especially impressed with the spacious outside deck areas. The main pool is located amidships on Lido Deck (10), can be accessed from the atrium forward or the Paris "lido-style" Restaurant aft, and includes a sizable water slide, two jacuzzis, a performance stage from which a Caribbean-style band plays or other activities are held, and many chairs and tables. In fact, because of the availability of so many chaise lounges, deck chairs, and tables, there was no pressure to get on deck very early in order to find a place to sit. If the main pool area became too busy or noisy, the aft pool area provided plenty of quiet, two more jacuzzis, and lots more chairs. Unlike the main pool area, this location did not offer much in the way of shade; but it did provide a breeze, which was often missing from the more enclosed main pool area. Although I sometimes missed the solarium pool found on the new RCI ships, we spent many peaceful moments on the aft deck (but not on the "topless" upper aft deck surrounding the smokestack).
Two other topside areas that we found especially useful were the jogging track and outside sitting areas located immediately aft of the Paris Restaurant, on either side of the ship. The latter turned out to be a favorite spot to gather late at night. On our first night (July 4th) we watched fireworks displays on the Florida Keys in the distance; on other nights we just watched the stars, or the broad wake of the ship created by the state-of-the-art azipod steering technology, or chatted before indulging in the midnight buffet or turning in. The jogging track, located on the top deck forward (Sports Deck - 13), was a busy spot early in the morning, where many fellow cruisers joined me in walking (or running) off the extra calories from the previous day. The track was easier on the feet than teak promenade decks on other ships, and made for an ideal early morning walk or run when the wind wasn't too brisk (and if it was, there were always the treadmills located one deck below in the Nautica Spa).
A couple of design features of Paradise that proved a bit of an inconvenience were the location of the galley between the two formal dining rooms and the presence of three additional forward decks above the 10 ship-length decks. Folks assigned to the aft Destiny Dining Room (roughly half the passengers) must use the aft elevators or stairwell to reach their destination. Moreover, placement of the galley between the two dining rooms makes direct transportation between the forward and aft sections of Atlantic Deck (8), one of two decks consisting almost completely of public rooms, virtually impossible. The three upper forward decks where the top-priced cabins, the Nautica Spa and Camp Carnival, and the jogging track are located can only be reached by two of the four forward elevators, the two glass atrium elevators, or the forward stairwell. Otherwise one must use at least two banks of elevators or stairs, or make part of the trip outside. Besides the indirect routings, it takes a while for first-time Carnival cruisers to easily negotiate the ship; one needs to plot his or her course carefully beforehand or risk having to backtrack to reach their destination. I'm sure, however, that veteran Carnival cruisers have little or no trouble with these logistics.
Finally, a minor oddity that contributed to our first day orientation difficulty seems to have been created on Paradise by CCL's desire to provide sufficient signage directing passengers to their muster station. Before the muster drill, we noticed that our muster station (F) was located on the Lido Deck between the stage and the outdoor section of the Paris Restaurant. From our Upper Deck (6) outside cabin located between the mid-ship and aft elevator/stairwells, the signs directed us to the aft stairwell and then up to the Lido Deck. At this elevator/stairwell lobby three signs directing passengers to muster station F are visible: one points up (because it is located in the stairwell landing halfway between Promenade Deck (9) and Lido Deck; one points aft toward the entrance to the indoor portion of the Paris Restaurant; one points down (because it is located in the stairwell landing halfway between Lido Deck and the aft pool deck. Someone standing in the stairwell lobby outside the entrance to the Paris Restaurant trying to follow the signage would have to think long and hard to know which way to go (which is aft into the restaurant and then around the corner and forward toward the outdoor portion of the restaurant and the muster station). [Incidentally, mustering took well over a half-hour - much longer than any other in my experience; that is a long time to be in the heat and humidity wearing the life vest. I had to wring out my shirt upon returning to my cabin.]
To put it bluntly, Carnival promotes the spaciousness of their staterooms and it delivers big time. For a cruiser accustomed to RCI-sized staterooms (even the larger ones found on the Vision-class ships), our standard outside cabin on Paradise seemed downright palatial (especially the shower). Overall, our cabin was one of the best we have enjoyed on a cruise. There is ample closet space, including shelving, to store most clothing items, plus a desk with four drawers. Although there is no love seat or easy chair, the desk has a stool that fits perfectly underneath when not in use, and there is a separate chair and night table. Besides the larger shower, the bathroom includes a two-door medicine cabinet, ample surface space on the sink, and at least six towel bars and a couple of hooks from which to hang wet bathing suits or clothing (instead of a mini-line that can be strung across the shower).
The cabin also features a large corner compartment (under the TV) that holds not only the life vests but also smaller bags. Most luggage fits under the beds, allowing plenty of floor space, especially if the beds are not made up as a king. The TV's are 19" and come with a remote and three movie channels. On our cruise, one channel showed "Titanic" (so much for superstition!). There was no channel, however, where you could get current weather and sea conditions and the position of the ship, nor see the view from the bridge, and I missed that. The cabin also included use of two terrycloth robes (which you could buy for $39 each) and a room safe that works with a credit card. The card that locks the safe must open it, which is less convenient than the safes that have a digital code that anyone can use (such as the one I found on Rhapsody of the Seas).
For the most part, service on Paradise was excellent. Our cabin steward, Kelvin, and his assistant were first-rate, seeing to our needs quietly, efficiently, and thoroughly. We especially enjoyed the nightly animals fashioned out of towels left in our room. One of our traveling companions saved the collection and took a picture of the entire menagerie on the final day of the cruise.
Our dining service was not as stellar, but it was generally fine. Our waiter and busboy (or assistant waiter, in RCI parlance) were both from Indonesia, and while the waiter was competent, he was pretty serious and didn't engage much in the kind of banter and joshing we enjoy (although he opened up a bit later in the week). Our busboy had a bit of a language problem, which is certainly not uncommon among dining room staff in the cruise industry (or perhaps we had the language problem). In any case, he didn't know much about pouring champagne and consistently dripped on passengers and the table. But this is a minor point. More importantly, one member of our party required special dietary assistance. Although it took the better part of a full day and the head waiter's intervention to work things out, I thought the staff made a worthy effort to accommodate and, after the first day, this matter seemed pretty much satisfactorily resolved.
I happen to have a very high opinion of the live entertainment on RCI cruises, not only the quality of the performers but also the way the program is organized. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the live entertainment on Paradise, in terms of quality and especially breadth of programming, proved at least comparable if not superior to RCI's. To summarize, in addition to the nightly performances in the Normandie Theater, which included two productions by the Paradise song and dance troupe and orchestra, there were four late night solo gigs (three by comics and one singer) in the Queen Mary Lounge, the largest of the non-theater entertainment venues. There were also plenty of options for dancing the night away: a pop band performing in the Queen Mary Lounge, a rock duo located in the cozier Leonardo Lounge, a country/western singer at the United States Bar, and a sing-along in the America Bar (a piano bar). By day, a Caribbean Band entertained from the stage at the main pool, or you could relax to the sounds of a string trio located adjacent to the Paradise Bar at the base of the atrium lobby. The Rex disco had non-stop CD action every night. The quality of the talent was, for the most part, outstanding. The technology, particularly lighting and sound, was state-of-the-art and top of the line. For example, Bose speakers were located liberally at the main pool area. Unfortunately, the decibel level at this location - and in the Normandie Theater - often was so high it distorted the sound and/or became difficult to tolerate. It was certainly nearly impossible to converse over the music at any of the live entertainment venues, but Paradise always offered other options for carrying on conversations.
Paradise sports some of the best facilities at sea and makes available a full range of activities expected of a mainstream cruise ship. By far the most impressive facility (aside from entertainment venues), in my view, is the Nautica Spa and jogging track. The Spa occupies most of the Sports Deck (12) space (all of it forward), and includes a front desk, two aerobics rooms, men's and women's lockers, showers, saunas and loofah baths, a gym with extensive Keiser equipment, and a separate room with two jacuzzis. The jogging track is topside directly above and is made of compound that seemed very comfortable for walking or running. The other venue I found particularly impressive was the Majestic Casino, which is one of the largest I have seen, and offers the full range of games and slots, even a blackjack table with a $3 minimum for recreational players like me. The best feature of the casino: NO SMOKE!
With the impressive facilities and variety of activities offered, it was surprising to me to learn from cruise director Troy Linton that Paradise's cruise staff consists of only three people: the cruise director and two hosts (or hostess). Troy handles the "big" events, such as the main shows in the Normandie Theater, port, shopping, and debarkation briefings, the Captain's and repeat cruiser's receptions, and the like. The host and hostess (actually the equivalent of assistant cruise directors), coordinate and emcee many of the other activities, such as bingo, art auction, pool games, and late night performances, and often are assisted by members of the dance ensemble or orchestra. Troy is quite adept in the public aspect of his responsibilities. He is personable, friendly, entertaining, and talented enough to sing from the main stage (although by his own admission he is not a trained singer). Troy graciously set aside an hour from his very busy schedule to brief me on Carnival's entertainment program and how it is implemented on Paradise. [For details, see the aforementioned feature article elsewhere in The Sealetter.]
The lack of a full-time cruise staff is unfortunate, I think, in several respects. When it was necessary to rely on dancers or musicians to run an activity, sometimes it went smoothly and sometimes it did not. Dancers and musicians, while talented, are not always comfortable engaging the public verbally; those who are not comfortable probably do the job because they have to and not because they enjoy it, and this attitude may be reflected in their work. For some activities, passengers are left mainly to their own devices in organizing group activities, such as bridge or volleyball. In the case of the bridge group, a dancer came in at the appointed time, dropped a pad with a sign-up sheet on one of the tables, and departed without saying a word. The participants were left to introduce themselves and even track down playing cards.
I also missed an organized fitness program. Some cruise lines provide a fitness director who organizes and leads a range of group activities that appeal to a variety of ages and skill levels, and offer such motivational devices as fitness points or "ship shape" dollars that can be accumulated and exchanged for gifts at the end of the cruise. Also, some passengers want to connect personally with the cruise staff, because it gives them a feeling of being part of the cruise family for the duration of their cruise. Troy Linton provided that connection quite well, but he is one person and there are perhaps 2500 passengers. If Carnival provided even a modest trained cruise staff, it would greatly enhance the programmed activities and take full advantage of the outstanding facilities aboard Paradise.
When it comes to food and cruises, it's probably better not to say too much because one person's paté de fois gras can be another's chopped liver. What I can report is that Paradise offers a very comprehensive food package. In addition to the formal dining there is the Paris "lido-style" restaurant, which provides "casual" dining at night as well as breakfast and lunch buffets that include an outdoor hamburger and hot dog bar. There is also a nightly midnight buffet followed by a crepe buffet about 1 a.m., a 24-hour pizza and caesar salad counter, 24-hour room service, a sushi bar available on the Promenade Deck each evening (at extra cost), and a sort of upscale ice-cream parlor located mid-way along the Promenade Deck (also at extra cost).
The presentation of dinner items in the formal dining room was, in my view, quite impressive. Unfortunately, I thought the quality of these dinners was a bit uneven. In general, fish and seafood (with the exception of the escargot) tended to be pretty good, but the meat often was dry, tough, or not very tasty. There were some odd entrée combinations, such as turkey served in a surprising tomato cream-based sauce with polenta. (Later in the week, the turkey was served with a more traditional sauce.) I also found that most of the bar items I tried were unusually weak, even for cruise drinks. Perhaps recent reports about the improved food quality on Carnival ships raised my expectations too high, but I was just a bit disappointed in the food, although overall there was not much difference between food on this cruise from my other cruises.
[NOTE: Actually, the best meal we had on this vacation was at dinner in Miami the night before the cruise. We took a pre-cruise overnight and ate at a wonderful Nicaraguan restaurant called Los Ranchos at the Bayside Market (near the entrance to the Port of Miami, in the same complex as the Hard Rock Café). The food and service were outstanding, as was the Latin vocalist/guitarist who performed throughout dinner. This is not a jab at dining aboard Paradise, however, since one cannot expect a kitchen serving 2500 people in two consecutive seatings to match an average-sized shore-side restaurant.]
Paradise alternates Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries from week to week. We took the Western Caribbean cruise, which calls at Cozumel, Grand Cayman, and Ocho Rios, with three days at sea. As I had visited these ports before, we left the ship primarily for shopping, although we took a bus tour of Grand Cayman (as we had only visited Seven Mile Beach the previous time) and explored the waters of George Town harbor in a glass-bottom boat. Neither tour was extraordinary; the highlight of our visit was a stop at the Turtle Farm - for about 20 minutes. On the whole, the variety of shore excursions offered by Carnival seemed comparable to those on RCI. Frankly, I usually prefer to explore on my own when I'm ashore, and in general I prefer to maximize my time enjoying the ship. In that respect, I truly enjoyed the three days at sea offered with this itinerary.
Anyone taking a cruise out of Miami on a Sunday should be prepared for the fact that four major cruise ships - Carnival's Carnival Destiny and Paradise, and RCI's Majesty of the Seas and Enchantment of the Seas - are located concurrently in a single row at the Port of Miami. That's a total of more than 20,000 passengers embarking and debarking within a few hours each Sunday. The Port of Miami is, to say the least, congested with taxis, buses, and service vehicles. The situation became worse in November when the 140,000-ton Voyager of the Seas, which holds upwards of 3500 passengers, replaced the Majesty of the Seas at this location.
Many factors contribute to a successful cruise experience. Much, of course, depends on the cruise line, the ship, and the staff. Still other factors are really beyond the control of the company, such as the weather and the health, frame of mind, and personal circumstances of each passenger. It seems to me that while each cruise line, and even each ship, has different styles and personalities and unique characteristics that appeal to some passengers more than others, most passengers should enjoy any mainstream cruise. Setting aside the question of a smoke-free ship - which as I said at the outset places Paradise in a class by itself - I found much more to admire than criticize about this newest member of the CCL fleet. Although the style and décor of the ship may not have appealed to me and may not appeal to some of you as much as other ships, I don't believe this should dissuade anyone from taking this cruise. I know many folks who, like myself, may be reluctant to try a new cruise line because they had found one that meets their needs. For the true cruise enthusiast, variety only enhances one's overall perspective and ultimately one's enjoyment of the cruise experience. I would, therefore, recommend this cruise to anyone except perhaps the most absolutely sedate and cerebral cruiser. Paradise offers a wonderful cruise vacation that can be enjoyed by the whole family.
David Herschler is an historian with the United States State Deparment and a part time travel agent with Jackson Klarin Travel. David may be reached at: David@sealetter.com.
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