Image: Sweet Sensation?
Andy Newman  /  Carnival Cruise Lines
Carnival's Sensation cruises in the Bahamas.
By Cruise columnist
updated 11/16/2006 11:52:20 AM ET 2006-11-16T16:52:20

Think the "Fun Ships" are beneath you? Think again.

Certainly, Carnival Cruise Lines has a reputation for less-than-classy cruising. “Booze cruise!” laughed one friend when I said I was heading out on a four-day Carnival cruise to the Bahamas. “Trailer-park cruising,” sniffed another. Well, I hadn’t been on a Carnival ship in seven years, so I decided it was time to see for myself whether CCL’s “Animal House” reputation would withstand scrutiny.

My ship was the 2,200-passenger Sensation, a 13-year-old ship that had recently provided emergency housing in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. After its charter with the Federal Emergency Management Agency expired, the Sensation underwent a multimillion dollar refurbishment that added a nine-hole miniature golf course, expanded the kid’s Camp Carnival center, upgraded the spa and gym area, and put fantastic new bedding and flat-panel TVs in the suites.

Despite the refurbishments, the ship feels dated. Launched in 1993, at a time when Carnival was intent on changing the stuffy image of cruising, the Sensation is one of Carnival’s first big Fun Ships, and it is a floating Las Vegas of neon, neon and more neon. Purple dominates the décor, and the carpets are awash in vivid zigs and zags. I can only imagine the effect in rough seas. The ship is also showing some wear and tear in areas like the elevators, but it is clean and well maintained.

The Carnival crowd and the Carnival atmosphere
It’s clear that Carnival attracts a wide range of passengers. On my mid-September cruise from Port Canaveral, Fla., to the Bahamas, every demographic imaginable was on board — retirees, young couples, singles, families, gays and a lot of military personnel. Many were there because the price was right. In fact, one longtime Carnival cruiser I met had scored a $169 fare at the last minute. “These guys really know how to put on a great cruise,” he told me. “They offer the best value in cruising — by far.”

I heard the same thing over and over from passengers who were more than satisfied with the time they were having. Groups of family and friends seemed to have the best time of all. The only unhappy people I saw were a bunch of disappointed Steelers fans gathered in the Polo Lounge for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” I was one of them. Good thing we were on a Fun Ship, so we could scream and yell and drown our sorrows together.

It’s true. There’s something about a Carnival cruise that brings out your inner extrovert. The choice of social activities and group attractions is endless: miniature golf, spa treatments, gym, three pools, movies, karaoke, a busy children’s program with an energetic staff — you name it, it’s on board. But it’s the passenger-participation spectacles that provide the most memorable moments. The best was the poolside “Hairy Chest Contest,” in which fur-ball rivals competed to get audience approval (and to cop a feel from the curvy, bikini-clad judge). There was more people-watching on Formal Night, when passengers trotted out fashions that ranged from elegant evening gowns to eye-popping spandex.

There are places on the ship for the occasional introvert, too, including plenty of nooks and crannies for curling up with a good book or surfing the Internet. The aft pool offered a quiet place to get some sun and to escape the thumping music heard in many of the ship’s public spaces. I really enjoyed my penthouse balcony for quiet reading, though the bistro chairs were way too small and I had to drag my room chairs out to get comfortable. Still, I counted myself lucky. The Sensation is an older ship, and balconies are scarce — only 54 of the Sensation’s 1,026 staterooms have a balcony.

Dinner and a show
Where Carnival really shines is in the dining, especially in the main dining rooms at dinner. Each night I ordered dishes designed by Carnival’s French master chef Georges Blanc, a selection that included lobster, chateaubriand and an exotic lavender soufflé — all perfectly prepared. I paired them with some excellent French and American chardonnays chosen (at extra charge) from the wine list put together by Carnival’s president and CEO, Bob Dickinson. Dickinson is a wine connoisseur, and Carnival has the largest selection of vintage wines at sea. If you like the selection, you can join Carnival’s Presidential Wine Club, and have wine sent to your home every month.

Lest you think the dining room is too “Oo la la” for you, I should mention that the Fun Ship atmosphere enters here, too. After supervising a magnificent gourmet feast, the immaculately dressed maitre d’ and waiters entertained diners with a multinational version of ”O Sole Mio” complete with lighters in the air and an occasional “Yee haw!”

The Seaview Restaurant, Sensation’s buffet venue, paled in comparison to the main dining room, but its offerings for breakfast, lunch and dinner were fairly good. There were late-night buffets, too, but they were a far cry from the spectacular spreads and over-the-top dessert tables offered on longer Carnival cruises.

Other dining options on the ship include the poolside Lido Grill, a 24-hour pizzeria, an awesome New York-style deli (the Reuben sandwich is to die for), an Asian specialty area serving sushi, and (for an additional charge) a patisserie serving coffees and desserts. If Bridget Jones were keeping a diary of the food and drink consumed on the Sensation it would read, “Alcohol units: tons; Calories: gazillions.”

Things really get hopping at night on the Sensation. Traditional entertainment can be found in the ship’s main theater, the Fantasia Lounge, where glittering stage productions are always well attended. In addition to the big shows, guests have a wide range of entertainment options to choose from, including:

  • Pre-dinner dancing in the Fantasia Lounge with the ship’s orchestra.
  • Live calypso music in the sea air on the Lido Deck.
  • Karaoke and lots of silly fun in the Plaza Lounge.
  • Dancing in the Michelangelo Lounge, the Kaleidoscope Disco, and The Mirage Bar (Motown music).
  • A midnight R-rated comedy show.

Are you in a more mellow mood? Then head for the Touch of Class bar, where Colin tickles the ivories. But if the electronic chatter of slot machines is more your style, then head straight for the casino, where there is always plenty of action.

“Animal House”?
Was it “Animal House”? No, it wasn’t.

Yes, I did see a lot of drinking over the four days I spent on the Sensation, but I didn’t see anyone throwing up and nobody fell overboard. Instead what I saw was people letting it all hang out: enjoying silly contests, line dancing, dirty jokes, team games, conga lines and way too much food. “Fun Ship” about says it all.

The only thing that wasn’t fun about this cruise was disembarkation, which became a fiasco when a cluster of overly anxious passengers refused to follow directions. Result: mass chaos in the hallways and stairways trying to get off the ship. Fortunately, it didn’t last more than 45 minutes.

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All in all, the Sensation is a very affordable cruise that offers excellent food, terrific service, good staterooms and over-the-top entertainment. To those who turn up their noses at Carnival, I have to say: “I’d go again in a heartbeat.”

So, there.

Have a cruising question or issue for Anita? Feel free to e-mail her.

Anita Dunham-Potter is a Pittsburgh-based travel journalist specializing in cruise travel. Anita's columns have appeared in major newspapers and many Internet outlets, and she is a contributor to Fodor's "Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises 2006." E-mail Anita or visit her Web site anitavacation.com.

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