Carnival Cruises
The Carnival Victory is an excellent introduction to Carnival Cruise Lines for the uninitiated - and a welcoming escape for the line's aficionados.
updated 1/17/2007 3:09:47 PM ET 2007-01-17T20:09:47

It's no great mystery why my Carnival Victory complaint card was left blank: There's the tremendously laid-back feel, the service that's outstanding without being irritating, and the antiseptic clean of the whole vessel (without the pungent, nose-tingling, antiseptic odor). Launched back in 2000 (and even with a recent refurbishment), the ship has a comfortable worn-in feel. And the overall operation -- much like Captain Casula's smooth daily weather and navigation briefings -- comes off as effortless. In harmony with the gentle rocking of the ship, it's easy to fall into a sleepy rhythm.

As such, Carnival Victory serves as an excellent intro to Carnival Cruise Lines for the uninitiated -- and a welcoming escape for the line's aficionados.

A member of the Destiny-class of vessels, Carnival Victory has all the traditional Carnival accouterments -- a decent variety of dining options (from the Pacific dining room to an expansive, two-deck Lido buffet), a bright, centrally located casino, an impressive spa, a comprehensive Camp Carnival program for kids, a daily schedule of jocular activities, and more than enough places to drink and socialize.

At the same time, some of the more contemporary touches found on later ships -- such as a sushi bar, supper club and drive-in style poolside movie screen -- are not to be found.

Still, what was most appealing on our recent seven-night Eastern Caribbean cruise was that on Carnival Victory there's no haughty pretense. It's admirable that no one tries too hard to please -- from the tabletop dancing dining room waiters, to the dryly sarcastic blackjack dealers, to the amiable bartenders who call you "chief" or "boss." Most of the nearly 2,800 passengers give the impression of being quite content with this, and why wouldn't we? There's no pressure placed on the ship to be anything that it's not, and the guests feed off this, basking almost immediately in a serene sense of welcome.

On my particular Victory sailing, no one seemed to mind when the ship simply stopped moving in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on our way to San Juan. The violent shudder, alarming outpouring of dense black smoke from the funnel, and subsequent straining halt was taken completely in stride. There was no panic; instead passengers just thought of it as a brief reprieve from the drone of the engine (not that anybody really seemed to mind the drone in the first place). And an hour and a half later, we were on our way again, running a little late, but no worse off.

Guests were irked when we were wrenched out of bed at 6:15 a.m. to complete immigration before arriving at St. Maarten (several hours before the scheduled processing, but of course that was the U.S. government's call, not Carnival's). But a few hours later, it seemed a distant memory. And even when cruise director Jorge Solano rekindled the aggravation of the morning by bringing it up prior to an evening show, the crowd (and the laugh track) responded favorably to his bit (rendered more comical by his genial Latino accent). Solano noted that he'd ask the immigration officials politely, "do I have to wake them up?" Assuming the affirmative, he then demonstrated how to wake vacationers pre-sunrise by whispering "ladies and gentlemen ..." The high-pitched laughing woman planted in the front row responded with piercing shrieks of approval, and it was clear that the audience had forgiven Jorge for the original offense.

For this Carnival first-timer, it's also relevant to note that while Carnival has, in the past, been pigeonholed as the slack-jawed, party line (perhaps the line itself is guilty of emphasizing this rep with its own "Fun Ship" distinction), in reality it offers a more impressive range of options than it's given credit for.

But ultimately, you get a week of evenhanded leisure at a great price. It's like a comfortable dream, of which you remember little more than a general feeling of well being.

There are two main dining rooms, both spanning two decks, the Lobby (3) and Atlantic (4). The Atlantic dining room is located amidships; the Pacific, all the way aft. Each sea-themed venue (stoic mermaid heads, seahorses, fish murals) has two set seating times for dinner (Pacific: 5:45 and 8 p.m.; Atlantic: 6:15 and 8:30 p.m.), serves up to 900 people and features a second floor wraparound balcony. The majority of the pink-clothed tables seat eight or more, and the color and layout of the rooms give the impression that you're in a massive wedding reception hall.

The quality and selection of dining options was consistently solid. My traveling pal applauded the "Farfalle with Roast Turkey Breast and Green Peas in a Cream Sauce." Two fish dishes, the "Oven Roasted, Garlic and Olive Oil Rubbed Mahi Mahi in a Chardonnay Portobello Sauce" and the "Grilled Fillet of Fresh Pacific Salmon with Dill Mousseline" were consumed in under a minute. On the other hand, I also had a comically bad rib eye steak that was, in essence, a twelve-ounce piece of grizzle. But as has been mentioned before, our waiter cheerfully encouraged us to replace the dish. That's just Carnival's style. They aim to please. Don't be shy if you don't like something.

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In a nod to healthy eating, each dinner menu includes three Spa Carnival selections where calorie and fat content are listed (Mahi Mahi mentioned above, 324 calories, 2 grams of fat). There are also healthy choices for dessert, including sugar free ice cream, fruit plates and some diet cake/pie choice, like Pumpkin Pie or Banana Gateau.

Every night, the menu also features the standard chicken, steak and salmon, as well as the gratuitously lauded warm chocolate melting cake.

A big topic of discussion in the dining room was the noticeable fleetwide upgrade in Carnival's level of cuisine, perhaps as a result of the French (Michelin-starred) chef Georges Blanc, who has been overseeing Carnival's menus (and chef training) for the past year or so.

Our head waiter Christian was flawless -- anticipating your every move, being omnipresent but also invisible, etc. He corrected my accidental etiquette mishaps (ate bread from my neighbor's bread plate), and we joked about my naive palette during nightly wine tastings. Coincidentally, the Georges Blanc Pinot Noir ($30 a bottle, with tax) was fantastic, serving as a nice complement to everything from fish to steak.

Carnival Victory's more casual venue is the two-deck Mediterranean Restaurant, located on Lido (8) and Panorama (9) Decks. It's fashioned after a seaside Italian villa, with alternating pink and teal paneling inset in (darker) pink stucco walls. Standard greasy breakfast choices are offered daily, including scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, ham and fried potatoes. You can also choose from the healthier items, like fresh fruit, yogurt and dry cereals. Also on Lido, there's an omelet station (the lines can get long), where you can have an omelet cooked with your choice of fillings: mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, ham or onions.

If you're aiming to consume something more exotic for your first meal of the day, like Lobster eggs Benedict, the open seating Atlantic or Pacific dining rooms should be your choice.

For a typical lunch in the Mediterranean buffet, you'll find made-to-order pasta, salads, hot entrees like chicken parmesan, carved beef, baked salmon with bearnaise sauce, etc. There are also daily theme buffets, ostensibly offering foods from places like Mexico and India.

Beyond the usual buffet station offerings, but all located in the same general Lido Deck area, the Yangtze Wok (located near one of two entrances to the Mediterranean Restaurant) offers made to order stir-fries; The East River Deli (located by a second entrance) features a variety of interesting sandwich choices -- salmon with cream cheese on a bagel, hot corned beef and pastrami on rye with mustard -- but the resulting sandwiches, with their fatty processed-tasting meats and untoasted bread were a bit disappointing. Just outside the Mediterranean Restaurant, Lido Deck's Mississippi BBQ serves burgers, grilled chicken sandwiches, hot dogs and french fries; also on Lido Deck, Pizzeria Arno (available 24 hours and located a convenient one flight up trip from our cabin) served pizza with addictive properties. The "De Chevre" (special order, 10 minutes), featuring goat cheese and mushroom, is truly a delight.

A short walk from the centrally located South China Sea Club Casino, you'll find the Coral Sea Cafe, which serves coffee, cappuccino, espresso and various desserts -- large cookies, chocolate cakes, pastries -- for a modest charge (specialty coffee/tea: $1.75-$4.50; pastries and cookies: $1 - $2). The coffee was substantially better than the free stuff located throughout the ship.

There are also several highly intoxicating soft serve ice cream stations, available 24 hours a day.

A note: It may seem as if there isn't free water; it took me three days into the cruise to discover that at each drink station (where you can get 24-hour refills of OJ, Apple Juice, coffee and tea), there's actually a pneumatic apparatus that dispenses water. It's not marked, but it's located right next to the clearly labeled ice dispenser.

Room service is available 24 hours a day, and it's free. You can get a variety of food items delivered to your cabin, including sandwiches, cheese and crackers and booze too. We must give commendation where commendation is due. They will accommodate bizarre requests without the slightest bit of scrutiny or judgment. A fair-skinned tablemate who became dehydrated after an extended sunning period ordered nine juices, which were brought to her without the slightest appearance of suspicion.

Continental breakfast is also available. Simply mark the card found in your stateroom with your choices, jot down a time, and someone will deliver your food.

Sushi was available on a few of the dining menus (sashimi appetizer for dinner one night, California roll for lunch). While some Carnival ships feature sushi bars, Victory does not.

Public rooms
Though seemingly disparate, the Farcus-designed public spaces share the common theme of "the high seas." The stairwells host illuminated murals of mermaids and other mythological sea-beings. The names and decor of hallways feature references to Roman sea myth, as in "Neptune's Way," and their Greek counterparts, "Odyssey Hall"; the theme bars, restaurants, and activity rooms have imagery of sea horses, mermaids and mermen, and, again, references to the world's ocean in their names (South China Sea Club Casino, Black & Red Seas Bar, Caspian Wine Bar, Virtual Sea game room, etc.). Throughout the ship, the coloring is comprised of the many hues of the oceans. And as the piece-de-resistance, the Atrium is tied together by a massive, multi-colored hanging fish sculpture.

If you have no sense of direction (I've been told that I don't), you may find yourself retracing your steps when trying to get around the ship. Navigation is honestly pretty simple though. As on other Carnival ships, Promenade Deck (5) and its nine-deck high atrium (stretching up from 3 to 11) is the focal point to remember. Fanning out from there, you'll find the ship's main features, including the Carnival shops (logo clothing, liquor, perfume, jewelry), the casino, bars and lounges, etc. When you're in the atrium, don't forget to pause to consider the design elements of the cavernous space -- the focus being the Tiffany-style glass dome in translucent shades of greens and blues.

At the base of the atrium, Lobby Deck (3), next to the Purser's desk (starboard) and the Tour Desk (port), you can head outside onto a sliver of open deck; one side of the ship is typically sunny, the other shaded. Both are good choices for quiet reading and/or dozing. These chairs were be a bit more difficult to come by, however, as the slivers of deck are popular during the day.

Adjacent to the Ionian room is the ship's 24-hour Internet cafe. There are six terminals; the charge is 75 cents per minute. You can also buy time in packages: 100 minutes go for $55 (55 cents per minute) and 250 minutes is $100 (40 cents per minute). There was never an issue obtaining a computer. Look out for Internet specials. On my sailing, between the hours of 2 and 4 p.m. on a Friday, there was a buy two minutes, get one free deal. Victory also has Wi-Fi hot spots in the Ionian lounge and Club Arctic.

The miniscule Indian library, located on Atlantic Deck (4), is used less for the selection of reading materials and more for people playing board games, taking part in the unsupervised chess tournament or attending the near-daily Friend's of Dorothy or Friends of Bill W meetings.

Cabins are standard Carnival offerings (which means they are among the largest in the big-ship category). There are 444 verandah cabins (210 square ft.), 327 standard oceanview cabins (220 square ft.) and 530 inside cabins (195 square ft.). The decor was a touch loud, with its presence of peach bedding, a red pleather couch, and Formica closets and drawers, but the absurdly comfortable beds trump any questionable design elements. Bathrooms in all categories have showers, a hair dryer and a medicine cabinet. Carnival includes free toiletry/amenity kits; ours included disposable razors, soap, shampoo and conditioner, breath mints, emergen-C energy booster and a Binaca-like Listerine product. But although your cabin steward will provide refills of the amenities, the Listerine spray is a hot product, so they may run out of those.

All cabins have TV's, radio, phones, and an adequate amount of closet and drawer space. Most rooms have twin beds that can be converted to a king bed upon request. Although we kept our beds separated, a nice feature of Carnival cabins is that their beds are genuine twins, so instead of combining to form a queen as on most other lines, you have a solid king-size bed. TV channels include CNN, Fox News, a music video station, a Carnival station (replays of your cruises' Match Game and Newlywed (Not So) Newlywed Show, as well as port excursion overviews by cruise director Jorge Solano), and a channel dedicated to Carnival Corp. advertising.

You'll also be relieved to hear that the towel animals remain a Carnival mainstay. My traveling companion was enamored of the towel animals to the point where suspicions arose. Be it the elephant bunny mutant, the seal with bifurcated tail doing a split (transformed into manta ray with a flick of the wrist), or the hanging monkey with sun glasses, Greg insisted on each "animal's" preservation, even in the event that we ran out of towels for shower use (which never happened, thanks to our stellar room steward, Leslie). Each night I was forced to waste valuable camera memory on said creatures.

If you need anything ironed or laundered you can simply point out what needs doin' to your cabin steward. Be sure to check the rate sheet prior to requesting this service; we paid $13 to have four items ironed (three shirts at $3 each, one pair of pants at $4). We also shelled out $15 to have a sack of laundry cleaned and folded (no jeans or dress shirts allowed). There are six small self-use coin-laundry rooms (with irons for use) if you're a self-motivated type.

Almost every night in the three-deck high, state-of-the-art Caribbean Lounge there's some sort of entertainment. Every type of act is represented, from a Vegas-style illusionist/magician (volunteers received a free bottle of champagne) to R-rated comedians, three of whose shows I attended (one who had a 10-minute routine on airline peanuts followed by 10 minutes of riffing on the Lewinsky scandal. Horrendous or genius?) and singing/dancing/cabaret acts. On the final night, following Powerball Bingo (hosted by some irritating twit claiming to be the assistant cruise director), Victory features the Legends Show, a passenger talent revue comprised of costumed guests, performing as Elton John, Cher, the late-great James Brown, etc. This was the best attended show of the cruise, and the only show where obtaining an outstanding seat was a challenge.

During the day, there's your standard "Fun Ship" schlock, including Lido Decks' hairy chest and belly flop competitions (leaning over the railing of Panorama Deck affords an unobstructed vantage), the Match Game, trivia, bingo and slots tournaments in the Casino, etc.

The South China Sea Club Casino is the ample casino with bright red columns, ornate gold light fixtures and blue sculptures of noble-looking lions -- you know, the things you'd see in China. The witty, teasing blackjack dealers add a nice dash of sarcasm to the space. They'll make fun of you, but you feel privileged to be made fun of, so it's okay.

With the tremendous upsurge in poker popularity, Carnival has added poker table(s) to many of its ships. On "fun days at sea" (as well as the San Juan call, where we didn't get off the ship until 8 p.m.), there were daily 10 a.m., ten-person No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em tournaments. The entry fee was $25 for the first tournament (day two at sea) and $60 for the following three tourneys ($350 winner, $150 second). You can sign up for tournaments at 6 p.m. on the night before (this is advisable because seats are limited to 10). At all other times, the typically full table featured a $3 $6 limit game.

Promenade Deck's Virtual Sea game room features a solid selection of (nearly) first-run arcade consoles. Perhaps a bit pricey at least $1 per play, but an enjoyable diversion nonetheless. I watched my friend have a psychological meltdown while playing Crazy Cabbie.

By Saturday, they did seem to be running out of fun activities. One particular event listed in the Capers said to "fill a bag with stuff and come to the Caribbean Lounge..." The game was reminiscent of something I played at sleep away camp when I was twelve. You bring your "bag of stuff," the host calls out different things, and you have to run up to the stage with those items. The Carnival Capers said it best: "Anything can happen." What did happen was a sparsely attended game which lasted for 30 minutes.

The Ionian Room, Atlantic Deck (4) aft (which seemed to feature a combination Ionic and Doric column rather than simply an Ionic as the name would suggest, for shame!) is a comfortable cigar bar with red leather chairs, Hellenic columns and glass display cases with "Grecian Urns." The room was never crowded, and there was a jazz trio that would play two or three sets a night starting at 5:30 p.m. for the three-set night (followed by 7:15 and 9:30), and 7:15 (and 9:30) on the two-set nights. They take requests too, and let people sit in on songs if they can accommodate you instrumentally (and provided you aren't awful). If you can tolerate cigar smoke, it's a great place for a pre-dinner cocktail. After you smoke your cigar and drink your scotch, you simply head a touch more aft for the Pacific, forward for the Atlantic, go down one flight, and you've arrived at your dining destination, slightly more relaxed/completely intoxicated.

Aft, all on Promenade Deck, you have the Black & Red Seas Bar, a nightly karaoke hang, and one of the most popular spots on the ship; The Caspian Wine and Caviar Bar featuring portraits of Czar Nicholas (and wife Alexandra), a ruler known for his love of wine, bloody suppression techniques, and summary execution following the October revolution of 1917; and The Irish Sea Bar, a sing-along alcove fashioned after a traditional Irish pub that features a (surprisingly, because he wasn't bad) lonely piano player. Connected to the casino on the port side, the Aegean sports bar is a modest-sized hang with about eight TV's.

For late-night partyin', there's Club Arctic, with its kaleidoscope of floor to ceiling TV's, inset half-circle dance floor, and surrounding seats to watch and mock at fellow passengers spazzing about. The Adriatic Lounge is a more adult hangout. Modeled after a French salon with columns and gradually ascending steps, it's a bit more elegant and a bit less in your face. This spot features more traditional couples' dancing, rather than the improvisational hip-hop groovin' found in Club Arctic.

Fitness & recreation
Carnival Victory has four pools and countless lounge chairs located on the open upper decks. I never had any issue finding a lounge chair, either with the masses or away from them. The ship's four pools include Sirens' pool (all the way aft on Lido deck), featuring a retractable roof; Triton's Pool, centrally located on the open portion of Lido Deck; the King of the Seas pool (Panorama Deck), the drainage receptacle for the Carnival slide; and the Children's Pool (Sun Deck), a small splash pool. There are showers located by the pools for lowering your body temperature if you've worked up a sweat either baking under the Caribbean sun or dancing to the Lido Deck reggae band.

For entrance to the Carnival slide, head up to Sky Deck (14) and get ready to propel yourself down a slowly snaking tube into a receiving basin of exceedingly slimy water. The slide is too enjoyable, however, to allow bacterial fears to keep you from participating. Many of the youths will slide down, sprint up, slide down, sprint up, etc. thirty times in a row.

Tucked on a corner of Spa Deck (12), Carnival has recently added a nine-hole mini-golf "course." The rubber and Astroturf holes are modest in size with small croppings of "rock" hazards. It takes less than 15 minutes to complete all nine holes, so you may want to play a few times. (The scorecard did mention that players were limited to four consecutive games.) There's a closet in the vicinity labeled "Mini-golf" equipment, but it actually houses a coil of tubing. You have to go down to Lido Deck where you can pick up the necessary equipment from the Carnival towel guy.

Although there was no sign indicating this, a topless woman (great bod) above Sun Deck next to the funnel led me to believe that this is the topless sunbathing area. A Carnival staffer confirmed my suspicion.

On Spa Deck (11), one deck below the funnel, there's is a running track (10 laps to the mile) along with a couple of shuffleboard courts. Despite my initial skepticism, the courts actually got some decent use on sea days.

Located all the way forward on Spa Deck (11) is the ship's fitness facility. I made a remarkable four appearances during my seven-night cruise. I'm not sure what I was doing in the gym, but there was plenty of equipment -- several bikes, ellipticals, treadmills, a motley collection of free weights, and weight machines -- available to help maintain anyone's svelte physique. The gym also houses two hot tubs, a steam room and a sauna, as well as men's and women's locker rooms. Specialty classes (Yoga, Pilates) are available for $10. Personal trainers are also available for an additional charge.

Also on Spa Deck, you'll find the full-service Spa Carnival. This 15,000-square-ft space, operated by Steiner's of London, offers everything from hot stone massages ($175) to Ionithermie Detox ($145) and the trendy GTW Teeth Whitening ($199). Take advantage of the special port prices, where you'll save about 10 percent.

Note: If you're going to cancel, make sure you give at least 24-hour notice; if not, you'll be charged 50 percent of the treatment cost.

The only negative we heard about the program came indirectly, from a parent shrieking at their unyielding child: "You're going to Camp Carnival, and you're going to like it!"

Other than the single incident, it's quite clear that the youths really have an enjoyable time aboard Victory. Carnival has activities set up for every age group, from toddlers to teens. Children's World (Spa Deck), Victory's dedicated kid's spot, features arts and crafts, movie nights, Gameboys, PS2 and music. Carnival breaks down the groups as follows: Under 2's, kids between the ages of 2 - 5, 6 - 8, 9 - 11, 12 -14 and 15 - 17.

All age groups are supervised by hip counselors, with regularly scheduled activities taking place between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m. Slumber Parties (baby-sitting services) are available from 10 p.m. until 3 a.m., at an additional charge. There is also baby-sitting available on port days at a rate of $6 per hour for the first child and $4 per hour for each additional sibling.

Up on Sun Deck (12), there's an outdoor area with a kiddie pool and playhouse for the younger kids, though despite walking past this area every day, I honestly never saw any kids there.

Also on Sun Deck, there's a spot just for the teens (No Grownups allowed!) called Club O2 where 13 - 17's may be found playing cards and talking about things that interest them, namely dating, music and video games. There was also a daily teen disco in Club Arctic, available two hours before the club became adults-only.

Many of the daily age-appropriate activities, such as Outburst!, ship drawing contests and "name that tune" took place in Club Arctic.

Note: Many kids also seem more than content roving the ship in packs, playing games of their own invention (and of Camp Carnival's invention, like the unsupervised scavenger hunt), or peering covetously through the glass windows into the adults-only Club Arctic.

Fellow Passengers
The variety of languages spoken onboard by guests was a bit surprising, given my initial expectations. I chatted about cameras with a group of Italian guys, asked an aged Russian man to borrow his ketchup (he was the ship's most visible wild-haired eccentric, often seen shirtless, shoeless and staring into space on Lido Deck) and heard a family from San Juan squabbling. It was an international mix.

The age range was expansive, with most brackets, from infants to elderly, evenly represented. For an early December sailing, a solid two weeks before winter school breaks, the number of kids was higher than expected.

Dress Code
There are two formal evenings per week (featuring a fair number of suits and a sprinkling of tuxedos), and the remainder of the evenings are island casual chic (if you're eating in the dining room). For men, this means dress pants and a shirt (button-down or polo). The "rule" is that no jeans or T-shirts are allowed in the dining room, but if you don't look like a slob, you'll have no problem. My friend didn't bring dress pants (he claimed I didn't tell him to; right), but he was never even given a second look when entering. Daytime attire is shorts, T-shirts and swimming costumes.

$10 per person, per day is automatically charged to guests' shipboard accounts. This amount can be adjusted either by requesting the purser to do so, or by augmenting the automatic charge by presenting the lucky recipients with cash. Maitre d's are not included in the $10 daily charge. Carnival adds an automatic 15 percent gratuity to all bar and wine bills.

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