Image: Carnival Fantasy
Skip Bolen  /  WireImage file
Carnival Cruise Lines' 2,056-passenger Fantasy is seen departing homeport on the Mississippi River last summer.
By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 2/18/2009 5:34:24 PM ET 2009-02-18T22:34:24

When it comes to a cruise vacation, a new ship is better, right? Not always. Older ships often have lower price points, sail shorter voyages — which appeals to first-timers — and sail from ports close to home. Most importantly, as cruise lines renovate and even overhaul the structure of older vessels, those mature ships are emerging as refreshed stunners.

Do ships live up to the “like-new” image the cruise lines project? In the case of Carnival Cruise Lines’ Carnival Fantasy, yes.

Better with age
The 2,052 passenger Carnival Fantasy, built in 1990 and refurbished last fall, garners some of the highest passenger ratings across the fleet, besting some of the line’s newer ships. The multi-million dollar makeover included all the new ship options like coffee cafes, Wi-Fi access, upgraded bedding and linens, new sports facilities, expanded spa, lounges, more dining options and larger dedicated teens’ and children’s centers.

However, the Fantasy’s biggest change was the pool area on the Lido Deck. It now boasts a resort-style look with new teak decking, vivid colored umbrellas for shade over new lounge chairs, bright blue and yellow tiles, thatched roofs over whirlpools and faux palm trees. In the aft deck areas of the ship there is the huge “WaterWorks” aqua park that features a four-deck high, 300-foot-long spiraling water slide, there’s also dual racing slides and spray fountains. Several decks below the park is the new adults-only “serenity” area offering two whirlpools, plush lounge chairs, and bright umbrellas.

Older ships aren’t super sized
The refurbishment of the older ships makes sense for cruise lines, since they aren’t investing huge sums of money to build newer vessels. By fixing up what they already own they can add all of the features of the new “mega-builds” but at a smaller passenger capacity, which many veteran cruisers appreciate. Indeed, when I sailed Carnival Fantasy last week I felt the ship was better than ever. The dated look of dark colors, etched glass and brass was removed and replaced with woods, marble and lighter colors that create a more modern, youthful appeal.

Ships like the 70,367-ton Fantasy are considered mid-sized by today’s standards and many passengers that I spoke with prefer the old ships because they aren’t overly big and impersonal. A woman from Texas told me she didn’t want to sail on a big ship with 4,000 passengers. “It’s not my style,” she quipped.

Approximately half the passengers onboard were repeat Fantasy cruisers and couldn’t wait to get onboard to see what’s changed. Upon seeing the results they were delighted that their favorite ship has been enhanced in so many ways. In fact, most couldn’t stop raving about it.

If there is one caveat with older ships it is the lack of balcony staterooms. Many of the older ships — even newly refurbished ones — generally only have a few balconies and only in the upper-end suites. Of Fantasy’s 1,028 staterooms there are only 54 suites with balconies. But for many cruisers the lack of balconies is not an obstacle to cruising on an older ship.

Great value
A number of veteran cruisers will tell you that after a major revitalization project a ship actually becomes a much better value than when it was new. You get all of the benefits of newer ships often at a better rate than newer big ships. One group onboard the Fantasy had paid fares of $299 that included a $75 onboard credit. For a five-day cruise, that’s tough to beat.

Not surprisingly with the low fares there were a large number of first-time cruisers onboard Fantasy. Many that I spoke to were surprised by the seven-deck atrium, the enormous pool area, spa and fitness areas and the range of activities on board, but what they raved about most of all is the service. When they disembarked they were sold on cruising.

If you go
Carnival Fantasy currently operates four- and five-day western Caribbean cruises from New Orleans through November 5, 2009, then it repositions to Mobile, Alabama for year-round four- and five-day sailings. Fares for four day cruises start at $329 (inside stateroom). Visit Carnival Cruise Lines’ Web site for more details.

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column. And check out her blog, ExpertCruiser.com.

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