Carnival Cruise Lines
The best of the Carnival bunch to be sure, the Conquest class has the fleet's largest children's and teen's facilities, a giant video screen on the Pool Deck, and plenty of bars and lounges -- all packaged in a pastiche of both pleasing and jarring colors and design themes.
Typical Per Diems: $55-$100
Conquest sails the Caribbean from Galveston (year-round).
Freedom sails the Caribbean from Fort Lauderdale (year-round).
Glory sails the Caribbean from Miami (year-round).
Liberty sails the Caribbean from Miami (year-round).
Splendor sails the Mexican Riviera from Long Beach, CA (year-round).
Valor sails the Caribbean from Miami (year-round).
The five 110,000-ton 2,974-passenger sisters were Carnival's largest vessels until the slightly larger Carnival Splendor was launched in mid-2008. Splendor, an evolutionary step beyond the previous five, is still very much the same overall but with, of course, certain changes. The $500-million Conquest-class ships closely resemble the Destiny series, though they stretch about 60 feet longer and add Spirit-class features such as steakhouse-style restaurants. If all berths are occupied, each Conquest liner can carry an eyebrow-raising 3,700-plus passengers (that's not counting the more than 1,000 crewmembers). These mondo megas boast more than 20 bars and lounges, a giant video screen on deck, Carnival's largest children's facilities, and an entire, separate zone dedicated to teens and tweens. Each has a state-of-the-art "teleradiology" system that enables the ship's doctors to digitally transmit X-rays and other patient information to medical facilities onshore for consultation on a broad range of medical situations.
Standard outside cabins measure a roomy 185 to 220 square feet. These categories (6A and 6B) take up most of the Riviera and Main decks. Of the ships' outside cabins, over 60% (556 of 917; 589 of 926 on Splendor) have balconies. The standard balcony cabins (categories 8A-8E) measure a still-ample 185 square feet and have a 35-square-foot balcony. For those who simply must have a bigger balcony, a little extra dough buys an "extended balcony" (60 sq. ft.) or "wraparound large balcony." There are only a handful of these category-9A accommodations, and they're tucked all the way aft on the Upper, Empress, and Verandah decks. The 42 suites are a full 275 square feet, plus a 65-square-foot balcony, and bigger still are the 10 Penthouse Suites at 345 square feet, plus an 85-square-foot balcony. Most of the suites are sandwiched in the middle of the ship on the Empress Deck and between two other accommodations decks, eliminating the danger of noisy public rooms above or below.
All categories of cabins come with a TV, safe, hand-held hair dryer (not the wall-mounted, wimpy variety), stocked minifridge (items consumed are charged to your onboard account), desk/dresser, chair and stool, and bathroom with a shower and handy makeup/shaving mirror. But the best part about Carnival's cabins these days is the beds. Called the Carnival Comfort Bed sleep system, they're darn comfortable. Mattresses, duvets, linens, and pillows are superthick and ultracomfy. The towels and bathrobes in each cabin are pretty luxurious, too.
Carnival Splendor is the first Carnival ship to have spa staterooms and suites. The 68 specially enhanced rooms with their Asian decor and private elevator access to the spa have Cloud 9 Spa logo items such as bathrobes, towels, and slippers, plus in-room amenity kits with brand-name samples for both men and women. Pre-cruise concierge consultation is available, as well as personal fitness bands and yoga mats.
There are 28 cabins for passengers with disabilities.
Each ship has a pair of two-story main restaurants, styled in keeping with each ship's theme. On the Conquest, a monumental sunflower marking the entrance to the Monet Restaurant is by the Murano glass artist Luciano Vistosi, while the artwork in the Renoir Restaurant is inspired by the cafe scene in the painting Lunch at the Restaurant Fournaise. On the Valor, the Washington and Lincoln dining rooms won't win any design awards; described by the line as "contemporary colonial," what oddly dominates the decor are bright peach-colored walls . . . hmmm. As coauthor Heidi's husband is fond of saying, "You can't eat ambience." Well, then, bring out the lobster. You'll see broiled lobster tail on the menu once during a cruise, and there are six desserts nightly. Low-fat, low-calorie, low-salt Spa Carnival Fare, vegetarian dishes, and children's selections are available.
The Conquest-class ships borrow the by-reservation steakhouse from the Spirit-class ships. The venue serves USDA prime aged steaks, seafood, and other deluxe items for a $30-per-person cover charge. On the Spirit ships, the restaurant is under a glass portion of the ship's funnel for a more dramatic setting, but the Conquest-class ships' restaurant has low ceilings and a more intimate feel. The best food and most refined service on board are here, where dinner is meant to stretch over several hours and several bottles of wine (for which there's an extra charge). Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served in the two-story restaurant on the Lido Deck, where you'll also find a 24-hour pizza counter (the mushroom-and-goat-cheese pies are scrumptious). Separate buffet lines (more than on the Destiny ships, to alleviate crowding) are devoted to Asian and American dishes, deli sandwiches, salads, and desserts. A new concept (on the upper level) on select Conquest-class ships is Sur Mer: Carnival modestly describes this as a fish and chips shop, but the choices include such goodies as calamari, lobster salad, and bouillabaisse (other ships feature a rotisserie with broiled meats and traditional side dishes). There's no charge here or for the stand-up sushi bar down on the main promenade, but the pastries, cakes, and specialty coffees at the patisserie cost a couple of bucks each.
There's also 24-hour room service with new menus that include items such as a chicken fajita with greens and guacamole in a jalapeño-and-tomato wrap, plus the standard tuna salad, cookies, fruit, and so on.
The Conquest ships are bright and playful -- a sort of Mardi Gras feel instead of the dark and glittery Las Vegas look sported by some of the older ships in the fleet. Architect Joe Farcus was inspired by the great Impressionist and post-Impressionist artists -- not only their paintings, but also their color palette -- so Conquest bursts with sunny yellows and oranges, and vivid blues and greens. Maybe Farcus is running a little low on inspiration these days, as the Glory's theme also revolves around "color," with public rooms bearing names such as the White Heat Dance Club, the Amber Palace (show lounge), and On the Green (golf-themed sports bar). On the Valor, a liberally applied "heroism" theme connects everything from the Bronx Bar, a Yankee-themed sports bar with white leather bar stools and banquettes designed to look like baseballs, to the One Small Step disco, a tribute to Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon a la weird little volcano-like craters that stand several feet tall and glow with LED lighting.
On the Liberty, "artisans and their crafts" is how Farcus describes the motif. In some places it works better than others. The Paparazzi wine bar is a cool place that's all about photography. A huge 3-D collage of celebrity photographs covers the walls, while images of cameras make up the ceiling and bar front. The floral laminate walls overlaid with wrought-iron-like curlicues in Liberty's atrium, stair landings, and elevators, on the other hand, may be a bit much. As might be imagined, Farcus has come up with a whole new look for the public rooms on Carnival Splendor, including the pink look and the pearls in the main dining rooms and elevator areas; the very stylish El Mojito with its Havana look; El Morocco, a cabaret lounge evoking memories of the famous 1930s New York club; and the Cool Lounge, a jazz bar paying homage to the great Miles Davis.
The general arrangement of public areas on these ships closely resembles that of the Destiny class, with a pair of two-story main dining rooms (one midships, one aft), a three-deck-high showroom within the bow, and a secondary lounge in the stern.
As on the Destiny-class ships, passengers step across the gangway and onto the base of a soaring nine-deck-high atrium, dressed to the nines in each ship's respective theme. On the Conquest, for example, it's a mural collage of works by masters such as Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, and Edgar Degas, with backlit flowers of Murano glass popping up from the granite-topped atrium bar. On the Liberty, a giant octopus-like black wrought-iron-style chandelier is the focal point, and its many "arms" support light bulbs that continually change color. On Splendor, the walls are covered with a composite material made of stainless steel and 4-inch circular cut-outs backed by pink-stained wood with black pigment rubbed into the grain, along with gold-leaf beams and arches illuminated with hundreds of sparkling lights; it's an amazing look. Each vessel sports 22 bars and lounges, many of these rooms clustered on the Atlantic and Promenade decks.
The 1,400-seat Show Lounge stages Carnival's big production shows. On the Valor, it's called Ivanhoe and it comes complete with knights in shining armor a la Sir Walter Scott's classic tale. Splendor's Vrooom pays tribute to rock-'n'-roll greats such as Elvis, Bob Seger, and Huey Lewis and the News, as well as the British invasion and Motown. There's also a secondary entertainment spot for dance bands and late-night comedians, as well as a piano bar, wine bar (the best place for people-watching, as it's open to the main promenade), and another live-music venue where combos belt out oldies, country-and-western songs, and requests.
Nobody does disco better than Carnival. You can groove on an enormous floor (on the Conquest, it's a jungle ambience straight from the exotic paintings of Henri Rousseau; on the Valor, it's all about the moon; and on Liberty, the theme is tattoos), or just perch with a drink on funky bar stools (lotus-shaped on the Conquest, and hand-shaped on the Liberty, for example). One deck down is the ships' most elegant lounge, done in wood paneling and dark, rich colors. The Internet cafe is tucked away off a back corner of the room; it's a real quiet retreat, if you can find it.
The casinos sprawl across 8,500 square feet, packing in almost 300 slot machines and about two dozen gaming tables. To one side is the sports bar; on the Liberty, the theme of boxing is worked into the furniture and decor.
After the Dream, these ships boast by far the biggest children's facilities in the fleet: At 4,200 square feet, Children's World, and the separate 1,800-square-foot teen center and Circle "C" facilities for tweens, have more than triple the space for kids and teens available on Destiny-class ships. Children's World sits atop the spa (instead of sharing the same deck, as on the Destiny vessels) and holds an arts-and-crafts station, video wall, computer lab, PlayStation game units, and lots of fun toys for younger children, from play kitchens to push toys, mini-sliding boards, farm sets, and more. The enclosed adjacent deck has a dipping pool that's oddly industrial-looking when compared to the kids' pools on many NCL, Celebrity, Disney, and Royal Caribbean ships.
The ships' nod to teenagers is a big one. Teen facilities on earlier ships were, at most, a room, but here's a space so large that it forms its own secondary promenade, branching off the main one. The teen area has a soda bar and separate dance floor flowing into a huge video games area with air-hockey tables which is open to all passengers. An inflatable laser tag arena is getting raves; for $5 all ages can have a go of it. The children's play area on Carnival Splendor is 5,500 square feet and includes a delightfully refreshing water-spray park (parents seem to enjoy this as well). Splendor's water park concept was expanded even more so aboard the Carnival Dream, which features a 303-foot-long Twister water slide, the longest at sea, along with racing slides and a splash zone.
Pool, Fitness & Spa Facilities
The ships' four swimming pools include the main pool, with its two huge hot tubs, a stage for live (and really loud) reggae and calypso music, and a giant movie screen for blaring videos and ship events. This space is where all the action (and noise) of pool games occurs, plus the occasional outbreak of line dancing. (Anyone for the Electric Slide?) Carnival's trademark twisty slide shoots into a pool one deck up. The aft pool, covered by a retractable glass dome, usually provides a more restful setting, although the pizzeria and burger grill are here (along with two more oversize hot tubs). The fourth pool is a really basic one for kiddies outside the playroom. A new feature on Carnival Splendor is the retractable dome over the midships pool, which is open or shut depending on the weather.
The ships' 14,500-square-foot health club and salon, with neat his-and-hers oceanview steam and sauna rooms, perches high on Deck 11. Though the decor is a real yawner -- it's as though Farcus simply forgot about the waiting area and locker room -- you'll find today's latest treatments available, from hot stone massages to hair and scalp massages. The spa is run by Steiner, the company that controls most cruise ship spas, so expect a superhard sell for products right after your treatment. One more pet peeve: You won't find a hair dryer, Q-tips, cotton balls, or any other amenities in the locker room -- it's unabashedly no frills. On the fitness side, you'll find the nontrendy aerobics classes offered for free (such as stretching and step), and the cool stuff everyone wants to do, such as Pilates and spinning, going for $10 a class. There's a hot tub that sits in a glass-enclosed space jutting into the fitness room.
The Cloud 9 Spa on Carnival Splendor is huge by comparison, measuring 21,000 square feet. With 17 private rooms, there are all sorts of "European-style" treatments offered, plus an elaborate thermal suite and thalassotherapy pool. Right next to the spa aboard Glory and Splendor is Serenity, an adults-only getaway with two very large whirlpools, oversize umbrellas, and lots of comfy chaise longues and sofas. Carnival Dream takes the spa concept a step further with a 23,750-square-foot Cloud 9 Spa, the largest in the fleet.
The jogging track loops above an open deck so that no cabins underneath get pounded.