Carnival (tel. 800/CARNIVAL; www.carnival.com) has just spawned another floating tribute to whimsy and wow in the new 2,974-passenger Carnival Valor that debuted in Miami last week. A mirror image of sisters Conquest and Glory in layout, Valor wears its own special interior design.
Carnival design guru Joe Farcas modeled the interior of the $500 million liner on themes of "heroism." And Farcus wasn't afraid to liberally apply the word. The ship sports everything from a Yankees themed sports bar called Bronx Bar, with vintage-style black and white prints of past teams and white leather barstools and banquettes designed to look like baseballs, to Winston's, a dark and cozy Englishman's club-style cigar lounge named after Prime Minister Churchill. Among the more bizarre rooms is the One Small Step disco. A tribute to Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon, white mini-moon-craters several feet tall glow with LED lighting. The ceiling is a sea of twinkling lights and the floor is made from moonlike white marble and granite, and covered, of course, with Armstrong's "footprints." Scarlett's, the ship's reservations-only alternative restaurant is named for everyone's ideal of heroism, none other than Scarlett O'Hara from Gone With the Wind. If that one leaves you scratching your head, the theme of the 1,400-seat show lounge is more direct -- called Ivanhoe, it recalls the classic Sir Walter Scott tale of knights in armor. Elevator entrances and stairwell landings are a nesting ground for dozens of gold-painted eagles, while mini liberty bells and bas-reliefs of Washington and Lincoln cover other wall spaces.
The Valor is busy all right, just like the rest of the fleet. In spite of the trend to tone the ships down over the years -- Farcus now favors more earthy shades of bronze, copper and gold over the shocking fuchsia, black and neon of Carnival's earlier ships -- they're still the wildest and wackiest afloat.
And loud, you gotta' like loud to appreciate Carnival.
Take the art auctioneer. On the Valor last week, that ubiquitous figure of cruise ship commerce and hype was lording over the atrium lobby screeching into a microphone to an entranced group of wannabes. He whacked his gavel and extorted his charges to bid and buy. And many did. That's fine, but unless you're one of the few dozens participating in the auction, who wants to be anywhere near this noisy and chaotic event?
Likewise, you must appreciate loud -- really loud -- music to enjoy the main pool deck. With the line's signature corkscrew slide as a backdrop along with rows of chaise lounges arranged on tiered decks, the live band's ultra-amplified pop music put the kibosh on conversation (even for those sitting side by side). Oh well, there is a quieter pool and a pair of hot tubs at the aft of Deck 9, near the pizza counter (the goat cheese and mushroom pizza is fabulous).
Aside from these vestiges of Carnival's old party-hearty in-your-face self, the line has in fact made an effort over the years to mellow out. There are now quiet places below decks, including the library, Internet center, gym and spa, whose dÂ¿cor, incidentally, is oddly bland compared to the rest of the ship.
The line has also made a push to offer a higher-quality vacation. Recent enhancements include switching from plastic to china salt and pepper shakers and sugar bowls in the buffet restaurants, and equipping cabins with thicker towels, duvet blankets and more TV channels. The Valor is the first to offer wireless "wifi" Internet access throughout the ship.
As Carnival president and CEO Bob Dickinson summed up last week aboard the Valor, "the Carnival of today is very different than 10 or 20 year ago."
Indeed, in many ways that's true. On the Valor you'll find a sushi bar, supper club, wine bar, coffee bar and great amenities for children. The frat party cruise line has morphed into the family cruise line.
Through the years, Carnival's kids program has grown and improved enough to make it one of the best cruise lines for families. New offerings include spa treatments tailored to teens and art, science and exercise-oriented activities geared to young children.
On the Valor, like sisters Conquest and Glory, there's a great complex of bright playrooms, well stocked with the latest diversions, from toys to arts and crafts supplies and video games. For teens, there's a separate lounge adjacent to a huge video arcade where 20+ machines reside, including three air-hockey tables. The line, which often carries more than 800 to 1,000 under 17s on some cruises, offers complimentary supervised activities for four age groups from 2 to 14 between 9am and 10pm on sea days; 2pm to 10pm on port days. Between 10pm-3 am nightly, group babysitting is offered for ages 4 months to age 11, at $6 an hour for the first child and $4 for each additional child. For the under 2 set, the line also offers group babysitting between about 8am and noon on port days. On sea days between noon and 2pm, you can also drop off children under two at the rate above, or parents may use the playroom with their babies for these two hours at no charge. Other services geared to families with young children include a limited supply of strollers, bouncy seats, travel swings and Game Boys available for rent ($25 flat fee for the cruise).
The Valor will be based year-round in Miami and do alternating eastern and western Caribbean cruise.
The fourth sister in the Conquest class, the Carnival Liberty, will debut next July and offer the line's first summer in the Mediterranean, a series of 12-night sailings out of Civitavecchia/Rome, and calling on Naples, Venice, Livorno/Florence, Messina/Sicily as well as Barcelona, Cannes and Dubrovnik, Croatia. In October, the ship will reposition to the Caribbean to offer 6- and 8-night cruises to the western and eastern Caribbean.
Head to our Cruise Message Boards to discuss the Valor.