It seems everywhere I went on that first day aboard the Carnival Liberty last month, I overheard my fellow shipmates ooohing and ahhhing. They fawned over Carnival Cruise Line's (tel. 800/327-9501; newest mega ship, the fourth in the 2,974-passenger Conquest class, calling it "beautiful" and "amazing" and oddly enough, even "subtle." There were lots of gasps and wide eyes and head shaking as if to say "I just can't believe I'm here!" The bright colors and whimsical d¿cor pleased them, especially the giant black atrium chandelier. Its octopus arms hold up dozens of light bulbs that continuously change from green to purple to red to blue. In the stair landings, wrought-iron-like grillwork curls over floral laminate walls. Faux terra cotta pots filled with bougainvillea perch above the elevators. This Olive Garden meets Disney World spectacle was a big fat hit.

In business more than 30 years, Carnival has figured out exactly what its clientele is looking for in a vacation. An unpretentious, down-to-earth week of fun in the sun, with plenty of food and drink, some music and a handful of ports thrown in for good measure.

Though they've figured out the formula for success, Carnival hasn't completely rested on its humble laurels either. Like other cruise lines, it has done its bit to roll with the times and upgrade its software.

In Liberty's well-laid-out lido buffet restaurant, for example, the cloth napkins, china plates, sugar bowls, and salt & pepper shakers make the buffet experience a little classier than the paper and plastic that had been used for years. The $30-per-person Harry's Supper Club is a more refined, elegant and intimate alternative to the main dining rooms. French Master Chef George Blanc, who maintains three-star Michelin restaurants in France, has been tapped to design signature dishes for Carnival. In cabins, the bedding, towels and bathrobes are now luxuriously thick, soft and high quality. The playrooms for kids are bright and spacious and the hours of operation are generous.

Overall, the Liberty is a ship that pleases passengers. Though, of course, you know what they say: nothing is perfect.

Glued to the Giant Video Screen

Many passengers seemed to be under the spell of the giant 12' x 22' LED widescreen monitor that hovers in the center of the pool deck, just outside of the main buffet restaurant. Flopped on hundreds of deck chairs, passengers sat around the godlike screen listening to its every word. Sometimes it was CNN talking, other times ship activities -- like the men's hairy chest contest -- were broadcast. Janet Jackson and Cher concerts were shown, as were a couple of movies a day, from Finding Nemo to Million Dollar Baby. The screen was the center of the universe.

My only complaint with the thing is why was the volume jacked up so darn loud?! Whenever I walked near it with my young boys I was seriously afraid it would damage their hearing. It was rarely turned off. I overhead one passenger commenting, "why do I want to hear CNN every morning reporting on what's wrong in the world, I'm on vacation!"

Dining is Casual and Fun

The personable, dancing waiters were a big hit in the two main dining rooms. Aside from serving food, which was generally good and sometimes really good (especially the line's signature George Blanc dishes), the waiters worked the crowd like real pros. Some held babies, other signed autographs, and some put their heart and soul into the nightly song and dance routines that are a part of the beloved Carnival shtick. Right around dessert time, the mini show would start. One of our waiters, Savio from Bombay, sang and gyrated like a teen star in a boy band. A Brazilian waiter happily donned masks and wigs and played the part of the goofy clown. The wait staff seemed to truly enjoy the music and tomfoolery as much as the passengers. The atmosphere was laid back and comfortable, and with the exception of the two formal nights, passengers dressed the part, some even in shorts, Harley t-shirts and baseball caps.

But -- friendly, energetic service aside -- there were a few lowbrow moments I just can't keep to myself. We dined at the 8pm late seating each evening. On more than one occasion the restaurant lights were abruptly turned up, way up, at 9:30pm sharp to encourage anyone still lingering over their coffee or chocolate mousse to finish up and get the heck out so the staff could clean up. Tack-eee!

Hitting the Spa and Gym

Maria from the Philippines knew how to give a hot stone massage. Nice and firm. She was friendly, but didn't chat throughout the treatment, allowing me to revel in the reason I was there in the first place: To relax. The massage was so wonderful, I booked two of them! No small investment considering the price of spa treatments on cruise ships these days (with tip, the damages came to $140 for a 50-minute massage). And if I had had more will power, I would have wandered into the adjacent gym more often. A roomy, well-equipped space with ocean views, my friend Robin worked out every day and gave the facilities a big thumbs-up. The ocean view sauna and steam room are impressive as well.

I just couldn't ignore how drab and low frills the locker room was, though. In fact, most ships have a separate waiting area for spa goers, often with ocean views and cool drinks on hand. It's common to offer hair dryers, cotton balls and Q-tips, too. On the Liberty, and all other Carnival ships for that matter, you won't find any of these amenities, and the only waiting area for spa goers is a cluster of furniture smack dab in the middle of the beige locker room. Further, when I booked my appointment, I was even asked to bring the robe from my cabin because they often ran out. Ditto for slippers.

Sunbathing Qualifies as a Sport

When the sun was shining, the world was good. Passengers happily packed the tiers of the pool deck, sunbathing, swimming and swigging beers. Some took a turn at the snaking water slide. Others bobbed around the over-sized bubbling hot tubs and watched whatever was showing on the giant video screen. Sometimes there was even live Caribbean-style music from the house band. Bar waiters roamed through the throngs fetching drinks.

But, if sunbathing isn't your cup of tea or the weather was too yucky to spend much time outside (as it was on two days of our cruise), there wasn't a whole lot to do. It would have been nice to enjoy some of the enrichment lectures that most other lines offer on history topics or personal finance or hand writing analysis. Carnival just doesn't go there, with the exception of arts and crafts sessions on longer itineraries that attract older passengers.

Keeping the Crowds at Bay

As ships continue to grow bigger and bigger, 3,000 to 4,000 passengers per cruise has become the norm. That's a lot of flesh, so it was totally surprising there were parts of the ship that never seemed crowded. The gym was never packed. I didn't have trouble making a couple of massage appointments, and we never had to wait more than five seconds to be served at the sushi bar. Even the Camp Carnival kid's program wasn't jammed, which I attribute to the roomy size of the spaces (which include a giant teen center and video arcade) and also to timing. Our January 7 sailing had fewer children aboard than usual because it was right after the holidays when kids are just heading back to school. During busy family times, there can easily 1,000 children and teens aboard.

Still, though there were times it was difficult to imagine we were sailing with thousands of other passengers, other times it was all too clear. For instance, we had a nearly three-hour wait in the terminal in Ft. Lauderdale before we could finally board the ship. I'll chalk it up to the large number of passengers and to increased security measures, which include x-raying all hand baggage and photographing passengers (for the digital security system that keeps track of passengers' comings and goings in port). Another interminable queue was at the sandwich grille during lunchtime, when 20 or 30 deep was par for the course. My kids wanted the grilled chicken. But not that bad.

Oddly enough, the pizza station nearby was never mobbed, so we filled up on slices and bowls of Caesar salad. Who can complain about that?

The Carnival Liberty spends winters, November through May, doing 6- and 8-night Caribbean cruises out of Ft. Lauderdale and the summers offering 12-night jaunts through Europe, sailing roundtrip out of Civitavecchia/Rome. Calling on Naples, Dubrovnik, Venice, Sicily, Barcelona, Cannes and Livorno (Italy). The 8-night Caribbean sailings visit either Costa Maya, Mexico; Limon, Costa Rica; and Colon, Panama, or San Juan, Antigua, St. Thomas, Tortola and sometimes Nassau also. The 6-nighters call on Freeport (Bahamas), Grand Cayman and Cozumel or Costa Maya.

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