April 26, 2009 in Travel

THE SPLENDID SPLENDOR

Sky-dome roof and its sheer size sets apart Carnival Cruise Line’s latest ship
Ann Tatko-Peterson Contra Costa Times
 
Photos courtesy of Carnival photo

The Cloud 9 Spa on Carnival Splendor includes a Thalassotherapy pool with hovering dragon statues. Photos courtesy of Carnival
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

If you go

Carnival Splendor

Intinerary: Seven-day Mexican Riveria cruises on Carnival Splendor sail round-trip from Long Beach with ports of call in Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas.

Cost: Starts at $379, based on double occupancy.

More information: www.carnival.com, (888) 227-6482

Carnival Cruise Line’s newest Fun Ship has all the requisite features: food enough for 10 meals a day, activities galore, Vegas-style shows, movies under the stars, a nine-hole mini golf course, a water slide and much more. Yet, “fun” standards aside, the Splendor clearly is in a class by itself.

For starters, the 113,000-ton ship is the largest in the fleet, measuring more than three football fields long. Its size becomes starkly obvious as the ship narrowly clears the Golden Gate while passing underneath the bridge – or in the tired legs that result from the three hours needed to tour the ship’s 13 decks.

But the real differences go much deeper, and aren’t necessarily obvious at first glance.

Last month, I got a closer look during a two-day preview cruise out of San Francisco. (We didn’t go anywhere, unless you count circling in the Pacific Ocean.)

Usually, Carnival’s grand ships snag the more elite itineraries, sailing the Mediterranean or Caribbean routes. Indeed, the Splendor – which debuted in July – was the first Fun Ship to sail to South America earlier this year.

But now the Splendor will make year-round jaunts to the Mexican Riveria from Long Beach, making it the largest Carnival ship to ever sail the West Coast and the newest ship on the Pacific Ocean.

Let’s face it, the pool deck says a lot about a ship. Here, the bars are always crowded; the pizzeria and grill run 24 hours a day; and finding a lounge chair often requires waking up early or staying up late, especially with a jumbo movie screen hovering over the pool.

The big difference on Splendor is immediately apparent in the deck’s sultry air, compliments of a sky-dome roof.

The Splendor abandons the usual large, open sun deck with tiered platforms graduating down to a mid-ship pool. Here, two decks are stacked on top of each other and a glass retractable roof can entirely enclose the pool deck. It more closely models those on Costa’s cruise ships.

At first glance I was prepared to dislike the deck. Humid spaces remind me of sweaty locker rooms from my past life as a sportswriter. Plus, the enclosed space sounded more like a concert venue than an ideal place to relax when music poured from the speakers.

I changed my tune midway through our little trip. Stormy conditions had turned our sailing into a rough-and-tumble battle to stay upright, with strong winds whipping around the decks. But thanks to the now completely closed roof, the sun deck remained balmy – and suddenly a welcome escape from the cold.

What’s more, it’s not as if the Splendor lacks an outdoor pool area. The aft pool has a good-size deck, large bar and two eateries. In other words, you have choices.

The Splendor also borrowed from two Costa ships – the Concordia and Serena – in designing the 21,000-square-foot Cloud 9 Spa.

One of the largest of floating spas, it spans the forward position of two full decks. Floor-to-ceiling picture windows look out over the sea from the expansive workout gym, full-service hair and nail salon and 17 private treatment rooms.

The décor blends dragons, Buddhas and slightly too anatomically correct, mosaic-tiled mannequins. Therapies are a mix of Asian, Middle Eastern and European styles.

The most impressive spa feature is the Thalassotherapy pool. Water jets circulate heated ionized water, but the pool feels more like a natural bubbling spring than a giant hot tub. Dragon statues loom over the pool; above those, a glass dome lets in ample natural light.

The spa also contains a thermal suite, designed to mirror Turkish baths, with herbal steam and sauna grottoes, tropical showers and heated chaise lounges.

The thermal suite and Thalassotherapy pool are available for $35 a day. Guests of the 68 spa staterooms and suites receive unlimited complimentary access.

The spa staterooms are a new addition to Carnival. They retain the same floor plan as the other cabins, but have Asian-inspired artwork and in-room spa products.

Guests of these rooms have private elevator access to the spa, priority for appointments (although treatments still cost extra) and complimentary fitness classes.

In true Fun Ship fashion, the Splendor caters to all demographics. And frankly, it left me wishing I were much younger again.

This isn’t the best ship for kids; the water-spray park and water slide are far more subdued than what’s available on the Fantasy. Still, at three decks high and 214 feet long, the Twister Waterslide hardly classifies as tame – and the Splendor clearly makes its under-18 crowd a priority.

Camp Carnival, for 2- to 11-year-olds, is, at 5,500 square feet, the largest kids playroom on a Carnival ship. In the toddler room, bins are sorted by themes, from the usual dinosaurs to the more unusual chipmunks.

Giant Lego-like building blocks fill one corner. Low-built sinks sit in an alcove.

The 6- to 8-year-olds room features more hands-on activities, such as Pucker Powder and a Sand Blast station. In the room for 9- to 11-year-olds, screens featuring Wii games circle a bank of windows overlooking the ocean.

Teenagers also have their own space. Circle “C” offers individual gaming consoles – including Wii guitars – and a sound system with karaoke for 12- to 14-year-olds.

The odd thing is the placement of the room, tucked back by a main dining room and the library, one deck down from the Promenade. Considering these young teens can come and go as they please, I expected a room more centrally located or at least easier to reach.

For 15- to 17-year-olds, Club O2 features a dance floor with professional disc jockey, gaming pod, 60-inch big-screen televisions and a soda bar. Bubble water tubes and the sleek soda bar lend this a not-too-grown-up nightclub feel.

Carnival’s big, bold décor feels a little more modern chic on the Splendor. Design architect Joe Farcus built around a splendid-elegance theme. Here, Carnival purple gives way to pink, especially in the atrium.

The walls are splashed in a composite material of stainless steel and circular cutouts of pink-stained wood with black-pigment grain. The balcony and main staircase handrails also use this pink- and black-grained wood. Accented with dark pink leather chairs and gold-leaf beams, the atrium definitely pops.

Personally, I was more taken with the eye-pleasing, glitzy Spectacular Spectacular main theater. Farcus tried to create a show lounge where the entire room is a stage.

The room is draped in sparkling, silver and blue fiberglass curtains, and colored teardrops hang from domed chandeliers.

Also impressive is the eclectic group of theme bars and nightclubs. Some are over-the-top, such as the Red Carpet dance club where the carpet, tiled walls, ropes and even the neon lights are all red.

Others have an understated elegance, such as the El Morocco nightclub with painted murals, Arabian-style windows, lanterns and a ceiling that makes you feel as if you’ve stepped into a desert tent.

My favorite bar was the Grand Piano, where a grand piano is surrounded by a circular bar designed to look like giant piano keys. Recessed lighting and marble lend it a high-end look, while the nightly “Piano Party with Ron” borders the risque after midnight.

The Splendor still features the sleek main dining rooms, but its specialty dining options demand notice.

It has drawn from the best of Carnival’s previous Fun Ships – rotisseries from the Imagination and Inspiration, Mongolian Wok from Liberty and Freedom (the long lines are worth the wait) and Indian Tandoori from Freedom.

The Taste of the Nation features a different international cuisine every day; the California Roll serves sushi and a coffee bar offers specialty coffees and teas.

The Chocolate Extravaganza late-night buffet should not be missed, even if you only go to take pictures. Rumor had it that the ice cream sundae bar made an appearance on our cruise, but, with much regret, I missed that one.

The shining jewel touted on the Splendor is its steakhouse. The Pinnacle Club is decorated in maroon and bronze with pillars and skylights that open to the night stars.

Attention to detail is exemplary, with service and food unrivaled aboard a cruise ship. The steaks are cooked to order; the lobster is removed from its shell at your request.

A singer and keyboardist provide live music alongside a glass dance floor suspended over a mini atrium.

But the Pinnacle Club still fell short of the truly intimate dining experience expected when being charged $30 per person. The restaurant sits open, overlooking a two-level, casual poolside eatery. While the music helped drown out the noise below, the scene was still somewhat jarring for a fine-dining experience.

The Splendor offers Serenity, an adults-only deck placed in proximity to the top of the water slide. Naturally, kids tend to be loud on water slides, so serenity may be hard to find here.

And speaking of loud, some guests in the mid-ship staterooms noted that noise from the open atrium filtered through their closed doors.

But even with these few blips, the Splendor still lives up to its name.


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