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Cruise Views

Carnival Takes Aim With Two New Ships

March 06, 1994|SHIRLEY SLATER and HARRY BASCH | Slater and Basch travel as guests of the cruise lines. and

Between last Thanksgiving and Christmas, Carnival Corp. introduced two new ships--the 2,600-passenger, $300-million Sensation for its Carnival Cruise Lines, and the 1,266-passenger, $250-million Maasdam for its Holland America Line.

Although under the same ownership, the two ships and their on-board lifestyles are so different that it would be difficult indeed to switch passengers from one to the other.

Far from trying to offer all things to all passengers, Carnival appears to target types of travelers. The Carnival "fun ships" have been touted on TV for so long that everybody who's ever seen a newscast has a general idea of what the cruises must be like--filled with glitter, glitz and nonstop fun. (One great relief--you don't have Cathy Lee Gifford pop into your cabin from the TV set the way she does in the commercial.)

This is cruising that is meant to dazzle the average American, to "knock their socks off," as one travel writer said. The trio of vessels that began with the Fantasy, then the Ecstasy and now the Sensation (the Fascination is due in October) are more like adult amusement parks than cruise ships, and they are real crowd-pleasers.

But if you're looking for peace, quiet and solitude, head the other way, perhaps toward the Maasdam.

The Sensation alternates eastern and western Caribbean seven-day cruises round trip from Miami, with Sunday departures. Eastern itineraries call at San Juan and St. Thomas, while western itineraries visit Playa del Carmen and Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Ocho Rios. Prices range from $1,349 to $2,429 per person, double occupancy, including round-trip air fare from Los Angeles.

The Maasdam repositions to Alaska for the summer, beginning May 17, with seven-day round-trip sailings from Vancouver through the Inside Passage, calling in Ketchikan, Juneau and Sitka, and cruising Glacier Bay. Fares range from $1,545 to $5,995 per person, double occupancy, plus air add-ons of $395 from Los Angeles.

When we joined the Sensation's three-day sailing for travel writers agents in mid-November, there were enough sequins on the passengers to out-flash the neon-outlined glass elevators in the seven-deck-high atrium. A 23-foot sculpture by Israeli artist Eliezer Weishoff, part of the $1-million art collection on board, towers over the reception desk like a pastel perpetual motion machine with phallic-like rods and bars following computer-programmed directions.

Ship designer Joe Farcus is fascinated with technological toys. In a bar, table tops twinkle with fiber-optic "snakes," and even the walls in the public areas seem to move as they throb with wavy lights, thanks to computer-controlled neon panels. The only major feature not in place from the beginning (it is now up and working, we are told) was the Sensation Boulevard "sounds of nature" walk, designed to create three different "natural environments" with soothing intermittent sound effects of waves, bird song and rain. Now, thanks to technology, passengers can sit under twinkling fiber-optic trees and listen to recorded bird song.

On that first sailing, the disco reverberated into the wee hours, people lined up three-deep at the midnight buffet, and in the show lounge, the spectacle and special effects on stage rivaled Las Vegas. (The proscenium opening is 18 inches higher than on the previous sister ships so dancers can enter wearing taller headdresses.)

In the 185-square-foot cabins, spacious for this price range, TV sets play feature films around the clock, and you can order a room-service sandwich at 4 a.m.

The Club Vegas casino jingles as long as at least one night owl remains, with 228 slot machines, 20 blackjack tables, three roulette wheels, three dice tables and three poker tables.

Three weeks later, when the ringing in our ears had subsided, we flew to Costa Rica to join the Maasdam for three days at the end of its inaugural cruise, joining a shore-excursion bus at a San Jose museum for the long ride back to Puerto Limon, where the ship was docked.

Our fellow excursion passengers were amiable and sedate, most past retirement age. The Maasdam is sumptuous and subdued, with some of its most elegant public rooms, interestingly, created by Carnival's Farcus, with no neon and few fiber optics in sight.

The top-deck Crows Nest bar doubles as an observation lounge and carries an Alaska theme, with craggy "mountains" of granite in bas-relief around the walls and grained cross-sections of wood forming the floor, table tops and bar top. A subtle, free-form cascade of fiber optics on the ceiling suggests waterways.

The Rembrandt Show Lounge has fluted mahogany columns, Delft tiles and a brocade fabric in red and blue shot through with gold, giving the impression of walking into a tasteful drawing room in the 17th Century.

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