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Cruisin' from Charleston

Any cruise ship is a floating vacation in a box, but when its departure port is only 90 minutes from Myrtle Beach, it’s a world away from work and the stresses of every day life.

In May, Carnival Cruise Lines launched its year round cruise schedule from Charleston, mooring the 2056-passenger Fantasy in the historic harbor. It replaces the 1607-passenger Norwegian Majesty which ran out of the harbor for a few seasons. Fantasy boasts a 12,000-square-foot health spa, children’s activities in three age groups, 12 lounges and bars, 54 balcony rooms and a variety of formal and casual dining options. What it can’t boast is multiple swimming pools, and a large number of reviews on Cruise Critics website mention this.

Nonetheless, frequent cruiser Sandy Lowe of Myrtle Beach said her group, which made the first sailing, thoroughly enjoyed the cruise except for the disembarkation process when it took more than an hour for their bus to retrieve their luggage. “Carnival will fix that problem,” she said. “They’re excellent.” In fact, Byron Miller of the South Carolina State Ports Authority (SCSPA) says several improvements to parking and other items have been made. Charleston resident and PR consultant Erin Watson recently accompanied several media representatives on a cruise. “They were pleasantly surprised” by the entire experience, she said.

Fantasy makes five distinct voyages: five days to Nassau and Freeport, six days to Key West, Nassau and Freeport, six days to Bermuda, seven days to Key West, Nassau and Freeport, and seven days to Grand Turk, Half Moon Bay and Nassau. Prices range from approximately $300 to $1600, varying by season and type of accommodation and include food, some non-alcoholic drinks, gratuities and most ship-board activities. Carnival often runs specials for various categories such as senior citizens, past cruisers and state of residence. If booked under their Early Saver Program, any decrease in price can be claimed for an on-board credit.

Lowe emphasized the convenience of going out of Charleston. Having sailed out of Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale, Port Canaveral and the West Coast, she found the embarkation experience to be similar at all. Once on board, her large group was able to dine at adjacent tables, commandeer a library for use as a card room, and generally enjoy the services of the ship. “The cruise was great. We always have a good time,” she said. Having previously sailed Fantasy’s sister ship out of Jacksonville, she noted that Fantasy has been renovated and modernized, and enjoyed the familiarity of the layout. “On the bigger ships the cabins are a bit bigger. The pool was always packed,” but she took advantage of a day in port to find quiet time at the pool while others were on shore. In port, and on the ship, the Lowes spent much of their time in the casinos, however they did take in a bit of shopping, play bingo and go to shows in the evenings.

She recommended a stop at Atlantis while in Nassau. “We’re gamblers, so we’ve flown to Nassau and stayed in Atlantis.” In Freeport, which they had also toured before, they drove into town where he gambled and she shopped.

Excursions in Freeport are as varied as a tour of Grand Bahama Island, a dolphin encounter, guided snorkeling, and a heritage tour. Nassau excursions include the Ardastra Gardens, Zoo and Conservation Center, a 141-acre water park, an underwater observatory and a Segway tour. On Grand Turk, you can enjoy sport fishing, explorations by 4x4, scuba, snuba and an eco-safari. Key West’s famed sunset celebration and night life add to the mix. Carnival has posted excursions for their 2011 sailings to Bermuda, however, pricing hasn’t been established. The offerings include many water sports augmented by home tours, history tours, helmet diving, kayaking and fishing.

There are many other excursions offered through the cruise lines, most of which should be booked online or through a travel agent beforehand. Independent companies line the docks at ports offering excursions, but beware: Should you take an alternative tour and arrive back at the dock after the ship has sailed, you’re on your own to reconnect with the ship.

Carnival also has a web-based system of pre-departure paperwork which greatly expedites the boarding process. At the terminal, each passenger is issued an identification card which is also an on-board charge card for bar purchases, photos, gambling and other extras. It must be backed by a cash deposit or a credit card. No cash is accepted on board except for extra tips if you choose. Beginning next year, Carnival will be joined by a Celebrity ship with ten- and eleven-day cruises in February, March and April, according to Ida Becker of the Charleston Area CVB. Charleston’s SCSPA office publishes a calendar of cruises which includes Celebrity Mercury (www.scspa.com/cruises/calendar/cruisecalendar2011-embark.asp); however Celebrity’s website does not list Charleston as a port and information from their reservations department conflicted with the website and the CVB.

Responding to past concerns about traffic and parking, Charleston has implemented a new route which takes passenger vehicles, including drop-offs, down Concord Street to enter the terminal at Gate 2 at the corner of Concord and Laurens streets. Parking is in covered warehouses and costs $15 per day by credit or debit card. Limos, taxis and buses enter the terminal’s main gate at 32 Washington St. Shuttle buses transport passengers and luggage to the ship from the parking lot.

The ports authority has begun a major initiative to have “a new world-class facility operational by the end of 2012, replacing its existing facility, according to Miller. The plan shifts the cruise operations slightly north of the existing terminal in a converted 151,200-square-foot building with adjacent surface parking. They are currently evaluating proposals for a new passenger loading bridge which would be operational in the 2011 cruise season, Miller said.

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