Amy Watkins' mission was simple - Find out if Carnival Cruise's latest "fun ship" is overwhelming for us sedate Brits.
We Brits are very suspicious of anything that whiffs of enforced fun. For many of us the thought of spending our holiday doing something actively marketed as fun is guaranteed to bring us out in a cold sweat - isn't all that perky stuff a bit naff and annoying?
The Americans are particularly big on all things fun and when US line Carnival recently launched their new 'fun ship' Magic there was no mistaking their intentions. Bar placards read "Fact: anecdotes are 17% more interesting when accompanied by a drink" and every evening the Fun Times arrived with a chocolate, towel elephant and information about events such as hairy-chest competitions and a cocktail-making showdown.
This level of fun is not for everybody - the chirpy cruise director John Heald, inspiration of many an internet fan and hate group, had his tongue firmly wedged into his cheek for most of the inaugural voyage from Venice as music throbbed around the main pool (there's a quieter one at the back as well). Décor throughout the ship is big and at times brash; Las Vegas style illuminated signs direct you to the theatres, clubs and bars and the green atrium is a mind-melting array of bulbous lights and glitz.
Even Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill's entrance to Magic's naming ceremony was no ordinary one; he arrived (indoors) in a red helicopter as part of a magic trick. "This ship is the best in our fleet yet," he announced. "And this is a good city for the venue, because Venice is the city of magic."
There was certainly an air of excitement onboard and the mix of 3690-passengers was 65 % American and 35% European, including a large group of Russian guests. The line's slogan is 'Fun for all, all for fun' and ships are marketed as 'Fun Ships' just in case you don't get the message. It should be horrendous - and anyone who doesn't like juggling magicians or karaoke in front of a big band might think it is - but Carnival do what they say they will. Magic really is fun.
A cruise ship first is the impressive ropes course. Children made it look easy to traverse the bridges, nets and beams that hung above the mini golf course and outdoor gym, but once I was strapped into my safety harness it suddenly looked a bit harder and I was horribly aware that I was 150ft above sea level. The WaterWorks slides are another fun diversion that look deceptively innocent until you are hurtling through them and trying to keep your dignity, if not your swimsuit, intact. Nearby is the adults-only Serenity space complete with day beds and hammocks to relax in.
Another new feature is the RedFrog pub - its signature ThirstyFrog beer proved so popular that more had to be air-freighted in to keep up with demand - it's a Caribbean themed one that serves up quirky bar snacks like conch salad and grouper goujons.
Food onboard is dangerously good. From the daily-changing specials in the Lido Marketplace buffet to the evening Sushi & More bar, Tandoor curry bar (popular with the few hundred Brits onboard) and the 24hr poolside pizzeria.
Carnival Magic is the first ship to feature Cuchina del Capitano, a family-friendly Italian restaurant inspired by favourite recipes from Carnival Captains' childhoods. The $10 surcharge ($5 for kids) gets you a cheery welcome from the singing waiters and includes fantastic regional Italian dishes. More up-market is the sultry Prime steakhouse, where $30 gets you grilled lobster and all kinds of awesome steaks up to a huge 24oz porterhouse cut.
Luckily there is an extensive gym that holds exercise classes and the Cloud9 Spa features weight-loss treatments, such as the rather meanly-named algae wrap and body brushing 'Bliss FatGirlSlim' treatment. Evening entertainment ranges from karaoke and Motown singers, to dance shows and comedy nights - guests can dance the night away at the Vibe nightclub or enjoy a cocktail at the Play it Again piano bar, which is festooned with glitter balls and serves a mean Cosmopolitan (with the Carnival twist of adding limoncello instead of lemon juice).
'Fun shops' include the new Cherry on Top concept - a deliciously indulgent sweet shop that also sells spa products, champagne and flowers. Kids have lots of distractions, as well as the slides and ropes there are cool kids' and teens' areas. Outside there is plenty of deck space, with Jacuzzis and two pool areas , the bigger of which features a massive TV screen.
Our cabins are comfy and every night a different towel animal perched on our bed and it seemed churlish not to pet them as we moved them onto the desk. Cabins are thankfully understated with a splash of burned orange and tropical flowers in the artwork.
I loved the upbeat atmosphere onboard - even the staff seemed genuinely pleased to be there, but it was the inaugural cruise - but the American style humour of British cruise director John Heald did start to grate and cabin walls were thin enough to hear loud neighbours at times.
My friend Lucy, a first-time cruiser, didn't mind being one of a handful of Brits, she said: "With its loud and glitzy décor there was no mistaking this was an American cruise line but it was exactly how I expected it to be and was glad it didn't let me down in the OTT stakes. We were outnumbered on board but with guests from all over the world it felt a more international mix and had there was a very friendly atmosphere - though I missed being able to get a decent cup of tea in the morning!"
On a trip to rainy Dubrovnik Lucy and I smirked at the 'soak up the fun, not the rain' yellow ponchos that other passengers were wearing, but when our stylish umbrellas broke half-way around the old city walls we were the ones left looking stupid. We took this as a lesson for the cruise; if you can't beat them, join them.
Amy flew with British Airways to join Carnival Magic's inaugural cruise on the 1st May in Venice and sailed on the section between Venice and Naples calling at Dubrovnik and Messina - the ship then went on to complete its nine-day voyage and visited Rome, Livorno, and Monte Carlo on its way to Barcelona. She stayed in an outside balcony twin cabin.
Example prices for a departure on the 16th September 2011 on a similar nine-night Mediterranean fly/cruise from Barcelona starts from £979pp based on an inside cabin. To book visit www.carnivalcruise.co.uk or call UK reservations 0845 351 0556.
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