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    by KATE POCOCK
    Family Travel Ink
Parent Getaways: Ecstasy on the High Seas: Love the One You’re With

Before we had even left Miami, the fun on the “Fun Ship” had begun. The threatening thunderclouds had lifted and the sun was spilling onto the decks. But more intoxicating, the carnival atmosphere had already started. But then, we were aboard the M.S. Ecstasy, by dictionary definition “an overwhelming emotion, especially rapturous delight.”

Some passengers were lowering themselves into hot tubs, pink drinks in hand. Others were swaying to the calypso beat ofsteel drums. The singles, boom boxes blasting, were strutting their stuff while the ever-present ship’s photographers were encouraging the old marrieds to kiss through a lifesaving ring. No wonder that the umbrella-decorated Bahama Mama Cocktails of the day were being snapped up, even at $5.75 U.S. each. It was a party in full swing—with umpteen refills and a souvenir glass to boot—to which my husband and I had been invited.

Just in time too. After 20 years of marriage and life with three teenagers, we needed a burst of spontaneity. So we had booked a three-night weekend getaway—a visit to the lovely Vizcaya Gardens in Miami, the Junkanoo Festival in the Bahamas, sea air, quiet sleeps, and obviously fun on the deck.

As we tucked into our welcome aboard buffet of turkey, coleslaw and chocolate eclairs served up on Melmac dishes, I said to my husband, “I feel like we’re at the cottage.” This was going to be a laid-back, casual, much needed escape. “Or, at camp,” he replied, as kids rushed to jump into the pool and the cruise director, in white tennis shoes and a navy blazer, announced games with prizes.

The concept of Carnival Cruise Lines’ “Fun Ships” started decades ago when its very first vessel, the Mardi Gras (formerly the Empress of Canada) ran aground on a sand bar off Florida. “What do we do now?” the staff wondered. An enterprising waiter opened the bar and kept the drinks flowing. “Come on everybody, this is a fun ship,” he shouted as he led the passengers in conga lines around the dining room. The name stuck although cruise officials have recently been working hard to widen the definition of fun. For the kids and teens, there’s Camp Carnival. For the gamblers, a casino; for the gourmands, elegant dinin; and for the stressed-out urbanites, a spa. Our schedules in the cabin listed everything from merengue dancing and couples massage to art auctions and passenger talent shows. Nevertheless, a certain mood prevailed. As one passenger cheerily exhorted, “If you’re cruising and you’re boozing, then you sure ain’t loosing.” Luckily, the boozing included award-winning wine and champagnes with dinner and we could toast our wedding anniversary with style.

It turned out that many on board were celebrating too. Twenty somethings in shorts and straw hats had just graduated from college. A sixty-something couple had invited 13 family members to celebrate their two mothers’ 80th birthdays. Theold gals were beaming. Our friendly tablemates from Saskatchewan and Ecuador were marking their 50th and 15th anniversaries respectively. No wonder the dining staff were kept busy delivering iced cakes to the tune of “Happy Honeymoon” or “Happy Anniversary.” After ceremoniously producing our flaming cake, and cutting it up into pieces, out waiter, in keeping with the mood, asked, “Would you like to take this back to the cabin to play with, oops, I mean eat?” We chuckled at the suggestion.

In our cabin, the two single beds had been pushed together to make a double, a nice surprise, and the curtains had been drawn. Chocolates decorated the pillow with a note for “Sweet Dreams.” As the ship pitched gently toward the Bahamas, our cosy escape seemed a world removed from the hilarity up on deck.

The next morning, people were lining up for snorkeling expeditions or Nassau city tours. The graduates were donning “Drink til you sink” T-shirts for the Yellow Bird party cruise. We opted for the intriguing Pirates Museum and an excellent Bahamian lunch of seafood chowder, sweet potato fish cakes and mango salsa at the Poop Deck restaurant overlooking the harbour. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, we had no room for dessert or their special after-meal liqueurs— “Flaming Orgasm” or the “Poop Deck Panty Dropper.” A certain theme seemed to be erupting.

Back on deck, couples were laying out their sequins and tuxedos for formal night. The country band was tuning up for the late-night hoedown while the ship’s orchestra was rehearsing for the Captain’s cocktail party. The Ecstasy was shimmering from stem to stern with miles of neon lights, fibre optics, chrome and copper trim gleaming. And we toasted our seafood and steak dinner with champagne, clapping as the waiters marched around the dining room, led by the maitre d’ brandishing a flaming sword. Afterward, the country crowd wearing cowboy hats and boots, square dancing skirts and all manner of belted and bolo-tie embellishments (so that was what was in all that luggage), headed for the open deck for line dancing and the Electric Slide. After all that exercise, yet another buffet served under the stars, this time Caribbean spicy chicken and salad. Gold-plated ship’s trophies were handed out to the winners of the hoola hoop and twisting contests. We left around 1 a.m. and the deck was still rocking.

Then, in our cabin, another surprise. Swinging from the television was a terrycloth monkey made from towels. On the bed, a white elephant with blue paper eyes. Carnival is famous for its handmade cloth zoo that delights passengers at turn down time. Although, as one friendly staff told us, “If your cabin steward is new, you’ll probably get a towel snake” rather than an eight-tentacled octopus.

The next morning began our “Fun Day at Sea” and we were really starting to relax. As we roamed the ship, it became clear that most passengers idea of fun was not the games, the Men’s Hairy Chest Contest with blindfolded judges or the Sports Trivia contest, but time spent with their loved ones. A man squeezing his main squeeze, “Precious,” in the hot tub, agreed. “This is the fun part for us,” he said. “The water bits.” In the gym, a gaggle of couples were learning how to massage each other’s feet. They emerged happy, their toes glistening with scented oils. Although the party animals were filling the pools, and the jive lovers were gyrating to the sounds of “Wild, Wild West,” there were also those in the theatre, rehearsing with heartfelt emotion for the passenger talent show.

That evening, before hundreds of strangers, Monica sang out to her husband, “Saving All my Love for You;” Bobby warbled his way through “Sugar is Sweet, My Love, But not as Sweet as You;” Mike dedicated “My Way” to the love of his life, his wife. They were good too and the audience went wild. The cruise on the Ecstasy was almost over and for some, the fun was ending. But for others, rejuvenated by the water bits and iced cakes and time spent together, the fun had only just begun.

BOTTOM LINE

GETTING THERE:Carnival’s M.S. Ecstasy sails Mondays and Fridays from Miami. The three-night cruise, starting at 345 U.S. (port tax included) leaves port 4 pm Friday and sails to Nassau, arriving Miami on Monday at 8 am. The four night cruise, starting at $425 U.S. leaves 4 p, Friday, stopping at Key West, Florida and Cozumel, Mexico, arriving Miami on Friday at 7 am. On the four-day, there’s a brief stop at Playa del Carmen for those wishing to tour the Mayan ruins at Tulum.

ACCOMMODATIONS: Staterooms are available with Twin beds and convertible sofa, Queen beds, or upper and lower bunks for three or four passengers. Also available are cabins for the physically challenged. The Ecstasy features a swimming pool with a water slide, children’s wading pool, whirlpools, gym, the Crystal Palace Casino and a Spa as well as a 24-hour pizzeria and complimentary room service.

JUST THE FACTS: Carnival is the only cruise line to offer the unique Vacation Guarantee. If you are not completely satisfied with your cruise vacation experience, notify them before arrival at the first port of call. You may debark and Carnival will refund the unused portion of your fare and pay for your flight back. To book, call 416-699-5071 or contact your local travel agent. For information, visit www.carnival.com.

 

 

 

 

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