Cruising, making hay in the Carnival Sunshine

Older ship sparkles after a $155 million makeover

Sunshine ropes course

Sunshine ropes course

When I boarded the new(ly renovated) Carnival Sunshine for a week’s cruise out of New Orleans, my mission was to find out whether the 182 cabins that were added to the ship — now housing at least 364 additional passengers — made life onboard more crowded.

Larger, more dense crowds are a major concern for cruisers contemplating a vacation on the new ships, and a worry, as well, on older ships that add cabins to increase a cruise line’s revenue.

Most of what I heard from passengers about the $155 million transformation of the Carnival Destiny into the Carnival Sunshine was strongly positive.

The cruise line has significantly expanded top deck recreation, with the water park and activities such as a ropes course. New dining choices include a full-service Asian restaurant, a Mexican-themed cantina, a sushi bar, and the popular Guy’s Burger Joint (from TV personality Guy Fieri). Carnival also shoehorned onto the Sunshine a pharmacy-themed Alchemy Bar, an EA Sports Bar, the largest RedFrog Pub in the fleet, a Latin-themed Havana Bar, and two new poolside watering holes, the RedFrog Rum Bar and BlueIguana Tequila Bar.

Carnival Sunshine (Andy Newman, CCL)

Carnival Sunshine (Andy Newman, CCL)

But what about the density of the ship? Enough deck chairs? Restaurant seats? Bar stools? And for the trim and fit, would the gym be even tighter at peak times?

All good. Fans of Carnival will be pleased with the 3,006-passenger Sunshine, which cruises with one of company’s best passenger flows and with new nooks and crannies for getting away from the crowd.

More public spaces and quiet zones

Redesigners did a fine job of figuring out how to disperse passengers to dining and entertainment venues, and to add more public space to counter the additional passengers from the new cabins.While Carnival Sunshine cruises with an increase of 14 percent in passengers, it also has 14 percent more deck chairs, 19 percent more restaurant seats, 32 percent more bar stools and seats (I think I know where Carnival is expecting to increase onboard revenue), as well as 25 percent more space for keeping children busy. To work off all the food and alcohol, the ship now has 58 percent more fitness equipment. All those are Carnival numbers (I didn’t measure and count).

Better yet, I found some quiet corners for eating, reading, and sipping a glass of wine.

Alchemy Bar

Alchemy Bar

This is a big change for Carnival, which has evolved since this ship debuted as the Destiny in 1996. Sunshine is not the same ship as it was in the days of constant party, at all hours, in every square foot of space, as encouraged by design and as advertised in Carnival promotions.

Maybe the party crowd is getting older

I remember when the only place to retreat from the buzz of a Carnival ship was your cabin. Now, on Sunshine, cruisers can find quiet, contemplative places, starting with the expansive three-deck Serenity, a no-fee, adults-only retreat.

The new Ji Ji Asian Kitchen, which is a terrific evening dining option at $12 (children $5), also provides a relatively quiet eating area at lunch. Bonsai Sushi is tucked into a corner, away from the mainstream passenger flow. And, at The Taste Bar on deck five, I was nearly alone one morning for a casual buffet breakfast.

The Taste Bar

The Taste Bar

Carnival also added some expensive new operating equipment during Sunshine’s drydock makeover last spring, some of which was needed as a result of the unfortunate fires and engine troubles on other Carnival ships that indicated a lack of usable, back-up generator systems to keep lights, air conditioning, and toilets working if a ship is disabled.

This emphasis on equipment apparently was the cause of delays in finishing some of Sunshine’s cosmetic makeover last year. That included simple repairs, such as repainting rust spots on cabin balconies. Those rust stains remained when I cruised on Sunshine in November. A Carnival spokesman said repainting would continue during regular cruises. In January, approximately 25 percent of the outside repainting was yet to be finished.

Repainting the rust blemishes

Updating and refurbishing ships has been part of the cruise business plan for decades. The vessels once had a predicted life of 25-30 years, depending on the quality of maintenance. But in the era since private balconies were built for a majority of cabins, ships now are estimated to have a life of 35-40 years before they are towed to the scrap heap, says ship historian Peter Knego, editor of MaritimeMatters.com.

Top of the water slide (Andy Newman, CCL)

Top of the water slide (Andy Newman, CCL)

For cruise lines, he says, the key is to keep these aging ships profitable, so they do not lose out in the vacation competition with newer ships.

Good news for Carnival is that after 17 years of cruising as the Destiny, Carnival Sunshine is back in the limelight as one of the cruise line’s hipper ships.

I recommend, however, that the folks at Carnival work a little harder at cleaning and painting over the old ship’s rust. These blemishes are disconcerting to a passenger who is told that $155 million was spent on renovation. Then, when he walks outside to his balcony from a handsome, newly renovated cabin, he faces streaks of rust and crust on the deck.

Those age spots can mar an otherwise sparkling, youthful image.

INFO: Carnival Sunshine moves to Cape Canaveral from New Orleans in April for cruises to the Bahamas and Caribbean.

David Molyneaux writes regularly about cruising news, tips and trends at TravelMavenBlog.com. His cruise trends column appears monthly  in U.S. newspapers and on other Internet sites, including AllThingsCruise  He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com

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