Earlier this year, Carnival Cruise Lines introduced its newest megaliner, Carnival Freedom, a 112,000-ton vessel that can accommodate 3,700 passengers when it is completely sold out. The ship was deployed to the Mediterranean for the spring, summer, and early fall seasons (it sails the Caribbean in winter), and passengers have responded so positively that the ship will return next year with more Mediterranean sailings and itineraries.

This is Carnival’s second entry into European waters, and I was interested to see how an American “Fun Ship” would fare in the sophisticated Mediterranean cruise market, so I signed up for Freedom’s 12-day “Mediterranean & Greek Isles” cruise, with port calls in Italy, Greece and Turkey. I also signed up my two daughters, ages 10 and 13. After all, Carnival ships have a well-earned reputation for being family-friendly. I wanted to see if we could combine a great family vacation with an edifying European tour. Would it be fun and educational, or would it be hell?

It looked good from the get-go. The cruise had a promising if ambitious itinerary (Naples, Italy; Rhodes, Greece; Izmir (Ephesus) and Istanbul, Turkey, featuring scenic cruising of the Dardanelles; Athens and Katakolon, Greece; and Livorno (Pisa/Florence), Italy), and it offered 99 shore excursions, so the education and culture angles were covered. The passengers’ age range looked promising for family fun, too. A quick scan of the morning buffet line revealed that this group was decades younger than those I’ve sailed with on other Mediterranean cruises. In fact, Freedom was packed with families, and there were plenty of couples and groups in their 30s and 40s. That makes perfect sense, given the ship’s offerings.

Freedom fun

The minute you step aboard the ship, you are struck by the exuberant vision of ship interior designer Joe Farcus. The theme takes guests on a journey through the centuries, from ancient Babylonia to the heyday of disco. The shipboard activities are equally varied, offering diversions from morning until well into the night. All this unfolds against the casual, carefree and energetic vibe that Carnival is famous for.

A 4,200-square-foot play area anchors Freedom’s Camp Carnival program for kids. The facility is divided into five areas: a movie room, an arts-and-crafts center, a “soft play area” for toddlers, a gaming area with PlayStation 2 consoles, and a library of children’s books. While this setup is great for kids under nine, I found my daughters and other kids in their age range (10-14) not thrilled to be in the same room as toddlers. They felt older kids should have their own room like the amazing, 1,800-square-foot teen center dubbed “Club O2.” Designed for kids ages 15 to 17, that facility includes a dance floor, DJ, state-of-the-art sound and lighting, a nonalcoholic specialty drink lounge and a game room. A library offers teen-oriented books. The ship does have a huge arcade area for all ages, with a fun selection of games from classic to virtual reality.

Probably the most popular family attractions are the four pools (one lies beneath a retractable roof), a 214-foot water slide and the Seaside Theatre, on the Lido Deck, which has a 270-square-foot LED screen on which passengers can watch blockbuster movies while comfortably ensconced in lounge chairs under the sun or stars. In addition to pool games, dance classes and themed parties, shipboard offerings also include more sedate family pursuits like reading in the library, afternoon tea in the Posh Restaurant and extensive shopping in the Promenade.

Spectacular entertainment is also a Carnival hallmark. Elaborate sets and costumes, along with pyrotechnics and special effects, take production shows to new heights. In the Victoriana Show Lounge, I enjoyed several high-energy Las Vegas-style extravaganzas, including “The Big Easy,” a flashy tribute to New Orleans, and “Ticket to Ride,” a fun Fab Four songfest showcasing a terrific Beatles tribute band. At the center of this entertainment circus is perhaps the best cruise director sailing the seven seas: the dynamic John Heald. His wry British wit enlivens everything from his live “Morning Show” to the silly passenger participation shows, with many moments that are laugh-out-loud funny.

The Spa Carnival Health and Fitness facility offers a wide range of indulgent, European-style treatments and therapies. The fitness center offers fitness classes along with just about every workout machine available; it was always busy.

This was a working vacation for me, and I was glad to be aboard one of the most technologically advanced ships afloat. Freedom has bow-to-stern wireless Internet access and cellular phone service, so I was able to keep up with the news and check my e-mail on my laptop everywhere aboard ship. There’s also a 24-hour Internet café for those not lugging a laptop.

Home away from home

When you board the Carnival Freedom, a crew member says, “Welcome Home,” and your cabin truly does become your home for 12 days. Freedom’s 1,487 staterooms are defined by six categories ranging from inside cabins to penthouse suites. Our 220-square-foot outside balcony cabin afforded plenty of room for the three of us — we never felt cramped, and there was plenty of drawer and closet space. I am a big advocate of balcony staterooms, which offer a tranquil and private escape from the hectic pool area. They are always worth the extra expense. On this cruise, the balcony was especially welcome; it was like having box seats to the Mediterranean’s most amazing places.

Nice touches in the cabin included a hair dryer, refrigerator, safe, robes, plush towels and Carnival’s amazingly comfortable beds with high-thread-count linens, crisp duvets and fluffy pillows. Carnival’s cabin stewards are wizards at keeping the space tidy twice daily. We found ourselves looking forward to discovering which type of sculpture our steward would make with our sunglasses and towels. Sometimes we got a monkey hanging from the ceiling; other times an elephant or swan perched on the edge of our beds.

Dining pleasures

Carnival is great at food, and Freedom offers a wealth of menu options and wine selections, many created by the talented French master chef Georges Blanc. I found the cuisine in the Posh and Chic dining rooms to be contemporary and exciting. Freedom’s chefs produced several memorable moments, including Hudson Valley duck with sweet turnip purée and peas; slow braised osso buco in red wine sauce served over polenta with mushrooms and roasted garlic; green beans and stewed cherry tomatoes and a to-die-for mushroom risotto; and an amazing molten chocolate cake. The kids could eat pizza, pasta, chicken fingers and hamburgers to their hearts’ content — and they did. All meals were served by exceptionally attentive and professional crew members, who truly enjoyed pleasing their guests.

For an out-of-this-world culinary experience, try Sun King, the ship’s reservations-only supper club (there is a $30 cover charge), which offers superior a la carte fare including seared lobster tail over tomato confit, a huge (24-ounce) porterhouse steak, grilled filet mignon over cardamom-braised carrots, and pumpkin ravioli. I was impressed as each course was prepared and presented with consummate flair. I felt I was on a luxury liner.

For casual breakfast, lunch or dinner, the festive Lido Deck Restaurant features “Taste of the Nations,” which has a grand buffet as well as Asian and fish-and-chips specialty sections. Other food venues include the Meiji Bar (serving sushi or tapas), a grille, a deli, the Viennese Café Patisserie, a 24-hour pizzeria, as well as a soft-serve ice cream and frozen yogurt bar.

Euro family fun

The itinerary is so ambitious that it’s hard to enjoy everything the ship had to offer. Thank goodness for the three “Fun Days at Sea,” when I could catch my breath, sleep in, relax by the pool or stay out late. (In fact, most guests are so exhausted from touring that staying up into the wee hours often proved difficult. I managed it only once.)

The priority, of course, is to take in all those great port stops. Let’s face it: The whole point of flying all the way to Europe is, well, to see Europe. Freedom’s port-packed schedule certainly allows you to do that. Just take a deep breath first, especially if you are traveling with children.

A European cruise exposes kids to a variety of cultures along with important museums, cathedrals, ruins, architecture and other must-see attractions. My daughters experienced firsthand the Pantheon, the Parthenon, Pompeii and Ephesus. We roamed Rome, saw the Vatican and gawked endlessly at the Sistine Chapel. We observed prayer at Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, got lost in the Grand Bazaar, climbed the Leaning Tower of Pisa and sipped limoncello (the kids had lemon Grenache) in Positano. Fortunately, Carnival offers family-friendly shore excursions and I found these to be truly terrific, particularly in Naples and Istanbul. Of course, all this was seasoned with socializing and making new friendships on board. Yes, it was overwhelming, and yes, we’d do it all over again.

Sailing Carnival in Europe is an entirely different experience from sailing Carnival in the Caribbean. The infamous “Hair Chest Contest” made it across the Atlantic, as did some other silly Carnival fun and games. And the lines were just as long in Europe, both at the buffet and for reboarding the ship after a long day of touring, but they didn’t frustrate anyone because the crew’s system was efficient. The big difference on this cruise was the passengers: Among the 3,400 people onboard, some 20 nationalities were represented. After a round of bingo in the Victoriana Theater one evening, I talked with a woman from Japan about finding interesting treasures in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. In the Jacuzzi, I met a family from New Zealand who said this was the best vacation they’d ever had. On the ship’s jogging track, I met walkers from Minneapolis and Moscow; we traded tales of cold-climate walking and reveled in the Mediterranean views as we slogged around the track.

The bottom line for Carnival Freedom European sailings: They’re ideal for enthusiastic travelers who’d like a quick taste of the best of the Mediterranean on a budget. If you can handle the rigorous schedule and don’t want to waste a single minute, this cruise is for you.

If you go:

Carnival is currently accepting reservations for Carnival Freedom’s 2008 Europe departures. Prices for the 12-day voyages begin at $1,199 per person, based on double occupancy; there are special rates for third and fourth guests sailing in the same stateroom. Carnival also offers round-trip airfares from a variety of North American gateways, as well as pre- and post-cruise land packages in Rome. The ship will be based in Miami during the 2007-2008 winter season (November through the end of April), sailing seven-day Eastern and Western Caribbean cruises; prices begin at $569.

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