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'FREEDOM' OF EXPRESSION

The decor engulfs the senses and the dining steps up as Carnival adjusts course with its newest ship.

Yes, the flamboyance and glitz that symbolizes the world's largest cruise line has been slightly calmed aboard this newest of its 22-ship fleet. But when you can carry 3,700 passengers, and can seat 1,866 at a time in the two formal dining rooms, subtle does not play into the equation.

And so, there is much on the Carnival Freedom that will feel familiar for any of the millions who have sailed a Carnival ship before - typically, the fleet carries 40 to 50 percent repeat passengers, hotel director Gunasekasan Chellam told me.

Even with all the talk of a less-is-more motif, the Freedom's decor is overwhelming at times. Metallic panels, molded into gentle curves and cylinders, glow dully in finishes of avocado, puce and other colors you aren't going to choose for your own living room.

Wood veneer in the formal dining rooms is laminated to resemble python skin, an unusual offset to the marble and gilded grillwork there.

More of the cylindrical metal rises through the 12-deck atrium. Projecting from these tubes on each deck are lights that change colors through the Roy G. Biv spectrum.

Veneer on some atrium walls resembles a monstrous wood-grain pattern that is supposed to resemble tiger skin. It doesn't, but it still catches the eye.

All of this is actually a calming from the pyrotechnics in previous Carnival ships that made passengers the pinballs that flipped around a blinking, bewildering machine.

Decorating with detail

The man responsible for then and now extravagances is cruise industry legend Joe Farcus. He has selected and/or designed the interior decor themes, color schemes and even the carpeting and furniture in all the current Carnival ships.

Farcus' only personal eccentricity is a penchant for bowties, but give him 1,487 cabins and suites, three massive dining rooms, a 1,400-seat theater and nine bars to decorate, and he lets go.

With that many times at bat, this particular Yankees fan is bound to hit a few out, and he does again aboard the Freedom, where some are tape-measure blasts:

- The most-surprising decorative innovations - and probably the least-noticed by the users of any of the public rooms - are entrances around the casino.

"I thought it would be interesting to go back in time to find inspiration for the various public rooms," Farcus has said. So he chose to name the casino "Babylon."

The casino has no doors, only openings along the main boulevard that passengers use to reach the shops, sushi bar and coffee bars, theater and disco on this deck. Farcus framed the openings in navy blue tiles, on which he has placed glistening plaster statues of lions, unicorns, other mystical beasts and white zigzag edges.

- A surprisingly large room, the Habana Cigar Bar seats 147 to puff and listen to live jazz in wing chair comfort. Murals here are huge enlargements of colorful cigar box name panels. Tables rest on stumpy pillars that have been created to resemble a cigar stub, complete with the band.

- The Victoriana Theater is the major show room, where passengers on each seven-night cruise can see three musical revues, a couple of comics, a passenger talent/impersonation show and other audience-participation events.

Farcus says the gilded scrollwork on the walls and ceiling resembles that of London's famed West End theaters entering the 20th century. But his genius touch is in using re-creations of the glorious maidens and beautiful ladies that artists Alphonse Mucha and John Singer Sargent immortalized.

Ever the gallant, Farcus placed his re-creations in bigger-than-life panels on the walls and on the ceiling fronting the stage, but there are also small versions on the armrests and the cocktail tabletops. The result: Even reaching for my notepad during the revues, I was smitten by women who are beyond my reach.

- As is the case on most major cruise lines, hallways and even stair landings on the Freedom hold original works of art. Striking on this vessel are the 15 three-dimensional glass pieces by Luciano Vistosi and Joan Barber's delicately rendered paintings of people in common settings.

Another view of life is provided by Calman Shemi. These are intricately layered lithographs showing multiple images of icons such as the Beatles, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe, in vibrant colors.

All three artists' works seem to challenge the passengers to abandon their pleasure o'plenty cruise to contemplate the gravity of our real world.

Carnival cuisine

About the only part of a Carnival ship that Farcus can't get his paws on is the food. Here, the choices have been greatly elevated. It's obvious to passengers as soon as they step aboard in Miami.

Not too long ago, the "welcome aboard" lunch was little more than burgers and hot dogs served on the pool deck's buffet line.

The locale is the same, but the Freedom Restaurant - it has a two-deck-tall, ice-blue frieze of the Statue of Liberty - offers a 35-item salad bar, nearly a dozen hot or cold deli sandwiches, Asian specialties, a seafood table with ceviche and bouillabaisse, roast beef carved on request, grilled chicken and steak sandwiches.

And, yep, hot dogs and hamburgers.

The two formal dining rooms now have menus created by French chef Georges Blanc, revered for creating a countryside restaurant that has earned three Michelin stars.

Blanc, 65, helped train the Carnival fleet's master chefs. Entrees the first night included lobster, duck, steak and spaghetti carbonara. On another night I counted 11 entree offerings, including several presented for the diet-conscious.

However, opinions on the entrees at my table ranged from superior to just "all right."

But a special Indian buffet one night, with more than a dozen entrees, was excellent. And the 108-seat Sun King Supper Club, which charges $30 per person and offers beef, lamb and lobster, served one of the finest filet mignons I've enjoyed.

Back in the super-popular Lido (pool) deck restaurant, Carnival gets props for its daily international cuisine specialties, though what I sampled varied in quality and taste.

On nearly three dozen cruises, I learned to judge the food as if it was being served in a landside restaurant: Would I come back? Yes, for the formal dining rooms, maybe not for the pool deck fare.

Which might emphasize that sometimes, less is more if you can get it.

Robert N. Jenkins can be reached at bjenkins@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8496.

"Sometimes, less is more."

- Overheard recently aboard the Carnival Freedom

IF YOU GO

Carnival Freedom

Itineraries: Carnival Freedom alternates seven-day itineraries from Miami to Cozumel (Mexico), Georgetown (Grand Cayman) and Ocho Rios (Jamaica), or to San Juan, St. Thomas (U.S. Virgin Islands) and St. Maarten.

In mid April the ship will make a trans-Atlantic crossing and sail longer itineraries in the Mediterranean.

Cabins: There are six cabin categories, including 52 suites and 504 cabins with popular balconies. There is a vast array of pricing plans and occasional specials. Consult a travel agent for details or go to www.carnival.com.

I had a balcony cabin, with king bed, three closets, a vanity with four drawers and six shelves, a safe, interactive TV (third-run movies are free, more-recent films cost $8.99), a hair dryer and a comfortable, shower-only bathroom.

Entertainment: One of the two 45-minute musical revues, The Big Easy, was great fun: Clever costumes for the 16 dancers and two featured vocalists, and music included snippets of Dixieland, rock, country and Western, even a few bars of Old Man River. The female vocalist could both sing and dance, while the male could, well, serve as her partner.

The second show, Ticket to Ride, was uneven. The highlights:

- The four male dancers costumed as the mop-tops ran through slits in a back-of-the-stage movie screen, chased by female dancers. Then the screen became a clever computer animation of those characters, and a few others, running through the countryside to familiar tunes - until the cartoons came running toward the audience, and the live dancers ran back through the screen.

- And when the staff passed out glow sticks to the audience, we fell back into our youth and waved the sticks overhead as if they were lighters. We were on our feet to Hey, Jude.

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