No airplane, hotel, movie theater, restaurant, or your local Target is mandated to have a 95% vaccination rate, the assurance that 100% of those around you have tested negatively recently, and a mask policy that’s actually enforced—but cruises do.
It was on a Carnival ship, the Sunshine, in the autumn of 2015, where my cruise life began. After decades of resistance—believing cruising was antithetical to the way I traveled—my kids and I had a brilliant week onboard, at a beach club excursion in Jamaica (a day my youngest daughter, then only 7-years-old, still talks glowingly about), and especially on the southern Caribbean Island of Bonaire where we rented a car and explored on our own—an all-day DIY adventure akin to what we would’ve done if we had flown there directly. We were hooked on vacations at sea, thanks also to stellar pizza available day and night, 24-hour soft serve, a fantastic global crew, theatrical productions, kids clubs, and non-stop fun as we hopped from port to port.
It’s only fitting then that my return to cruising after a 17-month, long COVID shut down, a period of time in which the cruise industry has been made to suffer far more and prove it can keep customers far safer than any other business on Earth, would occur on a Carnival ship. On the latest and greatest ship in the fleet, at that.
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Even hardcore cruisers, those who have cruised the world or are embarking on their 39th or 40th sailing, get starry- and maybe a little misty-eyed upon boarding a brand new ship. And no ship leaving a U.S. port this summer is brand newer than the Carnival Mardi Gras! Climbing aboard her from Port Canaveral is truly a jaw-dropping experience. Gone are the technicolor LCD tubes and the deck 3 lobby bar that continues to dazzle on Vista and Horizon. Ushering in a new class of “FUN” ship for the popular cruise line, Mardi Gras is the largest vessel in the fleet by a whopping 35% and the first thing you see is the Grand Central zone on deck 5 and its massive 3-story glass starboard side. This spot is home to unprecedented views of the water during the day and, my wife and I would soon discover, the best live band at sea at night.
There were other noticeable differences as well, and not just the COVID vaccine requirement, negative test needed to board, and masks being worn by everyone indoors (with all restaurant crew taking an extra safety step by sporting medical N95 masks). As I wrote before, I am not scared at all to cruise in a COVID world. Having now cruised, I double down on that position by saying there may be no safer place because no other place (not an airplane, hotel, movie theater, restaurant, or your local Target) is mandated to have a 95% vaccination rate, the assurance that 100% of those around you have tested negatively recently, and a mask policy that’s actually enforced.
The shining new star is that roller coaster mounted to the tippy top of the ship. You’ve likely seen it in the news because it’s billed as the jewel on this Carnival crown, but we found many gems more worthy of that title. BOLT is, however, the first sea coaster in existence and it is undeniably cool. While its extra price tag of $15 per person, per two-lap ride is steep, it was being enjoyed aplenty when the wind was calm as we gently drifted between islands on the calm Caribbean Sea. You’ll have spare change to enjoy the ride because you won’t have to spend much on dinners thanks to Carnival making specialty dining at Cucina del Capitano and the brand new Chinese-Mexican concept restaurant Chibang 100% free. The pasta in the former, especially the Arancini and Linguine con Vongole were stellar but it was a meal in the latter that bewitched us from the start. Chibang’s sweet and sour shrimp with pineapples and in a note-perfect plum sauce, delicate Hakka noodles and green beans is, in this cruiser’s humble evaluation, the greatest complimentary meal you can have at sea. And, even though I used one earlier to briefly describe the exceptional 9-piece Central Stage Band lead by the incredible singers Coco, who expertly channels Janis Joplin AND Gladys Knight and nearly every famous voice in between, and “Baby Prince” Kalvin who’s humor and voice are each a thing to behold, I don’t toss around hyperbolic statements lightly! This dinner is so good that my wife and I returned to Chibang three more times during the 7-day cruise. So good that I would book another Mardi Gras sailing to eat it again and again. So good that, when we hopped on another ship shortly after returning from the Mardi Gras, and the crew said, “Let us know what we can do to make your cruise perfect” I replied with a wink, “Can you get us some of Chibang’s sweet and sour shrimp from the Mardi Gras?”
The Carnival Mardi Gras is currently alternating between Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries. I selected Eastern with stops in San Juan, Amber Cove, and Nassau because after spending a few days in Old San Juan with my youngest daughter a few years ago (a dad and daughter photography trip I gave her as a Christmas present) and discovering the hundreds of street cats calling the old city home, I longed to bring my crazy cat lady wife there. We eschewed excursions offered—walking tours, rainforest trips, a day on the beach—to create our own day in Puerto Rico, in search of fluffy felines. The cats of Old San Juan did not disappoint! She was in heaven, and I was too watching her sit down on the crooked cobblestone streets and witness gaggles of cats flock to her like Tarzan in the jungle.
This is why cruising works for me, it’s a fun method of transport, with tasty food and entertainment along the way, and it opens door after door to individualized adventure in a cost-effective way.
Doing this on Mardi Gras was even more joyful because I knew that we were on one of the cleanest vessels at sea. The ship has a diesel/LNG-electric hybrid engine, dynamic positioning which eliminates the need for physical anchors that can harm marine life, a robust new recycling and food waste program, and an easy plan to reduce power consumption by requiring a room key card to be inserted into a slot much like how European hotels have operated for quite some time now.
It wasn’t just the smaller environmental impact and the sweet and sour shrimp. We enjoyed a fantastic week onboard this shiny new ship thanks to the pin-drop-quiet and immaculately smooth-sliding balcony doors in the stateroom which eliminates the rattling common in balcony cabins (which helped me sleep more restfully on windy nights at sea). We also made use of the copious amount of space within the cabin—closets for the weeks-worth of clothes my wife overpacked and clever under-the-bed storage for even the largest of suitcases.
Finally, my favorite part of sailing the Carnival Mardi Gras this summer was The Beelays, a Hamilton, Ontario-based jazz trio in residency at The Brass Magnolia until December. This gorgeous bar, with its comfy red velvet chairs that swallow you whole as you sip perfectly constructed salt-rimmed margaritas and tip back perfectly chilled bottles of Louisiana’s own Abita craft root beer, is located in the French Quarter (another of Mardi Gras’ seven distinct zones, or neighborhoods), sandwiched between the stately Flamingo main dining room and the creole cooking found in Emeril’s Bistro 1396. The Beelays (Chris on piano, Jordan on drums and Tommy on bass) move seamlessly between Chick Correa and Mile Davis jazz standards, take turns soloing during modern hits from Dua Lipa and The Killers, and drop jaws with a whole lot of spot-on jazz interpretations of legendary Beatles tunes. They even took my request for Phil Collins “In The Air Tonight”, one of my wife’s favorites but a song they didn’t know well, and brought down the house with it. The band immediately declared that it’s, “Now a part of the set!” We ended every day of our cruise with these fellas, which proved idyllic, relaxing and yes, per Carnival’s slogan, extremely FUN.