Cruising has started up again after a prolonged absence and ever-changing challenges due to the evolving Covid-19 pandemic. Are we there yet? No, but one should hand it to the ownership and management of the cruise lines for stepping up to the plate and doing all they possibly can to get back to business-as-usual. We are enduring challenges in the travel and hospitality industry like at no other time in our history and with the overwhelming consumer demand for ways to get away we will persevere and find a new normal.
A very recent opportunity presented itself to be one of the first to sail on a 7-night Caribbean itinerary cruise on Carnival Cruise Line’s newest and largest vessel, the Mardi Gras. Departing Port Canaveral on August 7, 2021 we were on the second ‘official’ sailing offered to the traveling public. With Covid-19 vaccination cards in hand and our masks securely fastened we began our adventure of the first cruise we have been on since November 2019. After sailing on well over 100 cruises over the past 25 years we were looking forward to this experience but, perhaps, a bit apprehensive since we had no idea how different it may feel to us.
Port Canaveral in Florida has made some major improvements and expansions to better accommodate passengers including covered parking, convenient baggage drop-off and a covered walkway from the parking garage to the cruise ship terminal. Carnival was well staffed to greet passengers, however, due to the Covid vaccination requirement screening it took close to an hour from the time we entered the terminal to stepping onto the ship. Everyone was very helpful, pleasant and patient which certainly made the slow process acceptable.
What does one usually do after boarding the ship and getting settled? Eat, of course! Since it was rather late in the day when we boarded we looked for what we knew to be open which was the Lido Marketplace. Many good options were available for a light lunch and then it was time to sample the pizza at Pizzeria del Capitano. Always tasty with a light crust and just the right balance of tomato sauce and cheese.
During our 7-night stay on the Mardi Gras we did not dine at every venue available (I don’t know how anyone could!) but we did make our way several times to Guy’s Burger Joint and Big Chicken and repeated our quest for excellent pizza on numerous days, and also tried Guy’s Pig & Anchor Smokehouse, some samplings from Street Eats, and the Lido Marketplace almost daily, plus dinner at both Cucina del Capitano and Chibang!.
Chibang! is a complimentary dining experience and I highly recommend this to be part of your plans. This beautifully appointed dining room serves both Mexican and Chinese cuisine and it appeared that most people ordered Chinese which was absolutely delicious with an impressive presentation. On the other hand, we were sadly disappointed with the quality of the food served at Cucina del Capitano. The service was excellent and the restaurant was tastefully decorated but the food was not quite up to par with previous experiences on other Carnival ships. I was disappointed when Carnival decided to stop using table cloths in their main dining rooms several years back and the experience we had in the Flamingo Restaurant reaffirmed that I do miss that touch! The tables were made of a faux-wood material and the chairs were almost a retro red vinyl to match the 70’s style carpet. With the low ceilings and tables situated fairly close together, it felt a bit like cafeteria dining. I do want to note that the servers were all quite pleasant and worked very hard! Something to keep in mind, is that if you don’t particularly care for a dining venue on the ship there are always more to choose from!
Rudi’s Seagrill was the dining highlight of our cruise! At $38 per person it was well worth it due not only for the ambience of the restaurant – you have your choice of inside or covered patio – but the fresh choices of appetizers and well-prepared entrées. We started with a richly prepared scallop dish topped with a creamy parmesan sauce. The lobster bisque and my husbands’ cioppino were artfully presented and tasted amazing!
And bread, did I mention the bread? Wow, such perfectly seasoned toasty bread with a garlic butter spread! I am forever on a search for fresh halibut and I found it at Rudi’s and it was outstanding! I highly recommend that you spend a little more and enjoy a leisurely meal at Rudi’s Seagrill, but make your reservations early as they book up quickly. Check out Rudi’s menu: https://www.carnival.com/-/media/Images/explore/dining/menus/rudis-seagrill-menu.ashx
Let’s move on to life onboard the Carnival Mardi. Applause goes to Carnival for creating a fun Grand Central ‘zone’. One of 6 uniquely designed areas on the ship, Grand Central boasts a new concept for the atrium. As Carnival describes, “Mardi Gras has turned Carnival’s atrium concept inside out – or rather, outside in, with three-deck-high-floor-to-ceiling windows bringing breathtaking ocean views into the ship’s social hub.” During the day there is plenty of entertainment activities and at night it transforms into an impressive theatrical venue with live music. From singers, to jugglers, to magicians to great bands the Center Stage seemed to be the heart of the ship during the day and well into the evening. At night you will see what the enormous high-resolution LED monitors create – each measuring 70 feet wide by 23 feet high – and they swivel down in front of the windows to transmit the live entertainment, creating different looks for the stage depending on the entertainers.
The Punchliner Comedy Club proved to be an extremely popular entertainment hot-spot and we found ourselves there most every night. Talented comedians were always on tap and pleased the crowds. For a more relaxing atmosphere we would head over to the French Quarter zone for a drink at the Magnolia Bar to listen to a talented trio of electronic violinists. Carnival, as always, did not fall short offering a wide variety of entertainment.
For those of you looking for thrills and action check out the Ultimate Playground outdoor zone. From SportSquare and Carnival WaterWorks to BOLT, The Ultimate Sea Coaster. If you are an adrenaline junkie you have to try this super fast and super fun roller coaster! Unlike on land-based roller coasters, here you’re in the driver’s seat controlling the speed as you dip and curve along an 800-foot-long track. Put the pedal to the metal to race up to 40 mph. It is fast and great fun but it is a short ride – less than 1 minute on the track. Cost is $15 per person. Are you up for it? While up in SportSquare don’t forget to take in a fun round of mini-golf or shoot some hoops. There is great fun for everyone in the family, no doubt about it!
For our readers who sailed on the original Carnival Mardi Gras back in the 70’s there is certainly nostalgia in the air but you will be absolutely amazed by the impressive innovations Carnival Cruise Line has brought to the ship. She is one of the world’s most eco-friendly cruise ships and the first cruise ship in North America to be powered by liquified natural gas so big kudos to Carnival!
Cruising in the time of Covid is a bit different but I must say that I don’t feel it changed our experience by a significant degree. No one likes to wear masks but the majority of passengers onboard seemed to abide by the guidelines. As long as cruises are limited to fully vaccinated passengers and crew I would not hesitate to recommend getting back to what you love to do and that is to cruise the high seas and seek adventure, excellent dining, exciting and fun entertainment, relaxation and pampering.