(5:30 a.m. EDT) -- We're just back from the first sailing of Carnival's newest and much-anticipated ship, Mardi Gras -- and in our opinion, the first vessel in the cruise line's new Excel class has been worth the wait.
The ship, the largest for Carnival Cruise Line to-date, can hold a whopping 6,500 passengers. The line is holding capacity at about 70 percent right now and there were approximately 4,200 people onboard for this first sailing.
The ship set sail from Port Canaveral on July 31, marking the first revenue sailing from the port in 16 months.
Here's a look at what we loved and what we didn't – and what fell slightly in between.
Rudi's Seagrill. The longtime Master Chef for sister line Holland America, Rudi Sodamin has been known for sophisticated seafood in his onboard venue Rudi's Sel de Mer. At his first venture outside HAL into Carnival, we found the food at Rudi's Seagrill to be a little more down-to-earth than it is on Holland America -- but just as tasty. What ties them both together are the whimsical "food faces" plates and clever presentations that are Sodamin's calling card. Lobster mac and cheese is served in a cute lobster bowl, for example. At $38 per person, the Seafood Grill makes for a reasonably priced date night that's certainly comparable to a nice seafood restaurant on land. Make reservations early -- we tried to go back later in our cruise, but it was completely booked.
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Shaq's Big Chicken. If Rudi's is our favorite new upscale restaurant onboard, then this complimentary chicken sandwich station at the back of the Lido deck has become our go-to casual option. Created by Carnival partner Shaquille O'Neal, we love the variety of chicken sandwiches served, and even gave the chicken breakfast biscuit a try. (Verdict: A little sweet, but we'll take it). The fries are a technical delight – although they are shaped like steak fries, they hold their crispiness. While the masses are still lining up for Guy Fieri's burgers, which is now in an expanded location on deck 17, we predict that Shaq's Big Chicken will win more than its share of converts.
Onboard Neighborhoods. Carnival borrowed a page from Royal Caribbean here, and organized the ship around six themed areas, known as neighborhoods: Grand Central, French Quarter, La Piazza, Summer Landing, Lido and The Ultimate Playground. We predict most passengers will never remember the names. What they will notice, though, is that different restaurants, bars and attractions are grouped together in areas that make sense and have a similar vibe. With its three-story banquette seating and unique side atrium, Grand Central has that "this is where everything happens" busy vibe, from early in the morning until late at night. La Piazza does seem to be a place where people linger, for multiple reasons -- not only is it close to the outdoor smoking area, it's also where the free pizza and paninis are (and the new Bar Della Rosa). And of course, we're already mentioned our love for the French Quarter.
Supersized Venues. There are always cruisers who eschew the new for old favorites – and what's great about Mardi Gras is that these Carnival hallmarks are bigger than ever before. The RedFrog Rum Bar is now a two-deck Tiki bar, taking up more real estate on the Lido, with better seating options (and even yummier drinks). The popular Guy's Burger Joint now has plenty of seating, and it's been moved to deck 17 right next to the teen club so they can chow down. The Pig & Anchor Smokehouse is the linchpin of the casual Patio at Summer Landing corner. The Alchemy Bar -- always a popular watering hole since being introduced as part of the line's FunShip 2.0 enhancements a few years back -- also has substantial seating, so you have somewhere to go after getting that expertly mixed cocktail. Having more space, at the places you know your cruisers enjoy, makes a lot of sense.
Outdoor Thrills. Bolt, the first roller coaster at sea, is always one of the first things that comes up when you talk about Mardi Gras. The hype is justified; the ride packs a lot of thrills into a short timespan. While some people will always complain about the $15 price, we think it's in line with similar cruise ship attractions such as the North Star on Royal Caribbean (currently $29 on Odyssey of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas for an extended ride on sea days) and the go-karts on Norwegian (ok, you spend longer on the race track for about the same price -- but you're also not hurtling on a track high above the water either). There was a lot of confusion over how many Bolt laps you get for your money. On our sailing, $15 covered one lap, but Carnival Cruise Line President Christine Duffy said it would change to two laps on subsequent cruises.
With all of the hype surrounding Bolt, it's easy to sleep on the other main attraction in the Ultimate Playground, the ropes course. If the height doesn't challenge you, then maybe the zip line will. (We saw a few people balk when they got to that part).
Bars (yes, most of them!) If your vision of a Carnival cocktail menu is the same old daiquiris and Pina coladas, then the bars on Mardi Gras will blow your mind. The line has embraced craft cocktails, and taken them far beyond the mixology of the already-great Alchemy Bar. Every bar onboard has something special, it seems, and that's on purpose, according to Eddie Allen, VP of Beverage Operations. The new French Quarter neighborhood has two fantastic bars, the Brass Magnolia and the Fortune Teller, both with a different vibe and completely different cocktail menus. But even the Watering Hole bar, which is kind of tucked away outside at the Patio at Summer Landing, has its own collection of new-to-the-line drinks, centered around refreshment. What I like best of all is that unlike some other cruise line, almost every specialty cocktail is included in the line's Cheers beverage package. For the 10-20 percent of passengers who buy a drink package, they get the full range of flavors, without having to pay extra.
Loft 19. The suite retreat sounds like a great idea, and we've seen the concept executed very well on other cruise lines (Celebrity and MSC have particularly nice sundeck amenities for their suite guests). But using our complimentary pass to the area, we didn't see anything that would make it particularly special. The Loft 19 cabanas cost extra whether you're in a suite or not – and they aren't cheap, at $500 a day for five guests. Now while the special service that you receive there might be nice for a splurge – you get a free bottle of sparkling wine and bar service, which would be fun if you brought four of your friends – there's no service at all if you're just a regular Loft 19 guest. The regular loungers for the non-cabana guests are in less desirable locations. You're far better off going down a deck to the free adults-only Serenity deck, where you at least have bar access, a wider variety of deck chairs, a full pool (as opposed to a hot tub) and a salad bar.
Multiple Your Time Dining Venues. The ship's architects, Glenn Aprile and Petu Kummala, told journalists that they knew Mardi Gras would not work if all guests followed the same tradition of eating their meals in the main dining rooms and the Lido buffet. There simply aren't enough seats, particularly in Flamingo, the dining room set aside for Your Time Dining.
To alleviate the pressure, the ship made several specialty restaurants -- new Mexican-Chinese restaurant Chibang, Cucina del Capitano and Guy's Pig & Anchor Smokehouse & Brewhouse -- complimentary, for what they are calling a "limited time." Guests were also advised that they could order items from the main dining room -- including lobster on Elegant Night -- in these specialty restaurants.
Passengers didn't get the memo. The lines for the Flamingo Dining Room were long on the first Elegant Night, with angry gussied-up guests who waited hours to eat in a more formal setting. Then the next night, the specialty restaurants were overloaded when large amounts of people decided to give them a try.
The ship is looking at finding solutions, said Duffy, who was onboard all week and witnessed the blockages. One option is to put overflow Your Time passengers on the second floor of the Palm dining room, which is currently reserved for traditional set dining. Another option is to make it more obvious to passengers that they can get their Elegant Night lobster-- as much as they want-- in the other venues.
Still, we ate in Chibang!, the Mexican and Chinese-inspired venue, during an Elegant Night. While the venue had much faster service than we heard was happening elsewhere among the ship, no one told us that we could order the fancier menu items. And for those who love the pomp of a main dining room for dress-up dining, the modern setting is not a substitute.
The line will also not say how long these alternative venues will remain complimentary. The term "limited time" was thrown around quite a bit, with no actual deadline. If Carnival hopes to charge for these venues, using them as overflow from Flamingo is also not a solution.
We'll be interested to see how the line sorts this out as the ship builds its way to full capacity.
Tiered Balcony Cabins. When you look at Mardi Gras from the outside, you'll immediately notice that some of the cabins are recessed inward, in a tiered fashion. That allows the ship to not only maximize space, it also appears interesting (at least that's what the architects said when they were asked about it).
This tiered design, however, does mean that your balcony cabin may not be as private as you think. We could see people sitting on a corner balcony from our bed – which made us wonder if they could see us. And when I looked down over my balcony, I saw a woman hanging out in nothing but a towel, which didn't quite cover everything. Be aware, before you bare.
Chibang! Speaking of Chibang!, we were underwhelmed by this replacement for Jiji Asian Kitchen. The concept is a bit odd -- you can order Mexican dishes or Chinese dishes, or mix and match. We gave it a try, mixing it up with a little of both during our meal. What we found was that neither option was all that great. Certainly, the Mexican food wasn't nearly as tasty as what you'd find at the Lido in the stellar BlueIguana Cantina. And as for it comparing to Jiji…we'll just shed a tear, and wait until we're on a different ship to order Chinese.
Social Distancing Efforts. Granted, this is something that is unique to my sailing, as Carnival announced that beginning August 7, more precautions would be placed on ships to guard against the rise of the Delta variant of COVID-19. These include mask requirements in crowded public areas of the ship for all passengers, including those who are vaccinated; elevator limits and social distancing signage.
Our sailing had none of that, and after two months of sailing aboard other cruise lines with signs, masking requirements and limitations in place, it felt downright shocking. Elevators were packed with maskless passengers. The piano bars and comedy clubs had every seat filled. All tables and seats were open in restaurants and the theater.
As the week went on, we saw more and more passengers put on masks in crowded areas, even without the signs. We think the new rules will be wise, although we're not sure how it will be enforced; Duffy said that the crew were not intended to be the "mask police."
All we know is that when we get home, we are getting our own COVID-19 test after being onboard.