Name a village of 4,500 with a brewery, waterpark, casino, IMAX theater and dozen dining outlets specializing in steak to sushi.
Thirty years have passed since my first Carnival sailing, and the cruise line no longer is simply a nonstop floating frat party. Sun decks, slushy drinks, silly games and gyrating dancers remain, but this world sure has widened.
Vista, the newest and largest ship in the fleet, is more like a floating fantasy land for kids to retirees. The mammoth vessel one month ago began sailing the Caribbean on six- to eight-day excursions from Miami.
Like Planet Fitness, the ship seems like a no judgment zone. All shapes, weights, ages, races and health extremes appear welcome. Cruises historically attract good eaters, and this one was no exception. Between meals or Happy Hour snacks, we play trivia for a bottle of wine or bingo for $5,000.
The oceanliner, with 15 decks and nearly 2,000 cabins, sets records in the industry. No other ship at sea in North America brews hand-crafted beer. No other ship anywhere contains an IMAX theater or open-air cycling on an 800-foot-long track suspended above the top deck.
A 450-foot-long water tube twists through the outdoor waterpark. About one-half that length, above the deck, is a ropes course. Jumbotron clips set the mood for partying to vegging. Thrill Theater movies have 3D effects. The spa offers acupuncture in addition to massages. Serenity-area hammocks and whirlpools are for adults only.
Besides ensembles of entertainers who sing Broadway showtunes and imitate rock stars are a piano bar for average-Joe singalongs, acomedy club, sports bar, craft cocktail bar and quiet library for sipping wine.
Lots of cruiselines have reputations, and Carnival is known as a good one for people new to cruising or on a tight budget. A ticket to ride starts at $419 per person, depending on trip length, dates, type of accommodation and ports of call. On the high end, it’s up to $2,979 per person for a suite.
Those are base prices that don’t include transportation to Miami, port fees, taxes or tips (automatically added to the bill). Tack on a surcharge for the most tempting on-board options, like dining at a specialty restaurant, watching an IMAX movie and ordering a latte or beer. Only coffee, tea, lemonade and tap water are included, which is not all that unusual for cruises anymore.
Realize this beforehand, to avoid feeling nickeled and dimed. In the fine print or learned along the way:
– It’s acceptable to carry on one 750ml bottle of wine per passenger age 21 or older, plus up to one 12-pack of canned pop per passenger when boarding in Miami. The key phrase is “carry on” – don’t pack it in checked luggage.
– Free fitness seminars (“secrets to a flatter stomach,” “detox for health”) typically end with a pitch to buy expensive products.
– Your room key is a card with a hole punch. Pack a lanyard instead of buying one.
– If on a port excursion, ask for a fresh bottle of water when offering your gratuity.
– Restaurants that charge for dinner might be open for lunch at no extra charge, although menus are abbreviated.
– Best added value for tykes is the festive $5 Green Eggs and Ham Breakfast, whose fun foods come with visits by beloved Seuss characters. Other “Seuss at Sea” programs are free, and Camp Ocean keeps kids from 2-11 amused at no extra cost so parents relax or play during the day.
– A $15 surcharge for dining at Cucina del Capitano, a lovely Italian specialty restaurant, includes a glass of wine – another good value.
– Specialty restaurant size is intimate, especially compared to ship capacity, so make dinner reservations online before leaving home, to ensure availability. Even then, nightly seven-course meals at the 16-seat Chef’s Table sell out months in advance.
– Don’t expect port prices cheaper than ship prices, especially since some ports – like the new Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic – are developed by cruiselines. Expect an overlap of on-board and on-land vendors.
– Packing light – as in pulling on all that you bring – means quicker boarding and disembarking.
– Gone is the need to play dress-up unless you want to, especially if you’re OK with burgers or buffet dining on “cruise elegant” nights.
– Already-paid dining options go beyond buffets. Blue Iguana Cantina serves made-to-order-as-you-like-’em burritos and tacos for breakfast and lunch. The constant line at Guy Fieri’s Burger Joint moves lots faster than it may appear. Save room for the same celebrity chef’s barbecued meats, but this smokehouse may only open a couple of hours during a sailing.
Under Carnival Corp. are 100-plus ships and 10 brands, including Princess Cruises, which is introducing new technology to track customer preferences and replace the need for money, tickets and room keys.
Vista accommodations include Family Harbor (suites for up to five people and near a kid-friendly breakfast/lounge area) and Havana rooms/suites (with a pool, walkways and bar that are private until 7 p.m.). carnival.com/ships/vista, 800-764-7419
Worried about Norovirus germs or other complications because of mechanical woes at sea? In 2013, a Carnival ship drifted five days after an engine-room fire disabled propulsion, an extreme incident that was widely publicized. Carnival subsequently invested $300 million to improve emergency power systems and prevent fires on it ships.
And Norovirus? Cruise staff can’t control how often or well your hands are washed, but written reminders aren’t hard to find onboard. Other proactive measures include an in-cabin TV video about Norovirus symptoms and treatment, easy access to hand sanitizer gels and automatic hand washers at buffet lines.
Guests are required to complete a short health questionnaire before embarking. If something seems amiss, the ship’s medical staff conducts an exam and takes it from there.