Carnival’s new ship, Mardi Gras, sets a higher bar for the cruise line: Here’s a look at the good, the bad and the interesting
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Mardi Gras, the newest ship from Carnival Cruise Line and the most ballyhooed vessel to debut this year, claims several superlatives — the first ship with a roller coaster, the first ship in North America to run on liquefied natural gas and the first ship to have a side-facing atrium that looks out over the ocean (and converts to a theater at night).
It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of flashy firsts, but what’s it really like onboard? At the time of this writing, I’m nearing the end of Mardi Gras’ first revenue sailing, following a yearlong pandemic-related delay. Here, I’ll share what my experience has been like so you can better decide if this 5,282-passenger behemoth — Carnival’s largest so far — is for you.
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Mardi Gras is a throwback to Carnival’s first cruise ship ever, which shared the name. Throughout the vessel, you’ll find nods to the original, from inaugural sailing dates on license plates to the font on the ship’s new livery.
The first thing I noticed — and a theme that has carried through the voyage — is that Mardi Gras lives up to its moniker. The ship is bustling. Shows and activities are well attended, often to the point that they’re standing room only, and there are near-constant lines for coffee at JavaBlue Cafe.
As expected, there have been some hiccups, given that this is the ship’s first revenue sailing. On the first two nights, waits to get into the main dining rooms were up to 90 minutes at times, and the Bolt roller coaster proved so popular that rides had to be cut from two laps around the track to one. (The jury is still out on whether that will continue on subsequent sailings and whether or not the $15 price tag will be adjusted accordingly.)
Crew members seem to have worked out some of the kinks, particularly as passengers have taken to exploring the vessel’s other dining options (many of which are included in the price) and utilizing the line’s Hub app for reservations and virtual queuing.
Also notable is the fact that the ship is divided into six neighborhoods, a concept the line borrowed from Royal Caribbean’s Oasis Class, which debuted in 2009. Splitting of the onboard space into themed areas has created several nuclei of activity. One of the most unique is Grand Central, comprising shops, restaurants and a side-facing atrium that features a three-deck wall of windows and a stage for activities and secondary shows.
I’ll highlight some of the others in the sections below.
Another of the neighborhoods is the Ultimate Playground. Found on the top decks, the space encompasses the Bolt Sea Coaster, a ropes course and a water park, complete with slides. The ropes course — which includes a mini-zipline — and watery fun are free, but Bolt requires reservations and comes with an added fee.
New in the theater is an at-sea version of the well-known “Family Feud” game show, where two families try to predict the most popular answers to survey questions for a chance to win prizes, such as onboard credit. Because the theater is tiny, three show times were necessary to accommodate all passengers. If you plan to go — and, honestly, you should because it’s worth it — be sure to arrive early for a good seat.
Other new entertainment, featuring singers, dancers and acrobats, is set to debut on Mardi Gras, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, the line was not able to get some of its performers into the U.S. and onto the ship in time for this first cruise. Christine Duffy, Carnival Cruise Line’s president, said in a media interview that she expects all shows to be fully staffed and running onboard by the end of November.
On this sailing, entertainment options have included impressive electric violin performances, magicians, comedians, live jazz music and rock performances by cruise director Chris Williams, known to many Carnival fans as The Flying Scotsman. (Trust me when I say he’s more than just a funny guy in a kilt. He nearly blew the roof off of the shiny, new atrium with his covers of songs by Queen and AC/DC.)
Food and drinks
The other four neighborhoods are heavy on bars and restaurants. My personal favorite is The French Quarter, where passengers can order fun drinks and have their palms read at the mystical Fortune Teller Bar, snag some cheap but tasty seafood eats at extra-fee Emeril’s Bisto 1396 or take their chances with a Hurricane (the strongest drink on the ship, we’re told) at the Brass Magnolia bar, which often has live music.
A close second is the Summer Landing neighborhood, where Guy’s Pig & Anchor Smokehouse Brewhouse combines phenomenal barbecue with Carnival’s own ParchedPig rotating craft beer selections, brewed right onboard the ship. The space is rounded out with free 24-hour soft-serve ice cream, a special lounge dedicated to military personnel and a stage where a live band plays some of the best music I’ve ever heard on a cruise.
You can’t ever go wrong with free 24/7 pizza, which is exactly what you’ll find at Pizzeria del Capitano in the La Piazza neighborhood, along with free paninis at Piazza Panini and free Italian food and main dining room fare at Cucina del Capitano. (On other ships, Cucina levies a surcharge.) In the same area, Bar Della Rosa is a perfect place to grab for-fee specialty coffee when the line at Grand Central’s JavaBlue is too long.
If you’re someone who enjoys spending hours swimming or sunbathing, you’ll be a fan of the Lido neighborhood, where two pools and an outdoor movie screen are complemented by several dining options. Among them are Street Eats street food; burritos and tacos from Carnival staple BlueIguana Cantina; Guy’s Burger Joint, which offers artery-clogging selections from Guy Fieri; the Lido Marketplace buffet; and newcomer Big Chicken, developed in partnership with former basketball player Shaquille O’Neal, the line’s chief fun officer. For drinks, check out the new RedFrog Tiki Bar, a fresh two-deck take on the RedFrog Rum Bar found on other Carnival vessels.
Not tied to any neighborhood but absolutely worth mentioning is Rudi’s Seagrill, a fantastic new added-fee seafood restaurant developed by Chef Rudi Sodamin, the food pop artist responsible for “Food Faces.” Sodamin, who also has restaurants on ships in the fleet of Holland America, one of Carnival’s sister brands, brings a menu with something for just about everyone (including people, like me, who don’t normally like seafood).
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the impressive free dining options in the ship’s main dining rooms (MDRs). There are two — Flamingo and Palm — that offer either set seating times or Your Time Dining (YTD), which allows you to dine at any time between set hours. Passengers with YTD can also opt to order from the MDR menu in either Cucina del Capitano or Chibang! (a complimentary eatery that offers both Mexican and Chinese cuisine). Tip: If you don’t mind a bit of spice, try the Indian dishes on the MDR menu.
No new-ship write-up would be complete without at least a mention of the cabins. New to Mardi Gras are Excel Suites, which offer exclusive access to Loft 19, a dedicated space for suite passengers that includes top-deck loungers and added-fee cabana rentals.
Standard stateroom categories are also abundant, including insides, outsides and balcony cabins, including ones that are recessed, meaning their views are blocked by larger balconies on either side of the recessed alcove. Eighty-two of the accommodations are accessible.
Some wonderful new features that all accommodations have in common are multiple USB ports for charging electronics, plexiglass shower doors (instead of the infuriating clingy curtains of yore) and closets with plentiful bars and drawers, as well as shelves that can be lowered for use or tucked away, depending on your needs.
The color schemes in the rooms vary by type, but they’re generally neutral with some pops of color — likely to become dated less quickly than on some of the fleet’s other ships.
Quirks and tidbits
There are a few small but interesting things I’ve discovered about the ship that I feel are worth covering. First, the elevators onboard are tiny, and they take forever to show up. If you’re able to do so, taking the stairs will almost always get you where you’re going more quickly.
Additionally, there’s currently a small glitch (we’re told it’s being fixed) where some elevators are set up so only three buttons can be pushed at any given time. If you push a fourth, they all reset. We’re guessing it was designed to keep children from pressing every single one and slowing down operations, but it’s frustrating when there are several people inside who all are headed to different decks.
The app is another key piece of technology that’s worth discussing here. In addition to e-mustering (you’ll still have to go to your muster station at your leisure for a life jacket demonstration on embarkation day), Carnival’s Hub app is also how you’ll view your daily schedule; book and keep track of reservations for dining, spa treatments, shore excursions and Bolt rides; and monitor your onboard bill. It also allows for virtual queueing so you won’t waste time waiting in long lines.
Further, Mardi Gras is the first ship in North America to run partially on liquefied natural gas (LNG) fuel, which burns more cleanly and is better for the environment than the diesel fuels primarily used by most other vessels. Carnival is also the only cruise line to use special “food digesters” — stainless steel machines that use a combination of bacteria and aeration to break down leftover food, resulting in less overall waste.
There are still some kinks that need to be worked out before I can give my definitive opinion on Mardi Gras. As with any new piece of hardware, the ship has nuances, and some adjustments will have to be made to help things flow more smoothly.
That said, although the ship is large, busy and sometimes crowded, it’s fun and innovative. There’s always something going on, and crew go out of their way to make sure you’ve got everything you need to have a great time onboard.
Cabins are comfortable, entertainment is exceptional, and the food is some of the best I’ve ever had at sea. For the price I paid to sail, it’s a terrific value for the money, but it might not be the best fit for someone who prefers a quieter experience or smaller ships. Ultimately, that’s up to each cruiser to decide.
Featured photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy.
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