The Carnival Vista at Grand Turk Island, Turks & Caicos. Image courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line.
Like most Americans living in cold climates, my family and I eagerly anticipate spring break, those precious days off from school at the end of the long, dreary winter, when families can finally take the kids and escape to blue skies and warm temperatures. After months of miserable Mid-Atlantic weather punctuated by four straight weeks with measurable snowfall (in late March!), my husband, ninth-grade daughter and I boarded a southbound flight headed for sunny Miami and the Carnival Vista, a floating playground with enough onboard activity that the Eastern Caribbean ports of call were secondary to experiencing the ship itself. And apparently, we were not the only family that had chosen the Vista as a sanctuary from the wrath of Mother Nature: with all the kids on board, we would later find out that the ship was filled nearly to its maximum occupancy of 4,900—not everyone’s idea of “sanctuary.” Let the fun begin!
I’VE GOT A FEELING WE’RE NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE
From the gangway, we followed the crowd into the ship’s lobby, centered by a towering blue martini glass. Bags, backpacks and kids in hand, everyone stopped to look up. Some called it a margarita glass, and others thought it was an aquarium as fish appeared to swim through sapphire water. “It’s called the Dreamscape,” said the perky Carnival crew member directing the flow of people. The threedeck- high funnel of 2,000 LED tiles sets the mood with colorful and ever-changing scenes to delight guests as they move through the central areas of the ship. The subliminal message for me was “get an adult beverage,” so we checked Carnival’s Hub app—part map, part daily cruise planner—for directions to the nearest watering hole.
We made our way to Guy’s Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que for a quick meal of hickory-smoked pulled pork and a cold brew for the adults, and then we headed to the Lido Deck where the pool party was in full swing. Wrapped in the sultry breeze under Miami’s electric blue sky, we kicked back on lounge chairs and let the winter gray melt from our minds. Other Northern refugees of all shapes and sizes were already in various states of undress in and around the pool. For the next few days, we would all be carefree and relaxed, granted permission to play and be silly with our kids and to try activities and food we wouldn’t have otherwise. Most of all, we would have golden sunshine to bask in and endless azure seas to contemplate. It felt as if we had crossed over the rainbow with thousands of new friends.
As the afternoon morphed into the ship’s sail-away celebration, we danced under streams of confetti along with a kaleidoscope of people from all walks of American life. The extended Miller family from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, were dressed in vivid lime T-shirts announcing, “Ship Happens 2018.” Other cruisers had their own announcements affixed to their arms and legs in the form of colorful tattoos. We met Cheryl, a frequent Carnival cruiser from Toronto, Ontario, enjoying a girls’ getaway with her best friend, Adrina, a first-time cruiser. Mother-and-daughter duo Carolyn and Danielle Powers were celebrating Danielle’s upcoming high-school graduation and acceptance to the University of Cincinnati. A grandmother with lavender-colored hair pushed a double stroller behind a pair of conservative-looking young parents, and several same-sex couples were among the crowd on deck learning dance moves taught by Carnival’s entertainment team. A few passengers learned the moves from their wheelchairs. No matter where they came from or their abilities, everyone’s common mission was the same: having fun with their families, however they defined them. The happy celebration continued as we watched Miami disappear from view and the Vista sailed east into the dusky twilight.
Zip high above the deck on the Vista’s SkyRide®. Image courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line.
NO ONE PUTS BABY IN A CORNER
Day Two was a full day at sea with time to explore the ship. The most popular activities echoed the innocent amusements of mid-century American family vacations: bean bag toss, bingo, arcade games, water slides, mini-golf, lively games of Clue, and nightly entertainment such as magic and comedy acts (although the hilarious routines, delivered by four different comedians during our cruise, were definitely NOT innocent or mid-century). The Vista offers cutting-edge fun zones, and we used the Carnival Hub app to find scheduled activities and cool things to do. A favorite was SkyRide, two recumbent bikes suspended more than 150 feet above Deck 12 that you can pedal along twin 800-yard tracks. The 187-seat, three-story-tall IMAX theater and the Thrill Theater, a 4-D experience with vibrating seats and blowing mist, make you feel as if you were in the middle of the action. Both theaters attracted guests of all ages with movies ranging from cartoon classics, to adventures in the national parks, to the horror film Freddy’s Revenge.
One of the surprisingly moving activities on board was a military appreciation event. Nearly 200 military personnel and their families met in the main theater and were recognized branch by branch in a ceremony led by the ship’s cruise director. At the closing, those gathered stood to sing “God Bless America,” and the vets (dating back to the Korean War) and active service members were invited to the stage for a group photo. Carnival holds military appreciation events on every ship and every sailing, and the families can enter into a monthly drawing for a free future cruise.
Of course, since it was spring break, there were families and kids everywhere. But have no fear: Carnival offers programs to keep kids ages 2 through 17 busy so that adults can have a little downtime. In partnership with Dr. Seuss Enterprises, younger kids can enjoy fun and educational experiences with Thing One, Thing Two and the Cat himself, including character breakfasts and parades. We brought our 14-year-old daughter to the “Circle C” meeting spot on the first night of the cruise, where she immediately met a posse of young teens. After dinner each night, she was off with her new BFFs, hanging out in the Clubhouse, watching the Dive-In Movie on the pool deck, or filling up at the 24-hour fro-yo machine. My husband and I felt comfortable with her safely roaming the family-filled halls with her friends under the watchful eye of hundreds of surrogate parents.
For those families not quite ready to unleash their offspring, Family Harbor is an area of the ship with accommodations that sleep up to five and a common area serving breakfast, snacks and self-serve ice cream. This area is open only to guests of Family Harbor, making it secure enough to let the pre-teen and under set chill together in their own common space complete with computer games.
HASTA LA VISTA, BABY
Even those unencumbered by kids could find cocoons of privacy on the Vista (the largest ship in Carnival’s fleet at the time I sailed on her). The Serenity Deck 15 overlooking the ship’s bow provided dozens of covered cabanas, lounge chairs, and its own bar and eatery. For extra privacy, the Havana Balcony Suites have their own private patio with a chaise lounge and swing chair overlooking a promenade (and all Havana stateroom guests must be age 12 or older). The Havana Club area of the ship features VIP check-in, a private pool, two Jacuzzis and a breakfast buffet set up in the Havana Bar. The Havana Bar area is open only to suite guests until 7 p.m., when all guests onboard are invited to the area. Then the Havana Bar becomes like a real Latin street party, complete with animated conversations in Spanish, men wearing fedoras, older couples playing dominoes and women salsa dancing to a live band.
We discovered live music at several other venues throughout the ship, including the RedFrog Pub & Brewery, the first microbrewery at sea. The brewmaster introduces a new beer style every few weeks. Our favorite was the ThirstyFrog American Pale Ale, best enjoyed from the pub’s porch swings while listening to the guitar player and enjoying small plates of coconut shrimp and conch fritters.
And what is cruising if not trying new food (and lots of it)? Throughout the ship are 18 dining venues to choose from, including 6 specialty restaurants for an additional cost. Appealing to the variety of guests that mostly shared an American palate, meals in the main dining room ranged from comfort-food choices such as fried chicken and macaroni and cheese, to the cruise-requisite filet mignon and lobster. Each night, the menu included a section called “food you always wanted to try but haven’t yet dared…” that included such items as spicy alligator fritters, braised rabbit, sesame-crusted shark and oysters Rockefeller. The menu’s “Port of Call” section featured cocktails, appetizers and entrées reflecting local specialties.
We tried a couple of the specialty restaurants, including JiJi Asian Kitchen, an Asian-fusion concept that blew away our taste buds with unique shared plates, including slow-braised pork belly with caramelized chili and black vinegar sauce followed by rose crème brûlée with ginger cream. Fahrenheit 555 Steakhouse served a mouthwatering broiled New York strip steak and an impressive wine selection. The leisurely multicourse dinner included an amazing dessert presentation and was well worth the $35 per-person cover charge.
Our most frequented food stop was Guy’s Burger Joint, one of two venues on board developed by Carnival in partnership with Food Network celebrity chef Guy Fieri. With its broad appeal, easy-access location on Pool Deck 10 and fresh-off-the-grill burgers, this was one of the most popular eateries on the ship.
Find an island retreat at Havana Bar & Pool. Image courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line.
WELCOME TO MY HOUSE
Most of the people we met during our eight-day cruise were repeat Carnival guests, a much higher percentage than we’d ever met on other cruise vacations. What is it, we wondered, that makes Carnival cruisers so loyal? Perhaps it is the variety of things to do for virtually every interest, both on and off the ship (including shore excursions ranging from cultural tours to foodie explorations to “Harley in Paradise”—a guided excursion in St. Maarten during which you tour the island on a Harley-Davidson Fat Boy motorcycle). Or maybe it’s Carnival’s “every day’s a party” atmosphere that invites people to celebrate occasions big or small—from vow renewals to family reunions and other milestone events.
We asked mother and daughter Carolyn and Danielle, who had cruised at least 10 times on Carnival, for their take. “We are members of their VIP rewards club, so we enjoy the perks of the program,” said Carolyn. Those perks range from priority check-in and special onboard recognition to free upgrades. But it wasn’t just about those extras for Carolyn—or for most of the other repeat passengers we met. “It’s like being in a city in the middle of the ocean. We like how there are a wide variety of passengers on the ship.”
And that was truly what made the difference between this cruise and others we had been on. That repeat Carnival cruiser—personified by a “come-as-you-are” attitude—helped create a friendly atmosphere throughout the ship. The repeat guest was almost like an extension of the staff—quick with a smile and greeting, willing to give first-timers advice and tips on what to do next. Even with all the onboard activity and spectacular hardware, it really came down to the variety of people sharing a positive attitude that made a difference on this sailing.
HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU, KID
The week I sailed on Vista, her new sister, the Carnival Horizon, sailed for the first time. At just about two years old, Vista is no longer the youngest in Carnival’s 26-ship fleet. As our spring break vacation on Vista came to an end, we felt as relaxed as if we had been staying at a friend’s place. We had made a few new friends and managed to do our own thing, even among thousands of people. And next time, we will be the repeat guests who help to create an oasis of fun for the newbies.