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This summer, Brian and I had made plans for our fourth anniversary (Aug 26). We were planning to go north into the mountains of North Carolina for a week, ending up at the Georgia/Clemson game in Charlotte.
After having 1 to 3 of our kids, in any and all combinations, at the house 24/7 for the last 17 months has been really hard. Add in cancer, a heart attack (Brian), multiple other situations (some are so ridiculous to even mention), and it was time for us to sneak away for a bit.
We felt really great and excited about our trip to the mountains. But the uptick in the Delta variant of Covid started worrying us a little. However, at the very last minute, we got an offer on a cruise, leaving like four days later, on a BRAND! NEW! SHIP!
Now, you might be asking, “Why would you even consider going on a cruise when you were worried about going to the mountains?”
As of the time we booked our trip, Carnival was only selling to about 50% capacity on its ships. On top of that, 95% of the passengers had to be fully vaccinated. Crew is already 100% vaccinated. The other 5% was reserved for children under 12 and those medically ineligible. A negative Covid test had to be shown from less than 72 hours pre-boarding. Masks were required indoors on the ship, unless eating or drinking. In the casino, they request that you “sip and slip (the mask back up).” (Note: Mid-sailing, new guidance came out from Carnival about new and ever-changing protocol.)
When comparing those protocols to our mountain trip, the answer seemed strangely obvious. If we had gone to the mountains, we would have been eating and drinking at 3-5 different establishments per day, not knowing what the vaccination or testing status of any of the patrons was. We would have been around hundreds of unknowns per day, finishing the week at a football game that, only a few weeks ago, seemed like it would be ok and safeish to attend. Our chance of exposure in the mountains seemed higher than that of a cruise. Who knew?
We were already vaccinated, so on Thursday before our trip on Saturday, we went and had Covid tests, both of which came back negative (but not without both of us worrying that we were positive but asymptomatic because that would be so our luck). Bags packed, we headed south to Port Canaveral.
The Mardi Gras is the newest ship in the Carnival fleet. Their first ship, in 1972, was the Mardi Gras. At the time, it was the first “unstuffy” cruise ship and opened the cruising world to us regular folks. This iteration of the original ship is not just new, but it’s innovative, clean, green, and packed full of FUN! Her original inaugural sail date was October 16, 2020, but Covid closures held that up. After six subsequent delays, Mardi Gras set sail on July 31, 2021.
We were on the fifth sailing.
Parking and embarkation at the beautiful new terminal was fairly easy. The line was long, even though they staggered the times for arrival. There are always those people who have arrival times of 1pm who arrive at 10:30am. So we waited. Masks were required in the terminal, unless actively eating or drinking, so everyone was masked and fairly socially distanced. When we arrived at the desk for check-in, we presented our passports, vaccination card, and proof of negative Covid test.
After all the tedious checking in was done, it was time to jump right on in!
The first thing we did onboard, after we ooh’d and aah’d over the so-fresh-and-so-clean new ship smell, was find our muster station. Muster drills have changed since sailings have restarted. Now you must go on your own, upon boarding, to your assigned muster station. We were the only people in ours and the crew member gave us a quick, individual breakdown on where to go and what to do in case of emergency. Quick and painless.
We were able to go straight to our stateroom upon boarding, which was nice. I was surprised with anniversary roses and champagne – a nice touch for the start of our trip. Our stateroom was a balcony room with a king bed, at the end of a hallway on the Lido deck (16). The rooms have incredible amenities, and by amenities I mean a large number of electrical outlets and USB outlets, including on each side of the bed. This is HUGE for all cruisers. Outlets are always a concern. Not anymore! There is a ton of closet/storage space, enough room under the bed for luggage, and the showers have glass doors.
Enough about the room. They’re incredible. But so are the drinks! Luckily, right out our door and through the touchless sliding doors, is the Red Frog Tiki Bar! We grabbed a drink and checked out the ship. Then it was time for the Sail Away Party. We had never done one before, but with a half-full ship, it seemed like a good time to do it. What a blast! Note: Masks were not required on the open decks, but highly recommended. Most people masked until they were in the pool or sitting in a chair or at a table/bar.
We chose the Any Time dining option. The main dining room is great, but because it’s the inaugural season, some of the restaurants on board that are usually an extra charge, are included right now. We were able to test out many of the options during the week. I always forget to take photos of my food, but here are a few.
We dined at the following:
- Chibang! Typically an extra cost. Mexican and Chinese fare. Really good.
- Shaq’s Big Chicken – The BEST fries. The chicken was pretty dang good, too. Quick snack after the pool.
- Blue Iguana Cantina – Burritos. Different stuff all the time.
- Cucina del Capitano – Ok. So we may have eaten here three times. We had it our second night and it was so incredible. So we had it again. And again. Highly recommended the Veal Marsala. (Do they do Door Dash?) This will be an extra cost on future Mardi Gras sailings.
- Rudi’s Sea Grill – Incredible presentations. A party in our mouths. The lobster with crab risotto is to die for.
- Flamingo Dining Room – This is the Any Time version of the Main Dining Room (The Palm). We ate here one night when they had Filets. It was nice, and we got to see the wait staff dance! No cruise is complete without that, right?
- Swirls – Ice cream. Self serve. 24/7. Need I say more?
- Bonsai Sushi – This is an additional charge restaurant. But it’s very reasonable and delicious. Everything we had was incredible.
- SeaDay Brunch – We did this twice. It never disappoints.
- Pizzeria del Capitano – Pizza, always. It’s thin crusted and delicious. Quick snack like Shaq’s.
- Guy’s Burger Joint – Incredible burgers with Guy’s special sauce. The fries aren’t as good as Shaq’s, but the burger makes up for it.
- Guy’s Pig and Anchor Smokehouse – This is also a brewery. BBQ, beer, and some really good collards.
Speaking of food. Drinks go with food. The ship is full of bars. All kinds of bars. We always opt for the pre-purchased Cheers! drink package. This allows you 15 alcoholic drinks per day, per person. Sounds like a lot, but it’s really a deal. With each drink costing a minimum of $10, at $50ish/day it’s a bargain if you drink 5+ per day.
Here’s a sampling of our choices.
I will let you know that after 15 drinks in one day, you DO get cut off. Ask me how I know? It wasn’t really a goal, until it was a goal. You know.
San Juan, Puerto Rico
This trip was the Eastern Caribbean route. Mardi Gras alternates between Eastern and Western. Our ports of call were San Juan, Amber Cove, and then Nassau. We have the Western Caribbean route booked for January 2022.
San Juan was gorgeous. We opted to get off the ship right when we got there, around 8am, and we just walked. San Juan required masking at all times, so we knew it would get hot quickly and wanted to be back on the ship before we melted. San Juan also required proof of vaccination in restaurants.
Our next port of call was Amber Cove, in the Dominican Republic. Amber Cove is on the Bay of Maimom, and is a renewed port of call. Carnival Corp developed a port area, including a swim/water park and shopping area. Excursions are available into the island. Masks were required off the boat until we got in the pool. We opted for the water area and just spent the day relaxing in the pool. It was gorgeous.
We opted to not get off the boat in Nassau. We had both been there, it was early, and because of construction it was a VERY long walk to the mainland. I’m always taken aback by how gorgeous the water is in the Caribbean. It’s breathtaking.
Back on Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras is PACKED full of fun. Around every turn, there is something else exciting. Mardi Gras is especially super because it has a ROLLER COASTER on top of the ship. Yep. Up on the top, along with waterslides and a ropes course and mini golf.
This is literally my worst nightmare. I’m petrified of heights. Not like Empire State Building heights, but heights where you might fall and just break yourself and still live. Like from the top of the ship. AND it goes out over the ocean for a second. But, being on the fifth sailing of a ship that features the first roller coaster on a ship, did I do it? HELL YEAH, I DID!
We strapped in the motorcycle-like car (yes, I could’ve gone for more straps than just a heavy-duty lap belt) and they hit the button. It was SO. MUCH. FUN.
Other super fun things we did while on board:
- Cloud 9 Spa – The first morning, we did a couples hot stone massage. Brian had never had one, and it was a great way to start the trip.
- Trivia – Every day, there is trivia on the ship. We were *this close* to winning a few times. Seinfeld Trivia, 90’s music, rock trivia, theme songs, Golden Girls, Game of Thrones. There’s trivia for everybody.
- Shows – We went to a few comedy shows, Variety Night, The Flying Scotsman Show. There is something every night and something that will fit your taste in entertainment.
- Veterans Tribute – On one of the Sea Days, in the main theater, there is a tribute to Veterans who are on board and those who have served and are serving. We had not done this before, but it was really nice. Each branch of the service was honored and their song was played. If you are, or are with, a veteran, it’s a nice tribute to attend.
- Towel Animal Parade – Who doesn’t love a good towel animal parade? We call it the Adoption Fair and choose the ones we want to adopt. But we leave them, of course.
- Pools – The pools. There are so many pools on these ships, y’all. The Lido Pool, The Havana Pool, The Serenity Pool, The Loft 19 Pool, The Patio Pool. Oh, and the whole waterpark thing. So much water. I feel like I’m missing some, but isn’t that enough?
- Casino – Slot machines, the Roulette table, Craps, and even some cards. Can’t say we came home with a profit, but we did stack up some chips.
But Cruise Ships Are Ewww And People Get Sick…
I know that’s what you hear in the news, and I know there are ships where outbreaks of Norovirus or Flu break out, but in our experience, cruising has been very clean and safe. Carnival has made many advances in the past years to make doors touchless, to provide hand sanitizer and hand washing stations (both of which are plentiful on the Mardi Gras), and to have crew members continuously cleaning high-touch surfaces.
Covid-specific things that were being done included even more enhanced cleaning, all staff being masked at all times, menus all being accessed by QR code unless you request a paper menu. There are few things you need to touch and it’s really nice.
Here feels like a good place to mention how little trash it seemed was produced on Mardi Gras. Thinking back, the only real waste I remember was cocktail napkins. There were no disposable plastic cups, no plastic utensils, no straws. Cruises usually feel so wasteful, but even the portions of food served were smaller and you didn’t feel like you were wasting half a meal when you couldn’t eat it all.
Post-cruise, I can tell you that between the cleaning protocol, vaccination and testing requirements, and mask expectations onboard, I felt safer from Covid on the ship than I do in regular daily life. I would 9/10 recommend considering a cruise at this time. I save that last 1/10 because nothing is perfect and, as we all know, shit happens!
Tips for Cruising During Covid:
- Get a passport holder that will hold your vaccination card also. Or get some clear card holders. You will need to present them together and separate, but having them handy at embarkation, in ports, and going to some establishments in ports-of-call will be helpful.
- Paper masks. Get a box of them. They’re cooler than fabric ones, plus they’re going to get sweaty, sticky, covered in sunscreen, and you’ll want to change them several times. Here are some white, black, and fun ones.
- Bring wipes for the casino if you want. There is hand sanitizer everywhere, and I didn’t feel like I necessarily needed it, but if you’re comfortable wiping stuff down, bring them. Staff is wiping down all the time.
- Make sure you know how to use your phone to access QR codes. You’ll need to use them all the time for menus and the Hub App. This is a double-edged sword to me, the need for a phone all the time. On one hand, it’s nice to have your camera handy all the time, but on the other hand, HAVING to carry it around feels cumbersome. You sit down at dinner and immediately pull out your phone to look at the menu. It feels wrong. There’s something about being in the middle of the ocean and being disconnected that’s nice. However, it’s 2021 and you know, we’re never disconnected.
- We use a wonderful Carnival Personal Vacation Planner (PVP) and you can, too. You can join his Facebook group here. One call is all it takes to book a great trip. He’s already booked one for us on Horizon in December, and another on Mardi Gras in January.
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