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Live review: Size matters aboard Carnival’s new Mardi Gras

Carnival Cruise Line’s newest ship Mardi Gras can carry almost as many guests as the 3,934-passenger Panorama, Carnival’s former flagship, and the Sydney-based, 2,860-passenger Splendor combined.

But just because Mardi Gras, an Excel Class,  can hold 6,465 passengers and is 35 percent bigger than the three 2016-2019 Vista Class vessels doesn’t mean the world’s largest cruise line is abandoning its “bigger isn’t necessarily better” philosophy.

Mardi Gras, named after Carnival’s original ship that sailed for the line from 1972 to 1993, was purposely kept to 70 percent capacity for its maiden voyage over the first week of August.

The first cruise out of Port Canaveral since the COVID with paying passengers  sailed with at least 95 percent of those 12 years and older being vaccinated, allowing for less stringent health protocols.

But the joy of being liberated from forced masking while indoors was short-lived. During the milestone cruise to the Eastern Caribbean, Carnival changed its policy requiring masks to be worn in most shared areas indoors, vaccinated or not.

Mandatory pre-cruise COVID-19 testing is also now required for everyone within three days of boarding. 

Ironically, the number 19 (definitely not as in COVID-19) was evident everywhere. The Mardi Gras  has 19 decks.  Debuting on the ship is Loft 19, a top-deck sanctuary that offers super-comfortable lounge chairs, an exclusive and spacious infinity whirlpool, and 12 rentable cabanas that come with such indulgences as a dedicated concierge service, chilled towels, lunch and fresh fruit deliveries, and glorious shade.

Children are allowed into Loft 19 as long as they’re staying in one of 32 Excel-level suites or a grown-up has rented a cabana to the tune of $682 a day or $2,728 for a week.

The other “first” on deck 19 is BOLT – described as the Ultimate Sea Coaster.  it’s a single-track rollercoaster, which spans 244 meters and rises 57 meters above sea level. The experience lasts about 40 seconds, but in that fleeting time are some impressive dips, twists, hairpin turns. The fleeting thrill costs $20, and Carnival has heard squawking over the price since before sailaway. There’s already talk about lowering the price or offering two spins around the track – either would be welcome. 

Where passengers eat, drink, shop and be entertained is separated into six themed zones, and BOLT is the headliner of The Ultimate Playground. The two-deck outdoor area also features the cruise line’s longest ropes course, a three-slide WaterWorks Aqua Park and the most challenging mini-golf course this sea-legged duffer has ever played.

While Bolt is a fun and new addition to cruising, the rollercoaster’s vibration could be felt and heard in cabins located four decks below the track. While the annoyance wasn’t detected in staterooms on deck 14 and lower, those on 15 were just happy that Bolt stops running at 6 p.m. That issue will be with Mardi Gras until it’s mothballed far in the future, but perhaps a design modification can be done as Excel Class sisters Carnival Celebration and a yet-named ship are being built. 

Grand Central, as the name suggests, is the hub of the ship. It makes a jaw-dropping first impression of Mardi Gras for embarking guests.

Spanning decks 6, 7 and 8, it’s a reimagination of the traditional atrium found on many cruise ships. Brilliant are the massive 3,000-square-foot glass panels built into the starboard side of the ship, yielding dramatic views of land or sea depending on the ship’s position. Here is the largest seating area, perfect for playing cards, reading, socialising or people watching while enjoying a treat from the adjacent JavaBlue Café, be it a specialty coffee drink (extra charge), baked good (extra charge) or gourmet panini (included).

The spot is also highly functional, transforming into a three-tier venue for live entertainment, aerialists included. 

The jazziest themed area is French Quarter, a nautical nod to New Orleans, site of the biggest Mardi Gras celebration outside of Rio de Janeiro and Venice.

The deck 6 zone is where you’ll find celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse’s first at-sea restaurant, Emeril’s Bistro 1396, which earned culinary kudos from pretty much everyone. Silly me for trying to eat healthily on a cruise, opting for the yellowfin tuna wrap and fresh seafood ceviche (both meh) instead of the gut-busting – and better-reviewed – boudin sausage balls, duck and andouille sausage gumbo, fried shrimp and oyster po-boy, “Cajun caviar,” muffuletta sandwich, Natchitoches meat pies, signature jambalaya and, for dessert, bananas Foster with creole cream cheese ice cream.

French Quarter also has a jazz bar called The Brass Magnolia, my personal favourite, and the mystical Fortune Teller, where some drinks change colour and others are made with real gold.

The Lido deck/zone on 16 offers much more than sun and wet fun on Mardi Gras. The first-ever RedFrog Tiki Bar extends Carnival’s branded concept with two decks of South Pacific atmosphere. Street Eats at mid-afternoon offers a rotating selection of fare familiar to fans of gourmet food trucks and international street foods.

The Chinese cha siu bao and Korean bulgogi were tasty and surprisingly authentic. Basketball star turned broadcaster and entrepreneur Shaquille O’Neal brings his Big Chicken restaurant to the high seas with a winning menu that includes chicken tenders that easily beat out Emeril’s a dozen decks below. Also competing for your appetite in Lido, besides the buffet, are three food concepts Carnival cruisers have seen before: Guy’s Burger Joint, a personal guilty pleasure conceived by TV chef Guy Fieri; BlueIguana Cantina for freshly made burritos and tacos; and Seafood Shack, the only eatery on Lido that charges.

Carnival was really stretching for a sixth zone with Summer Landing on deck 8. It’s pretty much another pool, another bar and Fieri’s Guy’s Pig & Anchor Smokehouse and Brewhouse, which for the time being doesn’t cost extra at dinnertime.

Other premium eating places of note include the brand-new Rudi’s Seagrill, Chef Sodamin’s namesake fish restaurant that was more flashy than fantastic on opening week; reliable and refined Fahrenheit 555 steakhouse; and Bonsai Teppanyaki and Bonsai Sushi for dependable Japanese cuisine. Chibang!, yet another first on Mardi Gras, serves  Chinese and Mexican at dinner, and is wisely not charging extra for now.

Plusses about Mardi Gras far outweigh the nits, and among the sweetest is the smartly engineered shower door that eliminates any chance of being assigned a cabin with a dreaded curtain. Also gone is the large-gathering muster drill, replaced by a self-muster process that has passengers checking in at their designated spot on the ship before sailaway.

After attending a quick demonstration that’s repeated every few minutes by a crew member, the process is completed by listening to a short PA announcement. Even better, life jackets no longer take up valuable cabin space; they’re now kept in locker at the muster station. So smart, like Mardi Gras being the first ship from a North America-based cruise line designed to operate on environmentally friendly liquid natural gas.

The Verdict

Highs: Many “firsts” for Carnival and the cruising industry on Mardi Gras, starting with the exhilarating BOLT: Ultimate Sea Coaster. Variety of new and popular food options. Functional minimalism graces standard cabins. Improved entertainment venue design and comfort.

Lows: Expected first-season hiccups. More misses than hits with food in the main dining rooms, buffet and even some premium restaurants.

Best for: Cruisers looking to experience the next, big thing no matter the itinerary. Fun-seeking families and large groups. Value-seeking travellers.

For more information on Mardi Gras, visit carnival.com.