Why it took so long for Jimmy Buffett -- the singer-songwriter who made a fortune many times over on cold drinks and ocean tunes -- and a cruise line to team up is hard to fathom. But in 2021, Margaritaville at Sea launched, with its first ship, the 1,680-passenger Margaritaville at Sea Paradise, serving up two-day cruises between West Palm Beach and Freeport in the Bahamas.
First things first: Margaritaville at Sea Paradise is not a new ship. It hit the seas in 1991 as Costa Classica and sailed with the Italian line until 2018, most recently as Costa neoClassica. Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line acquired and named the ship Grand Classica and moved it seamlessly into its niche of providing short and sweet sailings, at wallet-friendly prices. Most of the crew on Margaritaville at Sea Paradise are veterans of Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line; that experience shows throughout the ship.
During its rebranding, the ship received a thorough back-to-front renovation that touched many aspects of the vessel, from the colorful Margaritaville parrot that's now on the hull to the nautically influenced bedding and pillows in the cabins. Whether you're a Buffett fan or not, the ship has several fun spots to take a selfie, including a giant sculpture of flip flops in the Atrium and a monster margarita blender at the back bar It's Five O'Clock Somewhere
Which brings us to our next point. We were surprised to learn on our 2022 sailing that the Margaritaville at Sea appeal goes far beyond Parrotheads, as Jimmy Buffett's fans are called. Nearly 60% of the passengers on a typical Margaritaville at Sea sailing are taking their first cruise ever, we were told, and the vast majority of them have only a passing knowledge of Buffett. We noticed this particularly during the evening show, a jukebox musical of Buffett hits written by Jimmy himself. While some passengers enthusiastically sang along, fins up, other people smiled and tapped their toes, but clearly didn't know the words.
And so what? Part of the Jimmy Buffett/Margaritaville vibe is that anything goes, as long as you remain laid back. As a Buffett fan, I would have preferred a more immersive experience. But I can also see where having too much Buffett make alienate newer cruisers and -- let's face it -- younger and more diverse passengers. The classic Buffett audience is aging; Jimmy's songs may seem timeless, but most were released in the 1970s. Far smarter to focus on margaritas and parrots and palm trees, and keep the yacht rock to a minimum.
For newbies looking to try a cruise vacation or frequent sailors searching for a quick getaway, Margaritaville at Sea Paradise provides a good-enough experience that might very well get you hooked on Mother Ocean.
One way you can tell that Margaritaville at Sea Paradise is not a new ship is by its deck plan and layout. Some of the areas of the ship, such as the Port of Indecision buffet, show their age by being more cramped than what you'd expect on newer vessels. It was so hard to get a seat here that people resorted to carrying food all over the ship, leaving dirty dishes in lounges far away from the restaurant.
The small pools also show the ship's age. Don't go expecting more than a place to dip. Getting from one end of the ship to another can also be confusing, particularly on the upper decks, where there is no real through access without taking various staircases. We also found odd areas of dead space, particularly the Hangout on Deck 14, which seemed like a sports bar with no bartenders or guests.
Still, the ship is compact compared to a modern-day megaship, and there's certainly enough onboard to keep you occupied. In fact, we found the two-day trip somewhat chaotic; with such limited time, passengers are packing in as much as they can, leaning to a fast-paced, occasionally frenzied, vibe.
The rooms on Margaritaville at Sea Paradise were all updated before the ship relaunched in 2022, with tropical décor and accents. The beds are comfy and the look is light and cheerful.
Which is good, because only 10 rooms on the entire ship come with a balcony. Even junior suites only have portholes; you have to book a Grand Terrace Suite if you want outdoor real estate. Another area where the ship seems dated is in its utilities; the renovation did not add the number of American outlets and USB ports that always-wired travelers want these days. Pack an extension cord and a strip with extra plugs.
That being said, on a cruise this short, where you're in port for one of the two days, you're not spending much time in your room anyway.
Food on Margaritaville at Sea Paradise has some highlights, although you might have to step away from the crowded Port of Indecision buffet to find them. While you'll pay extra for an entire pie at Frank & Lola's pizza counter, slices with fairly standard toppings like pepperoni are complimentary -- and quite tasty.
We also enjoyed our dinner in the extra-fee JWB Steakhouse. (Many passengers here receive a meal here in the popular License to Chill package that comes with 10 drinks, an onboard wine tasting and other perks). The included Fins dining room reminded us of the main dining room on any cruise ship, with enough options to satisfy a variety of tastes.
One thing we found extremely appealing, especially for new cruisers, is that Margaritaville at Sea Paradise has no real dress code. There's no formal night, and you can wear shorts anywhere on the ship. It's fun to watch people feeling their own 'fits -- some people dressed to impress for the club, while others kept it chill.
As with any low fares, there is always a caveat -- and while Margaritaville at Sea fare may seem inexpensive at first, there are some not-so-obvious costs. You'll have to pay port fees, for one thing, as well as fuel charges and gratuities. WiFi costs extra, and there's mandatory valet parking if you drive to the port. No soft drinks and alcoholic drinks are included. Once you're in the Bahamas, shore excursions are extra and you will have to pay to take transportation from the terminal in Freeport to any attractions, as there is nothing within walking distance.
There are some packages that provide some bundling of costs. The $399 License to Chill package (for two people) gives you a wristband with 10 drinks; $150 credit at the St. Somewhere Spa; dinner for two at the JWB Steakhouse, plus the option to have sparkling wine and breakfast at the Steakhouse; a wine tasting the day you board; two premium coffees and pastries at the Margaritaville Coffee Shop and a bathrobe in your room.
For non-drinkers, the $99 Faster Chill program allows you to skip the check-in madness at the somewhat chaotic Palm Beach Terminal, along with a Wi-Fi package for two and reserved seating at various venues.
Unlike most cruise lines, Margaritaville at Sea allows its passengers to get off the ship in the Bahamas and stay at an all-inclusive resort on Grand Bahama Island. You can choose from two or four days at the partner resorts, either the Viva Wyndham or Grand Lucayan.
If you book a package through the ship, transfers from the port in Freeport to the resort and back again are included in your fare. If you choose this option, note that you'll have to have a passport, and not just a birth certificate.
Meals in the Fins dining room, the Port of Indecision buffet and pizza slices.
Coffee, tea and water
Entertainment and most activities onboard
Kids program in the afternoon
Use of fitness center and pools
Alcoholic beverages, soda and specialty coffees
Valet parking at the port (required if you drive)
Kids club at night
Transportation in Grand Bahama to any attractions
If you're a cruise newbie, don't worry -- the majority of passengers on the ship, often up to 60%, are people who have never sailed before. Low fares and the short time commitment draws people who can drive easily to West Palm Beach, both from South Florida and around the state. The line's Heroes Sail Free offer gives a nice discount for active military, first responders, law enforcement and educators (although this low fare does carry some caveats; you'll still have to pay for port fees and required valet parking if you drive).
On these two-day sailings, the ship draws a diverse passenger base that goes far beyond Jimmy Buffett fans, reaching all ages and demographics. The ship did not have any LGBTQ or solo meetups, but there is a daily meeting for Friends of Bill W.
While closed-loop cruises, where you embark and disembark in the U.S., allow you to sail with a birth certificate instead of a passport, we recommend the latter. A lot of people on this cruise only had birth certificates, and so were subject to longer lines at the terminal, both coming and going. If you have a passport, you'll sail through customs.
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Outstanding entertainment, great food, excellent service and lotsa fun!!!