A little background on me: I started cruising in 2005. This was my 39th cruise, but only 2nd on Carnival. I’ve done 27 cruises on Norwegian (everything from inside to Garden Villa; one booked), one on Costa (our first cruise!), four on Princess (two booked), one Disney, three Celebrity, and one Royal Caribbean.
My first Carnival cruise was on the Carnival Victory, a 5-day Canada/New England sailing in September 2007. The only reason I went was that it was so cheap! About $200 solo. For $200, I suppose I received value for what I paid. My memories of that cruise are: I was probably the youngest passenger aboard; the sidewalks rolled up at about 9:30 every night (thank goodness Carnival lets its crew out to play at night, or I would have been quite lonely!); the never-ending fog; the worst congealed eggs benedict I’ve ever had; the shoe-leather veal that the waiter so kindly tried to warn me off of; the sinfully comfortable bed in my inside cabin; the generally run-down condition of the ship (I later learned it was shortly away from a drydock).
So, twelve years later, here I find myself booked on another Carnival cruise. Why now? We recently moved back to Central Texas, so Galveston is our new homeport. Carnival is the big player there. (Royal Caribbean also sails from Galveston – not sure if we’ll give them another try.) I was also attracted to the exclusive areas – named Havana – on Carnival’s two newest ships, the Horizon and Vista. Having someplace, aside from my cabin, to escape the crowds is necessary to my sanity. The Vista currently sails alternating Western Caribbean 7-day cruises year-around out of Galveston.
The Details: Carnival Vista, 9/14/19 – 9/21/19. Ports: Mahogany Bay, Roatan, Honduras; Belize City, Belize; Cozumel, Mexico. Stateroom: Havana Cabana (HE), #5206.
The Havana Experience
The shared space in the Havana has a small pool and two hot tubs facing aft, two covered gazebos with chairs to dangle your feet in the water, several covered lounging beds, ample chairs and loungers, and a bar. In order to book a Havana cabin all occupants must be 12 years of age or older. The Havana pool area is open to all passengers after 7 p.m. We rarely saw non-Havana passengers there; perhaps other passengers thought it was always off-limits? Havana passengers receive a colored wristband to identify them. The deck staff were extremely attentive and friendly – to us, at least. We saw them throw several non-Havana passengers out a few times. I appreciated their diligence.
A bonus for me: I had NEVER previously been in a cruise ship pool because I saw lax enforcement of the “No Swimmies” ban on several ships, and even then, most cruise ship pools I’ve seen have been totally gross by the end of the first day. Not a problem in the Havana! Crystal clear and sparkling all the time. One of my best memories will be of hanging at the edge of the pool and gazing over the ship’s wake.
There are a small variety of cabins in Havana, including some aft-facing balconies and suites. I had my eye, though, on the Havana Cabanas: regular balcony cabins on deck 5, which instead of having a balcony, feature cute wrought-iron fenced patios facing onto the Promenade, a chair, lounger, and a swinging hammock chair. (DH was sold at “hammock chair”!) Each end of the Havana Promenade has a locked gate, ensuring that the only people wandering back and forth in front of one’s patio will be other Havana guests. We booked the port-side, third from the end, and rarely had anyone walk past. I have read noise concerns from others about noise bleeding from the Havana Bar area. We did not have this problem, but there was frequently noise bleed in the evenings from Ocean Plaza through the balcony, but not enough to disturb our rest.
As with most of the newer cruise ships, we found ourselves having to share a few outlets to charge our multitude of devices. And, as with most of the newer cruise ships, the cabin’s power is triggered by a keycard in a wall outlet just inside the door. (The outlets cease to operate/charge without a card in that slot.) Our steward kindly had pre-placed a blank card for this purpose. We were also provided separate keycards to open the balcony door from the patio. (My understanding is that the Horizon doesn’t have this feature.) We liked having the sofa, which converted into a bed, to lounge on while in the cabin. The large flat-panel television featured the typical cruise ship stations along with several documentary-type shows created specifically for Carnival Corp. There was also a large array of on-demand movies, probably about half of which were offered at no charge. We would have had plenty to watch had we never left the cabin. I have rarely seen such closet space in a cabin of this size, more than ample hanging and drawer space. There were sets of three shelves on each side of the bathroom mirror, again, more than ample. The bathroom had a shower with curtain, the stall being large enough so one didn’t suffer the indignity of the attack of the shower curtain. Even when we indicated we would reuse our towels, they were replaced with clean ones. Our cabin steward kept our Cabana spic-and-span clean.
This cleanliness and attention to detail permeated the ship. They were always working about, cleaning away, along with the sprucing-up we’ve come to expect on a well-maintained ship. What was different was that each crew member we saw actually seemed to enjoy their jobs. (To be contrasted with ones we’d previously encountered on other lines, who seemed to truly hate their lives.) One could conclude that Carnival’s reputation for being fun also extends to the crew. We’d frequently see crew singing and dancing away as they polished and scrubbed, especially when they thought no one was watching. That’s telling, I think.
Given my previous poor culinary experiences on Carnival, I was curious to see how this experience would measure up, but also certain I would find enough edible to not starve in seven days. I found the main dining room to exceed expectations, but granted, my expectations were low to begin with. I’ve gotten to a point in life where I’d rather not eat than to eat bad food, but eat I did. Considering this is essentially banquet-type food, they did rather well. The prime rib arrived medium as requested, with an ample amount of horseradish. The lobster tail was cooked to perfection. Desserts were divine. The menus displayed a good amount of variety and imagination. We had Your Time Dining, meaning that we had no set time or table. We were always able to go to the dining room within two minutes of requesting a table on the Hub app (more on that later). Two of three sets of servers were quite good; the third was extremely overly gregarious, to the point that we took pains to avoid him the rest of the cruise.
The remainder of our meals were spent in specialty restaurants, and this is where the Vista really shone. The first night was in the Fahrenheit 555 steakhouse where a first-night special offered a free bottle of wine. Not top shelf, but not the lowest, either. (Layer Cake, I believe?) We later shared a bottle with two gentlemen at the next table, and learned part of why the Vista’s Fahrenheit 555 earned a Wine Spectator award – the manner in which the wine was decanted was an art in itself. The meal began with an amuse-bouche, which we later learned varies day by day. The assistant waiter presented us a variety of bread options while warning us that much was to come, and not to eat too much bread. (I told him his mother raised him well.) Dinner began with stuffed mushrooms (delectable!) and French onion soup gratin. I opted for the surf-and-turf, a petit filet and whole lobster tail. Side dishes are abundant and varied. The waiter presented a variety box of salts from which to opt to season one’s steak. Rounding out the meal was a chocolate dessert which was all about the presentation and which promptly sent me into a sugar coma – I can’t recall its name. It was decadent. We spent a second dinner in the steakhouse, with the same exceptional food and service. Especially considering what some other cruise lines are charging for their steakhouse, Fahrenheit 555 is well worth the $38pp price of admission.
Our second specialty dinner was at Bonsai Sushi. Having been raised in Hawaii, an exchange student in Japan, and in general a student of Japanese language and culture, my expectations were not high. I’ve eaten my fair share of pedestrian sushi, both on land and at sea. Was I in for a surprise! We opted for the “Ship for 2,” which began with miso soup. The presentation was superb and would make any Japanese chef proud. This attention to aesthetics carried over to the arrival of the ship, where the salad, Bang Bang Bonsai roll, California roll, and 6 pieces of nigiri (2 tuna, 2 salmon, 2 shrimp) were beautifully arrayed alongside artfully carved garnish. The tuna was buttery, a testament to both the quality of the fish and the skills of the sushi chefs. And unlike most other California roll offerings, Bonsai’s crab was the real deal, not the white fish masquerading as crab that most restaurants use. Total bill, with an extra appetizer, sake, and beer: $28.
JiJi Asian was our final specialty restaurant stop. Each $15 prix fixe meal includes a choice of one appetizer, one entrée, a side, and dessert. Our meal began with another amuse-bouche, then we dug in with the Nanjing-style Duck and Jade Shrimp Har Gao, followed by Peppered Beef and Singapore Chili Shrimp, accompanied by jasmine rice and Chinese broccoli. I thoroughly enjoyed my Rose Crème Brulee, and the fried wontons with lychee in tapioca pearls and coconut milk looked yummy. Everything was very tasty. As with Bonsai sushi, the presentation was impeccable.
Mention must be made of the specialty restaurant offerings at lunch. Both Jiji and Cucina del Capitano are open for lunch: Jiji features a Mongolian wok, while Cucina offers design-your-own pasta bowls. Both are included in the fare price. Bonsai Sushi is open for sea day lunches with its regular menu and à la carte prices. Also included, open on sea days only, is Guy’s Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que. These people take their smoked meats seriously, where the delicious aroma of meats smoking over hickory can be detected nearly 24 hours prior to opening. Being Texans we’re a pretty tough barbecue crowd, but we found it to be more than acceptable. I could have happily settled for a full bowl of the mac and cheese. Guy’s Burger Joint is open every afternoon on the Lido deck. You order your burger from the grill, then have a full complement of garnish to choose among at the toppings bar. I judged this burger to be far better than any other sea-going Lido burger, but as I later confided to DH, “I wouldn’t cross an ocean for it.” I prefer my burger juicy, not crunchy. Give me Five Guys over Guy Fieri, any day.
And what’s a cruise food review without talking about the pizza? Again, we’re a pretty tough crowd, having lived in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut area for over seven years. Cruise ship pizza is usually a glance and a pass. For us, it’s all about Neapolitan pizza. Imagine my surprise, when walking past Pizzeria del Capitano, when I saw several large cans of San Marzano tomatoes! Feeling peckish one afternoon at the Havana pool, I decided to put the Hub app’s pizza delivery service to the test. Click – Margarita pizza. Click – authorize payment ($5). Click – mark on the map where I’m sitting. Click – take a picture so my delivery person knows what I look like right now. Wait. Twenty minutes later my smiling delivery person arrived with a fresh and cooked-to-perfection Neapolitan pizza! Thin, hand-tossed, crispy crust, delectable tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, a smattering of fresh basil. Oh, Carnival… You had me at San Marzano!
And speaking of the Hub app… This was far more useful than I ever could have imagined. The entire week’s entertainment lineup pre-loaded, ready for the bookmarking. Handy pop-up reminders of all bookmarked events. Easy tracking of restaurant reservations. Simple and quick to request a table for Your Time Dining, bypassing the long lines. I am certain there are features that I never discovered. Quite a little gem, this Hub app.
Finally, the one place I frequented more than I could possibly frequent any bar: The JavaBlue Café. Within a short stumbling distance of my cabin – in fact, its proximity was one of the reasons I selected the cabin I did. Specialty coffees, milk shakes, floats, and spiked versions of all of the above, along with a selection of both included and for-fee pastries. The barista, known affectionately as “Java Joe,” is always so happy and sparkly that I maintain he chews roasted beans, skipping all the intermediary steps, before starting his shift. Gotta love a man who remembers my order on the second day and can look at me first thing in the morning and not wince but smile and treat me like a princess. Joe, I’ll miss you most of all!
We are not ones to participate in many of the scheduled events/activities on board, so I can’t comment on much of the entertainment offerings. The electric strings trio who played in the atrium several evenings were always ones we would stop and enjoy for a brief period. We overheard some of the 80’s party in the atrium while we enjoyed taiyaki with ice cream in Cherry on Top – a good mix of music, lots of people in costume, and it looked like people really enjoyed it. There were another couple of bands that sounded quite good that played evenings in Ocean Plaza.
The Vista – and her sister ship, Horizon – has an IMAX theater. (This was another selling point for us!) Ticket prices were about 60% of what one would pay on land. The IMAX theater features daily showings of your standard IMAX museum documentaries. Additionally, Carnival premieres major motion pictures onboard the same day they open on land. Films showing when we boarded were “It, Part 2” and “Hobbs & Shaw;” the following Thursday evening “Ad Astra” came aboard. We opted for the latter, in addition to the “Pandas 3D” documentary. I realized we’ve gotten spoiled when DH leaned over to me and asked, “Don’t these seats recline?” Despite this, they were comfortable enough. The picture and sound were both great. There is also the Dive-In Theater on the Lido deck, which offers new movies such as one might find as new digital download releases.
The Bottom Line
Over 2,500 words later, it’s time to get to the critical question: Do things that cost less necessarily offer lesser value? Whether or not I have lots of money to drop on a cruise, I do value, well… VALUE. The Bottom Line: Yes, for us, the Carnival Vista – along with the Havana Experience – provided us a great value. We would certainly do it again. Read Less