(2 p.m. EST) -- When the popular and powerful Jimmy Buffett-themed brand Margaritaville joined forces with an existing cruise line to offer short Margaritaville at Sea sailings, the move seemed like a match made in… well, a tropical paradise.
After all, Jimmy Buffett's music is centered around a love of the ocean, the Caribbean, fruity drinks and all things tropical -- exactly what cruise ships offer. And while the former Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line enjoyed its long-time niche offering two-day cruises to the Bahamas from West Palm Beach, the cruise line wasn't exactly a household name.
We boarded Margaritaville at Sea Paradise, the line's sole ship, in mid-December to see what kind of vibes the new branding brought to the experience. Here's what we found.
At 1,680 passengers, Margaritaville at Sea Paradise is not a very big cruise ship compared to the brand-new megaships being launched that can hold up more than 6,000 passengers. But it has all of the features that you find on any mainstream cruise ship, such as a buffet, a main dining room, two pools (one adults only), several hot tubs, a theater with shows, a casino, numerous bars and daily activities.
If you've never cruised before, the relatively small size of the ship means that it's not intimidating. While the layout is a bit wonky compared to newer cruise ships, the smaller real estate means that it's easy to walk from one end to another and not get lost.
The cruises are also only two days long, with one port stop, which means it's easier to plan your time (and perhaps convince that reluctant friend or family member to come onboard with you). Freeport on Grand Bahama Island might not be the most exciting port in the Bahamas, but you're only there for one day (unless you decide to stay longer -- Margaritaville at Sea does offer that option through partnerships with local hotels). The line does offer a nice choice of excursions or you can book your own through a third party.
Don't worry if you are a cruise newbie. On this ship, the majority of passengers -- nearly 60% -- are also new cruisers, we were told by the hotel director. That's a high ratio of people just discovering what a vacation is like on the high seas (or at least the Florida Straits). We were also impressed with the ethnic diversity onboard.
What is bringing such a varied group of new cruisers in? The low fares, for one, as well as the easy time commitment. Most cruisers onboard are coming from places where they can drive, not only from South Florida but around the state. A healthy Heroes Sail Free offer for active military, first responders, law enforcement and educators is also a big draw (Although all those low fares do come with some caveats as we'll note below).
Another thing that we think appeals to new cruisers: Margaritaville at Sea carries no dress code. There's no formal night, and you can wear shorts anywhere on the ship. We loved seeing people enjoying their own vibe and feeling their own 'fits. You can choose to dress to impress in the dining room or club, or just show up as you want. It's nice to be able to be yourself.
Fun fact: When Margaritaville and Bahamas Paradise joined forces, the prevailing thought was that Jimmy Buffett fans who love the resorts and restaurants would give the ship a try. The reverse has actually happened, the hotel director told us: New cruisers are encountering the Margaritaville brand on the ship first, loving the Caribbean fun vibe and then going to the restaurants and hotels. It all works in a very symbiotic partnership.
It's also important who isn't new onboard: the crew. Margaritaville at Sea Paradise has many of the same crew that were on the Bahamas Paradise ships before, and to a person, all were helpful and cheerful. We received outstanding service from everyone, from our room steward who happily made up the sofa bed to our restaurant servers to our bartenders and waiters. It was refreshing to see such great service on a more inexpensive line.
Margaritaville at Sea Paradise boasts a new show, Tales from Margaritaville, written by Jimmy Buffett and based off his best-selling book of the same name, that features all of those songs you know by heart. And most people did, singing happily along to Parrothead standards like "Cheeseburger in Paradise," "Changes in Latitude," "Son of a Sailor" and the titular "Margaritaville."
Except, I looked around at one point and not everyone knew the words. There were many people in the audience who clearly had no idea who Jimmy Buffett was but that didn't matter. They were just digging the yacht rock vibes. And later in the evening, the comedian garnered a much fuller house.
All in all, I thought Jimmy Buffett was understated on the ship. Sure, the die-hards could take advantage of showings of Buffett's old concerts that took place in some of the bars. And music lyrics like "It's 5 o'clock somewhere" were part of the ship's renovated décor. But the music and mood on the rest of the ship was not necessarily all Buffett, all the time -- especially not in the nightclub, which went until the last person standing -- and that makes it appeal to more people and a wider demographic.
One thing for all cruise newbies to note is that while the Margaritaville at Sea fare may seem inexpensive at first, there are costs involved that you might not realize at first.
You'll have to pay port fees, for one thing, as well as fuel charges and gratuities. WiFi costs extra. And soft drinks and alcoholic drinks are not included, nor is the JWB Steakhouse and even full pizzas -- not slices -- at Frank & Lola's. 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. That can all add up and lead to unpleasant sticker shock if you aren't informed and read the website carefully.
We found that the License to Chill package was very popular among more seasoned cruisers. The $399 extra charge 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.
If you don't drink, 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.
All in all, we found the pricing for Margaritaville at Sea reasonable and comparable for what you'd pay for a hotel or resort stay of the same length in South Florida. The add ons make it an easier experience, but your mileage may vary.
There's no getting around the fact that despite its renovation, Margaritaville at Sea Paradise is an older ship. The vessel began life as Costa Classica in 1991 and sailed all over the world for the Italian line until 2018; in its final iteration there, the ship was known as Costa neoClassica. Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line bought the ship and named it Grand Classica.
During its renovation, the ship was thoroughly repainted and refreshed, from the colorful parrot that now adorns the hull to the cheerful bedding and pillows in the cabins. On the bridge, the ship received some significant technological upgrades, but where people really notice the change is with the décor
When you board, you're greeted by a giant flip flop sculpture, suitable for selfies. There's also a large blender at the 5 O'clock Somewhere bar at the back of the ship. All around, we found the light colors to be on brand and Caribbean cheerful.
That being said, you will notice the ship's age in different ways. For me, it was in the ship's layout. The Port of Indecision buffet is cramped compared to the spacious spaces you see on more modern ships, and it's hard to get a seat. As a result, we saw people carrying food all over the ship -- and thus dirty dishes in odd places (this has to be annoying for the crew, too).
The pools are also very tiny, to the point where they are more like dipping areas than places to really swim. (Oddly, this is somewhat on trend, as newer ships like Virgin Voyages and Norwegian Prima also have smaller pools). And getting to one end of the ship to another is slightly confusing; finding the afore-mentioned aft bar, for example, requires a ladder of different stairs unless you inch your way through the crowded buffet.
Speaking of the food, we found the eats on Margaritaville at Sea to be somewhat hum drum, yet with enough choice that you wouldn't go hungry. As mentioned, the buffet was so chaotic that we skipped the line for the cheeseburger in paradise. The mac and cheese and chicken wings that we did get, though, were tasty enough.
We ate at JWB Steakhouse one night, which carries an additional fee of $58 per person; you make reservations in the terminal when you arrive (which was also a chaotic process). We found that the upcharge was worth it for a nicer dinner; the steak and meal was about the same quality as you'd find at a chain steakhouse on land.
The Fins dining room serves as the main restaurant, and our friend with us actually enjoyed her meal here more than the steakhouse. There's a nice choice of menu items, and as mentioned earlier, the service is excellent.
There are a few confusing elements, food and drink-wise, that we noticed. For one, your 10-drink beverage package doesn't work on an even basis if you decide to get the supersized Margarita blender cup. We were warned ahead of time about this, so we stuck with individual drinks instead of the doubles. And people at the pizza counter were also puzzled so here's the tea: standard slices are free but if you want to order an entire pie, you'll pay.
Cabins are another place on the ship where you can see the vessel's age. There are only 10 rooms with balconies on them and all are Grand Terrace suites. Even a junior suite has a porthole.
The décor in the rooms has been upgraded with tropical accents. While the soft goods are all modern, you'll notice the age most in the bathrooms, all of which have showers with clingy curtains (and some drainage issues). Another thing you'll definitely notice is the lack of American outlets and USB ports, reflecting the ship's European origins. This is definitely a cruise where you'll want to pack an extension cord and a strip with extra plugs.
All this being said, the short length of the cruise meant we were barely in our suite to enjoy it. Which brings us to …
Margaritaville at Sea bills itself as a three-day cruise but that's technically not true. By the time you navigate the terminal on Day 1 and get onboard to your room, it's around 2 p.m. The ship arrives in Freeport at 7:30 a.m. on Day 2 and if you've booked an excursion, you're in the Bahamas until 3 or 4 p.m. And then your ship is back in Palm Beach bright and early on Day 3.
This truncated time schedule threw me off a bit. I found myself running from event to event, bar to bar, show to show so I didn't miss anything. Never in my life have I gone straight from a bar to a spa treatment and back out to a bar again, but that's exactly what I ended up doing here.
All around me, families, groups of friends, couples and party people were doing the exact same thing. It added up to a giddy atmosphere. I wouldn't call Margaritaville at Sea a "booze cruise" -- the ship is what you want it to be. But it is definitely more of a "pack it in" experience rather than a leisurely vacation.
Still, Margaritaville at Sea has taken what was an excellent niche for Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line and given it a more distinct identity. Whether you're a new cruiser or someone just looking for a few days away, you can pack a lot of fun into a short time, for not a lot of money. And that's just what the cruise industry needs right now.