(5 a.m. EDT) -- Onboard Carnival Venezia, the newest ship in the Carnival Cruise Line fleet, things look and feel noticeably different from the line's usual Fun Ships. After all, the ship was built and designed for Italy-based Costa Cruises as Costa Venezia and was destined for sailings out of China.
On paper, Carnival Venezia shouldn't really work -- an Italian ship, built for the Chinese market, then redesigned for the U.S. market.
But once your eyes get used to the faux marble columns, the gold balustrades, the rococo inlays and the Venetian artwork adorning every available space, you start noticing the clever touches that lean into this Italian-ness with typical Carnival flair: the first Guy's Burger Joint to feature a pizza burger (yes, really); Tomodoro, a Mexitalian taco restaurant; Amari, the Italian version of the Alchemy Bar but based around Italy's classic aperitifs; and a main dining room, Canal Grande, which features an actual gondola in the center of the room.
And you start thinking: "Hmm, well this is different, maybe this could be a blueprint for a new type of Carnival ship?" (Note: It is for the next Carnival Fun Italian Style ship, Carnival Firenze, launching next year).
We got onboard Carnival Venezia for a special one-off sailing from Barcelona to New York, where the ship will be based year-round, to find out what works and what doesn't onboard this new hybrid Fun Ship, where Italian design meets American favorites.
First, a little bit of context: Costa Venezia and sister Costa Firenze (as they were called) spent a short time in the Chinese market, just before the pandemic.
When the rest of the world re-opened and China did not, Costa was left with two huge ships and not enough passengers to fill them.
Carnival, by contrast, needed more tonnage, so through a combination of expediency and good business sense, the brand took ownership of these two former Costa ships. (Both Costa and Carnival are owned by Carnival Corporation.)
The move seems to have paid off: Our sailing, a one-off transatlantic repositioning that would normally likely not be sailing full, was full. Meanwhile, due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, bookings for European cruises are still somewhat challenging, according to Carnival's President and CEO Christine Duffy, who was on part of this sailing.
And again, by contrast, Carnival sailings have sold out for this year, and Duffy exhorted some of the trade partners onboard to now start selling for 2024.
You might need to wear your shades inside when you step into the triple-deck main atrium aboard Carnival Venezia, modeled after Piazza San Marco in Venice. There's so much gold, glass, silver and marble, it's hard to know where to look -- maybe toward the winged lion atop a column in the center of the bar; or the sky-blue dome complete with fluffy white clouds, or the faux-alabaster columns topped with gold capitals.
It's certainly a statement atrium, in the round, with guest relations on one side and shore excursions the other, and halfway up, a stage for the bands that play throughout the day. The only thing is, it's so Italian, guests might be confused as to what cruise line they're sailing.
But does it work? Well, it seemed to on our short voyage (we jumped off in Gibraltar; the ship is currently somewhere in the Atlantic, arriving June 13 to New York for a re-naming ceremony with Jay Leno as the godfather the following day); it never got too crowded, the band seemed restrained by Carnival standards and it acts as a good central heart of the ship, where the captain made his welcome speech and introduced the officers, and with shops, restaurants and bars all leading off it. Just remember to wear shades.
We had a sea day on our short voyage, which is always a good gauge as to where the pinch points are in terms of crowding – which we assumed would be on the Lido Deck. Originally designed for the Chinese market, the pool is small and the sunbathing is limited, meaning this space does not have the look or feel or size of a typical Carnival pool deck.
Instead, it's meant to represent an Italian piazza, so more emphasis is given to the cafes, bars and restaurants that surround it, rather than the pool, which itself is tucked into one end, so sunbathing is around three sides, rather than four. The pool also not heated, so we saw few people in it throughout our time onboard, except for a few brave kids.
There is a stage for the Fun Team to get people on their feet with games and dancing, and also a large outdoor screen for evening movies and in-app selfies, as well as one of our favorite spots -- Rococo Bar for spiked slushies. This is where the Carnival-meets-Italy mash-up is at its most extreme!
The Lido has an interesting twist to it that came into its own at the start of the day when it began to rain, and the retractable glass roof (technically called a Magrodome) came sliding across, keeping the space warm and dry during the downpour, and opening up when the sun came out again. This will work well in New York, where the ship is based year-round until the end of 2024, before it repositions to Port Canaveral for the winter, returning in the spring.
So where does the main sunbathing and pool action take place? It seems to have naturally shifted to the much more open and traditional Burano Sunshine Deck at the aft of the ship. Here you'll find another pool, a DJ, tiered seating and plenty of sunbathing space.
OK, so there's no way you wouldn't know you are on an Italian-themed ship (Carnival and Costa have leaned so far into that idea they have almost fallen over), but would you know you are on a Carnival ship?
At first sight, no. The funnel, for example, is all Costa -- yellow and black and cylindrically shaped. When you walk into the atrium, you might not think you've walked into Venice's Piazza San Marco, but you'll know pretty quick you're not on a typical Carnival ship.
However, the line has added a few Carnival touches to make loyal cruisers feel at home. The popular Alchemy Bar on other Carnival ships has been renamed Amara and now has one page dedicated to Italian cocktails and one dedicated to Alchemy favorites.
Steakhouse Fahrenheit 555 has been given a New York-style makeover, to make it more of a N.Y. steakhouse than an Italian one in design, but the menu remains the same.
And the aforementioned Tomodoro, which is a first for Carnival -- a Mexitalian restaurant, so expect Italian meatballs in tacos, that sort of thing.
Guy's Burger joint is present and correct, in a light blue color scheme and with the pizza-burger.
The main dining room, Canal Grande, is like nothing I have seen before on a ship. Designed to represent the Grand Canal in Venice, the centerpiece is a representation of the famous Rialto Bridge, with the aforementioned gondola underneath it, underlit by sea-blue tiles, to represent the canal. But many of the menu items are taken from Carnival's Italian restaurant, Cucina del Capitano, and even the few Italian additions -- calamari fritti, lasagne al forno -- are not unfamiliar to U.S. tastes.
There are a couple of additions that you won't find elsewhere on a Carnival ship -- an upmarket specialty Italian restaurant, Il Viaggio, which, as the name suggests, takes you on a journey through Italian cuisine, and proved popular; and Frizzante, which serves fizzy Italian drinks such as prosecco, just outside it.
By contrast, you'll also find the Heroes Tribute Bar, which is a space for veterans, doubling as a sports bar, which does stand out for its incongruity (among all the marble and rococo flourishes), but is a fine addition to the fleet.
Cabins and bathrooms on Carnival Venezia depart from the standard Carnival color scheme found on its latest vessels. One of the things you will notice is mirrors, both in the cabin and in the bathrooms, all of which have gold edging, making them look both elegant and almost old-fashioned -- but again it seems to work. One wall is given over to a Venetian scene.
In addition to the gold-framed mirrors, bathrooms also have a retro-style free-standing cabinet, with the basin inlaid, like you might expect to see in 18th-century Venice.
But apart from those touches, everything else has a clean, modern look, with dark wood paneling; cabins have been fitted with USB ports (one by the bed and two over the desk) as well as U.S.-style electrical outlets and flatscreen, interactive TVs.
There are also a couple of new cabin categories -- Terraza -- which are a riff on the line's Havana cabins, seen on ships like Carnival Vista, Carnival Horizon and Carnival Panorama. They are in fact the same size as a standard balcony, but lead out to a terraza complete with hammock. The only downside is that these lead straight out to the promenade deck, so the terrazas really aren't that private (we've been assured that the sliding glass doors are reflective, so passersby can't see in).
There is also a half tub category, aimed for young families, which, as the name suggests, has a small bathtub in a separate space.
The ship also has 20 suites, which aren't what you might call suites in the sense of having a separate living room and sleeping area; they are just a little bigger, with a larger sofa and a bathroom with a tub.
Carnival is certainly not entering the space occupied by MSC, Celebrity and Norwegian Cruise Line, of private suite-within-a-suite complexes, with multiple private spaces. (There is a private sundeck at the aft of the ship.)
In fact, quite the opposite -- we were impressed that the Serenity Deck, which is open to all over-21s, is free of charge.
Certainly as crew and CEO Duffy gathered in the main atrium to welcome the first guests onboard in Barcelona, there was a huge sense of excitement that this ship really does set the stage for something distinct for Carnival, like an evolution of the brand, and we would not be surprised to see some of these new venues appearing on future Carnival ships.
It's bold, it's different – but it's still decidedly Carnival – and fun, Italian style, at that.