It can be a disappointment for repeat guests anxious to experience a return to everything they loved about pre-pandemic cruising.
But most of those issues are now in the rearview mirror for Carnival, if my recent seven-day sailing on Carnival Panorama from L.A. to Mexico was any indication.
SHIP’S STILL JUST LIKE BRAND NEW
Although we were sailing at slightly over 100% capacity with 4,200 guests and a full complement of crew, I noticed only occasional crowding around the main pool and Lido Marketplace buffet venue. And there was plenty of room to spread out in most other public areas aboard.
When I attended the ship’s inaugural celebration in late 2019 at the Port of Long Beach (just as the earliest cases of COVID-19 in China were being reported), the handsome Vista-class vessel showed no hallmarks of Carnival’s past, gaudy interior design.
Instead, tasteful, subdued decor and pleasing colour schemes graced comfortable public rooms and staterooms. And since she was shut down in spring 2020 shortly after her debut, Panorama hasn’t had time to accrue much wear and tear since her restart just over a year ago.
While my late August sailing was the last one to mandate COVID testing and full vaccination for all (the line has since removed the testing requirement for fully-vaccinated guests), ongoing protocols still mandate masking for all crew, staff and officers, who are all fully-vaccinated and tested regularly.
Guests on most of Carnival’s U.S.-based sailings now do not need to test pre-cruise if they’re fully-vaccinated. While masking is optional for guests, most on my sailing opted not to wear them.
As Carnival’s culinary program has evolved over the years, the line’s main dining room fare has consistently improved to reflect more modern tastes, while being attractively presented.
The line’s Seaday Brunch, also served in the dining room, offers an outstanding menu of options including a decadent 12-Hour French Toast topped with roasted peaches.
At lunchtime, although the Lido Marketplace buffet spread is adequate if unexciting, better options for the midday meal abound at other, included-in-the-fare venues: Guy’s Burger Joint (elevated burgers and fries from TV personality Guy Fieri); Blue Iguana (made-to-order tacos and burritos); Mongolian Wok (custom-made Asian rice and noodle bowls); Pasta Bar (made-or-order pasta dishes); and Guy’s Pig & Anchor (BBQ meats and sides, also from Guy Fieri).
Meanwhile, Panorama’s extra-charge specialty venues proved to be very popular during my cruise. I enjoyed particularly memorable meals at Fahrenheit 555 Steakhouse (US$42 per person) and JiJi Asian Kitchen ($18 per person).
In fact, the relative sophistication of the dishes at JiJi Asian Kitchen was a pleasant surprise, and the quality of the dishes was superb, both in terms of preparation and presentation. The complete experience at this venue (only available on the line’s three Vista-class ships and Carnival Sunshine) is a delicious value proposition.
My family and I all remarked that Panorama’s crew were exceptionally happy (a trait not always seen on other ships), which is a credit to Hotel Director Hector Groves and his management team.
And since a happy crew translates to better service for guests, it makes us wonder why policies to promote crew satisfaction aren’t ubiquitous in the industry, thus turning our Panorama experience into what should be the norm – rather than the exception.
EVENINGS LIVELY WITH MUSIC, MUSIC EVERYWHERE
As is par for Carnival, live musical entertainment in the lounges and atrium aboard was outstanding, with talented musicians representing myriad musical genres that pleased all tastes.
But it was Latin Connection, the tight group playing Latin dance tunes and ballads, that consistently drew appreciative crowds nightly to the atmospheric Havana Bar for dancing and romancing.
Not to be overlooked, however, were the four, unique Playlist Production shows – aided by impressive production values and staging – presented in Liquid Lounge, Panorama’s main showroom, by the cast of 14 singers and dancers.
ACTIVITIES ABOUND, ABOVE AND BELOW DECK
Taking advantage of a popular feature only available on Panorama and Mardi Gras (so far), I participated in Carnival Kitchen’s Pasta Master class, where nine pairs of guests – each with their own, fully-equipped kitchen station – are guided through a one-hour preparation of fresh fettuccine with pancetta and cherry tomato sauce by a chef and his three assistants.
All ingredients were portioned out prior to beginning, tools were arrayed conveniently, and the 90-minute session was so much fun that it flew by.
The experience, akin to culinary kitchen classes on luxury and upper premium ships, is a good value at $35 per person. And in a testament to the recipe, the quality of the professional instruction and the ingredients, we amateurs all enjoyed consuming our creations.
For those uninterested in becoming a Pasta Master, Sushi Making 101 is an alternative popular Carnival Kitchen class.
Working off that pasta wasn’t an issue with Panorama’s top-deck amusements in high gear on the warm-weather Mexican itinerary, with the SkyRide, Ropes Course, WaterWorks (featuring two waterslides and the Power Drencher) all sought-after diversions.
My family and I also enjoyed the pool tables, foosball game, bean bag toss and ping pong at the nearby SportSquare area. At night, the ship’s engaging and seemingly-everywhere Cruise Director Marty led over 1,000 participants in three mega deck parties – when he wasn’t emceeing the wildly-popular ‘Deal or No Deal’ game show.
And the activity continued indoors, too. At Sky Zone, the only indoor trampoline park at sea, we jousted, dunked a basketball and played dodgeball – all while bouncing up and down and off the walls (literally!).
Guests also packed the Punchliner Comedy Club’s nightly shows (one family-friendly; the other adults-only) and the casino, where Blackjack table minimums were a reasonable $6 per hand.
But it’s the signature Carnival experiences that continually served to keep the line’s loyal cruisers engaged, while delighting the large percentage of first-timers (53% of all guests) on my sailing.
The traditional Captain’s Toast has returned, as has the once-per-cruise Chocolate Extravaganza.
Onboard weddings are back too, and the popular Cucina del Capitano specialty restaurant – recently closed fleet wide due to staffing shortages – is again welcoming diners. Those with little ones will no doubt be happy to see the return of the Seuss at Sea Green Eggs and Ham Breakfast, beginning with sailings on Oct. 1.
Carnival’s ‘Fun Ship’ tagline isn’t just hype; it’s the real thing. And it’s just that mindset that pervades the line’s vessels, as was fully evident in showrooms, lounges, atriums, pools, bars and restaurants on my sailing. Yes, Carnival is back – and whole again.