Custom lunch and bargain fares: A trip on Carnival’s newest ship

The water works on Carnival Horizon are Dr. Seuss themed, with the Cat in the Hat slide, the Fun Things slide and a huge tipping barrel. (Marjie Lambert/Miami Herald/TNS)

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The water works on Carnival Horizon are Dr. Seuss themed, with the Cat in the Hat slide, the Fun Things slide and a huge tipping barrel. (Marjie Lambert/Miami Herald/TNS)

In a crowded corner of Carnival Horizon’s pool deck, I ate my first lunch of the day at BlueIguana Cantina’s burrito bar. My made-to-order burrito contained lime-cilantro rice, black beans, charred corn, grilled chicken and a medium-spicy pico de gallo — no refried beans, thank you very much.

At the Pasta Bar, I ordered farfalle topped with garlic shrimp, mushrooms and pomodoro sauce for my second lunch. At Mongolian Wok, I chose mussels and clams over lo mein noodles with black bean sauce and half a dozen vegetables. Only my fourth lunch — at the Seafood Shack — wasn’t customized, simply fried clams and french fries.

My goal on this two-day preview cruise of Carnival’s newest ship was to sample lunch in every eatery. I didn’t quite succeed, but it was enough to get a fair sense of the ship’s cuisine.

Lunch may be an afterthought for cruisers, who often are off the ship on a shore excursion or settling in for a combination of poolside snooze, hairy chest contest and a mound of something from the buffet, so a cruise line could get away with serving its most lackluster cuisine at lunch. That most of Carnival’s restaurants don’t — my conclusion after dining in seven of the ship’s nine lunch venues — is an indication of the line’s efforts to provide quality at a bargain price.

What I like best about Carnival ships is that they’re a good deal. Fares are frequently cheaper than Caribbean cruises on the other lines in what the industry calls the mainstream category. A check of prices from two online travel agencies for a cruise from Miami in February found fares on Carnival Horizon cheaper than on Norwegian’s and Royal Caribbean’s newest ships and about the same as MSC Seaside (Carnival Horizon and MSC Seaside starting around $80 per day per person double occupancy; Norwegian Bliss starting at $102; Symphony of the Seas from $126 eastern Caribbean, $149 western Caribbean). Prices for Carnival’s older ships usually rank lowest in relation to other lines’ older ships as well.

To keep prices low, Carnival ships don’t have bumper cars, sky-diving, surf pools. Their suites are not as luxe, the ship not as roomy for the number of passengers, the entertainment not quite as elaborate, the percentage of balcony staterooms not as high, and the soft-serve ice cream lacks evidence of actual cream. But for first-time cruisers, young adults, big families and those on a particularly tight budget, a Carnival cruise offers value.

The ship is already familiar to cruise fans because it is essentially a clone of Carnival Vista with a few minor variations:

— Its water park, although architecturally the same as the one on Carnival Vista, is the first to be Dr. Seuss themed.

— It has “smart” elevators. In the elevator lobby, push a button to indicate which deck you’re going to and the system will tell you which elevator to board. The purpose is to group people according to where they’re going so each elevator doesn’t stop at every floor. Supposedly it will get you to your destination faster.

— There are more of the popular Havana staterooms, tropically themed cabins and suites with exclusive daytime access to the Havana pool complex at the rear of Deck 5, that debuted on Carnival Vista.

— Inside the Bonsai Sushi restaurant, Carnival Horizon has added Bonsai Teppanyaki, two eight-person tables with a hibachi grill and a chef who entertains as he prepares your meal in the center (both restaurants carry an extra fee).

— Also exclusively on the new ship, Guy’s Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que (by Food Network host Guy Fieri) — a poolside counter service food stop on four other ships — has been moved to Deck 5 and expanded to be a standalone restaurant on the Promenade. Guy’s serves dinner for an extra fee and free lunch on embarkation and sea days. It took the space where RedFrog Pub sits on other ships, but it kept RedFrog’s brewery, where four craft beers are made.

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DINING

With food such an important element of any cruise, lunch is an indicator of quality, especially since Carnival has been upgrading its dining options in recent years. In place of the traditional poolside grill, most of its ships now have Guy’s Burger Joints (Guy Fieri again) and BlueIguana Cantina, with made-to-order burritos and tacos, and tortillas made on the spot. There’s also a 24-hour pizzeria.

In addition to Carnival Horizon’s exclusive ParchedPig brews in Guy’s, you can draw your own beer in the buffet and pay by the ounce. The Serenity area — the adults-only retreat on the top deck — has a salad bar open for lunch on sea days.

Two extra-fee dinner restaurants serve no-fee lunches where you build your own entree. Mongolian Wok is inside JiJi Asian Kitchen, and the Pasta Bar is in Cucina del Capitano.

In my lunch marathon, which stretched over two days, the only alternatives I missed were the buffet (although I did sample the serve-yourself beer there) and Serenity’s made-to-order salad bar, which wasn’t open. To take them all in, I skipped bread, salad and dessert; ordered half portions when available; and walked away with more than a bite or two remaining on my plate.

Dinner is when cruise lines want to showcase their finest fare. Carnival Horizon offers the usual — main dining room, buffet, pizza, room service — plus several alternatives for an extra fee.

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STATEROOMS

Almost all staterooms on Vista-class ships have interior space of 185 or 275 square feet. The major difference between staterooms is the size of the balcony — if there is a balcony. More than a third of all staterooms are inside cabins; not quite half of all staterooms have balconies, a lower percentage than other lines’ newer ships.

The largest category of stateroom is the Grand Suite. Carnival Horizon has eight of them, with 345 square feet plus an 85-square-foot balcony. You’re not going to find the luxury suites the size of a small apartment that some competing cruise lines offer.

The ship has several themed varieties of cabins. There are 30 nautically themed Family Harbor Suites and staterooms on Deck 2 with access to a private lounge with games, movies and other kid-friendly amenities. There are 104 cabins and suites with special spa access and perks. And the tropical-themed Havana Cabanas and staterooms, which are not open to children under age 12, have exclusive access until 7 p.m. to the pool and two whirlpools in the Havana pool complex at the rear of the ship.

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RECREATION

If you were looking at a fleet of Carnival ships, you’d be able to pick out Horizon by its Dr. Seuss WaterWorks with its giant Cat’s Hat water slide painted in red and white stripes and blue Fun Things slide. About two-thirds of Carnival ships have water parks with slides, and Carnival Vista has slides that are architecturally identical except for the decor.

Carnival already had a Dr. Seuss tie-in — several of the ships, including Horizon, have a Dr. Seuss Bookville reading area for kids with a character parade, character breakfast and story time — but Horizon is the first to have a Seuss-themed water park.

Exclusive to the Vista-class ships is SkyRide, a sort of suspended bicycle that guests can pedal along a course above the ship and way above the water.

In the same area, Carnival Horizon has a ropes course elevated above the sports deck where passengers strapped into a harness make their way around a networks of ropes, rails and plastic stepping stones in different shapes. Some people moved without hesitation from one platform to the next.

Other recreational facilities: mini-bowling and pool in the clubhouse; soccer, volleyball, basketball, ping-pong and mini-golf, outdoor gym, three swimming pools and six jacuzzis.

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ENTERTAINMENT

The Carnival Multiplex consists of two movie theaters next to each other, an IMAX Theatre (which debuted on Carnival Vista) plus the Thrill Theater, which like some theme park rides enhances 3-D video with experiences for the other senses such as wind and mist. Both theaters cost extra.