Back From Sea Duty
About a month ago, I wrote a piece about the Margaritaville at Sea “Heroes Sail Free“ promotion. I saw the words “free” and “cruise” and had to find out what it was all about. So, I booked a trip for my wife and myself. We picked September 29th as the sail date. Bad choice. It turns out that was the day hurricane Ian made landfall here in Florida, and no one was going anywhere. No worries, it was simple to rebook the trip, this time for October 13th. We got back a couple of days ago, and I’m going to tell you all about it so you can decide if it’s an adventure you may want to pursue as well.
I’ll provide you with the facts; the good, the very good, and what could be better. You make the call.
Every story has a beginning, and this one begins with me writing my article and then booking the trip. I’ve been on maybe a dozen cruises in my life, so I’m no stranger to the booking process. In the past, I’ve experienced the old “bait and switch” where you go to buy one thing they try to sell you a far more expensive package. I’m glad to say that didn’t happen here. When I called, I was caller 99 in the queue, but it only took 15 minutes before I was talking to a friendly representative from the company. This has been an enormously successful program, and many people have already taken advantage of the free sailing.
Let me back up for a second, I tried first to book the cruise online, but the system would not let me because my wife and I both qualified for the promotion. When I got back from the cruise, I checked the Margaritaville at Sea website and found an important change in their offer that you should know about if you are considering booking the trip. The company now requires that there is at least one paying guest in the room. If one person qualifies for the “hero” rate, the other will be “offered the best retail rate available for the date selected.” Fair enough, it helps the company extend the popular “heroes” program so more people can participate.
As the first act of my first lecture on my first day of college, the professor scribbled “TINSTAAFL” on the whiteboard. “There is no such thing as a free lunch,” corny but true. If you were hoping to get on a cruise ship for three days, eat all you want, visit a beautiful island nation and return home with zero out-of-pocket expenses, that’s not going to happen. I’m not saying this isn’t a great deal; it is. But…you still have to pay port taxes ($88.44 per person as a one-time charge), pre-paid gratuities ($29.90 per person as a one-time charge), and a $12 per person per day fuel surcharge. That roughly works out to $275 for two people for the three-day, two-night cruise. I’m sure we more than made up for that expense in the food we ate. No issue there. I should note that the Margaritaville people were transparent about the charges, and there were no surprises. Thumbs up for that.
Parking at the Port of West Palm Beach is limited, and valet parking is the only option at $22 per day. However, the state of Florida waives parking fees at seaports for disabled veterans, so I didn’t have to pay that fee. Keep that in mind if you have DV plates.
This was smooth sailing (excuse the pun). On other cruise lines, I’ve followed the herd, slowly advancing my luggage foot by foot only to wait some more. This was normally followed by a document check and more waiting.
Suffice it to say boarding was quick and painless. In the photo above, you can see that the lines are short. We waited maybe 10 minutes and were called to the agent, where we had photos taken before we got our sea pass cards. The terminal was clean and modern, and the signage was good. Before we boarded the ship, we were given the opportunity to make dining reservations in their signature JWB Steakhouse, add shore excursions to the experience or purchase a drink package. We opted to buy the drink package for $98. For your money, you get ten mixed drinks (or beers) of any type.
Full Disclosure: The cruise line comped our dinner for two at their JWB steakhouse. Many thanks for that. Any other expenses incurred for the trip were paid out of the pocket of yours truly.
From the terminal, we walked up a ramp or two and were quickly onboard, smiling staff greeting us along the way. It feels good to get on a cruise ship, knowing you are going to be getting away from it all, if only for a couple of days. The signage onboard was good, and we quickly found our cabin on the fifth floor. We stuck in the key card, opened the door, and were pleasantly surprised.
Did I mention that we boarded on my wife’s birthday? Yes, we did, and the crew was kind enough to pick up on that and decorate the room accordingly. I thought that was a really nice touch, and frankly, it surprised me, given the fact that this was a complimentary cruise. They really went above and beyond, and that impresses me. That’s a birthday cake made of towels there at the foot of the bed with a lei draped over it. In recent sailings we’ve been on, the big cruise lines have given up on doing daily towel art. That’s a shame. It’s a nice touch.
Time to take another step back. I have yet to mention the fact that this ship is 30 years old. I believe it first went into service in 1991, way back when I still had hair. Having cruised on some older ships back in the day, I have to admit that I thought twice about getting on this one. Those ships were a bit cramped and, even at the time (around 2000 or so), felt a bit dated. I don’t know how they pulled it off, but I got none of that feeling on this ship. Sure, there were areas here and there where, if you knew where to look, you could tell it was built earlier, but I saw no signs of rust or wear and tear. The redesign was well thought out and you can tell a lot of money went into it. Every area that I visited had been renovated with the Margaritaville theme…lots of parrots, salt-rimmed margarita glasses, and muted lime green. Soothing, relaxing colors. And there was always music playing in the background. Good music, but not all of it Jimmy Buffett tunes.
Back to the room, if you look very closely, you can see a parrot pattern sewn into the bedding. Again, this a nice touch that gave the space something extra. The bathroom was small but clean and functional. My only issue was with the temperature. Good thing I like a cool room because the thermostat to control the air conditioner wasn’t working, and it was on all cold all the time. I didn’t bother to call anyone to have a look at it because we don’t mind a cold room, so it proved to be a non-issue.
There was a small fridge with an ice bucket on top and two bottles of water that you could purchase for $5 each. I opted not to do that and filled my bottle with tap water from the bathroom sink. There was more than adequate storage space for a three-day cruise.
As we settled in, I looked for the daily planner that most cruise lines give you each day, so you know things like when the ship is leaving port, what the activities are, when various venues are open…stuff like that. There was none in the room. You had to listen carefully to the announcements for things like when you had to do the muster drill. There was also a dedicated TV channel showing you the ship’s activities for the day.
The Muster Drill
For the uninitiated, a muster drill is where you are told by the cruise line where to go in case of a maritime emergency. You are shown how to put on your life jacket and all that good stuff. It’s required by the Coast Guard, and all guests must receive it before the ship sails. On recent cruises on other lines, I simply watched a video, then reported with my sea card to my muster station, where I gave them the thumbs up, and they scanned the card. All good to go.
I had read that they were doing the same thing at Margaritaville at Sea. Not during our cruise; it was old school. Every passenger was assigned to a particular muster station and went to that station after an announcement told us to do so. Ours was near the coffee shop, and it was close quarters for about a hundred or so people. It was around four in the afternoon, and by then, a few passengers already had one too many margaritas.
A young lady took a tumble a couple of feet away from me, close enough to get a little margarita salt on my shoes. Her boyfriend went into hyper-protective mode and immediately wanted to start a fight with the crewmember she had accidentally bumped into. She was quickly helped to her feet and was fine. She was also quite apologetic and a little embarrassed. He had beer muscles, and I thought for sure he felt the need to tear into someone. While all this is going on, a crewmember is mumbling something about “in case of a water emergency…” over a squeaky megaphone. You couldn’t really tell what she was saying, but that’s because the passengers were being rude and talking during the presentation.
Mr. beer muscles in flip flops finally calmed down, his girlfriend was walking Ok, and the drill was suddenly over.
Having not eaten since about 8:00 AM, I felt the need to check out the buffet. There were two large serving areas and plenty of seating. We had dinner reservations at six, so I exercised some rare restraint and opted for a piece of Mahi Mahi and some baked mac and cheese with shrimp. Both were surprisingly good. As good as I have had on any other cruise line when I was paying a pretty penny to be there. Even at full fare, these cruises come in at quite a reasonable price. I don’t know how they do it.
The answer must have something to do with volume; I believe the cruises sail back to back to back, with new passengers getting on every couple of days. It certainly wasn’t crowded, but I did get the sense that the ship was full. It was also extremely popular. Fox News had a reporter giving live reports from the Paradise (the name of the vessel) the week prior, and there are articles about the new cruise line and the “Heroes at Sea” program all through the press.
As I mentioned earlier, I was comped dinner for two at JWB (James William Buffett) Prime Steakhouse. What the usual charge is, I can’t tell you because as I look at their website, I don’t see it listed. The dinner was tasty, and the food varied from very good to excellent. By looking at the site, I just now learned that JWB serves breakfast. I didn’t know that while I was on the ship, I’ll have to try that out next time.
I don’t normally take pictures of my food, but this one turned out pretty good. As a starter, I chose the wagyu meatball with shaved parmesan cheese and a polenta square. This, I must admit, was fantastic. If I would have had nothing but a plate of these meatballs for dinner, I would have been more than happy. They reminded me of the meatballs my Italian grandmother used to make. The sauce was rich but did not overpower the flavor of the meat. The sharp notes of the cheese set off both the meat and sauce. As I said, happy, happy, happy.
Next, I had the Ceasar salad. It could have used some anchovies. Then my New York strip arrived, cooked rare. No A1 for me. this steak ended up smothered with a fine bearnaise sauce. With dinner, we each enjoyed a glass of Duckhorn merlot. I love a good merlot, and it paired well with the steak.
Our waitstaff was quite attentive and checked back often to see if we needed anything. The ambiance was quite nice until the lights were cranked up about halfway through dinner. Before that, they were dimmed, with flameless candles accenting the table. The sun was setting at the time, and it set a nice mood for dinner. I thought someone must have lost a contact lens or something. I asked our server why the lights were so bright, and she replied simply, “That’s just something we do at this time.” It was no big deal, but I found it a little strange. We adjusted. It’s relaxing in Margaritaville.
For dessert, the servers brought out a birthday cake for my wife. That was quite thoughtful of them, and we really appreciated it. It was a full-sized chocolate cake and quite tasty. We still have some of it in our fridge. Oh, and of course, we had to have a “regular” dessert as well. We each ordered a slice of banana creme pie, and our server was nice enough to also bring us a slice of key lime pie to share. I’ve never been so full in my life, but in a good way.
Dinner the next night was in the main dining room, and I won’t provide the blow-by-blow for that. I will, however, tell you that I found that meal to be even better than the one we had in the steakhouse. Sometimes you just never know. As a matter of fact, it was significantly better than the food we got in the main dining room of a cruise line named for a Scandinavian country during a trip we had with them last winter. I was pleasantly surprised with the prime rib, which was cooked rare to perfection. I ate every bite of it.
At the breakfast buffet, I was pleased to see smoked salmon. They also had cream cheese, chopped red onions, and crumbled hard-boiled egg to go along with it. I took a toasted English muffin, slathered it with cream cheese, piled on the salmon, and topped it off with the goodies. The only thing missing was the capers, but I could live with that. Seriously, it was an awesome breakfast, and I got to eat like that two days in a row. Taking it out to the deck overlooking the ocean made things just about perfect.
The drink package was well worth the $98 we paid for it. The frozen margaritas were spot on and strong, even if they were served in plastic cups. We were looking forward to getting plastic souvenir cups shaped like a blender, but the bartender said they ran out of those on the last sailing. No issues with the drinks themselves, but we were accidentally shorted one…the RFID chip must have been scanned twice during that last drink. No big deal; we had had enough.
Oh, and we also purchased a really cool round, branded soft-sided cooler full of ice and four beers of our choice. I think that set us back about $40, but it was worth it. It’s a quality cooler and will be used again.
Ah, the destination. I’ve been to the Bahamas several times but never to Grand Bahama island. The port is nice but a bit industrial. Before we took the trip, we found out there was a small bar and a shop that sells conch right by the pier, and that’s where we’d hang out. That’s exactly what we did, and it was from there that I took the first photo featured in this piece, the one with the palm trees in the foreground.
We didn’t stray more than a couple of hundred feet from the ship as we enjoyed a Bahama breeze and nibbled on conch (pronounced “konk”) fritters. My wife enjoyed a pina colada served in a coconut that a local gentleman made after lopping the top of it with a machete. I enjoyed a tasty local beer with the unlikely name of “Bush Crack.” There was an image of a fighting rooster in the can, interesting stuff. We ended up taking the can home. After a couple of hours of soaking up the sun, it was back to the ship.
I’m usually not a big lover of musicals, but I have to admit that I really enjoyed the show put on by the Margaritaville at Sea folks. “Jimmy’s Ship Show,” they call it, and it is pure energy inspired by Jimmy’s bestselling book, “Tales from Margaritaville.” Singing, dancing, and humor all put on by a charismatic cast. And, for those of us with short attention spans, it was only 45 minutes long. But that was 45 minutes of good stuff.
So…would I take the cruise again? My answer is a resounding “Yes, in a heartbeat.” Even at full fare (which is as low as $109 per person if you can travel in the middle of the week), it’s an amazing bargain. I probably ate more than that in smoked salmon alone.
If you live in Florida, are close to Florida, or are visiting the Sunshine State for a few days, you owe it to yourself to take a couple of days of R&R with Margaritaville at Sea.