I looked up, squinting into the sun. Twenty feet above my head a panic-stricken man was trying to balance on the ship’s sky-high ropes course. His legs shook like Jell-O, and his face was bedsheet white. Someone was shouting at him to hurry up.
I chuckled as I thought of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” He was a skywalker, all right, but he would never make it as an action hero.
Nearby, also high over my head, a teenage girl was pedaling on SkyRide, a bike-like mechanism that soars on a loop track. She was grinning, as thrilled with her experience as Mr. Skywalker was terrified.
It takes all kinds of passengers to fill a ship, especially one that holds more than 4,000 passengers. But Carnival Cruise Line’s Panorama, a snazzy new vessel sailing out of the Port of Long Beach, offers activities to appeal to nearly everyone.
Large cruise lines — and Carnival, with 27 ships, is the biggest — usually base their newest ships at Florida ports such as Miami or Fort Lauderdale. Southern California gets older vessels.
But things are changing. Panorama, Carnival’s first new ship in almost two years, has become the first new cruise ship to home port in the Southland in more than two decades, departing every Saturday for weeklong voyages to Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlán and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Passengers will find plenty of bells and whistles. Innovations include the first trampoline park at sea as well as a first-in-fleet culinary studio: Guests can participate in hands-on cooking classes, tastings and other food-related activities hosted by the ship’s chefs.
And there are plenty of games to play aboard the ship, including a massive WaterWorks aqua park where you can zoom hundreds of feet down twisting water slides. Or work up a sweat slam-dunking on a black-lighted basketball court, clambering up a climbing wall or jousting on a balance beam at Sky Zone, the ship’s indoor trampoline park.
Of course, there’s also the very scary SkyCourse ropes challenge and the frightening-but-fun SkyRide bike adventure.
Panorama is — dare I say it, a fun ship— just as it’s touted in the company’s ads. It’s also affordable — as little as $89 a night per person for a weeklong vacation package that includes transportation, lodging and meals.
I sailed on Panorama’s maiden voyage, a three-night shakedown inaugural cruise to Ensenada, Mexico, and spent time checking out the ship and its features.
Full disclosure: I wasted a lot of time making excuses about why I couldn’t try the ropes course (too many kids, too sunny, too overcast, too long a line) and finally admitted that someone with acrophobia, the fear of heights, should find other ways to entertain herself.
So I hunted down photographer Jim Edwards, who was shooting pictures of people on the ropes course, and tried to talk him into a game of mini-golf. That didn’t fly.
But the ship’s new Carnival Kitchen seemed promising. And it was indeed. Several chefs had shown up to bless the new endeavor: the line’s first studio kitchen, a place for passengers to cook along with the experts.
Imagine having Emeril Lagasse, one of the most recognizable chefs in the country, looking over your shoulder while you assembled your first apple pie.
Was I nervous? Who wouldn’t be with Lagasse tossing flour onto my crust as I kneaded and rolled it. Then master chef and cookbook author Rudi Sodamin happened by, grabbed the rolling pin, re-rolled the crust and added a little more flour.
What’s wrong with using a prepared crust anyway?
Nonetheless, the pies turned out great, and we ate them at dinner that night.
Real-life guests won’t be cooking with celebrity chefs, but they can still learn a lot from Panorama’s chefs, who will teach about a dozen classes, including pasta making, cake and pie making, sushi rolling and pizza baking, in the well-stocked demonstration kitchen.
Classes last one to two hours and cost $30 to $59 each.
When I left the kitchen, I strolled the ship’s decks, running into Bob Snyder of Ocala, Fla., who is so fond of the Carnival cruise line that he has sailed on three inaugural trips.
“As long as I’m on a Carnival ship, I’m a happy camper,” he said, adding that he already has a reservation on the line’s next new ship, Mardi Gras, which he plans to sail in November.
Snyder showed me around the ship’s Havana Cabana area, a VIP section with a private pool, two Jacuzzis and its own bar. Rooms in the section have Cuban-style decor and extended balconies with a chair swing and two lounge chairs.
My new friend said he always books the Havana Cabana area because “it’s private and calm here.” No one younger than 12 is allowed, and passengers need a special key for access. They also pay about twice as much for a balcony room.
It’s a good way to avoid the crowds at the large pools and some of the Fun Ship trappings that don’t appeal to everyone, such as the hairy chest contest and poolside dance-a-thon.
But I didn’t stay in the Havana section and could have avoided the raucous deck parties without much trouble. There were plenty of other things to do and see onboard, including eight bars, a spa, a fitness center, a theater with evening shows and 10 restaurants.
Besides two large main restaurants and a buffet (all included in the fare), passengers can splurge on special dining venues such as Fahrenheit 555, a swanky steakhouse where you can choose among five types of steaks (a flat fee of $38 per person). Or sample high-end Chinese food at JiJi Asian Kitchen ($15 per person) or listen to the singing and dancing waiters at Cucina del Capitano ($15 per person). The food was good at all the venues I tried.
A favorite on the ship is Guy’s Pig & Anchor Smokehouse / Brewhouse, which makes Carnival house beers behind glass walls. The popular venue was created in partnership with Guy Fieri of the Food Network and is a great place to fill up on down-home favorites such as trash can nachos and 18-hour beef brisket.
I was so busy eating and drinking on the ship that I nearly forgot our journey had a destination, Ensenada.
Our mini-cruise had sailed out of Long Beach Harbor at dusk, included a full sea day to explore the ship and a day to explore Ensenada, where Edwards and I signed up for the Top 10, Best of Ensenada tour ($49.95 per person, including lunch).
The highlight was La Bufadora, one of North America’s best-known marine geysers, which explodes against the rocky cliffs of Punta Banda Peninsula about 20 miles south of town. The blowhole creates a shower of foamy water, delighting some and dismaying others caught beneath the spray.
On the walk from our bus to La Bufadora, we ran a gantlet of shops and vendors hawking knockoff purses, T-shirts, and drugs such as ibuprofen and penicillin. Lunch was tacos at a simple indoor-outdoor cafe. They were wonderful.
Ensenada isn’t a regular stop for Panorama, which does mainly six- to eight-day Mexican Riviera voyages. (Inside cabins start at $625 per person, double occupancy.)
But Carnival’s two other Long Beach ships, Imagination and Inspiration, regularly sail there on three- and four-day getaways that sometimes include Catalina Island. (Inside cabins start at less than $250 per person, double occupancy, including taxes and port fees.)
It’s hard to stay home when the price is so low. Of course, those ships are older, with not as many bells and whistles. No SkyCourse ropes challenge either. I count that as a plus.