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Travel: Carnival Firenze, now sailing out of Long Beach, offers ‘Fun, Italian Style’


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Italy and Mexico are separated by an ocean and a gulf, and yet the two countries share much in common. They both speak a romance language, fly a similar green, white and red national flag, identify Catholicism as their principal religion, and when it comes to soccer, or football as it’s called in these birthplaces of pastas and tostadas, their mutual obsession is at fever pitch.

Leave it to California’s market-leading cruise line to make the list of commonalities between Italy and Mexico even longer — 1,061 feet longer, to be exact. Stretching nearly three football fields, the lengthiest and latest ship currently homeported in California has added a Carnival atmosphere to the many things these two countries share. Just back from her inaugural cruise to the Mexican Riviera, the 4,960-passenger Carnival Firenze brings “Fun, Italian Style” to the Pacific, and in a word, this multicultural mixture of oregano and tajin is fantastico and fantástico. See, even that well-deserved adjective is similar in Italian and Spanish.

Offering three- to seven-day sailings from Long Beach to Mexico — with a stopover on Catalina Island on shorter runs — Carnival Firenze, the whopping fifth ship added to the fleet in the past 18 months, is an exciting disrupter in the highly competitive Southern California cruise market. Inside and out, Firenze is different from your standard “Fun Ship.” Where’s the signature whale tail funnel? Does the “C” on the stack stand for “Carnival?” Where’s the red, white and blue livery (cruise ship lingo for the specific design and paint scheme)?

The Costa logo on Firenze’s funnel, overlooking the challenging ropes course, is a piece of intentional legacy. (Photo by David Dickstein)

As sure as the “C” does not stand for “Carnival,” when Firenze pulled away from Carnival’s busy berth next to the Queen Mary on April 25, sailing at 86% capacity, a new style of cruising to Mexico was ushered in.

“Fun, Italian Style.” That’s what Carnival Cruise Line (www.carnival.com) calls the marriage of fun, a company signature, and the Italian ambiance sister brand, Costa Cruises, is known for. This combination of corporate and ethnic cultures is the result of Carnival’s need for more guest capacity coinciding with Costa’s unfortunate timing of COVID-19 impacting the early going of two ships originally designed for the Chinese market. Costa Venezia, completed in February 2019, sailed for the Genoa-based cruise line out of Shanghai until the pandemic caused an industry pause. In December 2020, Costa Firenze was a ship without a country, pretty much, getting her sea legs not in Asia as planned, but in Europe and the Middle East.

Italian-style architecture adorning Firenze's Lido Pool area adds to a party atmosphere. (Photo by David Dickstein)
Italian-style architecture adorning Firenze’s Lido Pool area adds to a party atmosphere. (Photo by David Dickstein)

It certainly was rough seas for these twin ships even in favorable weather conditions. To the rescue came Carnival, which adopted, refitted, rebranded and redeployed the Vista-class vessels, and showed the industry — and would-be vacationers — that when Costa hands you lemons, you make limoncellos.

Not that the Venetian-veneered Venezia, the OG steward of “Fun, Italian Style,” and Florence-festooned Firenze were poorly built when Carnival brought them over to the fun side of the parent company; quite the opposite, and take it from someone who’s even seen Firenze’s state-of-the-art advanced wastewater treatment system. It’s just that these ships had an undeserved sour start and now have a sweet life sending sunseekers off on adventure. Venezia is scheduled to sail to the Caribbean and Bermuda from New York City or Port Canaveral (Orlando area) for the next couple of years; Firenze will make runs south of the border from Long Beach through at least May 2026.

Back to those limoncellos. On Firenze’s just-concluded, seven-day inaugural cruise, the 20 guest and service bars reportedly served about 2,700 glasses of the Italian-rooted refresher. Early-adopting adult cruisers may have been motivated by the immersive Italian architecture that begins when the gangway ends — at the entrance of a three-deck, love-at-first-sight atrium modeled after Florence’s magnificent main public square. When the gorgeous Piazza del Duomo hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.

Like Florence's city center, Piazza Del Duomo is the vibrant hub of Carnival Firenze. (Photo by David Dickstein)
Like Florence’s city center, Piazza Del Duomo is the vibrant hub of Carnival Firenze. (Photo by David Dickstein)

More love, Italian style is found on the Lido deck that draws inspiration from the Italian Riviera. Ice carving, early-morning stretches and various Carnivalized fun are held at one of the prettiest pool decks on any ship. The place transforms into a street party atmosphere on every cruise for Festa Italiana, which, after it’s fine-tuned, will be a blast. Watching the action from a balcony above may not put you in the center of an audience-participation game or dance party, but the people-watching is excellent and you’re on the same deck as the yummy meatballs and sausages served at Il Mercato.

Guy Fieri’s Pepperoni Pizza Burger is served exclusively on two “Fun, Italian Style” ships. (Photo by David Dickstein)

One level down is Guy’s Burger Joint, which on the two Italian-accented Fun Ships has a killer Pepperoni Pizza Burger that comes with fried mozzarella, pepperoni marinara, melted provolone, aged parmesan and a jacked-up secret mayo topping that its inventor, celebrity chef Guy Fieri, calls Donkey Sauce. It’s a winner, as are the frozen concoctions that help some hang on at Rococo on the other side of the pool. The slushy, $13 pistachio, bellini and margarita cocktails pair especially well with the ship’s theme and spicy itinerary. Steps away is Tomodoro, described by Carnival as a “Mexitalian fusion restaurant.” It’s basically Carnival’s popular BlueIguana Cantina only better, as the ingredients for the assembly line burritos and tacos seemed to be of higher quality than usual. And bravissimo to the bambinos on the menu: an Italian meatball hero and Sicilian chicken wrap.

The decadent cannoli at Il Viaggio is one reason for a $42 upcharge. (Photo by David Dickstein)
The decadent cannoli at Il Viaggio is one reason for a $42 upcharge. (Photo by David Dickstein)

Three of Firenze’s four sit-down specialty restaurants are familiar to past Carnival guests; the teppanyaki, sushi and steakhouse venues performed especially well for an inaugural cruise, genuinely friendly and well-trained staff included. The one new concept, Il Viaggio, offers a twist to fine Italian dining in that the menu showcases distinct culinary regions of Italy “one plate at a time.” The $42 per adult upcharge gets an antipasti plate (try the flavorful meatballs, skip the soggy and oily fritto misto); zuppa or insalate (the barley soup with smoked ham is sublime); a secondi (the beef striploin or pappardelle with pork ragu are solid entrée choices), and a meal-capping dolce (leave the tart, take the cannoli).

Waterslides are part of “Fun, Italian Style” onboard Carnival Firenze, now sailing out of Long Beach. (Photo by David Dickstein)

The Carnival WaterWorks park on Firenze is wetter and wilder than what was on the ship in her former Costa days. The multi-level slides are such good, clean fun. During the brand transformation, Carnival added two hot tubs to the premium digs for Terrazza guests, matching what is offered in the exclusive (read: pricier) Havana neighborhood on most other Vista-class ships. Recreation without chlorine includes a ropes course, jogging track, cornhole, mini-golf course, basketball court and a well-equipped fitness center that adjoins a full-service spa.

The onboard entertainment and activities are diverse with offerings for all ages and some for specific ages — from kid-centric Dr. Seuss programming to adults-only late-night comedy shows and the riotous, R-rated Carnival Quest scavenger hunt. Staged inside the large Theatro Rosso are song-and-dance shows featuring music from — shocker — the past 10 years (there’s just so many salutes to Motown, ‘60s and power ballads one can take), but “Color My World” is one production that gets dragged down by slow numbers that, at least on the inaugural cruise, seemed to fall flat with passengers who by 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. already had a full day of sun, outdoor fun, eating, drinking, game playing, eating, exploring, eating, eating and eating.

Carnival’s new Fun Ship on the dock joins two others with year-round cruises to Mexico from Long Beach. The cruise line projects that the 200-plus sailings scheduled at the port next year will draw more than 750,000 total passengers to Firenze, the 5,146-passenger Panorama and 3,873-capacity Radiance. That’s over 100,000 more compared to 2019, years before Firenze and Venezia were even a twinkle in Carnival’s eye.

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