Gated Cabin Communities

Is this the future of cruising?

Themed groups of cabins are nothing new (think spa cabins), and neither is the concept of exclusive “neighborhoods” on ships with restricted access (for example, the Haven Courtyard on some Norwegian ships or Disney’s concierge lounges) but the idea has been expanding as cruise lines target passengers who share particular characteristics or want particular amenities. Now Carnival is joining the trend in a big way with its Havana and Family Harbor sections.

I just recently returned home after ten days on Carnival’s newest and biggest cruise ship, the Vista. At 133,500 gross tons, she is a beautiful piece of engineering, and unlike the Dream class ships (previously Carnival’s largest), didn’t feel crowded most of the time despite accommodating more than 4000 passengers.

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In many ways, Vista’s layout and design are very similar to the Dream class – but in other ways, she’s very different. One of the biggest differences lies in her two new “gated communities,” the collection of Havana cabins that are (mostly) on deck 5 and the Family Harbor area on deck 2. These two special groups of cabins are aimed to two very different types of customers, but they have one thing in common: booking one gives you membership in an exclusive “club” with amenities and perks designed to make you feel special. And they do just that.

Havana Cabanas: Adult (sort of) Getaway

The Havana area is arranged around a pool at the aft of the ship on deck 5 that’s open only to Havana guests until 7 p.m. (after which the general public is allowed in). As the name implies, the decor is built around a Cuban theme (possibly in anticipation of cruises to that island if and when the U.S. opens up travel for tourism there). There are two large hot tubs in the pool area, and fake palm trees and thatched-roof huts for shade, with very nice seating.

Havana guests wear a wristband that grants them access to the area during the day, and no children under 12 years of age can stay in Havana staterooms (which can be a big plus for passengers who are bothered by little ones running in the hallways or crying in the cabin next door).

There is a certain segment of Carnival cruisers who have been clamoring for the past few years for adults-only cruises. As a company that bills itself as a “family cruise line,” the powers that be have naturally been reluctant to take that step, but the Havana area is an obvious compromise solution that will provide those customers with a child-free “cruise within a cruise” environment.

There is a bar in the Havana pool area, and there is also an indoor bar that’s always open to everyone. It features special Cuban style snacks, Cuban coffee and cocktails (at an extra charge). There are also numerous small, delightfully decorated Cuban-themed sitting areas where bar patrons can enjoy those goodies.

There’s live entertainment there in the evenings – a bonus for partiers, but some have said it can present a noise problem for those in the Havana cabins that back up to the bar (which include the beautiful but very pricey Havana Suites).

The Havana cabanas, suites and interior cabins are located in the aft area of deck 5 (which is also the promenade deck that holds many of the ship’s entertainment, dining and drinking venues). I’ve heard mixed reviews from those who stayed there on Vista’s European inaugural season cruises. However, this may not be a fair assessment, since it seems to me this area was designed more for the type of cruises Vista will be sailing once she settles in her home port of Miami – that is, Caribbean cruises.

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Havana cabana (Photo by Joey Guastavino)

Even in Europe, many people loved these cabins and raved about them. But some had concerns. The complaints I heard included:

  • that the patios – which are deep and very nicely appointed with plenty of room for lounges and swinging chairs – lack privacy (there is a walkway in front of them where other Havana guests can walk at any time and the public can walk in the evenings),
  • that your view of the ocean is inferior to that in a regular balcony cabin or even an ocean view, because of the walkway and a windshield between the patios and the water,
  • because the patio railings are low, anyone could step over it into your patio (and I did hear at least one report of this happening),
  • the noise from the band late at night, especially the bass, and
  • the price, which for a Havana cabana – about the same size as a regular balcony – the cost per person is several hundred dollars  more. On a random 8 day southern Caribbean sailing in March, at the time of this writing the pricing for a regular balcony was $1604, whereas the price for a Havana balcony was $2004. In a double occupancy cabin, that amounts to a total difference of $800.

Nonetheless, for those who have the money, the extra cost may be worth it, especially if you’re a “lay out by the pool” type of person. While you sacrifice some measure of privacy for exclusivity, you get easy access to the Havana bar, the Lanai and the public areas on deck 5, as well as a great pool area, and some really nice cabins – especially if you have the big bucks it takes to stay in a Havana suite.

And I do mean big bucks. On a 7 day western Caribbean sailing in December, one of the four Havana suites will set you back a whopping $3304 per person, or $6873 for a twosome. That’s a lot to pay for a one-week Caribbean cruise on Carnival. In fact, I’m looking right now at a 7 day Caribbean cruise on luxury line Regent Seven Seas that’s $2999 per person for a deluxe veranda suite, and it includes free roundtrip air fare, free unlimited shore excursions, free wi-fi and free beverages, including alcohol.

For loyal Carnival customers, though (and there are a lot of us out there), a Havana suite has a lot to offer beyond the amenities that all Havana area guests get and takes your experience into a realm that’s more comparable with a luxury cruise line in terms of the accommodations, if not the “extras.”There are many who sail Carnival for its “for fun’s sake” atmosphere, and the luxury lines – with their smaller ships and older demographic – don’t offer that.

In the Havana suites, there are two separate areas for sleeping and sitting, and both have TVs. If you’re traveling as a couple or with a cabin mate, you can truly spread out and each have space to do your own thing.

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The Havana suites are 260 square feet for the cabin, with a 100 square foot patio (same size patio as regular Havana balconies, which have 185 square foot cabins). It’s not as spacious as, say, a Captain’s suite on a Conquest class ship (which generally costs somewhere around the same), nor does it have that incredible “almost like on the bridge’ view, but its furnishings are generally nicer and it has a different “feel” from the typical suite.

The bathroom features a big rain shower, which is very nice, and special toiletries (similar to the spa cabins), which all Havana guests get.

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All Havana passengers also get embroidered bathrobes, so that if they decide to foray through the Lanai in their robes at night, everyone will know how special they are  – just in case the wristband isn’t high profile enough. (Insert smiley emoticon here). Unfortunately, those bathrobes are the same color as you’re used to in all the cabins: white (rather than pretty colors like the ones you get in the Family Harbor cabins).

Originally all Havana cabins were to be on deck 5, but due to the popularity of the concept, Carnival added the deck 6 and 7 aft extended balcony and premium vista (wrap-around) balcony cabins to the Havana category.

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According to the Carnival Vista 2016 Commemorative Inaugural Book, the Havana cabins and public areas were designed by Carnival’s own design department.

♦♦♦

A “Safe Harbor” for Families – and Others

When I booked the final Mediterranean cruise on Vista, it was 627 days before the sailing on October 11, 2016. At that time, I thought I’d be going solo – albeit with dozens of good friends who were also booking the cruise – so I grabbed a category 4J cabin, which is classified as an interior/picture window with walkway view.

I had never stayed in a true windowless interior cabin (and still haven’t), but I’d had a 4J before and loved it. These cabins look out on a “secret deck” at the front of the ship, which have an access door in the hallway so that you sort of have your own huge (shared) balcony. Said “balcony” isn’t as useful as it might be when the ship is underway, since it gets very windy out there – but that also results in fewer strangers out there peeking into your window. And that window is sufficient to keep my touch of claustrophobia (the reason I don’t book real interiors) at bay.

I had booked cabin 92o2, which, although it didn’t have a sofa, would have plenty of room for me.dscn2274

Then, many months prior to sailing, something wonderful happened: My daughter, who was about to get out of the Navy, found out her schedule would allow her to go on the cruise with me. And shortly after that, thanks to the economic upheaval in Greece and terrorist activities in Turkey – both on our itinerary – there were a number of cancellations and prices dropped. That meant I was able to upgrade to a Family Harbor deluxe oceanview cabin for only a few dollars per person more.

I had been intrigued by the idea of the Family Harbor area from the time it was announced, but yeah, I’m getting old and set in my ways and didn’t really want to be surrounded by a bunch of screaming little kids. However, I knew that this cruise was likely to have far fewer children aboard than when Vista got to the U.S. It was happening in the fall, when school was in session, and it was sailing in Europe; most American families wouldn’t want to or couldn’t afford to fly their little ones overseas. If I was going to try out the Family Harbor area, this was the time to do it.

So I switched my booking to cabin 2489, a category FJ. Although the Family Harbor designation was new to Vista, I’d stayed in deluxe OV cabins before on the Dream class. These cabins have the distinction of having two bathrooms – or rather, one and two thirds baths. There’s a standard cruise cabin bathroom with a sink, toilet and shower, and then there’s a second separate room that has a small tub (with shower) and sink. These are great when you have two people getting dressed for the day or for dinner at the same time.

The Family Harbor area is set up to make it convenient for both parents and kids, and the two bathrooms is only one part of that. Just as the focal point of the Havana area is its pool area, the Family Harbor section centers around the Family Harbor Lounge. Unlike with Havana, the corridors to the FH cabins don’t have restricted access, but the lounge does. Only the key cards of guests who are in FH cabins will open its glass doors – although anybody walking by on deck 2 can see inside.

The Family Harbor Lounge is, to me, the best thing about booking one of these cabins. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it definitely exceeded my expectations. The lounge has two large sitting areas with L-shaped sectional sofas and TVs that are separated from the main room by partial walls. It’s a great place for parents to hang out while their kids are occupied with the computer and video games or while they chow down on offerings from the lounge’s buffet.

When you’re booked in a FH room, there’s little need to order room service or go up 8 floors to the Lido buffet. The small buffet in the lounge has everything most people will want: eggs, waffles, bacon, grits, fresh fruit, cereals, muffins, and a variety of breads.  There’s a juice dispenser, a fridge with milk and yogurt, regular coffeepots and one of those big fancy cappuccino/latte/espresso machines like you see in the airlines’ club lounges. This means parents (and other adults who are FH passengers) get their specialty coffee free instead of having to go to the Blue Java Cafe and pay extra for it.

During the middle of the day, if you or the kids get hungry, you still don’t have to leave deck 2. Just head to the lounge again and you’ll find more fruit, sandwiches and a variety of cakes and cookies for dessert. There’s also a Swirls soft-serve ice cream machine in the lounge that’s supposed to be available 24/7. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for my caloric intake), it broke on the second or third day of our cruise and was “out of service” the rest of the time.

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Carnival’s documentation also lists one of the lounge perks as a concierge always available to help you with whatever you need. In practice, I rarely saw anyone at that desk. The lounge does have a very cool “whirlpool” hand washing machine – something that’s also in the Lido buffet area and in the galley. I guess they finally got the message that those hand sanitizer dispensers don’t offer much protection against viral diseases and good old-fashioned soap and water still works best. I commend Carnival for this change and hope they’re eventually retrofitted to older ships in the fleet.

The Family Harbor cabins, like their Havana counterparts, have special decor that sets them apart from the rest of the ship’s cabins. While the colors are pastel and breezy in the Havana area, here they’re bright primary colors – blues and reds to echo Carnival’s trademark logo colors, with some yellow thrown in for fun, and the pillows and bed covers have nautical symbols on them.

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The FH area is confined to the aft and part of the mid-ship sections on deck 2. It consists of sixteen suites, four cove balconies, twenty-six deluxe oceanview, and sixteen regular oceanview cabins (some with obstructed views).

In my opinion, there is a little bit of a design flaw here in that the suites and coves – which are the most expensive FH cabins – are located underneath the galley area. This is a problem because some areas of the galley can be very noisy, and that noise goes on all night long. In fact, at one point I considered upgrading to a suite but didn’t because I didn’t want to risk being kept awake all night by banging pots and pans.

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Our deluxe OV and the regular OVs are beneath the aft main dining room, and we never heard a thing from overhead. The cabin’s large window has a very deep space that’s perfect for sitting. My daughter liked to sit in the window, pull the curtain, and have her own tiny private “room” for reading or listening to music or chatting over the ship’s Internet connection or just watching the ocean go by.

The Family Harbor suites are just as special as those in the Havana area, but in a different way. They also have separate sitting and sleeping areas. In this case, there’s a curtain that you can pull all the way around the sectional sofa (which turns into a bed), and once again, there are separate TVs for each area – although I think you would need to use earphones to use both at the same time since the sound would easily pass through the curtain. At any rate, it makes for some privacy for parents, or for that matter for couples or cabin mates who choose these suites.

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The FH suites, like the deluxe ocean views, have the almost-two bathrooms. They also have something else: a big walk-in closet. That’s another area where someone could hide out if they wanted more privacy, and the cove balcony gives you yet another separate area (which is far more private than the Havana cabanas’ and suites’ patios, although it’s also much smaller). As with all suites, you get priority check-in at embarkation.

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FH Suite balcony

Family Harbor amenities (for all FH cabins) include (for those who are traveling with young ones) free dinners for kids under 12 in the ship’s specialty restaurants such as the steakhouse, Cucina, or Ji Ji’s (when the parents eat there at regular prices – no, you can’t just send your 10-year-old up the Farenheit 555 to demand a free meal) and a free evening of Night Owl babysitting service.

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To me, one of the “little things” that made the FH experience nicer was, weirdly enough, the bathrobes. Weird because I have never, in the past fifteen cruises, worn the ugly white Carnival bathrobes. I hate the way it looks, the way it feels. But I loved these soft, pretty bathrobes (one red one and one blue one) in the FH cabin, and wore one almost every night. I even wore it to go down to the lounge and grab a last before-bed cup of coffee.

According to the Carnival Vista 2016 Commemorative Inaugural Book, the Family Harbor cabins and lounge were designed by a company called Partner Ship Design.

The Future of Exclusive Themed Cruise Ship “Neighborhoods”

Carnival ambassador/evangelist John Heald often polls the readers of his Facebook page to get an idea of what customers want, and we frequently see those desires become reality in some form or another later on. One of the reasons I love Carnival is because they listen to their customers. They don’t always give in to the demands (and I understand the business reasons for that) but by and large, it’s obvious that they care what we think and what we want.

This week, one of John’s questions had to do with what special cabin types cruisers would like to see on Carnival Horizon (“Vista’s Sista” that is under construction and scheduled to launch in 2018) and/or the “mega ships” that will come after her. One of the multiple choices was “More themed suites with extra luxuries.”

Obviously Carnival is thinking about going further in this direction in the future, and why not? On land, gated communities are all the rage – so it’s not surprising that this trend is also making its way onto the small floating cities that are today’s cruise ships.

The two new as-yet-unnamed ships that are under contract to be built after Horizon will be even larger (accommodating up to 5200 passengers, according to reports). That will mean an opportunity to build more of these special “neighborhoods.” Following the success of the Havana and Family Harbor areas on the Vista (both show few available cabins for currently scheduled cruises out of Miami), I can hardly wait to see what they come up with next.

Copyright 2016 Debra Littlejohn Shinder
Captioned photos copyright 2016 Joey Guastavino

About debshinder

Technology analyst and author, specializing in enterprise security. Author of or contributor to over 25 books, including "Scene of the Cybercrime." Fourteen-year Microsoft MVP, married to Microsoft FTE Tom Shinder, and proud mom of two wonderful grown-up human children and three amazing Japanese Chin pups. In my spare time, I love to travel - especially on cruise ships - and write about my grand adventures.
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