Cruise ship review: Jimmy Buffett’s laidback vibe celebrated on new Margaritaville at Sea Islander

Jimmy Buffett sings his hit song “Margaritaville” from a jumbo movie screen on the cruise ship top deck. Passengers cheer him with cold drinks while some shout “Fins up” while clasping two hands atop their heads for the traditional Parrothead salute.

Although the beloved singer, songwriter, musician, author and businessman died Sept. 1, 2023, at age 76 after a long fight with a rare skin cancer, Buffett’s legacy continues to grow. A new ship in his Margaritaville at Sea cruise line was launched June 11 in Tampa, Florida.

Named Margaritaville at Sea Islander, the ship joins sister vessel Margaritaville at Sea Paradise which cruises out of West Palm Beach, Florida. Befitting her name, the new Islander is filled with Buffett music and island touches.

Excellent bartender Joselito serves a Flip Flop cocktail in the Flip Flop Bar.

Stepping onboard, I’m greeted with a huge 14-foot flip-flop sculpture with a pop-top under it in the main ship lobby. The sculpture is a reference to Margaritaville lyrics, “Stepped on a pop-top, blew out my flip-flop.” A welcoming sign notes “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” and another offers cruisers a “License to chill, and I believe I will.”

Honoring lines in Jimmy Buffett’s ‘Margaritaville’ song, a 14-foot flip-flop sculpture with a pop-top under it is a popular photo stop.

After all, this ship is a tribute to Buffett with lively beach colors, bold dramatic style, delicious Caribbean cuisine, creative cocktails and energetic entertainment. The ship has an appealing airy feeling with expansive windows, glass elevators that zoom up to Deck 10 and sweeping staircases.

Above the main lobby, a replica of Buffett’s own personal seaplane soars along with lovely margarita-glass chandeliers, floating fish and parrots galore. Buffett was a licensed commercial pilot and his aircraft Hemisphere Dancer was central to the action in his best-selling memoir “A Pirate Looks at Fifty.”

The plane also reminded me of the now-poignant words that Buffett sang: “Way up high, I feel free on those wings you can’t see.”

A replica of Jimmy Buffett’s own personal seaplane soars with gigantic parrots to the top of the ship. 

I could write a guidebook about all the Buffett treasures on the new ship. But cruisers don’t have to be Parrotheads to enjoy Islander. The cruise ship is a pleasure for folks who may not know much about the man who portrayed a lifestyle described as “island escapism.”

Old ship renovated for new use

 I did say this is a “new” ship. But the ship is actually 24 years old. It was originally built in 2000 as the former Costa Atlantica and underwent an extensive $150 million transformation.

“Essentially every space on this vessel was relatively touched. There are really no areas of the vessel that didn’t have an extensive reimagining,” said Christopher Ivy, CEO of Margaritaville at Sea. “I love the layout of this vessel…It is really unique, a fun ship to be on.”

One of three pool areas on the Islander, the Tiki Pool is adults only.

Spanning 12 decks with 1,100 staterooms, the Islander features 12 eateries plus 13 bars and lounges, each with its own cocktail menu.

Islander is sparkling clean with colorful island vibe.

At the heart of the Islander’s soaring 14-story atrium, the Flip Flop Bar serves signature cocktails as well as having a stage behind the bar for entertainment. Bartender Joselito is an expert at frozen concoctions and other divine drinks. One of the most popular, he notes, is the Flip Flop cocktail, a combo of Margaritaville Silver Rum, pineapple, agave, lime and Blue Curacao for $13.

Islander also has a casino, theater, three swimming pool areas, spa, kids’ clubs, arcades, hot tubs, fitness center, shops and plenty of quiet spaces to soak up the Caribbean sun. Games and activities include corn hole, mini-golf, pickleball, scavenger hunts, craft classes, karaoke, line dance and salsa dance classes and much more.

Bright and sparkly glass elevators zoom up to Deck 10.

Jimmy Buffett concerts are shown twice a day on the jumbo screen as well as regularly on stateroom televisions. Plenty of live music can be heard around the ship – a solo violinist, guitar player, ship band, steelpan player, pianist and more.

New ‘Conky Tonkin’ country music show in Stars on the Water Theater.

Two new musical programs are produced live on the cruise in the Stars on the Water Theater (named for Buffett’s 1983 country rock hit). The stage shows are Caribbean Heat Remix and Conky Tonkin’ (the original name for Buffett and Kenny Chesney’s 2004 “License to Chill” hit).   

              

Soaring high above the audience, aerial dancers and acrobats are a popular part of the ‘Conky Tonkin’ show.

Serving as godmother of the Islander is Buffett’s oldest daughter, Savannah, who spent much of her childhood traveling on seaplanes, sailboats and tour buses with her father. She also co-authored two children’s books with her father, “Jolly Mon” and “Trouble Dolls.”

Hitting the road for song in ship’s new production of ‘Conky Tonkin’ with fun Fins Up license plate.

“Bubbles up. Cheers to many a lovely cruise,” Savannah Buffett said at the ship’s christening. “To the winds in our hair and margaritas in our shoes, fins up forever.”

Budget-friendly cruise line

The 2,650-passenger Islander sails four- and five-night round-trip cruises from Tampa with stops in Key West, Cozumel and Progreso, Mexico. In 2025, the ship will launch longer six- and seven-night cruises that will include Belize.

The budget-friendly cruise line offers special fares starting at $229 per person this summer which includes meals and live entertainment. Drinks cost extra with cocktails around $12.  An Unlimited Soda Package costs $10 per night per guest. The Ultimate Beverage Chill package for cocktails, beer, wine and soda is $59.99 per person per night.

Lovely Coral Reef Lounge features a beneath-the-sea motif.

“We do get a lot of new people to cruising,” said Amanda Travaglini, chief marketing officer for Margaritaville at Sea. “A two-night cruise on the Paradise is unusual and is a good opportunity for people to test their toes in the water for cruising.”

The short inexpensive cruises also are a draw for repeat cruisers who are looking for a brief getaway without having to stay at a costly hotel, pay for restaurant dining and find high-priced live entertainment shows. It’s all on Islander at one reasonable price.

Having a friendly hospitable crew is an important ingredient in any successful cruise line, Christopher Ivy added, and Islander definitely has a top-notch crew. “What resonates with guests is the crew. It can be a beautiful ship but hospitality is really what brings the ship to life.”

All the staterooms were fully redesigned with new furnishings, including Margaritaville’s signature bedding, pillow, linens and toiletries. My stateroom was large and comfortable with a queen-size bed, long sofa, chair, coffee table, mini fridge, lighted desk, big flat-screen TV, safe, closets and plenty of storage space.

My stateroom on Margaritaville at Sea Islander with the biggest private balcony I’ve ever had on a cruise.

The cabin décor features sea and beach colors and paintings. The bathroom was compact with adequate counter space and a small tubular-shaped shower with a shower curtain.

The bed and pillows were super comfy and the white coverlet had a nice touch – embossed parrots. A little boy on my cruise told me the parrots glowed in the dark and sang him to sleep at night. Don’t know about that.

But what I liked best about my stateroom was the balcony. The largest I’ve ever had on a cruise ship, my balcony had two chairs and a table plus two loungers and a table. The expansive balcony doors and window next to my bed let me fall asleep with the sights and sounds of the ocean.

Dining options

Dining is an important part of any cruise and Margaritaville at Sea Islander offers many tasty options. The ship has five complimentary dining spots – Mexican Cutie Cantina, Cheeseburger in Paradise Burger Bar, Fins Dining Room, Port of Indecision buffet (for breakfast, lunch and dinner) and Frank and Lola’s Pizzeria.

Cheeseburger in Paras

Named for lines of Jimmy Buffett’s song in the album “Last Mango in Paris,” Frank and Lola’s has the best pizza I’ve ever enjoyed on any cruise ship. Crisp tasty crust, not too thin and not too thick, yummy sauce, generous cheese and pepperoni. Baked just right.

Décor in the main dining rooms offers wonderful wide windows, lovely chandeliers and soothing blue and gold colors with large seascape paintings.

Specialty dining for an extra charge are Far Side Sushi, Island Eats, Tiki Bar, Margaritaville Coffee Shop, Islander Dining Room and JWB Prime Steakhouse. For $55, the JWB (James William Buffett) Prime Steakhouse has a large menu with seafood, steak, lamb and pork. The key lime pie was my favorite dessert.

The greatest compliment any cruise ship can have? When passengers book another cruise while they are still onboard the ship. Judging from people on my cruise, the new Islander is a winner and does Jimmy Buffett proud.

Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch

Cover ship photo courtesy of Margaritaville at Sea

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