It's always 5 o'clock on Margaritaville at Sea's new Islander cruise ship: What it’s like

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The door to my cabin had barely closed behind me when I saw the first margarita of my Margaritaville at Sea cruise. Or the recipe for one, at least.

On a shelf, “Margaritaville: The Cookbook: Relaxed Recipes for a Taste of Paradise” was opened to a recipe for “Jimmy’s Perfect Margarita.” Suddenly, a refreshment sounded quite good.

Luckily, I was in the right place aboard the line’s new ship, Margaritaville at Sea Islander, which has 13 bars and lounges. What better way to set my proverbial watch to “Islander time”? (“Welcome to Islander time” is an official greeting on board).

I spent two nights aboard the 2,650-passenger vessel ahead of its first official sailing for the line on Friday. Here’s what stood out to me.

The ship has more than a dozen bars and lounges.
The ship has more than a dozen bars and lounges.

Jimmy Buffett is everywhere

As the man behind the Margaritaville empire, I expected some Jimmy Buffett references on board. But I was struck by how the line leaned in.

Buffett’s novel, “A Salty Piece of Land,” was on the coffee table in my Signature Grand Suite, and a sign on the wall displayed the lyrics to his song “Lovely Cruise.” The words “I’m sorry it’s ended, it’s sad but it’s true / Honey, it’s been a lovely cruise” seem even more poignant after his death last year.

Elsewhere the nods were less subtle, with multiple flip-flop art pieces featuring the musician’s face and two Jimmy Buffett concerts listed on the ship’s schedule during the first day alone.

The bed in a Signature Grand Suite on Islander.
The bed in a Signature Grand Suite on Islander.

The brand’s appeal goes beyond his fans, however. Margaritaville at Sea CEO Christopher Ivy said the line tries to celebrate the ethos the singer represented (he even recently interacted with a guest who didn’t know who Buffett was).

“It's become much more broad, and we try to bring that through,” he said during a media briefing on board. “So, if you're a fan, great, but the catalog and the lifestyle behind it, we try to really make resonate.”

But even as a casual Buffett listener – don’t come for me, Parrotheads – I enjoyed the effect like he was our honorary co-captain.

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The ship got a Margaritaville makeover

Islander is new to Margaritaville, but it’s not new. The vessel, which previously sailed as Costa Atlantica, was originally launched in 2000.

The ship was renovated before relaunching as Islander this month, and the line blended updates with retro remnants of its former life. Ivy said there “are really no areas of the vessel that didn't have an extensive reimagining.”

The ship got a Margaritaville makeover before entering service as Islander.
The ship got a Margaritaville makeover before entering service as Islander.

Parrots and palm trees abound, from illustrations on the ship’s exterior to wallpaper in the halls, and a giant flip-flop anchors the ship’s soaring atrium (this proved a popular photo spot on my sailing). As the cruise director put it on stage one night, “We worship the flip-flop here on board.”

On the landings between staircases, signs read “Where it’s always 5 o’clock,” accompanied by images of clocks set to that time.

A transparent staircase connected decks nine and 10.
A transparent staircase connected decks nine and 10.

The ship generally looks good for its age, but some parts appeared well-worn. I noticed tarnished handles on multiple doors in my cabin, for instance. A striking set of transparent stairs connecting the Port of Indecision Buffet to the JWB Prime Steakhouse – allowing guests to see seven decks down beneath their feet – was also marred by scratches and scuff marks.

The inside of my suite generally looked clean and modern. The sinks were spotless and the lighted mirrors looked straight out of a newly build apartment.

The vibes are good

In addition to its bars and lounges, with 12 eateries and three pool areas – all doused in the sunny Margaritaville aesthetic – Islander felt like a vessel for fun (pun intended).

Even during the short preview cruise, there was excitement on board. Guests milled about and chatted at the Flip Flop Atrium bar to the soundtrack of a violin cover of Dua Lipa’s “Dance the Night.” During the country-themed show “Conky Tonkin’ at Sea,” aerial dancing was met with raucous applause and cheers, and mini-golf in the Dis and Dat Activity Zone was packed with adults and kids.

The LandShark Pool aboard Islander.
The LandShark Pool aboard Islander.

The Ultimate Beverage Chill package, which includes drinks like beer, wine by the glass, cocktails, soda, mocktails and more, costs $59.99 per person, per night. There is also an Unlimited Soda Package available for $10 per night, per guest.

The ship will sail four- and five-night itineraries round trip from Tampa, Florida to destinations like Key West and Cozumel, Mexico, before launching longer six and seven-night cruises in 2025. Prices vary by sailing date and stateroom category, but a four-night cruise departing July 26 currently starts at $349 per person. Fares include most meals, live entertainment and more.

The country-themed "Conky Tonkin' at Sea" show features live music, aerial dance and more.
The country-themed "Conky Tonkin' at Sea" show features live music, aerial dance and more.

Margaritaville at Sea CMO Amanda Travaglini said the brand aims to communicate a simple message.

“It really boils down to, I want people to look at what we do and very simply say, ‘That looks like a heck of a lot of fun, and I need to be there.’”

The reporter on this story received access to this event from Margaritaville at Sea. USA TODAY maintains editorial control of content.

Nathan Diller is a consumer travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Nashville. You can reach him at

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: New Margaritaville at Sea cruise ship isn't just for Jimmy Buffet fans