Monday, September 21, 2015
Bigger isn’t better: New England and Canada on Carnival Splendor
My wife and I booked a New England and Canada cruise on Carnival Splendor, after enjoying a Caribbean experience on Carnival Pride. (See my review at http://johnbatchelordiningandtravel.blogspot.com/2015/01/a-carnival-cruise-in-western-caribbean.html.) We were attracted by the relatively low price as well as the itinerary: New York to Boston; Portland, ME; Halifax, Nova Scotia; and St. John, New Brunswick; back to New York. Other people have written more and better about the destinations; I will concentrate on experiences aboard ship.
Splendor, according to a handout from Carnival, is in the upper range of the line’s ships. The list showed 5 larger ships, 19 smaller, although 5 of those, the Conquest class, also hold close to 3,000 passengers, a size similar to Splendor. The big ship negotiates the water very well. Early in the week, moving at nearly 20 knots into a 40 knot headwind with whitecaps as far as I can see, there is little motion on board.
I heard a Customer Relations officer tell several guests that this cruise is fully booked- approximately 3,100 guests. (Pride, in the Spirit class, carries about 2,000.) Our first impression: Splendor is much more crowded than Pride. Lines of 8-10 people waiting to get water or tea (self-service) at lunch, similar lines to get food at cafeteria style serving stations. Whereas Pride’s Guy Fieri Burger Bar impressed us with hand-packed patties and fresh cut French fries, burgers and fries on Splendor looked and tasted like a frozen product- firmer patties, weaker beef flavor, fries with only mild potato flavor. Good, fresh vegetable preparations in the Italian buffet section, though, and good chicken and shrimp burritos, which we had also enjoyed on Pride.
First night’s dinner impression- a really weak menu. My wife and I both chose salads for a first course- chilled and fresh, but small. She got braised beef brisket- tender but lots of fat; root vegetables consisted mostly of potatoes, flanked by a scoop of mashed potatoes. I got sausage and linguine with tomato sauce, which contained four pieces of Italian sausage. Breakfast the next morning- I got up early enough to avoid a crowd, but “background music” was already too loud for me at 6 a.m. A wide range of morning offerings. Missing- smoked salmon, although there were plenty of breakfast meats and cheeses. As it turned out, breakfast was the only consistently positive meal experience of the week.
The first day/night got off to a bad start, even before the disappointing dinner. I read the FAQs and Carnival contract long before packing. Cruise documents state that each guest is allowed to bring one bottle of wine on board, for consumption in the stateroom, or with a $10-$14 corkage fee if you want to have it in one of the restaurants. When our luggage did not arrive in our room after several hours, we asked our steward for help (cabin stewards are great, btw- on both ships). He immediately asked if we had any alcohol in our bags, then directed us to go to Security. There, we were informed that Carnival prohibits bringing alcohol on board in luggage. We were directed to remove the offending bottles (one in each suitcase). They gave us a receipt and advised that both would be destroyed the next day. No returns allowed. Polite but firm. “Nothing we can do.” I noticed a stack of other impounded bags.
I discussed the issue further with Guest Relations. A very polite officer printed a copy of the policy and contract, after I insisted, and we read it together. According to their interpretation, alcohol is permitted in carry-on luggage, but not in checked luggage. I asked to meet with the Guest Relations manager. After more discussion, she offered to send a bottle of Champagne to our room as compensation for the two bottles that were confiscated. I thought that was reasonable. After re-reading the policy, I still do not find it clear. I would point out that Carnival’s procedure is the opposite of airlines policy, and it also seems to me that if alcohol is permitted in carry-on luggage, in order to ensure verification, after I removed it in front of security, they could have verified it and sent me on my way. In retrospect, Carnival could avoid the problem completely by simply stating that bringing alcohol on board is not allowed. Then I would have known better. As it is, this policy seems to me to be an invitation to conflict.
Here’s hoping the next few days go better. A lot better. We are in an Ocean Suite. We had a veranda suite on Pride, but OS is a lot better and well worth the price difference. Of course, it’s not as nice as staying home, which after the first day/night, is where we wish we were.
After a couple of days, food not improved. Lunch/Brunch in the restaurant is mediocre at best- dryish, overcooked salmon, served barely lukewarm, with a dab of tiny diced peppers with butter, a few pieces of an almost tasteless, room temperature potato casserole alongside; eggs benedict with a strange hollandaise sauce that tasted more of chemicals than fresh egg yolk and butter. Dismayed, we ate dinner Monday night in port- Boston- and lunch Tuesday in port in Portland, Maine. A frozen margarita on board ship in mid-afternoon tasted very sweet, with a chemical aftertaste. (Doubt I’m getting vitamin C from fresh lime juice.) Dinner Tuesday night on board ship- dismal. First courses: very weak flavored, limp shrimp in shrimp cocktail, lots of black beans in chicken quesadilla, two salads. Dry, tough, overcooked pork loin and short ribs (menu word) that consisted of sliced roast beef, dry and firm, with an old beef flavor. Good green beans, barely warm fried rice. Waiter offered to bring something else, but we had had enough. An ongoing impression of crowded spaces- my wife and I have to turn sideways to negotiate a path between tables in the restaurant.
Décor in Splendor’s public spaces, especially the restaurants, looks weird to me. Gaudy Gaudi. Elongated horn of plenty constructs spewing balls. Gray and pink color scheme. Everywhere you go, somebody is trying to sell you something. To get anywhere, you have to walk a gauntlet of hawkers. On the other hand, if you like to play games- Trivia, Bingo, etc.- there are lots of opportunities, and we see clusters of people concentrating on their boards and/or listening intently to the caller.
Comedy Club was a big draw for us, based on our Pride experience. But no shows early in the week until 11:30 p.m. Schedule moved up to 7:30 and 8:30 later for PG rated shows, and it’s good to see comedians who can be funny without being profane. Later shows on Wednesday night were adults only, and they were hilarious as well. These guys don’t just tell jokes. They show the humor in day to day situations, on board ship or wherever you are. Four nights of Comedy Club, all excellent. The highlight of the trip. Our favorite: Rob Little (www.roblittle.com)
Impressions of music are mixed. Some of these performers have difficulty carrying a tune accurately or singing on pitch. But others are really good, and the good ones develop a following early that lasts throughout the cruise. Best, according to my appraisal is Greg Aulden, who sings and plays acoustic guitar. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2PnvmQ4nz2k)
Fourth night dinner- finally, a decent meal. Broiled lobster tail and shrimp, on the menu each night for a $20 upcharge, was one of the no extra cost choices this evening. Not overcooked, a simple, buttery preparation. Lukewarm, dryish mashed potatoes and broccoli were the vegetables. Our other entrée selection was broiled red snapper- again, not overcooked, not fishy, another simple preparation with a bit of butter. Service much better than other nights, due to a different seating location with a different service team. I asked the team leader how we could be seated in her section again. She said, “Just ask at the desk.” “No,” was the reply, “you can’t reserve anything in advance, in this restaurant, everything is first come, first served.” So, for prospective Carnival passengers- I would recommend choosing the reserved seating instead of open seating. We got in line early
on subsequent evenings in order to get the seating we wanted.
Cabin stewards not only do their jobs really well, they are just a friendly, happy presence. But most other personnel have a different persona compared to Pride. On Pride, everybody seemed to push the envelope to ensure guest comfort and enjoyment. I remarked that Carnival seemed to have that “fun thing” figured out. But on Splendor, it’s as if managers/officers have been trained to tell you through a smile that there’s nothing that can be done if you are not pleased. Dissatisfaction is your fault and it’s your problem. I had another issue with Customer Relations- charged three times for excursion tickets, credited back once, so still double charged. “I can help you,” replied the very nice lady at the desk. I realized after a few more comments that she meant “I can’t help you” but her articulation in English did not allow the “not” contraction to come through. “Come back at 6 tonight when the excursion desk is open.” We did. They fixed it.
Fifth night dinner not up to par again. My wife ordered lobster tail, based on previous entrée, but tonight’s serving was overcooked and tough, at $20 extra. I ordered braised lamb loin. Even after I peeled away the tough outer gristle and fat, this was tough and chewy and dry. Just poor quality meat. First courses were better- a really good chilled peach soup, and spinach salad with sliced Portobello mushrooms. Fried shrimp were gummy, devoid of quality flavor. I returned my lamb and got beef stroganoff. Small, thin pieces of beef, pasta alongside, swirled in sour cream- mediocre, but edible.
Sixth night dinner somewhat better. A baked white fish with marinara sauce and black olives plus a few capers, for one entrée, broiled large tiger shrimp with tomato sauce, the other. The white fish was touted as a competition winner. Let me assure you, it was not one of the competitions that I have judged, but it was better than most of what we have had. Chilled seafoods appetizer- one small, limp shrimp, very weak flavor, tastes like a frozen product; tuna ceviche- pretty good; and smoked salmon- also pretty good. Aioli and cocktail sauce alongside. Chilled soups are very tasty- peach one night, corn another. Dessert, listed as “Baked Alaska,” is pitiful- chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream of poor quality with a thin meringue on top, sliced and served on its side.
Lunch on the last day, a sea day: Pizza turns out to be the best food on the ship. Flavorful crust, quality cheeses, moderate acid tomato sauce, good quality pepperoni. Poor Reuben sandwich- gristly, tough corned beef. Dinner: We got our hopes up for a good last meal when we tasted the crab cake appetizer- the only thing I have had on the ship that compares favorably to dishes I have rated 2-3 stars in my reviews. An arugula salad was fine, too. But entrees got back to normal, with panko crusted jumbo shrimp turning out to be what appeared to me to be a processed product that might have had shrimp in its heritage but bore neither the taste nor texture of real shrimp. Baked mahi mahi was served lukewarm, roasted potatoes actually cool to the touch. A small ramekin of spinach was decorated with a black olive.
I often speak to civic clubs that meet at Golden Corral. Food on Splendor reminds me of what I encounter in those locations, at least as far as style, but I think the quality of ingredients at Golden Corral is better.
If you can’t enjoy the ship, you can’t enjoy the trip. Although I would give good marks to Splendor for accommodations and entertainment, I considered the food among the worst dining experiences in my life, and I’ve been writing about restaurants for 35 years. Our experience on Pride encouraged us to book on Splendor. Our experience on Splendor ensures we will never book again on Splendor or any other large Carnival ship and makes us reluctant to consider Carnival again at all.