Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Carnival Cruise in the Western Caribbean

My wife and I booked one of those supposedly deep discounted Caribbean cruises this fall. We spent a week on board Carnival Pride. The ship seems huge, although it is not by any means in the largest class. Ten story elevators transport 2000 passengers, with one bank of three elevators glassed in, providing a multi-story view. Décor reminds me of Las Vegas- a little glitzy, nothing understated, but pleasant enough.

Initial reactions to the food yielded some misgivings. For lunch, about a dozen stations follow various themes- burgers, tacos and burritos, Chinese, Italian, a salad bar, a deli, a carving station. The salad bar is pretty much like any other. A grilled Reuben from the deli came on nicely grilled bread with good rye flavor, but the meat was fatty-soft.

There are bars all over the ship. We bought an inclusive package, which covered all sodas and alcohol, up to 15 alcoholic beverages in a 24 hour period. I would not do that again. It added over $800 to the bill, and there was no way we would drink that much. We tried a couple of the bars on the first afternoon. My tequila drink tasted like chemicals and water, plus sugar, with mild fruity flavor. Dale’s “tea” was a lot better- mostly fruit and citrus flavors, followed by liquors.

We chose dinner at the Steakhouse, mainly because the meal included a free bottle of wine for first night guests. The menu is steakhouse-conservative. A shrimp cocktail turned out to be one of the best we’ve ever had- large shrimp in citrus marinade, mesclun greens, and a horseradish cocktail sauce. Crab cake was good, too- lump crabmeat, enough breading to hold it together, solid crab flavor, augmented by mild remoulade. Tuna tartare used good quality tuna, with almost all gristle trimmed out, seasoned with a little garlic. Caesar salad was prepared tableside. Steaks were disappointing, though. Meats were beautifully displayed on a trolley, but what we were served did not match up to what we were shown. Filet mignon was gristly-chewy; ribeye bore a texture more like NY Strip, not marbled, with only mild flavor. Portions were big- over a pound. Both were cooked slightly more than ordered. The steakhouse added a $35 per person supplement. We did not go back.

The Carnival website provides good photos of the rooms. We booked one of the lower priced cabins, one step above the lowest, with an outside veranda. It turned out to be large enough, well arranged, and we liked the balcony. An accommodating guest services agent let us visit an unoccupied ocean suite, and if we took another cruise on Carnival, I would think seriously about that upgrade.

The first day’s safety drill was held about an hour later than scheduled. At muster, I asked a crew member which lifeboat we should get in. It was obvious that he did not understand what I was asking, due to limited English proficiency. He looked at my room card, shrugged, said we were station “B,” which we knew, and that’s where we were standing. He looked around and replied, “They’re all OK.” Which I guess is actually the arrangement. A misgiving- I can imagine the chaos that could ensue if hundreds of people tried to board the lifeboat of their choice in a real emergency. While we were waiting, a guy nearby pointed out that the sound system was playing “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” He commented, “I like Gordon Lightfoot, but if they play the theme from Titanic, I’m outa here.”

The more acquainted we became with the ship and its amenities, however, the more we liked it.

Lunch in the taco-burrito bar used quality pulled pork and chicken, with myriad serve yourself condiments, all tasty. Pizza was good, and you can get pizza just about all day or night. We especially enjoyed fresh roasted turkey from the carving station. The real winner was Guy Fieri’s Burger Bar- excellent, hand packed patties, and fresh cut French fries. Lesson learned- if you choose well, the food is good.

Dinner on all subsequent nights was good, too. You can schedule a reservation in advance or take open seating. You have an assigned table, so you get to know your waiter well. Food and wine service were excellent, and that’s not a word I use casually. Wines by the glass are very good and reasonably priced- most below $10, and those above that price point were well worth it. They top out around $12. Bottle selections are quite reasonable as well. Reinforced conclusion- just buy your alcohol one drink at a time or splurge a bit for a bottle at dinner. This kitchen is at its best with comfort food- slowly braised meats and chicken, for example, or lasagna. And they are very flexible. If you want a couple of appetizers instead of an entrée, that’s fine.

We did not try room service. Only sandwiches are available. A mild disappointment.

A ship this size provides more entertainment opportunities than smaller ships. We went to the comedy club every night after dinner. The stand-ups weren’t just good, they were hilarious. I worried about whiplash as I watched my wife slashing back and forth, she was laughing so hard. They change out comics in every port, moving them from one ship to another, so there is a fresh act every night. Music was quite good, too, in several venues from singers in a bar to a show tunes ensemble on stage.

As far as ports go, in the Caribbean, I am coming to the conclusion that it almost doesn’t matter. We stopped in Cozumel, Belize, Isla Roatan in Honduras, and Grand Cayman. In each location, and in all the other Caribbean ports we’ve been to, there is a nice beach side shopping area with duty free goods. But you have to know what you’re buying. I found that liquor prices ranged from about 30 percent less than what I see at home to about 30 percent more. I’ve never seen what I considered a good buy in wine at any shop in the Caribbean. Jewelry- well, not my thing, anyway, although this seems to be the real specialty. If you plan to shop, check local prices and internet prices before you go, and compare. Don’t assume duty free means lower prices.

You can buy tours of the ports. But a ship hostess cautioned that venturing out on your own might not be such a good idea, at least not walking around in towns. There are plenty of rental cars, so you could explore the islands if you wanted to. Grand Cayman is much more modern- think Myrtle Beach or Miami, without high rise buildings- with traffic going in the wrong direction. Some other Caribbean islands route traffic to the left, too, if they were formerly British colonies. Don’t plan to drive unless you’ve figured this out.

The main reason to take a Caribbean cruise is to enjoy the ship. And we did. Carnival touts their “fun ships” and I think they have that fun thing pretty well figured out. We found ourselves comparing the Carnival experience to another Caribbean cruise we took on a small, “boutique ship” on one of the all-inclusive, premium lines. I’m not saying Carnival is just as good. It’s not. But it is very enjoyable, entertainment is better, and Carnival costs a lot less. You could take at least two, probably three cruises on Carnival for the price of the premium lines. A very attractive alternative.

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