Rather than the usual attempts at half-assed narrative, I'm going to cover our EXCELLENT cruise on the Carnival Splendor one aspect at a time. That we'll start with food is just a big DUH.
We were so excited that the Splendor had a Tandoori Grill. Indian cuisine? Every day? Take me now, Jayzus. While Mike was up investing in a soda card (we had $240 of promotional onboard credit to be all splurgy about), I sat with our freshly piled plates, gazing out at the Queen Mary docked starboard-side, and updated my Facebook status: "Shari is favoured by the gods. Her ship has an Indian buffet!"
As you can see by the photo of the grill above, the decor on the aft side of the Lido is a clear homage to the lovely QM. (The models on the wall are of that ship and the Normandie.) We'd embarked at a leisurely hour (one-ish), dropped off our luggage (all carry-ons, to the repeated amazement of both crew and Customs), and now we were close to our happy memories of the Queen Mary with plates full of paneer, naan, and butter chicken for Mike.
So, what a shame that it was all so dry-dry-dry, and what wasn't as bland as muck was as acrid and heavy-handed as... all get out.
We tried the Indian station several times again throughout the cruise, but we threw away so much food it stopped being worth it after awhile. Keep in mind that we're both pretty forgiving of the cuisine, enjoying the posh joints and the foil packets alike, so this was a genuine disappointment. (Oh, and if you're a vegetarian, your only option every day were the huge rectangles of pressed sawdust called "cottage cheese.")
But this was the only true culinary misstep, and now that it's out of the way, let's talk about the good stuff, like Mike with his soda card, pictured above.
We knew from the last cruise that the lemonade is really good, but like I said, we had the credit, so it was nice to have the variety now and again. We never cheated and got an extra soda for me from another bartender (you can have all you want, but one at a time, and it will only be served to you - at least on that first day when they're checking cards), but Mike did give his sodas to me now and again. Scandalous, I know. You can use the card in the bars and dining room, but be advised that the roving bar staff will out-and-out ignore you once they learn that this is all you're drinking. Can't complain, though. They're supposed to charge a 15% gratuity to your Sail & Sign card (which is your ship's ID and the only form of money they take on board) every time you use it, but we weren't charged a thing.
Actually, before we went to the Indian grill, we stopped by the maitre d's station at the Black Pearl on the fourth floor. We were ready to beg for a table for two, being "antisocial" or "romantic," depending on which "cruise critic" camp you listen to. No need, though: we'd already been assigned our own cozy table. Hallelujah! Later, Mike talked to Miguel, our personable maitre d', about how pleased we were to have our own table, what were the odds were, etc. Miguel pronounced us "bloody lucky." Take note, anyone who reads certain popular message boards and is led to believe that a) all nice, normal people want to eat at tables for 10 and meet people (shudder), and b) that it's easy to change to a table for two if you like.
(Keep in mind that Carnival Splendor won't be implementing "anytime dining" until next year, when you can just wait for the table size you want.)
(In the photo above, you'll see Mike the one time he sat in that seat. The couple behind our table, behind that seat, was composed of a small woman and a large man. Every night, the man would sit in the chair that backed up to us, instead of the one backing up to open space. And while I commend his good posture, every night there would be six inches between his back and the seat-back, and the seat-back would be pinning me against the table. Originally Mike and I planned to alternate, but because Mike so selflessly puts up with me, I took the bad seat for every subsequent night. Also, it makes for good future leverage. I am now the master of the 11-point turn to get out of a cramped dining space.)
Anyway. Good ole #175. The perfect furniture for your own little world.
(I'm leaving many of the 50 or so pics related to Splendor's food out of this post. If you want to see all of the "cruise food" photos, click here for a slideshow.)
So, guess what the vegetarian entree was for that first night? Indian! Luckily, it was even better than the Indian dinner on Elation (this time the stuffed bread - kulcha? not naan - had more onions and flavour).
I tried six soups on this cruise: Chilled Cucumber with Dill, Orange Cream (no picture, alas - tasted like a Dreamsicle, though), Cream of Sun-Ripened Tomato, Cream of Potato, Wild Mushroom Cream, and Mango Cream, Of these six, the chilled cucumber was the best.
What I really liked was how the soup bowl arrived empty at the table, just a curl of cucumber at the bottom with a few onions inside the loop. Then the waiter (Yumadi, great fellow) brought a small porcelain pitcher to the table and poured the cold soup around the cucumber until it filled the bowl and, eventually, rose up through vegetable circlet (here note my great restraint in not calling it a "crop circle"). I can usually take or leave cucumbers, but this was nicely seasoned, and it was great to have the scent of the dill in my nose as I let the soup wave around the onions crunching between my teeth. I wish I could explain it better; you'd think I'd have picked up something from reading Ruth Reichl (Comfort Me with Apples) this past week.
We only got Room Service once, but at least it redeemed the nearly inedible experience we'd had on Elation.
Seen above is my signature meatless Reuben, plus the grilled mushroom sandwich. When I'd go to the sandwich grill, I'd swap the mushroom sandwich for the arugula/mozzarella/tomato. I do love sandwiches.
The third night was a the herb polenta with wild mushroom ragout. Highly recommended.
There aren't any photos from the second night because it was Elegant Night, and we are not elegant. So, it was buffet / sandwiches / pizza after an ordinary breakfast and a terrific lunch in the Golden Pearl dining room. (For dinner, we were assigned the Black Pearl, but the open dining for breakfast and lunch is held only in the Golden Pearl.)
The Elation had better pizza. This pizza had a less pillowy (yet not thin) crust and the cheese congealed pretty quickly. We learned right away to always request a fresh slice. As mentioned in the Elation trip report, whether Carnival has good pizza is a huge topic of debate on some boards. Looks like they need to factor in that quality varies from ship to ship.
The pizza guy, though, was very nice. I suspect cheaper ingredients are used to serve the bigger Splendor, but that's a totally baseless guess. I did like that the pizza station was right by the main pool on the Lido deck, and not in the back of the Tiffany buffet area, as on Elation.
Breakfast was so ordinary that we had it twice - getting a second helping of eggs from the Lido buffet as we left - and we never went back to the dining room for breakfast that week. (I swear it had nothing to do with me spilling cream all over the tablecloth, menus, and portside window.)
Lunch was very good for me: the aforementioned orange cream soup, "hay and straw" (a mix of egg and spinach fettucinis with cream and cheese), a tropical fruit terrine. Alas, cruising seems to be the one thing that keep me (relatively) camera-free. Unfortunately, there was no vegetarian option for lunch the next day, and on the last day that dining room lunch was available (it's not available on port days), nothing on the menu spoke to us.
Meanwhile, Mike isn't getting much of a mention, so let's trot out his favourite dish on this cruise:
That's a Jerked Pork Loin, which he followed with Strawberry Cheesecake, but I was bolder and had the Warm Fig, Date, and Cinnamon Cake, served with Rum Raisin Ice Cream.
This dish caused me to use the word "pairing" in a completely un-mocking way. The two items were well suited to one another.
This red velvet cupcake, offered on the buffet one day, was also a winner. (Whatever it's next to wasn't interesting enough to warrant a second bite, but I think it's pineapple cake.) According to the herald that is Facebook, my Aunt Donna recently made red velvet cookies. She's not sure if she likes them, but it made me wonder if German chocolate cake would translate well into cookies...
One thing we didn't know about before boarding was that the Splendor has a burrito bar. Wow!
The first time, this didn't go well. The person assembling the burrito put tons of hot sauce on Mike's before he could stop them, plus it was a whole wheat tortilla. (I know it's cool to hate white flour, but people love it for a reason. Anyway, I'm better than the rest of you because I love corn tortillas best, so there!) The second time Mike got a better burrito, but it was still dry. Dryness of the mass-served food seemed to be a recurring problem on Splendor, one that we didn't get on Elation.
Speaking of fluids, sort of, I don't even want to talk about what Mike's doing here:
But isn't that a pretty view of Puerto Vallarta outside the window? (Don't look at the lemonade thief. Don't look at the lemonade thief.) I also liked the way Splendor had many booths and semi-booths, instead of mostly tables like on Elation.
On the day of the chocolate buffet (which was good, except for when I got to the cake I wanted to try - pear cake with chocolate - and the attendant said I had to make all requests to the person at the start of the line... which would have meant requeueing about 40 people back and, um, WTF?), we had a great view of the ocean. This view turned into an unexpected whale watching encounter, which led to the world's worst whale watching video, shot by yours truly on the pocket cam:
The day before we saw dolphins off the port side as we ate. They were so beautiful, leaping in formations of twos and threes. I could see how someone might end up collecting a large number of dolphin figurines, earrings, and t-shirts. Who wouldn't want to be part of all that grinning grace? Another day we saw something seal-like (I still say it was a seal or sea lion, but Mike thought it was a manatee, until he learned that they don't live around there - ha), and not long after sail away from Long Beach we had a great time leaning over the balcony to watch the flying fish. (We also saw some cute crabs, but that will be on the Cabo post.)
Suffice to say that we got more than our money's worth in gorgeous views while dining.
Sometimes there were views of a different sort:
This mariachi band did a stroll through the dining room before we sailed from Puerto Vallarta. (Mariachi music is much better when you don't have to worry about them stopping at your table.)
And I will counter that blurry photo with this photo of Chocolate, Raspberry, and Vanilla Cream Cake with Raspberry Sorbet:
Oops, that reminds me that I didn't show a photo of what I did end up with from the chocolate buffet:
I guess I did okay, huh?
Granted, I grabbed extras for Mike, who was doing the usual seven-hour wait at the Mongolian Grill, and the big plate was from the just-opened lunch buffet. (That was one of the best days for Lido fare. Soft, hot bread, a light penne, and surprisingly tasty bean and cheese enchiladas. Decent potato salad, too. Yes, it is hard to believe that I even know what the word "pairing" means, come to think of it.)
Pictured elsewhere on the table is a chocolate mousse with toasted almonds (great), some Chilean empanada-style things with something sticky inside (meh), rum balls (meh), crispy cookie-like "swans" (pretty), a rummy cupcake with macaroon (meh), biscotti (odd, interesting), more sticky stuff (meh), chocolate wontons (definitely interesting), and I forget what else because just typing about it has made me all dizzy from the sugar. Mmmm.
If the chocolate buffet wasn't enough, there is a pastry shop open until midnight that serves cake and such for an extra price. (A reasonable $2.95 for an eight-inch-high slice, I think, but we were too busy using our onboard credit for losing bingo cards to ever partake.)
As good as the buffet enchiladas were that day, they couldn't beat the black bean enchiladas I had at dinner one night:
Beautiful to look at and a perfect fusion (gack! I said another foodie buzzword!) of chewiness and spice. I even ate the guacamole because it was so pretty. Chopped and Iron Chef (and my Dad) are right: presentation counts.
One time I did not get bold in the dining room was when I avoided the Coconut Cream Cake. Why? Because it was a "Spa Selection" (read: light) and made with Splenda instead of sugar.
Now, I know that Splenda is a reasonably tasty artificial sweetener, but I don't like the idea of it. True, my figure would be better off if I had the "real deal" less often, but I've spent so many years getting artificial crap out of my system that I'd rather just eat fewer sweets than eat synthetic ones. (Oh, the days of slinging down the six-packs of Diet Dr Pepper, how dark they were.)
The next day, the cake showed up on the lunch buffet and I just had to try a bite.
I got three other desserts, including this yummy banana-chocolate thing. They went almost untouched. The cake, I scarfed. Not only couldn't I tell that it had Splenda, but it was just incredibly delicious. So, I must eat my words. My scrummy, scrummy, coconutty, creamy words.
Up on the fifth deck, not far from the pastry counter, is the sushi stand. We never actually saw it open with sushi, though, which probably says a lot about how much we loved our balcony room. (Plenty of people like their inside cabins, but I think these are the same people that like eating with other people at dinner.) The ocean was our television, a marathon of our new favourite show.
One day, as Mike took one of his usual siestas (that's what he started calling them, claiming that he was just trying to fit in with the whole Mexican theme), I wandered around to take photos. According to the Capers, every other day the sushi bar offered tapas. Although I never saw the sushi, I did get to see the tapas:
The selection of olive-y, tomato-y dips and little breads looked inviting, but I wasn't hungry enough to try anything. (You cannot hit every food event on a cruise ship. Okay, maybe, if you're a veteran, but we're still newbies.)
One event that we missed the first day (went to see the Newlywed Game-style show - hilarious), caught and loved the second day, and forewent the last day (being lazy and not wanting to mar our memories) was Tea Time.
On Carnival Splendor, Tea Time is held on the upper level of the Golden Pearl dining room, near the large aft windows looking over our wake, by the grand piano. On some ships it is held in the library, but I have to tell you, the Splendor's "Alexandria" library (they wish) is a pitiful little room compared to the spacious, windowed "Mark Twain" library on Elation. (Splendor's library overlooks a lifeboat. Nice.) We got one of the few tables for two (okay, so we're obsessive, but there are worse hobbies) and I talked Mike into taking some tea as a prop. We both chose something orange; I'll have to find the wrapper. (It's a scrapbookable!)
Then the trolley came around and, oh, how I will always regret not throwing myself bodily upon the thing. But no, we were dainty, taking a thinly pressed cucumber sandwich and a couple of bite-size scones each.
Again with the incredible cucumber moments! Even Mike has since wondered aloud how we might make such little sandwiches on our own.
But the scones. Oh. my.
"This is a scone," said Mike. "None of that big triangle business that you get here." And he was right. I've only been to England once, only had scones there once, but this was a scone. Full of real cream and so moist... and I don't really see how I'm supposed to carry on, maybe never having such a thing again, and yet I bravely do. Although sometimes, around three p.m., I have to have a bit of a lie-down so I can weep quietly until the loss passes.
Soldiering on, for our last meal, I got the Eggplant and Zucchini Parmigiana, which was hearty and pleasantly seasoned, and not floppy at all, as these things sometimes are.
Mike was the real winner, though. For both starter and main course, he had Carnival's Baby Back Ribs, "the best ribs I've had since coming to the United States," he says. (Actually, he said it on the first cruise, and this cruise just reinforced that.)
(Let me kill the moment for a second. See the soup in the foreground? That's my mango cream soup. I know it's grainy, but can you see the green thing floating in it? Well, remember how, when I had the cucumber soup, I chewed on the onions and dill while eating the soup, and it was such a great explosion of taste? Note to the world: chewing on a mint leaf is very different, and doing so while eating mango soup is a little like brushing your teeth before getting your orange juice. This photo was taken after I made that realization. I tried hiding the chewed-up mint in my napkin, but I was scared it would fall out. Now you know how gross I am, to smuggle the used mint back into the soup, but luckily Mike was too blissed out by the ribs to care.)
Unless you count the midnight pizza and hot chocolate in the room, that was our last meal on the Carnival Splendor. Normally we ignored the waiters when they sang (it only happened twice, and felt gratuitous each time), and we only saw the magician (Tejas, and he was great) once, but tonight the entertainment was very special.
As usual, I was underprepared to film it, and our normally perfect table was the worst place to try (being under the staircase on which the waiters lined up), and then I added to all this by swinging the pocket cam around all crazy-like, resulting in a video that is actually worse than the one with the whales, but it was such a sweet (and tearful, every time I watch it) end to the cruise, that I must share. To the tune of "Leaving on a Jet Plane," this is the waitstaff of Carnival Splendor's Black Pearl dining room saying goodbye with "Leaving on a Fun Ship."