Married, mother of 2 tween boys. Physician Assistant and Army National Guard officer by trade. I love to travel by just about any means and over the last few years I have come to love cruising for the convenience and economy.
CARNIVAL SPLENDOR HALLOWEEN CRUISE, NYC – SAN JUAN, OCT 24th – NOV 1st, 2014, Our best cruise yet!
The only problem here was due to the recent Ebola scare and the checksheets that needed to be completed before going through security. According to the local New York staff, the ship had failed to bring enough checksheets ashore and they had run out. This seems unlikely, as it is a simple Xeroxed form that should have been being run off by the dockside staff and not by the folks on the ship, but frankly all of the shore staff in New York were so rude that it was hard to even get information from them, much less assistance. They also seemed to have no system set up for getting the forms to the folks who were waiting, a staff member would turn up in the middle of the crowd with a handful of forms, hand them out to whoever could fight their way to them first, and then run out again. However, once we got our hands on the forms, everything went swimmingly.
I can’t say enough about how fabulous Carnival’s “Faster to the Fun” program is. This is the second time we’ve used it and it is totally worth every penny of the 50 dollar per cabin (NOT per person) fee. You have access to the platinum security screening line, so there were only about half a dozen folks ahead of us to go through carry-on screening and the metal detectors. After going through there, you have your own dedicated FTTF line for check-in, no-one else was waiting and we were able to go straight to the first available agent to get our Sign and Sail cards. We were on the ship and in our (already ready, another FTTF perk) cabin dropping off our carry-ons within 15 minutes of turning in our Ebola forms. Again, we got off the train at 12:30 and were in our cabin by 1:30, how awesome is that? Considering the fact that there were several hundred people waiting in the general boarding check-in line when we arrived, I can’t imagine how long we’d have been waiting, cranky, restless (literally, they’d been up since 4:30), kids in tow, if we hadn’t signed up for the program. We went straight up to the Lido deck for lunch and a drink and by the time we were done, our luggage had arrived so we could get unpacked (yet another perk of the program).
Embarkation was somewhat delayed, so lifeboat drills were a bit after 4, nothing to say about that, except it actually was pretty fast and efficient as such things go. Leaving from Manhattan at sunset was the one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen. We went up to the observation deck above the basketball court, wine glasses in hand, to see the sights. Surprisingly we were almost the only people up there, so we got a fabulous view of the Empire State building, (King Kong was nowhere to be seen, sadly), the new World Trade Center, and Lady Liberty herself before the ship left the Hudson and headed out to sea after passing under the Verrazano Narrows bridge. I can’t think of a cooler place to leave from, so many famous sights I’d only ever seen on TV, passing right off the rails of the ship. I’d definitely leave from New York again, just for the view. I did miss the spa raffle (AKA, let’s pitch a bunch of dubious “services”), but since I never win those things anyway, I’m pretty sure it was a fair trade.
THE LADY HERSELF
The Splendor is a lovely ship, large enough that she almost never seems crowded, despite having 3000+ passengers aboard. Despite the infamous “pink circles” décor, she is actually the most subdued of the Carnival ships I’ve travelled on. The Pearl dining rooms are still pretty over the top, but I loved the millefiore glass in the Lido dining area and the lovely tilework throughout the ship. The deck plan is nearly identical to the Valor-Class ships, until you get to Deck 9, so if you have travelled on any of those, you won’t need too long to get your bearings. It has not had the recent Fun Ship 2.0 upgrades, but personally I didn’t miss them. I like Guy’s Burgers pretty well, but found that losing those was a fair trade-off for the longer shows and the availability of the Tandoor at lunchtimes.
Speaking of lunch, the food was exceptionally good, by far the best I’ve had on Carnival. I have seen frequent complaints about Splendor’s food from other reviewers and keep wondering if they were on the same ship we were. We had your time dining in the Black Pearl every evening, and with the exception of the prime rib, which was average at best (but I’m picky about that dish and it’s nearly always disappointing, even in restaurants at home), everything I had ranged from very good to fabulous. Standouts included the chateaubriand and the any of the soups. My son tried escargot for the first time, and loved it. It provided a great opportunity for the kids to experiment with a few new foods in a low-pressure environment. My favorite dessert was a caramel date cake that was absolutely fabulous. But the coolest was the spectacular special dessert for Halloween, your choice of a pumpkin cake or a dark fudgy chocolate mousse in the shape of a coffin. They were plated with tiny marzipan jack-o-lanterns and white chocolate gravestones, with Happy Halloween written on the plates in chocolate. They were gorgeous and delicious, and I can’t imagine the time and effort that went into preparing them. We also had outstanding dining staff as, despite the your time dining, we were able to request the same seating section each night. Headwaitress Astini and her assistant Komang went above and beyond the call of duty taking care of us, they even sang for me and hubby on our 20th wedding anniversary. And Magician Barman stopped by the table on a couple of days, not only to mystify us, but to show the kids how to do a magic trick of their own. I am always more impressed by well-done close up magic than by big stage productions involving a lot of equipment, and Barman is very very good.
Other standout dining options include the sea day brunch. I was particularly pleased with my steak and eggs and the huevos rancheros. I suggest going after 11 however, when they switch from offering a basket of breakfast breads upon seating, to bringing out hot, fresh, melt-in-your mouth popovers. And make time for tea at least once while you are on the ship. We are early risers and did not find that sit down breakfast was worth the extra hour’s wait on port days. The food is no better than that offered on the Lido breakfast buffet and there are fewer choices.
The Lido buffet is certainly serviceable at lunchtime, better than I expected given previous experiences, but I really suggest going for either the Tandoor or the Pizza instead. The tandoor offers a rotating selection of hot Indian dishes and they do a particularly good job on the fish dishes, they also offer a large selection of chutneys and other accompaniments. The pizza is a very authentic thin crust pizza de Napoli. The Quattro formaggi is a standout. They are made to order, but the 5-7 minute wait is generally worth it. I did not try the rotisserie (hidden away on the second floor of the Lido dining area), but my mother thought it was quite good. None of us had the Mongolian grill as there was always a line. The Lido desserts have improved dramatically, not a dry dull cake in the bunch this trip, and there were some fabulous Napoleons on offer.
Try the Taste Bar on sea days for appetizer sized servings of dishes from the different specialty restaurants throughout the fleet. Another good way to get the kids to try out some new dishes.
We did not try the steakhouse this trip, because we instead signed up for The Chef’s Table. Please, please, please, if there is any way you can do this on your cruise, set aside the money and go for it! It was the highlight of the cruise. Head chef Rakesh took us on a tour of the galley during dinner service, it was amazing to see the scope of the operation required to keep 3000+ passengers fed. The logistics are mindboggling and after seeing it, I was even more impressed that they can turn out so much food of such consistently high quality every day. Don’t eat much the day you are going to do this, it starts with 4 different appetizers and champagne in the galley and then runs through about 7 courses BEFORE you get to the desserts. Wine and a group picture are included as part of the package, as well as souvenir menus and the recipe for the chocolate melting cake, which you will get a lesson on how to make during the galley tour. The Head chef is available throughout the dinner to not only talk about the dishes, but to answer any questions you might have. For example, I learned that the Splendor goes through just over a ton of butter every 3 days. And Barman came by here as well, to provide tableside entertainment. All in all a wonderful gourmet experience and well worth the additional cost.
We did the Bottomless Bubbles for the kids this year and it was OK, they aren’t big soda drinkers (by choice), so they actually increased their consumption to make it worthwhile. They still probably didn’t drink more than 2-3 sodas a day, so I don’t think we’ll do that again. Still, it is probably worth it if you just can’t do without your Coke, and the 12 pack per person you are allowed to bring on board just won’t do. The rest of us made do with the copious free water, coffee, tea, lemonade and hot chocolate. We did not do the Cheers program, as we knew we’d never break even on it, instead we signed up for a 5 bottle Cruise The Vineyards package and split a bottle at dinner each evening. Frankly the bottles are way overpriced, the Tier 2 program runs about $35 a bottle for $10-$12 wines, but still much less expensive than buying wine by the glass. We also discovered that Carnival has introduced their own line of craft beer, which made us very happy as my mother and I are both beer lovers and beer snobs and the previous options of nothing but canned Bud and Heineken meant that we simply went without on board. The Red Frog Amber Ale is a fabulous, smooth, medium-dark brew, without any overly-hopped bitterness. We absolutely loved it, and loved even more that it was the best alcohol bargain on the ship at $5.50 a pint and $16.85 a pitcher (pitchers only available in the Sports Bar). We had great bar staff, especially in the Sports Bar, where they were very patient with the kids.
Hubby and kids loved the Seuss at Sea program. Hubby even got to play The Cat in the Hat for the post-parade storytime show. Since there were so few kids on this sailing, they did not limit admission to the brunch to those 5 and under, so Hubby and the kids were able to do that as well. The brunch itself wasn’t particularly inspired, but they had a lot of fun and we got some great pictures of the kids.
The shows were pretty cheesy, the Fiesta Latina show was particularly obnoxious, no-one involved demonstrated any Latin rhythm whatsoever, although they did frequently demonstrate the proper wear of thong underwear. The band is quite good however, and “The World’s Fastest Juggler” should not be missed. For entertainment, we really came to prefer The Piano Bar, where Russell Blues demonstrated not only his mastery of the keyboard but some impressive vocal chops as well, he can sound just like Tom Jones one minute and Satchmo the next. His engaging personality helped keep the audience involved throughout the evening.
Halloween was a lot of fun, they did onboard trick or treating for the kids, with a treasure map to show the stops ending at a family dance party, where the youngest won the costume contest. One caveat (OK, we probably should have asked first), as when we showed up with drinks to the bar where the party was being held, we were told we could not bring alcohol into the venue. We were not the only parents leaving a drink guard outside while we rotated in turns to watch the kids dance. I understand the policy, but it also seemed a little silly for a party held in a BAR, when all the kids had seen folks drinking on the ship all week. None of the parents were drunk or obnoxious, just sipping a glass of wine or a frozen cocktail, as responsible adults often do.
There were a lot of guests in costume that evening and a lot of different parties going on as it was the last night onboard. The staff got into the act as well, but since the costumes were almost all props for the different port photo shoots they do, they had a rather threadbare randomness to them. We all dressed up for the evening as well and decorated our doors with Halloween-themed banners and decorations for the whole week. From what I saw, it looked like a lot of fun was being had by all, but I did not get to spend nearly as much time up people watching as I would have liked because it was the last night and I had a lot to do to make sure we were ready for the next day.
We were in adjoining Ocean View cabins 2404 and 2408. The cabins were roomy (roomier than the balcony rooms) and the connecting door made it like having our own suite. The pullman and sofabed were always made up in the room we were sharing with the kids, so we used the sitting area in my parents’ cabin as a place to visit together and watch TV. It worked out really well and gave us more space than adjoining balconies would have. We spend so little time in the cabin, aside from changing, naps and sleep, that I don’t feel the lack of a balcony, and with 4 of us in a room, I’d rather have the space anyway. We had excellent service from our room stewards, Marvin for my parents’ room and Agung in ours (somehow the connecting cabins split two areas of responsibility, weird). They kept on top of all our needs, were quick to respond if we had questions, and were unfazed by the sort of troubles that inevitably arise when travelling with kids (in our case, one with a major nosebleed in the middle of the night).
All the staff were fabulous throughout the ship, always ready with a smile and assistance.
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