In the last five months, I have traveled to Mexico on the Splendor three times. I wrote a fairly damning review of the early March cruise (published 3/12). After the second cruise, which I took solo (on the first, I had traveled with my BF), I didn't write a review although I was hoping that the second cruise would be an improvement over #1 and would merit a good review. As I write, it has been nearly a week since disembarkation from cruise #3. And I can write a positive review even though what disappoints about the Splendor remains disappointing.
You may wonder why I would take a disappointing cruise a second--then a third--time. No, not a masochist. I needed to return to Puerto Vallarta on business (and I detest flying); and I wanted to see if—by mentally approaching the cruise from a different point of view—I could find a way to enjoy the Splendor. The motivation was similar for the third cruise but included another element (read on!).
My mindset in returning was to find the BEST on the ship. The BEST of everything, and to avoid and ignore the rest. And this is my suggestion for anyone who reads this before boarding the Splendor. Figure out your priorities and choose carefully. I knew what I wanted: relaxation, music, and decent chow (forget about "cuisine). I wasn't there for spa treatments, so I have no comment except that I liked the thallosotherapy pool. Although life aboard the ship can be very chaotic (especially when 1,000 or more of the 3,000 guests are kids), relaxation is possible if you go to the 11th floor serenity (adults only) deck or hang out on your balcony (but I didn't have a balcony.)
DINING On the second cruise, I had "Your Time Dining" and could dine anytime between 6:00 and 9:30 PM. However, I dined in the Black Pearl only twice. The food was mediocre at best-- except for the melting chocolate cake. I came to see the restaurant as all show, as a rich visual experience: the tablecloths, the fine china, the waiters in their tuxedos. The dishes described on the menus looked promising. However, the food was a joke! What was called "Short Ribs" and described as "tender beef braised in short rib style" was actually pot-roasted brisket (I like brisket OK, but why do they lie? Short ribs are "in" these days.) These "ribs" were to be served with fried rice. Fried rice? I requested a baked potato as a substitute, and I did get a lukewarm potato, but getting some sour cream proved a little more challenging. On the second formal evening, I tried the Black Pearl again. The menu advertised "chateaubriand." Ha! It was described as tender shoulder meat. Everyone knows chateaubriand is tenderloin; I wasn't about to fall into that trap. (The young woman seated at the table next to mine ordered it, took one bite, then pushed it aside.) I ordered a fish I had never heard of -Basa. I asked the waiter if it was related to sea bass; he said no, it was related to mahi-mahi. (Later research showed that it is a Vietnamese cousin of catfish.) I ordered it, and it was edible once I scraped off the thick tomato sauce. I began the meal with a Caesar salad. It was warm!--not just room temp, but warm! And there was no pepper mill to be seen.
That was it for the restaurant. On the first cruise, I had discovered the lunch-time delicious tandoori grill aft of the Lido near the adult pool. So I had already figured out that Indian food would be my default meal of the day. The tandoori did not disappoint, nor did the deli sandwich maker, D.J. from Delhi (get it? The deli guy is from Delhi?). Made-to-order omelets in the mornings were good, although a bit overcooked, rubbery. So that was it for the food. Don't think you're on the Queen Mary 2. Find the things that work. (I had a hamburger at the grill one day, and it was pretty decent.)
On the third cruise, I pared the food back even further. I had been given the 8:15 seating, and I don't eat that late, so I skipped the Black Pearl entirely. I went to the Lido buffet at odd hours when it was nearly empty, and I scavenged. I would make a salad of the non-changing salad bar ingredients and take it back to D.J at the deli to get a scoop of tuna salad added. Their salad dressings were obnoxious, but oil and vinegar were available. One day there was roast turkey; I got a couple of thin slices, then got 2 slices of whole wheat bread with mayo and lettuce from D.J. It was a delicious turkey sand. Improvisation. That worked. Gotta remember that.
ENTERTAINMENT I have been on eleven cruises and have enjoyed some excellent music aboard ship. Finding the music is always my priority. There was the jazz quartet on an Alaska cruise on Princess; the jazz trio on the QM2 in Norway; the classical guitarist on Celebrity during the Scandi-caps cruise.... I don't usually like the main stage big production numbers, so I skip them unless everyone raves about them. The music I find is in the small bars or at the pool by the Lido or in the lobby by the grand piano. The Splendor has music everywhere, but some venues are better for listening to music than others. The Robusto cigar bar is huge, and there is nightly musical entertainment, but non-smokers will choke (and so will the musicians!). There is a small stage adjacent to the casino bar, but the casino allows smoking; there is seating on both sides of that stage, but no direct view of the musician(s). Instead, people promenading from one end of the ship saunter by, blocking any view of the entertainer from, say, the bar. Kids come racing by, teenagers gawk at the musician for a split second, then move on...and occasionally the moving sidewalk turns into a dance floor. An under-used venue is The Cool, which is a bar featuring portraits of Miles Davis. The lobby bar has a round dance floor—and no smoking. But enough about the venues! On to the music!
On cruise #2, since I was avoiding smoking areas, I mostly listened to the reggae duo who were often at the main pool; these two young men were from Trinidad, and their stage name was Kolorz. One sang and played bongos, and the other played the synthesizer. They were very enjoyable and kept the folks by the pool dancing all day long during days at sea. Some of the main stage band played Dixieland on the first night in the lobby area; they were quite good. They were followed by a duo new to the ship: "Magic and Music." They played the favorites that people danced to. She (Merrylin) was a petite Asian woman who could belt out a Patsy Cline or Aretha song like nobody's business. Amazing. He (Rey) played the synth and sang Elvis songs, Sinatra songs—you name it. They were both very charming. There were two guitarists aboard, but I missed their performances due to the smoking problem. Almost. On the penultimate afternoon, I went to the lobby bar to see guitarist Lou. Turned out he played mainly blues on his Stratocaster—and he played really really well. When he took a break, I asked him about his guitar (being that I play a little guitar), and we struck up a musical conversation that we sometimes would pick up between his remaining sets (that afternoon and the following evening). His first set was instrumental, and during the second Lou sang [mainly] blues songs. He had a great voice for the blues; his guitar playing was captivating, and his singing was soulful. What a find!
Lou told me about another guitar-playing singer aboard, Jeff. So, against my better judgment, that night I went to the Robusto cigar bar to hear some of Jeff's songs. Jeff played an Ovation acoustic guitar that filled the room with twang. He sang ballads, and he must have had a very long play list. (I figured this out on cruise #3, when I went to his performances as often as I could. On one afternoon a group of 10 teens plopped down in front of him on the promenade walkway by the casino and requested Elton John's "Tiny Dancer." I had not heard him sing any of Sir Elton's songs, but damn if he didn't render a very convincing version of that song.) Mostly he sang very mellow tunes to which his voice was perfectly matched—he had a gorgeous honey-toned voice.
So I beat myself because it had taken me 5-plus days to discover the best music on the ship! The next (and last) evening, I took in all of Lou's four sets at the casino bar. I was hooked. Too bad he wasn't selling CDs of his music. (If the daily newsletter "Fun Times" had given a description of the music Lou and Jeff played—instead of merely saying "Guitar with Jeff" or "Variety Music with Lou" [what the heck is "variety music?], I would have braved the smoking venues from the git-go.)
Well, I had more business to conduct in Vallarta, and I had planned to return in August, but I kept hearing music in my head. There was no reason to wait to take care of things in Vallarta, so four days after cruise #2, I booked a cruise departing the following Sunday. (There were only 2 cabins left!) (By the way, embarkation and disembarkation were awful on cruises 2 and 3. Maybe it's just me getting old and grumpy, but standing in line for two hours is not my idea of "swift embarkation".)
It was funny arriving just a week after I had departed. A lot of wait staff, bartenders, cabin stewards, etc. recognized me immediately with question marks on their faces, and I grinned and said, "I missed you guys. What can I say?" The first musicians I saw were Kolorz. They greeted my return with big smiles. (I had written them a little poem when I had left and given them a small tip—sheesh! One could go broke tipping. I wanted to tip those who washed the floors as well as those with whom I had more direct contact. I cannot say enough about the generosity and attitude of the crew.) Later that night I braved the noxious fumes of the cigar bar to listen to Lou, whose music blew me away as before. And the next day, I found Jeff, playing out by the aft "adults" pool.
Music is food for the soul, especially live music. I just wandered from venue to venue, loving every minute (of course, a glass of champagne here and there didn't hurt.) I didn't give much thought to dining at all. One could always find something to eat when hunger hit. We had only two port calls--Vallarta and Mazatlan—because the swells in Cabo were too dangerous for the tender-into-port process. So we had an extra day at sea—which meant more music! (After the captain announced the cancellation of Cabo, the musicians were all dispatched to the various venues; music would help save the day!)
I guess it's a clichE to say that people cruise for different reasons—some want to party, some seek escape, others, relaxation. But beneath it all, I think what we need is revitalization. For each of us that probably means something different.
The freedom I finally found by ignoring the dining room and its dress code, by subverting some of the ship's cattle-call rituals (for ex., I managed to avoid the muster), by doing what I wanted when I wanted helped me relax enough to enjoy the best of the ship's offerings. Since I was not on a schedule, had no plan (except to meet up with people in Vallarta), I could be open and spontaneous, and that made all the difference. I even danced by the pool with some of the daily reggae partiers (they were lots of fun). Being a solo traveler was not even slightly uncomfortable. I met a lot of really friendly people. All of this was revitalizing, but what I appreciate most is the music. (The down side is that one never knows where these musicians will be next...they don't have long-term contracts, and you can't call Carnival and find out if they are out there on some ship or another.) I can only hope that on the next voyage, I remember all that I have learned from these three cruises, relax, and find the music, and if I were to find Lou or Jeff or Kolorz, all the better.