Particulars: My family joining me to celebrate my birthday included Me, DW, DD(5) and DS(8), also adult niece, nephew and wife, and sister.
Since only my niece has cruised previously, when my wife said she wanted to get my family together for my birthday, a cruise wasn't the first thing I thought of. I wanted to get together somewhere warm over the holiday period rather than the chilly places where we live, the closest and most affordable being our old favorite Mexico. I had looked at booking flights and renting a house on the beach near PV, staying at an inexpensive inclusive, and was dismayed at the cost. Having heard that cruising can be a good value, I checked travel websites to find that the cost came in around the same or less than flying in. Well, Disney was higher of course, and it would have been nice for the kids. Checking the Disney forums, though, I found that the food on Carnival was well-regarded by people who have cruised both. That definitely tipped the scales to Carnival.
The price was right, so we next had to select the ship. Checking the web for reviews, I came across CC, and was pleased to discover a forum with as much depth of information and as many fanatical posters as any consumer site that I frequent. I am amazed at the number of repeat cruisers, something I thought people only did maybe once in a lifetime. Planning was a lot of fun, I got to learn a lot about something (cruising) I didn't really know that much about.
A short cruise on Inspiration would have been cheap, but I didn't think I would get the full cruise experience, so we looked at the Spirit and Splendor, both with similar itineraries. Of course Spirit was the popular winner here, and I liked the idea of a less confusing layout on our first cruise, and the less-crowded feeling.
Having cleared the selection with everyone, I booked the Spirit. We planned to drive down, so I booked the San Pedro Doubletree with a parking package. My relatives flew down from Canada, while we packed up the kids and drove the 6 hours to LA in light traffic.
One of the fun things about cruising is selecting your cabin, er, stateroom, for California residents a balcony on Spirit is less than oceanview, so when booking I used Travelocity (which was pretty easy to use) to pick the cabin. Having seen some reference to "secret" extended balconies, I was thrilled when 6232 came up for me (maybe because there's 4 of us). I looked at some pictures to verify, the "bowling alley" name certainly fit! So I quickly booked it. I regretted using Travelocity later, since they said they had a policy not to link bookings with other agents. Luckily my niece's agent was nice enough to step up to the job, so that we could share an 8-top. I don't think I would use Travelocity again because of that.
Doubletree San Pedro
I must say I was very impressed by the hotel staff. We arrived in the evening, unloaded the bags, and headed for dinner. That is, my family went down to the hotel restaurant for dinner, and my niece and I headed out for tacos, my greatest weakness. More precisely, "gringo" tacos; I had read that there is an El Taco in San Pedro, a joint that we used to have in the Bay Area. Yummy faux-Mexican. I brought them back to the hotel and they were nice enough to let me slobber them down in the restaurant with my family. The restaurant manager was going around chatting with people, the staff were all very friendly.
The hotel property is really nice, it was a bit pricey with the package and a marina view, but we really enjoyed it. The next morning, we went down to the breakfast buffet, which was pretty good (the bacon was definitely better than Carnival's). Our shuttle wasn't until 11:30, so I took our bags over to the pier early(with gifts it came to around 12 of them). The hotel was doing its required monthly fire alarm test so it was really loud all over the place, so we went down to the lobby to wait where it was slightly quieter. The restaurant manager said that he heard it my birthday was coming, so he brought me a bottle of sparkling wine! My family swore they hadn't set him up to do that, so my thanks to him. Since it was cold and I had already distributed bottles to each of the adults to bring on board, we popped it open right there and sipped it until it was time to go.
As I was entering the LA cruise terminal, a confused looking family asked me if they were going to the right pier, I looked at their boarding pass and it said "Inspiration." I told them you've got to cross that big green bridge and get to Long Beach! I hope they (and their bags if they checked them) got there OK. We went up the terminal escalator and got in the boarding line. It took about 20 minutes. After getting our cards, we went quickly through security, who checked the sodas in my bag. We then waited about 45 minutes in the waiting area. DW left her wallet at check-in, but she ran back in alarm and managed to find it. I also dragged 3 dozen soda cans, which we almost finished in the end.
We were set to go to Lido for a bite, but our room was already ready so we headed straight there.
On the way in, we met our friendly steward Marlon, whose space was right next to ours. His space allowed us to have the extra long balcony. I had assured my family that we had a balcony sufficient to hold all 8 of us, but they were not prepared for the huge size of the balcony. It easily holds 4 regular chairs and 2 lounge chairs. When they saw it, they all gasped and omg'ed. My DW said "Shut up!" to me in disbelief and we hi-fived. Pictures can be found elsewhere if you look for 6232 on the Carnival forum.
Of course, we were still at the "Love Boat" terminal. We headed for early dinner and met our always-smiling waiter Siskrita, and his friendly assistants Donny and Sigit. Sigit and my niece quickly became fast friends.
Believe it or not, I was excited to see Ensenada as it was our first port and we had never been there. I was up at the crack of dawn to witness our approach to port. Luckily I had slept well the night before on the comfy bed, despite the hump between me and DW (no pun intended ). Ensenada was prettier than I expected, with mountains closer by the sea than most California cities.
The industrial area was to one side but not too ugly.
Below the ship, some sea lions frolicked. The workers had to shoo them away at the end of the day so they wouldn't be in the ship's way.
My niece, nephew and his wife headed to town, while DW, sister and kids explored the ship. They did go to the little shopping area at the pier, where there's a small flea market and drinks for sale.
We walked past the buses onto the highway, where kids ran up to sell us gum and adults were selling handmade bracelets. A block or two away, carriages await to show you the town.
We headed toward El Centro and Hussong's, an old-time cantina with sawdust on the floor. We had a couple of their simple, cheap margaritas before heading out for lunch. The bartender referred us to someplace called "the black market", so we headed out to look for it in the direction he pointed us. We had a hard time finding it at first, I thought of asking one of the many local policemen but thought better of the idea. Instead, we asked a store clerk, and found out it was the fish market I had read of.
I had read on here that the restaurants across the way were pretty good, so I asked the fellow above for a reference. We had some delicious fish tacos (including marlin, a meaty-tasting fish which I had never had before) and some large and delicious margaritas.
We headed back for our 4 PM sail-off and stopped for another drink at the pier before getting back on board. We were able to watch the sun set as our ship set off on Christmas Eve.
That night, DS and I checked out "Big Daddy"'s comedy show, which was good for a few laughs. My son got to hear about childhood discipline as practiced Down South.
Christmas was a sea day and also our first elegant night. The day started with opening presents with the whole gang. We had room service sent up for breakfast with enough for 8. I liked the salmon, the kids appreciated the sugary cereals.
We hung out near the pool, where they were demonstrating ice carving. They kids played in the pool and made friends. I had an anchovy pizza, it was OK but the cheese tasted cheap. The Reuben I had the first day was better, not to huge and nicely toasted.
I had the prime rib for dinner-I'm not a big fan of prime rib, but it was all right. No lobster yet. Later, we saw Jazz Hot, a rather disjointed but energetic production that was entertaining most of the time. I was worried about the sound since the keyboards at sailaway show were badly distorted, but they sounded great. We were very impressed with the show band (led by Jessy D'Mello).
Cabo Day 1
My nephew was keen to go snorkeling, he had tried it in Acapulco and liked it. I checked on tripadvisor and selected Ecocat, a large cataraman that would give a pretty smooth ride. They supplied flippers, goggles, etc. We tendered to the dock on the port's boats, which gave a more rocky ride.
We then walked around the Cabo marina past the hawkers who were easily ignored. The marina is full of activity, including pelicans and sea lions, who like to hitch rides on boats sometimes.
I asked for directions a couple of times until we found the Ecocat booking office and restaurant. I gave them our information and they gave us our boarding passes for the 11:00 tour (the ship moved forward an hour so we were already on local time). We had sodas and bought a few trinkets as we waited.
We boarded and set sail for Chileno Bay, as the preferred location of Santa Maria was beset by too many jellies. We first got a tour of Los Arcos, which was pretty but the most interesting thing to me was all the boats buzzing around, it was quite active and exciting.
DD couldn't really be coaxed in to the slightly chilly water, and I'm not the greatest swimmer so I only went in for a little while. I saw a few fish but didn't make it over the the main area where my sister and nephew spotted quite a few different types of tropical fish. DS braved the water for a few minutes, then I saw DW carrying him back while he cried loudly. I asked him what happened and he said "sea splinters!" It took me a minute to figure out that he had ventured into a jellyfish area that his mother was trying to coax him away from. Despite many of us getting stung a few times, we had a good time in the water and on the ship. They even let us have food and drink even though we hadn't paid for the all-inclusive package (but we didn't overdo it).
On the way back, the friendly crew entertained us with some music.
It was now time to head back out to sea until the next day in Cabo. I went to the casino with my nephew, where I made about $35 on the slots and roulette and my nephew won a little as well. Having spent time in Las Vegas, I knew it was better to quit when ahead so I stopped there.
Cabo Day 2
DD wanted to swim with dolphins. Unfortunately, Carnival didn't offer the intermediate level at the Cabo dolphin center (at the marina), which was designed for kids who wanted a little dolphin ride. They only offered one that was in deep water for good swimmers, and a pet-the-dolphin thing for non-swimmers. Since they have a deal with Carnival, the center wouldn't allow us to book independently. She was a little disappointed to start, especially since she could see the other kids getting rides. Nevertheless, she really enjoyed petting and playing with them with DW. We were all satisfied with the experience, but we didn't go for pricey picture packages.
The snorkelling yesterday was fun but the kids wanted beach time, so when we stepped out of the dolphin center, we asked some local police where we could hire a glass-bottom boat to Mendano beach. They said any of the hawkers right on the dock were OK, so I asked closest guy, a friendly man named Rafael. He wanted to take us to Los Arcos but we said we were meeting our family and would just go to Mendano. It was $3 PP each way. DS was excited about the glass-bottom boat, but I didn't tell him that you can't really see anything under the water (even a comedian on the ship made a joke about it). It was a fun but short ride to the beach. Rafael stopped the boat about 50 feet from shore and said OK, everyone jump out! I laughed but DW was flabbergasted as we were with two young children. She should have known better from our experience with long-tail boats in Thailand. Rafael laughed and took us right up to the beach, and helped us to get off without even getting our feet wet.
He agreed to meet us at a preordained time, and to make sure we were on the same clock we synchronized our watches. The dropoff point was a way down from our destination, Mendano Beach Club, so we walked the quarter-mile or so along the beach. It was as lively as I had heard, and the water was the beautiful turquoise color that I had read of.
Lunch at the Beach Club for 5 of us, including drinks, came to around $70 (the other family members couldn't find the Beach Club because the sign was obscured). The food and drink was fresh and flavorful. I sat in the shade as the others played in the water. The temperature was fine and the waves were gentle.
DW was nervous about getting back on time, but I had heard that the boats are very reliable and indeed Rafael was there waiting at the appointed time at the end of the beach.
I enjoyed Cabo but probably wouldn't want a week there. A weekend or cruise stop is fine.
It was about at this time that I finally got around to going to Guest Services to complain about a noisy locking mechanism in our door. It had been clicking loudly every minute or so while the ship was in motion but I didn't know if it was a normal noise for a cruise along with the other groans and shaking. It wasn't interfering with sleep too much though. They said they would send someone shortly and fixed it while we were at dinner. I noticed that our neighbor also was complaining to maintenance about some noise from the door. They left a message telling us the repair was done, and let them know if we needed anything else. Unfortunately they called again to check when DW was sleeping. Oh well, I gave them points in their survey for fixing it and following up.
It was time to head to Puerto Vallarta. Apparently the hypnotist missed his flight, so that show was postponed. Stu did the Newlywed Game thing in the Pharoah's lounge, but my niece and I headed to a very crowded Versailles room for the Punchliner comedy show with Seth Buchwald. He did relationship type jokes, my niece thought he was hilarious. I thought his jokes were good, even if they covered familiar territory for comedians, and his timing and adlib abilities were well-polished. He was just abrasive enough to be edgy, without being annoying.
I also finally found the gingerbread houses, tucked away above the lobby.
Next up is our family favorite, Puerto Vallarta. It's the whole package, great food, nice weather, beaches, friendly people, and unique shopping (we especially like the Huichol art). Excitedly, I was up early to walk around the upper decks and watch the ship pull in to port through the haze, watching the hotel towers get closer. I sure could feel the humidity now. The port area is much improved from our previous visit a few years ago, when it was pretty much just dirt and pavement. The little flea market was still there.
We love Las Caletas (a little beach excursion), but with limited time we just headed to the Malecon (boardwalk) to walk to the Romantic Zone. We took one of the white vans on the pier for $3 each for the 8 of us. It dropped us off at the north end of the Malecon, which had been recently beautifully rebuilt into a pedestrian corridor. The kids were dying to go in the water but it's not safe on this part. Instead we walked down the half-mile or so to the church, shopping and looking at the statues and sand castles.
I like going into the Huichol gallery there, going into the back room, and flipping on the black light. There's glowing beaded statues, god's eyes, and fabric arts.
We were getting hungry already so after checking out the church (which was packed with people attending a service) and getting some more pesos, we looked for a place to eat. Unfortunately the place we liked best, Cafe de Olla, was still to far, so we picked a place near Sr. Frogs. I don't remember the name, but it was Mexican place that you have to walk up stairs past an Irish pub, of all things.
I think the name of the restaurant was Villa Vallarta. Instead of the fish tacos I had everywhere in Baja, I had spicy beef a la diabla (darn,forgot to look for posole!). It was pretty good, especially with the $8 bottomless margarita. Everyone enjoyed their meal, including the vegetarians who had plenty of choices. We made our way down to the market and crossed the rickety bridge to the island in the river.
There's lots of interesting little shops in the area, including some tamarind-based sweet shops on the street pictured above. There is a large 2-level flea market with lots of souvenirs. The island itself has some nice artists working (I was very impressed by some of it) as well as the incredibly tacky t-shirts that I had forgotten were there from my last visit. We saw a huge iguana sitting up in a tree.
We went downriver to the beach, I remembered that the beaches were better at the south end and you could rent an umbrella there. We stopped at the first place with a safe beach, Los Abuelos. It was full but they built some plastic tables on the spot for us for $15. We ordered drinks and the kids played in the sand.
Later we went in the water, it was still rough where we were but farther down the beach is was quite calm for swimming. The beach was really hopping since lots of Mexican families were there on their holiday break. It was a very festive atmosphere. The water was warm enough but the air got cooler in the late afternoon.
DD enjoyed the grilled tuna on a stick. She ate the whole thing and some of a second, which I finished off.
Our time in PV was much too short for us. We took two cabs back to the pier and hung out a bit before getting back on.
Back on the boat, I went to the juggling show. He told some jokes about the ports and cruise ships, then juggled balls, sometimes in large numbers. I liked the jokes but the juggling wasn't that spectacular, especially from the balcony. He made juggling look easy, which is too bad because he also made it look boring.
Manzanillo was probably the highlight of our stops.
DD had seen a movie called "The Last Song", a tearjerker staring Miley Cyrus, and loved it. When Hannah Montana wasn't chasing boys, she was trying to protect some baby turtle eggs from critters and helping the babies get to the ocean. I came across the fact that there was a turtle sanctuary near Manzanillo, so I looked for an excursion to see the babies. There's a standard tour called "Turtles and Mangroves" which takes you to the sanctuary as well as a boat ride through a nearby lagoon. Unfortunately, Carnival didn't offer this so I selected lujotours.com from recommendations here and on tripadvisor. They quoted me $60 pp for the 5 of us (my family plus my sister).
Despite the early hour (before 7 ship time), I couldn't resist watching us pull in to the last foreign port. Manzanillo is the largest port on Mexico's west coast, and there are some smokestacks in the distance, but the appearance is otherwise of a small, scenic Mexican city, much smaller than Puerto Vallarta. The town itself is in reasonably good shape, and the roads are excellent. Apparently it is very safe as well, and some of my relatives spent the day exploring it on foot (there wasn't much to see). There are some beaches a taxi ride away on the far side of the bay, as well as south towards the resort area of Las Hadas.
We found Luis, our guide, waiting for us at the end of the pier at the appointed time. We climbed into his SUV and took the back road out of town. We stopped off at a fruit stand and he took us to the orchard behind. He showed us some of the local fruit, including huge jackfruit. We also saw guava, mango, bananas, and much more. Jackfruit is chewy and sweet.
At the turtle sanctuary, about a 45 minute drive, we saw that there are also some iguanas. I noticed some fellow passengers there, who used a different tour company (no wonder they didn't get back to my email request).
We went around back where there was a crocodile enclosure. Since it was hot and humid the croc was well hid in the muck. There was also a tank with some baby turtles for us to look at. They sure are cute, swimming around the huge tank as fast as they can.
Luis had a surprise for us, he had arranged for us to release some of the baby turtles into the ocean. DD was in tears the night before; she was worried about the safety of the baby turtles, so I was glad she would have this experience. We followed the sanctuary guide with a bucket of turtles down to the beach.
He drew a line in the sand and handed a baby turtle to each of us to "race" to the sea. They didn't need to be coaxed, they ran as fast as they could into the surf. Luckily they all made it in!
They showed us some mature sea turtles, which are kept there to show visitors what they look like fully grown. At that time they were changing the water in the tanks.
Steps away from the visitor's center, we boarded some motorboats for our jungle cruise. We sprayed the kids with mosquito spray but DD still got a few nasty bites. We headed into Cuyutlan lagoon toward some mangrove swamps.
On the way were some lily pads. Great blue herons rested under the trees. My sister is a birder, so she was delighted by all the egrets, herons and eagles. There was a baby croc resting near a tree branch.
We had asked Luis for a little beach time, which isn't part of the regular tour. He took us to the little old beach town of Cuyutlan. it was a popular resort around 100 years ago, but declined after the railway was extended to Manzanillo. Luis bought us lunch at the Hotel Feliz, a friendly place filled with Mexican families on holiday. It's a charming old place a block or two from the beach. I had some Shrimp a la diabla, and everyone enjoyed their meals.
We made our way to the beach. The normally sleepy town was filled with holiday visitors. The sand is black due to the local volcanoes. The kids played for a while until the lifeguard whistled everyone back. The undertow can get rough here. There were some public showers behind the beach to clean off the black sand. Then we headed back on the freeway route to Manzanillo. Luis apologized for the bad holiday traffic, there was about 10 cars in front of us in the toll plaza. I let him know that being from the Bay Area, this was a breeze! It was a quick 20 minute drive back to the ship.
My nephew did the Colima tour with the pre-Columbian ruins. He enjoyed it greatly, he really wanted to see some ruins and that was his best chance on the west coast. He was just a little disappointed that it wasn't used for human sacrifice, since it wasn't a Mesoamerican culture.
We missed some excitement back on the boat. Apparently someone was playing ping pong a little too enthusiastically and fell through the glass down on to a lounger on the lido deck below. I don't know what became him, the ship was a little late out of port so I don't know if he made it back on board or had to stay in the hospital.
Later that night, we went to see Keith Turner in the Shanghai room. It looks kind of like an old school Chinese restaurant. The place was pretty empty for most of the time.
We had heard that he makes it hard for people to sing along, and it's true that he would only occassionally pass the mike to a guy who was also a good singer. He would play most of our requests. I thought I would have a little fun, and requested "Natural Woman". He said that he would sing only sing the verse and I would have to sing the chorus. OK, I said to his surprise, so when I sang it, I pointed to DW and sang, "IIIII make you feel, IIIII make you feel, IIIII make you feel like a natural woman...." This got laughs from everyone, and I pointed out to Keith that he could expand his repertoire greatly by using this technique.
Later, we went to the hypnosis show with Jac Rene. I was amused, but not overly impressed since I had seen hypnosis many years before with such greats as the "Hip Hypnotist" and the Amazing Kreskin. DS, however, was almost rolling on the floor with laughter to see adults acting so silly.
We were heading out of the tropics already, so I thought I would take advantage of the weather while it was still warm. I finally went down the now-gone waterslide. Unfortunately I didn't get another chance as every time I went back it was closed due to wind. I also noticed that the adjacent kiddie play area (which I had never noticed before) was starting to disappear in preparation for drydock.
I played some trivia in the lounge, came close but didn't win each time. DS was with me and I helped him make friends with another boy his age. The 8 of us met in the quiet Jungle lounge to chat, I think that a reason that it isn't heavily trafficked is that it is in the front of the ship. It is both out of the way and highly affected by ship movement.
There was a Tea Time in the MDR that day. Only nephew's wife and DD wanted to join me. We were by the aft windows. It was OK, they just gave you a tea bag and a cup of hot water as they always do. You could have a teapot if you requested it. The snacks were OK, the macaroons were best. It wasn't as authentic as the tea we had at San Francisco's Dickens Fair, but it was very relaxing.
It was the second formal night. People were even more dressed up than the first one, I saw a lot of tuxes and most men were wearing jackets. Not me, I had just a tie and so I felt a little underdressed. I'll talk more about the food separately, but I was satisfied overall. It was great to see everyone dressed up, I must admit.
The show was Big Easy, which really is spectacular and even a little frenetic. I appreciate the energy of the performers, who were pretty good if not perfect. The sets are great. I liked the singer who looked like Liza more than the one who looked like Barbie (Stephanie and Lauren, don't know which is which). David and Scott were both good as well. The second show was cancelled for some reason, maybe increased ship motion. There were a lot of disappointed people as that show wasn't rescheduled.
Going back to last night, the 30th, DD really likes dance parties (OK me too), so we went to one hosted by Stu on the Lido. I had sworn that I would never do anything as silly as a conga line. It seemed as corny to me as putting a lampshade on my head. Nevertheless, egged on by Stu, DD and I jumped at the end of the line, which was handled expertly by the crew. The line curved around and around in the small Lido section. There was not dancing involved as in the old movies, it was mainly a matter of trying not to get run over by the people behind you.
My sister was nice enough to buy some tattoos for DD. DD was nervous because she thought that they would be using a needle, but was brave enough to go ahead. She was quite relieved when she found out that they would be painted on.
In the afternoon they held the guest talent show. The singers were pretty good, including the guy we had seen singing in the Piano lounge. went up to the top decks a various times to look for sea creatures. I saw a couple of whales spouting, various mantas jumping into the air, and a pod of several dolphins following the ship for a time.
Finally, the night I had been waiting for... Lobster night! Oh, and it was New Year's Eve, so they also distributed party hats and noisemakers at the table. Looking for something to do after dinner, we headed for the showroom to find it mostly empty. They started a game show, so I volunteered and didn't win. My nephew did the next game, he was way ahead when the MC decided to mix things up to make the score more even. This enraged DS who thought it was totally unfair. He had to be comforted by DW who tried to tell him the game is just for fun. Eventually my nephew came in second, but since he was actually leading until his score was changed, he got a ship on a stick as well. We all cheered him and DS calmed down a bit.
We sat outside the piano lounge and listened to the excellent show band that was playing therein. Some of us went in to dance now and then. It was around 11 when we saw the sparkling wine starting to be distributed. I got to hand it to them, they really let the stuff flow. There were waiters everywhere carrying trays of flutes and handing them to anyone with empty hands. That worked out well for me because they kept handing out glasses to my teetotalling relatives, who then handed them off to me (yes, that means that I usually had two glasses in my hands).
The hour was approaching, so we headed back to the lobby for the countdown. The cover band was very good. Stu did the countdown and the balloons dropped. A few minutes later, the band (Music Society, all Filipino!) were singing Hava Nagila and a hora erupted. It was fun but tomorrow was debarkation so we headed off to sleep.
"Psst.... Wake up, wake up...." Stu whispered quietly as I lay awakening. Of course, I didn't roll over to find Stu in place of DW, because I knew that that's how they get you out of your room at the end of the cruise. Despite staying up late, I had again woken up a little early.
We had left our bags outside the door to be picked up the night before, so we got dressed and headed up to Lido for breakfast to wait for our number to be called. At around 10 we were called and dragged our carryons down the elevators and the ramp out. Since we zipped by our Canadian relatives who had to wait in a separate line, we waited outside the terminal for them to get out. I had time to go back to the Doubletree to get the van, too. We said our goodbyes and agreed we had a great time. My nephew said that he would cruise again, and my niece had already signed on to a cruise on a different line.
Since we were traveling with a large group, we at in the MDR each night. It was nice having an 8 top that could seat us all. Overall, I enjoyed the food. I was excited to see the menus, that was a big factor in selecting the cruise. In retrospect, I think I was more excited about the appetizers, which looked like stuff I wouldn't have locally. The entrees were OK but didn't blow me away. I would compare them to something you might get from Trader Joe's: a cheaper cut of meat with a lot of seasoning to hide that. I'll go through them each below.
We were disadvantaged in that they didn't have Kid's menus for some reason, so I had to prompt the children about their choices each night. They just wanted burgers each night, so we had to get them to get something different sometimes like pizza or something off the adult menu. We didn't push them though, and they really enjoyed the burgers and pizza. DS also loved the chicken strips and french fries. I have to agree that the fries were pretty good, as long as they were hot. The vegetarians in our group enjoyed their meals too, I didn't keep track but they were happy with the variety available.
For breakfast, the kids had sweetened cereals most every day. We don't usually let them eat that stuff so they were very happy. The best bet for me was the omelet station, for a freshly made omelet with peppers and onions, or for eggs made to order. I was annoyed once, though, when the cook threw mushrooms in that I didn't ask for. The lines weren't too bad. I also liked the bagel and lox when we ordered the free room service. I did eat breakfast once in the MDR to try it, it was the only way to get french toast, which was OK.
I did like the appetizers a great deal, and following what I had read here I wasn't shy about ordering multiples, usually 3. The portions were small enough to give a taste without feeling like I was overeating. I got to eat stuff I wouldn't normally order, like gazpacho, which was really good and fresh-tasting. When the waiter brought the plate, I had to explain to my tablemates that I would be getting the liquid in a moment, as I had seen from the photos here. The cured salmon was good but a little sweet for me, and I found that a lot of the appetizers tended toward sweet. The strawberry bisque was as good as I had heard, but I thought it was a bit of a cheat since it was essentially melted ice cream.
I like cucumbers so I really enjoyed the cucumber soup, but the sushi isn't very impressive to a regular sushi eater. The Tom Kha Gai soup was about as good as I would expect from a Thai restaurant. When I got the smoked duck, I had forgotten what I had ordered, so my tablemates and I were trying to guess what it was! Eventually I remembered, but I like duck so I liked this as well. DW had the escargot, she enjoyed them so much she didn't dare any of the rest of us to try one. Same with the frog legs.
The cherry soup was similar to the strawberry bisque, but I didn't mind. The seafood platter, with smoked salmon, shrimp and ahi tartare was good, I was glad to have some raw fish. The crab cake was also satisfying. The gazpacho blanco was tasty , and I didn't know there was another kind! I had the chance for more raw meat with the beef carpaccio, which was light and delicious.
My first entree was the chicken a la greque. I felt guilty for ordering something so healthy for my first dinner, but it was OK for skinless chicken. As I said before, I'm not a big prime rib fan, but it was good enough for what it was. I'll have to try it at someplace fancy like House of Prime Rib to see what it really could be. I like lamb, so I enjoyed the heart leg/rack combo. The flat iron steak was not as bad as some have said, it wasn't too chewy or gristly, it was lean yet tender. However, even though I like steak, I wouldn't order this in a restaurant. The NY strip was quite good, it's my favorite cut and it was done right, and with a good peppercorn sauce. It was a decent size as well. I also had the filet/short rib combo, I know it's to save money, but I didn't mind as the short rib was good, and and interesting contrast to the filet. The jerk pork surprised me, I had jerk before and wasn't too impressed but this tasted flavorful and the sauce went well with the humble pork chop. Finally, the lobster wasn't the best I'd every had, but hey! It's lobster! So I enjoyed it, in fact I made sure I got 2 or 3 to fill me up (another tip from CC).
I'm not a big dessert eater but I did make room every meal (except after the lobster on the final night, my stomach gave up). The chocolate melting cake really was delicious, DD ordered it almost every night. The creme brulee is a nice treat, it is made in a wide cup so you get a lot of sugar on top. The bitter and blanc was good for something different. It's a bread pudding with vanilla sauce.
The food was probably as good as it could be, given the institutional setting and the less-expensive ingredients usually used. It came out warm, if not hot, and tasted fresh. The meats were cooked properly and were tender. I also tried the bacon mac and cheese, DS likes mac and cheese but passed it over to me. He had picked off most of the bacon before I got to it, but I wasn't impressed. I found it a bit thin but I like my mac and cheese to be more like cheese with macaroni. I also didn't like that they threw a chicken breast on top to make it an entree.