I was skeptical to take another cruise out of Galveston with Carnival. My last cruise on the Ecstasy was five nights with stops in Progreso and Cozumel in June of 2008. On that cruise, I had an obstructed ocean view and felt like a stranger in a strange land. I’m not Texan. I don’t like country music. I have no tolerance for children running around in my vicinity. I don’t even like frozen sweet tropical drinks or mass-produced American beers.
This August my in-laws invited my spouse and me to join them for a 7 night cruise on the Carnival Magic in mid November. They are in their late Seventies. This was an invitation I couldn’t pass up. Spending time with parents is a limited commodity as we get older.
I did a lot of research mostly at Cruise Critic to find out how to maximize the potential with what could have been a disastrously disappointing experience. It completely paid off. This cruise converted me to a Carnival aficionado, and now I’ve caught the cruise bug.
My experience on the Magic for the Eastern Caribbean itinerary wasn’t only incredibly luxurious, despite some minor nits, it was ‘magical.’
This liner is very large, accommodating nearly 3700 passengers with 15 decks. However, the common areas where I found myself were never overcrowded. The décor of the ship is sort of an Eighties rainbow tropical mash up. It’s a little Vegas, but not in bad taste. The strobing lights in the lobby, hallways, and Ocean plaza were pretty. There are so many areas to explore, I was discovering new venues even on the last day. Deck 5 has a wide Lanai which circles the entire ship--a fabulous opportunity for some walking exercise and some sea spray.
I found myself meeting others in the Ocean plaza on deck five for trivia games. This was the same venue for live entertainment at other times on the ship. It opens onto a special zone on the Lanai, which was one of the few areas of the ship where smokers were welcome. An occasional waft of smoke was the price to pay if one sits here because the automatic doors open often to the outside of the ship. As for smoking in general, the ship was very clean. However, it is allowed in the casino, which is unavoidable, since it takes up the entire midship of the promenade, deck 5. Frankly, the casino stunk of cigarette smoke. I’m not much for gambling, but there was a Carnival Player’s Club event for my cruise which had the casino buzzing with a lot of activity. I hear the odds are very bad at sea relative to land casinos, but someone won $2500 and a free cruise there.
The sports deck on 12 had a lot of family activity toward the aft of the ship with a full sized basketball court, mini golf, foosball, ping pong, outdoor exercise equipment, the ropes course (which looked fun but never got the chance to try), and the waterworks area with two different large water slides, a big soaker bucket and two smaller slides.
I never lounged around the two pools on deck 10, the Lido, where the majority of activity was centered. There were always chairs available, but the area was too crowded for me. I noticed one in the aft pool one morning all by herself. Mornings might be the best time to avoid crowds for taking a dip. The hot tubs tended to be bustling with groups of 4 to 6 sipping frozen tropical drinks and buckets of beer. There are 8 public hot tubs on the ship: two in the adults-only Serenity area, two on the Lido at the aft pool, and 4 on the Lanai around the ship. I suspect that the Lanai hot tubs were used less frequently because they were a little out of the way of most ship cruiser traffic. However, I was happy with my Thalassotherapy spa where it was always quieter. One night I saw a couple drinking beer in the spa hot tub. I was surprised that the Spa attendants didn’t say anything. I’d liken this behavior to smoking weed during yoga—gauche.
The Serenity area is large, with aqua cushions on chaises, round loungers big enough for two, hammocks, and shaded seating. There was also a separate bar with seats for about 12. A waiter strolled the area to take drink orders. This was my deck hang out. Our weather was overcast with quite a bit of overnight rain, and Serenity was practically deserted. There were also a couple of smaller areas on the Sun Deck one deck below just aft of the Serenity flanking the Waterworks which had comfy chairs and great sea views.
Faster To The Fun
A $49 upgrade from the base fare per cabin gave us some premium level benefits only otherwise afforded to Platinum and Diamond cruisers with 10+ cruises on Carnival. If you can snag one of these, offered as an excursion, I couldn’t recommend them enough. It starts with special luggage tags that cue the embarkation port attendants to expedite your luggage to your room. They asked us to march straight to the front of the line where they had separate embarkation agents checking our IDs and medical affidavits before we got our Sign and Sail cards. FTF does not give you access to the premium lounge, however. We were considered priority boarding and got on in this order: wedding parties, diamond, platinum VIFP groups, suites, Carnival Players Club, FTF, then in the numbered boarding groups by zone. From luggage drop off to boarding was about 30 minutes, as we arrived around 10:30A. Upon boarding, our cabins were already cleaned and ready for us to drop off our carry-ons. We had finished lunch before more than half of the people had boarded. By the time we were done with lunch, our luggage was in our rooms. We were first to debark as well, after the self-service cruisers who carried all of their luggage. FTF gives you access to a separate window with no line and priority attention at guest services which I used to quickly clear up a question about my account and get the tender for in Belize. I’m not sure, but it may have helped with my specialty dining reservations and request for Any Time Dining. In any case, it helped to avoid many more lines, which do not please me.
The Cloud 9 spa is actually on two decks, the fitness center, locker room and saunas on 12, and with thermal suites and treatment rooms on 14. I loved the proximity to the gym from the balcony on 11. I could take a private elevator between 11 and all the way up to the Serenity deck on 15. I spent multiple mornings on the LifeFitness elliptical trainer gazing out to sea. Spa amenities also gave me two free yoga / Pilates classes which were not absolutely conveniently timed, but I did make one yoga class. There were 5 of us in that class led by an enthusiastic Aussie Kevin who was great. I also went to a fee-based ($15) spin class with Kevin (only three people in that class!) and burned serious calories as well as learned a few tricks to take back to the gym at home for spinning. On port days, the ship offers free morning stretch classes for all cruisers. I participated in a couple of those as well. They were more like Yoga-lite and perfectly adequate. There were never more than 6 people in these classes. Fitness wise, it was like we had private lessons.
The thermal suites are a little piece of heaven! Don your bathing suit, put on your upgraded Cloud 9 bathrobe, and if you’re like me, try to stuff your size 13 foot into a size 8 slipper (they’re too small!), and take a trip to Nirvana. The medium warm tepidarium has six tiled, heated chaise lounges with a gorgeous private view of the sea. Just next to it was the warmer laconium, with two heated chaises and a wall of heated benches across the back. There are two separate steam baths: the oriental with a spicy herbal scent to it and the even warmer aroma steam bath which features menthol and eucalyptus in the air. None of these rooms ever had more than 4 people in them. It was so peaceful. Just around the corner from here is another semi private multi-head shower with color therapy. I probably spent the most time in the covered Thalassotherapy pool which amply fit about eleven people, but never exceeded about 6. There’s a long underwater chaise which maximizes the jets against the backs and the legs. The jets pushed me off the chaise they were so powerful. At the end of the pool there were two power showers which felt great to pour down against my shoulders and back. All of the spa facilities are available from 8AM – 10PM daily. Some nights I stole away just before retiring to catch some relaxation in that hot tub.
I developed some strong shoulder pain that no ibuprofen would allay during the trip, so I considered a ’la carte spa services. I opted for a $129 special (don’t forget the automatic 15% tip surcharge) on day five that included exfoliation, hot stone back, neck, shoulder and scalp massage and a facial in 75 minutes of treatment. This was actually a good deal, and much cheaper than my initial recommended course. Having read the warnings about the hard product sell after treatments, I printed clearly on my intake form that I didn’t want any products. My very nice technician told me after I was finished that this made her feel sad and still pushed a face wash, scrub and mask on me. I eventually caved for the wash and scrub at an additional $77. Forewarned is forearmed when it comes to these services. The reason they include so many services in one package is that it gives them an opportunity to sell you exfoliator, shampoo/scalp, massage, facial, and even a very pricey detox program. The facial was good and so was the back massage. As a point of reference, at first I told them about my shoulder pain and they recommended acupuncture. These treatments are $150 a piece, and the specialist recommended 5 sessions at a $150 discount of $600. $pendy. I was also curious about the Botox / Dysport treatments on the ship so I consulted with the ship’s doctor day one about my crow’s feet (~$350). She recommended a total brow lift across my “much worse” forehead (~$450) and midbrow (~$350) for a discounted price of $800 if I booked them all together. These also included free touch ups during the cruise. I don’t know if this is a good deal, but it was definitely beyond my budget.
There’s more food on this ship than anyone can eat, but I tried. :)
The Prime Steakhouse
I started out with a reservation on night one made well in advance at the Prime Steakhouse which included a free bottle of wine for our table of four. We tried to get another bottle saying that we were two cabins, but they balked. The free wine is passable, not the best. However, it was free and I love that price! I savored this intimate, upscale restaurant ($35 upcharge) which seats about 80 people. The service was extremely professional, from the chummy bartender at the entrance to the friendly wait staff. The nights began with a cocktail at the very small bar at the front of the restaurant. The absolutely charming Gabriela from Hungary took sweet care of us for my standard classic Crown Royal Manhattan on the rocks (she sought out Angostura bitters to finish the drink for me personally) and a Hendricks gin martini up for the husband. Both of these call brand cocktails come in at under $10. I’m used to $14 cocktails in the bars in Chicago, so the prices were reasonable to me. We got to know Gabriela, and she recognized us by name. This bar was so nice; we had pre-prandial cocktails there on four evenings. It made me feel like I was the only person on the ship for a swank, intimate encounter.
We enjoyed the ambiance and food at the Prime Steakhouse so much, we ate there twice. The evening begins with an amuse bouche. We sampled the tomato water, the lobster carpaccio, and crab croquettes. The croquettes stood out. Appetizers and sides were also delicious, from the giant shrimp cocktail to the rich, earthy lobster bisque to the excellent tuna tartar to the surprisingly airy escargot puffs with amazing dipping sauce. The crab cake was so good! It’s just a whole head and shoulders above the absolutely fine crab cake appetizer in the MDR. As for salads, I loved my beefsteak tomato and blue cheese salad, but the Caesar salad could have been better. It was served traditional, whole romaine leaf style with a thick dressing. It’s better than the one they serve in the MDR which tended to be small and underdressed, but doesn’t match the finishing and detail of so many of the other menu items in the steakhouse. The spinach salad was ample, competent, and tasty. The first night was rife with beef, and I tried the 5 spice rubbed bone-in 18 oz. hangar steak. The prime meat was grilled perfectly and seriously too big. Dear father in law loved his 9 oz. filet mignon. “One of the best I’ve ever eaten,” he remarked. A more petit filet comes with the surf and turf. The hubby got the lamb chops. This was the biggest serving of lamb chops I’ve ever seen. It also included perfectly succulent lamb loin medallions if the three giant chops aren’t enough.
The second time we went back for two only and focused only on fish and shellfish. We were still blown away with quality. Evidently, so was the staff. This Thursday evening, a formal night in the MDR, the restaurant filled with officers of the ship, including the cruise director, the shopping expert, and surprisingly, a table of the captain and his senior crewmen ship in their very fancy black jackets with epaulets and gold braids. Needless to say, I felt like a VIP sitting next to them. Unfortunately, we didn’t chat because their entire conversation was in Italian! On my second visit, entrée choices were sea bass and lobster tail for us. Perfectly cooked. Absolutely delectable. Note that they only have one size of large lobster tail in the steakhouse: 7 oz. It’s split for a surf and turf and three halves are served for the lobster tail entrée. Sides are unremarkable, unfortunately. We tried the large portion of plain steamed broccoli, basic baked potato with nice side dish of bacon, butter, and sour cream, horseradish whipped potatoes which were just a bit too creamy for my taste, and the strange creamed spinach which consisted of steamed spinach leaves with garlic cream poured on top of them. I actually prefer Boston Market on this one! One standout side was the plain sautéed button mushrooms. These are hard to beat. Desserts were gigantic and amazing from the rich, tall cheesecake which easily feeds three to the chocolate sampler in four tasting portions. Two standouts were the decadent, caramelized apples in a puff pastry dome for which my server announced was the best thing on their menu. Don’t underestimate the cheese course, either. It was chock full of very high quality cheeses: French brie, St. Andre (crazy stinky), Roquefort, aged gouda, almonds, water crackers and a perfect little cluster of grapes. This alone would cost $15-$20 at any fine restaurant. I must not forget the bread choices: rosemary focaccia or a delicious little brioche roll. They’re served with a trio of smears including butter, tomato relish and eggplant relish.
Bottom line, this place is near perfect. Another couple we met on the ship told us the same story: they were so blown away with the place, they came back twice. I want to share a final note about reservations in the steakhouse. If you use the reservation system, it may seem full and sometimes hard to get a table. My experience, however, was that it was often not full by more than half. My suspicion is that people make the reservations and then forget to cancel, for which there’s no penalty. Because of this, we arrived 45 minutes early the second night expecting to have a cocktail before dinner and we were seated almost right away. We also saw people coming into the restaurant and being seated without reservations. Words to the wiser!
The Chef’s Table
I was very pleasantly surprised by the sheer artistry of the Chef’s Table. I’m also happy to report that we experienced a new, third menu for this dinner. I reserved well in advance of the cruise by about 6 weeks through the Steakhouse email@example.com. At our seating, there were 16 cruisers participating. I was told that this was the second offering on this ship this cruise and that because of demand they may have expanded to up to four evenings. In other words, Carnival accommodates for this special event. We met early in the evening at 6:15 in the piano lounge for four appetizers. The pre-dinner event was moved from the Vibe nightclub due to a conflict. A tall stem of champagne accompanied what began a culinary journey which lasted almost three hours. The chef de cuisine and three of his white-toqued sous brought us delectable little bites including an unusual mango sphere which resembled an egg yolk made possible by molecular gastronomy techniques on a savory rosemary cracker. The standout amuses were the salmon tartar mini hand roll and the double crusted lamb meat balls. The third beef carpaccio on air pillow was wild. It looked like nothing I’ve ever eaten before. This is a theme for the dinner: presentations are spectacularly adventurous. Chefs and his assistants explain everything and answer any questions. You’ll feel pampered. From the lounge, we marched into the galley. It’s a clean machine of efficiency and volume. About halfway in, we found ourselves at a white table clothed table with fine china and stemware. Our host, the chef de cuisine was warm and animated.
I found my place card with a scrolled personalized menu for the evening featuring a ribbon with a star anise closure. The bread presentation then came with savory thin crisps separating brioche curls with caramelized onions and herbs. Three surprises flank the end of the bread board: a roasted garlic clove, and two different cherry tomatoes which were delicious. I’ve never eaten any tomatoes prepared this way. They were unusual in that they looked raw but were somehow cooked. They were like a little bite of magic. Red or white wine flowed freely at the table, a 2013 Mezzacorona Pinot Grigio or a McGuigan Bin Series Merlot, both about $10 a bottle in retail stores.
We began the seven course journey with a gorgeous, multilayered beet ‘blanket’ served with a grape tea. Many of the courses are served with separate finishing pours and this was the first of them. This course was beautiful! Diners would be served simultaneously. During every course, the assistants or the Chef himself would crouch down to the table to ensure that everything was to our liking. Next was a delectable crab salad served on a polenta cracker with passion fruit caviar, another gastronomy trick. The duck textures, basically duck two-ways, was delicate with the creamy quinoa and parmesan churros. Probably the most spectacular presentation was the Bisque our way, where two separate tomato soups are poured simultaneously into the plate with a ‘log’ of whipped cream and herbs separating them. Wow.
We then stopped and took a tour through the service area where we learned some amazing facts about the kitchen and food preparation on the ship from the Chef. He explained that for a one week cruise, he will order $450,000 worth of food to be delivered in Galveston. They prepare 4000 meals for the brunches and dinners in the MDRs per day! He showed us a computer screen which shows a grid of every order to be completed in real time during the dinner with color coding for modifiers like temperature for steaks. We paraded by stations where we learned that for safety, there are no flames at all in the kitchen. All food, even the grilled steaks are made with on water-heated grills. We saw how each entrée on the menu has a picture at the completion station to cue the assistants on presentations. We then stopped by the pastry area of the kitchen where we met the head pastry chef. He gave us the recipe for Carnival’s signature warm melting cake and demonstrated the preparation. Basically a custardy soufflé of eggs, sugar, butter, cocoa and flour, I discovered the real secret to this dessert: Felchlin Lucerne 44% fine Swiss cocoa powder. They prepare 1450 of these every night.
We next marched back to the table where we were greeted with a close up magician who entertained the table with two illusions, one at each end. This was just delightful. The sea bass with fried pop corn pudding, savory lemon macaron, and lobster foam was another winner as the next course. The Wagyu beef short rib with bone marrow soufflé and gremolata crisp was finished with a flourish of demi glace. It was rich and succulent. Finally, we ended with a tapestry plate of sea salt praline chocolate, raspberry, key lime cake, another sweet macaron, and apricot vanilla gel. Just amazing.
By now, our group photos were ready and each of us got a picture of the Chef’s Table and participants. We got to know some very nice and interesting people at this meal. Attire was evening casual with a mix of jackets and ties, but plenty of polos and collared shirts for the men. Women as a group looked very nice, but there were no gowns nor sequins. These conventions are an artifact of the past. The Chef stood for pictures with people and the end of the event. Before I booked the Chef’s Table, I had read that this multi-course menu may not approach the finest five star restaurants in large cities. That is NOT the case. This food is a tour-de-force of techniques, ingredients, and presentations. The synchronized service is near perfect. With the champagne, unlimited wine, entertainment, intermezzos, and complimentary photograph, the value is unprecedented. If you’re adventurous or a foodie, it’s a must!
Cuchina Del Capitano
I never had a chance to try this restaurant in the evening when there is a $15 surcharge. I did however, love it for lunch. Even better, you’ll get quasi table service with an excellent, limited food menu. At lunch, I’d walk up the stairs and visit the hostess who’d assign my party a number and individual ordering menus which are filled out and dropped off at the kitchen. You find any open table, fill your order and wait a short time for your food. The ambience was like a little Italian village. Like most of my favorite places on the Magic, it seemed like a hidden gem. The décor is quaint, and it was never crowded. Honestly, the lunch service was a little slow here. There was also a wait to get an alcoholic drink ordered and delivered. If you order a beer with lunch, which is great because they offer Peroni and Moretti in the Cuchina, they have to get a bar waiter from downstairs to come up. A minor gripe. It’s a cruise! Who’s on a timetable? The limited menu consists of salad, bread, made to order pasta and a spectacular lasagna. Salad and bread were just okay, kind of plain. The made to order pasta, for which you could choose your pasta type: penne, linguini, farfalle; sauce: marinara, Bolognese, red clam, or alfredo (fancy patrons were ordering ‘pink’ sauce, which is a mix of the marinara and the alfredo), and then a nice assortment of vegetables, chicken, or shrimp. My farfalle with marinara, vegetables and shrimp was very delicious. The lasagna is in a class by itself. A generous portion of layered pasta sheets, it included layers of spinach, eggplant planks, and whole chunks of braised beef underneath bubble, melted cheese. This should probably be illegal it’s so good. I wanted to try the arancini, but alas! They’re only available at dinner. Even one evening when the Cuchina’s cuisine was featured at the taste bar, there were none to be had. I guess there’s always a next time…
The Red Frog Pub
On the Lanai deck right next to the Vibe nightclub sits a large Caribbean style l-shaped pub with convenient outdoor seating on deck. This lively, warm venue featured a variety of beers, specialty mixed drinks and island-inspired small plates to share. The servers are mostly from the islands as well; very friendly and, like most of the staff on ship, surprisingly apt to remember my name with a second visit. When it comes to beer, the place features Red Frog Ale made especially for Carnival. You can order a large 20 oz. pint or a 110 ounce beer tube with a spigot at the bottom for communal sharing. I mentioned that I don’t care for mass produced American beer, and in my opinion, the Red Frog Ale is on par with them. Unless you’re going for quantity, just pass on this. They also serve Boddington’s in the can and Guinness here. When it comes to specialty drinks, the Pub offers many of the fruity, tropical, “drink two of these and get a headache from sugar” cocktails as well. You can order most in these giant fishbowl goblets which can throw you for a loop. I liked their specialty “Ting” cocktails made with a grapefruit soda and white liquor like gin or vodka. The gin Ting is very refreshing since they spice it up with a dash of bitters. As for the food, it’s a tasty winner. Presentations are rustic island themed in paper lined wire cones with long plantain chips mixed in with the mostly fried offerings like fish fingers and excellent coconut shrimp with a sweet and spicy dipping sauce. We tried the conch fritters as well and found them to be good, but aren’t what you’d find in Mallory Square in Key West. They unfortunately have a spice in the batter which fries to a shell-like hardness. When I bit into them, I felt like I was going to chip my teeth. The conch ceviche was delicious. The portion big enough, but suffered from a lack of saltines or bread with which to eat it. I also tried the chicken roti and found them to be satisfying. Any food ordered in the Red Frog will run $3.33. They are all certainly big enough to share. Go with a dining mate; and with the ambience, live music in the evenings, and quality, it’s a fun place.
I was happy to reserve a Your Time Dining reservation. We ate in the Northern Lights room always at a separated table for four. The room is large, on two levels. I preferred to eat on the edges of the restaurant rather than in the two-story open center. While the view of the singing and dancing waiters is better in the center since they tend to gather along the crescent stairways to perform, I did not care for the large blue green florescent chandeliers casting and unsavory glow on my food and my family. It’s more intimate under the eaves. We never really waited in long lines to be seated when we’d typically appear between 6:15 and 7:30, maybe three or four parties before us. It was only on our last night that there was a bit of a wait, so we were offered a pager to let us know when our table was ready. It’s completely convenient, since the lobby lounge opens onto the dining room. We just excused ourselves and sat and chatted on the sofas for about 25 minutes while we sipped a drink from the bar. The quality of the food in the MDR is a bit hit or miss. I was never dissatisfied. I loved the variety and didn’t order off of the everyday items menu. I liked more adventurous fare, often trying a ‘Didja’ appetizer which included interesting fare like frog’s legs Provençale and braised Ox tongue. The fish entrees were typically overcooked to my liking. I asked the waiter if they could cook my salmon to more of a medium consistency and he said it would be too difficult for the kitchen with the volume. I thought the Panko breaded shrimp were delectable, as was the rich, sherried seafood Newburg. Soups were consistently good and often interesting with options like strawberry or chilled peach, a hearty navy bean, and a surprisingly spicy Tom Kha with chicken.
My in laws thought that their food was often not hot enough for them. I’m not as sensitive to temperature and found mostly everything very good. For dessert, I loved the warm chocolate melting cake with vanilla ice cream; it’s totally decadent. We had four different dining captains when we ate and each was quite special, but it wasn’t until the last night that we really struck the jackpot and had a waiter who was clearly trained in a five star establishment. From the whisking of the napkins to our lap, the attentive and friendly service, to the use of a crumb catcher, he was spot on! The others had strengths in different ways. One evening, our friendly waiter surprised us all at the table with a solo singing performance to the entire dining room after the wait staff finished their number. Another night, we had a guy who comped us our after-dinner drinks and didn’t charge the corkage fee for the wine we brought to share at the table from the cabin. Yet one other night, when my in-laws were dissatisfied with their food temperature, our waiter tried to buy our satisfaction with extra appetizers, entrees and desserts to the table. It wasn’t like we needed the extra food, but I can (but probably shouldn’t) always eat a few more shrimp or a few forkfuls of cake. If I had to put my finger on the issue with the MDR, it would be that the servers are spread too thin. It doesn’t help that every 45 minutes or so, they all MUST convene in the center of the room to sing a song together. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the live entertainment, waving my napkin above my head with the majority of the diners. However, when your domed entrée sits on a large serving tray cooling with 14 others while you wait for the musical number to end, there’s kind of a disconnect here.
Sea days gave us brunches in the Southern Lights dining room. There was always a line for this, but it moved briskly and we were seated within 15 minutes of arriving. As a bonus, as a repeat Carnival cruiser, I was offered coupons for free drinks at brunch. They’ve got a delicious bloody Mary bar right outside the dining room with multiple ingredients and hot sauces all mixed to order with a generous pour of Belvedere vodka. No complaints here whatsoever! Brunches would start with a basket of breads and sweet rolls. Coffee and juices at brunch were included with no surcharge, so that was nice. The special menu had nice savory options like salmon and mildly spicy Cornish hen diavola, which I thought was great, as well as omelets made to order. Standard breakfast options like eggs or sausage or waffles were good as well. A totally delicious and easily overlooked option was the jerked bacon on the Caesar salad. The spice rub on that bacon was amazing. We got four pieces, so I shared them. We all loved it. Not so good was the soupy mac and cheese which suffered from too high a béchamel to cheese ratio. Seating could be communal or at smaller tables. One morning we asked for a window view. They suggested a long 10 top five seats from the window at first. We said we didn’t prefer it, so they moved us immediately to a gorgeous view aft of the ship right at the window with the azure eddies from the engines coloring the ship’s trail in the water.
I avoided this area of the ship almost entirely. I think it’s great for families, but the idea of carrying around an oversized plastic plate on a tray and finding a clean, available booth to sit in seems unnecessarily downscale. One would typically have to stop at multiple stations with multiple lines. In almost no case were these lines very long, about 3 or four people waiting, but it’s like a giant Golden Corral. I don’t eat hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, or even pizza when there’s a finer dining option just steps away. It always seemed like the line for the Mongolian Wok which wrapped around the area was too long. Skipped it. There were three areas here which did get my attention, however. The first was the deli portside aft of the ship. The in-laws tried the Reuben and were underwhelmed. The meat portion was skimpy as were the sauerkraut, Russian dressing and Swiss cheese. The second buffet area which tended to have my husband suddenly appear with some chocolate delicacy was the chocolate bar. The cakes looked great. The best buffet option was the Tandoor kitchen starboard aft on the ship. The food here was excellent. There were plenty of vegetarian entrée options with rice, entire sauce bar of Indian choices from tamarind to raita to complex chutneys. They had delicious tandoor charred fresh fish and fresh naan coming out of the oven in a stream. We lunched there twice.
We regularly used room service for an early breakfast delivery of juice, coffee, bagel, cream cheese and smoked salmon. Options were limited but certainly sufficed. It was great to use the door hangar the night before to get something delivered freshly to the cabin. Timing was always spot on and the portions were really big. Order coffee and they send you a carafe of four cups! The smoked salmon included four large smoked fillets wrapped up to look like roses with a few raw red onion rings and tasty capers sprinkled over them. I wasn’t really happy with the limp wheat toast I got one morning. The next morning, I just marked ‘dark toasted’ on the card and the problem was solved. One day, we made smoked salmon bagels to take with us on our excursion. Nobody looked in our beach bag as we left the ship. We always tipped the room service waiter $2-$5 cash.
The Coffee Bar
I only went to this place once, which surprised me because I’m a Starbucks-a-holic with daily visits. I like a triple espresso over ice with a touch of soy or almond milk and a Splenda. I got one here twice and I was just a bit underwhelmed. The espresso shots were premade and just poured from little metal pitchers under the machine, which if you know anything about good espresso is a total no-no. No almond or soy milk, either. This is a missed opportunity for Carnival. Service was great, however. Not surprisingly, the second time I visited, I was greeted by name.
I wrestled very hard with whether to purchase the Cheers program for my trip. Three weeks before we cruised, Carnival raised the prices on the package from $37.50 per person per day to $49.95. We opted out. When ships leave out of Galveston, Carnival states that drink packages cannot be purchased until day two because of Texas law. Between the four of us, we each brought on a bottle of wine. We used these bottles at dinner in the MDR three times to offset the costs of buying at dinner, despite the fact that there is a $15 corking fee with a bottle. We also had dinner reservations in the steakhouse on the first night for the free bottle of wine. As repeat cruisers, my in-laws gave us their free drink coupons for Sea Day Brunches which we used with ours as well to save. Since we’d have one or two drinks during the day, a drink before dinner, wine with dinner and one drink after dinner, the Cheers program with the previous price would have saved us about $70 overall in drink fees. We ended up spending $589 on drinks and were never wanting, so the new prices would not have made sense for us.
The ones that got away
If the cruise had been longer with more sea days, I would have like to have tried the Sea Day Barbecue on the outside Lanai deck. My only other often desired but never tried area was The Taste Bar, which doubles as a breakfast buffet on port days (good-to-know fact!). The taste bar features amuses from the restaurants on the ship, including the premium ones. It was never open when I walked by, except the one night when they featured the Cuchina Del Capitano fare sans the treasured arancini.
We caught a couple of shows in the theater. Overall quality was good. The cast consisted of a male and female singing lead, four male dancers, eight female dancers, and a five piece band-- all seasoned professionals. We caught two music reviews, both about 40 minutes. My wish was that the reviews were a bit shorter, because I was ready to leave by the end. They were just a little long. Multiple costume changes, great dancing and decent singing was the fare for both, one being Seventies inspired. These would greatly benefit from an overhaul for content. Surprisingly odd was the Destination Unknown magic show with more pyrotechnics than I think is safe on a ship at sea! Sparks fly everywhere. There are large scale illusions with some dancing and a little bit of singing. This show makes no sense at all. It has a futuristic, bondage theme to it. Evidently, someone got hurt during the early performance of the show because of the ship rocking; so we got a modified version. It lasted twenty minutes. I remarked as we left, “Well we just saw something, but I have no idea what it was!” I remember the Love and Marriage show from the previous cruise and I didn’t want to miss this afternoon event hosted by the wry, cheeky, energetic James the Cruise Director. It was very funny, often off-color, and completely spontaneous with three couples playing the Newlywed Game from various stages of their marriage, one just married three days ago, another married for 11 years, and the third for 56 years. What a hoot! Don’t miss this one.
I caught three shows in the George Lopez Punchline Lounge. This place was very popular. Towards the end of the cruise, people would line up in the piano bar about thirty minutes before the show in the Piano bar for a seating. They had a total of four comedians performing for the week, two rotating early and two later. These are all performed by professionals, except the lame comedy director who consistently introduced the shows with a very short routine of flat jokes. I was very happy to see that since the previous cruise, the comedians no longer do political humor which I found so offensive eight years ago, I walked out. This time, two of the three had me laughing out loud with their bawdy humor. The third to standing room only was so meek; she made me merely smirk weakly. Mildly amused, I snuck out.
Other than that, I played Trivia as often as I could. As I mentioned, these weren’t really interactive, but more like a paper and pencil test given by the administrator. Didn’t matter. These were fun, and I’m happy to say that I won three of four entered! In addition to two ‘solid-gold plastic ships-on-a-stick’, I won a giant fishbowl of a rum drink that was so big, two of us couldn’t finish it. It was, however, very fun to cradle this behemoth across the rocking ship one evening as an ice breaker. They’re available at $19.95 in the Red Frog Pub.
The lobby bar had an okay three piece ensemble of singer and two musicians before dinner. They tended to country music, so I never stayed to listen.
Carnival is an incredible value for cruising. The service was consistently first rate, the cabin accommodations were spotless, and the food was surprisingly sophisticated if you know where to eat. I loved the spa and found the entertainment to be satisfying. I paid extra for many upgrades on this trip to enhance my experience. Even with the upgrades my cruise on the Magic to the Western Caribbean was much less than it would have cost for a similar experience on other cruise lines, and I still felt like a king being indulged at every step. So many of my friends essentially turned up their nose at the idea of a Carnival cruise, and that’s their loss. I was so impressed with my cruise, I’m looking to book the West Indies out of San Juan as soon as possible.