Tuesday, December 9, 2014

HolycrapwhatdidIjustdo

I've got that proverbial bullet between my teeth, and I'm biting down. Hard.

After just over ten years of exploring the Caribbean (and in honor of my upcoming 30th birthday this summer), the Sunglasses and Umbrella Drinks family is finally venturing out to a whole new world. An entirely new adventure.

Barcelona.

Monte Carlo.

Florence and Pisa.

Rome.

Athens.

Santorini.

Euphesus.

Naples.

May 2015.

And a side trip to Paris afterwards for Mom's birthday (who, in recent years, has spent her birthday in such locales as the Bahamas, both Disney World *and* Disneyland, St. Thomas and St. Lucia).

We're heading back to Royal Caribbean for this one. We thought long and hard about which line and ship and itinerary were the best fit for us, and a 12-night on the Vision of the Seas won out over a similar trip on Norwegian (which offered less sea days and two additional ports in Istanbul and Venice, which were big pulls for me, but ultimately, the larger staterooms on Royal Caribbean and the opportunity to grow our loyalty points made the difference. That and the fact that I think I'll need the two sea days following our stop in Rome to recover!).

None of us have ever been to any of these places. None of us have ever been to Europe! I need help, friends. What do I need to see and do? Where do we stay in Paris and Barcelona? I don't even know where to begin with all of this planning, but I can't wait to take it on. And to write about it and share it with all of you.

It's an entirely new world. I can't wait.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Oh, Island in the Sun: Breeze-ing Back to the Southern Caribbean (Part Four)

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One of the best parts of the Breeze’s Southern Caribbean route is the way the itinerary is broken up: day at sea, four days in port, two more days at sea.

We have trouble sleeping in on cruises. We were up and out of the room by 8:30 am, the view out our balcony of clear skies and smooth seas a promising reassurance of a relaxing day ahead.

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We headed up to breakfast on the Lido deck, and I said a silent prayer that the Blue Iguana taco man wasn’t working the morning shift, because only one thing would do for my first on-board breakfast…

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Warm, cheese-laden arepas. Perfectly melted, nutty cheese sandwiched in between two slightly sweet corn cakes, and a side of salsa verde from the toppings bar. With a cup of coffee, it is the perfect breakfast. My favorite breakfast. Just as good as I had remembered it to be.

Mom and Stephanie grabbed more traditional fare from the Marketplace and much to our relief, lines were low and tables were easy to find, a welcome change from the Valor.

When we were done with breakfast and fully caffeinated, we headed aft for some QT time in the sun. We always head aft because in our experience, the midship pool and deck fill up the quickest, the usual stomping grounds for the chair hogs. On this particular trip, it was the aft that filled up: it was crowded when we arrived after breakfast, but within an hour (by 10:30), it was full.

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Despite the sunny weather, the ship started rocking quite a bit and continued to roll throughout the day. That wouldn’t stop us, though. We soaked in some vitamin D. We swam (though the pool was unusually warm while the hot tubs ran cold). When small children started piling into the pool and babies in swim diapers started making their appearances (not making an appearance to control that: deck security. Minus two, Carnival), we took it as our cue to get out and get on with our day.

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After drying off and changing, we headed to the Shore Excursion desk to book our activities for our four ports: we left Grand Turk open, booked a beach excursion for the Dominican Republic, a sunset boat ride for Curacao and a catamaran for Aruba. While we typically book our excursions before we leave, we held off in favor of ensuring the weather would hold up this time. With three water/beach related excursions and our trip taking place in the tail end of hurricane season (and a tropical storm brewing to the west), we wanted to make sure any activities we booked were weather-appropriate.

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As lunch time approached, we headed out to the Lanai, where a line was forming for Fat Jimmy’s C-Side BBQ nearly ten minutes before it actually opened. Last year, Stephanie and Mom were insistent on dining at Fat Jimmy’s while I rallied for tacos at the Blue Iguana. Once we tried it, our roles reversed: Mom and Stephanie thought it was unremarkably good while I thought it was the second best lunch option (behind the tacos, naturally). It didn’t disappoint this time, either. Despite the long lines, the food is solid – full of flavor and well-prepared.

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It was getting too hot to finish our meal outside, so we headed in. You’d miss it if you didn’t know it was there, but if none of the barbecue, tacos, burgers, comfort food, regional cuisine, pasta, tandoor, deli, brunch offerings or pizza appeal to you, Carnival has one more option for lunch that’s just as good (and in some cases, even better), but takes some effort to discover: the salad bar.

In the Taste Bar during sea day lunch hours, they set up a decently expansive salad bar where one of the cooks will toss you a salad to order. It’s not the Tutti salad bar on Royal Caribbean, but it’s offerings are much more diverse than those available up on Lido, and they offer turkey wraps and soup alongside.

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While we were finishing up our lunch, TV Theme Song Trivia began. We didn’t play officially – just went along in our heads. But we should have played because we would have won! We had more right than anyone else playing.

Being our first sea day of a four port/four sea day trip, we didn’t want to over-do the sun and end up with sunburns that would make us miserable on our beach excursions, we headed back to the room to relax. When we got there, we found a surprise on our vanity desk.

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With the first day at sea usually being the first formal night, a plate of treats isn’t a surprise – it’s one of the few Platinum perks that haven’t been taken away since we turned Platinum in 2011 – but we’ve always gotten one plate per cabin, not one per person!

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The treats made for excellent snacks while we watched a constant loop of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Hours passed by in a blur of napping, balcony lounging and Matthew McConaughey, and before we knew it, it was time to get ready for formal night.

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We took a round of obligatory balcony photos and then headed out towards Ocean Plaza.

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Not all of the ships in Carnival’s fleet have Ocean Plaza (the Dream and the Breeze do. I’m assuming the other newer ships do, as well, but older ships do not). It’s a larger, more expansive promenade that lends itself to gatherings. It’s a nice place to just…be. There’s live music beginning in the early evening (and the Taste Bar on most nights, offering small tastes from the specialty restaurants). There are open areas to sit and people watch or read, and there are plenty of bars and servers. The first formal night is the Captains Celebration, which used to mean live music and free drinks in the theater. Now it means $1 off drinks. We grabbed a bite at the Taste Bar and took in some of the live music.

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A watch sale was taking place outside the jewelry store facing the atrium, and I’m pretty sure everyone who wasn’t participating in formal night was shopping at this sale.

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We grabbed a drink in the atrium before heading to dinner. There was a pretty lengthy line to get into the dining room but it passed by quickly. We were seated at window-facing table with a nice view of the water.

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Dinner was unremarkable. Mom thought the lobster was just okay. The prime rib was slightly chewier than I would have liked. My Cherries Jubilee dessert had a whopping three cherry portion (which could have been because I ordered it with a Warm Chocolate Melting Cake because mixing the two together brings a new level of decadence, but Mom and Stephanie’s portion was a slightly more generous four cherries).

Bread Basket
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Baked Stuffed White Mushrooms
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Greek Farmer Salad
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Spaghetti Carbonara (Starter Portion)
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Broiled Maine Lobster Tail and Jumbo Black Tiger Shrimp
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Tender Roasted Prime Rib of American Beef Au Jus
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Cherries Jubilee
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Warm Chocolate Melting Cake
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Warm Chocolate Cherries Jubilee
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After dinner, we made a stop at the room so I could change out of my heels and into some flip flops, and keeping our towel creature du jour company were our pins, invites to the past guest party and our Platinum gift: a toiletry bag (which I’ll find good use for – it’s a nice one!).

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With some time to kill before Divas and the boat rocking pretty hard, we stayed in with some more Matty McConaughey before heading down to the Ovation for showtime.

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Here’s the thing about Divas: it could be a great show. With proper sets and a full dance crew, this could have been the kind of show that had been missing in Carnival’s show rotation prior to the 2.0 changes. The set list ties together older classics with contemporary hits. It’s a show you dance along in your seat to. But the size of the troupe is too small to carry the show as it is, and the lack of sets (and overuse of the animatronics) takes away from the experience.

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(Pro tip: Diva’s has a T-shaped catwalk extending from the stage. The best seats are not the seats in the front of the theater, but rather the seats in front of the catwalk).

After a quick pit stop at the room to change out of the lace and into some comfy sweats, we made our way upstairs for The Fault in Our Stars at Movie’s Under the Stars. I knew the premise of the movie but hadn’t actually seen it before this cruise and while it’s a typical young adult romantic angst movie, it’s incredibly depressing. Watching it in the best of surroundings, with a cool ocean breeze and millions of stars overhead provided a temporary distraction from the fact that this movie was written to make people hate themselves for watching said movie.

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Mom and Stephanie went to bed after the movie and I went and sat on the balcony trying to forget the previous two hours.

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Day 2 Lido Lunch Menus:

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Fat Jimmy’s C-Side BBQ Menu:

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Day 2 Taste Bar Menu:

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Day 2 Lido Dinner Menus:

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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Oh, Island in the Sun: Breeze-ing Back to the Southern Caribbean (Part Three)

I’ll go ahead and say it: I’m pretty high maintenance. I take forever to get ready. I like to sprawl out across whatever desk is closest to me and take my time in putting my makeup on, contemplating shades of lipstick that I’ll only apply once because I’ll forget to reapply after we leave the room and if I’ve put on too much bronzer.

At some point, my sister upped her game and went from taking less time to get ready to taking more time than me and Mom combined. Unsurprisingly, this has led to countless bickering over who gets to get ready first (because whomever gets ready first is clearly going to take too much time, which will put a rush on whomever gets ready second), neither of us willing to back down or retreat to another hard surface or mirror.

The way Mom and Stephanie started working around was to wake up before me and get ready before I can complain about how much time everyone is taking. And so that Saturday morning, Mom and Stephanie were cruise ready long before I opened my eyes. Between the anticipation of embarkation and the sun finally casting its rays across SoFlo, it didn’t matter if I were first or second – I was getting ready so we could get on with the next part of our adventure.

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We checked out of the hotel, packed up the car and made a quick stop at Publix for some vino and rain ponchos (Stephanie’s idea – it was the tail end of hurricane season after all) and we were on our way towards the Miami airport by 9:00 am. Bright and early. Emphasis on bright. Finally.

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The car rental facility at MIA is a bit aways from airport proper. It’s a multi-level facility that takes multiple trips on trams and moving walkways to enter from the terminals, but it’s a quick drive off the highway returning. We figured out the year before that the best way to facilitate returning the car while managing way too much luggage and Diet Coke cases was to drop one of us on the roof with the bags while the other two returned the car. I was put on luggage duty, but I had a nice view of the departures from the United terminal to keep me entertained.

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Our car rental was through Dollar, and Dollar offers a free shuttle to the Port of Miami (saving us a ~$30 cab ride). We were told the first shuttle wasn’t until 11, but we were loaded onto one at 10:30. We were on our way by 10:35 (playing Spot the Whale Tail, of course), and at the port by 11:00 am.

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A porter was quick to grab our luggage (pro tip: always tip your porters. Always. $1-$2 per bag. They are the gatekeepers of your luggage and no one wants to float away on a weeklong cruise without their swimsuits and flip flops) and we made our way into the Priority line. Security was quick and easy, and unlike the security in San Juan, they didn’t check to see what kind of booze we were carrying on (nor did they tag our bags). We were handed some health forms to fill out before entering the Captains Lounge (which was already standing room only). After promising in scribbled pencil that I did not have Ebola, did not come in contact with anyone who has come in contact with Ebola and that I was feeling swell, our names were taken and we were ushered into the room to wait to be called to check in and get our keys. This proved to be entirely inefficient, as they only had two people checking people in and getting keys for an overfilled room of priority guests, but since boarding hadn’t begun yet, there wasn’t any rush.

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Boarding began 15 minutes later and we ended up in the front of the line to board the ship. I made a quick change to the game plan (read: dropping bags off at the room and grabbing some tacos at the Blue Iguana before the crowds set in): the first people in the Red Frog Pub get a free beer and their picture posted somewhere on the Internet. Stephanie mentioned it in passing a few times, but as we found ourselves in the front of the line (and already with a knowledge of the quickest way to get to the Red Frog from our trip the year before), I zigzagged my way through the queues, I leaped past the photogs and I made a record setting pace to get onto that ship and into the pub.

We were second. We got into the pub as the first people in there were having their picture taken. And as I turned to Stephanie to ponder how we were beaten when we were literally the first three guests to board, I caught a glimpse of a visitor tag.

We were beaten by people who weren’t even on this cruise.

It was okay. I don’t like beer anyways. And the thrill in the rush to be first was an exhilarating way to start our eight days onboard the Breeze.

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We headed down to our room to drop off our bags. Our home for the week was room 2293, a cove balcony cabin. The room was a replica of the room we traveled in the year prior, but that wasn’t the first thing we noticed. The room was cold. Pleasantly and surprisingly so. Cabins on Carnival often err towards the warm side and we’ve been on plenty where even where we turn the AC to it’s lowest setting, we throw the sheets off during the night to get any kind of comfortable sleep. This cabin was cool from the start and wasn’t even on the AC’s lowest setting. And better yet – it stayed that way the entire week. The AC was strong, consistent and cool (which came in handy when we inevitably burned later in the week).

Carnival’s balcony rooms are larger than the balcony rooms on other cruise lines. Or so I’ve heard. Our room was well-appointed, clean and plenty big for the three of us (though any more than three adults might find themselves pretty cramped). Our balcony fit two chairs and a small table. While I prefer Carnival’s cabin’s, I prefer Royal Caribbean’s balconies, which feature glass paneling and can fit a table large enough to dine on. Even with that, though, we were more than content with our room selection and the accommodations it provided.

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Our room steward came by to introduce himself and we situated ourselves a bit in the room before heading up to the Lido deck for lunch. And I only had one thing on my mind: tacos from the Blue Iguana Cantina.

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As wonderful as our trip on the Valor was, the lack of dining options was a real issue. Because the Valor hadn’t undergone the Funship 2.0 upgrades, crowding at the existing options was a real issue. And nothing offered during lunch hours held a candle to those tacos we’d had the cruise before on the Breeze.

So while Mom held down fort at a table, Stephanie and I bounced over to the taco bar, where the following conversation ensued:

Me: Hi! Could I have two steak tacos, please?
Taco man: We don’t have steak tacos. We have chicken, pork or fish.
Me: Oh, I know. But you have steak at the burrito bar. Could I have that in a taco, please?
Taco man: No, it’s a fixed menu. We don’t do that.

I’ve been on, what, 15 Carnival cruises in the past ten years? Never in a single one of those fifteen cruises have I encountered a staff member so unwilling to go an extra mile (let alone an extra inch. Or in this case, an extra seven inches to his left). And way beyond the unwillingness to substitute a burrito protein for a taco protein (something I only asked for because it was no issue on our previous Breeze cruise), it was really his attitude that disappointed me. No “I’m sorry” or “Unfortunately we do not offer that substitution anymore). He was rude, aloof and it was a bit of a shock only in that we had been spoiled by service on Carnival thus far for so many cruises across so many years.

Taco-less and disappointed, I turned to Guy’s Burger Joint for embarkation lunch, where they were happy to accommodate a special order (an ungrilled bun – the grilled buns are slathered with mayo before they’re put on the grill and mayo is my I-don’t-wanna-see-it-I-don’t-wanna-eat-it-why-does-this-exist condiment).

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After lunch, we headed back to the room and much to our surprise, all of our bags were already there. It wasn’t even 1:00 pm yet!

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Also making an appearance was the package of water bottles Stephanie had preordered.

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We decided to do our all of our unpacking so we could enjoy the ship later, but I couldn’t find it in myself to do anything but acquaint myself with the balcony.

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When I couldn’t put it off any longer, I hastily unpacked so we could set out exploring the ship and enjoying the sun.

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We found a spot out on deck 11 and sat out for awhile, making plans for the week ahead and soaking in all the sunlight that had evaded us for the previous two days. As we were leaving to get ready for muster drill, Mom ran into Cucina del Capitano to make us a dinner reservation (the Breeze doesn’t have the new menus yet, so we planned for multiple nights of alternative dining).

Unlike the seventh ring of hell muster drill on the Valor brought us into, muster drill was handled quite well on the Breeze. Our station was on the upper level of the Sapphire dining room, the drill was quick and orderly and most importantly, done in the comfort of air conditioning. Stephanie and I took goofy pictures of each other while we waited, but the drill lasted no longer than 15 minutes.

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While the masses made their way up to Lido for sailaway, we had a much more peaceful sailaway locale in mind: our own balcony. We were getting plenty of direct sunlight from the balcony and since we had already unpacked, we had nothing to do but enjoy it.

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The Breeze the first of the five ships docked at the Port of Miami to depart (the Carnival Glory, Norwegian Pearl, Norwegian Getaway and an MSC ship were docked along with us) and we kicked back and watched as the last vestiges of land passed us by and the service bars on our cell phones slowly dwindled down.

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Once there was nothing but water as far as the eye could see, we headed down to the Taste Bar for a snack before dinner. Even though we had dinner reservations an hour later at Cucina del Capitano, we couldn’t turn up a taste of that whipped ricotta.

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The Breeze was heading towards Grand Turk full speed ahead, and we took a leisurely walk along the lanai before dinner, soaking in the salty ocean breeze.

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We headed up to dinner a few minutes early and were quickly seated. While the restaurant is not one of the complimentary dining venues (it’ll set you back $15/person to dine in for dinner), it filled up quite well as our meal progressed.

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The restaurant serves as the pasta bar during lunch hours (a free-of-charge dining option), but during dinner, transforms into a small Italian trattoria. The décor and ambiance are warm and inviting, the perfect space for a family meal.

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We were seated by the window and as we settled in, our server (a lovely woman from Belarus) dropped on us that house wine was complimentary this evening. I knew that if you dined in the Supper Club on the first night, you received a complimentary bottle of wine, but I didn’t know that extended to Cucina del Capitano, as well. I don’t know when they began offering it (it wasn’t offered on our previous Breeze cruise), but we weren’t questioning it – a carafe of red, please.

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Along with our wine came a plank of thickly sliced toasted baguette slices, tomatoes, roasted garlic and that heavenly whipped ricotta. I could make a meal off this plank alone. Every component was extraordinarily fresh in both quality and flavor.

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I thought the appetizer course was the strongest (though every course held its own). The arancini I ordered was, perhaps, a bit too large of a portion (I had plenty to share with Mom and Stephanie), but was amongst the best things I tasted on this trip. Mom and Stephanie both raved about their entrees and though none of us could muster more than a couple of bites of dessert, everything was flavorful and beautifully presented.

Il Capitano’s Signature Arancini
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Insalata Caprese 
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Il Capitano's Favorite Insalata Di Rucola 
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Bistecca alla Griglia
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Brasato al Barolo 
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Pollo Parmigiana della Cucina 
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Rosemary Potatoes
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Herbed Zucchini & Tomatoes
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Spaghetti with Captain’s Tomato Sauce
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Beverages
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Magic Tiramisu
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Sicilian Cannoli
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Crostada di Mele Coppetta
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The food was on point and I was left with not a single critique (a rarity these days). Service was top-notch and it was a perfect start to our cruise.

Stephanie headed down to the show lounge to save seats for the show (instead of the now-defunct-on-2.0-ships Welcome Aboard show, or the show preview we saw on our last Breeze trip, they were starting off right away with a production show – Motor City this night) and Mom and I made a quick stop back at the room, where the first of many towel animals awaited us.

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The first thing I noticed when we entered the Ovation theater was how…empty it was. It wasn’t really empty, but there were prime seats available ten minutes before show time. I couldn’t tell if the Breeze just had a better passenger to space ratio or if it was just a low passenger rate on this voyage. Either way, I wasn’t complaining. After the overcrowding we felt on the Valor, a little breathing room was welcomed.

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Our Cruise Director, Wee Jimmy, came out to introduce himself and do a bit of a pre-show before Motor City began. I have to say, in 15 cruises on Carnival where we’ve had at least 12 different Cruise Directors who often recycled the same jokes over and over again, we’ve never had a CD like Wee Jimmy. He was hilarious. Genuinely funny and refreshingly entertaining. I was bowled over laughing throughout his act…until he pulled me up on stage to dance. If you were sitting in the audience and had to watch me dance (and continually laugh at the situation I found myself in while Stephanie took too many pictures), I’m so sorry. Well, less sorry for you and more sorry for myself: Mom insisted on re-watching it on the TV all.week.long. wherever she could. “Look at you dancing so cute, Niki!!!” Stephanie and I made a mutual decision to ban that channel from the room pretty quickly.

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Motor City began shortly after they handed me a medal and sent me back to my seat and…sigh. It wasn’t great. It could have been great. With the singers and dance troupe of the Valor and the sets of the pre-2.0 shows, this could have been a truly memorable show. Instead, we had the seven-part singer/dancer troupe (though all of them could sing and dance, none of them stood out as particularly strong at either), one of them was completely checked out throughout the entire performance, there was no energy, no sets and the animatronic screens were just cheap and distracting.

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We noticed in the Fun Times that they were repeating shows throughout the week, so if you missed Motor City tonight, it would repeat again later in the week. This was the case for all of the shows and though we didn’t love this one, we liked the idea that if there was something else we wanted to do (or if we just weren’t feeling up to a show), we could catch the show again later in the week.

After the show ended, we went up to deck five to peruse the shops and make a stop into the Red Frog Pub (which always has the best live acoustic music and makes for a peaceful place to just…hang).

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We made a quick stop in the room to change into sweats and grab our sprinkles before heading up to watch Ride Along at the seaside theater.

Holdup. The sprinkles. Let me explain the sprinkles.

I’m pretty sure there’s no better condiment than rainbow sprinkles. And every time we cruise and I have an ice cream cone, I think to myself, “You know what would make this better? Rainbow sprinkles.” Because, you know, rainbow sprinkles make EVERYTHING better. I’m completely serious.

I tried to find some in Puerto Rico before we boarded the Valor to no avail (Gasolina? Readily available. Rainbow jimmies? Not so much), so when we were at Dollar Tree the week before we left (Stephanie wanted to buy some door decorations), I found a container of rainbow sprinkles, threw them in my suitcase and voila. A week’s worth of ice cream treats just went to another level.

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We took our ice cream al fresco and enjoyed it with the movie. It was a little chilly out, but Carnival is prepared for that: you can get blankets at the towel hut during movie time. And if ice cream doesn’t do it for you, they have popcorn at the Blue Iguana (free of charge).

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After the movie, we checked out the Late Night Bites at the aft, but nothing really appealed, so we headed back to the room to watch SNL and spend some quality time on the balcony. Eight nights would go fast and my priority was to enjoy whatever I enjoyed whenever I found the opportunity to enjoy it. And there remains nothing I enjoy more than sitting on a balcony, the salty smell of ocean air and the sound of waves crashing into nothingness.

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Day 1 Lido Lunch Menu:

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Guy’s Burger Joint Menu:

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Day 1 Taste Bar Menu:

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Day 1 Lido Dinner Menus:

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Late Night Bites Menu:

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