Thanksgiving on a cruise seemed like a great idea. I wouldn’t have to stress about cooking a perfectly timed multi-course meal to please my in-laws. More importantly, I wouldn’t have to clean up after the feast. I wouldn’t have to spend the weekend trying to come up with fun ways to entertain the kids while simultaneously avoiding overcrowded stores. I could swap the chilly Northeast for the warm Caribbean.
The thing is, once you replace a family holiday with a family vacation, it doesn’t really feel like Thanksgiving anymore.
Here’s how Thanksgiving day went down on Carnival Celebration and what to expect if you decide to ditch the dishes and set sail over your November holiday break.
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Thanksgiving for many starts with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, continues with the National Dog Show and ends with a football game. Our Carnival cruise ship embraced two of the three traditions, broadcasting the parade and the NFL games on the giant poolside LED screen, as well as the TV screens spread across the Heroes Bar and Pig & Anchor Smokehouse Brewhouse. The ship’s entertainment staff also hosted a turkey scavenger hunt and turkey trivia.
I’m not sure many people were on board to appreciate their efforts, though.
You see, when I signed up for this cruise, I assumed that Thanksgiving would fall on a sea day. That’s usually the case on Christmas cruises when you typically spend Christmas Day at sea; this is because the tour operators also take the day off to spend time with their families and aren’t available to take you snorkeling or drive you around their cities.
However, Thanksgiving coincided with our visit to Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic, as well as the one day we’d booked a long tour. My family got off the ship at 8:30 a.m. and didn’t get back on board until 3 p.m. We missed everything but the football, which was never our tradition to begin with.
On our tour, I sent my mom photos of my family suited up in helmets and life jackets for sliding down the Damajagua waterfalls and with squirrel monkeys on our heads at Monkeyland in Puerto Plata. It only occurred to me later to wish her and my dad a happy Thanksgiving. I had already forgotten it was a holiday. It just felt like another day on our cruise – special because we were on vacation, not because of Turkey Day.
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It didn’t help that the ship did not decorate for Thanksgiving. I was expecting seasonal decor in the public areas or a pumpkin spice latte special advertised at the JavaBlue coffee bar, but nary a pumpkin or bale of hay was to be found. I did meet a woman in the elevator who was wearing a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving T-shirt, and several shipmates were supporting their teams playing Thanksgiving Day games by wearing football jerseys. Also, our room steward left a towel animal turkey on our bed (which was a fun touch).
The most holiday-ish moment came when Carnival Celebration was pulling away from the pier in Amber Cove. We were docked across from sister ship Carnival Freedom, and many guests on both ships came out on the balconies and top decks to watch sailaway. Everyone started waving and calling out “Happy Thanksgiving!” to each other. In that moment, I felt gratitude that, even in an era when cruise ships are tricked out with roller coasters and water parks, people still enjoy the simple pleasures of waving at strangers as a ship heads out to sea.
In our house, the big deal on Thanksgiving is dinner. My husband and I like to cook, and so does his family. So, you can expect homemade pies and cranberry sauce, creative stuffing recipes and lots of sides. I actually enjoy turkey, especially when loaded up with sides, and I love to make sandwiches using all the leftover Thanksgiving dishes over the following weekend.
I was excited to see how Carnival would pull out all the stops for Thanksgiving dinner, served at the usual main dining room dinner times.
It was not formal night, which I found surprising, but I guess Carnival needed to accommodate the sports team attire. I forced my family to dress up a bit anyway because I was in a festive mood. The main dining room was not noticeably dressed up, either; I saw neither Thanksgiving decorations nor other nods to the holiday.
The menu, accessible exclusively on our phones, did have a fall leaf design and seemed longer than a typical dinner menu. However, the only culinary nod to Thanksgiving was a slow-roasted turkey entree, served with cornbread dressing, bourbon honey yams, gravy and cranberry sauce. For dessert, there was a choice of pecan or pumpkin pie or a holiday trifle with ginger biscotti, pumpkin mascarpone cream and mulled plum (plus no added sugar).
I’ll be honest: I ordered the turkey to see how well Carnival did Thanksgiving … and then ordered the Indian vegetarian entree of nizami paneer (a dish made with Indian cheese) and malai saag (a spinach dish) because I adore Carnival’s Indian cuisine. My husband ordered a sweet tea-brined pork chop, my son the pan-fried strip steak and our tablemate the N’awlins BBQ shrimp. My daughter declared she was not hungry, didn’t like the noisy dining room and went back to the cabin. (So much for family dinner.)
For dessert, I ordered one of every Thanksgiving dessert because it’s not a holiday if you have to choose. My husband and son ordered Carnival’s famous chocolate melting cake.
I started my meal with a stone fruit and field greens salad because there was nothing green on that Thanksgiving plate — no green bean casserole or salad tossed with cranberries and pecans.
When my Thanksgiving plate arrived, the presentation was underwhelming. It looked cafeteria-esque, with scoops of yams and stuffing, a heap of turkey slices next to some kind of stuffed-turkey roulade that was not on the menu and cranberry sauce in a metal dish. While I found the meal to be edible — and it’s hard to go wrong with mashed sweet potatoes — both the gravy and the cranberry sauce were watery, the turkey was dull, and the stuffing was uncreative.
The Indian dish was more flavorful, but I’ve had other Indian meals on Carnival I liked more.
I hoped dessert would redeem the meal — and then thought about how pie is not often served for dessert on cruise ships. Pecan pie is my favorite, but the crust was tasteless, and I make a better pie filling than the Carnival chefs. The pumpkin pie came with an adorable meringue shaped like a carrot, but it was also unremarkable. The holiday trifle wasn’t holiday-inspired in any way, and I don’t think it was made with pumpkin and mulled plum. (It tasted distinctly strawberry.)
Lesson learned: Regardless of the holiday, when on a Carnival cruise ship, order the chocolate melting cake. You can never go wrong with that approach.
Later, when my daughter eventually got hungry and I took her to get a classic Thanksgiving meal of a hot dog and roast beef sandwich, we walked into the Pig & Anchor area; it was packed with folks watching football and dining on Guy Fieri smoked meats. Clearly, this was the winning Thanksgiving dinner, and next time I will have to pack my New England Patriots jersey, grab a Carnival-exclusive Parched Pig IPA and cheer for the offense (either team, doesn’t really matter) with my new cruise family.
Please don’t expect me at the top-deck Turkey Trot tomorrow. We’ll be gobbling up the Green Eggs and Ham breakfast instead.
Pros and cons of spending Thanksgiving on a cruise
Let’s get the cons out of the way so we can end on a high note. The downside to spending Thanksgiving on a cruise ship is that it might not feel like Thanksgiving. Because the Caribbean doesn’t celebrate U.S. Thanksgiving, there likely won’t be fall leaf wreaths or pumpkin spice daiquiris. In fact, I saw several Christmas trees and manger displays in port. Your ship might or might not decorate, and depending on which line you sail, a turkey dinner might not be the best thing on the menu.
On the other hand, setting sail on Thanksgiving break is a great way to get a week’s vacation without missing too many days of school or work. You can easily find something incredible for you and your family to do together, and you will likely make more memories than if you were at home cooking.
Speaking of which, not having to do Thanksgiving chores — cleaning the house, cooking, conversing civilly with your family or in-laws, doing dishes — might be the best part of the whole vacation. If you’d otherwise be spending the holiday alone, a cruise is a great way to surround yourself with friendly people and gain automatic dinner companions.
Personally, I think I prefer the home-based Thanksgiving, but I also like my family and in-laws, which not everyone does. If I were to plan a Thanksgiving cruise for another year, I’d do a bit more research on Thanksgiving activities and perhaps pick a more foodie-oriented line that could serve up a gourmet holiday feast.
That said, my family had quite a memorable Thanksgiving Day filled with together time, food and fun. I’m definitely grateful for that.
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