Cruising on The Carnival Sunshine

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Travel blogging has always been a long term goal of mine, and I’ve never been sure how to get started. It was my love of traveling that led me down the path of culinary arts. When I was given the opportunity to spend 8 days at sea on the Carnival Sunshine, it felt like a dream come true. I had never taken a cruise before, but I went in with an open mind, as well as some anxiety and excitement. The anxiety: Would I get seasick? Would movement from the ship be scary for me? Was this going to be an introvert’s nightmare with too many people? The excitement was more generalized; I love new experiences and the itinerary sounded pretty great; 8 days in the Caribbean, with stops in St. Maarten, San Juan, St. Kitts, and Grand Turk.

(Warning to anyone with slow internet – this is a very photo-heavy post.)

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I overheard several guests mention that the Carnival Sunshine is a relatively small ship, but to me it felt massive. It took days for me to get oriented. The ship holds 3,758 guests, 1,050 crew members, and has 13 decks. There’s a dance club, comedy club, theater, piano bar (7 bars total, I think), library, karaoke club, spa, fitness center, video game room, kid’s club, waterslide park, outdoor movie theater, and casino.

There were so many dining options, and it took me awhile to learn the rules about what was included and what cost extra. More on that later. I’ll start by mentioning that there was free all-you-can-eat soft serve ice cream and frozen yogurt. Also on the ship but not free: The Shake Spot, a milkshake bar. That was a bit dangerous, but I loved it. Of course I was going to start with the ice cream options, you know me by now.

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My room was on the 8th deck. It was surprisingly spacious and cozy for just me, but I have a feeling Jeff and I would have felt slightly cramped at times if he had been able to join me. The bathrooms are small. I found the bed to be very comfortable. If you can afford it, I think the balcony is a must. Before taking the trip, I read through several online forums and many longtime cruise travelers agree with this. I’m an extremely introverted person who needs recharge time. The ship was often loud and always full of people. The balcony gave me time to enjoy the quiet beauty of the ocean, and the large windows allowed me to fill my room with light. It was a comfortable place to escape from the noise. And take pictures like this one:

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One tip I picked up from the forums: bring an outlet splitter! My room had 1 outlet and I needed to charge my phone, laptop and camera battery. If Jeff had been there we would have had to charge an additional 2 devices. I used this splitter from Belkin and it was a lifesaver.

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I assumed coffee was going to be an issue for me on the trip. I try not to be a food snob, but I just don’t like regular coffee. It’s too bitter. Luckily, the Sunshine has two espresso bars: Java Blue Cafe and The Havana Bar. I did cave slightly on my coffee standards when I realized that room service is free on Carnival cruise ships. Yes, free, 24 hours per day. Isn’t that weird and awesome? Every morning, I had a pot of coffee, smoked salmon, a banana, and a croissant delivered to my room. That’s living the life. On to the ports.

St. Maarten:

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St. Kitts:

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San Juan:

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Grand Turk:

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I had mixed feelings about the ports. It was nice to have the option to leave the ship and explore. Arriving in the morning and debarking near sunset was always a gorgeous vision to behold. However, this is not my preferred method for seeing the Caribbean; I need more time in a location to fully experience and appreciate it. To be fair, this is exactly what I expected so I was not disappointed. I can see why this would be a wonderful way for families with small children and elderly couples to see the islands. That being said, I spoke with many contemporaries who love cruising, and prefer it as a way to see this part of the world. It depends on what you’re looking for, and what your expectations are. St. Maarten and St. Kitts didn’t offer much within walking distance so an excursion was really necessary to get the most out of the day. I preferred San Juan and Grand Turk. San Juan is a small, walkable city with great food and shopping. Grand Turk is a wonderful beach and we docked in a perfect location to relax by the water.

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On the first day of the cruise, Carnival’s PR rep asked if we’d be interested in taking a mixology class at The Alchemy Bar. I’m not much of a drinker, but she mentioned that the class is often a guest favorite so I went for it. I am SO glad I did because holy hilarious bartender. The mixologist, Miroslav Brzic, not only made some of the most incredible drinks I’ve ever tasted, he had me giggling and blushing the entire hour. You know someone’s a pro at innuendo jokes when even the husbands are cracking up without getting offended. That’s a fine line. We stopped by the bar the next night and one of the guys said “you remember my wife.” Miroslav responded in his thick accent, “WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO SAY, SIR?” I was dying. I was also tipsy. You probably had to be there.

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If you find yourself on a Carnival ship with The Alchemy Bar, do not skip it. Go sooner rather than later, so you have a chance to stop by more than once if you love it as much as I did.

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All of my expectations about the food were exceeded on this trip. If you want to having a gourmet dining experience on a cruise, the Carnival Sunshine delivers. Cruise lines have to tread carefully when they add restaurants that aren’t included in the price of admission. How do you entice people to pay extra when there are already numerous free onboard dining options? It’s an interesting dilemma.

This was all new to me, so let me explain in case you’re unfamiliar with how dining works on a cruise. There’s a main dining room where guests can enjoy sit down meals, including a really wonderful brunch on sea days. There are many lunch options: a buffet, Pizzeria del Capitano (24-hour pizza, made to order), Guy’s Burger Joint, Havana Bar (Cuban sandwiches and finger food), Blue Iguana Cantina (tacos and burritos), and The Taste Bar, which serves bite-size offerings inspired by the restaurants. Two of the fine dining restaurants, Ji Ji’s and Cucina del Capitano, are temporarily transformed into a stir-fry bar and a pasta bar during lunch hours. There is also 24-hour room service.

To clarify: Everything I just mentioned is free. However, alcohol and soda cost extra. Since I mainly stick with water and espresso, this wasn’t an issue for me. (I did purchase a bottle of wine once I learned I could take it between restaurants. Brilliant idea and more economical for me than the daily alcohol package offered).

In order to entice guests to visit the restaurants, Carnival basically makes them dirt cheap and “all you can eat,” though the waitstaff will try to guide diners toward ordering the right quantity of food for the table. Ji Ji Asian Kitchen is $15 per adult and $5 per child. Ji Ji’s was by far my favorite restaurant, with offerings like slow-braised pork belly, crispy duck, and a chicken & cilantro soup that was incredibly soothing. Cucina del Capitano, Carnival’s Italian restaurant, is also $15 per person. It had some of the best carbonara I’ve enjoyed in ages. Other menu highlights were the arancini, calamari and tiramisu. Fahrenheit 555, the steakhouse, was a bit pricier at $35 per person. But what you can get for that $35 is pretty outstanding. I had ahi tuna tartare, caesar salad, surf and turf, mashed potatoes with wasabi horseradish, and an ice cream sampler for dessert. (Now is a good time to mention my other favorite takeaway tip: always take the ship stairs, never the elevator. Walk off those calories). 

I still have a tough time wrapping my head around the fact that dinner at Ji Ji’s is $15 and a single drink costs $10. That’s just how it works. Regardless, there is no denying the food value.

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When cruising on the Carnival Sunshine, there is another dining experience you can pay for: The Chef’s Table. It is $75 per person, which I would again imagine is a difficult sell when there are so many free dining options on board.

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What an experience! This dinner was easily on par with some of the most expensive meals I’ve had in DC and NYC. Everything was spectacular, from the presentation to the bold flavors. We began with a tour of the kitchen, where Chef Vivek Menon served us 5 bites that were heavily inspired by modernist cuisine. We were then relocated to a cozy private dining room for a 7 course sit down meal.

While I understand that many travelers won’t want to spend the extra money on something like the Chef’s Table, there is no denying that the value is insane. I would easily pay over $200 for that meal in DC. That was some amazing food. I was honored to have the experience.

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A few images from my favorite place on the ship, the quiet deck. I spent many hours there lounging, reading, and staring at the water.

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I always have to walk a fine line when I’m writing a review for something I received for free. I want you to feel confident that you’re reading my honest opinion, and not something clouded by my desire to appease PR reps. So here’s the short version:

  • Did I have an amazing time? Yes.
  • Was the food excellent? Yes.
  • Would I pay to go on a Caribbean cruise? No.
  • Would I go on another Caribbean cruise for free? Duh, yes.
  • Would I consider paying to go on a cruise somewhere else? Yes.

I loved this experience on so many levels. The people watching was next level hilarity. Sea sickness was never an issue for me, and the movement of the ship did not cause me anxiety (though it took some getting used to). The food constantly exceeded my expectations. However, this is not how I personally want to see tropical locations. I would much rather spend several days on an island and really get to know it. This trip definitely opened me up to cruising in general, though, and I’m curious to learn more about Alaskan and Mediterranean cruises.

I do miss the Carnival Sunshine and have so many fond memories that I will treasure. I didn’t want it to end. What an experience.

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Disclaimer: Carnival sent me on a complimentary cruise. All opinions are my own! 

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