On a grey and muggy afternoon in Port Canaveral, Florida, the Sunshine beamed. It was an auspicious sign, which foretold of endless tropical rays awaiting me on a cruise around the Western Caribbean. By Sunshine, though, I am referring to the Carnival Sunshine.
In 2013, the 3,0006-passenger ship underwent a $155 million facelift, making space for features like a water park, multiple bars, and a seaside theater, not to mention a panoply of international eating options. Even docked in the harbor, the ship made a bold statement.
As my first cruise, the Carnival Sunshine set high standards, the array of culinary delights far exceeding my imagined expectation of kitschy buffets that cater to aficionados of meatloaf and lime Jell-O. It’s difficult to pull off class and ingenuity for the masses — in one voyage they serve 270,000 pizzas and go through 75 metric tons of pineapple, for example — but Carnival surely did.
Night by night, the ship’s variety of restaurants continued to woo me while the 24-hour frozen yogurt machine held me over between meals. Admittedly, it felt a bit bizarre to eat Asian fusion in Mexico, Italian in Honduras, and Sushi in Belize, but I didn’t mind.
Located aft on the Lido Deck, Ji Ji Asian Kitchen is where bold, savory flavors from Mongolia, Singapore, and even Indonesia cross paths. To start, a sumptuous caramel chili sauce and spiced purple onions accompanied a very tender slow-braised pork belly while chicken spring rolls came dressed in lemon marmalade, curry leaves, pink grapefruit, and cilantro pearls. This only primed the palate for the main course, which featured familiar options like Kung Pao chicken and peppered beef. The anomaly was Chairman Mao’s Master Stock pig, where clay pot-stewed pork gets wok-fried with scallions, sesame, fresh spinach, pea shoots, and snap peas.
At Fahrenheit 555 Steakhouse, premium cuts of beef and a diverse seafood selection surprise no one because another menu item takes the cake, literally. The talk of the ship: the creamy and deluxe cheesecake served with a hazelnut biscuit. Yes, the face-sized slice of cake weighs as much as a baby, but managing to save room for it is simply a must, as is the truffle macaroni and cheese.
Recuperating between ports, I spent probably too much time at Serenity: Carnival’s first three-deck-high adults-only retreat, outfitted with a mile-high Jacuzzi safe from kids who desire to hold canon ball competitions on lower decks. Also adult-friendly, the Punchliner Comedy Club offered nightly laugh-out-loud performances that made me forget about the sways of the ship.
Sometimes, the ship merged eating with entertainment. During my meal at Bonsai Sushi Bar, all patrons, myself included, were summoned to perform a pre-choreographed dance and sing, “I’m turning Japanese” while waving rainbow coy fish flags in the air. Even dinner was a performance to a certain regard. My guest and I ordered the sushi ship for two, which included miso soup, salad, the Bonsai Triple E roll, California rolls, and six-piece sushi for only $15. Spoiler alert: The meal came served on a big wooden ship that even the staff rejoiced in presenting to the table.
By the end of the cruise, I reached culinary enlightenment with the seven-course Chef’s Table dinner, which included a tour of the galley and a full-service gastronomic extravaganza to the tune of fried popcorn pudding, bone marrow soufflé, and passion fruit caviar. The kitchen-side reception featured four artistically fashioned appetizers including beef Carpaccio served on an air pillow with chocolate bacon and apple ribbons. Afterward, we observed how the pastry chef prepares the ship’s popular Melting Chocolate Cake — they go through 188,000 slices of it per voyage — and witnessed the dynamics of streamlining a busy kitchen. Reservations for the dinner must be made in advance, and cost per adult is $75.
After so much food for thought, I disembarked the Carnival cruise feeling full not just in my belly but also in my soul. Such indulgence might seem contradictory on an excursion where scant beach-attire is imminent, but I think my bikini will forgive me, one day.