I spent Thanksgiving on a cruise – it wasn’t the vacation I expected

Thanksgiving on a cruise seemed like a great idea. I wouldn’t have to worry about cooking a perfectly timed multi-course meal to please my in-laws. More importantly, I wouldn’t have to clean up after the party. I wouldn’t have to spend the weekend thinking of fun ways to entertain the kids while avoiding overcrowded stores. I could trade the chilly Northeast for the warm Caribbean.

The thing is, once you replace a family vacation with a family vacation, it doesn’t really feel like Thanksgiving anymore.

Here’s how Thanksgiving Day went during Carnival celebrations and what to expect if you decide to ditch the dishes and set sail on your November vacation.

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Thanksgiving Day

My family in Amber Cove. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POTS GUY

Thanksgiving for many begins 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 NFL games on the giant poolside LED screen, as well as the TV screens scattered throughout the Heroes Bar and Pig & Anchor Smokehouse Brewhouse. The ship’s entertainment staff also hosted a turkey scavenger hunt and turkey trivia.

However, I’m not sure many people were on board to appreciate their efforts.

You see, when I signed up for this cruise, I assumed Thanksgiving would fall on a sea day. That’s usually the case on Christmas cruises, when you usually spend Christmas Day at sea; this is because the tour operators also take a day off to spend time with their families and are not available to take you snorkeling or drive you around their towns.

However, Thanksgiving coincided with our visit to Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic, as well as the one day we booked a long tour. My family disembarked at 8:30 am and did not get back on board until 3:00 pm. We missed everything except football, which was never our tradition in the beginning.

During our tour, I sent my mom pictures of my family dressed in helmets and life jackets to slide down Damajagua Falls and with squirrel monkeys on our heads at Monkeyland in Puerto Plata. It didn’t occur to me until later to wish her and my dad a happy Thanksgiving. I had already forgotten it was vacation. It just felt like another day on our cruise – specially because we were on vacation, not because of Turkey Day.

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It didn’t help that the ship wasn’t decorated for Thanksgiving. I expected seasonal decor in the public areas or a special pumpkin spice latte advertised at the JavaBlue coffee shop, but there was no pumpkin or bale of hay to be found. I met a woman in the elevator wearing a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving T-shirt, and several shipmates supported their teams playing Thanksgiving Day games by wearing football jerseys. Also, our room attendant left a towel animal turkey on our bed (which was a nice touch).

Sailing from Amber Cove. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POTS GUY

The most holiday-like moment came when Carnival Celebration pulled away from the pier in Amber Cove. We were docked opposite sister ship Carnival Freedom, and many guests on both ships came out onto the balconies and upper decks to watch us sail away. Everyone started waving and yelling “Happy Thanksgiving!” to each other. In that moment, I felt gratitude that even in an age where cruise ships are tricked with rollercoasters and water parks, people still enjoy the simple pleasures of waving to strangers as a ship heads out to sea.

Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving dinner on carnival celebration. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POTS GUY

In our house, the most important thing on Thanksgiving is dinner. My husband and I love to cook, and so does his family. So you can expect homemade pies and cranberry sauce, creative filling recipes, and loads of sides. I really enjoy turkey, especially when it’s packed with sides, and I love making sandwiches with all the leftover Thanksgiving food the following weekend.

I was excited to see Carnival pull out all the stops for Thanksgiving dinner, served at the usual dining times in the main dining room.

It wasn’t a formal evening, which I found surprising, but I think Carnival was supposed to accommodate the sports team’s attire. I still forced my family to dress up a bit because I was in a party mood. The main dining room was also not conspicuously decorated; I saw no Thanksgiving decorations or other nods to the holiday.

The menu, accessible exclusively on our phones, had an autumn leaf design and seemed longer than a typical diner menu. The only culinary nod to Thanksgiving, though, was a slow-roasted turkey dish served with cornbread dressing, bourbon honey yams, gravy, and cranberry sauce. For dessert, there was a choice of pecan or pumpkin pie or a trifle with ginger biscotti, pumpkin mascarpone cream and mulled wine (plus no added sugar).

I’ll be honest: I ordered the turkey to see how well Carnival did Thanksgiving…Indian cuisine. My husband ordered a sweet tea pickled pork chop, my son the fried strip steak and our dining companion the N’awlins BBQ shrimp. My daughter stated she was not hungry, did not like the noisy dining room and went back to the hut. (So ​​much for the family dinner.)

Indian food on carnival celebration. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POTS GUY

For dessert, I ordered one of each Thanksgiving dessert because it’s not a holiday if you have to choose. My husband and son ordered Carnival’s famous chocolate melt 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 disappointing. It looked cafeteria style, with balls of yams and stuffing, a heap of turkey slices next to some kind of stuffed turkey roulade that wasn’t 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 cranberry sauce were watery, the turkey was bland, and the stuffing was uncreative.

The Indian dish was more flavorful, but I’ve had other Carnival Indian meals that I liked better.

I hoped dessert would redeem the meal—and then thought how pie isn’t often served for dessert on cruise ships. Pecan pie is my favorite, but the crust was bland and I make a better pie filling than the Carnival chefs. The pumpkin pie came with a cute meringue in the shape of a carrot, but it was also unremarkable. The holiday trifle was not inspired by the holidays in any way, and I don’t think it was made with pumpkin and mulled wine. (It clearly tasted strawberry.)

Lesson learned: Regardless of the holiday, on a Carnival cruise ship, order the melt-in-the-mouth chocolate cake. You can never go wrong with that approach.

Thanksgiving dessert. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POTS GUY

Later, when my daughter finally got hungry and I took her to a classic Thanksgiving meal of a hot dog and roast beef sandwich, we walked into the Pig & Anchor area; it was packed with people watching football and dining on Guy Fieri smoked meats. It was clear that this was the winning Thanksgiving dinner, and next time I’ll have to pack my New England Patriots jersey, grab a Parched Pig IPA, exclusive to Carnival, and cheer for the offense (both teams, doesn’t matter really out) with my new cruise family.

Please don’t expect me on the top deck of Turkey Trot tomorrow. Instead, we’ll gobble up the breakfast of green eggs and ham.

Pros and Cons of Spending Thanksgiving on a Cruise

Thanksgiving football games at Carnival Celebration. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POTS GUY

Let’s get the cons out of the way so we can end on a high. The downside to spending Thanksgiving on a cruise ship is that it may not feel like Thanksgiving. Since the Caribbean doesn’t celebrate American Thanksgiving, there probably won’t be any fall leaf wreaths or pumpkin spice daiquiris. I even saw several Christmas trees and manger displays in the harbour. Your ship may or may not be decorated, and depending on the line you’re sailing on, a turkey dinner may not be the best thing on the menu.

On the other hand, sailing during the Thanksgiving holiday is a great way to get a week of 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’ll probably make more memories than cooking at home.

Speaking of which, not having to do Thanksgiving chores — cleaning the house, cooking, talking civilly with your family or in-laws, doing the dishes — might be the best part of the entire holiday. If you would otherwise be spending the holidays alone, a cruise is a great way to surround yourself with friendly people and get automatic table companions.

Personally, I think I prefer the home-based Thanksgiving, but I also love my family and in-laws, which not everyone does. If I were planning another Thanksgiving cruise for another year, I’d do a little more research on Thanksgiving activities and maybe pick a more foodie-focused line that could serve up a gourmet feast.

That said, my family had a pretty memorable Thanksgiving Day full of time, food, and fun together. I am certainly grateful for that.

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