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 on all the large and small 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 turkey-shaped towel 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 the sail away. 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.)
Read More: I spent Thanksgiving on a cruise – it wasn’t the holiday I expected