Mariner of the Seas…Amplified! The Dining Part – Izumi Hibachi & Sushi

In my world, if someone else is going to do all of the cooking and all of the cleaning, I am pretty much in heaven.  So for us, the MDR has always been just fine.  Oh sure we have eaten at the specialty restaurants, we LOVE the Chef’s Table experience,  but we are usually just as happy to eat every night in the Main Dining Room.  We have (mostly) always had excellent service and by this point we all have our favorite dishes on each menu (let’s not talk about the great escargot shortage of 2015).

But for this trip, I purchased the Ultimate Dining Package.  This allows us dinner in a specialty restaurant every night of the cruise, plus Lunch at Jamie’s on boarding day (I learned this too late for me, but still a good option for next time).  It does not include the Hibachi experience at Izumi’s, however they will give you a discount if you want to eat there one night.

We had originally planned to do Jamie’s Italian the first night, Chops Grille the second night and then repeat whichever we liked best on the third night.  However, when we got on board and talked to the dining people, we decided to take the discount for Izumi’s Hibachi on the first night, eat at Jamie’s on the second night and finish at Chops on the third night.

Up first:  Izumi’s

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Since we were only two, we were seated with another group…fortunately they were really awesome and celebrating a birthday!  The meal begins with Salted Edamame Beans and a green salad, pretty typical of many hibachi restaurants.

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Our waiter described the process of hibachi in case anyone was unfamiliar.  Next you choose you protein, I chose the steak and shrimp. I love hibachi shrimp so I am always going to choose this.  As it turns out, we had someone allergic to shellfish so it was interesting to see how they handled it.  Suffice to say, if you have an allergy, just let them know and they will make sure you are safe.

Then…the show begins!

Our chef was from the Philippines and I thought he was great.  We LOVE hibachi so we eat at our local restaurant at least once or twice a month so we have seen great chefs, really good chefs, and just okay chefs.  I would certainly place him in the really good category.  The food was pretty standard hibachi, our meat was cooked well and my shrimp did not get overcooked.  My only TEENY, TINY complaint was that the only choice was rice and I usually don’t get rice, I get lo mein, that was not an option.  But overall the dinner was really good, onion volcano and all!

I also have a full 30 minute video of our chef preparing everyone’s meals, but goodness that is too much for a review!  Also, a note on meal timing.  The first picture of our waiter at the beginning of the meal was taken at 7:09pm, the dessert pictured below was taken at 8:52pm so count on a full two hours for this dinner.

Then, if you’re not already full…dessert!  We were actually pretty full so just ordered one of each to see them.

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Sorry about the half eaten one…I didn’t get my picture fast enough!  And don’t forget…Is’s someone’s birthday!  They brought out cake!

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I am fairly certain that I rolled out of this dinner…I was that full!

Final thoughts on Izumi:  I think it is a great addition and it will continue to be a big draw.  It has the potential to be a “one and done” restaurant because of the limited menu, but I for one already have reservations for my next Mariner cruise in January.  Now if I could only convince them on the noodles!!

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Next Up: Jamie’s Italian

 

 

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Mariner of the Seas…Amplified!

Just returned from a quick 3 night cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas. I booked this ship so I could check out the new “Amplified!” options. The itinerary was one I had done many times before so this trip was all about the ship.

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We arrived at Port of Miami at about 10:30am. Earlier than our planed 11am check in time, but we had to check out of our hotel so it was either sit in the lobby of the DoubleTree or at the port so we headed over. They checked us in immediately and we spent about 30 minutes in the lounge until boarding began. We were the literal first people on board…that the first time that has happened to me!!

The ship is beautiful!

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The buffet has been completely redone – New “washy washy” stations so you don’t have to use that anti-bacterial goo that usually sits outside the entrance.

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New fancy seating areas

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And one of my favorite bars on the entire ship…never busy, great drinks, and cool bartenders!  I hesitate even telling you, because really its great…with one little tiny exception.  See those bar stools?  They are the highest bar stools I have ever had to climb on to.  And if you sit there and have, say three martinis, you may forget exactly how high they are and miss the floor on your way down.  Especially if you are just a smidge over 5 feet tall.  But since the bar is never busy no one will ever know!

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The Solarium pool area got some cool new seating too!

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And of course the Amplified! additions:

Water slides!

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A really neat mini golf course:

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And one of the main attractions…the sky pad!

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Some other new activities that we were not able to get to on this short trip include the Escape Room and the Laser Tag Arena.  However, I will be back on board in January with my 16 year old son, so I am sure I will have the opportunity to see them then!

There are also some new concept bars. There is the Bamboo Room – a rum based, tiki style bar complete with talking macaws, plastic flamingos and a LCD porthole to give you a constant view of a tropical paradise outside.

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This balloon sign will eventually be replaced with a more permanent Insta sign, but even as balloons, almost everyone that walked in took a picture here!

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The menu was certainly rum based, but the bartenders could pretty much make you anything.  The bar also offers some small bites for a fee.  We did not try any of these, but they do look good!!

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Another new bar is Playmakers, a sports bar.  Surprisingly we spent a ton of time here, but usually when the bar was closed as the TV’s were on regardless and it was opening weekend of the Premier League soccer season (soccermom travels, after all!).  This bar also has bar snacks for an additional fee but I did not get a picture of the menu there.  Basically its typical bar bites: wings, sliders, etc.  This bar was very often packed when it was open and it felt like the bartenders had a hard time keeping up…but maybe it was just me!  They also have some cool bar games, they were free when we were there but that may not always be the case.

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They also had mini games on each table, Connect Four and mini Corn Hole.  I believe that this will remain one of the more popular spots.

In my next post, I will review the three specialty restaurants on board.  We purchased the Ultimate Dining plan so we ate every night in a different restaurant.  Two of them were new for us and pretty much new to Royal so stay tuned!

 

My First River Cruise Experience – Getting There and Paris

Châteaux, Rivers & Wine.  This is the theme of my first ever river cruise.  This came about because my mother really wanted to do this cruise and I was lucky enough to be able to tag along.

First the details:  This was on Viking River cruises, starting in Bordeaux cruising to Cadillac, Libourne, Bourg & Blaye, Pauillac, then back to Bordeaux.  In addition, we took the Pre-Cruise extension that included Paris, Orléans, the Loire Valley, and Tours before heading to Bordeaux to meet the Viking Longship Forseti.  We paid Viking to handle our flight arrangements, and all I can say about that is “lesson learned.”

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Having never sailed a river cruise before, I was unused to the lack of planning required.  As you know, if you have read any of my previous reviews, I am a crazy planner so not having to do any of that for this cruise left me feeling a bit disconcerted and not in control.

So, without handling any of the travel planning, we began our journey in April.  Our flight was Charlotte to JFK, JFK to Paris.  I had never been through JFK before but since we had been checked through, I assumed we would be fine.  I was wrong.  We had a bit of a delay leaving Charlotte, we sat on the runway for almost an hour waiting for clearance, but after that the flight was uneventful.  I knew it would be tight to make our next flight but we should have been able to make it.  What I did not know about JFK is that we would be required to check in again at the Air France counter even though we already had boarding passes.  Then, we had to make it through security again.  Unfortunately, these couple of issued added up to us missing our flight to Paris.  We then had to wait to see if we would make it on to the next (and last) flight to Paris.

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We did in fact make the last flight out, so I called Viking to let them know not to meet us at our original arrival time, but that we would be there a couple of hours late.  A long, but uneventful flight later, we landed in Paris, collected our bags and headed out to meet our Viking rep.  We were loaded into a comfortable minivan and off we went to our hotel, Le Méridien Etoile.

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Check in was easy and quick and our rooms were ready immediately.  We headed upstairs to unload our luggage and rest a bit.  Which ended up being a good idea as the heavens opened.  It rained for a bit, but then right as we were ready to head to dinner, it stopped.  We had no real plan for dinner, but I did have a place in mind, I just wasn’t sure how far away it was.  And as luck would have it, it was right down the block!

If you read my post on Nice, you may know how much I love mussels.  Well Léon de Bruxelles is famous for their mussels so I knew when I saw them, I would have to try it.  I mean, can you really be better than sitting by the Med drinking Rosé?  Well, actually no.  But the mussels were still REALLY REALLY good!

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And there were so many I could not finish all of them.  We all enjoyed our dinner tremendously and left fully satisfied.  I know it is technically a chain, but I would certainly go back anytime I am in Paris.  Service was great (and friendly!), prices were reasonable and the food (and wine) was outstanding!

Because of our delayed arrival in Paris, we did not have our day of sightseeing as planned, but we had one thing we didn’t want to miss, Bateaux-Mouches.

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A river cruise down the Seine.  The cruise departs every 30 minutes so there really isn’t a need to pre-book tickets, unless its a holiday or event, or you want a dinner cruise.  We just wanted a lovely sunset-ish ride through Paris.  In all of my trips to this city, this was one thing I had never done and even though I’ve been there multiple times, this was certainly a new way to see the city I love!

The cruise was lovely and afterwards we caught a taxi back to our hotel.  We had a early morning pickup to begin our tour through the Loire Valley so after a quick Lillet Rouge & Tonic in the hotel lounge we all hit the sack (well, except I had to work still, but it’s a small price to pay to be able to work from anywhere!).

Up bright and early, we showered (yay!!) and headed down for breakfast.  I will tell you, I have had plenty of crappy hotel breakfasts and Le Méridien Etoile is not that.  Not that at all.  Breakfast was awesome and if anyone knows where to get that little jar of kiwi yogurt please let me know!

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After breakfast and hotel check out, we handed over our luggage and were loaded onto a motorcoach to begin our tour.

 

Freedom in the Med…Back in Barcelona

So after that AMAZING Chef’s Table dinner, it was time to leave the Freedom and begin our trip home.  The trick here is to get your bags packed and out in the hall while remembering not to pack whatever clothes you want to wear the next morning.  I will tell you this doesn’t always happen and if you see random children at the airport in their pajamas, they are probably mine.

But, we did our best, packed up, cleaned up, distributed additional tips to our favorite crew members, said teary goodbyes, blew our last dollars in the casino and headed to bed.  We decided to stay one extra night in Barcelona instead of rushing to the airport immediately off the ship…this turned out to be one of my better decisions!

Since we were in no rush, we headed up to the Windjammer for some much needed coffee (me) and breakfast (everyone else).  Eventually we headed down towards the gangway, presented our cards to be scanned and heard the last mournful bong as we were checked off the ship.  In the terminal, we located our bags and headed out the door to hail an XL taxi to take us to the hotel.  This is where that “no rush” thing proved genius…the line for taxi’s, of any size, was several hundred people long.

There were people standing everywhere directing traffic…both human and vehicular so it was very easy to figure out where we needed to be, behind ALL those people in line!  The line moved fairly quickly, but it was still probably an hour or so from the time we got in line to the time we got a taxi.  There were quite a few people that did not expect or plan for this and they were frantic trying to explain that they needed to cut to the front of the line.  The Port Authority employees that were handling the line were having none of that, and would promptly pull any line jumpers out and send them to the back.

We eventually made our way to the front and were sorted into the line waiting for larger cabs.  As you might expect this took a bit longer, but soon enough we were on our way to the Hilton Barcelona.  Much like last years trip, I was able to get one night on points and since we stay at AirBNB’s on the front end of the trip, one free night after the cruise is a great way to not have to rush to the airport.

The Hilton Barcelona is a beautiful hotel in the more business-y district in Barcelona which was fine for the one night we needed it.  Plus it was close to one very important tourist attraction, one we could not miss…Camp Nou!

The Hilton has a beautiful lobby and bar area

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The rooms are comfortable enough, typical European (read small) with the amenities one would expect for a Hilton.  We checked in, then headed to the Metro to find some lunch…standing in line is hard work!

Now, you know how much we love food, and we all really prefer to eat local whenever possible.  But this was the last day of an eleven day trip.  What I wanted was a beer and a burger.  What we found was Hard Rock Barcelona.

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We walked up to the hostess stand and were told that the wait would be about two hours!!!!  Clearly that was not going to happen, but as I was standing there trying not to cry, another waitress mentioned that if we were willing to sit on the patio there was no wait…Um, okay.

So we sat on the patio along Plaça Catalunya and ate hamburgers and drank beer.  We were typical Americans again…although I still drank the local beer! It was exactly what I needed after an amazing week of touring and eating our way through Spain, France and Italy.  Our server was amazing and the lunch, while typical Hard Rock and kind of touristy, still solidly good burgers.

After lunch, we headed back to the hotel, then some of us headed to the last destination on our list…a visit to Camp Nou…can’t call myself a Soccer Mom and not go see this monument of soccer!

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We were relying on my directions…which was my first mistake!  I was trying to use Google Maps, works great if you are online, not so much in airplane mode.  We did eventually find it. I had pre-purchased tickets because I had read about long lines and wait times, this was not the case for us.  Even if we had had to purchase tickets, there were only about 5 people there waiting.  We wandered around in the museum

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and the visitors locker rooms

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and slowly made our way out to the field

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It is amazing to stand here, so close to the pitch and think of all of the great soccer that has happened here.

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This is from the upper level seats…and let me tell you, stairmaster’s got nothing on this stadium!  It felt like we were climbing forever and I totally understand why they have a snack bar open at the top, even on non game days!  I would have paid $20 for a bottle of water after that!  But it was worth it just to be there and now there is one more stadium crossed off my list, only a billion more to go!

We had dinner that night at a tapas place right out the front door of our hotel, Piscolabis.  It was fantastic.  We each ordered a few different tapas and all of them were very good to great!  The price was very reasonable and the wine was excellent.

The next morning, we asked the front desk to call us an XL cab to take us to the airport.  Our time in Europe was over.  It was amazing and there are several places that I would love to come and visit for longer: Barcelona, Nice, Positano & Sorrento.  But first there are a million places I want to see for the first time!  Until next time!  Adéu…

 

 

 

 

Freedom in the Med…The Chef’s Table

Our last full day on the boat. Never a day I look forward to.  This is the day you have to pack and put debark luggage tags on your bags, set them out in the hall, and hope you remembered to save at least one outfit to wear in the morning (don’t laugh…I’ve worn jammies on the ride home for just this reason!!).

However, there is one thing on our schedule tonight to look forward to, Chef’s Table.  This is a seven course (don’t worry, they’re small) tasting menu paired with 6 wines and a dessert cocktail.  If you know me at all you know this is right up my alley!  In fact, I reserve this dinner every cruise even though the menu hasn’t changes since my first one back in 2012.  But for this one, not just the menu had changed.

My first Chef’s Table experience was also on the Freedom way back in 2012.  Mom and I decided to try it.  It was held at a long table up in the WindJammer, the buffet restaurant.  They have since moved it to the Main Dining Room…in a pretty cool spot!

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Yep, that round table right in the middle, with the spiral staircases on either side.  (Pro Tip: Those staircases are tricky after 6 wines and a dessert cocktail…be safe!)  The setting is gorgeous and you feel like a superstar eating up there.

Another change is the menu.  It had long been rumored that the menu was going to change and when I sailed last summer on the Rhapsody, the Maître D’ confirmed that there would be a change, but not when so I did not know going in if we would be having the old menu (which I love) or the new menu (which at this point, I hadn’t even seen).  As it turned out, we had the new menu:

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And some fancy new place settings:

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That’s two napkins folded to look like a tuxedo!  Snazzy, right??

The first thing I noticed about the menu was the choice of entrée.   On the old menu, there was only one choice…short rib.  If you did not eat meat, the chef would make something for you on the fly (I am sure it was good but just to be clear, I eat meat, and I love short rib) but this was the first time I had seen an actual choice between beef, fish and vegetarian.   After the soup course (I think, maybe salad) the waiter came around and asked for your choice.

But first up?  Scallop Carpaccio:

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Basically just thinly sliced scallops with the dressing, a yuzu vinaigrette.

After that, the soup course.  This is first served with the bowl empty so that you can see the ingredients and then the server pours the soup into each bowl at the table.

Part of the fun of the Chef’s Table is the unique and interactive presentation.  At the start of each course the chef says a few words about what goes into making each dish and why it is served the way it is.  Then the Sommelier talks about what goes into the wine pairings for each course.  The wine is the one thing that always changes, while the chef must stick to the approved menu, the Sommelier has some freedom to choose the wines based on what he has on hand at the time.  The wines for this Chef’s Table overall  I would describe as adequate.  No show stoppers, but nothing too terrible either.

Moving on to the salad course:

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Now everyone loves lobster, and I am no different, but this was probably my least favorite course.  While the lobster itself was fine, the pineapple/vanilla dressing was a bit sweet for me.  YMMV

Now onto the entrèes.   Twelve people can sit at that table for dinner, and at our meal there were eleven Filets and one Tagliatelle.  No one ordered the fish…ergo I have no pictures of the fish (you better believe I would have taken a picture of someone else’s food if there had been that option!).  But I do have pictures of the filet:

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and the Truffle Tagliatelle:

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As both dishes were ordered by people in my party, I was able to try both…and both were amazing!

If you have not yet had enough food, never fear!  The absolute richest dish is yet to come.  That’s right!  Dessert!

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Valrhona Chocolate mousse with dulce de leche gelato and salted caramel cookie crumbles.  Believe me when I tell you that it actually pained me to leave this, but since I still had to fit in an airplane seat I had to content myself with just tasting each component.

In addition, coffee is offered, the Executive Chef, Maître D’, Sommelier and servers all come out to thank you and say goodbye and then we all precariously walked down the spiral staircase and out of the dining room.

I really enjoyed the new menu.  And I REALLY love the new location.  I will continue to reserve Chef’s Table on my Royal Caribbean cruises…even if they don’t change the menu for another six years!