We loved our first-ever cruise and very much enjoyed the RCCL Serenade of the Seas.
We booked through a travel agent, but he really didn't add much since we are good researchers, so I probably wouldn't bother next time. We cruised with another couple who had cruised several times before, and felt more comfortable having some seasoned cruisers with us. We did pretty careful research on each port, so we had a good idea what we wanted to do in each place and were able to arrange a good balance of adventure and relaxation. Our friends had never bothered to research much in advance, but after cruising with us and seeing how much our preparations added to the trip, they are sold and plan to do more research in advance next time. Plus, it makes the fun of the cruise last much longer - the months of research and anticipation are half of the fun!
We flew into San Juan the day before so that we would not have to worry about making it to the ship on time. Our flight left Cleveland at 6am which meant that we had to get up at a ridiculous hour. We were exhausted by the time we got to San Juan, so we just checked in to the Caribe Hilton and rested rather than even trying to explore San Juan. Lunch at the hotel restaurant (Pina Colada Club) was over-priced and nothing special. We were in the Hilton Honors Tower and the room was lovely with a great view (and a very cool shower). Later, we wandered around the property and it was gorgeous and very relaxing! The beach was small but very pleasant, and we loved the hammocks right by the beach to relax in. The only time we left the Hilton was to take a cab to the Metropol for dinner - it was a fantastic meal! We had the Cuban Sampler, black bean soup and tres leche cake and it was all wonderful (and very reasonably priced).
The next morning we relaxed and it was handy to have a Starbucks there for a quick, simple breakfast. We headed to the ship around 11:30 am. Embarkation was smooth and easy. I loved that there was a small shop where I could get 2 12-packs of Diet Coke (my personal addiction) to have in our cabin. We got right on board and had lunch at the Windjammer. By 1pm our cabins were ready and we could settle in. I had purchased the Unlimited Soft Drink package and was very glad I did. I wasn't sure how it would work, but they give you an insulated cup with a lid and you can get it filled at any of the restaurants or bars, so I probably wouldn't have needed 2 cases of Diet Cokes for the room - one would have done fine for me. That meant that I never needed to be without my mandatory Diet Coke and it was easy to bring it back to the room full for the evening. One caution: when you first get the insulated cup, be sure to wash it out with soap and water multiple times. It has a unpleasant metallic taste which takes several washings to get rid of.
We were in Cabin 2021. We had heard how small the cabins on cruises were, but actually our cabin was just fine. We opted to save our money and get an inside cabin and that worked well for us - I think we'd do that again and put the extra money towards another cruise! The cabin was so well-designed that there was room for everything we brought in all the nooks and crannies of the room. True, I couldn't quite walk around my side of the bed without climbing over the end of the bed, but it was no big deal. I liked the location of the cabin. I know that Deck 2 is not particularly classy, but it was very convenient to getting on and off the ship in port. Our cabin steward was great - we expected 3 towel animals, but actually got 4 which was a fun surprise! The room was always clean, with plenty of clean towels - there was even room for a loveseat which we could actually sit on to relax. The single best advice we had gotten before the cruise was to take the stairs instead of the elevator - great advice! I ate much more than I should have, but the stairs from Deck 2 to the Windjammer on Deck 11 (and elsewhere) gave us a good work-out and I ended up not gaining weight on the cruise - a very pleasant surprise!
Overall, we loved the Serenade of the Seas - I know that it is being overhauled this coming November, but it looked to be in great shape to us as it is! The food was excellent- we never got tired of the Windjammer for breakfast and lunch. We had breakfast in the dining room one time and that was also lovely, but seemed unnecessary - there was plenty of variety at the Windjammer, so we never ran out of things to try and it was easy and convenient. We also enjoyed the Seaview Cafe - great guacamole! On the first day, there was a bit of stress because somehow we were not placed to sit next to the other couple we were cruising with. I have no idea whether that was the fault of our travel agent or of the cruise line. However, we got things straightened out fairly easily, got to dinner early the first night and ended up getting seats together that we all liked. The dinners were major events each night - the service was great without being stilted, the company was very pleasant, and the food was excellent. It was like eating at one of the best restaurants in town every night. I was very glad we brought clothes to participate in the more formal nights - the food was great every night, but even better those nights.
We also very much enjoyed the entertainment. We hadn't been expecting too much, but were pleasantly surprised. We went to every evening show. The Broadway-production type-shows were excellent, we very much enjoyed the comedian, and the Temptations tribute band was fun. The comedian (Joseph Yannetty) was on 2 nights and he was hilarious! The DVD really doesn't do him justice - the way he worked with (and teased) the audience members was a riot. El Gaucho and John Ferrentino were our least favorites, but we still had pleasant evenings. One night, we and the other couple we cruised with had the Safari Bar, live band (ironically called "Just 4 You"), and dance floor to ourselves - very nice! The Quest game was very silly but fun - I do think that the game planners should mix things up enough so that repeat cruisers can't just bring things they know will be needed. It's not fair and makes it a bit less fun - but we still enjoyed it. We took a couple of dance classes that might have been a bit advanced for some of the cruisers, but we learned some new steps and had a blast. Mark was the Cruise Director and he was just perfect - fun and lively without overdoing it or being obnoxious.
We had to really think hard to come up with anything at all that we didn't like about the cruise (yes, it was that difficult!). The swimming pools were small and crowded, but we weren't particularly interested in those, so we didn't care about that. We could always find plenty of deck chairs in the shade for relaxing. One friend we cruised with said that the water in the hot tub was warm, but the bubbles rising to the surface were cold, which spoiled the effect. We didn't bother to try it (mainly because we were busy doing other things.) The cruise was supposedly pretty full, but it never felt the least bit crowded.
The Meet & Mingle was a disappointment. There were only about 6 other people there, sitting together and talking with each other. There was a nice fruit and cheese tray and, because there were so few people there, we won a bunch of fun RCCL-themed prizes. However, there was no meeting and no mingling, so I probably wouldn't bother next time.
We did the trip to the Virgin Gorda Baths through RCCL - We were going to book directly through Speedy's which would have given us more flexibility in term of timing except for the fact that we were there on a Sunday. Speedy's schedule is very limited on Sundays and wouldn't have gotten us back until 4:30 pm which was cutting it too close for our comfort. So we opted for a shorter visit through the official RCCL tour. The whole excursion was well-handled and well-organized - this was probably our favorite excursion of the whole cruise. The weather was gorgeous and the ferry ride was fun - we rode on the top in the open air on the way there and inside on the bottom level on the way back. We definitely preferred the open air despite the wind - the views were great and it had a festive atmosphere. The Baths were great! At first there were tons of other people on the path, but as soon as we got to the first beach, the crowd thinned out and we could make our own way which was much better. I could have stayed for hours longer just crawling through caves and on top of rocks - there were so many different places to explore! I will definitely go there again and spend more time - but it was a lovely introduction!
We got back to the ship for lunch and then went out to explore downtown Road Town. It was a Sunday, so almost nothing was open. But there wasn't much there anyway. It was hot and run-down with very little to look at and very few stores (open or not). Decidedly not a place to shop or explore!
We decided to have a more relaxing day today after the exciting excursion yesterday. We were planning to walk into town, but couldn't easily find the way, so we took the water taxi for $6 (unlimited trips). Basically all we did was shop - but we were successful at getting most of the gifts we wanted to bring home. I was glad we did some comparison shopping: We almost bought liqueurs at the Guavaberry Emporium, but decided to look around first. At another store, we were able to buy a variety of small liqueurs in exactly the types and quantities we preferred, at exactly the same price (the Guavaberry Emporium gave us many fewer options). Plus, the people at the Guavaberry Emporium were decidedly unfriendly). We walked along Great Bay Beach and realized that laying in the hot sun in a jam-packed row of other people laying in the hot sun was just not our thing. So we shopped and then took the water taxi back to the ship for a relaxing afternoon.
We didn't plan a formal excursion, so the four of us went out of the ship area to where the taxi drivers were and asked for someone to take us to Brimstone Fortress and Romney Manor. We were lucky to find Marvin Harrigan (Marvin Taxi Service - e-mail MarvinTA389@hotmail.com; cell 1-869-663-1693). For $20 per person we had a lovely tour. We wanted more time at Brimstone Fortress, so we planned for 1 hour there instead of the usual 45 minutes. We could have spent many more hours there! We had fabulous views, found the video and fortress fascinating, and enjoyed the experience. The $5 audio-tour, however, was absurdly slow-moving, so I'd pass on that next time. We learned all that we wanted just from exploring the Fortress and the exhibits. We then had a brief visit to Romney Manor which gave us time to see at least some of the lovely gardens and buy some beautiful batik gifts. The best part of the day, however, was Marvin - he was very knowledgeable and proud of St. Kitts and showed us many other areas. He actually spent over 1/2 hour more with us than had been arranged because he had so much to show us. He answered all of our questions and took us to a spot where we could see both the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean at the same time. When we expressed interest in certain aspects of the culture, he went out of his way to show us relevant areas. He dropped us off at the Ballyhoo Restaurant, overlooking The Circus, where we had a light lunch of conch chowder. A lovely day which gave us a good feel for the island of St. Kitts.
We had originally planned to go to the Papillote Wilderness Retreat for their Interlude for a Day ($60 per person for garden tour, thermal hot springs bath, and gourmet lunch). They had said that they could send a taxi to pick us up or we could just take our own taxi out there. Since we didn't know what time we would be ready, we decided to take our own taxi. Bad idea! When we got off the ship mid-morning, the taxi drivers told us that all drivers were going in the opposite direction in the morning and that no one could take us to Papillote until the afternoon. So, be sure to get them to send you a taxi if you want to go there.
We had lunch at the Windjammer and then headed back to the taxi area. We decided that we didn't really have time to go to Papillote since we didn't want to be rushed, so we decided to go to Screw's Spa instead. We got a taxi from Louis Romain of Son-Shine Services (e-mail: email@example.com; cell: 1-767-245-1772). He had another couple who wanted to get a general tour of Dominica, so he dropped us off at Screw's Spa, took them on to Tralfalgar Falls, then came back to pick us up and continue to show us around. Screw's Spa was exactly what we wanted! There was literally no one else there when we arrived, so for $10 per person we had 6 thermal hot spring pools (at varying levels of heat) to ourselves. We love the heat, so the first and hottest pool was our favorite, but we tried them all. The setting was gorgeous and the pools felt great - we especially liked the hot water falls! We got totally relaxed and very much appreciated the plate of fresh fruit given to us afterwards. There are numerous videos of Screw's Spa on Youtube - check it out! Louis picked us up exactly on schedule and then gave us a very good tour on the way back to the ship. He showed us Trafalgar Falls from a distance, and showed us many different types of vegetation, buildings, the Botanical Gardens, the smushed school bus, etc. When he expressed interest in buying some Dominican coffee and Cocoa Tea, he took us to a supermarket when the locals shop so we wouldn't have to pay tourist prices. Excellent service! We got a very good taste for the island including its history, educational system, etc. All we had really expected was a ride to and from Screw's Spa, but Louis turned out to be an excellent tour guide and was a bargain at $20 per person.
Based on the many positive reviews on CruiseCritic, we booked the Snorkeling with Turtles Tour through Silver Moon before our cruise. We booked the 24-person tour. I loved the boat and the crew - they definitely went out of their way to make sure everyone was happy. It was a beautiful day and it was very relaxing to sail around, enjoying the sunshine, the good music, and the unlimited free drinks (alcoholic or otherwise). The lunch was excellent - I had really wanted to try flying fish. The crew pointed out various sights on shore along the way. The snorkeling itself was just as advertised: we snorkeled at one site where we saw turtles and at another site with 2 shipwrecks. Personally, I enjoyed relaxing on the boat more than the snorkeling. I'm used to much more private snorkeling, where there are just a few people at a coral reef with the leisure to just float around and spot a wide variety of fish and sea creatures. This felt very different: there were several other boats at each location, so there were clumps of people snorkeling close to each other to see the sites. It was cool to see the turtles and the shipwrecks, but there were so many people around that you had to be careful not to kick the turtles or other people. The turtles and shipwrecks were cool to see, but there was not a wide variety of fish or other sea creatures and it was not at all private. So, it was exactly what we were expecting and Silver Moon did a great job. As far as I was concerned, it was well worth it for relaxing on the boat - for snorkeling itself, I'd rather go with more of a wilderness/private feel.
Disembarkation was straightforward and easy. We had booked the Bacardi Distillery Tour through RCCL with airport drop-off, so we met at 7:45 am in the Tropical Theater. Getting through Customs and Immigration was a breeze with nice, short lines.
The bus portion of the Bacardi Distillery Tour was excellent: Our driver was Rafael Schultz (I believe), who was originally from NYC. He was quite a character and very entertaining. We were too early to go right to the Distillery, so he drove us around San Juan and gave us a brief tour and history of Old San Juan, including driving by 2 forts, Ponce de Leon's house, etc. Although we didn't get out of the bus and explore anywhere, it made up a bit for the fact that we had been too tired to explore San Juan on our own that first day here.
The Bacardi Distillery Tour itself was very disappointing. In my view, the whole point of a factory tour is to get a glimpse into how things are actually made and see the process in action. There was none of that here at all. All we got was the history of Bacardi and what was basically an ad for their products - nothing whatsoever about the process, machines, etc. We were rushed through the exhibits so quickly that we didn't even have time to press each informational button, let alone even look at the other exhibits. It was nice that we got tickets for 2 free drinks (more from the driver if we wanted) but it was too early in the morning for me to get into drinking. I liked the idea of doing an excursion that would kill time before my flight and get me to the airport, but next time I'd choose the Old San Juan Tour or just about anything else besides Bacardi.
The driver picked us up on schedule and got us to the airport in plenty of time. This was a good thing, because the lines at security were enormous! It seemed to take forever, but we still had more than enough time to eat lunch and get to our gate for our uneventful flight back to Cleveland.
All in all, a very positive introduction to cruising - we'll be back!