Transatlantic Cruise Review and Port Guide, RCI's ADVENTURE OF THE SEAS, San Juan to Malaga, April 15-28, 2012
This was my first cruise on a Royal Caribbean ship, and it exceeded my expectations in every respect: ship, crew, activities, dining, price, and ports of call. I will describe each of them in that order.
SHIP: The Adventure of the Seas was built in 2001, which makes it almost middle-aged by current cruise industry standards (seems young to me). It is well-maintained, and other than a few fogged windows (in the aft buffet) age is not an issue.
It is 137,000 tons (three times the volume of the Titanic but smaller than its newer sister ships), and carries 3,000 passengers and 1,000 crew. It is the largest cruise ship that I have traveled on so far.
I was afraid that the large size would create crowds and waiting lines, but that was never a problem. The ice skating rink (yes, ice rink) blocked through-traffic on decks two and three, and shoppers sometimes slowed traffic on the deck five mall, but the other decks never seemed crowded.
The large size of the ship allows for a greater variety of sports and entertainment venues than on smaller ships. I was surprised that I never had to wait to participate in sports activities and always found a seat at entertainment (and enrichment) events.
The decor of the ship is stylish with a few whimsical touches. The stairwell art works are especially enjoyable. If you have a chance, take the free art tour given by a crew member several times during the cruise.
At about 153 sq. ft., my inside cabin was a bit smaller than I am used to, but it was well-designed and very functional. Only the CRT-type TV seemed dated. The climate control worked very well, and there always was enough fresh air at whatever temperature I wanted.
The bathroom was snug, but the shower had great water pressure and the circular enclosure worked much better than the usual shower curtain. I was pleased with my inside cabin. I did not have an opportunity to view other cabin categories and cannot comment on them.
For a look at the ship inside and out, a link to my photos is given at the end of this review. Photos of the ship are better than any description.
CREW: All of the crew members were well-trained and thoroughly professional, from the cruise director (Abel, a charming polyglot from Switzerland) to the numerous people who worked behind the scenes keeping everything shipshape.
I was impressed that the crew were very responsive to requests. When my shower backed up and later when my ceiling light flickered, the maintenance crew had each of them fixed within an hour. When I noted that the spa schedule was heavy on fee- and light on free-activities, the spa staff responded by adding a free stretch class every morning (try it, you will be amazed how enjoyable it is).
The entertainment crew also did a great job. The singers and dancers were very talented, and the ice skaters were world class. The activities crew made certain that guests felt welcome to participate in (or simply watch) the numerous events they offered. They were always very polite and friendly, which is not easy when one loses an hour of sleep almost every night on an eastbound itinerary.
My dining crew (I had open seating) were always first rate, and they always seemed to know my drink preferences even though I rotated tables and dined at various times.
My cabin steward Joel also did a fine job. My cabin was always immaculate, and he greeted me by name and helped me practice my Spanish (for my trip through southern Spain that followed the cruise).
PASSENGERS: Transatlantic cruises tend to attract an older and often better educated crowd with fewer children than shorter regional cruises, and that was the case on this cruise.
Since the passengers on this itinerary were about a quarter North American, a quarter Hispanic, a quarter German, and the remaining quarter other European and Asian, one had a chance to experience a broad variety of backgrounds, world views, and languages (although most passengers also spoke English). Meeting them was one of the pleasures of open dining.
Surprisingly few passengers smoked, and smoking was not an issue since it was limited to only a few areas. As on most ships, smoking was not allowed in the dining rooms and most other public areas.
ACTIVITIES: The ice rink was a surprising pleasure. The ice shows were infrequent but impressive, with the cast of ten skating at a world class level. This will be your best chance to see (up close and personal) how athletic an ice show really is. Obtain your free tickets the day you board, and go early since it is open seating.
The gym was adequate in size and equipment, but its open floor plan with a central whirlpool made it a bit noisy. Bring earplugs or headphones when you head for the gym. I carry earplugs to all cruise ship venues because of my personal bias against the muzak and over-amplified entertainment on almost all cruise lines, especially on the pool deck where one wants to relax.
The sports deck offered a wide variety of activities. The rock climbing wall on the back of the smokestack was much more fun than I had expected. Make sure you give it a try. It is exhilarating, and easier than you think.
On warm days the pool area was very busy, and as usual on cruise ships some people saved their deck chairs in advance, in spite of signs to the contrary. While it was warm in the Caribbean and western Atlantic, the eastern Atlantic was windy and very cool for April -- good for deck walks but not for sunning or swimming.
The jogging/walking track on the top deck was often busy and sometimes very windy, but the deck 4 promenade area under the lifeboats was more protected and never crowded. By climbing stairs up to deck 5 in the bow and then back down to deck 4 one could encircle the entire ship. The balcony "bulge" midship gives beautiful sea views on these walks.
The library had a relatively modest selection of books that often appeared to come from remaindered titles. You might want to bring some of your own reading material. The library had open shelves and was run on the honor system, which was convenient.
Enrichment lectures were relatively lightly attended for a transatlantic crossing, but the three speakers were all entertaining and enthusiastic. Most lectures related to the next port of call or to our final destination (Spain), which was a plus.
Some passengers were disappointed in the speed of the internet connection while mid-ocean (especially since it is billed per minute), but I did not have a problem since I only used it when we were in or near a port (public libraries in ports often have free internet, just ask locally). Wi-fi users seemed to like the outdoor tiled alcove near the solarium pool for a good connection.
CROWN AND ANCHOR: A nice perk of my diamond Crown and Anchor status on RCI (based on reciprocity with my Captain's Club status on Celebrity) was 20 minutes of free internet usage.
When you book a cruise with RCI and join their Crown and Anchor frequent-cruiser program, ask them to check your Celebrity account too, to see if you already qualify for RCI elite status.
In addition to the internet credit, I received a free 8x10 photo of myself (the professional photographers were very good, and very polite), and I received coupons for reduced prices in several venues including laundry service.
Perhaps the nicest perk was a daily pre-dinner cocktail hour in the Imperial Lounge with free wine and soda for diamond and higher Crown and Anchor categories.
DINING: Dining preferences are subjective, but the following suggestions may be useful to you.
The breakfast and lunch buffets (in the Windjammer) had both steam table and cold offerings. On every cruise line the former tend to be over-cooked, and so I tend to opt for the latter. The fresh fruit and crisp bacon at breakfast were excellent, and a wide variety of salads was available at lunch (although the main dining room salad bar was even better on sea days).
Remember that the hand gels at the buffet entry are good for bacteria, but hand washing with soap and water is even better for viruses like the notorious Norovirus.
It is just as important to wash your hands after using serving tongs as it is before entering the buffet. A nice bonus to hand washing is the beautiful view from the restrooms near the buffet entrance (they each have a glass wall overlooking the sea).
All but one of the twenty meals I had in the main dining room, both lunches and dinners, exceeded my expectations (a great record, I think). The menu is not quite as inventive and the presentation is not quite as elegant as on premium or luxury cruise ships, but I did not expect it to be. However, the quality of the ingredients and their preparation were always first rate.
At lunch on sea days, when the main dining room is open, you must try the chef's salad bar. It is the best I have had anywhere, on land or sea. Just make sure that your serving person is not too generous with the salad dressing. Main courses and desserts are offered in addition to the salad bar, but the salads are so large that you may not want anything more.
At dinner the beef was always top quality prime rib or tenderloin (I did not try the off-menu sirloin and cannot evaluate it). Only once was the prime rib well done, rather than the rare that I ordered. At my request they even grilled the filet mignon extra rare, which few ship galleys are willing to do.
The seafood (various white fish, shrimp, scallops) was always cooked to perfection, and except for the off-menu salmon, the seafood was never dry or overdone. The seafood was so good that I often ordered it.
There was no rack of lamb, but the lamb shank was tender and flavorful. There was a variety of poultry and pork, which I did not sample since I have that often enough at home.
I had a dinner salad (the Caesar) only once, and it had wilted under its dressing. At dinner it may be best to order salad with the dressing on the side. I did not try the soups, although my tablemates enjoyed them.
Desserts at dinner and during the afternoon in the buffet were usually American style, with an emphasis on cakes, puddings, pies, and ice cream. Classic French desserts were less frequent, and chocolate desserts were not as flavorful as one would like.
I opted for My Time (open) dining with pre-paid gratuities. I had multiple different servers and assistants, and all were excellent. Unfortunately there is currently no system to reward them with additional tips unless you hand each one a cash supplement at the end of the cruise. I hope some day RCI will be able to computerize this process from one's shipboard account, since it may involve a dozen different servers.
I experienced three minor disappointments with My Time dining:
First, some passengers reserved the same (usually small) table at the same time for almost every night of the cruise, essentially locking out others who might also want a table for two or six. The rest of us usually were seated at long tables for ten, which made both conversation and service difficult. To be fair to all passengers, My Time dining should not be My Table dining.
Second, the servers were so generous that they often brought unordered cheese and fruit plates before presenting the menus. On one occasion a couple at my table (perhaps they had previously complained about something) even received two huge Greek salads, a platter of bruschetta, a cheese plate, and a plate of petits fours before they placed their orders. This generosity is done with the best of intentions, but extra food should be on a request only basis.
Third, rather than seating guests in their order of arrival, my tables for ten were sometimes partly filled, service commenced, and then the remainder of the table was filled 15-20 minutes later. This staggered seating is difficult for both the servers and the earlier guests, who usually must delay their remaining courses until the later guests catch up. Open dining works better when a table is closed to new guests once the first course is served.
PRICE: The good news is that this eastbound transatlantic cruise was the best value I have encountered in more than 20 years of cruising. The bad news is that cruise prices are capacity controlled, and you might not be able to obtain such a good price for your own transatlantic cruise.
Several months before this cruise, I crossed the Atlantic westbound on a Celebrity ship. When I wanted to return eastbound on the same ship, the price was raised $400 for residents of my state (but not for residents of about 20 other states). Although I could afford the increase, the geographic discrimination turned me off.
Instead I found this RCI cruise online. It was just as long as, but cost half as much as, my prior Celebrity cruise (excluding gratuities and port charges, which are fixed). Even better, I was able to obtain a solo cabin for only a small surcharge (most cruise lines charge solo travelers 200%, and sometimes even 300-400% of their standard rate for couples).
My per diem as a solo passenger in an inside double cabin on this cruise was an astoundingly low 48 USD, before standard gratuities and port charges. Thank you RCI!
However, when I considered extending my cruise on the same ship in the Mediterranean, a solo cabin for the extra one week would have cost more than four times the rate offered to couples, and more than twice what I paid for the prior two week transatlantic cruise.
Also, when I considered taking the same transatlantic itinerary westbound on the same Adventure of the Seas next fall, a solo cabin would have cost three times the rate I paid for my cruise eastbound. Go figure.
The lesson is that there is sometimes no apparent rhyme or reason to cruise fares. One must simply stay alert and watch for good values on the internet.
I hope that RCI has another good value in the future, because I would happily cruise with them again when their solo cabin price is a good value.
(N.B. Shortly after I wrote the above, I booked back to back Alaska cruises for June on the RCI Radiance of the Seas -- not the fantastic bargain that my transatlantic cruise had been, but a good value compared with all the other solo cabins on cruise lines in Alaska.)
PORTS OF CALL: I rarely book a tour in any port of call. I much prefer to explore ports on my own, taking cheap public transportation and meeting locals along the way. The following information may help you to do the same on this itinerary.
First, my photo links are given here and again at the end of this cruise review. You will be surprised how attractive these ports are.
Click on this link (or copy and paste it in your browser if necessary):
Thumbnail photos will then appear (if you get a "stack overload" alert due to the number of photos, just click on the alert till it closes). Then click on the "slideshow" option in the upper left. Wiggle your mouse to access the control panel to set speed, pause, or go back.
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO: Our cruise began in San Juan.
San Juan hotels are overpriced, especially near cruise departure days, so I stayed in a basic and inexpensive (less than the cab fare from the airport) posada in old San Juan (Posada San Francisco, on Plaza Colon). There I met several others going on my cruise, and we shared a taxi to the RCI cruise terminal in the morning.
Old San Juan is a pleasure for strolling. Make sure you leave enough time to enjoy it, especially the two historic forts run by the National Park Service (El Morro and San Cristobal). For free entry to both, remember to bring your national park pass (Golden Eagle, etc.) from home.
The RCI cruise terminal is across the bay from old San Juan. There is no bus service nearby and you will need to hire a taxi to get there. Taxis from the airport to old San Juan are regulated and cost about $24 (for the entire cab), but taxis from old San Juan to the cruise terminal may take some negotiating (always agree on the price in advance, since most taxis are not metered).
Boarding begins around noon. Getting there earlier means you will simply have to wait in line (outside) longer.
ST. THOMAS, USVI: I regret to say that this is my least favorite port in the Caribbean. It is usually overwhelmed with cruise ships, even though the locals try very hard to accommodate them.
In years past we used to take the small ferry to Water Island to escape the cruise crowds (this is most convenient if your ship docks at the yacht harbor in Crown Bay). Unfortunately, local tour operators now bring party barges and catamarans into the Water Island beach every mid-day, so it is no longer quiet or pleasant.
Magens Bay beach is probably the best alternative (pay for a taxi to the north shore, then pay for beach entry). We may simply stay onboard and enjoy the empty ship when our itineraries take us to St. Thomas in the future.
ST. MAARTEN/ST. MARTIN (DUTCH/FRENCH): I am a francophile and a francophone, but I must admit that the Dutch half of this island (where the cruise ships dock) is much nicer than the French side. The French beaches (including the famous but unpleasant Orient Beach) are on the windward side, with rough surf, no free shade, and seaweed and plastic debris in the water and on the beach.
A much better alternative is to walk from the ship into Phillipsburg along the nice pedestrian walkway. A few blocks inland from the town waterfront you will find mini-vans heading west to Mullet Bay Beach (a scenic 20 minute ride for 2 USD). Look for the Mullet Bay sign in the mini-van window, and remember to greet the driver and other passengers when you enter. The driver will drop you a short walk from the beach.
Along the way you will pass the infamous Maho Beach, where jets land and take off just overhead. This is an awesome event, especially the late morning arrival of the KLM 747 from Europe (check flight schedules if you are interested in being blasted by awesome jet noise).
Mullet Bay Beach is far enough beyond Maho Beach that it is not bothered by the jets. It offers a long strip of pristine white sand and crystal clear water straight out of a travel poster. On week day mornings it is almost empty and absolutely glorious. There is shade, but no changing room, so wear your suit if you do not want to change under your towel. Vendors there rent chairs and umbrellas, and they sell snacks and drinks.
SANTA CRUZ, TENERIFE, CANARY ISLANDS (SPANISH): The first of the two Canary Islands on our cruise, Tenerife Island is well-developed and tourist friendly. Most of its tourists arrive by air from Europe. Most of the beaches are on the south coast, but the best sightseeing is to the north and west of the Santa Cruz cruise port.
There was a good deal of construction along the Santa Cruz waterfront (it is being upgraded), but signs will direct you along a 10 minute walk to the main waterfront boulevard, where you can catch a local bus (you will need a few euros for buses, drivers make change) westbound to the large main bus station ("Estacion" on the front of the bus, or ask the driver).
From there, you can catch a bus (there are several per hour, I believe #15) to La Laguna, an inland town about 20 minutes northwest, with a UNESCO World Heritage preserved historic center. Old La Laguna is wonderful for strolling and is just a 10 minute walk from the local bus station (or take the modern tram those few blocks). The local tourism board in the center provides free guided walks on most days around noon.
There is an old tower in the town center with nice views (it does not open till 10am), and there is a nice farmers and florists market a few blocks northeast of the old town.
Remember that clean and free public restrooms are available in the La Laguna bus station and in the farmers market building.
If you have time and interest, there are frequent buses from La Laguna to Puerto de la Cruz on the northwest coast, an additional 20 minute ride on the freeway. This is an attractive tourist enclave with a nice parks and a waterfront walk. The local tourism board has good maps for self-guided walking tours, and their historic office on the waterfront has a nice gift shop with local crafts, including handmade lace.
There is no bus station building in Puerto de la Cruz. Instead the buses all line up along one street located a few blocks above the waterfront, with street signs giving the destinations and schedules. There are frequent buses back to Santa Cruz, about a 30 minute ride on the non-stop (I believe #103) bus.
With your remaining time in Santa Cruz (the cruise port) I suggest you walk around the Calatrava-designed Auditorium of Tenerife, which is near the main bus station. It is similar to his famously winged Milwaukee art museum in the U.S.A. Make sure you look at the painted rocks along the waterfront near the auditorium. The portraits will surprise you. See how many you can recognize.
From the auditorium it is a 15 minute walk back toward the center of town to the modern TEA public library and contemporary art museum. The former is the most beautiful library I have seen anywhere (and it has free internet). The latter has temporary exhibitions, some of which are very enjoyable if you are an art lover, and are relatively inexpensive. There is a coffee shop between the library and museum, with a separate entry.
Next door to the TEA is the anthropology and natural history museum, which some recommended but I did not have time to see. From there it is a 20 minute walk back to the ship.
There is usually a shuttle from the ship to the town center for a few USD, but it was not operating early enough for me, and the public bus stop is close to the ship anyway. You will be surprised how enjoyable Tenerife and La Laguna can be.
ARRECIFE, LANZAROTE, CANARY ISLANDS (SPANISH):
Lanzarote Island is famous for its barren volcanic landscape, which has been used in some science fiction movies as an alien planet. Incongruously, one of the most popular ship tours is a camel ride in the remote volcanic national park. There are also many things you can do on your own at a fraction of the cost.
Cruise ships dock about 2 miles (3 km) east of Arrecife town. There is a small beach at the port (too cold to swim, but adequate for sunning on a warm day). Just follow the pedestrian walkway signs. One can continue on foot to Arrecife, but it is too far and uninteresting to be worthwhile.
Instead of the walkway to Arrecife, walk 10 minutes straight out of the cruise port to the main highway (follow the trucks and buses, and use caution because there is no sidewalk toward the end). On the highway traffic circle is the Estrella restaurant.
On the side of the highway next to the Estrella restaurant you can flag the local bus (I believe #3) eastbound to Costa Teguise. It departs every 20 minutes, takes about 15 minutes, and costs about 1.50 euros (drivers make change). At the end of the line, there is a condo area with shops and several pleasant beaches (walk through the mall to get to the beach promenade).
Alternately, across the highway from the Estrella restaurant is the westbound bus (I believe #3) into Arrecife (10 minutes, about 1.50 euros) and beyond to Playa del Carmen on the south coast (about 30 minutes more, although I did not go there).
Instead, I changed buses in Arrecife (at the main bus station inland or at the large outdoor Intercambiador bus stop near the waterfront) and took the #60 bus for a 60 minute long, 4 euro ride along the center of the island past the volcanic national park (no access by public bus) to Playa Blanca on the west coast.
This route gives a scenic view of most of the island, and the beach walk at Playa Blanca is very pleasant. The #60 bus runs only once every hour (near the top of the hour) so plan your return to the ship accordingly.
FUNCHAL, MADEIRA ISLAND (PORTUGUESE): Madeira Island has a local bus system, but most of it is thinly scheduled, for locals going to and from work.
However, there is good bus service (#20 or #21, I believe) up the mountain behind Funchal to the beautiful vistas and street sled rides of El Monte.
Funchal itself is a beautiful town with wonderful gardens. A ride up and down from El Monte followed by a walk through Funchal with visits to the farmers market and several churches and museums will easily fill your day.
At the cruise port pick up a free map of Funchal. From the cruise ship it is a scenic 15 minute walk along the yacht harbor and waterfront to the Praca de Autonomia (Plaza of Autonomy).
On the west side of the plaza, heading uphill along the (usually dry) riverbed is the bus stop for El Monte. It is a scenic 15 minute ride up (about 2 euros) to the church (igreja) of El Monte (ask the driver where to get off). From the church front you can look down over Funchal and the cruise port.
Right below the church is the starting point for the famous street (basket) sled rides part way downhill. The bus ride back down was thrilling enough for me, but just watching the sleds take off is fun. Near the church is a large public garden, but the entry is 10 euros, and the gardens in town are free.
On the east side of the Praca de Autonomia downtown is the indoor farmers, fishmen, and florists market. There you will find colorful photo ops, especially since the florists still wear the island's traditional red costumes and caps.
Walking along the pedestrian zone west from the market and the Praca de Autonomia you will come to the historic town center along Avenida Arriaga. There you will find many cafes, free wi-fi, beautiful blue (in spring) jacaranda trees, and a wonderful public flower garden.
If you head uphill from that flower garden, you will come to Santa Clara street, which leads up to two fine museums, a beautiful church (San Pedro) and a nice old convent (Santa Clara).
Near the top of the street is the Museu Quinta das Cruzes, a fine old mansion where the last Austrian emperor was exiled after the war. It is now a museum of decorative arts. In the museum garden is a nice orchid display.
A few blocks below this, also on Santa Clara street is the Museu Freitas. Half is a modern building with a good collection of the famous old tiles (azulejos) which one sees in churches and homes. The other half is the former mansion of Dr. Freitas. The mansion is particularly impressive because its valuable art objects are in situ, and not behind glass.
To see the Santa Clara convent you will have to ring the bell next to the gate. If it is answered, a nun (or employee) will include you in one of their tours. San Pedro church is near the convent on your way back down to the town center.
For those who are unable to walk well, I believe Funchal has a hop on/off bus tour that leaves from the waterfront, but I do not know the schedule or prices.
MALAGA, SPAIN: Malaga was founded by Phoenicians, then settled by Romans. It is surprisingly attractive and enjoyable for a day visit (or preferably an overnight), and the local tourist offices are friendly and helpful.
Torremolinos is a short bus ride west of Malaga, and Nerja (less crowded and more attractive than Torremolinos) is a 50 minute bus ride east. Buses to either leave from the bus stop on Avenida Herredia near the waterfront, which is closer to the town center than the main bus station.
Cruise ships dock about a mile (1.5 km) from the historic center of Malaga and about two miles (3.0 km) from the back-to-back train and bus stations. The airport is several miles west of town, but there are good airport buses every 25 minutes (2 euros) leaving from Alameda Principal, the short boulevard with florist booths located between the waterfront and the old town center.
On arrival in Malaga at the end of my cruise I walked off the ship at 0630 and took a taxi (they are all small, white, and metered) from the ship to the bus station (about 10 euros plus tip) for my bus ride to Ronda. I was at the bus station before 0700 and was glad to have taken the taxi since it started to rain a few minutes later.
I stayed in Malaga for two nights (at the small, central, and very reasonable Hotel Trebol) after spending two weeks traveling on my own through Andalusia (Ronda, Sevilla, Cordoba, and Granada).
From Malaga I then took an inexpensive Veuling (Iberia code share) flight to Barcelona, where I stayed a few more days before flying back to the U.S.A.
In addition to a side trip to Nerja, I enjoyed Malaga's Picasso Museum (Malaga was his birthplace) in a restored mansion with a pleasant garden cafe. While the Barcelona Picasso Museum has mainly early (adolescent) and late (Las Meninas cycle) works, the Malaga Picasso Museum has works from his middle years that he kept for himself and are now on loan from his family.
Near the Picasso Museum is Malaga's large cathedral (with a small but free art museum in the adjacent historic Episcopal Palace), and also nearby is Malaga's open Roman amphitheater.
The entire downtown area is a stylish pedestrian zone with nice shops and cafes, which are especially enjoyable for people watching during the evening paseo.
West of the town center is a photogenic indoor farmers market (a block from my Hotel Trebol), and north of that is a small but enjoyable costume and decorative arts museum
All of these sights are listed on the free tourist maps, which are available from tourist information booths near the waterfront, the cathedral, the Picasso Museum, and the amphitheater.
Like Cartagena farther up Spain's Mediterranean coast, Malaga is much nicer than one expects. Malaga is a very enjoyable place to start or end a cruise.
Again, for those interested, my photos of the ship and some of the ports are at the following link. Click on this link (or copy and paste it in your browser if necessary):
Thumbnail photos will then appear (if you get a "stack overload" alert due to the number of photos, just click on the alert till it closes). Then click on the "slideshow" option in the upper left. Wiggle your mouse to access the control panel to set speed, pause, or go back.
I hope you find the above information useful. Enjoy my photos and your next cruise. Bon voyage!