About us We are three, professional, well-traveled women, ages ranging from 35-45. For myself, it was cruise number 3, the prior 2 cruises being on Carnival and Princess, but first cruise for the other 2 in our party. This was our first time traveling together, and we chose this option (FOS) based on date, itinerary, price, and likelihood to appeal to all 3 of us. While we all have children, this trip was just us -- husbands were home with the kids. I point this out because while we were keenly observant of the experience onboard for families/kids, we ourselves just wanted to relax, and often avoided child-heavy areas.
We were flying into Orlando from different locations at different times. We arranged a package through La Quinta Cocoa beach, which had the best price for the fly-snooze-cruise option. Meaning, a room for 3 pre cruise, shuttle to and from MCO airport, and shuttle from the hotel to port the next day. The rate included a standard non-smoking room and breakfast the next day, as well as free wifi. The room had a fridge and micro I think (we used the fridge, not the micro). Beds were comfy, although they apparently have live poolside music during summer season at the pool- which luckily ended at 10, otherwise it would have been too much. If you dislike noise, this might not be the right choice for you. It didn't bother us too much. The shuttle the hotel uses is Cocoa Beach Shuttle, and it worked just fine. I was contacted ahead of time by both the hotel and then the shuttle company to verify our flight information. Pickup and transit was pretty easy -- we called the shuttle after collecting our bags and then they come over from the holding area. A number of other people in both terminals were riding, so it was a pretty full van. Again, didn't bother us too much, but if you have serious personal space issues this might not be the choice for you. The driver was fine, and we tipped a buck a bag. The la Quinta was the last stop (I think we may have stopped at 3 other hotels before ours). We were not worried about time, but I could imagine others (my husband, for example!) getting annoyed at the multiple stops. In any case, the room was perfectly fine (we didn't use the pool). Walking distance (1/2 a mile maybe?) to Publix where we picked up a few snacks and last minute toiletries. There was a taxi/van service we could have used, but we opted to walk. We had dinner at the hotel restaurant, which was Thai/sushi. Very good sushi, about $20-25pp. There was also a sports bar with burgers and other bar food- our later arriving friend got a burger from here and said it was good -- but it involved braving a large crowd of partiers to get it from the bar. The shuttle to the port next morning was full, not surprisingly, but well-organized (they have a list with your names and call by party to board). We dropped off at another ship (maybe 2?) before going to the RCI port.
There were lots of people (it seemed like) when we were dropped off at about 11, but there was plenty of shade, and the line seemed to move very quickly. We had been warned by the shuttle driver the night before to bring snacks since there is not food at the port, so we did, but the line moved so quickly we didn't need them. Still, in mind of our kids or maybe diabetics, it's a good idea. No problem getting through security, etc., and check-in was a breeze. One in our party hadn't done ANY online check-in ahead of time, but this barely slowed us down. They gave her a form which she filled out as we went through the line. We boarded the ship and were ushered to the Windjammer (deck 11, buffet) to eat lunch, since staterooms were not ready until 115pm. This was the only time we had trouble finding a seat in the windjammer (again, not surprising)- but we found that if you go to the maitre d' /head waiter person at the entrance to the seating area, they were working diligently to find seats and guide you to them. This was easier than wandering, as others were doing. Definitely find a seat and set down your carryons before getting a plate. We saw lots of people juggling kids, carryons, and plates of food, wandering around looking for a spot. Not good. Had a lovely lunch while we took in the view of the port and the dining room from the table. A good way to get your bearings. Before we knew it they announced cabins were ready, and we headed off to find ours.
As large as the ship was, none of us ever felt overwhelmed or lost whatsoever. There are maps and interactive guides all over, as well as very helpful staff. Occasionally we got turned around, or tried to get someplace without checking the map first and got caught up, but were easily set right by asking or checking a map. There are so many little spots and venues, that even on the last night we were discovering new areas. If I had it to do over, I would recommend a thorough deck by deck tour, just to get oriented and see all there is to see. We chose to relax in our staterooms and unpack, though, which is also a good option.
Public rooms were lovely, and sometimes a bit Vegas, but more often we found them just beautiful. The various bars (Schooner, Olive & Twist, and Boleros, among others) had lovely decor. None of us are art buffs, particularly, but we often found ourselves stopping to look at a piece. The variety and quality were amazing.
Our staterooms were 8321 and 23, adjoining inside promenade view cabins. Very quiet cabins, in excellent location. View of promenade made for great people watching, and made this inside feel less like an inside cabin. We were two women sharing, who had packed LOTS of stuff, and found the closet a bit cramped; we could have done with more drawer space. Still, we found the room quite nice. Beds were very comfy, as were the pillows, and there was great water pressure in the showers (better than I have at home, in fact!). Ladies, shaving your legs will be a challenge in this small shower/bathroom - plan accordingly. But the shower door instead of a curtain made up for the smallness of the shower. Water from bathroom tap tasted perfectly fine (again, better than tap at home). I ignored advice on this board to bring a power strip, and wished I had. There was only one outlet we could find in the room (above the desk), and we had a tough time with all our devices (iPhones, laptops, kindle). I would definitely recommend this room or the adjoining cabin 8323 where the rest of our party stayed.
On at sea days we spent time in the solarium, the adults only area. Get up early to score a seat, and be flexible (as well as good deck citizens-not chair hogs) and you should be able to find spots. We always wanted shade, and 3 together, so it was a bit more challenging. There seemed to be plenty of spots in the sun, as well as in upper decks away from the pool. The pools were lovely. The kid area (H2O zone) looked incredibly fun, and there were tons of kids who appeared to be having the time of their lives.
The promenade, or central inside area, was a favorite of ours. It is shops and eateries, with a nice feel. Fun for people watching, shopping, or grapping a bite or drink. Sorrento's pizza and Cafe promenade had free/included food- although the Cafe has for-purchase Starbucks. Check these cases (at both locations) often, as the selections changed, throughout the day. The scones, paninis, pizza, cookies, and sandwiches were delicious, but I think it was the ambience that drew us back here repeatedly. The shops were pretty good, as well as the daily sales (we are by no means shopaholics, but we found the selection nice, and the sale prices good). We each bought a bit of jewelry, something for the kids, some duty-free liquor for DHs, pashminas, etc.
On nearly the last night, we discovered the Olive & Twist bar and card/game room up on deck 14. We SO wished we had found these earlier! What lovely, quiet spots with priceless views of the sea. It's no problem to sit in Olive & Twist (a martini bar) and listen to music without buying a drink- we never felt pressured at all. We would have moved if there ever were a shortage of seats, but there never was (here of any other bar).
We went ice skating at the rink, which was really fun. The rink is small, and was crowded, but we had to give it a try. They supply skates and the required helmet; make sure you have long pants and socks, and probably a warm sweater/sweatshirt. Same goes for the skating show in here -- it's freezing, literally! We walked around the top sport deck, and watched some folks using the flowrider, but we didn't try it ourselves. It looked really fun though -- as did the mini golf and volleyball.
Let me say, we LOVE food. All kinds of food. I would definitely say we are foodies, with pretty high standards. And we all found the food universally very good, and some times excellent. We were never disappointed, and the selection was always amazing. We had early seating in the main dining room, and found the service fabulous. After the first night our beverage choices were always waiting (the bottle of wine our friend had ordered the night before, or the iced tea I like). If our server EVER noticed we weren't eating our entree, he always offered an alternative. Often, he brought items to our table for us to try if we had not ordered them, and the table would pass them around. I was so glad he did, as it offered another chance to try something and we were often surprised by how much we liked something we didn't expect to, or disliked something we thought we would like. The prime rib was wonderful, the salmon fabulous, the pasta amazing, and the desserts always delicious, if not always to my specific taste. I often sheepishly asked for two desserts because I couldn't choose, and the server never batted an eye. And as mentioned above, he routinely brought extras for the table to try. Loved that! I would have never tried, for example, the "Triple B" -- the banana Bailey's crÃ¨me brulee- because it sounded kind of gross (bananas and coffee? Eww!!) It may have been (one of) the best things I tasted on the cruise. Similarly I tasted the duck he brought -- I had been curious, but hadn't wanted to commit to that entree. For me, the duck was 'meh'- a little too ducky. We didn't do any of the specialty for-fee restaurants, but heard rave reviews from those who did.
There were always excellent vegetarian options. And there was always an Indian option, which was delicious, and quite spicy.
The Windjammer was quite good. There was great selection, and multiple stations, so there was usually no waiting (if there was a line at one spot, you could find identical offerings at another station with no line). Fruit was amazing, good croissants, delicious hummus, salads; I usually didn't take the hot meat entree from the carving station, but my friends did, and said it was delicious. We ate all breakfasts and lunches in Windjammer, except one lunch and dinner in MDR. The MDR was very good, but we still preferred the Windjammer due to selection. The MDR eggs benedict were delicious, as often reported on these boards, as well as the Tutti Salad. But to be honest, the food in Windjammer (we found) was just as good.
The paninis and other items, including desserts, at Sorrento on the promenade were delicious. Cafe promenade also had delicious snacks (sandwiches and pastries).
Coffee. OK, a word about coffee as I'm really picky. As mentioned on these boards often, cruises seem to have a hard time with coffee, and previously on Princess and Carnival, the coffee was so bad I just switched to tea. So for this cruise I brought along Starbuck's VIA instants. Starting with the first night's dinner in MDR, through room service, and then Windjammer buffet, I (and my friends) found the coffee just fine. We regularly stopped off in Cafe promenade for a cup of coffee (the free stuff -- not the for-fee Starbucks) and never found it to be sub-par. I didn't use a single one of my packets I brought.
Our cruise stopped at Coco Cay, St. Thomas, and St. Maarten. We all agreed St. Maarten was our favorite. More on that in a minute.
We had purposely not planned any excursions in advance, since we wanted to keep it relaxed. In Coco Cay, despite reading ahead about how everyone loved this stop the best, we found it crowded and a bit too artificial. I think we might have preferred it if we had walked a bit farther to the far side of the island, but it was hot, so we stayed pretty close to the port. One from our party snorkeled, and enjoyed it, the other two of us just swam off the beach. Be aware that the sand has been brought in and lies on top of naturally occurring coral and rock -- so you really need shoes to walk anywhere, even in the water. There is shade from palm trees, but we still felt we needed more, so we rented an umbrella ($10). The loungers are free, and plentiful. The provided lunch was very good, but again quite crowded (as expected). We joined the line for return tenders about 2pm, and the line was crazy long in the very hot sun, with no shade. I felt bad for the folks with the kids. Anyway, next time I'll probably walk to the other side, where I understand it's less crowded, and will also probably keep an eye on the lines and tender back to the ship a little earlier. It's an early day on this island (3 or 330).
St. Thomas. I'd been here several times, as had another in our group. We ended up just getting a shared taxi/shuttle at the port, and asked about an island tour and stop at the beach. This worked out well. As the driver shuttled others to their various stops, we got a tour, and then she took us to a lovely beach. We did not go to Magen's Bay (crowded, fee for entrance, and very little shade) although she did stop here to drop off some others. She took us instead to another beach at the Marriott Frenchman's Reef (Morningstar Beach). This was perfect. The driver waited while we took a quick swim. We then made our way back to the port. The fare was $25 pp, for about 3 hours of driving/touring, including the beach. Back at the port we shopped a bit at Havensight Mall before reboarding the ship.
St. Maarten. We took the water taxi ($6 round trip) to the other side of the bay, where we shopped a bit on front and back street (our waiter had told us to be sure and go to back street for the best bargains), then went to the beach right there by the boardwalk. We rented a few chairs and umbrellas, which included access to wifi, and swam and lounged for several hours. There are many vendors coming along the beach, but most weren't too assertive. Everyone on St. Maarten was very friendly, and we really appreciated how easy and close things were. The water was lovely, but very salty (so stings the eyes, but also makes it quite buoyant).
We went to some, but not all, of the 'headliner' shows. The illusionist was just ok -- maybe just not my thing. Others seemed to really enjoy it. I think kids would really love it, and of course any magic buffs. The ice show was pretty cool, if a bit campy, but it is a cruise ship. Dress warmly if you go. Definitely worth seeing, IMHO. The Quest was laugh out loud, tears down your face fun. Absolutely not for kids. Don't miss this. The comedy show at the end of the week, put on by the cruise director Graham Seymour, was again, NOT for kids, but very, very funny. The acapella group was just ok. The musicians in the bars -- like the Spanish guitar, jazz, salsa, etc -- were always very good. And as I mentioned above, it was no problem to sit and listen without ordering a drink (again, if someone had been waiting on a table we would have left). The DJs in the Crypt, the nightclub, were really good -- we are not go out and dance ladies these days but we had a great time one night dancing to 70s, 80s and 90s music. There was also a British Invasion Street Party one night -- so fun! This was in the promenade, and lots of fun. We also went to a Grease (the movie) sing along up on the pool deck, which was really fun. There were movies in the theater, including the world premier of Madagascar 3, but we didn't go to any of these. At any given minute on this trip we felt we had multiple choices of really good stuff to see and do. Yet we never felt it was crowded. There seemed to be tons of family friendly options (family dance party in the nightclub, the Dreamworks character parade and events, a pirate parade, etc.)
Debarkation. This went really easily as well. We all opted for the express valet option, at $20 pp. We all agreed it was the best $20 we spent the whole time. We packed our bags and put them outside the room the night before (they issue you the boarding pass and bag tags for your luggage) -- and you don't see it again until you claim it at your home city luggage carousel. Yay!! We had breakfast in the Windjammer, then made our way off about 945a, met our shuttle to the right as we exited the port, and rode to the airport. We didn't have bags with us, but still felt we should tip -- a buck a person only though. We had rather long waits in the airport for our flights, but enjoyed the last minutes of our kid-free vacation to read and browse the shops.
I would absolutely recommend this ship and itinerary to others -- including those without kids (like we were) who want to enjoy kid-free peace, or families with kids. There seemed to be lots of honeymooners and singles, with plenty to do for partiers or those who prefer a quiet, peaceful spot.