A Touch of Class
Well, we're not exactly teen-agers...I am 69, my wife is 61. This was my 17th cruise overall and my wife's 3rd. I have cruised 14 times on Carnival; this was my 3rd cruise on Royal Caribbean. (Brilliance -- 2006 & Independence 2008). Actually we weren't even thinking about taking this cruise until I got an email announcing some last minute fare reductions. After checking RCL's website, we were able to book a guaranteed ocean view room for a great senior rate -- so six days out, we booked it!
Travel To Port of Embarkation
We live about 3 Â½ hours away from Port Canaveral, in southwest Florida. As is my usual plan, we drove up a day early. We love getting into that pre-cruise mode the night before, and also to see the port, watch the ships, have a nice dinner and really begin to enjoy the cruise even before it starts. We went to one of the restaurants which line the cruise channel, Baja's -- where we enjoyed a nice dinner. Afterwards we went to a restaurant called "Fishlips." We enjoyed a drink on the upper deck and watched the Freedom of The Seas, Disney Dream, and Carnival Sensation all sail away down the channel. Any of the restaurants along this area are great for ship-watching, and they all seem to have similar fare. Lots of choices for ship-watching in any case.
On cruise day, we arrived at the Port via shuttle bus from our parking at the Radisson around 10:30-ish. As "Gold" Crown & Anchor members, we were ushered into a separate line where we received "priority check-in" as promised, then were seated with the "general population" to await boarding. As we neared boarding time, one of the RCL agents gave our group a little stand-up comedy routine which got the crowd in a really happy mood. Boarding was soon announced and we were on the ship at around 11:30 a.m. Very efficient process overall, plenty of RCL representatives around and everything handled very professionally.
I am a Holiday Inn Priority Club member, so naturally we gravitated toward a Holiday Inn hotel; in this case it was the Holiday Inn Express on Cocoa Beach. Very convenient to the port (about 5-7 minute drive) and a typical hotel experience. One nice thing was we were able to walk to the beach, only about two blocks away, where there is the Cocoa Beach Pier. Several restaurants and little shops, a great view of the very beautiful beach. If you opt to walk out the entire distance to the end, somewhere about the last third or so, they will charge you a buck. However, there is this nice little Tiki Hut bar at the end, where you can quaff a cool one if you desire while enjoying the view of the ocean.
A note about parking -- this particular hotel did offer a "park & cruise" package, however we had done a bit of research and found something we liked better at the Radisson Hotel just a couple of minutes up the road toward the port. The Holiday Inn hotel had only one shuttle bus and their parking lot was not all that huge. The Radisson, on the other hand, is a huge hotel complex with an adjoining convention center facility with acres of parking and also night-time security. They also have a fleet of 12 shuttle buses. So instead of paying $75 to park at the port, we instead opted for $5.99 per day at the Radisson. They were prompt, courteous and user-friendly. An easy 5-minute ride to the port on cruise day, and we felt comfortable about leaving our vehicle in their lot. When we returned, they had a representative at the loading area, and from the time we left the ship, we were in our car and on our way within 30 minutes after leaving the ship. On the return trip from the ship, the driver stopped at each car to unload luggage. Nicely done Radisson!
We opted for an "ocean view guarantee" when we booked, and were promptly assigned cabin 4002 on Deck 4 forward. Checking on some previous CC reviewers, I noted that there had been some issues with sewer smells in this cabin and adjacent ones. I called RCL and they were happy to reassign us to a different cabin, 4596, which turned out to be a really great location. Right around the corner from Guest Services on Deck 4, it was convenient to everything and centrally located. Easy ride up the elevator to the Windjammer, or just walk out to the centrum area. I will say this however -- this was one of the smallest cabins I have ever stayed in -- only 122 square feet. Although it is small, it is efficiently designed, but my wife and I had to resort to some creative thinking to store our two large suitcases, and we constantly had to dodge each other as we moved around. Other than that the cabin was just fine, all the standard amenities and the beds were comfortable. We slept well each night and note that this particular cabin location is extremely quiet.
The Monarch is one of RCL's oldest ships -- launched in 1991, with a major refurbishment in 2003; the ship remains sparkling, comfortable, and inviting. A bit of unusual design in that the buffet area, Windjammer, is located forward, above the bridge deck, where on most ships this area is usually aft. During one of the shows, the cruise director announced there were 2500 passengers on board, about 2100 Americans, the rest from other countries. He also said there were only 200 children aboard, the lowest number in some time. One of the things we like best about the ship is Deck 7 which encircles the entire ship from bow to stern. This was our favorite place to walk, watch the ocean, or perhaps grab a chair and read or relax while enjoying the view. There's plenty of information on RCL's and other websites about particulars for this ship, so I will leave that to you to delve into if you want more information. Suffice it to say though, the ship is laid out very nicely, we didn't have any trouble learning our way around. Everything is conveniently laid out and easy to find.
One thing of note -- the "Library," which is an "open" area, is located on Deck 4 amid many other amenities, shops, photo area, guest relations, excursion desk, etc., immediately adjacent and on nearby decks above. One of my favorite activities when cruising is to relax with a good book and enjoy the environment of "being at sea." But I did find the noise level disturbing enough to not be able to read very much in this area, as I do like it quiet when I am reading. A better area to read is on Deck 7, across from the Future Cruise Booking Desk, where there are several nice little sitting areas and most of all...quiet. Of course there is always Deck 7 outside as well. Although this is a relatively minor complaint in the overall scheme of things, we still liked the ship overall and would happily sail on her again if the opportunity arises.
Regarding smoking...we are not smokers and we appreciated the fact that smoking wasn't much of an issue on this cruise. RCL does allow smoking on Deck 7 on the starboard side only and we found that people pretty much respected this rule. One night there was a guy in Boleros puffing away surrounded by a cloud of blue smoke, but at least he wasn't at the bar so we weren't bothered by it. On our first day aboard we visited the Crown & Anchor lounge -- you can't miss it, it's the huge round structure near the aft end of the ship, up on Deck 14. What spectacular views from this virtual "crow's nest," and beautifully appointed with comfortable furniture with which to enjoy the 360-degree panoramic views. Unfortunately RCL allows cigar smoking in this lounge after 9 p.m., and the entire lounge smelt of stale cigar smoke. Yuk! We never went back to this area again. Too bad such a beautiful area of the ship is so degraded by lingering stale tobacco smells. And the bar up there is rarely open. Certainly an underutilized area of the ship which could have so much greater potential.
When booking, we wanted to opt for the "My Time" dining, however we noted that we had to pre-pay gratuities in advance, plus we also had to make a reservation for a particular time each night. Quite frankly, this is RCL's version of "My Time," but certainly not mine. I don't like pre-paying gratuities for one thing -- but note that in practically all cases I do opt for paying the full recommended amounts for gratuities, I just don't like the idea of "tipping" for something in advance before I have had the opportunity to actually experience it. We encountered several folks during the cruise that failed to make reservations, and just showed up at the dining room expecting to be accommodated. They sometimes encountered firm resistance from the Maitre'd who often insisted they should make reservations. Sorry RCL, but this is not my idea of "My Time" dining!
We opted instead for early seating at 5:45pm, which turned out to be just fine. We were at table 59 in Vincent's Dining Room on Deck 3, and Ricardo was our waiter. In addition, we met some wonderful new friends over dinner who were great dining companions throughout the entire cruise. Turns out we had a lot in common and we joked, talked, and laughed a lot. At the end of our cruise on the last night, our waiter Ricardo told us that he hoped to have another group like us on the next cruise, because we were "the happy table!"
Okay -- the food -- simply put, RCL lives up to its reputation of serving satisfactory but not spectacular food in the dining room. You can also opt for Lobster for an additional $34.95 charge or a New York Strip for $14.95, but we didn't avail ourselves of any of those. We also did not get to the Jade Steakhouse/Sushi Restaurant because we were having such a great time in the main dining room!
The Windjammer though is a horse of a different color. We ate breakfast & lunch each day in the Windjammer and found it to be mostly your typical steam table experience for breakfast, but much more variety for lunches. The exception to the steam table experience is the special line where you can order a freshly cooked omelet. A cook takes your order, gives you a number, then tells you to come back in 7 or 8 minutes. They cook it for you in the galley and voila! -- there it is. Lunches always had the hamburger/hot dog line where you can find all the trimmings and toppings for your burger or dog. I had a hamburger twice and they were actually pretty good. Other fare includes a variety of dishes as well as ample salad fixins'. I don't know how anyone could complain about the Windjammer, there really was something for everyone there.
One note about eating in the Windjammer -- it was often pretty crowded and hard to find a seat during peak hours. If you go further forward into the "Jade" area, we often found it to be practically empty and were always able to find a nice seat near the windows. There is also a second floor seating area as well.
We usually don't opt for many of the activities aboard, preferring instead to pursue quieter and more relaxing events and areas. There were always plenty of goings-on around the ship, and you can be as involved -- or not -- as you want to be. We went to Karaoke one night, it was both funny and sad, but hey it's the nature of Karaoke. One night in between early and late seating dinners, the staff did a little game in the centrum called "Finish the Lyrics." They give you some choices of songs, it plays about two or three verses, then stops suddenly -- you the contestant have to finish the words. It was a lot of fun and by the time the game was well underway, all the railings around the centrum for several decks were crowded with onlookers. Kudos to the RCL entertainment staff for these crowd-friendly activities, they were always a lot of fun.
As Gold Crown & Anchor members, we did receive a special invitation to the "past guest" party which was held in the "Circuit Lounge" located on Deck 8 above the Sound of Music auditorium. It was a nicely hosted affair, complete with a buffet serving line on each side with light hors d' oeuvres being offered. The Captain and staff were present for introductions, and the Captain gave a brief presentation of his sea-going history. There was a band, some dancing, and of course complimentary cocktails. Some presentations were made to some Diamond members who had achieved some recognition for the number of cruises they had taken. All in all, it there was an air of coziness and elegance, and it was a very enjoyable event. Nicely done RCL, definitely a bit of class!
As an avid Carnival cruiser, I have always held the level of service on their ships to be the gold standard for the industry. I must say however, that on this particular cruise, RCL staff simply sparkled with friendliness, enthusiasm, helpfulness, and an overall attitude of "how can I be of service?" There was always someone standing in the stairwell area outside of the Windjammer during dining hours to help direct or answer questions. Guest services was equally helpful in answering questions. I don't remember ever passing a crew member who didn't greet me with a "welcome aboard," or "hope you are enjoying your cruise," or something similar.
As someone who likes their before dinner martinis, I ended up gravitating to the Boleros bar on Deck 7 for my two pre-dinner martinis each night. The bartender, Mohan Singh, was so professionally personal, after my first visit, I was always greeted by name, and he also remembered my choice of drink. I thought this was really great. To be noted also for you drinkers...every drink I ordered was always free-poured. I never saw anyone use a shot glass or a jigger. As a martini kind of guy that was important to me. I would generally say that drinks overall on RCL are generously poured. Kudos for that RCL, I don't mind paying $9 for a cocktail if you don't skimp on the booze!
We did opt for the nightly on board Broadway-type shows and while they were entertaining, they certainly weren't spectacular. Too much emphasis on the four lead singers and not enough on the other talent, in my opinion. The "Love & Marriage" show was nothing short of spectacular, as the three couples were just hilariously funny. Don't miss this one, it is truly a hoot! They also had a standup comedian on the first night, he was funny and quite entertaining. If you just remember you're on a cruise ship and not on the Great White Way, you can adjust your expectations so that you won't be disappointed and then just enjoy the show.
Port & Shore Excursions
We only had two port stops -- the first was at Coco Cay, RCL's private island paradise. Unfortunately a squall line moved through that morning -- lightning and thunder were crashing even before dawn that morning and continued until midday. We did go ashore around 9:30 a.m. but ended up spending nearly an hour under one of the shelters as a heavy rainstorm pounded the island. It was so bad at one time that two of our dining companions spent an hour in their tender, the water was too rough to either dock or get back onto the ship! For later visitors who went over in the afternoon, it was a much more sunny experience. Although we did see the restaurant staff loading food on the tender for lunch, all of the planned entertainment was cancelled due to the rain. All in all Coco Cay is a great beach stop, your typical cruise-line manufactured all-encompassing paradise, complete with a thousand chaise lounges and beautiful views of the beach and ocean.
Our only other port stop was Nassau -- from around 8:00 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. that night -- w-a-y too long in my opinion. We took a taxi ride over to the Atlantis Resort - $10 each way for the two of us. We walked around, took in the sights, but opted not to pay the $40 tab to get into the bowels of the hotel, aquarium, etc. We just didn't think it was worth it. The hotel is a vastly huge complex, be sure to wear your walking shoes. We visited several of the shops where we found most merchandise to be extremely overpriced. I mean, hey, $200 for a shirt? Puh-leeze! Okay then, now we can say we've "been there, done that," but I wouldn't waste my time going back there again. Some of our friends did opt for the $40 day pass, but they said that the aquarium was about the only thing that was remotely worth it and the rest of it was mostly -- well, just a big hotel complex. We came back to the ship in time for lunch and spent the rest of the day on board. Even though we were in port until well after dark, there didn't seem to be a lot of people who stayed on shore late.
Ample information delivered to the cabin on our sea day with plenty of info regarding debarkation procedures. Plus one of the TV channels ran a loop announcement all day regarding the debarking process, customs declarations, etc. We opted for the self-assist "walk-off" procedure, which turned out to be a really good choice. As we are retired and driving home, we don't have to be in a hurry to get off when we return to port, but this time we just wanted to go ahead and go as we had other things we wanted to do that day.
The entry/exit gangway to/from the ship is on Deck 4 on the Starboard side. Our cabin, 4596, was on the port side right around the corner from this spot, so debarkation was really easy for us -- no stairs or elevators to be negotiated. One little ruffle was that security had stretched a barrier across the centrum/lobby area so that instead of walking right across the lobby and out the door, we had to join the "conga line" which took us all the way through Vincent's dining room and around to the other side in order to reach the gangway. Still, the line moved quickly and we were off the ship at 7:50 a.m. They only had two customs agents working, but the walk-off customers moved quickly through this area and we were on the bus back to our parking area and by 8:20 a.m., we were in our car and on our way. Nicely done RCL.
Although 21 years old, the Monarch is still very much a regal vessel. It has been well-maintained and cleaning & painting activities could be seen on-going throughout our cruise. The one thing that I would say was the outstanding element of this cruise was the RCL staff's sparkle and friendliness. Although I am a staunch Carnival cruiser and still very much like those experiences, I have to say that the level of service on this cruise was definitely "a cut above." There is a "touch of class" that RCL manages to achieve that will certainly bring me back on a future cruise with them. This was a perfect cruise for my wife and me. A last-minute booking for a great price, the perfect 4-night itinerary, with only two port stops and also a full day at sea. The Monarch will be going away next April as it has already been sold to another cruise line, so if you have a chance to snag a cruise on her before then, go for it. I guarantee you won't be disappointed.
For those of you considering a cruise on the Monarch or perhaps already booked, and you would like some insight into what goes on aboard, here are copies of the daily Cruise Compass from our cruise:
Not sure how CC will handle the link above, so its "photobucket dot com forward slash MonarchAug2012"
If I can answer any questions or provide more help please contact me at:
email@example.com (luv2batc at hotmail dot com)