This was our second time cruising with Royal Caribbean, and the sole reason was to experience the largest cruise ship in the world, Allure of the Seas. We have cruised with Princess for the last 6 times, 2 to Alaska, 3 to Mexico, and 1 to Western Caribbean. Our first cruise ever was Vision of the Seas by Royal Caribbean to Mexico - we enjoyed the entertainment and excursions from that cruise but felt the dining room food to be moderate and the departure process to be chaotic and stressful. We had an early flight from LAX back to OAK and was wondering if we were going to miss our flight. After that experience, we switched to Princess and stayed with them exclusively.
This overall cruise exceeded all of our expectations, and has made us new fans of Royal Caribbean.
PRE-CRUISE PLANNING: Show reservations and securing times for Anytime dining are a MUST! This can be done way before the cruise and although there are multiple shows on each day, they can fill up quickly. In order of quality, I recommend booking Blue Planet, Ocean Aria, Headliner, Chicago, and Comedy show in that order. The Comedy show books up quickly but stand-by is very easy since not everyone shows up. Blue Planet? The stand-by line was huge and they will turn folks away from the first 9PM show - luckily we had reservations for the 11pm show.
STATEROOM: We booked through Costco and had this fairly large room with a porthole. We had a king bed that was really comfortable and a sofa plus nice flatscreen TV. I liked how RC employed technology so you can see your personal calendar, make show/dinner reservations, view menus, etc all from the TV. We were located right around one of the elevators on the 3rd deck, so it was extremely easy to head to the gangway (2nd deck) or up to the casino/theaters (4th deck) or main dining room and promenade (5th deck).
MAIN DINING ROOM: We booked Anytime dining and made 5:45 PM reservations each night. It was not busy at all and easy to get a table for two with the same waiter (Jose from India, who was superb and accommodating) and general location each night. We dined there for four nights, opting for the specialty restaurants for the other three. Nights 2 and 6 are formal nights, so the food is slightly better. Night 6 is lobster night, but while mine was fairly tasty my wife's was overcooked! The main dining room is really good at meats -prime rib is consistently succulent, the duck confit was excellent, and the new york steak (Night 7) was cooked to perfection. They tend to do less well with seafood, since fish dishes tended to be bland or overcooked. Overall, I think Princess has a better and more consistent main dining in terms of food and menu variety. Where RC has an advantage is that they publish the full 7-days menu, and you can look it up in your stateroom TV and make plans accordingly if the menu doesn't fit you. One bonus point for RC was on Day 7, when nothing on the menu matched my wife's appetite. She asked Jose whether the kitchen can whip up a custom seafood pasta and voila, the Maitre De personally delivered two bowls of wonderful shrimp pasta with peas and a light white sauce for both of us to share!
BUFFETS: We opted for the buffets for breakfast and lunch. Their main one is the Windjammer which has a large, international selection of items and is very large. They had to put the dessert section in another room! We only ate there on the first afternoon and never went back. The reason is that they have another buffet, the Solarium Bistro which is way better in our opinion. It has a smaller selection but is focused on healthier fare - nothing there is fried. Breakfast has turkey bacon, smoked salmon, eggs, mushrooms, and a broad selection of fresh fruit (mango, papaya, pineapple, melons, etc.). They also had a nice granola/cereal section where they have various nuts, seeds, and dried and pickled fruit to choose. Lastly, they have a nice daily option of getting miso chicken or shrimp noodle soups. For lunch, the Solarium Bistro offers these really soft, fresh tasting wraps - one vegetarian and one with meat. The other standout item is the florentine cookies - basically hockey pucks of slivered almonds, raisins, nuts fused together with honey. I should also add the the fish (monkfish, salmon) and chicken served at Solarium Bistro was also well flavored and surprisingly not overcooked!
SPECIALTY DINING: Here, I think the Allure has an edge over our favorite Princess cruises. 150 Central Park is their gourmet option for $40 per person for a 6-course tasting menu designed by Molly Brandt, a contender from Top Chef: Texas. Two menus are offered during the cruise, a Harvest Menu from Sun-Wed, then an Autumn Menu from Thursday-Saturday. We opted for the Harvest Menu which had some really excellent items, though every one of them were artfully presented. Our favorite was the seared scallop with Berkshire pork belly as a modern "surf and turf." Even the bread was special, since it came with 6 different salts from around the world - my favorite was one from India that tasted a bit like hard boiled eggs. Midway through dinner, Molly came out and greeted all the customers, which was really cool. The other real good specialty restaurant is Giovanni's Table, which was $20 per person (free if you go through Costco like we did). This restaurant gives you a choice of appetizers, pasta, main course and dessert. I say choice since its best to order two or three appetizers - portions are huge and you don't want to spoil the rest of the dinner. We chose Eggplant Parmesan, Antipasto plate, almond crusted scallops, and a mozzarella-proschuitto breadstick upon advice from our waiter. We shared a shrimp penne pasta that was cooked al dente and had a nice spicy aftertaste. For entrees, my wife got a nicely cooked fish dish while I opted for the veal. The fish was wonderful but the veal dish was only OK - our neighbors chose the lamb which looked really good. Our last specialty restaurant was Izumi, which specializes in sushi and do-it-yourself grilling on hot rock slabs. It was probably our least favorite, since being from the West Coast we have pretty high standards for sushi. Though the fish was all fresh and good, the sushi rice was a bit firmer than we liked. Still, not a bad choice if you're really craving something different from usual cruise food.
SHOWS: Chicago is probably their main show, running 90 minutes long with an excellent cast and great singing. I've seen it before in San Francisco and London so it probably wasn't my favorite. That honors goes to Blue Planet, which reminds me of a Vegas Cirque d' Soleil show with some unique homage to Mother Nature and the four elements (earth, air, water, fire). The Ocean Aria show was also dazzling, and was held at the outdoor theater. Basically, it was a show with high divers, acrobats, trampoline artists, and strongmen. Wonderful shows and yes some of the stunts were really jaw dropping. I liked how before they show they gave a summary of the cast on the big screens to highlight their resume - basically they have an international cast of NCAA athletes, former student champions, Olympic contenders, experienced dancers, etc. The Headliner and Comedy shows were also pretty funny, and I recommend catching those as well.
GYM/FITNESS: The gym was large but yet felt kind of claustrophobic since its located on deck 5. You don't get a good view of the outside (Princess Ships has its gym on the top deck, so you actually have natural light and a view as you work out on an elliptical or stairmaster). The gym offers the standard weight machines, free weights, spinning bikes, and these new "gravity machines" where you can pull cables for resistance. They are pretty strict on footwear - so no Crocs/Clogs allowed. The gym also has easy access to a nice jogging/running track on Deck 5 which allows you to go around the ship a few times. I think 2.5 laps equal to a mile or so.
SPA: My wife took advantage of the $99/cruise sauna/steam room. Despite just having four beds in the steam rooms, access was not a problem and she was happy with it. The Spa is adjacent to the gym on deck 5.
LOUGE: For swimming, jacuzzi, or just laying out in the sun, we used Deck 15 at the Solarium exclusively. The reasons: (1) Its supposed to be for age 16+ so less crazy kids running around and is quieter, (2) Its conveniently located next to Solarium Bistro so very easy to grab snacks, and (3) There are several bars nearby where you can grab drinks.
THEMES: RC must have partnered with Dreamworks, so throughout the cruise you'll see characters from Shrek, How to Train a Dragon, Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar. They also show 3D movies throughout the cruise. One cool event was the farewell parade which took place on Deck 5 Promenade.
CASINO: The casino was huge - shaped like a semicircle with half of it non-smoking and the other half smoking. Table limits on Blackjack are $10, and they have single deck, multi-deck shoes, and continuous shufflers. Other games are Baccarat, Ultimate Hold-em, craps, three-card poker, and Caribbean stud. They have the usual poker hold-em events too along with a huge array of slot machines. I did rather poorly in terms of gaming this time :( but hey, I see it as a donation to RC for offering me and the wife such a wonderful cruise and to acknowledge their wonderful cruise staff.
LOGISTICS: Onboarding/disembarking was a smooth process. Leaving the ship took much longer, since with 6000 passengers trying to leave the ship the bottleneck is not the ship, but the port customs itself. I was glad I decided to stay an extra day in Fort Lauderdale and not try to catch a 9:30 AM flight back to SFO after docking at 6:30 AM or so.