We recently sailed the Brilliance of the Seas on a Southern Caribbean itinerary . We disembarked on November 17, 2012, out of San Juan, Puerto Rico. We were extremely pleased with most every aspect of our cruise experience and I would definitely recommend this itinerary.
Pre- and post-cruise hotels: We stayed our first night at the Conrad Hilton, which is a nice hotel in the Condado area. After returning, we stayed at the Caribe Hilton (directly across the Condado Lagoon from the Conrad) for two days. Of the two hotels, we definitely prefer the Caribe Hilton for its grounds. If you stay at the Caribe, be sure to wander the grounds, visit the peacocks, and stop at the bar to have Virge make you a pina colada! A couple of notes about the hotels: 1.) As is probably to be expected at any resort hotel, food is crazy expensive (like $20 bucks for a "tapas" plate that is really just cheese slices, meat slices, and a few olives or $15 for a breakfast fruit plate)! As an alternative, there are many restaurants on Ashford Avenue (if you are staying at the Conrad) and if you are willing to forego authentic PR food for a meal, there is a Subway around the corner from the Caribe. 2.) There is wifi at both hotels, but the connection is unpredictable, so don't rely on it for things like Facetime or Skype.
San Juan (pre- and post-cruise): San Juan is one of our favorite places to visit and this time is no exception. It was fun being there around the holidays, though we were unfortunately just a few days shy of seeing everything all lit up for Christmas. A couple of the squares had beautiful Christmas trees and lights strung up, but they were not supposed to be lit until the week after we left. I'm sure it is beautiful when all lit up at night. We ate at some wonderful restaurants: The Parrot Club is always a fun and delicious place for dinner; El Toro Salao is pretty good, though I wouldn't exactly think of their "tapas" as actual tapas; Caficultura has fantastic cafe con leche and delicious breakfast foods (coconut French toast is amazing); Cafeteria Mallorca makes a mean mallorca and is almost as good as La Bombonera was; and finally, Mandolin is a super cool old diner with great cafe con leche and delicious pastelone.
Embarkation & Muster: We waited until about 4pm to go to the ship and we had one of the easiest embarkations yet. I think we were through the entire process and on board within 20-30 minutes of arriving at the pier. I also appreciate that the porters were not pushy about tips, which they have been in the past. The muster drill at 8 PM was quick and easy as well. I LOVE that we do not have to wear our vests to the drill anymore!
The ship: I love the Radiance class, but I was a little nervous, as I had read some recent reviews that mentioned how The Brilliance is in terrible shape. I remember reading specifically about how the carpet was worn through and shabby. I will admit that I found some of these worn spots--only because it was already in my mind to look--but they were not something to distract me from enjoying an overall lovely ship! The Brilliance (as well as the Serenade and I assume all Radiance class ships) is not full of all of the bigger ships' bells and whistles, but it is classy and comfortable, perfect if you like the feeling of being on an actual ship and/or those who are more interested in the ports of call than being entertained on board.
Stateroom: We were in room 1050 (grand suite category) and it was a terrific room. The room was spacious and comfortable, close enough to the elevators/stairs to have easy access, but not loud due to heavy traffic. We were under the pool area, but the only time it got noisy was during the pool party/late night buffet (and that was only loud when the balcony slider was open). Our stateroom attendant, Adriana, was amazing! She was super efficient, extremely kind, and she knew our names that very first evening. She was also very patient, as I always forgot to place the card in the door when we were/weren't in the room and I had the worst timing of barging in when she was trying to clean!
Concierge Lounge: We are always big fans of the concierge lounge perks and this week was no exception. The espresso machine is such a treat in the morning and the breakfast spread was really nice. I actually only made it to the Windjammer for breakfast twice, as there was plenty of selection in the CL and it was great when we were in a hurry for excursions. Evenings in the CL were pretty crowded and we actually got the impression we may have been a little louder than some of the other guests would have liked. But we typically sat outside of the lounge, which was just fine for us! Besty, the concierge, is very nice and Sharon, the bartender, was also very efficient and helpful when asked for something. I'm not so sure we were Sharon's favorite guests, but still had drinks aplenty and she was very courteous to us. One small gripe would be that you have to pay to use the computers in the lounge. I may not be remembering accurately, but I thought I recalled free Internet access in the CL on past cruises.
Dining Room: We sat at a table for 6 located on deck 5 (table 448??) and seated near the main entrance. We were originally a little disappointed to be so close to the chaos at the doors, but then we realized that it was actually kind of entertaining to watch all the action. We also had a fantastic waiter and assistant waiter. Sergei (sp?) and Emre were both very accommodating, funny, and very good at helping us pick the better menu choices. Speaking of the menu, this was only the 2nd week of the new menu on Brilliance and it was great! Many dishes were a little on the salty side--like most cruise food, it seems--but most were pretty darn good. It was also nice to have a change from the typical menu we have come to expect on RCCL cruises. We also thought it was a nice treat to have a special Thanksgiving menu. Our headwaiter, Burhan, was entertaining for the most part, though we thought he sometimes bordered on the inappropriate side. We were somewhat disappointed that he did not come by our table on the last night. We watched him go to all of his tables, working the crowd, but he never came to say goodbye to our group. It's not a big deal, but it is the first time we've encountered this--maybe because there are no longer vouchers to give if you prepay gratuities??
Other Facilities, Entertainment, Etc: We are super lame cruisers in that we never make it to the shows. Barely being able to keep our eyes open by our 2nd seating dinner, it is all we can do just to make it to our rooms without falling asleep! That said, we did manage to make it to a movie. We saw "What to Expect When You Are Expecting" and it was actually a nice little movie break. The picture quality in the theater is laughably bad, but the venue was almost entirely empty, the seats are comfortable, and who doesn't like being able to have a drink at the movies!! We used the fitness center every morning and it was great. There is nothing like a view of Caribbean islands to make the treadmill bearable! And even on the more crowded mornings, we were still able to get cardio machines and whatever other equipment--which was all in excellent condition, by the way--that we wanted to use. Finally, we decided to book massages on our sea day. It was very relaxing, though a little on the gentle side.
Perks: We were able to enjoy a couple of perks on this cruise. There was a sail away party (leaving St. Kitts) on the helipad. It was reserved for suite guests, so it was not at all crowded. We were able to enjoy some drinks and had a chance to talk to several of the staff. There was also a C&A get together for platinum guests and higher. It was nice, though the venue made it difficult to listen to the loyalty ambassador when she gave her spiel. Finally, we went on a tour of the bridge. We have done this before, but it is just as fascinating the 2nd time around! One of the crew (1st officer?) was very nice in chatting with us and answering lots of questions.
Ports of Call (I will try to make these short, as I have droned on and on about the ship!):
Tortola: We took a water taxi to Virgin Gorda to go to the Baths. They were so beautiful and the water was crystal clear! We were lucky to find Dion from D & D Car Rental to take us over. He charges $50 pp (about $20 more than the ferry) but it was completely worth it since he got us there earlier, picked us up later, and loaded us up with beers on the way back.
St. Maarten/St.Martin: We rented a van (Hertz and a couple of other companies are right outside of the main gates) to drive around and enjoy the island. Our plan originally included ample time to watch the planes come in at Maho beach (a MUST if you haven't been) but the beach chairs and water were so darn nice at Orient beach, that we didn't have the will to leave, thereby missing Maho. This is our first time actually swimming at Orient and it was well worth it.
St. Kitts: This is one of the most beautiful islands we have been to. It is very green and lush, much like St. Lucia. We took a tour with Royston and I cannot recommend it highly enough. He is funny, informative, and lets you go at the pace set by your group. His tour is also very inexpensive for the fantastic experience he provides. He definitely sold us on his island!! It also has to be said that his "open air van" is AWESOME! We were originally surprised to see that it was just a van with the windows taken out, but the Caribbean breeze and the lack of photo obstructions were wonderful!
Guadeloupe: We were leery of this island (due to lack of info available online and a circulating story about previous cruisers being mugged) but it turned out to be an amazing day. I recommend the ship excursion "St. Anne On Your Own," as it is a lovely area to visit. There were vendors all over by the beach and they were all very nice. They also helped us in dealing with Euros or dollars--they were not even trying to rip us off, which was nice considering how easy it would have been since we had no Euros! There is a small bar/sandwich place and a small dive place that are next to a restaurant (Cafe Americano?). Our husbands spent most of the time sitting at a table here with a beer or some ti punch, people watching and talking with Paco, the proprietor of the dive place. We wandered through the tented shops and bought some spices from a vendor named Katherine. The worst part of our day was realizing it was time to catch the bus back to the ship.
Barbados: We booked with Calabaza (an independent catamaran sail with 12 passengers max) and spent an amazing day on the water. The crew of Calabaza definitely knows how to provide a relaxing & pampered day on their catamaran. Service is impeccable, drinks were delicious, food was awesome, and snorkeling with turtles in flawlessly clear water was fantastic (especially as they kept us somewhat separated from the masses of people from bigger excursions). I 100% recommend booking for a catamaran sail with Calabaza!!
Sea Day: Fitness center was not too crowded, bridge tour was nice, and the massage was a great end to the day. But the really amazing part of our sea day: We wandered to the pool at 11:00 AM and effortlessly got 6 deck chairs all together in the perfect spot for viewing the belly flop contest. WOW! When does that ever happen???
Disembarking: Surprisingly easy to disembark, as we lazed about in the Windjammer until about an hour after our disembarkation time. So when we were ready to leave, we practically just skipped right off, found our bags right away, and somehow managed to choose the customs line that moved quickly. Yay!
To Sum it All Up: What a fantastic week! RCCL has done it again, providing us with a super relaxing, fun, and indulgent week that had us scrambling for the loyalty ambassador's desk to book a future cruise! ?