We arrived at the pier around 11:45 AM, and were somewhat surprised to find that quite a few travelers were there ahead of us -- we thought we would be a bit early, and we wanted to be early, because we had not booked our shows in advance. RCL allows you to book the shows on line, but since we usually make plans at the last minute, the shows always show 'full' when you try to book them on line. Plus it is a pain to book on line, as you go through all the steps only to find the show is full, and then you have to start over from scratch. RCL needs to streamline this a little more.
Boarding was very easy to do - they have optimized the check-in procedures and even if there is a small line, it moves very quickly. You drop your luggage curbside, and a porter loads it onto a cart and it is delivered to your room, as on all cruise ships we have ever taken. Then you park your car -- the Allure uses the outside lot which is very convenient -- only about a 100 yard walk from our car to the check-in entrance. You then go through the radar (which was actually on this time -- a lot of people were rejected and had to be hand-checked with a wand). You then queue up at the registration desk, which is divided by cabin number and cruiser type (frequent cruisers have their own stations). Once the clerk has confirmed that you have the proper documentation and that your credit card is OK, you advance to the photography stations and then walk up the escalators and go on board ship.
We had a balcony on floor 6, which we really liked. The cruise lines like to make you think that an identical cabin on a higher floor is an upgrade, but we disagree. We like having everything convenient, meaning we rarely have to use the elevators (which move quickly, but never quickly enough it seems). Floor six has the Boardwalk and photo station, as well as the Diamond lounge for frequent cruisers. Perfect for us. And it is only one flight down to the Promenade and to our restaurant.
This is our second time aboard the Allure and we noticed a few cutbacks -- most are minor, but one was annoying. They have eliminated the omelet station in the Windjammer Buffet -- and I really liked having a fresh omelet made the way I like it in the morning. You can order and omelet in the restaurant or even in Johnny Rockets for breakfast, but they do not have the ingredients I like on the menu, and it is painfully slow.
They have also eliminated the ice in the room (although a sign says you can request it if you really want it), and no more chocolate on the pillows at night. And it seems as though the waiters have even more tables to handle than ever before -- or perhaps it was because the ship was pretty full (over 6,000 passengers, we were told). Because we bought our tickets with minimal lead time, we could not get the dining room seating we wanted, but the matre d fixed that for us -- all we had to do was go to the dining room early and request the change. More on that later.
Once on board, we first went to Studio B -- the ice rink. That is where they always seem to handle show reservations. After waiting through a long line taking about 45 minutes, we were able to get the show reservations we wanted. Most of those ahead of us had no idea what they wanted, and the staff had to go though the show listings with each of them and compare them to their personal schedules. Very time consuming, but it always is that way on the Allure and the Oasis. Now they use electronic tickets -- your Sea Pass card serves as the ticket -- they used to use paper tickets, I think.
After we got our show reservations and dining seating worked out, we had lunch in the Windjammer. It was quite good and the food offerings were varied and well prepared. Then we went back and unpacked -- the suitcases were already at the room -- earlier than we had ever experienced before. Once we were settled in, and had walked through the ship a bit, we went to the restaurant for dinner. Not good.
RCL has changed their menu -- and for me, it is not a good change. They used to have pasta with Marinara sauce as an option every night -- and I often took advantage of the option, because the food choices are too exotic for me, and my wife's weak digestion means they have to fix special food for her if she is to eat in the main restaurant. I always loved the personal service in the past though. The head waiter was very willing to prepare special dishes for my wife, but on this cruise, the service was again painfully slow, and after two nights we just gave up and ate the rest of our meals in the Windjammer. The food there was excellent, and she could choose entrees from the buffet that met her dietary requirements. However, we found that she needed to choose items from the breakfast (hard boiled eggs) and lunch (salad fixings) and take them back to the room, and then bring them with her to add to the items available for dinner in order to have things she could digest. Again, the head waiter in the Windjammer offered to prepare things for her, but we just decided to bring our own and save the hassle.
My only gripe with the Windjammer is eliminating the omelets at breakfast -- I substituted fried eggs, which were fried just the way I liked them, but since they were in a warming tray, they were never really hot and fresh. In other words, breakfast was adequate, but not as good as it once was.
I should note that the crew was very concerned about Norovirus. There were daily announcements about hand washing, and even in the buffet they would not allow the passengers to get their own food -- the staff would dish it out for you from behind the counter. However, that worked fine for me.
We attended the shows -- but we had seen them before. One minor annoyance -- the cruise director suggested you get to the shows at least 30-45 minutes in advance to get good seats. That seemed well and good, and we actually did go to a couple of the shows about 45 minutes before they started (the aqua show and the comedy show), only to have an entertainment staff member come and tell us we had to get up and leave and get in the line outside the theater and re-enter 30 minutes before the show -- now there were hundreds of people in line ahead of us. The ship needs to get its act together so that there are common instructions as to what they want the guests to do.
Chicago, the featured show, is very well done, and the dancing is exquisite. I judge dance for Winterguard and I can tell the difference between good and great -- and these dancers were truly great. I was surprised that the audience as a whole did not realize how good this presentation was -- although there was a standing ovation for the overall cast, there was only mild applause for the dancers as they were introduced.
The ice show on Allure is based on the Monopoly game, and it is not particularly good compared to the ice shows on other RCL ships. The skaters are excellent, but the show they have to present is not particularly entertaining. They also do a costumed ice show for the kids based on characters from Dreamworks 'How to Train A Dragon.' This show is better designed, but it is, once again, primarily for the kids.
The diving show has been improved -- some of the pointless climbing of nets, etc., has been eliminated, and you get to watch the trampoline experts and the outstanding divers in a faster paced show. It could still use a little work, as the concept is vague, but at least it is fast paced.
Blue Planet is a very clever presentation -- not to be missed -- especially the 'Tree of Life' which is composed primarily of human beings (but you do not realize this until they start to move, as they blend in with the tree due to their postures and costuming).
The comedians (there were two) were good, but not overwhelming. I have heard better on Carnival, actually, but these two were entertaining. The featured entertainers were the Nelson Family -- offspring of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. They are very fine entertainers.
The ship had all of the standard games -- lots of trivia games (which we enjoy) as well as the traditional 'Battle of the Sexes,' 'Love and Marriage,' and 'Quest' games. There were non-stop activities available, including their famous zip line and the two flow-rider surfing machines. Plus the Merry-Go-Round and other games for kids on the Boardwalk. Multiple clubs were open in the evening -- even a small jazz club now, next to the comedy club.
In the evening movies were shown on the outdoor screens and 3D Dreamworks movies were shown at various times in the indoor theater. There was a lot to do for sure. Then there are the cruise stops.
We do not take shore tours -- we have seen about everything shore tours can offer and so they offer no advantages for us -- plus they seem to be constantly going up in price. So when we go ashore, we just find our own way and do our own thing.
The cruise stopped at Haiti, and the island experience has been improved a lot. There was criticism of the cruise lines for not doing enough for the Haitian people after the earthquake, but I feel they went above and beyond. The area where the cruise ships dock is isolated from the main area of Haiti, and the experience is pretty much one of beach activities.
The second stop was Jamaica. Jamaica has deteriorated as a friendly island with increased poverty and crime, but it is still a beautiful place to visit. Some common sense needs to be used, as the Jamaican people seem to be among the most pushy salesmen and gifted pickpockets in the Caribbean.
Cozumel has, of course, become very commercial. Unfortunately the weather turned cold and rainy in Cozumel this week, so we spent very little time off the ship. Since there are so many people on the Allure, it takes a long time to go through Mexican customs when you get back on the ship. But at least there is a dock and you do not have to deal with any tenders on any of the stops of the mega-ships Allure and Oasis. Hopefully Grand Cayman will some day have docks to receive these ships once the politicians get out of the way.
On board ship, the stores seem to have less variety in merchandise than they used to, and prices for everything have gone up, including spa treatments. I guess they have to use the base fare to lure passengers on board, and then they try to make it up with the sale of on-board items. They even sell fresh-squeezed orange juice in the morning (you can get the regular orange juice for free though).
The ship has added those machines that can dispense any of 30 or 40 varieties of soda, but you must purchase the coke package in order to use the new machines. And the package price has gone up too, so we opted not to take advantage of this offer.
There is no doubt that the big ships Allure and Oasis are not for everyone. I would not recommend them for a first cruise for anyone -- try the smaller ships first. On these ships, there are often lines, you must get tickets for the shows, etc., etc. However, there was always a place to sit in the Windjammer, and except for the dinner restaurant, we never felt that the ship might be overcrowded. It is an amazing engineering marvel, and a beautiful venue with a lot of options.
The cruise was very smooth until the last day, when we had to fight some high winds as we returned from Cozumel to the US. When we were about half way home, the ship actually turned around. The captain said that they had observed a small vessel that might be in distress, so they went back to make sure the passengers on that vessel were safe. That was pretty cool, we thought. It cannot be an easy feat to turn the largest cruise ship at sea around to check on half a dozen vacationing sail boaters who cannot figure out how to use their radio when hailed. Our compliments to the Captain, and the RCL for having the guts to build the largest cruise ship in the world and the talent to make the ship an amazing vacation destination of itself.