I'm dividing this into sections to comment on certain aspects of the cruise experience.
We had read comments that indicated that we should show up early. Apparently every else had read them too. Embarkation started at 1200. We arrived about 1230. There had been such a large group at opening that they had issued embarkation group numbers to folks and had them sitting in a waiting area to board in groups. By the time we wended our way through the Disneyland queuing maze to get to the desk clerks they had cleared out and numbers were no longer needed. The wait was not excessive once we got our boarding passes and got up on the gangway.
We opted for the 'self-service' debarkation option, meaning that we retained our luggage until the morning and took it off the ship ourselves. Debarkees were divided into 5 groups and told to wait in the Provence dining area until called. The first 3 groups (we were no. 5) got started out promptly but the process slowed down maddeningly because of a backup caused by insufficient number of Immigration agents to check people in the terminal. Eventually that got straightened out and we proceeded in a timely manner. In all, unless one is not able or willing to move one's own luggage, this is the way to disembark.
The 'secret doors' at the forward end of decks 10 and 11. These are unmarked doors that open out onto an open balcony at the forward end of the deck, overlooking the bow. Definitely the place to be when approaching the Gatun Locks on the Panama Canal.
Doors aft on decks 8-11. Open onto balconies. These doors have windows, so it's obvious what they're for
Laundries. Self-serve laundries aft on decks 8-12. Each contains 4 washers and dryers, ironing boards, a sink and dispenser to buy detergent and such. Cost is $2.00/load for wash and $2.00/load to dry. Bring those nifty gel detergent packets and a dollar-store hamper and wash. We washed twice on the trip and had no problem getting to use them.
Pools were never crowded and both the open pool and the 'Lotus' pool in the covered area had 3 hot tubs, so never a wait for them. Major white caps on them when it was rough.
The wait to board, standing in a Disneyland-style queuing maze got pretty old. They either need to expand boarding hours or bring on more boarding agents.
The elevators forward only operate from decks 15-7. So, if you want to go down to 6 or 5 to the dining rooms, casino or specialty restaurants, you have to change elevators -- kind of like changing buses on a bus line. The 'panoramic elevators -- the glass ones in the Atrium -- only operate between decks 5 and 8. They are nice to ride, but not very useful for getting around.
Service and Entertainment
Service was generally very good -- as good as any other of the several cruises we've been on.
Our room steward, Wilson, was very pleasant and attentive. His most salient quality was his invisibility. He always did room service when we were out. He seemed to have a particular ability to adjust to our patterns. Room was always clean and orderly, even when we were out for a short time.
Bordeaux dining room waiters Bobby (from Macedonia), Jed (Philippines) and Anthony (Philippines). All were very friendly and attentive. Bobby and Jed did a particularly nice song for us for our anniversary celebration.
On Deck 5 the 'la Patisserie' coffee bar was particularly nice. The waiter there, Cyril, seemed to take a particular interest in his work as a barista and produced excellent coffee drinks.
In the Buffet (Horizon Court Buffet, Lido deck) there were several excellent specialty buffet set ups: a 'tea', with a dizzying variety of tea sandwiches, scones and cakes; sushi; a huge dessert bar.
Movies Under the Stars: This seems to be unique to this ship or perhaps the line. A huge digital viewing screen on the Lido deck above the pool. Good resolution and sound quality. Very pleasant to sit in a deck chair and watch a movie. HOWEVER: the screen was wasted several days showing football all day Sunday and Monday evening, one day showing a series of rock concerts. The shipboard TV showed some excellent recent movies. They could have been showing those on the MUTS.
Two comics' shows in the Princess Theater.
One evening show with a violinist (as he put it, 'fiddler') David Klinkenberg. Incredible range of virtuosity and very personable presentation/audience interaction.
Last sea day the ship's chef put on an excellent cooking demo and showcased several dishes as well as giving some very useful cooking tips.
On other ships/lines we have had available a daily newssheet put out by the crew. No such thing on this ship. In the internet lounge there was a ticker crawl with headlines, and two news channels on TV, but we felt a bit deprived at not having an actual print news sheet.
There is an ice cream bar on the Lido Deck. We had expected a place that offered a variety of flavors. Turned out it was a soft serve machine with chocolate and vanilla. Cones/cups were free, but they charged $2.50 for a shake or malt. The server was very friendly and pleasant, but it didn't make up for the lack of variety.
Theater shows tended to be short and not that interesting.
Like other ships, and not to their credit, too much space and effort was expended promoting 'art' sales. This stuff is about the same as the graphic art offered at 'starving artist' sales at cheap motels around the country.
The casino, while located in an unobtrusive area on deck 6, apparently permitted smoking most of the time. This is odd, though, because they also touted several non-smoking nights at the casino. Since they apparently felt they needed to attract non-smokers, why not just ban smoking in the casino altogether and let the smokers go out on the promenade deck?
Ports and Excursions
Aruba: The town of Oranjestad is outwardly quaint, but the 'Dutch colonial' architecture is buildings of recent construction. There are some historic buildings in the 'back' part of the town beyond the main tourist street, but they tend to be run down. The town is generally neat and clean, but has the expected 'second world' worn look common in the Caribbean.
Cartagena, Colombia: The port itself is a major container shipping terminal. However the passenger terminal features a very attractive shopping venue and pleasant adjacent park w/ flamingoes, monkeys, macaws and such.
There are three taxi 'lanes' for catching a taxi into town. The first one is the most expensive. Beyond that there's another lane beyond a gate. Fares are a little less, but still kind of high. We contracted for a driver for all day for 4 people at $70. We had heard there is another area where taxis can be gotten for less but didn't observe that area when we came out. Only saw it when we returned. So, if you want lower fares, walk farther away from the terminal.
The city of Cartagena bears a resemblance to other old cities in Latin America. Cleaner than, say, Mexico City, but still with a similar worn, grimy quality. The ride into the old city was a bit lengthy due to traffic crowding, but the route back was quick. The San Felipe de Barajas fortress is touted as the strongest in the old Spanish world. It is an impressive pile, but not as complicated or interesting as the San Felipe del Morro fortress in San Juan, PR. Its most interesting feature is the extensive covered way tunnels deep in the bowels of the fortress.
In the old city the Museo del Oro, or Gold Museum is very interesting. Displays of intricate gold work by pre-Columbian natives are fascinating, as well as the information about ancient habitation in Colombia.
Panama Canal: A bit of a damper on the day from rain that was heavy at times. The ship began the approach to the Gatun Locks early, before dawn. As we began the passage into the locks, all out on the forward balcony were chased in by heavy rain. The locks were fascinating, of course. We found that we could get a good view of the operation of the locks from deck 7, the Promenade Deck.
After the passage the ship anchored in Gatun Lake. Tenders were provided by the ship. Boarding and transport were quick and efficient. Bus transport to the docks of the Canal's dredging service was comfortable. Passage through the rest of the canal was on a fairly clean, but spartan three-decked tour boat with running commentary. The weather was not cooperative, providing heavy rain for about half the passage. The smaller vessel provided an excellent opportunity to experience the workings of the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks. The tour operator provided a nice enough hot lunch during the trip.
Costa Rica: This was the first nice day we had for touring. Up to now it had been rain (at the beginning of what is supposed to be the 'dry season'). Our tour was to the Aviarios De Costa Rica sloth sanctuary. This seems to be a genuine sloth rescue facility that cares for orphaned, injured, deformed and other two and three toed sloths. The staff provides an excellent program about sloths, their physiology, history, habitat, etc. Learned much and gained a new perspective of these fascinating animals.
Included in the visit was a 'jungle canoe' trip. We were loaded into small boats with 4 benches, which could hold up to 8 people, depending on size. The boats were sculled by an oarsman. We did not feel comfortable in the boats. Ours seemed a bit unstable, so it made for a kind of tense ride. We did get to see bats, a huge snapping turtle, sloths in the trees and heard howler monkeys. Others saw monkeys, large lizards and such.
The day ended at an open-air shopping 'mall-ette' adjacent to the port. It consisted of a large number of individual sellers' stalls with a wide variety of tourist souvenir items of art, crafts, etc. There were also a hairdresser, cosmetologist and massage place. Very good selection and quality of items.
We ventured out of the port to bag a geocache in the little park near the port. The town of Limon and its park are clean and neat, a little worn, of course, and unremarkable. Not much was open as it was Sunday, but there was a pleasant public gathering/celebration going on in the park for the holidays.
The local merchants that cater to the cruising trade are eager to please. We were told that cruise ship stops are down 60%. Unknown why.
Jamaica: Weather was the best yet for this very mixed quality visit.
Guys in our group did the excursion to 'Mystic Mountain'. This is a very attractive and well-managed amusement venue. It features a long tram chair ride up to the facility over the rain forest canopy. The facility has a very nice water slide/pool, bar, souvenir shop and one of the neatest attractions I've done anywhere: the Bobsled ride. It's essentially a steel roller coaster that winds down the mountain through the forest. People ride in individual 'bobsleds'. They can be linked together in series if people want. My friend and I each went individually. Riders can control their speed using a dead-man brake system. Since it's a roller coaster, the cars really can't leave the track, so there's no reason to ever brake until you reach the bottom and link up to the cable system that brings the cars back up. A ride costs $22 and lasts about 2 minutes. Worth it, though. Very exhilarating.
We caught shuttle buses over to the Duns River Falls park, which is operated by the Jamaican government. The climb up the falls must be done in company of a guide, supplied by the park. There is no additional charge for the guides, but they spend a lot of time and effort promoting the film (disc) that they do of each climbing group. If you don't buy the disc at the end of the climb, they put their hand out for a tip.
The climb starts from down on the beach (where a fellow standing in the surf offered us ganja as we walked by) and goes up 950 ft. Now that must be total linear distance instead of elevation change. Actual elevation change was not over 400 ft. The climb is not arduous, but can be tricky as the rocks are slippery in some places. There are many opportunities to get completely wet, so appropriate clothes are in order as well as good quality water shoes with non-slip soles. Shoes can be rented or purchased there for an exorbitant price, I'm sure.
A downer getting out of the park. Once climb was over, groups broke up and the way out of the park takes one past a warren of souvenir booths peopled by aggressive salespeople. Got damned irritating getting through there.
Jamaica is very attractive, clean and orderly, at least what we saw. People are friendly and have that delightful accent. The down side is that everyone is either out to get a tip or sell you something at an inflated price. Gets tiresome very quickly.
Food and Food Service
This was a major source of stress and irritation for us.
The quality and variety of food was excellent. Presentation variety and flavors of food served in the Bordeaux dining room was always top-notch in our estimation. Service there was excellent. We had very nice evenings dining with friends there.
Afternoon tea served in Bordeaux was also very enjoyable. Good variety of offerings and good service. The tea served was commonplace Lipton's. Not a negative, but it would have been nice to have some real English or Irish Breakfast or Earl Grey for the pseudo-tea-snobs.
The specialty buffets offered several days in the Horizon Court buffet were truly memorable. These were such things as a sushi selection, high tea sandwiches and cakes, a dessert buffet, etc.
We ate two evenings in the Bayou Cafe. They offer 'Cajun' style menu. Although their best feature is the steaks. We had the Porterhouse and New York Strip steaks. The 22 oz. porterhouse is simply huge, more than an inch thick. The New York Strip is a more manageable 16 oz, also one-inch plus thick. They were done perfectly and accompanied by a small plate of sides for the table. The sides were unremarkable but, who cares? When the steaks were so big and perfect. Service there was excellent. We had a very nice conversation with the F&B manager from Portugal.
Issues with the Horizon Court Buffet and 'anytime dining' in the Bordeaux dining room were major downers and stressors on this cruise.
It began immediately upon boarding. Everyone's habit after embarkation is to toddle up to the buffet, grab a plate of food and watch goings on until sailing. The Buffet has two sides, both of which were completely jammed with people with a line out the door. Seating was impossible as there was not enough seating/tables. I gave up on the idea of getting some food then and went back to the stateroom to unpack.
The buffet has two lines on the Horizon Court. Both are not open all the time. They alternate them, but we never really figured out the schedule. One opens later than the other in the mornings. The biggest problem was that they are arranged in a linear fashion so that diners have to queue through the whole thing. This slows the process down and takes away the ability to go easily to other sections to choose an item. On other ships we have sailed on which we have sailed the buffet area is more open with stations, allowing people to go and choose a class of item from one or the other, rather than queuing up. Variety and quality of the food was fine, but I didn't get to sample a lot of things because of the slow, maddening lines.
Seating was insufficient in the Horizon Court. Most Americans don't like to share tables but at peak times it was hard even to find a table to share. On top of that, there were times when half the dining area was roped off!
'Anytime dining': a crock. When the Bordeaux dining room opened in the evening @ 1730 people were already queued up. Waits could be considerable. It was never actually announced but we learned after a couple days that it was possible to call for reservations for a certain time and just walk in. On top of that, it was additionally possible to reserve a certain table. Once we learned that we did that every day possible. This made it more convenient but defeats the concept of 'anytime' dining. When someone presented themselves at the maitre d's desk the person on duty would then walk off, find a table and return to direct the diners. This slowed the process down even more. This applied to both the unfortunate 'anytime' diners in the queue and to those who had reserved a time, but not a specific table. The wait situation was so bad that they gave out those buzzer things they use in chain restaurants to notify people waiting. The reservation system, while convenient for those who take advantage of it, screws up the whole concept of 'anytime' dining, by taking a considerable number of places out of availability, increasing waits for all.
Essentially, unless they change the system, DON'T DO ANYTIME DINING. Opt for scheduled seating in the Provence dining room. If you do opt for anytime, use the reservation system.
Don't plan on eating in the buffet on embarkation day. You probably should plan to use the buffet at non-peak times.