My wife and I decided to take a long cruise in December. We originally booked the Freedom of the Seas, but then learned that Royal Caribbean was doing the "Diamonds in December" event again. So we found a nice 10-night itinerary on the Vision of the Seas that went to some ports that we'd never been to. That combined with 20 Crown and Anchor points was enticement enough, we quickly switched the booking.
We drove down to Port Everglades the morning of the cruise, from our home it takes about four hours. The port is very easy to get into, I-595 dead-ends right into it. We left our car at Park-n-Go and rode their shuttle to the terminal. Their rates are much lower than the port's and the shuttle takes only a few minutes. We found the Vision pulled up to Terminal 4, one of the older buildings at Port Everglades. It's currently under renovation, which appeared to be long overdue. We arrived at the terminal at around 1 pm. The lines for security and check-in were nonexistent; we were on board by 1:15.
As a ship buff, I always relish the chance to explore a new one. I enjoy it even more when it's a totally new class. I had never been on a Vision Class ship, so I was eager to tour it. Walking around the decks I could see how Royal Caribbean ships evolved over the years. The Vision contained many elements of the older Sovereign Class ships. I also saw many improvements that were later integrated into the newer Radiance and Voyager Class ships.
I found the ship to be in very good shape for her age and impeccably clean. The crew had decorated her public spaces for the holidays. Her exterior could use some extra attention though. I saw a lot of rusting along the water line and around fittings. This doesn't bother me really, but it does make her look run down compared to the other ships in port.
Deck 4 has the main floor of the central atrium which is home to the Champagne Bar. Up one deck is the Casino Royale, customer service desk, Masquerade Theater and shore excursions desk. The Aquarius Dining Room takes up the aft portion of both decks.
Deck 6 houses most of the ship's entertainment venues. Forward is the upper level of the main theater. Mid-ship is the shopping area, photo gallery, art gallery, and Lattetudes coffee bar (for- fee). Aft on Deck 6 is the nautical themed Schooner Bar (with the piped-in smokey smell that I loved so much on the Radiance Class). All the way aft on Deck 6 is the Some Enchanted Evening Lounge, a smaller single level theater.
Next to the Schooner Bar is the (apparently useless) Showboat Lounge. I'm sure the designers had a plan for this area when they built the Vision, but it's usually vacant. Apparently the area will be repurposed as a for-fee restaurant during the next refurbishment. This makes sense, a change for the better. Unlike their decision to convert the Sea View Cafes of the Radiance Class to for-fee venues. That is certainly a change for the worse, since the Sea View Cafe is very popular. Now I'll climb down from my soap box.
The ship's pools are located on Deck 9. One is for everyone, and one in the (adults-only) Solarium. Aft on Deck 9 is the two level spa and gym. Thankfully they aren't yet charging to use the stream and sauna rooms. The Windjammer Buffet is all the way forward on Deck 9. Unlike other Royal Caribbean ships I've been on, it utilizes a cafeteria line setup with only a few separate stations. Other RCI ships I've cruised on have used smaller stations with similarly grouped foods at each.
Forward on Deck 10 has the children's play areas, and a for-fee arcade. Aft is the rock climbing wall. At the very top of the ship is the Viking Crown Lounge. On this class it is set up into three levels. While it is interesting in theory, in practice I never saw the two upper levels getting much use.
We booked an interior room, #4017. It was an average sized interior room, with only a small sofa and desk accompanying the bed. The cabin was in good repair and very clean, but it could use some updating. The old tube TV and polished brass fixtures need to be modernized. The bathroom desperately needs the sliding-door shower enclosure that the newer ships have. My hatred of shower curtains on cruise ships has been expressed many times over the years. There is simply no (good) excuse to continue using such an inferior setup when a better one exists on half of the ships in the fleet.
Day 1: Out to sea
After checking in, we walked around the ship for a while. I met some fellow Cruise Critic members up on the pool deck, and then collected my napping wife for the muster drill. After quickly mustering (thanks for being brief Captain Lis) we went up topside to watch sail away. It was delayed a bit by a problem with the propulsion system. We eventually departed about twenty minutes late.
Sail away was followed by a nice dinner in the Aquarius Dining Room. Our serving team was top notch, Jinny from Dominica and Jay from the Philippines. I liked that traditional dining guests are now given a window of time to arrive at the dining room. The Seapass card still said 6 p.m., but the signage outside the dining room (and the Cruise Compass) gives a range of 5:45-6:30. We enjoyed that bit of flexibility.
Later in the evening we stopped by the Diamond Event in the Viking Crown Lounge. The waiters were friendly and kept our glasses full. They also set out a big spread of hors d'oeuvres for the December Celebration.
Day 2: @ Sea
After a long week at work we both needed some good sleep. We got it and then some. By the time we awoke it was nearly 11 am. I spent time in the Viking Crown Lounge reading Hunter Thompson. The weather had turned nasty, so poolside relaxation was out of the question. For some unknown reason the pool in the Solarium was drained and roped off.
We stopped by the main dining room for lunch. Anyone that's been cruising a while knows to avoid the buffet on sea days. Royal Caribbean does a great lunch in the main dining room with an excellent full-service salad bar.
After lunch we made our way up to the ship's fitness center. It takes up two levels at the back end of the ship. The spa below and the gymnasium/aerobics area above. I found the facilities a bit small, but adequate.
We attended the Cruise Critic pub crawl later in the afternoon. We had lots of fun occupying the various drinking establishments around the ship. I didn't win (congrats Brenda), but we met some great folks in the process.
This was the first formal evening and I was surprised to see how many dressed up for it. The dinner in the main dining room was very good, the filet of beef was tender and delicious. I was glad to see escargots back on the menu as well.
Later that night I stopped into the library, which becomes the cigar lounge after 9. With its low slung leather couches and pleasantly low lighting, it was a great place to enjoy a stogie. Much better than the windy open deck offered on the Allure of the Seas. Unfortunately cigar lounges are fast becoming relics of the past as more and more Americans choose to kill themselves with food instead of tobacco. I found it amusing when folks stuck their head into the lounge each night and recoiled in horror upon the discovery of people smoking. Apparently the "Cigar Connoisseurs" sign outside the door and the listing in the Compass wasn't enough notification.
Day 3: Still @ Sea
Our second sea day started around noonish, with a trip to the gym. We followed it up with lunch in the dining room. Later we attended the Cruise Critic slot pull, although we were only spectators. The rest of the afternoon was spent reading out on the boat deck; a calm place blessedly free of the ever present Christmas and calypso (or the dreaded Calypso-Christmas) music.
We stopped into the Crown and Anchor reception before dinner, and then the Diamond Lounge for post-dinner libations. I finished the night in the cigar lounge with a nice glass of tawny port, a good stogie and interesting conversation.
Day 4: St. Croix
Waking up at 8 a.m. is positively torturous after sleeping in until nearly noon two days in a row, but the show must go on. We had our first breakfast onboard, they have an area set aside for Diamond (and above) Crown and Anchor guests. It's a nice thought, but I don't notice any difference between that and the regular breakfast. We did have some nice table mates though.
We headed ashore soon thereafter and made our way to Geckos Island Adventure Tours. We booked the ATV tour which is $135, the cost covers the transportation to and from the starting area and up to two people on one ATV. You also have the option to hang out at Rainbow Beach after the tour.
The tour starts out by the waterfront and goes via roads, paths and dirt trails up into the mountains. Stopping along the way for some great photos and one historical look at the ruins of an old sugar mill. I thought the scenery and photo-ops were great, but the riding portion was a bit of a disappointment. I've ridden ATVs many times throughout my life, and I was expecting something a bit more fast paced and challenging. Unfortunately you are limited to the pace of the most inexperienced rider, which in our case was very slow. Anyone seeking thrills need not apply, it is tailored more to the novice tourist. Of course there is a need for safer low-speed tours like that, I just wish there was something offered for more experienced riders.
After our ATV tour we walked around Frederiksted for awhile, then went back to the ship. After dinner and our nightly Diamond Lounge visit, we stopped into the late night comedy show. I wasn't overly impressed. The comic seemed to mean well, but his bit was mostly audience interaction and a few jokes interspersed.
Day 5: St. Maarten
Six ships in any port is far too many. When those six ships carry a combined 17,000+ people it's a recipe for misery. Apparently St. Maarten is trying to compete with Nassau for the title of most overcrowded Caribbean port-of-call. We had originally planned to catch a taxi to Maho Beach. We scrapped those plans when we saw the throngs of tourists vying for the same facilities and places in the sun. We had already heard horror stories of traffic jams and nearly-missed cruise ships from other travelers who had ventured to Maho or Orient beaches. We decided to try Maho in May 2013 when we return to St. Maarten on the Jewel OTS.
Instead we skipped the water taxi (the line for which was about 5280' long at the time) and walked into town. It wasn't a bad walk, and we wondered why we hadn't done so on our previous visits. We did a bit of shopping and I imbibed some $1 Red Stripes. We eventually walked back to the pier area and bought a bucket of beer from Sharkey's. $12 for a bucket of six Amstels wasn't too bad a deal. It was mid-afternoon at the point, so there were literally thousands of people making their way back to their respective ships. We got a bit sideways there and then ambled back down the pier.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in the Solarium and later the gym. Dinner was good, as usual. We had another nice conversation with some folks we met in the Diamond Lounge. I then retired to the Cigar Lounge to work on this review and dose myself with sweet nicotine.
Day 6: Dominica
Our day in Dominica started early. Far too early for a morning hater such as myself. My wife drug me out of bed at what seemed to be two in the morning. Although the clock kept asserting that it was, in actuality, 7 o'clock. The main dining room wasn't open yet, so we had a quick breakfast in the Windjammer.
Thankfully there is room for only one cruise ship in Dominica. We watched the as the ship pulled up to the pier and were among the first ashore. We booked a private tour through H.O.T. Pepper's, and meet our tour guide Pepper just off the pier. There were ten of us, counting our guide. He was kind enough to already have a cooler in the van well stocked with water, beer, rum-punch and soda. Our first stop was at the Emerald Pool, a short hike from the parking lot revealed a beautiful waterfall with a small swimming area below. We were able to jump right in and enjoy the water, it was fun. Along the trail Pepper showed us some of the native plant life and took us to a few scenic overlooks.
We then drove on to the Mr. Nice Fruit Stand. There guests sample some of the local fruits, coconut, pineapple, sugar cane, cocoa and grapefruit. There is no cost, but tips are kindly accepted. After leaving the fruit stand we briefly visited the Mero black volcanic sand beach, and then went on to Champagne Beach. We didn't snorkel there, but those in our group that did said that it was beatiful.
Next was a trip up into the mountains to see Trafalgar Falls. There is a short hike up to the viewing platform. From there you get a great view of the double waterfalls. It provides a great backdrop for photos. I wish we would have had more time to swim there. We also stopped at a hot sulphur spring. It was interesting to see, but you wouldn't want to live nearby.
Finally we passed through the botanical gardens. As 4:30 was rapidly approaching we didn't have time to get out and walk around. We made it back to the ship right on time and were the very last ones back up the gangway. Pepper provided us with an excellent "sampler" tour of the island. I felt it was well worth the $62 per person. There were things I would have liked to have seen more of, like Trafalgar Falls, so it will be on the top of my list for the next visit. Unfortunately, we found out later that one of our ship mates passed away during their day in Dominica.
After another good dinner we attended the Crown and Anchor Top Tier Event in the Some Enchanted Evening Lounge. They put out a nice spread of food and gave everyone complimentary beverages. The only problem, if you could call it that, was that it was highly overcrowded. Some that showed up a few minutes late had to stand or leave, as there were no seats left. In retrospect it would have probably been a better idea to just stay in the Diamond Lounge. The food and drinks were the same, and no new information on the Sunshine Class was given out. Bummer. In the future they may need to have two parties, or further divide it up by Crown and Anchor levels.
Day 7: Antigua
Like most other Caribbean ports, there isn't much to do in Antigua if you don't have an excursion planned or wish to hire a taxi to a beach. We briefly walked around the shopping area and then went back onboard the ship. There is something to be said for enjoying the ship while it's (mostly) empty in port. The weather was beautiful. The hot tubs were free of the hordes of children. There was no obnoxiously loud live band keeping me away from the main pool area. Although they still managed to pipe in the incessant tropical rhythms. Would mixing in some Top 40 be so much to ask for?
Of course the kids and annoying music wouldn't be an issue if they would just open the Solarium roof when the weather is nice. That area would be much better if it wasn't so stuffy. I can't figure out why they put retractable roofs over them. I've never once seen them open it on any of my cruises on Radiance or Vision Class ships.
After dinner we stopped into the photo gallery to see our pictures. This is another area that could be improved. In fact, Royal Caribbean already has a better system for the photo gallery in place on their Oasis Class ships. Instead of walls covered in random photos, each guest (or cabin) has an assigned folder located in big revolving racks in the gallery. The photographer swipes the Seapass prior to taking a picture, and the finished products are then placed into the guest's folder for easy location. It's so much simpler than the hunt-and-shuffle crapshoot currently on most ships.
I finished out the night in the cigar bar, then went up on deck for a few night time photographs since the weather was nice.
Day 8: St. Kitts (And possibly the end of the world)
Our day in St. Kitts started early, although not as early as the one in Dominica. We got breakfast in the dining room, then left the ship to look for our tour guide. We booked privately through Grey's Tours. The owner, Thenford Grey, was our driver and tour guide.
The first leg of the tour took us through downtown Basseterre. He did a great job explaining the long history of the city and island under French and British control. And how it later gained its independence from the Crown. We saw several historical landmarks as we made our way toward the gardens at the Romney Plantation.
At the the Romney Plantation we were treated to a tour through the botanical gardens there. He explained the background of the area when it was a sugar plantation, very interesting stuff. We then made our way down the coast to the old fortress at Brimstone Hill. This is really the Crown Jewel of the entire island for a history buff like myself. Unfortunately we only had about an hour to explore this huge compound, so I'll definitely be spending more time there on our next visit. My wife also brought a bag of supplies to donate to the local schools. This is not required or even expected. But we read some reports from other guests of Mr. Grey's that had done so and it seemed like a nice thing to continue.
We then headed back across the island to the resort/condominium areas, the contrast with how locals live was shocking. Our last major stop was at a beach, but we decided to only snap a few pictures and then head back to Basseterre. There were some spots around downtown that I wanted to photo. Mr Grey provided an excellent tour, it was evident that he was very proud of his country and enjoyed sharing knowledge about it.
After walking around there a bit and snapping some shots, we got a snack from one of the street vendors along with some delicious Caribe beers. Then it was back to the ship for a gym visit. In the evening we had a great Italian themed dinner in the dining room before a few glasses of wine in the Diamond Lounge. I then finished the night in the cigar lounge, just in case the rapture decided to come late in the evening. As of 10:52 p.m. the world was still (more or less) intact.
Day 9: Back to Sea
As the world had decided not to end on the previous day, our second-to-last day on the ship was a calm and relaxing one. We spent most of the morning and early afternoon reading out on the Deck 5 promenade. The Captain announced a medical emergency early in the afternoon. They were in need of O+ blood donors for a transfusion. I knew that I was A+. But my wife wasn't sure of her type, so we went down to the infirmary (so they could check hers) in case they lacked volunteers. We arrived to see the hallway full of people, it was great to see such a turnout. A nice lunch in the dining room was followed by the daily gym visit which in turn led to more lounging.
Our second formal night included the surf and turf dinner. The steak was okay, but the little lobster was overcooked. Later I smoked my last stogie in the library, which was followed by a dip in the Solarium hot tub. For some of reason they had the Solarium pool empty again on a sea day. This makes absolutely no sense at all, sea days are when everything should be open! During our time in the hot tub, another medical emergency was announced in the casino. It was a pretty tough day for some folks on the Vision.
Day 10: One Last Day
The last day of any cruise, especially one as prefect as this one, is always the saddest. We had our breakfast, then attempted to climb the rock wall. We both failed miserably. I couldn't figure out why. We both had, after all, accomplished the feat on Monarch of the Seas four years prior. Had 48 short months made me feeble? It was a savage defeat, and one that I hoped to avenge on my next cruise.
Most of the afternoon was split between the Deck 5 promenade and the Viking Crown Lounge reading more Thompson. We had one last dinner, and bid farewell to our serving team. We then spent some time in the Diamond Lounge and made sure to tip our awesome waiters. We finished the night with a trip to the hot tub, and a final stroll around the upper deck.
Debarkation went pretty smoothly, although the line for Customs was long and went slower than usual. I attribute this to the fact that there were only four agents checking 2000+ guests.
This was an excellent cruise, probably one of the best I've ever been on. Four relaxing sea days and five nice ports. Awesome. We had a great cabin steward, a top notch serving team and bar waiters that were happy to dole out endless glasses of wine. I was truly sorry to see it end. The biggest problem with doing a ten night cruise is that anything shorter seems seems far too brief. I enjoyed my first experience with a Vision Class ship, it is just the right size. I'll list the pros and cons below, but all-in-all it was an outstanding cruise.
Clean public areas and cabins
Never-ending Christmas music
Ho-hum entertainment options
Solarium pool often closed on sea days (apparently anytime the seas are rough)
No specialty restaurants
Cabins need freshening (sliding shower doors, flat screen TVs)
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