Our 18 year old daughter went on a Royal Caribbean cruise with her friend's family last spring, and she made it her goal to finally get us to agree to a cruise. We had considered them in the past, but the potential sea-sickness always scared us away. However, she was able to win us over, and I booked a Christmas cruise on the Valor. The cool thing was, I had accumulated enough Amex points that the cruise was paid entirely with points.
We arrived in Miami on the evening of 12/21, after a traffic-filled 11 hour drive from Charleston, SC. Note to self: the Saturday before Christmas is probably NOT the best day to drive I-95 South. Oh well, it wasn't TOO bad...
We had booked a one night stay at the Hyatt Place Miami Airport/ Doral through www.stay123.com. I highly recommend both Stay 123 and the Hyatt Place. A very nice suite type hotel (two doubles, with fold out sofa bed/ sectional and free breakfast/ wi-fi). The hotel offers free parking for cruisers, so we were able to leave our car there and not have to deal with parking at the port. The hotel also provided transportation to the port via a third party company (Doral Transportation), of which, 2 of the tickets were paid by the hotel. So, we had to pay for 2 of us to get to the part and back. I think it was $12 per person per trip. I was able to park right in front of the hotel so I wasn't worried about anyone breaking into my van.
The driver took us right to the front of the cruise terminal and the porters took our luggage from there. There was a line to get through the passport and security areas, but it moved along pretty quick. Same thing upstairs at the check in area. Busy but not unbearable. This was sometime around 12:30.
Our cruise was a 7-nighter and went to Nassau, La Romana in the DR, San Juan and Turks and Caicos. Here are some of my observations, being a first timer:
1- I had heard so often that cruise guest rooms are tiny and not very nice. I was pleasantly surprised. My husband and I had plenty of space and the room was homey. Shower had nice, hot water. Closets provided plenty of room for clothes. Our steward, Paul, was EXCELLENT. Went out of his way to always keep our room and our daughter's in tip-top shape. We gave him a nice cash tip on top of the pre-paid gratuity.
2- Food was "okay". Plenty of it, no doubt about it, but all desserts tasted the same, too many repeat items on the buffet and missing some basics I would've thought would be there. How about spaghetti with marinara or meatballs, macaroni and cheese??? I waited in line 35 minutes one day for Mongolian Wok. It was good but the line was ridiculous. Burrito bar was decent, didn't try the burgers at the grill, but hubby said they weren't very good. They had two nights of Italian (with weird dishes), two American and two Caribbean. One french night too. What about Mexican? They shouldn't repeat ANY of the nights.
3- Ship was clean and service staff was extremely attentive and on the ball.
4- Hot tubs were cold and pools too for that matter. Which was strange because it was in the 80s during the day and didn't cool down too much at night.
5- Waited til the last minute to book our excursions. Two of them were actually sold out, but the excursion manager opened up more spots for us, which was really appreciated. We had a great time on the speedboat right in DR, the ziplines in San Juan and snorkelling in Turks and Caicos. Excursions were expensive but we wanted to go all-out for our first cruise. Next time I will know that Turks and Caicos has it's own free beach and we can hang out there.
6- I love to play Bingo but it was very expensive and they often only paid one game. So, you pay $20 and you literally play 5 minutes. I wish they would have bingo less often, but for a two hour timeframe. I would be happy to pay more than $20, but you at least want to feel like you have a chance to win.
7- Our cruise director, Felipe, was FABULOUS, as was all the entertainment staff including Peter, Assistant CD, Marie "Yeah Baby" bingo gal from New Zealand, Caitlin, Jenna the Princess and the super hilarious dance instructor (don't know his name but his Latin dancing class was one of the funniest and happiest things I've ever witnessed).
9- I wish there were more activities between 4-7 pm. Once 7:45 pm hit, there were tons of things to do, often overlapping, so you would have to choose. Not all of us are night owls. I was bored between 4-7 when there was very little going on.
10- Wifi is SLOW and not worth the money. My girls paid $30 for I think 30-45 minutes and it was so slow that they really only got 15 minutes out of it.
We are already planning our cruise next Christmas, but I think we will go out of Port Canaveral on the Dream. First off, it shaves 4 hours off our drive and we want to see what the Dream series is like. We couldn't have been happier with our first cruise!