Our week on the Brilliance of the Seas (12/1/12) was our first experience with Royal Caribbean. (For comparison purposes, our previous cruises were with Norwegian, Holland American and Princess.) In general, we were very pleased with our RCI experience and would not hesitate to cruise with them again. We consider RCI an improvement on NCL, on par with Princess and a slight step below Holland America. That being said, we have never had a bad cruise. We are a 50 something couple who consider it a blessing whenever we have the opportunity to spend a week at sea.
We loved the look of the Brilliance and the overall layout of the ship. She is ten years old, so there are some signs of wear and tear, although minor. For example, the iron portion of our balcony railing was a little rusty and the wooden top needed to be restained. Not major and in no way detracted from our balcony (aft -- room 7676) which turned out to be our favorite part of the ship. We liked the fact that the balcony was large enough to accommodate both two chaise lounges, two chairs and a table. The cabin also seemed to have more storage and shelving than previous cabins I remember. Though there was a smoker in the cabin next to us, his smoking on the balcony was not at all bothersome.
We also would give the ship high marks for overall cleanliness, though there was the occasional unpleasant odor while walking on deck which we've experienced on just about every cruise we've been on.
This was the aspect of our first RCI cruise that impressed us the most. We found that the staff, without exception, was friendly and welcoming. We cannot remember an instance where any staff member failed to smile and greet us.
RCI tries hard to make sure everyone is happy. We had late seating dinner and some of our table mates were dismayed at the fact that dinner took more than two hours. They expressed their dismay to our head waitress, who worked with her staff to improve efficiency on future nights. Our assistant waiter, Erhan, went out of his way to provide me with fresh brewed iced tea each evening. He had asked me the first night if there was anything he could do for us and I had lamented about the fake iced tea onboard. The next night, and every night thereafter, he had my real iced tea waiting for me.
One of the women at our table mentioned how she really missed being able to have something simple, like fresh berries, for dessert. Within a few minutes, every woman at our table had a small bowl of fresh berries. Later in the week, each couple at our table received an afternoon snack of chocolate-covered strawberries in their stateroom, courtesy of the head waitress.
We felt that the food quality was good, although we are not fussy. The one consistent disappointment was the vegetables, which seemed to always be raw. Crunchy we can handle, raw not so much.
With regard to room service, our service was a little uneven. We had room service twice for breakfast. Though it arrived on time, the hot food was cold and the order incomplete. Again, not a deal breaker, though you may want to not order hot food through room service.
We had one encounter with room maintenance when our balcony flooded after a hard rain, but someone arrived within a few minutes to unplug the balcony drain and clean up the mess.
EMBARKATION/DISMEMBARKATION (San Juan)
This was an extremely efficient experience in both cases. We had spent cruise eve in San Juan at the Marriott Stellaris, so we were able to arrive at the ship at about 11:00 a.m. We were on board before noon - - and they apologized for taking an extra half hour to disinfect the ship due to a small norovirus outbreak on the previous sailing.
Our room was available by 1:00 and we had our luggage by 4:00.
We were impressed by the variety of cultures represented; we were told that 30 nations were represented by the passengers. Though mainland Americans were probably the majority, it wasn't by much. The staff did a good job of appealing to all cultures with regard to food, entertainment, etc.
The ship seemed at capacity, though we never felt crowded and were always able to find a quiet spot.
While there were numerous children and teens on board, there didn't seem to be any problems with unruliness - - or at least we didn't notice it. We also didn't encounter any bad (i.e., drunken) adult behavior.
We tend to not participate in a lot of onboard activities, as we just like to relax and watch the sea roll by or walk off some calories doing laps. We can't speak to the quality of the casino, the bingo, the pools or spa, as we didn't indulge.
The production shows were apparently good if you like that sort of thing; we don't. We thought the comedians on board were good, i.e., Billy Garan , John Joseph and Johnny B , Martin Lewis, and were pleased to note the lack of crudeness/profanity in their performances. For whatever reason, none of these performances were well-attended.
70s Night seemed to be wildly popular with folks dancing of all levels of the ship surrounding the centrum.
PORTS OF CALL
We thought it was great to be the only ship in port each day, except for St. Maarten, when the Carnival Victory joined us.
Day One -- Tortola -- we started the day with worship at St. George's Anglican (Episcopal) Church, just a few blocks from the dock. The folks were wonderful and very welcoming. The 8:30 service lasted until 11:00. The worship was beautiful. We then found a cab driver who took us to Cane Garden Bay for a few hours of swimming. The water was perfect and the beach nicely uncrowded.
Day Two -- St. Martin -- We took the water taxi from the pier to Phillipsburg. There, after much negotiating, we found a cab driver who was willing to take us to just to Maho Beach - - instead of a full island tour. We wanted to see the planes fly over the beach and apparently weren't alone in that. We had lunch at the Sunset Bar and Grill, right on the beach, along with some other aviation buffs who were there for the photo opps.
Day Three -- St. Kitts - Rain put a little damper on our island tour which we had booked independently with Thenford Grey. Thenford took our group of ten to Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park, the batik factory and botanical gardens, Timothy Hill scenic overlook and then a stop at a rustic beach reminiscent of Gilligan's Island, where we saw a dozen or more monkeys, up close and personal, munching on sugar cane. He was a wonderful guide who brought along some props to help bring the island to life for us.
Day Four -- Guadeloupe -- Probably our least favorite island. The area where the ship docked reminded us of urban sprawl -- old skyscrapers and worn-looking buildings. None of the quaintness that you typically expect from a Caribbean island.
We hadn't planned anything in advance here, but were fortunate to join a couple from our dinner table who spoke French and were able to negotiate a deal with a cab driver. This couple had spoken to some Guadeloupans onboard who recommended that we head to the opposite side of the island which they claimed was more beautiful. That turned out to be a good suggestion.
Our cabbie, who also accepted American dollars, took us to a small rainforest, then onto Deshaies Botanical Gardens. There we spent an hour walking through the lush gardens and having a fun encounter with some colorful and friendly lorikeets who perched en masse all over you - - making for great photo opportunities. The gardens also had a nice koi pond, a children's area, and a restaurant. Take euros or credit cards (no Discover) though, as they won't accept the American dollar.
On the way back, we fought a traffic jam (yes, there was a four-lane highway), to get to the beach at St. Anne for a brief stay. The beach is clothing optional. The various restaurants and vendors accept only euros.
Day Five -- Barbados -- Probably our favorite island. We had independently booked a catamaran tour with Calabaza and it proved to be one of the best shore excursions we've ever done. Our group of ten was treated to a beautiful five hour sailing tour of Barbados which included snorkeling with the turtles and over a coral reef, a lunch buffet made personally by Gina, the owner of the Calabaza, unlimited beverages and pure relaxation. Gina even emailed us her recipes afterwards. We had never snorkeled before, but Gina and her team helped us get started. We would highly recommend this tour.
Day Seven -- Disembarking in San Juan -- took the rainforest tour offered by the ship. Our tour guide, Jesus, was wonderful . This was a great way to spend a few hours before going to the airport.
In summary, we enjoyed our first cruise with RCI and look forward to our next sailing.