Being our first Diamond Member cruise we were looking forward to what the upgraded status had to offer and we were not disappointed.
We stayed pre-cruise at the Dania Beach Sleep Inn which we have used a number of times. We always come in a day or two early in case the weather is bad and stay a few days after so we aren't rushed to get a flight and to linger a few days longer in the Florida sunshine before heading north. The staff at the Sleep Inn are always friendly and the rooms well kept. They added a port transfer charge this year which was a bit of a surprise but the airport p/u and drop-off is still complimentary.
We tend to arrive at the port mid-morning and boarding the Independence of the Seas was efficient as usual. The terminal the IOS docks at is under construction and a bit congested, so arrive early to avoid the rush. Once on board we checked our seating assignments (we still prefer traditional late seating as we have heard numerous complaints with 'my time' dining). Traditional seating also gives you a chance to get to know a few of the staff a little better which always helps when looking for advice on different venues. The fact they will be anticipating a tip from YOU rather than drawing from a pool often results in better service. Although the IOS has other dining options, we prefer the Dining Room as as the quality of the food is pretty consistent...don't be afraid to send something back if it is not to your liking. We did find some of the Dining Room staff a little green which was a bit of annoyance but I suppose they have to learn somewhere. As for the Head Waiter we had...he never came around once, not even to introduce himself or lend a hand to the often overworked waiters! They have obviously cut back on Dining Room staff as they tend more tables than they use. We have always pre-paid our gratuities but this time we gave cash to those in the Dining Room who actually 'earned' it rather than those who 'expected' it. Our biggest complaint is they always seem to run out of the same selections of wine and then try and pass off a lesser priced one as a substitute. A ship on a 7 or 8 day cruise should not run out of selected wines.
If you are going to hit the Windjammer for lunch on Day 1 it is best to do it as soon as you get on board before it gets busy. We normally sit down afterwards and plan our day from the Cruise Compass. Having been on Adventure/Freedom/Oasis class ships before, we didn't need much directional orientation so we took a leisurely stroll after lunch acquainting ourselves with the beautiful artwork on the ship.
I always take my swimwear in my carry-on and head up to Flow-rider before it gets busy. Most cruises I have been the 1st one on it but this year the outside air was a little cooler so I let a teenager go ahead of me to test the water...surprisingly the water was warmer than the air so I stuck with it for a while. I was a little disappointed they wouldn't let me do some of the tricks (rolling over) on the boogie board I have done in the past. I suspect they have had some issues as the water flow rate seemed to be down as well. I didn't hang around for surfing this time as with it being a cruise over New Years, Flow-rider was packed after my first session.
We headed to the Solarium next which tends to be a quieter pool area. Although the pool and hot tubs are adult only that didn't stop kids from testing the rules. Staff were constantly reminding kids about the age restriction and by mid-week the area seemed under control. They could do with better signage around the pool and hot tub in this area as families would sometime come in, wait for lounge chairs to come free and get settled in only to find out their kids weren't welcome in the pool.
We hit one new port we hadn't been to before, St. Kitts. We did our own tour of the island and went to a beach for the afternoon. On St. Maarten we went to Orient Beach which was crowded as usual particularly with 4 ships being in port. We often rent a car on this island, however I checked the cruise ship schedule for the port before we left home and knew with 4 ships in port it would be easier to just take a taxi. The stop in San Juan was too short but we have been there a number of times so we just went to few of our favourite places in town. Labadee, one of RCI's private islands has undergone a huge transformation since we were there on the Freedom in 2006.
This was a New Years cruise and RCI really put on a show for New Years eve. We have never seen the Promenade so packed with people so late in the evening. Our only disappointment of the evening was the music venues closing so early. This was also a formal night and many people were looking for music and dancing. At 1 am the Schooner Bar was still packed with people waiting to find a seat when the piano player decided to finish for the night...he said his contract only allowed him to go till 1! We went to other venues and the musicians were leaving as well. On New Years eve they should have the musicians start later in the evening so they can go later.
The Freeze Frame Ice Show was the best we have seen yet. It was well choreographed, the costumes were awesome and there was an excellent selection of music to appeal to all age groups. This show is not to be missed but you need to get your tickets early as the number of performances is limited.
Quest is always fun but they really need to enforce the age restriction. At one point there was a 13 year old up on the floor during one of the more adult-oriented quests.
Love and Marriage is another good show but they changed the way in which couples were chosen. I felt the old format of having a newlywed couple, a couple who have been married for a number of years and the oldest married couple provided a little more variety.
The Diamond Lounge was the highlight for us on this trip and gave us an opportunity to meet with other seasoned cruisers and share experiences...both bad and good but mostly good. The staff in the Diamond Lounge were fantastic.
All in all the cruise was much as we expected although staff often seem tired, overworked and inattentive. They have a new 'WOW' program to recognize excellent service so hopefully things will get back to where they were a few years ago.