After living in Florida for 20 years, we finally decided to give cruising a try. We only live 35 minutes from Port Canaveral, so that was the logical place for my wife & I to start.
We booked the cruise last minute (4 days before sail date) thru a cruise company. We would have been smarter to book thru Royal Caribbean that close to sailing as we would have received a MUCH better deal as RC likes to fill their empty rooms since they'll more than make up their $$$ from drink/extras sales. We paid 2X what another fellow traveller paid for the same room and we booked the same day. Lesson learned and this wasn't RC's fault.
Monarch is an older ship and it's interior shows it - think a 70s decorated Marriot in Reno, NV... All well maintained, but older - none of which effected our cruising experience. We booked an ocean view room (F2 category) as there were no balconies available (at least at a price point that we felt was justified for a 3 night cruise). It was about the size of my college dorm room (122 sq ft), but we loved it. A firm but comfortable queen size bed (made up from the two "twin" beds in the room - in fact the room is made up as a queen), and a small (just bigger than an airplane bathroom) yet very serviceable bathroom with stand up shower. We were on the 7th deck level with the jogging track which was great because we could easily access the outside even if it wasn't private.
Our steward (Willy Fernandez) was fantastic and responsive. I needed an extension cord for my CPAP (yes, I snore) and Willy had it to me in less than 10 minutes. The room was constantly being cleaned and the bed was turned down every evening. A word of caution, the rooms in the decks below deck 7 do NOT have room safes in them.
A cruise is only as good as it's food, and RC did not fail to deliver. You can't go on a cruise with 2500 people and expect 5 star dining, BUT, it was very good nevertheless. There were no bad meals, and it was better than the best convention food that I've ever had. Every dinner had the choice of 8 appetizers, main entrees, and deserts EACH. RC also calls out a healthy lite (under 800 calories) combo too. Portions are reasonable (not the huge portions that you get in American restaurants - a good thing in my view) so it was possible to have more than one appetizer (or entree if you felt compelled) without feeling too guilty. There was always a buffet if you didn't want the formality of a sit down dinner. If you had the munchies later in the evening, there was free pizza and cookies, etc. up in the Windjammer lounge. The cookies were great, the pizza not so much... The midnight buffet is well worth waiting up for - ours was on the night we departed Nassau. Just don't drink too much waiting for it...
We did not dine at the premium (i.e. extra $$) restaurant. Make the effort to do the sit-down breakfast in the dining room - it's well worth it (and you paid for it as part of the cruise). Call me crazy but I prefer being waited on for breakfast rather than foraging thru a buffet. Lunch was a buffet served in the Windjammer Cafe and had a little of everything for everyone. One tip for lunch, look around at all the choices before picking up a plate.
Our dinner waiter (Estaphan) was from India and was very personable (including remembering our names). He and his assistant completely catered to our needs including fixing special plates for our table mates, one of whom was VERY picky about her food. Dinner is assigned seating, and it appears that the better your cabin, the better your view. We were one table away from the windows.
Be aware that it is NOT hard to run up quite a tab. RC makes money by selling drinks and products including their shops, spas, and photos, and they do it VERY well. They do not skimp on their drinks and they are available from the minute you walk on the ship. I had heard that the photographers were always in your face, but we did not experience that - there was no pressure to have our photo taken, and they took our polite refusal very well. We ended up spending almost as much on the "extras" as we did on the cruise which we were OK with.
The negatives were mostly not RC's fault. You will see folks from every economic and social walk of life. We saw a lot of "Ugly American" syndrome including very rude folks treating the staff like servants (or as dirty foreigners) rather than professionals trying to do their jobs. Most of the staff are away from their families on 6 month contracts with NO time off, and taking a moment to get to know them is both fascinating and usually leads to better service. And then there were the drunks - usually they were the "Ugly Americans" too. If you're looking for a non-stop party, RC is not the cruise for you - based on comments I overheard from the "partiers", I'd suggest checking out Carnival as it seemed that they catered to a younger, harder partying crowd.
My only complaint regarding the ship was the quality of the shows. The shows were IMHO bad, cheesy Vegas wannabe shows with tacky costumes and questionable talent (although the dancing was good). The singers were mostly there because they couldn't get a gig with Disney. The magician was embarrassing. The worst part was the sound - it just plain sucked. A badly mixed show can ruin a presentation, and adding cheesiness into it makes for a poor overall experience. The bands were quite good, but suffered from the poor sound mix as well. A few times, I made a comment to the sound technician who just shrugged and walked away (RC, take note of this - the sound tech was the only negative as far as your crew was concerned). The comedians were great but be warned that they are closer to R rated than PG.
The excursions were OK, but not worth the $$$ paid. We did a sailing/snorkeling day out of Nassau which was NOT a sail (we motored both ways to/from the snorkeling reef). We later ran into a couple who had walked to the Nassau port entry and hired their own taxi/tour guide who took them all around Nassau giving them a personal tour for much less $$$ and a wonderful experience to boot. We will do something similar on our next visit.
We chose not to visit RC's private island (Cococay) as there was another ship there at the same time. That meant 5000 people on an island - didn't sound like a very relaxing time to us. We ended up on the VERY top of the ship (3 levels above the pool deck) and had the place to ourselves the entire day - totally relaxing which was what we were looking for. On our next cruise we will do the island with our kids as the descriptions we got from returning cruisers (including our table mates) were very positive.
Overall - we had a wonderful time and can't wait to do it again but this time with our kids. By the time you factor in airfare, hotels, food, funtimes, etc., RC cruises really are a good deal. You can do it cheaper than we did (like don't drink any booze or do any excursions) and still have a wonderful time. Monarch is being retired in April and being replaced by Enchantment of the Seas. Both ships carry around 2500 passengers, but Enchantment as 2X as many balconies.