My wife and I live in the Chicago area, and last summer we started planning a winter escape for January 2013. We were mainly interested in Caribbean itineraries, but didn't care which port we cruised from. A search on the RC website showed some very attractive pricing on the Navigator of the Seas out of New Orleans. These 7-night cruises included Jamaica, Grand Cayman, and Cozumel. The order in which the ports are visited varies from sailing to sailing. We selected an itinerary that started with two sea days, allowing us time to decompress and switch into cruise mode.
To keep the costs low (and just to try something different), we decided to ride the Amtrak train from Chicago to New Orleans. We have been on Amtrak several times before, but never on an overnight train. This would be a new experience. If you purchase either a roomette or a bedroom on Amtrak, the fare includes meals in the dining car. The combination of an overnight train ride plus a night in New Orleans plus a 7-night cruise and finally another overnight train ride back resulted in a 10-night vacation with all but two meals included in the cost.
Our train rolled out of Chicago's Union Station at 8:00 PM on Thursday Jan 10. We were in a roomette in a sleeper car. A "roomette" is a rather generous name for something that can described as two chairs (which can be converted into beds) and a sliding door. At least we were cozy and had privacy.
We arrived shaken (but not deterred) in New Orleans at 3:00 on Friday afternoon, which was 30 minutes ahead of schedule. A nice thing about train travel is that the stations are usually located right in the downtown areas of their respective cities. Therefore, it was an inexpensive taxi fare to go the one mile to our hotel. We stayed at the SpringHill Suites at 301 St. Joseph Street. Breakfast was included in the room rate. The hotel was clean and well maintained, and we had no complaints with the quality of service. This hotel does not have free shuttle service, so took we a cab to the French Quarter for dinner.
New Orleans is an amazing city for visitors. We had dinner at The Gumbo Shop, a very touristy restaurant, but the food was good and reasonably priced. Afterwards we walked around the French Quarter. There were several street performers out and about. I had a Hurricane at Pat O'Briens and we enjoyed the dueling pianos. My wife was both amused and appalled by all the bizarre souvenirs for sale in the shops. We sampled only a fraction of what New Orleans had to offer, but we managed to enjoy ourselves thoroughly. We were back at the hotel before things got too wild.
The weather forecast was predicting heavy fog for the next morning, and I went to bed worried that our ship would be delayed. I woke up around 6:00 AM to the sound of a deep ship's horn in the distance. I looked out the window, and it was indeed foggy. I heard the horn again. I couldn't be sure that it was the Navigator of the Seas, but I had a feeling it was. From that point on, I knew it was going to be good day.
We were in front of the hotel and loading ourselves into a cab at 10:30 AM. The fog had burned off, and it was sunny and around 70 degrees. The ride was short, and we were at the port at 10:37. The drop off area has a nice view of the ship. We breezed through security and check-in with no lines at all. We were on board at 10:58. The security person said there were a lot of people lined up at 9:30, but they were all processed by the time we arrived.
The Windjammer did not open until 11:30, so we walked the Promenade and had a quick snack at Cafe P. Some members of the Navigator of the Seas orchestra were just starting to play their Welcome Aboard set when we arrived. By 11:40 we were comfortably settled into the seats of a window table in the Windjammer. For the next hour, we ate and chatted and looked forward to our cruise. The ship was parallel parked on the side of the Mississippi River, right behind a smaller Carnival ship. In front of the Carnival ship was a large double bridge carrying a highway over the river. With the skyline, the river, and the bridge, interesting views were to be had from anywhere on the ship.
This was our first time sailing out of New Orleans. Many people are unaware that New Orleans is not actually on the ocean. It is about 60 miles upriver from the mouth of the Mississippi, which means that a ship spends eight to nine hours cruising the river before reaching the Gulf of Mexico. During this time, New Orleans sales tax (9%) is added onto all purchases (including drink purchases) and the onboard shops are closed. The Cruise Compass refers to this tax as a "VAT" (value added tax), but that is just a fancy international term of a sales tax. Once we were in the Gulf, no more sales tax, or VAT, or whatever you want to call it. Note that the casino was open for business the first night.
We were in an outside cabin (category F) on Deck 6. This cabin faces forward, toward the bow, with a view of the helipad. The head of the bed is against a side wall, leaving enough space beyond the bed to look out the window. It was something new for us to look out the window and see where the ship was going. I preferred this view to the side facing cabins we stayed in on previous cruises. A sign near the window explained that we had to close the curtains at night in order keep the bow dark so the bridge officers could steer the ship.
I really liked this room. The walk to the elevators was not too long, and the forward elevators seemed less crowded than the aft ones. Being on Deck 6, it was only one flight of stairs down to the Promenade. On Navigator, the cafe is at the forward end the Promenade, which was very convenient. The room was quiet, and there were no issues with the plumbing or the ventilation. Our cabin attendant was competent, efficient, and cheerful.
On the first day, we watched sail away with some friends who were staying in a junior suite. It was wonderful to relax on their balcony and watch as the ship left port. First it pulls away from the dock, then it has to turn completely around before starting down river. After the turn, we had a dazzling view of downtown New Orleans at sunset. At last we were cruising the Mississippi, river of legend, the Father of Waters. We sailed along, unvexed, to the sea.
We had all of our dinners in the main dining room, early seating. We were at a table for four on Deck 3, actually not too far from the Captain's table. The food was good to excellent every night, and the service from our waiter and assistant waiter was superb. We had the same bar service person all seven evenings, and I was impressed with her performance. When we arrived, she was there to take our orders, and our drinks came out within minutes. When our drinks were running low, she promptly appeared to ask if we wanted more. This was a big improvement over our previous cruise, where the MDR bar service left much to be desired. Another nice thing about our dinners (at least in our section) was that the head waiter came over to chat with us every evening, and sometimes multiple times the same evening. I have been on cruises where I never even met the head waiter until the last night. Overall, I have the highest praise for our dinners on Navigator. Note that the formal nights were Day 2 and Day 6.
All of our breakfasts were in the WJ. Lunch was in the WJ on port days and the MDR on sea days. I made good use of the custom salad bar in the MDR every day it was open. It had a great selection of ingredients and toppings, and getting a salad properly tossed with the dressing is a always a treat. Overall breakfast and lunch in the WJ were fine: plenty of items, a few things not that warm, but most of them okay. While most WJ selections are the same from day to day, some things do change so it pays to check carefully. One day (and one day only) I noticed Cajun pulled pork in the burger line, so I took some buns and made a couple of tasty sandwiches. By the way, each day in the Windjammer we were greeted by the most energetic and fun character on the ship. He made up songs and dances on the spot to urge people to sanitize their hands before entering. He brightened our day whenever we saw him.
My wife and I made a habit of going to the WJ at 4:00 for afternoon snacks. In addition to sandwiches, they had plenty of cakes and dessert treats, and they always had one or two types of scones. It made for a nice afternoon break.
I used the wireless internet every day. It was not available in the rooms, at least not in ours. The strongest signal was in Cafe P in the Promenade. One of the handouts mentioned that it should be available in the Cosmopolitan Club (AKA the Viking Crown Lounge), but I found the signal to be marginal up there. Overall, the internet speed was slow and the price high. I found it best to work offline and keep connection time as brief as possible.
As for entertainment, on the first night, there was only one show in the main theater. This was at 7:45 PM. We were a bit late getting there, but found some decent seats on the side of the balcony. This was billed as the "Welcome Aboard Variety Show." It featured the Royal Caribbean Singers and Dancers, the Navigator of the Seas orchestra, the ballroom dancing couple of Olga and Dmitry, and the comedy of Jim McDonald. It was a nice show with a little of everything, but the dancing of Olga and Dmitry was a highlight. They are a talented couple, and they appeared in another show later in the week. They also gave ballroom dancing lessons during the cruise. On most nights, there were usually two main shows in the theater, and all of the shows were well done. Overall, the quality of the shows was above what I have seen on previous cruises.
I would like to single out the Gemini Duo, who are two twin sisters who play piano and violin. They sometimes appeared in the main dining room during dinner (where it was difficult to hear them) and at other times in Bolero's. They played mostly classical music, but it was usually the livelier and better known pieces, essentially the classical top forty. At times during their set they asked for requests. Of course, listening to them in Bolero's has its drawbacks, as they had to play over some very loud conversation and the sound of the crushed iced machine. Still, they were a pleasant discovery on this cruise. We caught as many of their sets as we could.
Patrice Doucet (the "Piano Man") in the Schooner Bar was good, too. He did a bit too much Neil Diamond for my taste, but he seemed to draw a fine crowd most nights. The Two Poets Pub was way too smoky for me, but as I walked by I could hear Scott Perham in there. He is a one-man bar band whose bread and butter is the Margaritaville type of ballad. I never made it to the Dungeon, nor did I get to hear the Latin flavored Tumbao Trio. The poolside band was Caribbean Force, and they did a decent job. Overall, the musical entertainment and choices were very excellent.
Day 3 was the 70's disco party in the Promenade. It starts with live versions of songs by a couple of the RC singers. Then it shifts to recorded music and lip-syncing, with the heavy lifting being done by a group of faux Village People, who were amazingly energetic.
Of course, the ice show was amazing, as expected. Tickets were distributed at 9:30 AM on Day 2. Our Cruise Director was John Perry, who did an acceptable job, but he didn't really stand out in any way.
I was drinking mostly beers on this trip. I recall enjoying Newcastle, Corona, Becks, Red Stripe, Boddington's, Spaten, and a few others. I would advise people to keep an eye out for the beer cart. I first noticed the beer cart in front of the WJ buffet on Day 1. I also saw it several times in the lobby of the main theater before a show. It is essentially a cart with a nice selection of bottled beers, all of them priced at $3.50. After including the automatic 15% tip, that works out to $4.03 a beer, which is a great deal for a cruise ship. At the bars, the prices were higher.
Our fellow passengers on this trip seemed friendly and well-mannered. I think the percentage of European passengers is less when cruising out of New Orleans than from the Florida ports. The south central states were well represented, and there were plenty of LSU T-shirts and caps to be seen. We also recognized a few passengers who were on our train from Chicago.
We did not do any of the port excursions, although we walked around in each port. The ship turned its clocks back one hour to match local time in Jamaica and Grand Cayman. I was impressed with the size of the shopping compound in Falmouth, and I was glad that it included a covered area where local craftspeople can sell their wares. My wife and I purchased some inexpensive carvings directly from the artisans who made them.
Grand Cayman is the only port in which we had to tender. It was a short tender, perhaps only five minutes. I was surprised at how expensive it is to get a drink in Grand Cayman. We stopped at a restaurant called Breezes, and our two Red Stripe beers (plus tip) cost us $17. Wow! Of course, there were seven cruise ships in port that day, totaling around 20,000 passengers. I hope the prices go down when the ships leave.
The real bargain of Grand Cayman is the Post Office (Cardinal Ave. and Main Street), which is only a few blocks from the tender drop off point. Most of the souvenir stores wanted $1.25 to $2.50 for one post card. The Post Office was selling nice looking cards at much lower prices. I purchased six cards, plus postage to the US, for a total of $3.80, and they accepted US dollars. I wrote the cards in the restaurant and mailed them at the Post Office. I can confirm that all of them were received, with an average delivery time of eight days.
I made it to the fitness center every morning for a good workout. The fitness center is on Deck 11, facing forward, with large windows that provided fantastic views ocean. I used mostly the treadmills and the cycling machines, and I never had to wait for a machine. My only criticism of the fitness center is that it includes a large whirlpool hot tub. That in itself is not a bad thing, but the tub is in the same room as the workout equipment. It raised the humidity level so that cardio workouts became much more challenging than usual.
My wife enjoyed the line dancing activities. Most of these were poolside, except one day when the weather was bad. They included a lot of fun Latin dance moves, and they even included a Gangnam Style dance. There was also line dancing at the White Night poolside party, which occurred late in the evening on Day 5. It was a great deal of fun.
The Navigator of the Seas is in great shape. If I looked closely, I could see a little wear and tear. For example, on one of the elevators, the button for Deck 11 was well worn. Our room had an older style TV, but our friends in the junior suite had a nice flat screen model. The quality of service was excellent (as expected), and all of the staff I interacted with were friendly and helpful.
For disembarkation we ignored the announcements and just hung out in Cafe P and the Champagne Bar until 9:40 AM, when it was clear that they wanted everyone off the ship. We walked off, got our luggage, went through customs, and were in the cab line in less than 15 minutes. Unfortunately, the cab line moved slowly, and we waited in that line for about half an hour.
By 10:35 we were at the Amtrak station, where we checked our bags. Then we took another cab to Harrah's to gamble and to get some lunch, as the only dining option at the station was a Subway sandwich counter. We got back in time to board our train, which left at 1:45 PM. We were back in Chicago (a very cold Chicago) at 9:00 AM on Sunday morning.
We enjoyed just about everything on this trip. New Orleans is great city to cruise from, and the Navigator is a wonderful ship to sail on. Best wishes to whoever sails on her next.