Mariner of the Seas - Jan27-Feb03 - the same sailing as The Paula Deen group.
Shuttle from IAH to/from Galveston - Vista Shuttles LLC -- we chose this one because of the great round trip price and payment is to driver at end of each trip. We paid $47/pp ROUND TRIP with TIP included (RC charges $47/pp/one way). Mario offers excellent service. All emails were promptly/clearly replied to. Shuttle always on time. Van looks new/very clean.
Galveston - there are two areas of interest (Seawall and Strand) on opposite sides of the island.
The Seawall -- We stayed at Four Points Sheraton which was great value as it is newly renovated and staff was very nice. We took the Cool Tours bus tour with Shirley who pointed out lots of neat things about many historic homes and gave overview of Galveston Island history. There is a Liquor Store on 23rd st just behind our hotel that has great wine selection and the owner is very knowledgeable about his wines. He recommended an excellent merlot that we thoroughly enjoyed.
The strand -- lots of shopping/dining options but only 2 hotels(Harbor House or Tremont). We stayed at Harbor House post cruise and found it to have huge rooms and a great location as we were able to walk from cruise terminal to the hotel(no waiting for taxis).We had a delicious dinner at Willie G's one night. We also tried Gumbo Bar but was really disappointed-- gumbo was more like a soup and it was way too salty. We had fun at Mardis Gras and collected tons of beads. We did a Ghost walking Tour of the Strand which was really a historical/architectural tour -- not really worth the $20/pp. The Oceanstar Drilling Rig museum was very interesting especially the overview film at the start of the self-guided tour. One of the best thing is downtown Galveston has free WiFi.
The ship stuff
Embarkation - A slight headache! Galveston does not have enough taxis to service 2 large cruise ships trying to get 6000 people off and on at the same time. Some of our friends stayed at The Galvez which was the better choice on embarkation day as their hotel provided free shuttle to the cruise terminal. We checked out at noon and had to wait 2hrs for our taxi to take us to cruise terminal2. Would recommend you stay at hotel within walking distance or free shuttle to pier. At cruise terminal there was a huge line for ship security which was the longest wait. Make sure you get WOW cards at check-in since they are not available on the ship. You can give them to ship staff that provided exceptional service, etc...The WOW cards allows them extra days off. Make sure you put your allotted number of wine bottles in your carry-on and thru security(otherwise, getting your luggage may be delayed since they think you are trying to sneak on extra bottles and your luggage will end up in the "naughty room").
Overall - the ship experience was ok. Because lots of retired Texans cruise out of Galveston, the average age on this cruise was probably 75yrs old so be prepared for lots of walkers and electric scooters onboard and watch out once they have had a few drinks! Three weeks prior to our sailing, the ship had Norovirus outbreak and was not able to contain it until our sailing. For first 3 days, we could not serve ourselves at the Windjammer. The great staff had to do double duty and served everything from cutlery, dinnerware, drinks, to condiments which made for long lines. But our opinion is that it is better to be safe than sorry! And it worked, after 3 days, there were only 6 cases which meant it was under control and we went back to serving ourselves. Also, our sailing happened to be the Paula Deen sailing and many venues were closed for private Paula Deen events. The worse was closing of the whole pool area on Deck11 one day for 4 hrs--could RC not have used any of the other ship venues?
Entertainment - the evening shows were lacking -- the Production shows with Royal Caribbean Singers/Dancers were just average. The Ice Show (Ice under the big top) was amazing! Do not miss this show!! The Quest game show has really tamed down but still fun. We missed the Beatles tribute show of past cruises but did enjoy the Jersey Boys tribute show. The Late Night Comedy show was also good.
Activities - we did enjoy the 3 art tours of different areas of the ship. There are a number of line dancing classes since they cater to the majority of Texans onboard. And the Meet the Stars event was interesting as you learn facts about the crew. We also enjoyed all the music trivia with host Fritz!
Food - we were looking forward to Jade buffet but found the sushi just average (but at least it is real sushi -- shrimp and salmon). Found the food in the MDR to be going downhill. They have removed a number of items (escargot, giant scallops, shrimp scampi) and found the main entrees to be average with the same daily sides of starch and veggies boring. The lobster was bigger than I remembered. Also, there were huge line-ups for MDR lunch on sea days (we ended up in Windjammer since we couldn't get into Johnny Rockets either)! Also, MDR service was slow -- we attributed it to no longer having a drinks waiter.
Debarkation -- much better than embarkation. Longest part was the US-customs wait. RC docks at Terminal2 which has 8 US Customs lines total (6 lines are for US passports, 2 lines for non-US passports). If you are US passport, it would be worth it to get a porter since they have their own customs line (1 of the 6 lines) and you get thru much faster.
Overall, it was an ok cruise and still great value but with what happened to the Carnival Triumph just the week after we got back, maybe its time for a land based vacation.