This was our first cruise as a family, and our first on Royal Caribbean. Husband and I are early 40's and have cruised twice before on Celebrity, which we really enjoyed. We decided on Royal Caribbean since it looked like fun for all of us and we knew the kids would love the activities. We thought about the Allure or Oasis but had a little sticker shock (and also didn't want to start the kids out on the biggest/best!) We booked Independence of the Seas because itinerary was good and the price was right!
We read lots of reviews and did quite a bit of research before the trip (I find the planning to be half the fun!). We booked aft balcony cabin 1400, which I highly recommend. This cabin has a huge balcony, and the cabin itself is very wide, about the size of a Junior Suite. And it is priced as a D1 cabin- can't beat that! One thing to note is that there is a support pole at the foot of the bed, but it didn't bother us at all. The extra space is worth it. With all 4 of us in the same cabin, it was great to have the extra floor space. Even with the sleeper sofa pulled out, there was plenty of room to move around.
Independence had some dicey reviews back in December when it returned here from England. I was really worried about that. Well, we shouldn't have been. Embarkation from Pier 29 was a breeze- we were on the ship within 45 minutes of arriving (we got there around 10:30-10:45am). First impressions of the ship: wow! I know it's on the older side, and hasn't been to dry dock to receive some upgrades, but this ship is in wonderful condition. Immaculately clean and well laid out. I was really impressed with the overall cleanliness and the fact that you couldn't walk ten feet without running into someone cleaning something!
Which brings me to norovirus: yikes! I was scared of this before we left, since it seemed like everyone we knew had the flu or the stomach bug. Sure enough, on day two the captain announced some sick people were aboard, and to be sure to take extra precautions. Hand sanitizer machines outside the Windjammer led to servers with alcohol hand wipes, which lead to attendants IN the bathrooms (we called them the "handwashing police"). We also noticed crew members spraying handrails with some solution. The PS to this is that by day 4, there were no new cases of Norovirus, which was a relief.
We also read very dismal reviews of the food. We were pleasantly surprised by how good the food was. Not five star gourmet, but it was certainly good; I would compare it to a good banquet hall. Everything was hot, service in the Main Dining Room was lovely, and we enjoyed most everything we had. We even enjoyed the Windjammer food; found the selection and presentation to be very nice for a buffet. We never had trouble finding seating in the Windjammer, either. Service staff was friendly and kind (our dining room waiter noticed us one morning and brought my daughter her favorite chocolate milk while we had breakfast). Nice touch! We also had breakfast on some days in the Main Dining Room. This was a little quieter, more refined, less chaotic than the Windjammer...highly recommend! You can order off the menu AND peruse the small buffet...best of both worlds. Service a little rushed and harried (one day they forgot my husband's eggs altogether), but overall a nice start to the day. We also ate in Chops one night, which was very nice, but not outstanding. We were through with dinner within 45 minutes. Not rushed, per se, but...a little on the speedy side. Wait staff was better in the Main Dining Room than in Chops, surprisingly.
We enjoyed the gym on this ship too! Uncrowded, well equipped, and a beautiful view off the front of the ship. One morning sailing into Jamaica there were dozens of dolphins diving out of the water in front of the ship...only the people in the gym got to see that treat...a nice bonus for exercising while on vacation! (Did wonder why they have a boxing ring there, which sat empty all week. Weird.)
Ports of call were Grand Cayman (we did a stingray snorkel through Nativeway Tours), Jamaica (Chukka Beach Break), and Labadee. We enjoyed all three. I would recommend to book a ship's tour in Jamaica, especially if you have kids. I would not have wanted to expose my kids to the frenzied atmosphere outside of the port area. We have been to Labadee before, and love this stop. It is beautiful. Warning: we did have an item stolen on Labadee. I won't go into detail here, but you are advised to keep your valuables with you at any location. (Royal Caribbean was not very helpful in this situation and passengers should know that the cruiseline does not have a process for documenting and responding to thefts.) Kids did the waterpark in Labadee, which was great. It has a capacity of 150 and there were only 8 people in it. They got their money's worth there!
As far as entertainment goes, there is plenty to do on this ship. We aren't big drinkers/partiers/dancers, but there was lots of late night entertainment. We would have liked to see more live music in the cocktail hour for us early birds who don't stay up late! We found the shows to be comparable to high school productions, dated and rather amateurish. The ice show was different and fun. People watching was fun in the promenade as well. We enjoyed watching the FlowRider, and doing mini golf and rock wall. We spent quite a bit of time in the pool and hot tubs as well. We did not use the Kids Clubs, as there were only 230 kids on board and they combined ages 3-11. We went to the open house and it wasn't very welcoming...only a few toddlers running around. We did register the kids just in case, but strangely enough, we never received the Kids Compasses to find out what activities were going on. No worries, though, they are old enough to hang with us and we had a great time together.
High points of the cruise:
Service, cleanliness, activities, pool areas, wonderful aft cabin, and the food (a pleasant surprise)!
Things we didn't enjoy as much:
Ben & Jerry's...looked like it was going out of business. Where were the waffle cones, the special toppings, the flavors? Only a few flavors available, in cup or standard cones, and no toppings other than sprinkles. Very disappointing.
The pizza...terrible! Really, inedible. Even the kids wouldn't eat it. RCI can step up their game in this area...how hard is it to make a decent pizza? Same with the pancakes...they were really bad. But plenty of other breakfast options, so no worries.
The gift shop...sad! Where are the tote bags, baseball hats, fun tshirts, stuffed animals/souvenirs for the kids? They had clotted cream biscuits in a can, though...eww! Left over from the days overseas, I suppose. And Easter egg candy...in January? This is a lost revenue opportunity here! Very disappointing.
Customer Care: we were very disappointed with the response to the theft that occurred on Labadee (more info on that in the full review, link below). A kind word or follow up phone call would have gone a long way in making a bad situation better.
Overall, we had a wonderful time, and felt that this cruise was a great value! Our kids absolutely loved it and are already asking to go on the next one.
Full review with photos can be found on the RCI boards here: http://boards.cruisecritic.com/showthread.php?t=1782311