We had cruised a total of 7 times in the past, on Carnival, Celebrity, and larger ships of Royal Caribbean, including a trip on EOS in 2007, so we had a pretty good understanding of the mid-market cruise experience. I consider RCCL above average among all cruise lines and EOS right about average among all the RCCL ships. This trip didn't change my opinion.
The promenade feature on many of the RCCL ships is great, so is the ice rink, especially for a winter itinerary. I also noticed a greater effort by the ship to come up with more activities/entertainment options during those cold sea days. Not sure if it's a company-wide initiative by RCCL or if it's determined by the entertainment staff on EOS, but I certainly enjoyed them.
The 6 of us (my parents, my wife and I, and our 2 kids) drove down to NJ on Saturday and stayed at a hotel nearby. We arrived at the pier at 10:30 and it's already quite busy, with people coming to the ship and maybe a few stragglers leaving the ship. Prior to the trip, I saw a discussion on the Roll Call forum about a parking garage near the Newark airport costing less money and would shuttle you to the pier. I seriously looked into it, but finally decided that the $20~$30 saving was not worth the extra time before and after the trip plus the uncertainty of waiting for the shuttle after we get off the boat.
As many people already knew, the Cape Liberty port was really not "user friendly". The setup of the street and the loading zone was such that even though the parking lot was right there (100 ft from the loading zone in front of the check-in building), we couldn't enter it because the entrance was on the other side. Cars had to pull in to a dozen or so spaces to unload the luggage, then back out into the traffic in order to leave. It meant a lot of stop-and-go traffic on the street, even if we just wanted to go through it to reach the parking lot. Fortunately it was early enough in the day and we didn't run into this jam until we were actually in front of the loading zone, but I could totally imagine a Â½ mile or 1 mile line of cars during the peak hours of 12~1 o'clock.
Once we got in the check-in building, everything went very smoothly and we were done in 15 minutes. However, we had to sit and wait for the buses to take us to the ship. The buses didn't start running until noon, so we sat there for about an hour. If we had arrived at the pier at 11 or 11:30, we probably would have got on the ship maybe 10 minutes later. I heard the facilities at the port were damaged by Sandy and heat was recently restored, so I counted ourselves lucky. Couldn't imagine waiting in the terminal for an hour without heat in the middle of the winter.
My parents had an inside promenade view cabin. When we booked it, we thought it was a cool idea, but in reality, the window didn't do much. When they had parades, it's hard to look out the window because the view was limited to a small section of the promenade since we couldn't stick our heads out to look sideways as you would with an open window. Furthermore, there were banners on the wall outside the windows, so the side view down the promenade was even more obstructed. The window did make the cabin feel bigger and provided a bench seat in front of it. But in my opinion, it's not worth the extra money comparing to a regular inside cabin. A regular inside cabin was exactly what 4 of us (2 adults, 2 kids aged 8 and 10) had. It's tight, but since we didn't spend much time inside, it's the best value.
The cabin was probably the place that you could see the most signs of wear and tear -- after all, this ship was more than 10 years old. In our cabin, we had a little incident with a drain hole at the outside base of the shower enclosure. The water from shower would go down the main drain inside the shower enclosure, but they put a hole outside in case you spill lots of water on the floor, I guess. Normally it would be completely unnoticed (I certainly didn't notice it during my previous trip on EOS), but this time on 2 occasions we had shower water coming back out of the drain hole and onto the floor of the bathroom. I never figured out why. The best guess I could come up with was that if the ship was rocking, the shower water couldn't go down the drain quickly enough and would slosh back out. Since it's clean shower water, it didn't bother us too much and a couple of towels on the floor did the trick.
The food in the MDR was not bad, but nothing to rave about either. I have eaten at fancy restaurants that cost $100 per person or more (mostly on business trips), and hole-in-the-wall ethnic eateries that the local day laborers go to, so I consider myself quite knowledgeable. I would classify the food at MDR as what you would expect at a wedding or banquet hall -- the quality of Olive Garden/Red Lobster, but dressed up to be like Morton's. Based on what I could see and taste, the quality of the meats used in the dishes were actually quite high, but I think the mass production method and the inevitable delay between cooking and serving were 2 big factors. We did like the lunches at the MDR, especially the salad bar. Again, that's because the quality of the salad was purely based on the quality and freshness of the ingredients, not on cooking time or serving time.
The food in the buffet was what I expected -- nothing great, nothing terrible. On some cruises, you can get exactly the same entrees in the buffet as in the MDR. It's not the case on this ship. So if you would like the varieties of entrees and appetizers served in the MDR, you still had to go there. We did eat dinner in the buffet one night and enjoyed the sushi bar even though the selections were limited, primarily due to the safety reason -- no raw fish, just smoked salmon and some shrimps. The wasabi was very fresh and strong.
The Promenade Cafe was one of the best features on RCCL ships. You could get pizza and pastry around the clock. I noticed that they had more fresh fruits this time than when we were on back in 2007 -- bananas, tangerines, and kiwi. And they were just in a big bin free for the grabs -- you didn't need to wait in line and ask the server for them.
The shows were pretty good, but the variety was a little lacking. 2 comedians -- ok, not great in my opinion, but humor is a very personal thing; 2 singing/dancing shows -- very good; and 1 comedian/singer/impressionist -- excellent. I would have liked to see a magician or juggler or something different.
I do want to give kudos to Royal Caribbean to have at least one professional show each night. When we went on a Carnival cruise 2 years ago, they were doing karaoke (with the ship's orchestra playing the tune) as one night's main entertainment; then another night was the guests' talent show as the main event -- pretty lame and clearly a cost-cutting effort. On this ship, at least we were entertained by professionals every night.
The ice show was of course wonderful. They changed the ticketing system --actually did away with tickets all together. Now you would simply go to a specific showing according to your Muster station number. My parents went back for the 2nd time on a later date -- they simply waited until everybody had seats and then walked in and took up some empty seats at the back. So if you wanted to watch the ice show more than once, you still could.
They also made significant efforts to keep people entertained during the cold sea days. There were paper airplane contest (throwing them off the bridge over the promenade); Angry Birds competition (projected on a big screen in one of the lounges); history lectures; and special trivia contest hosted by the captain. I appreciated RCCL's efforts in this regard.
Ports: (I am putting my port reviews here so that readers don't have to click on another link to read them)
We got lucky with the weather at Port Canaveral, Nassau, and CocoCay. All 3 days were in high 70s and sunny with a slight breeze, so it's warm but not too hot. Perfect.
At Port Canaveral, I did my research ahead of time and chartered a private boat to take us for 2 hours of river boating and wild life watching. If I had booked through the ship, it would have cost more than $300 for 6 of us, but our private tour was a little more than $200 including the taxi fare between the port and Kelly Park where our private boat was waiting. (Also, the private ship captain actually got more money from us than if he had taken on guests through the cruise line since RCCL would take a big chunk of the money -- so it was truly a win-win.) We obviously got much more personal service comparing to being a part of a large tour group: at the very end of the tour, the captain even let my kids steered the boat for a while. During the 2 hours, we saw 7 or 8 manatees, 2 dolphins, and 1 alligator. To be honest, the viewing of the wild life was cool for a while but it got boring quickly for me. Part of the reason was that we only got glimpses of the animals, sometimes just the wake they left behind -- nothing like the nature videos you saw on PBS or BBC, but I simply enjoyed sitting on the boat under the sun and facing the breeze. For those of you interested in doing the same thing, it's Coastal Lagoon Tour by Captain Quinn. One thing to watch out for: taxi waiting at the port would take you anywhere within the city for $6 per person, but you could ask to pay by the meter rate if you were going a short distance. In our case, Kelly Park was about 2 miles away. On our trip out to the park, the driver charged us $6 per person. I ended up paying him $40 for 6 of us, including $4 tips, which seemed excessive for a 3-min cab ride. On our way back from the ship, I called the dispatcher for a pick-up and I asked about that. To my surprise, the dispatcher (who also happened to be the manager of the cab company) graciously agreed with me that the driver should have charged us by the meter instead. He offered to take us back to the ship for free. If we had gone by meter, one-way trip would have been about $18, so $40 for round trip was about right.
Nassau was a short stay -- we didn't arrive until 2 PM. Having been there before, we decided for something low key -- a self-guided walking tour. I downloaded directions and photos from http://www.brentjes.com/nassau.html. It was quite enjoyable, but did require a medium amount of physical exertion as it was close to a 2-hr walk. After dinner, we also took the cab to Atlantis to check out the Aquarium, which was free after 6 PM. We had been there before, so the second time wasn't as awe-inspiring as the first time, but still cool. The cab ride was $4 per person, so about $10 roundtrip per person. That's about what I was willing to pay for seeing the Aquarium. No way I would have paid for the taxi and the regular admission of $35 or $40.
CocoCay was the private island owned by RCCL. As I learned from the forum, the farther you walked away from the tender dock, the less crowded it got. The Barefoot Beach was very nice and very quiet. I believed RCCL put enough beach chairs all over the island to handle 2 ships worth of passengers. Since we were the only ship at CocoCay that day, it was easy to find beach chairs in shady spots and still be a couple of empty chairs away from other people. We brought our own snorkeling masks and had to rent vests on the island for $6 per person. The snorkeling wasn't great, even the sunken ship 100 yards offshore was a little underwhelming, but we still enjoyed the experience. I also got a big kick out of snorkeling on the Barefoot Beach where the water was only about knee deep. I was able to barely hover over the ocean floor and see tiny fish and crabs up close. The water stayed that shallow for several hundred feet from the shore, so it was quite interesting to snorkel in such shallow water for a long time.
It was very easy. We registered to receive tickets to get off early by carrying our own luggage. We were told to wait at one of the lounges and could disembark between 8:30~9, but the ship must have arrived at the port early because by 8:10 they were letting people off the ship. We were in our car and driving off shortly after 9.
One gripe: RCCL needed to figure out a better way to charge gratuity. I wish there was a way for them to indicate on a person's ID card if gratuity has been prepaid during booking, which is pretty common practice nowadays. I did that, but when I was onboard, I had to fill out another form at the dining room to authorize prepaid gratuity when we switched from scheduled dining option to My Time. Then, near the end of the week, I was still given envelopes in the cabin for gratuity. To make matters worse, when I checked my folio through the interactive menu on TV, the folio didn't show any gratuity payment on my account. It got me nervous and I had to wait in line at the Guest Service desk to double check my record to make sure that gratuity had indeed been paid. I was told that because I paid for it during booking, it didn't show up anywhere except in the main database at the Guest Service. If they had given me proof or indicated it on the ID card, it would have saved me (as well as their staff), at least an hour over this. If 100 people out of 3100 had the same concern as me, that's 2 and half weeks of man hours they could have saved for their staff. Oh, also, their computer had a glitch and mistakenly charged us for a unreturned towel. It said we took it out the night before the departure day (never mind it was 40 degrees outside on Sat), and we saw the $25 charge at 7 AM on Sunday morning, 1 hour before departure. Imagine the anger and frustration when I got this. After 20 minutes waiting in the line at Guest Services again, I talked to the agent at the desk. He simply walked to the back and came back 30 seconds later with a credit card slip to indicate that he had voided the charge. I was glad at how easy he resolved it, but had to shake heads at how easy things could go wrong in the computer age. This last incident wasn't really RCCL's fault, but I wish they could come up with a better set-up, maybe giving people the option to review the final folio on Sat night and disable the cards for charging after that?
Overall, it was a nice vacation especially since we got a decent price for the President's day week when the kids were off from school. Because we had a reasonable expectation, we were pleasantly surprised by some positive aspects and weren't too bothered by some minor negative aspects. Would definitely do it again in the future.