This was my 24th cruise -- I've also sailed on Carnival, Celebrity, Disney, Holland America, Norwegian, and Princess. I was pleasantly surprised by the ship's condition -- we last sailed her in August 2009 and she seems to be in similar condition today. Of course there is a little rust here and there, but nothing excessive or unexpected for a ship that sails year-round through the North Atlantic.
We took Amtrak from Boston to Newark, and stayed at the Hilton Newark Penn Station. The hotel was very nice, and the front desk staff in particular were extremely helpful. The breakfast wasn't very inspiring, but at least it was free as we had booked a concierge level room. The hotel arranged a car service to take us to the port and it was a pleasant and uneventful ride.
We arrive at Cape Liberty at 10:30AM -- what a difference being a suite guest makes at that port! We quickly went through the check-in process, had our photo snapped, and went to the private waiting area that had upgraded seating. It was decently warm in the area, but I kept my coat on most of the time.
About 12:00 the busses arrived to take us to the ship. First they took passengers who needed wheelchairs and scooters, and then suite guest, Diamond-Plus, and Pinnacle members. There were quite a few Diamond-Plus and Pinnacle guests on this sailing so the waiting area did not have adequate seating for everyone.
On the ship we were directed to the Windjammer Cafe. A quick attempt to see if our room might be ready led us to discover that crew members were stationed in each elevator lobby to ensure no one tried to access their rooms before 1:30. After lunch, we headed down to our stateroom.
The stateroom was huge (for a cruise ship!) and had lots of storage. It was mostly well-maintained, there was one light switch that was a bit tricky to operate and the batteries on the TV remote needed to be replaced, but there were no major problems. I was allergic to something in/on the bedspread or pillows, so our stateroom attendant changed out the bedspread and brought me a small foam pillow (not really memory foam, but no what you'd think of as a foam pillow either).
New & Improved:
A few welcome changes since 2009 -- guests no longer have to wear/bring their lifejackets to Muster Drill. It was quickly completed, but the seriousness of the crew was obvious -- no food/drinks were allowed and guests were told to put their cell phones away and listen. Also, no ice show tickets are required; instead you go to the show based on your Muster station. We had one non-suite stateroom in our group that was not near the others, but they were able to get in through the standby line to attend with us. Starbucks has arrived next to Ben & Jerry's!
Dining & Bar Service:
I loved the MDR food -- but I'm strictly a fish/vegetable eater and like food that is not quite like what I eat at home. DH is strictly a meat and potatoes guy -- he liked the chicken but complained that the beef was inconsistent -- one night it was quite good, another it was tough. DD is among the pickiest eaters in the world. When there was no entree on the menu that she would even consider, our fabulous waiter Eric was able to help with a modified entree, which she ordered all nine nights of our cruise. She was happy so I can't complain. We all agreed that the MDR desserts were excellent.
As suite guests we had breakfast options that others don't have -- full room service menu and Portofino -- and we took advantage of those -- one of our favorite benefits.
Lunches in the MDR were pretty good. I enjoyed the Windjammer because I really like Asian food and curry, and there were a lot of choices. DD enjoyed it because she loved pizza. DH was less impressed with the Windjammer.
Our friends tried out the new alcohol package and said that it was worthwhile and they would do it again. We don't drink much so it wouldn't have been worthwhile for us -- our bar bill combined was less than we would have paid for one person with the drink package. I did buy two drinks in souvenir glassware (shot glass and margarita glass) as I enjoy using the glassware at home. I bought the soda package for DD and that didn't work out so well. She loved the freestyle soda machines, but wouldn't carry her cup around and never ordered soda at meals so we probably paid about $4 per soda with the package! I should have bought it for me though, because one of the choices in the machines is flavored Dasani water-- which I would have used.
Richard Spacey is a great cruise director -- we loved him! The ice show was spectacular; we saw it twice and really wished we had a chance to see it again or another show! We enjoyed the guest entertainers -- a Four Seasons Tribute group, comedian Rick Novell, and Impressionist Jeff Tracta were all excellent. The production shows were okay. We liked "Fast Forward" -- it was my third time to see it and this was the best cast I've seen. The cast was excellent, but Wild,Cool, and Swingin suffered from poor musical selections in my opinion; and "Invitation to Dance" reminded me why I don't watch "Dancing with the Stars."
We enjoyed the guilty pleasure of watching the belly flop and sexiest man contest at the pool. We never actually got in a pool or a hot tub -- on Day 8 when we normally would have spent the day by the pool the weather didn't cooperate. We aren't sun worshippers so we hung out on our balcony more than pool side. There were lots of activities to choose from each day -- we just didn't have time to do them all! I don't gamble but DH does -- he did bingo once and went to the casino daily. He broke even in the casino, which I consider a win!
We did spend a LOT of time in Studio B. DD is an ice princess so we skated five or six times. For those of you who like to skate bring your own skates and you can go to the 9AM 'Advanced' sessions. You don't have to really be an advanced skater as long as you can actually skate. Most mornings DD and I were the only ones on the ice from 9 -- 10 and skating on a moving ship is a lot of fun! The ice show cast worked during the open sessions, and we were lucky enough that Vaughn Chipeur was at many of our sessions. He was a member of 2010 Canadian Olympic team and was such a nice guy to talk to -- actually all of the ice show cast were very friendly and meeting them was one of our cruise highlights. They are requiring all guests to wear helmets on the ice now -- DD wasn't thrilled with that but I saw one person go into the boards who was definitely saved by the helmet, so I see why they require them.
DD went to the teen club one time with the other teens in our group, and then went to the teen skate at Studio B. This cruise only had 100 teens on it, and most were younger than her, plus she's not that thrilled with meeting new people so it wasn't her thing.
We enjoyed a couple of evenings in the Schooner Bar singing along with Tony B. DD's musical tastes are 60s, 70s and 80s songs so she was more than content to sit with us and sing along. We went to 'Don't Forget the Lyrics' and 'Quest' and enjoyed both of those activities.
Samana was one of our favorite ports. We took a tour with Terry and it was so nice to see something beyond the port area or Cayo Levantado, which we visited last time we were in Samana. I highly recommend booking a tour in Samana -- our friends did another beach and were not very happy with their tour. The tender service was very efficient and our timing was great -- we arrived just as the tender was completing boarding not once, but twice and were able to be among the last to board with no waiting at all.
Labadee was our other favorite port. We rented a cabana -- highly recommend! DD tried the water park and hated it -- it takes a lot of upper body strength and energy to enjoy it -- the rest of the kids in our group loved it. We all did the water slide and enjoyed it -- the slide was a bit tame for the kids but perfect for me! We braved the vendor area and picked up a few things from the less pushy vendors -- but it was exhausting as they all are trying so hard to sell you something -- anything.
As suite guests, we received priority disembarkation -- they even had an elevator with an attendant reserved just for us. What a difference this made in the embarkation process -- we were off the ship and through customs very quick with no issues. It was a very relaxing process.
As some have reported -- there is a slight problem with smoke smell drifting up from the casino to the Promenade. This is a shame because I love the Promenade and found that there were areas I couldn't really enjoy because of the smell, but I was able to escape it fairly easily be moving away from the casino stairway. It didn't significantly lessen my enjoyment of the cruise.
We rebooked on board and will most likely be sailing Explorer (or whatever ship replaces her) in 2015 as our next cruise. We love the convenience of not having to fly to the port, and since we love being on the ship the extra sea days, even with less than desirable weather, are something we really enjoy. Unfortunately, I think we're hooked on the whole suite experience now so I hope we can find a good deal on a suite in 2015!