Background I shall attempt to give a good and descriptive review regarding my recent experience on RCCL's Independence of the Seas 8 --day Eastern Caribbean cruise. For some background, the cruisers consisted of a family of five, two adults and three children ages 15, 17, and 22. We had an owner's suite for the parents and two inside cabins (that adjoined each other) for the children. Now a bit of history is needed as to why we had two inside cabins instead of just one....originally, we had my nephew and another family friend who were going to join us, and so had an inside cabin that holds (4) and an inside cabin that holds (2). However, at the last minute both the family friend and my nephew backed out. Because it was already past the deadline for returning any funds, we decided to just leave things as is with the girls in one room and my son in the other by himself. This was allowed as we had someone over 21 who was related to him in an adjoining cabin. The cabins were slightly down the hall from our suite. We are repeat cruisers, and have been on both NCL and RCCL ships in the past. Our C&A status was gold for this cruise but now platinum since we have finished.
Travel to Port
We reside on the West Coast, and as such we departed and scheduled our arrival one day early. The cruise departed on a Saturday, so we flew in and arrived by Friday evening. We booked the Hyatt Pier 66, with two rooms adjoining. We did not use the cruise pre-cruise air service, but booked ourselves and we had no issues other than it being a very long flight and day, which was expected. We were able to gather our luggage and proceeded outside FLL where we were able to get a mini-van cab within a short period of time that would fit all of us. The cab fare from FLL to the Hyatt for all 5 of us was $19. We ended up giving him $30 total due to the amount of bags he had to lift. We had no issues at the Hyatt checking in. A porter took our luggage up and they upgraded the kid's room to a junior suite to give them some more space and to give us an adjoining room. The rooms were clean, decent and the pool and hot tub were welcome diversions after the long flight. We had a decent meal at the hotel restaurant to celebrate our arrival. Overall, while the hotel and dinner was what I consider "pricey", the service was good and the hotel staff was friendly and very courteous. In the morning, we skipped breakfast (although the hotel does have a fairly extensive buffet for approx. $20 per person, and a sit down made to order breakfast menu, also what I consider pricey), as we knew we would be getting on the ship shortly. We checked out at 11:30am to head to the port and were pleased to find that the hotel offered van service directly to the pier and conveniently it was outside and waiting even though we had plans to call a cab. The fare was $11 per person, plus a tip so we ended up paying $60. While I also thought this was a bit spendy, considering the baggage and the convenience we were fine paying it. We arrived at the port at 11:45, and this is where the chaos started...
Upon arrival, we found a significant line to board the ship. Amazingly enough it seemed EVERYONE who was going arrived right around the same time. The line stretched outside the terminal and down the walkway some distance. We had no issues dropping off the luggage as the van dropped us right in front of the baggage area and the porters simply put them right onto the carriers, but we had to walk around the building and then were directed to the end of the line. Once we were back there, I noticed a small sign next to the man directing foot traffic about 100ft up that said "suites, Diamond plus and pinnacle" with an arrow to his left. There were also port folks pushing us off to the side to clear room for that line. There was no line on that side. Knowing we had an Owner's suite, I pulled the family out of the line and proceeded to the entry for the priority suite line. The gentleman who had put us in the regular line only NOW requested our set sail documents. Because we had three reservations, we had three different set sail documents.
My husband had his own, I had one where I also had to sign for the two underage children in the inside and our other daughter had her own as well. The man took a look and then refused to let me go into the suite line stating I was only "gold" and therefore did not qualify. I told him I had an owner's suite, and therefore yes I did qualify. I spent a few minutes arguing with the man as he seemed unable to identify to me exactly what he was looking for besides a suite number. Now remember, we have cruised before, although not on RCCL in a suite, and it turns out that my set sail document, because I was signing for my children on an inside did not have an OS designation on it even though I was in the owner's suite with my spouse. (Take note RCCL, that this is ridiculous!) We were rather rudely shoved aside by the man, and told to return to the back of the regular line. I then began a rather annoyed search through my documents to find something that proved we had an owner's suite (let me just say, I'm your average middle class mom, and if I pay hard earned money for something, and in this case, several thousand dollars, I want my money's worth! One of the advertised perks of having a suite is getting priority boarding and this was being denied due to a paperwork printing error on RCCL's part.) We generally don't use many of the suite perks other than priority embarkation, departure and luggage valet service, so I found this particularly vexing! After approx. 10 min in the very slow moving line, I found that my husband's set sail did have the OS designation on it, and I returned to the gentleman again with this paperwork showing we had a suite and we were finally allowed through, although there was no apology. So, a word of warning, if you are traveling with children in another cabin and you have to sign for them, your paperwork will most likely show the LOWER category cabin even if you are in a higher one, and you should make sure you show them the proper set sail document with the higher designation or be prepared to be treated rather rudely if you aren't a Diamond Plus or above. Once we were inside, we were directed to the Gold line rather than the suite line, which was fine as the suite line was actually longer. The total actual check in time after we got past the suite line guard was about 20 min. However, in looking over the chaos inside the terminal and in speaking with some other folks who were in the regular line later, it is clear that there are challenges in handling so many folks at once. Quite a few noted they were waiting for upwards of an hour and a half to check in.
Ship, service and Cabin Info
The ship itself is in great shape considering it was getting ready to go into dry dock soon. Everything appeared clean and polished. We had an Owner's suite on the starboard side. It was very spacious and I loved the open feel. There was more than enough storage for everything, with room left to spare. Our stateroom attendant, Elmar, came by and asked if we needed anything promptly. The furniture and carpet in the room could use a good cleaning and did show a bit of wear, but this was offset by the lovely large balcony and the size of the room. Our only complaint was that the coffee provided was not a regular blend and when we asked for some we were told we couldn't have any. Not sure if it just wasn't available as no explanation was given.
The promenade is without a doubt one of the best parts of the ship. It was great to stroll along and use as a way to move from one end of the ship to the other. We also enjoyed sitting at the Dog and Badger pub or one of the eateries and watching folks walk by. It was one of our favorite parts of the ship.
We had late dining which suited us, as by 8:30pm for us it was around 5:30 for our systems back home which was our usual dinner time. We had Gregory as our waiter and I honestly can't remember the Asst. Waiter's name. He actually was sick for 3 of the cruise nights and someone else filled in. Gregory was fabulous and always a joy to speak with. Very personable and gave us great service.
We did pre-pay for the Platinum drinks package. We did not have any issues using it or getting drinks, but we were shocked at the number of drinks excluded that were not described on the ad or brochure on the website. Each bar seemed to have some kind of specialty beer or cocktail that was "not included" in any beverage package. In addition, when my husband ordered a glass of red wine at dinner, he was brought a check with a charge and when he pointed out that he had the package that was also noted as "not included" although the wine menu on the table did not say that. Apparently the only wine included in the dining room was the house wine. So, it would be nice if they would either include EVERYTHING or make those items NOT included more obvious on a few of the menus. It seems stupid that they exclude a specific beer that is priced at $6.25 but include one that costs $7.50. This could be due to availability, but it didn't seem there was much reason for it from a profitability standpoint.
On the issue of food, this was only the second cruise with the new menus. I can't say I was particularly impressed with the food. For perspective, I am diabetic although it is under control, and therefore usually choose sugar free, low carb type items, although I will occasionally splurge when on vacation. From past experience with RCCL and NCL the quality appears to have gone down. That being said, I understand food is subjective' and therefore I am only giving my personal opinion. There were a couple of nights when I actually couldn't find anything on the menu I wanted to eat. This was more to do with the selection of entrees and less to do with the service, presentation or temperature. On those nights I ended up ordering from the "always available" choices, usually the strip steak or chicken option. The steak was good, cooked to order and the food was always an appropriate temperature. It did not take very long, and when the kids or husband wanted an additional item (in some cases they didn't like what they got, in others, they were just still hungry) it was promptly brought with no fuss. My only other comment here is that I found it interesting that even though each night's menu had a theme or inspiration, such as "basil", only ONE item on the menu actually had the item in it. It would have been nice to see multiple differing presentations on the theme (if more than one item had the theme ingredient, we were hard pressed to find it).
Activities and Entertainment
We did participate in some of the trivia and game shows, and we did see a few of the shows. The ice show is fabulous and I have nothing but respect for folks who can ice skate like that on a moving ship. Well worth the time. The comedian/ventriloquist they had on board was funny and we enjoyed that as well. The other shows, we found not to our liking. They were either show tunes or singing/dancing which we didn't find particularly entertaining to watch and ended up leaving after the first 10 minutes or so. The Synergy band was fairly good and we did see them a couple of times. The children (teenagers and adult) spent a lot of time at the clubs/disco's and the game shows and enjoyed those as well. We also went up one evening and did the mini golf which was amusing, but really only good for one course of entertainment. My son did the flow rider, but noted that the line was very long, and he was a bit bruised up after the experience. We did not use the climbing wall, the sports court, or the gym. However, the sports court and gym appeared to be of nice sizes and well equipped. We did not use the pool and only used the hot tubs once. The cantilevered ones in the solarium were full all the time and lukewarm, so we ended up in one of the regular hot tubs near the kids' pool which was not as full and had a better temperature. I would also like to mention that it seemed there were not as many activities scheduled as we normally would see on a cruise. Usually we can go through and find fun things to do one right after the other or even sometimes have two or more things we may want to do scheduled at the same time. On this trip we often would find one thing, and then it would be 3 -4 hours before another activity or show we wanted to do would be scheduled. Again, this is very dependent upon an individual's preferences, but for us the activities we would normally enjoy (scavenger hunts, game shows, trivia, dancing lessons (didn't even see this at all), napkin folding, talks on various subjects just did not seem that numerous and we ended up a bit disappointed in the variety and schedules offered.
I won't go into any detail here except to say we enjoyed the ports. Our favorite spot was Labadee as we didn't feel we had to do anything other than relax and sit on the beach. We did not use any of the ship excursions. While we have done this in the past, we found that we prefer to have some freedom to do our own thing. So, we often either choose to book through outside operators for cost savings, or not do any excursions at all and just "wing it" when we get there. Our kids took a diving course while on the ship so our visit to St. Maarten was shorter than we would have liked as they had to be back on the ship by 1pm to do their diving tests. However, the town was very touristy and we enjoyed walking around shopping and having a few drinks on the beach. We took an outside diving excursion on St. Kitts, which picked us up at the pier and dropped us back off after 2 dives. We had a good time and it was reasonably priced. When we arrived in San Juan we were able to get on one of the numerous buses for a tour for $10 a person. I think the ship wanted quite a bit more than that, and we thought the tour was fun and interesting. It lasted about an hour and a half and we were dropped off in the shopping district a few blocks from the pier. We were given the option of going all the way back but wanted to browse the shops on the way. My only complaint here is that the port time was too short. It would have been nice to be there more than 5 hours.
Labadee was great. As suite guests we were able to use barefoot beach and we rented a cabana for the day. As a West Coasty I tend to burn very easily and I didn't want to risk not finding shade. The cabana was very nice, well cushioned and the cabana attendant was courteous and prompt in bringing the mats, snorkels, and pretty much anything else we asked for. The buffet lunch included steak, baked potatoes, shrimp skewers (delicious), hot dogs and burgers, and some pasta salads and fruits. It was a very relaxing day.
Disembarking and Summary
We chose to use the Luggage Valet service, and as suite guests, this was free. We also were able to choose when we departed and could stay in our stateroom until we actually left. We debarked around 10am, there was no wait, we simply went to the gangway and walked off. However, there was a very long line in the terminal. We did not have to get any baggage as we had used the valet service, but we did wait in the line to go through customs for approx. 45 mins. I can assume this is only going to get worse with the current cuts in border security folks. Once we were outside we were able to request a taxi van to the airport and for another $30 were dropped off by 11:30.
Overall, it was a good cruise. We enjoyed the relaxation and being able to sample the ports. As far as suite services, we did use the concierge to book our cabana and we went in to the lounge to get tickets for the ice show, but otherwise we didn't use the concierge lounge. We also didn't use the priority seating, other than at the ice show, as most of the shows had more than enough room. (in one case, the waiter who came by was insistent that we should be sitting in the reserved section instead of the regular section even though the theatre was only about 30% full). We did not use the option to sit in Chops during breakfast or lunch as we were always able to find a table in the windjammer. It didn't seem to be worth the hassle to get our food, then walk all the way to the front so we could sit there when closer tables were open. We only ordered room service once and when we did were told they were "out" of the eggs benedict we asked for. The robes were nice, but not really necessary and we also didn't see any VIP seating on the pool deck, so don't even know if this is an option on IOS. Overall, the only reasons we had for choosing the suite were the space and the priority embarkation/debarkation. Since we make our cruising decisions based on price and itinerary, I am sure we will cruise again with RCCL but do feel our preference for suites and better suite perks will put us on NCL more often than not.