THE SHIP: The Brilliance is the second of RCIs mid-size Radiance class ships. At about 90,000 tons and 2,100 passengers, it is large enough to offer a good variety of dining, entertainment, and activity options, and yet small enough to be easy to navigate and not feel overwhelmed.
Although she is about 11 years old and was headed for a dry dock refurbishment in Portugal (the reason for our unusual itinerary ending in Lisbon), the Brilliance was in very good shape for our cruise.
I assume she is even nicer now that the refurbishments (mainly new surcharged dining venues and some cabin upgrades) that I enjoyed on the Radiance in Alaska last summer have been added to the Brilliance.
EMBARKATION: Our cruise began at the Pan American Pier across the bay from Old San Juan. A taxi from downtown costs about $15 plus tip (per cab, not per person), or from the airport about $20 plus tip.
Alternately, one can take a bus (ask any driver which number) from the downtown bus terminal building to the Isla Grande stop just before the convention center, and then walk about 10 minutes (along the roadside) to the cruise terminal. You will see the RCI and Celebrity ships as you step off the bus.
Embarkation at the Pan American pier is always quick and easy. I arrived at the terminal around noon, and was onboard in about 10-15 minutes. The cruise terminal staff there always does an excellent job at embarkation.
I just wish they did the same at disembarkation, when one is dumped to fend for oneself against the sharks who drive San Juan taxis. The cruise terminal needs an independent taxi dispatcher who controls the fares, like the one at the SJU airport. Fortunately that was not an issue with this transatlantic itinerary, but it was a problem on my two previous cruises from and to San Juan this year.
SHIPSHAPE: On embarking one immediately notices how attractive the Brilliance interiors are. They are more dignified and less Disney-fied than on some of her larger sister ships. The Radiance class does not have the split superstructure with central mall that the larger RCI ships have, but the Radiance class does have huge amounts of glass and fantastic views from most of her public areas. If I had to choose, I would take a mid-size ship with views any day.
Cabins are a little bit smaller than the current industry average, but they are attractive, comfortable, and functional. To avoid incorrect charges (a problem on a previous RCI cruise), I had my cabin steward empty the mini-bar at the beginning of the cruise and inventory it again at the end, so there were no last minute surprises.
The bathroom was snug (shower only), but that was no problem. There was only one day when the plumbing was moody, presumably due to a blockage down the line, which was fixed within a few hours.
ACTIVITIES: On a transatlantic cruise with multiple days at sea, shipboard venues and activities are specially important. The Brilliance offers a wide variety of choices to pass the time, all well-designed and well-run.
The gym is a bit small for the number of passengers, but there are lulls early and late in the day when it is nearly empty. The central exercise floor was too small to accommodate the number of guests who wanted to take advantage of the free yoga and stretch classes each morning. There was never a problem finding free exercise equipment.
My favorite venue on transatlantic cruises is the promenade deck (under the lifeboats). On the Brilliance this is on deck 5 and connects forward by stairs to the helipad on deck 6. Walking a few miles every day and enjoying the glorious ocean views is the best part of any crossing. Standing in the wind on the helipad and surveying the vastness of the clear blue sky and deep blue ocean is the pleasure of a lifetime. The flying fish and dolphins I saw were a bonus.
Our crossing was blessed with good weather. Some ships traveling at the same time on a more northerly crossing had bad weather and rough seas. That is one reason I prefer the southerly route. That, and the incredibly reasonable cruise fares one occasionally finds on this itinerary make it a great choice.
The fun and funny activities staff did an exceptionally good job of keeping guests busy (or not) during days at sea. Enrichment lectures were a bit dumbed-down and relatively lightly attended, but there were many other choices to pass the time. Indoor games like trivial pursuits were popular. Outdoor games by the poolside varied, but were almost always way too loud -- a nuisance for those trying to relax and sunbathe.
As usual, the pool had its share of pool-pigs who dumped personal items on lounge chairs first thing in the morning and then left them empty outside of the peak mid-day crush. The pools (indoor and out) are too small for anything more than a quick soak, but they are still refreshing.
ENTERTAINMENT: Entertainment was varied and enjoyable. Paul (aka Pablo), the cruise director, was wickedly funny and did an excellent job of organizing and overseeing the various options. Too bad he retired from his job at the end of our itinerary.
The ships musicians were especially enjoyable, although usually over-amplified and sometimes painfully loud. They offered a large variety of musical choices -- a show orchestra, two small dance bands with vocalists, a classical string and piano trio, two guitarists -- all available at various times every day and evening. An embarrassment of riches that added greatly to our cruise..
Those wanting a quiet venue could spend days in the Odyssey Lounge and evenings in the Viking Crown lounge, both on deck 13 (or, as I mentioned, on the promenade deck 5 at any time). The Diamond (frequent cruise) passengers used the Crown for their complimentary cocktail hour. The Diamond Plus and suite passengers used the Odyssey, which was a good deal more crowded.
DINING: Dining was good in the Windjammer buffet. It was well organized, with many small areas offering a wide variety of cuisines and specialties.
The lunchtime salad bar in the main dining room, called the Bistro 30 during days at sea, was spectacular. The Bistro offered a full menu, but the salads were so large and so good that I never tried anything else.
The My Time dining in the main dining room in the evening was outstanding in quality and service -- far better than the late seating dining I experienced on several earlier cruises this year on RCIs sister cruise line.
The menus were not exotic, but they were thoughtful and well-prepared. Main courses were fresh and not over-cooked, as good as the a la minute offerings in some fancier venues. Add the beautiful views from the walls of glass in the main dining room and you have a great way to cap your days at sea.
BEST OF ALL: Last of all the best of all -- the officers and crew of the Brilliance. The officers made a special effort to be cordial and engaging, and the crew worked tirelessly to make sure that the ship was in excellent condition and that the guests were comfortable.
The crew is a wonderful mix of many nationalities, all very polite and very well-trained, with the possible exception of a few of the guest relations staff. One fellow on the guest relations staff set a great example (he helped me on this and on a previous RCI cruise). Poor Julie Sherrington, their director and a lovely lady, will have a hard time trying to teach some of the others how to interact with guests in a cordial and helpful manner.
Those few lemons in guest relations were the only sour note on our cruise, and I hope I have the chance to do another crossing with RCI. It is a wonderful experience.
PORTS OF CALL: St. Thomas was dropped from our itinerary (no loss) so that Tenerife in the Canary Islands could be added on the other end (a delight).
ST. MAARTEN: Famous for being split in half between the Dutch and the French, St. Maarten is easy to enjoy. I much prefer the southern (Dutch) half because it has better beaches and a more relaxed atmosphere.
From the cruise port it is a pleasant 15 minute walk downtown. There is a nice man-made beach with a beautiful promenade right in town, but I like to hop on a minibus and ride out to Mullens Bay Beach. One finds minibuses two blocks inland, with destinations listed on a sign in the windshield. The 20 minute ride is only $2 US each way and the scenery is beautiful. Mullens is straight out of a travel poster -- white sand and crystalline blue water. Best of all, the northern half of the beach is almost always empty, since tourists congregate under umbrellas on the southern half. Trees provide shade, but there are no restrooms.
From Mullens Beach it is an easy 10 minute walk back to Maho Beach at the end of the airport landing strip. Famous for the noise and jet blast of arriving and departing aircraft, Maho Beach is a thrilling way to spend an hour or two. The swimming is great and the bar next to the beach is full of congenial tourists and a few locals.
To get back to the ship, simply walk back to the roundabout just above the beach and catch a minibus to town, leaving enough time for some shopping. On week-days the library, which is at the edge of town nearest the cruise port, usually offers free internet access. Your minibus driver can point it out to you.
TENERIFE: The ship docks at Santa Cruz, which offers more than enough options to keep one busy for the day.
If you want to see the mountains and parks (often clouded in), you will need a tour since public transportation does not serve them.
For Puerto de la Cruz, a pleasant tourist town on the opposite (north) coast, walk through the cruise port to the main boulevard, take a local bus west to the bus terminal, then catch an express bus to Puerto de la Cruz (or any of several other options such a nearby La Laguna). Bus fares are about $2-3 US each way
For La Laguna, the historic center of which is a UNESCO world heritage site, you also have the option of taking the modern light rail, which travels parallel to the waterfront a block or two inland (ask for directions to the nearest stop). The light rail is a little slower than the bus, but it goes all the way to the center of La Laguna, which is a bonus.
In Santa Cruz (the port) itself there are several nice options. Near the bus terminal at the west end of town is the Calatrava-designed auditorium, which is an architectural delight. On the way there or back are a nice open air market, a fantastic Herzog and de Meuron-designed new library (with free internet access), a new modern art museum (in the same building as the library), a pleasant but not exciting anthropology and natural history museum, and an attractive plaza several minutes from the cruise dock. I believe the plaza offers hop-on hop-off tour buses, and I assume that they also stop close to the port on cruise days.
LISBON: All of Portugal is a joy for travelers, and Lisbon is a gem. Yes, some parts are a diamond in the rough, but with a good guide book (I strongly recommend the Rick Steves series) you can enjoy several days here. Hotels are very reasonably priced in Portugal, including Lisbon (check the internet search engines, which can be much cheaper than the hotel websites).
After our cruise I spent several weeks traveling through Portugal (Lisbon, Sintra, Coimbra, and Porto); northern Spain (Santiago de Compostela and Madrid); and Ireland (Dublin and surroundings) before returning home.
In this case Choiceair, RCIs airfare option, did not offer very good prices, so I booked a one way return via Aer Lingus, with a free stopover in Dublin.
IN SUMMARY: This is a delightful itinerary on a beautiful ship with an excellent crew. What more could one want?