My wife and I, along with our 16- and 14-year old daughters, my parents (ages 77 and 72), and brother and sister-in-law along with their 21-month-old, just returned from a 7-day eastern Caribbean cruise aboard the Allure of the Seas. This was my immediate family's 6th cruise - our 5th on Royal Caribbean, plus a Princess. My parents were actually on their 27th cruise - they are veterans of many of the better cruise lines!
Overall, as usual we had a wonderful vacation. I credit Royal Caribbean with running a tight ship (!) in virtually all respects, and came away from the experience with renewed admiration for the job this company does in executing an enormously complex set of operations. There is a Disney-esque quality to cruising, specifically in the sense that if you're paying attention, you begin to realize how incredibly organized, disciplined, and detail-oriented the vast crew behind the scenes must be in order to pull off this magnificent orchestration.
Check-in on Sunday morning was smooth and quick. We arrived in Fort Lauderdale at 12:30pm, dropped off luggage, parked in the adjacent lot ($15/day), walked aboard, and were in our staterooms by 1:10pm. Rooms are immaculate and functional, if (of course) a bit small. Flat-screen TV saves space, and now features a real-time display of your daily reservations and itinerary, which we found handy. We'd previously cruised in 2011 on Oasis, so the ship layout was familiar. As before, we especially enjoyed Deck 8 (Central Park) and Deck 6 aft (Boardwalk), two unique shipboard venues with great atmosphere and visuals.
I've had mixed experiences in the main dining rooms previously, so I reserved Giovanni's for Sunday night; Chops Monday night; 150 Central Park Tuesday night; and Samba for Thursday night. All were outstanding, with a slight edge to Chops (best food). Service at Samba perhaps a cut below the others; 150 really intended for couples as an "intimate" dining experience, though our large party still enjoyed it. Favorite dishes: the "mozzarella bombs" (on toast, wrapped in prosciutto) at Giovanni's; filet mignon at Chops; sirloin at Samba; red velvet cake at Chops (best I've ever had, truly). Other nights were My Time reservations, which worked out fine (no waiting with 5:45 seating), and the main dining room service was actually notably improved from past cruises. Other food tips: Coney Island dogs (free!) on the Boardwalk; toffee cookies (starting night 4 for us) at Promenade Cafe; Sorrento's pizza better than expected; and our little secret, daily breakfast at Park Cafe (in Central Park), with to-order bagels, egg sandwiches, oatmeal, and lots of other goodies in a far superior atmosphere (and virtually no crowd) compared to Windjammer (and less formal than dining rooms).
We loved the new Windjammer seating system - when it's crowded, they now have you form a line, then an attendant asks how many in your party, and seats you. Far superior to the old method of circling the seating area 3 times like vultures. We never waited more than 3 minutes and were happy to do so. Staff told us this system has cut down greatly on the random distracting foot traffic throughout the dining area, and we agreed.
I like having a full slate of excursions, so we signed up for Ardastra Gardens in Nassau; Tree Limin' Zipline in St. Thomas; and Golden Eagle sailaway (catamaran/snorkel trip) in St. Maarten. Ardastra is more zoo than gardens, and a recommended visit (but go yourself via taxi; the $49 excursion fee is pointless, and it's just 1.5 miles from the ship). Tree Limin' was a very new, safe, controlled ziplining experience, suitable for all levels of adventurousness, and also recommended. Golden Eagle was the best crew I've experienced on a catamaran snorkel trip (unlimited and varied beverages, ham and cheese sandwiches), if mediocre snorkeling (off a beach just on the French side). Tip: walk into town in St. Maarten - it's an easy 10-15 minute walk (exit main gate and turn left), no need for taxis. This is the best of the 3 towns we visited.
Entertainment was better than I recall on previous cruises. Chicago was easily Broadway-quality, and the "Ice Games" ice show was stunning (do not miss). OceanAria was breathtaking. Only Blue Planet seemed mediocre (extremely talented cast, but limp material to work with). Make advance reservations (free) to avoid waiting, and show up at least 20 minutes early (preferably 30) to snag good seats. (You have nowhere else to be anyway, right?)
The gym was, surprisingly, smaller than on other Royal Caribbean ships, with less dramatic views. But I never waited for a treadmill. The jogging track (Deck 5) is a treat, extending a full 0.42 miles (9.6 laps for 4 miles), with motivating and amusing signage along the way (walk at least 1 lap to experience).
Other random finds: (1) I enjoyed the napkin-folding classes. (2) Wife enjoyed the yoga ($13/class, worth it). (3) Bought my dad and I a 45-minute scalp massage + shave for $64/each for father's day - first time I've used a shipboard spa, and really enjoyed it. (4) Aussieres Rouge cabernet/syrah for $35/bottle became our go-to wine. (5) Tried the Flow Rider for the first time, and despite being surrounded by 13-year-olds, I found the instructor generous & gentle with a 44-year-old beginner.
Other random family cruising tips: (1) If you're healthy, never, ever take the crowded elevators. Always walk the stairs, and work off all those extra desserts. (2) Sunblock. Lots of sunblock. (3) Grab a few bottles of water at each port; nice to have in your stateroom at night. (4) Skip the soda package; seemed like those Coke Freestyle machines were down for maintenance frequently. (5) Always let them take your picture (convince your teens). Then you'll have lots of fun pictures to look through in the photo lobby. (6) Make sure the teens are aware that breakfast room service is free. They will think this is cool.
Go with a positive attitude and be ready to have fun and make memories. Allure of the Seas is a very happy place and we're already looking forward to next year's cruise. Maybe the best moments are the post-show coffee and cookies in the Promenade Cafe with my parents and other random family members. Enjoy the warm feelings and have fun!