A little about us so you will understand our perspective:
This is our third cruise. All have been with Royal Caribbean. Our first cruise was on Rhapsody of the Seas in March 2005. Our second cruise was on Splendour of the Seas in February 2006. Rhapsody and Splendour are both Vision class ships.
We scheduled this trip around our 12th wedding anniversary. We live in Texas, are both professionals, are in our 40s, have no children, like to ballroom dance, and like to read. While cruising we usually get up before sunrise and seldom stay up past midnight. We don't participate in pool games or other such activities and we think art auctions on board are annoying.
Pre-cruise travel and hotel stay:
Our anniversary was on Sunday so we decided to stay in Long Beach Saturday and Sunday nights before the Monday departure of the ship. We booked air, hotel, and transfers with RCI. The travel arrangements were more than acceptable. We had 7:00 a.m. flight from Amarillo to DFW on Saturday on American Eagle. We then took an American flight from DFW to LAX. We had a 90 minute layover at DFW. Just enough time to grab a cup of coffee at Starbucks and a breakfast sandwich at Burger King. We arrived at LAX on time and took the SuperShuttle to the Long Beach Westin hotel. RCI provided us with a voucher for the SuperShuttle. We were checked in to our room at the hotel by 1:00 p.m. local time.
The Westin was nice and within walking distance of several restaurants, the beach, and the harbor, though the Hyatt is three blocks closer to the harbor and may be a better choice for some. Our room was on the 10th floor and we had a view of the harbor, including a partially obstructed view of the Queen Mary.
We were extremely pleased with the area near the hotel. There are numerous restaurants ranging from chains (Outback, P.F. Changs, California Pizza Kitchen, etc.) to fine dining establishments (The Sky Room, L'Opera, 555 East, etc.) to nice local establishments (Parker's Lighthouse). We chose to celebrate our anniversary with dinner at The Sky Room on Saturday night. The restaurant is on top of the historic Breakers building just one block from the Westin. The Breakers building was originally a hotel, though it is now retirement housing. The original Sky room was a favorite hangout for Elizabeth Taylor, Babe Ruth, Charles Lindberg, Errol Flynn and others during its heyday. When researching restaurants in the area, we were attracted to The Sky Room because of the views, the history, and the original 1920's parquet dance floor. We were not disappointed. The views and service were awesome. The food was very good, though for the price I expected better, and the band played some great music (mostly foxtrots and swings with an occasional cha cha). We were a little disappointed in the size of the dance floor - it was small, and the fact that most people only danced swing - even when the band played a great foxtrot. Also, it is very expensive - we dropped $300 for the meal, a bottle of decent (but not great) champagne, and tip. Was also disappointed that I had to drink $100 champagne out of cheap glass flutes. All in all though it was a very romantic evening and highly recommend it if you are looking for a place to celebrate a special occasion. We had lunch on Sunday at Parker's Lighthouse. The food was good and we were able to sit on the deck outside and had a great view of the harbor and the Queen Mary.
On Sunday we took the aquabus harbor taxi across the bay to the Queen Mary and took the self guided tour. We spent 2 ½ hours touring the grand old liner and could easily have stayed another hour, but we had to cut our tour short so we could make the last taxi back across the bay. The Queen Mary is a must see sight for any die hard cruise fan.
We spent the rest of our time touring the shops and attractions of Shoreline Village and the Pike at Rainbow Harbor. The Aquarium of the Pacific is also in the area, but we did not have time to go there. All in all, we think a pre-cruise stay in Long Beach is well worth it.
Transfer to the ship:
Our cruise docs indicated that we would receive a welcome letter with instructions for the transfer to the ship on Monday. We did not receive one, but when I asked at the front desk on Sunday they were able to provide me with the letter. The instructions indicated that the hotel bellman would pick up our luggage for transfer to the ship at 10:00 a.m. on Monday morning. Our luggage was still in our room at 11:00 a.m. so I went to ask the bellman. She acted surprised when I told her we were supposed to be transferred to the ship, but immediately went to our room to pick up our luggage and took it to the lobby. She also told us that we were the only ones in the hotel on this particular cruise, which caused us some concern. However, we need not have been. A bus came to pick us up at 11:15 and after a stop at the Hyatt to pick up 6 more passengers, we made our way to the ship. We were aboard by 12:00 and after a quick tour of the ship we made our way to our cabin at 12:30. All of our luggage arrived by 3:00 p.m.
The Monarch is a 15 year old ship and we were expecting her to look a little worn, but were pleasantly surprised by her appearance. Everything looked new and we saw no torn or frayed carpet or things of that nature. The layout of the ship is quite a bit different than the Vision class ships and it took us a while to figure out how to find our way around. The biggest difference is that the public areas are located on more decks. The public areas are generally located only near the stern of the ship with cabins forward. We prefer the Vision class layout where there are generally no cabins on decks with public areas and the public areas are concentrated on fewer decks. It seems to us that it is easier to find the public areas if you are not constantly having to walk up and down stairs. We also did not like the layout of the Centrum area on the Monarch as well as those on Vision class ships. The Centrum itself was very nice, but there were no places to sit and enjoy it. It was basically just a place you walked through on the way to somewhere else. The Centrum on the Vision class ships seemed to us to be a destination itself. We also expected the ship to feel very crowded, but again were pleasantly surprised. There were about 2800 passengers and 850 crew on board (the cruise was sold out), but we never felt overly crowded. There were no sea days on this cruise though and I suspect we would have really noticed the crowds if there had been one.
We were extremely pleased with our cabin. It was the largest and best laid out that we have had. The balcony was also the largest we have had. The only complaint is that the overhang from deck 11 blocked all but early morning and late afternoon sun from reaching the balcony. Our stateroom attendant did an outstanding job keeping our room in tip top shape.
We have to give the Monarch the edge over the Vision class ships here. The Monarch does not have a Solarium Pool, but that liability is more than overcome by the presence of a wrap around promenade deck and the many aft decks (there are no aft cabins on Monarch). We absolutely loved taking strolls around the promenade deck. We also spent quite a bit of time watching the crew in the bow of the ship work the mooring lines and anchors. Our favorite aft deck was on deck 8 right behind The Circuit Lounge. It was small (room for 6 deck chairs), but was usually deserted. The pool area on Monarch is also larger than the main pool area on the Vision class ships.
Give the edge to the Vision class here. The Monarch has two separate single level dining rooms (one above the other) as opposed to one multi-level dining room seen on most newer ships. While the dining rooms were functional, they lacked the atmosphere of the multi-level rooms with the grand staircases. We also like the layout of the Windjammer Café in the Vision Class ships better. The Windjammer on the Monarch seemed small and the buffet stations did not seem to offer any logical flow. We did like the fact that you could walk up stairs to the Sorrento's Pizza area on the deck above. There is also a Jade Restaurant forward from the Windjammer, but we were never really sure how that worked and never dined there. The food quality was mediocre in all areas, and seemed to be slightly lower in quality than on the Vision ships (perhaps due to the higher number of passengers that had to be fed). Our wait staff in the dining room was competent, but they lacked the personality of the wait staff we've had on previous cruises (our all time favorite head waiter is Hans on Splendour)
Entertainment and Lounges:
Monarch gets the edge here - primarily due to Boleros Lounge. Boleros became a favorite hangout. A Latino band played most nights and offered a chance to dance the cha cha, samba, mambo, salsa, merengue, and rumba. The dance floor was extremely slick though and we had difficulty dancing in leather soled shoes. Swing and Salsa lessons were given on two nights. The bar at Boleros was by far our favorite on board. We really liked the bartender there - Hernando. It offered great views of the band and the dance floor and was also non smoking - which was a big plus for us. The Schooner Bar was larger than those of the other ships we've been on and also had the largest non smoking section. It was a nice place to have an afternoon drink and listen to piano music. We visited The Circuit Lounge only once. It served as the ships disco and there was a good crowd and lots of dancers the night we were there. The band was also pretty good. We went to two shows in the Sound of Music theatre (RCI insists on calling it a lounge in there brochures, but it is a theatre) and both were comparable to shows we've seen on other ships. The only complaint we had was the poor sightlines from the balcony. The Captain's reception was held in the theatre. On our previous two cruises, the Captain's reception was held in the equivalent of The Circuit Lounge. I think it works better in a lounge, but perhaps they did not think they could get everyone in The Circuit. There was nearly always a musician playing in the Centrum. There is a dance floor on the bottom level of the Centrum and the show band played ballroom music for about an hour one night. The Viking Crown Lounge differs from those in the Vision class ships in that there is no dance floor. There is a bar and lots of chairs and tables though and there are great views in all directions except aft which is blocked by the rock climbing wall. It is a good place to read or meet up with friend for some quiet conversation.
Our first stop was San Diego. RCI offered numerous excursions and we booked the San Diego Zoo trip. We were transported to the zoo via bus at 9:00 a.m., were provided with admission, and then left to our own devices until 2:45 p.m. when we boarded a bus back to the ship. We then walked to the Seaport Village area for a little shopping before boarding the ship at 4:00 p.m. (all aboard was at 4:30). You could probably spend most of the day near the cruise terminal if you did not want to book an excursion. The aircraft carrier USS Midway and the Maritime Museum of San Diego are adjacent to the cruise terminal.
Next up was Catalina Island. The ship anchored near the town of Avalon and we tendered in to town for a little shopping before taking a kayak tour. Several of the excursions offered by RCI appealed to us, but this is another stop where you could easily explore the shops and restaurants of Avalon on your own. Our kayak tour started at the Descanso Beach Club. We kayaked about 1 ½ miles up the shoreline and stopped for a cookie break. We were greeted by a bald eagle flying overhead.
The last stop was Ensenada, Mexico. This port did not really appeal to us, so we took the opportunity to stay on ship for a little rest and relaxation as well as a massage in the spa. Seemed that the majority of passengers went into Ensenada so we had the ship pretty much to ourselves until early afternoon.
Debarkation and transfer to the airport:
We were up early on debarkation day and enjoyed the sights and sounds of workers loading and unloading container ships as we pulled into port. We picked up coffee and muffins at the Latti-Tudes Café and enjoyed breakfast on our balcony. We left our cabin at 8:00 a.m. just as they were calling our group for debarkation. We were on a bus 10 minutes later and were at the American Airlines terminal at LAX before 9:00 a.m.. Our flight home was not until 12:42 p.m. and we killed the time by reading and having lunch at Chili's.
Other than the few items mentioned above, the biggest complaint we had was the number of private functions that were held on board. On at least three occasions we attempted to enter a public area of the ship and were told it was being used for a private function (a wedding, a business meeting, and another unknown function). This was made all the more irritating by the fact that the conference center on deck 7 appeared to go unused
All in all we had a wonderful vacation. I don't think I'd recommend this cruise for someone who was looking for the prototypical cruise experience (think warm sunny days and white sand beaches with a sea day or two thrown in), but it was a great way for two Texans to take in some California sights. It also provided a nice cruise fix between longer cruises (we have a 7 day cruise booked for April 2007).