OK, alot of info to cover. First let me start by saying I am the husband of the CC member. My wife and I have gone on numerous cruises over the past 13 years, including Royal Caribbean on Grandeur and Voyager when it first came out (a great comparison to it's sister Explorer now ready for refurb) as well as Liberty of the Seas. We have also done Disney Magic twice (once standard balcony and once suite) and NCL Gem (suite). All of our RC cruises (except for this one) were standard balcony rooms and in addition I have cruised numerous times with my sister and parents going back to the mid-1980's on RC, Holland America and others.
This is just to establish that I have been on many cruises with different lines in standard rooms and suites over the past 25+ years and am basing this review on my overall cruise experience on this particular ship. I will also mention where there is a distinct advantage in a suite over regular rooms so you can compare. However, I am now hooked on the Suites on RC so you know where I stand. I will also avoid any details on the ports of call. They were all great (Bermuda, St. Martin, San Juan and Labadee) but I want to focus on the ship and the good and bad.
BOARDING IN BAYONNE
OK lets be honest, this is set-up as a temporary solution until they build a terminal (which they said they are planning -- probably after the Quantum of the Seas comes to NJ). You basically weave your way around the roads into the entrance road which you have to wait in a line of traffic to get up to the glorified tent where you drop your luggage off to the porter. Then you drive around into the parking lot (assuming you are self-parking), pay for parking and leave your car. The lot is right near the tented area and while there is a shuttle unless you have trouble walking just walk across the street to the tent. No need to make reservations. Huge parking lot and no issues.
After you return to the tent you'll walk to the check-in. Regular cabin check-in as as you would expect. Long line weaving around. Suite guests however can head to the back area where there is a very short line and you basically get checked in within minutes. A shuttle bus then takes you to the ship which is a short distance down the pier. You board via gangplank on deck 1 (which is the only deck used for embarkation/debarkation and port stops). So you miss out on the grand entrance onto the ship you normally get at a "real" cruise terminal. However, the convenience for us outweighs everything else. And despite the terrible view of the port from the ship, the view of NYC and the statue of Liberty as you leave makes up for it.
Rooms weren't ready yet so we headed up to the Windjammer for lunch. I read some terrible reviews of this experience where the food was cold, soggy, etc. We didn't have that. We were actually surprised how hot and fresh the food was. Quite good. It was crowded as expected, but suite guests have the opportunity to sit in the adjoining Portofino restaurant everyday for breakfast and lunch. You only eat the food from windjammer but staff will bring you drinks in Portofino. It actually made a big difference when we couldn't get seating or wanted a quiet lunch. As a sidenote, suite guests also get hot, cooked to order breakfasts in Portofino everyday.
CONDITION OF SHIP
I agree with the comments made by others that said the exterior looks aged. The paint is yellowed in placed, chipped and there is some rust on the outside of the balcony railings. However inside the ship is still nice, clean and shiny and quite modern looking. A few things do give away it's age, such as limited wifi and some minor maintenance issues. For example you might see some missing fixtures or metal/fabric with rust stains around...but you have to look for it.
Compared to newer ships and some of the excellent suites on Disney and NCL, the rooms are small. We had an owner's suite, which is the largest of the suites (except for the huge royal suite). It was myself, my wife and two daughters (5&11yo).
One bathroom that while roomy has a relatively small shower, two sinks, jacuzzi tub and Bidet. Personally I recommend they get rid of the bidet and make the shower larger. I'm willing to bet that 90% of people have not ever used a bidet nor know how to properly.
The sink handles were loose which made turning on/off the water awkward. Also the cold water was always lukewarm, yet for some strange reason when you first turned on the hot water it was cold. The shower leaked a little from the connection as well.
Plenty of storage, nice balcony with two chairs and a cocktail table. Lots of closets and a flatscreen TV that swivels to face either the sofa/queensized sofabed or the bedroom (which is really all in one room except for a curtain that separates the two areas.
Upgraded sheets and beds were very comfortable...even the sofabed which my daughter usually hates had extra cushioning and was very comfortable.
We knew people with the Grand Suite one step below the Owner's Suite. They complained about lack of storage. Less closets, floorspace, etc. If you have kids the Owner's suite is definitely better. For two people, the Grand Suite is fine.
Not sure why, but for some reason they only did towel animals every other night. Our kids love this, and it only uses towels in your room, so not sure why they did this. We thought it might just be us until we asked others around the ship and everyone said the same thing.
**We had one incident which left us perplexed and disgusted. We came back from dinner one night after our beds were turned down to find that somebody used our toilet. We will keep this clean and let's just say what was in there was not produced by anyone in my family. The person must have flushed and assumed it went down. Nothing in our room was disturbed or missing. The first thought was the cabin attendant, but honestly I don't think a sweet, little 5-foot tall woman did this. A mountain Gorilla maybe, but not her. My theory is that she was cleaning and another employee had an emergency (obviously) and she let him use it. We didn't report anything but did talk to someone in confidence. We were told that if we reported it our attendant would be in trouble and could get fired if she let someone use our bathroom. Not knowing for sure that she even knew we decided not to do anything. Maybe a mistake on our part, but at least we didn't destroy a person's career cause they let someone poo.**
As I mentioned earlier, Portofino breakfast and use of the restaurant for lunch seating is nice, however the real service comes via the concierge and staff. Denzil Fernandes was our concierge, and he (along with Ajay and Andre in the concierge lounge) made the trip extra special. Denzil took care of any reservations, changes, excursions, etc. that we had. No need to wait at the shore excursion desk or main customer service counter. Also, every morning there was a nice continental breakfast along with an espresso/cappuccino machine in the lounge you can use anytime. Our favorite though was the cocktail hour. Every evening from around 5-8PM the lounge had appetizers and full complimentary bar..including unlimited beer, wine, and hard alcohol drinks. We met so many nice people in there it became a not-to-miss part of the cruise for us. The captain came in a few times as well to say hi. A nice touch.
Another nice perk is that while regular guests have to scan their seapass to get towels at the pool area (and must return the towels or be charged), gold pass suite guests get all the towels they want without have to scan your card. Other perks included a private beach area on Labadee, reserved seating at shows, the ice show and best of all...at the man pool area!
I was impressed overall. Alot of posts about bad food, and having seen the ships get bigger and bigger over the years I understand how quality can go down. However, I have to say that I was quite happy with most offerings. While there were items I didn't like or were overcooked I had some very good food in the dining room as well as the Windjammer/Island Grill. Especially in the main dining room the breads were excellent, and there were alot of meat choices including rack of lamb, lamb shank and prime rib as well as very good fish and even lobster on the last formal night. And RC got rid of the horrible extra charges for certain dishes on the main dinner menus. They still offer a premium extra charge menu but it is separate and not pushed at all by wait staff.
Having used the Disney club for the kids (probably the best kids club afloat anywhere IMHO) you need to lower expectations. The place itself didn't impress, but hey it's for the kids not the adults. My younger one had a blast and couldn't wait to go in everyday (yay!) and my older one was given permission to sign herself in and out so she could do as she wanted with it. She met friends onboard so had people to hang out with. This made for a much more relaxing trip for my wife and I. One thing I do not love about the club is the need to take your kids out for periods during the day when they shut down for lunch and dinner but they started to allow parents to sign up for dinner service some nights that lets your child stay and they take them to the Windjammer for dinner. The club is free up till 10PM then they charge a nominal fee till 2 AM when they close.
As usual with most ships the main pool area is filled with kids, loud music and the requisite line dancing, belly flop competitions, ice carving, etc. Some live music is a nice addition, but didn't see much till towards the later half of the trip.
For a quieter experience go to the Solarium. No kids allowed. This rule is broken and lightly enforced (I did see a pool staff member asked two kids who were by themselves to leave) but most people are older. Two large whirlpools (one was kept at just below boiling point I think) and a pool (all swimming pools are saltwater BTW while whirlpools are fresh).
Hard to get seats in Solarium as it is a smaller area. Also on our cruise there were ALOT of much older cruisers (some in wheelchairs)which did make the solarium feel a bit like visiting day at Grandma's nursing home at times.
There is a kids pool area for the young ones in the rear of the ship. two small covered pools and a (very slow)waterslide. Nice for the kids but hopefully will be made a bit more inviting with the refurb (think splash zone, better waterslide)
Had an awesome massage. Not much in the way of extras in the spa except for treatments. The solarium outside the spa is probably considered the whirlpool/relaxation area instead of having it inside the spa proper. This was fine. Look for spa specials throughout the cruise especially port days and late afternoon deals.
This is one area the cruise fell short IMHO. The ice show is an exception. a really nice production. The cruise director and his wife ran a nice number of activities but the main shows were typical singing/dancing shows with the usual hypnotist or comedian thrown in. Quality was fine, just not my style of show I guess. On a previous RC cruise we had Ben Vereen, so hard to beat that. However, by skipping some of the shows and walking out on others we had a ton of time to enjoy the other activities. So a blessing in disguise I guess.
One suggestion -- skip the casino. We aren't big gamblers but enjoy playing slots and having a fun time. However this is one area where smoking is permitted and the odds are truly terrible. We heard others (including staff) say that the casino on the ship was terrible at paying back. I agree. Not a fun time and all the smokers made it less so.
Overall, despite some of the minor complaints (and the one not so minor one I mentioned) we still had a great time. We found this cruise more relaxing than most and the concierge service and suite amenities made the trip extra special. I'm not sure we will ever do a standard room again. We're so spoiled.
Can't wait to see how this ship looks after it is refurbished in 2014.