THE GOOD: Fantastic ship, through and through. Compensation offer for 48-hour delay. Stateroom upgrade offer. THE BAD: 48-hour delay. RCI's crisis management. Montego Bay. THE UGLY: "Miccosukee Resort" is no place to send customers you're hoping to keep
DISCLAIMER: This goes into much detail about our experience during the 48-hour delay. Because of this, it sounds whiny, but that's not our nature. I'm just sharing with you all the entire tale...
US: Middle-class couple in late 20s. We had to save up for this, which we considered a second honeymoon.
PRE-CRUISE: We stayed at the Inter-Continental prior to scheduled departure. It's as close to the port as you can get, and right by Bayside Marketplace - a lovely place to eat and shop. Booked it on the cheap through Hotwire.
We checked out at 11:55. RCI agent told us, "your ship isn't leaving until Tuesday, that's all I know... call this number". Phone conversation confirmed a 48-hour delay, and told us to head to port to be assigned a hotel room. "I'm calling you from the lobby of the Inter-Continental, should I just stay here?" "No... you gotta go to the port".
At the port: confusion, anger... in a few cases, despair. A large group of people was with a couple to be married on board. Some of them, on the ground, crying... when the vacation must be "perfect", it's hard to swallow this. We finally were handed out letters, explaining the delay, that the first two ports (Cozumel and Grand Cayman) were now out of the itinerary, and that we could either get a full refund plus 25% off a future cruise... or a 50% refund, $250 stipend per person, and 50% off a future cruise (capped at 50% of what you spent on THIS cruise).
My wife was upset at missing out on the two ports we were most looking forward to, but we figured it was too good an offer to be passed up. We took our place in "line" - more like a slowly advancing blob, since there was no one to really oversee this whole operation.
Over 2 hours later, we got to a counter with 4 agents. Each one had a clipboard with one hotel... so the hotel you got depended on which one of them called "next!" when you were at the front of the line. Of course, I only discovered this later, to my chagrin.
"I'm sending you to the Miccosuckee Resort... it's great place, the latest and greatest!" I snoop at the other clipboards: J.W. Marriott, Hyatt, and Inter-Continental. Ah - all 4-star hotels. I never heard of the Miccosuckee, but I went with it. I figured that RCI had picked out nice places.
Then, it was off to Parrot Jungle with everyone else - kind of a "holding tank" for everyone while RCI gathered up buses. After 2 hours there, our bus left for our "resort", a 45-minute ride to the Everglades. Off the bus, another 1 hour wait at the hotel's front desk.
During our wait at the front desk, we had nothing to do but look around: we were in a gaming hall that another passenger aptly called "ghetto". We didn't care much about this, but we were concerned our hotel room might meet the same quality standards...
No non-smoking rooms left? Only 2 double bed rooms? All right, whatever. We got to our room: cigarette burns on the comforter. Clothing iron burnt "prints" on the carpet. A great second honeymoon, this was! I went back down to the impromptu RCI help desk set up in the lobby and asked if I could just change hotels. Everything I had seen pointed to it not being a "resort" but a "no-tell motel" with a bad gaming hall attached to it.
The agent told me she couldn't do that, but she went to the front desk and got me another room. Oh, well, can't be worse... I thought. Upon arriving to this room, we found a bathroom with 150+ ants crawling all over it. My wife, at this point, was in tears. I went back down to the RCI agent and politely insisted: please, find me some other hotel. I'll take a Super 8 or a Rodeway Inn over this rubbish. No luck.
I called the hotline the next morning, only to be yelled at: "What do you think we are, SIIIR, a hotel chain??"... I hung up and went back down the counter, pretty much begging. The agent told me, "you've been the nicest to us about this whole situation, and I appreciate it"... more flies with sugar, right? She said we could move to the Inter-Continental, but we'd have to pay for our own cab. Oh, well. We paid the $50 to put an end to it. Other passengers, waiting outside to board a bus to the beach, gave us a dirty look as we loaded up luggage and took off... can't blame them. I'm sure most of them weren't dealing with a dirty room or with an ant-infested bathroom, but the dissatisfaction appeared widespread.
We found out what 16 hotels Royal Caribbean used to handle this crisis: Trump, Sheraton, Hilton, Hyatt, etc.; the Miccosuckee is the only place that stood out of that list. Again, the offer they made was generous, but why did they send a "lucky" few passengers to a 2-star (at best) hotel? Don't get me wrong -- we've stayed at our share of Econo Lodges and Red Roof Inns, so we're not snooty about accommodations on road trips and such -- but... for a second honeymoon? When everyone else was given 4-star rooms?
It's 2006. Most passengers have cell phones. Plus, I called them from the lobby of a hotel they selected to send passengers to! I think RCI should review their crisis logistics. A desk with 4 agents, to process the same amount of people that they later use 40 desks to check in? Come on. And, please, if you're sending guests to Trump, being the "unlucky ones" should mean being at a Hampton Inn, not being assigned a room normally used by people having extramarital affairs.
Well, after that adventure, we headed down to the terminal. Another hour in line, but a much smoother procedure. We were elated to finally make it onto the ship, and quickly made our way to our stateroom - oceanview, deck 10, 1394.
STATEROOM: Discovery! Stateroom 1394 (as well as 1694, 7702, 7402, 6702, and 6402) isn't so much "oceanview" as "neighbor's-balconyview". A quirk of being in the aft corner of decks 10, 7 or 6; your neighbor's balcony extends in front of your porthole window. Minutes after getting to our room, we saw a woman leaning and peering into our cabin like she would into an aquarium. I smirked and waved, and she looked embarrassed beyond belief. But, um, not much point to an oceanview room if it means keeping the curtains constantly closed to avoid exposing ourselves to the neighbors. We were prepared to put up with it, but nevertheless made a request at the Purser's desk to move to another cabin. I indicated I was ready to pay to upgrade.
As luck would have it, just after we gave up on getting that upgrade and were almost done unpacking, we got a phone call: we'll upgrade you to a balcony room for $200. Deal!... but can we get something on deck 10, since we're already unpacked? "Let me see... sure, I've got a room". We made our way down the hall to room 1366, where we were shocked to find... a Junior Suite (JS). WOW!
My wife and I hoped that, after the Miccosuckee and everything else we had been through, this fantastic upgrade was going to be a turning point. And, it was.
The Suite was about 1.5 times wider than our original room, a few feet longer - and a balcony, well, as long as the room is wide. Bathtub! Walk-in closet! Outstanding. The only beef with the room, is a minor one: the pillows. Made of cheap stuff. RCI says they will upgrade the bedding on their ships "by summer 2007"; down pillows, please!!
Our last cruise, on Carnival, had upgraded us (for free) to a Balcony Room, about 3 weeks prior to sailing. We were thrilled at having this luxury once more. Fun fact: our balcony on Freedom did treat us, rather frequently, to... uh... noises, even at relatively early hours of the evening. We found it amusing - I imagine there's quite a fair bit of this going on...
Note - Carnival had free bathrobes for balcony rooms. No such luxury on RCI, until you've sailed with them a few times (If I understand correctly)
ATTENDANT: She was nice and cheerful... her name, unfortunately, escapes me. We told her we were big fans of the towel animals, and she responded in kind - made us some fancy stuff! We're not needy travelers, though. I never asked anything of her during the whole trip - because she already had everything taken care of. I hear that higher cabin class means having better attendants; I don't know if that's true, but we never had a problem with our cabin. (Wonder if she could've hooked me up with down pillows?)
DINING: We took our seat in the main dining room 4 of the 5 nights. The food was better than on our last cruise, and the service (Ronnie) was attentive and with a smile. No free post-meal espresso or cappuccino on RCI, to my regret - and the utter dismay of some of our European tablemates. Oh well!
The buffet was also quite good, and not as crowded as I expected. We didn't eat at Johnny Rockets, since we live within 1 mile of one anyway... and the Chops Grille was booked for the one night we thought about going. $6/day soda & juice add on is worth it, if only for the ability to ask for sodas from any bar on the ship. Don't get this card to get free juice... the orange juice I got outside of breakfast tasted bitter, watered-down. Note that lemonade and iced tea are free in the buffet. I imagine they aren't if you order them elsewhere, without that soda fee.
CASINO: Tight slot machines. Craps table also tight. Standard Roulette, Blackjack, Let-it-ride, 3-Card Poker, Caribbean Stud. Texas Hold'Em fan? There's only one table, an automated "Poker Pro" computer table. Besides a couple of one-table tournaments during the cruise, the table is set to $5-10 Fixed Limit Hold'Em.
ACTIVITIES: Mini-golf was fun, even in gale force winds! I wanted to try boogie boarding, but was kept off by the long line. Rock wall was relatively uncrowded. Ice skating was quiet at first - but got less so towards the end of the session. I was expecting an extra fee to rent skates, and was pleased to be wrong.
Tip: If you're an advanced skater, you can take advantage of "advanced skating", avoiding the slow, wobbly-footed crowds. But how does RCI figure you're an advanced skater? Simple: you can only do this if you brought your own skates on board. Wish I had known that prior.
GYM: It's got to be the best at sea. No need for your MP3 player: just hook your headphones directly into the LCD TV attached to every cardiovascular machine. Or just enjoy the view at the front of the ship. Do know, it does get more crowded as the sailing goes along, and people start realizing how many calories they've packed!
EXCURSIONS: We had booked fun adventures... in Cozumel and Grand Cayman. Oops. With our refunds in hand, we booked the "Jungle River Rafting" tour in Montego Bay, and a Waverunner in Labadee.
MONTEGO BLEH: After a hair-raising 30-minute bus trip to the "Chukka" facility - where they also do the Canopy Tour, ATV trek, etc - we were issued lifejackets, put our stuff aside (lockers are available for rent but aren't required, if you don't have any valuables to leave behind), and hopped to the river.
We were 3rd and 4th in line. We plopped our rear ends in tubes, and were pushed aside... as we watched everyone else get taken care of, bundled together, and sent down the river with their guide (usually 1 guide per 4 tubes)... we just floated around, puzzled as to why.
At the last second, an extra guide comes down from the office, ties us together and we're off. He then asks: "where are you guys from?" He then explained that the guides thought my wife "looked German"... "British, German, they don't want to take them, man... I'm sorry, man, they're racist, and it's not right"
Ahh, I see. My wife "looked German", and Germans don't tip. So we were shoved aside as the guides went for the loud, boisterous who had taken up the tour's offer of free rum-punch-in-a-milk-jug. That little happening aside, it's a nice tour. Take the rum punch, and be loud and obnoxious, and you'll get fair treatment! On a serious note: if you're like candy to mosquitoes like I am, bring some insect repellant.
We then made our way to the "City Centre", a duty-free mall entirely aimed at cruise line tourists. Almost no Jamaicans in sight, either as customers or staff. The one restaurant here wanted $15 U.S. for a Jerk Chicken plate. We paid 1/3rd that in the "real" Montego Bay, but I wouldn't recommend it: We were hustled, repeatedly and aggressively. Being the only white folks in all of town definitely paints a target. We've never felt anything like that in any port we've ever visited.
Next time (if there is one), we'll either be good tourists and head on right over to Margaritaville - or, our original plan, take advantage of a ship that's mostly empty. Or, better yet, pick the cruise that goes to Ocho Rios instead and visit the falls - a hit with those who spent 5 hours on a bus to make the haul from Montego Bay,
Anecdote! At the end of the day in Jamaica, I went to the Solarium for a dip, where I met with some folks who took a later Tubing run. They told me about having seen a Canopy Tour guide zipping across the river on a line... stopping to relieve himself, laughing loudly, 300ft over the river. Must be fun to work at Chukka!
LABADEE: Fantastic little private beach in Haiti. We didn't know what to expect... we were very pleasantly surprised. Perfect "beach day". Also the perfect place to hop on a Waverunner, go parasailing, etc; no need to take a bus to get to those, you tender off the ship and it's all there at your reach.
The guided Waverunner experience was awesome. I was expecting being held down to 15mph... but right off the bat, the guide said, "if you go faster, you'll glide over the waves instead of hitting them all, so go fast!" OK! Locals did come out to block the tour, with sea kayaks full of trinkets to sell. Uh, even if I brought money, where would I put what I bought?
We did some snorkeling here, too, since we had brought our gear for Grand Cayman. I don't recommend it here; it's an ordinary experience here, as advertised. But at least we got some use out of the darn things!
Still a bit of hustling going on - Haiti is the poorest place in the Caribbean, and the locals on the staff will very eagerly carry a beach chair for you to your chosen spot in hopes for a buck or two. If you visit the "authentic" flea market, all bets are off. You will offend some shopkeepers whose booths you walk by, even if you say "no thanks" to their "invitation".
EVERGLADES AIR BOAT TOUR: Yep, we booked this one to kill some time till our 6pm flight. On our way back to the Everglades (right by the darn Miccosuckee!), the tour guide on the bus told us how much all these Miami landmarks cost to build... here's the Orange Bowl, it cost so many millions to build. Now you see Miami International Airport, it cost so much to build. Here's Interstate 95, it cost so much to build (I kid you not!)
Tip: Always have ear plugs at your disposal when traveling.
Never mind the dink in the bus. The air boat tour is compelling, if a bit short. We saw a half-dozen gators, who just stared at our boat as we floated by. You'll see some iguanas (an invasive species in the 'glades), and hear about the Army Corps of Engineers' efforts to drain the area for development in the past, now getting "fixed" for billions of dollars. I hear they also wanted to build a new international airport out there...
The air boat tour takes off from a little private gator "zoo". You'll see a few dozen fenced-in gators there, some tortoises, as well as see a gator-taming show by someone who, you will agree, is certifiably crazy. I'm not sure his left hand will still be attached by the time you see it.
We haven't yet received our discount vouchers (or what not) to use on a future cruise. RCI's offer is generous, but we're not sure we'll go for it... we only get so many vacation days with our employers, and the Miccosuckee "experience" makes us feel like we lost 2 of those days to stress, which is exactly what we look to get away from in a cruise vacation.
Since we live where temperatures reach 120 in the summer, I'm thinking an Alaskan cruise might be in our future. We'll see. I imagine that in a few months, the bad memories will fade and the good ones will stick...