Background Information: Our best friends had booked a cruise to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary, and asked if we would be interested in coming along for the fun. We had never cruised before, but it sounded like fun. Besides, we would be celebrating our 8th anniversary on board! So, my wife and I booked the cruise through our local travel agent. As our excitement grew in anticipation of the cruise, several other couples booked as well. Our final tally was 7 couples, with four couples being "first time cruisers". In preparation, we read the many reviews from veteran cruisers on this site, and felt like we were well prepared for our voyage.
Travel To Port of Embarkation: Through our travel agent, we booked a direct flight to Ft. Lauderdale FL for the day before our cruise. The extra travel day was a great idea to account for inclement weather in January in New England. The extra day also allowed our vacation to begin one day earlier, along with the fun and excitement of a group of friends traveling together. We traveled to the airport (30 minutes) for an early flight. Champagne on the limo made for a fun trip.
Hotel Info: Our travel agent booked us into the Embassy Suites in Hollywood/Ft. Lauderdale FL. The hotel was great, with clean and roomy suites. The hotel pool and other accommodations were perfect for our first day in the sun. There were many shops and restaurants nearby for our enjoyment. The hotel restaurant featured italian cuisine, that looked and smelled great. Part of our crew opted for a nearby TexMex and its gigantic and tasty margaritas.
Ship Info: We took the hotel shuttle back to the airport the next morning, to meet our transfer to the cruise terminal in Miami. The trip by Greyhound bus took 45 minutes, and passed quickly with more champagne toasts. The embarkation process was quick, and by 11 AM we were on board. We proceeded to the Lido Deck forward pool area, and were greeted by the first of many "drinks of the day". Our stateroom was ready by 1:30 PM. My wife opened the door and was greeted by a beautifully decorated balcony stateroom for our anniversary. She cried, then laughed when she spotted the bottle of champagne and engraved flutes. A nice beginning to our cruise. We enjoyed the moment and our accommodations for an hour or so before heading back to the upper decks to enjoy our departure from port.
Stateroom: We had a guaranteed balcony stateroom, and received our room confirmation at our pre-cruise party with our travel agent. We were pleased with our stateroom. We were aft on the port side, Upper deck (6376). The location was perfect, as we were between the two middle stairways/elevators for travel up or down. Very convenient, yet far enough away from the main stairways as to keep the corridor noise down to a minimum. We had read that a few things brought from home would help, so we used our 16-inch bungee cord to keep our balcony door open most of the time. We used our power strip to keep our electronics plugged in (there were two outlets on the counter table. Closet space was ample, with a closet each for my wife and I. I was even allowed an entire drawer! Our suitcases stacked nicely under our very comfortable bed. Oh, and the pillows were very nice too. Our stateroom had a very roomy bathroom, a comfortable couch and movable table, and two chairs on our balcony. The safe in our stateroom worked on the sail & sign card...but only one of them. If I locked the safe, my wife could not unlock it. (just so you're prepared).
Dining: We were assigned to the late seating in the Paris Dining Room. We were on the upper level (4), with our crew split between two adjacent tables. Service was excellent, and the food was good. On advice from this site, we tended to order several different entrees and starters at each dinner, to try different things. The desserts were very good. Our servers were quick to bring additional food that some ordered as well. Our headwaiter, Oana, did all she could to ensure a wonderful dining experience. Our assistant waiter Jose was talented and funny. They are both to be commended for their excellent service all week.
Service: It was nice to be pampered. Staff were quick to learn our names, and seemed to truly enjoy what they were doing. Our favorite gathering spot before dinner was the Oxford Bar. This was also our cigar bar before and after dinner. The head bartender, Leaview, was a friendly and personable man who seemed to enjoy our company as much as we enjoyed his. Our stateroom was cleaned up at least three times a day. We looked forward to seeing what kind of towel animal awaited us after dinner each night from our cabin steward for turndown. Room service was prompt (but limited in choices), and our morning delivery of coffee was appreciated. One glitch was the many times the sail&sign cards got demagnetized. This happened several times to some of our group.
Spa: My wife and I enjoyed a couples massage on our first night. If you wanted to spend the money, the spa had many choices. Our experience was a good one. The staff did tend to push their products, but did not push once we declined.
Activities: There was always something going on. The choice to participate was your own. We were mainly content to keep to ourselves and our group. The casino was fun.
Ports of Call: In San Juan we visited the Hard Rock Cafe. Pretty run down compared to others we had visited. Senor Frog's was worth the trip. A fun place for a cocktail and dancing, but catered mostly to the younger set. Try the strawberry daiquiri by the yard! St. Thomas was our favorite. We spent the morning on a snorkeling trip, and grabbed a cab tour of the island for the second half. Our first stop was the hills overlooking Charlotte Amalie, where we enjoyed cocktails and a spectacular view. The much acclaimed gondola to the top was broken down. We ended our visit by a fun visit to Coconuts bar for the best Bushwhackers on the island. St. Maarten featured the best shopping opportunities. Skip the shops nearest the pier and head downtown by water taxi. The open air market has about anything you might wish to buy, and it was fun to negotiate a good price with the locals. All our bags were heavy on the way home as a result of the great shopping opportunities.
Shore Excursions/: We had booked two excursions online. The first was the 5 Star Trunk Bay beach/snorkeling adventure on St. John. We were informed the day before that this excursion was cancelled to to lack of a minimum group size. The alternative was the same excursion on a smaller boat. Most of our group booked this trip. The boat ride from St. Thomas Charlotte Amalie to Trunk Bay took about 45 minutes. The ride was enjoyable. We then boarded shuttles to the beach. Outstanding is the adjective we all used in describing this trip. My wife and I snorkeled around the reefs for about an hour and a half, taking many photos with the underwater disposable cameras we had brought along. (these were also available on ship and at the concession). Wow. This excursion exceeded our expectations.
Our second excursion on St. Maarten was somewhat disappointing. We booked the Jeep 4x4 excursion of the island. Well our "jeeps" were suzukis, NOT jeeps. (We own a Wrangler, and looked forward to this). The island tour was a single file procession around the perimeter of the island. We made a few brief stops, including Orient Beach. Not enough time to really take in any of the stops. Children's Clubs: We heard from a few kids in the age 13-14 range that the kids activities were great. Entertainment: The shows were good, and very entertaining. The comedian caused our sides to split with laughter all week.
Disembarkation: Disembarkation was smooth and quick. We had no issues with customs. Get a porter to smooth your way through the process. It's the best money you'll spend all week. Our only issue was at the airport, where a very rude TSA employee caused us some problems. Many of us had purchased liquor, which we transferred into our checked baggage after clearing customs. We had carefully packed the bottles for the trip home. Two TSA employees at the airport were entirely unprofessional in the way they treated us and our personal effects during the baggage search. They were very rude, and did not repack the bags carefully at all. We were fortunate that the liquor survived intact. Some of our fragile items were not so lucky, however, and were broken as a result. We will be filing formal complaints with the TSA to back up the verbal complaints we made to the TSA supervisor at the airport.
Summary: Overall a fun experience. We had two days at sea on each end of the cruise. San Juan was really a wasted port of call. Our next cruise will likely feature less sea days and more ports of call. I would rate our experience a solid 4-stars.