Our family of 5 cruised on Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas from Jan. 4 - 12, 2014. Our port of calls were in St. Martin, St. Kitts, San Juan, P.R. and Labadee, Haiti. We were 2 adults and 3 kids ages 26, 20 and 12. We 2 adults had sailed on 2 previous cruises, both on the Norwegian Dawn. Because of our previous cruises, we somewhat knew what to expect. The surprises and amazement on our kids' faces, however, were wonderful to behold.
We flew in to Ft. Lauderdale airport. DON'T PAY for the overpriced shuttle service through the cruise lines! I believe that the sign said it was $15 per person one-way. We took a taxi from the airport to the docks and the 5 of us with luggage paid a total of $20 for the trip. That included a meter fare of $12 plus tip! On the way back, we gave the driver $25. It was well worth it. Use the local drivers and tip them well. There is no need for the cruise lines to pocket the extra money! On the drive in, you will need to show your passports to an officer before you get to the ship, but while you are still in the taxi. BE PREPARED; it all happens very fast as it is a very busy port area.
Getting through customs and then signing in with the cruise line before boarding all went very smoothly, partially because we had filled out a LOT of the information beforehand on the Royal Caribbean's website.
Once on the ship and after we checked out our rooms, we were starving so we enjoyed a nice buffet up in the Windjammer cafe on the 11th floor. On the whole we enjoyed the restaurants but definitely felt that there should have been more choices. In case you are still not clear on this, (we were not until we finally got on board and checked things out) you can eat at no charge at anytime at the 11th floor buffet. They are open early for breakfast and late at night for late dinners or snacks. Near the front elevators on the 5th floor promenade is Sorrentos. This place serves pizza slices as well as antipasto and some fruit cups. Cost for these items is also nothing as our 12 year old can attest: we figure that he ate the equivalent of 5 pizzas there in 8 days! A bit closer to the rear elevators is Cafe Promenade. You can help yourself to coffee here all day and the sweets and mini-sandwiches in the case are free as well. In the event that you want a fancy coffee, they can make those for you as well, but at a charge. There are 3 larger dining rooms stacked on top of each other on the 3rd (Romeo & Juliet), 4th (Macbeth) and 5th (King Lear) floors. As I mentioned, we have been on only 2 previous cruises before, both on Norwegian. On that ship, it didn't matter what time you showed up for dinner. If there was a table available, they would seat you. You could, of course, make reservations at any time. Royal Caribbean is a bit different: First of all, the dining rooms on the 3rd and 4th floors are reserved for those people who are always available to eat at the same time each night (when you make your cruise reservations, you will be asked about your dining preferences). There are two seating times, and apparently once you sign on for one of these times, that time will remain the same for you throughout the cruise. We don't get it. We like the freedom of when to eat to work around our schedules. For those like us, RC claims to have a similar offering (called My Time dining) on their ship; we felt it was not quite the same. On the first night we asked for reservations at 7 or 7:30 but we were told that we had to chose between either 6 pm or 8:30 pm. We made things work and chose the 8:30 dinner time. It seems that although they call it "MyTime" dining, that really is a misnomer as they clearly still try to control the seating of this dining room's times. We found, however, that EVERY SINGLE NIGHT that we showed up here, that we were seated at the exact same table?! We started making our reservations for 8:30 pm, then showing up at 8 and then even at 7:30 pm, both times being seated fairly quickly at the exact same table! It was as if they were holding it open for us anyway! So, in summary, just make your reservations for the later time, then show up early if you must and you'll likely get your table!
Additional dining opportunities: If you don't want to eat at the buffet or at the same dining room each night, there are 2 other restaurants available, but both at a premium: Giovanni's table is $20 per person, while Chops is $30 per person. Call me cheap, but with 5 of us in our party, I really didn't feel like spending an additional $100 - $150 to dine. Plus, we spoke to 2 separate fellow cruisers who had been to Chops and said that the $30 extra was definitely NOT worth it, as the food in the normal dining room was just as good. And if you like pasta, the menu at the King Lear venue changed nightly and there were several opportunities to enjoy pasta. One thing that I would like to add: when cruising on a smaller ship (Norwegian Dawn) in the past, we had a choice of at least 4 additional restaurants at a much more modest $10 - $20 surcharge. Not only were there more choice of venues, but their prices were much more reasonable. I had really expected just the opposite from this much larger ship. If anyone from Royal Caribbean is reading this: the dining situation and options wound up being a very much discussed topic with our family of 5. I believe that if we had to choose another cruise line right now, our family would opt to discover another cruise line.
Lastly, I should mention Johnny Rockets. This venue looked fun but was very average on food quality. Our kids loved that we had French fries, cheese fries and bacon-cheese fries brought to our table, but the burgers were just so-so. The $4.95 per person charge was all you can eat, and after my lackluster burger was eaten, I really didn't want to try again. We let our son order a shake: any surprise that it cost $5.25, which is more than an entire meal at Johnny Rockets!?
We made moderate use of the gym, rope climbing area and the Flow Rider. We saw as many shows as we could. Don't miss "The Quest" which is full of fun and surprises! Don't read up ahead of time about it! It may spoil your experience! The ship provided several events just for our 12-year old such as a time for the free arcade, and more that were very much appreciated. Don't forget to try your hand at shuffleboard located on both sides of the 4th deck.
Our Ports of Calls and Excursions
Our first stop was in Philipsburg, St. Martin. Our family actually flew in here a few years ago and really enjoyed the island, so we were excited to come back here with the cruise. We were not disappointed. Of all the stops that you'll make on this cruise, this is by far the best place to shop, if you're so inclined. There are lots of stores and vendors, and bargaining is normal and easy to do. The kids bought lots of souvenirs at the main tent covered bazaar and we bought various other gifts in some of the other stores as well, at, what we believe to be fair prices. Please keep in mind that these people are not wealthy by no means, so if you beat them up over the price it is not necessarily a victory if you consider what they went through to make that item available to you. I know that the vendors can always say no to a low offer, but I figure that anytime the price can come down between 25 and 50%, there can be happiness on both sides of the booth! After some more shopping and walking, we found ourselves near the beach area. We ran into someone who obviously was being paid for bringing tourists to certain businesses, and he escorted us into one of his chosen restaurants. One look at the menu, with $12 burgers and $15 pasta dishes, told us that this was not where we wanted to lunch. We made our way over to Old Street and were fortunate enough to stumble into Saveurs De France restaurant. This is a fantastic cozy little restaurant that offered us great food and free WiFi (I made a separate review for this restaurant already - we loved it!). Pricing here was a bit less, but that was not the issue. We wanted some real local inspired foods (not burgers like we can get back home), and this spot did not disappoint! Afterwards we went back to the beach area where two of us enjoyed a couple of beers while the other 3 partook of a nice Segway tour along the beach front area as well.
Our next stop was in St. Kitts. Here we had scheduled a zip line excursion. The bus ride there was very informative. As with so many of these islands, the difference between our two worlds is so pronounced. Here we are spending more money on an excursion for a few hours than most islanders make in a month. May I repeat myself: please enjoy your trip but let part of that be the fact that you can enrich someone else's life. Be generous when given the opportunity to tip and be friendly and courteous to those who live there. The zip line was fantastic! All 5 of us thoroughly enjoyed it, and my wife, who had fretted about this the most, was thoroughly impressed by how safe the whole adventure was. Kudos to Nature and Whatever! St. Kitts has limited shopping and their prices are considerably higher than in St. Martin, or so I thought. We did manage to buy a few more souvenirs. Watch the people with the monkeys. They'll encourage you to hold the monkeys and take pictures with them. Then they expect $5-$10 for that service! They must think that all Americans are Donald Trump rich! Sorry, but I thought $2 for the 30 seconds that it took was quite enough. (Ok, so maybe I don't feel the same about ALL locals!)
The following day we arrived in St. Juan, Puerto Rico. For some reason I heard several people complaining about this port. However, never having been here, we quite enjoyed it. With the cobblestone streets and narrow roadways, it was a really neat place to walk. (We did notice a fair amount of police in certain parts of the city; don't know why.) When leaving the ports you'll be offered to hire a taxi or bus to take a narrated tour of the city. We chose to forego these and started walking instead. We found a tourist information kiosk about a half-mile inland from the ports (there is actually one also right near the ports, but we missed it!), and found out that there is a FREE trolley available that runs the entire city. We jumped on that and took it to visit the forts. We paid to enter the larger of the 2 forts (Castillo San Felipe del Morro) and were quite impressed with the history and condition of the venue. In addition, the beauty of the landscape is breathtaking. Shopping here is for the usual trinkets: everything seems American here, though, so we didn't buy anything.
Our last stop was in Labadee, which as you know is RC's private area on Haiti. One of our party took on a bit more sun than he ought, having refused to listen to his mother's wise words about sunscreen, and found himself the rosy center of attention for that evening and the following day. Anyway, find yourself some chairs in the shade, and relax and enjoy the great buffet that RC puts out for you here. You can pay $100 (or whatever it is) to go zip-lining once across the beach here (like you can see on YouTube), but I don't get it: yes it looks fun, but only about $25 worth of fun. I think we did the right thing by zip-lining in St. Kitts. There were 5 lines there. Granted none were as long, but all of them were in a much more beautiful setting.
In the afternoon we had signed up for the Snorkel Safari excursion: this was a mixed bag. My wife and I had been snorkeling in Roatan last year and thoroughly enjoyed that experience. We were anxious to share such an adventure with our kids but were somewhat disappointed. Firstly, I think we were among 40 (yes, 40!) or so people to partake of this excursion. This is WAY too many people for everyone to enjoy the trip. And I know this is part of the charm, but it was really hard to understand the staff with their accents, especially from 30 feet away since there were so many tourists there. It was even worse once we were in the water because how can you hear someone when he is 50 feet away from you? And if I swam closer to him that would only mean that I would be pushing someone else further away. At $70 a pop, I think they could figure out how to make this a more personable excursion with 12-15 people per group. When we snorkeled in Roatan that was exactly how they did it and it worked perfectly! Not their fault, but the water was a bit choppy on this day and it took some effort to keep up with the leader, so much that we chose just to explore on our own and forego seeing what he was showing the few people that were swimming with him.
If you're wondering about shopping here in Labadee, it is even more limited and by now we were no longer interested in purchasing anything.
I wish that the ship crew would have talked more about where we were heading or where we were at any one time. Occasionally the captain would come on the intercom and speak. But if you were doing something that involved any noise, such as the whirlpool or pool areas, Flow Rider, eating areas, etc. you couldn't even hear what was being said. In addition, he too, was not that easy to understand as he speaks with a fairly heavy accent. The ship's TV channels could perhaps be better used to give a sense of where we were going and what to expect once we got there. I would suggest for a more satisfying cruise, that you do some of your own research ahead of time and review that once you are near your destinations.
In summary, our trip was great. Yes there were some shortcomings but overall Royal Caribbean did a very good job. I hope that I have shed some light on this cruise so that you can better prepare for your own. And if RC is reading this, I hope that you consider my comments only as constructive.