Independence of the Seas: January 18, 2014
My wife and I booked this cruise to celebrate our five year anniversary. We were originally booked on the Oasis of the Seas for the 1/18/14 sailing. But we decided to switch when we saw a longer and cheaper cruise on Indy for the same week. The ports of call were also more attractive, so it was an easy decision.
Two friends that cruise with us occasionally decided to come along. We drove down together to Boca Raton the night before our cruise and stayed at the Fairfield Inn right off I-95. The hotel was fairly new and in good shape.
Day 1, Fort Lauderdale:
The drive to Port Everglades from the hotel only took about a half hour. Independence was parked at Pier 29, which is way over on the southeast side of the port. After leaving the car at Park n Go, it was just a quick shuttle ride to the ship.
Embarkation went very fast and we were aboard in about twenty minutes. It was already after 1 p.m. so we dropped off the luggage in the room and walked around the ship for awhile. Having been on Freedom of the Seas before, Independence seemed nearly identical. The ship was in great shape with very little signs of wear and tear.
Our cabin was also very clean and has the sliding doors in the shower. After two cruises on ships with the attack shower curtains, I couldn't have been happier to see those doors. The bed had an "egg crate" foam pad on top of the mattress. I don’t know who requested that be added, but I thank them as it made the bed much more comfortable.
Independence has gotten many upgrades that Freedom did not have during my last cruise on her. She has a large movie screen above the main pool area, digital screens around the ship showing current information and the Cupcake Cupboard in place of the old barbershop on the promenade.
In the afternoon I stopped by the pool bar and meet all of the folks from our Cruise Critic roll call. We had a great turnout; it had been a very active thread. It was nice to meet everyone. Some of us had been counting down on there for more than a year.
We attended the muster drill and then headed upstairs to the Viking Crown Lounge for sail away. The entire lounge was being used as a combination Diamond/Concierge overflow area. It was very crowded so we sat on the porch of the Diamond Lounge until the early dining crowd left. Our departure from Port Everglades was delayed, and we didn't set sail until after dark. I had planned on being out on deck to wave at the webcam, but thought better of it since it was fairly cold out that evening.
We took advantage of our new BOGO specialty restaurant coupon and got a reservation at Giovanni's Table. I had eaten at Chops and Samba Grill before, but never Giovanni’s. I had the steak, and we got the family style linguini, gnocchi and ravioli. The meal and desserts were all very good.
Late in the evening we spent some time in the Connoisseurs Club enjoying a few cigars. It's was nice to be back on a ship with a cigar lounge. All of the Radiance and Vision class ships have been stripped of theirs which is a real shame. I also had a nice conversion with "Super Mario", the #1 cruiser in Crown and Anchor. We shot the breeze for awhile about some of the upcoming ships; he's an absolute wealth of knowledge about cruising.
Day 2, At Sea:
Our first day at sea was a decidedly lazy one. We didn't even wake up in time for breakfast. The first stop was the official Cruise Critic Meet and Mingle. The turnout was one of the best I've ever seen. They gave out lots of little prizes, and even a few nice ones (bottles of wine and champagne). It was another great opportunity to meet the fellow cruisers I'd been chatting with online for so long.
We met our friends in the main dining room for lunch. The salad bar was excellent as usual. The place was very busy; it seems that more and more folks are learning the secret of skipping the Windjammer and seeking meals elsewhere.
After lunch we had some cookies and tea at the Promenade Cafe, then did some shopping. Unfortunately Indy's shops are a bit different than on other ships. They have a lot of European merchandise, which is likely due to the ship cruising from England in the summer. They didn't have any of the usual logo merchandise, which was a big let down since I usually buy a shot glass with the name of each new ship I go on. They only had the generic RCI glasses without the ship's name. One of the shop employees explained that Indy’s shops are run by a different company than on the other ships in the fleet.
We all managed to drag ourselves up to the gym for our daily workout. The gym on the Freedom Class ships is one of the nicest at sea. They have tons of equipment to use, and big forward facing windows provide great views. I tried to get some time in the sauna, but it was broken.
After getting cleaned up we stopped by the Viking Crown Lounge for a few pre-dinner cocktails. We then went to the main dining room for the formal dinner, which was excellent.
After dinner we enjoyed the Connoisseurs Club again before heading to the night club. There was another unofficial Cruise Critic gathering in the night club which extended long into the night. I was a little worse for the wear, having downed several glasses of port throughout the night. At around 2 in the morning we did what any other semi-rational partier would do. We sought late night pizza.
Unfortunately we were denied our greasy prize due to a technicality with the clock. You see Sorrento's pizza closes at 3 am, unlike Carnival who (wisely) keeps their pizza counter open 24/7. Since the clocks rolled forward an hour at 2 am, they were closing as we arrived. Unforgivable! They almost seemed to delight in telling us that we couldn't have pizza, and that we should head down to Cafe Promenade for some sandwiches. Boo! Cafe Promenade should close at 2 am! Not the pizza! Royal Caribbean could really take a lesson from Carnival on this. Drunken revelers want pizza late at night, not sandwiches! After that disappointment it was time for bed.
Day 3, At Sea:
Amazingly, day three started without a hangover. We partook of the salad bar in the main dining room for lunch/breakfast and meandered about the ship for awhile into the early afternoon. I stopped in to chat with some fellow CC'ers up on the pool deck a few times and also managed to get a workout in. The sauna was broken for the second day in a row (boo!), but the steam room was working (yay!).
A quick dip in one of the cantilevered hot tubs in the Solarium suddenly became a problem when I got back to the cabin only to find that I had no Seapass. Oops. I went back upstairs and the nice folks in the hot tub said they found it and gave it to the pool attendant. The pool attendants were of little help though, as they managed to re-lose it in those five minutes. Fortunately Raj, the amazingly awesome concierge, was able to print me a new one in just a few seconds.
We had some pre dinner drinks in the Concierge/Diamond Lounge before hitting the main dining room. Our serving team just could not have been any better. After a very slow experience on Brilliance last month, I was blown away by how fast our servers got us through dinner. We were sat by 8:35 and done by 9:30. My fiend and I again had cigars in the Connoisseurs Club, then finished the night with as brief stop into the disco.
Day 4, St. Maarten:
Over eighteen thousand people. That was St. Maarten's port load for this day according to one of the major cruise ship calendar websites. That is a tremendous amount of humans all descending on one area in a matter of a few hours.
After a nice breakfast in the Diamond area of the dining room we headed ashore. We did a bit of shopping then caught the public bus over to Maho Beach. The experience of riding the bus was very positive, only two dollars per person (one way) and no issues to speak of.
Maho Beach, on the other hand, was a total nightmare. It was basically just one big mass of bodies. We hung out for awhile and got some pictures of the arriving planes, as well as a few beers. Due to the rampant overcrowding we went back into Philipsburg. At least we didn't pay much for the ride to and from.
Back in Phillipsburg I decided to purchase a Nikon Speedlight (a detachable flash) for my camera. The Nikon SB-400s were on sale for $120, which is about fifty bucks cheaper than what Amazon wanted. I'm normally leery about buying electronics in ports, but the store I went to was an actual Nikon dealer. For those in the market for an entry level flash, Nikon just discontinued the SB-400. The remaining stock is being marked down, so now would be a good time to buy. The SB-300 that they're replacing it with is less powerful, takes longer to recycle and runs on AAAs (the 400 runs on AAs).
Back on the ship we had lunch at Sorrentos. The Sorrentos on Indy doesn't seem to function as well as the ones I've been to on Freedom and Allure. In addition to the fiasco from the second night, they don't have the little salad bar found in the same venue on Freedom. This is a shame because I enjoyed getting the mozzarella and balsamic vinegar. They also didn't have parmesan cheese. What kind of pizzeria doesn't have mozzarella cheese? The pizza still tasted good, but the experience wasn't up to the standard I’ve enjoyed on Allure and Freedom.
After an afternoon workout we all attended the "Strings" ice show. The skaters did a great job as usual. It really is amazing how much they can do in so little space. I didn’t really get the whole magic violin storyline, but the skating was excellent.
Before dinner we stopped into the DL/CL for drinks. I had a nice conversion with Tony (aka Host Kewlguy) about some of the happenings on Cruise Critic. Like all the folks from the roll call, it was very nice to meet someone in person that you've talked to online over the years. He had also just been made a Pinnacle Club member on this cruise, so big congrats to him!
Dinner in the dining room was noticeably slower this night. There didn't seem to be any more people than usual, so I'm not sure what the issue was. I tried the meatball appetizer for the first time, it was excellent! The New York strip, not so much. The steak was tough and sort of fatty. The meatballs aside, it was a pretty lackluster dinner. The night was capped off with cigars and conversation with Mario and the other folks at the Connoisseurs Club.
Day 6, St. Kitts:
On our previous visit to St Kitts we took an excellent island tour from Gray’s Island Tours. For this visit we wanted to try something new, so we booked a catamaran cruise via Blue Water Safaris. Our group consisted of several folks from the Cruise Critic roll call, as well as some folks that we didn’t know from the Celebrity ship.
Their catamaran was very nice. It had seating for a lot more people than we actually had. There were full sized restrooms, a sunning deck on the roof and trampoline nets at the bow. They also have an open bar with beers, soda and liquor beverages.
After we were well away from shore they put the sails up and shut down the engines for a nice quiet cruise. We moored near the shoreline and they gave everyone time to swim or snorkel. They also served a light lunch consisting of some local dishes.
By the time we began heading back toward the ship the open bar was beginning to work its magic. Most everyone seemed to be having a good time, lots of dancing and drinking. It was an excellent excursion; I wished it had been longer!
A trip to the gym was followed by another visit to the Diamond Lounge before dinner. The dining room ran much smoother on this evening, the lasagna was pretty good. After dinner I stopped back into the cigar lounge and finished the night at the disco.
Day 7, San Juan:
Six o’clock in the morning is way too early to wake up while on a vacation. But that’s exactly what I had to do since we had to do. Someone decided that a great time for a cruise ship to arrive in San Juan is 7:30 am. Then they followed up that brilliant idea with the notion that the ship should then leave at 3 pm. That person should be ashamed.
We had a hurried breakfast in the Windjammer and went into town. We met our shuttle at the pier and began the hour long ride to the El Yunque rainforest for a hiking excursion. The ride up the mountain to the park is not for anyone that suffers motion/car/sea sickness. The winding roads rough roads don’t agree with heavy parking shuttles. We picked up our tour guide on the way into the park. He provided backpacks to those without them, they had bottles of water and light snacks inside.
The hike through the rainforest and down to the waterfall was fairly easy. There are moderate to steep inclines, but the trail is totally paved and has steps where they’re needed. The waterfall and surrounding rainforest were beautiful; there were absolutely no mosquitoes or any other biting insects. It was a pleasant experience all-in-all. We took the remaining hour to walk around old San Juan for awhile before going back to the ship.
I got my workout out of the way early and had a short nap in an attempt to catch up on sleep. We were given a nice tour of the bridge, which was very interesting.
We had some drinks up in the lounge before the second formal dinner.
Tony’s tablemates were at the Captain’s table that evening, so he joined us at ours. The dinner was pretty good, although the desserts left something to be desired. The BBB crème brulee was underdone, and the Baked Alaska was served still frozen at the bottom.
After losing the formal wear, we had a brief stop into the busy cigar lounge. The night club was also fairly busy that evening. We ended the night with a visit to the heli-pad on the front of the ship for an awesome view of the stars. Of my twenty Royal Caribbean cruises, this was the first time I was able to get out there at night. Every other time they had the gates closed to block access to them after dark.
Day 8, Labadee:
We woke up late, but were still able to make it to the good breakfast in the dining room. Most of the food was good, but the Eggs Benedict was just so-so. That’s pretty well par for the course with RCI, they just can’t seem to get that dish right.
I did not go ashore this day, but the weather was very nice for those who did. The Explorer of the Seas was originally supposed to be with us in port, but did not make it due to a noro virus outbreak. This caused the private resort to be much less crowded, which I think in turn enticed more of our passengers to go ashore. With a nearly empty ship, I was able to get a lot of pictures that I had needed for this review.
With my photography session complete, we went up to the Solarium for some pool and hot tub time. The Freedom Class Solarium is my favorite pool area of any ship. The Radiance Class also has a nice Solarium, but they have only one small hot tub and for some reason the glass roofs are never opened. So getting back to Indy’s Solarium, there is no glass roof and two huge (cantilevered) hot tubs. There is a large pool (fresh water, yay!) with a swim up bar in the middle and plenty of lounge chairs and tables.
We had a good lunch in sparsely populated Windjammer. The only time I can abide the buffet is on days when the ship empties out. Otherwise it’s a mess of folks dodging (and sometimes trampling) each other for sub-par cafeteria food.
My daily trip to the gym was followed by some time in the steam room since the sauna’s state of disrepair continued unabated. We had a few drinks in the DL/CL before having a good dinner in the dining room.
We hurried the pace at dinner and skipped the cigar lounge in anticipation of attending The Quest game show. For those that have never seen one, The Quest is sort of an adult-oriented scavenger hunt that is played by teams of varying size within the theater. The Cruise Director gives out a “quest” that the teams must do to win points. As an example: “show me your team number and a piercing not in the ear”.
Normally this is a fun, and sometimes wild event. Unfortunately Joff Eaton’s version of The Quest is pretty lame. He never gave the disclaimer that kids needed to leave, which sets the tone that the game is for adults. He then instated a two foot zone of exclusion around himself, violation of which resulted in lost points. The whole show just seemed very controlled and boring. A far cry from the crazy free-for-alls that we used to see during the weekend cruises on my beloved Monarch.
The Quest snooze-fest was really an allegory for Joff’s style as a whole. The guy seemed nice enough, and he does all the basics, but that was it. He was never very entertaining or memorable. I still vividly remember Graham Seymour’s hilarious morning show, his stand up comedy and his musical talent. But I will remember nothing about Joff, save the boring Quest.
Late in the evening we stopped into the dance club for (lots of) drinks, and then went to Sorrento’s for late night pizza. The clocks rolled back an hour this night, so the crew couldn’t pull any tricks on us. We enjoyed every slice of our late night snack.
Day 9, At Sea:
Our final day onboard started very late, so we had breakfast at noon in the dining room. They were calling it lunch. The service was incredibly slow, and the chicken sliders weren’t very good. At least they had the salad bar, which is always one of my favorite cruise ship meals. In the afternoon we spent some more time in the Solarium pool and hot tub. I then drug myself to the gym for one last workout.
In the afternoon we did a pub crawl with our fellow Cruise Critics. We started at the pool bar; I had a Strongbow hard cider. The next stop was supposed to be the Solarium Bar, but the bartender was working fairly slowly so we went to the Sky Bar instead. At the Sky Bar I had another Strongbow, they are just so delicious. The Plaza Bar (in the Windjammer) was closed, so we next stopped at the Dog and Badger pub on the promenade. I had a Magners Cider there, but I think I prefer the dry taste of Strongbow. We all watched our final sunset at the heli-pad before heading to the Schooner Bar. I had another Strongbow there before going back to the room to get dressed for dinner. It was a great pub crawl, and a fun way to spend the last afternoon with our new Cruise Critic buddies.
We had drinks in the DL/CL one last time and bid farewell to the new friends we’d met up there during the week. Our final dinner in the dining room went well, the pasta and steak dishes were both good. After dinner I stopped by the Connoisseurs Club for one more cigar with the nice folks in the lounge. I said goodbye to the cruise critic folks in the night club and then went back to the cabin to finish packing.
We skipped breakfast on the last morning and debarked the ship at 7:00. There was no crowd at all, and we walked right off with our luggage. There was also no line at Customs, so we were in the parking lot in about ten minutes. We waited longer for the Park-N-Go shuttle than we did for the entire disembarkation process. By 7:45 we were on the road back home.
This cruise was mostly excellent. My only (minor) complaints were the inconsistent food quality, a fairly dry Cruise Director and way-too-numerous P.A. announcements. RCI should really take a lesson from Celebrity on how to handle PA announcement. That is, there should be very few. I don’t need the Cruise Compass read to me! I get it both in my cabin and now on the electronic displays. I also don’t need to hear about bingo, art auctions and jewelry sales. It makes the atmosphere on board seem cheap, like a constant sales pitch. It’s as if the ship were a floating K-Mart
Taken as a whole it was a great time. The itinerary was nice, with a good mixture of port and sea days. The crew was friendly and attentive and the ship was in excellent shape. I would definitely consider this cruise again, and highly recommend it. We are planning on booking the Brilliance for March 20th, so I’ll be looking forward to that.
This review with lots of pictures can be seen at this link: