This was our first cruise ... and one of only a handful of real vacations we've ever had. I recently retired and booked this cruise - almost accidentally. I don't remember having much of a discussion about it ... it just sort of happened. I guess this too-long nasty winter affected my brain. Anyway, I was prepared not to like it because I abhor crowds and standing on line. I also thought that I would rather explore destinations in a less touristy fashion. But, overall, I was pleasantly surprised.
Arriving at the docks (already difficult due to traffic congestion at the port) I was awed by all the huge ships ... and especially the Allure - which looked like two or three large apartment buildings stuck together.
Embarkation was annoying. I think Royal Caribbean has done a lot to make the process smooth and I doubt that I could come up with any ideas to make it work better (actually, maybe I could) but it really is a massive crowd and we did stand on line for too long to be comfortable (probably more than half an hour). (How might I improve things? Maybe have a longer window of time for embarkation ... perhaps begin earlier. I understand that this might affect pre/post security inspections and sailing times and extend turn-around times. It really is a cattle drive. The first of a few.)
Once on board everything was fine. There's lots to do before going to the cabin. The first thing I noticed was how good and plentiful and accessible food was. I had read reviews criticising the food and food service but my initial impression (which was confirmed throughout the cruise) was that the food was great and the food service exemplary and that great food was always available - free of additional charge!
While we spent a lot of extra money beyond the initial cruise price on extras but we really didn't have to. One can have a wonderful vacation on the Allure without spending an extra penny on food or excursions - with perhaps a notable exception that I was going to address later but perhaps will now.
One of my apprehensions about going on a cruise vacation (or a resort-type) involves social justice and character. I find it difficult to reconcile a luxury vacation made more affordable on the backs of people whose lot in life is the result of being accidently born in the wrong place. Clearly cruise companies (and patrons) take advantage of the fact that there is a plentiful supply of cheap labour in the world in order to save money. While the workers on the ship are surely lucky to have the jobs they get on these ships, they are (in my view) compensated at a level far below first-world standards. I stand to be corrected, but it seems that the cruise operators are able to operate outside of employment standards that would be regulated within countries such as Canada or the United States. So, this creates discomfort for me - that I could be treated like a king by those who are only in the position of serving me due to an accident of birth(place) and that they would be subject to harsher working conditions that would be acceptable for our own children. So, to assuage my guilt I tried to tip as generously as possible - well beyond the pre-paid or automatically applied gratuities. those who wish to make a contribution to third-world conditions have an opportunity to do so directly on these cruise ships. I am more than a little disturbed by some of the complaints I read in these reviews about gratuities. The people I met on this cruise (employees) were exemplary and perform well above and beyond what could be reasonably expected. Indeed, many of the patrons on this cruise would do well to take a lesson on manners and decorum from these wonderful people - and I'll have more to say about this later perhaps. But anyway, my advice to my fellow cruisers... tip until it hurts. It's the right thing to do. My advice to cruise operators ... continue to try and find ways of treating your staff according to the way we'd want our children treated. I understand that the 'profit motive' is a very powerful determinant of how the business is run ... but the world is what we make of it and those who can, should lead.
Some of what I write here might be a little controversial and the wonderful people who looked after me on the ship might be uncomfortable being associated with my comments, so, without mentioning names, kudos to the waiters and assistance waiters and head waiters at Adagio! Wonderful (you even took away cutlery that was not needed - sparing me the agony of trying to figure out which fork to use :-) Thank you ever so much our wonderful stateroom attendant. If we dropped a hanky it seemed like you would be there to catch it! Outstanding. And thank you to all the restaurant workers (Kudos Windjammer!) and everyone else who went above and beyond to treat me like a king (while always smiling - even while some of us patrons could be rude and boorish).
So, on with the cruise review...
Let me say that my wife and I started to share a little catch phrase... "You know, we`re on a boat right?" We'd say this from time to time as we were often incredulous that the experience we were having was happening on a ship!
I think the Allure is a couple of years old ... but it seemed brand new. Everything we saw or touched was clean and shiny and appeared new. (further testament to the incredible staff). Our stateroom seemed perfect. I guess when one is building a 1.5 billion dollar ship that we`ll take care to carefully plan details. Our stateroom was perfect. I sensed (throughout the vacation) that the profit motive directed everything and the stateroom, in my view, exemplified this. The owners have designed the stateroom to maximize space. It`s a pretty small room but the designers have cleverly created a comfortable and efficient accommodation. I never felt cramped (even though I over-packed). The bathroom was amazing! The balcony was just right (except it would have been better if it could have had lounge chairs - although it`s probably too small. Our stateroom attendant scrounged up an ottoman-like thing which made it possible to sit with our feet up. We didn`t ask for this ... I`m not even sure how he learned that we needed it.) And as I mentioned, he seemed to be cleaning and organizing our stateroom whenever we looked the other way. I have never experienced such attentive service!
We had good weather the whole time. There was a bit of wind and chop as we were returning to Florida but it was always difficult to feel any rocking of the ship - and we were on an upper deck. It was a very smooth experience.
I personally enjoyed spending time on the balcony enjoying the weather, the views and the sound of the water. (This was interrupted whenever our neighbours used their balcony - they were loud talkers. So whenever they were out - I went in :-( (Another note to cruisers ... please consider each other and our personal spaces.)
All the free restaurants (and there were plenty) were fantastic. The food was a highlight for us. And all the entertainment venues were great. Sometimes it was hard to get into popular venues due to the huge population on the ship. But if one thing was full, it wasn`t hard to find something else to do. Crowds and standing on-line is the cost of making a cruise affordable I guess - so, one must tolerate this. (Are there more expensive options that allow for less crowded conditions while still being able to enjoy a large variety of entertainment options?) I think the company does an amazing job of balancing the number of cruisers with the number of venues. I sure couldn't do any better if I was in charge.
So yeah, we are not uber-rich (by North American standards) but we are fortunate to enjoy a cruise - something that would have been a much more exclusive luxury in the past. So kudos to Royal Caribbean for making this possible. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon or something I feel compelled to say that the 'luxury cruise' experience was, for me, diminished by the rude and boorish behaviour of some (some!) of my fellow cruisers. As I mentioned - some of us would do well to take a lesson from the staff, but here's some tips that if adopted, would make the experience better for all...
1) Don't reserve things like dining tables or lounge chairs by putting towels or personal object on them for more than just a couple minutes. It's rude and unfair. (I never got to use a lounge chair in a choice location even though MOST of them sat vacant for hours!)
2) Let people OFF the elevator before you try to barge on.
3) Don't jump the queues
4) Don't be LOUD - on your balcony, at dinner, in the theatres. PLEASE don't talk during performances.
5) Please follow suggestions regarding dress code. (for example, on formal nights in the restaurant - try to go with the theme as best you can ... or maybe skip the venue that particular time and eat somewhere else.) It's a little bit of dress-up play acting to wear a suit to dinner. The experience is diminished if the patrons at the table beside you are in shorts and sandals. (I know, I know ... "I paid for my cruise - I'll do what I want!" - it doesn't hurt to be considerate of others' enjoyment - it makes life better for everyone. After up-charge, wine and gratuities our special evening at 150 Central Park cost us almost $200. It was a special occasion for us and we dressed up for it. The experience was diminished because the ambience was changed as some patrons came dress... you guessed it ... in casual attire.)
6) Say please and thank you. Wait your turn.
7) Don't leave your garbage or dirty dishes lying around just anywhere... use the garbage cans, put your dirty dishes someplace appropriate.
Yeah, there were around 6000 cruisers on the boat. The only thing that made this less tolerable is that some of us need to occupy our personal spaces with more consideration for others. Just a little. Please.
Gawd ... I'm going on and on. I should stop for a minute and thank the majority of our fellow cruisers for being considerate and polite. Thank you!
Regarding ports of call. I would encourage new cruisers to seriously plan for them ahead of time. If lounging on the beach is your thing, then there's not a problem (but in Jamaica and Mexico you'll be well advised to pre-book transportation to a beach) We only pre-booked one shore excursion - horseback riding in Cozumel. It was one of the highlights of our cruise.
Labadee was fine ... although you are fenced off from the actual country and must remain in the Royal Caribbean compound. This isn't such a bad thing if a carefree park-like day is your thing - which it was for us on this day. But, there again, the nagging guilt of being in an exclusive compound - protected from the natives. I don't personally enjoy lounging in the sun so I spent hours in the ocean. There was good souvenir shopping - within the compound.
In Jamaica you disembark into a port compound as well. There is shopping and restaurants there - very commercialized. We stepped out of the compound and for us, this was pretty awful. You exit into something of a trapper`s alley and are swarmed by sellers of trinkets, personal services, drugs and taxi rides/excursions. So, unless you are bold, don't do it. Pre-arrange something. We didn't and ended up booing a last-minute bus ride to a private beach (Red Stripe Beach). The beach was just okay. The bus ride (operated by the beach company) was like $30 dollars each return (10 minutes or so) and then when you got to the beach, if you wanted a chair - that was $5 more, each! And so on. So yeah, take care to plan your shore excursions. Or stay on the boat - which is kinda nice too - as it will be quiet.
We saw Chicago (the musical), Mo5iac, Green Planet and the water show. All the shows were thrilling. Some of the feats of strength and acrobatics took our breath away! The Amber theatre is an amazing venue (more than once we leaned over to remind each other that we were on a boat :-)
Disembarkation was uncomfortable. We did express disembarkation and while it was a zoo, I sense it was better that using the regular disembarkation ... but I don't know. We didn't plan our flight arrivals and departures well. I recommend arriving the day before and getting a hotel and perhaps having a hotel at the pother end too - or at least book your return flight well into the afternoon. We were fine, but the start and finish of the vacation was a bit hectic. PS. Taxis to and from the airport ran about $20-25 give or take a tip. It was tricky for us to get a cab from the hotel on the morning of the embarkation.... they were really busy - there's thousands of people going on board quite a few ships on the same day..
So, I hope this helps novice cruisers. For us, this trip represented excellent entertainment and vacation value. It is possible to have an amazing time within the prepaid itineraries and dining plan. It's a great value - so paying for a few extras, if you can afford them, is fair. For us, it was an amazing time and we may cruise again. I believe Royal Caribbean works very hard to provide the best cruise experience for patrons while also providing value for shareholders (a conflict that they manage well).
Again, I cannot say enough about the amazing crew and service personnel - they make the difference between a good vacation and a GREAT one. We had a GREAT time. Please, please tip generously (PS 15% is not generous - it's the generally accepted MINIMUM) it's only fair.