SHIP - My partner and I are in our 60s, 6th cruise, 4th on RCI. We love the size of the Serenade, the enclosed pool, the ease of navigating around the ship, and the elevators with glass overlooking the ocean. It’s not too big, not too small. We sailed on the Serenade back in 2008, so we were curious what the newly updated ship looked like. The main updates were in the Centrum: where it used to be a pleasantly pastel-colored, rather quiet gathering place for a drink, it is now energized with dramatic lighting, and has become the venue for a lot of ship activities. The decor is now mostly white with baroque curly-cues backlit with multi-colored LED lighting, changed for different events. Alas, a dramatic glass staircase was removed, presumably to make more room. Unfortunately, there still isn't enough spectator or participant space for big events, and people crowd the main floor and fill every balcony, bobbing around trying to see over all the heads. A small-scale Cirque du Soliel style acrobatic act was added to the Centrum, but it only played once (briefly) on our cruise. A scheduled performance was cancelled due to mild ship movement.
CRUISE - Our cabin (9210) was not much updated, but was fine. The bulky CRT TV set was replaced with a flat screen TV, but little else was changed. The old, beat-up couches were still there! Generally, though, we were pleased with the cabin, which had plenty of storage, and was clean and well managed by the capable, if not overly friendly, staff. A slightly worn sofa does not ruin a good cruise.
Our cruise was the "7-night Western Caribbean Cruise" on March 1, 2014. We arrived in New Orleans three days early and enjoyed a stay in the Residence Inn New Orleans Downtown on St. Joseph St., a pleasant loft-like hotel only a 3 blocks from the cruise terminal and about a mile from the French Quarter. Recommended. Embarkation in New Orleans was slower and more congested than any we've had in 6 cruises, but the New Orleans terminal is small compared to the much larger Florida terminals. Baggage handling both coming and going was fast and efficient.
EXCURSIONS: The excursion at Falmouth, Jamaica (FYA5 - High Tea at the Good Hope Estate) was a pleasant trip, recommended for people who don't need high-octane entertainment. This was our third time in Grand Cayman, so we just walked around the main street of the town. In Cozumel we took the Tulum excursion (CZ02), but barely had time to do it all: we were among the first off the ship, and were the last ones to board before departure. Don't even think of doing this on your own! The Tulum trip is excellent for those who enjoy archaeological sites, but the guide information and the two leisurely gift shop stops left a lot to be desired. Overall, though, it was a good excursion to a unique site. I have a more detailed review in the excursions section.
ENTERTAINMENT on the Serenade is up to the high RCI standard: comics were good and the production shows were excellent. First shows were sparsely attended, but the second shows were crowded. John Blair and his Bette Midler-esque wife Katrina were the best cruise directors ever: real talent beyond the usual happy talk. John can really sing well, and both are genuinely fun.
The Serenade is easy to get around in, but our favorite spot is the Solarium, an indoor pool that not every RCI ship has, unfortunately. It's adults only, and the water is heated. We have seen outdoor pools on other RCI ships that were frigid and not used much. We have found food on RCI cruises to be excellent, and this trip was no exception.
DEPARTURE - We love the RCI Luggage Valet service at the end of the cruise: you put your luggage in the hallway on the last night, and the next time you see it is in your airport at home. Incredible! Unfortunately, it is only available at five RCI ports, and New Orleans is not one of them. So we decided to rent a car (Hertz is in a building only a couple of blocks from the cruise terminal) and took an excellent day trip to the Oak Alley plantation, about an hour east of New Orleans, a truly beautiful place, not to be missed. We then dropped off the car at the airport.
I learn more from negative reviews than glowing ones, so I'm going to focus on some things you need to be aware of, not all of them positive.
We 4 adults took the Tulum excursion offered by Royal Caribbean 3/6/14 (CZ02). It was well worth the time and the ruins were most impressive, though not as large as Chichen Itza, of course. Overall, the trip was good and I recommend it. I would urge you to take the ship excursion because it's an all-day trip, and, despite any real setbacks, we were the last people back on shipboard. Fair warning!
It’s a long excursion. We were among the first tours off the ship, and were taken to a dock where we took a ferry, about the size of a large tender, to the Mexican mainland, about a 45-minute ride. Much has been written here about seasickness, but our ride both ways was smooth and I did not see anyone green around the gills. It was actually a pleasant ride. Once on the mainland in Playa del Carmen, we found the tour starting point and met our guide. We set off for the bus area, which is a few blocks winding around some confusing zigs and zags through town. Unfortunately, our guide, who looked like any other local, had no placard or even an umbrella to hold up so we could follow him amid the crowds on the streets. Fortunately we followed the right people and ended up at the correct bus. The 40-minute bus ride to Tulum, is down a mostly 4-lane highway while the guide, who was of Mayan descent, told us a few facts about the Mayans that you could get in the first page of a Wikipedia article. He spent about half of the time pitching a "custom made" Mayan calendar made for any date you pleased, to be delivered at the end of the tour. I did not see any takers, which was encouraging.
We were dumped off for 20 minutes in a warehouse-like crafts gift shop with the usual Mexican souvenirs in great profusion. There were restrooms, which was good since the one in the motor coach was out of order. ("Motor coach"= bus with toilet, so I have to call it a bus.) Pulling into the parking lot, I was disheartened to see about 20 tour buses, but as it turned out, the Tulum grounds did not seem crowded. Points for that. Once off the bus, we walked through some shops and walked roughly a mile down a paved road to the ruins. There is a tractor-pulled trolley [$2US] that you might consider if you don't want to walk it, but you may find it difficult to re-join your group. Regathered at the "gates" of the Tulum ruins, our group walked through a low doorway, and spread out in front of us was a large open area with quite a good number of buildings. It is a magnificent site, with far fewer trees than the Chacchoben ruins we visited near Costa Maya. The guide gave us some background (again, not very informative), and took us around as a group to the high points of the ancient complex. He then let us tour on our own and told us to meet in a half hour, for about an hour total at the site. We enjoyed the free time, but people with mobility problems should know that there are many steps and some small hills to navigate. Still, you can stay on the flat areas and enjoy it.
The adjacent beach, not included on our tour, was spectacular and very tempting--it was early March, but it was very hot and humid. Dress accordingly. We were in a rush to get back to the bus and caught the trolley going back because it was a bit faster. Rushing through another tourist trap souvenir area, we piled back on the bus and were given a box lunch consisting of a kiddie-lunchbox-style tuna and crackers, and water. Better than nothing. After the bus ride back to Playa del Carmen, we threaded our way through the streets (again, trying to follow a nearly invisible guide) to--ready for it?--another gift shop. Seems like no matter how rushed or late a tour is, there is always time for another gift shop.
Then we were hustled off to the dock and a guy handed us our ferry tickets and standing immediately next to him was the person who took the tickets--true south-of-the-border efficiency. The ferry ride back to Cozumel was uneventful, and back on land, we were greeted by the RC excursion director who was waiting for us, saying that we were the last ones to board the ship. Again, fair warning…take a cruise-sponsored tour! We took apples and bananas from the Windjammer buffet with us, but these were confiscated by Mexican authorities at the dock on our return. We didn't need them anyway, as it turned out.
The RC website description of the excursion mentions a $7 taxi ride, but we did not need this, or were even aware of it.
So even with all these issues, I would still recommend the excursion, but I hope you get a better guide.