It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...sums up our March 23-30 cruise experience quite well. Let me preface this by saying as first time cruisers and after talking with many who have sailed on Royal Caribbean numerous times without a hitch, What happened to us is the exception and not the rule. We flew into San Juan a day early to avoid connection problems (highly recommended) and stayed in a hotel in the Condado section just a few blocks from a gorgeous beach. We had a late lunch at a restaurant called 'Tijuana' and had some of the best Mexican food I've ever tasted, so far so good.
Problems began however when we arrived at the terminal at 11:30 Sunday morning to find several hundred people waiting in line and the terminal doors closed. After leaving our luggage in a central holding location outside the terminal to be watched by porters, we located a RCCI employee and were told the ship got into port late and the passengers on board had not yet disembarked. They said we wouldn't be able to board the ship before 4 pm and advised us to get a taxi and find something to do in San Juan until then. Envisioning massive delays at 4 pm when 3000+ people would converge at once we decided to stay and hold our place in line. After about an hour when it became obvious few were leaving they told us they would reimburse us for travel expenses if we brought back receipts. As the line grew and few people took their offer we were given a number to hold our place in line and herded into buses and driven to an air conditioned hotel where we received complimentary drinks and appetizers until the ship was ready. Later that afternoon we were bused back to the terminal to find our worst nightmare; thousands of angry people lined up outside the terminal in the hot sun. At first we were directed to the back of the mile-long line but when we showed them our number '1' tickets we were taken to the front of the line to the dismay of everyone else who hadn't been taken to the hotel or told what was going on and who had been standing there already for hours. Water was scarce and older adults in line were beginning to drop like flies from the heat and ambulances were called. Fights broke out in the angry mob and the situation could best be described as chaotic. There simply weren't enough RCCI staff there to communicate with and handle this many people under the circumstances. Once inside the terminal things moved along quickly as staff did their best to expedite our movement through check-in and customs but I felt terrible looking out my stateroom balcony periodically and seeing people standing outside the terminal late into the night waiting to board. Our luggage didn't arrive until 11 pm but we made the best of it by exploring the ship and dining in the clothes we had on.
Over the course of the next three days we were told numerous times that we would sail only to be told that no, due to technical challenges repairing the fixapod (main pushing-style propeller) we still could not leave. Apparently the fixapod bearings were shot and began leaking oil mid-way through the previous cruise causing them to limp into port late at 1.5 knots which is what precipitated the aforementioned pandemonium at the terminal. The propeller needed major repairs and time to complete those repairs but instead of cancelling the cruise and refunding our money they decided to get a crane and call in divers from Miami to remove all four propeller blades and try to sail with the two wing steering propellers only. Unfortunately the propeller bolts could only be removed using a specialized tool that had to be flown in from Houston causing part of the delay and the sheer number of bolts (32) and time-consuming process of removing them resulted in our being stuck in port in San Juan till 11:00 AM Wednesday. For three days our view was overlooking a small noisy airport and industrial park. Our deck smelled of raw sewage and our sleep was interrupted by the sound of forklifts and tanker trucks off-loading human waste 24/7. As the days went by and ports of call to Barbados and St. Maarten were cancelled, more and more people demanded refunds and left with luggage in tow. RCCI started offering individual voucher credits; first $250, the $500 and finally on March 26, they offered a full refund of the cruise fare paid as well as 50% off the cruise fare paid to be used for a future cruise on any RCCI ship within the next year.
With RCCI doing the right thing with a generous refund and with the ship finally setting sail on the 26th, the atmosphere on board quickly changed and spirits brightened. The long lines at guest services shortened and the cabin and wait staff in the restaurants seemed relieved to have satisfied customers to serve and some hope of salvaging a portion of what they might normally receive in tips. Hats off to Mercedes (the Cruise Director) and the activities staff who remained positive and energetic throughout. The ice show and the farewell show were great and the trivia contests in the Schooner Bar were a highlight and a great way to meet other guests. The food in the Vivaldi dining room was varied and excellent and the service we received from Veeraj (Mayotte), Jordan (Macedonia) and Sean (Jamaica) was perhaps the best part of our on board experience. We traded e-mail addresses and would like to think we made three new friends. The Windjammer Café offered a nice selection for a quick breakfast or lunch although the food seemed a little bland after eating there so frequently. The staff at the hand-washing stations amused us with their creative encouragement ("washy-washy!) and we appreciate their effort to prevent a norovirus outbreak.
While some of the pools were closed on occasion (unavoidable due to e-coli), deck chairs and towels were plentiful if you got there early or came at non-peak times. Our cabin steward Jeremy was courteous and friendly, yet non-intrusive. The cabin was tidy and spacious enough but the cockroach we found in the bathroom was an unpleasant glimpse of the reality of cruise ship entomology and what happens when there are large quantities of food and waste in a warm, moist environment. Yuck! The ship itself had plenty of open areas and activities to meet the needs of the extraverts and a multitude of little niche areas (library, etc.) for introverts like me to get way from the crowds and curl up with a good book.
As for the ports of call, tropical St. Lucia was absolutely beautiful. We booked our own tour with Spencer Ambrose who served us an authentic creole-style lunch in a little restaurant of a friend and showed us all the sights culminating in a speedboat ride to a semi-private beach right between the Pitons. Awesome! One Caveat, the bus ride through the hairpin mountain curves isn't for the faint of heart and make sure you tell them when the boat leaves because traffic can be pretty slow moving on the way back the ship. Antigua, while populated with gorgeous white sand beaches, seemed fairly poverty-stricken. St. Croix had a beach to the left of the pier and a preponderance of souvenir shops to the right for those who didn't want to book an excursion. There wasn't much to pick from in terms of restaurants however.
Disembarkation went as smooth as could be expected; they have a pretty good system of staggering people based on excursions and flight times to avoid the kinds of disasters we had during embarkation. The line was fairly long but moved quickly and there was also the option of tipping a porter to take you through the express line if time was a factor. One tip for those planning an excursion in San Juan prior to your flight leaving...Don't! Get to the airport to check in plenty early or you risk being the last people trying to get seat assignments on a flight that is overbooked! This is not a good way to end a vacation so learn from my mistake.
All things considered, it was a good cruise experience. Staff and guests alike made the best of a bad situation and while certain aspects could have certainly been handled better I would do it again but perhaps on one of the newer ships. The Adventure of the Seas is a grand old lady long overdue for the face-lift and a tune-up she's now getting in dry dock.