We sailed on Royal Caribbean's Liberty of the Seas from December 15 - December 22, 2007 out of Miami, on its Western Caribbean itinerary - Haiti, Jamaica, Grand Cayman and Cozumel. 8 of us gathered to celebrate the holidays together - my husband and me, my sister and her husband and their 3 kids (ages 13 and twins 10), and our mother. It was our second cruise together, and we all had a very nice experience, finding plenty of activities and relaxation to keep each of us entertained.
The ship was full, about 3,900 passengers, including 850 children. Amazingly, there were very few times that we felt like we were in a crowd. For such a huge vessel, the ship seems designed as a series of small, intimate spaces, so it was rare for us to be in a group of more than 100 people. There must be 20 different drinking establishments, each with its own personality and atmosphere, each inviting in its own way. Lounges and gathering places are sprinkled throughout the ship, although the flow of people from place to place is smooth. Even the biggest areas where you might encounter a crowd, like the Windjammer buffet and the Platinum Theater, feel welcoming. The only times we felt herded was during tendering, which was significantly unpleasant.
Accommodations We all had cabins near each other on Deck 10, which we managed to achieve by booking our cruise together last December while still aboard our previous cruise. My husband and I got a Grand Suite, with 387 square feet of floor space and 89 square feet on the balcony - basically a double-wide cabin. The others in our party got regular inside staterooms across the hall from ours, one for 2 and one for 4 people. All the rooms were clean and comfortable, and we were well taken care of by our fantastic, hardworking stateroom attendants. The rooms seem well designed, with lots of storage built in, and the furniture and decorations are pleasant and functional. The beds are terrific - very comfortable mattresses and luxurious bedding.
We found that upgrading to a suite was well worth the money. I've always heard that you shouldn't waste money on a nice cabin, since you're never there anyways. But my husband and I found that we love having a comfortable place to retreat to, even if for short periods of time. The Grand Suite was fantastic, with plenty of floor space to move around in. We had a full size bathtub and double vanity in the marble-tiled bathroom. And since we were traveling in a group, it gave us all a place where we could gather before heading off together, sort of a home-base for our group. While the adults were out in the evenings, the kids enjoyed watching movies on the suite's DVD player. The best perk was the Concierge Club, where we could stop in for complimentary drinks and canapés in the evenings before dinner, and have the services of a concierge to arrange excursions, dinner reservations, spa reservations, etc. Our concierge, Kristina Staric of Croatia, was a great hostess, both charming and knowledgeable.
Ship Facilities We enjoyed the social areas of the ship. The center of the ship is a 3-story high central shopping mall called the Promenade, home to services like Guest Relations and the Excursions desk, places to get a snack like Ben & Jerry's for ice cream and the Café Promenade for Seattle's Best coffee, and plenty of bars and shops. It's a nice place to walk around and pass some time, and a convenient passage through the center of the ship. It's also a gateway to the Casino, the karaoke bar, and the ice skating rink, which was a hit with the kids.
We enjoyed the services of the professional photographers. The photographers know how to get good results, and the shots were printed up and nicely displayed in the photo gallery. In contrast to some other ships we've been on, there was plenty of room in the photo gallery area, and you didn't feel like you were fighting your way to the photo display walls. The photos are about as expensive as you'd expect in such a setting, but they were well done.
There were plenty of opportunities for physical activity on board. The long lines at the Flow Rider discouraged us from trying the surfing machine. We were tempted to bypass the lines and either pay for an hour of private lessons ($60) or rent the entire machine ($300/hour), but we ultimately decided to pass. The kids clambered up the climbing wall, which was challenging and well-designed. The sport court hosted lots of basketball, and the miniature golf course was popular. I never saw the inside of the golf simulator, but it sounded fun too. The kids liked the H20-Zone kids water park area and hot tubs. I'm not a public-pool person, but the adult pool areas looked clean, well-maintained, and inviting. The walking track was busy every morning, and made for nice exercise if it wasn't too windy. The gym was great! It was clean, spacious, and well-appointed. They had dozens of treadmills, elliptical trainers, stationary bikes, and stair climbers, a boxing ring, Pilates Reformer, yoga and Pilates classes, free and machine weights, and lots of staff around to help. We enjoyed the Body Composition Analysis, which tells you about the make up of your body and your metabolism, and how many calories you burn.
We also took full advantage of the spa. We tried massage, acupuncture, manicure, pedicure, hair cut & color, and having our hair done for formal night. The services were excellent and the staff is well-trained. Of course, you pay first-class prices for the service, as much as you'd pay in a 4-star hotel spa on the mainland. But we enjoyed the atmosphere and the pampering. My only complaint is that at every contact, the spa staff tries to sell you some of their very expensive product line. They must be highly incentivized to push the goods, because push they did. After several attempts, it was downright unpleasant, and made me prefer not to return. And because I happen to know what some of that stuff wholesales for, I figured out that their products are marked up 400-500%, which is a bit steep.
We attended a couple of the shows, including a special guest appearance by Gunnar and Matthew Nelson, doing a Ricky Nelson Tribute Show, which was very nice. Otherwise the theater productions were a bit odd. The music, singing, dancing and stage dressing were OK, but not great, and perhaps seemed a bit pretentious given the surroundings. The exception to this was the "Encore" Ice Show, which was most entertaining. On a relatively small patch of ice, 11 ice dancers managed to entertain us with all the drama and excitement of a full-blown ice spectacular. It was impressive. And whenever we didn't feel like hitting the theater, in-room movies kept the kids entertained.
The kids didn't feel the need to enroll in the organized day-care activities this time, but never lacked for activities or entertainment. They especially enjoyed the H20-Zone and ice skating rink.
Dining Overall, food was a bit of a challenge, as you imagine it must be when feeding 3,900 people. The main dining room is 3 stories high around a central atrium, and is very beautifully appointed. We got a terrific table for 8 in the Main Dining Room, on a suspended balcony at one end of the 5th floor dining room. The location couldn't have been better. Unfortunately, that's all the positive experience we had. On the first night, the food was generally unappetizing, warm when it should have been cold, cold when it should have been warm, undercooked, overcooked, or bland. The service was slow and forgetful, although our waiter, assistant waiter, and drinks waiter were friendly. It seemed that either they just had too many tables to attend to, or their service area was too spread out. The second night, which was formal night, they inexplicably replaced our lovely, comfortable dining chairs with a collection of hard, uncomfortable conference-room chairs, which they tried to explain was due to a chair shortage, but the explanation never made sense, and left us feeling bamboozled. The food and service were again sub-par, and the headwaiter who stopped by our table was dismissive of our concerns. We never went back to the main dining room. Later in the cruise (I suspect after the concierge overheard my conversation with another guest on the subject), the headwaiter contacted me and apologized, saying that the first 2 nights had been difficult with this cruise being full and the ship still being new, but claimed that things had improved since then. Nevertheless, we decided to pass on mass dining and explore the other options available. Happily, every other dining venue we tried was excellent! We had a blast at Johnny Rockets, twice. For a $3.50 cover, they serve a never-ending basket of fries and onion rings, giant, delicious burgers, and dessert. For a few dollars, you can order a hand-scooped milkshake that's to die for. The tables have nickel juke boxes that play classic diner music. During Donna Summer's "Last Dance," the waiters performed a well-choreographed dance routine in the middle of the diner! It was hysterical. The adults also ate at the specialty restaurants, twice at Portofino's and once at Chops Grille. For a cover charge of $20-$25, they provide real restaurant service and quality. The food is made to order, and every single thing we tried was excellent. The restaurants themselves are elegant and intimate. The service was over the top, attentive, personable, entertaining, and knowledgeable. We vastly preferred these dining arrangements over the cattle-call of the main dining room. For lunches and family dining, the Windjammer buffet had a near-endless array of food choices, and they were all tasty and well-presented. Every member of the family could find something that satisfied their tastes. Breakfast was best accomplished with room service, and although the food wasn't inspiring, it was adequate.
Transportation & Boarding We arrived in Miami the day before our embarkation, and stayed at the Miami Airport Hilton using frequent traveler points. We especially enjoyed the concierge lounge access. We hired a limo to take us to the port, which was a good deal for the 8 of us, at less than $100 (www.hollandlimousine.com, found through a CruiseCritic.com post.) The boarding process was quite smooth. Although we had received a flyer warning us not to arrive until 2 pm, we got to the docks around 12 pm, and were able to board right away. My husband and I had a suite, so we didn't have to wait in line at all, and the rest of our group only spent about 20 minutes in line. The disembarkation was equally quick - we carried our own luggage during the express departure at 6:30 am, and were off in 15 minutes. Excursions Our best excursion experiences were booked through Island Marketing, Ltd., rather than through the cruise line. Because I have an aversion to being herded around in large tour groups, I looked for private charters on the internet. The pickings were kind of slim, and I was relieved to find http://www.caribbeanshoretours.com/, offering individualized tours, at prices that rival the cruise's excursions. (I'm not affiliated in any way, but I got lots of questions on the ship about how I found the private charters, so I'm sure people want to know.) Booking the tours over the internet was easy, and they answered all my questions promptly. Both of the tours we booked through them were top-notch local operators. We couldn't have been more pleased with the service.
The highlight of our trip was our private sailboat charter in Grand Cayman. Arranged through Island Marketing, Ltd. (http://grandcaymancruiseexcursions.com/StingrayCitySailing.htm), we were met by Carol Schrock, a witty and entertaining local tour guide with a spotless, air-conditioned van. She drove us to the harbor, giving us a lively narrative about the Caymans on the way. She escorted us all the way to the boat itself, and promised to meet us upon our return. At the boat, Neil Galway's 44' sailing yacht Nautigal (www.sailcayman.com), we were warmly welcomed by Captain Nick, an experienced and entertaining sea hand from Northern Ireland. He showed us aboard, stowed our gear, and let us set the itinerary. We were interested in snorkeling with the stingrays, so he took us away from the crowds, to the "real" Stingray City. The cruise excursions take you to a shallow reef where you stand on a sand bar while the rays swim around you. We could see them in the distance, dozens of boats lined up one next to the other, with what must have been a few thousand tourists (there were 6 cruise ships in town that day!). In contrast, there was only one other boat anywhere near where we went. We were in about 15 feet of crystal-clear warm water, and the rays were swimming around below us. Nick attracted them to the boat with a squid snack, and would hold them for us to "pet." They swam around us, and if we dove down they would come to examine us. They weren't afraid of us at all, and they weren't frightening either (no barbs on their tails). It was truly magical to see nature so close up. After another stop for swimming and snorkeling along a coral reef, we had lunch, lazed in the sun, and went for a sail. This trip was well suited for the kids as well as the adults. When Nick returned us to the dock, we were tired and happy, at the end of an ideal day in the Caribbean. Carol was waiting for us as promised, and whisked us back to the cruise ship docks, where we did some souvenir shopping. The only blight on the day was the insane line to get back on the tender.
At Cozumel, Mexico, we arranged a private tour to the ruins at Tulum also through Island Marketing, Ltd., http://cozumelcruiseexcursions.com/TulumMayanRuins.htm. It was a long trip, but the ruins are stunningly beautiful, perched on the cliffs overlooking the sea. Logistically the journey was a little challenging - it required a taxi ride to ferry pier, a ferry to the mainland (45 min), a van ride to Tulum (1 hr), and the same in reverse. RC's itinerary said we wouldn't dock until 10 am, which meant we wouldn't be able to catch the 10 am ferry. We actually docked about half an hour early, and could have caught the 10 am ferry, but we were caught off guard, and ended up on the 11 am ferry. I got the impression that they usually dock early enough to make the 10 am ferry, so be aware of the possibility. Once off the ferry in Playa del Carmen, we hooked up with our tour guide Isabel. She is smart, funny, passionate, and intelligent, a real pleasure to be around. On the ride down the Costa Maya to Tulum, she gave us a history lesson about the Mayan Empire, which will hopefully be useful for the school report the kids have to write when they get home. She showed us around the ruins, and let the kids go swimming in the ocean next to the ruins. They had a great time, and there's something insanely cool about swimming in the beautiful blue sea looking at thousand-year old ruins above. We enjoyed the excursion, in spite of running a little short on time and having so much distance to cover.
For Labadee, Haiti, and Montego Bay, Jamaica, we used RCI's excursions. It wasn't entirely a painless process. Upon boarding, we tried to use the RCTV interactive TV service to select some activities, but the system said no excursions were available. We went down to the excursions desk and stood in line for 45 minutes, and when we got to the counter, the youth program staffer helping us had apparently been pressed into excursion service for the first time that morning. She had no idea what she was doing and no information about the excursions she was trying to sell us. She gave us incorrect information about arrival times which caused us to make some bad choices, and she messed up our ticket sales. We ended up having to wait for one of the experienced agents to assist us. It was a boondoggle, and we felt really sorry for the 100 people in line behind us.
Our first stop was Labadee, Haiti, at a resort facility owned by Royal Caribbean. No money is needed on shore, as the activities and food & drink are provided by the ship. The facilities didn't seem to have any problem accommodating all the passengers who disembarked, and we didn't find ourselves waiting in any lines. We took the "Thriller" jet boat ride, which was a fast, fun tour of the nearby coastline. It was a nice way to cool off and see a bit of the area. We had purchased tickets for the kids to play on the giant water slide, but it was out of service. (The tickets were refunded by the excursions desk with no hassles.) We had wanted to get them into the Aqua Park to play on the water toys (giant icebergs, see-saws and other floating toys), but were told at the excursions desk that there were no more tickets available. However, when we walked up to the park on shore, we were able to purchase entrance tickets with no problem and the kids enjoyed their time in the Aqua Park. We stopped by the craft exhibits, which had a few nice handmade local items and lots of kitschy items. The local vendors were extremely aggressive, throwing themselves into our paths and trying to force us into their stalls. I didn't make it more than 15 feet inside the building before fleeing in self-defense. If you do want to purchase anything from the craft mall, you have to bring money, as they are not ship-based vendors. Overall, Labadee was not a great excursion. It was very hot, tendering was a hassle, the food was just OK, and there really wasn't much to do other than sit at the beach with hundreds of other tourists.
Our visit to Montego Bay, Jamaica, stood out for the poverty and decay of the island. It was our first visit to Jamaica, and we were saddened to have our fantasies dashed. The cruise ship dock area is protected from the surrounding area by huge fences and armed guards, giving an early indication that Mo' Bay is a dangerous place. As we drove through town we noticed that every commercial building is surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. We saw shacks built of cinderblock and roofed with tin, just down the hill from magnificent mansions that would be equally at home in Newport Beach or South Beach. Clearly, poverty, crime and an unequal distribution of wealth were prevalent on this third-world island. My mom and the kids went on a jungle river tubing trip, which they mostly enjoyed. The only cause for concern was a bus in a frightening state of disrepair that was used for transportation during one brief part of their journey to the departure point. Otherwise the trip was well-organized and enjoyable. The adults went to Sandals resort for the day. We were surprised to find a vaguely run-down air about the place, like an aging princess hanging on to the old glory days. The beach frontage of the resort is incredible. The water is crystal, sparkling blue and very inviting. The resort facilities seemed adequate if not luxurious, the food was varied if a bit bland, and the drinks were watered down to nothing. Unfortunately, the resort is located immediately adjacent to the international airport, and we were bombarded every few minutes by the roar of jet engines. One delightful surprise was the spa, which appeared to be new. It must be run by an outside firm, because it is first-class all the way, service as well as the prices. All the staff that we interacted with was beautifully trained and very accommodating, and the facility itself was gorgeous. Of course they tried to sell us lotions and potions, but the sales pitch was low-key. The spa was the best part of the Mo' Bay experience.
Conclusions Overall, we found that a cruise is a delightful way to gather multiple families together and provide adequate entertainment for everyone of all ages all the time. It's lovely not to have to plan and schedule every moment, to have options for different tastes, to have all your meals provided for, and to be able to spend stress-free time together. We enjoyed RCI's big ship, and will look forward to cruising together in the future.