We live within driving distance to Miami, so we decided to take a chance on leaving our vehicle in the parking garage. Entry into the port is well marked, and signage to the Royal Caribbean terminal was easy to follow, but we both agreed that it wasn't necessary - we could see the huge ship from the interstate! Parking came out to $140.00, paid as we left the following week. The garage was right at the RCCL terminal, was clean and well lit, and we had no problems finding a good spot, since we were so eager to start our vacation that we got there at around 11:00 AM.
Even getting there so early, it still took us about an hour and a half to actually set foot on the ship. Royal Caribbean is very efficient at boarding, but there were still an awful lot of people. One thing we were very thankful for was that we had done the Online Check-in, and that we had brought passports as our identification. One couple had done neither, using state IDs, and I would guess it took them at least twice as long to get past the check-in desk. At that time passports were technically not required, but we took them and were glad. Plus, government officials at the ports of call were more than happy to stamp them for us as added "souvenirs". The only hitch to boarding was that because we were so early our deck wasn't open yet, so we had to lug our carry-ons up to the Windjammer Cafe and wait about 20 minutes.
Once we got to our rooms the level of service we were going to receive became evident. Our room steward saw us coming and introduced himself, and apologized that he hadn't finished wiping a few things in the room. As a former U.S. Marine, I couldn't have seen what he was talking about, the place was spotless to me, but he insisted. We introduced ourselves once and only once - he remembered our names the rest of the cruise. The room itself was a D2 balcony room on the 6th deck. It was clean, roomy, quiet and seldom occupied during waking hours on the cruise. The only problem we had with it was that the door latch stuck very badly, to the point that it took almost your full weight to get it to open. A quick call to our steward, and within 5 minutes a maintenance tech was there and had it fixed in another 5 minutes. Fantastic!
We wanted to explore the ship a little before the crush of passengers filled it up, so we wandered around and got a good feel for this beautiful vessel. Everywhere we went we were amazed at the craftsmanship, decor and attention to detail. We worked our way up to the top deck just in time to go back down for the life boat drill. We decided that even the incredibly boring drill should be fun, so we got a bunch of people in our area singing "row row row your boat" until we were shushed to hear the announcements. We highly recommend it as a great icebreaker and plan to try it again on future cruises.
After the drill it was time to set sail! We went back topside and went to the pool bar, where my wife ordered her favorite drink, and I said to the bartender "Pour something good for the occasion". (A word to the wise here - if you're gonna to say that at 5:00 PM to a bartender from Jamaica, make sure you've eaten more than a light breakfast before you do it; don't ask me how I know...). The sailing party was great, and that bartender remembered us every time he saw us on the cruise.
As far as shipboard activities, we have some advice for future cruisers on this class of ship: If you think you can experience everything the ship has to offer in only one cruise, think again. From Sudoku contests to fantastic floor shows and promenade parties to ice skating, rock climbing and the Flowrider surf simulator, there is something for everyone and so much to do that to try to do it all would take the fun out of all of it. We suggest reading your daily Cruise Compass newsletter, picking a couple of things that you would really like to experience, and just letting the rest of the day sort itself out. We missed a lot of activities on the ship, but we don't regret any of it, because we were constantly having a good time. For those who are health and fitness conscious, RCCL offers their Vitality program, with workout activities, seminars and menu items geared toward dispelling the myth that cruising can be tough on the waistline. Prior to the cruise I lost 25 pounds to make weight for an excursion with limitations, and on the last day I found that after a week of great food, I had still managed to lose another pound.
Aside from the sheer quantity of activities available on the ship, the quality of the activities and the crew members involved was spectacular. The crew very often seemed to be having as much fun on the cruise as the passengers; they were always willing to help; and at times showed outstanding patience, especially on the Flowrider, a surfing simulator that is fairly challenging even to those with good balance. Also, a pattern developed that many of the crew that we had multiple contacts with showed interest in us as if we were the only passengers that mattered on the ship. Other passengers we spoke to about this had the same experience. With over 4,000 passengers on the ship we don't know how RCCL pulled that off, but we were deeply impressed.
Service in the dining room was excellent and the food was very good. We were a little worried on the first night when the other 8 people at our large table turned out to be at least 10 years older than us (in our early 40's), but we all turned out to be young at heart, and we all ended up canceling our reservations to the specialty restaurants because we got along so well and had so much fun in main dining that we all looked forward to it, and even closed the room down a couple of nights talking over good wine and even better companionship. The only real disappointment was the desserts, but not because they were bad, just that they were not as good as the rest of the food. Breakfast in the Windjammer Cafe buffet restaurant was very good, our only complaints there were that they didn't have a very good selection of healthier cereals for adults, and that the choices for more health-conscious diners were not better identified. In hindsight, we also could have tried a little harder to look beyond the steaming trays of eggs, bacon, pancakes, sausage, etc. We only ordered Room Service once, but it was delivered when promised and the food was hot and very good. We did not eat at Sorrento's, the pizza parlor in the Royal Promenade, but the coffee and sandwiches available 24 hours in the coffee shop were excellent.
Labadee, Haiti: Beautiful white sand beaches on a small peninsula on the northern coast of Haiti, we took our snorkeling gear and walked in from the shore. We had a ride on the Dragon's Breath Flight Line scheduled, but after months of dieting and exercise to meet weight restrictions, high winds caused it to be shut down for safety reasons. RCCL's excellent customer service shined again, and we were refunded the cost to our ship account with no delay.
Montego Bay, Jamaica: Jamaica gets our nod for Most Selfless People award. During the 2 hour ride to the Appletone Estates Rum Factory tour, a woman became carsick on the bus. Our driver didn't hesitate, pulled to the side of the road in front of the first house he saw, and went to it and knocked on the door. He spoke to the man who answered, and the man immediately came out and helped the woman into his home to use his bathroom, then helped her back on the bus when she felt better. We later asked the driver if he knew the man and he said he did not. The tour was a trip back in time through one of the oldest rum factories in the Caribbean, and the ride back provided beautiful views over the mountains of Jamaica.
George Town, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands: We counted 6 other cruise ships in the port when we arrived, and the main tourist area suggested that just about every passenger was on shore. We asked around and after a few failed attempts got a local to tell us where Caymans go to the beach. After a cab ride so short we decided to just walk back when it was time, we came to what I can honestly describe as the most beautiful place I have ever been to. A small, quiet inlet with white sand, lots of coral and fish to see in the crystal clear water, and only about 8 other people there, all locals and all very nice. We snorkeled for hours and only left when staying meant we might miss the ship. It is open to the public, including tourists, but out of respect for the Cayman locals, we will not name the place here. If you wish to find it, it's not hard, and the search might make finding it even more enjoyable. When we spoke to our friends at dinner, they said that even though 7 Mile Beach and the tourist spots were crowded, Grand Cayman is a very nice place to visit.
Cozumel, Mexico: We used the ship credit from Haiti's cancelled excursion to turn this cruise into a snorkeling vacation. Took a short catamaran ride to the Palancar Reef and jumped into clear blue water 20-50 feet deep, then drifted with the current until we reached the reef's drop-off. Lots of coral and fish, but not quite as fun as Cayman Islands. Back to the ship to change and we went into town for some light shopping. On a pre-Hurricane Wilma cruise to Cozumel, the only way to describe the cab ride into the main shopping area of town would be to say that if you could imagine the scariest roller coaster ride, it would pale in comparison to the 3 mile trip from the pier to town. Speed limits, traffic signs and even red lights had no meaning to the cabbies, or to anyone else, it seemed. Post-Wilma reconstruction has introduced numerous large speed tables that do a good job of slowing down traffic to sane speeds, and laws governing cab rates mean knowing ahead of time what the ride will cost. The shopping district weathered the storm well, and the central square was rebuilt to even better than before.
All good things come to an end, and when the time came to disembark in Miami, things went very smoothly. We were off the ship and through Customs in about 45 minutes, and the airport-styled luggage carousels made finding our bags a snap. Traffic out of the port is well controlled, and we were on our way home well before noon.
Overall, we both agree that this cruise was far and away the best vacation we have ever taken, not only because the places we went to were very nice, but because the ship and service provided were stellar. Neither of us thinks we will cruise on any line other than Royal Caribbean again.