This was my 67th cruise overall and my 7th with Royal Caribbean - to give you an idea of where we're coming from, we are great Celebrity and Princess fans, but have cruised pretty much everyone out there (including many that do not exist anymore). I am almost 40 and my partner is 39. We travel pretty extensively and have a lot of experience to compare our various vacation experiences to. While we appreciate the reviews from all CC members, we find that people who have only been on 10 cruises or less expect different things than we do.
As an overall impression we would say that the ship itself is a fabulous destination, but we felt more like we were on vacation on a ship rather than on a cruise; not that there was anything wrong with that. With the sheer size of the Mariner we were awed by some of the offerings, but also a little sad that we did not run into people as often as we would have liked and think that some of the true cruise experiences are lost on a vessel of this size.
We booked 2 days before the ship was to set sail through a Florida based, well known cruise agency and as we were coming in from Germany we took advantage of a good Cruise Critic tip and rented a car from Hertz which had a convenient local drop off. We dropped the luggage off at the ship first so we would not have to struggle with stuff, returned the car, and then took the courtesy shuttle back to the ship. I do not know about the other car agencies, but Hertz ran their shuttle every 10 minutes so it was very convenient. (They also picked us up the following week exactly on time and where promised.)
When you arrive at the port and see lines outside, don't panic. This is the port authority checking that everyone who enters the building has a passport and proper docs. It helps keep things from getting too bottled up at the security screening. After less than 10 minutes we were inside and the embarkation process was quick, efficient, and well organized. We timed it... and from security until we got onboard was 16 minutes. Not bad considering we got our docs, gave our credit card, checked in at the international passport desk, and waited to get our pictures taken. Total time from getting off the shuttle until in our cabin was 30 minutes. Not too shabby. We were onboard by 12:00.
The first impression of the ship was very favorable. It was very clean, well appointed, and not overwhelming as some ships of this size can be. Since we booked too late to organize our shore excursions online, we went directly to the Tour Desk and reserved our tour within 5 minutes. We recommend going directly to the two specialty restaurants upon boarding if you want a reservation, otherwise you will not get one. There is a Mystery Murder Dinner that we did not know about, and were sad we did not get a place.
As we wondered around the ship waiting until 1pm when we could get in our cabin, we noticed that every crew member who we passed smiled and said hello; not in the phony, forced way that you sometimes see, but in a sincere, pleasant manner. For the entire 7 days that behavior remained the same, INCLUDING Sunday morning after everyone had already received their tips and knew we were going! That really says something about the crew. We had heard stories about Captain Johhny and how great he and his crew were (including from our Hertz driver) but it has been a long time since we have experienced such a uniformly professional and personable crew. They deserve great credit, especially when dealing in the volume of people that the Mariner holds.
There are some great things worth remarking about on the Mariner as well as some little things that one should know about before booking. The layout of the ship is quite easy to learn, easy to navigate, and it was easy to go from place to place in an easy flow. Despite its size, we learned the ship in just a few hours. The inner Promenade is truly special and although it gives you the impression of being on a cafe lined street somewhere, we did miss being able to look out on the sea and know we were on a cruise. The casino was quite big and the only place on board that we ever smelled lingering cigarette smoke. The inlaid pinball machine on the entrance floor never ceased to amaze me as I walked over it. Ellingtons overlooking the pool area was our favorite bar. It was elegantly appointed and had beautiful views out over both the ship and the sea, but again, you knew you were on a super sized ship as it was always full and always noisy. One thing that we did not like about the ship was that it was lacking places where you could sit quietly. The Schooner Bar and the Champagne Bar should supposedly offer that opportunity, but they were always crowded.
The main pool area was another place you get overwhelmed by the number of people on board. While we found the set up great, and the extra-big hot tubs a super idea, it always felt like you were just an ant in a great big, noisy colony. The band they had was good, but so loud you could not hear the person sitting next to you. If you were on an upper deck -a little removed from the main music area- it was still loud because people were shouting their conversations over the wind and the music. There was very little shady area here and it was not a place for relaxing. The adult pool, while quieter, is much too small an area and you feel totally enclosed. There were always plenty of towels and the bar service was never intrusive. They do have pool attendants keeping things clean, but can anyone explain to me why it is not allowed to have your drink while sitting in the pool? Not even a glass of water. That just makes no sense to me at all. I understand keeping glass away, but beer cans or plastic cups? It seems to be at odds with the idea of being on a Caribbean cruise.
The sports deck including the rock climbing wall, roller blading area, and putt putt golf were nice, but it seemed cut off from everything. The saunas were nice, but lacked a place to sit and chill out in between steamings.
Overall, however, the ship is very nice, very clean, and we found her to be a friendly feeling ship.
At 1pm we were able to go to our cabins. I had ordered a Birthday cabin decoration kit and everything was completed when we arrived. It is something I would recommend to make a special occasion a little bit more special. We had cabin 3246 which we were a little concerned about since it is directly across from the disco, but can report that we never heard a single thump or noise the entire time. As the elevators and the theater entrance are just outside the door, it was very convenient and we can highly recommend these cabins (unless of course you can't live without a balcony). The rooms we would NEVER want are the inside cabins overlooking the promenade. Do not listen to any agent or cruise line rep who tells you that you can't hear anything...you can!!! Plus you have to keep your drapes closed the whole time or live in a fish bowl.
One thing that became sort of a joke during the week was the elevators. There simply aren't enough and you often found yourself visiting every single floor on a ride. As there are plenty of elderly folks on board who really can't do stairs, you find yourself visiting every floor trying to get from 3 to 14. Something to think about.
The food on board also surprised us. The buffets offered the same old stuff, at times great, at times tasteless, the Windjammer could be depended on for a nice waffle, a decent meal, but nothing to write home about. The fact that they do not utilize trays is maddening, especially with so many stations for various things and the chaos that generally ensues in the Windjammer. While the staff does go through offering refills on drinks, it can be an ordeal to find a table, and once you do your food can be cold. As a result, we utilized the dining room from breakfast every day and it was superb. Even when my partner asked for berries which were not on the menu, they got them for him.
The dining room meals were acceptable to good, but never super or spectacular. It was good, hearty food, and our server and assistant waiter were fantastic!!!!!!!! This is also the first cruise I have ever been on where you saw the head waiter every single day, not just on tip night. The service really was exceptional. Since the same food which is served in the dining room can also be had in the Windjammer, you can just as easily dine watching the sun go down as in the beautiful main dining room. I did not feel like getting dressed for dinner all the time, but we often went to dinner in the dining room simply because our wait staff was so good.
Another area that we wanted to comment on was the entertainment. The daily activities were somewhat lacking. There were things to do, but often they required a fee, were built around selling something, or just plain boring. In contrast, the nightly entertainment was absolutely stellar! Interactive, participation games (which they should do more of during the day), great comedians, the ice show, and the musicians in the various lounges were all super! We generally are bored by cruise shows, but this time we went and were glad we did! One thing not to be missed is the adult oriented Quest. We have never laughed so much or so hard on a cruise. I will not spoil it by describing it, but if you are ever on a RCCL cruise do not miss the Quest. Also not to be missed is the ice show. Truly amazing!
The children and teen activities must also be pretty good because we very rarely saw children... and for me that is a great big plus!
The shopping on board was pretty basic... inch of crap, tawdry fake jewelry, and bad "designer" stuff. Whoever figures out that offering really cool stuff at decent prices will be a bonanza is going to revolutionize on board shopping.
As this was an Eastern Caribbean sailing we stopped in Coco Cay, St Thomas, and St Maarten. On CoCo Cay it was too crowded and was one of the times when we thought...oh.. .what a big ship. Our Turtle Cove/Christmas Island tour was also pretty next to perfect, and our quiet day on Orient Beach was nice. We wanted to relax and we were able to... after all, isn't that what vacation is all about?