We drove to the Best Western oceanfront hotel in Bal Harbour, about 20 minutes from the airport. The hotel was just like most of the other reviews I read. It's an older hotel and nothing fancy. We got a suite which was large and had a separate bedroom. The hotel was very clean, front desk staff was nice enough, and check in was quick and easy. Parking is tight but there were always a couple open spaces. The hotel is right on the water and we got in with enough time to swim in the ocean which was awesome! Coming from Phoenix, it was a rare treat for us to see ocean. The beach was clean and not crowded. We had kind of a hard time finding a good place to eat and I think we would have had better luck going closer to Miami. We ate at an italian restaurant right across from the beach about a mile south of the hotel. The food was good and they made a special plate for our daughter. We went back to the hotel and swam in both pools. Nothing fancy but it was fine for us.
The next day we drove about 15 minutes to drop the car off at Hertz downtown. No traffic and we dropped the car off in a small parking garage where we were met by a Hertz employee who checked the car over. I went inside and left my wife and daughter outside with the luggage. The office is very small with little or no AC. It was somewhat busy at 11am. I waited about 15-20 minutes to check out and when I went outside the family and luggage were on the shuttle van waiting for me. We took about a 5 minute drive (almost short enough to walk, but we had too much luggage) to the port. The porters were right there and took the luggage and we went in the terminal. We entered at about 11:30 and were on board by 12. There were several lines to wait in which made it a bit easier since we were moving a lot and the anticipation was building.
Once on board we went to the Windjammer and after reading a lot of reviews, I agree with a lot of people who said it was crowded. You could tell the people who didn't read about the cruise before cause they got in the first food line at Jade and it was backing up. We proceeded past them and went to one of the other 6 or 7 lines ahead and got our food pretty quickly. Seating was tight but the tables are spread out from Jade all the way to the back of the ship so you may have to walk a little.
We then walked around the ship and I was surprised that they didn't give out a map of the ship like every other cruise we were on. There were floor plans that were easy to read at all the elevators and other areas too, so no big deal.
During our days at sea we managed to do everything we wanted including the rock wall, mini golf, ice skating, flow rider, and Johnny Rockets twice. We thought it would be crowded at the ice skating but it wasn't at all. We waited about 10 minutes to get on the rock wall. Both times at Johnny Rockets we got right in, although I did see a line a few other times and they were giving out pagers. Flowrider hours should be expanded I think. They only had a couple hours a day and they were split between boogie boarding and surfing. There was a fairly long line for surfing but it was the last day and I had to try it. I waited about 25 minutes. Most people were done within 30 seconds so the line moves quick. It is definitely not easy! Boogie boarding was more my style.
The room (8376) category D1 superior balcony was very nice. Not huge but it was very clean and just as described. Our stateroom attendant was very good at his job and friendly. We gave him an extra tip at the end.
We ate at the main dining room late seating only 3 nights. I felt bad because out tablemates were very nice and I hope they didn't end up feeling like it was their fault we weren't there a lot. Food was good in the dining room but that's pretty subjective. We had no complaints. Service was good too. The rest of the trip we either ate at Johnny Rockets or Windjammer. Windjammer had a big selection of food and again, we thought it was great.
We also snacked at the places in the Royal promenade. I didn't realize that the food at the coffee shop was all included until about halfway through the trip. The special coffee drinks are extra but regular coffee, water, hot chocolate and the food there was included. The only thing I didn't like was that you couldn't get lemonade, juice, or iced tea after the Windjammer closed. I think it should also be available 24 hours a day. I guess they really want you to buy soda, or drink water or alcohol.
Speaking of alcohol, there was no shortage of drinks on the ship. Drinks were flowing very freely and they made it easy with people walking all around the open decks asking if you wanted a drink. Oh, and the ice cream at sprinkles. They really need at least 1 more ice cream machine with all the people on board. And keep it open 24 hours too.
Our daughter had a blast at the explorers club and went every day, at least for a little while. She was a tiger in the kids circus act which was really cute. We also did the family scavenger hunt which had a total of 4 families playing. Kind of weird that more people didn't participate.
San Juan- we didn't do any excursions, but we walked around and went to the castle. I really liked San Juan. It reminded me of New York City and New Orleans and Miami with all the colored buildings.
St. Thomas- We did the Coral world and Megan's bay excursion. Coral World was really good, although not real big. This was fine cause we only got an hour there. They had a lot of iguanas just walking around, birds to feed, stingrays, sharks, turtles, and other animals to look at. Megan's beach was also really nice. The water was calm and the beach was clean. It was crowded, but not overcrowded. They did not have many activities there.
St. Maarten- We did the Orient beach trip with lunch. This is the beach for activities. They had it all. My daughter and I went parasailing for $90 total. We didn't plan on it ahead of time, but it worked out well and saved us a lot of money. I felt as safe as possible too.
St. Thomas and Maarten were nice islands but there were obviously some poor areas too. Both are mainly tourist driven so everyone was very nice to us.
Everyone on the ship was nice too. We didn't encounter any rude staff, although some could have been a little bit nicer. But, with all the meals we ate and activities we did, you're bound to find someone who is not all cheery. If we had that much contact at home, we would have definitely found more unfriendly people. The other guests were good too. There was a family from Spain we found out later, who didn't seem to fit in. Obviously things are different where they are from judging from their speedos and bathing their children naked in the pool showers meant to rinse off. Again, no biggie, it gave us and a lot of other people something to talk about.
Disembarkation was a breeze too. This was probably attributed to us booking the everglades excursion with drop off at Ft. Lauderdale airport. We were the first color called and had to meet at 6:45am. We started walking at 7am and were off the ship by 7:20. Our luggage was on the carousel about 5 minutes later.
The Everglades excursion was good although the same group from Spain was on the tour and they didn't speak English. They were very loud and had to be told several times to talk lower by the tour guide. He was a great guide and tried to explain to them that it was a narrated tour in English only and the rest of the tour didn't want to hear them. A couple times it was a bit awkward but it happens I guess. Most of the tour group got off at Miami and then the rest of us got dropped off at Ft. Lauderdale. We got there 5 hours early (5:45 flight). Let me say that the airport or at least out terminal for USAir does not have a lot going on, so we read a lot and watched DVD's. Next time, we'll try to book an earlier flight.
I forgot to mention the pools and spas. Although busy at sea days, it was not that bad. We always found chairs and room to swim. I liked the way they had the kids H2O zone which all the kids seemed to love, then an adults and kids pool, and then the solarium for just adults. Good job by RCCL for coming up with that. There were always staff on the pool decks with "deck patrol" shirts that kept the kids from eating their ice cream in the pool and adults from bringing their drinks in the pool. You were allowed to drink on the edge of the pool and hot tubs which was nice.
And I also forgot the shows. I heard the ice show was really good and was hard to get seating. They had 4 shows spread out and you had to get tickets. Also, good idea so there was no disappointment about finding a seat. We got there about 15 minutes before showtime and got a good seat. The show was fantastic with a lot of 80's music which we could relate to. I am not a fan of broadway type shows but my wife made me go to several including the farewell show, comedy shows and a couple others and I was surprised how much I enjoyed them all. This was the best cruise we have taken so far. I read about the crowds and was a bit concerned with that and the size of the ship, but after coming off the Monarch of the Seas which was half the tonnage of this ship, I felt no more crowded. I guess because there is just so much to do.
Wow! I had a lot to say. I put some pics up on photobucket and have about 500 more.
If anyone wants pics of something specific, I probably have it, just e-mail. Jay963@cox.net