My fiancee and I planned this trip with another couple about 10 months in advance (though we'd been talking about it since 2006!) through a local travel agent that our friends often used. He did an Ok job, and we got a $100 onboard credit through him, but I think that next time I'll go ahead and book online, directly through the cruise line - I don't feel his travel connections were worth the hassle of having my name spelled wrong on half my travel docs and he was useless in helping me correct them.
This ended up being a particularly exciting trip for me, as my boyfriend proposed the night before we left, so for us it was an engagement trip! In addition, his birthday was also the day before we left, so I had ordered some birthday room decorations ahead of time. The cast of characters were me (Michelle), my fiancee, Greg, and our friends Charlie and Stephanie.
Embarkation: Our flight (direct from Cincinnati, which was nice) got into Miami about 10:00, and were in a cab and on our way to the port by 10:30 (much better taking a cab than my past experience of buying the cruiseline's transport - we could leave as soon as we wanted instead of sitting on a bus for half an hour waiting for it to fill up. With four of us, it was definitely cheaper, too). We thought maybe getting there over two hours before "official" check-in might give us an advantage, but there were already quite a few people at the port when we got there, so once we got our checked luggage taken care of, we headed straight for the line. Considering the sheer volume of people, check-in was fairly painless, and the lines were always moving, but it seemed to be a really long process since the last time I cruised out of Miami, about five years ago (the way the terminal was set up, I swear we had to circle it about three times - not always pleasant when I was trying to juggle my carry-on bag, passport, travel docs and then, finally, my cruise card). Once we got through and onto the ship, we were told the rooms weren't ready yet (too bad, since I was DYING to get rid of my carry-on -- I've already got one with wheels for my next trip!), so we headed for Windjammer and ate to our hearts content until we could get into our rooms around 12:45. Once we did that, we suffered through muster, and then changed into our suits, headed straight for the adult pool (what a fantastic invention - no kids!), grabbed some long-awaited fruity drinks, and people-watched until it was time to clean up for dinner.
Room: When we got to our rooms, the birthday decorations I'd ordered were up, as promised, and my fiancee appreciated the surprise. We decided to get interior rooms (Class M), as they are significantly less expensive than anything with a view, but did upgrade to the 9th level so that we had better access to the top of the ship. It ended up being a great decision, as the ship is very large I felt we were more centrally located that way. We were also right next door to our friends (though not adjoining rooms), which was great. But I was perfectly happy with our decision to get an interior room, the most difficult part about it being that we had to set our alarm every day, even when we had nowhere to be, or we could have easily slept the day away in the dark, dark room! The bed was ridiculously comfortable (and we have a Temperpedic at home!), and though they said it was the equivalent of a Queen when the two singles are pushed together (with a pad on top), I felt it was definitely larger, closer to a King, though not quite. There was plenty of closet and drawer space for the two of us, and we had no problem getting our suitcases out of the way by putting them under the bed. I really appreciated the safe in the room, because dressing for dinner every night, plus two formal nights, meant that I had a lot of jewelry with me that I kept in there -- in addition, since all you need is your cruise card 97% of your time on the ship, we kept our wallets and money in there, too. I also love the new flatscreen TV's in the rooms now! The bathroom was small, but workable -- and note that we're both tall, and the shower was tiny, but I was amazed at the way I could rotate the shower head and actually comfortably shave my legs! I loved our stateroom attendant, George, too -- by the first day he knew our names, and every time he saw us he asked how our day was going.
Dining: Though the four of us had requested to be put be put at a large table so that we could get to know other passengers, apparently the numbers didn't work out because we found ourselves alone at a four-topper. But we were fine with it, and enjoyed our placement immensely, since we were on the third floor right next to the edge where we could look out over the rest of the dining room every night, and straight down to whatever musician was playing that night on the first floor. We chose to do the late dinner seating, which worked out great for us -- we tend to be night owls anyway, and appreciated the fact that we didn't have to rush upstairs to get dressed by 4:00 every afternoon to make an early dinner. Our main waitress, Natalia from Russia, and assistant waiter, Ketut from Bali, were both fantastic. They both had great senses of humor, and we got along with them wonderfully throughout the week. And this was the first cruise I've gone on where I didn't feel that I was tipping a nameless and faceless head waiter at the end of the week. We saw him every night, and he would often stop to see if we or the tables around us needed anything if the Natalia or Ketut were not available. Nearly everything we ate on the trip was great, and if you didn't like it, they were happy to bring you something else.
We did eat at Chops one night, and it was delicious! You do have to pay an extra $25 per person, but they would bring you as much food as you desired, I think we sampled every appetizer and side they had to offer, and several of the desserts!
We also bit the bullet and ate lunch at Johnny Rockets on our last day (Windjammer was good, but tends to carry a lot of the same things day in and day out, so by the last day we were looking for something different). There was a wait, but they gave me a beeper, and it was not big deal to wait on the deck for the next 15 minutes until we got a table. For $4 per person (mine was actually free since I had a coupon from my "previous RC cruiser" booklet), it was great, and tasted exactly like the one we have back home!
Lounges: We were on a decidedly adult trip, having no children with us (I'd LOVE to find an adult-only cruise one of these days), so we definitely enjoyed the variety of lounges on board the ship. We especially liked that every night from 4:00 to 8:00 we could locate martinis at 20% off, alternating every other night between the Schooner Bar and Olive or Twist (the latter being at the top of the ship with a fantastic view), and it worked out particularly well for us since we'd chosen the late dinner. By about day 2 we had "regular" waiters for our group at each of those two lounges, plus the bar by the adult pool. We did not by ANY means drink to excess while we were on this cruise (no stumbling about or making fools of ourselves in our group), but we like to have a good time while we're on vacation! We also checked out several of the ship's other lounges, and didn't really find any we didn't like!
Ship Activities: We LOVE karaoke (my fiancee runs a karaoke show back home) and were thrilled to find that there was a lounge on the boat made SPECIFICALLY for karaoke (for how often we do it at home, singing in front of a brand new audience is always so much more fun!). However, the big problem with this was that they only offered karaoke for about an hour every night (one night they splurged and did TWO hours), which is ridiculous for any karaoke bar worth their salt. You can only get about 12 singers up in that amount of time, which means very few people get to sing more than once (and we always made sure we were there early enough to guarantee each of the four of us getting to sing at least once). There were also two nights where there was no karaoke at all. Why would you bother to create an entire karaoke experience (large screen TV's that show the words all over the lounge, they had a green screen on the stage that would show the person singing with a fun background behind them, etc) to hardly utilize it? But what little karaoke there was, we took full advantage of and had fun with.
In the course of doing karaoke, suddenly the four of us found ourselves recruited by the ship's host staff to perform in their 80's Night extravaganza. On Thursday night, we were hustled into Studio B (they put a dance floor over the ice rink), and each dressed up and to lip-synch to a popular 80's hit (Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Hey Mickey, Walk Like an Egyptian, and Walk This Way) for the crowd of dancers, and we had an absolutely blast doing it. We found out later that even though we were lip-synching, that they recruit from karaoke because that way they can see which people love being onstage and won't bail on them at the last minute!
Charlie and I decided that we wanted to take a crack at the Flowrider on our last day, which was a ton of fun -- we did the boogie boarding, which was clearly much easier than the surfing. Being a Sea Day, it was crowded back on the Flowrider, but we each went twice and I don't think we waited more than about 20 minutes each time. The biggest problem was that it was so windy my hair hurt!
I did get a couple of spa treatments, which were wonderful I'm not one to spend much money on spa treatments back home, but this was my vacation and I was treating myself! Knowing full well that the appointments fill up quickly for the Days at Sea, I immediately located the spa sign-ups on the day we boarded so that I could get an appointment for the next day. I had a new ring to show off and needed manicure immediately! I got the full hand treatment, which I loved. Something to note is to keep an eye out for all the fliers that are inserted into your Compass on a daily basis, as there were a lot of really good deals on spa treatments that weren't announced until the day before you could book them. Stephanie and I did the Ladies Night treatment on day 5, which was amazing -- it was an awesome sampling of mini-treatments for not a bad price at all.
We spent all of our downtime at the adult pool, or in the cantilevered hot tubs. Even being the end of February, there were still a lot of kids on board (when booking, we really want to avoid most of March and all of April to stay away from spring break, but apparently a lot of parents don't have as much guilt about pulling their kids out of school for a vacation like they seemed to when I was a kid) and so we never did step foot into the "regular" pool, even though it looked like a lot of fun with all the cool fountains and such they had over there. However, I loved the semi-quiet of the adult area and was perfectly happy to hang out there all week. I think that the minimum age should be raised to 18, though -- 16 is still too young if you want to make it a true adult area. This review makes it sound like I hate kids, which is far from accurate, but I really wanted to enjoy the vacation I'd worked so hard for without shrieking children around every corner.
We didn't really go to any of the shows, as they weren't timed very well with our dinner time and other activities we wanted to attend. This wasn't anyone's fault, it was simply our choice in what we preferred to do! We did go to see the adult comedian, and went to the finale where they show some of the video review.
Ports & Excursions: Labadee, Haiti (RC's private peninsula). It was absolutely breathtaking, and the weather couldn't have been better. We ate the barbecue lunch that was provided on the island, and then headed over to Dragon's Breath beach - it was right under the zipline, so it made for great people watching. When we got to the beach, we just wanted to grab some chairs and sit with another group of people we knew, but a couple of Haitians who were working as some sort of beach helpers couldn't be stopped and grabbed us four chairs and hauled them to where we were heading, whether we wanted their help or not. Charlie handed them a couple of dollars for their help, but it was frustrating at how forward they were. After that, Stephanie and I rented some water mats, bought ourselves a couple of Labadoozies (delicious rum drinks) and laid in the perfectly temperatured water for the next two hours. I didn't keep track of the boys at that point!
Montego Bay, Jamaica. While our friends decided to head to the Sandals resort for the day, Greg and I wanted to do something far more adventurous and signed up for the Chukka Canopy Experience (aka the Zipline Tour). We loved every second of it! It took probably about half an hour by bus to get to the zipline place, but the bus driver was really informative and made the trip up very interesting for us. We got to the tour place, and after a quick bathroom break and a stop to apply our bug spray (you're in the jungle - you'll need it!), they hooked us up with our equipment and broke us into three groups of 10, each with two tour guides. Everyone who worked there had great personalities and clearly liked their jobs, and our two guides were fantastic and hilarious. There were five or six ziplines, and we were on platforms VERY far above the jungle floor at times, but I never once feared for my safety, as everything was clearly put together with every bit of safety in mind. The last zip was over 1,000 feet long and that alone made the trip worth every penny. After we were done, we decided that while in Jamaica we HAD to drink some Red Stripe beer - we were panicked when we realized we were the only ones not yet on the bus, and hadn't even started drinking our beers, but the bus driver told us that we could bring them on the bus -- no problem, mon!
Grand Cayman. The four of us chose to do the two-stop Snorkel and Sting Ray City excursion. There were some definite problems in the beginning, as it was clear that they were way overbooked for how much room they had allowed on both the bus and then the boat. We hung back in back of the group, because we wanted them to figure out what was going to happen before we got stuck sweltering on a bus or boat while they "discussed" what they were going to do with us - both times this proved to be a wise decision. With the bus, while the first surge of people was put on a school bus with no air conditioning, we ended up on an air-conditioned tour bus instead. When we got to the dock, the boat was also clearly not going to handle the whole group. Once again, we let the first surge pile into the boat (where they sat shoulder-to-shoulder around the perimeter of the boat), while we hung back. Though we did have a moment of panic and fury when that boat took off and there were about 20 of us left with no boat on which to board. However, in the end apparently the guys in charge wrangled a deal with another boat (it was really hard to tell what was happening, since they were hardly communicating with us at all), and the last of us filed onto a much larger boat with far fewer people. In the end it definitely worked out for us, but it was a very frustrating process. But once we got to that point, it was a fantastic trip. First we stopped to snorkel - unfortunately, there weren't a lot of fish where we stopped, but the reef was beautiful. We did have a tail-less stingray join us for a while (we think the poor thing had been exiled), and he had fun playing with us. After that we moved onto Sting Ray City, which was an amazing experience. There were several other boats around the sandbar, but plenty of sting rays to go around. As soon as we got off the boat, a crew of them came racing up, knowing there was food in store! Our boat guides were great, too, and very informative. A couple of people got off the boat and freaked out, which I really didn't understand since they're so used to people that they were like puppy dogs and wouldn't hurt a fly. But I grew up around the ocean, so I'm used to what lies beneath - if you have someone you're at all hesitant about taking in the water with very large stingrays, leave them on the boat.
Cozumel. Our friends had been on a cruise the year prior that took them to several of the same stops, and didn't feel the need to get off at Cozumel, so the fiancee and I went alone to explore. There are two ports in Cozumel, and we were at the one that is NOT in the middle of the main shopping strip - we were at the one about 3 miles away, and for $6 you could take a cab down to the shopping strip. There was a fair size marketplace just off the boat that was really crowded, and I later figured out were not offering great prices, so I'd avoid it and just grab a cab (or scooter) to the "downtown" area. We originally had intended to just walk around for a bit, but when we found ourselves halfway to the shopping strip, we just kept walking! As big tequila fans, we had originally contemplated doing a tequila tasting in Cozumel, but when we saw its $80 per-person price tag, decided against it. Good thing, because if you go to a store called The Tequileria, they offer virtually hundreds of different tequilas and will let you taste as many as you want for free! We tasted many, and then bought many! One of my main goals in Mexico had been to come home with at least one really good tequila - mission accomplished! We also hit the Silver store and I got some beautiful tanzanite pieces (I can't ever leave the caribbean without buying my favorite stone) for a terribly good price. Our feet weary by this point, we took a cab back to the ship. We were actually sort of regretful we hadn't gotten the scooter that someone tried to rent us right off the boat so we could have seen more of Cozumel - next time, for sure!
Summary: All in all, a fantastic trip and a gorgeous boat. I'd definitely cruise this boat again - though I've done the Eastern Caribbean on Carnival, I'd like to try it on this boat, as I'd like to do a different itinerary and I think they do a few stops I've never done. Great good, stellar service, fun activities, good times!