This is our 5th cruise, 2nd on Royal Caribbean. Last year we sailed on Empress to Bermuda, and had a fantastic time. We were so pleased that we booked this cruise on Empress and looked forward to this vacation for a year.
We arrived at Cape Liberty (Bayonne, NJ) at about 11 AM. I prefer to arrive early and relax on the ship. The process was extremely efficient and the staff was very friendly. We were on board and were in the Windjammer by 12:15 enjoying a cold drink and lite snack. Shortly after 1 PM it was announced that cabins were ready. So far, things couldn't be better.
We dropped off our carry-on bags and began to explore Explorer. BIG does not begin to describe this ship. At times you think that the bus from the terminal had taken you to a resort hotel, not a ship. She is magnificent and looks great for an 81/2 year old ship. Other reviews stated that the ship was showing her age. We didn't see that. The Promenade, the Palace Theater, and the three level dining room are extraordinary and beautiful.
Departure from New York Harbor was great. A fire boat bid us adieu with all water cannons blasting and passing under the Verazanno Bridge with very little clearance and the Statue of Liberty to the rear was exciting.
We encountered our first glitch when we arrived for diner at the second seating (8:30). Our room was on deck 3 and our table assignment was on deck 5. We made these reservations a year ago and thought this was a bit thoughtless. No other guests arrived at the table until 8:55 when 2 young ladies walked to the table, looked at my wife and I, made a face and walked away. They shortly returned with their parents and were seated. On our previous cruised we were well matched at our tables and enjoyed conversation with our new meal mates. This family from the Netherlands was obviously annoyed by our presence. We were annoyed by the poor planning by RCCL. Very briefly, getting our table changed was not as easy as it should have been. After seeing our Head Waiter who was not helpful and going to Guest relations, "We can't do anything about it," we tracked down the head Head Waiter and he was able to accommodate us. Our new table was pleasant and our meals were accompanied by lively, pleasant conversation for the rest of the cruise.
The itinerary was good. The guest flow was a problem. Whenever 3482 people are going the same place at the same time with limited access there is going to be congestion. There has got to be a better way to manage this process. At times the crew became surly and guest were prodded to move like cattle in a chute! Not very friendly or professional. Of course some of the guests became irritated and impatient as well. I must compliment the staff on handling the tendering necessary in Bar Harbour. In my opinion, St John was the worst.
We chose Express or walk off disembarkation. For the most part this was handled nicely and we were in our car before 9 AM.
Doesn't sound so bad, huh? On the whole, that's correct but there were just too many things not on the mark. We don't expect a Crystal cruise for RCCL prices, but the differences we saw from 1 year ago were too extreme. The food in the dining room was less diverse and of lower quality. There were no unacceptable meals but the menu was totally unimaginative, other than the description of what was being served. The servers were attentive and responsive but we felt like "turn 'em and burn 'em" was their goal. Get them in, get them out!
We went to Portofino's, the gourmet restaurant twice. We ate in the same restaurant on Empress and enjoyed it so we returned. The first visit on day 2 was very nice (my wife and I). On the 7th night we returned with another couple and things were not nearly up to par for a "Gourmet" eatery. The service was inconsistent - wrong dishes served to wrong guests, courses not placed at the same time to all, and the corker..the Italian restaurant, and the entire 230,000 ton ship was out of Chianti!
In addition to the wine, several other staples were out of stock at some time during the cruise. No saltines after day 3, no bananas the last day and a half, no skim or low fat milk at the end. Great planning and ordering!
They were also hurting for entertainment. If I were to rate the entertainment last year it was at least an 8. This year at most a 4. Only one show - a singer/entertainer was memorable.
One last thing. As Crown and Anchor (previous cruisers) we were to receive a gift and discount book, in our room upon our arrival. After 2 visits to the Business Office we finally received our spiffs on day seven!
To wrap things up, a friend from home who was on this cruise nailed it when she said, "there's absolutely nothing elegant about this cruise" and she was correct. We feel that the ship has too many passengers to do the little things that have made our previous cruises special.