So much to write about - where to start?
My companion had never cruised before, and I thought that an inexpensive cruise would give him a taste of what to expect without breaking the bank. If he liked it, we could do more. If not, then not much was lost. Carnival has a reputation for being the Wal-Mart of cruises, catering to young families and the party crowd. Since we had relaxation on our minds, I thought RC would be a better choice. I've cruised RC before, and they seemed to be a step up, serving a slightly more mature crowd, but still financially accessible. Still white linen at times, but never stuffy about it. We chose the Monarch of the Seas based mostly on price and location. The ports of call, Catalina Island, San Diego, and Ensenada weren't really factors to us.
I enjoy cruising because it's like assisted living with calypso music and bar service. Someone else cleans your room, cooks your food, takes you on entertaining excursions if you like, or you can spend the entire day alternately reading and napping, feeling no guilt or responsibility whatsoever. The only thing missing that would make it perfect is palm trees by the pool.
Okay, so how did the Monarch score? Let's start with what happens first - the embarkation process. When you get to the cruise ship terminal, your bags are checked, you're handed a number and herded into a large seating area, where you wait until your group is called. You then wait in a fairly short line to pass through security, where they scan you for prohibited items and x-ray your carry-on luggage. The whole process was orderly and relatively painless, but I'll say this: Bring a book! For embarkation and debarkation you'll want something to occupy your time while you wait.
Once you're onboard, you'll notice that although the ship is an older, smaller vessel, it's in generally good repair. There is some water staining of the carpets, but mostly it's very clean and orderly. It looks out of date with all the brass and glass, like a 1970's casino, but it was inoffensive.
The one thing that makes cruising different than staying in a hotel and ordering take-out - service. The service was excellent. Rarely do I feel as well taken care of as on a RC ship. Our room steward, Barbera, did an excellent job trying to keep our cabin tidied and well stocked. She was inobtrusive, trying her best to work around our in-and-out schedule, but I got the distinct feeling that she was new to this game. Nonetheless, she worked hard to make us feel welcome.
Our waiters at dinner, Amit and Lee Jing, were very good. They were, for the most part, inobtrusive, and tried their best to accommodate our needs. The only area I felt could have been a bit better was their knowledge of pairing wines with the food served. But they are waiters, not sommelier, so this is completely forgivable. If not inspired, the choices they made ended up being good, so I can't really fault them if they seemed a bit hesitant.
The headwaiter did what I suppose most headwaiters do, schmooze the crowd and try to make you feel significant. I don't particularly enjoy being schmoozed, but I guess he was doing his job. The other patrons seemed to appreciate his attentions, so I assume he was effective.
Every staff member we encountered seemed friendly and helpful, and I give them five stars in this category.
But really - why does one go on a cruise except for the food? So let's get to it!
The first food one encounters once through the security process is in the Windjammer buffet. Since there is nothing else to do while everyone is boarding, why not have a spot of lunch and explore the ship? As you can imagine, since it's the only thing open, the Windjammer gets crowded after a while! The food on the buffet varies widely in concept and quality. You quickly learn to gravitate towards the items that they do well. Since I'm a diehard foodie, I tried to have a little of everything for comparison. It seems to me that the chefs aboard the Monarch were schooled in European technique, emphasizing properly cooked meats which gain much of their flavoring from the accompanying sauces, and vegetables which are steamed rather than fried or boiled. Across the board, beef and pork items were on the dry side, and were a bit bland. Chicken and turkey fared better, especially when in a sauce. Potatoes were universally tasty, and the quality of their vegetables couldn't be faulted. It took us a little while to realize that there were different buffet items in the BACK of the Windjammer, where the Jade restaurant is located. Back there, we found Asian items which we'd much rather have had. And the separation between the front and the back of the Windjammer serves as a surprisingly effective child filter. Most of the families and kids stay in the front of the restaurant, leaving the rear relatively quiet. This is especially pleasing, since the rear section has, by far, the best view.
We stuck our heads up on the second floor of the Windjammer, and found Sorrento's pizza tucked in a corner. I had a slice of pepperoni, my companion had a slice of cheese. Our evaluations were pretty much identical. There was a lot of cheese, which tasted unprocessed and was of decent quality, but the toppings and the crust left much to be desired. The sauce was so bland, it was difficult to taste. I assume this is to keep little old ladies from burning their mouths on lava-temperature sauce. Overall it was a step sideways from freezer pizza, and it's a pity they don't have a proper pizza oven. We didn't go back, but I'm sure it was popular with children who don't really know any better.
Not being men to pass up white linen service when we can get it, we dined every night in the formal dining room. Let me pause for a moment and reflect a bit on the dress code. The literature states that dress-casual is the rule for the day, meaning slacks and a collared shirt, but the reality is far different. Except for formal night, we saw people there wearing cutoffs and tee-shirts, and they were happily given service. While I don't endorse this level of casual attire in a white-linen setting, I would advise potential diners to save on the dry-cleaning bill and pack a single nice change of clothes. The other nights will be well served by clean blue jeans and polo shirts.
The food in the dining room varied from night to night, with the exception of the Angus Fillet, which makes a nightly appearance. They always have beef, a red meat, a white meat, a fish, and a vegetarian selection or two. The quality of all the food I chose was adequate at worst. Nothing phenomenal, nothing horrible. If there was a standout dish, it was usually found during dessert. The warm chocolate cake was very nice, and the strawberry pavlova was even better than I expected! Other nights, it seemed that the food followed my general rule for flavor: The prettier it looks on the plate, the less tasty it is on the tongue. The angus fillet was erratically cooked; one night I ordered medium rare but got medium well, and the next I ordered rare and got medium. My companion's steak was cooked as ordered both times. We both noticed that the meat was tough, requiring quite a bit of sawing with the steak knife to cut through. I realize that this is not Ruth's Chris, but a little marination would have gone a long way to making it better. The chicken dishes were tender, if a bit on the bland side. In short, it was a step up from cafeteria food, but rarely above three star quality. it was acceptable, but not exceptional.
The final night of the cruise I was almost approaching the meal with dread, not because of the taste, but because I'd eaten so much that I felt like every cavity inside me had been packed full of food. It is rare for me to say, but I'd had enough, and didn't want more. In spite of the fact that the food was relatively unspectactular, I'd have to say it accomplished its mission.
So what about activities? You have to have something to do in between trips to the food trough, and there are plenty of things to do on this cruise. At the first two stops we went to the world famous San Diego Zoo and did a bit of geocaching on Catalina Island (there are about a dozen caches there, if you're into that sort of thing.) There are also tours and rentals in both locations, if you're so inclined.
Based on past reviews of Ensenada, we had no inclination to get off the ship. We spent it as an at-sea day, starting with a trip to the surprisingly well-equipped onboard gym. I'm used to "workout rooms" being nothing more than two treadmills and an insignificant number of dumbbells, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that this ship, small as it is, has facilities where you can get a complete workout! They have a more than adequate selection of machinery to give you a satisfying way to work off the thousands of calories you'll be taking in during the day.
We spent the rest of the day sunning ourselves by the pool, enjoying the wonderful weather and the calypso music from the live band. They had a cookout by poolside that afternoon, which turned into a bit of a zoo. You could get whatever food you wanted, but you had to be willing to push your way through a disorganized crowd to do so. It was a case of too many people in too small a space. For the most part, we just got plates of cheese and fruit from the Windjammer and brought them back to our lounge chairs to eat. It was more peaceful that way. Oddly, the BBQ started serving at 3:30. Who wants to eat a rack of ribs two hours before dinner?
This brings me to the one real problem I had with this cruise. The scheduling, especially the nightly entertainment, was very odd. On my previous cruise, the entertainment for the second dinner seating occurred while the first seating ate, and vice versa. This was ideal because you could have dinner, go straight to the theater, then have time to change and go out to the club. Not so on this trip! The first round of entertainment was scheduled for 7pm, and the second at 9! For us central time zoners, this meant that the entertainment didn't wrap up until well after midnight. After a day of walking, drinking and eating, that seemed unreasonably late. We did attend one presentation, but since I was falling asleep, I found it difficult to enjoy.
The only reason I could find for this odd scheduling is that they hold Bingo in the auditorium, and have to push back the entertainment to accommodate. Since Bingo generates considerable revenue for the cruise line, I can see why they do it, but I feel resentful that I wasn't able to watch the entertainment we paid for, just so the cruise line can make more money.
The rest of the entertainment, the games and contests, all seemed rushed, as if they had too few crewmembers on staff to run them at a relaxed pace.
Now let's talk about debarkation. It's far, far less organized that the embarkation process. You give them your luggage by 8pm the night before, eat one last breakfast in the Windjammer buffet, then wait in a lounge for your color to be called. There is no good place to wait onboard while the others in your color group are processed, so you have to wait in a long line with 500 other passengers to work your way out of the ship. It would be far better if, like embarkation, they gave you a number and called you in groups of 50. Again, bring your book. The customs office was jam-packed too. All in all, I'd say we stood in line for about an hour, total, with no place to sit down. This is something to consider if you're disabled or have difficulty standing in one place for long periods of time.
All things considered, it was well worth the price of admission. I enjoyed it and will sail Royal Caribbean again, although I'll try to do it on a larger ship where things might seem a little less crowded.