Well, it all started out with me bugging my husband to go on a cruise with me. I am a lifelong cruiser, I love cruising, and I have been on 15 to 20 cruises in my lifetime. My dear husband is not as much of a fan, and he had only been on two cruises prior to this one. However, I have never been on a group cruise before, and I suggested to my husband that we try and get some of our friends to come along with us. This idea was much more appealing to him, so that is what I set out to do. By the time we set sail, I had organized a group cruise for 14 people! I had no idea the group would get to be that large, so unfortunately, we were unable to take advantage of any group discounts or benefits.
The cruise was a 7-nighter on Royal Caribbean Cruise Line's Liberty of the Seas, from October 25, 2008 until November 1, 2008, to the Eastern Caribbean. A bonus was that it was a Halloween cruise, and we were all curious to see how that would pan out. We left and returned to the Port of Miami, and our ports of call were Phillipsburg, St. Maarten, San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Labadee, Haiti.
My husband and I flew down from Washington, DC to Ft. Lauderdale, FL on the morning of our scheduled departure from the Port of Miami, so we did not need to stay in a hotel the night before. However, we did take advantage of Royal Caribbean's airport to Port of Miami transfer for an extra fee, but it was completely worth it. Royal Caribbean's staff handling the transfers was very helpful; the location was clearly marked to make it easier for us; and the people all had great senses of humor while we were waiting for those who were later to arrive.
The bus ride from Ft. Lauderdale to the Port of Miami was uneventful and enjoyable, especially since I was in good company, having traveled down from DC with a couple of the people in our group. It took about 45 minutes, but we were dropped off at the Port of Miami right at the entrance where we needed to be in order to check in. Driving up to the port, the ship towered immensely over everything else in the area, you definitely had no trouble spotting it from a distance, and it was beautiful.
Royal Caribbean's Liberty of the Seas is one of the three biggest ships sailing the open seas right now. The other two are her sister ships, exactly the same in weight, passenger capacity, gross tonnage and specifications. This ship was amazing; I have never been quite so impressed by all the features on a ship before. In addition to the rock-climbing wall that is standard on all Royal Caribbean ships, this one had an ice-skating rink, the Flowrider attraction where you could learn to surf or boogie board, and even two jacuzzi pools that were cantilevered, or suspended over the water and extended out from the sides of the ship.
There were 14 floors on the ship, one of which housed a huge indoor promenade lined with shops and themed cafés on one deck. There was a wonderful spa and fitness center onboard, a huge lounge for nightly shows, a beautiful three-story main dining room, and many other lounges for relaxing with friends or just hanging out. There was also a dance club, a Johnny Rockets diner, a great buffet that was open almost all day long, and so many other features that I can't even begin to name more of them here.
My husband and I shared a room with one of our closest friends, so we had a cabin for three. I always prefer to have an inside cabin just because I feel the extra money for a balcony or oceanview stateroom is a waste when I will not spend that much time in the cabin. That said, there were three cabins in our group that were balcony staterooms, so I did get to spend a little time in them. What I found was that the balcony staterooms, while nice because of the balcony, they are pretty much the exact same as an interior cabin, and the only extra space you have is what is out on your balcony. The bathroom, closet space, and rest of the cabin are virtually identical.
The main dining room was beautiful, three stories as I mentioned earlier, and the décor was so traditional that it made me feel like I was back in the early 1900s walking into the First Class Dining Room from one of the early cruise ships that first made passenger cruising popular. The food was great, all of it was nice and fresh, and the desserts were excellent. My only complaint is that there wasn't coffee ice cream every night to go with whatever other desserts I was having. There was a really nice variety of dishes, from the appetizers to the desserts. Every night there were probably at least three or four vegetarian entrée selections, in addition to the same number or more meat dishes.
In addition to the main dining room, there were plenty of other dining options to choose from. Room Service was always available at no extra charge unless you tipped the delivery people. The Windjammer and Jade Cafés were the buffet-style dining options. Then there was a Seattle's Best Coffee, which also had sandwiches, pastries and cookies available and was open really late, if not 24 hours. A Ben & Jerry's and a 24-hour pizza parlor were also available on the Promenade Deck, in addition to the Johnny Rockets diner for hamburgers, hot dogs and milkshakes, and two specialty restaurants, Portofino and Chops Grille.
You had to pay $20 or $25 per person to dine at Portofino or Chops Grille, and $3.75 per person to eat at Johnny Rockets, but the food itself was no extra charge, although the milkshakes were. Ben & Jerry's charged for the ice cream, but there was also soft serve available 24 hours for free on the pool deck if you were in the mood. Lastly, the Seattle's Best Coffee charged for the specialty drinks, but not for any of the snacks or food it served. All onboard charges, no matter what for, are billed directly to your stateroom through your SeaPass card. Your SeaPass card is your room key, boarding pass, and the only form of currency accepted onboard for any purchases you make. There are only two places on the ship that handle cash, the Purser's Desk (Guest Services) and the casino.
There was so much to do onboard the ship that I did not even get to participate in everything I wanted to. Between the rock climbing wall, the ice-skating rink, the Flowrider, and the 9-hole mini golf course, those things alone will keep you busy for days. Then you have the spa and fitness center, the pools and jacuzzis, and the casino, and that's not even taking into account all the organized activities the Cruise Staff plans for you.
As far as organized activities are concerned, the Cruise Staff had a lot set up, and it was pretty hard to say "I'm bored" at any point. You just had to want to do something. For those of you who are more interested in simply laying out by a pool or just on deck, there were plenty of lounge chairs and deck space to do that as well. The Cruise Staff did a nice job of putting together different tournament or competition-style events, such as adult dodgeball, adult ping pong, "fastest rock wall climber", and best belly flopper, in addition to the casino tournaments of slots, blackjack and Texas Hold 'Em Poker.
The youngest person traveling with our group was 17 years old, so we really did not have much occasion to see how the children's programs onboard were. However, we did get to see them walking by and through the area where they were, and from what I noticed, the programming seemed to be really good. There were completely separate areas for different age groups, there was a huge arcade for the kids to hang out at, and they even had their own little deck area with a ping pong table, separate from those for the rest of the passengers. It looked like there was a teen dance club or lounge area also, so the kids did not even have to try and sneak into the adult one.
The quality of service onboard was fantastic throughout all facets. The Cabin Steward was wonderful; we never saw ours except on the first day, when he came by to introduce himself to us, which is how it should be. Every evening, he would make a new towel animal for us, and it would usually be wearing my sunglasses. He made us all sorts of animals, including even an alligator and a monkey hanging from the ceiling.
The waiter and busboy in the dining room were great; the waiter was really friendly and always telling us about the next day's meals and activities. Once he found out that so many of us at the table enjoyed the dessert course most of all, he would just bring us extra, without us even asking. The busboy remembered the kind of tea I preferred to have with my dessert on a nightly basis, and after drinks were ordered once on the first night, he brought the same drinks out the rest of the time without question, before we even asked for them!
Bar service, especially late at night, was also very impressive. With such a large group, usually about 8-10 of us would stay up until 1 or 2 AM playing cards and games. We would go up to the card room, which was one of the few lounge-type places that did not have its own bar. The last three of four nights we did this, there was a waiter (not always the same one, but one nonetheless) from a lounge who would come around and keep us sufficiently hydrated and bring us bar nuts and such to snack on, it was really neat. That I did not expect, because I thought they would be trying to shut down the bars that late at night, but it was nice that they would keep coming back to take a new order if we needed them to.
The sports staff was in charge of the Flowrider, rock-climbing wall, and ice skating rink, and is also definitely worth mentioning here. The Flowrider was pretty much a really small wave pool where you could learn how to surf or boogie board with the assistance of the sports staff. I only tried boogie boarding, but that alone was pretty hard, so I don't want to know how difficult the surfing would be. The guys at the Flowrider were very encouraging, and I think it was more that they got a kick out of watching people attempt to surf or boogie board more than anything, but they were still all really nice.
Generally speaking, the entire staff aboard the ship was very outgoing, and always there if you needed anything or had a question, which was really nice. You could tell that a person had to have a certain type of personality to work on the ship, even the engineers and mechanical personnel. I really liked and must compliment our cabin steward, the dining room staff, and the sports staff. To me, they are the ones who most stick in my mind when I think about the service on the ship.
Every night, there was an entertaining show of some sort, put on by the Royal Caribbean singers and dancers. On a couple of nights, the shows were pretty standard musical or song-and-dance type deals, but one night there was an ice show, and another night there was a Cirque du Soleil-type show. My personal favorite was the ice show, but mainly because I love ice skating. This cruise was unique because it took place over Halloween, so we actually had a whole night of Halloween-themed events going on as well. That evening, there was a Halloween parade, a Halloween Quest game (which is a team scavenger hunt-style game), and then dancing and partying as late as you could stay up.
Another nice thing about this cruise was the variety of shore excursions available. Of the three ports we visited (Philipsburg, St. Maarten, San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Labadee, Haiti); St. Maarten had the more adventurous and "extreme" shore excursions, from a high ropes adventure course to horseback riding to scuba diving; San Juan was more for those interested in shopping or history; and Labadee, Haiti is one of Royal Caribbean's private islands, so it was pretty much all beach activities.
I did the high ropes adventure course in St. Maarten, and I would STRONGLY recommend it for anyone who is even remotely interested in that sort of thing. I would love to have done it all day long, but unfortunately, I had to get back in order to catch a ship. It was the highlight of the entire trip for me, and I would absolutely do it again if I had the opportunity. That was the only shore excursion I did, just because I was not really interested in many of the activities on San Juan or Labadee. I shopped on my own in San Juan, and just went to beach on Labadee, I did not need a shore excursion for that.
Others in our group went on a tour of the forts in San Juan and a city tour, and most, if not all, of the group just did the beach thing on Labadee. Labadee does also have an artisan's market and a flea market for shopping also, if that interests you at all. From what I gathered, no one was disappointed by whatever they did, so it really is just a matter of preference as far as which shore excursions you would enjoy.
The last aspect of our trip that I am going to discuss is disembarkation. There are a couple of options for leaving the ship once you return to Miami. One option was to get up super early and walk your own bags off the ship. That way, there would be no need to worry about packing all your stuff up and setting it outside your cabin by 11:00 the night before, but you did have to handle all of your own bags. For those of us who did not want to get up that early or feel that rushed in the morning, and had no problem getting our stuff packed and out by that time, we went ahead and did that. By setting our bags out before 11:00 pm the night before we got off the ship, the bags would be collected and checked for us to pick up at baggage claim after we disembarked from the ship.
After disembarking from the ship, we just needed to claim our bags and go through customs, and we were done. The whole process went pretty smoothly, all we had to do when leaving the ship was have our customs forms, passports and SeaPass cards in our hands, and then we got off and went straight to find our bags.
In summary, this was a great vacation, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone. Overall, everyone in the group had such a great time that we are already talking about planning the next one. I was so glad it worked out and that everyone got along so fantastically with each other. The main thing I would change for next time, and consider this a piece of advice if you ever think about planning a group cruise, is that I would have wanted to make the reservations for everyone, or at least made sure every reservation was made directly through Royal Caribbean.
The reason for this is, if everyone makes their reservation directly through Royal, or if all the reservations of a group are made with one entity, then it is much easier to link the reservations and make sure that the entire group is sitting together for dinner, and you are much more likely to be eligible for group discounts and benefits. I just consider it to be a lesson learned for next time. I hope this review has helped you, and if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them for me. Happy cruising everyone!