Quips, quirks, and biases
One of the great things about cruise vacations is that, in many cases, they are what you make of them. Because of that, I always like to include this little introductory section where I describe where I'm coming from, as context definitely colors any review. This was my 11th cruise on Royal Caribbean, and 21st cruise overall. I've been "loyal to Royal" lately because I like their ships, have received competitive pricing, enjoy the C&A perks, and enjoy the OBC I receive for NextCruise bookings. I have been trying to sail on the Jewel for a few years as it was my grandma's favorite ship. She was a huge RCCL fan (she made it on the brand-new Freedom two weeks before cancer took her) and she was the person that got my parents and I cruising.
This cruise was booked in the summer of 2008 when there were some decent cruise rates and very good airfares to get from Indianapolis to Miami. This was a "family" trip in that I shared a room with my parents (both Diamond members) and because it would span both Christmas and my parents' 31st anniversary. We originally booked an inside cabin, but in early fall, as a present, I called up and upgraded us to an E1 balcony on the hump (8086). Not only was it a balcony, but it also had a sofabed which I preferred to a pullman.
Last year when I tried to cruise in December, Indianapolis was hit with a huge snowstorm the day of my flight and the plane barely made it out. This year we took two precautions: we bought trip insurance (through insuremytrip) and we also planned on spending the night before in Miami (which we always prefer doing, especially during the winter). Well, sure enough, as we drove to the airport on th 18th, everyone was abuzz about the "big ice storm" heading into the area ... great. When we arrived at the airport at 1:30 for our 3:30 non-stop flight to Miami, everything seemed to be on track. However, at around 3:00, when there was no plane at the gate, it was announced that our inbound flight had been delayed and that our new departure time would be 4:19 (edging closer to when that ice storm was scheduled to move in). At this point, I pulled out my laptop, and utilizing the free wi-fi offered at the Indy airport, started in on my quest to figure out where our plane actually was. Our departure time was still 4:19, but at 4:00, I felt this was very optimistic considering the plane our plane was still on the ground in St. Louis (which had already gotten the ice). I started feeling a little better at 4:15 when the plane was listed as "In Transit", and I felt even better when it suddenly showed up at a little after 5. In the end, we took off at 5:30 and beat the ice by a few hours ... whew.
Because of the usual delays, as described above, we arrived in Miami at 8:30 instead of 6:30, making a long day even longer. In my haste to get this trip booked and paid for as early as possible, I was perhaps a little too loose with my Priceline bidding (instead of waiting for a better deal in a better area) and got the 3-star Holiday Inn - Miami Airport West (Doral) for a bid of $55. This hotel was, in my opinion, at the very boundary of what could be considered an "airport" hotel, and their airport shuttle only ran once an hour. Once we had collected our bags, we called about the shuttle but, being tired, decided to take a cab instead of waiting the 30 minutes for the shuttle's scheduled arrival. The cab ride ended up being about $23.
Once at the hotel, the desk clerk was very nice (though asked for no forms of ID) and gave us a non-smoking room with two beds even though we were of course booked in a "Priceline" room that was a king-smoking room. The room was nothing special, but it seemed clean and did offer free, if slow, wi-fi. Being late, we walked next door to the Doral Ale House for dinner which was fairly tasty, had good drink specials, and was packed for the Indy-Jacksonville NFL game.
The next morning we strolled around the neighborhood to find perhaps a cheaper breakfast than what was offered by the Holiday Inn. The neighborhood seemed very walkable and well-kept (unlike some of the war-zone areas I've seen in Miami). We turned right and found absolutely nothing (besides Carnival's headquarters). We then headed back the other way and found a Dunkin' Donuts in a strip mall. After a quick breakfast, it was back to the room to get ready to leave for the ship. We debated on whether or not to take the free shuttle back to the airport to catch a fixed-rate cab to the port or to just have the hotel call us a cab. We went with the latter, and after a 15-minute wait, our cab arrived. A 20-minute and $40 cab ride later*, we arrived at the Port of Miami and unloaded in the shadow of the Jewel of the Seas ....
*Note: There were obviously cheaper ways to operate, but the time-value of money and the fact we were a party of three made some of the more-expensive choices bearable. Traveling by myself, it would have been the cheapest route, all the way ....
We arrived at the port around 11:30. We gave our bags to the porters with a $3 tip (for 3 bags), and then headed into the terminal where we went through the check-in routine. Thankfully I have this down by now, and we entered with our passports and SetSail Pass in hand and breezed through while other parties had all of their stuff spread around the ground, trying to dig their documentation out. We went through the security checkpoint and, for this cruise, I didn't even ask about taking my laptop out ... I just sent it through and didn't hear a thing about it. Once through the security line, we proceeded to the priority check-in line, received our SeaPass cards, and were immediately able to have our security pictures taken and board the ship before noon ... a very smooth process.
Cabins, of course, were not available until 1:00, so we headed to the Windjammer for lunch (with the requisite offering of honey stung chicken) and then explored the ship. As we walked around the ship, it was kind of amazing a) how many people were forcing themselves through the fire doors to get to cabins early or b) how many people were sitting in the stairwells waiting for the cabins to open. But oh well ... I digress .... We checked our dining room assignment and found that we had been assigned to early seating (as requested ... my dad likes to eat early) at table 532, which was in the Tides dining room in the far back. From what I could tell, the other side of this dining room level was used to accommodate those who were on My Time Dining.
The muster drill was at 4:30 and it was extended by people who decided they could try to skip the drill. In a first for me, the captain came on several times and explained that he would not release anyone until all muster stations had checked in with a complete roster ... leading to stragglers appearing 10-15 minutes into the drill. The muster drill was conducted in both English and Spanish, with each section of it done first in one language, then the other. This seemed to work better than other ships that do the entire thing in English and then move to Spanish because it keeps the noise down from those who are "finished." There were thankfully few people blowing on their whistles and, a little later, the drill was over and the Jewel was leaving the Port of Miami.
There is no doubt about it ... the Jewel is a beautiful ship. She is the second Radiance-class ship I've been on (I was on the Brilliance last year), but after being on several cruises in a row on a Voyager-class ship, the views of the ocean and the intimate "nooks and crannies" of the ship definitely offer a different feel. The centrum is the lynch-pin of the ship, topped by the Crown and Anchor Lounge on Deck 12 and running all of the way down to Deck 4. Off of the centrum come many of the major venues such as the Windjammer, Schooner Bar, and the dining rooms. The only major venues at the front of the ship are the Coral Theater, spa, and the Solarium. The Solarium is one of the most beautiful places I've seen on a cruise ship and proved to be a very relaxing place to spend time, especially when the ship was in port.
In terms of sport activities, the Jewel offers quite a lot, though not quite what a Voyager-class ship offers. There is a rock wall and mini-golf course on Deck 13, a golf-simulator, a half-court basketball setup, a few shuffleboard courts, and a few ping-pong tables right outside of the Windjammer. The main pool is cruiseship sized (ie, not large) and the hot tubs seemed usually fairly full.
I will say, however, that there are a few things that I do not like about the design of the ship. First of all, the elevators really seemed to be a choke point, especially since our cabin was right on the centrum, making those the most convenient elevators. I found the centrum elevators to often be too packed to accommodate any more guests by the time they reached deck 8, and this was especially true of the "outside" elevators (ie, elevators overlooking the ocean) which were the only ones that would go the Viking Crown (where the overflow concierge club was). A 5-10 minute wait for an elevator was not uncommon (my mom could not climb many flights of stairs), which was was sometimes frustrating. This was obviously a problem for others, as we'd run into "full" elevators trying to come down from the Viking Crown because people had ridden them all of the way up to ensure a spot down.
Another thing I dislike about this class of ship is walking decks. On the pool deck, the jogging track has many little turns and bends which makes it a pain to use once you throw in other walkers/joggers and people who move their chairs into the track to be a the "right angle." I usually enjoy walking on the lower outside deck (deck 5 in this case), but the deck did not circumnavigate the ship because of the helipad and, for some reason or another, was usually roped off outside at various points.
One more thing ... there were several activities occurring in the centrum each night, from a piano player to a 70s dance party. This was a nice central venue, but it made navigation around the centrum difficult at the choke points were clogged up. The area was also congested when the formal portrait stations were setup as they would take an entire aisleway.
Ok ... so my negatives are longer than my positives, but as you can see, they weren't a huge deal ... just things I thought I'd mention. Overall I left with a very positive impression of the Jewel, especially some of the gorgeous artwork on in the stairwells (and I think I encountered all of the art ... thanks full elevators).
As I mentioned earlier, I upgraded our cabin from an inside to an E1 on the hump with a sofa bed. This was both a great and disappointing move. On one hand, the balcony was very large and shaped like a right triangle. It was large enough to have two chairs, one small table, and two full-sized loungers. On the other hand, the less said about the sofa bed, the better. I had had a full-sized sofa bed over the summer in a D1 on the Explorer and found it to be fairly comfortable. It turns out that the "sofa bed" in an E1 is essentially a love seat that folds out vertically so that there are three different, rolling sections. This meant that the bed was fairly narrow and also tended to roll apart at any movement on the bed ... not the most fun thing in the world.
As for the rest of the cabin, it was "standard" with two twins converting into a queen, plenty of storage space, a curtain divider, and fairly large closet. The furnishings seemed to be well taken care of. The TV offered the standard compliment of channels as well as the TV-based service system for checking account balances, buying excursions (when it worked), etc. A safe and a mini-fridge stocked with for-purchase sodas and snacks were available. The bathroom for some reason felt a little smaller than usual, but thankfully had the shower door instead of a curtain.
The cabin itself was located two cabins from the centrum and was located on the side with the glass elevators. This location meant that, whenever there were loud activities taking place in the centrum, they were somewhat audible in the room. At night when going to sleep (usually between 10-11) music could be heard, but not (at least for me) at an obnoxious level.
Crew and staff
On my last cruise on the Navigator, I commented that I thought that the crew was a little less than friendly in some cases. This definitely cannot be said about the crew I encountered on the Jewel. Everyone onboard that I met seemed pleasant and courteous, from my assigned waitstaff to the security guards. Service in the Windjammer was almost always outstanding with a greeter and waiters constantly clearing plates, offering to bring drinks, etc. The one time I was disappointed in the service in the Windjammer was during the casual dinner service during which not a single crew member interacted with me or my table.
I really enjoyed interacting with the activities staff on this cruise. Most of the activities I attended were hosted by either Amanda, Jason, or James, and they were all fun people who were easy to get along with and talk to. Roger on the sports staff was also fun to interact with. I'm a bit ashamed to admit this, but the only person I kind of avoided was Christina who, while she seemed very nice, had a very thick accent (she hosted all of the spanish trivia games) and was extremely difficult to understand, both when she hosted trivia and when she called numbers in Bingo.
As for our assigned crew members, it was a mostly positive experience with only a few exceptions. Our cabin steward did a good job of keeping things clean, but our cabin was never cleaned at a consistent time and, by the middle of the cruise, it was not being cleaned until afternoon even though we had put our "make up cabin" slip in the door at around 8:00 AM. This prompted a talk between my mother and the cabin steward who gave a few excuses but, after that, moved us earlier into his rotation. As usual, this issue would probably not have been a big deal if we had said something earlier, so I'm not really faulting the steward here.
Our waitstaff in the Tides dining room, Adrienne and Filip, were very good. At first our service was a touch on the slow side (with dinner finishing at about 8:00), but it sped up as the cruise progressed. Adrienne was very good at making suggestions and brining out backups or replacements if she thought someone was not enjoying his/her food. Filip was usually johnny-on-the-spot with my water glass which, I'll admit, is probably a full time job in itself. There were about four "singing" nights, about four too many in my book, but oh well (one thing I definitely DO NOT miss from Carnival).
**NOTE: OK ... here I'm going to step on a soap box and rant for a bit, so please feel free to ignore me if you wish. Throughout the cruise, in every Compass, there were guidelines for avoiding illness, including the suggestion for not shaking hands ... in other words, wash your hands thoroughly and be smart. Now I'll go back to my hated dancing and singing nights ... not only do I not enjoy making my hardworking waitstaff have to sing and dance for me, but once the music gets going, people start clapping and twirling their USED NAPKINS in the air. In other words, don't shake hands, but please send small food and saliva particles whipping indiscriminantly in the air. YUCK!
Since this was a holiday cruise, there were of course quite a few families. My guess is that the ship was not quite used to organizing and ordering for so many kids ... and the only reason for this guess is that, by the end of the cruise, we were being offered Nestle 100% Jamaican cow milk ... though I guess there could be a milk spoilage issue on a 10-day cruise and I'm completely wrong ... so I guess I'll stop making assumptions. I'd say the average age of guests tended to be older, but I never felt like I was being overwhelmed by scooters and walkers by any means. I'd say that most passengers were American, but there were also quite a few Canadians and European passengers and all major announcements were done in English, Spanish, French, and German.
**Unscientific observation: OK ... I'm not posting this to offend anyone or point fingers, but I feel it necessary to discuss the presence of children on this cruise. In my experience, the kids start out the cruise out of sight for me, then slowly creep in at about day 6-7 as they become more comfortable roaming the ship and start to form "packs" (and I'm especially talking kids around middle-school age and higher here). The same could be said with this cruise, except that since it went for 3-4 more days, the behavior of the unsupervised kids became almost excruciating ... nothing too serious, but still shenanigans that really shouldn't have to put up with. The ones I personally witnessed are: pushing all elevator buttons, running from floor to floor to hit the elevator button to make it stop that way, kids sitting in the elevator playing cards, knocks on the door followed by giggles and running footsteps, and large groups sitting in the Windjammer screaming at each other and pushing their way in front of others at the food stations. I also heard stories about kids stealing room service door hangers, swapping "Make up cabin" and "Do not disturb" tags, and swiping unattended drinks at bars.
I know that food is highly subjective, but here it goes ....
Main Dining Room I found that I enjoyed almost everything I ordered from the main dining room. There isn't really anything that I would deem to be outstanding, but every night I was usually able to find at least one item that I would enjoy as well as a few others that I'd like to try. Formal nights featured standards like shrimp cocktail (which evidently can be ordered every night as long as it is ordered the night before), lobster bisque, and escargot. The fisherman's platter (complete with 3-4 garlic shrimp and a tiny lobster tail) appeared later in the cruise on a non-formal night. The special Christmas menu featured turkey and ginger items and was, to be honest, fairly forgettable. As usual with Royal Caribbean, desserts tended to be the weakest link in the meal with several very good ones and quite a few "blah" ones ... I found most of the cheesecakes disappointing and the other cakes to be a little dry.
We ate a few lunches in the dining room (even after being placed with the least friendly table I've ever encountered for the first lunch). The menus were never too exciting and, for any salad ordered, we were directed to the salad bar to have it made ourselves. I'll admit that the salad bar was very nice with different kinds of lettuce, vegetables, cheeses, meats, and dressings.
*Note: Dress codes in the dining room were not enforced. As some of you may know, I'm not much for dressing for formal night any more, but I still generally wear slacks and a polo shirt on regular nights and slacks, shirt, and tie on formal nights. On every night people with shorts and t-shirts were allowed in ... I know because we were seated with some of them (and no, it didn't ruin my dinner experience).
Windjammer We ate every breakfast in the Windjammer, something we never used to do until we became disenfranchised with the dining room breakfast a few cruises ago. The offerings in the morning were fairly standard with various pastries, fruits, cereals, and breakfast meats available. There were also stations for carvery ham and fried eggs/omelets. There was sometimes a wait for the custom eggs which clogged things up as they would be cooking several at a time and have nowhere for those who had already been served to wait besides the queue or in front of other breakfast stations. I stuck with biscuits and gravy most mornings which always tasted a little sweet (I think the biscuits were sweetened).
**Note: I was told off one morning because I was waiting for my omelet and I tried to help the next lady order. She came up with a small child and ordered an egg. The cook asked her what she wanted ... over-easy, sunny-side up, etc, and she looked at him and said that she wanted an egg. I interceded and commented that the cook wanted to know how she wanted it cooked and she looked at me and screamed... I KNOW WHAT I"M DOING, I WANT AN EGG! Oh well ... so much for trying to help.
We also ate lunches in the dining room on port days. There were varied offerings each day with the standard pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, and pre-made sandwiches also offered. Most of this food was decent, though some was a bit bland and tasteless. I also found Windjammer desserts to be the most hit-or-miss, with the Jiggle Test usually being necessary. Baked items, such as cookies, were usually the safest bet.
**Note: The Jiggle Test (patent pending) is my method for determining which desserts served by Royal Caribbean have the best opportunity to have a pleasing taste/texture. I've found that many of their cakes and tarts have a nice topping, but are filled in the middle with a flavorless, nasty-textured gelatin which can be identified by its movement when placed on a jiggled plate. In my opinion, cheesecake, pie, and tiramisu SHOULD NOT jiggle. The Jiggle Test saved me from taking and tasting several unworthy desserts.
We ate dinner once in the Windjammer and I found it to be a less than stellar experience. First of all, since we were used to early seating, we went when it first opened at 6:30, which meant it was overrun with unsupervised children. Secondly, the food tended to be a little bland, even if it was the same dishes being served in the main dining room. There were several different stations offered at dinner, though. There was a sushi station where you could serve yourself various rolls and nigiri. There was a meat station that would cook you chicken, steak, or salmon. There was also a make-your-own personal pizza station, though that required a 20-minute wait as it was being cooked.
**Note: I can't imagine that this is or should be enforced, but on formal nights, the Compass listed that shorts were not allowed in the Windjammer for casual dinner.
We ate at Portofino on Christmas Eve and about everything we ordered was wonderful. I had risotto, calamari, a Caesar salad, and the seafood skewer. My parents quite enjoyed their salads and fillets as well. The only issue we had was with the service. I understand that dinner takes time, but there were some large gaps in between courses and at 8:30, after we had finished with our dinner and it came time to order dessert, we informed our waiter that we would like it to go as we wanted to make the show at 9. It took him 25 minutes to get our desserts to us (even though he assured us he could "rush it" and we could enjoy them there at the table) and another 10 to get the bill sorted out (I had prepaid). When he came back, he gave excuses about being busy (we saw he had one other table). Sorry, but I did not leave any extra tip. He did fine, but I didn't see that he had earned anything over the "gratuities included" price.
**Note: Since I've been talking about rules ... the Compass listed that anyone under 13 years of age could only be seated at a 6 PM reservation. On this night, at least one family with a little girl who couldn't have been any older than 8 was seated at 8:00. Now she didn't make a peep through the whole dinner and was no problem at all ... but it is instances like this were rules are broken and people get upset. The people in the room could get upset because rules are not enforced (and maybe they wanted to bring a younger child, etc) or the family with the child could be upset when they are denied this same dinner on a future cruise.
We only at at the Seaview Cafe once and were less than impressed. It reminded me a little of Johnny Rockets (though without the fee) with onion rings and all kinds of other fried foods. To sample things I ordered onion rings, the feathers and fingers (chicken drummettes and chicken strips), and a cuban sandwich. The rings were fine, the drummettes were the same that can be had through roomservice, the strips were the standard "institutional" breaded chicken strips, and the cuban sandwich was tiny and disappointing. My mom thought her rueben was decent, but nothing too exciting. Nathan's hoot dogs, burgers, other sandwiches, and desserts were also offered, but I did not sample any of them.
Entertainment I need to a little disclaimer here, much to the disappointment of many, I'm sure. I took this cruise almost directly after (or technically starting during) my finals week. This unfortunately meant that most nights, I was pretty much done for the night by 10:30-11. I know, I should have bitten the bullet and done some late-night scouting for my Cruise Critic friends.
There were three production shows during the cruise ... a Broadway revu (From West End to Broadway or something like that), a second show that I have no idea about (something like City of Dreams), and Tango Buenos Aires. I went to the Broadway show, which was decent. The singers and dancers were good for the most part, but I didn't really care for some of the show pieces ... the lost me when they played almost everything straight then came out and did a hip-hop version of "Favorite Things" (and had the gaul to put the "Sound of Music" logo in the background. There was also a rather painful Les Miserables section (admittedly one of my favs) where two songs were combined into a sort of duet that really didn't work at all. I missed the second show and the tango show. I was doing something else during the second show and I had already seen the tango show on the Brilliance last year. My mom went to it and thought the Jewel's version wasn't as good as the Brilliance one.
I never really sat down and listed to any of the music being offered around the ship, but I of course caught snippets of different things. The piano player seemed competent, if not outstanding, and there seemed to be a nice variety of things being offered (piano, guitar, jazz, etc. Some of the evening activities took place in the Centrum, such as the 70s dance party and an appearance by the Village People. Sorry ... never made it to the disco in the Viking Crown (no dedicated disco on this class of ship).
Celebrity Showtime This was the only act I attended and it featured Marty Allen and his wife. This was a fun show, though while Marty Allen at the end commented that he could do a funny act without going blue, there were definite adult overtones.
Sorry I don't have more specifics for you, but my evenings were spent either sleeping or playing euchre. For some reason, the more I cruise, the less I'm going to the nightly shows ... they used to be something I never missed. I guess I'm just getting jaded ... you can only see those Welcome Aboard shows and hear comedians make cruise ship food jokes for so long, I guess. For those curious, the entertainment one night was a Make-A-Wish auction followed by the Love and Marriage game show ... so a cheap night for Royal.
I'm sure that this may be another disappointing section for some of you as I only did one tour this cruise (having been to several stops many times before). I'll try to give what info I can, though.
Labadee Labadee was the first stop and one of the prime beach days. For those of you who don't know, Labadee is RCCL's private piece of Haiti. It is currently a tender port, meaning that there is no pier and instead, you have to board a small boat to take you to your destination. The tender boats at Labadee are large and the distance small, so most of your time will probably be spent sitting on the boat waiting for it to fill unless you are lucky enough to be one of the last people on board. There are no tender tickets here ... you just head down when you are ready to go.
Labadee has been upgraded a bit since I last visited, and from the look of it, there are other major upgrades being made (buildings, fountains, a pier, etc). There are of course plenty of ways to spend money, from walking tours to waverunners to a zipline. It was fun to watch people on the zipline, but it really didn't seem worth the cost to me (I timed the long line over the ocean ... it seemed to be about 40 seconds) ... two ziplines (short practice and the "real" one) for $89. It was about the same cost for a waverunner tour of the area. I opted to just walk around and, not being much of a beach person, was back on the ship after just a couple of hours (though I did stop for my requisite Coco Loco or Labadoozie).
**Note: There are "nature trails" that you can follow in Labadee ... read very unsteady, rocky paths. I went off the path to get some pictures of the ship and found some very nice holes with a 10-20 foot drop. My suggestion, besides staying on the path, is to bring decent shoes if you want to walk the trail. I found it a little perilous with my heel-strap sandals.
Cartegena, Columbia I'll be honest here ... Columbia worried me ... and reading the US State Department guidelines didn't do much to calm my fears. In the end, however, I refused to stay on the ship and miss out on a new opportunity because of low threat levels, so I went with my standard "best of" tour through the ship. It was about $54/pp and lasted about 4 hours and to be honest, I was less than impressed.
The tour was to meet at 8:30 on the pier. From our last cruise, we knew that that meant showing up near 8:30 meant being one of last to arrive, we my dad and I headed down to the pier at about 8:10, were directed to a bus that was nearly full, and were on our way by 8:20 (we were the first of multiple busses). The tour took us out of the pier area and to the old city (or walled area) of Cartegena with a short stop at the fort to take photos from the bus (and yes, as soon as the doors opened, the vendors were up on the bus). We were issued receivers and ear phones so that our tour guide could talk to us all without shouting which was nice. We got off the bus and took a tour of the old city, including a mission, the inquisition palace (filled with replica torture and execution devices), and some of the streets. The vendors were everywhere outside and they were persistent but they didn't ever strike me as hostile. After our walk around the old city, we were taken to a craft market for shopping (I stayed on the bus), and then we were taken to a shopping center in the new city (I walked the block and went back to the bus). In the end, this was a sometimes interesting tour, but it was also a tad disappointing when I looked back and realized that we actually saw very little. The shopping opportunities to me were quite pointless because I buy few souvenirs and every store and vendor seemed to be hawking the same junk (that probably has China stamped on it somewhere). The big selling points were coffee and emeralds and frankly, Columbian coffee seems prevalent and cheap in the US and I didn't see a single store (except perhaps Mister Emerald) that I would dare give as much money as they were asking for emeralds. We returned to the ship around noon (I think everyone had to be back by 1:30). If you didn't want to take a tour, there was a shop at the end of the pier with coffee and souvenirs. From the looks of the neighborhood outside the pier I wouldn't recommend walking off on your own (not really anything close anyway), but I talked to several people who were happy with deals they made with cabbies for tours.
**Note: Most of the people in my excursion group were great, but of course, we also got "that family" ... you know ... the ones where the kids run into every photo you are trying to take, the parents clear everyone out for their photos, and then they get left behind because they are oblivious to everything around them. We also had people who wouldn't say NO to the vendors, substituting MAYBE LATER ... I let out an audible groan every time someone said that as it was like throwing chum to circling sharks and only made them more persistent.
Panama I did not sign up for a tour in Panama. I really had no desire to see the countryside, the tours were outrageously priced, and to be honest, once the ship goes through three locks to make it to the lake, you pretty much have a good picture of how the Panama Canal works (and heck, I've seen the Pacific before). From what I heard from others, the ship got through the canal late and the tours ended up being either shortened, hurried, or canceled ... quite a few complaints.
For those of you interested in how the transit day works, here's the lowdown ... at around 6 AM we started getting into the canal area. We went up to breakfast at around 6:30 and, by that time, most of the forward areas were already full of people (the back is blocked off on deck 5, so the only back view is from the Windjammer or Safari Club). As the ship transits the canal, there was a guide on the public address system giving the history of the canal, describing what was happening, etc. Once the ship has made it through the locks, she goes into the lake and anchors, only letting off those who are going on tour. Later on in the afternoon, the ship then transits back through the locks and heads to the Cristobal pier where the tour groups meet up with the ship. I found the second trip through the locks to be a much easier time to get a good position (though of course the sun is quite strong at that point). At the pier, anyone can get off and go shopping in the little warehouse are there or take a taxi to the free zone (have no idea what is there ... skipped the shopping talk).
**Note: The Panama Canal is an engineering marvel that is, in my opinion, a less-than-exciting thing to experience. It is fairly slow, tedious, and unexciting. I appreciated it for what it was, though it is not a visual spectacle (some in the Concierge Lounge were complaining that it was the equivalent of watching paint dry ... not sure I'd go that far).
**Note: Yes, at the Cristobal pier there are topless ladies with intricate tattoos or paintings on their chest. They are only at one or two tables that I saw, but FYI.
Montego Bay, Jamaica
I didn't really do much in Jamaica to be honest. I had just been there a few weeks earlier and, from what I could tell, there wasn't a lot you could do within walking distance of the pier. I got off, looked around the shopping area at the pier, and returned. Many people did the canopy tours and enjoyed those quite a bit. Longer bus rides were the ones that went to Ocho Rios and Dunns River Falls. The one tour I had thought about taking, the Appleton Estate rum tour, was cancelled before the second day of the cruise.
Grand Cayman This is another port I have visited very frequently, so I didn't really do anything or stay too long. This is another tender port, though here, the tenders that the Jewel carries with her were used and tender tickets are required if you are not on a ship tour. Tender tickets were handed out in the Pit Stop bar. If you were in a suite, Diamond, or Diamond+, priority tickets can be obtained from the concierge. I found this tendering experience to be very difficult because the boat really moved with the waves and, sitting in the back, I felt like I couldn't get any oxygen through all of the diesel fumes. Once ashore, Cayman is a very clean, nice place, though it is also quite pricey. Tenders back can be had at any time, with some lines forming for those who try to milk as much time as they could and take one of the last tenders back.c
**Note: Remember that in Grand Cayman, the cars drive on the left side of the road ... in other words, if you are an American like me, make sure you look the opposite way before you step off that curb.
**Note: No liquor purchased on Grand Cayman can be carried out of the store. Instead, orders placed in the store are sent to a central warehouse and a large delivery is made to the ship at the end of the day. Cayman is probably the best place on this itinerary to buy liquor (and some stores offer free rum large rum cakes with any liquor purchase), but realize that you won't see that liquor until the last sea day of the cruise.
Priority Boarding We arrived at the Jewel fairly early, so this perk didn't matter too much. However, as soon as we got into the priority line, we were shown to a check-in agent. I was pleased that they actually had my diamond status correctly listed on my SeaPass this time.
Coupon Booklet The diamond booklet we received was fine, though it is becoming more of a disappointment. There were no coupons for free photos and of course the coupons for the Johnny Rockets and Ben and Jerry's were useless on the Jewel. We redeemed our free drink coupons in the Schooner bar on the last sea day and the waiter there was very adamant about getting us the "best" souvenir glasses which ended up being fairly nice, real glass hurricane glasses ... I gave him a cash tip for being helpful.
**Note: I know there are threads dedicated to this topic, but I just want to say again, the removal of the free photo coupons from the coupon books is absolutely ridiculous. Honestly, this is a perk that really costs NOTHING will all of the photos that are printed and subsequently tossed. Now, I've seen some ships with computer terminals where you chose your prints, etc, so I would understand it if they were going to stop the mass-printing. However, even on those ships, they still printed just about everything. I wouldn't even mind it if they wouldn't let you use the coupon for formal portraits ... ie, nothing you do "special" for a picture. Otherwise, let's face it ... your diamond members are people who have cruised A LOT ... and it is my guess that while they may buy an occasional picture, most of the picture purchases come from new cruisers who haven't already been there and done that. Throwing us a bone, i.e. giving us a photo that has already been printed and will otherwise be disposed of, seems like a ludicrous perk to suddenly get rid of.
Concierge Lounge When I was on the Navigator, I was warned by the other passengers that the Concierge Lounge on the Radiance class ships was tiny. Wow ... they are not kidding. The lounge is on Deck 10 and features a few computers, perhaps 10 chairs, a coffee machine, and a nice view. To be honest, we went the first day during happy hour and the place was swamped with 5 people lined up to talk to the concierge. We spent our remaining nights at the Hollywood Odyssey on Deck 13 which was the overflow lounge. That lounge was run by Milan, who was a great host who was personable, would stop to chat with you, and was also very good at remember your drink order. Milan was also very persevering about enforcing the rules of the lounge. When there wasn't a person checking IDs at the door (usually dancers from the show), then Milan would do it for anyone he wouldn't recognize and politely yet firmly remove those who were not allowed (i.e., not Diamond guests, underage children, etc). The overflow lounge was our favorite evening hangout (until it closed at 8:30). The first few nights were were the only ones there for a bit, but it gradually filled throughout the cruise as more people discovered it (and we also told some people how nice it was).
**Note: I'll admit that I was surprised how many passengers would throw an absolute fit when Milan told them that their kids could not come into the lounge. In every piece of literature it says that children under the age of 21 are not welcome form 5:30-8:30 due to the adult nature (i.e., drinking and conversation) of the lounge. These people would still rail on Milan about how their kids were diamond too, what were they supposed to do with the kids while they were in the lounge, blah blah blah. The less obnoxious people, of course, just set their kids in the adjacent area and came in for a coke and some food and took it out to them.
Platinum, Diamond, and Diamond Plus party This was held one evening at 7:30 "in between" dinners. Frankly, I found this time disappointing as it seems to say ... well, we need to have a party, but we want it to be at a time when you really won't eat much food or will be less likely to show up ... as opposed to the nice brunches I've attended in the past. To be honest, we skipped the party in favor of returning to the overflow concierge lounge that would be less crowded, quieter, and have better drinks.
Priority Debarkation Non-existent. I'll explain more here in a second.
Debarkation The new Royal Caribbean debarkation policy was in effect for this cruise. Early in the cruise, you were asked to fill out a piece of paper declaring the time of your flight. On the second-to-last night, we were given tags and the As You Depart memo explaining the process. Approximate times were given for each tag, with those wishing to carry their own bags off going first. Every group of tags were given a lounge to wait in, with the indication that announcements would only be made within that specific lounge. The sheet also said that passengers could wait in their cabin and that the colors called would be listed on one of the channels (I can't confirm this one as we went to the theater to wait).
We had an 11:30 flight, so I was slightly worried about getting to it though I knew it shouldn't really be a problem. We were given Lavender tags, which was in the listing as the first group to be called along with White and Pink. We inquired at Guest Relations as to why we didn't receive White tags (usual in past for priority debarkation) and were informed that they had run out of white tags, but that lavender would be the exact same time. When we ran into the concierge later in the night, we asked if there would be a walk-off of Diamond members (there was a C&A debarkation lounge in the Viking Crown ... which we've done before ... horrible place to get down from on debarkation day). She replied that there was no more Diamond express debarkation (something we enjoyed on the Explorer when they literally took us down back staircases and off the ship in a hurry) because "it was too early for many of her guests." In other words, the loss of another perk.
On debarkation morning, the Windjammer and the main dining room were both open. We went to the WJ for a quick bite, then grabbed our stuff and headed to the Coral Theater (our assigned waiting area) at 7:00 AM. At about 7:20, White and Pink tags were called, but of course, no Lavender. Around 7:35 the Lavender tags were called, so we go in a line and about 30 minutes later we were off the ship and through customs. We ended up waiting another 10 minutes or so for our bags to appear, and then we headed out and grabbed cab to the airport ($24 set price including all tolls or special fees ... it makes absolutely no sense to use cruise transfers in Miami to the Miami airport unless you bought your air through them and they are already included).
Final Thoughts It has been said many times (in this review even) but I'll say it again ... the Jewel is a beautiful ship. We also had very positive experiences with her crew, especially since on those longer itineraries, you really seem to be able to get to know people. After having cruise a few Voyager-class ships recently, my dad and I both agreed that we did miss the Royal Promenade a bit as an easy place to go down, grab a snack, people watch, grab a coffee, etc. Even with that being said, I wouldn't hesitate to go on the Jewel again as this was a very fine cruise.