From Baltimore the four of us flew into Miami International, where I partook of my first Cafe Cubano while headed toward the luggage claim - at just 75 cents it is the biggest bargain in town. What else can one buy at that price in an airport? Standing near our carousel was an RCCL representative who told us to take a taxi to our downtown hotel - faster, cheaper and more efficient. Best tip of our trip. A shuttle bus would have cost us about $70 altogether, while the metered taxi was $35. So, thanks for the tip.
We stayed at the recently renovated Marriott Courtyard Downtown, great location near Bayside and the port, and reasonably priced at just over $100. We had a room with a view to the port, between intervening buildings. Many nearby stores for last minute needs.
We had dinner in Little Havana at La Carreta (Calle Ocho), which serves country-style Cuban cuisine. Across the street is famous Cafe Versailles - both owned by same family. If you've never enjoyed Cuban food, try one of the sampler platters. Prices are reasonable, and it's all delicioso. We got to the ship at just after noon. Baggage was checked and we were through check-in and on the ship within 20 unhassled minutes. We were able to get into our room at one.
As Wisconsin natives with dairy farming roots, we were thrilled to have booked the cow-themed "Ben and Jerry's Sweet." Decoration was Holstein-mania!! The "bennies" have apparently been scaled back. There is no longer access to the suite-holders lounge, for example. But there is still the daily ice cream ration. Our problem was finding enough room for it each day!! The cabin was well kept for us by our steward. And the Deck Six crew was very cheery with enthusiastic greetings and sincere smiles whenever out paths crossed. We had two minor mechanical issues in our room, one relating to the doorlock, the other to the faucet. Our steward had them both fixed pronto.
Service throughout the ship was first rate. It was one of the improvements I noted from our previous LOS cruise. The whole service experience seemed tighter this time around. There was one notable bobble, and that was fixed with proper and sincere apologies. Stuff happens, and vacations happily go on.
Reports that food quality has somehow been lessened didn't bear out. In fact, I thought the food and its presentation was better this cruise than last. The prime rib and filet of beef were both succulent and tender. The lobster tail was excellent and substantial. The only "off" dish was my cilantro encrusted cod fillet. It was mushy and tasteless, plainly disappointing. And, the beauty of cruise dining is there is always "Plan B" on the menu. Problem solved. One other comment: Beware the marinaded free range chicken - the "heat" comes on subtly and builds. If you can't stand hot, spicy food, order something else.
We all thought the Windjammer food was also "better." My only criticism is the breakfast custom egg line. Last cruise they had one chef doing your eggs while you waited. This time they had four or five acting as short order cooks on the grill. Sounds like it would be more efficient - it was not. Orders were frequently messed up. I take eggs easy-over, and more days than not I got the wrong number of eggs, or the order was lost/misplaced. Some chefs apparently don't understand how to fry eggs to order. It just didn't work well, as others standing around could attest.
Another improvement: Hand sanitizers at all major eating establishments around ship.
One thing I noticed was no "enforcement" of a dining room dress code. What's with widespread shorts and t-shirts at dinner? I understand no one wants to crank off the customer - but, c'mon. If it doesn't matter, then let's be honest about it and take down the signs.
Another thing I saw was knuckleheads taking glasses, beer bottles and plates of food into the Solarium pool, despite the rules to the contrary. Worse, guys in yellow "Deck Patrol" shirts come along picking up the empties and dirty dishes without a word. Look, glass in the pool area is dangerous stuff. Food accidentally dumped in the pool makes a mess. Just other rules not being taken seriously. Maybe start serving pool-area drinks in plastic cups only.
For shipboard entertainment, let's hear it for the band, and the in-house entertainers! These talented musicians were the best thing going all week long. One night offered a "sampler" of the musical offerings, called "Liberation," from the venue soloists to the reggae band to the salsa and show bands. It was a highlight of the cruise, and the Big Band show with the band was as good - two hours of Glen Miller, Count Basie and some classics artfully re-arranged by musical director Dave Morehead.
Krill and Earl Turner also get gold stars.
The lounge/bar entertainment was equally excellent. Okay, maybe "Judi and the Dreamboats" needs some polishing, but they're serviceable and earnest. Of course, with the renowned Kory Simon at the ivories, it was SRO at the Schooner Bar.
The RC stage productions were re-treads of the shows we saw last year - and I panned them then. Better than awful, but not much, up to a "D." It's sad that so much invested production value just doesn't deliver for me. The bizarre "In the Air" leaves me there. "Ever After" is never ending. And "Gallery of Dreams" puts me to sleep. It's not the performers - it's what they're asked to perform!
Contrast that with the ice show, "Encore," which has coursing vitality both musically and theatrically. The skaters were better than I remembered from last year's cast. Many fewer mistakes and slips than I recall. They do the best possible with the small, barely adequate rink at their disposal.
I'm sorry to say that my most anticipated stop, Costa Maya, was the most disappointing. I loved it pre-Hurricane Dean. Majahual was such a neat little "best place." The rebuilt village just doesn't have the same charm. Still, the beach is nice and cheap beer always makes it a nice combination, but I didn't see one three-legged dog, and missed the packed sand main street, which is now paved.
We independently took Major Tom's cave tubing excursion in Belize. Four stars here. It was well organized, and Albert, our guide and driver, took good care of us. What impressed me was talking to a cave tubing competitor while waiting at the port. He told me that Major Tom was one of the most respected men in Belize, and that we were in first-class hands with him. When a competitor says that, it must be true! The ride out and the drift down the cool, clear river were honest-to-goodness fun. And the $5 chicken and beans lunch at the little shack at the park was tasty and plentiful.
Son-in-law took the ship's deep sea fishing excursion at Cozumel, while I got stuck with shopping escort duty. He raved, which is easy when you're catching fish. The three fishermen took nearly a dozen sizable barracuda during their four hour excursion.
My dear wife mourned the passing of the ShipShape/Vitality program. She was sorry to see that there were no more chits earned for stuff at the end of her cruise. I know times are tight...
The two sea days back to Miami were what one makes of them. I enjoy sea days for their potential to do whatever. What's odd to me is the slow, banana boat pace, generally 10 knots or fewer. I know, what difference does it make? Yes, it saves expensive fuel. There's just something about wheezing back over two days, taking up station off Miami the last night. The good news is that there is less wind on deck. And one could see four other ships hovering on station.
Our disembarkation was flawless, 20 minutes from clearing Customs to airport. Thanks to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) folks, and port luggage handlers for doing their jobs so well.
We'll be back with Royal Caribbean...that's for sure.