This is my second cruise with Royal Caribbean, and other recent cruises have been with Celebrity. I've also sailed about 8 with Princess many years ago, one with Special Expeditions, and one on the QE2 back in '92. My husband and I booked this cruise in November (2 months in advance). We were intrigued by the ports that we had never been to: Roatan, Hondurus (a small island off the coast unaffected by political turmoil); Colon, Panama; Puerto Limon, Costa Rica, and Grand Cayman. Almost every port was interspersed with an at-sea day, which made for a nice variation in schedule from day to day.
This particular cruise was apparently rife with confusion from its initial scheduling. When first scheduled, its itinerary included a partial transit of the Panama Canal. Then, in October, the cruise disappeared off Royal Caribbean's schedule altogether, and some passengers were rebooked on other cruises. Then the cruise reappeared, but with a significant change in itinerary - no partial canal transit, and the addition of Roatan, Hondurus, a port that this ship has never sailed to before and, (we're told), is not scheduled to ever stop at again. (Interesting turn of events, as the Panama Canal transit costs up to $100,000 per ship, so this appears to be a significant savings for RCL.)
Embarkation: Not the quickest we've ever experienced. (Celebrity was quicker and included snacks and drinks, which Royal Caribbean did not have.) We waited in line for about 20-30 minutes, catching the rush at midday. Then we boarded and walked around exploring the ship, which is lovely. The crew maintains it beautifully - there is not a scuff or a stain to be seen (except on the plastic cups in Windjammer, but that's a different story). The artwork is quite modern, with lots of fluorescent lighting and bright colors, so this was not our favorite. (Liked Celebrity's better... yes, this is going to be a theme.)
Food: This was our least favorite aspect of the cruise. Like many others have said, RCL's food has gone down the tubes gradually over time (although the food on this cruise was quite similar to an RCL we took two years ago). We actually hypothesized after the first few days that the chefs are paid to purposely make the food mediocre so that passengers wouldn't eat too much and RCL would save money! After a few days, they finally started serving a really good dish here and there - some excellent lamb and an intense chocolate ganache dessert in the dining room (Yum! best thing i had all week). But then they had a spectacular looking midnight buffet in which they served prepackaged cakes (made obvious by the overly sweet, chemically icing)!! In general, desserts were sub-mediocre. There were so many of which we took one bite and then discarded - it seemed all cakes had been infused with air to take up more space and then tasted like styrofoam. very few decent chocolate desserts (exc. ganache, above).
Here is the weirdest part about the food: on all other ships ,the food in the buffet (Windjammer) and the dining room have been different. However, on this ship, you could go to the buffet and see many of the same dishes (or slight variations) that would be served that same evening in the main dining room! So each evening, since we had second seating dinner, I would go pre-taste the soups up in the Windjammer in order to make an informed selection in the dining room! This was good for me, but the waiters in the dining room were not pleased b/c it discourages passengers from coming to the dining room (and in turn, perhaps, providing full gratuities to the wait staff).
There have been some reports on these boards that the food was identical from day to day in the Windjammer. This is not quite accurate. Yes, the breakfast food was identical and we got pretty tired of it after a while. But there was some variation in lunches: there would be the same fruit, sandwiches, and salad; but hot foods and desserts would vary. I was particularly pleased by the ethnic selections, which changed daily. Each day they offered two asian curries, and one day even supplemented that with real basmati rice and flat bread. They also often offered southwestern food, like a fajita bar one day, a taco bar another, and enchiladas another. Dinners also varied from day to day, as i said, with the offerings in the main dining room, plus a lot of other stuff. Food summary: it was such a hit and miss affair in both the dining room and the Windjammer that I cannot recommend this ship for her food.
(Note: we did not eat in any specialty restaurants during our cruise.)
Expeditions and Ports of Call: We booked two excursions during our cruise. My husband went in a Panama City tour, which also stopped at the Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal. This was an 8 hour tour and he was quite pleased except that the included lunch was not a local ethnic lunch but a generic selection of meat, chicken or vegetarian. This tour did require riding a bus two hours each direction from one coast (the Caribbean where we were docked) to Panama City on the Pacific side. Not my cup of tea so I passed.
The second excursion was to Veragua Rain Forest in Costa Rica. We would NOT recommend this $135 excursion!! It was 5 1/2 hours, which included 2 1/2 hours in the bus, so only 3 hours in the rain forest, 2 of which was spent looking at displays of animals (reptiles, insects, frogs) behind glass!! The aerial tram was only 10 minutes each way and the walk through the rainforest was rather dull and unimpressive. WAY overpriced. My husband came back to the port and immediately arranged for a private tour down to the Tortuga Canals and around the town, which he was much more impressed with for $40 for private tour for 2.5 hours!!
Of the four ports, Colon, Panama is the only stop at which I would pre-arrange a tour, because it is such a chaotic port and the town is a SLUM, DO NOT GO OUT ALONE!! You cannot just pick up a mini-bus or shuttle to the canal locks, you have to get a group together or pay $40 for a cab. My bad mistake!!
Best shopping port for local handicrafts: Puerto Limon. There is a crafts tent right on the port and their prices are better than in town. You can do just a little negotiating (reducing prices by about $1 per item). Beautiful carved woods are the thing to buy in all these Central American ports.
Entertainment: We went to most shows on the ship. I always find the dancing on these ships to be a bit like a good high school musical performance, but my husband liked them. Headliners were a mixed bag, some better than others, but I won't review them each because they may not be the same headliners you get since they all move around from ship to ship. We had a great tango couple who was just leaving at the end of their contract; they were the best! The Piano Man on board, Simon John, leaves a bit to be desired. He did not draw crowds and was often singing to empty lounges; this, in part, was due to bad scheduling by management, who would put him on at the same time as some huge game show or similar!
Stateroom: We had an inside stateroom on the Deck 4 (4045). It was decent, but soundproofing probably could have been better; we couldn't really hear voices but I was woken up by banging sounds by 7 am almost every morning; I was never sure if it was the Crew in their "I-95" corridor behind me or our neighbors on either side. The bathroom looked like it had been newly renovated with shower stall and fresh tile, and was very impressive, albeit compact. Again, not a stain or scuff to be found, except tiny ones on the sheets. The bed quality was not quite as good as on other ships, the mattress being a bit squishier. (Not bad enough to aggravate my back problems, however.)
Public areas: Again, immaculate. (Purell dispensers everywhere and we were practically forced to use them!) We are disappointed that Royal Carib has not followed Celebrity's lead in banning smoking in indoor public areas. This was one problem we encountered multiple times.
Solarium and deck chairs: Solarium was lovely with Indian-Buddhist decor, fake plants and fake bird sounds. However, here's my biggest non-food beef about the management of this ship. There are signs everywhere on deck and in the Solarium that "Reserving of deck chairs is prohibited." Did anyone pay attention to these signs? NO. So I couldn't find a place to sit in the solarium most of the cruise. Finally, the last sea day, I decided to follow everyone else's example and left my things on a Solarium chair first thing in the morning and went to breakfast. I came back... and my things were gone! A Pool Attendant came up to me and told me I couldn't reserve the deck chair, at which point I got really mad. Not his fault, of course - probably the lousiest job on the ship that day, getting passengers angry. But the inconsistency was infuriating! And then, two hours later... they were not enforcing that ban anymore, as I watched chair after chair littered with towels but no people. GRRRRR....
Fitness Center: Excellent. Lots of machines and NEVER crowded on this particular cruise.
Crew: Keith Williams, the Cruise Director, was by far the best cruise director we had ever encountered. Nothing fake or smarmy about him, just a lot of fun! Our wait staff in the dining room were excellent and very friendly. Our one beef was that our Stateroom Attendant did not come to introduce himself the first day - we just happened to meet him in the hall the 2nd day. others complained of this as well.
Summary: All in all, although the ship was lovely and the crew was awesome, we are unlikely to take another Royal Caribbean cruise because of ineffective management, especially when it comes to food quality. It's back to Celebrity we go!