JEWEL OF THE SEAS JAN. 22-FEB 1 2010
WHY THIS CRUISE?
We were looking for a warm weather getaway during January, and we were interested in revisiting the Panama Canal. This cruise was the right length with some new ports as well as the Panama Canal, and it was priced well. Unfortunately, when we first booked the trip, the ship went through the first set of locks in the Canal into Gatun Lake and then came out again. Alas, as of the first of the 2010, the itinerary was changed to a port stop in Colon with no transit of the canal. But, the other factors were still in place, so we kept with the reservation.
Jewel of the Seas is a beautiful ship, immaculate, and in remarkably good condition for a 6 year old vessel. To my way of thinking, this is about the perfect cruise ship design. First of all, the ship looks like a ship: no NASCAR type spoiler on the rear end; no bulbous protuberance on the front end; no graffiti marred hull. At 90,000 tons it is big enough to offer a variety of lounges, activities and spaciousness yet you never forget you are aboard a ship at sea. This is due to the abundance of glass everywhere that enables you to enjoy the beauty of the sea virtually anywhere on the ship. The attractive pricing on this cruise enabled us to upgrade our cabin. Our cabin, 9220, was in an excellent location on deck 9, beneath another deck of cabins, not the pool deck. It was convenient to most activities and most importantly, the Windjammer Cafe, for that early morning coffee. The room itself was adequately sized (for a ship) with sufficient storage for clothes and bags. The balcony was comfortable with two chairs and a table. The TV capability had been significantly improved since our last cruise 3 years ago. With Satellite reception, we could get news, weather, and most importantly, the NFL playoff games in all locations of our cruise. The TV also had the capability to display onboard charges on an ongoing basis to ensure accuracy and avoid the last day rush to correct any discrepancies.
FOOD, DINING & SERVICE
The food in the main dining room was good, not great, but met our expectations, those having been lowered by recent reports of degraded food quality. Surprisingly, we found the food at the Windjammer, the buffet style dining area, to be noticeably improved in variety and quality from our last cruise. As always, service in the dining room and throughout the ship was excellent. We opted for the traditional second sitting dining although RCI has started to offer "My time dining" in obvious response to other lines' flexible dining concepts. RCI offered the flex dining to only about 10% of the passengers this cruise (about 225). I asked the headwaiter how it was going, and he admitted that there were "challenges." One thing was clear to us: the shape of cruise ship dining experiences is changing, and along with it the traditional tipping policies. We are traditionalists and like the assigned seating. Over the years, we have had many interesting and congenial tablemates, many of whom we formed friendships with that exist to this day. However, this cruise gave us a preview of future trends, like them or not. Our original table was for six. One couple never showed up for dinner the entire cruise, apparently opting to eat at the Windjammer or the alternative restaurants every night. The other couple was disturbed by children at the next table and opted to change tables (at least that was their story; it could have been us!) We were fortunate to be able to relocate to another table served by our very efficient waiter and subsequently enjoyed this group of eight. Their table of 10 also had a couple that never showed the entire trip. The result was excellent and fast service but clearly this is a situation that cannot continue for wait staff. Our waiter had two tables assigned, one for six and one for 10. He ended up waiting on one table of 8. While this resulted in excellent service and a non-rushed atmosphere, it was obviously a financial hardship for the hardworking wait staff. With the increasing number of dining venues on ships and the apparent demand for "freestyle" type dining, I fear it is only a matter of time until RCI adopts a policy of tips on a mandatory basis, as they already are on some ships. While I don't like a policy like this, I don't see how service personnel can otherwise be adequately compensated unless the cruise lines decide to pay a living wage to their service personnel, and I'm not holding my breath for that!
PRICE AND VALUE
It's no secret that the cruise line's strategy these days is to lure passengers onboard with low upfront prices and then make their money with the extra charges. We were curious to see how far this trend had progressed since our last cruise, and the results were mixed. Afternoon ice cream was still free, but the drink prices were outrageous. A standard beer was over $5.00 with tip, and a premium brand (Blue Moon?) was over $6.00. There were few wine selections below $30 a bottle and wine by the glass went from $7 up. The one gin and tonic I had made the beer and wine seem like a bargain. But, maybe that's not all bad; overeating on cruise is a given, but these prices will sure hold down the overdrinking. Another annoyance was the addition of an "extra" gratuity slot on the drink tickets. So, not only do you get soaked for the overpriced drinks, now you are encouraged to add onto the already generous 15% tip the bartender gets for handing you your drink. This is the problem with all mandatory service charges: they cease to become tips and then you are expected to add onto them for "excellent service." Elsewhere, photographers were everywhere, all the time, but at least you could enjoy reviewing all the shots without having to spend money. There were two additional fee restaurants, but we did not eat at either. The surcharges at the Italian and steak restaurants were $40, and $50 respectively, a bit steep for our tastes. The art auctions were ever present as was the bingo. But, all in all, we didn't feel that the nickel and diming had gotten out of control. The bottom line is how much the vacation costs for the value you get. With that in mind, this trip was a very good value.
PORTS AND EXCURSIONS
LABADEE: Our first stop was Labadee, RCI's private harbor on the north coast of Haiti. With the recent earthquake in Haiti on everyone's consciousness, the ship accepted relief donations and offloaded many pallets of water, food and other emergency provisions to be sent to Port 'O Prince. While there was some controversy about cruise ships continuing their port calls in light of the disaster, it was clearly the right thing to do. In addition to the relief provisions provided by the ship, our tourist dollars made their way to at least some Haitians in need. Labadee is a pretty, relaxing place made more accessible by the recent completion of the pier. There is a wide range of activities that can be pursued, but we chose to relax on the beach and enjoy the picnic lunch by the beautiful water.
CARTEGENA; Our second port was Cartegena, Columbia. While there have been some concerns about the safety of this port, we did not experience any worries along these lines. The old city is a lovely, picturesque walled area that can be best enjoyed by simply wandering through the streets. None of the ship tours looked appealing, so we initially planned on just taking a cab to the old city and walking around on our own. However, our table mates expressed an interest in sharing a cab with a guide, so we said we would look into it. After leaving the port building, we were met by a group of drivers and negotiated with one driver to take us just to the old city and the fort. We negotiated the price for the six of us, and then the guide disappeared to coordinate the transportation. The next thing we knew, an additional 20 people had been recruited at the price we negotiated and we were shuttled onto a large bus. I was tempted to walk out at that point, but momentum overcame and we got aboard. Suffice it to say, the customized tour we thought we had negotiated degraded to the standard drive by sightseeing while being taken to "emerald museums" that were not very well disguised attempts to lure gullible tourists into shops where they could be separated from their money. But we did get to see some of the highlights and enjoyed our day. Bottom line when you visit Cartegena; the fort and the old city are the real attractions. Forget the new city and the emerald museums.
COLON, PANAMA: As mentioned earlier, the itinerary was altered to include a port stop at Colon in lieu of a partial canal transit. The reason was obvious: money. Even a partial transit of the Panama Canal is extremely expensive for the cruise lines, so by docking instead at Colon, the lines save this fee while simultaneously generating additional revenue from the tours. And trust me, you want to take a tour of some kind in Colon. During the early days of the Panama Canal, Colon had a reputation as a dirty, unsanitary and dangerous city. From what we saw(admittedly little), not much has changed. We opted to take a ship's tour to the Gatun Locks and the historic city of Portobello. The drive to Portobello was interesting and the small city on a picturesque bay was somewhat interesting. Unfortunately, our guide chose to linger far too long in this city, going on and on about matters of little interest. The result was that our visit to the Gatun Locks, which is what we were really interested in, was abbreviated and hurried. But, it was fascinating seeing the locks from the shore side, having transited the canal by ship on a previous cruise. Our table mates took a tour to Panama City and reported that it was interesting, but the ride was long in a not particularly comfortable van. My recommendation for Colon: Visit the locks at Gatun or Mirabelle or transit the canal on a small ship (offered as an excursion) if you have not been through the canal before.
PUERTO LIMON, COSTA RICA: I love Costa Rica. While Limon is a busy port city and not particularly pretty, once you get outside the city, Costa Rica is pretty, clean and scenic. There were many tour options that looked good. We opted for the coffee plantation tour because Barbara works for a coffee company and I love coffee! It was a most enjoyable tour with a 2 and a half hour drive into nearby mountains to visit the scenic and traditional coffee plantation. We toured the fields, visited the old fashioned processing and roasting facility, and of course, sampled the coffees. After the visit, we had lunch in an open air patio of a nearby resort by a large lake. This was easily the best tour of the trip.
CAYMAN ISLANDS: Our final stop was at that western Caribbean staple, Georgetown, Grand Cayman. We have been to this island several times so we opted to rent a car and explore the areas of the island beyond downtown and 7 mile beach. We rented a compact car from Andy's for a surprisingly reasonable rate (about $60 US with full insurance) and set out on the "wrong" side of the road after being picked up at the pier and shuttled to the office. The hardest part of the transaction was finding a local phone to call the office! We set off initially for the northern part of the island to visit the oft mentioned "Hell." This small town and post office is the product of some marketing genius who saw an opportunity to draw tourists and their dollars to an otherwise uninteresting and drab part of the island. My recommendation: skip it. After the trip to Hell, we drove to Rum Point, a lovely area located about midway on the island. There we had lunch by the pristine beaches and gin-clear waters where you could see sting rays swimming freely. From there, we retraced out path to the south side of the island where we watched large waves crashing onto the beaches. The island was bigger than we had envisioned so we were unable to go all the way to the east end of the island as we had initially intended. That was a shame because the area appeared to be attractive and uncrowded. Bottom line: if you've been to Grand Cayman before, renting a car is a great way to see some things not offered by ship's tours, and save some bucks to boot. And, you can go to Hell if you want to, but don't go out of your way to get there.
ODDS AND ENDS
There's always a lot of discussion on Cruise Critic boards about bringing liquor onboard. So, in the interest of investigative journalism, not to mention the outrageous beer prices aboard ship, I attempted on two occasions to smuggle some illicit local brews onboard for later consumption on the privacy of our balcony. The result? Success on both counts! Before you start building in the reduced price of alcohol into your upcoming trip, however, let me offer some qualifications. First of all, I attempted to bring only one bottle of beer aboard on both occasions. Both times the beer was detected in the x-ray machine. The first time, the screener told me to turn the beer over to an attendant who was stationed nearby, but since he wasn't paying attention, I simply walked on past. The second time, the attendant was watching but when he discovered that it was only one bottle of beer, he decided the paperwork was too much of a bother and waved me on. So what is my conclusion? If you try to bring liquor back, it will be detected, but if it's one or two bottles of beer, you might get away with it. The worst that can happen is that they confiscate it and return it to you at the end of the cruise (hence the paperwork that dissuaded attendant two!)
We had a Cruise Critic mix and mingle party which featured a chance to connect with fellow board posters. We had some snacks (like we really needed something more to eat!), punch and a variety of gifts were raffled off. It was a good time, and I recommend all Cruise Critic members recruit their fellow shipmates to get RCI or organize a meeting. I believe 25 are needed to sign up.
The cruise experience is changing, but it is still a great vacation and a really good travel value. Royal Caribbean has maintained its excellent product in the "mainline" cruise category, and its ships are innovative, attractive and well maintained. We had a great time on this cruise, and reading of the blizzards back home made it even that much more enjoyable!