A little background information about us and our cruising style. We are a late 40's, early 50's couple who's children are grown up and on their own. We both work pretty hard during the year and have to save up for a nice vacation. Also, we are pretty low maintenance and basically go with the flow on most things. "I'm on vacation, so I'd rather not spend my precious vacation days sweating the small stuff." We tend to book the least expensive cabin as we are very rarely in it and would rather spend the money difference on fun excursions and other goodies.
Now on with the Review.....
We flew from Detroit through Atlanta to San Juan. Good thing we planned to go in a day ahead. There were terrible thunder storms in Atlanta and our flights were delayed. We arrived in San Juan at 3:00am the morning of the cruise. As hotels can be pretty pricey in Old San Juan, we looked for a bargain hotel. We booked a room at the SJ Suites in Old San Juan. It was relatively inexpensive (approx. $125.00 for the night) since we only spent about 6 hours in the room, I'm glad we didn't pay for a luxury hotel. The hotel was a bit on the rough side although I do have to say it was clean and met the basic needs. The location was perfect for taking in a bit of the city before heading to the port. If you are looking for a great location, cheap rate and are not too picky, then this hotel should be fine for a night. If you like a bit of luxury or plan to stay more than 1 night, you might want to look elsewhere.
My husband and I got up and moving about 9:00am. We walked around a few blocks just to take in the culture of the city then checked out of the hotel, and grabbed a cab to the pier about noon. Would have liked more time in Old San Juan, but we were exhausted from the long travel day and little sleep. We just wanted to get to the ship and relax. We arrived at the port and were eating Honey Stung Chicken about 15 minutes later, no waiting.
The Ship - The Serenade is a beautiful ship. We were on The Jewel on our previous cruise and the two ships are basically identical. It was meticulously maintained with a friendly and welcoming staff. There were lots of kids as it was spring break for many, they were all wonderfully behaved and a pleasure to have on board. No issues at all were visible to us. Muster drill was at 8:00pm and Life Jackets are no longer required. Everyone just goes to their appointed station when the call comes over the loud speaker and the tone sounds. After a briefing about the life jackets and emergency procedures we were dismissed.
The Food - We had the late dinner seating, however on the first night it was moved to 8:45 instead of 8:30. We were able to watch an 8:30 sail away before heading to dinner. We were seated at a table for 10, although we only had 9 for the duration of the trip. We had a great group and a good time was had by all. Our wait staff was outstanding and the service was amazing. We ate in the Main Dining Room every night except the 2nd formal night where we ate at Portofino. This was a Saturday to Saturday cruise with Formal nights being on Sunday and Thursday. Breakfast and most lunches were in the Windjammer. A few lunches were in the Sea View Cafe and one lunch in the Main Dining Room.
The food in the Main Dining Room and in the Windjammer I would rate from good to very good. I can honestly say that there was nothing that I would consider sub-standard. My favorite, I would say is the Vidalia Onion Tart as well as all the desserts. As a special treat, we decided to try a specialty restaurant this time and chose Portofino. It was absolutely amazing. The food and the service were incredible. In fact, my husband wanted to eat there the next night as well. It was more than worth the up charge to eat there. We will eat there again on our next cruise for sure.
On Friday, which was our Sea Day we ate lunch in the Main Dining Room as I had heard so much about the wonderful food and special Salad Bar on Sea Days. It was delicious and I would say it shouldn't be missed. Some other food items to keep in mind are at, the Sea View cafe. The very yummy cheeseburgers, onion rings, salads and other menu items made the perfect lunch or late afternoon snack. Everything we had there was very good. Also a great afternoon snack was a fresh made crepe in the Solarium cafe. Be sure to find time to grab one sometime during your trip.
The Entertainment - The first night was the welcome aboard show that was hosted by our Cruise Director, Dennis Charles. He did a wonderful job and was an excellent host. The entertainment was a comedian named Kelley McDonald. We had actually seen him perform on our previous cruise and he did the same show. In addition was a juggler named Sideshow Bert. He was OK.
We didn't go to any of the musical shows on board that were performed by the Royal Caribbean singers and dancers so I can't comment on them.
There was one special show that I did go to which was called "The Beatle Maniacs". DO NOT MISS THIS SHOW! If it is available on your cruise make sure you go. They put on a phenomenal performance. Everyone on the ship agreed that it was the best show any of us had seen on any ship.
Kelly McDonald performed again later in the cruise and was much better than the first night. Much funnier and a better show overall. The last night was the farewell show with the Cruise Director, the Royal Caribbean singers and Dancers and another performance by Sideshow Bert. This was a nice show as well, and a better performance than the first one. Of course we did watch the Love & Marriage show as well as the Quest. Both well worth the time and very funny.
The Ports of Call are as follows:
Tortola - In Tortola we signed up for an excursion on our own with suggestions from the Cruise Critic Ports of Call boards. We signed up to do a trip to "The Baths" with Egbert and his crew. Egbert met us right outside the gate at the port and was easy to spot. Once everyone arrived we walked over to the marina where we boarded Egbert's boat for a 30 minute ride to Virgin Gorda.
Egbert runs two boats to the island and we were on the 2nd (smaller) boat. The first larger boat had already left. We were having a great ride to Virgin Gorda and about 20 minutes in, Egbert's boat quit working. Luckily we were just a few minutes to island, so the larger boat came back to pick us up. It was quite an adventure to climb off of one boat on to another in the middle of bobbing up and down in the sea. We all had a great laugh about our adventure and were soon on our way to The Baths with the broken boat in tow.
Once we arrived at Virgin Gorda a taxi/trolley was waiting to take us to the Top of the Baths. This is where you pay your entrance fee (I think it was $3.00). There is a restaurant/cafe at the top as well as a few gift shops. We made our way down the stairs, boulders and paths to The Baths. The water was beautiful. It was then time to make our trek through the Rock Caves to Devil's Bay. This was a totally amazing, not to be missed experience. The rock caves were very cool and Devil's Bay was worth every step. Gorgeous water and white sand beach with some great snorkeling. Soon it was time to head back through the rock caves and back up to the top. We decided to stop and have a drink at the restaurant until it was time to take our taxi back to Egbert's boat. (The boat had been repaired at the marina while we were at the Baths) Make sure you stop in the restaurant and order their famous "Pain Killer". It was delicious and totally different than any served on the other islands.
It was a fun trip back to the ship as Egbert kept the Rum Punch flowing. The boat had been repaired, so the ride back was smooth and without incident. Tortola is a very small little port with a few stands and a restaurant/bar. If you stop in this port, do not miss the opportunity to visit the Baths.
St. Maarten - We opted for another tour, this time with Bernard's Tours. This was another recommended off the Cruise Critic message board. This was a wonderful tour of St. Maarten. As we got off the ship we headed right to the Welcome Center and Bernard's Tours is right there. As Bernard started loading up groups of people in various waiting vans, we were sent to a smaller van along with a family of 3 from Oklahoma. It ended up being just the 5 of us along with our driver, David. It was a fabulous tour and David was an amazing tour guide with a wealth of knowledge of the island. Our first stop was an overlook with beautiful views of Phillipsburg and the port area.
Next stop was at Rima's for a bit of souvenir shopping. It was a typical shop with lots of t-shirts, beachwear and trinkets. It was a fun stop to make some gift purchases as the prices were great. As we drove around the island David told us all about it. We stopped at a sea side area where we were able to see and hold Star Fish and Sea Urchins. Next it was on the French side of the island known at Marigot. We were able to spend a little time there visiting a few shops and having a delicious snack at a local French bakery.
Soon we were back in the van again and headed to the world famous Orient Beach. If you are looking for a nice quiet beach, then this is not the place for you. Very different than any beach I've ever been to, but it was quite the experience. There are rows and rows of beach chairs and umbrellas for rent. We walked down the beach a way and decided on a location with 2 chairs, an umbrella and drinks for about $15. The view of the water was gorgeous and it was great for swimming. Soon there was a constant stream of people coming up to us trying to sell us things such as handmade jewelry, tote bags, beach cover-ups and various other crafts. It did get kind of bothersome but not overly so. We did see many topless women as well as men in very skimpy string thong bottoms.
After some swimming and enjoying our beverage, it was time to head back to the restaurant where our driver, David had us meet. We were a few minutes early so we sat down to order a drink while we waited for the rest of the group. To our surprise there was a couple having lunch and drinks that were totally nude. The man even got up at one point and walked over the service area to pay his bill. It did seem rather strange to find people walking around in this fashion but we had a pretty good laugh about it afterward.
Our next stop on the tour was Maho Beach. While this isn't the type of beach you would want to sit at all day, it is a "do not miss" experience. This beach is located right next to an airport landing strip. As you are sitting on the beach, the planes come in right over the top of your head. It seems like you can just reach up and touch them. The planes also take off from this same strip and if you are not careful the gusts that the planes leave will blow you right backwards. Some people did not listen to the warning and it was quite the site to see everyone making a mad scramble to get out of the way. It was then time to head back to the ship. It was a fabulous day with a wonderful tour guide. I would consider taking this tour again the next time we're in St. Maarten.
Antigua - This was the next stop on our trip. We decided to do the Segway tour this day. It was another recommended on the Cruise Critic, Ports of Call message board. We decided to do the first tour in the morning. As the day heated up, we were glad we had chosen the earlier time. There ended up being a group of 6 of us on this particular tour. We were met at the dock by someone on a Segway, of course where we were escorted to a taxi. The taxi took us to the Segway office for a yummy punch, a safety video and to sign waivers.
The taxi next took us to an old resort on the beach where the Segways, safety gear and practice course were waiting for us. Our instructors for the day were Sade and Jackson. Both were great and very easy going. After about 10 minutes of training and practicing we were soon on our way. The Segways were very easy to learn and lots of fun to ride. We rode over different types of terrain and stopped to taste some local flavors, such as tamarind and sugar cane.
Our next ride was up to an old fort where nice cold water and fresh fruit were waiting for us. We were then given some free time to ride the Segways on our own. Soon it was back to the beach where we started for a drink. Soon the taxi was there to take us back to the ship. We were back on the ship about 1:00 where we had lunch and relaxed by the pool the rest of the day. I would say the tour itself was less about what you are seeing on the tour and more about riding the Segway's. It was very fun and something I would do again.
St. Lucia - In St. Lucia we again decided on a tour company recommended by the Cruise Critic message board. This time we went with Cosol tours after reading nothing but rave reviews. To me it was more of a cattle call more than anything else. It was a very long day with lots of crowds at every stop. (3 ships in port that day). Cosol has a large fleet of vans that hold roughly 12 people in each. You have no choice over which driver you get. Our driver was just OK and the tour was a bit chaotic. We did see most of this beautiful island and experienced some wonderful scenery. Our first stop was at an overlook to view the very neat looking town of Anse La Raye where we were able to take pictures and have a cold drink.
Next we were on to the Banana plantation where we were able to try fresh picked bananas. It is amazing how delicious the bananas tasted compared to when they are fresh picked.
Next it was on to the Toraille Waterfall. The waterfall was nice but kind of a waste of time. It was pretty small and so crowded I really didn't enjoy it as we were very rushed. Next it was on to the drive through Volcano. While it was very crowded I did like this stop although I wish we had more time. And yes, it was stinky from the sulphur springs.
After a drive through the town of Soufriere the large Pitons came into view. What an amazing sight. We then boarded small motorized boats for a ride to Jalousie Beach where we had about 30 minutes to snorkel. The beach was very rocky and hurt our feet, wish we had brought the water shoes.
During the day we made a couple of stops to eat. Our first stop was at someone's home who provided a feast of wonderful local dishes. Later in the day we stopped for a quick snack of fresh cheese and hot bread, again it was a wonderful treat. The food provided was amazing and delicious and we did see quite a bit of the island.
We were picked up right off the ship dock at approximately 9:30am however, I was very nervous for our return. We were to be on board the ship by 4:30pm. Our drive actually had to go the wrong way in traffic just to get us back by 4:20. Way too close in my opinion. All in all we saw and did a lot on this tour, but I felt everything was a bit rushed. Not sure I could comfortably recommend this tour unless you end up with a great driver.
Grenada - Grenada was our last port of call on this trip. We had not planned anything for this port although at the last minute we decided to do the Sail, Snorkel and Beach excursion through the ship. I'm sure glad we did. Since our excursion was not scheduled until noon we decided we would check out the town. Once you get off the ship you go directly into a shopping mall. You can walk through the mall then out to the streets of town. Honestly, there wasn't much to see and we just didn't feel very comfortable walking around. We bought a few souvenirs and the famous spice necklaces in the mall and headed back to the ship to get ready for our excursion.
We were met right at the end of the pier by the people in charge of running the excursion. We were then directed to a large catamaran. There were approximately 40 people on the excursion with us and plenty of room for everyone. Soon we were sailing off to the snorkel area where fins and life vests were provided. We brought our own masks and snorkels so we did not need to use the boats equipment. Everyone jumped in the water and we were off to see the underwater creatures. We saw several types of fish as well as black and white sea urchins.
Soon it was time to head back to the catamaran for a ride to the beach. We sailed over to Grand Anse beach and had a wonderful time. It truly is a beautiful beach and really enjoyed our time there.
The main comment I want to make about this excursion is about the crew of the catamaran. There was a team of 4 young men. One was the captain who drove the boat, the other 3 were so friendly and couldn't do enough for everyone on board. Their smiles and wonderful attitude were infectious. They were hard workers and also kept the rum punch flowing as well as passing around a delicious snack of cheese and crackers. At only $44 for a ship sponsored excursion we felt it was a real bargain as we definitely got our money's worth for a 4 hour trip.
Sea Day - After such a port intensive itinerary we were certainly ready for a sea day. We enjoyed sleeping in a bit and some relaxation around the pool. Later in the day we enjoyed a drink at the pool bar and watched the crew vs. passenger pool volley ball tournament. Everyone appeared to be having a great time. Soon it was time to pack our bags so they could be placed in the hallway for pick-up. We then headed to our final dinner in the Main Dining Room and to say our good byes to the new friends we had met and to our excellent wait staff.
Disembarkation - Since our flight did not leave until 2:15 we were in no hurry to get off the ship. Our luggage tag color, declared a 10:00am departure so we ate a leisurely breakfast in the Windjammer, then headed back to our cabin to pick up our carry on bags. Once on the gangway, there was a short line, but it moved very quickly. We found our bags, were through customs without incident and in a matter of minutes in a cab, headed for the airport. All in all it was an amazing trip and would love to take this route again in the future.