We have cruised twice on Princess and were very happy with both those trips. We booked Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas because we wanted a warm weather cruise to celebrate our son's graduation from high school. Our choices for a West Coast warm weather cruise were only Carnival and RCCL. RCCL seemed the better choice for a family cruise and we were not disappointed.
Pre-cruise: We flew into Long Beach from Portland via JetBlue on Saturday the 12th. It was an easy flight and a short cab ride ($23 negotiated rate) from the Long Beach airport to the Hyatt Hotel. We had an early flight and were there by 10:30 a.m. They allowed us to check in early, which was really nice. The Hyatt is on the harbor across the street from Shoreline Village. We had a huge lunch at the Yard Arm, took pictures of the Queen Mary, poked through the shops, spent some time at the pool and then ate dinner at PF Changs across the street; all in all, very nice. The Hyatt is a little on the spendy side but I would definitely do it again.
Embarkation: We timed our arrival at the cruise terminal for right around noon. Again, an easy cab ride from downtown Long Beach. We found a porter immediately and shifted off our bags to be seen later. I was walking with a cane due to an unfortunate incident of clumsiness involving our stairs which resulted in a very badly sprained ankle. We were not thinking of taking advantage of assisted boarding, but a RCCL employee directed us to that check-in desk. Again, a very fast process and we were on the elevator and in line to board. Lines were short, we were photographed for our SeaPass cards, had our obligatory ship photo and walked onto the Deck 4 level of the Promenade. The look on our kids' faces was priceless, and they should have been awed. The Mariner is a lovely ship and the three level Promenade is very impressive.
Cabin: We had two cabins on Deck 9 - mid-ship. My husband and I had a Junior Suite and the kids were in an Inside cabin directly across the hall. First, points to Royal over Princess on the Junior Suite - I haven't compared the square footage, but the overall layout made the cabin seem much larger than our Junior Suite on the Golden Princess. There was a lot of storage and a very nice walk-in closet. The bathroom was small but efficient with some storage in the mirrored medicine cabinet. One minus was the lack of an accessible outlet, there were two on the vanity in the main part of the cabin. The basic toiletries were provided (lotion, shampoo, conditioner, soap) plus there was a soap dispenser on the wall in the shower. I didn't like having to fight the shower curtain however. For us, and this is a purely personal preference, we preferred the open balcony on Princess. The balcony on the Mariner was fully covered and narrow. It felt a little closed in - not that the size or covering interfered at all with our enjoyment, we just preferred the more open feeling on the Princess balconies. The Inside cabin seemed efficiently laid out with enough storage for both kids' things. They loved that it was so dark - made it easier to sleep until noon.
The Ship: The Mariner of the Seas is an absolutely lovely ship. The finishes are gorgeous and as I said the Promenade is very impressive. That being said, I think we preferred Princess just slightly as their Promenade levels feel a little more open to the ocean, there are more windows with views outside and the actual Promenade exterior deck seems to be more conducive to walking around the ship. Again, this is purely a personal preference and not to say that the Mariner is superior or inferior to the two Princess ships we have been on. I will have to give points to Princess for the pool situation. The two smaller salt-water pools on the Mariner were always crowded and there didn't seem to be a pool where one could get away from the hustle and bustle, other than the Solarium which also was very small. On the Golden and Sapphire Princess there are two large pools, one that can be covered in inclement weather, their version of the Solarium plus the wonderfully quiet aft pool. Princess also gets a point for better lounge chairs. Checking out the towels was a minimal hassle, but it was nice on Princess to just have clean pool towels left in your cabin.
Maybe this was just me being directionally challenged, but I was constantly confused as to whether I was aft or forward, port or starboard when I was trying to make my way back to our cabins. Princess has one color carpet for port and one for starboard which helps eliminate that confusion. I finally did kind of get it down and knew if I walked past the "hot wheel" cars on the wall I was going the right way.
As on any ship we've been on, it didn't take us long to find our "spots" and on the Mariner it was the Skybar on Deck 12, where Elmer and Dennis made life fun. What great representatives for RCCL! It was also a good spot to watch the action around the pool and see if we could catch a glimpse of our kids who were so busy we almost never saw them! Our other favorite haunt was Vintages. We wandered in there one evening for a pre-dinner glass of wine and Emmanuel gave us a tasting and lesson on some of the wines available. He was a delight as was Amale (I think) who was from South Africa and their compatriot from the Philippines whose name I have lost. They were all so very friendly, funny and gracious. After the first couple of days as soon as we sat down they poured our wine of choice and out came a small plate of cheese and grapes, such a nice touch. Several nights we stopped there on our way to dinner and picked up a bottle of wine to have with our meal. On the last night they conducted a wine tasting that was very well done and informative.
One evening we wandered up to Deck 14 and Ellingtons which has a lovely view over the pools facing forward. Unfortunately, there is also a very annoying vibration which makes it quite unpleasant to linger for long. Too bad, it could have been quite the spot for that final nightcap.
Dining: We opted for My Time Dining and had a standing reservation in the Sound of Music dining room for 7:15 p.m. The only night we had to wait at all - and then only for about 10 minutes was the second formal night. We had the same two servers, Vivian and Benhuer 5 out of the 7 nights and they were absolutely wonderful. RCCL outscores Princess in the actual physical layout of their dining rooms. What a beautiful space, so large and airy. We were fortunate to be seated in a section very close to the floor to ceiling windows and a couple of nights, right next to those windows. It really made for a special atmosphere. Most mornings we used room service or the Promenade Cafe for breakfast and Windjammer for lunch. I have to give points to RCCL over Princess on their buffet restaurant. The layout seemed better than the Horizon Court on Princess, the choices more varied and the service better. We are not big fans of buffets in any setting but did use this for lunch most days. One afternoon we met up with the kids at Johnny Rockets and that was a hoot! I don't think I would do it more than once, I mean, how many times can you listen to Stayin Alive (even if you are from that era). The food quality overall was fine, there wasn't one thing that I found outstanding but other than the lamb one night - everything was fine to good, and the lamb was more my fault - just didn't care for the taste - than the dining rooms. For those that are interested, soft-serve ice cream was available in the afternoons and as indicated in other reviews, sandwiches, pastries and pizza (I have to give points to Princess on the pizza - it is much better) was available throughout the day at the Promenade Cafe. Two mornings we had breakfast in the dining room and it was good. My husband especially liked the Salmon Benedict. Oh and RCCL really outscores Princess on the coffee - very good, unlike that horrid stuff they serve on Princess.
Service: RCCL and the Mariner outscore Princess and both ships we have been on with them. From the moment we boarded until we left the ship, the service was outstanding to absolutely stellar! Bar staff, serving staff, waiters, guest services - everyone we met was friendly, professional and all about making sure we were having a great cruise. Setho was our cabin steward and he was good and professional. We did get a couple of towel animals (our first!) and they were cute. Having them would not be a make it/break it for us on a cruise - but they did bring a smile to our faces when we came back from dinner.
Excursions: We had two excursions booked, one independently and one through RCCL. In Mazatlan we booked Randi's Happy Horses which had come highly recommended through these boards. It was by far our favorite excursion/time on the whole cruise. Stone Island has a beautiful beach that goes on forever, Randi's staff is friendly and competent and Randi herself is quite the character, warm, funny and full of interesting stories. We had a great ride and wonderfully relaxing lunch at Victor's afterward. I add my high recommendation for her to the others that have been put forward. We debated long and hard about whether to swim with the dolphins in Cabo or in Puerto Vallarta. Because my husband and I had done this excursion through Princess at Vallarta Adventures last December and had such a tremendous time, we opted to repeat it this time with our kids. What an absolute disappointment. Even though much of the staff was the same it was certainly not the same experience. There was a lot of waiting around, the "intro" was all about getting us to be "revved up" and not at all informative. When we finally got into the water, instead of being allowed to bob around and have the dolphins swim around us (which we were able to do in December). It was very much, line up, OK - now it is your turn to get the photo-op dolphin kiss, hug, dance. OK - line up again, now you get to be pulled by the dolphin, OK line up - now the dolphins are going to give you a show. OK - now get out of the water. You never got the sense of what wonderful creatures these are, instead it was a feeling of being herded along and then sold over-priced pictures. Too bad, really too bad and doubly disappointing because it is so expensive.
Passenger Mix: There was every age level and everything from strollers to scooters on board. There were a lot of kids, but that is too be expected as it was a summer cruise. They didn't seem to be a problem and we never experienced any of the horror stories I've read about. The only time the kid factor felt a little overwhelming was at the pool on sea days. My son was old enough not to be in the "teen programs" but did attend a couple of 18-20 year old functions in the Dragon's Lair. He rapidly found a group of like-minded/like-aged young people and we only saw him around the pool or at dinner. My 14 year old daughter also found a group and they spent their time hanging in the Living Room or in the hot tubs. We never saw her either....so, it might not have been quite the family bonding cruise I envisioned but they had a great time.
Disembarkation: We had a noon flight out of Long Beach so I requested to be one of the first groups off. We reported to the Savoy Theater about 8:30 and were at the airport by 9:45 a.m. It was very, very smooth and the RCCL staff did another great job. The only problem we encountered was trying to flag down a porter for our luggage, they were all getting snagged before we could get to them, so we just schlepped our bags through customs ourselves and found a cab immediately. Well done RCCL.
Final Thoughts: I know I haven't addressed the shows or the cruise director staff, but those are not things we tend to utilize on a cruise. The Casino was fine, we won some and then lost it back. It didn't seem too smoky, but being married to a smoker I don't really notice unless the smoke is really bad.
It was a great cruise and the Mariner is a beautiful ship. That being said, I think we would still tend toward Princess and the most overwhelming reason is our feeling that you are somehow more connected to the ocean on their ships. Also, the Mariner was just a little too big for us. The other negative with RCCL is their alcohol policy. Not even so much that we couldn't take on our own wine, like we can on Princess, but how hard they made it have wine/drinks in our cabin. We cruise for our balcony, it is that simple and we like to sit out there and have a drink or two (or three). On Princess we can order (and pay for) a bar set-up for our cabin anytime and as many times as we would like. Wine is easily accessible from room service. Now, it isn't a big deal to have to leave the cabin and go up or down to order a Vodka Tonic from one of the bars, or go down to Vintages and get a couple of pre-dinner/getting ready glasses of wine - but being able to have that in your room without having to go out is much more convenient.
Would we consider an RCCL cruise again if the price and itinerary were right - absolutely, but I don't think it will be our first choice, but isn't that the great thing about cruising there is a line, an itinerary, a cabin and activities for everybody.