Background: We were on the Nov 14-21 Liberty of the Seas cruise from Miami on the Eastern Caribbean itinerary (Philipsburg, St. Maarten; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Labadee, Haiti). This was our 13th cruise overall and our 3rd cruise with Royal Caribbean. We stayed in a balcony cabin midship port side 9th floor (9578). Both my wife and I are 50 years old, active and independent. We rarely do ship excursions and take the stairs each cruise to work off last night's dinner. On this particular cruise, we were traveling with 12 other family members (two sisters, four cousins, two cousin's spouses, aunt, uncle and step parents).
Embarkation: We arrived early to Miami Cruise Port and they had not yet opened up the checkin lines as of 10:30 a.m., so we decided to spend a couple of hours at Bayside Marketplace, thinking we would be able to breeze through checkin by waiting until 1p or so. That was definitely not the case. When we arrived back at the cruise terminal, the line extended out the front door and quite a distance down the arrival roadway sidewalk. While waiting in line, I was able to connect with one of my sisters and my step parents. Embarkation was notable for two items: 1) the lines and waits were extremely long (the longest of all our cruises), not sure why and no one from Royal Caribbean offered water or snacks during the wait; 2) my stepfather forgot his passport in Palm Springs. So if you are wondering if Royal Caribbean will allow anyone to board without a passport, the answer is maybe. My stepfather did have a neighbor fax him a copy of his passport, which he presented along with his driver's license and various other forms of identification. Royal Caribbean staff did say they would allow him to board if he was able to get a copy of his birth certificate faxed as well (which surprised me--I had thought that no passport always meant no entrance, but apparently not). Unfortunately, my stepfather's neighbor was not able to locate his birth certification and he ultimately was unable to board. It was definitely a downer to start the cruise, but I was impressed that Royal Caribbean was willing to bend the rules, at least slightly. My stepfather ended up traveling back to Palm Springs and did not join the cruise at a later port (at age 83, he didn't feel up for the additional travel), but my stepmom did board and we all did our best to take care of her.
Ship: Liberty of the Seas was launched in 2007 and at one time was the biggest cruise ship in the world before being eclipsed (and now far surpassed) in size by other megaships. The ship is massive, yet it seldom felt overly crowded except during certain events (such as the parties and parades in the Promenade). This was our first cruise on a Freedom-class ship and the largest cruise ship we have been on overall. I was surprised that there are only two stairways and elevator banks, while much smaller ships often have three. While we did not take the elevators during the cruise, members of our group who did noted that they were often quite busy and crowded during peak times around dinners and shows. We were on the Mariner last year, which also has the Promenade, which we enjoyed. On the downside, Royal Caribbean does tend to block the walkways with the various sale-of-the-day events, which tends to spoil both the atmosphere and the speed of transit. Otherwise, it is a very pleasant venue to get from one end of the ship to the others. The Flowrider was a first for us onboard a cruise ship (although I had used on on land previously) and was an enjoyable diversion on the back of the ship, deck 13, both for participating (I did both boogie boarding and stand up surfing) and watching (they have stadium-style seating to watch the tricks and the wipeouts, lots of fun). The ship is scheduled to go to drydock in Jan 2011, although there was no real wear-and-tear that was noticeable other than perhaps the need for a coat of varnish on the balcony railing.
Stateroom: Our stateroom (9578, port side deck 9) was a pretty standard balcony cabin, with about 18 inches on each side of the bed. The corners at the foot of the bed are curved, which was noticeable (I tend to sleep with my feet off the end of the bed), although manageable. The balcony had room for two chairs and a very small round table (far too small for the space and too small to work well for breakfast in the morning). There is enough room for a couch along the side wall, which made the cabin appear to be larger than our friends who were in an oceanview cabin on deck 3. The shower is the typical time capsule size, which I have to believe would be difficult for some of the larger passengers we saw onboard (although fine for us).
Dining: We had just been on the Jewel of the Seas three weeks prior, so the main dining room menu was a repeat. This by itself would be an encouragement to go with a different cruise line, yet apparently Royal Caribbean wants to stay with the same menu on all the ships. Our Waiter (Peamkait, a/k/a "Pumpkin" from Thailand) and Assistant Waiter (Elizabeth from Trinidad) were both excellent and counted among the best we have had on any cruise. We went to Portofino Wednesday evening (Chops was already booked that evening) and it was a very lackluster performance, food very similar to the main dining room and the service a notch lower. They have changed the menu in Portofino since we had been there last year on the Mariner and not for the better. The one thing that Royal Caribbean does that degrades the dining experience (in all dining rooms) is to list the first three courses (appetizer, soup, and salad) as "Starters" on the menu. I assume this is done to cut down on the number of people that order all three courses. Yet what makes it worse is that they typically bring out two or even three of the starters all at the same time. Even though the time allowed for dinner is similar to other cruise lines, this portion of the meal feels staged and rushed. We also went to Johnny Rockets and enjoyed our time there, good entertainment by the crew.
Entertainment: This was the best production show entertainment we have seen in our 13 cruises. It was also a transition week between one singer/dancer group (Group #7) and a new group (Group #8), so we were able to see two shows (Gallery of Dreams and Ever After) with the former group (they were outstanding, constantly on key, belting it out and nailing the dance moved) and one show with the new group (In The Air), who was average at best (although it is probably the most difficult show of the three to master with the aerial work). The productions were superbly staged, with outlandish costumes and sets/props. The ice show (Encore) was excellent with some real showstopper moments, including a special guest skater (Marina Karamycheva) who used hula hoops in a performance that literally brought down the house. The other Platinum Theatre performers (comedians Michael Dean Ester and Kivi Rogers; juggler Adam Karrio; and Beatlemania) were typical cruise ship performers--good, but not good enough for Broadway or Vegas. The performers in the other venues were good, not great. The one major issue that Royal Caribbean has in the entertainment category is the lack of available entertainment avenues in the evenings. There were some evenings when there were literally nothing to do between the end of the production show at 7:45p and second seating at 8:30p. Perhaps they are trying to encourage guest to gamble and/or shop more, but with over 4,000 guests onboard, this leaves a large number of people idle. Also, the Sphinx lounge on deck 5 seemed to be ideally suited for dancing, yet it was booked almost every evening for special events or private bookings. Some of these were for the frequent cruiser program (Diamond and Platinum), but it left the Gold (us) and first time Royal Caribbean cruisers without an entertainment venue. Really? You can't even have the piano bar or pub guitarist playing a set? The Cruise Director, Mike S. (Szwajkowski) was good, had some funny lines throughout the week and kept the ending speech after each show to a minimum, which we appreciated. He also kept everyone howling at Quest.
Ports: We have been to all of the ports with the exception of Labadee, yet we enjoyed each of them:
St. Maarten: originally the time in port was listed as 7a-6p, so we decided to rent three cars for our group. However, the time was changed to 9a as of our cruise date and then we arrived late, just after Ruby Princess, which was not due in port until 10a (not sure how that happened). The late start, combined with the heavy traffic meant that we were not able to make all of the stops we had hoped for. We rented our car at Hertz, which went well, albeit slowly. We went first to Orient Beach and stayed there for about an hour before heading on to Grand Case. We ate at one of the lolos on the beach (the one on the beach behind Talk of the Town) and had a nice fresh fish lunch. We skipped Marigot (our planned stop if we had arrived earlier) and headed straight to Maho Beach/Sunset Bar to watch the planes land. We realized at lunch that we were still on ship's time rather than island time, which was an hour later. So two of the bigger jets (Air France and USAir) were landing already as we drove up. There were two additional big jets that landed while we were there (2p-3p local time is prime time for the big jets), as well as a couple of jets taking off (and the resulting sandblasting). We stayed until just past 3p, thinking it would give us enough time to drive to Philipsburg, shop for about an hour, then return to the ship. Wrong. The road back from Maho Beach was at a complete standstill for over 45 minutes. When I asked a local why, he said it happens every day. We were able to use Google Maps to drive around part of the stopped traffic, else we might have actually missed the ship. As it was, it took almost two hours to return to the ship from Maho Beach. We got back in plenty of time, but had to skip Philipsburg. Also important that Hertz (and other rental car companies) are on island time an expect the cars to be back by 6p island time (5p ship's time). We enjoyed St. Maarten, just wish we had more time there and less traffic. Gary Taylor is definitely right to be careful about the traffic.
San Juan: the arrival time was quite early (7a) and we've been here several times before, so we did a walking tour of Old San Juan and El Morro fort. After some shopping, my wife and sister had a liquid lunch at the bar (Barrachina) in the building where the pina colada was first formulated. Great pina coladas (I had a virgin colada or two). Others in our group went to El Yunqe rainforest, which we had visited before. The time in San Juan was short, with a leaving time of 2p, which doesn't provide enough time in port unless you start out early. On the plus side, we were able to enjoy more time onboard the ship during the afternoon sailing.
Labadee: this is Royal Caribbean's own private slice of Haiti. If you are looking for a great beach day, this is a great location. We did the zipline tour at the beginning of the day, which was quite spectacular, although short (just over 60 seconds) and expensive ($85). Only the second ship's tour we had ever done and reconfirmed our view that they are overpriced. The barbecue on the island was pretty low quality with minimum variety and lukewarm food. However, it was the only option for lunch that day, as Windjammer and the main dining room were both closed, forcing passengers to get off the ship to eat this lackluster lunch (not sure why). While there were watering stations for water, ice tea and lemonade setup during the meal, they were disassembled and disappeared at about 2:30p, leaving you with only two options of either: a) buying drinks from the bars; or b) returning to the ship. Perhaps this is their not-too-subtle way of getting everyone to make their way back to the ship early, but then why force everyone to get off for lunch in the first place? Yes, you can always buy the $3.95 water as you exit the ship, but really, no water or other basic hydration offered for the last three hours of the time ashore? Really?
Disembarkation: Went smoothly, I used Express to get off early to go to the airport to get a rental car (we spent Sunday in South Beach before a late flight out) and my DW got off using the standard disembarkation. No problems for either of us.
Overall value: Royal Caribbean's price point tends to be higher than Carnival, NCL and even Princess, yet they spend more time hawking for the extra bucks than any of the others. It feels like a one week timeshare sell-a-thon. There is a balance between discretely offering add-ons/upsells vs. annoying guests that Royal Caribbean has yet to master.