Pre-cruise -- Through Priceline, we spent one night at the Miami Doubletree Grand Hotel Biscayne Bay. Arrived early, before noon, and were allowed to check in. The rooms were large, clean and well appointed. The hotel staff was extremely nice and accommodating. From our room, we could see three ships in port, which added to our anticipation of the upcoming week.
Day 1 - Embarkation -- This was the end of daylight savings time and I thought that when I woke up, I turned my watch back. It was our intention to get to the pier around noon, however with my watch "malfunction" we arrived at the pier, by taxi, around 11:15 a.m. We had to wait about 5 or 10 minutes before we were allowed to enter the check-in area. Check in took less than 15 minutes, and we were on board. We were told the rooms would not be available until 1:00 p.m., but that we were allowed to go to our rooms to drop off our things and change clothes. As it turned out, our room was ready and our cabin Steward, Enoch, greeted us almost immediately to introduce himself and see if we had any special requests. We had two cabins - my husband and I were in a balcony and across the hall, in an inside cabin, was our 12 year old son and his best friend. Both cabins were laid out well with plenty of storage space and I just love having a balcony.
We pre-tipped Enoch $20, asked for ice and for the beds in the kid's cabin to be separated. We changed clothes and headed for lunch and the pool area. When we returned to our cabins a couple of hours later, we had a very large ice bucket filled with ice and the kid's beds were in their new configuration. This was a (good) sign of things to come. We spent the rest of the afternoon getting familiar with the ship. The kids (yeah, right - just the kids!) were so excited about this cruise and the amazing ship. There was so much to do, it's impossible to get bored - even for two very jaded 12 year olds!!
The ship is really too much for words. It is beautiful and well maintained. It is laid out so that none of us got lost the entire week; not a small feat! It has everything they claim in the brochures and more!
Next stop was the dining room for dinner. We were greeted by our waiter, Eduardo, and our assistant waiter, Kristoff. They were both amazing! Aside from their great sense of humor, they were attentive and extremely helpful, not only with our food selection, but also with tips about our port stops. Although I had read lots of complaints about the food, I found it to be quite good. However, there were a few times that one of us would try to order something from the menu, and Eduardo would gently steer him/her off! One night my mother-in-law went against his urging and was sorry.
Aside from the four of us, our table of eight contained my mother-in-law, father-in-law, and a woman with her 11 year old daughter. We ended up spending quite a bit of time with our new friends and the kids got along very well. None of the three kids liked the organized activities, so they "hung out" together, finding their own things to do. They said the kids's programs were more like a "free for all."
After dinner, we changed into our Halloween costumes and continued to explore the ship. Around 10:30, all those in costume paraded through the Promenade and then were placed in a VIP section to watch the real Welcome Aboard parade. This was followed by a Halloween dance.
Day 2 - Sea Day -- We slept in a bit and had a leisurely breakfast. We spend most of the afternoon on deck. It was very windy but warm and sunny. It was so windy that the liquid in full drinks would blow right out of the glass. You could easily pick out the Pina Coladas! There were all sorts of activities going on that we did not participate in. Tickets for the Ice Show were being given away. When I went to get the tickets, the show time I wanted to attend was "sold out" (it's free) so I grabbed tickets for another show time. Later that day, I was at the purser's desk and noticed they had stacks of Ice Show tickets there too. I was able to exchange the tickets I had for the show time I had originally preferred. I took a nap and my husband got a full body massage ($115, I think, plus tip) which he really enjoyed. Shortly thereafter, it was time for our first formal night dinner. Most of the people in the dining room were quite dressed up, but not all. My husband wore his tux and was not out of place as he thought he would be. Following dinner the show was Beatlemania, a Beatles tribute band. We really enjoyed this. Just an all around fun show. Even the kids liked it, although they didn't really know any of the music.
Day 3 - San Juan (2:00 - 8:00 p.m.) -- We had the unusual and extremely cultural experience of being in PR on Election Day! I have never seen anything quite like this - they take their elections seriously. They were electing a new Governor. People were driving around, sitting in/hanging out of their car windows, yelling, waving flags, partying and playing loud music. The city was total chaos; one big party. All of the ship's tours, except the walking tour, were cancelled at the last minute. Nearly all of the stores were closed. Thankfully, we had arranged for a private tour, which went off without a hitch. We had contracted with http://www.coquipie.com/. Jerry, our tour guide, had to arrange for a large van and driver to accommodate the six of us. Again, because it was Election Day, this was no small feat! Thankfully, he was able to find us a wonderful driver. They took us to the rain forest, El Yunque, and we practically had the place to ourselves. It was very beautiful there. For us, this was the perfect excursion - we were able to see a good part of San Juan during our drive to the rain forest. On the way back, we drove by one of the campaign headquarters. What a scene!
We got back on the ship around 6:20. We knew we would be late for our 6:00 dinner seating and told Eduardo, Kris and our tablemates that we would not be dining in the dining room. Eduardo insisted he was "Fast Eddie" and we should come anyway. We took him up on his offer and were only about five minutes later than our tablemates, which helped to relieve our guilt of showing up at 6:30. Fast Eddie did indeed take care of us, and we finished our dinner at the regular time.
The show tonight was a singer. We did not attend but my in-laws enjoyed the show.
Day 4 - St. Maarten (9:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.) -- This was my favorite port of the week. The six of us got off the ship around 9:30, following breakfast, of course! We walked through the main port area to the SXM taxi stand, at the road. We did the "Family and Friends fun for the day" tour which can be found at http://www.sxmtaxi.com/family&friends.htm. They offer several other tours, but this one suited our needs. Essentially, we had a taxi van (seated eight plus the driver) for the day. Our driver, Nathaniel, was fabulous. He couldn't have been nicer or more knowledgeable. He drove us all over the island, stopping when appropriate or any time we asked. He took us to places that we knew about and to many we didn't. We stopped at Maho Beach and saw a plane land, went shopping on the French side, gawked at Orient Beach and spent a couple of hours at Dawn Beach. After the beach, Nathaniel dropped my mother-in-law and I off at the shopping district on the Dutch side and took the guys back to the ship. An hour or so later, he came back and waited for us; then he returned us to the ship. Another great dinner and an early night - we were all exhausted.
This night the boat was rocking quite a bit and the stabilizers were working overtime. While sleeping, when the stabilizers shuddered, so would our bodies. Our beds (that's being kind - they're more like oversized cots) were so squeaky that we kept getting woken up by the movement! The beds were the only low spot of an otherwise wonderful cruise.
Day 5 - St. Thomas (7:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.) -- Because we had spent the prior day in a foreign port, we had to go through immigration when we docked in St. Thomas. This was done in the dining room and the line was huge! However, it went really quick. You have to go with all documentation, including passport/birth certificate, photo ID and seapass. They glance at your information, mark your seapass and you're done. No big deal. This is for US citizens - others were processed on a different deck and I don't know if it went as smoothly.
Instead of staying in St. Thomas, we wanted to go to St. John. To facilitate this, we chartered a sail boat through http://www.sailwinifred.com/. [The one thing that I didn't mention to this point was that on the first day of our cruise, I came down with an awful cold! When I woke up this morning, I knew I should just stay in bed - I felt horrible. But, I foolishly didn't want to miss anything so off I went! MISTAKE!] Captain Sharon met us at the Red Hook dock in a dingy and took us to the sailboat. There we were greeted by the first mate, Tommy. The sail over to St. John was beautiful and the scenery was breathtaking. We tied up to something sticking out of the water near Caneel Bay and prepared to go snorkeling. [When we docked, I stood up and immediately got nauseous. That was it for me for the rest of the day.] Sharon and I stayed on the sailboat and everyone else went snorkeling for about an hour and a half. From what they said, it must have been fantastic. They saw tons of fish, rays, a starfish and a turtle. Near the boat, Tommy held up a huge conch shell for me to see. After snorkeling, lunch was served and then a leisurely sail back to Red Hook. I think they might have stopped at another bay had I not been sick. We took a cab back to the ship. After quick showers, we got back off the ship for some shopping.
Once again, we had another great dinner but this time, it was followed by the Ice Show. This is definitely a show not to be missed. I love figure skating, but my husband and father-in-law were less than pleased that they were being dragged to the ice rink. Well... needless to say, they were standing and cheering right along with the rest of us by the end! This show would have been enjoyable on land, but to think that they could perform as well as they did on a moving ship boggles the mind!
Day 6 - Nassau (12:00 - 6:00 p.m.) -- Still not feeling great, my mother-in-law and I spent a couple hours shopping. Nothing great in this port - do your shopping in either St. Maarten or St. Thomas. The guys caught the jitney for $1 and went to the Radisson Hotel on Cable Beach. They said it was OK, but definitely not their favorite of the vacation. They had lunch at the restaurant at the Radisson which, again, was OK but not great. We got back on ship for a much better meal, in the dining room. The show this night was a Vegas style variety show, which we did not attend but, again, my in-laws enjoyed it.
Day 7 - Sea Day -- We slept in and had a leisurely breakfast before going up on deck to lie in the sun and read; my favorite activity for sea days! Somehow the sea days seem to pass as quickly as a port day, despite having nothing planned. There are just so many possible things to do while on this ship, and we seemed to do most of them - at least the kids did! Ice skating, rock wall climbing, roller blading ping pong, basketball, video arcade - you name it, they did it! Sadly, this was our last day. Dinner was another formal night and another excellent meal.
This was also tip night. On this topic, I'm not trying to preach or say that my way is the right way, but this is what we did. We put the recommended tips on our seapass account and were provided with vouchers and envelopes in our stateroom before dinner. We then added cash to each of the envelopes to add an additional 50% to each of these tips. The service was above and beyond what we had expected. Even the head waiter came to our table each night to chat or help out. I've never seen a head waiter on any other cruise except for on tip night. On lobster night, the head waiter and Eduardo, our waiter, removed the tail from the shell. On shrimp entrees, they also removed the tail shells. They also cut the steaks for the kids (and sometimes the adults!). Of course, they would bring my husband his second entree as soon as he finished his first. I didn't purchase a soda card so I bought a can of soda with each dinner. If I finished my can of soda, Kris, our assistant waiter, would bring me a fountain soda so that I didn't waste money for a few extra sips. We never asked for any of these things. I wanted to take them home with me!
Day 8 - Debarkation -- Although we docked in Miami, we had a flight out of Ft. Lauderdale at 2:30 p.m.. I don't recall what color our tags were, but they didn't start calling colors until at least 9:30. The main areas were mobbed. We went into a small lounge at the end of the Promenade, far away from the chaos and waited. It was quiet and there was hardly anyone else in that lounge. We relaxed/napped while waiting to be called. Once called, it took about 45 minutes to get off the ship. We had arranged for a limo through Larry's Limo, http://www.larryslimo.com/. The driver was waiting around the corner for us to call him after we got our luggage. He was there within minutes and we were sadly on our way home.