In researching cruises over the past few years I've found these forums to be a great value. So, in the interest of repaying some of that effort, I've put together a review of our recent trip. Please let me know if there are any specific areas I can elaborate on for you.
We (wife and 21 year old son) took a western Caribbean Cruise on Allure beginning 2 January 2011. I was our fifth cruise - all of which have been on
Royal Caribbean. The largest ship we had been on before this was one of the Freedom class ships. This was our second western Caribbean cruise.
[B]First Impressions and Overall Size[/B]
Previous experience with ships can't really prepare you for the Allure. It's obviously larger than all other ships. That's true in almost every way -- more decks, more dining options (with more you have to pay for), more pools and more people. If you don't want to be around people this ship is not for you - though maybe cruising isn't either.
Not long after boarding I thought we might have made a mistake picking this ship. That was with the mandatory lifeboat drill just before sailing. The stairs were jammed leading to the muster stations and came to a standstill for several minutes. I couldn't help wondering what it would be like in case of a real emergency. This was also the first cruise where we didn't muster in an open deck where we lined up in groups like in boot camp. You gather in large rooms throughout the ship depending on the code on your Sea Pass - theatre, dining rooms, etc. As you enter your cards are scanned - something you'll experience a lot of during the cruise not just when embarking and debarking. Our muster station was a dining room where you just milled about or grabbed a seat at a table, or stood if you couldn't do that. Pretty disorganized. You are then required to watch a 5-minute safety video - which is predominantly in English only. Our particular cruise seemed to have a lot of non-English speakers who didn't appear to be paying much attention.
I'd also offer this advice to Royal Caribbean - don't set the tables for dinner in the dining room you are using as the muster station. While we sat there the bored passengers played with the plates, used the utensils as drumsticks, gave the creamer pitchers to their children to play with, etc. I'm just glad our dining room wasn't used as a muster station.
Despite the initial crowd concerns we did learn over the coming days that there are ways to avoid them. Several of the restaurants seem to attract fewer people - the Park Cafe in the Central Park neighborhood became a favorite of ours for breakfast. The Windjammer always seemed crowded though one side was general less crowded than the other. There are also places that are virtually deserted. Our favorite was the balcony at the end of our deck - 12 -- that overlooks the aft of the ship and the Aqua Theatre. There are about a dozen lounge chars out there that never had more than about four people in them. More often than not you'd find more crew using cell phones there than passengers. The adult only solarium at the front of the ship was also a nice place that, while not empty of people, gave a sense of privacy.
We were very pleased with the variety and the quality of the food provided. The dining rooms were well run and food was good quality. The service was excellent. The dining room menu was what you have come to expect with RCI. We were surprised that many of the tables surrounding us had infrequent attendance. It could be that they were trying the various specialty restaurants around the ship. If you want reviews of those venues you'll have to go elsewhere since we didn't try any of the specialty restaurants.
The other (free) dining places about the ship have a lot of variety. The Park Cafe, previously mentioned, had Panini and gave a European or large city cafe vibe that we liked. There's Johnny Rockets, of course, that also serves breakfast - diner style, appropriately.
If you're a coffee lover I'm sure you know Allure has the first Starbucks at sea. It didn't seem to be overly busy any time we went by and we noted that they were advertising a "clearance sale" of pastries after about day 5 of the 7 day cruise. Surprisingly, the "normal" coffee - Seattle's Best (which is part of the Starbuck's family) - seemed to have improved from previous cruises. That may be the reason Starbuck's didn't have the appeal one might expect. Or it could just be that you had to pay for it - but at least it's the same price as your home Starbuck's.
This is an area where we noticed a marked difference from the other RCI ships we sailed on. First is the requirement to make a reservation (free) for the main shows. They do have a waiting line and will seat folks if those who reserved haven't arrived just before show time. We didn't have a problem getting in if we hadn't made a reservation, but we did overhear one family say they couldn't get into Chicago.
On other ships we were used to the idea of hitting the theatre each night after dinner and catching the main show of the evening - whether it be music, comedy, dance, etc. Instead there are shows in various venues that you might have previously only seen in the main theatre. There are both advantages and disadvantages to this. We like comedy shows and those are held in a dedicated comedy venue that seats about 100 people. There were two comics - both very good - but the staff told us they do the same show each night. So once you've been to the show you've seen all the comedy you're going to on that cruise.
The production of Chicago is fabulous and every bit as good as what you would see on Broadway. I think some of the audience didn't understand what the show was about as there were small, and not so small, children in the audience, though their numbers shrank as the production went on.
The production of "Blue Planet" I expected to be an environmentally oriented version of a Cirque show. It had the Cirque gymnastics and aerial work, but the songs and music were a rather uninspired collection of Beatles and Black Eyed Peas songs, that, while expertly performed, were somewhat less than inspired choices.
We missed the Aqua Theatre main performance and had to settle for the DreamWorks kids show to see a performance in that venue. It was fun and kids would enjoy it. The most fun we had in the Aqua Theatre was watching the NFL playoffs on the large screens while the sun set in the west - all the while sipping drinks in our shorts. Not the typical January football experience!
We had a balcony room (12714), which had a fold down ceiling bed for our son. Our king size bed was very comfortable and I liked the room layout with the sofa and vanity by the balcony and the bed closer to the bath and door. It made much better use of the space and made the room seem bigger than on previous ships. The 32" flat screen TV was also a space saver - and a better TV than the old tube type.
Our cruise visited Labadee, Costa Maya and Cozumel. We had been to the first and last places on previous cruises. Once again, you'll have to go elsewhere to get reviews of shore excursions booked through the ship, as we didn't take any this time. We did visit two wonderful all-inclusive beaches in Mexico - Nachi Cocom in Cozumel and Maya Chan in Costa Maya - which I'll write about in the ports section of the website.
We really liked Labadee on our first visit, as it seemed like an undiscovered tropical paradise. We especially liked the market where you could bargain with the locals for hand-made goods and artwork. That was about eight years ago. Since then it's changed a lot, and I guess it had to with 6,000 people coming there twice a week. It's now considerably more "civilized" with paved paths, people-moving tractors, professional directional signs to send you to the half-mile long zip line, roller coaster and the "Gold Card" beach where those staying in suites and loft rooms aboard are sequestered from the hoi polloi. While there are more shopping stalls now, the covered market is now full of individually priced items where no bargaining is allowed. It's altogether a more sanitized island experience - not bad, just different than what we experienced before.
[B]Things That Surprised/Concerned Us[/B]
I want to emphasize that we had a wonderful time on this cruise and thought we got great value. There were a few things that I thought worth mentioning - in no order of importance.
As a 27-year Navy veteran I generally expect larger ships to have smoother motion. The Allure sailed wonderfully, but you will feel some motion of the ship - I guess it's because it's so top-heavy. Our stateroom was up high and pretty far aft so we could feel the normal vibration you'd expect in that situation. It surprised me, however, that our son was aware of the motion in the 3rd deck dining room and we watched the door of the Park Cafe rock back and forth slightly one morning. The seas were pretty calm on our cruise, so you might feel more motion in a rougher seaway.
Strollers. We don't ever remember strollers being on other ships. Maybe they were there but in smaller numbers, or maybe they allow them on this one because it's so big. They do seem to clog up the passageways and other venues as people use them - a couple pushing a stroller take up as much space as four adults and it tends to move slower. There were at least four strollers left nightly in the hallway we were on.
Fitness rooms. My wife loves the treadmills and found that she needed to be there by 7 a.m. to get on one in the a.m. Don't know what it's like the rest of the day. We loved the open air, enclosed walking track that circles the ship on about deck 6 (?). 2.4 times around is a mile.
Surprised to find that the pools were clorinated fresh water. I thought all the previous ships we were on they were salt water.
The ship's automated systems seem to have some major problems that I hope RCI is working on fixing. They range from being unable to register for wireless Internet from our TV stateroom to having the wrong day's Cruise Compass events on the touch screen displays about the ship - which are a nice feature when they work. I registered for the standard gratuity program on the ship's TV and I hope our waiters and stateroom attendant received the payments I intended. I don't know, however, as we were never delivered the slips you put in the envelopes the last night of the cruise. I also registered to receive my final statement by e-mail, but a week after getting home I still haven't seen it.
After a great cruise, the departure left some with a bad taste.
If you've cruised before you know that last "day" of the cruise is only a few hours. It has to be to turn the ship around for its same-day departure, and I understand that. On the Allure, however, that "day" seems even shorter. Breakfast stops being served at 8:30 and if you take advantage of the unique self-service departure where you can carry your own bags off, you're supposed to leave by 6:45 a.m. (Though we saw folks pulling their own luggage off much later.)
Allure's automated systems seem to have broken down again during departure. One of the departure machines seemed to break down and for some reason one group of people were held up while valet guests - whatever those are - were allowed to stream by. This caused a great deal of aggravation in those waiting - and in some crew. I saw one of the worst examples of customer service when a crewmember and an admittedly aggravating man got into it. When asked why everyone was being held up the RCI crew member threw it back on the passenger asking why they didn't leave earlier if they needed to get to the airport and asking why he wanted to ruin his vacation by acting like that. Then the crewmember rewarded the passenger's bad behavior by letting the couple off the ship while keeping the rest behind the barricade.
Even the Sea Pass machine that was working seemed to register a large number of errors when people tried to leave - slowing the line even more. And in many cases people who were not cleared to leave the ship through the debarkation machine just left anyway in the confusion after being detained for a period of time. Not sure how they actually knew everyone was off the ship.
I suspect that these were just new ship kinks being worked out and I look forward to sailing on Oasis or Allure in the future to see if things are better.