This was my 25th cruise, 3rd on Royal Caribbean. I am 50 years old and traveled with my husband, 2 teenage daughters and my 83-year-old mom, who paid for it all! We selected this ship because of the time of year (school holiday), the great itinerary and the fact that we live on Long Island and did not have to fly.
Traveling to the port could not have been easier. You drop your luggage off at a big tent (my husband parked the car nearby @ $18 a day). Then, we took a one-minute bus ride to the terminal to check in and board. Simple, simple, simple!
Our cabin was conveniently located on deck 6 near the elevator. The beds were really comfy and there was more space than we needed. My mom and older daughter had the cabin next door, and my younger daughter slept in a bunk bed that was above our bed. The rooms have a dial which you can use to listen to or turn off ship announcements. Our cabin steward always made sure we had what we needed and his service was excellent. On this ship, you won't get bottles of shampoo and lotion or bathrobes like on Celebrity or Holland America.
The ship is really good looking. However, she is showing her age (aren't we all?). For instance, there was plenty of rust on the veranda, the wood railings needed varnishing, and the numerals on the elevator buttons were faded. But the lounges are all beautiful, and we love the concept of the Royal Promenade. We always sat down to coffee at the Cafe Promenade to discuss the day's activities.
We also loved the ice skating rink, the mini golf, the inline skating and the rock wall. My daughters especially enjoyed the skating rink. If you bring your own skates, they have "advanced skate" sessions, so my daughter was able to do her axel at sea!
Two neat things to do on this ship: visit the peek-a-boo bridge (a window that overlooks the bridge) and walk to the bow of the ship, especially as the ship leaves port.
I found the shops on board not as well stocked as on other cruise lines, and now to save money, you have to buy your postcards of the ship (they ran out of stamps, however, so I had to mail them from home).
We ate all our dinners in the main dining room. Our waiter, Gopakumar, from India, and Sun Gang, from China, were fantastic. They always brought us extra appetizers and desserts without us even asking for it, to the point where we would say, "Please, no more food!" The staff couldn't do enough to please you. The food was good, but not great. I did not have that "memorable meal" experience that I had on other lines. At one meal, the pasta was dried out, at another, the pork was bland, and at a third, the tempura was soggy. The cold soups are always great. The best meal I had was the lobster on the second formal night. My husband had to exchange his, though, because his lobster shell was practically empty.
A breakfast tip: In the main dining room, eggs benedict is not on the menu, but you can get it ... just ask.
The buffet on deck 11 was also just OK. It did not have the variety of, say, Celebrity, but it had your usual eggs, pancakes, waffles, bacon, hash browns, creals, breads and rolls, etc.
We also had lunch at Johnny Rockets, which is a lot of fun. The waiters dance for you, and when you enter and exit, everyone in the place bids you hello and goodbye.
There were always activities on the daily Cruise Compass. If you like trivia, this ship is for you, because they do it a lot. I would have preferred more cultural talks about the ports, maybe a kitchen or backstage tour. I especially enjoyed the Q&A session with the captain and officers. The cruise director, Chris Northey, is probably the best one I've had in 25 cruises. He is charming and cute -- in fact, my mom and I sang an original song to him during the Karaoke Superstars finals. Chris hosts a morning show on the in-room TV, where he answers questions from the guests.
The children's activities -- where do I begin? Because of the school break, this ship was crawling with kids - hundreds of them, in packs, riding up and down the elevators, running through the halls, blocking the staircases and using foul language wherever they went. This was one of the disappointments of the cruise. There was a 1 AM curfew, after which security guards escorted anyone under 18 back to their rooms. It looked like a police state! My own kids did not use the kids' facilities that much (my older daughter did go to the Optix disco to dance with the teens) because it was so crowded with kids.
As I already mentioned, the service was excellent. I think, however, that some of the crew members are getting cabin fever because they kid around a lot and you don't know whether you are getting a straight answer.
Entertainment: There were some very good production shows, and the singers and dancers work very hard, as does the band. The guy at the piano bar is good, but I would have preferred a sing-along piano bar rather than a "listen to" venue. The Love and Marriage game show and the Quest are hilarious. The Latin music venue is always hopping. The ice skating show is spectacular, and I am amazed they could do flying camels and triple axels in such a tiny space. And guess who performed on our cruise? Marty Allen! He is 89 years old and still going strong, doing the same old schticks. We also enjoyed the parades in the Royal Promenade. (Note: watch for the buffets there; they are not advertised).
I have to say, the weather cooperated magnificently from the 65-degree February day we left. Blue skies and calm seas all the way and back. And low humidity - no sweating, not even in San Juan!
We left on a Friday and were in San Juan on Monday afternoon. We went straight to the Coach outlet for some great bargains.
In St. Thomas, we went shopping at the Havensight pier and then went to the beach at the Emerald Beach resort at Lindbergh Bay. Where there were probably hundreds upon hundreds of tourists at Megan's Bay, I counted 6 people in the water at Lindbergh. What a lovely secluded place with a great view of the airplanes coming in and out out of the nearby airport.
In Samana, we had to wait a long time for our tour - whale watching and beach break in Cayo Leventado. We waited on deck 1 in a long line - at least we got an interesting glimpse of what happens on deck 1. But I understand some people waited 3 hours on deck 1 to tender off the ship. I guess we were lucky. We were also lucky in that we saw plenty of whales up close, with their tails splashing into the water. It was more of whale-chasing than whale-watching; the driver of the very rocky boat would communicate with other boats via cell phone as to the whereabouts of the whales and then zoom over to the spot. Cayo Levantado was really nice too. We got chairs on the beach, had a plate of hot, fresh platanos, and bargained for larimar jewelry. The low point of the cruise came here: waiting 1-1/2 hours in the sun to catch the tender back to the ship, which left an hour late because of us. People were not happy because I'm guessing the ship was not prepared to deal with all the passengers.
Labadee was my favorite stop! Last time we were there we made the mistake of going to the ocean side; this time we went to Nelly's Cove, where the water was just beautiful and the scenery spectacular. My husband and older daughter took a wave runner tour, which they really enjoyed. My mom and younger daughter took a scenic boat tour (my mom won one of the tickets at the Cruise Critic Meet and Mingle party). On her excursion, my mom was talking to one of the Haitian workers who spoke about the corruption in his country. The earthquake relief never got to the people it should have helped, and the clothes that were sent over were sold to the poor. Unlike the last time we were in Labadee (March 2010), Royal Caribbean no longer offloads pallets of supplies.
By the way, we never used the pool onboard because it was too crowded to get a seat.
Disembarkation was without a hitch -- although I do like Holland America's policy of letting you stay in your room right up to the point when you have to leave. It's so beautiful to see the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty as you exit and then enter New York Harbor, slipping under the Verrazano Bridge with a 15-foot clearance!
All in all, despite the nasty bands of roving kids, you can't beat this cruise for port of embarkation, itinerary and excellent service by the friendliest staff at sea.