I have cruised 14 times on Carnival, Princess, once on HAL and a two times on NCL - my least favorite cruise line, because I feel they are ruining and "dumbing down" cruising with their over use of their Freestyle(means pay more for the good stuff) concept – more fees, more costs. This was our first cruise with RCL and they really wowed us and won us over - beautiful ships, well designed for crowds, and the food and service was as good as any line we have sailed. The Serenade might be considered a little older now, but it was appreciated that they did not peddle too many extras that you have to pay for and represented a lot of what is traditionally great about cruising.
PRE-CRUISE and HOTEL
We had a week in Puerto Rico surrounding a 7 night Caribbean cruise from San Juan. We were blessed with beautiful weather most days - rain was short lived and usually short afternoon events when it did rain a few days, except at Dominica there were a lot of rain squalls off and on during the day. Most of the past 4 or 5 trips to Florida and the Caribbean from November through February had been plagued by a fair amount of rain, bad weather and cold. We had pretty good weather this time - mostly sunny warm days and a couple of days with hardly a cloud in the sky.
We flew in for 3 nights and 2 days stay before the cruise and then planned to visit Ponce in southern Puerto Rico for 4 nights and 3 days after the cruise. The land part of the trip was excellent and very memorable. Puerto Rico is fun, friendly, and a crazy, interesting mix of cultures. Before the cruise we stayed at the Conrad Condado Plaza hotel, within sight of the cruise ship port. This was an excellent location. We got a special price of $109 night on Hotwire and felt this hotel was a great value for the price and amenities. Arriving fairly late, around 9 PM, and the hotel being full we got a special unexpected benefit - although it took a while to find us an available room we got a free upgrade to a suite room, that was one of the largest and nicest we ever stayed in. The hotel pool and grounds were perfect for one of our days hanging out and the much better than average, fully equipped and well furnished fitness center was much appreciated for a good work out on out "hotel" day. The main breakfast eatery in the hotel has very good breakfast deals which we used both days. You can get an American style breakfast for under $10. We also rented a car at the on site Enterprise car rental. Great service and prices by the Enterprise desk there. We were very glad we opted for the new Garmin Nuvi GPS. If you don’t know your way around, a GPS is pretty indispensable. In the San Juan area, however, we never could figure out how to get an exact address recognized by the GPA or get the GPs to find several places we wanted, but it did not get lost and saved us a lot of time and trouble. It also seemed it had the proper turns, but wrong street names several places in San Juan and that was not just translation problems -0 the Names were different but the turn directions were correct. Still it managed to get us around when we would have been totally lost oterhwise. After the cruise the Garmin GPS we used in southern Puerto Rico was pretty accurate on everything, but again we didn’t have much luck getting it to find some specific businesses and addresses.
I had read about a beach bicycle/walking trail and board walk at Pinones, near San Juan, in the Carolina area that had bicycle rentals. My wife and I like cycling. The GPS helped get us to Pinones and as described, as soon as you cross the bridge and on the down ramp, go right into the first parking lot and business area. Here your will find a building marked COPI that rents some old beater multi gear mountain bikes - good enough to have fun with. We rode for several hours along the trail, seeing beautiful beaches, shoreline and some inland swampy areas loaded with tiny crabs, making a very interesting and nice outing. You will be able to see much more by riding than walking and I recommend you use COPI or keep driving to find some other bike rentals that we saw signs for along the way, but you probably will not find any “great” bikes. We also had lunch across the street from the COPI building before riding, at a popular hill top place, favored by locals, and good food and prices. After riding we enjoyed drinks at a local beach front bar overlooking the ocean and interesting reef and rock formations. The area seemed mostly used by locals and wasn't busy during a mid-week day. You could also takes towels and have some great beaching, wading or even snorkeling on beaches in that area after parking your car or taking the stuff with you as you bike or walk the trail.
The 8 PM sailing time, recommended boarding at 2 or 4 PM seemed late for us since we were staying within sight of the ship and cruise reviewers reported they were getting on board with little problem around noon. We taxied over at 11:30. The initial rush seemed large, but really we were in the first hundred and after maybe 20 or 30 minutes waiting in line, we went through security, check in and boarding pretty quickly and efficiently to be some of the first on board, to check out the ship, our dining table and buffet lunch on Lido. Same as I have found many times - arriving early can usually get you on board early and with little hassle. It seemed like this was another time that getting there for earl boarding was rewarding and less stressful than arriving later.
STATEROOM AND SHIP INFO
Our balcony cabin number was 7068, about midway up the front half of the ship, on port side, deck 7 out of 12 decks on Serenade. One of the very few drawbacks we found on Serenade, was that our row of balconies, just above the life boats, had a metal canopy/cover over the life boat deck and that canopy stretched out from the base of our balcony, obscuring the view of the water or any activity for several yards out from the ship. For example, in port, we could not even tell if passengers were getting on and off even when the ramps were on our side of the ship. You would probably see more of the water and stuff going on by the ship if you were in a balcony wher the ship curved out past the life boat area, or on a higher deck.
My wife and I both thought Serenade Of The Seas was one of the most beautiful and well designed ships we have ever been on. We like the extra pools, decks, bars, lounges, etc of by now, just mid-size newer ships, with about 3,000 passengers but the slightly older, 2,000 passenger Serenade made up for it with great design in all areas.
ENTERTAINMENT AND DANCING
We cruise for the ports, food and good accommodations and service and although we like to swing dance plus slow dance and some line dance, we have found all cruises, in recent years, to be lacking in entertainment during sea days and early evening. Not many people want stay up to 10 PM to mid-night for dancing when they have active early tours the next day such as scuba diving. For a lot of people vacations are not about burning yourself out trying to enjoy everything, but also getting some rest and relaxation. Not having as many passengers as some ships we have been on the past 10 years, and making even worse use of the space and dance floors the have - such as the Safari lounge and lounge on top of the ship, until very late at night we felt the on board entertainment ad dancing opportunities were the worst ever, especially for dancing in the early evening - good thing we had low expectations anyway. The other aspect of cruise entertainment we find so poor is "snippets" - EVERYTHING is short - less than an hour. This was as bad as ever too on Serenade - for example, country and western "night", our favorite music was only one 45 minute set AND they held this like most early evening dancing on the tiny, totally inadequate, overcrowded and overrun atrium floor - it quickly turned into a wiggle fest, mass of people gyrating in place that was un-danceable in a normal sense, especially for swing or c&w dancers. The c&w music by the Philippine band was very light country, a lot of cross over to rock n roll and the finale was not c&w at all. As expected - a short snippet of dancing on a too crowded floor and that's it. I’m sue their spacious Safari lounge was available or the club on top of the ship that they never seemed to use at all until late at night after we had gone to bed. I constantly submit comments and suggestions about this to all cruise lines. Instead of getting more logical in their use of dance area and music it seems to just be getting worse – maximum impact for minimum bucks and forget about people who have a passion for some really great dancing and entertainment for most of the evening.
The ship's main theatre, at least every other night, was just another song and dance by the ship's entertainment crew and orchestra, with “fancy Vegas like" apparel and uninteresting themes. Some poor comedian/variety acts with jokes we have heard on several recent cruises. We tried several of the shows and were usually bored crazy and gone within 15 minutes. Again, low expectations saved us. If you like any old song and dance( I do grant that their young ship’s performers are good - that I'm no disputing) and a Vegas like show or really hungry for comedy or not used to great shows, you might find the ship's shows fulfilling or even fascinating. I am surprised on all cruise lines that reviewers like the canned, bland entertainment so much.
WINE SERVICE AND BEER
We had never used a ship's wine services before but for this cruise we pre-purchased a 5 bottle, lowest level, Gold wine package. Buying it before the cruise it was supposed to be something like 20% off, but being the profit center liquor is for cruise lines, the Beringer white zinfandel, which we drank 4 of our 5 bottle, we can get at home for around $10 a bottle was more like $30 a bottle on RCL in our package. When checking out and paying for our package there was also a $25 service charge - part of the reason for $30/bottle total. We did enjoy having the wines with dinner. The cost seemed high but the wine was enjoyed enough that we might do that again. As a beer lover, I brew my own, and like amber and dark beers like Porter. Cruising beer selections and the Caribbean in general is a barren wasteland except for popular lagers and lights such as Corona, Heineken, Carib and of course Budweiser, which I will drink - not even so much as popular and inexpensive Amber Bock or Killian's Red is to be found – it’s a light colored beer and light beeer world out there and don’t expect to find anything for beer connoisseurs, unless they prefer light colored beers . I drank one regular beer on RCl. I researched ahead of time and didn’t really expect they would have anything unusual and the selection of beers was as typical limited and I have always found on cruises. I guess if they carried a wider selection they would have to charge even more to make big profits for carrying a better selection of beers or having a “Beer Bar”.
We are 58 and 64 years old but like to work out with weights at least 3 times a week, plus other daily exercising, and try to get in several word outs during a cruise, especially since ships usually have rather nice work out centers – certainly much better than the majority of hotels and resorts. The Serenade fitness center was as good or better than any we have used on a cruise - open, lots of room plus windows all around for views outside. We expected RCL cruisers to be a little younger and more active and using the fitness center a lot. Instead the fellow passenger’s age range seemed very similar to all other cruises we have been on and on this cruise they were even more into lounging by the pool - the fitness center was one of the lightest used we have enjoyed.
PORTS OF CALL AND TOURS
We picked the cruise for lots of ports of call, some new for us. See port reviews below
Our last day at sea was another beautiful day. For most passengers that was a day for lying around the pool and sun bathing. My first full day on board we enjoyed various aspects of the ship - shopping deals on RCL insignia clothing, a long work out at the fitness center, a few miles of laps walking the deck, the food and of course, some lounging on deck, but in the shade. It was too hot for us in the sun and it looked like a lot of people were overdoing that.
Disembarking the Serenade was very traditional. We had pre-assigned bag tags for a disembark group and time and had to have out luggage out between 6 and 11 PM the last night. No problem. Since we were not flying out they gave us one of the last disembark groups. I noticed that might make us late for our car rental reservation at San Juan international airport, so we decided to jump in with one of the earlier, middle groups. Since they weren’t checking groups codes that seemed to work Ok and it didn’t look like we were putting an extra load on that group or in the way of people needing to get off the ship for very early flights. We go to the airport about 30 minutes before my car rental reservation time. The ship does make it clear that the day before disembarking you can talk to them to get an earlier group if you need to get off quickly for travel arrangements. Very efficient. The only slowdown was TSA in the luggage area. With only 2, sometimes 3 agents, the line of people with bags, exiting, was almost the length of the building. I didn’t time it but it seemed like at least 15 minutes in line. Worse can be the way TSA does things. We got in the slightly shorter line at first and for a while seemed to move with the other line. Then TSA added a third agent to the floor, but only servicing the other line. It was frustrating to see that line surge way ahead of us and they never put anyone else on our line and didn’t have the third agent alternate taking people from the two lines. The effect was very noticeable and pretty annoying / unfair to our line that had waited as long.
POST CRUISE, SOUTHERN PUERTO RICO AND HILTON PONCE
Post cruise we got a taxi to the airport to pick up a Budget rental car and GPS, about 10:30 AM local time. We drove to Ponce, in about 1 hour and 20 minutes, where we were staying at the Ponce Hilton, getting there around noon on a Saturday. This is an older Hilton, but nicely furnished and remolded with lots of amenities, a pretty good beach considering southern PR doesn't have good beaches, and lots of activities and a beautiful pool area to hang out. There are not may resort like hotels in the area and after getting a price of about $125.night it seemed like a great value and perfect fit for us. I wanted my wife to have a resort to hang out at while I went diving one day and then for both of us to enjoy. That afternoon we used the GPS to find a Mexican restaurant I read about on Tripadvisor. I don’t think we could have found it without a lot of problems and trouble without the GPS. The food there, at Maria Bonita, was very good - we had burritos stuffed with chicken and beef , perfectly spiced and plentiful meat. Then we used the GPS to find a Wal-Mart for some goodies for our room. Ponce was much bigger and busier than I ever expected. I got the feeling from per-trip research that it was small, It is not a large land area but it is densely populated and somewhat congested.
The first morning I had to get up and leave by 6:30 Am to find a dive shop I had reserved a two tank dive with, at Guanica. Using the GPS to get me to Guanica, then directions from their web site, I had little trouble finding it, but it did seem like it was out there in the boonies. The dive operation, Island Scuba, was excellent and I had been wanting to see the 20 mile long underwater wall, that falls away to 1,500 foot plus depths. The day was one of the best I have ever gone diving - beautiful sunny blue skies and calm winds for a fairly flat ocean and of course, it was warm. The wall dive was good, with a bank of coral maybe 30-50 feet high, then a sandy slope before vanishing into the blue depths. There were some noticeable suspended particles in the water but visibility was still good, probably 80 feet. There was good coverage of marine life and fish, but nothing impressive like big coral heads, big sponges and soft corals, or caves, and swim throughs. It was a good dive but not as great as I hoped it would be and I prefer several other Caribbean destinations more for diving. I did not dive when we were at San Juan because the visibility there is usually poor and it doesn't seem popular as a dive destination. I was getting a cold and my head was totally stopped up after the first dive. I stayed on the boat for the second dive which it sounds like I would have liked - lots of fish and fish varieties. I highly recommend the dive shop - Island Scuba. I might have liked the dives more if I got to do more of them.
The next day we caught a great kayak deal from the Hilton, much to our dismay that seemed lightly used. For $20 we got a tandem kayak for 2 hours. The large shallow bay by the resort had a string of 3 small mangrove islands and just outside of that was a barrier reef. It was an easy paddle out to the islands. There was a narrow almost hidden entry to a sand beach on one of the mangrove islands that made a sandy, shady, interesting stop. The shallows had lots of grasses and you could paddle around some fairly large coral heads some of which broke the surface in during swells - very interesting and nice kayaking. We seemed to be the only ones using that part of the resort that day. We spent the afternoon enjoying the resort's pool area and amenities. Around 5 PM we had to drive about 45 minutes to a bay that has bioluminescent water tours at night. The bioluminescent tours are very interesting and there are 3 places in Puerto Rico you can see it.. My parents went to Puerto Rico years ago and my Dad kept recounting the story and recommending their bioluminescent trip. After dark you are taken in a boat to a dark bay in the mangroves. When you wave your hand in the water - the stars and heavens seem to appear where you disturb the water - brilliant tiny specks of white light. Our boat also had a swimmer that went in. You could see the ghostly glow of his arms and legs as he swam through the water and it was shocking to see his illuminated form popping through when he swam under the boat. You can catch these tours, near Gaunica for $6 per person.
The third and last day we thought we had a boat snorkeling tour to the newly environmentally protected islands near Ponce with Caribbean Images - a highly rated tour, but when we showed up at the instructed spot about 9 Am no one was around. A mix up, on both sides they did not show up for us. They are fairly hard to deal with unless you have a cell phone and constantly stay in touch with them to satisfy them that you are going to show up. They don’t have enough customers to just go every day and sometimes they cancel because of the weather. If you try them I suggest you have alternate plans at the ready in case your tour gets canceled or mixed up. We revered by taking a "tour" recommended by a frequent visitor in a PR tourist magazine. The recommendation was to go into old Ponce to the big park - a square like most Mexican towns have - that was very fun – theer was also an interesting closed pedestrian only street, with shops, no tourists, beautiful pink flower trees, that goes off from one corner of the square The square had a big Catholic cathedral, a grand fountain and on our visit, they were setting up for a festival. It was a great place to people watch and catch interesting cheap food at stands and shops. You have to go and get out of your car to experience how nice it is. You can find the pedestrian street of shops by following the east side of the park going north - the pedestrian "mall" starts at the northeast corner of the square and runs about 3 blocks north. There is also an enclosed "mall" along the way, with mostly fruit and food vendors inside.
For the second half of the day we drove to an attraction called Guilligans Island. It was great but we should have been more prepared and had poor information from the Hilton about it - we expected kayak rentals and snorkel equipment rentals. When we arrived it looked like some kind of cheap tourist trap. For $6 we could get a boat ride to the island and back, but this day it was going at 2Pm, coming back at 3 PM and then not until the last 5 PM boat, so we only got an hour because we didn’t want to stay 3 hours. The island is a beach gem of wading, shallows, fish , great for snorkeling and wonderful for families and picnics, but there were no rentals, food sales or anything commercial. If you go, be prepared - take your own cooler and snorkel equipment. You can also order food from their land based restaurant for eating on the island and they will even take your order on the boat and bring the food to you on the island using the next boat. The main menu, of mostly sea foods, seemed pricey, but their $6 specials of pork or chicken, boiled and served Puerto Rican style was delicious when we returned from the island and ate there. I highly recommend this as a beach break, but go prepared with some of your own stuff. There are quite a few picnic tables, shade and restrooms on the island but that's about all.
Beware San Juan rush hour traffic. Our trip home starting from Ponce at 5:30 AM, with a 1 hour 20 minute drive time, for an 8:40 AM flight seemed like a no-brainer. We did have a hint when before the cruise we saw a fairly nasty rush hour going the opposite direction as we were returning to our hotel from bicycling at Pinones in the afternoon. We got to San Juan metro area around 7 AM on a Wednesday and at just 17 miles to the airport, hit some of the worst rush hour morning traffic we had ever witnessed. Each time we got "going again" we hit another seemingly worse jam up. It took us nearly 40 minutes to wrap up the 17 miles and had us mightily worried and stressed out that we would miss our flight. After returning the rental car we hit the airport curbside about 60 minutes before our flight and probably due to light mid-week flights loads, we got to the gate about 5-10 minutes before boarding. Please do factor in San Juan morning and evening rush hour traffic if you like to get to the airport on time. After that out flight home with a stop over at Dllas Fort Worth was thankfully uneventful and okay. A great cruise and trip. I have been to most of the islands of Central America, and the Caribbean and found a week long stay in Puerto Rico very fascinating and entertaining, if you are not expecting just relaxing and enjoying great beaches. Puerto Rico has a few great beaches but you need to search and work for those, but there is so much more to see and do that makes it a wonderful experience.