This was our fourth cruise – first review. The wife and I are in our upper thirties and have cruised twice with Carnival and once previously with Royal Caribbean on the Freedom. We booked this trip at the last minute as an ‘us only’ getaway – our first vacation without kids in over ten years. From that perspective, we will not be reviewing any of the children or teenage activities. However, we would note that all the children on board seemed to be having a wonderful time and there were lots of activities for them spanning day and night.
Last minute airfare to San Juan is pricey – so if able to plan in advance, you should do so. We flew in on AirTran from Reagan National via Atlanta on Friday. The flight was smooth; although, when going on the first flight out, note that the terminal does not fully open to let passengers through until approximately 4:45 AM and no coffee service opens before 5:30 AM. We arrived in San Juan around 12:30 and took a taxi directly to the Doubletree to relax as we were exhausted from our early departure and late night packing. Taxi service is fixed rate around Puerto Rico. Fares to most hotels that people use while waiting for the cruise run $15 or $19 plus $1 per bag. If you go directly to the pier, it is the $19 fare. The taxi stand is easy to find as you exit the airport for ground transportation.
The Doubletree is a good hotel choice for pre-cruise to just relax in until time to set sail. The pool itself is a little small and can get crowded but there were plenty of sunning chairs – you need to get towels from the front desk. The food options were plentiful. We highly recommend eating at the hotel restaurant ‘Under the Trees’. It has a full range of food from seafood and pasta to sandwiches and burgers. The Jibarita burger was one of the most amazing burgers I have had – it had sweet plantains, bacon, queso del pais, and recao garlic mayo. Whoever thought plantains and burgers go together? One of the ‘lighter’ fares were large avocado halves stuffed with various things. The wife had hers with chicken salad but options included shrimp and other seafood. All the food was fresh and tasted great – including the drinks (i.e. mojitos). For dinner, we ate at ‘Silk’ which included sushi and Chinese/Japanese fare. The sushi was fresh and the various rolls were well prepared. The breakfast buffet was okay – standard fare and nothing special except for some very fresh salsa with the eggs, but it was free with my room so we utilized it.
On Saturday, we decided we were still a little beat down from our work week, so we would put off any San Juan touring till after the cruise. We headed to the Pan American Pier around 11:30 by taxi. There was no line of cars and the taxi dropped us right off by the luggage drop and line. The line was about 100 people long at this point. We walked up to drop our baggage with the porters and were already tipping before they started their mention of ‘tips’. I guess it was appreciated because they opened up the end of the line area where the smaller line for suites and diamond begins and put us on through instead of sending us to go back to the end of the larger line. We were through security and checked in within 15 minutes and onboard the ship. The main line looked to take no more than 30-40 minutes to get checked in. For the drinkers, you can get some sample drinks right inside the terminal at duty free and a little cart before checking into the ship.
Right after getting onboard, we stopped to book a wine package. This was our first time to use the package and we were pleased. We used the platinum five bottle package and were very pleased with the Estancia Pinot Noir, Ravenswood Zinfandel, and Solaire Cabernet Sauvignon (Robert Mondavi). Note that the 25% off additional bottles is only for the same bottles in the package and you can only use the package in the dining room and Windjammer to get your bottle of wine. However, they will provide glasses to take to the room or cork it and hold any remainder till your next meal.
Since the room would not be ready until 1 pm, we stopped to have a drink in the lobby bar. Jenny and JJ (Jia Yu), who were working this location, make the best caipirinha and mojitos on the ship. Service here, as with almost everything on the ship, was always excellent and was the location of numerous events throughout the week. Don’t miss the 70’s disco night.
We finally go into our room shortly after 1 pm. We had a Large Oceanview Stateroom, Category G #4526. The room was clean and had plenty of storage space. Our steward, Sean, kept the room in excellent condition during our stay and always met our needs. The shower had incredible water pressure and plenty of hot water.
The Serenade is a beautiful ship with an easy to follow layout. The use of glass is stunning and you can always get a good view of the sea. There are plenty of sunning chairs and the pool and hot tub never seemed overly crowded until the sea day on day 7. Even on that day, chairs could still be found near the basketball court after noon. The Solarium was almost always quiet and we were not bothered by the slight chlorine smell in the air from the pool. For the most part, the kids were kept out and few teenagers over the 16 year old lower limit tried to take refuge there. It was a good place to relax as fake birds chirped.
Since this cruise fell during Easter week and spring break, there were probably more children than usual. However, the population of children was more limited and well behaved than any other cruise we have been on. While school is in session, I imagine this cruise has more of a forty and up crowd.
We prefer late dining but had a booking for early dining due to a miscommunication with our agent. You can switch dining preferences by the Reflections dining room after 2pm on embarkation day. This was handled quickly and we were switched to 8:30 dining at a large table. We prefer to sit with others as a cruise to us is not only about the ship and places to see but meeting wonderful people, as well.
Reflections (Main Dining Room): The food was mostly good. We were disappointed in the New York Strip one night which was a little chewy. We really enjoyed the Vidalia Onion Tart and the Asparagus and Brie Tart. Also, we always ordered the Indian dish on the side as we enjoy Indian food. The Indian dishes ran from mediocre to good. Dessert was usually good but nothing special. Overall, we are surprised that the food is not generally better on Royal Caribbean as Carnival usually beats them in the main dining room hands down. We still prefer the overall Royal experience but wish they would spend some focus in this area – especially in the dining room. The service was excellent and our waiter and assistant waiter made significant efforts to accommodate the Spanish speakers (everyone but us at the table). This made the week a lot of fun at dinner as we used our sparse Spanish, our tablemates used their sparse English, and we all used invented sign language to communicate throughout the week. By the end of the week, we were all fluent in spanglish.
Breakfast was better in the main dining room when served. The French Toast is a can’t miss.
Seaview café: An excellent hideaway right above the Windjammer. You can order burgers, sandwiches, salads, and other items here. The Cubano was good and they always happily gave me avocado to add to the sandwich on the side.
Windjammer: As always, the food here can be hit or miss depending on what you select. The chicken is usually great whether roasted, fried, or grilled. The Italian was usually iffy and most other dishes had some great selections. The desserts are usually mediocre. Again, wish Royal would spend a little more effort on the quality and taste of their food. Not that we wouldn’t find stuff that was good but it rarely exceeded an average experience.
Chops: Excellent food, as usual, but you need to pay the premium for it. We have not eaten anything that was not great at Chops. We did the wine dinner this time. It was a good experience, but I was a little disappointed that they only poured one glass of each of the four wines to try and left the rest of the bottles just sitting. For the extra price, an extra glass or two should have been available. We will always return to chops, but we will probably pass on the wine dinner and just order a bottle for less to go with our dinner.
The Schooner Bar had live music at night and two of the funniest bartenders at sea – Alok (the comic) and Ernesto (the straight man). As mentioned, the lobby/centrum bar was also excellent and had live music often. You could get hors d'oeuvres at the Champagne bar for a light snack while waiting on dinner.
The casino always had room at the tables or slots. It had all the mainstays – three card poker, blackjack, Caribbean stud, Texas Hold’em, and roulette. It was best to hit the casino after late dining as the crowd was really moving then. Before 9 pm, it was often a little quiet.
Vortex was a nice nightclub with slightly varied music, but had little to the crowd most nights – probably due to the large number of port days. It had a much larger crowd the night before the one sea day.
This was our first time to experience ‘The Quest’ and it was a lot of fun to watch. I highly recommend taking in this adult rated game show experience if you haven’t done it before.
In the theatre, we skipped most of the musical shows as they were average dancing shows per most cruise line experiences. There was one good comic. The best experience was the ‘rockstar’ juggler. He really engaged the audience and performed some unique juggling acts.
St. Thomas: We took a taxi to the Wyndham Sugar Bay and enjoyed a couples experience at the spa there after reading excellent reviews online. The price was a little higher than average but the experience was great. I confess I had my first massage by a male masseuse and it put me a little off for the first few minutes, but Jason did an excellent job and had a much firmer technique than usual.
St Croix: We didn’t do much but briefly exit the ship before returning to relax by the pool. Seems like a nice port, but we wanted to be lazy in the sun.
Antigua: We woke too late to worry about breakfast and quickly made our way off the ship. The port is full of slightly pushy sellers and offers left and right for taxi service and ‘special trips’. A firm but polite, “No, thank you” tended to deal with the problem but a few persisted and we would just walk on. We walked straight back from the ship and came out with St. Mary’s Street facing away from us.
We discovered a little restaurant there on the right called Hemingway’s Caribbean Café – second floor. The food was fresh and had some nice combinations you don’t get in the states. The wife had a seafood platter with lobster, blackened shrimp, clams, and fish. I had the curried conch which came with a vegetable medley of pumpkin, broccoli, and plantain along with dirty rice with lentils.
After Hemingway’s, we headed up the street another block to a bookstore with a local artist upstairs (Edison’s Art Gallery). Edison had some very nice paintings including ocean/beach settings, flowers, and Caribbean musicians (reminded me of New Orleans art work). For $20, he would paint a similar scene from any of his paintings onto a t-shirt to pick up a couple hours later. The shirts are really unique and make great gifts.
Finally, we stopped at a store right there and tried a local beverage called Vita Malt. It was different from soda but we found it to be good.
St. Lucia: We took a short taxi ride over to an all-inclusive adults only resort called Rendezvous. If you were at the other pier, you could probably walk to it, but we were on the far side. We bought day passes for $50 each. They had a great beach, great buffet, and made great drinks. If you go, you should contact them in advance to book. Even though the afternoon pass is supposed to run from noon till late, they let us pay and enter at 11:15. The best spot was the wading pools – a series of small linked pools in the lush foliage. There are tiny alcoves for two people to sun in all throughout. It was peaceful and the server (his name was Mini-me) would come around to bring drinks. We tipped him up front and our drinks never went half empty. Be careful of some of the drinks which have 160 proof rum. This made the rest of the day a little painful after leaving. Good news – went to bed early for the next day’s tour.
Grenada: We booked the Spice Plantation Route through Mandoo Tours. Mandoo is very knowledgeable and provided one of the best tours we have ever been on. You stop at a nutmeg receiving station, the Douglaston Spice Depot, drive through the volcanic mountains, stop at Grand Etang Forest Reserve/Crater Lake, and the Annandale Water Fall. At Grand Etang, we got to see the Mona Monkeys. At the receiving station, refreshments are provided including sampling cocoa tea, nutmeg syrup, and nutmeg jelly and jam.
DISEMBARKATION: What else can I say but It went smooth and we were off the ship in no time and getting a taxi to our after cruise hotel. We did not try to make breakfast since we knew we were going to head straight into Old Town San Juan after dropping bags at the hotel before check in time.
CRUISE GREATS: Chops food, the service, the ease of finding sunning space in a chair, the Solarium, the Quest, and did I mention the service?
CRUISE NOT SO GREATS: We were disappointed in having signed up for our first Cruise Critic Meet and Mingle and then the invitations did not arrive till one hour before the event. We were napping and heard them put it on the door, but we did not realize what it was for till after we were up and it was over. Others said the same happened to them. I would have liked to meet everyone, but I guess it happens. Also, the internet was spotty at Royal Caribbean online and you needed twice as many minutes to avoid random freezes – not a huge issue since I only needed to check a few minor things during the cruise. Honestly, the ‘not so greats’ never bother us much since we are still on a ship with fantastic people and great places. If you let yourself get bogged down in the nits, then you are spoiling it for yourself.
We stayed at the Hilton Caribe. Since check-in was later in the day, we dropped our bags with the bellman and then continued on in our taxi to Old Town. The taxi dropped us in the plaza by Castillo San Cristóbal where we were able to find a perfect stop for coffee and breakfast called Caficultura. The coffee drinks and barista here were simply amazing. For breakfast, the wife had a wrap with eggs and fresh roasted vegetables. I had Brioche Bread Coconut French Toast with pineapple marmalade on top and fresh coconut shavings. A special shout out to France, an amazing waitress – funny and quick service.
We then toured the fort. It was hot, but it was worth it to see. We also stopped in the capital building to look at the artwork on the ceiling and get a few photos. At this point, it was getting up into the afternoon, and we were ready to head back to the hotel. It was not a bad walk back – about ten to fifteen minutes looking out down on the beaches and water.
The Hilton Caribe will probably be our hotel of choice in the future when returning to San Juan. It was a little crowded being the Saturday before Easter, but the drinks and service were excellent at the pools. It has a nice beach, and there are plenty of food options in the hotel (including Italian and a Mortons). We choose to return to Old Town for dinner though. We stay in the Hilton Honors tower on the 20th floor with great views. The bathrooms are shower only, but include multiple heads and a sitting area. The beds were very comfortable.
We asked the concierge for recommendation on tapas and were sent to Rosa de Triana in Old Town right by the cathedral. We will never be able to go to a tapas place near us again or drink sangria for that matter. Everything was well above what we considered to be good tapas and sangria prior to that. They made their own Sangria and the flavors were a wonderful combination – including cinnamon and pear. We tried various tapas dishes (such as mushroom and snails, crab stuffed peppers, and a mashed plantain and shrimp dish) and the paella. The paella was wonderful but is more than even two people can handle; especially when sampling the other dishes. If you can’t eat anywhere else for dinner in San Juan, this is a must hit spot. Recommend a reservation on Friday and Saturday due to the flamenco dancers they have.
We returned to the hotel and enjoyed our last night of sleep before an early flight back to Reagan National on US Airways. Smooth return and already looking forward to our next cruise!