Just a bit about us first: We are Patti and Chris, a married couple in our 40s with a 10 year old daughter, Abby, from the Cleveland, Ohio area. We decided to take a Caribbean cruise to say goodbye to the miserable, cold, snowy winter we had. My parents, in their 70s, from near Ocean City, Maryland decided to join us. It is Patti and my 20th anniversary this year. It is also my parents 50th and Abby's 10th birthday this year so we thought it a good time for a celebration. We were going to originally book a Junior Suite for the cruise but the price difference for the Grand Suite was only about $300 total so we decided to go with the upgrade. That was a good decision! My parents booked a D2 on deck 9 and although they had a pull out couch, it was pretty small. We flew out of Cleveland on Good Friday morning at 6:00am, arrived in San Juan at 3:30pm and spent the night in the Renaissance Resort in San Juan, using Marriott Reward points.
The cabin was in a perfect location mid ship, a few steps away from the elevators and main stairway. We were one deck down from the Windjammer (WJ) and two from the Adventure Ocean. It was also right next door to the Concierge Lounge (CL). We went there every morning for coffee and hot tea and every afternoon for drinks. Our suite attendant was Amelia and she was very efficient. We did not see her often, but we always had what we needed including a different towel creature each night. The beds including the foldout couch were all very comfortable. There was plenty of closet, cupboard and drawer storage in the room. The bathroom was huge with double sinks and a tub/shower combo. The only problem was every morning around 5:30am we had some noise from the deck above that sounded like they were rearranging furniture on deck. It only went on for a minute or two, but it woke me up!
We were very happy with the ports: Tortola, St. Maarten, St. Kitts, Dominica and Barbados. It was a fairly short walk to shops and taxis in all of them. We docked on our side of the ship (port side) in each one, which was strange, but it made for great viewing of the runners at 5:00 each evening! The downside of a holiday week cruise was that in Tortola on Easter most everything was closed and on Easter Monday, a local bank holiday, the beaches were packed because all of the locals were there as well as the cruisers.
It was much better than I expected it to be. Not gourmet, but for the most part cooked very well and it arrived hot. We ate in the MDR every night and in either the WJ or Seaview for lunch. We also had breakfast in the WJ each day, except one. At dinner we had the early seating and when we got to our table of 10 the first night, we were the only ones there! We had Biju as our Waiter and Melwyn as our Assistant Waiter both wonderful fellows from India. Our Head Waiter was Monty, also from India. Dinner was quite good, not gourmet, but very good for a banquet type setting. We are foodies and it actually exceeded our expectations. We decided to go with the 12 bottle platinum wine package, $300 plus 15%. We saved some money on it vs. the actual list ($5-$15/bottle), but I just liked the ability to order a couple of bottles and not worry about the cost!
Excellent. Everyone seemed to go out of their way to be pleasant and accommodating. It seemed as if it was a happy crew that was really having a good time. I am sure there are always some grumpy crew members, but we did not meet any. Francois was our Concierge. He was always pleasant, but the only thing we actually asked of him was if we could get a tour of the bridge. He came through for us on it, so we were very happy. Angelica was our bar tender in the CL and she was great as well. She always had our white wine ready and refilled the glass as soon as it was empty.
We brought 4 checked bags and 2 carry-ons. One checked bag held our snorkel gear which was useful to bring. We bought the sets at Costco for $40 each and I think it saved us about that much in rental fees and it was of a much higher quality that what you would rent anyway. It was also helpful as I did not need to pay a baggage fee since I am a Continental Elite flier. We brought a bit too many clothes as it is easy to re-wear some stuff. I also brought 2 cameras, my Nikon D5000 for onboard and land tours and my new Canon D10 for wet tours and underwater shots. The D5000 is great I love it. The D10 is new so it took me a while to figure it out and unfortunately I had a bad SD card in it and lost the wet pictures from the first two days. Luckily I always bring extras and the camera seems to be working fine now.
Day 1 San Juan, Puerto Rico
We got to the pier around 11:15am. For those of you who have not done this, here is the drill as best I remember it!
1. First we got in a line to drop off our luggage. We tipped the porters $1/bag.
2. You are immediately shown to another line that did not start moving until around 11:40. This line is for the first security check. You need your passport and go through the metal detector and x-ray machine. Now you are in the building!
3. You find the sign that has your deck number on it and get in line. In this line you get your seapass card and are then you are free to get on the ship (you show your passport and give your credit card here).
4. The next line gets you through another security checkpoint where they check your passport and seapass card.
5. Now you are at the place where they take your picture so they have something to compare you to when you enter and exit the ship.
6. You then go up a series of ramps where you check onto the ship with your seapass and I think your passport as well.
7. Finally you go through one more x-ray machine before you are finally free to be onboard! This whole process took about 20 minutes once the initial line started to move, not too bad as it was all fairly well organized.
Once on board, we had lunch in the Windjammer and by the time we were done, our rooms were just about ready. We were stunned by the size of the Grand Suite! I do not think we will ever be able to go back to a regular cabin after this! We quickly got into our swim suits and hit the pool. We were originally going to get back off and explore Old San Juan, but by the time we got on the ship and had lunch, we decided to just stay on board and explore the ship. Around this time we met up with Lori and Chris and their two girls Elizabeth and Carolyn and both of their grandfathers Walt and Bob from California. Lori and I met on CC before the cruise and decided to get together so our girls could have someone their own age to play with. The girls were Abby's age and they hit it off great! We adults also got along well and we actually went on quite a few of the same excursions during the course of the cruise.
At 5:00 we started our daily ritual of a glass of wine (or two) in the concierge lounge. Here we met Ray and Marilyn, retired educators and veteran cruisers from Connecticut. Such nice people and a wealth of knowledge for us about cruising!
Our table mates did not make it to dinner the first night. Cold Soup Report: Each night Abby decided to try the cold soup so I will report on that part of the meal as well as anything that stood out good or bad, this night Abby had the watermelon soup and she liked it a lot. We mentioned to Viju our waiter that we liked Indian food. From that night forward they brought us an order of Indian food, either something on the menu or something else that was not on the menu. Usually the stuff that was not on the menu was very good!
After dinner we had our muster drill. Some people are very rude and showed up late for the drill. This causes everyone to have to stand around on deck and wait until they show up. After muster we went to the heliport deck and watched sail away. After that we just went back to the cabin and crashed!
Day 2 Tortola, BVI
We woke up, had breakfast at Windjammer and then headed into town to catch the 9am Speedy's ferry to Virgin Gorda. After the 30 minute ride we made it to the pier and hopped in the Speedy taxi to the Baths. We had been here once before in 1993 and it looked quite a bit the same, except more buildings on the way to the Baths. The trail to the Baths is downhill, but fairly easy going and most people would be able to do it unless you had serious mobility issues. There is a small bar at the bottom where you can get a bite to eat or rent some snorkeling equipment. The trail through the Baths to Devil's Bay is tougher than the one down to the Baths. It is not easy and you do have to crawl, duck low, climb some rocks with assistance of ropes and climb ladders. You need to be in decent physical shape to do this. After about twenty minutes we finally made it through and got to Devil's Bay. It is a beautiful sandy bay with a bunch of the boulders sprinkled in for good measure. However, this bay is open to the Atlantic, so you get some pretty good swells and currents. It also drops off quickly and gets deep. It is beautiful, but you do have to be aware when swimming. The snorkeling is not the best, but the walls of the boulders do hold some sea life, just be cautious. There is another path back that does not require you to go through the boulders again and we were back up top in about 15 minutes. We snarfed down a drink and some food at the Top of the Baths restaurant and the girls took a dip in the pool there. We then got back on the taxi to the pier and hopped aboard the ferry for the trip back to Tortola. Most of Tortola was closed up for Easter so we just went back to the ship and relaxed until dinner. Unfortunately, today the card in my camera decided to not work correctly and I lost most of the Bath pictures!
Cold Soup Report: Abby had what I think was a mango and pineapple soup. This one also had some strange spice in it and she did not really like it too much. I finished it for her, it was OK but not great. Our dinner companions joined us tonight. A couple from NJ, Doug and Diane as well as their friends Brian and Tanya their son Sean and Tanya's parents from Ecuador. There was a bit of a mixup on the dinner times they were all scheduled for, so we actually had 12 people at a 10 top. The people were very nice, but the table was a bit too crowded!
After dinner we went to the Broadway Stage to Silver Screen show. It was fairly well done and some of the singers/dancers were very talented. However, the sound was too loud and it made many of the words distorted. But it was fun!
Day 3 Philipsburg, St Maarten
It has been such a smooth cruise that I wake up around 5am and I think we are in port as there is absolutely no motion. So I stay up and read the Kindle on the balcony.
We thought we should do a beach today on our own with my parents. We took the advice of many on the boards and went to Le Galion. This did not turn out how we hoped. After breakfast at the Windjammer (great omlet by Abby from Jamaica) we headed out to find a cab. We hooked up with a cabby named Cool Cat and he took us to the beach. He warned us that this was the local holiday Easter Monday and the beach would be crowded with locals. Well we got there at around 8:30 and it was already full of tents, tarps and tons of people. As the day wore on, more and more people came setting up huge speakers and blasting all different kinds of music across the beach. All would have been great except the beach concession decided to be closed today so we could not get chairs or umbrellas. We did find a small shade spot under some sea grapes near the unfinished buildings. The beach was nice with shallow water and a fairly sandy bottom, however, I was not happy with how much litter there was on the beach. We also got a few wiffs, when the wind was right, from the riding stable on the road in. It was really interesting to see how the locals kicked back with their families, but while we can deal with a lack of amenities on a beach when we are prepared for it, we were not prepared for it! On another day, it might be a great beach, I would only give it two out of five palm trees based on the day we were there! Thankfully Cool Cat showed up 15 minutes early (12:15pm) and we made it back to the ship for lunch at the Windjammer.
We basically just relaxed on board until cocktails were ready in the Concierge Lounge at 5pm where we had another great chat with Ray and Marilyn. Tonight was singing night at the MDR and we cheered on our "team" while they sang O Sole Mio. I had the potato and jalapeño soup which had a nice little bite to it. We ordered a brie and asparagus torte and shared it with the family. We then went to our suite and polished off the bottle of red we had with dinner. Cold Soup Report: Abby had the mango/cranberry soup and she liked it a lot.
Day 4 Basse Terre, St Kitts
We decided today to go to South Friars Bay. So far this was one of the best decisions of the cruise! After getting off the ship at 8:30am we found a taxi driver at the pier who called himself "Johnny". His real name was something else, Linden I think, but Johnny was a great driver. He took us to the beach and the cost was $16 for the three of us. We were the second people to arrive on the beach. The Shipwreck bar was exactly what we wanted to see and it reminded me of Bomba's Shack on Tortola 17 years ago. We got a piece of shade (not really an umbrella, but more of a 2X4 frame with palm fronds on top (way cool) as well as 3 chairs for $13. This beach is great, smooth sand bottom on the left side of the beach for maybe 1/8 of a mile and about the same distance of reef to the right. I would rate it 4½ out of 5 palm trees. We parked right in the middle near the swim platform. The Caribbean water was a little choppy, but the Atlantic side of the island looked like surfers would be happy, way too rough to swim! The snorkeling was good as far as the sea life goes, but it was great because it was within 10 yards of shore! We called the driver to come back an hour later than we originally told him because it was so cool there. Patti even got a aloe vera leg and foot massage from a dude on the beach, it set us back $45, she is not one to haggle. Lori and Chris and the girls showed up and therefore, Abby had a great time. We had one round of drinks, a local Carib beer and a lime colada, $9. Before we left, we watched the monkeys and mongooses (or is it mongeese?) feed on the hillside. Johnny was back right on time and we stopped on the way back at the Marriott to pick up one of his other clients as well at the top of the hill to take the classic Atlantic/Caribbean picture.
Back on board around 1:45pm we had lunch at the Seaview where we enjoyed a very good Reuben with onion rings. Patti then decided to go back to the end of the pier to the shops and did some shopping. I took Abby to play ping-pong, but the two tables were both in use (why only 2 tables on this ship?) so we went to the Safari Club and I taught her to play pool on those cool self leveling tables. She beat me both games on eight ball scratches. I had my nightly cocktail at the CL and then we went to dinner. Cold Soup Report: Abby had the lettuce, cucumber and tomato gazpacho and she liked it a lot. After dinner we had a nightcap at the CL and then retired early as we were bushed. The tropical sun really saps your energy! Tonight we rocked and rolled just a bit as the waves were in the 7-10 foot range, just enough to rock you to sleep.
Day 5 Rousseau, Dominica
Again I woke up at 5am as the sailing smoothed out and I thought we were at dock. We were going to order room service for breakfast, but the menu is fairly limited so we just went up and had a quick bite to eat at the WJ instead. Today was an early tour and we met Levi of Bumpiing Tours for our tour of Titou Gorge at the dock at 8am, as soon as the ship was docked. As we got there we noticed some smoke coming out of one of the buildings on the street running along the water. In just a few minutes, billowing black smoke was pouring from the building and the fire brigade was on the way. The building was a night club/pool hall and the top floor was entirely engulfed in flame. We found out later that a man was sleeping in the building, but he managed to jump out the back window to safety. Later in the day, despite the entire roof being caved in, the shops on the first floor were open for business.
We saw the signs for Bumpiing and soon met Levi right off the ship. We had to wait for a bit for the last stragglers to show up. We also convinced Levi to rearrange the people on the tours so we could travel with Lori, Chris and their family. Levi put us with Garry and he was great! Even though the roads were steep with big drop-offs we felt totally secure with Garry at the wheel. We went to Titou Gorge first and it sure can rain up there on the mountain! We left everything in the van and just went to the trail with our bathing suits, underwater camera and water shoes. The gorge was way cool, and I am not only talking about the water! I did not think water could get so cold in the Caribbean! But once you just dunked yourself in, you got used to it pretty fast, well not really, but it was still worth it! We then went to Trafalgar falls where we got to lounge in the thermal springs. There was even a small tunnel that was like a water slide that we went down. It was so relaxing to just soak in the natural hot tub. We finished our tour with a drive-by of the botanical gardens and then a stop on top of the hill overlooking the ship for pictures. Throughout the tour we had free access to water, local banana soda, and Kubuli beer. All of this for $125 total including the 15% tip we added on. We were back at the ship by 1:30 or so and had lunch in the WJ.
After lunch we were treated to a bridge tour which was conducted by none other than Capt. Karen. It was very interesting. I was also impressed by the security procedures we had to go through to get access. As we were leaving, the Captain told Abby, Elizabeth and Carolyn to be sure to eat their vegetables, do their homework, listen to their mothers and then they would be able to do anything that they wanted to in life! The tour lasted about 25 minutes. After this we hung out on board until dinner including the CL cocktails and getting beaten in shuffleboard by the girls. We had a couple of dock runners that I think got on board, but they really cut it close. Once out to sea we saw 35 knot winds and 7-10 foot seas and the boat was rolling a bit during dinner. After dinner it seemed to calm down a bit and then we just had a gentle rocking for most of the night. It was steak and shrimp cocktail night and they were both fine. Cold Soup Report: Abby had the Pineapple and Raspberry soup. She liked the taste but was not a fan of the pineapple chunks in the soup. The waiters also did their goofy dance with all kinds of things on their heads, it was very entertaining. Afterwards, all the diners had to get up and do the Macarena. A good laugh was had by all. We were so exhausted from the day we just went back to the cabin and crashed as we had an early tour with Shasa Catamarans to swim with the turtles in the morning.
Day 6 Bridgetown, Barbados
We arrived at the dock at around 6:00am to a cloudy wet morning. The Captain told us on our tour yesterday that she wanted to get the ship in early so she could get a good dock space. Well, it is early, but the dock looks like a cargo port complete with container cranes. Oh well, I guess if this is a good dock, I would hate to see a bad one!
Just before we were ready to get off the ship, the heavens opened up with rain. We waited a while but finally made our way to the taxi area where Shasa was scheduled to pick us up. Right on time a taxi came and took us to the beach where the catamaran was waiting. Due to the rain, the tour was changed from a 5 hour lunch cruise to a 3 hour cruise without lunch. Patti, Abby and I got on the catamaran with 6 other people and motored out to the bay with the turtles. I would not recommend this to people with mobility difficulties. You need to get onto the catamaran from the beach and if the swell is up, you have to time it just right. Also, you need to use a swim ladder to get back on the boat after snorkeling which requires a bit of strength. However, Jason is great about helping people a bunch! We got to the turtle bay within 15 minutes of getting on board under motor. As soon as we jumped in there was an abundance of turtles. We counted at least 10, possibly a couple of more. They swim right up to you and you need to be careful not to kick them, although if you did you were more likely to stub your toe than hurt the turtle! We stayed there for about 30 minutes which was plenty of time to see, swim with, and pet the turtles. We were the only boat in the bay so we had all of the turtles to ourselves, but as we were leaving, a much larger boat came into the bay with at least 50-75 people on board. We spoke with our table mates that night and they were on that boat. So many people in the water must have spooked the turtles as they only saw four of them! We had 9 people and about ten turtles, they hat 75 people and only four turtles, you can do the math, I like our turtle ratio much, much better!
After the turtles Jason raised the sails and we sailed to a shipwreck and a coral reef where we saw literally thousands of fish. We were there at least 30 minutes and then we returned to the dock and a waiting taxi under motor. We did use the sail the one time, but it was mainly because it was a fairly calm day and we just could not make any speed under sail. We paid $150 plus a $20 tip because Jason was so good helping Abby as she is a new snorkeler and this was a fairly open water swim.
We got back on board the ship and relaxed having a late lunch at the Seaview and playing some shuffleboard before Abby caught up with the girls who did whatever 10 year old girls do. (Played mini golf, swam, waterslide, etc.) We also got a tour of the Royal Suite because our friends Walt and Bob (Lori and Chris' fathers) got upgraded from a Grand Suite to the Royal Suite. Abby and her friends got a chance to play the piano in the suite for a bit! We had dinner with the entire table tonight and it was lobster formal night. The lobster tails were quite small, but still very tasty. Biju brought me a second one after I inhaled the first one. Monty, our Head Waiter, also brought a lobster curry that was not on the menu that was really tasty, but not spicy hot enough for our tastes. Cold Soup Report: The roasted peach soup was not one of Abby's favorite as it was a bit too sweet and tasted kind of like the juice from a can of peaches! My dad polished it off!
We went to see the Vibeology show this evening. The ship was rocking and rolling with 8 foot seas, and the singers and dancers did a great job staying on their feet. It was a very enjoyable show and some of the singers had some great pipes on them! After this we went to the Love and Marriage show. It was OK, but not great. The couples were fine, but the questions were a bit boring. Finally we went to bed and were rocked to sleep by the wave action.
Day 7 Sea Day
We woke up around 7:00am and the seas had quieted a bit overnight. We decided to go to the MDR for breakfast as it is "Chocolate Breakfast Day". We asked to be seated at Biju's table as he was working there that morning. They had hot chocolate, chocolate milkshakes, chocolate donuts, chocolate chip pancakes, chocolate waffles with chocolate sauce, etc. This may have been Abby's favorite meal of her entire life! It was also nice to eat in the MDR for breakfast as a nice "elegant" alternative to the WJ buffet.
After breakfast we went on deck to play some games before it got too crowded. We started with shuffleboard. When we got to the court, the Eastern European couple who were on our Bumpiing tour were playing a match. They were a very nice couple that spoke very little English, but we ha assumed they were on their honeymoon as they looked so very young! After they finished their game, they surrendered the court to us. My father and I beat Abby and my mother in a very close game. We then gave the court to the next group who was waiting. It was now time for mini golf. This was a nice course as far as golf on a ship goes. We had a great time except half way through our round we found an injured bird between the glass panel and the deck. It looked like it had a broken wing, it probably flew into the glass. We alerted a crew member who came by and took it away, alas I am guessing the injuries were too great and the bird was probably euthanized. We finished our round on a down note. We then went to the rock wall where Abby climbed to the top and rang the bell on her first attempt. She got her coveted two stars stamped into her Seapass card! I should have given the wall a shot, but I did not!
Abby and I caught up with her friends on deck and watched the ice carving demonstration. It was interesting and we were very impressed by the skill of the Philippino culinary ice artist who chopped out the fish sculpture in 25 minutes. We then went to see the captain, hotel director and chief engineer compete in a cake building contest, blindfolded. We were able to get a piece of the captain's cake and it was actually quite tasty!
We then hung out with the kids while they had fun around the ship including quite a bit of time on the rock wall. I was surprised that on the sea day there were not more people using this wall. It turns out that Abby's friend Elizabeth was a pro on the wall and climbed for speed as well as trying many different difficult routes. It was a lot of fun to watch the kids climb! We took a break from climbing and I bought the girls some fru-fru non-alcoholic cocktails and Patti bought us a couple of mojitos. I thought mojitos were supposed to be made from rum, but Patti said the bartender made ours from vodka, and they were way too strong!
We retired to the cabin to work on packing and getting ready for our final dinner. We had our customary cocktail at the CL and said our goodbyes to Ray and Marilyn. We also distributed tips to Angelica, Francois and the lady who greeted us every morning at the WJ with "washy, washy" clean your hands. She was such a ray of sunshine every time we saw her. We unfortunately never ran into Amelia, our suite attendant, again so we left her tip envelope in the room.
Dinner was uneventful, a bit sad as it was our last night, and we said our goodbyes to our wait staff and table mates. The staff really did a great job and were truly good people. Our last event was a champagne reception that Bob and Walt hosted in the Royal Suite with all of the people we hung out with on the cruise. Even Francois and Angelica stopped by to say goodbye!
We finally went back to the cabin, finished packing and turned in for our last night at sea.
Day 8 Departure and Final Thoughts
Sadly, we got into San Juan early and were docked by the time we awoke. We had a last breakfast at the WJ and then packed our carry-on bags for the disembarkation. We had arranged with Francois for my parents to be able to join us in the suite disembarkation area. There was a continental breakfast available there. We were the first group escorted off so the line getting through the US Customs was short. We quickly caught a cab and were at the airport in no time. That ended our wonderful vacation!
We had a really good time on this cruise. I think the overall cruising experience was better with RCI this time than with Princess 5 years ago in Alaska. While the Grand Suite was a luxury, I think it really made the vacation a special experience. If we cruised every year or multiple times per year, we could not justify the suite, but cruising every few years we can! Having the much larger cabin, huge bathroom with dual sinks, the big balcony with lounge chairs, easy access to the upper decks and the use of the lounge was really great. We really liked the traditional dining experience, especially the wait staff. I do wish the first dining time was just a little later, even 6:30 would have been better, but that will not happen or the late seating would be too late! Hooking up with Lori and Chris' family was also something that just added greatly to the whole experience. We were very pleased with all of the tours we took and the suggestions from both Cruise Critic and Trip Advisor. I do not know how people can plan a vacation without all of these great online resources!