The last time that I had the pleasure of sailing on a brand new ship during its inaugural season, I was aboard the Carnival Liberty in 2005. It was a wonderful experience, and to this day, one of the best cruises we've ever taken. Needless to say, I was thrilled to repeat the experience this year, this time, aboard the Allure of the Seas.
Although the prospect of sailing on the largest cruise ship in the world was indeed exciting, I was a bit skeptical about my decision. Would I enjoy sailing with that many passengers? Would the experience be worth the higher prices? Would I even feel like I was on a cruise ship? I would soon find out...!
After taking advantage of the budget prices offered by Carnival on our last 9 consecutive cruises, I needed to get over the sticker price shock. The cost of our 1 year old son's ticket alone on the Allure was as much as we paid TOTAL for a family of three on our last cruise on Carnival! I figured that our per diem (cost per person/per day) would be about 3 times higher than what we had paid on previous cruises. This better be one GREAT cruise!
PRE CRUISE and EMBARKATION:
We flew to Ft. Lauderdale the day before the cruise. We chose to stay at the Hilton Ft. Lauderdale Marina, overlooking Port Everglades. It's a great, modern hotel with wonderful views of the intracoastal, and it's only a 5 minute taxi cab ride to the port.
We arrived at the port around 1pm on Sunday. I mentally prepared myself to spend a few hours checking in along with 5,800 other passengers, so you can imagine my surprise when we walked right into the terminal, followed the signs, went straight to a check in counter, and we were aboard the ship and walking into the Royal Promenade literally 10 minutes after we arrived at the port! Royal Caribbean did a WONDERFUL job, not only designing this ship, but also the cruise terminal. Everything flowed so smoothly, that it felt as if we had priority/VIP embarkation. During the rest of the cruise, we NEVER stood in line, not once. Passenger flow is excellent.
As we boarded, a staff member handed my wife a white carnation and we were then directed to the elevators leading to our cabin. Being greeted by name by our cabin steward was a nice, personal touch. The ship is absolutely stunning and beautifully decorated. Plain and simple it's an amazing ship, not only because of its size, but also because of its design. We were surprised at how quickly we learned our way around the ship. Everything is located in places that "make sense". Touch screen signage is abundant throughout the ship. Need to know what do to or how to get there? Just tap on the screen.
The ship does NOT feel crowded at all. In fact, some areas felt quiet and peaceful. Since entertainment is divided into so many areas, guest are scattered throughout the ship instead of being packed into one area. There were always plenty of things to do, even late at night.
One of my biggest complaints from our previous cruise was due to cigarette smoke which was awful. Not on the Allure of the Seas! No smoking is allowed inside cabins, and most public places. The Casino is thankfully tucked away down on deck 4. Only a handful of venues throughout the ship allow smoking so we only smelled smoke a few times during the entire week. It was refreshing to be on a ship that smelled clean instead of stale cigarettes!
We booked a Boardwalk View Stateroom on deck 7 (category BV). Originally, we wanted an Ocean View stateroom with a window, but because we booked about a month before departure, this Boardwalk facing stateroom was the only one left with a window. We had considered booking a balcony stateroom, but because our son is becoming a pro at climbing on chairs and tables as well as unlocking doors, we decided against the balcony in order to give us a bit of peace of mind. The window was big, and it provided a nice view of the Boardwalk, as well as a partial view of the Aqua Theater and the ocean, but we missed not having a full view of the ocean.
The stateroom was a bit small, but it was smartly designed (loved the enclosed circular shower, instead of having to deal with the shower curtain from hell). It did feel a bit cramped when our son's crib was open, (something that we didn't feel when we sailed on Carnival), but thankfully, our cabin steward would stow it during the day. Our cabin was a handful of cabins away from a little used door leading to an open deck (the size of the balcony on the suite right above), so we found ourselves utilizing that deck quite a bit to watch performances on the Aqua Theater, as well as just to relax.
The TV features an interactive system which allows you to do pretty much everything. You can check out how busy restaurants are, book excursions, reserve show times, check the onboard account, order room service or movies, learn about the ship, or review our personal daily calendar. While the interactive system is indeed very comprehensive, I found it to be a bit confusing at times. However, after spending some time trying to figure it out, I got the hang of it.
Room service is definitely better than on Carnival. It was nice to have more options than just pastries and cold cereal for breakfast. Full breakfast is offered, including made to order omelets, For lunch or dinner, several hot options are offered, including honey chicken, steak sandwiches and pizza.
One of the questions that I asked myself before this cruise was if I would even care for all of the entertainment on this ship. Would we be interested in a Carousel? Ice skating shows? "Cirque Du Soleil" style performances? Parades featuring Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, and the cast from Madagascar? Flowriders? Zip Lines? Rock Climbing Walls? Water Parks? Solariums? A Boardwalk? Central Park?
Well, I hate to admit it, but the answer is YES we did, and we loved it. It was such a nice welcome change to go to shows that are a true departure from the tired Vegas style shows with crappy dancing and singing. We watched Ocean Aria at the Aqua Theater, Ice Games at Studio B, and Blue Planet at the Amber Theater. We skipped Chicago, the Musical, because I had seen it on land, and also because that night we chose to have dinner and just spend a relaxing evening at the Solarium.
Well, now I know why Royal Caribbean charges so much for kids. Our son is only 17 months, but he was BUSY! This ship truly caters to families and to ALL family members starting at 6 months of age.
Adventure Ocean on this ship is simply wonderful. It's a huge area on deck 14 reserved for kids. As you enter, there's a large enclosed section where kids can enjoy play time with their parents. They even have their own kid's theater with performances exclusively for them. The area is divided by age groups. Our son attended the Royal Tots and Babies area. Several supervised activities sponsored by Crayola and Fisher Price are scheduled throughout the week. In addition, child care is available throughout the day until midnight. This is MUCH better than the babysitting hours available on other cruise lines, which usually isn't available until 10pm.
In addition to Adventure Ocean, there's a dedicated area in the water park for babies, called the Baby Splash Zone. Strict rules are posted and enforced (several pool attendants patrol the area constantly). Water is temperature controlled and the area is kept impeccably clean. Several kid loungers, intermixed with adult loungers surround the area. Our son LOVED the Baby Splash Zone, and used it many, many times.
There's also a dedicated Adventure Ocean TV channel, which airs cartoons 24 hours a day, mostly Fisher Price's Little People episodes. It was a life saver more than once, as it would keep our son entertained in the cabin.
The Dreamworks Experience makes the cruise feel a bit like going to Disney. We went to several Dreamworks parades, shows (Madagascar's Let you Entertain Me at the Aqua Theater, and the How To Train Your Dragon Ice Show at Studio B), breakfast with the characters, as well as several appearances throughout the ship.
There was SO much for our son to do, that at times it felt as if he was having more fun than us! He was having so much fun that, many times, he did NOT want to go back to the cabin. The moment he realized we were walking back to the cabin, he would turn around and run back!
With 24 eateries throughout the ship, it was a bit overwhelming trying to figure out what to eat. Several times, we chose where to eat by looking at the restaurant availability in our cabin. It seemed like the Windjammer Marketplace was always busiest for breakfast, so we chose to enjoy our first meal of the day at the Park Cafe which was usually laid back and peaceful. We also enjoyed breakfast at Johnny Rocket's one morning (it's free).
The ship offers plenty of eating venues that are complimentary (Adagio Main Dining Room, Cafe Promenade, Sorrento's Pizzeria, Park Cafe, Windjammer Marketplace, Wipeout Cafe, Solarium Bistro), so you can go the entire week without spending an extra dime for food. All of these are comparable to Carnival in what's offered and quality. However for those wanting to try something different, there are plenty of options as well.
We left our son at the Royal Babies nursery a few nights and ventured out to try some of these specialty restaurants. Here's our take on the specialty restaurants we did try:
• Chops Grille ($25pp): Located on Central Park, it has the feel of an upscale Steakhouse. While the ambiance was very enjoyable, we were a bit disappointed with the food. It's not that it was bad, we just felt it wasn't worth the extra $25pp. Both of us ordered the 10oz Filet Mignon which arrived a bit overcooked and didn't have much flavor. First courses and side dishes were pretty unappetizing. While our waiter was very friendly, he seemed to be a bit hurried. Not what you'd expect at an "upscale" Steakhouse.
• Giovanni's Table ($10pp): This Italian restaurant located on Central Park was our favorite venue of all the specialty restaurants. We tried it for lunch and it was wonderful. Beginning with the Insalata Caprese per due, and finishing with the Tiramisu, everything was VERY good. Pastas were definitely a hit.
• Rita's Cantina ($20 for Rita's Fiesta, which includes alcohol): If you've partied at Carlos and Charlie's, you know what Rita's Fiesta is about. You share your table with other guests, and are given a plastic wristband, which entitles you to free margaritas. You are given a Mexican sombrero as well as a lighted necklace to wear and keep. Quesadillas, steak fajitas, flan, and churros are served "family style" (in other words, everyone at your table is eating off the same plate). The fiesta is hosted by "Rita" (wonder if it's her real name) who walks around the room with a microphone encouraging people to get up and dance (and occasionally, make idiots of themselves).Booty shaking competitions are held, and winners are rewarded with free shots of tequila. The DJ did play awesome dance music, and at one point in time, the party spilled into the Boardwalk, as people walking back stared curiously. While it was fun, the whole concept is a bit cheesy and tacky.
• Johnny Rocket's ($5pp): We had dinner here after spending all day ashore, looking for something casual and relaxed. Surprisingly, we were happy about our decision. Yes, we could've ordered a burger free of charge at the Windjammer, but the burgers at Johnny Rockets are definitely thicker and juicier and taste freshly grilled. And the onion rings are soooo good!
• Vintages (priced a la carte): Yes, it's a wine bar, but we went for the Tapas, which were great! Gazpacho, Manchego cheese, Serrano ham, croquettes, and Spanish omelet, are some of the tapas we ordered. Every single one was worth it!
• Samba Grill ($25pp): The Solarium bistro is transformed at night into a Brazilian Churrascaria. While the ambiance was very nice (we were even entertained by a Samba dancer), we thought that this venue was the biggest letdown of the week. The evening started on the wrong foot after we sat down and waited for about 10 minutes before the Maitre d' approached our table and asked if we had been served. Immediately he summoned a waiter, who apparently got yelled at right before he came to our table because he was not happy. Shortly after, the gauchos started bringing out the different cuts of meat which unfortunately were not the best. One gaucho literally served me a chunk of fat! We've been to authentic Brazilian steakhouses before, and this was NOT one of them. We paid our tab and left Samba still feeling hungry. We ended our "upscale" evening at the Windjammer Marketplace.
Overall, we felt that the specialty restaurants on this ship are not worth the extra money. The food served at the complimentary restaurants, while repetitive, is good enough, and sometimes better.
PORTS OF CALL:
In general, this vacation is about the ship, rather than the destinations. We chose not to book any excursions, partly because we were traveling with a small child, and partly because we were more interested in just doing our own thing:
• Labadee, Haiti: Pleasantly surprised! It's a beautiful area with nice beaches, a market with shops, pavilion, and some fun entertainment. We went to Adventure Ocean's water park for a bit, hung out at the beach, walked over to the Artisan's Village, took a 2 hour nap under the palm trees, and returned to the ship. Life doesn't get much simpler than that!
• Falmouth, Jamaica: We'd read quite a bit about the fact that this port of call is far from being completed, and we also received a letter in our cabin the night before the arrival pertaining to this fact, so we somewhat knew what to expect. Yes, the area is largely under construction, but it will be very nice once it's completed. There was a HUGE police presence (apparently to keep away crime that had been previously reported). Contrary to what we'd read, we weren't mobbed by pushy vendors. A polite "no, thanks" was all it took to move on to the next vendor.
• Cozumel, Mexico: This was the only port of call we had visited before (several times), so we somewhat knew our way around. We took a cab to the Punta Langosta pier (we docked at the International Pier) and walked along the main avenue. We had lunch at Las Palmeras and purchased a few souvenirs. Overall, not much has changed since our last visit. It's an enjoyable port of call, but I wish that the cruise lines wouldn't feel so compelled to include this destination on practically every single Western Caribbean itinerary!
Royal Caribbean INTERNATIONAL lived up to its name on this sailing! It was a wonderful experience to spend a week with so many people from all over the world. The Cruise Compass was available in Portuguese, Spanish, English, German, and Italian. In addition, there was a huge presence of Japanese guests (in fact, there was a TV crew onboard filming a documentary on the ship for Japanese Television). With so many cultures aboard, you would've expected some clashes among passengers. However, what we encountered was completely the opposite. Everybody was very polite, well mannered, friendly and mindful of the other guests onboard the ship.
So, was it worth it? Without a doubt, the answer is: Absolutely YES! Overall, the entire experience is wonderful, and I'm glad that I had the opportunity of sailing on this ship.
We sailed on very calm waters, which, combined with the size of the ship, meant that we didn't feel one bit of motion. Literally, we could've been docked for 7 nights, and I would've not known the difference. Although having calm waters was a blessing, not feeling any motion made me feel as if I was not on a cruise.
I do realize that the ship is not for everybody. Most public areas, while wonderfully designed, are enclosed (Royal Promenade, Central Park, and the Boardwalk), so ocean views are limited unless you have your own balcony. We felt completely disconnected from the ocean during the entire cruise.
Is everything on the Allure of the Seas better than on Carnival? Absolutely NOT. There were a few things were Carnival excels (at a fraction of the price). Here are a few things that I missed:
• Baskets with complimentary toiletries in the cabin.
• Bathrobes in standard cabins (you need to be at least a platinum cruiser or better to get one).
• Better fitness center. (On the Allure, while the Vitality Spa facilities are beautiful, the actual fitness center looked like an afterthought, small and a bit claustrophobic.)
• Better specialty restaurant experience. Carnival may be a budget minded cruise line, but I consider their specialty steakhouse to be FAR superior to anything we experienced on the Allure of the Seas. Harry's Steakhouse on the Carnival Liberty, to this day, is the BEST dining experience I've ever encountered on any ship. Polished, unhurried service, superb, juicy steaks, and memorable side dishes & desserts.
• While the TV channel lineup seems to be better on the Allure, there were two channels that I truly missed during the entire week: The moving map, and the bridge cam. Since we had a Boardwalk View cabin, I felt a bit anxious not knowing where we were or what was going on outside. We did have a "Bridge Cam" channel, but it only showed the same videos over and over of the captain talking about the ship, not actual views.
Royal Caribbean does excel in many things though. Overall, we considered the ship design, decoration, kids program, list of activities, facilities, entertainment, and overall feel to be far superior to what we've encountered on Carnival. Another plus of taking this cruise was that it brought me up to Platinum level on Royal Caribbean, which automatically brought me up to Select level on Celebrity, even though I've never set foot on a Celebrity ship!
In conclusion, except for a handful of minor flaws the Allure of the Seas was a wonderful experience. The small things that weren't perfect were not enough to keep me from wanting to sail on her again!