It is a given that if you have booked yourself onto either Royal Caribbean's Oasis or Allure of the Seas ships, you are well aware that they are the largest passenger cruise ships in the world. You have probably done your homework ranging from reading the brochure multiple times cover to cover, sought personal recommendations from friends, family and associates and searched the web for discussions, comments and postings. If you have gotten to the latter then you most definitely have found the postings on CruiseCritic.com.
As one who likes to investigate every aspect of our trips and destinations, I made it through all of the steps above and then some. My family endured my weekly observation of the ship's departure from Port Everglades on the webcam. I would compile the "Best Of" YouTube videos posted by previous cruisers fresh off their trips and play them for anyone wanting to see them. As someone who travels all around the world for business, I guess you could say I became obsessed with this vacation.
To start with, we chose the November 13th sailing on the Allure to the Eastern Caribbean ports of Nassau, St. Thomas and St. Martin. Having been to two of the other western ports before, we felt this would be a nice change. In retrospect, we are actually glad we chose the week before Thanksgiving as we avoided the more than 1000 kids scheduled for the 20th departure.
I also want to preface this by saying my wife and I are from Las Vegas and having been in the tourism, travel and convention industry for more than 20 years, we look at things quite differently. We gauge destinations against the multibillion dollar resorts we have lined up along the strip. We look at the details more closely as they are often the reasons for either a resorts climb or demise.
The ship's build cost of $1.4 billion puts it on par with the 5-star Bellagio resort or the Encore. We especially consider this ship to be a close comparison to the new Cosmopolitan Resort with the unique room balconies overlooking Las Vegas Blvd.
Fearing the worst, we chose to fly into Ft. Lauderdale on Saturday and stayed in one of my regular chain hotels. Fortunately, with the amount of travel in my annual schedule, points and miles made the trip comfortable. Today's web of connecting flights offer little guarantee that you will make it to your destination on time. Traveling from the west coast, our departure started at 6am and did not end until 5:30pm in the hotel lobby.
Our hotel offered both a free airport pickup as well as a $10.00 cruise port shuttle the following morning. Upon checkout that Sunday and with a final review of our documents we boarded the 11am shuttle.
You can read every posting and review but nothing prepares you for the first view of the ship as you make your way through the commercial port by cab or shuttle bus. It is truly amazing! We had gone through the process of ordering our luggage tags so identification was simple and the porters at embarkation were quick to sort and stack our luggage by deck in the waiting carts. We were then ushered into the main building.
As stated so often on the message boards, the process is extremely quick and the personnel are very friendly and cheerful. By zones, we made our way through the check-in, photo taking and health forms. From there we climbed to the second level and placed in staging areas. It was here that we first noticed the special treatment that suite guests received. From the separate lounge area to the priority boarding, RCL makes an attempt to recognize the premium classes. But the acknowledgement is brief as everyone in called to board through one of the two gangplanks within minutes. In less than 40 minutes, we had arrived, checked in and were on the ship making our way to the elevator banks. Very impressive!
Your first view of the inside of this floating mega resort is the Royal Promenade deck. Considered as one of the signature zones of the ship, this is the primary enclosed deck for public gathering and is referenced as deck 5 of the more than 17 decks on this ship. One of the very first things you notice as you board and subsequently throughout the ship are the automated hand sanitizer devices. Royal Caribbean has taken the management of germs seriously and this is but one of the testaments to their attention to detail.
While we do not have the same historical cruising perspective of some of the most avid cruisers that make up the RCL believers (more than 2000 of this cruise's guest list was made up of RCL loyalty repeat cruisers), we can tell you that when compared to major destination resorts both domestic and international, the fit and finish of this ship is incredible. From the automated sliding glass doors to the floor coverings and tasteful wall coverings, this ship is very well constructed.
The designers have taken what many would have considered significant material challenges associated with the roll and pitch of a cruise ship and created something special. Glass-walled elevator banks that climb more than 150 feet into the air are just one example that stands out.
Gone are the overtly neon and chrome interiors with the day-glow floor coverings of other ships we have been on. This ship offered a subtle elegance with wood finishes, brushed metals, neutral colors and textures that act as a backdrop to some amazing original artwork and photography covering the walls and stairwells.
The themed environments, retailers, specialty establishments all have facades similar to those found in high end malls, theme parks and resorts, with details that require a second and third look to fully get the image. From the British style pub to the cupcake shop, the details within the interiors are very well appointed and this carries over into the lounges, restaurants and shops.
Because of the expedited boarding process, we could not access our stateroom until 1pm so we headed to the pool and sports deck (deck 15) to check out the top down view. When stepping out onto the deck, this is the first time you get the real impression of the true size and scope of the Allure. One look over the edge towards the water's surface and you see the height of the structure. You also see other ships in the port and quickly realize that for the next week you will be looking down on all other ships in the ports.
As we navigated around the four individual pool areas, you really understand the size and scope of this mega structure. From starboard to port, the ship is more than 200 feet wide, and from the Solarium at the front to the raised deck with the two flowRiders on the back, you actually get the sense of the more than 1180 plus feet in length. More importantly, is the fact that there were an additional 2 decks rising above this zone. As we walked around and saw the four pool areas with thousands of chase lounges you get the idea that even with more than 6000 guests, there is room for everyone to find a space of their own.
During our tour, the first chance that you get to look over the edge into the Central Park and Boardwalk zones presents an amazing view. To peer down over the Aqua Theater and see hundreds of seats you start to gain a perspective that in the course of the week, exploring this vessel will be an incredible task.
Following the previous reviews on Cruise Critic we made our way back down to deck 8 to walk through Central Park and to have lunch at the Park Cafe. It was time to test the food and believe me when I say we were not disappointed. I ordered up the famous Roast Beef sandwich while my wife had the staff build her a wonderful salad. I reviewed the rest of the menu and observed those around me with delicious looking Cuban Panini sandwiches.
We had chosen the soda package for both of us in advance so our cruise cards had the obligatory Coke logo in the corner that recognizes our involvement in the program. With a wave of the cards, we had our beverages to go with lunch. To be fair, cruisers have access to flavored waters, ice teas, lemonade, coffee and hot tea that are included with all food options.
As we finished eating, we took a moment to marvel at this tree-filled park sitting in the middle of a cruise ship. We both agreed that having our cabin on this deck was a good thing and besides our specialty dining arrangements in the restaurants that lined the park we would return here quite often throughout the cruise.
We made our way to the port side hallway to work our way towards our stateroom. Amazingly, we found our luggage in the hall as we headed to our cabin. As we entered our stateroom, we were very impressed. While being compact, the interiors are tastefully done and again the attention to detail was superb. The large LCD TV was on and the program was welcoming you to the Allure. We immediately made our way to the oversized balcony that was part of the D1 cabin upgrade. Outfitted with two chairs and a table, the glass-walled railing was going to become part of our home for the next week.
Taking the advice of so many on the Cruise Critic boards, we deployed our hanging shoe bag on the bathroom door and started unpacking. It was at this time that we met our stateroom steward Michael Navarro. He would be an important asset all throughout the cruise. His level of professionalism, constant attention and great personality only enhanced our experience. We cannot say enough about his customer service and would advise anyone if at all possible, to request his services to do so.
The combination of packing reasonably and the many spaces to store our affects made the job go quickly. While unpacking we noticed how clean everything was and how quite the cabin was. The bed was extremely comfortable and large enough to handle my 6'3" height.
At this point it seems appropriate to talk about the technology on this ship. Starting with the TV, you have complete access to your personal cruise account and calendar. Through the interactive options, you can make additional reservations in the restaurants, shore excursions, shows and ancillary services. The TV is also equipped with a wireless keyboard that allows you to access the Internet to send and receive email but you need to commit to an internet time package before doing this. Realizing that I needed to periodically check my email through the week, I took a 60 minute package for $35.00 and signed in through my Android tablet. To do this, you need to visit one of the numerous Internet workstation zones to sign up.
Once the account was established, I was able to log in daily for just a few minutes in the morning to download any messages. I would read all my mail off-line and respond as required, placing the replies in the outbound box. The following morning, my mail would be sent as the inbound information arrived. I will say that the speed of connectivity was equivalent to a fast DSL connection and large files went through quickly.
Each stateroom has a phone that lets you reach other guests and all of the venues on the ship. You can also get an outside line at the equivalent rates of international cell service. In addition to the wired phones, those who have GSM cell phones with international access, you can take advantage of the ship's own cellular tower. We let our family know that we could be reached first by Internet, then by cellular and if all else fails we had the instructions on how to call the ship and get important messages to us.
I will tell you that we saw some passengers clutching their cell phones during the entire cruise and were texting and talking incessantly. I could just imagine that with a roaming rate of around $3.00-4.00 per minute, his November statement could quite possibly eclipse their bar bills.
On each deck by each elevator bank guests find the interactive LCD touch screens that allow you to search for every nook of the ship. You can get navigational directions to your cabin or any restaurant. You can also use these screens to view the complete activity schedule going on right at that moment. Another interesting feature would display an interactive chart that actually gauges the amount of traffic at major eateries so you could decide where to go.
Short of carrying the daily Cruise Compass around in your pocket, this becomes an important resource as there is so much going on virtually every hour of the day.
The Cruise Director, Allan must have a clone as he is everywhere on the ship and is involved with the major events from morning to evening. He also produces a daily TV program that is broadcasted each morning into your room. It highlights the events from the night before as well as promotes many items schedule for the day. He takes comments from guests and gives celebration shout-outs.
Another unique experience for both my wife and myself was to spend all of this time within a mega resort and never carry your wallet, cash, change or in my wife's case, a purse. Just your cruise card becomes your individual identification as well as your credit card. The rest of our information, remained locked in our cabin safe with the exception of our shore excursions. I do recommend that you have the card punched and that you hang it by the lanyard provided at the service desk.
It didn't take long for the party to get started as many of the Meet and Mingle signups gathered on the portside at the back of deck 11 as we waved at the cruise port webcam heading out to sea. Virtually every corner of the ship had festivities going on.
As we hit the open seas, the captain opened the throttle and the wind kicked in forcing us to retreat forward to the Solarium to finish our frozen concoctions. It is here that I should inject some of the specs of the ship. This is an electric powered cruise liner. The six massive electric generators powering the three Asipods can push this vessel at almost 25 miles an hour (22 nautical knots). Captain Johnny indicated that with the 360 degree rotational options of the pods the ship can actually cruise at 17 knots backwards which is faster than some of the older ships in service.
The 300,000 gallons of diesel fuel used each week actually power the generators that bring the ship to life. An interesting tidbit is the fact that the Allure also has more than 1400 square meters of solar PV panels on top of the funnel deck. The reality of this type of cruising power is that without the unique design of the sport deck, under full sail you would feel like you're hanging your head out of the window of a moving car.
We experienced the main dining room before heading off to the Amber Theater to enjoy the Broadway show Chicago.
Our My Time Dining option took us to deck 5 and our service team was very attentive and the food was good considering we were seated in an amazing 3000+ seat multi-level dining environment and meals were flying out at a rapid pace.
The Amber Theater is larger than some stages on Broadway. With two balconies and a live orchestra, the cast delivered an outstanding musical performance. On the negative side, the theater's air conditioning was set to subzero. I will give the engineering staff the benefit of the doubt but I will warn cruisers to plan on bringing sweaters and to wear pants to enjoy the show.
As foodies, my wife and I made plans to navigate our way through the many dining options and specialty eateries that the Allure offered. We started our culinary exploration on the first formal night in Chops Grille. Dressed in our formal wear, we enjoyed amazing food supported by impeccable service. The story behind the aged beef and the other unique menu items is delivered by the staff and adds to the experience and the interior is well appointed and intimate. My wife suffers from motion sickness but found that by facing the windows that look into Central Park the uneasiness went away.
It is also important to note that everyone you interact with where it involves your cruise card be prepared to be addressed by your name. From Michael in our stateroom to the waiters in the main dining room, they all make it a point to personalize the relationship.
We also made reservations in 150 Central Park for later in the week. This is the gourmet tasting menu restaurant also located within Central Park. Like Chops, we set this up for the second formal night to include the dress-to-impress mood into the dining experience. It is important to preface this eatery by saying this is a six course tasting menu with much smaller portions where there is ample explanations included as to the preparation of each course. Again, the service is impeccable and personalized. The restaurant even calls your stateroom (as well as they send you an internal ship message) to determine if you have any food allergies prior to your arrival, impressive.
Everything from the miniature drops of sauces to the six different salts that you use with your freshly baked bread offers a robust set of flavors and actually can fill you up. The optional wine pairing adds significantly to the cost and is not required to enjoy the meal. If you are a wine connoisseur, this is actually a very good value to be able to try a number of excellent wines with the different courses.
We tried Giovanni's Table, the Italian trattoria and found it to good but not great. Service was prompt but we had better food elsewhere. The two secret finds were Vintages wine and tapas bar in Central Park and Rita's Cantina on the Boardwalk.
The combination of great wine selections and amazing tapas choices really are under marketed by Royal Caribbean. While this is a purely optional expense, you can easily compare this cost to three poolside cocktails. Best of all, you can simply walk in and find a comfortable couch and start the dining experience.
Our Mexican meal was relegated to lunch as Rita's turns into a dining and drinking party each evening that requires reservations. As 20-year residents in the Southwest, we feel confident that we know good and authentic Mexican food. Our lunch was presented by a tall Polish waiter who was excellent and super personable. Through him, we learned a great deal about the crew contracts and living environment on the Allure.
We only ate in the main dining room twice and actually received a call from the dining room manager to ask why we had not returned more often. Even though it was not purely intentional, it was nice to know they noticed.
We did go against some of the Cruise Critic reviews and made our way to the Windjammer Marketplace. Fortunately, we never experienced the issues of others reviewers. With all of the other dining options, there was never a time were we could not find a table for two. The food was well prepared and presented on serving islands with the service being polite and prompt.
As expected, we tried to eat in every location but found it impossible which is great because it adds to the incentive for us to return.
I will suggest to RCL to add some traditional fish and chips, or bangers and mash in the pub as this would make this stop perfect with the large selection of beer.
Each evening the Promenade comes to life with a rotating selection of the different musical acts, photo stations and shopping islands draw major activity. For us, there seemed to be a constant daily lull in the schedule in the early evening. The lounges with entertainment all seemed to be on break and the other clubs didn't get going until much later in the evening. As we don't gamble, we made our way back to Central Park to sit and enjoy the setting or back to our cabin to relax on the balcony before venturing out later in the evening.
Speaking of the gaming, the casino is quite large but while they claim a portion of this area to be smoke-free you will be hard pressed in finding an area that doesn't reek. They should hand out free cleaning certificates to rid the foul smoke from your clothing as you will drag this back to your stateroom.
In terms of the ports visited, we could have actually skipped Nassau as the vendors offered a poor excuse for a flea market. Also, the expense to visit the Atlantis resort did not seem to be a good value considering the early departure. It seemed that our opinion was shared by many and by 1pm (2 hours prior to departure), the pool zones were packed.
St. Thomas offered a better experience but you will take your life in your hands in one of the open shuttles that transport you around to different parts of the island. We opted for the roller coaster trek to the more remote Sapphire beach on the East End of the island. Upon the return, the downtown shopping areas were well in the midst of construction and repairs so we opted out of the duty-free mecca figuring that we would find more interesting options at our next stop.
St. Martin became our port highlight and we started our day off with a short cab ride to the Divi Beach Resort. While this is a timeshare property, you can make your way to their beach to take advantage of the chase lounges and umbrellas for a small fee. The water is incredibly calm, clear and blue and the resort does not have the crowds found at Orient. There are fee-based water sports options such as wave runners, snorkeling and boating options. There is also a great beachside bar and cafÃ© where the food is excellent for lunch.
After a few hours on the beach, we made it back to the port and boarded the water taxis back to the beachfront shopping district. We do intend to return to St Martin and venture to the French side when we have more time. This island offers some incredible sights and food and really requires more than a single afternoon to explore it.
We enjoyed the Aqua Theater show and Blue Planet was filled with some technical feats you would not expect in a ship-based show. We especially enjoyed Earl Turner as the main headliner show but we are biased in the fact that we have followed his career from Las Vegas to New Orleans and now on to the Allure.
The late night South Beach-style night club with the popular DJ setup in the Solarium came to life late night and drew good sized crowds. We also spent a good deal of time in Dazzles as the 2-story setting and the live music offered a great dance party. While I am a Jazz enthusiast, the small club on deck 4 offered a more classic style and I prefer more contemporary "smooth" sound, so we skipped that.
The karaoke On Air Club located on the Promenade deck drew large crowds and surprisingly, a number of the cruisers had really good voices. We had reservations for the Comedy Club but unfortunately, we never made it there.
It took three attempts to find some live entertainment in the Viking Lounge on Deck 17 but once we did, it was enjoyable and the glass wall overlooking the ship and the ocean on a moon-lit night is dramatic at this height above the water.
The Cupcake Cupboard offered some wonderful baked deserts and Starbucks is situated right in the middle of the Promenade near the rising tide bar. As mentioned before, we found ourselves gravitating back to Central Park in the early evening to enjoy the sights and sounds. The comfortable Adirondack seating allowed us to listen to the guitar and violin combo that played under the stars.
For those concerned about the size of the ship as being too big, we never felt that way. The crew of more than 2000+ made it a point to make the cruise personal. With the exception to the hilarious sales, flash dances and parades held in the Promenade or the exit from the Amber Theater, we never were subjected to crowds. Our port side cabin offered a calm and quite place to retreat to at any time.
Our Meet and Mingle group also organized a cabin crawl and we had the chance to view everything from basic balcony staterooms to the loft suites on Deck 17. This was very informative and allowed us to better plan for our next sailing on this ship.
For my wife and me, our expectations of a good vacation are polar opposites. I need lots of activity and opportunities to explore. My wife would enjoy the comfort of a lounge with a book and an occasional frothy drink. I attempted to participate in all of the sports related activities but could not do everything in one week. My wife found her favorite relaxation spots and even found time to experience the zip line.
The size of the spa and health club is in proportion to the ship, large! The Vitality Spa Cafe offers great healthy dining alternatives. There are actually some great educational classes in the spa although I don't recommend the body detoxification seminar as its message will be counterproductive to the volumes of food and beverages you have in front of you on this ship.
The final morning allowed us to make one more trip to the Windjammer for breakfast which ends at 8:30am. We opted for a slightly later departure time since our flight home was in the early afternoon. The disembarkation process was fairly orderly and we were able to collect our luggage by the tag numbers quickly and exit through customs with little fanfare. The cab ride was short to the terminal and you could actually see the top of the ship from the gate.
In closing, we have become hooked on the Oasis class of Royal Caribbean and besides joining the Crown & Anchor Society; we are already planning a family departure in 2013. The delay is due a major wedding event planned next fall. We have scoped out the suite that will become the focal point for the gathering and will surround this with family member staterooms for the Western Caribbean.