My father treated my brothers and our families to a Caribbean cruise on the Ruby Princess over the Thanksgiving holidays, Nov. 20-27. We wanted to cruise out of New Orleans on RCI or NCL (yuk) for convenience's sake, but the prices were really high. Finally we decided to make the 14 or so hour drive to Fort Lauderdale and take a cruise from there. Six of us drove and four people flew.
Flyers included Dad, age 88; my brother, his daughter the almost-pharmacist, and her boyfriend.
Drivers included: My brother and his son the college student; my wife and our two children, son, just turned 13 and daughter, 11.
We debated quite a bit on whether or not to take a HAL cruise. They had some cheap balcony cabins that were very interesting. In the end the fear factor got us and we decided to stick with Princess. We wanted to do the eastern Caribbean and first tried to book the Grand Princess, which was offering inside cabins for $429 per person; however it was booked up and we ended up booking the Ruby Princess for a little more (given the Grand's reported air-conditioning problems, I'm glad we were turned away!). My Dad booked a mini-suite so he could entertain visitors and his room could serve as a meeting place. Everyone else booked an Obstructed View stateroom for $497. After taxes this came to $584. A great value in my view, although of course we spent too much onboard!
An interesting note. We were booked into a GG cabin. There are only four of these on the ship, and this category is clearly used as a placeholder to allow the cruise line to offer lower fares. Virtually everyone who books this will get an upgrade, although we were only upgraded to F. Also, my brother didn't get his cabin assignment when the rest of us did. He called and they said they had accidentally marked him "do not upgrade." So if you go a while without getting an assignment, it might be worth a call.
To cut to the chase and save everyone from having to read further, we loved the Ruby. We were on the Sapphire in March, and it just doesn't measure up to the Ruby although it is a fine ship. I've cruised the Golden and the Star years ago, and the Ruby is the best. So that sums it up; if you have a choice, book the Ruby! Now for the review....
The night before.
We had a great deal of debate as we were driving about where to stay the night before. I wanted to stay at Port St. Lucie, 90 miles away, at a $79 Hilton Garden Inn that had two queen beds per room. I got outvoted and we had to stay at a Candlewood Suites on a cruise package that included parking. It only had double beds and I got a terrible night's rest, and we ended up not using the parking because of the hassle factor. The best advice I can give anyone driving is to stay north of Ft. Lauderdale at a decent, comfortable place that is cheap and then just park at the cruise terminal and save yourself a million hassles.
I didn't embark with the rest of my group because I had to find a Wal-Mart to attempt to buy my son some extra contacts. I found the Wal-Mart but they didn't have what I needed. Fortunately my son didn't lose or tear one. When I arrived at 1:30 p.m. I parked and there was no line whatsoever. I just walked in, showed my boarding pass, got my cruise card and got on the ship.
I will add that my brother bought my dad a mobility chair after reading about them on the Cruise Critic. These are wheelchairs without the big wheels, so they are very light. Not only did this make embarkation easy for my dad, but was much more active than in the past because he didn't have the fear of not having the energy to walk back to the room. If you know someone who has difficulty getting around, these chairs are great.
Our Obstructed View Cabins
Our group was on Emerald Deck 8, 617, 619, 621, 625. After we got our upgrades to F category I called and asked if we could be put together and Princess obliged (we booked direct). The view was just as it showed on the chart: 621, which my wife and daughter shared, had a good view; 619, which my son and I shared, was completely obstructed. Even so, I could still see bits of ocean and scenery through the tender boat. It was nice to be able to open the curtains and get some natural light, but when they were closed it was almost completely dark. We only paid $20 over the price of an interior cabin for an obstructed view, and I think it is well worth it. Supposedly these cabins have about 16 extra square feet, and every inch helps!
The bathroom was small and water tended to get on the floor when taking a shower. They could design this better.
We chose traditional dining. The food itself was outstanding, without a doubt the best any of us have ever had on a cruise. Some of us had dishes that they said were among the best they have ever had, period. On lobster night, the two lobster tails weren't huge, but they were perfectly cooked and delicious. My brother declared them the best he had ever had, and I must say they were mighty tasty. My wife had equal praise for a scallop dish she had, I think on Chef's night. The food on the Ruby was simply outstanding in the opinion of our party of 10.
Service was another story. We had problems getting drinks when we were supposed to get them. On our first night I brought two bottles of wine to the table and we could not get them opened and served until the end of the second course; nor were people able to to get their other cocktails. When dessert time came, we couldn't get coffee until after we had finished our desserts and the plates were taken away even though we made it clear we wanted it. To me this is unacceptable.
The next night I brought two bottles of wine and my nephew and I both brought corkscrews. We didn't need to use them, however, because as I was sitting down I handed my cruise card to the assistant waiter and told him to charge me a cork fee and that we wanted to go ahead and pour it right now, more or less making a big production out of something that ought to occur as a matter of course. Problems like this continued the whole week. We would ask for both bottles of wine to be opened and only one would be opened, which would then leave everyone with an empty glass. Service did improve as the week wore on and a few times the head waiter pitched in to help.
I will add that I am sure that waiting on a table of 10 is hard. Our assistant didn't speak English well, which added to the problem. And the head waiter arranged for us all to get escargot for the last two nights of the trip. Escargot salves a lot of wounds! Also, while everyone was a bit peeved with the service the first night, my brother says I am being overly critical and that on most nights it was fine. I thought there was great room for improvement in the drink service and will leave it at that. We did really like our waiter. I personally felt our waiter somehow got "stuck" with the assistant, but I am not really sure how these teams are put together.
Ghastly odds. There is a slot casino room at St. Thomas at the port that has much better video poker machines. I found a progressive 8-5 quarter machine there with a $4,700 royal bonus with eight coins bet. That comes to about a 102% return. In other words the player has a long-term two percent advantage with proper play at that pay table (please note that you have to hit the royal to make this profitable, and that comes only once every 40,000 hands, so it's a long-term proposition). Unfortunately I only found this as we were leaving! Also, in the Princess casino there is a group of Golden Monkey machines that are interesting. Each time the Golden Monkey comes up a step lights up. When then third step is hit the player can choose to take 1,200 coins or keep climbing. I found that some people would abandon their machines with one or two steps lit. I'm not sure that playing this machine with two steps lit is a positive expectation play, but I'm sure you will lose less! So if you want to gamble, just hover over the Golden Monkey players and if one gets up with steps lit.....POUNCE!
Both of my children signed up for the kid's club. My daughter was in the 8-12 group. My son was in the 13-up Club Remix group. My daughter took part in some kid's activities, but the kid's club clearly didn't appeal to her that much. I think there's just a big difference between age 11 and age 8 and she didn't enjoy being around the younger children and doing the more childish activities. My son, on the other hand, loved Club Remix. They had all sorts of dances, parties, dinners and what-have-you. There was a printed schedule, and there was literally something going on every hour of every night. Our son left dinner early every night to go to Remix. Great program!
I never watched a movie on MUTS. I'm not a big movie person, but I really didn't like the movies that were being shown. I think it's a good thing, just wish the selection was better, and that perhaps they would show Fox News from time to time. I think it might be interesting if they had some classic movies as well on MUTS.
The International CafÃ© was good although sometimes food can look better than it tastes. I got some gelato and was not terribly impressed. Vines is neat although it usually didn't seem crowded. They offered a choice of sushi or tapas with the purchase of a glass of wine. I wish wine of the quality offered at Vines was available in the dining room! A glass of Castle Rock pinot noir cost something like $7.75 in the dining room. At Vines, a glass of La Crema pinot noir cost about 75 cents more and came in a proper crystal glass designed for drinking red wine. I was tempted to order a glass of red wine at Vines and then take the glass to dinner, but I was afraid that would make me very unpopular.
We didn't eat at Sabatini's, but tried to do a walk-in on Caribbean Night (Ha!). It's on the top deck in a beautiful room. Really nice. I would much rather eat here than the Princess Grill just based on ambiance alone; it's cheaper, too! Bottom line is nobody likes the Caribbean Night menu and on the Ruby that's when they have German sausage night at the buffet, so try to find out when Caribbean Night is and go ahead and get your reservation booked. You can't just walk in!
This is just a beach day. The beach barbecue isn't as good as I remember it being some years ago. My son and I didn't go ashore until late, and I wish we had eaten lunch on the ship.
On the trip down we spent the night with my brother-in-law in St. Augustine. We made the trip back without a break. The traffic the Sunday after Thanksgiving was unbelievably bad. For several hours in Florida I'm guessing we averaged 25 miles an hour. For one hour we only went four miles on the interstate. But we made it home and are now trying to recover!
Prior to this cruise I was eager, if fearful, to try HAL just to see what it was like. I think I'll stick with Princess, although we may try RCI out of New Orleans at some point just for convenience. I've often wondered about people who were particular to just one ship, but given the chance to cruise on the Ruby again, I would certainly choose it over most of the other Princess ships.