Let me preface this review with the fact that I was a travel agent for 18 years prior to 9/11 but this was only my second cruise. I'm aware of the different types of travelers and what was important or unimportant to me might be different for you.
I decided that staying home for the normal holiday family drama was not in the cards for me and decided to book a vacation that would be relaxing and didn't involve much stress. A cruise was the perfect choice. I waited until 3 weeks prior to departure to book and still got a good fare and was even upgraded.
These cruises are an amazing feat of timing and organization. 2000 guest and 900 staff have to be fed and entertained. I was impressed with the positive and friendly attitudes of all of the staff. It really is amazing considering the sheer volume of humans that roll through a ship week end and week out.
Our cabin 4247 was a typical cruise ship cabin. Everything is tiny, but it was adequate. You can stow 4 full-size suitcases under the beds and we managed to unpack all of our clothes in the closet and drawers provided. If you care nothing about the room other than a place to sleep, book a cheap cabin and spend your money on excursions. If you like to spend private time alone, book a stateroom with a balcony. If there are more than 2 of you, it's cramped. I shared a room with my 18 year old son and it was easier than I thought it would be. We really were only in the cabin at the same time to sleep.
I enjoyed "Freestyle Cruising" and the choice of restaurants. It was nice to be able to go to the 7 Seas or 4 Seasons for a sit-down dinner without a reservation and whenever I felt hungry. It was also nice to get my new-found friends together for dinner and not be stuck with assigned dining companions.
Cruise ship food is what it is. They are cooking for 2000 people, 3000 if you include the staff. They are also trying to accommodate a multitude of palettes. There was typical American fare as well as a selection of Indian cuisine on the buffet and the salad bar had a great selection. Hamburgers and hotdogs could be found everyday at the buffet as well as freshly grilled on the pool deck in the afternoons.
There is an icecream bar in the main buffet as well as soft serve in the aft buffet. That seemed to be a hit with everyone as there was nearly always a line.
The 7 Seas main dining room is on the 5th deck aft and the food and staff seemed more accommodating than it's sister MDR, 4 Seasons, which is on the same deck mid-ship. We also ate at the French restaurant, Le Bistro, one night (dress up night) and the service was fantastic. Although the table next to us brought an over-tired toddler to a 9PM dinner and she cried which spoiled the atmosphere. (Don't bring your baby to a French bistro at 9PM!)
The White Party: I don't know if it's like this on every cruise, but the first hour is open to everyone including children. The dance floor was a mosh pit of pre-teens. They had to leave after an hour, but then it was 18-22 year olds who were basically standing there not dancing, so no one else could dance either except of the edges of the dance floor. I had heard this party was on the pool deck, but on our cruise it was at Dazzles and really too small a venue to hold everyone.
Smoking: If you smoke you are limited to very few places. The Promenade deck and port sides of the pool deck and deck 12. No smoking in any of the restaurants or bars and there is no cigar bar. You can also smoke in the casino. As of January 2012, no smoking in your cabin unless you have a balcony.
Casino: Total snooze fest!
Shore excursions: Keep in mind that you will not see very much of your destination ports on a cruise. You will see port shopping at port prices. The cruise line does not force you to purchase their excursions, but they do make you fear booking with other vendors. If you book with them and are late returning they will hold the boat, if you book elsewhere they say they will leave you if you are late. You also pay 30-50% more booking through the excursion desk and they are reluctant to refund money if the excursion was a disaster. If you book on your own and pay by credit card, you'll have a better chance of getting your money back if the experience was terrible.
My best advice is to check with the concierge desks of local high-end resorts for recommendations. It might cost you a phone call, but you'll save money in the end. Many islands have large tour operators who can offer all of the same adventures. The internet is also your friend and reading reviews is helpful.
Cocktails, beer, and wine: I found the prices to be comparative to US restaurants. A glass of wine with dinner $15, martini $14, drink of the day $8. If you like wine I believe you can bring it aboard but must pay corkage of $10. It is still cheaper to pay corkage than double the price of a bottle of wine which is what all restaurants do including cruise restaurants. They will tag your bottle and it goes to a cellar and will be available to you no matter what dining room you are eating in.
Tips and Tricks: Water, tea, coffee and milk are the only free drinks. At breakfast there is OJ, cranberry and apple juice but they turn that off after breakfast. If you like juice or soda, buy the softdrink pass for $70 per person, OR you can bring your own. You are allowed to bring aboard cases of water or sodas with your luggage. A large bottle of water on board is $7. This really only works if you are driving to your port.
The number one piece of advice I can give to anyone traveling whether on a cruise or otherwise is relax and smile. Your attitude will be reflected back to you. Kindness and respect is the international currency. If one thing goes badly, take a deep breath and wait for it to pass. If you meet new people who are constantly complaining that everything is awful, avoid them. Attitudes are contagious.
Bottom line, we had a great time, made new friends, saw new places and would go back again.