We were quite apprehensive booking a cruise: our usual mode of travel is to pack light, head to Europe, rent a car and see where the wind takes us. For several years we've listened to (dedicated cruiser) friends talk about how much they love it, but we always felt it probably wouldn't be for us. How wrong we were!
When holiday plans in the Yucatan with other friends fell through last July, we went back to the drawing board. We considered everything under the sun - a cold-weather city break in Europe, eco-lodging in Costa Rica or Panama, a quick zip across the Pacific to Hong Kong or Singapore, or South Africa. And the cruise. Putting all the pieces together, the cruise just made the most sense at the time, and more than once we said to one another and to our friends, "well, if we don't like it, we can survive anything for a week, and the weather's practically guaranteed to be good." Amex in hand, we booked it. Went for Aqua Class on the advice of the travel agent at American Express (who, when she learned this was our first cruise, said, "You're setting the bar awfully high") and we were glad we did.
Flew down to Miami a full day in advance, cashed some points and bunked into the Conrad. Rental car from the downtown Hertz location, and we took off exploring Miami for a day and a half. Two quick plugs -- had lunch at the Segafredo cafe at Bal Harbor Shops (we always seek out Segafredo cafes in Europe, and this one didn't disappoint), and dinner at Jaguar in Coconut Grove. Both were great. Breakfast at the Conrad in the morning, then an hour walk on the beach, return car, and off we go on the grand adventure.
Relatively quick check in (about 1:30 pm - could have gone earlier, we now know), and met the couple in line in front of us. They made the vacation! We ended up having dinner together twice on board, in San Juan on that shore day, and hanging by the pool as well. Attended the Connections event and met another great couple and a family of four - we became a little group throughout the cruise. And it was a great time.
The dining in Blu made a big difference we think. The food was good, but the atmosphere really made it. Only figured out that they served breakfast on day 4, so missed that the first half of the cruise. Did specialty dining in Tuscan Grille and Murano. Both were good - not spectacular, but definitely passble. the night we ate in Murano, there was a loud band playing in the bar outside, and the music clashed notably with the background music being played in the restaurant. It detracted from the experience, but wasn't a total killer to the experience. Great wine list at Murano, BTW.
Also enjoyed the Aqua Spa cafe. Nice healthy alternatives. I actually lost weight on the cruise!
Did our own thing on the port days. Nothing pre-planned. We think we missed something in Sint Maarten/Saint Martin. it was fine, but not the destination we expected. Really glad we went to St. John on the St. Thomas stop. it was beautiful.
There was a real rush for the chairs at the pool -- descending into what I dubbed "Chairgate" when one woman sought the intervention of three personnel. A very loud argument ensued - which made many people uncomfortable. One morning I arose before 6 am -- and was able to get the last of the beds for two by the pool, and a few chairs for the rest of our crew. Also, the poolside crew didn't enforce the adult pool occupancy rules - and when pressed on the topic, said that it was because of the number of children on the vessel. While we love children, it would have been nice to have had the rules enforced. We wanted to use the spa, but essentially couldn't because it was occupied by groups of young people who occupied it from 10 am and didn't get out til the end of the day.
The entertainment was decent -- a bit on the cheesy side, and as we seemed to be at the end of a contract period, some of the singers were exhibiting audible vocal fatigue. Also, found it quite odd that the string trio would be playing selections from the movie Titanic -- or is that some inside joke that I'm not in on?
FInal analysis: I've never been more relaxed in my life. We've booked a short 5-day'er at the beginning of April - not S class ship, so we'll be in C1, (or is it C3 -- highest Concierge Class) and we'll be looking forward to trying cruising without the benefits of AQ. Will be interesting to see how the impact of Blu, etc, will be on our experience. But we're hooked. See you on the seas!