The return of the 1,602-passenger Empress of the Seas to the Royal Caribbean fleet marks a break from the company's flashy, gigantic ships, and brings travelers back to a time when cruising was all about the sea. Those who are used to sailing Royal Caribbean's ships for the innovative amenities (skydiving simulators, ziplines, ice skating rinks and constant flow of activities) will likely be disappointed in Empress -- the smallest (and oldest) ship in the fleet. Empress is not a floating theme park, and in many ways doesn't feel like the modern Royal Caribbean line at all. Yet, many of Royal Caribbean's signature experiences, like "Quest" scavenger hunt, Viking Crown Lounge, Windjammer Cafe and the friendly, genuine crew members, are reminders that -- despite its small size -- Empress still wears the Royal Caribbean crown.
Empress of the Seas entered the Royal Caribbean fleet in 1990 under the name Nordic Empress (it changed its name to Empress of the Seas in 2004), but was transferred to Spanish cruise line Pullmantur Cruises in March 2008. (Both Royal Caribbean International and Pullmantur are owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd.) In 2015, Royal Caribbean announced that Empress would return to the fleet in spring 2016, following an extensive $50-million renovation. Its return didn't go entirely smoothly: several early cruises were canceled due to a longer than anticipated dry dock, passengers reported air-conditioning and other problems after launch and one voyage had to be rerouted due to technical issues with an engine.
By the end of July 2016, it seemed that many of the issues had been sorted out (the air-conditioning in particular, was running well), but the extremely sensitive plumbing was still a problem. During our cruise, a sewage stench was still noticeable in some areas, and on more than one occasion toilets stopped flushing (or got clogged up, resulting in unsavory messes).
Visually, the ship's revitalization is evident in some spaces more than others -- like the new Boleros -- a beautiful, Cuban-themed lounge with colorful decor and paintings of Cuban culture. The theme here hints at the company's future plans to bring Empress to the island. (We can only speculate that itineraries to Cuba would be lengthier and carry a higher price tag than the current discount cruise fares on four and five-night Caribbean cruises.)
Other parts of the ship still maintain elegance from the early days -- like the Royal Theatre that showcases white marble entranceways, crimson curtains and supper-club-style seating with individual tables. The smaller size of the ship makes it easy to navigate and passengers can quickly walk from one end to the other without worrying about being late for events. The lack of a need to "sign up" in advance for most onboard activities adds an element of spontaneity to the cruise.
While the start of meal times -- especially on the final day of the cruise -- can produce a wait in the restaurants and at the guest relations desk, overall, the ship is uncrowded and has an airy, sunlight-soaked atmosphere. Many secluded seating areas face floor-to-ceiling windows and the promenade on Deck 6 provides ocean views and even more peace and quiet. The pool area and sun deck has plenty of loungers and chairs so finding a nice place to curl up with a good book is not a concern on Empress. For many cruisers, it is a refreshing change to the busier, larger vessels.
Although there is still room for improvement, Empress delivers an affordable and relaxed cruise experience. The ship is ideal for first-time cruisers, budget travelers or simply those who enjoy a more intimate voyage where the crew treats you like family, instead of a cabin number.