In April 2013, the ship underwent a $7 million upgrade as part of Royal Caribbean's larger $300 million investment in its fleet. The new features included a cupcake shop, an Italian trattoria called Giovanni's Table and a Royal Babies & Tots Nursery. On the technology side, the ship got new digital signage, bow-to-stern Wi-Fi and a poolside movie screen.
The digital way finding systems are an excellent addition -- especially for new-to-cruisers who get lost on huge ships such as this. They offer maps and directions to everywhere on the ship using a board with a number keypad on which a passenger can enter their room number to find their way to their room. There are also features that display the menus for the ship's restaurants, lists of entertainment options and other onboard facilities. The large writing and quick responsive touch screen makes navigation around the ship so much easier than squinting at a laminated map.
"I thought we should take a Disney cruise," said a mom I met onboard Independence of the Seas. "But the kids wanted Royal Caribbean." It was an enlightening comment since her kids were 8 and 10, prime ages for Disney. Independence of the Seas, the third and final of Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships, may not have Mickey Mouse on tap, but there's so much offered for youngsters -- from kid-oriented entertainment and enrichment to recreational options that range from surfing and body boarding to ice skating -- that it's a superb choice for family travelers.
For all the emphasis on wholesome, family activities, as an adult without kids onboard, passengers will still find plenty of space for more mature pursuits. The fitness facility, complete with boxing ring, is excellent and always busy. Adults-only spots beyond bars and the casino ranged from the Solarium pool and boutique restaurants (which have a set age limit of 15) to a rather racy late-night comedy show. Travelers of many different stripes coexisted comfortably. (The ship even has outstanding facilities for disabled passengers.)
Another pleasant surprise is that the essentials of a good cruise experience, such as personal service and excellent food, were very much in place in spite of the size of the ship, which was at 100 percent occupancy on my trip. I didn't anticipate luxury cuisine or service, but quite pleasantly, my expectations were exceeded by consistently good meals in both for-fee eateries and the buffet venue, as well as very personal service.
Several crewmembers particularly stood out on my trip. One was a cabin stewardess who had served on numerous RCI ships and who had such a cheerful, positive and maternal disposition that she lifted my spirits with every encounter. Another was a bar waiter who pleasantly poured me a Diet Coke even though his bar wasn't yet open. The next day, as I filed into the Alhambra Theater with a couple thousand other passengers, the same waiter spotted me in the crowd and delivered a Diet Coke to my seat. I'd never even asked! You expect that kind of intuitive service on a small, luxury ship with just a few hundred passengers, but with 4,000-plus travelers onboard, that was genuinely a "wow" moment.
However, not everything is perfect on Independence of the Seas, and there's room for improvement in some areas. As a traveler who likes to connect with the ports I visit, I was disappointed with Royal Caribbean's lack of bond with any of the places on our itinerary -- at least via anything more than the banal shopping talks that highlight retailers who pay for the privilege. Sea days could feature a bit more substance in the lackluster enrichment department. (The chief workshop was advanced napkin folding.) The ship's vast sun deck, divided into three "neighborhoods," is colorful, whimsical and joyful -- but there's not enough effort to create events there after the sun sets.
Ultimately, Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas offers a wholesome cruise experience that deftly balances cruise traditions with contemporary innovations. The ship is best for cruise travelers interested in a low-key, ship-as-destination kind of vacation.