Independence of the Seas Entertainment
As contemporary and innovative as the design and programming of Independence of the Seas is, its entertainment offerings are, by and large, very traditional. Daytime staples include bingo, art auctions, films, trivia contests, arts and crafts (scrapbooking is popular), wine tastings, dance classes, karaoke and the like.
Special interest groups (Mah-Jongg, bridge, Friends of Bill W., Friends of Dorothy) can post information on informal gatherings outside of the cruise sales' office on the Promenade. A shopping "expert" dispenses info on retailers -- who pay a fee to be featured -- in each port of call; you won't learn much about other places on your itinerary, unless you do your own research.
The Casino Royale features some 300 slot machines (ranging from one cent to $25) and a range of table games, such as blackjack and Texas Hold 'Em. Beyond simple gambling, there are occasional events and tournaments.
At night, musical offerings range from Latin dance music and "name that tune" cabaret-style experiences to disco and pop tunes at the pub. All of the bars get pretty busy, including Vintages, the wine bar; the pleasantly musty, nautically themed Schooner Bar; Bolero's, with its Latin music and dancing; the Vintages Champagne bar; and the top-of-the-ship Viking Crown Lounge.
The ship's Alhambra Theater, a two-deck-high Broadway-like performance space, is home to song and dance shows (three different varieties on our trip) and also hosts a celebrity performer (in our case, a singer from the band Foreigner).
Skating performances take place several times throughout each cruise, both during the day and at night, and these are a must-see! In the Caribbean, the same program is performed at each show; European sailings merit two different programs.
The skating shows are held in Studio B, where the performers must maneuver around a pocket-sized ice rink. Although you won't see any Olympics-worthy quad toe loops or triple axels (there simply isn't enough room for the skaters to get up the speed and height necessary), the performances are still great fun -- more than making up in creativity, spectacle and energy what they lack in technical difficulty.
A highlight of any ship with Royal Caribbean's Promenade is evening parties with the vibe of street festivals. On our trip, both Rock Britannia and the Madhatter's Ball Parade featured costumes, music, singing and dancing by performers. Especially darling was a parade, mid-voyage, of a group of young passengers from the ship's Adventure Ocean youth program, who sang as they marched along.
The late-night crowd has options too, including disco-dancing at the two-level Labyrinth, a comedy show, a "millionaire game show," the occasional "dancing under the stars" deck party and a once-per-cruise midnight buffet.
Royal Caribbean shore excursions primarily emphasize group activities; it has not significantly embraced the trend of offering opportunities for more personalized -- and more pricey -- in-port experiences. I loved the vast range of active tours; these, on a Caribbean voyage, include helmet dives, scuba, kayaking, Segway rides, snorkeling, cycling, horseback-riding and golf. Also offered are more run-of-the-mill tours that focus on the ports' historic and touristic sites. There are a handful of out-of-the-ordinary possibilities -- I was intrigued by a chance to ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles around St. Maarten and the tour of artist workshops on St. Martin -- but Royal Caribbean could still feature more varied tours.
On Labadee, the cruise line's private beach resort in Haiti, the line offers "tours" that are centered on tropical activities like parasailing, powerboat rides, aqua park play and zip-lining.
Independence of the Seas Public Rooms
The undisputed hub inside the ship is Independence of the Seas' Royal Promenade. Spanning three football fields in length, it's lined with a range of shops, casual eateries, bars and even a men's barbershop. It's also the site of numerous special events; particularly fun are the Adventure Ocean parades, with kids dressed up in costumes and chanting or singing as they pass by.
I love the way the shops are all clustered on the promenade. They're visually appealing, and it's enjoyable to stroll along and browse the special sale kiosks that are brought out during peak traffic days. Unfortunately, the merchandise in the onboard stores is rather banal. A jewelry boutique, for instance, sells major brand names that you can find in any port of call, and a perfume shop carries a limited range of the usual duty-free names. The logo boutique offers all manner of Royal Caribbean-branded T-shirts and magnets.
Interestingly, when it comes to duty-free pricing, tariffs were higher in the ship's shops than in places like St. Maarten. For instance, a Tag Heuer Aqua Racer watch was several hundred dollars more expensive onboard than in St. Maarten, and a Chanel lipstick that cost $27 in port was $32 on the ship. Royal Caribbean offers a refund-the-difference policy that requires passengers to get written price information from onshore vendors, but it's nothing more than empty lip service. Can you imagine how cooperative port retailers would be about writing down their prices so passengers can buy elsewhere?
A library on Deck 7, aft, has a limited selection, but kudos go to Royal Caribbean for lining it with unlocked shelves of books. The Internet Cafe is on Deck 8 (just above the library) and offers a dozen or so terminals, along with a printer. The standard rate for accessing the Internet, via the cafe or through Wi-Fi (which was located all over the ship and worked really well from my cabin) is 55 cents per minute. Packages are available that bring down the cost. Disappointing is the lack of information and support provided to passengers who want to use the Internet services.
A small chapel at the top of the ship (above Olive or Twist) is mostly used for onboard weddings. Even on our Good Friday week cruise, there was no minister aboard.
Independence of the Seas features a subterranean deck with meeting rooms that, when not holding group gatherings, also serve as spill-over spots for crafts and other activities. There's also a small cinema that plays the same movies you'd find on airplane in-flight entertainment systems.
Independence of the Seas Spa & Fitness
The ship's sun deck, which consists of three distinct pool areas, is magically colorful, full of energy and comfortable.
The center pool with its attendant whirlpools is party-central -- at least during the daytime. It's the site of lighthearted fun, pool contests and music on sea days.
You'll want to be a kid again if only to be able to frolic in the whimsically decorated children-only H20 Zone, a water park that incorporates small pools (some slightly deep, some shallow) and all sorts of fountains and water guns.
The Solarium is a pretty, though small, adults-only pool area that includes two whirlpools that are cantilevered out over the ship (great spots for watching the sun set), a bar that opens only on sea days and swinging benches.
None of the pools is equipped with a retractable roof that can be shut in case of inclement weather. And, despite warning signs, sun deck lounge chair hogs proliferated to the point of ridiculousness. (Rather than leaving towels, which cost $20 apiece to replace, people would just leave one shoe on a chair to reserve it.) Little was done to enforce the rules.
Bar none, the ship's fitness facility is among the best in cruising (as are those of Freedom and Liberty of the Seas, Indy's sister vessels). It's the first fitness area on a ship that really looks like a land-based health club. Circuit-training machines ring the walls of windows and include treadmills and stationary bikes. There's also an area for weight-lifting and a group of cycles for spinning (individually or in group classes).
The facility has a dedicated room for a variety of classes, such as yoga, aerobics, Pilates, group cycling and water aerobics. Other, less standard options include "combat in motion," a workout that combines Eastern martial arts with Western aerobic conditioning. The ship's boxing ring hosts boxing lessons and even some good-natured fights. Classes, by the way, are mostly for-charge, and it is recommended that passengers sign up in advance. (You will be charged if you're a no-show.)
The Walk for Wishes effort is a daily one-mile walk that's a result of a Royal Caribbean partnership with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the organization that grants children with life-threatening illnesses a wish-of-a-lifetime. Participants are each required to buy a T-shirt; proceeds go to the foundation.
Royal Caribbean's Shipshape Day Spa offers a comprehensive range of services, but ambience-wise, it possesses the charm and character of a big-city bus station. The salon, tucked off to one side, features hair-cutting and styling, manicures, pedicures and teeth-whitening. The spa offers pretty much the usual range of treatments: massage (Swedish, hot stone and couples are among the varieties), reflexology, facials and body wraps. Independence of the Seas also offers acupuncture treatments, a relatively new program for Royal Caribbean that was introduced in 2007 on Liberty of the Seas.
Therapists and beauticians were rather brusque and impersonal but did a competent job; in one case, when my pedicure chipped a day later, my request for a re-do was handled properly.
An interesting new program on some Royal Caribbean ships, including this one, is the teen-geared YSPA program. Kids ages 13 to 17 can book treatments, such as "acne attack" and "surfer scrub." More standard massages, facials, manicures and pedicures are also available, and YSPA extends to the gym, where there are teen-only fitness workouts.
If you are on a cruise that calls at Labadee, the island massage is a lovely treat; the spa sets up a mini outdoor area on a hill, away from the crowds. Plan to wear a bathing suit under your robe if you're choosing this option.
Keep an eye out for spa discounts. On my cruise, they were fairly common and weren't even limited to sea days. I checked each day's program for a heads-up on what was on sale and generally saved about 20 percent.
And a warning: Royal Caribbean's spas, like with most other cruise lines, are operated by the U.K.-based Steiner Leisure, which insists that its therapists wind up each session with a hard sell on its pricey Elemis brand products. Do not feel shy about firmly saying "thanks, but no thanks" if you are not interested. In fact, I highly recommend letting your therapist know this at the beginning of the treatment, thus avoiding a product pitch altogether.
Beyond the spa and fitness facility, Independence of the Seas has superb recreational facilities. These include the FlowRider, a surfing simulator only available on Freedom-class ships. At specially designated times, ShipShape staffers are on hand to assist passengers who want to give it a go; you must be at least 52 inches tall to use a boogie board and 58 inches to try stand-up surfing. The FlowRider is free; passengers can also book private lessons ($75 per person) and rent out the FlowRider ($350 per hour).
Independence of the Seas' rock-climbing wall, which hovers some 30 feet above the deck and 200 feet above the sea, can accommodate two climbers at a time. There's no fee to use it. Other recreational facilities include a full basketball court (also pressed into use for soccer games and dodge ball), a running track, mini-golf, a golf simulator and the ice rink. (Skate rentals are free of charge.)
When in port, ask the staff at the ShipShape gym for a free, self-guided running map.