Our cruise on Navigator of the Seas, March 23-30, 2014 from Galveston, Texas, will likely forever be our most unusual experience in cruising. It’s one we will never forget. As best my research revealed, never has the port of Galveston been closed due to an oil spill. It was our eighteenth Royal Caribbean cruise since 2006, and our first cruise as Diamond Plus members. Let me preface my report by saying that, given the fact that Royal Caribbean was not at fault for what happened with the oil spill, they really delivered the WOW to us this week, taking care of us with refunds, future credits, and reimbursements for expenses. Given the situation, they did handle it “Royally”, and did everything they could to create a positive experience for us. For many, however, it was a rollercoaster of a week for all parties.
We live about nine hours from the port, so Galveston is a drivable port for us. The ports for our sailing were to have been Roatan, Belize, and Cozumel. We left home on Friday, visited with friends in Eastern Texas on Friday night, and drove on to Galveston, arriving Saturday at noon. Not long after arriving, we heard word that a 585-foot bulk carrier vessel, named Summer Wind, had struck a barge holding 160,000 gallons of heavy bunker oil. This happened near the Texas City dike where all ships must pass through to go to port in Houston or Galveston, the “Y” as they refer to it. As the evening progressed, we saw news report after report on television and on the internet that all of the oil was leaking out and that hundreds of people had been dispatched to try to lessen the environmental impact of the spill. We met with friends from Cruise Critic and had a lovely dinner and visit with our Cruise Critic friends.
On Sunday morning, we woke up and at 8:50 a.m. we have a notice from Royal Caribbean that we should not come to the port due to fog, which has been an issue several times since Navigator arrived in Galveston in February. We went to the front desk of the SpringHill Suites where we stayed, and asked for an extended checkout, and were told we had to be out by 1 p.m. or pay for another night.
At 11:50 a.m. Sunday, we had a text from RC stating that the US Coast Guard had closed all inbound and outbound vessel access to the Port of Galveston, and that aircraft had been dispatched to survey the extent of the oil spill (the tanker lost all of the oil it carried), and the impact that incoming and outgoing water traffic would have. Those currently on Navigator of the Seas were sitting outside the port area on the ship (along with legions of other ships), still, awaiting word from the Coast Guard. On the ship, those passengers reported being allowed back into their staterooms to wait. At airports in Houston, passengers were awaiting transfers to the Galveston area for transport to RC Navigator and Carnival Magic.
Cruise ships affected by the oil spill were: Caribbean Princess (which was to have sailed from Houston on Saturday), Navigator of the Seas (could not come into port, and we were waiting at port to board), Carnival Magic (couldn’t disembark or embark passengers), and on Monday, Carnival Triumph.
Late afternoon on Sunday, the Coast Guard allowed RC Navigator and Carnival Magic to sail into port. Passengers began disembarking as night fell on Galveston Island.
Most of us who belonged to our Cruise Critic roll call were contacting each other via Cruise Critic regarding updates (MOST helpful, as usual), and then we did have a combination of texts and phone calls from Royal Caribbean during the afternoon. Several people reported getting no texts nor phone calls, although those of who had completed all contact information got texts or calls or sometimes both.
As regards my husband and me, we had a choice at 1 p.m. of paying another night at our hotel, or just walking, riding, and sitting around Galveston for the afternoon which is what we did. Most hotels in the Galveston area were more accommodating than ours was. Most hotels allowed those who had stayed Saturday night to stay in their rooms until late afternoon, some as late as 5 p.m. until we had more news from RC. As the afternoon wore on, many passengers went ahead and paid for Sunday night in the off-chance that we would not sail. Because we were not afforded the late afternoon checkout at our hotel, we had a choice: Pay for Sunday night at 1 p.m. or leave, and we chose to leave after I found three other hotels, including the only other Marriott property in town, who allowed us to book a room and cancel it up to 6 p.m. We booked the Courtyard Marriott with 6 p.m. cancellation.
Around 4 p.m., we received notification from RC that Navigator and Magic were being allowed to come into port, but that it would take a while for them to disembark, and that we would be allowed to embark Sunday evening. We continued to “roam” around Galveston in our car, and just sit by the beach some, although no one could go in the water (was too cold and windy to be in the water anyway). Finally, around 8:30 p.m. Sunday, we drove by EZ Parking, where our car was to be parked for the week. My husband asked what time would we need to come back to leave our car and go to the terminal (no updates from RC since the afternoon telling us we would board later in the evening).
To our surprise, they said that they had already taken two buses over and that people got out and went in the terminal. So, we boarded the shuttle and went. I notified our Cruise Critic roll call that we were headed for the terminal. When we arrived, we checked our baggage immediately, and went inside the terminal and were seated, and at 8:41 p.m. when we were sitting there, we got a text and voice message from RC with staggered times suggested for arrival at the terminal, starting at 9:30 p.m. and that boarding would be complete by 12:30 a.m. Monday.
We were on the ship at 9 p.m., and in our room before 10 p.m. However, many of our shipmates, due to long lines, were not on the ship until 2 a.m. Many stood in lines, where it was cold and windy, for 3 hours. Many of them had a 1½ hour wait for a taxi from their hotels to the terminal, and some actually walked with their suitcases a mile or more to get to the terminal, after waiting that long for a cab.
On Monday, March 24, we still do not know when we will leave, but on the whole, activities and meals go on. We had our Cruise Critic Meet and Mingle at 11:30 with a good turnout, but it was too cool outside for many activities. Also, because we were in port, alcohol sales were limited to liquors produced in the US, and the casino and shops were closed. However, activities ensued, and we had our rooms for Sunday evening for sleeping. Bingo was held that day, but because we were in port, we could not pay for bingo cards nor receive cash prizes, SO, we played free and the prizes were Royal Caribbean bling.
We had a junior suite on Deck 9. We went ahead and booked specialty dining for the week. As Diamond Plus members (our first sailing as D+), we were allowed to use one of our BOGO coupons on Monday night at Giovanni’s Table, and use one Tuesday night at Sabor, the new modern Mexican restaurant found only on Navigator, and Chops on Thursday, a gift from our travel agent.
In the midst of our meal in Giovanni’s Monday night, Captain Martinsen came on the PA system and said that our cruise had been cancelled. You could have heard a pin drop in the restaurant, and it was very quiet afterward. He did say we would receive a complete refund of our trip, and that we could stay on the ship for the rest of the week, using it as our hotel and dining, and that we would be allowed ashore to come and go and visit area attractions, etc. Regardless of whether we chose to stay or to leave the ship for good, we are scheduled to receive the following: $20 each for food purchased on Sunday afternoon, a complete refund of our cruise fare for the sailing, a 25% discount toward a booking (new or existing) that sails within the next year.
That really did help our mood, and we decided to stay until at least Friday. We are positive folks, and just thought, hey, it’s a free week in a good place with good food, even if we never sailed.
On Tuesday, people began leaving the ship and heading home, or disembarking to go to town to shop or to see local attractions. The people who had the hardest time at that point were families with children onboard. They had planned on a traditional cruise vacation, with three ports, and a wide variety of activities in warm waters. After Sunday, the pools and hot tubs were closed, due to the way the ship handles removal and recycling of water. For kids that meant no pools, no flowrider, and so forth. We hated seeing so many disappointed children. There were almost 800 children on our sailing, as this week was Spring break for Arkansas, Oklahoma and other neighboring states. We also felt bad for the family of 50 who were onboard for a wedding to happen in Roatan, where we didn’t port.
Also on Tuesday we were told that no photos taken could be processed or sold. We each get one free picture because of Crown and Anchor status, so it as disappointing that even though ours were free, the pictures could not be developed.
Tuesday afternoon was especially a hard time, because our sailing had been cancelled, and Carnival Magic had not cancelled theirs, and on Tuesday afternoon, the Coast Guard and port authorities decided ships could sail out. So we watched Carnival Magic and later that evening Carnival Triumph sail out of the harbor.
Still, we were determined to make lemonade out of lemons, and had a great lunch onboard, and headed to the ice show, which was wonderful, at 4 p.m. In the middle of the ice show, Captain came on the PA system, and we learned that we WERE going to sail on Wednesday morning, and that on Friday we would port in Cozumel as scheduled. After the Captain said, “we are sailing tomorrow morning” the cheering was so loud we couldn’t hear, and finally the skaters STOPPED skating, and then we heard, “and you are still getting your refund!” and cheering ensued again. The ice show continued and I videotaped the Cruise Director Mitch coming out at the end, and the cheering that started again.
We were told that approximately 400 passengers left the ship and did not return. Using the numbers we were given by ship’s officers, we estimate we sailed with 2,700 passengers. We spoke with some college students who left the ship on Tuesday and were three hours away from Galveston when the text came saying that we were sailing on Wednesday morning, along with the information that we would still get all refunds and credits promised.
We could not leave until Wednesday morning because many had left the ship on Tuesday for the day, and wouldn’t be back until evening, and also it gave anyone in the area a chance to return if they wanted to sail the four day/four night abbreviated cruise. Regardless if a passenger stayed or left, the compensation was the same.
So, on Wednesday, our cruise became more of a normal cruise experience. As we prepared to sail out, as each line was removed untethering us from the pier, there was cheering! Soon we were heading out. Pools reopened, all shops and casinos opened, pictures were printed and sold, and there was a full complement of all types of alcohol available. The day was a bit cool and windy, but it was a good day.
That evening we went to the “Welcome back party” that RC Crown and Anchor has for all folks who have cruised on RC before. The one thing that had not been addressed at that point, and many people were asking about was: What about our cruise points? We were sailing free for the week, receiving a refund of cruise fare, so would we get our cruise points? Reba, the Loyalty Ambassador, came out on the stage and the first thing she said was “We have had a question, and I have an answer. Many have been asking about your cruise points. You WILL RECEIVE all points to which you are entitled this week!” Cheering ensued. We had run into several people who were three points shy of being Diamond, etc., so that meant a lot to Crown and Anchor members. For us, it means we get our second milestone block (210 points) on our Oasis Transatlantic back to Fort Lauderdale this fall, and the refund of our cruise fare was enough to pay off that cruise! Again, happy campers.
Thursday was a beautiful day at sea, warmer, and spirits were good. People enjoying their cruise. At this point, there is little “grumbling” going on. Overall, what was there to grumble about? Our Cruise Critic group had out slot pull on Thursday, which we had cancelled from Tuesday, as the casino was not open. We had a good time, although we could not reach all of our group to tell them we rescheduled, and some of them were part of the group that left the ship on Tuesday.
On Friday, we ported in Cozumel at 7 a.m. Alongside us, was Allure of the Seas, along with two Carnival ships, and two Norwegian ships, one of them being Norwegian Epic. There were over 22,000 passengers in port that day, the heaviest passenger day in Cozumel, but our passengers appeared to have been able to have re-booked all their excursions and everything went well. We chose to meet up with our adopted “son”, Dexter, who is a Concierge on Allure. We took him to lunch with us and just for a laid-back lunch in the very warm Caribbean sun.
Saturday was an uneventful sea day. It was warm enough, but windy. Folks were having a great time. All of the usual shows and events went on, just as they did most of the week. Being new Diamond Plus members, we got to go on some of the “behind the scenes” tours. We went on the bridge tour, which was very interesting, and also Sous Chef Douglas from Scotland, spent an hour with us touring the galleys, kitchen prep areas, and the like. Very interesting to see how they made it all happen.
On Sunday, debarkation was quick, and moved well. However, the issue again of an inadequate number of taxis, along with the rudeness of some taxi drivers who drove off when fares were “in town” deliveries, caused some of our Cruise Critic members to wait over an hour for a cab back to their hotel. I understand Galveston is a small town, however, to make things easier for passengers, a method of transport on Sundays needs to be investigated and implemented. Also, customs did not seem confident of their processing of taxable/duty items purchased. We left quickly, and EZ Parking’s shuttle was waiting for us and departure was swift.
As far as dining and housekeeping, the staff was amazing and friendly. Our dining staff especially, who were less rushed, and the food was good in the Main Dining room. We ate there three nights, and most every day at noon, since we really only had the one true “port” day where lunch was not served in the MDR. Our stateroom attendant, Robert, was amazing. He went above and beyond to track down our missing D+ Crown and Anchor gift. I think he was more concerned about it than we were.
We ate at Giovanni’s table on Monday night. The food was good and so was the service. The mood became somber with the announcement, mid-meal, of the cancellation of the cruise, but again, we were still “making lemonade” and decided to stay on until at least Friday.
On Tuesday night we ate at Sabor Modern Mexican restaurant. Sabor was probably the biggest surprise of our dining experiences. It was superb. Guacamole was fresh made at our table, and the food was awesome, including the Red Snapper my husband had to the Garlic-Jalapeno Sauteed Shrimp I had. Our dessert was a tray of delicacies, from flan to crème brulee, to many other specialties with dipping sauce. You should go there very hungry.
On Thursday night, we ate at Chops Grille. We had a free coupon from our travel agent for both of us, which was good, especially since on Navigator, they have upped the price to $35 each. The revitalized Navigator has been in Galveston less than two months, and they have made menu changes twice. With the first change, they removed all but the smaller steaks from the menu in there, and charged a fee for the larger steaks that used to be covered in the $30 fee (prior price). So they raised the price, and reduced the choices. They had also removed the baked potato from the menu, and honestly had tater tot casserole on the menu.
When we went to Chops last week, they had the “NEW NEW” menu. The menu has changed twice now since the revitalization. Price was still $35 each, but there were two great choices of 12-ounce steaks and the baked potato was back (but the tater tot casserole was still a choice as well). We did have an appetizer that was really great, but the name isn’t descriptive of what it is—Grilled Black Pepper Bacon. It was a piece of Berkshire pork, slow cooked, with a sweet/spicy glaze. It melted in your mouth.
It was still very odd to me, however, that the priciest specialty restaurant on the ship does NOT have tablecloths anymore. Cloth napkins, of course, and they were white napkins, and I had on black slacks, and our waiter was insistent that I have a black napkin so my slacks wouldn’t have lint. I just thought that part was interesting…to worry about the color of napkin when you don’t have a tablecloth.
We were also afforded a trial run of handling the Diamond and Concierge lounges and the“happy hour.” We had three drink coupons loaded on our SeaPass cards each day (not cumulative), and we could go to most any bar, AND we could still go to the Diamond or Concierge Lounge. It wasn’t an "either or" situation, it was a BOTH situation. We like it and can see the advantage in it.
The Loyalty Ambassador’s area had Reba and an assistant working. They were very busy later in the week, probably fueled by the newfound wealth folks had from getting a complete reimbursement of their cruise and the percentage off another cruise. Suggestion: Sign up for a date/time with the Loyalty Ambassador early in the week if you plan to book onboard.
I did feel for the people as regards reimbursement on Carnival Magic. They left on Tuesday afternoon (5 days sailing), and two ports, Grand Cayman and Cozumel. They will be refunded 2 days of their seven, and get a 25% future cruise certificate. They received no reimbursement for meals or Sunday night’s hotel.
Caribbean Princess, originally to set sail from Houston on Saturday, sailed on Tuesday afternoon with one stop, Cozumel, and after a flurry of 100% refund offers that apparently was rescinded on Tuesday, then were reinstated to the complete refund originally offered, so I'm guessing Princess passengers were pretty happy.
Royal Caribbean got us on board Sunday evening, so we had seven nights on board, they paid for our meal on Sunday missed, 100% refund of cruise price, 25% on a future cruise, missed port taxes were refunded, and we got our cruise points.
Seriously, however, if Galveston/Houston area wishes to grow as ports for cruises, the issue with taxis needs to be examined. Sunday, there was just the usual cruise passenger traffic in Galveston, and there were not enough cabs/transfers for people. Some people waited 1.5 hours for a cab, and dealt with unkind, rude drivers.
All in all, albeit a rollercoaster of a week, with everything from we are delayed leaving, to we are cancelled, to we are going again, it was an interesting week. Royal Caribbean, especially since none of this was their fault, definitely stepped up to the plate, offered us amazing compensation for our delays, and we had seven days of good food, fellowship, activities, and performances. It was free for the week, and our money will be refunded. Given the situation, who could ask for more? Not us. We were very happy, and will return to Galveston in May for another sailing on Navigator.
The revitalization of Navigator is evident all around the ship. New tile floors in the promenade, new chairs and colors and even draperies in rooms. They did a great job in the refurb. Main downside in the stateroom was the tiniest safe I have ever seen in a room! Throughout the ship were bright colors, new carpet and furnishings, and everything looked very clean. This was our third sail on Navigator, the other two being before the drydock, so the changes were evident to us. We also noticed that both the concierge lounge and the diamond lounge had received facelifts, and new latté machines as well.
Finally, how could any cruise line do anymore for a group of passengers than Royal Caribbean did for us? The answer: They couldn’t. The oil spill was beyond their control. I thank our Captain Frank Martinsen, his officers, and the entire staff for delivering the WOW in a difficult situation.