This was our first Royal Caribbean cruise after 3 cruises with Carnival and 2 with Norwegian prior to that. After cruising with all the big 3 companies, I still don't have a clear favorite. Price will continue to dictate my ... Read More
This was our first Royal Caribbean cruise after 3 cruises with Carnival and 2 with Norwegian prior to that. After cruising with all the big 3 companies, I still don't have a clear favorite. Price will continue to dictate my selection. We found a great deal on Royal so we decided to try something new. Overall I would say that the entertainment was classier than Carnival and Norwegian, the food was not as good, the public areas of the ship were better, the cabin was smaller, and the service was similar.
Embarkation - Flew into San Juan on the same day as the cruise on Southwest arriving on time at 12:30 pm. We read that the public bus doesn't allow luggage but might allow luggage from the airport to the transfer station in Isla Verde. We knew there was a Walgreens and Pueblo within walking distance so the plan was to get a few things and then take a taxi from there. We just missed the bus and after waiting for 30 minutes in the hot sun for the next one, we asked a taxi driver who was dropping someone off how much it would cost to get to Pan American Pier with a stop at Walgreens. She said she wouldn't charge for a quick stop and gave the going rate of $23 (plus $2 a bag). She wasn't supposed to pick us up there (both her and us were to get in line at the taxi station on the level below), but she agreed to at my urging. We were quick at Walgreens but still had to wait on a slow line at the cashier and I got the impression the taxi driver wasn't real happy about it. I gave her a tip and she was fine. When the taxi dropped us off at the pier at about 2:00 I noticed one of the baggage handlers was allowing the people dropped off ahead of us to bypass the line. I followed their lead and dropped off our 1 checked bag and skipped a long line waiting to check bags. The line for security was pretty short and when we got inside, the Royal attendant told us to go to the Gold line because the regular queue was full. I would say we waited in line a total of about 15 minutes prior to check in. We boarded with one carry on and headed to the Windjammer buffet. It was rather warm in the Windjammer (especially the window seats) and the food was a step down from Carnival. This trend continued during the week, although the food did get a little better. Our checked bag showed up about 6 pm, making us a little late for dinner.
Dining - We used My Time Dining and typically ate around 6:00 pm (5:45 on port days and 6:30 on the day at sea). Royal managed to get us the same table (for 2) and servers every night despite our changing schedule. The table for 2 is kind of a joke as there is literally 6 inches between the tables. It was okay as we were able to have some light conversation with nearby couples while still having some time to ourselves. The faces changed with our schedule, but that kept things interesting without feeling like we had to be entertaining new friends that we may have had nothing in common with. I still prefer our last couple Carnival cruises where we managed to have a booth to ourselves.
As another passenger who was doing back to back put it "the food gets better as the week goes on"! Good thing because after the first couple nights I felt like the only way we would get a good meal was to pay extra for one of the specialty options. I hate that Royal puts a second menu in front of you that says for just $17 a person you can get a really great meal! I know this is a trend in cruising but I still hate it. I always liked the all-inclusive nature of the food on cruise ships and now it seems like you get the leftovers if you are cheap like me. On formal night, I added a tie to my dress shirt but I never take a suit coat. My wife wore a more formal dress. As with previous cruises, I found myself somewhere in the middle of attire. We actually forgot it was formal night the second time and my business casual attire was still not out of line as the guy next to me had shorts on. I know some of you get worked up about this. Personally I don't see why anyone wants to pack a suit and formal shoes.
While I'm thinking of it, Royal has nothing to compare with Guy's Burgers. We REALLY missed Guy's free, delicious, made to order burgers and fries! I have no interest in paying $7 per person for Johnny Rockets. Fortunately we were in port almost every day during lunch. The pizza was no comparison to Carnival's made to order option. Also, the deserts on Royal couldn't touch the deserts on Carnival! We were disappointed with desert virtually every night. Warm Chocolate Melting Cake and Bread Pudding on Carnival will remain our favorites by far!
Speaking of deserts, the Cafe Promenade was a JOKE! The first night I noticed the woman in front of me gave up waiting for anyone to serve her one of the free snacks. They were much too busy handling paying customers buying premier drinks and ice cream. I thought I was more patient than her but after another 5 minutes with no help, I finally gave up too. The next night we managed to track someone down and sampled the inedible zeppole and a chocolate chip cookie that would break your teeth. Later in the week we found better cookies but nothing you would crave. I'm convinced that cruise lines have figured out that they can't afford to create really good snacks because the demand would be too great. I did enjoy the ice cream but unlike Carnival, it was not help yourself and therefore only available from like 2 to 6 pm. Proving my prior statement about keeping up with demand, they also managed to run out of chocolate or vanilla almost every night.
Entertainment - We loved the Ice Show. Pretty amazing to see a cast of 8 professional skaters on a relatively small rink. We went to the 4 pm show on the first full day and the late show on Day 5. We knew they would be the same but we enjoyed it enough to see it twice. We also loved "Two Funny Guys" and "MO5AIC". The Royal singers and dancers were not that great but we appreciated that they had more clothes on than on Carnival or Norwegian. In fact, we were pleased that all the entertainment was family friendly except the late night comedy on the last night. Carl Banks was not only crude, he wasn't funny. You know you are in trouble when the comedian has no material and starts his show trying to find something funny sitting in the first row! The Love and Marriage show was also adult only, but it was funny! My wife DOUBLED the ship record in the keychain catch in the Minute to Win It competition but we didn't find much to write about in the Imperial Lounge entertainment. It paled in comparison to the Comedy Club feature on Carnival.
Ship - With some minor exceptions, I didn't think the ship looked tired like others have said. We really liked the ice rink and skated twice. My wife also enjoyed the challenging rock wall. We found windy, but very private sunbathing at the top front of the ship. We both attempted the mini golf competition (I won) and the free throw competition and rollerblading (I twisted my ankle pretty good, so I don't recommend you do anything that might injure you on the ship). I tried the solarium pool (not too crowded) and climbed in a hot tub only to realize I had more sunburn that I thought! The promenade was a big improvement (at least aesthetically) over the general areas on Carnival and Norwegian. We were not constantly hounded to buy something (like a photo or a drink) like it seemed on Carnival. The movie theater sounded like something we'd enjoy and many times we liked the movie that was on, but it always seemed to conflict with another show and we figured we could rent a movie anytime at home. We loved the view from the front of the ship on the helipad and the peek a boo bridge! Carnival had nothing like this.
Cabin - The cabins are small on this ship. We had an interior interior room (yes I meant to say it twice). Look at the floor plan for 8451 and you'll see what I mean! With the beds pushed together neither of us could easily walk around to the side of the bed and we typically crawled in and out from the foot of the bed. Not a problem until you twist your ankle! The shower was even smaller than other cruise ships (I never thought that was possible! The sliding door was an improvement over a shower curtain, but I had to open the door and shut off the shower to clean my legs. The TV's have been upgraded to about a 32 inch HDTV but most of the programming was not HD and only a few channels in English. I was surprised that the sports bar only had the same 2 sports channels available in your room. I couldn't watch the NBA playoffs anywhere when they were on TNT. We had to ask for ice in the room and I should have asked for a bigger glass. Storage space also was less than Carnival, but the closet was better organized for storage. The room was very quiet as the hall was not a pass through to anywhere. Also, you can control the volume of the announcements. On some Carnival ships we were awakened every morning by a very loud cruise director. I'm not sure if they made many announcements as we had ours turned down completely. In fact, we slept to 9:30 the first morning.
Ports - We did our own excursions, which basically consisted of me researching the cheapest way to get to the best beach!
Barbados - We walked to the "The Boatyard" and laying the towel in the sand right next to folks who paid the entry fee to get a chair and umbrella. We walked with another couple we found along the way. I didn't feel it was unsafe but it did take about 30 minutes and probably not for everyone. We later walked down the beach to where the public facilities were and swam out to where the turtles and excursion boats were. We had snorkels and but no fins or life vest. We are not great swimmers and we both panicked a little when we had to try and clean our mask or snorkel while treading water, but we always calmed ourselves by rolling on to our backs and floating. I don't recommend this, but we did eventually find turtles and that made it worthwhile. We left an inflatable raft on shore and that would have helped as would have fins or a life vest. When we got back to the port, we waited about 5 to 10 minutes for our phones to get a WiFi connection. Our Republic Wireless phones can use WiFi to call, so we were able to call home.
St. Lucia - We intended to walk to the city bus station and take the bus to Rodney Bay Mall and walk to Reduit Beach. We walked past very aggressive taxi drivers (a common theme in every port except St. Maarten). I told them we were headed to town which is so close it was hard for them to argue with us. One taxi driver actually told the others we were lying and we were headed to the beach (seeing our suits and towels). We weren't sure where the bus station was so we asked a police officer. She pointed us to a bus stop and after the first bus showed up full I recalled that someone on Cruise Critic mentioned that the buses leave from town only when they are full. Realizing we had walked a couple blocks away from downtown and closer to Viggie Beach we decided to just walk to Viggie which was in view from our location. A taxi stopped and asked us if we wanted a ride and when I told him we were headed to Viggie he said "too far to walk". Viggie was always our backup and I knew we had to walk around the airport but I must admit it was further than I thought. There was no real sidewalk between the airport fence and the very busy highway so we walked in the grass. There was a sidewalk on the other side, but that involved crossing busy traffic, so we stayed in the grass.
After about 30 minutes we reached Viggie. There's a public access road and parking right next to Rendezvous Beach and directly across from the end of the airport runway. Immediately a local came up and promptly made a grasshopper out of a coconut leaf. Pretty cool and very friendly until we didn't want to buy one of his birdhouses. He walked away pretty quickly. We laid our towels near Rendezvous. There were some locals who made us a little nervous, but we were never far from the security at Rendezvous. The water had mostly a sand bottom but occasionally there were some big hard rocks to avoid. Waves were fairly mild but the water was not coral blue. Nice, but the other ports had nicer beaches. We knew that, but we didn't want to spend $100 each for a stinky volcano tour (we have been to the volcano in Hawaii). Wifi was $6 a day.
Antigua - We walked into town to the bus station. The sidewalks were crazy. There were no tourists in site! We tredged forward in spite of that and asked for the bus to Valley Church Beach. The locals were not particularly helpful, but also not rude. Eventually someone pointed us to the right bus and we waited until it was full. The ride was an adventure. The roads were very narrow and poor and there was no courtesy among drivers. The houses were mostly shacks. The cows looked very hungry (end of the dry season) and were on leashes. We second guessed our decision, especially when a postal worker got on the bus and told someone they should take the taxi to the beach not the bus. Seemed like it was directed at us. We were dropped off at the entrance to the drive to the beach and paid $1.50 each for the 25 minute ride. A short walk revealed a beautiful beach that made it all worth it! The water was postcard blue with sailboats, jet skis, and powder white sand. We could have stayed there for a week. Another couple from the UK actually told us they had been there a week and were checking out the various beaches and liked nearby Darkwood Beach even better. Hard to imagine there was anything better than this! We ended up renting a Jet Ski for $40 for 30 minutes. We didn't check the time and it was probably less than 30 minutes, but we had a blast! We walked out to the end of the drive and immediately a bus arrived and picked us up. This time the bus was nearly empty so I didn't feel like we were taking up a locals seat. A sales associate at the Tanzanite International store gave us their WiFi password. Antigua was our favorite port!
St. Maarten - We took the water taxi from the ship $7 all-day (roundtrip) per person. We planned to walk but with my sprained ankle this was no longer a good option. We did walk to the bus (just a couple short blocks North of the shops on Front Street). We were headed to Maho to see the planes coming and going at the airport. The bus was clearly marked Maho. We were dropped off at the bus stop just past the airport and right across from the beach. Our timing was great (about 11:30) as within about 15 minutes the Dutch Airways 747 (just like the one on YouTube) was ready to take off. We stood off to the side hoping to catch video of the crazy people hanging on the fence. We quickly realized we were on the wrong side (West) as the jet engines roared to power and we got pelted with pebbles, sand, and various debris. We never saw the plane leave as we had to turn away to protect our faces, eyes, and camera! We stayed another hour and saw 3 jumbo jets land in that time. Worth saying we did it, but we quickly headed back to the bus to get to the quieter, less crowded, and nearly wave free Great Bay beach in Phillipsburg. With a sand bottom and coral blue water, we loved the beach and saw no problem with pollution like I read online (I think this is only true right after a big storm due to runoff). We were offered 2 chairs and an umbrella for $10 which was a deal (perhaps because we were the only ship in town and it was about 2 pm), but my wife prefers the sand and sun and I like the water. We stopped by McDonalds and bought a Coke to get the WiFi password.
Disembarkation - We kept our bags with us and carried them off after breakfast. We have always done this and it usually works well. We did get off later than we normally do (about 9:30). We weren't sure why the line to get off was not moving. We stood for about 15 minutes before it started to move and when we got to customs it was clear where the bottleneck was. They had just 4 or 5 customs agents handling the hundreds (actually thousands) of guests. We waited probably 30-45 minutes to get through. When we got outside I tried to call Charlie's Rental Car to pick us up but our phones would not make a local call in San Juan (considered international). The guy at the taxi information booth let me use his phone and translated for me. Charlie's arrived in about 10 minutes and took us to their location. No problems and they explained the toll roads and gave me directions to the El Yungue Rainforest. We had a 4 pm flight home so we quickly made our way to the rainforest. The traffic was heavy on Saturday on Rt. 3 (lots of retail shopping, similar to the US, leading to lots of stoplights). We only had about 45 minutes to drive around the rainforest so we saw what we could and headed back to the airport about 12:30 realizing we had a lot of traffic to get through. We dropped the car off at Charlie's Isla Verde location and after grabbing some fast food and walking out to see the beach we took the shuttle to the airport. No line for FDA inspection and short line for TSA (though they weren't very efficient).
Overall we had a great vacation, really good cruise, and great ports! Because we took advantage of many of the shows and activities it was almost too busy and we could have used a day at sea on the way back! Read Less