After hearing for several years about what an outstanding cruise line Royal Caribbean is, we decided to cruise on the AOS to the Southern Caribbean on 3/29/09. Except for our suite and the outstanding service by DeDe, our Concierge and Karane, our suite attendant, our head waiter and waiter (I'm sorry, I didn't get their names), we were very disappointed. The staff on the ship truly was all exceptional. That's where the good ends.
We have cruised on the Grand Princess (once to the Eastern Caribbean and once to the Mexican Riviera) and on Orient (no longer in business) to the Mediterranean. Our first Princess cruise to the Eastern Caribbean was exceptional in every way from the mini-suite, to the 24-hour butler service, to the buffet, to the dining room, to the activities. I think we were spoiled because everything was so great. Our next cruise on Princess to the Mexican Riviera was the complete opposite. Our trip to the Mediterranean on Orient was terrible, except the beautiful ports in Italy and Greece made up for everything. So, it was with great excitement that we looked forward to sailing on the AOS and seeing two more islands in the Caribbean which we had not been to...Aruba and Curaçao.
Our trip began when we landed in San Juan on 3/27. We stayed at LeConsulat in Condado, which is advertised on TripAdvisor as a Clarion hotel, but no longer is. It was in a nice neighborhood, and within walking distance of the larger hotels, restaurants, the beach, and of course, Walgreen's and Starbucks.
Our first day out we walked around, went to the Marriott for drinks and to people watch, and had dinner at LaDorado, around the corner from our hotel (food was fantastic...Omar was our waiter). Our room at LeConsulat was pretty much what is shown on TripAdvisor. However, the pictures do not really indicate how small the room is. You walk in and immediately there is the bed...no privacy hallway from the door into the room. If you were changing and someone opened the door, you would be seen by anyone. The TV on the wall was really nice and had a great picture and several channels (not that we watched that much TV). LeConsulat is on a busy street, and throughout the night I heard several police sirens and car alarms. It didn't interfere with sleep, but just want to make everyone aware. Ric and Tina (we met through this board), also stayed at the hotel. They remarked they had gotten a room with a patio and that the patio was almost as big as the room. This might help as it would "extend" the visual space. It was okay for our two nights before boarding the ship. We had a reservation for a one-night post-stay at this hotel, but when we saw our room rate had gone up $40 from the time I made the pre-cruise reservation to the time I made our post-cruise reservation, we decided to go elsewhere.
Walgreen's came in really handy as there were things I purposely left at home so I wouldn't have to haul them in my suitcase. You can get just about everything you need at this store.
We had breakfast one of the mornings at Pelayo (just a block or so down the street from our hotel). The coupons the hotel gives you don't buy much, but one thing you have to try...the oatmeal. This is not your everyday, boring, oatmeal. This tasted like bread pudding (I wish I had the recipe). I easily could have eaten two bowls of this heavenly warm cereal-type dish!
Since Ric and Tina stayed at the same hotel, we shared a cab to the Pan American pier. I had read on different sites that the taxis are not regulated in San Juan, but that must have changed. As long as you take Touristico Taxis, your ride is regulated, and they are very good about getting you where you need to go.
RC sent us information to not try to board the ship before 2 pm, but Ric and Tina, told us that we could board when we got to the ship. We all checked out of the hotel around 11, and after waiting through a lengthy line of taxis to get to the pier, it only took us about 15 minutes to get through the line to check our baggage, and less than five minutes to get on board. We were suite guests, so we were able to use the Diamond and Diamond Plus check-in line. I would think if you wanted to stay away from long baggage lines, that checking in at 2 pm, which is what RC tells you to do, would be a really easy check-in process since very few people were checking in at this time.
When you board, there is an RC representative that tells you your room will not be ready until 2 pm, and he is serious. We tried to just go look at our floor around 1:30, and were told to leave the area. We spent part of the time in the Windjammer having a leisurely lunch. Since we got on so early, there was plenty of room in the Windjammer, but as more and more people got on board, you could easily see that finding a table was going to be a problem. This continued throughout the cruise. You didn't want to go to any meal in the Windjammer during typical rush-hour times...9 am, noon, etc. We didn't have dinner in the Windjammer, so I can't speak to rush hour during that time.
Our first dinner in the dining room, Vivaldi (deck 3) was just so-so and this became the norm for the cruise. We met two of the four couples that were to be seated at our table (including Ric and Tina...what's the odds on that happening...to be seated with someone you met on the Cruise Critic boards). I remarked to my husband as we walked in, "You wait and see. We'll be at the last table near the kitchen." Sadly, that's exactly what happened. When we were on Princess and had a mini-suite, you were seated according to your cabin, and we had a very nice table in the center of the room. Not so on RC. I was very disappointed in where our table was, but our tablemates were very nice. On the 2nd or 3rd evening, the other two couples joined us. We really enjoyed everyone's company; although I got very tired of hearing what a ruckus I caused on the Cruise Critic board by saying that rain was predicted all week (luckily it only rained briefly on the last day of the cruise).
Food in the dining room was lackluster. It may be the poor economy, but there was little variety in the main dishes. There was a vegan dish each evening that appeared to be East Indian in nature and a couple of pasta dishes. The pasta was usually lukewarm and entirely flavorless. I did get a steak a couple of nights (not the Chops Grille at an extra $14.95), and I thought it was good. I got the Chicken Marsala one night and it was inedible. Desserts amounted to about a bite-ful except on the last evening when they were very good and substantial. Most evenings I got sugar-free or low-fat desserts, and they were completely nondescript. On another evening, dessert was so tasteless, I couldn't even figure out what flavor it was supposed to be.
I have to praise our wait staff. I had dietary restrictions and they worked tirelessly to provide me with food that I could eat. While I didn't "behave" every night, nonetheless, I appreciated their efforts.
We ate in Portofino on the 2nd formal night and that was the night they served "lobster" in the dining room. If it was the same "lobster" that I had in Portofino, it wasn't lobster but langoustine (much smaller and not the rich taste of lobster). There also was no baked Alaska, usually a standard dessert on at least one formal night.
The menu offerings in Portofino were okay, but not anything really stood out. The presentation of the food, however, was exceptional. The offerings of various breads before dinner along with a bulb of roasted garlic, a garlic mustard, and an olive tapenade really took the cake. Unfortunately, I ate so much bread that by the time dinner arrived, I was pretty full. I got the Spiedino Fruiti de MarE skewer as did my husband, and again the presentation was just beautiful. Sadly we were too full to even attempt dessert.
The service in Portofino which started our really nicely went downhill quickly. Two large tables of ten came in as we were starting our entreEs, and our wait attendant didn't give us a lot of attention after this (same can be said for the couple seated next to us). We waited a good 20 minutes to have our plates cleared and to be shown the dessert menu. After that, it was another ten minutes to get the bill (for our drinks).
One of our greatest disappointments was in the lack of variety of food in Windjammer. It was exactly the same menu every day of the cruise for both breakfast and lunch. It would have been nice to have food indigenous to the islands we were visiting, and definitely more salads. By the end of the cruise, I had completely stopped eating in Windjammer, choosing instead to get food down on the Promenade next to Ben and Jerry's. They had several selections of coffee and tea, pizza, sandwiches, and delicious desserts. You didn't have to pay for this food, so that was an extra treat. Too bad the food in the dining room and Windjammer couldn't have been up to this level.
An extra treat for me became the huge urn of steamed milk that was available in this area (the Seattle coffee area). I have had to give up coffee and miss it immensely. However, in the warmed coffee urns, they had one just for steamed milk. I filled up a large cup with mostly steamed milk and added just a dollop of decaffeinated coffee and a couple packets of Splenda. Well, let me tell you not only did this cure my craving for coffee, it tasted like dessert. When we returned to San Juan, I learned this is a local favorite. Boy, I wish the States would pick up on this idea!!
One off-thing we discovered, was the rudeness of people in line. I think it must be a cultural thing, but most of the Americans didn't crowd into lines at the buffet, and if they did, they said "excuse me." This culture shock didn't just happen at the buffet. We also ran into it waiting for or getting on elevators, going into shows, etc.
Along with another reviewer, we also noted the "casualness" of dress in the dining room. In the documents that you receive prior to the cruise, you are told what to wear in the dining room. Personally, I would have turned people away (at dinner) if they weren't dressed appropriately. I am not a fan of "anytime dining," and I think that's where the casual-ness of dress started for dining in the evening. There's a time and place for flip-flops, t-shirts and shorts, and the only reason I could see why you would dress this way to go to dinner, is if your baggage didn't show up.
We stayed in an Owner's Suite (the Fuji Suite), three doors down from the Royal Suite. We loved the bed (it was so comfortable), the big L-shaped couch and occasional chairs, the dining table for two, the complimentary champagne and canapEs, and the huge bathroom with separate shower and whirlpool bathtub. The cabin was really large (over 500 sf), but we did have a few gripes (about the room and other things).
1) The balcony. We expected with this level of suite, that the balcony would be large and have room for chaisè lounges. We only had deck chairs and two round tables. Why there were two tables, I still can't figure out. If one of the tables had been left out, there might have been room for a chaisè lounge. We did like how the balcony was covered. We'd noticed on Princess (we were on the Dolphin deck on the Golden) that when you were on your balcony, there was absolutely no privacy (I think newer Princess balconies have changed this). This cabin had privacy in spades. It was also good that it was covered as it stopped you from getting baked while sitting on the balcony.
2) Speakers for the TV. We had a large screen TV which swiveled so that you could watch it from the bedroom area or the living room. Speakers were directed at the bed and also at the sofa. Several times when I wanted to retire, I was blasted by the sound of the TV coming into the bedroom.
3) Air Conditioning. The A/C worked great...too great. There was no way to turn down the fan; you could only turn the A/C up or down to be warmer or cooler. The A/C blasted on us when we were in bed. Most of the cruise, I ended up wearing a sweatshirt to bed. Warm, but not very comfortable.
4) The brown water incident. On the first day I used our bathtub, I noticed that the water had a yellowish tint to it. I didn't think anything of it. However, the next time I went to use it, I about got sick at the color and wondered what was in it. I was in the bathtub and the water started out pale yellow and in no time, it was a dark brown sludge. I quickly exited the tub and called maintenance. My husband remarked he also had noticed the water color and had just finished brushing his teeth (eeew and ick). Maintenance came up and said it was rust from the copper pipes. My husband has replaced copper plumbing in our home, and he said it was not rust. I called DeDe our concierge, who said she'd been living on the ship for five years, and this had happened to her on occasion, and that there was nothing to worry about. Yea, maybe in the bathtub, but brushing your teeth (double eeew and ick)? We could hear maintenance working on the pipes and they put a filter on the pipe which stopped the brown sludge from coming out. We were informed that this happened to certain sections of the ship, but I was still dismayed at the casualness of RC's attitude.
5) Marigot Excursion on St. Maarten...catamaran sail (or lack thereof) and 2-hour shopping trip in Marigot. (Let me say that Royal Caribbean responded immediately to our complaint of this excursion and ended up refunding 75% of the cost of this tour). One reason that we cruise is that we love being on the water. In fact, I'd say that's the main reason we cruise. Having been to the Caribbean before in late spring, we usually don't do water activities because the ocean can still be cool. I also have to stay out of the sun or be completely covered up (which sort of negates sitting at the beach) and I also have bad knees, so we were left with shopping excursions or tours of the islands. We decided to do the 1-hour catamaran sail and 2-hour shopping trip in Marigot. About 16 of us got on a very small and very uncomfortable van (there were also passengers with us from the Celebrity Constellation). We were informed that we'd be taken to Marigot for the first half of the tour and then would be driven back to the pier to take the cat. sail. We left at 9 am and got to Marigot at 10 am. My husband and I just walked around as we weren't doing any shopping. With about 30 minutes left, we stopped at one of the outdoor cafes to refresh ourselves. At noon, we all got back on the bus expecting to be delivered back to the pier for our catamaran sail. Little did we know to what we were going to be subjected. Several times during the next 2.5 hours, we heard the bus driver answer his cell phone, and after a while, we realized that we were being taken for a ride (literally) as the catamaran evidently wasn't ready to go or they were waiting for another group to join us. While we did see one spot which looked out on a beautiful bay, most of what we saw was the very poorest spots on the island. Several passengers kept asking when we were going to be taken to the pier for our sail. Finally, at 3:00 pm, we were deposited to our pier and were told we'd have to wait for the other bus to show up before we could start our sail. By 3:30 pm, the other bus was still not there. At this point, my husband and I and at least two other couples, departed this tour. Our ship was leaving at 5 pm, and we didn't want to risk missing our boat.
The next day I commented to our Concierge about the tour, and she had me fill out a comment form. By that evening, we had received a call from the Explorations staff. The gentleman said he had tried to talk to the tour company and had been given the runaround, and that we weren't the only people who had complained. It was at that time that he let us know that our money was going to be refunded. I was exceptionally impressed by his efforts on our behalf.
Concierge Lounge. Our Concierge, DeDe, was the greatest person. There was nothing she couldn't do, including telling me that she had the screwdriver needed to fix my glasses (they broke the day of embarkation. Actually, it was our suite attendant, Karane, who ended up taking my glasses to be fixed). The Concierge Lounge currently is for suite guests and Diamond/Diamond Plus members. One can get a light continental breakfast in the morning and lovely canapEs and mixed drinks and wine at night. It's also a good place to meet people, hang out and read the daily Compass and travel brochures, have a cup of espresso, get away from the noise, etc. We were told a rumor by some passengers that as of the end of April ('09), the Concierge Lounge is going away. DeDe updated the rumor and said that suite guests and Diamond Plus members would still have the Concierge Lounge, but that it was going away for regular Diamond members. I am glad that RC is hanging onto this perk for suite guests as it really is a nice enhancement.
The end of the cruise for us was a debacle, but it probably was for hundreds of other passengers. It started out well as we stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Condado for our one-night post stay. The room was huge, having two queen-sized beds in it. The bathroom was nice with shampoo, lotion, soap, etc., and the water pressure was nice. It was nothing to write home about, but with Holiday Inn you do know what to expect. We really lucked out having gotten off the ship early in that when we got to the hotel, several people were checking out. The Welcome staff said she had ONE room that hadn't been sold the night before, and therefore, we were able to check in immediately (a fact that we were really grateful for when we came down later that morning and saw tons of people standing up, waiting to check in). The lobby in this hotel at least provided a few chairs on which to sit...LeConsulat from our pre-cruise had one miniscule couch and no where to stand.
We walked over to Starbucks to grab a coffee and then saw a cafe next to the Mirò restaurant, and decided to give it a try. It was called Michele's. It's very small and has a few tables outside, but don't let the size scare you off. Within were wraps, salads, smoothies, etc., and the food was fabulous. I had some kind of Paris bistro wrap that had thinly sliced Granny Smith apples and a sweet onion dressing. I easily could have eaten two. On the way back to our hotel, we stopped and had a scoop of ice cream at Häagen Daz and that hit the spot too. We didn't go out for dinner as we were still stuffed from lunch.
Tuesday, the 6th of April, we left the hotel around 10:00 am to go to the airport. Checkout was a breeze and catching a taxi was as easy as walking out the front door. Well thank goodness, we got to the airport early. What a nightmare this became.
We went to the check-in area after taking our luggage through the USDA area to have it scanned. Luckily we had flown first class, having used my frequent flyer miles and American Express miles to do so. I only paid a $10 admin fee for my ticket, but my husband's AMEX miles had actually paid US Airways for his, and he had a full-price ticket. I checked in at the kiosk and got my boarding passes, but when my husband checked in (different payment method, different confirmation number), it would not accept it. When we started talking to the lady at the counter, she told us that our plane was going to be at least five hours late due to weather (snow/rain) on the Eastern seaboard. By this time, there were four or five couples behind us, and we started hearing nightmares. Most of the people in the check-in line had tried to fly out the day before, only to be turned away due to weather. One couple said they had gotten to the airport around 7 am the day before, and were there until 9 pm the same day. They later tried to check in for their flight, only to be told that weather was still causing planes to be delayed or cancelled. As it turns out, my husband's seat had been given to someone else from the day before. US Airways was not apologetic about this at all, although by the end of this ordeal, Brenda, Tanya P, and Acosta had become our new best friends. They all worked diligently to get us different flights.
At one point, Brenda put us on Delta flights, in first class. When we got to Delta, they wouldn't accept us because our transfer tickets showed that I paid $10 for my ticket and my husband paid full fare. It didn't show that I had used my frequent flyer miles (and cost me 120,000 miles). All they saw was the price and figured I didn't have a first class ticket. So back we went to US Airways where Tanya P (I think she was a supervisor) was there to help us.
Another side note, when we got to the check-in area, they only had one gal checking people in (first class). It took at least two hours before more people came to help check people in, and they only had about three people helping those in coach.
Tanya P couldn't find us first class all the way home, but she scheduled us for a flight the next day through Charlotte instead of Philadelphia (we have since learned that Philadelphia has a LOT of cancellations). We had first class from San Juan to Charlotte and coach from Charlotte to Phoenix. This really stung for us as we had saved for years to accumulate enough points/miles to fly first class. We fly coach all the time, so it's not like were "first class or nothing" types of people. But my husband had "paid" full fare for his ticket, and US Airways made no effort to compensate him for this at all.
Tanya P gave us meal vouchers ($20/couple for dinner, and $10/couple for lunch and breakfast). If it's any indication, it cost us $54 for lunch. We ate at Casa Caribe which is at the end of the American Airlines ticket counters. The food was great, but don't get drinks. They were easily the biggest part of our lunch, although our entreEs were $12-13 dollars each.
Our hotel room was right off the elevator which was nice, but it was like a jail cell. I don't think the room was ten feet wide, if that. The bathroom was extremely small, but there was nothing wrong with it. And the room was COLD. In fact, I've never been as cold as I was on this trip. Cold rooms are one thing, but when it's coupled with high humidity...well, just take some sweaters or sweatshirts with you because you may need them.
The next morning we tried to find some place to have breakfast (skip Cafe Caribe - different from Casa Caribe, but right next door to it). My husband used both our $5 vouchers to buy $8 worth of food, and there was about 50 cents worth of food on his plate. I got some granola and yogurt from Starbucks, and though expensive, was more substantial than what my husband got, even though I paid for it myself.
I suggested to my husband that since we were already at the airport, why not check out the ticket counter to see if first class had reopened in Charlotte. The way they were placing people from the day before, I thought someone might have had a first class ticket from Charlotte to Phoenix one minute, and then changed their mind and got passage somewhere else. Well, that's exactly what happened. Acosta, the ticket agent, was able to give us first class all the way, and we were very happy for it. I have a medical condition that makes sitting feel like I'm sitting on broken glass. Because first class seats are leather and wider, it makes it possible for me to move around a lot which helps with the pain. For this reason, I always try to upgrade to first class if possible.
On Wednesday, the 7th, our plane was about 30 minutes late leaving San Juan, but we were still able to make our connection in Charlotte. We ended up getting back to Phoenix around 10:15 that evening, and I was never happier to get back to a place that gets really hot.
I don't fault Royal Caribbean for the dismal food or the fact that we didn't have a really good time. We had decided early on to not shop (I don't need more jewelry, although I gladly would have accepted it). I am retired, my husband is not. So money is more of a concern for us now than it would have been a few years' ago. It was our choice not to take a lot of excursions, but next time, I think I would sign up for them. It beats just walking around in the ports.
Oh, before I forget. We did take an island tour in Curaçao that was outstanding. Nucia was our tour guide and she was terrific. She gave us so much history and later quizzed us on what she'd told us. That little quiz cemented the facts in our heads and I know more about Curaçao now than any of the other islands. We also found out that the liqueur, Blue Curaçao, is not named because of the color of the liqueur. It's named because the original bottle was an indigo color! There are now four colors of Curaçao...red, blue, yellow, and green, but they all have the same orange flavor. They also now have Coffee, Chocolate, and Rum Raisin flavors, and Nucia told us to make sure we put the samples of coffee and chocolate together, and she was right. Yum.
The offerings on the ship as far as things to do were not our cup of tea, but they were probably great if you had small children. We also, like the group in the Royal Suite, had several door-bell ringing incidents, but it was only once, and it was on the day of embarkation. After that, it was not a problem.
On our other trips, the port-of-call talks told us not only about shopping, but about the history and culture of the island. I missed this because I didn't need an hour talk on where to shop. I've shopped in stores recommended by the cruise lines before and in St. Thomas bought a beautiful Tanzanite ring and haven't regretted it. However, in Mazatlan, I bought a diamond tennis bracelet from another ship-recommended store, and it was a poor purchase. The diamonds looked great when I bought the bracelet, but over time they have become dirty and gray looking, and no amount of cleaning helps. So when someone on board ship tells me to buy in only certain shops, I'm skeptical to say the least.
Obviously, my husband and I have very high expectations when it comes to cruising, and we may just have to save and wait a long time to take cruises that have more history/cultural things to do on board and more upscale food, instead of trying to take a cruise every couple of years. I do enjoy staying in cabins with balconies as I get too claustrophobic otherwise. Balcony cabins and/or suites cost more money, but to me it's well worth it.
I think it's a sign of the times that cruise lines are cutting back, not only in food, but in amenities, and it will be interesting to see if old-time cruisers will not cruise as much, or like one other reviewer said, you will see more people traveling because so many of the ships are discounting fares. This may be true on existing ships, but many of the new ships (including Oasis of the Seas) have much higher fares for balcony and suite cabins. I may have to find a ship that has fewer than 1000 passengers and just go on them, even if it means only cruising every five years or so. Read Less