This was my and my wife's third cruise, all on different lines. That's now given us a good basis for comparison but it's also spoiled us a little bit, because every cruise has been amazing in its own way. Each line and ship has its own strengths, and occasional weaknesses.
We had a Grand Suite on this cruise, which is something I really recommend. For the most part we were able to show up and just walk onto the ship, with a quick stop at the check-in desk (but in the VIP line, which had no wait). The benefits of having a suite are more than we expected. Of course the room, bathroom and balcony are bigger, but the Suite Lounge turned out to be one of our favorite places on the ship, especially because they give unlimited free alcohol during happy hour. There's also a party for suite guests midway through the cruise that also has free booze. And we made pretty good use of the VIP seats in some of the venues too (though some aren't very good seats - in the Lyric Theater, they're in the balcony!).
Disembarkation was the same - with the suite, we were able to just walk off the ship as soon as de-boarding started. (We did check our luggage but didn't have an airport transfer, so being in group 1, we were able to leave right away.) There was already a massive line for Customs when we got to the terminal, but we got the VIP line so sailed right past it. I mean, I'm not a big capitalist at heart, but you do get what you pay for with a Grand Suite on this ship! This was a positioning cruise so it was much cheaper - normally we wouldn't have been able to afford it. (Top tip: look for a positioning cruise!)
The ship itself is big and nice to look at, with fairly traditional designs for most things that feel like they belong on a ship. The Sapphire Dining Room, for example, looks like something you might have seen on a golden era ocean liner. The one massive exception, which must have been a big innovation when the ship was built, is the "Royal Promenade" running down the middle of the ship. This looks really impressive when you first see it, until you realize it's basically just an indoor mall. That's it. There's not really any reason to go there unless you feel the need to buy a watch on a ship, or fill up your soda cup at one of the two soda machines. The other ships I've been on have had central atriums that serve the same purpose, but somehow they feel a little more "ship-like", and the bars and whatnot feel like real destinations in themselves. The Royal Promenade's bars and restaurants feel like eating or drinking at the mall, and we never ate or drank there after the first day.
Another unique thing that stayed impressive for us is the ice rink, which I know now is a Royal Caribbean trademark. We went to the ice show twice - it was amazing to think you can see such a thing on a ship. It was beautiful, although as you can imagine there were a few moving-ship-related falls. I don't even know how they do some of those jumps or one-foot spinning moves while the ship is pitching and rolling.
Speaking of food, we thought the dining room food was *really* good for the most part, and we ate there every night but one. They do repeat a lot of appetizers and desserts, but the main courses were mostly different every night, and I don't think I ate anything that I didn't force myself to finish, no matter how full I was. It was just too good to leave anything behind. I especially enjoyed the prime rib and New York strip steak.
The Windjammer buffet is... well, it's a ship's buffet. It's exactly like the other buffets on the other ships we've been on. Some stuff is good, other stuff is "eh". The pizza was just bad. But at least you will never go hungry. Breakfast is a particular weak point, as it always seems to be in ship buffets. They did have one day for lunch when they set up about 10 different meat carving stations with different freshly carved meats, and that was neat. Always go for the freshly carved meat if you can - it's usually very good, and there's always at least one station set up.
We were on a Valentine's Day cruise so they really pushed us at every opportunity to make reservations at a specialty restaurant. Giovanni's Table finally wore me down and I made one there when they actually called me in our room. But I didn't regret it - even though the dining room was good, Giovanni's Table was a noticeable step up, and I had seriously one of the best filet mignons I've ever had there. The service was also on another level, and of course the decor is like a real restaurant.
This ship has two main pools - the regular pool and the Solarium, which is the better of the two (if you're an adult, as you have to be there). The regular pool area was constantly overcrowded, and even the VIP loungers were always fully taken. The Solarium was never quite as crowded, although it feels a little more quiet and enclosed. (But it's just on the other side of one door from the regular pool, so you can easily go back and forth.)
I really missed the aft pool like the other ships we've taken have - the aft section of the pool deck on this ship is taken up by the Flowrider surf simulator and the waterslide. I know who they're trying to appeal to with these things, but I didn't see many people using them, and given how overcrowded the main pool is, I really think they should just install another pool and bar back there instead.
The Lyric Theater hosted a couple of comedy shows, a couple of dance shows and a comedy/musical tribute show on our cruise, and we went to all of them once. The entertainers were all really good/funny, and the singing/dancing shows I thought were very professional. (My wife wasn't that impressed by the Latin dance show, but I was.)
In terms of shore excursions, we booked the Magen's Bay Beach day at St. Thomas, and did our own thing in St. Maarten. I got the impression when booking that a lot of stuff still isn't really running in the Caribbean since the hurricanes (no zip-lining option, for example!), and St. Maarten, especially, is still just in a really bad state. This was our fourth visit so we wanted to see how some of our favorite places had held up, and a lot of them are basically destroyed. The whole of Grand Case and most of its restaurants is just a shell - though we had a great lunch at one of the LOLO's there, which are open. The Sonesta Maho Beach is totally gutted. Orient Bay Beach is basically gone - I mean there is nothing there, and even all the trees and beach bars are missing! It's very sad. RCI did have beach excursions set up that I heard were fine, but much of the island isn't. Still, they want tourists and need the money, so go! As for Magen's Bay and St. Thomas, it was in much better shape, though there was obvious hurricane damage throughout the island as well.
Hopefully in a couple years, the region will have fully recovered. So check the date if you're reading this in the future.
One thing - in addition to being a Valentine's Day cruise, this was also an anniversary cruise for my wife and me. I had ordered one of the room decor packages for our anniversary, and RCI somehow lost my order. Big problem! At 9PM that day, I went to the front desk, and they found my order but it had somehow not ever made it to room service. They straightened it out and we finally got the room decorated (plus our cake), and they were very apologetic about it. In the end, my wife was very surprised and happy. But this is actually the second time I've had this experience on different cruise lines - so if you've got a surprise planned, always check in advance to make sure it's going to happen.
All in all, not much to really complain about other than that and the overcrowding at the main pool, and maybe a few minor things about the way RCI designs its ships.
Very big room; like most "suites" on ships, not really a suite. It does have a privacy curtain you can close if you want to keep light out of the bed area while somebody else sits up and reads or something, but it's obviously not going to block any sound. Huge bathroom with dual sinks. Tons of storage; lots of drawers, big closets, etc. Double sized balcony with a lounger, two chairs and two tables. The chairs are ridiculously uncomfortable - some Wal-Mart lawn chairs would have been better. I was concerned about having the Solarium hot tub right above us, but I never heard anything from it. What I did hear a couple times a day was the staff rearranging the deck chairs from above, but only on our balcony. Still, it was a little annoying if we had the balcony door open (or were out there) - just a lot of scraping noises. All in all, though, a great room. Comes with a lot of benefits, some of which I outlined in the main review.
We had a suite so this may not be indicative of everyone's experience, but embarkation for us took about 3 minutes. Went through security, stopped at the front desk to get our SeaPass cards, and boarded the ship. There were no lines.
Magen Bay Beach is still recovering from the hurricanes but it's in pretty good shape and we had a good time. The drive to get there can be a bit scary if you're not used to Caribbean roads - they're very steep, narrow and windy (with a long "i"). The beach only has one bar and restaurant, but it's a big one as beach bars go and it's not a very big beach. The beach was a little more crowded than we expected, but there was still room to settle down and swim. It is a naturally beautiful beach.View All 265 Magen Bay Beach Reviews
I hate to give St. Maarten anything less than 5 stars and what they're going through right now is not their fault, but people should be aware that a lot of the island is still out of commission. You can still visit Maho Beach and the Sunset Bar and Grill and see the planes (though there aren't many of them at the moment), and *some* other beaches are still in full swing. You can also still get great local food at LOLOs and a very few of the French restaurants in Grand Case are still open. Still, as someone who loves St. Maarten, I really want everyone to go there and spend money and help them out. From the islands we visited (including USVI and PR), it seems by far the most heavily damaged by the hurricanes.