Because my wife is a teacher, and my daughter a student, we cruise based on time (school breaks only) and price (less expensive is better). We wound up getting an incredible deal on the price of this cruise (less than $90/person/day for an oceanview), and booked it without really worrying about itinerary, although we were excited to see two new-to-us ports, St. Martin (where my wife had gone on vacation as a teenager) and St. Kitts, and two that we had visited last year and loved, San Juan and Grand Turk. The itinerary was embark in Ft. Lauderdale, 2 sea days, St. Martin, St. Kitts, San Juan, Grand Turk, sea day, return to Ft. Lauderdale. However, about 3 weeks before the cruise, we were informed that instead of St. Kitts, we'd be going to Tortola as the 2nd port. No biggie, we thought, it's another new-to-us port.
Embarkation at Ft. Lauderdale was as smooth as we've ever experienced. We opted to park on-site, as the reviews of local off site parking were sketchy at best and downright unhappy at worst, so the difference between $10 off site and $15 on site a day was not worth it. We had an 11:30-12:00 arrival window, and parked the car at 11:30 exactly.
We were on the ship before noon. Let me repeat that -- from parking the car at 11:30, we were on board in under 30 minutes. That includes: off loading our luggage, walking to the elevators, walking about 1/4 mile to the porter stand to drop off our luggage, going through security, getting a photo, and going up the gangway. Under 30 minutes. We literally never stopped moving forward. It was the most efficient embarkation I've ever experienced, to the point where I'll seek out cruises from Ft. Lauderdale based solely on that experience. The fact that it's also the closest port to our house (by about 15 minutes -- it's 2 hours ish to Tampa, 1:45 to Lauderdale) is a bonus.
Onboard with our carry-ons, we went up to the Lido to have a little lunch and explore while waiting for our cabin to be ready (at 1:30). Protip: in the Lido, there are 4 buffet lines (fore and aft, one each port and starboard), and a dessert line (aft of the buffet). Behind that, there are 2 stairs going up to deck 10, where there is the "old fashioned barbecue," and more seating. We easily found seating there while the Lido was packed on embarkation day. We also signed on for a sea day activity -- a whisky tasting and blending class -- and bought a wine package (3 bottles for $99).
At 1:30, we took a ride down to deck 2, to find our cabin. Lo and behold, our luggage was waiting for us when we arrived! Awesome! Get in the room, and unpack. There was plenty of space for 2 adults and a child to stow their stuff for a week (in fact, there were tons of extra plastic hangers in the closets when we arrived, which we really liked). Our cabin steward, Aldo, introduced himself and asked the usual questions ("when do you like your room serviced? Any special requests?" etc). We had ordered some water bottles for the room, and they were waiting for us when we arrived as well.
Muster was... well, muster drill. You've done it once, you've done it. It was crowded, annoying, and legally mandated. We started sailing before being released from muster, which was a bummer if you wanted to go to the bon voyage party, but foreshadowed our captain's school of thought towards travel times -- we were always early in to port, and left on the dot -- which we kind of liked.
Then, time for dinner. We opted for early dining, so we were in the Monet dining room (all the way aft, decks 3 and 4) at 5:45. Met our headwaiter (who we rarely saw after, to the point that I don't really remember his name a day later), and the rest of our wait team, Redana, and Ralsita (from Indonesia and Bulgaria, respectively). They both took a special interest in our daughter, with Redana delivering her food (usually a chicken breast or some steak) and cutting it up for her, even feeding her the first bite, and Ralsita keeping a supply of chocolate milk for her from the second day on (we saw Ralsita at the Lido early on the first sea day, and our daughter asked for chocolate milk to drink with breakfast; she inferred the rest and kept us in calcium and chocolate for the rest of the trip).
The food on the trip was, overall, in the quite good to excellent range. There were little touches that stood out -- some sauces plated on the sides as decoration, an extra sprig of greens to garnish -- and everything was cooked as we ordered, so no medium rare steak arriving medium well, for example. The wine service was done professionally, by the book, which I appreciated (the ritual of wine service is interesting, with every part having a point -- the bottle is presented, kept in sight at all times so you know it's not getting switched, the cork presented to prove it's the wine you ordered, first taste to the one ordering to make sure it's not corked or oxidized, and first full pour to the lady at the table for politeness). We also found Guy's Burgers, the Blue Iguana, Pizza Pirate, and even the BBQ to be nicely done. I did try out a couple of "food hacks" for the burgers from Guy's -- get a plain burger, top with salsa from the Blue Igauna, for example, or take it up the the BBQ and get some pulled pork and sauce to top it with -- and liked the results.
Entertainment was easy to find. There are the production shows and comedy, of course, but there were also things like having the production show cast lead a dance routine by the pool, and plenty of live music (this cruise had a steel drummer, a DJ, a brass trio, an acoustic singer and guitar soloist, a 6-piece rock band, and a string trio, playing in the atrium lobby, by the casino, and sometimes elsewhere, like by the dining rooms). As noted above, I did a Scotch whisky tasting and blending class with one of the Alchemy bartenders, who was super-knowledgeable about whiskys, and that was well worth the time and money (several glasses worth of whisky, and I got to keep a 100 ml bottle of my own creation -- which they let us simply walk off with, rather than confiscating like duty-free booze). We also saw two of the dive-in movies (Instant Family and Bohemian Rhapsody), and enjoyed the experience a lot.
Our daughter liked the Camp Ocean activities, including one night when we had her in Night Owls so we could have a grown-up dinner and go see R-rated comedy; when we went to pick her up at a bit after midnight, some kids were dozing in "sleeping bags" made of extra blankets in the little kids side, while a movie quietly played, but there was a dance party going on in the bigger kid's side, where she was going strong. She also liked the fact that, because the Conquest has only 1 water slide rather than the 2 on the Glory (which we sailed on previously, and is the same class of ship), it has an extra pool and hot tub which were, if not by rule, then de facto kid's pools.
My wife and I appreciated the kid's pools as well, as we could more easily get lounge chairs near the secondary pool; chair hogs were very much in effect on this ship! At one point, we took it upon ourselves to take a couple of lounge chairs that were obviously unoccupied for an hour or more (the folks actually using the chairs around them agreed that they had been empty since at least noon, and it was 1 PM), moving the towels left behind on them to a neat pile behind the chairs as we were using them, and in the hour and a half we were on them, nobody re-appeared to try to reclaim the chairs. This is probably the worst annoyance we had on the trip, to be honest -- there has to be a better way to police chairs by the pool. Perhaps some sort of timer, for when you leave (kind of like a parking meter)? I don't know what the solution is, but I wish someone would find it.
Now, as to our grown-up dinner... we opted to do the Chef's Table, which is a bit of a splurge, but well worth it in our opinion. It was over a dozen courses, personalized (I don't like tomatoes, and they changed one course -- tomato soup -- specifically for me -- I got roasted red pepper and pumpkin soup instead), with a tour of the galley, private dining room for up to 10 people (ours had 9), private magic show, photos, and the recipe for warm chocolate melting cake included. It was seriously one of the best meals I've ever had. If you have foodie inclinations, the Chef's Table is well worth the $70/pp plus tip.
The ship itself has certainly seen some use -- the carpet is a little worn in places, and some of the seating has seen better days, but it's overall well kept-up, especially when you consider that 3000+ people get on it every week. I do think that it will benefit from it's scheduled drydock in November 2020.
Now, each port and what we did.... St. Martin, we literally walked off the ship and got an island tour with some new friends. Off to a senic overlook, Maho beach (crowded, small, and underwhelming), a straw market on the French side (with a very nice cafe nearby), and a 2-hour stay on Orient beach (which is beautiful).
On Tortola, we did a snorkeling trip through the ship. It was the afternoon, so we put our daughter in Camp Ocean for the morning and did a little shopping -- my wife tasted (and liked!) some local BVI Gin, we looked at jewelry and watches, etc. Then, after lunch, off to snorkel near Norman Island (the island that inspired Treasure Island). The guide, Mario, was great. My daughter is a very strong swimmer (in fact, she swam with our local swim team for 2 seasons), but for some reason freaked out snorkeling, and Mario came by with a flotation ring to take her to see caves and fish; we just stayed along for the ride. Well worth it!
San Juan was, frankly, a little bit of a bummer this time. We arrived early, and could get off the ship as early as 7:30, but nothing in San Juan aside from Walgreens (right off the pier!) is open until 9. Since we had to be back on the ship at 1:30, that meant basically only 4 and a half hours to do anything. We just stopped for some sundries at Walgreens, walked the city a little, found a cafe (Cafe Angel) for mofongo and pina coladas, and back on board. I really liked San Juan last time we were in port, but last time we stayed longer; too bad.
Then, Grand Turk. We arrived, and it started to POUR. There was a waterspout visible from the gangway of the ship, in fact! Sucked for my wife and daughter, as they were planning on a beach day. Me, I was scuba diving alone (neither of them are certified divers), so as long as the dive boat went out, I was OK. The diving was awesome; two tanks, first dive at the "tunnel" site, about 200 yards offshore, we dropped to the bottom at 70', then were led through a rock formation to "the wall," where the bottom drops rapidly to 7,000'. Super cool! Then the second dive was at "governor's house," where the bottom is more like 55', and we saw a ton of sea life -- Spanish mackerel, dories, even a turtle! Again, well worth it, but I would bring my own regulator next time -- mine had a non-working depth gauge, and another man on our boat had to make an emergency ascent with his dive buddy providing air through his octo, as his pressure gauge malfunctioned (never something you want to say). My wife and daughter, meanwhile, enjoyed the cruise port chairs (with the green cruise port umbrellas!) and rented snorkeling gear to enjoy the shallows.
Finally, it was time to leave. Disembarkation was as smooth as embarking. Picked up our duty-free alcoholic souvenir (a bottle of BVI gin), had some breakfast, and before we knew it, they were calling our group number. We were off the ship and back in our car within 30 minutes, easily as smooth as the embarkation was.
Standard 220 sq foot oceanview with a couch that converted into a bed for our daughter. Some wear to the carpet and an odd burn mark on the floor of the bathroom. Nothing terrible, nothing outstanding. Good location for going to dinner (just head aft and up the aft stairs to the Monet dining room for fixed-time dining, or fore and up the mid stairs to Renoir for your time dining), and for getting midnight pizza (aft again, up the elevator to the Lido, and you're right around the corner from Pizza Pirate).
Our cabin steward, Aldo, was excellent. He followed up extremely thoroughly on a slight laundry issue; there was a salsa incident with a new shirt on the first sea day, it took a little longer than usual to get the dry cleaning done but he kept touch with me every time he saw me -- "let me check with the cleaners, we'll get it right," "they have your shirt," "It's been cleaned, I'm picking it up this afternoon." He was also wonderful with our daughter, giving her high-fives every time he saw her.
The easiest and smoothest embarkation/disembarkation we've ever been through, hands-down. We're seeking out more cruises from this port for that reason. Parking on-site is a bit more than off-site, but the walk-on, walk-off ability is well worth the difference (and, seeing the off-site lots, they were sketchy at best).
St Martin is, for good or ill, a tourist destination. Good in some respects -- pretty much everyone speaks English, although I found it easier to converse in French with a couple folks on the French side, and if you want KFC or McDonalds, you can do that, but it means that the island has lost a bit of it's individuality. Maho Beach is small, crowded, and probably worth skipping. Orient Beach is beautiful, and on the "family friendly" part of the beach there was nothing much to worry about (one woman was sunbathing European, and there was a guy in a thong banana hammock, but that was it).View All 437 Island Tour Reviews
Enjoyed the port immensely -- bought some coffee to get wifi at the cafe and check emails/post to Facebook, tasted excellent gin, and shopped for jewelry and watches. On the snorkeling tour, had a great time exploring Norman Island. Two stops, one at the caves (which are seriously cool), and one at a dock in a sandy cove with a beach bar and grill.View All 79 Snorkeling Reviews
This time in San Juan, we felt it was too short. There's a Walgreens just off the pier that opens at 8, but the rest of the city doesn't really get going until 9, which means we only had 4 and a half hours until we had to be back on board the ship. Saw a few sights, had some mofongo and pina coladas at Cafe Angel, picked up some sundries at Walgreens, and that was about it.
Grand Turk is a great place to take a beach break right off the ship, as my wife and daughter did. I got to go scuba diving on a ship excursion, which was excellent, barring some equipment issues -- next time, I'm bringing my own regulator; mine had a leaky o-ring and a faulty depth gauge, and I saw another o-ring leaking on another diver, while one man on our excursion had his pressure gauge fail, resulting in an emergency ascent with his dive buddy's octo! Dive was 2 sites, one 70', one 55', got to see "the wall" where the bottom rapidly drops to 7,000'. Plenty of sea life -- turtles, fish, corals, etc. Our divemaster said that a hammerhead had been spotted in the area a week before, and one diver said he saw a black tip shark while diving on this trip.View All 28 Scuba - Certified Reviews