Let’s begin with what I now regard as a “Bait & Switch” maneuver from RCCL.
They sold us a “Best of Cuba” cruise with three ports in Cuba including Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos and an overnight in Havana.
Santiago has been closed since the middle of 2018. We booked our cruise with these three ports advertised, in November of 2018. We were not notified of the change in itinerary. We only discovered the new itinerary in March of this year during our early check-in process.
Of course, Royal Caribbean covers themselves through their cruise contract that states that Itineraries are subject to change at any time. But they are still selling (to this very day) a port that they know full well is not available to their ships! I find that to be deceitful.
So, after day 4 of an 8-day cruise, we reach our first Cuban port of Cienfuegos. The original itinerary had us docking at 7:00am and so we booked a private tour to Trinidad with that in mind. We docked at 8:00am and were told that tender tickets would not be handed out before 9:00am and we would not be disembarking until 10:00am. The cruise line contracts with tour companies on the island that are owned and operated by the Cuban government, so the Shore excursions get priority over everybody else.
After pleading with the Crown and Anchor manager, Andy, (our Elite Captain’s club status on Celebrity transferred to Diamond status on RCCL) and meeting with the guest relations supervisor, and several other pleadings, they agreed to let us off around 8:30am. Other passengers weren’t so lucky. We met a couple who didn’t get off until 11:00am and their tour basically consisted of a ride to Trinidad where they met our guide, had lunch and returned to the ship. Total time ashore – 7 hours.
Day 5 at sea. Around 4 am we heard an emergency alert over the PA system of the ship. Later that morning, we learned it was a medical emergency and that we would have to turn around and head for Grand Cayman to medivac a passenger. New ETA to Havana 3:00pm; 8 hours later than planned.
Day 6 of this 8 days “Best of Cuba” cruise, we finally arrive in Havana at 4:00pm. With the same departure time set for the following day. Total time in port – 24hrs.
We stood in line for one and a half hours at the gangway on deck 5 before we could disembark in Havana. We met our guide at 5:00pm, 8 hours later than planned so our whole day Havana tour turned into 4 hours. In total we were in port 32 hours out of an 8 day “Best of Cuba” cruise that was scheduled for three ports including one overnight.
Now to the ship. The Empress of the Seas. We did our research and read the review. We lowered our expectations knowing that the cruise ship wasn’t the object of this cruise. The Itinerary was. We expected the staterooms to be small, perhaps not as small and cramped as they were as one cannot get in the bed without ducking under the bunk upon each side of the walls or turn around in the tiniest of showers. You can’t open the bathroom door and the closet at the same time. One blocks the other.
So I’m not going to whine about size. It seems that Royal Caribbean has put no effort and no money into maintaining this vessel. The lounge chairs with their plastic straps are straight out of an old Vegas off-strip motel poolside. The entertainment and activities for three and a half sea days was disappointing.
The food in the dining room and in the buffet was mediocre at best and repetitive. The menus were misleading as their dishes are misnamed and therefore underwhelming. If you’re going to call something a Vol au vent and present a flat piece of soggy pastry in sauce on a plate, be prepared to disappoint. Same with describing a rum soaked sponge cake and serving a dinner roll soaked in syrup masquerading as a Baba au rum.
This was our fifteenth cruise. Our first on Royal Caribbean, and also our last. We talked with several other frequent cruisers of other cruise lines and they had the same reaction as we had. Never Again.
We had a private tour with trinidad sightseeing tours and our guide Ari was fantastic. However, we had to fight to get off the ship in time to meet our guide as RCCL contracts with tour companies that are owned and operated by the Cuban Government (so much for "people to people" support) so they get priority off ship, and in these ports everyone gets off the ship