My last two cruises have been on Freedom & Oasis....so booking Empress was going to be a huge change from the larger ships. I booked this cruise based on the affordability for only week we had free. It was a test....do I risk booking a cruise on a lackluster ship for a miserable experience or is it really not that bad and you are still seeing the exact same ports as any other larger/newer ship sails? For my 5th overall cruise (all with RCCL), I was actually pleasantly surprised by Empress. We boarded around 11:30 and it took around 15 minutes. If most others checked-in online and had everything filled out ahead of time, it would have went quicker....but 15 minutes, still no big deal!
Yes she is small, and it shows, but what do you expect with the smallest ship? A large pool? Large staterooms? Two or three pools? The pool is small, but on port days or on sea days, I never had an issue finding 3 chairs together or a corner of the pool to sit. There are three jacuzzis that really only hold 4-5 adults each....all with annoyingly powerful jets (downside). The staterooms are small, but we brought magnetic hooks to hang smaller items on the wall and shoved all of our suitcases under the beds. We brought our own hangers for the closet which helped clear up drawer space. It certainly helps. Our stateroom attendant was awesome and had our stateroom looking clean and sharp everyday. We brought two bottles of wine and plenty of snacks....the rooms do not have a mini fridge so we of course could not keep our wine chilled in our room. Not a big deal, though.
The Windjammer seemed to have plenty of food options and they were good. For what we eat for breakfast, the food was just fine. Outside the first day at lunch, we never had an issue finding a table...breakfast or lunch. The line of course takes forever, but what else do you expect for a buffet? The customer service was top notch. Washy-washy!!
We ate in the main dining room every night and was served with the same customer service and food quality that we have come to know with RCCL. Some say the food is terrible or bland...we enjoyed every meal. Online said no formal dining on Empress, but there were two "dress to impress nights" on the days at sea. General bar/drink service was typically good...it sometimes took a bit longer than normal to place and order, but received our drinks quickly thereafter.
The entertainment shows are limited to comedians and the RCCL singers and dancers due to the small theater stage. They did have a Whitney Houston tribute singer and she was great, but I think this was her last cruise. If you are looking for a show that resembles one from the larger ships, you will not find it on Empress. If you do go to a show, (why not, they typically only last 45 minutes), get there about 15 minutes early to get a good table.
We did Bingo on the second to last day....the free cruise game. I was a little disappointed. I remember RCCL Bingo having several games, this only had 3 games and it was over within 35 minutes. Old fashion Bingo with either a vertical, horizontal, or diagonal line, getting all of the "I" and "G" columns, and a large "X". Maybe this is how Bingo on board is now, but I remembered it lasting longer.
We did Key West, Costa Maya, Cozumel, and CocoCay. In Costa Maya we booked an excursion through shoreexcursion.com at El Fuerte hotel and beach resort. It was a little pricey for three people (all inclusive), but the beach was awesome. About a 7 minute taxi ride, maybe 20 other people on the beach, beach chairs under palm trees, great service, a clean and crystal clear beach! I would recommend to everyone reading this and we will go back if we ever do Costa Maya again. The food was typical tex-mex food, but good portion sizes.
In CocoCay I of course would recommend getting off the ship early as you can as there is always two ships in port each day. We found three beach chairs in Chill Island that were some of the last ones under a palm tree. Beach is packed, but about 50' out the water clears up for great snorkeling. Buy a nice set on Amazon because renting is just as, or more expensive, than buying and bringing your own.
Disembarking the ship I would highly recommend the self-assist option that lets you do everything yourself starting at 8am. We were off and getting an Uber within 5 minutes from getting in line in the Theater. Best experience ever!
Our cabin was on deck 7....outside of the dining on deck 4, we did not walk around the lower levels that often, however the only areas that we smelled "sewage" was around the ventilation/louvers on deck 11 towards the rear of the ship. It was certainly not overpowering and sort of resembled a musty smell. Perhaps the lower decks have more bathroom/odor issues, but outside of the ventilation areas, we never noticed any issues.
They had a kids club for all ages that seemed to have activities at all times. They have a rock climbing wall and showed movies on the pool deck each night...most times twice a night. They also showed Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football here as well. The stateroom TV's had channels from 14 thru 36 and had two ESPN channels that showed Thursday Night Football, College Football on both Friday night and Saturday, Sunday Night and Monday Night Football. They also had MLB playoff games on as well....I know a few people have asked what type of "American" sports are shown on board.
Overall Empress is small with none of the frills from the larger ships....but that means you will never feel crowded, there is generally an older crowd (which is not a bad thing), and it still gets you to the same ports as the more expensive ships. We will most likely sail on Empress again on a different itinerary.
We had the two beds pushed together with one of the bunk beds always open. The ocean view was actually in between two lifeboats which worked out perfectly as it was square and get us great views. I would suggest to bring magnetic hooks and extra hangers. There are only 6 very small (12" wide) drawers that may be 24" deep? A few open drawers/slots in the closet helps, but for 3 people, not much space for clothes. We of course stored the suitcases under the bed and put our dirty clothes in the suitcases each night.
Did typical tourist activities....Hemingway House, Southermost Point, Sloopy Joe's, and walked by Little Whitehouse. For great cuban food, try El Meson de Pepe's. Fantastic.
Did shorexcursion.com El Fuerte Hotel and Beach Resort. 7 minute cab ride to clean and crystal clear water. It is almost like a wading pool, but very calm and relaxing. Great service as well. Make sure you check in first before they seat you to get your wristbands. Typical Mexican beach though, plenty of people trying to sell you stuff.
Went to Chill Island. Packed beach. Lunch was fantastic. Cuban sandwiches and cheeseburgers were great!