I, like many of my shipmates, chose this cruise specifically because it visited three Cuban ports: Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba, and Havana. As MANY others have noted in previous reviews, RCI advertises these ports, knowing full well that ... Read More
I, like many of my shipmates, chose this cruise specifically because it visited three Cuban ports: Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba, and Havana. As MANY others have noted in previous reviews, RCI advertises these ports, knowing full well that for at least the past six months, they cannot port in Santiago. They continue to advertise three Cuban ports, and then literally as soon as final payments are paid, the RCI website is updated to show that in fact you won't be visiting Santiago: the ship will stop somewhere else instead. In our case, it was Cozumel, Mexico. Since most Caribbean cruisers have been to Cozumel before, this wasn't a particularly attractive alternative.
RCI doesn't do its guests the courtesy of notifying them of this change. I only found out via the CruiseCritic roll call for the cruise.
So if you are interested in this cruise, be forewarned: you will probably NOT visit three ports in Cuba.
There was, for us, only one positive about this cruise: the crew. With the exception of the cruise director (whom none of us saw at any point in the 7-day cruise, even being out and about all the time!), the crew were friendly, helpful and really just an amazing bunch of people. They made up for many (but not all) of the many shortcomings of this ship (and RCI in general.)
MANY NEGATIVES: where to begin? Let's start with the cabin. We had an inside (see below). Another problem? The food is average AT BEST: and often downright bad. We're not fussy by any means, but of the seven meals, 3 of them were awful (we couldn't even eat them), 2 meals were mediocre, and only 2 were average in taste and quality. Our dining room waiters did their best: always asking if we wanted something else, and so on, but we don't like to waste food, so we just figured (on several nights) to have a bit of a "fast".....
The dining rooms (both the main Starlight areas and the Windjammer buffet) are horribly overcrowded, with tables pushed so close together that you literally had your neighbors' chairs up against the backs of yours. They are also VERY understaffed: they need at least 50% more servers in both areas. We like to talk with our servers and get to know them a bit, but they were so busy that they rarely had time to even slow down, much less stop!
The swimming pool is a joke. First of all, it's a uniform depth of 1,80m (a bit over six feet). It is VERY small and because it has no shallow area, older people tend to just sit on the edge with their legs in the water. This makes getting into and out of the pool a real challenge, and once you're in the pool, you have to keep swimming, because you can't stop anywhere on the sides (with all those dangling legs!) Maybe 20 people (if they crowd close together) can sit around the sides, and only 10 or so can "swim" (by which I mean tread water in a very confined space.) Finally, it's a salt-water pool, so if (like us) you don't care for salt-water pools, you won't enjoy this one. We went in on the first day and never went back: it was always very crowded.
The casino onboard has an interesting two-level design, which we liked. There are a couple of things you need to know about the casino, however. First of all, it is completely non-smoking. Not a problem for us, but for many, this will be a disappointment. The other thing we didn't care for was the fact that about 75% of the slot machines are old: and I mean 20+ years old! Some of them still use coins, believe it or not, that's how old they are! Many have buttons that don't work, or are out of order for "maintenance". If you plan on playing the slots, you cannot charge to your "SeaPass" card. You have three options: bring cash (USD) with you; use the ATM to get money (for a $6.95 fee); or go to the cashier and charge it to your SeaPass (for a 5% fee). So if you are going to get more than $107 to gamble with, use the ATM. The fee is actually better than getting it at the cashier's. Generally, though, we were bored with the selection of machines after 2 days. Honestly, going to this casino is like going to a small "locals" casino in Las Vegas: lots of old, tired machines, and really low payouts.
Another irritating aspect of this cruise is the way RCI has two levels of customer service when it comes to shore excursions. This is particularly true in Cuba. If you are booked on an RCI excursion, you get off the ship first. But if you have made independent plans, tough luck. You have to wait on the ship until all of RCI's "customers" (as they put it) have left the ship. Then you can go (unless you are in Cienfuegos: then you have to get a "tender ticket" and wait even longer for your turn.) So for example, we arrived in Havana at 0700. Because we had private tours, we couldn't get off the ship until 0930. So you may want to schedule any private tours for later in the morning (i.e. when it's getting hotter!) because if you had an 0900 tour, you'd probably miss it in Havana.
We did one ship excursion, the "Chichen Itza Mixed Reality" tour from Cozumel. We had not been to Chichen Itza, and it's a long trip, so we thought a ship tour was safer in terms of getting back in time. The description of the tour is quite a bit different from the reality: the virtual reality they offer is in fact a slide show on a tablet, that you do with the guide on the long bus ride to the site. The guide and driver were excellent, but we only had 90 minutes at the site, out of an 8-hour excursion.
As to the Cuban ports, the town center of Cienfuegos is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, though I honestly can't imagine why, unless perhaps UNESCO felt like Cuba ought to have a site or two. The best way to see the "sights" in Cienfuegos is to hop on the little Transtur tourist (covered open-air) train that departs every 45 minutes or so from the pier. It's a 40-minute tour, costs 5 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos), and makes a lengthy stop at Jose Marti Square (where all the "UNESCO" sites are located.) Then it continues on to Punta Gorda, where all the rich government officials and other revolutionaries live, and goes past some of the beautiful old hotels and the Palacio Valle and along the Malecon. You can walk to Jose Marti Square from the pier, but many of the roads are rough, unpaved, and you have to run the gauntlet of touts selling pedi-cab or horse-drawn carriage or "classic car" tours.
We found Havana to be amazingly underwhelming, and certainly not deserving of the hype we'd read before our trip. Again, a few well-maintained (tourist-oriented) streets surround by squalid, dirty, rather smelly neighborhoods with decaying buildings and a lot of poor people living the socialist dream. No, we're not political at all, but the irony to us (as Europeans) of the failure of the revolutionary ideals was very sad.
Embarkation and disembarkation were fairly lengthy experiences. Long lines, long waits, and once you did get on the ship, all of the cabin areas were closed off, with signs saying, "Cabins will be available after 1330." Our luggage did not arrive until just before dinner.
RCI transfers are a joke. At disembarkation, we did "self-assist" so as to catch the schedule 0815 transfer to Fort Lauderdale airport. We waited in line for 30 minutes, then finally got off the ship and walked to the bus. We sat on the bus for 90 minutes before leaving at 1000!
The ship itself is old and very tired, despite the fact that it just came out of a "refurbishment" at the end of March 2019. We couldn't see much that looked like it had been upgraded or updated: perhaps they just put in more tables and chairs in the dining areas, and renovated the cabins for the officers and the cruise director. To us, Empress of the Seas seemed like a ship that needs to be completely rebuilt, possibly for one of the luxury lines. It certainly is nothing more than a cash cow for RCI, because they don't seem to be spending any money on facilities or crew. Read Less