Quips, quirks, and biases
One of the great things about cruise vacations is that, in many cases, they are what you make of them. Because of that, I always like to include this little introductory section where I describe where I'm coming from, as context definitely colors any review. This was my 10th cruise on Royal Caribbean, and 20th cruise overall. I've been "loyal to Royal" lately because I like their ships, have received competitive pricing, enjoy the C&A perks, and enjoy the OBC I receive for NextCruise bookings. I made my booking directly through Royal Caribbean the Tuesday before the Saturday departure.
I'm currently a graduate student, and I booked this cruise on a lark just under a week before its departure because a) the cruise rate was phenomenal ($281 base fare for a single person in an inside guarantee) b) the airfare was tolerable, and c) I needed a break from school (again after my October cruise, sheesh!). This was to be my first official Diamond cruise, though upon talking to C&A before leaving, it was clear that I would have a little leg-work to do once I got onboard because my most recent Majesty cruise was too recent for the computer system to count it as a credit.
I dislike flying the day of the cruise, and I especially dislike doing it in/near winter. However, one benefit of booking so late was that I felt fairly confident when looking at the short-term forecast that there would not be any significant weather occurrences on embarkation day. I arrived at the new Indianapolis airport at about 6 in the morning, my 8:00 direct flight on AirTran to Fort Lauderdale left without a hitch, and I had my bags collected by 11 AM in Fort Lauderdale (which looked like a refugee camp at this point with all of the cruise passengers with late flights sitting around with their baggage. From these boards I knew that the airport was close so I hailed a cab and a $17.50 ride later (including the $2 airport fee), I was waiting for a porter in front of Navigator.
When I got out of the cab, I actually had a little trouble getting a porter to help me (they were all draw to taxis and vans with more people, etc). When I finally got the attention of one, I told him that I didn't have tags. He went looking for the manifest and couldn't find one, so he took the number off of my SetSail Pass, put it on a blank tag, and sent me on my way.
Once in the terminal, things seemed a little confused. In going through security, I asked twice about needing to take my laptop out of my bag. The first agent said yes, but the person manning the scanning machine said no, so I was grateful not to go through the hassle. I then proceeded to the priority embarkation line, which was empty, and was immediately shown to a check-in agent. The lady came back with the wrong key, then the right one, and seeing I was "Platinum" on my card, she sent me on my way, remarking that of course I already knew everything (and failing to note, as I'd find out later, that my room assignment had changed). I made my way past that security photo stations (they weren't boarding yet) and was vaguely directed to waiting area. I approached one of the agents to ask where I was supposed to sit and, upon seeing my card, she brought me to a group of chairs and had people move their luggage so that I could have a seat. A few minutes later, a different agent got on the PA and apologized for the wait, but explained that the ship was going through a full Coast Guard inspection because she had just returned from Europe. I was not aware of this fact, but having been in a similar situation on the Brilliance last year, I knew that even at 11:15, there was going to be a bit of a wait. Another announcement was made a few minutes later, and after about 30 minutes of waiting, an agent came through to collect all Platinum and Diamond members and escort them through the security photo process and then on the ship. I ended up being about the 5th person to board (besides any wedding party or other group).
My first stop on the ship was the Guest Relations desk. While waiting in the terminal, I spent time looking at my SeaPass and realized that my room assignment had changed. The day I had booked my inside guarantee, I had been fairly quickly assigned an accessible oceanview cabin on Deck 2 and this assignment had not changed on my reservation up to the time it disappeared off of the Royal Caribbean website. Since the numbers on my SeaPass signifying the last 3 digits of my cabin were different I knew I had been moved, but had no idea what deck. It took a little explanation to the guest relations person I spoke to (I would have thought that "What cabin am I in" was a standard question), but he told me that I was now in a cabin on Deck 6. I asked about my bags and the fact that they were going to another room and was told not to worry about it ... they knew they had changed my room. Figuring that accessible room had become needed and that I was back in an inside, I went off to explore the ship until we could access the cabins. I headed to the Windjammer, which was not open yet, so I shot hoops and played a bit of mini-golf until the Windjammer opened (I think around noon).
At a little after 1, I went to look for my new cabin. As it turns out, I had been upgraded to a balcony cabin just off the aft hump (6334). This was a huge shock for me (I've never been visited by a category-jumping upgrade fairy) and I was suspicious that this was not my true cabin because it had been made-up with two Platinum books and a German version of the Compass. My key worked though, so in a flash of inspiration, I checked my onboard account on the TV and, sure enough, it had my name down. For the oddness to continue though, the room steward visited later and asked me if I was "Willie" ... it turns out that my upgrade was so new that she still hadn't received my name on her roster. She took my name, removed the Platinum books, and left me to my room which, since I was alone, was the first time I've ever looked around a cabin and though that I had an overabundance of space.
Quest for Diamond
Even with assurances from the C&A agent I spoke to that she would email the ship and let them know I would be Diamond, I was about 95% sure that the important order of business for embarkation day would be getting my status upgraded and getting ahold of that Concierge key. Guest services told me that I would need to talk to the Loyalty Ambassador (with hours starting at 6 PM the first day) in order get my status straightened out. At 5:55 I found a small line of people at the Ambassador's desk. She showed up a little after 6 and a short time later, she was telling me that she couldn't find my Majesty trip and, in fact, I my history only showed 5 cruises even though I had 9 credits. [side note: I still find the kinks, quirks, and shortcomings of the C&A system amazing considering it deals with such a valuable commodity as loyal, repeat guests ... I had to go through the same rigmarole when I moved from Gold to Platinum] Luckily, having anticipated this problem, I whipped out my SeaPass from Majesty and was quickly given a Diamond sticker on my Navigator SeaPass, a Diamond book, and most importantly ... that concierge key.
I have been on two Voyager-class ships before, Voyager and Explorer, which are both the "early" versions of the ship. In truth, the only differences I noticed were art/sculptures on the pool deck and balconies on the outside of the superstructure rather than the "cave" balconies that can be found on the early designs. In fact, having had a cave-balcony at the end of July on Explorer on deck 6, I can say that I much preferred the deck 6 balcony I received on Navigator. The plexiglass front to the balcony offered a much better view of the water while in a seated position and the balcony just seemed to feel more airy.
As for the rest of the ship, the Voyager-class staples were all present and working. The Royal Promenade was impressive, as always, though I was surprised to see the Explorer's sports bar replaced by the Navigator's wine bar. I thought that the insides of the ship were well-kept, and it was nice to be in a room that wasn't full of scratched furniture, dirty carpets, etc. The outside of the ship, in my opinion, seemed like it could use a little work as I noticed many rust spots as I walked around the outside promenade. Probably the most irritating issue about the ship on this voyage was the water ... it was generally a light shade of yellow for most of the voyage. It didn't have any extra odor that I noticed, but pulling a glass of yellow water out of the tap is pretty disgusting, as is using white towels with yellow stains all over them. I'm not sure what caused it, and I have no idea if an explanation or apology was ever given.
The Staff and Crew
I will say upfront that because I did not go to any show but the ice show and was usually in bed by 11:30-12, I really had no interactions at all with the cruise director. From my brief views of him on the television during his morning show and the love and marriage show, he seemed more suited to a European cruise than a Caribbean cruise (which makes sense). I enjoyed talking to the cruise director's staff and Vitality staff, especially Lara from Boston who ran the activities all day in Jamaica. My room steward, Elvie, was phenomenal and we'd spend time every day chatting in the hallway about various topics. I'd also rate my wait staff fairly high (and I feel bad that I can't remember their names). Javier and Allan in the CL did a good job, I thought, in keeping the show moving during the busy times, and both were very easy to talk to when it slowed down a little.
As for the crew in general, I thought it was kind of a mixed bag. I was not usually greeted by other room stewards as I walked past them, nor others working on the deck. The bartenders all seemed very friendly (as is their job, right?), and the bar waiters seemed to be polite and non-harassing if you sat in their venue (for trivia, etc) and not making any purchases. I thought that the girls in the perfume shop blew me off a little, but who knows ... maybe they figured that the big money would be coming from the women buying makeup and not the guy just looking for a single bottle of cologne.
In terms of service, I thought that the low points for me came in the casual eating venues. The Windjammer greeter in the morning was always smiling, friendly, and easy to engage, but everyone else seemed fairly shut down. I remember walking into the Windjammer for lunch on the last day and saying hello to the greeter who was standing there stoically. She looked at me, clicked her counter, and made no other expression or return on the greeting. In terms of service in the Windjammer, I thought it was a little lacking in comparison to my previous cruises. My plates were not cleared, and only once in the whole trip was I offered beverages (in my past experience, when sitting down for breakfast, usually 2-3 people would ask if I would like coffee each morning, etc).
I was probably most irritated by the service at Johnny Rockets ... and this is such a minor thing in the grand scheme, but boy it made me mad. Anyway, I made the classic mistake of forgetting to use my JR coupon until the last day, a sea day, which is of course the absolute worst time in the world to visit JR unless you want to wait. I showed up after Bingo to a packed house with long line, so I came back around 3, and while it was still packed, I was the only person in line (until others joined, of course). As I'm standing there, the officer in charge comes up to me, says "There's a wait. I'll seat you later." and walks away. OK I think ... as I see some people about ready to leave. The people do leave, and the table is not bussed for about 5 minutes. At this point, the officer doing the seating has disappeared and I'm wondering if I should just go sit or wait. Another 5 minutes pass and a group of younger kids (8-10ish) by themselves push into the restaurant and of course go to the empty seats. At this time the officer returns, looks at me, then says something to one of the waiters who proceeds to grab menus and hands them to the kids who have just sat down in front of me and about 6 other people in line. At this point I'm just mad (at having wasted my time) and I walked out because I realized it was no longer worth my time or energy. I realize that they were busy and that no one really wanted to kick the kids out and tell them to wait their turn, but come on ... service on the last day counts for more, in my opinion, because that is what sticks in your mind.
The ill-gotten cabin
I was of course thrilled with the cabin upgrade, and it turned out to be a very nice cabin. I was placed in 6334, which was a balcony towards the aft a little off the hump (I think it was a D1 or a D2 but I'm bad with colors). It was essentially the same cabin I had had on Explorer, though obviously with just me instead of 3 in there, it seemed much more spacious. Actually, the cabin was really very nice overall with very little wear-and-tear on the furniture. The balcony was great, of course. For those of you who have never had a standard balcony on RCCL, it came with two chairs and a small table.
I did not make use of a lot of the entertainment onboard, but there seemed to be quite a bit available depending on your tastes. There were of course nightly shows (many of the late shows were pre-dinner) including two production shows (All-Access and the usual Broadway revue), the Welcome Aboard show, what was I believe a Motown show, and the Farewell show. The ice-show was Ice Dancin' and there were no tickets needed ... seating was first-come, first served and at the show I went to (second one on the first sea day), there were plenty of empty seats. There were also two parades in the Royal Promenade(first night and second to last) as well as a 70s dance party with the "Village People" making an appearance on the bridge. I believe that there was an piano player in the Schooner Bar and some sort of entertainment provided in the pub (Two Poets) as well. Sorry I can't be more helpful here, but to be honest, I hit the sack pretty early each night (keeps me out of the casino). There was also a midnight comedy show one night with Hal Spears.
The lounge was very busy the first night with almost all of the chairs, couches, and extra chairs in use. After that night, it was my experience that the lounge ranged from quite busy to almost dead, depending on what time you went in. I usually headed in about 6:30-7 to drink/talk until 8:30 dinner. Usually it tended to get more crowded around 7:30-8 when the first seating folks came up for post-dinner drinks, but to be honest, past that first night, there seemed to be seating available as long as you were willing to make new friends and take the available seats.
I'll put in a disclaimer here, just FYI, but I don't mean it to be negative. I'm currently taking Advair, which is inhaled steroids. One of the side-effects for me is that most food tastes awesome. With that being said, I thought that the food on the Navigator was quite good. I'll admit that it was a little boring (the same stuff I've seen in the Windjammer and dining room for a few years), but things seemed to be very well prepared. My standout "new for me" item were the triple-chunk cookies at the Cafe Promenade ... quite tasty. Lobster was offered on Grand Cayman night and though the tail was small, I thought it was prepared quite well and was actually not rubbery or mushy. My main complaint though, as always, is with the desserts. With the exception of a few nights, the desserts in the dining room were very forgettable. The desserts in the Windjammer, in my opinion, are mostly downright awful because they have a gelatin base between the nice looking (and tasting) topping and the crust. You could always tell that something was going to be fairly tasteless when your tart/pie wobbled when it was on your plate ... I'm sorry, but a piece of peanut butter pie should not wobble!
Let me start off this section by saying that I have been to both of these ports before (Cayman many, many times) and am actually returning in about 3 weeks. In other words, I'm not going to have any exciting stories here and I didn't take any tours, but I'll try to give some input where I can.
Grand Cayman Cayman is a tender port, which for those of you who might be new to this cruising thing, means that the ship does not dock but instead floats out in the harbor and sends passengers ashore in "little" boats. This is obviously much less convenient than being at a docking port where you can just walk off. It can also lead to the cancellation of the port due to weather conditions as it is unsafe to transfer to the tender when there are large waves. It was extremely windy the night before arrival, and I was actually shaken awake at 3:30 AM due to ship movement, so I had it in my mind that we would probably not be able to call on Cayman the next day. As it turns out, I was only mostly wrong ... we were able to tender ashore, but an announcement was made onboard that because of the weather, all stingray city tours were cancelled (AKA, most of the tours in Grand Cayman).
The night before Cayman, Javier gave priority tender tickets to people in the CL. Otherwise, tender tickets were distributed (supposedly starting at around 9 AM, I think, but didn't check) in a specified location (I'm thinking Royal Promenade, but may be wrong here). We actually arrived a little early, so a little before 9, a general call to board the tenders was made for anyone ready to go, no tickets required for about a 20 minute window. Since I was ready I went down, boarded, and the tender was off by 9:15 or so.
I debarked at the pier which was a little hectic (there was also a Carnival ship in port using the same general area). The shops were all as I remembered them with plenty of clothing, jewelry, and liquor stores, many of which also sold over-priced "Cuban" cigars. Cayman is definitely one of those islands, however, where you feel pretty safe as long as, if you're an American like me, you remember to look the opposite direction when you step off a curb (British driving rules apply). I ended up walking all around, and even though it was early, it seemed clear that the most popular destinations were Senor Frogs, Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, and the Hard Rock Cafe. I chose to buy some overpriced, color-changing board shorts at Del Sol ($42, but was in need of a new water duds and they aren't exactly selling them during this season in Indiana). Since I had also promised to buy a rum cake for someone, I spent my time looking at the differences and prices between the traditional Tortuga rum cakes and Blackbeard's. I was also looking at liquor and was actually thrown out of one store for having the nerve to pull out my iPhone and type in a few prices ... "Hey you! You can't do that. Our pricing is confidential." Since all of the pricing was pretty much the same anyway, I guess it didn't matter, but it was still a little irritating. I ended up purchasing a liter of Hendrick's gin (a recommendation I happened to remember from someone a few weeks before I left) for $28 ... take that confidentiality. I made this purchase at one of the Blackbeard's stores, so since I had bought a liter of alcohol (any), I was able to get a free large rum cake (a $20 value ... I was given a coupon that I had to take to another woman just down the alleyway ... no problem at all). Two birds, one stone. Check. Also, again for those of you new to the cruising thing or visiting Cayman, any liquor purchases are paid for in the store but delivered directly to your ship. In other words, you pay money, give them your ship and room number, and pray that on the last day of the cruise, your liquor arrives (mine did, no problem).
After my wild expenditures, I made my way back to the tenders (it was about 11 at this point) and had to convince the security guard that I actually did want to go back. The tender was already pulling away by this point, so I had to wait in the outside area until the next one emptied and then I was quickly ushered in. At this point the tender was pulling up the gangplank, leaving me to shout ... I'M GOING BACK!! They look at me and shout back ... YOU GOING BACK??!!?? Anyway, after this model of clear communication, the gangplank was refastened, I boarded, and a few minutes later, I was back on Navigator.
PS ... tenders at this point were running packed to shore. I don't recall more tender announcements so I don't know if it was open tendering or not, but if you are a late riser, expect a bit of a wait to go ashore.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
This was my second time visiting Jamaica. My first time was with my mother, and to be honest, I was slightly disappointed that no one offered me any drugs (not that I would have bought them, of course). Remembering how adamant the people were, though, I had second thoughts about going ashore, but since I had promised to buy some coffee for someone, I was duty-bound to step off the ship.
You start out at the famous blue-railed pier, then head into a waiting area where you can head in various directions ... to the left looked like some shops and straight ahead, through the main gate, was the main road that you would take to the closer shopping areas. I took the main gate, then headed into the first store on the right, which is where I remembered purchasing coffee on my last trip. Surprise surprise it was still there, with 8 oz of blue mountain coffee running for around $13 with 16 oz around $20. I seemed to have a recollection that it was a little cheaper at the Taj Mahal shopping center, so I walked that direction (just down the street and to the left). Of course I was harassed and propositioned (taxis, tours, drugs, sex, taxis) about every 30 feet on this walk, but when I made it to the Taj Mahal area (also home to the Hard Rock Cafe), I discovered that coffee was exactly the same price or more expensive. At this point, it was back to the first store and back through the gauntlet, but I made my coffee purchase and was back on the ship before 11. I know quite a few people spent their time at Margaritaville drinking shots and using the swim-up-bar and waterslide (it is located down that main road and to the right into a shopping complex ... Island Village, I think).
Ok ... so bottom line ... I don't think I felt "unsafe" in Jamaica, but I definitely felt uncomfortable with so many people trying to get a piece of me even after seeing their buddies fail. Many others I talked to also had similar feeling about the place, and for the first-time cruisers I talked to onboard, they were absolutely horrified (thinking that other stops would be like Cayman). I just stuck to my rules ... be polite but firm, do not hesitate in refusing an offer (it just gives them the idea that they can change your mind), don't stop walking, and keep your party together. If you have kids, keep them in front of you ... I saw a family walking in front of me where one of the women selling hairbraids had latched on to the kid who was tailing a little behind, who had no idea what to do as the lady hung on and was telling the parents to stop because the little girl really wanted to get her hair braided, etc.
On the second to last night, the debarkation information sheet was placed in my cabin during turn-down. The standard two options applied: express debarkation (carry your own bags off without assistance) or standard debarkation (tag your large luggage and place your bags in the hallway the last night by midnight). If you wished to do express, you were supposed to go down to the deck 2 debarkation desk and get a ticket (numbered one through three). If you wanted to do standard, you would use the tags that were delivered to your room and the color of the tags would determine the order and around what time you would get off the ship.
On the morning of debarkation, both the main dining room and Windjammer were open for breakfast. Those wishing to do express debarkation were to meet on deck 4 in the Boleros area, though passengers would be exiting on deck 1, aft. Each debarkation group had a specified place to meet (listed on the debarkation sheet). I went to the Platinum and Diamond lounge (deck 4 dining room ... and keys were checked for entry) to wait at about 7:30, just about the time when the people there got up to leave for express debarkation. I sat, ate some rolls and had some coffee, and waited for white tags (Diamond members, post-cruise tour groups) to be called. It was listed to be 8:15, but I think the express debarkation numbers surprised them and the tags were not actually called until about 8:45 (I think ... though I got the impression that the members in the lounge were about the last to know as we couldn't hear announcements and had to wait for the guy on the walkie talkie to tell us we could leave). I was slightly surprised that there was no escort off for Diamond members ... we were just told to go. The lines were not bad at all, however, except for people who clogged up the hallways digging through their bags for passports, customs declarations, or their SeaPass card. I was fairly quickly off the ship and outside where we then had to walk the length of the ship to the customs area. At this point it was obvious who could not handle their bags as these people would stop suddenly, fumble around, re-adjust, etc. Once in the customs area, white-tagged bags were spread across two rooms (and I was so glad my bag was standard black). I found my bag fairly quickly, however, and then proceeded in to the customs line which confused some people because a) there were a lot of non-US citizens onboard who had a different line and b) once you got past the sign saying which line to go in, the back of the sign was reversed so it looked like you were in the wrong line. As we waited in line, officers with dogs walked up and down the queue and there generally seemed to be more security than I've noticed in some other ports. I anticipated some grief for traveling alone (in Miami I thought I was going to get back-roomed), but after a few questions, I was waved through.
Directly outside the customs area were the motorcoaches and taxis. I went to the right, to grab a taxi. At this point, a guy wearing a "taxi" shirt grabbed my wheeled bag, took it 30 ft, and put it in the trunk of a cab. I hadn't realized that this guy wasn't the driver until it was too late, so I pulled out a dollar and gave it to him (receiving dirty looks ... to which I responded ... dude, you rolled my bag 30 feet). In about 10 minutes and a $15.50 fare later I was at the airport.
I was flying Northwest, and there were signs on the line that said no bags would be checked until 3 hours before the scheduled departure time. I had anticipated this, and glancing at my watch (it was now 9:15 and my flight was at 2:30), I grabbed a seat and made use of the free wireless internet watching people check-in (it is now a $90 fee to have an overweight bag on NWA, beyond the $15 single checked bag charge, so there was lots of content shifting going on as people's bags came in overweight). The line really thinned out at around 10:45, and worried about the weight of my bag, I went up to ask if I could weigh my bag to see if I needed to remove some stuff (and could do it while not having people wait behind me). The very nice check-in agent told me that I could go ahead and check-in as the time limit was really only for very busy times like the weekend. I thought that was nice, so I checked in (paying only my $15 first bag fee ... which came in at 50 pounds exactly) and headed through security and had lunch at the Chili's Too in the terminal. Interesting note, at around 2:00, the gate agent announced that boarding would begin immediately and that if everyone got on board, we'd leave early because the pilot had a Thanksgiving dinner planned with his girlfriend that he wanted to make. Miraculously, everyone who had already checked in was at the gate (all 30 of us ... tiny plane), and our 2:30 flight was actually pushed back from the gate by 2:15. Even more miraculously, our gate in Indianapolis was clear, so we actually arrived and were off the plane 30 minutes ahead of schedule.
I've now done two cruises where I've boarded the ship the day it had returned from Europe, and from those experiences, I've come to the conclusion that those first voyages are "not quite right" in terms of ship upkeep, scheduling, and service. My guess is that this comes from two areas ... first, I think there is a concentrated influx/outflux of crew members directly before/after the crossing, which perhaps leads to a larger number of new people still learning their jobs, the ship, etc. Second, the Coast Guard inspection upon arrival in the US is extremely thorough and taxing for the crew (most were telling me that they were up by 3 AM that day) beyond their normal duties, and after that, it may take them a few days to get back to normal. Add into this that the ship is still burning through "old" foodstuffs (which are easy to tell when they are foreign-branded) and may be missing some other supplies (I overheard several complaints that there was none of the cheap Cruzan flavored rum to be found in the gift shop), like I said, things are just a little off.
With all of that being said, and taking into account the water problems, I still had a very fun time. This was my second cruise solo, and I met so many new people (passengers and crew) that the only time I really felt lonely was the unfortunate dinner where I was the only person eating at a table for 10 (and it was lobster night!). I thought that the upkeep of the ship was pretty decent, and even though the differences are pretty small, I think that I do prefer the "newer" Voyager ships to the older ones. No matter the age, however, I can't help but be impressed by this class of ship in terms of what is offered in your fare, and though I rarely used the sports court, ice rink, or rock-wall, they definitely kept people away from the areas that I frequented. There were always activities that I wanted to participate in during the day(trivia, shuffleboard, golf simulator challenges, etc), and had I wanted to do anything at night, there would have been a lot to do then, too. Sure, there are some areas where I think Royal Caribbean could improve (such as food choices and desserts), but even if I had received the inside cabin that I had paid for, I think I would have gotten a very good value for my money, which is a key for me (and why I'm not even looking at Oasis at the moment). Read Less