(6:29 p.m. EDT) – Royal Caribbean has changed its mind. The line says it will now compensate the Serenade of the Seas passengers it stranded in San Juan after port authorities ordered the ship to leave three hours early to escape Hurricane Irene.

The reversal was not revealed by Royal Caribbean, but by travel agent Anne Sharkey, who e-mailed Cruise Critic on behalf of two clients who arrived in San Juan on August 21 to find the terminal doors locked. Royal Caribbean spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez confirmed that a compensation package was indeed being offered but declined to provide specifics. She said Royal Caribbean wanted the impacted passengers to learn the amount directly from the line before it was disclosed publicly.

Royal Caribbean's handling of the situation became an explosive topic for Cruise Critic readers, whose heated debate stretched 35 pages and 700 posts in the Royal Caribbean forum, attracting attention from national news outlets like CNN and MSNBC.

For the last week, Royal Caribbean had stood by a statement saying it would not provide passengers compensation for the missed cruise because the cause was weather-related -- and therefore out of the line's control. Its approach stood in sharp relief to that of competitor Carnival Cruise Lines, whose San Juan-based Carnival Victory also left port several hours early -- minus some 300 passengers. Carnival offered all passengers complimentary hotel rooms for two nights in San Juan and a free flight to Barbados, the next scheduled call, to meet the ship.

Kathy Bender of Virginia, a client of Sharkey's who was supposed to be on Serenade with her husband before its abrupt departure, told Cruise Critic she got word of RCI's change of heart yesterday.

"My husband called Royal Caribbean [Tuesday] and was told there was going to be some sort of compensation," said Bender, who arrived while the ship was still docked but was unable to board because the manifest was finalized. "We got out of the cab and people were yelling 'run!'" she added.

Bender, who did not have travel insurance, said she and her husband spent nearly $1,000 on two nights' hotel in San Juan and the return flights home to Virginia. The Benders decided not to book a flight to Aruba or Curacao to meet the ship due to the high fares.

Would she cruise with Royal Caribbean again? "Yes, I would," answered Bender, "if they come through with the compensation. But I really want to see how they handle this situation, not just with me but with all the impacted passengers."

--by Dan Askin, News Editor