I’m not going to call this a review, because I’m really going to try to keep this one short…difficult for me at best, and it may prove impossible…we’ll see.
A little about us…this was our 23rd cruise – our 10th with Royal Caribbean, and we’ve also cruised on Princess, HAL, Celebrity, and Carnival. We cruise without children, so the children’s club and family activities aren’t important to us. We don’t usually go to BINGO, we’ve never rock climbed, and cruise ship pool games don’t do much for us either. We seldom use room service, don’t eat late at night, and make a game out of Windjammer avoidance – the more we can avoid it, the higher our score! The things that matter and that we judge a cruise on are good service, a comfortable cabin with as much private outdoor space as possible (yes, I’m a balcony snob), good wine, reasonably good food, and some decent entertainment and activities sprinkled in there. We used to be die-hard late traditional diners, but now prefer MTD at an earlier hour, and we eat more in the specialty restaurants than we do in the MDR. We seldom go to the production shows any more, and we’ve never been big fans of cruise ship comedians, but we do often enjoy guest performers, spending time in the Schooner Bar for the piano player or listening to whatever entertainer is in the pub, and some late-night gambling. The other thing we usually do a lot is join in on trivia, but for some reason that never happened on this trip – I guess our timing was off.
Pre-Cruise – We stayed at the Hampton Inn on St. Charles (in the Garden District) and it worked out perfectly for us. I liked being a little bit away from the action, and the very reasonable price of our room included parking for the cruise! We actually changed our plans and stayed two nights instead of one, since the price was so reasonable. We were upgraded at check-in, and we had a huge room overlooking St. Charles with a seating area and dining area. I would stay here again and recommend it as a great choice for cruisers who want a quieter location than the hotels in the center of the action. The cab fare to the port is fixed, so it will cost you $7.00 per person regardless of location.
This was my first trip to New Orleans…hard to believe since I’ve lived in Houston for 32+ years! We enjoyed dinner at Commander’s Palace the night we arrived, and I would call it a must do for anyone who has never been to NOLA.
We had a VERY busy Friday. We started with a self-guided walking tour of the Garden District, including Lafayette Cemetery. What a fascinating place! After we finished touring the cemetery, we walked around the Garden District for another 30 minutes or so, admiring the lovely restored homes and interesting architecture. We rode the street car down to the Quarter, and had lunch at Tableau – also highly recommended.
After lunch, we took a photography walking tour of the French Quarter with American Photo Safari. This was good, and we definitely saw a couple things we might have missed otherwise, but I thought it was a little heavy on technical camera instruction as opposed to seeing unusual sights and the composition (artistic) part of photography. At some point during the tour, I remarked to my husband that I didn’t know what all the fuss was about, that New Orleans was no wilder or weirder than any other big city. Remember those words, because in a few hours they will come back to bite me in the rear and what happened impacted my cruise!
We were fortunate to have “private guides” for our evening. Friends from Cruise Critic and the Mariner in 2012 know New Orleans well, and they helped us find our way around and see the important sights. We started at the Carousel Bar, then went to Felix’s for dinner. We followed that up with Pat O’Brien’s (twice), had front row seating at Preservation Hall (fabulous – don’t miss this!), and ended the night at Café du Monde for a fat and sugar fix!
So, back to my earlier comment…what bit me in the rear? When we went into Felix’s for dinner it was still light, but when we walked out and rounded the corner onto Bourbon Street it was dark and my jaw hit my chin. I was stunned by the difference from day to night! Now, I’m not graceful at the best of times, but I’m especially clumsy when I’m gawking and not paying attention to where I’m walking. One of those little dips in the brick at the edge of the street got the best of me, and down I went, sprawling in the middle of Bourbon Street. I have no excuse – at that point I had only had one drink – I just wasn’t paying attention. My tumble took the skin off my right knee and I badly twisted my left ankle, but thankfully my husband used his leg to partially break my fall and both my head and my camera emerged unscathed. A “nice” merchant in a bead and junk shop was kind enough to sell me three band aids for $4.35, and I had some Neosporin in my purse (remember, I’m a klutz!), so I tended to my knee and went about enjoying the rest of the evening. Fortunately, walking to Café du Monde at the end of the evening I discovered Rouse’s Grocery Store and bought a box of band aids and an ace bandage that would basically salvage my cruise. I had to go sandal-less and wear long pants for the week, but the cruise packing Gods were looking out for me because I actually had packed two pairs of closed toed shoes with Velcro straps that I could get on over the bandage. Usually I only have tennis shoes, and I never was able to get those on!
The cruise – I think I’ll just bullet this instead of a blow by blow description of our days on the ship. We’re really not that interesting and there’s a limit to how many days’ worth of “we relaxed and took a nap on the balcony” you can read!
What we liked:
• Our cabin – GS 1554 was very conveniently located and a little different from the other Grand Suites. It was a bit smaller because it was on the hump, but we had a full outer wall of glass with double sliding doors that basically served to make the cabin and the balcony seem like one space.
• We thought the ship was beautiful! This was our first time on a Radiance class ship, and I see why people love them. We thought Serenade was easy to navigate, beautifully decorated, and impeccably maintained.
• The staff we encountered on the Serenade were great! I know several people have written otherwise recently, but that wasn’t our experience at all. I had to visit guest services once, and they were friendly, helpful, and extremely apologetic they couldn’t help me find my lost earring. I thought the Concierge Lounge staff was phenomenal. Alan, the concierge, went out of his way to make guests comfortable. I think the server in the lounge, Melody, is quite simply the best in the fleet! If you have the good fortune to meet her in your travels, make sure you ask for a Chocolate Martini, and tell her Cindy, Deedee, and Carol said hi! The only “great staff” exception all week was a grumpy bartender in the Solarium. He seemed put-out by having to get me a bottle of water, but he looked put-out by life in general, so I just ignored his attitude and moved on!
• I also really liked Carly, the CD. I didn’t think she was phony at all as others have written, and I liked her low-key approach. This is totally a matter of taste, and while I don’t pay a lot of attention to Cruise Directors, the ones I dislike are the ones who always seem to be in my face drawing attention to themselves. I’m sure some of you remember Becky “Hallo Luv” from the Mariner. She had a huge following but she drove me crazy, and I thought everything was about her. I didn’t get that from Carly at all.
• The food, generally speaking, was very good. We only went to the Windjammer once, so the most I can say about that is I thought it was the standard buffet fare that I’ve seen on every ship. We ate in the dining room (MTD) on both formal nights. The first time, we had an excellent table and wait staff, and the food and service were both very good. The second time we weren’t as lucky, and both the food and service were lacking. We ate at Giovanni’s Table the first and last night. Although I love their food, the meal on Saturday was marred by extremely slow service and difficulty getting food out in the correct order as well as them serving everyone’s entrées at different times. We tried it again on Friday, and although the service was better, there was still something a little off about it. It appeared to me that there weren’t enough servers, and it also seemed like the kitchen had a difficult time getting food out in the intended order. Both evenings, the pasta was served when we were almost done with our mains. Chops was excellent in both food and service. I thought Chops was just as good as it’s always been, and it was better than Chops on the Oasis. By the way, Chops on the Serenade has tablecloths!
• Special events on the Serenade were extremely well done. We went to Chef’s Table, and thought the food was delightful. The wine pairings were good, not great (I would have rather had Caymus!), but they complemented the food and our waiter/sommelier Bento did a great job of explaining the choices. We were blown away by the suite “Cocktail Party” which was anything but a cocktail party. It was an exquisite upscale buffet lunch in Chops! What a pleasant surprise! We also attended a brunch in Chops on the last sea day. It was the first time they had offered this, and I would definitely do it again. We started with a galley tour, and then had a fantastic brunch that included steak, lobster, stuffed chicken breast, and eggs cooked to order. We didn’t attend either of the C&A parties because we found them to be at inconvenient times.
• We had an active roll call on CC, and ended up doing quite a bit with people from the roll call throughout the cruise. The Vortex was full for the official M&M…it seemed like everybody showed up! Our cabin crawl was very well attended, everybody who participated as a host went all-out with decorations and trinkets, and we were fortunate to end the event in the Royal Suite! Sometimes roll calls work out, and sometimes they don’t. This one was mostly a positive experience both on and off the ship.
• I love having two sea days at the end of the cruise…it just makes the whole packing and leaving process so much less painful when it’s spread out over two days!
Things we’re neutral about:
• Entertainment…we didn’t go to much of it, so it’s hard to judge. We saw the Las Vegas Tenors and thought they were great! There was a problem with the aerial shows on our cruise. A cable snapped right at the beginning of the performance on Monday night, and the show was cancelled. They did an abbreviated performance on Friday afternoon, but there was only one aerialist instead of two, and only one apparatus was used. I would have liked to see the full show, but I understand the safety concerns and sometimes things just happen! We also enjoyed QUEST and the 70’s Party on the Serenade, but there were other areas that we thought needed improvement. The most glaring one was, to us, the piano player. He seemed to always be on break when we tried to listen, and he seemed to spend most of the evening behind a cocktail instead of the keyboard!
• Embarkation and disembarkation were fine…I’m not going to go into a lot of detail since RCI is pulling out of NOLA. Embarkation was slowed by some extreme ineptitude at the security scanners, but after that it was smooth and quick for us. Disembarkation was the fastest and most efficient we’ve ever had on US soil – be prepared for a very long walk to transportation though!
• Photo Gallery – I think I got spoiled by the folio system on Oasis and on Navigator. I hated having to go on a search and rescue mission to find my photos! We don’t get many, but I needed to get my freebies, and even finding those was difficult. There were some shots that never showed up, and no one in there seemed especially helpful.
• Shops – meh. They seemed to have a lot of the usual stuff, just less of it. I did have some OBC I was trying to use, so I ended up finding some cute purses on sale and picked them up for my nieces for Christmas gifts. I thought the jewelry and clothing selection was skimpy compared to other ships. My husband was not bothered by this AT ALL…believe me, I don’t need to shop.
• We had the Ultimate Beverage Package, and I probably could have done without it on this trip because the CL was so accommodating. Even though we have lounge access and the evening HH drinks loaded on our cards, we’ve found it beneficial to have the package in the past because I am a wine snob, I hate the wine they pour in the lounges, and I’ve never been able to get any “frou frou” martinis in there either. I would have been fine on this trip to just get the Royal Replenish for water, Pellegrino, and fancy coffees and then loaded up on OBC to cover alcohol and wine. I will say it seemed a bit easier to use the package than it has been in the past, but the experience still isn’t as good as on Celebrity where you never sign anything.
What we didn’t like (thankfully not much):
• The elevators were an issue the entire trip. We were on Deck 10 and ordinarily would have just walked up to 13, but I had the annoying issue of a bad ankle and had great difficulty walking up or down the stairs. Often, completely empty elevators would whiz by, but what was even worse was the people who thought catching an elevator was a sporting event. They would hit the close button before others could get on, and then laugh as people missed the ride. Seriously. What kind of a jerk does that? I’m not talking about kids playing, I’m talking about totally rude and inconsiderate adults. Shame on them. Only slightly less annoying were the people who would arrive at the elevator lobby and dart onto the first one that came, despite the fact there were people who had been waiting. Sheesh…I was just stunned at the number of self-centered, inconsiderate people I encountered in an elevator lobby. I guess they were taking a vacation from manners.
• This was a Spring Break cruise, and although I didn’t think we had any “typical” Spring Break behavior, there were a few VERY large groups travelling together. They tended to monopolize the space wherever they were. On the first night, their chosen location happened to be the CL, and they were so loud we had to leave…we literally couldn’t have a conversation. Again, I think it all boils down to being considerate of your fellow passengers and remembering you’re on a large cruise ship, not a private yacht.
• Port times were poor (although I booked the cruise knowing this, because I wanted to go on a Radiance class ship and sail out of New Orleans). We didn’t get into Nassau until 1:00, and our time in Key West was only 11:00-5:00. The only port with what I would call “normal” hours and a full day was Coco Cay.
• I didn’t think the perks for suites were as good as on other ships. I missed having Chops for breakfast and a place to sit during lunch to get away from the Windjammer crowds.
• For some reason, this wasn’t a good sleeping cruise for us. Neither one of us thought the mattress was very comfortable, and although we couldn’t hear any noise from the Centrum (they kept the fire door closed at night) we did have some noise from above.
• Finally, and to me this is the biggie and the one that Royal Caribbean needs to address is the smoke. The smoke from the casino wasn’t just bad in the casino, it was bad in the Centrum on all the decks above the casino. It drifted down the cabin hallways…I could smell it when I opened my cabin door. I’m not a militant anti-smoking person, but I thought it was awful, and I hated smelling smoke in all the public areas. This won’t be a popular opinion on here, but if they can’t find a way to properly extract the smoke then maybe it’s time to get rid of inside smoking completely. Create a sheltered, comfortable, well-ventilated area outside and be done with it. The only good thing was that I found the smoke so oppressive it kept me out of the casino. Since there was a thief in there masquerading as a Wheel of Fortune machine it’s probably a good thing I stayed away!
Key West: We did our own walking tour, based on recommendations in the Ports of Call section of CC and on Trip Advisor. We started with lunch at Bo’s Fish Wagon, which is a fascinating, kitschy, delicious, and probably totally unsanitary place built around an old food wagon. If you’ve never eaten conch fritters while chickens roam freely by your feet and jump on the tables, then I suggest Bo’s! We walked after lunch, through a neighborhood with beautiful restored homes and on to Duval Street and some local color. We spent about 45 minutes at the Butterfly Conservancy before walking over to the Southernmost Point and waiting our turn in line to take photos. By that time, I was beat, sweating (because I had on long pants and closed toed shoes), and my ankle was throbbing, so we grabbed a pedi-cab to take us to our next stop for a little slice of heaven – Kermit’s frozen, chocolate-dipped Key Lime Pie on a Stick! Yum! I had thought about that treat for 22 months (the length of time between booking and sailing) and it didn’t disappoint. After that, I was pretty much done. We wandered slowly back to the ship, browsing as we went and generally taking our time. I would have loved longer in Key West, but on that particular day I was happy to get back to my floating home for the week and put my foot up!
Nassau: We had a group of 13 (all from the roll call) take a Tru Bahamian Food Tour. This was fantastic and I highly recommend it. The owner was great to work with, and happy to set up an afternoon tour to accommodate our late ship arrival. Our guide, Murray, was a wealth of knowledge and interesting anecdotes, and we had a terrific time. After the tour Jim and I went back to the ship, and never went back on shore. We were sound asleep LONG before the Serenade sailed at midnight.
Coco Cay: We shared a cabana with a Cruise Critic friend from the ship, and it was perfect for us. Neither Jim nor I are big beach people, especially if it’s crowded, so I was perfectly content to have a lovely shaded couch to lay on and only emerge to take pictures or eat! I thought it was a good choice for us since the Majesty was there too and the island did seem extremely crowded to me.
Conclusions – We would go on the Serenade again in a heartbeat! While she doesn’t have some of the bells and whistles of the newer and bigger ships, she’s beautiful, and for our tastes this was a great cruise. If someone needs to be entertained instead of finding the ocean itself entertaining, or likes to be active 24/7, the Serenade might not be a great choice.
Much has changed in the cruise industry in the 15 years since we took our first cruise, and in many ways the product in 2015 is unrecognizable next to the product in 2000, or even 2010. Some things are gone never to return and some now cost extra, but that’s not all bad. There are more choices than ever, and a person can really personalize things to their tastes. Read Less