First, a little background about us. My husband and I are in our late 20s and this was our third Caribbean cruise together, second taken over Christmas. Our previous two were both on Carnival ships, so we spent a fair bit of time comparing the two lines. Regarding the ship itself, we found that decorations less tacky on the Serenade, but longed for the three sets of elevators rather than just two. Our inside cabin suited our needs just fine, but the bed was a little short, particularly since the end was rounded, so my poor husband's feet did hang off at night. The biggest differences that stood out to us in terms of our experience were the food and the service.
In terms of food, Carnival's was better without question, especially in the dining room. This time, we found no need to go to the dining room for breakfast, since it served the same thing as the buffet, offered fewer choices and took longer. We did notice that there were almost never lines in the buffet area, so it was easy to get what we wanted quickly in the morning. Throughout the day, you have to be very aware of time. Unlike on Carnival's ships, there were periods where the Windjammer was closed. This meant no access to ice cream, and even worse, from one side of the ship to the other without going up or down. We found this very frustrating. There was always food available, but you had to know what was open when and where (as well as multiple routes for getting there). The Seaview Cafe was nice for a snack when the buffet was closed. We also had some frustrations with bars. We found that different bars were open at various times and we couldn't figure out the schedule, so never developed a personal rapport with any bartender, something we've enjoyed doing in the past. My husband also found it difficult to find milk when he needed it, as only some bars had it. The other food note that stood out from our main dining room experience was due to our dining partners. We had some vegetarians at our table and they felt that the vegetarian options were very limited and rather repetitive, particularly for the main courses. Again, while the food was good, it wasn't great and the quality and consistency of Carnival's was higher, in both of our opinions. We ate at Portofino's one night for the mystery dinner (more on that later), and the steak was divine. It's a shame that the rest of the food on the ship didn't live up to this or anywhere near it.
Service, however, was better on the Serenade. I was particularly impressed that I was so often greeted by name (by our stateroom attendant and our waiters), since I have a hyphenated first name which Royal Caribbean's system cannot handle. Although my first name was truncated on all of their official lists, everyone remembered my name as I introduced myself. We felt that our needs were well taken care of and thought it was impressive that even while dining in the Windjammer, waiters would offer to get you drinks, not just clear the tables. We can't decide if we were pleased or disappointed to be in the smaller dining room off of the main dining room for dinner. I wondered what we were missing, particularly when the waiters were singing and dancing. On the other hand, I suspect that it was quieter where we were; you really noticed it when the table beside us didn't have many people. Had we decided to say something, I am sure that our head waiter would have done his best to accommodate us. We have never had as much contact with our Head Waiter as we did on this cruise. He visited the table a couple of times every night, checked in with everybody and followed-up on issues from previous nights (getting kids served quickly, vegetarian options). Our waiter continued with this service-centred attitude. He was friendly but restrained and mindful of what we wanted from one meal to the next. He always brought out extra dishes for us to try and often they related back to what we had liked earlier. Our Assistant Waiter was very kind, but we had some difficulty understanding him due to his accent. This actually stopped my husband from getting a cappuccino he initially ordered, as he couldn't communicate the follow-up information. Outside of dining, service was equally excellent. Our stateroom attendant was very observant and adjusted our turn-down based on what she noticed we had done the previous night - everything from the number of pillows to leaving the sheets untucked. We felt well-tended to throughout the ship.
We chose this cruise because of the itinerary, as it stopped at a few ports that we wanted to visit. We do, however, still like to enjoy the ship. On our previous cruises, we particularly enjoyed our days at sea. It seems that the Serenade kept its on-board activities almost as active on days in port as it did for its days at sea. This is a double-edged sword. It meant that there was always lots to do, and that I was actually disappointed to have to miss certain things because we were busy on excursions. However, it also meant that when we were at sea, it felt like there wasn't a whole lot to do. The main entertainment was always left for the evenings. We found the visiting entertainers fantastic (although under-attended). They were mostly singers, which I think kept some people away. The fact that it was a Christmas cruise also may have affected attendance, as people stayed with their large family groupings in the evenings. The ship's orchestra was phenomenal and were the stars of the cruise, I would say. They also had very talented singers in the serenade's performers and the dancers tried, but were a little out-shone. The Cruise Directors' staff activities were hit and miss. Quest was hilarious, as promised, Majority Rules was disappointing and a little boring. We found that whoever was leading the activities made a big difference. We really enjoyed our Cruise and Activity Directors, and found the Morning Show a neat way to feel like we knew them a little better. One of the other staff who often led activities got under our skin a little bit and we found that we had less fun when he was in charge of an activity. One activity that we tried was the Mystery Dinner. It was very entertaining and as I said before, delicious. We really wanted to solve the mystery, so were disappointed that others at our table wasted our precious questioning time being silly, but it seems that that's par for the course when there's limitless wine. The evening was still worth the extra cost, in our opinion. We also enjoyed the parties on board and I was impressed at how well-used the Centrum was, with many couples dancing every night. We also really enjoyed how much it felt like Christmas on the ship. Many times, the director said that he wanted everyone to feel like family and we really did. The carols Christmas Eve and Santa's visit on the 25th felt authentic and memorable. We appreciated that while there were many family events presented, the staff actually were mindful of those of us without children and actually enforced some of the adult-only rules in the Solarium, when teenagers were being too rowdy, and in the nightclubs, even when they got flack from parents (gee, do you think there are rules for a reason?). I also noted that there was less smoking allowed on this ship than our previous travels, which meant that I was more comfortable venturing out to different areas, but it still kept us away from karaoke, the sports bar and some nights at the nightclub. It's hard to adjust to smoke in such situations when it's not allowed where we live. The only other note that we would give Royal Caribbean, would be that the ship turned around to go back to Grenada to get someone off the ship and on an ambulance. There was never any official mention of this on-board. As it happened during our dinner time, many were aware of it (my husband went up on deck to investigate and said there was a large number of people looking to find out what had happened). While we recognize that there must be respect for the family, we would have appreciated getting some official information or at least an acknowledgement, rather than following rumours running rampant around the ship.
All in all, we really enjoyed our travels on the Serenade of the Seas and would go again in a heartbeat!
Ports of Call
Tortola - a visit to the Baths on Virgin Gorda Photographs really don't do the Baths - caves, beach - justice. We highly recommend doing this on your own, rather than going with the cruise line's excursion. Not only do you save a ton of money, but getting to the beach before everyone else gets there is pretty special. We got off the ship around 8:15 and walked over to the ferries. Along the way, several taxi drivers offered us tours. They said that most things in town were closed since it was Sunday, which did seem to be true (so beware if you're visiting on a Sunday and just wanted to shop in town). When we got to the Ferry dock, someone from Speedy's grabbed us a right away to sell us their tickets. So we took the 9:00 ferry across to Virgin Gorda. Once there, we went in the parking lot and followed the other tourists from the ferry into an open-air cab, assuming this was our taxi. We were right! The driver got us up to the entrance and told us that he would be back for us at 12:30 for the 1 pm ferry back to Tortola. We walked down the path to the first beach and carried on to the caves, after changing into our water shoes. The walk down to the beach was pretty easy, but the walk through the boulders was not for those who have difficulty bending. While it wasn't hard, we did find some areas easier with our backpacks off and scraped our backs on some rocks nonetheless. The experience of the walk itself was very cool. I can imagine spending lots of time in there exploring, as there were a few times that we weren't sure which was the "right" way (sometimes there were markings that we could find, other times...not so much). Once we got out, the beach on the other side was such a beautiful surprise. Since we were there rather early, there were only two other families on the beach. The sand was so pristine that it seemed like we'd discovered a deserted island. We did not go snorkeling, but the water was great just for swimming and playing in. Given how few people were around, we felt very safe leaving our stuff on the beach while we were in the water. After about an hour, more people started arriving, as did a couple of boats with more tours, so we decided to head back through the caves and to the first beach. We did have to wait our turn a few times as there were others in the caves, headed the opposite direction, but it was never very long. At the other end, we both decided that we were glad we did things in the order that we did: Our second beach was much nicer than the first, so a welcome surprise after going through the caves. We did some exploring around the first beach and the rocks off to the other side, before heading up for a delicious smoothie at the restaurant (highly recommend them for giving you a bit of energy between breakfast and lunch). We went back to the parking lot around 12:20 to wait for the taxi, and waited. And waited. We did spot a couple of other people waiting as well and headed their way after we saw them asking another taxi driver if he was from Speedy's (he was not, but said that he would drive us if the taxi didn't show up). They told us that the taxi left early, as it was full, but the driver promised to be back. After a few more minutes of anxious waiting, the taxi returned around 12: 45 and delivered us to the ferry in plenty of time. We got back to the ship with no problems, but didn't end up venturing into Tortola again, although there was lots of time - we opted for food and a nap, instead. We typically don't do "beach days", as I get bored of sitting too long. This was a great way to get some beach time in, while also exploring. While I'm sure that we could have spent more time, we didn't feel rushed and were ready to head back when it was time. We would do it again, and highly recommend it as a way to spend the day.
Philipsburg, St. Maarten - Rhino Safari We had an excellent experience with this excursion, booked privately (although we noticed that they had several plaques up from Princess as a top low-volume excursion. We took a taxi from port. It was about a 30 minute drive and our driver was fantastic - he gave us all sorts of information about the island. When you arrive, they are all the way at the back of building (by the water - it was a little amazing that it took us a minute to figure that out). We finished paying and were asked to wait on the benches for our guide. We ended up in a group with a family of 4, along with the guide, so 4 boats in all. Before setting out, we left our bags, sandals, etc. in a laundry basket that stays in the main building and were given snorkeling gear to keep in the back of our boats. Note that you are not allowed to wear water shoes that have black soles, so we went barefoot and that was not a problem. There is a compartment at the front of each boat, but that's where they store the gas. After getting a safety briefing and looking at the map to see where we were going, we were off! Our guide said that usually, they run a straight line to the snorkeling site, whereas we stayed a little closer to shore so that we could see the island. I really appreciated this, as I like to see as much as possible during our ever-so-brief visits. I wished that we had learned a little more about what we were seeing, but that's not the kind of tour that we were doing. When we arrived at the snorkeling site, we got our gear on and had about an hour to explore. We were also offered water or pop during this time. Then we headed back the way that we came. All in all, it was a very positive experience for us. The water was quite calm, so we didn't have any of the back issues that some other have expressed, although I still found that the constant bumping made my bladder unhappy. For our return to the ship, our initial taxi driver had suggested that we take a local bus back to the pier, but we were not brave enough for this and just flagged a passing taxi. It was quite interesting to compare what our first driver (Dutch) had to say compared to what our second (French) did, in terms of the differences between the two parts of the island. Later in the cruise, we encountered one of the other couples who had been on this trip with us. It turns out that their experience was not as positive, as they had their son's wallet stolen, with his ID, ship card and $100. They stayed looking for it for a couple of hours, but to no avail. The company actually suggested that we had stolen it, since we left so quickly (we didn't realize that we left quickly, we just left once we were done...it seemed to us that we had taken our time). This couple believes that it actually may have been our guide who was responsible, since he disappeared briefly when we returned. We want to believe that the company had nothing to do with this, as we really enjoyed ourselves, and maybe they blamed us because they really had no idea what happened. While our money wasn't taken (it was in our backpack, hidden by a towel and other things, so while obvious where to find it, would have taken more than a moment), we did think that we should pass along their experience, as well. Again, it was a great excursion, but retro-actively we've been left with a bad taste in our mouths since something was stolen from our group and they tried to blame us for it.
St. John's, Antigua - Adventure Antigua (Eli's) Eco-Tour We wanted to do this tour last year when we were in Antigua, but it wasn't running the day that we were there, so we were very excited to get the chance this time. They were very prompt arriving at the dock and we were off with surprisingly few cruisers. I had not anticipated that there would be so many resort visitors on the excursion, but our next stop was Dickinson's Beach, where we collected everybody else. In all, there were about 16 of us, plus the 3 Eco-tour employees. We did get a lot of information about the island, although mostly while the boat was stopped. We got a little "that's a fort, there's a house" while the boat was going, but it was too loud for anything more. Once we stopped, we did get more information about the ecology of the island, particularly where sea and sand (or mangroves) meet. I was expecting to hear even more, given what I've read about this tour, but I cannot complain. I do wonder if we got a little less because of a group of 4 who were on the boat with us. They were staying at one the the resorts and came aboard with their own cooler. They didn't listen to any of the information that was shared and talked through it, so you had to be sure not to be too close to them, so that you could hear. It seemed as though they were not on the tour itself, but just using the boat for the day, as they didn't get off at any of the stops, either. I will admit that these four detracted from the experience for us, but I do not fault the tour for that. Back to the tour itself, then...The stop at Hell's Gate was really fun. We swam up to walk through and across and it was well-worth the scrapes on legs. You really do need water shoes or something to protect your feet here. They do have reef shoes to lend, but bring your own if you have big feet. The trip to Bird Island was similar to what we had last year, so nothing new there for us, but it still has great views. Lunch was very yummy and then we were off for our last snorkeling adventure. This was the best snorkeling we've had. The area was large and active. One couple actually saw a stingray, but we just was a whole lot of different fish (and sea urchins and sponges, etc.). Finally it was time to head back. We were back at the ship with lots of time (I think 3:30? Almost an hour before we expected), and had had a good mix of fun, learning and relaxing.
Castries, St. Lucia - Aerial Tram and Canopy excursion (booked through cruise) We booked this through the cruise line since it didn't seem like it would save us any money to do it on our own. It became one of my favourite excursions ever. The only thing that could have improved it was the bus ride to the site. It was totally silent. I'm used to drivers sharing information about their island while we're en route, so was a little disappointed that there was none of that here, and very grateful to have taken Cosol's tour last year. Then, we got to the park. Once there, we were geared up for zip-lining and put into a group of 8. The tram holds 8 plus a guide, so our second guide rode up with another group that had fewer people. Our guide was a wealth of information about the rainforest. He was able to answer all of our questions and we learned a lot. It was also very calming to be climbing up into the trees. At the top, we got out and took a short path to the zip lines. I was concerned that I might suddenly become afraid of heights, but that didn't happen at all. I felt very secure at all times, never too high up, and really enjoyed every one of the ten lines. We got some great video, too. Again, the guides were fun and professional. We both thought that we would take the aerial tram up and then zip down. It turns out that we took the tram up to the zip-lines, zipped down and then had to walk back up the the tram to get down the mountain. That walk was tiring and I was very grateful that we got a bottle of water at the end of it. The tram ride down was also filled with information from our guide and felt entirely different than our ride up, even though we were only a couple of meters higher. It was breathtaking and relaxing, although if I was going to develop a fear of heights, that would be when it would happen. At the bottom, we got our rum punch and had a fair bit of time to look through the gift shop and wait for the other groups to finish. Then back on the bus and towards the ship. This tour had none of the disadvantages that I usually associate with cruise excursions. It seemed to be similarly priced, we were in a small group and it felt very personal. A great trip!
St. Georges, Grenada - A&E Best of Nature Tour After having debated long and hard about doing the river tubing, we ended up taking this island tour instead. From what we heard from others, we didn't miss very much, as the ride to the site was longer than the tubing itself and what we had done in Dominica and Belize surpassed what we could have done here. So on to our tour experience. We ended up being the only ones on the tour (although they had told us we could bring others if we wanted), so we were appreciative of getting a private tour at the same cost it would have been had there been more people. Because we left so early, we tended to be the first people at each destination. It seems that the people of Grenada were feeling like tourists were taking a long time to get off the ship, and that many weren't getting off the ships at all when they stopped in Grenada. This seems quite troubling to them since they rely heavily on tourism, especially as they are still recovering from hurricane's from a few years ago. It was a beautiful island and well-worth the visit. We also found that we did most of our gift shopping here, both as we thought they may need it more than the other islands (our guide told us, however, that he considered the island to be mainly middle class, not too much poverty) and because spices suited our wants. Our guide was very personable and answered all of our questions about the island. We felt through most of the tour, he was more like a driver than a guide, as he didn't volunteer much information other than what we asked, and did not accompany us at the various destinations. The stops we made were good, but do bring a few extra dollars, as entrance fees to the national park and fort are not included in the tour price. At the park, we took the path to see the lookout, which was well worth the trip. The information in the house was also very interesting. We didn't get to see the nutmeg factory as it was closed when we went by the first time, and although our driver said we'd see it on our way back, we never did. Our driver said that he had checked that it would be open, but it is possible that it was not, since it was Christmas Eve. Many of the areas we visited were going to close early. The waterfall was pretty, but a very brief stop. Again, it was nice to see it while no one else was there, as it would get crowded very quickly. Our driver was also very good about warning us when locals would be looking for money for various points. We didn't find them aggressive at all, but some others from the ship did. I do not know if this was due to our timing or our driver. The rum distillery was a bit of a disappointment, as we didn't see anything happening. We were told a little about each type of rum and offered samples, but it seemed to be mostly a stop to encourage us to buy something. The fort was lovely and we felt that the extra views it provided was worth the $2 entry, but there's not really a lot in it, so you do go in mostly for the views. There were a couple of information panels, but not nearly what we're used to. Finally, the beach was beautiful and amazingly uncrowded. I can see how the locals would be frustrated by the lack of tourists getting off the ships, because this beach could have accommodated a whole lot more. In all, it was a satisfying way to see several highlights of the island. Read Less