Background: DH and I are in our mid 20's with no children.We were cruising for our 5 year wedding anniversary. We prefer smaller ships with fewer people. We don't need all the bells and whistles of the ship, as we prefer to cruise for the destinations. This was our 4th and 5th cruise on Royal Caribbean, and the hubby has also cruised princess. This was our second time on the Serenade. We had booked Cabin 8592 on deck 8, an E1 balcony on the "hump" for both weeks of the Back to Back.
Travel day down: We flew out of Grand Rapids, MI very early on Saturday. Our flights went smoothly, and as soon as the wheels touched down in San Juan, we were to our gate, received our luggage, and took a cab to our hotel in less than 45 minutes! It was the smoothest travel we have ever encountered. It was $19 for the cab to our hotel, plus $1 for each bag.
Hotel: We spent Saturday night in Old San Juan at the SOFO Casablanca Hotel. For only $103, the location cannot be beat. We were within walking distance to everything in Old San Juan. The room was clean, but very small. There were few amenities, and the hotel was very noisy. My suggestions would be for the hotel to put some kind of shower rack in the shower, and provide better television service (only 5 or 10 channels). I would not want to spend more than one night in this hotel, but for a pre-cruise stay, it was okay. In the future, we will bid for one of the chain hotels on a travel site.
Old San Juan: We spent Saturday night walking around Old San Juan. We walked the long path around El Morro, and had dinner at Senior Frogs. There were no cruise ships in port on Saturday. On Sunday morning, we made our way to La Bombonera for a wonderful pastry breakfast and fresh squeezed orange juice. We walked down to take pictures of the Serenade in port (other side of the pier). After that, we walked to El Morro for a tour. We were surprised to find that there was no admission fee the day we were there, so we enjoyed a free tour. The fort provides great views and amazing places for pictures. After touring the fort, we took a trolley to San Cristobal and also toured there for free. A short walk back to our hotel, and we had a cab waiting for us to take us to the cruise ship pier.
Embarkation and First Day: We arrived at the cruise pier around 11:30 am. We handed over our luggage and were through check-in and eating lunch in the Windjammer by 12:00 pm. We checked on our table for two in the main dining room, and found it to be perfect. We made reservations in Chops for later that week, and headed to our room at 1:00 pm. Since we had been on the Serenade last year, we knew our way around and did not have to do much touring of the ship. After depositing our bags in the room, we headed to the Solarium to relax. There were some crew members who had family members on board, and some of their children were being loud swimming in the adult only pool. The pool attendant quickly resolved the problem once guest started to arrive on board.
Our luggage arrived to our room around 4:00 pm, the earliest we have ever received it! We took some time to unpack and settle in to what would become home for the next two weeks. Our cabin attendant was Lizza, and she was great. Except for the 1st nights of each week, we had towel animals and great service. The muster drill began at 8:00 pm, but most people headed to their muster stations around 7:45 because there was an announcement made prior. No lifejackets were required, and the drill was over at 8:15 pm. Even though we were on a back to back, we were required to do the muster drill both weeks. Not a problem, as it was only 30 minutes of our vacation time!
After muster, we headed to dinner. Our wait staff the first week was superb. Moses was our head waiter, Aysun from Turkey was our waiter, and Antonio was our assistant waiter. Antonio wowed us with his magic tricks each night, and Aysun was the sweetest person on board. We are still keeping in touch through e-mail! Dinner service was as fast or slow as we wanted, since we had a table for two. We tend to linger and enjoy our meals while getting to know the staff.
After dinner, we decided to relax on our balcony until heading to bed. We did not attend the Welcome Aboard Show.
Day At Sea: Our next day was our only sea day for the first week. We ate breakfast in the Windjammer, and DH was thrilled to be eating his "cruise doughnuts". He made sure to have one every single day! We spent the morning relaxing in the Solarium, napping in our room, and just enjoying our vacation. We had the meet and mingle that morning, but most people missed it because they did not expect it to be that early in the trip, and it was difficult to see the cards in your room. It was typical with raffle prizes, Q&A with the cruise director (Dennis, who is not too cheesy but very funny), and some cheese and fruit platters. We had arranged an informal meet and mingle in the Schooner bar that afternoon, and several people who missed the morning meeting showed up. We had a great time getting to know each other. That night was formal night, and most people in the main dining room were dressed appropriately. We had already seen the Royal Caribbean Production shows last year (They did not change from March 2009), so we felt no pressure to attend.
Barbados: Our ship docked in Barbados bright and early, and we were the only ship in port. We had booked a private tour with Shasa to go out on a 12 person catamaran for 5 hours. There were several other Cruise Critic members also booked on this tour. We were met by our driver right along side the other cruise tours, and drive to a resort beach about 20 minutes away. It rained a little bit on the drive over, but not enough to be of concern. The rain had stopped by the time we reached the beach, and Jason was waiting for us with his boat. There were 11 of us on the tour, and the catamaran was large enough that we did not feel crowded. Our first stop was to swim with the sea turtles. We were here about 45 minutes. The turtles were very friendly and you could touch them. We took lots of pictures, which I hope to be able to post at another point. Our next stop was at a small reef, the water was clear, and we saw lots of colorful fish. We were only on the reef for about 20-30 minutes, and I would have preferred a longer stop there. Our last stop was at a beach for lunch. We had a wonderful spread of flying fish, BBQ chicken, salad, macaroni and cheese, and garlic bread. The rum punch was flowing and we enjoyed a leisurely sail back to the ship. We made it back to the ship around 3:00, and had plenty of time to shop if we desired.
We stopped at the stores in the large mall area in front of the ship to purchase several of my favorite items from Barbados. I prefer the essence bottles (Vanilla, Lemon, Almond, Banana, etc..) to be purchased here, as I believe the quality is very good. We then headed back to the ship to shower, relax, and enjoy a snack.
Our wait staff once again was amazing at dinner. The food was very good as well, although by the end of the 2nd week we were ready for something different. The menu did not change between the two weeks.
St. Lucia: Our arrival into St. Lucia was met with a beautiful sunrise. We were so glad to be the only ship in port, as our last cruise stop in St. Lucia was with 5 other ships, and it was extremely difficult to enjoy the beautiful island with that many tourists filling the sights. Since we had a bad experience last time with Cosol, we decided to book something that involved snorkeling and not being on the island. We booked the early excursion, marine park snorkel tour through Royal Caribbean. We were taken with about 25 other people on a very large catamaran around the Southwest side of the island. The snorkeling was just okay, but would have been better if it had not rained the day before. We met some very fun people, and enjoyed the boat ride back chatting with them. The best part of the tour was that we pulled into the famous Margoit Bay, where Dr. Doolittle was filmed. We enjoyed the beautiful scenery of this area and envied all the people who get to wake up to that sight every morning. Our tour ended around 12:30, and we headed back to the room to shower and then eat lunch in the WindJammer.
We had booked Chops for the night, and had an earlier dinner at 7:00. The service was superb, and my filet cooked to perfection. The dessert of Mississippi Mud Cake was amazing, and I still dream of it! We did however miss our main dining room wait staff that night!
Antigua: On Antigua, we decided to visit StingRay city though the cruise line. The tour was very good, for a ship based excursion. The Rays were very friendly, and you could feed or hold them. There was also an area to snorkel, and we saw a Barracuda that did not appear to be bothered by snorkelers. Toward the end of the tour, it was starting to storm pretty heavily, with lots of lightening. We made it back to the beach area for rum punch and a shower. You could purchase pictures that the guides took if you desired. There were caged birds, monkeys, and lizards to look at (for free). On the way back to the ship, we heard that the pier area had received over 5 inches of rain in an hour and some very gusty winds. We missed that entirely! That afternoon, we relaxed in the Solarium, read our books, and played Trivia in the Schooner Bar. Trivia turned out to be one of our favorite activities to do on the ship. We were not very good, and never won anything, but it was amusing.
St. Maarten: Having been to St. Maarten numerous times, we have a favorite beach we like to visit. We took a $14 cab ride to Dawn Beach, paid $10 for 2 chairs and an umbrella, and had a wonderful beach day. The beach is usually fairly quiet, although the surf can be quite rough at times. There is a small reef a few hundred feet off of the beach that you can snorkel at. There were a few venders around, but they were not pushy, and if you did not make eye-contact, they left you alone entirely. One of our favorite things about St. Maarten is the GuavaBerry Rum. On our last visit, we did not purchase enough, so we made sure to stock up this time! We had no problem bringing it on the ship, right through security, and up to our room. We did not consume any on the cruise, but packed it well for the return home. This was our second formal night and also the lobster night. Since DH is allergic to seafood, and I prefer fresh lobster to the frozen tails offered on the ship, we were fine ordering something else. We did notice that the wait staff was happy to bring several lobster tails to people who desired more than one.
St. Croix: This was my absolute favorite island of the entire two weeks. DH and I immediately fell in love with St. Croix and have vowed to move there someday. We had booked a very early tour with Big Beard's Tours for a snorkel trip out to Buck Island. We took the $12 pp round trip ride from the cruise pier to Christiansted where we met the tour operators. We had to be one of the first one's off of the ship, because our tour left early and the ride over was a little more than 30 minutes. Our driver took us by the oil refinery, and it was amazing to see the industry on the island. Our tour operators were great, and the boat was more than adequate size for the 20 some passengers. I believe it could have held up to 60 people, and there was also plenty of shade. We stopped at Turtle Beach on Buck Island. This was one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen in my entire life. I could have spent all day there. After some beach time and time to swim, we headed to the reef on the other side of the island. The reef and snorkeling quality was the best I have ever seen in the Caribbean. The coral formations were amazing, and the fish were colorful, and everywhere. We had over an hour to snorkel here. We saw Barracuda, turtles, and a lemon shark! I would do this tour again in a heartbeat.
After our tour, it was more of the same: relaxing in the Solarium, loosing a few dollars in the Casino, and enjoying our wonderful wait staff at dinner. Most people were busy packing up that night, but we were thrilled to know that we were staying on for another night! We had a meeting for Consecutive Cruisers that night. We were informed of the process that would take place in the morning (I will explain that in my next post), given options to pre-book excursions and specialty dining, as well as make special requests for dining room seating. We of course, requested to be seated in the same section as our wonderful waiter, Aysun, and were thrilled that it was granted to us! We also received free champagne, screwdrivers, and other (limited) beverages during this meeting.
San Juan: Turn Around Day Turn around day was super easy for us. Since we had the same cabin both weeks, we did not have to move anything. We received our new SeaPasses the night before, and had to use the old ones until we checked out of the ship. We were given the option of leaving the ship anytime between 8:00 am and 10:00 am, or we could remain on board. Between 10:00 am and 11:30 am, we could not leave or return to the ship (according to customs). We remained on board, and had to present ourselves at the gangway at 10:00am to punch out our old SeaPasses. They asked that we remain in our cabins or a public area between 10:00 am and 11:30 am, as they were testing fire doors, elevators, ect., and did not want us in the way. We were happy to enjoy and have the entire Solarium to ourselves! We were given a continental breakfast in Portofino that morning, so we did not have to fight with all the passengers exiting the ship that morning. Very nice touch! We were also given a 3 course lunch in the Main Dining Room that day. Also nice to be able to avoid the new people getting on the ship and rushing to the WindJammer. That night, they offered a special 2 for 1 deal in Chops, which we took advantage of. Chops is my new favorite specialty restaurant. Most of the turn around day, we enjoyed having the ship to ourselves. We could go in and out of our room as we pleased, as we had an "in transit" pass. We attended the muster drill for the 2nd time, and it was as smooth as the first.
Day at Sea: Our next day was our first of two sea days for the second week. We ate breakfast in the Windjammer, and DH was thrilled to continue his "cruise doughnut every day" breakfast! We spent were pretty exhausted at this point, so we spent most of the day napping in our room, enjoying our balcony, reading, and just enjoying the fact that we could take this long of a vacation! We had not reached the numbers to hold a meet and mingle that second week. We had arranged an informal meet and mingle in the Schooner bar that afternoon, and several people showed up. We had a great time getting to know each other. That night was formal night, and most people in the main dining room were dressed appropriately again this week
Curacao: We ended up changing our plans at the last minute on Curacao. We had originally planned on going snorkeling with the Dive Bus, but since we were both pretty tired at this point (and had not paid anything), we decided to do some shopping that morning instead. We ended up each buying a pair of Keen water-sandals for our upcoming repelling adventure on Dominica. We then decided to head over to the aquarium. It was a last minute decision, but one I am very glad we made. We paid $20 for a taxi to take us to the aquarium from the cruise pier. It was $18.50 per person for admittance to the aquarium. Once inside, we saw a dolphin show, the sea turtles being fed, and the nurse shark "action show". The highlight of the cruise for me was getting to pet the nurse sharks, feed them, and stick my hand in their gills. It was very exciting for me, because I LOVE Sharks and hope to one day cage dive with Great Whites! The aquarium also offered swimming with the dolphins, and if you are thinking about doing this, I highly recommend doing this with the aquarium and not through the cruise ship. They go to the same location, but it will save you TONS of money if you book independently.
Aruba: Let me first say, I love the island of Aruba, but this was our worst excursion experience of the whole cruise. We booked through Jolly Pirates which offers two tours. One, through the cruise line is three hours long with about 50-60 people, and the other is 5 hours long with 50-60 people booked independently and with a lunch served. If I had known that booking on our own for the 5 hour trip would still have as many people on board as the cruise ship line, I would never have booked this trip. There was very loud music playing the whole time, and there was no where to avoid the noise or crowds. Our first stop was to snorkel at the WWII shipwreck the Antilla. The wreck was very cool, but the water was rough, and they did not recommend children or those who are not strong swimmers to get off of the boat. DH and I are very strong swimmers, and we enjoyed diving down to see the wreck up close. Our next spot was a "reef" and I use the term loosely, because it was nothing more than a few rocks. There were some fish there, although not many, and we did see a small turtle. Mostly, we were just glad to get off of the boat and away from some of the people. Our last stop was at a rocky beach area. From here, people could "walk the plank" or swing from the rope swing. Lunch was served on the boat at this stop, and consisted of potato salad, BBQ Chicken leg, BBQ ribs, and a slice of cantaloupe. The food was pretty good, and a nice break from the WindJammer (which was getting kind of redundant by this point in the cruise). The rum punch flowed the entire day (even before snorkeling). If you enjoy this kind of tour, I am sure you would have had a blast. However, based on the type of excursion DH and I enjoy, I should have known better than to book this kind of tour, but live and learn!
Day at Sea: Our second day at sea was spent relaxing. We soaked in the best aspects of the ship amd dined in Portofino that night. Since I don't have much to write about for this day, I will share with you some highlights of the ship, food, crew, and other things. 1. The ship is beautiful and very clean and well cared for. You can tell that the staff and crew love that ship, as the captain was always raving about the ship. The carpeting, furnishings, and railings were all in top shape. There was no visible rust. The only complaint I have (so minor) is that the color in the television in our stateroom was going out. I imagine that soon they will be placing flat screens in all of the rooms, so this may not be an issue down the road. 2. The SeaView Cafe was a favorite place for afternoon snacks. This area is hidden behind the WindJammer and up a deck. It was rarely busy and has great sandwiches, chicken fingers, wings, and other great "bar type" food. 3. There was always a quiet area of the ship every day. Most of the time it was in the Vortex Lounge from 11:00 am to 4:00 pm. 4. Captain: The captain was very personable. He would give an update twice a day as well as give a fun fact and a fortune cookie reading. The only thing I did not like was that at sail away he did not keep close to the coast for us to enjoy the scenic views of the islands we were leaving. I don't know if this is a personal decision made by the captain or a new rule about being so many miles from shore. On previous cruises, there has always been 45 minutes or so that we cruised along the coast, and I missed that on this cruise. 5. Music and Entertainment: While there were plenty of music and activities on board, it never seemed like people were dancing or participating in many of them (either week, and past cruises). The shows were mediocre, so it is a good thing I don't cruise for the onboard entertainment. They have not changed the production shows at all since our March 2009 cruise on the Serenade, and that was a bit disappointing. Some of the comedians were pretty lame, but we did see the Osmond Brothers, and they were very good. 6. FOOD: This is really the most important thing you have been waiting to hear about right??? Well, the food was good to great. The WindJammer offered many selections for breakfast (pastries, cereal, oatmeal, omelets, fruit, biscuits and gravy, bacon, sausage, pancakes, waffles, etc), and lunch along with a daily pasta bar, pizza options, burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, and salad bar. There was always a variety of meat, potato, and vegetarian dishes. The Main Dining Room offered the exact same menu both weeks. The food was mostly great and the service was excellent. The desserts seemed to improve from our last cruise on the Serenade. Some highlights from the main dining room include: Chilled Fruit Soup, The Asian Style Chicken Soup (AMAZING), The filet of beef, The roasted duck, Parmesan turkey, and warm chocolate cake! 7. Specialty Dining: We dined twice at Chops and once at Portofino. I have to admit, Chops was the best, and well worth the extra money. There was SO much food, it would be impossible to leave hungry. We enjoyed the Cheese and Onion Soup (like French Onion Soup), the Crab Cake, the Filet, and the roasted potatoes with cheese and panchetta. The dessert here was the best. In Portofino we were slightly disappointed. We had eaten there before, and they have since changed the menu. It was not nearly as good as I remembered it. However, the filet was cooked perfectly and very good. I don't like any of the desserts in Portofino, but they were happy to bring me a slice of the Chocolate Mud Cake from Chops. 8. Overall Staff: We had amazing service the entire week. From breakfast to dinner we never had to ask twice for anything. Our room was always very clean with fresh ice twice a day. I cannot say enough how much we enjoyed Aysun as our waiter. It was only her 3rd and 4th week in the Main Dining Room, but she made the cruise really special for us. She was so personable, optimistic, and honest. We looked forward to dinner every night because of her. We even stopped by to chat with her after we ate in the specialty restaurants. She is truly a gem!
Dominica: We were all rested up and ready for our adventurous tour on Dominica. Now, what we did is not for the faint of heart! We booked the Extreme Canyoning tour through Coco-Cottages. This tour involved repelling down cliffs and waterfalls through a gorge in the heart of the island. It was intense, but very fun. We did 7-8 repels with the average being about 40 feet and the longest being about 70-80 feet. There were also several places to jump off of the cliffs and waterfalls. This tour included some hiking through the rainforest, which was often treacherous. There was plenty of opportunity to break or sprain your ankle, so this tour is for people in decent to excellent health and physical fitness. Once you take the first step off down the first repel, there is no going back and no way out of the canyon. We had a blast and took lots of pictures, but the pictures in no way do the beauty of the island justice. After our extreme tour, we had our second formal night of the week. This was once again lobster night.
St. Thomas: With Hurricane Earl fast approaching, we found out that our Yacht Adventures Tour (through RCCL) was cancelled so the sailboat captain could move his boat into the safety of the mangroves. We had beautiful weather, and you would never have known that there was a storm approaching if not for the concerned look on the faces of the locals. We took a 2 hour island tour with a local cab driver instead. He took us to several scenic overlooks, including some spectacular views of Magens's Bay and the small island owned by Mel Gibson. We were slightly disappointed that our previous snorkel tour was cancelled, as we had done it the previous year and were looking forward to it again. We were invited by our wait staff to tour the galley on this afternoon. We met at the designated time and place with about 20 other cruisers and were given a 1st class tour of the cruise kitchens. They were very clean and incredibly organized. It was amazing to see and hear how much preparation goes into every single element of dining. Did you know that there is one baker and one assistant baker and they make every single roll, bagel, pastry, pie crust, cookie, etc. by scratch every single day??? Over 7000 dinner rolls each day are produced. That is quite amazing. I am so glad this was something I got to experience.
Disembarking: The day that we never thought would come had arrived. We were truly glad that we booked our flight out for the 29th, because we were a mere 12 hours ahead of Hurricane Earl. We exited the ship around 9:30, quickly found our luggage, went smoothly through customs, and found a taxi immediately and were whisked to the airport. Our flight did not leave until the early afternoon, so we took our bags through the agriculture check and waited in a very long line to get to the check in area. After about a 45 minute wait, we decided that we had been too blessed on the flight down, and that we were paying for it on the return! Finally, the airline brought people down to operate the check in, and in a short period we were checked in and through security. We found a place to get lunch, purchased lots of duty free alcohol, and waited for our flight to be called.
Overall: We really enjoyed this cruise vacation. We love the ship and the itinerary. We have no complaints about anything that possibly could have been controlled. I felt that both of these weeks were "louder" than past cruises. It seemed that the ship was more crowded than in the past, and there were always large groups of people being very loud and rude on board. This is not Royal Caribbean's fault, but it did have us often choosing our cabin over public areas of the ship. The dining room was very loud every night, leaving us feeling like we only had the "romantic dinner" when we booked the specialty restaurants. The announcements were often and annoying as we feel people can read the compass and decide what they want to do. Despite these things, we did not let it ruin our vacation. However, we feel that Royal Caribbean is beginning to market itself as a family line, and that is not our desire when taking a vacation. We are going to give Celebrity a try for our next cruise. This is a personal choice for our vacation needs. Royal Caribbean has served us well over the years, but we feel that we are no longer in their desired demographic, so we are moving on to something that will fit us better. Read Less