RCI's Monarch: Aging, But a Good Value

| September 12, 2005

Pool Area
As a member of Royal Caribbean's venerable Sovereign class, Monarch of the Seas commands respect as one of the first breakthrough "mega-liners" ever built. But as it marks its 14th year of service, its age is showing in some features and amenities.

I've sailed the Monarch three times and always enjoyed a short cruise vacation marked by excellent value, even with today's flat-rate pricing. But I admit my expectations are always lower with these quick getaways: I'm not looking for the cruise of a lifetime, just a respite from the normal world. Nearly everyone with that attitude is guaranteed a pleasant time on this Royal Caribbean ship.

Along with Carnival's Paradise, the Monarch sails very popular three- and four-night itineraries on the west coast, with stops in Ensenada and Catalina Island. The Monarch, however, also includes a day in beautiful San Diego on its weekday voyages.

Embarking from the San Pedro terminal, guests boarding the Monarch enter a seven-story atrium with a soft palate of beiges and blues. A marble staircase winds upward, creating the feeling of a hotel on water. Royal Caribbean introduced the atrium concept with the Sovereign class, made up of Sovereign, Monarch and Majesty of the Seas. The feeling is light and airy, and allows passengers to soak in a large dose of the ship's ambiance. I've always found Monarch easy to navigate – an important quality when one has only three or four days to learn the lay of the land. The 880-foot ship can easily be toured within an hour.

Before exploring the ship, the first stop is the cabin, and this is where the Monarch and its class fall short … or, more accurately, small. Standard inside cabins are a closet-like 119 sq. ft., while standard outside cabins run 122 sq. ft. A standard inside on Carnival's Paradise, in comparison, feels almost palatial at 186 sq. ft.

Inside Stateroom
Another drawback of the Monarch cabins is the absence of a safe in standard accommodations, and the presence of a TV with an eyesight-testing 13-inch screen. Drawer space is limited to the four in the vanity and one shelf in the closet. There's a small storage area behind the mirrors flanking the vanity, but I've found the best use for this space is to store the in-cabin soft drinks and bottled water so they don't take up valuable table space.

Monarch's cabins fare better in terms of décor, with their tones of soft greens, blues and peach (while Carnival boasts the infamous Pepto-Bismol pink and orange on its Paradise-class inside cabins). TV choices are much greater on Royal Caribbean too. I've always praised the line's closed-circuit choice of Retro TV (classic sitcoms and dramas of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s). My partner and I had many a great laugh as we sang along with the theme from "Flipper" on a recent voyage. Other television channel choices include Royal Classics – excellent old movies, such as "Some Like it Hot," "Imitation of Life," etc. -- and Family Classics, featuring enjoyable comedies like "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "The Drew Carey Show."

Windjammer Cafe
But we're not on the cruise to watch TV … so let's eat. Most daytime meals seem to be taken in the Windjammer Café, which was expanded to two levels with the major retrofit of the Monarch in 2003. Stations for hot foods, salads, and desserts make navigating through the buffet relatively painless. One minor complaint is that beverage choices are served individually rather than via the more prevalent fountain-style on other lines, making it hard to get the size of drink you want. Food quality in the buffet I would rate as on par with most other lines, though the scrambled eggs in the morning seemed nearly tasteless. On the second floor of the Windjammer are the pizza and deli areas, which are open limited hours. Sad to say, these weren't as good as the exceptional ones offered by Carnival. Rounding out the casual dining choices is Jade, a sushi eatery located all the way forward and available at an additional charge.

Sports Deck
We took all of our dinners in Vincent's – named after artist Vincent Van Gogh. Elegantly designed in a jewel-tone palate of primarily purples, Vincent's is one of two formal dining rooms; the other is Claude's, named for artist Claude Monet. On our second cruise aboard the Monarch in January 2005, the food was much improved, after a new chef was brought in. I never realized how the fare can vary with the chef on staff; I thought the same recipes were always followed. Our third sailing in June brought this to my attention, when I found less fare that "wowed" me. One standout was the red pepper hummus appetizer – a treat for those who like it spicy. I was also pleasantly surprised with the filet mignon and even the turkey dinner. Sorry, no lobster is served on the three- and four-night Royal Caribbean itineraries.

Service in the restaurant was exceptionally warm – as it was throughout the Monarch. As Anne Campbell of Cruisemates says, "This is a happy ship," whose staff members seem to enjoy interacting with passengers and seeing to their needs. On our most recent voyage, I was most impressed by our headwaiter, who assured me that if the people at the table near us were not quieter the second evening, they would be escorted out of the dining room. This was not needed, but it does underscore a point.

On both Royal Caribbean and Carnival, the shorter cruises attract a younger crowd -- and regardless of age, a more boisterous one in terms of drinking and lack of decorum in some instances. It is usually a simple matter to avoid the rowdier passengers by using the quieter lounges. In the eight short cruises I've taken, our most recent sailing one on Monarch was the only instance where unruly passengers – in this case, a group of college frat boys – had a negative impact on my trip. I consistently find cruise staff relieved to find that one is an experienced passenger, as if they know their jobs will be easier.

Rock Climbing Wall
Meanwhile, after dinner it's time for entertainment – an area where Royal Caribbean consistently gets high ratings. Its productions shows in the two-level Sound of Music theater are crowd-pleasers, as is the Dueling Pianos program in the Latin-flavored Boleros nightclub. Passenger who want to dance to the latest tunes head for the Circuit Lounge, while gamblers can drop some money in the large Casino Royale. The Viking Crown Lounge at the top of the Monarch -- with magnificent views through wrap-around windows -- is more a quiet cocktail lounge rather than a disco. We enjoyed a wonderful champagne brunch here, a past-passenger perk for those at Diamond level and higher.

Royal Caribbean's awards for loyal customers are far greater than Carnival's. After a second voyage with RCCL, passengers get a coupon book, including a two-for-one drink, and a piece of complimentary logo merchandise. After five cruises, the perks become greater – express embarkation and debarkation, more valuable coupons, complimentary on-board events and more merchandise. Royal also announced that it will now count any RCCL cruises toward the past-passenger program on its sister line, Celebrity.

Past passengers or not, everyone seemed to enjoy time spent around the ship's two saltwater pools. A deck barbecue one afternoon was a nearby fun treat. More adventurous types can try to scale the rock-climbing wall, installed in 2003, or work up a sweat in the large fitness center. Those who want a quieter time can browse the shops off the Centrum, sip an (additional charge) coffee at Latte-tudes, or indulge in some Ben and Jerry's ice cream (also for a fee). The children onboard can revel in a wonderful separate area for their enjoyment, featuring a movie theater, Internet stations and interactive play programs.

Whatever their age, Monarch passengers are nearly guaranteed to enjoy a pleasant cruise experience due to the friendliness of the staff, the quality of her features, and the overall superb value for the vacation dollar. In most instances, the ship's cruises are priced below those of competitor Carnival Paradise. So if you can put up with sleeping in a closet-sized cabin for a couple of days, and some so-so food sometimes, Monarch still reigns supreme for those seeking a short ocean getaway on the West Coast.

Contributor Harry Martin is moderator of the Mexico and G/L message boards on Cruisemates.

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