ABOUT ME In my 20s, first cruise was a small Greek island cruise in high school, so I consider this my first big cruise since it was a totally different experience. Traveled with my mother.
Caught 7am flight to Puerto Rico to arrive by noon. Spent 3 nights before cruise at Wyndham Old El San Juan. If I had to do it again, I would fly in the evening, sleep and recover, then the next day do rainforest excursion which ends early afternoon and then just walk around old town (free green trolley shuttle) and board ship the following day. That would be the most efficient use of time necessary to see everything, also considering how expensive the restaurants and hotels are in San Juan.
After arriving I was exhausted but did the afternoon tour to San Cristobal Fort & Bacardi Rum factory. Although you don't actually see the factory, just a large museum, video, rum presentation, and tasting. The next day we went to the rainforest where it was a little slippery to walk and you should definitely bring your poncho as it rained on and off. The last day I took a tour to Ponce on the other side of the island, but there wasn't much to see except the firehouse.
HOTEL We stayed at Wyndham Old El San Juan because I thought it was across the street from port, WRONG, only Carnival docks there (maybe they change depending on the time of year). Had to take a ten minute $12 taxi ride to port. But I left my luggage outside my door as the cruise line picks it up and transports it themselves if you booked the hotel through them. But I skipped the free transfer at 1pm. Become a Wyndham member before you leave, it's free, you get American Airline miles, free continental breakfast, and a welcome basket of fruit or Gouda cheese & water crackers with your choice of beverage. I don't know if it was because I was a member, but unlike other people's complaints of this hotel staff, they were all very nice to me. But the reception of one or two people gets very crowded. Our room faced a parking lot. Hotel was close to everything in town.
RESTAURANTS Right behind the hotel is Senor Frogs restaurant, to the left of that and up the stairs are plenty of restaurants. Then you turn right and hit a Starbucks, keep on right as the road curves up and there is the popular restaurant Dragonfly (Calle La Fortaleza) that everyone raves about. You will also see a square up ahead which is where Sylvester Stallone shot the movie Assassins, remember the bank scene? Expect to pay $12-25 for an entrée. Vegetarians try Café Berlin (Calle San Francisco) but skip tofu dishes & Tantra (Indian food next to Dragonfly).
PRACTICAL ADVICE I realized later that you really don't need to book a city tour because of the free green trolley that stops near the hotel and at all the sights in the old town. It's pointless to rent a car since the old town is so small. The only thing to see in the new town/Condado area is the beach. Traffic is horrible during rush hour because they have only a 4 lane highway. The weather forecast was thunderstorms everyday. And yes it did rain everyday for literally two minutes, and I'm not exaggerating. But, when it rained it poured like you're never seen. So ALWAYS carry your umbrella. Even though it was always warm, even at night, carry a sweater because every restaurant, hotel, shop has their a/c blasting to 55 degrees, so it was freezing!
BOARDING Got to the dock at 11am and stood in line for 10 minutes behind 40 people. Then they brought us into a large un-airconditioned room with 300 chairs. Free lemonade and water was offered and bathrooms were available. There was a liquor store inside directly across from the tickets booths, although what they don't tell you is RCL confiscates any crates/boxes of liquor you buy. Although they aren't consistent on how much is not acceptable. But you get a free Puerto Rico t-shirt if you sign a petition by the governor of Puerto Rico that RCL's liquor policy is unfair. At 12:45 they let wedding guests check in. (Personally I don't see what's so great about getting married on a ship, an island I understand you get the beautiful scenery and everything.) Finally at 1pm, row by row we got in line. There's one line just for physically challenged people, and suites and Anchor Society members do not get to jump the line, only go in front of their row. By the way, if you're from Toronto, you will be quarantined and inspected by a doctor to make sure you don't have SARS (sorry this must really suck). All room upgrades have to be done when you check in before you get on the ship. At this time all the balconies were taken.
On board the ship we went to the Windjammer buffet for lunch. Then headed to the shipshape center where I noticed that they keep video surveillance of people on the fitness machines, as if you'd steal a treadmill. Next played some golf which was hard with the wind. Later just walked around the ship which made me think I was in a resort hotel. But once the ship set sail, I immediately knew it as I heard the engine and felt the boat moving. Every night I felt the boat moving and took a Bonine (supposed to be better than Dramamine) and got a prescription from my doctor for a small patch to wear behind my ear and noticed lots of other people wearing them too. At 5pm you could purchase shore excursions or it can also be done from your TV in your cabin.
CABIN We stayed on deck 9 inside room middle of ship, and as I walked down the hallway everyone looked like a drunk swaying from side to side, which seems to be a problem on the upper decks of a ship. My cabin attendant was from Costa Rica, very friendly and gave us towel animals every night. He asked us to put a make up room sign on our door when we go to breakfast and dinner so that he would know when we're gone. I figured he knew our dining time anyway since he was usually done when we came back. Your room gets cleaned twice a day. Room had lots of storage space, under bed, in closet, drawers everywhere, and behind mirror in bathroom. I dreaded the shower but once you stepped in it didn't feel so small.
Our waiter told us that our drinking water was different from our bathroom tap water. The ship desalts water onboard and all the food is from Miami. The TV had more channels than expected. It has a shopping channel where one woman explained what's in each store at the next port, mostly promoting jewelry. One channel showed clips of all the shore excursions while promoting scuba diving. There were 2 movie channels with recent movies, an old movie channel, CNN, ESPN, cartoons, music videos that suck, live web cam of the promenade and front of ship. Between the 2 dining times was the life vest drill on Sunday. Each room has a particular boat it belongs to and at that station someone checks all the vests which have your stateroom number on it. After standing there, hot, for quite some time, they went and got all the missing people, so please come. The staff have to practice emergency drills everyday including landing the life boats.
ENTERTAINMENT Went to the welcome show which showed clips of all the other shows, and I was not impressed and neither was my mother. One night was impressionist night which I would label young and hip as they did 2 minutes versions of recent songs like Men in Black, Destiny's Child, Prince & Madonna. Another night was a boring comedian. Then the guest celebrity was the Nelson Brothers, remember those blond country twins that sang "After the Rain." The Ice Show was spectacular! The skaters fly up in the air with ropes, but you're not allowed to take pictures. We got there 15 minutes early yet 95% of the seats were taken. One couple had the nerve to save an entire row for their kids and friends kids who came late, but fell asleep by the end. A bunch of people had to either stand or sit in the aisles. At 11pm was a parade in the promenade, they have several during the week, and later I learned I could watch it on the TV in my room. Our ship director Omar was excellent.
ACTIVITIES We had the early/main dinner seating at 6:30pm. But what I didn't like was that the shows for main dining were at 9:30pm. The fitness classes has Spinning or Pilates ($10) at 8:30am, Aerobics at 4pm, Yoga ($10) at 6pm, so if you're doing shore excursions and doing main dining you really can't participate in fitness classes. Spa treatments included Oxygen facial of 50min. for $109, Stone therapy of 75min. for $175, massage of 50min. for $109, manicure of 45min. $44, pedicure of 45min. for $61, discounts during port days. Free seminars on losing weight and pilates. Went rollerblading in a small contained track. Went rock-climbing, pretty hard, though not for little kids. Went ice-skating with blue skates, chose your time wisely to have space. Helmets are always available plus you have to sign lengthy waivers to participate.
FOOD I thought people were pretty picky to complain about food to say it was mediocre, I thought food is food how can it be poor? Well now I agree because as a vegetarian they expected me to eat rice/pasta/mashed potatoes and vegetables only. No protein options were available, in fact the one time they served chickpeas it was in a meat sauce. They even had an Indian chef who strangely only made Indian meat dishes and bread. In the dining room, every other night the vegetarian entrée's main feature was eggplant, which was problematic for me since the only vegetables I don't like are eggplant and lettuce. Luckily the head waiter was very friendly and concerned about my situation and allowed me to order special meals a day ahead of time. I didn't go to Portofino's as I thought why pay for food when you already get it free? The food comes from the same kitchen. A friend of ours went there because she wanted lobster, which was later served in the dining room. My mother always got the ship shape menu which is the low-fat meal.
My mom always got a sandwich at the Café Promenade at night, put it in the fridge, and ate it for lunch off the ship. The pizza there was thin and looked unappetizing. The frozen yogurt machines were popular. The midnight buffet was open for picture taking from 11:45pm-12:15, then 12:30 for eating. Not much food but the most popular item was the chocolate covered strawberries. They had special plate covers for people that wanted to take their plate to go. The ice carvings were amazing. You CAN'T sit where you want, like breakfast in the dining room, even though there are plenty of empty tables guests are required to sit with strangers to make it easier on the waiter. Breakfast in the Windjammer was always the same, only had fat-free cream cheese which is tasteless to me. The desserts in my opinion for the most part weren't sweet enough, but what do you expect when you mass produce something.
DRINKS Johnny Rockets, aka grease spoon, never seemed full when I went, but maybe I went at off hours. Tip: you can get any flavor milk shake on any day, even though they only advertise one flavor each day. My favorite was the orange, remember those orange popsicles with crème inside, that's what it tastes like. You can buy a wine package for $109 and get a bottle of wine every night with dinner. I ordered a frozen non-alcoholic strawberry drink by the pool which was so delicious! Unfortunately I'm a newbie at this and didn't realize that you get charged $6 because they automatically bring you a souvenir glass unless you specifically say you don't want it. I ended up leaving it since I didn't want to pack glass and already had a lot of hand luggage.
PEOPLE Half of the people on the ship were from Puerto Rico traveling with their extended family. Some came to celebrate their 15th birthday. They walked around with beauty pageant sashes on and one night all wore white wedding dresses and crowns. There were lots of middle school kids running around freely with walkie talkies. The 3-5 year olds were mostly contained in the Adventure Center. Luckily I only saw a couple of babies. Lots of young couples and grandparents treating their grandkids to a vacation.
STAFF The waiters in the Windjammer were very nice and wanted to serve you even though they're not working for tips at lunchtime. Many people think tips are an incentive to be nice, well not the case here. My personal opinion is that if a ship has good management and hires spirited people their service will be good. I asked a couple waiters how much they make and they both told me $50 a month, yes that's correct. Their salary is only tips. Our dining waiter only had 4 people at main dining since the other people never showed or only came once. RCL gives you the option of added gratuities to your bill for $70 per person. I'll be the first person to tell you that I wish this was added to the ticket price of the cruise, but I felt obligated to give more since I know not everyone gives. I found that many employees said they didn't go out in the ports since they don't have very much free time. I asked out waiter if he every goes to the deck at night and he laughed at me and said he would get fired if he went for a stroll on deck. Only employees in uniform who are performing a function are allowed to be in public areas. They work on 6 months contracts and get a free flight home at the end of the contract. They also said it costs them a lot of money to send money home to their families. But most of the crew looked young.
SHIP They sell a 19 minute video of your cruise for $20 with no commentary done quick and cheaply. It has clips of all the events by the pool, so participate if you want to be seen. The gift shop does not have everything that's pictured in your guest vacation documents. They do sell roses on the promenade. The ship had great photographers and backgrounds. One night the captain takes pictures with the passengers for 15 minutes. Find the helicopter dock at the front of the ship, it's windy, but the lounge chairs are usually empty, sunset pictures, not to mention your titanic picture with you standing on the rails with your hands extended. Outside the fitness center is the peek-a-boo bridge where you can look down on the captain's bridge. The Jacuzzi has less people in them at night, although half are closed for cleaning. The ships windows and stairway hand rails are cleaned every day. We never saw a sunset because even if the sky looked clear there was always a cloud on the horizon that the sun would disappear behind. Our waiter said that the weather is always good on this route, no hurricane disruptions, and that it only rains occasionally. In the ports I was constantly asked to have my hair braided by aggressive women.
Monday - St. Thomas Excursion St. John Island Tour. Shared ferry with St. John Beach tour. The boat was one bumpy ride, so don't sit inside. Outside in the bottom front gets soaked. We had an open air bus that had many stops, including an impromptu stop at a beach because someone wanted to get their feet wet. Afterwards walked around St. Thomas and went to the pretty red fort.
Tuesday - St. Maarten On my own, went horseback riding with Bayside stables next to butterfly farm(tent). It was fantastic! For $60 you have a 2-hour ride on a beach then you take turns riding bareback as the horse swims in the water. There were about 9 riders, a few fussy horses, and free drinks at the end. Afterwards walked around Philipsburg and went to the famous Guavaberry liquor store which is only made on this island.
Wednesday - Antigua Excursion- Stingray city. Not much to see here suggest booking 2 excursions. Even the port area/city was uninteresting. We had a 30minute bus ride, then got in 4 small motor boats sitting 15 people, to a netted area with stingrays, starfish and clawless black lobster. The tour operators picked up the stingrays for you (you're not supposed to lift them out of water) and there was a professional photographer for individual pictures. Not scary at all, it's not crowded, but the water was muggy. You could leave your cameras on the boat so they wouldn't get wet, there's a platform and ladder to enter the stingray area, you're not jumping over boat into the water. They given you rum punch afterwards, but be careful it may taste like juice but some people got drunk from 2 cups. Thursday - St. Lucia Excursion - Catamaran ride to Fond Doux estates. The catamarans are all huge seating about 75 people and you can wear your shoes. Ours had a cover so 90% of the seats were in the shade. Another catamaran was 50% under shade so it depends which boat you end up on. It was a smooth ride with beautiful views of the island. Stopped in Soufriere which wasn't interesting, to take a short bus ride up to Sulfur Springs which you can really smell. You may not want to walk to the viewing station of Sulfur Springs as it's steep. The plantation was a small cocoa farm but had a gorgeous tropical flower garden! You get snacks there and the best fruit juice. There are bathrooms on the boat and during our stops, there's no point in wearing a bathing suit unless you want to jump into the cold green water. The boat can't really go up to the gray sand beach so you have to swim there if you want. About half the boat went for a swim. The food served on board was good, they had rice, mac& cheese, a root vegetable, coleslaw, beans, and some meat. The time goes by really quickly.
Friday - Barbados Excursion - Natural Wonders. It's a big beautiful island suggest doing 2 tours here although you're be rushed from one to the next. Better yet just hire a taxi for the day you'll end up paying the same for 2 people. For this trip read the description carefully because you actually only have 2 stops the sheep farm and the small Andromeda Gardens (mostly palm trees, ferns & orchids). Our guide gave us drinks on the bus. Who wants to see sheep? I was very disappointed that this trip did not stop at the famous Bathsheba rock formations, instead we are told to take pictures out of a window from a distance on top of a hill. Same with the windmill, it's more of a drive by tour while snapping pictures out of the window. But the countryside was beautiful. At the port we bought some delicious rum cakes.
I filled out a complaint form about this tour and received a portion of the price back. I suggest you complain about anything that bothers you because yes I know you're on vacation and don't want to sweat the small stuff, but you only make it better for the next people. For instance my excursion in St. Lucia was different last year and so many people complained that they changed the itinerary to make it better. The first thing the manager said to me was well you're the only one that has complained.
Saturday - At Sea Contrary to popular belief, I got to the pool at 10:30am and there were still plenty of seats available together on the upper deck. The pool deck is half in the shade, but right above it looking down on the pool is the sun deck. Most people left by 3pm as we were all beet red. I got sunburned the first day even though I only spent a little time in the sun, tan easily, and wore 15 SPF on a cloudy day. The beach towels given are thin and short. The ship sells small bottled Evian water for $3.50. People were always running into the Windjammer for a free drink of lemonade. There were lines to pay your bill so your credit card isn't charged.
Sunday - San Juan Walking Tour - after cruise We had to leave our stateroom by 8am, so you can imagine that breakfast was packed. At 8:45 people with shore excursions had to meet in a lounge, everyone else was called off the ship by flight times. After you get off the ship you stand in line for 30minutes to go through customs, then you pick up your luggage which is separated by the color tag you put on them. Our tour started at 10am and ended at 12:30. The El Morro fort was beautiful but lots of steps. Then we continued on walking through the old town and visited a museum and a church. The driver took us to the airport and left us in a parking lot where our luggage was. We all had to wait for 2 of 6 working elevators to enter the airport. Wear socks as everyone has to take their shoes off while going through security. There are few restaurants, shops, and no post office inside the terminals. Also no air conditioning. All the planes were full.
My pictures are posted here: