As a bit of background, both my husband and I are in our early 30s and we have sailed on over half a dozen cruises to date, mostly with RCCL. We selected this cruise due to itinerary, ship and length.
We flew into Miami a day before the cruise, and had reservations at the Hyatt Regency Downtown Miami, made through Priceline.com. It was our first experience using Priceline and we weren't sure what to expect. The staff at the Hyatt could not have been more pleasant and we were treated excellently. We checked in at 11:00 am and they were able to accommodate our non-smoking, king-bed request. As they did not have any rooms with a clear view of the port, the check-in associate gave us the choice of city-view or bridge-view. His suggestion was city-view since some people found the bridge a bit too noisy. We went with his suggestion, and he told us that we could move if we were at all unhappy with the room. The room was beautiful - it was a corner room with floor to ceiling windows and a walk-in closet. There was a separate living room and bedroom area, and the TV swiveled so that we could watch it from either area. The bathroom was very modern with a coffee maker inside. My husband specifically noted that the shower pressure was the best he ever experienced. he called it the "Kramer shower" for any Seinfeld fans out there.
Instead of sitting out by the pool, we opted to do a little shopping at the new Miami Dolphin outlet mall. There was a free shuttle that stops at all the major downtown hotels and the Hyatt concierge gave us the schedule. It was your typical outlet mall, with many stores we Canadians don't have (check out http://www.shopdolphinmall.com/old- directory/ for a list of all stores). After contributing our share to the US economy, we took the shuttle back to the hotel and went to Bayside Marketplace for dinner. On the 10 minute walk back to the hotel, we stopped at Wal-Greens for some snacks and soft drinks. I heard that there was also a liquor store nearby for anyone interested in buying booze to take aboard the ship.
In all, out pre-cruise stay was a very pleasant experience and we would certainly use Priceline again. The internet-special on the room was $120 plus tax per night, and we paid under $40 including all taxes and Priceline fees. Not bad.
Check-in began later than usual for our sailing due to 3 deaths and a suicide the week before. We got to the pier around 11:00 and check-in had not yet begun. All Diamond and Platinum Crown and Anchor members were ushered into a special lounge and the remainder of the guests stayed in air-conditioned waiting area. There were 2 weddings being held onboard that day, and the brides, grooms, families and guests were the first ones to board. I would say that we finally got onboard by 12:30.
We were in a category D balcony, room 9092, which is in the center on the "hump" of Brilliance. The balcony was extended and considerably larger than normal, and we only had one neighbor since we bordered the centrum on the other side. Another plus is that the balcony is recessed enough that others could not see us if they stood at the edge of their balconies. The surprise was that I never thought that being midship would be so convenient. The cabin is literally right off the stairs, so it was very easy to run back to the room to drop stuff off or pick things up. If we were at the pool and wanted to pick up our camera from the room, it would take under a minute. We especially noticed it coming back from shore excursions when we wanted to drop off our bags and then head up to the Windjammer for a bite - our room was just off the elevator. Never had any noise problems at all, and noise from the hallway was minimal. Personally, I would take this room again in a second as it offers the extended balcony with the convenience of being midship. For anyone interested, here are a couple of pictures of room 9092 (http://community.webshots.com/album/58654523LdpVTS)
"Cruise Critic" party
Royal Caribbean has teamed up with the Cruise Critic message boards to offer a get-together for passengers who have met online before the cruise. As we did not know when RCCL would schedule the party, we all decided to meet informally at the pool bar on the first day. It was great to finally meet all the people we had been corresponding with for months before the cruise. RCCL scheduled the official Cruise Critic party on Day 3, which I thought was a bit late. The invitation said that the get-together was to be held in the Starquest lounge on Deck 13, but when we got there no one looked familiar. Turns out that was a different private party, and the CC party was moved to the Hollywood Odyssey lounge also on Deck 13. I would say that the majority of folks walked into the wrong lounge, and the invitations should have had the correct location stated. The cruise director, Clodagh O'Connor, was there and RCCL offered a few hors d'oeuvres but the main purpose of the party was to meet our fellow online friends. People still don't understand that, and there was one guy who went up to the cruise director and asked her why he was there, and what was the point of the party.
The food on the Brilliance was your typical cruise fare, but I was impressed with the variety of options offered, as well as dining locations. In addition to the main dining room and Windjammer buffet, there was a Solarium Cafe, Seaview Cafe, Latte-tude's, Chops Grill, PortoFino's and room service. A brief description of each is below, along with some of the typical food offerings. I know a lot of folks of interested in menus, so here's what I remember...
Main Dining Room
An elegant 2-story room, with a piano player on the landing between the 2 floors. Each night, there was a different menu theme and there was more than enough variety to please most. Of course, they also offer an "everyday menu" with some generic favorites such as sirloin or salmon. There were a couple of nights where the waiters came out dancing and singing. Basically, it was your typical cruise dining room experience.
Although this was not typical of the dining room staff, I must say that our waiter was pitifully slow. On the majority of evenings, our table remained waiting for our main course while others were already on dessert. The first night of the cruise, I mentioned to the waiter that I was 5 and a half months pregnant and it was uncomfortable for me to remain seated at the table for over 2 hours - he assured me that he would serve us promptly. The next couple of nights, service for our table remained slow while other tables were done in good time. I asked the headwaiter if service would improve and he guaranteed me it would - it did not. It was frustrating, especially since it meant that we missed some evening activities. However, we were just unlucky and others did not the same experience with their waiters.
I have sailed on all classes of RCCL ships, and this was by far the most extensive Windjammer I have seen. Instead of one long line, the area was broken out into several clearly marked stations. Unlike the chaos I noticed on the Golden Princess, this area flowed well and there was plenty of variety. There were several self-serve drink stations with ice, water, coffee, tea (regular and herbal) and hot chocolate. In addition, there were a couple of manned drink bars where the waiters would serve you juices for free, as well as soft drinks and alcoholic beverages for a charge.
For those interested, here is a summary of available items: Breakfast - Omelet bar (egg beaters and egg whites available), scrambles eggs, hard-boiled eggs, pancakes, French toast, waffles (with fruit and whipped cream toppings), cold and hot cereals, grits, bagels, toast, muffins, donuts, croissants, Danishes, biscuits, smoked salmon, sausages, bacon, home fries, hash browns, yogurts, milk, cheeses, an Asian soup corner (Miso soup with several ingredients to add on), and a huge variety of fruit.
Lunch - Varied daily.
Afternoon Snack - Nacho chips with all the toppings, chili, salad bar, tuna, spinach dip, chopped egg, hot dogs, spring rolls, cakes, cookies, scones, fruit, ice cream as well as other items that varied daily.
Dinner - The main courses varied daily but there were a few staples, including: A regular salad bar and a Caesar salad bar - each with a huge variety of ingredients, large peeled shrimp, mussels, 2 soups, a pasta bar, a stir-fry bar, sirloin steak and of course many desserts.
This sit-down casual restaurant is located above the Windjammer on Deck 12. It was open from noon to 3 am, with the exception of a few hours in the evening. You would place your order with the host at the front, and waiters would bring your meal with 10 minutes. There is a big sign saying that take-out is not permitted. The menu did not vary, with the exception of the dessert-of-the-day. Menu items include: Cheeseburger, chili, nacho plate, fish 'n' chips, onion rings, tuna melt, Cuban sandwich, Reuben sandwich, chicken fingers and wings, blackened grouper Caesar salad, cottage- cheese fruit plate, cookies and brownies. There was no additional charge for food, however beverages (soft drinks, milkshakes, alcohol, slushies) were extra.
Your typical Starbucks at sea, offering lattes, cafe-au-lait, etc. There was a charge for these specialty coffees, as well as for the cookies, muffins and biscotti they served. This struck me as a bit odd, especially since the cookies looked exactly like what was offered in the Windjammer, just a bit bigger. I guess they are charging for the convenience of having the snacks right next to the latte bar. As far as I could tell, these were not "premium" cookies.
Opened daily from 11am to 7 pm, this little cafe offered a variety of pizza, mini sandwiches and wraps, cookies and occasionally brownies. There was also coffee, tea and water, and there was no charge for any of the items.
These premium alternative restaurants that are an additional $20 per person. Although we did not eat here personally, many others gave both restaurants rave reviews.
Room service could be ordered by phoning or via the interactive television. The selection was quite varied, however I heard from others that service was quite slow and that you were lucky if you got what you ordered. We never used this service ourselves.
There are two large pools aboard the Brilliance - the main pool and the Solarium pool. Both pools and their respective Jacuzzis are open 24 hours a day, save for about an hour or so at night when they drain the pools for cleaning.
The Brilliance solarium was by far the nicest out of any ship I have sailed. Statues of elephants, a waterfall, a bridge, elegant tiles, wood lounge chairs with puffy mattresses all added to the beauty. My only complaint was that the glass canopy was always closed and did not seem to be retractable as on the Vision class ships.
There were plenty of chairs around the main pool and on the upper decks. A reggae / calypso band played several sets daily and pool games were held on sea days.
There was also a pretty large kiddie pool as well as a water slide for older children. I believe the minimum height restriction for the slide was 4 feet.
For those interested in not gaining the requisite pound a day, Brilliance offered many exercise options. Every morning, there was an aerobics class, a stretch class and a walk-a-thon. Most aerobics classes were free of charge, however there was a $10 fee for spinning, yoga and kickboxing. Throughout the day, there would be dance classes, various sporting competitions (mini-golf, ping- pong, long drive, etc), and other aerobics classes. by participating in any scheduled class, you would earn Shipshape dollars redeemable for merchandise such as T-shirts, baseball caps, towels, bags or water bottles.
Sports Deck and Country Club
Yes, you can try your skill on the infamous rock- climbing wall aboard Brilliance, which apparently is harder than it looks. The hours of operation are posted in the daily Cruise Compass newsletter, and there is no charge to climb the wall. Be sure to wear socks.
Brilliance also offers a 9 hole mini-golf course, as well as a golf simulator. The simulator is $25 per hour for up to 4 people, and you do not need to bring your own clubs. In addition, the Country Club loans out shuffle board equipment, basketballs, soccer balls and ping-pong equipment.
In addition to the many $1, $0.25 and $0.05 slot machines, you can find Blackjack, Roulette, Caribbean Stud Poker and Craps tables in the Brilliance Casino. The slots were pretty tight this cruise, but I knew many folks that did well at the tables.
Given the fact that the demographic for this particular cruise was retirees, the entertainment appeared to be geared towards an older crowd. On several nights the entertainment was piano-playing singers, which did not interest us. I was also not that impressed with the comedians, whose regurgitated jokes I had heard many times before. Our entertainment last spring on the Golden Princess, which consisted of younger comedians, magicians and hypnotists, was more our style.
We found the production numbers on this cruise to be not up to par as well. This was the first cruise for the new set of Royal Caribbean singers and dancers, and it appears as if they require a bit more practice. Their timing was off and they did not exhibit the same level of confidence we typically see. They were a talented bunch, though, and I am sure time will improve their performance. We also found the sets and costumes to be lacking over what we have grown to expect from a typical RCCL show.
Crown & Anchor Recognition
Once you have sailed with RCCL, you are automatically enrolled in their Crown and Anchor loyalty program and are entitled to special onboard discounts. Depending on your level, you will be given a Value Booklet with vouchers for 2 for 1 drinks, match play casino certificates, free wine tasting, etc. To see a copy of these booklets, check out http://www.cruisingpower.com/USP/General/QRDetail.as p and scroll to the bottom of the page.
This elegant room was actually 4 lounges in one - The Bombay Billiard Club, Jakarta Lounge, Singapore Sling's and the Calcutta Card Club. The captain's cocktail party and repeater's party were held at the Colony Club, as well as the majority of trivia contests and theme nights. One evening that cannot be missed is the adult scavenger hunt, the "Quest".
The self-leveling billiard tables were amazing and certainly interesting to play on. I never thought that I would be able to play pool at sea, and you have to see it to truly experience it.
General Ship Comments
The selection of artwork on the ship was quite interesting and I was impressed with the considerable amount of New York City and 9/11 commemorative pieces. We found the sea-view glass elevators to be breathtaking, and be sure to ride them up to the 13th deck to see the 2 fishermen - I guarantee you will do a double take upon getting a glimpse of these guys.
One common complaint about the Brilliance (and her sister the Radiance) is the lack of aft stairs and elevators. There are only 2 sets located in the front and midship, and it was a relatively long walk for some to get to the back. Something to note when selecting staterooms.
Ship's Photographers - Every other night, the ship's photographers would set up different backgrounds for formal portraits. We were impressed with the variety and originality of backdrops that were offered, which seemed to be more diverse than any other cruise we had been on. Of particular interest was the Titanic staircase. we were provided with costumes to go with the scenery, including an old fashioned dress, evening gloves and a huge feathered hat for the lady, and tux shirt / jacket, gloves, cane and top hat for the gent. The photo was taken in black and white and was a lot of fun.
Interactive TV - In addition to ordering room service, you could order shore excursions, check your bill, and order pay-per-view movies via the interactive television service. Note however, that there were free movies as well and our cruise we saw My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Banger Sisters and Spiderman.
Internet - Internet terminals were available for $0.50 per minute, or you could set up in-room internet for $120 provided you had your own lap-top.
Doctor's Hours - If you are unfortunate enough to need the infirmary on your cruise, note that the doctor's official hours are 9-11 am and 4-6 pm. If you require an appointment outside these hours a $30 surcharge on top of the standard fee applies.
Cozumel This was our third time back to Cozumel and each time we have gone to Chankanaab park. It costs $10 per cab (up to 4 people) to get to the park, plus $10 per person admission. The admission includes the use of beach chairs and umbrellas, and there are facilities, rentals and restaurants on the premises. We have typically seen lots of fish at Chankanaab, but this time the seas were a bit rough. The variety was still good, but it had been even better in the past. By the afternoon, the seas calmed down a bit, but the earlier turbulence stirred up all the baby jellyfish. These creatures are small and almost invisible, looking like little pieces of tissue. It was impossible to go in without getting stung. Luckily, it didn't hurt too much and just felt like being stuck with a needle, but it was unpleasant nonetheless.
Admission to the park also includes access to the nature trails, botanical gardens, small waterfall and Mayan ruins. We toured these areas for a bit, and took a few pictures. They also offer the Dolphin Encounter, where you can swim with the dolphins for an extra $100 or so. For those not doing the encounter, you can still watch the dolphins swim around and jump into the air.
Grand Cayman Unfortunately, we were unable to dock due to ocean swells. This is my third trip to Cayman, and the second time we weren't able to get off the ship. Luckily, I was able to swim with the stingrays (with Captain Marvin) on my cruise last year. As per typical RCCL style, they did not refund the port charges for this stop, something other cruise lines do automatically. Others have mentioned that occasionally the ship will offer open bar as compensation, but that was not extended to us either. I have had discussions with RCCL in the past regarding why they do not refund the port charges, as these are fees collected by RCCL on our behalf to pay to the local port authority. We don't stop, the fees never get charged and it seems only fair that this prepaid amount get refunded. Apparently RCCL does not see it that way.
Montego Bay, Jamaica We were originally scheduled to stop in Ocho Rios, but the itinerary was changed as Navigator would be in Ochie instead. This suited me just fine and I was eager to see a new port. We have climbed Dunn's River Falls twice before, and toured the area with Peat Taylor last year. Upon arriving in MoBay, we were advised by the local authorities that we should not wander around by ourselves, as it could be dangerous. We opted to take a taxi shuttle to Margaritaville Beach, as the local guy said that there is good snorkeling there. Price to Margaritaville was $4 per person each way. When we got there, we realized it was just a bar on the ocean, but there was a large waterslide from the bar into the water. No beach, no chairs, and I assume if you wanted to go swimming you would leave your clothes and towel at your table. Doctor's Cove Beach was just up the street and we decided to walk it. No surprises here - in the under 5 minute walk it took us to get to Doctor's Cove we were harassed by many locals offering hair braiding, jewelry and "ganja". We just ignored them and kept on walking. Admission to the beach was $3 per person and a beach chair was an additional $2 or so. The beach was very nice, offering full facilities. We headed out to the reef and were surprised to see quite a few fish. Nothing like Cozumel, but much better than the snorkeling we did in Ocho Rios last year.
Aruba We found a local cab (mini-van) driver just outside the pier area to take us on a 2.5-hour island tour. He gave it to us for $10 per person, but others paid $15 depending on how many people inside the van. He took us to the Natural Bridge, the Casibari rock formations, lighthouse and old church. We were able to stop and get out at each place and he did not rush us at all... we spent as much time at each location as the group wanted. He also drove past the Spanish Gold "fort", Sly Stallone's house, and other rock formations as well. On the way back, he would drop us off at the pier or at a beach along the coast. We chose to be dropped off at Boca Catalina, which is excellent for snorkeling. In fact, we saw a couple of excursion boats stop off here as their snorkel spot. Saw lots of marine- life, including a couple of barracuda, squid, eels, and of course huge schools of brightly colored fish. Some of the non-snorkelers got dropped off at Palm or Eagle Beach. We found the snorkeling in Aruba to be the best out of the entire cruise. The only drawback to Boca Catalina is the lack of facilities - no restaurants, rest rooms or rental shops. We caught the local city bus back to the pier from the beach, which was around $1.25 per person. The bus was very clean, and most riders were resort guests or cruise ship passengers.
In the evening, we stopped off at Carlos n Charlie's for a bit, then decided to check out the Aruba casino. First time I ever saw penny slots! My husband took a picture with the scantily clad showgirls, and I posed with the equally costumed show-boys. After walking around a bit more, we finally settled on an outside second floor terrace, and watched the excitement on the street below.
Curacao This was our second time in Curacao, and we returned to Kon-Tiki beach. There is actually 3 beaches all attached here - Kon-Tiki, Mambo, and Seaqurium Beach. The cab ride to the beach was $12 for up to 4 people, admission was $3 per person plus $2 for a chair. This is a very pretty beach, with a restaurant, facilities and rental gear. There is a wall of rocks that extends the length of all 3 beaches about 200 feet out, and snorkeling is great out there.
I hope I didn't forget anything here. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to ask. Happy Cruising...