My husband and I just returned from our 10-night Panama Canal cruise on the Brilliance of the Seas. This had been a very long-awaited cruise vacation, and it was worth the wait. We departed BWI for Miami on Wednesday, November 29th and spent two nights in South Beach Miami prior to sailing
EMBARKATION: We arrived at the Port of Miami around 11:15 a.m., and the lines for embarkation were long. The check-in process went quickly; however, everyone had to wait until noon to board the ship. Apparently, there was an inspection on board earlier in the day and that delayed everything. Once we were on board, we couldn't even drop our carry on bags in the cabin because the cabin attendants were all running late due to the inspection. We were told we could access our cabins after 1 p.m. So off to the Windjammer for lunch. After lunch, we were allowed in our cabins. This is a good time to make reservations for the specialty restaurants and/or spa—before they fill up. Our luggage arrived before 2 p.m.—that was a first for us!
THE SHIP: Brilliance of the Seas is one of RCI's four Radiance-class ships. I love the design and layout of these ships. Even though they are large at 90,090 GRT, they are very easily navigable, and the public areas are, for the most part, easy to find and access. We sailed on her sister ship, Jewel of the Seas two years ago. While the layout is the same, the visual impact of the Jewel is far greater than that of the Brilliance. The colors of the décor are more muted on the Brilliance, and the artwork, while very nice, lacked the dramatic and dynamic impact of that on the Jewel. Those were the most striking differences that I recognized immediately. I love the dark wood paneling in the Colony Club, the gorgeous inlaid tile floors and hardwood floors, and the warmth and coziness of the Schooner Bar. These areas attract a lot of people for all kinds of gatherings, and they are very comfortable and attractive places to be. There are lots of cozy areas to sit and enjoy some quiet time, or just to gaze out at the ocean. There is a bank of elevators that overlook the ocean, which is a breathtaking sight.
Our cabin, deck 4, interior, was comfortable and very conveniently located right off the Centrum Lobby. We had more than enough storage space for a 10-night cruise, and in fact, had a couple of empty drawers. The closet is very roomy and well designed. The bathroom is very small, but manageable.
A few negative comments: two elevators broke down, one on Day 2, and the other a couple of days later. The first one stayed out of commission the entire cruise, and the second one was repaired within 24 hours. The automatic doors leading out from Deck 5 to the Promenade Deck (port side) also didn't work for several days. That was not only annoying, but inconvenient. What really annoyed me, however, was the fact that RCI does not offer high-speed internet access. Since they charge per minute to use the internet, there just isn't any incentive for them to offer high speed. I think that's pretty tacky. They do, however, offer wi-fi for people bringing their own laptops on board, for a fee, of course.
DINING: We had second seating, which is 8:30. The food was, for the most part, very good. Our waitress, Corina, and assistant waiter, Soto, were superb. They were both extremely warm and pleasant, and genuinely seemed to enjoy their jobs. We had very pleasant tablemates, therefore making dinner a very enjoyable experience. We did go to Chops Grill one night and it was worth the additional $20 per person charge. The ambiance, service, quality of food was excellent. Think Ruth's Chris or Morton's.
One night we went to the Windjammer for dinner because we had an early evening excursion (in Aruba—more on that later). We were disappointed that the menu at the Seaview Café had changed since we sailed on the Jewel. They only offered panini sandwiches and pasta. Not the fun pub-type food we were looking forward to. There is also a café at the Solarium pool.
ENTERTAINMENT: The cruise director, Bill Brunkhorst was OK—not great, but certainly not bad. We've seen better, we've seen worse. We went to the show every evening. Early on in the cruise, the shows were after dinner, and then the second half of the cruise, the shows were pre-dinner, which we preferred. The headliner was Marty Allen, who was hilarious. At his age, he can still put on a heck of a show. The other entertainers were all very good, and the two production shows by the Royal Caribbean singers and dancers were very good. The Tango Buenos Aires show was excellent. However, our favorite performer on the ship was Anselmo Boles, who sang nightly in the Schooner Bar. Not only is he a fabulous and talented singer, he is truly a performer. He has a great personality, and the ability to draw the crowd in.
PORTS: Our first stop was ARUBA. We've been there before so we taxied to Palm Beach in the morning and spent three hours there. Gorgeous beach. We enjoyed it very much. After a quick change of clothes and a quick lunch, we headed back out to do some shopping and walk around town. In the evening, we had booked the Pub & Bar Crawl, and we had a blast. We were about 30 people on our bus and the driver and *tour guide* made it a party—even on the bus. We were singing and shaking our maracas from the minute we got on that bus. We went to five bars and danced, sang and partied. The cost of the ticket included one drink in each bar. I recommend this excursion, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Note: we had been notified before the excursion that Carlos ‘n Charlie's is no longer part of that tour. We were given the option of canceling, but no one did. Our next stop was the PANAMA CANAL. This was truly a once in a lifetime experience to see the Canal. We, along with just about everyone else on the ship, were up early and outside to see the approach to the Canal. We just stood at the rail and took pictures for about an hour and a half. After sitting in Gatun Lake for a few hours, we headed back out through the locks, where we took more pictures. I canceled our tour in Panama because I found out that the Train & Bus Tour (7 hours), was more bus than train—and the roads are horrible. I was able to cancel our tickets and received shipboard credit for the entire amount. We stayed on the ship, and were able to get off at Cristobal Pier, where we were able to purchase small souvenirs. Next port was PUERTO LIMON, COSTA RICA. I've been told that Costa Rica is a beautiful country, but Puerto Limon is not. We did, however, have an excellent excursion there that we booked online through a tour company called Oscar Brown Tours (www.oscarbrowntours.com). We did the Tortuguero Canal tour, which was very good. We went on a brief tour of the area, and then onto a banana plantation and processing plant. Very interesting. The entire tour, from start to finish was about 4-1/2 hours, and we really enjoyed it. Our dinner tablemates did the identical tour through the cruise line and paid almost twice as much as we did. Our final port was GRAND CAYMAN. We'd been here before, so the original plan was to taxi over to Seven Mile Beach. However, it was a cloudy day, so that called for plan B. When we got off the tender, there were all kinds of tour operators offering all kinds of excursions. We opted for a basic tour which included Hell (pretty hokey) and the Turtle Farm. The turtle farm was excellent. After swimming with the stingrays (which we did last time), this is the next best thing to see on the island. We rounded out the day with lunch at Margaritaville (I'm a big Buffet fan), and finally, some shopping.
DEBARKATION: This was the easiest one we've ever experienced in all our cruises. We were off the ship before 7:30, the second group after the Express walk-off folks. We just had too much luggage to attempt that. The terminal at the Port of Miami has carousels, like at the airports, and each carousel is color-coded to the tags on the bags. An excellent system. There was a porter right there to load our stuff and get us a cab. We were at the Miami airport in 15 minutes, with plenty of time (too much time actually) before our flight back to BWI.
This was a wonderful cruise and a wonderful experience. We met fantastic people that we socialized with, took tours with, and made memories with. The few things that annoyed me were just not worth stressing over. It is, after all, a vacation. And this Panama Canal cruise on the beautiful Brilliance OTS is one which we will long remember.