CruiseMates' Readers Cruise Reviews

Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines Brilliance of the Seas by "Sea Dawg" Holcomb Panama Canal January 21, 2008

This was an 11-Night Ultimate Panama Canal with an itinerary of Miami, Labadee, Curacao, Aruba, Panama Canal, Columbia, Miami.

Day 1 -- Depart Miami We arrived at Miami airport, a gleaming new facility, at 9:45. We had pre-arranged for Royal Caribbean's transfer to the port. This proved to be an unnecessary ordeal of waiting in a long line to have one overwhelmed person verify our transfer voucher, more waiting to board a bus and more waiting to fill the bus for what proved a 12 minute ride to the port. Sea Dawg says just hire a taxi.

It was cloudy and in the low 60's in Miami. This was a welcome escape from our cold winter weather, but the local dawgs were bundled up in coats and jackets.

The line waiting was only beginning and, as we would experience, typified too much of this cruise. Once we arrived at the port terminal we stood in line with several hundred others for over a half hour before we were allowed to enter the check-in area. Even though we are Crown & Anchor members and had pre-booked online with our printed SetSail Pass in hand, check-in took over a half hour and went no quicker for us than first time cruisers. Then we stood in an even longer line waiting to be allowed to go aboard! A rumor came down the line that there were passengers on the previous cruise still aboard who had gone over their allotment and were still waiting to clear U.S. Customs. This wasn't accurate because the customs inspection is in the terminal.

Anyhow we queued up into a very long line waiting to have our boarding Security photo created. This line was slowed even more by photographers eager to take your "Welcome Aboard!" photo. These photos are not free, sometimes go on sale or may be bargained down in price before the end of the cruise, and if you do not want your photo taken you may firmly say "No thanks" and be on your way. During the cruise there were times photographers set up in a way that constricted pedestrian traffic creating, I think, a hazard should there be an emergency. On this particular departure I think it would have been wiser to arrive at the ship terminal after 12:30. Our friends arrived at 2:00 and "breezed" through check-in. Sea Dawg's rates this departure a growl.

After showing our passport to Royal Caribbean staff seven times after we had landed in Miami, and almost three hours later, we were finally aboard the Brilliance of the Seas. We found ourselves in yet another line -- but this was for the expensive soda package so we skirted around it. Sea Dawg packs his own sodas. We have sailed her sister ship, Jewel of the Seas, and found the deck layout and décor familiar. Still considered large in this age of mega ships, Sea Dawg's experience with larger ships is bigger is not always better.

Sea Dawg loves to cruise and figures if you are reading this then you may be debating whether to take this cruise or not. Sea Dawg says you should. Or you might have already booked this cruise and now you might be wondering if you made a mistake or not. Sea Dawg says you done good. Or you might be wanting to learn a few helpful tips from a salty dawg. Sea Dawg will try to do just that. Is Sea Dawg critical? You betcha, and I call it like I see it. Criticism should not be equated with a dislike of cruises.

The wife and I respected the request to not enter our cabin until 1:00 so we enjoyed a casual lunch in the Deck 11 Windjammer, the buffet restaurant. Contrary to the rule, there would be times I thought the Windjammer offerings were better than in the main dining room. It disgusts me that some chow hounds load their plates like they're about to get stranded on a deserted island for a month and then only eat half of it. Nor does anyone appreciate line crashing hyenas that snatch all the remaining choices away causing others to wait until another tray is delivered. Try to forgive them because maybe their mothers never taught them better. We enjoyed the panoramic views of the Miami skyline and harbor.

Sea Dawg has learned the advantages to pack only carry-on luggage. Packing for an 11 day cruise demands careful consideration. I spend most of my time in a bathing suit and tee shirt. Once we were in our cabin we unpacked and met our cabin steward who would keep our ice bucket filled throughout the cruise. Luggage would begin to be delivered in the hallway outside the cabin door at 5:30, though some did not receive their luggage until 9:00. Our cabin was about 10 feet by 17 feet. This includes an airplane efficient bathroom with a don't-drop-the-soap shower. It takes a little choreography for two to move about at the same time in a cabin. Watch out for the entrance door, bathroom door, and closet door traps. There is a room safe but you should be aware that a not-so-secret master code will open it. Sea Dawg says it's probably wise to check really valuable items in at Guest Relations to be kept in the ship's vault until needed. Our room had a stocked mini-fridge but ours seemed barely cooler than our room air conditioning. One real luxury aboard is a bathtub available in the more expensive staterooms. Salty dawgs know the sauna bath in the spa is free! Sea Dawg says it is a good idea to pack your own won't-fall-through-cracks soap and specialty shampoo.

All too quickly it was time for the mandatory life boat drill. Some muts think they can skip this unaware or unconcerned that the life station crew is checking a roster. This only delays the drill for domesticated dawgs. During the drill the Captain made a difficult to hear announcement that our ship's departure would be delayed eight hours due to "technical issues" but we would be on time to our first port. Experienced salty dawgs understand this usually means the ship will make up the lost time by going faster and not using the stabilizers. Another rumor was that the ship waited for passengers whose flights had been weather delayed. The Casino wouldn't open until the ship was in international waters, so a few gaming dawgs were unhappy they could keep their cash one more day. The presence of several police cars beside our ship until after 1 a.m. suggested our delay was due to more than waiting for delayed arrivals or "technical issues." It may have delayed boarding as well. Or maybe the captain misplaced the keys and had to call a locksmith.

The majority of passengers on this cruise were gray dawgs 65 years up. I can't remember a cruise with this many using walkers and scooters. In our fifties, my wife and I were considered youngsters by this Geritol generation. But it would be a mistake to prejudge because Sea Dawg found this to be a "get out there" crowd. We were told there were only 24 pups aboard. The holiday cruises had over 600 children aboard. During the Spring Break weeks in March and April many frisky college canines are expected aboard. Not to worry, we had a few incredibly rude, line crashing, seat saving, argumentative Russian hounds aboard. So, I would conclude late January and February are good times to cruise the Caribbean.

We had early seating in Minstrel, the main dining room. Instead of 6 or 6:30 it began at 5:30, a little too early for us. I think it is important to remember this is a moderately priced cruise and this is reflected in the meals. Pedigrees who desire a higher quality dining experience have the option of eating in extra fee Chops ($25) or Portofino's ($20). Sea Dawg thinks they should exercise that option instead of belly ache on these pages. In my experience, the meals in the main dining room aboard Royal Caribbean keep improving in quality and presentation. The salty dawgs at our table dined on delicious prime rib or fantastic "chef special" Atlantic cod the first night. Big dawgs may order a second entrée or a different entrée if they desire. Sea Dawg thinks this is a "can't lose" proposition.

A decision dawgs usually make when booking is whether to schedule main or second dinner seating. On this cruise there were some advantages to later seating. During the cruise there were some shore excursions that arrived back to the ship after main seating was nearly finished. A smaller number of show dawgs in second seating went to the theater while main seating chowed down. So second dinner seating had more theater seats available. Main seating sometimes had standing room only for the theater shows and the crew was obliged to enforce their no seat saving policy. Second seating had an opportunity to compare choices available in the Windjammer to the dining room menu. There were times I thought the Windjammer dinner buffet choices were better and their chefs would cook fresh to order.

We attended the "Welcome Aboard" show in Pacifica Theater that is a state of the art stage and sound auditorium. Unfortunately, I thought the state of the audio was too loud. I have learned to expect that most song and dance troops aboard a ship are about the caliber of theme park entertainment. I recall mediocre American Idol wannabees are sometimes told they might make a living singing on a cruise ship. With that caveat I appreciate and expect performers' energy and enthusiasm. To me the 11 member Royal Caribbean Singers and Dancers needed a vacation. Our young cruise director, Abe, helped pump the audience up. The refreshing comedy of Steve Bruner made this a "sorry if you missed it" treat. Sea Dawg's rating for this show is one bow-wow.

Sea Dawg loves the theater shows. The shows you will have an opportunity to watch on your cruise will not be the same. Allow that even if we saw a performance together, your opinion might not agree with mine. Headliners will be different. This particular cruise had booked the best lineup of celebrities than on any cruise Sea Dawg has taken.

There are eight live music choices aboard. Those who appreciate live music performances will have many reasons to rejoice. They represent a variety of musical styles and, in my opinion, are all quite good. My wife and I enjoy opportunities to dance and this is one area we agree Royal Caribbean has greatly improved and merits praise. At least Royal Caribbean is responding to popular interest in ballroom dancing. We enjoyed dancing in the spacious Colony Club but were usually obliged to dance in the tiny Centrum.

The ship pulled away from its Miami berth after 1 a.m. and once in deep waters one could feel little bumps and rolls as Brilliance steamed nearly full speed ahead through the waves. As the night progressed we entered calmer waters and the motion became less perceptible.

Day 2 -- At Sea The morning greeted us warmly. It was shorts and tee shirts weather! I made a quick trip to the made-to-order omelet station (try shrimp) in Windjammers. Then on went my bathing suit and I went into the hot tub then the salt water pool of the adults only Solarium. Goodbye winter!

A daily Cruise Compass is delivered to your cabin publishing the onboard activities, announcements and advertisements. Dawgs have a variety of events from which to choose on this day at sea: exercise, spa seminar, ship tour, cooking demo, belly dancing instruction, golf, wine tasting, movies, bingo, yoga, concert, ballroom dance class and shopping seminar just begin a list. We spent the day relaxing, eating, socializing and attending events that interest us. What a dawg's life! Royal Caribbean must make a lot of money from bingo because most of the public address announcements are only about the latest opportunity to win the bingo jackpot. Salty dawgs know the big cash prize bingo jackpot is usually won on the final day. Sea Dawg was pleased to learn that he was not the only dawg who found these interruptions annoying and soon start to ignore them at the risk of not paying attention to a really important announcement.

Our onboard shopping "expert" had all the show presence of my old math teacher, Mr. Demerol. Sea Dawg says those thinking of attending what are really infomercials disguised as shopping tips should know participating merchants have paid an advertising fee to Onboard Media. Inc., Miami, Florida, for promotions and warranties. Here's a Sea Dawg tip you can really use: make your shopping list before you leave home. That helps control impulse or hype-induced buying. Then write down local or internet prices for items on your shopping list plus tax BEFORE you leave home. That way you really know when you are getting a deal or hoodwinked. For instance, prices for duty free alcohol aboard ship are higher than Sea Dawg's retailer back home -- including taxes. The ship store offers a limited selection. And one more thing, should you buy a bottle of booze aboard (or in port); the ship will keep it until the night before you disembark at the end of the trip -- no taking your bottle to your room. The cruise line doesn't want to impact bar sales. On the other hand, the public relations department would remind us that this is done in the interest of individual and public safety. Besides, salty dawgs know to wait for the sales at the end of the cruise. Royal Caribbean shops advertise they will not be undersold but you will need to present a current advertisement for the exact same item before they will match the price.

I watched part of an art auction presentation. Unless you know art, it's you the novice against them the expert. A helpful resource for determining the value of art is the internet. Yikes! The art bid does NOT include shipping, frame and (can you believe this?) an auctioneer's fee! You are paying those sly dawgs to auction their own property! There's nice art and sports memorabilia to admire, but unless you require this particular remembrance of this cruise, Sea Dawg says do some research before you buy. There is another issue with the art auctioneers. Their staff override and block elevators at busy times and insist the guests wait.

Speaking of internet, computers are available or you may bring your own laptop and use Wi-Fi wireless access. There is a fee (150 minutes for $55) to access internet aboard. Unfortunately, it is not high speed internet (and you are paying by the minute) and was often so slow page loading timed out or was not available at all especially on "at sea" days.

"frills" or charge for what was once included in the fare. Sea Dawg is usually content with enjoying the basic amenities but sees a trend leading to a time all dawgs will be expected to chew dry bones. Some will receive a statement of charges to their account at the end of the cruise that is higher than their ticket price.

Brilliance is a beautiful ship. The crew can be seen constantly cleaning and maintaining trying to keep her that way. Even so, the daily wear and tear over the years has taken a toll. The interior décor in the public areas is elegant. The soaring atrium is refined modern without neon glitziness. The floor and hub of ship activities, the Deck 4 Centrum, can be approached by descending a glass stairway. I found the Deck 5 shops crowded and made more so by the presence of sale tables competing with walking space. As expected, the Casino is ablaze with glitz and neon and all the bells and whistles to tempt a passerby to join the other winners. Sea Dawg has learned the house odds aboard is higher than Las Vegas or even the Reservation and money gambled here is probably better considered the cost of entertainment. Even so, there seem to be enough who walk away with more cash than they arrived with (and who are not shy to herald their success in these pages) to fuel the gaming. Compulsive gamblers beware! I was astonished to learn that one could use their SeaPass card to receive up to $2,000 gaming advances each day.

Brilliance has 13 bars, each with its own hours of operation. The Schooner Bar has a tasteful nautical theme and the nearby Colony Club an African safari theme. Check out the billiard tables that stay level even when the ship rolls. Modern artwork is displayed most everywhere, including the stairways, and is worth investing a little time to stop and appreciate. There is a children's pool with waterslide, a main pool sunning area and a smaller glass enclosed oasis Solarium. The blaring music usually drove Sea Dawg away from the main pool. The panoramic Hollywood Lounge and nearby Starquest Disco perched high above ship is worth a visit. There is a spa, a fitness center, basketball, mini golf, and the signature rock climbing wall. I did not witness a lot of seniors attempting the ascent. But the free exercise machines in the fitness center stayed busy. This is not the ship with the surf wave machine. Brilliance is scheduled for dry docking soon and will begin to cruise the Mediterranean Sea afterwards.

Tonight's dinner is "formal attire suggested" followed by the Captain's welcome aboard reception. I think because the majority of passengers are seniors, I saw more than the usual numbers wearing formals. Only a few came without at least coat and tie. Sea Dawg packs his own tux shirt, tie and cummerbund for formal nights, but not a complete tuxedo. This investment is less expensive than tux rental. The popular entrées tonight were filet of beef (not thick slice) and half roast duck. So far, Sea Dawg's dinner entrée choices have been better than his usual chow.

We attended the Captain's welcome and were treated to a glass of champagne. The captain introduced department heads. The hotel director is the individual most responsible for guests should any have an issue, not the captain. We also danced a few turns before going to the evening show. The show, "Mastering the Magic" starring Fallon Magic and his wife Mystia, proved amazing as advertised. Mystia is a star in her own right and performed some breathtaking Cirque de Soliel acrobatics. This was no amateur production! Sea Dawg appreciates that our Cruise Director does not abuse his captive audience like others have done. He delivers announcements with humor and lets people go. Sea Dawg's rating is three bow-wows.

Day 3 -- Labadee, Haiti Labadee is the cruise line's privately owned party island, though from the ship it looks like a peninsula. The ship anchors offshore in a stunning cove surrounded by steep forested hills descending sharply to the blue-green sea. Guests board a tender (transfer ferry) from the gangway on Deck 2 and are shuttled there. It features manicured beaches and touristy for fee water activities. The clear water helps determine where sharp coral outcroppings are. There is an Aqua Park and a Zip Line across the bay starting 500 feet up a hillside. I was reminded of Royal Caribbean's TV commercials here. For shoppers there is a straw market. Shuttle trams transfer quests that prefer not to walk from one end to the other. Think cruise line controlled park enclave in Haitian theme and you'll have the right idea. Also think fun and standing on terra firma. Barbeque lunch was available ashore but we opted to enjoy the broader selection aboard ship. The temperature was in the mid-80, the sun was strong today and sunburn protection was necessary. Sea Dawg packs his own lotion. We found lounges by the surf under a shady tree and enjoyed a dawg's day in paradise a few hours. Back home the highs were in the low 40's. There were some activities on ship for those who did not want to go to the beaches ashore.

Tonight would have probably been a good time to dine at Portofino's, Chops or even Windjammer's. Tonight's popular entrée was Penne Tarantino -- a delicious and filling seafood pasta. Experienced salty dawgs agree that Royal Caribbean has downsized entrée portions. This is more a compliment than a complaint because for most this seemed to be just right, but for a few big dawgs the portions were too small and necessitated ordering seconds.

After dinner we danced a little in the Centrum before going to the theater to watch the Royal Caribbean singers and dancers production of "Now and Forever." This featured current or recent hits from Broadway. Instead of a canned, homogenized soundtrack the music was provided by the ship's impressive live musicians. The singers and dancers performed better than I have come to expect from cruise line entertainers and with contagious enthusiasm the audience appreciated, forgiving that both the soprano and alto songbirds had pitch problems. The costumes were exceptional and the stage sets quite impressive. The "Wow" finale erupted into a well-earned standing ovation and complete disbelief the production had lasted fifty minutes and not twenty. Sea Dawg's rating is two bow-wows.

After the show we enjoyed dancing in the Centrum. I think the small, crowded floor witnessed to the need for the ship's entertainment director to schedule this in a larger area for dancers. At 11 p.m. we made our way back to the theater for the Steve Bruner's comedy show. It was refreshing to hear truly funny "adult" comedy with so few four-letter words. Sea Dawgs rating is three bow-wows.

We noticed more officers out and about ship on this cruise than we remember on other cruises. Many seemed to be there to stop and ask whether dawgs were enjoying the cruise and listen to responses and comments. On many cruises officers appeared at receptions or when someone had an issue to resolve. Sea Dawg hopes this continues and welcomed the opportunity to praise the crew.

Day 4 -- At Sea The Cruise Compass was filled with a variety of activities today to appeal to most everyone. Added to those mentioned above were: men's belly flop contest, diamonds seminar, sit-to-be-fit, acupuncture for arthritis seminar, scavenger hunt, dodge ball tourney, aromatherapy, seaweed healing secrets, and rock-a-rokie (karaoke with a live band).

Something curious happens today. At noon (instead of after midnight) guests set their watches ahead one hour to Atlantic Standard Time. The result created some confusion and missed activities. For example, lunch service began at noon. But at noon it became 1pm, time for some activities to begin. Most realize this better served the crew (by shortening their work day) at the inconvenience of the guests. Sea Dawg found this was one of Brilliance's less brilliant ideas.

Dinner did seem to arrive early. Tonight's popular entrees were Thai shrimp (4 super jumbo size) and steak. All at our table who ordered steak agreed it was a little tough.

The headline show featured violin virtuoso Maria Neglia. Any who prejudged this would be a show to skip would have made a mistake. Maria's virtuosity, showmanship, audience appealing selections and humor made this the best theater presentation yet! Maria received not only a standing ovation but accepted calls to play an encore. Her encore, in her words, "went for the gold" and displayed an even higher level of virtuosity. Her show had so much "Wow" factor that the audience began a standing ovation even before she had finished. Sea Dawg's rating is a howl (highest rating).

After the theater presentation we danced about an hour in the Centrum. Its tiny floor space could not handle all the couples who wanted to dance so some were dancing in the hallways and balconies.

Day 5 -- Willenstad, Curacao (Cu-ra-SOW) Curacao is the largest island of the Netherlands Antilles. This is the first real port visited on this cruise. Dutch influence and architecture is evident in the old town shopping district, called Punda, in Willenstad. This is about a fifteen minute walk from the ship. If open, cross over St. Anna Bay on the pontoon Emma Bridge or use the free ferry. If you would rather avoid walking, take a trolley tour. There is considerable old world charm to be found in Punda's narrow streets and century's old buildings. I noticed what I considered good prices for fine linen and Delft china. And, as in most every port, beer and drinks were less expensive than aboard ship. I think one may find better prices outside the tourist district as there seems to be more cooperation than competition among merchants here.

No information has been made available regarding U.S. Customs limitations. I think the cruise line wants to do nothing to discourage spending in the recommended shops that have paid for promotion. Already, some new dawgs received a shock that their booze was taken from them when they boarded. It will be given to them near the end of the cruise. Imagine their shock when they pay tax for going over U.S. Customs limits. Sea Dawg says learn about U.S. Customs limitations on the internet before starting a cruise.

An interesting exchange was overheard in the line to board the ship. As his booze was being confiscated the owner protested he was an American and he had rights. The reply was he wasn't in America now. It is worth reminding that when in port the laws of the visited country apply, when at sea International Maritime Law applies as well as the laws of the Bahamas, where the ship is registered. Not only that, but a careful reading of the ticket discloses many rights and privileges passengers surrender during a cruise. Understanding these should help avoid confusion and misunderstanding. And one more thing, the ship has security aboard but dawgs should know these police dawgs are there more to protect ship property, crew and interests than guests or their property.

Our next island destination is a mere 77 nautical miles away but Brilliance will take all night to float there. The ship will depart port at 4:30 to avoid port charges (fees that would be passed on to consumers) instead of staying in Curacao longer or experiencing Willemstad's nightlife. Brilliance followed the published schedule, but the reason for departing early is to avoid paying port charges as the cruise line makes sincere efforts to maximize profits at every opportunity.

We attended a Crown & Anchor loyalty reception and were treated to free drinks and heavy hors d'oeuvres. We heard the latest on new ships being built and new cruise routes planned. We also learned that there would be no chocolate buffet on this or future cruises. It's a dismaying trend Sea Dawg believes will continue: frills that once enhanced a cruise will cease in order to keep costs down. Consider for a moment what has already happened to the airline industry. After a toast to Royal Caribbean we were able to dance a few turns before going to dinner.

Tonight's popular entrees were lamb and pork chop. Tablemates agreed this would have been a good night to go to dine at one of the surcharge restaurants or even the Windjammer.

Tonight's theater show featured Jonathan Kane, an Elton John impersonator. He performed some of Sir Elton's biggest hits and at times impersonated the star remarkably well. He was backed by both the live Royal Caribbean musicians and a vocal soundtrack. But their volume was kept too soft and they were barely audible. So what we heard were piano pounding more in the style of Ray Stevens than Elton John and an ear splitting lead vocal that made even mellow rock ballads painful listening. However, sound imbalance issues did not prevent the show from managing a powerful ending, I think mostly due to the popularity of the selections, so that about two-thirds of the audience offered a standing ovation. Sea Dawg's rating is one bow-wow.

The theater show set the theme for the rest of the evening: the 70's. Sea Dawg heard groans from the mostly senior passengers when it was announced that all the dance venues would be disco tonight. Sea Dawg considers this another one of Brilliance's less brilliant ideas. In this case stubbornly sticking to an established cruise script instead of modifying it to suit the tastes of all the gray dawgs aboard.

Not having packed polyester or danced disco in 30 years, we spent a lovely evening walking about the Deck 5 promenade before retiring.

Day 6 -- Oranjestad, Aruba The cruise is now half over and we wake to find ourselves docked in Aruba. Again, Dutch influence is evident but competes with neon and modern architecture. Aruba has world famous beaches and pristine waters ideal for snorkeling or scuba diving. The nightlife is exciting here and a Carnivale procession is scheduled to snake the downtown streets tonight but Brilliance will depart before it begins depriving dawgs in order to avoid port charges.

I guess most are still mindful that there has been no justice for Natalee Holloway. It mocks its self proclamation as "the happy isle." In quiet response, my wife chose to boycott shopping on Aruba.

We booked an excursion here on the sailboat Mi Duschi, a two masted ketch. The name means "my lovely one." As advertised, we experienced six hours aboard with three snorkeling stops, lunch, rope swinging and sailing. What isn't advertised is the three person crew announces the ship is ours and has as much fun as the 14 guests. My wife and I found a comfortable place in the netting "hammock" under the bowsprit. We were taken to snorkeled the sunken freighter Atilla and saw many beautiful fish. Then we went to two shallow snorkel sites and saw coral formations and colorful tropical fish. I demonstrated my best Tarzan impersonation on the rope swing off the starboard side. After the third snorkel the unlimited bar opened. I had a thrill of a lifetime fulfilling a personal dream by taking the helm under sail for much of the trip back to the marina. There seemed to be other vessels making the same tour, but Mi Duschi seemed the only boat actually using wind power. And the other vessels appeared much more crowded. Another couple at our table booked the same tour with another boat and after comparison wished they had been with us. If sailing and snorkeling seem an excursion you'd be interested in, I heartily recommend going on Mi Duschi. To quote the captain, they need the bookings or else they'll have to get real jobs. Sea Dawg's rating is a howl.

Tonight's popular dinner entrées were sea bass or scallop linguini. Sea Dawg could have made the shrimp cocktail appetizer his main course. The sea bass had some fish bones. The tiny scallops in the linguini were about the size of a marble. Kahlua crème broulee was the popular dessert choice.

Tonight's show in the theater was the "Love and Marriage Game Show" which is similar to the "Newlywed Show" in format except only one couple is newlywed. One couple chosen has been married the most years (ours for 66 years) and one couple in between. Salty dawgs have seen this on our other cruises, but this proved one of the funniest. Even our cruise director broke up. The participants make or break the show and no two shows are ever the same.

A poolside buffet and dancing followed the show. Though I went promptly from theater to poolside, the buffet had already started. The very long queue wrapped around and outside the pool area. I can't believe how much I am eating! I took a look at the offerings, mostly heavy hors d'oeuvres, and decided I really could do without the calories.

Day 7 -- At Sea Once again the warm, bright sun greets this January 27th day. Gone are thoughts or reminders of winter. So far, the weather throughout the cruise has been great with only two brief showers. Tonight at 2 a.m. we set the clocks back one hour to Eastern Time. Remember we set clocks ahead an hour at noon last time? I think most realize adding an hour during the day would increase the crew workday by an hour.

Today's Cruise Compass is filled with activities. Flyers advertise an "Amber Event" and an art auction. Half off sales on selected shop items are making their appearance. Today's schedule includes puffy eyes seminar, detox for weight loss presentation, acupuncture, men's sexy legs contest, benefits of hypnosis session, Tai Chi, bridge tournament and walk a mile challenge. I've made up my own "sit to be fit" session in the peaceful retreat of the Solarium. In the afternoon I participated in activities of interest.

Tonight's popular dinner entrée was an excellent Cog au Vin. After dinner we went to the theater for the Royal Caribbean Singers and Dancers production "Big Time Swing." Though expected to be very popular with the many senior guests, this show did not live up to all it promised. Too often, the dancers seemed to be repeating movements. At the times they were supposed to be dancing together they weren't. And I thought they were the best part of this show. The song selections scattered several popular hits among too many obscure songs. The lady songbirds had serious style problems singing swing in a Broadway musical style. I think they would improve if they listened more to the original hits. One songbird might sing better after she has given birth to her baby. Four-part arrangements of swing ballads would have been at home in a conservative church. I think the real problem with this production was the writing by a hack arranger who put his jazz stamp on all the music instead of sticking to the original scores of the hits. As talented as the orchestra members are, they were reading a musical arrangement that tried and failed to improve the original. My overall impression of the show is that this is a parody of Big Time Swing. In the ultimate irony, the finale tune "It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing" was stiff jazz but not swing. As I was leaving the theater one senior summed it up pretty well when I overheard him saying, "Today's kids can't play swing anymore." If you don't care for swing music you would avoid this show anyway. So my opinion is for swing music lovers: avoid this show. Sea Dawg's rating is a yawn.

After the show we went to the Colony Club for the Big Swing Dance. The same orchestra that had performed on stage now played the music for the dance. They were playing music scores more or less true to the original swing hits and what a difference! This is the swing music the theater audience came to hear. They played the big hits the theater audience should have heard. All too quickly the midnight hour struck and the dancing was over. My wife and I agree this is the most dancing opportunities we have ever been given on a cruise.

Day 8 -- The Panama Canal Sea Dawg thinks a little clarification would be helpful. Though billed as the "Ultimate Panama Canal Cruise" this cruise does NOT transit the complete Panama Canal from Atlantic to Pacific. It enters from the Atlantic, goes through the first set of locks, enters Gatun Lake, turns around, goes back through the same set of locks and enters the Atlantic again. This is not the cruise to book if you want a cruise that transits the complete Panama Canal from one ocean to the other. We booked this cruise understanding we would not transit the complete Panama Canal. But we met some grumpy dawgs who did not understand this or somehow thought we went to Costa Rica (like a similar cruise used to do.) We were later told the Panama Canal toll Royal Caribbean paid was $250,000.

We were scheduled to go through the locks at 6:15 a.m. so we got up at 5:15 a.m. and settled on an observation spot on Deck 11 forward overlooking the bow. We watched the pilot boat drop off the Panama Canal crew. The captain turns control of the ship to the Panama Canal pilot and his crew handles all the lines and communication with cog railway locomotive "mules" that pull/push the ship through the locks. We watched the ship approach the dark coast and align the red channel lights starboard and green channel lights port as we drifted toward our locks. We arrived as the sun rose. An informative narration explained the procedure we were watching and how the locks operate. There are two sets of locks each with three 1,000 foot long chambers (just long enough for Brilliance to enter). There is less than two feet clearance between the hull of the ship and the concrete walls of the locks. More amazing is that the flying bridge and other areas protruding over the hull are designed to barely clear rooftops of buildings along the canal. The designers of Brilliance definitely considered the limitations and restrictions of traversing the Panama Canal.

Once in Gatun Lake dawgs who had booked a shore excursion were tendered ashore. We wanted to experience the canal trip again so stayed aboard. We watched going back through the locks from several vantage points and recommend Deck 11 aft for up close views of the gates, Deck 5 starboard (right) for up close views of the canal walls and "mules" and Deck 5, the bow. The crew set up a bar there and it's one of those opportunities guests are permitted to go to the bow. Guests were treated to a poolside BBQ lunch as the ship went through the locks.

The ship docked at Cristobal Pier at Colon, Panama. There is a large warehouse with shops and craft stalls inside. Inexpensive souvenirs crowd flea market stalls. The price comes down as the time to depart nears and it pays to make an offer less than the first quoted prices. High quality crafts are expensive here and cheaper in Colon. Taxi fares are not metered and agreeing on a price can be an issue, especially on your return trip. The accepted advice is don't try it.

The popular dinner entrées tonight were roast beef with mashed potatoes and Asian noodles with shrimp. Sea Dawg regrets to report that he has eaten tastier roast beef in the Windjammer. The Asian noodles bore remarkable resemblance to the Thai shrimp entrée available on Day 4.

The headliner in Pacifica Theater was Billy Fellows, a comic composer. He has enjoyed a fifty-five year career in show business. He proved a chronic big name dropper and most of his act seemed to be out of date. The songs he wrote about growing old really appealed to the mostly senior audience. His big finish was a crowd pleasing, flag waving patriotic tribute. Sea Dawg's rating is one bow-wow.

Since many guests had gotten up early to watch the transit through the locks, there was a limited schedule of evening events. A deafening assault on my ears in the Starquest Disco or listening to a murder of music in the Colony Club Karaoke Superstars had little appeal to me. As has been the case throughout much of our times at sea, and I guess should be expected in the Caribbean this time of year, it was too windy to attempt an evening stroll on the promenade Deck 5.

Day 9 -- Cartagena, Columbia I have to admit, if this cruise wasn't stopping here, I would not go out of my way to come to Cartagena, Columbia. Sea Dawg would have preferred a stop at Jamaica or one of the Virgin Islands instead. The ship was scheduled to arrive at 11:30 and depart at 5:30.

I spent a relaxing morning in the Solarium. The glass roof is kept closed while the ship is at sea and there is only a little ventilation so by late morning it gets too warm for me to stay. Sea Dawg thinks the ventilation would improve if the access doors were locked open.

At about 10:30 the ship began entering the channel. The Columbian coastline and the modern high rise skyline of Cartagena in the distance were surprisingly attractive. The private harbor was filled with everything from little rowboats to sleek yachts. The busy container ship port attested to the city's prosperity. We docked and people with shore excursions departed. The Old Town maintains Spanish buildings along narrow cobblestone streets. The walls of the old town, churches and Spanish fortifications, including the impressive hilltop Castillo, appear to be a leap back into Old World history.

The ship distributes flyers about ports of call and we decided to walk to the Old Town from the ship. I do not recommend doing this. First, it is a longer walk than we were led to believe. Second, once outside the port compound we had to run a vicious gauntlet of independent taxi solicitations and jackals hawking wares until "No" became an unceasing mantra. I have learned not to put valuables in my back pockets and realize this mobbing could have been an ideal opportunity for pick-pocketing. Third, some sidewalks are so broken and hazardous they should display a "danger" sign (to say nothing that every once in a while I saw a mad dawg drive his car on it). Fourth, it goes through a high crime area and smart dawgs should be in the safety of a pack. Fifth, even our internet maps proved insufficient and unreliable. Take a lesson from our mistake and book an excursion or just hire an approved taxi available inside the port compound.

The reward for Sea Dawg's stupidity was an unhurried and close inspection of Old Town architecture, shops, harbor, mansions, churches and fortifications. The sight of wrought iron security bars over doors and windows made us uneasy. The temperature was in the low 90's and we welcomed the rare breeze. We must have looked exhausted because we could barely walk a block without getting a taxi solicitation. We saw all the sights we planned and made the trek back to the ship and arrived dawg tired before 5 p.m. A dip in the cool pool has rarely felt so good.

Tonight's dinner was billed as Italian, but the menu really wasn't. The popular entrees were lamb shanks and tiger shrimp. I tried the chicken marsala and received two fried chicken patties topped with mushrooms. No lasagna, cannelloni or even spaghetti was available. The tiger shrimp was excellent but the lamb shanks were too greasy. The waiters gathered on the stairs and sang an exuberant O Soli Mio. Aha! That is what is meant when this meal is Italian night! The waiters came from 37 countries and not one from Italy. And apparently none of the chefs came from Italy either!

The theater presentation featured "Tango Beunos Aires." We had seen a production of this starring the Argentine tango champions aboard the Jewel and welcomed the opportunity to compare. Tonight's tango stars were not champions but were about as amazing. The Tango Buenos Aires musicians each displayed their impressive virtuosity but every now and then a soundtrack went a little out of synch with the live musicians. I don't think the soundtrack was necessary. The Royal Caribbean dancers complimented the stars in their supportive roles. Once again our lady songbirds had pitch problems and supplanted Argentine style with campy vaudeville style. I would argue the songbirds learn the Hippocratic Oath, "First, do no harm" because their performances were not up to the standards of the other performers in this production. One example, the overly melodramatic, out of tune four part harmony rendered in "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" brought tears to my eyes, elicited groans from some in the audience, and would probably make any South American cry. Thankfully some energetic pampas footwork followed and stomped out memories of tortured singing. In a "save the best for last," our tango stars performed a quick, intricate routine featuring "no room for error" kicks that brought a "Wowed" audience to their feet. Sea Dawg's rating is three bow-wows.

Day 10 -- At Sea Today's Cruise Compass activities include all the usual ones already mentioned plus Aquadynamics, Ping Pong Tourney, Acupuncture Facial (ouch), Backstage Tour, Tux rentals, Beauty salon specials and photo portrait sessions to prepare for the formal dinner tonight. On board shops were having sales and those who bought earlier in the cruise now wish they had waited. Even Bingo cards are on sale.

Sea Dawg accepted the invitation to the Royal Caribbean Loyalty Brunch. After we had been softened by the buffet the cruise line drop a bombshell explaining changes in the cruise point earning policy that are not as generous as before. It's time for salty dawgs to learn new tricks. Sea Dawg cautions cruise lines to study what happened to airlines. As airlines eliminated perks their loyal patrons began to disappear. Maybe salty dawgs should band together and have an opportunity to teach cruise lines new tricks.

We participated in activities that sounded interesting and had made to order pizza and pasta in the Seaview, Deck 12. It was windy and the seas choppy today. This class of ship, with shallow draft and high above water profile tends to roll and sway. Today it was just enough to challenge walking in a straight line.

Tonight's popular dinner entrée was lobster tail. The menu called it "seafood combination" but waiters made certain loyal main dining chow hounds knew it was lobster tail with shrimp. It was formal night and it appeared more salty dawgs got the memo to dress up. I think most who did not want to dress up or didn't know it was lobster tail night ate in Windjammers. Sea Dawg says just clip on a tie and eat lobster.

Tonight's theater celebrity headliner was Yakov Smirnoff, the Russian comic famous for the line, "What a country." His show is a current and hilarious look at life in the U.S. His side splitting show ended much too quickly. Sea Dawg's rating is a howl.

There was dancing and a jazz cabaret after the theater show. We found there was too much ship movement to safely dance and opted to retire. A towel monkey dangling from the cabin ceiling greeted our arrival.

Day 11 -- At Sea Hard to believe the last day has arrived. Soon the cold reality of going home will be upon us. Time to make the most of today and Sea Dawg likes to start in the Solarium.

After breakfast a flurry of announcements for Bingo, special sales in shops, drink specials, today's activities and customs information begin. Hallways are constricted with bargain hunting dawgs sniffing out sales tables. The Captain makes his announcement from the bridge -- interesting we're told the latitude, longitude, depth (in meters and feet) and water and air temperature, wind speed and direction and how far we have traveled since we began the cruise and, finally, where we are (at this hour off the north coast of Cuba). The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Form arrived along with more information -- interesting what Uncle Sam requires to know.

Again there were many different activities aboard and Sea Dawg spent the day participating in those he liked best. Tomorrow will be back to reality.

It is time to settle our account. For many dawgs, this is the shocking time when they discover that their bar tab, shopping tab, and casino tab can double the cost of their cruise. Experience has taught Sea Dawg to settle accounts early because it is easier to settle billing discrepancies now than during tomorrow's rush to leave the ship. Each guest will receive a statement in their cabin later. Our account was both pleasantly detailed and accurate.

Tonight's popular dinner entrées were mahi mahi or turkey. It was farewell to the table waiters and time to tip. The waiter's livelihood depends on the tips received. The waiter doesn't decide the menu or prepare the food. Tipping is based on the quality of table service alone. Sea Dawg has a few tips he would like to give the chefs and will provide it on the cruise evaluation form to be completed tonight.

The "farewell" theater production starred comedian Michael James. His show was laced with impressive acrobatics and great humor. Sea Dawg's rating is three bow-wows. The captain and representatives of the entire crew came onstage to receive the appreciative ovation from the audience.

The Tango Buenos Aires stars gave a brief performance in the Centrum. Then we took the opportunity to dance. Soon it was back to the cabin to pack our bags and prepare to end this wonderful cruise.

Day 12 -- Disembarkation Brilliance arrived and docked before daybreak. At 6 a.m. we went to Windjammers for breakfast. After breakfast we returned to our cabin and packed the last items into our suitcase. At 6:30 an announcement called for express departure was made. Here's another advantage of carry on luggage. We showed our SeaPass card and were promptly off the ship with all our belongings. We stood in a short line to be cleared by U.S. Customs and within a few minutes walked out of the terminal building and onto our shuttle waiting to take us to the airport. Dawgs who let the cruise line handle their luggage will wait for their suitcases to arrive in the baggage carousel. For information and planning it took us over an hour to clear security in Miami Airport and we were ahead of the rush. If you book air travel, you might do better to compare ticket prices with arrival and departure at Fort Lauderdale airport. It is only 17 miles from the ship terminal and shuttles are available at the ship terminal to take dawgs there.

Bottom Line Sea Dawg hasn't been and doesn't expect to be on a perfect cruise. But this cruise had the fewest issues or glitches of any cruise experienced so far. I believe Royal Caribbean is making sincere efforts to improve every dawg's cruise experience and there were signs of it on this cruise. Each cruise is different and each dawg will have a unique and personal experience. A cruise is not for everyone and an eleven day cruise could be too long for new dawgs.

A pedigree dawg looking for a cruise experience offering glitz and glittery atriums and promenades, five star dining, large cabins, Vegas quality entertainment, vast high end onboard shops, more ports and longer stays in ports, may not be satisfied with this cruise. I'm convinced that if a dawg keeps expectations realistic, then this promises to be among a dawg's greatest cruise experiences. At the very least, this cruise is an escape from winter's weather and into the warmer and usually sunny Caribbean. That's reason enough for me!

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