Our September 2005 sailing on Royal Caribbean's Empress of the Seas marks our 14th cruise but first on Royal Caribbean Cruise Line (RCL). Previous cruises were on Carnival and Princess Cruise Lines. This voyage was a celebration of our 24th wedding anniversary and the passengers were myself, Chris (50) and my wife Lisa (47). I've always believed that there is no such thing as a bad cruise and this one proved once again to be a fabulous voyage. It's tempting to compare cruise lines and when appropriate, I will. But the main focus of this review is the stand-alone singularity of this ship and it's crew as well as Royal Caribbean viewed through the eyes of a Princess and Carnival lover.
The Empress is the smallest ship in the RCL fleet weighing in at 49,000 Gross Registered Tons. In fact, she's less than half the size of the ship we sailed last, Princess' Caribbean Princess. Launched in 1990 as the Nordic Empress, she went through a full refurbishment when joining the RCL fleet. Public spaces as well as staterooms were brought up to RCL speed including the addition of their signature rock-climbing wall.
Small ship purists will find that the rock-climbing wall is about the only visual "big ship" amenity added, and even that is somewhat hidden way back at the aft of the ship, facing the ocean. There's no slide, movie screen, ice-skating rink, rocket launch capability or NASCAR track. Left in tact and utilized to a level that, in many cases, far exceeds what we've become accustomed to on other ships are all the original small ship elements.
There's just one dining room, one pool, fewer elevators, and a basically more compact ship in general. RCL has done a great job and put a lot of thought into how they've wanted to present this product. There's room to add another pool, more deck chairs or a larger spa. A movie screen could be added along with other stuff to otherwise make the Empress more like the popular new build ships of today and tomorrow coming off the assembly line.
This ship is different. The Empress is small in comparison to other ships but she's not the SS Minnow by a long shot and her age does not make me want to recall strategic parts of the movie Titanic for later use All in all, the total cruise experience we enjoyed on this ship was on a par with any other sailing on any other cruise line. But in some areas RCL has taken advantage of the design of the ship and blown away many of our previous experiences. The single dining room, for one element, stands out as a great example.
Built to accommodate all passengers in two sittings, the Carmen Dining Room has allowed dining room direction to be nearly flawless. With all efforts concentrated so narrowly rather than split between multiple dining rooms, the precision with which dining experiences play out is as close to perfection as I've seen to date at sea. In fact, service and food quality on this ship far exceeds many really good land based operations I've experienced.
Our Head Waiter, Rajeen Kumar from India, is a perfect example of this. My experience in the past has been that the only time I'd see the Maitre d' or Head Waiter was often only on the last night in the cruise. There he'd be ready to accept my tip. I'd come to accept as the norm the notion that I we didn't see these guys because they were working behind the scenes, taking care of business.
I now realize that these guys were probably behind the scenes putting out fires, addressing problem areas, a sure sign of a less than professional organization.
On this ship, Rajeen, was highly visible in the dining room playing an active role in the operation. He was right on top of things, working through his waiters for the most part, as it should be, but not hesitating for a second to jump in and help or address something he didn't think was quite right.
The closest I'd come to this before was on the Carnival Victory with Maitre d' Francesco Tognini who we'd come to know from sailing that ship several times. But even he was not as involved with the operations as Rajeen was.
I've always thought that you really know who's got what it takes in the way of customer service when something goes wrong. Some companies realize that a problem is not just something to be fixed but an opportunity to win a customer for life. So many operators screw it up and just fix the problem.
Here's an example
As noted earlier, we booked this cruise late. As a result we'd been given the late sitting on dinner at 8:30. I knew that there was no way we'd make that sitting being early diners. On embarkation day I went to the dining room to see if I could switch to early dining. No problem, done.
We'd been given table #7 on the upper level. It might have been a little close to the kitchen for some but I still like seeing what's going on with the dining room staff and the rest of the dining room so it was good for me. In addition it was right by a window which is always a good place to be at early dinner when the sun is still out.
The first night dinnertime comes and we go to the dining room. Although the table is set for 6, we're the only ones that showed up. Not unusual for the first night but when the second night rolled around Rajeen had found out that we were celebrating our anniversary and was all over us for the rest of the cruise. He asked if our table was all right and would surely have moved us if we'd wanted to go someplace else. I think he kind of felt bad that the table was so close to the kitchen.
Looking around, though, I saw that other Head Waiters were on the floor doing the same things Rajeen was doing. They were really, honestly, out to make each meal a great dining experience.
And "experience" is a key word here.
The dining room staff goes way beyond simply feeding passengers. As in most all other areas of operation, Royal Caribbean pays close attention to detail creating a fabulous cruise experience.
RCL calls it Gold Anchor Service and it's obvious that everyone in the organization is on the same page in delivering it. They really should make a bigger deal out of it like Princess does with their similar C.R.U.I.S.E. program. I suspect that Gold Anchor Service is responsible in no small way for what is happening on board and they should do more than simply mentioning it in passing.
It is as though someone has lit a fire, a burning desire in these people to do whatever it takes to make things right.
Like the phantom Head Waiter or Maitre d' on other sailings, we'd also come to accept as the norm that bar service in the dining room is limited. On some ships we'd seen that all beverages other than the ones that came with the meal or bottles of wine were handled through the bar. That news was equally bad to our kids who wanted a Coke as it was to me who might have wanted a mixed drink or beer.
Surprisingly (again), bar service was excellent on this ship and expertly integrated into the service choreography as one of the first steps of service, as it should be. Out bar server, Leroy Crawford, was right there every night to see what we wanted. After the second night he already knew. I don't know how many tables he was handling, but I know he went so deep into the dining room with his orders that I lost sight of him. This guy really hustled and made it fun at the same time, a complete opposite of the lousy bar service we'd received in the past. He became a friend really fast, much like a neighborhood bartender.
Speaking of bartenders!
If you sail this ship, you must go by the pool bar and say hi to "Gabby" from the Philippines. Somehow Royal Caribbean has managed to give their bartenders time to talk to guests. In a day when it seems everyone is cutting corners and cutting back on such important customer service elements, they've hit a home run with this one. Granted, there are times when this bar is really busy and the business at hand is getting everyone served. But somehow they've figured that out too and additional bartenders seem to appear out of nowhere.
What is really impressive though is the time they'll take with guests when they're not busy.
During one of those times I asked about Royal Caribbean's drinking age policy. Specifically, I wanted to know if allowing those between 18 and 21 to drink beer and wine was ever a problem. I see a lot of underage drinking and its effects on other ships where the drinking age is 21.
On some I've seen problems, others not.
The general consensus I got was that it really was not a problem unless someone had a fake ID and wanted to drink the restricted alcoholic beverages. But they were quick to point out how often it is easy to tell those who really are not of age once they've started drinking and they're quick to cut them off.
I wondered if allowing the 18 to 21's to drink beer and wine resulted in less smuggling onboard and perhaps less drunkenness because it was ok to do it and they didn't have to sneak around. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here for other cruise lines.
What really impressed me though is that they're honestly interested in talking to us. I fear that when I get back on land I may slap the first person who robotically says "thank-you-have-a-nice-day" to me because they were obviously told they had to, not because they care at all.
That brings me to one of the most impressive thoughts I've had while on this ship and I can only hope that it is indicative of Royal Caribbean in general.
Most operations would like to have you come back and sail with them again, the crew of this ship demands it.
That demand to return, though, starts with the booking process.
Royal Caribbean has done something to demand that travel agents focus on customer service rather than doing whatever it takes to win a client by giving them the lowest possible price.
For the most part, RCL has told agents that they may not discount prices. In most cases, the price paid to some huge Internet agency will be the same that you pay to your local travel agent.
Often, the first response to this from seasoned travelers is that it amounts to price fixing and that it's the traveler that pays the price.
Well certainly it is the traveler that writes the check but from talking to other guests on this sailing, Royal Caribbean's prices stack up very nicely compared to Princess and Carnival. In fact, many bragged about the special price they got on their cruise. What this has done though is not only make customer service the deciding factor for consumers but make travel agents want to book clients on Royal Caribbean. On RCL, agents can make a decent commission as compared to lines that allow discounting. On those lines agents often make a very small amount on each cruise they sell, forcing them to sell a bunch more of them just to stay in business. This result, for the most part, in less time for customer service.
When this topic comes up I often hear "Oh well that's fine for a first time cruiser who need to have their hand held through the process and has lots of questions. I've been on several cruises and I just want the lowest price"
That argument makes perfect sense if you were buying a sock.
You're buying a dream, each and every time.
The key word to concentrate on here is "value". A cruise vacation is one of the best travel values you'll find. In addition, each one provides a memory that will last a lifetime.
Long after that sock has worn out, you'll remember your cruise, especially when cruising with people like you'll find on Empress of the Seas who demand your return, if not to this ship then to another in the fleet.
After the successful booking procedures are accomplished though comes the day of the cruise and embarkation
Embarkation is an area that I thought Princess owned the ratings on. Usually, from the time we would enter the terminal until we were on board was simply a matter of minutes with Princess' well-organized procedures. Carnival's embarkation process, to me, is a work in progress with the introduction of their "Fun Pass". I've got high hopes that Carnival will nail embarkation soon as they have so many other elements of the cruise experience. It wouldn't surprise me if Carnival figured out how to beam us aboard ala Star Trek technology before it's all over. RCL comes close to Princess in general and, for my money, wins hands down.
Arriving at Port Everglades about 9:30 in the morning, we knew we'd have a long wait. But then we always do. We like to come to the port early and be one of the first on the ship. If I get there and security guards are not at least raising an eyebrow as to why I am there then I am late.
After dropping off most of our luggage to waiting porters (even at this early hour) we parked across the street and walked back to the terminal with our carryon luggage. I noticed that all but a few of the passengers from the last sailing had already completed disembarkation.
We had booked this cruise late, too late to have cruise documents mailed to us. I had, however, been able to go online at Royal Caribbean's website to complete the required information which allowed me to print a "Set Sail" pass to use for embarkation, much like Carnival's "Fun Pass" system.
Side note: Bad news for people who like to do the "doc dance" on the day cruise documents come in the mail. Finally you have something you can hold in your hand that represents your dream cruise; something tangible. It only makes sense for the cruise lines to do away with this expensive part of it all and get up to speed doing it like the airlines have for years. Soon, your travel agent will be able to print your luggage tags too. I was thinking that instead of sending documents the cruise lines might send a little nice board game to occupy our time while waiting for our cruise. Somehow it's hard to imagine getting excited about the "Scrabble dance" though.
We waited in the outer lobby of the terminal with a few other early birds until it was announced at 10:30 that the ship had been cleared and we could go on into the comfortable waiting area. At 10:45 boarding commenced, the earliest ever for us. I wondered if that was because of the smaller ship size and fewer passengers. After a stop to show our ID and credit card we were on board touring the ship by 11:00. For people who like to get on board early it doesn't get any better than this.
I was pleasantly surprised. I'd need to get used to that; this was just the first of many pleasant surprises in store on this voyage.
We'd be sailing from Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale to Key West, Cozumel, and Costa Maya with a full day at sea after that before returning to Port Everglades. These were all ports we'd been to multiple times. In fact, we did a similar itinerary on Carnival's Fascination out of Miami several years ago. As the ship was the different element of this vacation I was curious as to how it would stack up in comparison to other vacations.
It didn't take long to see that this sailing would stack up very nicely right from the beginning.
We have a habit of starting our cruise vacations by touring the ship first upon boarding. The extra time afforded by early embarkation along with the smaller size of the ship gave plenty of time to see it all. Cabins would not be available until 1PM they said and they meant it. Fire doors were closed to the cabin areas so instead of dropping our carry on luggage in the cabin before touring we rolled it around with us like every one else.
For the next two hours we walked all the public areas of the ship then stopped by the Windjammer Café where Embarkation Lunch was being served.
I've seen this done a number of ways on different cruise lines and over the course of a previous 20-year career I had in the restaurant business. On the Empress the self-service set up is dual line buffet that that comes together at the end, much like a horseshoe shape. At the end, the flow takes diners with their over sized tray-like plates to one more food display station and then to drink stations on the way to the seating areas.
The view from the tiered seating areas is nothing short of spectacular as from any table there is an unobstructed view of the sea. With attention aimed out, away from the buffet lines combined with very attentive service on the floor, it's easy to forget you're in a buffet area. Another big plus, more than I've seen on any other line, is the highly visible and interactive management. It seems there is always at least one officer in the room, taking care of business in a venue one could reasonably assume runs itself.
The reassuring presence of management is felt all over the ship too. After a complete check of the cabins, an officer released them for occupancy, right on time as promised at 1:00.
Entering our outside cabin, 4636, we were again pleasantly surprised with the size, organization and setup. I'd found through research that the cabins on this ship were smaller than those on other ships we'd sailed. In fact, if I wanted to believe the Negative Nellies on some of the Internet cruise message boards (I never do) I'd have brought along a shoehorn just to get in the door. I was concerned about that and the fact that this is the first cabin we've had without a balcony.
In the end I think that if I were to book an outside cabin again I might just save the money and book an inside. There's an argument for booking an outside that says its nice to be able to see what the weather is like outside. I could do that by turning on the tv and watching the live bridgecam. I rarely looked out the window but I have friends who just love outside cabins who will be reading this so I'll just leave it at that.
I will say that our cruise experience was decidedly different without the balcony. When sailing with our balcony cabin I'd spend a lot of time out there simply enjoying the view. I did miss that and hope to try a Royal Caribbean sailing with a balcony soon for a more direct comparison to our past cruise history on which every sailing had a balcony.
But getting out of the cabin more was good too.
Deck 6 on the Empress was a good substitute for balcony time. It wraps around the ship and is great for walking (4 times around is a mile) and is close to just about everything.
The outside cabin was indeed smaller but very well organized with plenty of shelving, drawers and closet space all we'd brought along. No shoehorn needed.
The bathroom, however, is in the category of "ultra small".
Imagine showering in a phone booth
This is smaller than that.
I found it to be workable though and adjusted although the notion did cross my mind "Maybe I could just skip showering all week". If you have a small coat or broom closet at home you might want to practice (figure out) picking up a bar of soap off the floor before boarding. Not to go on and on but this shower gave me a whole new respect for soap-on-a-rope.
The best part of the cabin experience, though, was our cabin steward. Often this is luck of the draw but on this ship it just felt like attention to detail and better than expected service is the norm. As the voyage continued that proved to be correct.
I wonder if the service, often giving Carnival or Princess a run for their money if not leaving them in the dust, was affected by the way they do the tipping.
Let me explain.
Other lines we've sailed automatically added gratuities every day to our shipboard account. Gone are the days when those lines would suggest an amount to tip and provide envelopes for each person they suggested, basically to give us the idea that:
a. We were expected to tip b. Here's how much c. Here's who gets it
I never really minded the automatic tipping as I would have given them that anyway. I even like Carnival's idea of prepaying the tips before boarding. I've come to accept gratuities as part of the deal much like some might think of travel insurance (Not me- I'll make it to the cruise if I have to crawl, dragging my bloody corpse behind me)
On the Empress they did not automatically add the tips. Instead, we were given the option to do that if we wanted to by filling out a form and returning it to the Guest Service desk. They still had a suggested amount to tip but the whole program was presented very nicely, more as a convenience to those who wished to participate.
I wondered if the service on this ship was better since the crew really didn't know until the last day how the tipping would go.
I like this and prefer it. I like handing the gratuity to the people that provide the service. That, to me, is the way it should be. This system comes closer than the other guys. I only hope this is not an easy out for cheapskates that don't want to tip at all. Those people make me sick. I hope they dropped the soap in their tiny shower lots of times.
Planning our time on board was easy with the Empress' onboard daily Compass that outlined all the activities of the day. New to us on this line was an easily detachable daily schedule that fit in our pockets. On the front page of today's Compass we're advised to "get ready for the best vacation of our lives".
Ok sure, I'd heard that one before and I even agree with it; there's nothing like a cruise vacation and each one we've been on has been the best vacation ever. But I thought it was kind of assumptive to tell me that was how it would be right up front.
I thought, "Sounds good to me, we'll see"
I didn't have to wait long to get the ball rolling on that thought. One of my favorite events on any cruise is the sail away. On deck at the time, the entertainment staff really got off on the right foot as the Royal Caribbean Dancers exploded on to the deck. These peppy people got the show started and what a brilliant idea to introduce them to the passengers when they're featured on Day 2's night entertainment "Jump Jivin' Swing". Passengers of all ages were drawn to the area in what was absolutely, hands down, the best sail away I've yet seen. The really cool part though was that this was a very laid back cruise in comparison to some others we'd been on.
I've always suggest leaving land-based responsibilities and cares on the shore and to be on deck to watch them fade away as the ship gets farther and farther from the shore.
On this sailing Royal Caribbean saw those responsibilities standing on the shore and made them disappear in the poof of their perfectly timed and executed sail away party.
As the week progressed I found more of the same precision in other areas of operation as well.
Housekeeping, like on other lines, was being performed around the clock. On this ship though there was an obviously elevated diligence to it. These people really go into their work and took a lot of pride in it. The atrium of this ship, called the "Centrum" has a lot of brass and chrome requiring constant polishing. It seemed as thought there was someone working on it all the time and their efforts showed producing brilliantly shining surfaces.
Also shining, in a subtle way, is the ship's Cruise Director and staff. The first element that hit me as being really great was that there were virtually NO annoying announcements over the ship's loudspeaker system. There were a few but they were important ones, not some sales pitch for an inch of gold chain being sold in the lobby (and they DID sell it there).
Princess lost a good one when Graham Seymour left to come to Royal Caribbean. I can't wait to see what he can do in an environment that is as pro-guest as RCL seems to be to me so far.
Here, for the first time, I could feel an integrated direction in the entertainment programs.
On other lines I never saw the Cruise Director, wondered what they did and was glad they didn't have their hand out on the last day like that phantom Maitre d'. On this sailing I didn't see the Cruise Director either but could feel his presence. From the sail away party I already mentioned to having the fully costumed Royal Caribbean dancers as part of the show in the dining room on Latin night, it all worked together and produced a great experience.
By the end of the cruise it was pleasantly obvious that the good stuff I'd seen on this ship was not a fluke but just the way they do things here. I'll be curious to see how they do it on other ships in the fleet.
If this sailing was a good example of what they do on other ships, I might have a new favorite cruise line. If, as the guests we sat with at embarkation said, this was a lousy example of Royal Caribbean then I DO have a new favorite!
Will I sail Carnival and Princess again?
We're on the Ecstasy next month and have booked the Tahitian Princess for our Silver Wedding Anniversary next year!