My husband David and I recently returned from our long-awaited two-week vacation, which included an 8-night Eastern Caribbean cruise on RCI's newest ship, Jewel OTS. This ship is the 4th vessel in the Radiance-class of the fleet, and this sailing marked the inauguration of her winter Caribbean sailings. She went into service last spring, doing European/Baltic itineraries, then crossed the Atlantic to do a series of fall sailings out of Boston before repositioning to Ft. Lauderdale for the winter. This was our 4th cruise, and we only ever sailed with RCI. It just seems like a good fit for us. David and I spent a week in Florida prior to sailing. There is nothing like getting on a ship when you're already in super-relaxed vacation mode. We flew directly from BWI to Ft. Lauderdale on 10/31, spent four days with friends in Lake Worth, then two days in Ft. Lauderdale, including a quick run down to South Beach for a fun evening at Mango's on Ocean Drive. Someone on this ng recommended that to us three years ago and we've been back a few times since.
On 11/6, we arrived at Port Everglades early, and we were on the ship by 11:20. The check-in process was easy and fast. We did our pre-boarding documentation online at home a few weeks prior to our departure. Our cabin was ready when we got there. We were in cabin 4061, Cat. N, inside, located right off the Centrum Lobby. I was a little worried that we would hear a lot of noise from the lobby, or from people walking by, but it was never a problem. We dropped off our carry-on bags and took the elevator to the top deck and took a self-guided tour from the top deck down. We were a little nosey and went into some of the larger suites that were open and checked out those spaces. The Royal Suite was incredible. Total luxury and so much space. Maybe one day we'll spring for a balcony cabin, but truthfully, we're of the school of thought that we only use our cabin to shower, change our clothes and sleep. I will say that our cabin was roomier than I thought it would be, and we had plenty of storage space. The closet was very large and well-designed. The bathroom, however, was remarkably small, which RCI is known for. We stowed our garment bag under the bed and gave our two suitcases to our cabin steward to store in a closet for the duration of the cruise. THE SHIP: There is so much to say about this ship I hardly know where to begin. First of all, the ship is very aptly named. Jewel-toned colors were prevalent throughout. The decor is stunning, with lots of warm and rich colors, beautiful and rich floor coverings, either in carpeting, inlaid woods or tiles. The artwork around the ship was incredible. Some of it was serious and elegant, and some of it was whimsical and charming. All of it was a feast for the eyes and very impressive. The Centrum soars 9 stories high and is a magnificent space. Each level has overlook areas where people gather. One of the most magnificent and impressive features is a bank of elevators overlooking the ocean. The most impressive of the public rooms are the Tides Dining room, the Coral Theater, and the Safari Club, which was the venue most used for activities and gatherings. This area also features two self-leveling pool tables,which I think must be a first on the high seas. The Schooner Bar, which is on all of RCI's ships (I think!) is always a popular gathering area. We had a full house on our sailing, and due to the comfortable size of this ship (90,090 GRT) we almost never felt crowded. The one exception to that statement, however, is the main pool area. Always crowded, especially on sea days. There is also a beautiful solarium pool area, which is adults only, except on rainy days when children are allowed with parental supervision, and there is also a very nice children's pool area located on another deck. There is the Ship-shape center and spa area, and for those sports-minded individuals, there is a rock climbing wall, miniature golf, and a sports court. FOOD/DINING: The Tides Dining room is a two-level space which is beautiful, warm and welcoming. We had second seating, which was 8:30. Our waiter, Nafiz, from Turkey, and assistant waiter, Alvaro, from Colombia, were professional and attentive. Early on, I felt Nafiz was a little stiff and cold, but I think he warmed up to us when he saw how easy and friendly we were. We were at a table for 6, which included one couple that we were traveling with, and another older couple from northern California. We all got along splendidly, and our dinner conversations were always fun and lively. We had all sailed previously with RCI, and we all thought that the quality of the food has vastly improved over the past few years. Each days' menus were interesting, varied and tempting. As is typical with RCI, each menu offered low-fat options, and there was always one low-fat and one sugar-free dessert offered. I, however, did not take advantage of those offerings, rather choosing to indulge in many scrumptious treats that I typically avoid. And I didn't regret it for a minute or feel any guilt. Without exception, the best treat of the entire week was the flourless chocolate cake. Absolutely to die for. If anyone has this recipe, please share!!!! The Windjammer Cafe was actually pretty good. We ate breakfast there a couple of mornings when we wanted to be off the ship early, and we also had a couple of nice lunches there. Again, I think the quality of food there has improved, considering it's buffet-style, cooking-for-the-masses type of food. There were several stations offering all sorts of options, including sliced-to-order meats. And the ever-present desserts bar. There was also a soft-serve ice cream machine, but I actually think it was frozen yogurt, which is fine with me. That made for a nice late afternoon snack. The Windjammer offered both inside and outside seating. There is a small cafe in the Solarium, which we used once. A pleasant addition to the eating venues is the Seaview Cafe, located behind the children's pool. This small cafe offers a limited but varied menu which was the perfect compromise between a large dining-room-meal and the Windjammer Cafe. We ate there a couple of times and enjoyed it very much. There is also Portafino's Italian restaurant and Chop's Grill. Both of these restaurants carry a $20 per person additional charge, and we would have gone there had the dining room food not been so good. I did speak with a couple who ate at Chop's and they said it was excellent. There were two formal nights on this cruise, and we saw more men wearing tuxedos (about 50%) than on previous cruises. We enjoy the formal nights and David does the tuxedo thing. I do one pair of black silk trouser with two different dressy tops to switch off. Makes packing a little easier. STAFF: The Cruise Director, Karen Maybury, is a lovely and charming British woman, but she lacked the dynamic personality that I like to see in a CD. My absolute favorite CD is Jeff Arpin and I tend to use him as a yardstick to measure other CDs by. Probably not fair, but that's what I do. Our cabin attendant, Raymond, was excellent and attentive, and left us the most pleasant towel animals in our cabin every evening. The one that cracked me completely up was the chicken hanging from the ceiling. Too funny for words. The entire crew was very attentive and helpful. ENTERTAINMENT: We were so impressed with the quality of the shows in the Coral Theater. Truly wonderful shows every evening--the best I can remember from all our cruises. Marty Allen was the featured entertainer. There were two revue-type shows featuring the RCI singers and dancers, both quite good. My favorite entertainment was the Denise Canby Trio, which played nightly in the Centrum Lobby. We listened to them every evening before dinner and after the shows. Denise is warm and charming, and she would go out of her way to talk with the passengers. We actually spent a good bit of time with her and she's a lovely young woman. She and David did a mean cha-cha on a few occasions. There were other entertainment venues on board, including at the piano bar in the Schooner Bar and other featured musical groups elsewhere on the ship. There were the typical theme evenings, such as Caribbean and 50's/60's Rock 'n Roll, which are always fun on a ship. The Caribbean evening included dancing under the stars with a pool-deck buffet late in the evening. PORTS: We visited San Juan, St. Maarten, St. Thomas, Antigua, and Nassau. We've been to all of these ports previously, with the exception of Antigua. In SAN JUAN, we walked around Old San Juan and stopped at a cafe for drinks. We really didn't have that much time there, as we arrived at 2 p.m. and departed at 8 p.m. On previous trips there we toured the El Yunque Rain Forest and San Cristobal Fort. They are definitely worth seeing. In ST. MAARTEN, we took the water taxi ($5.00 for the whole day) over to the shopping district in Phillipsburg on the Dutch side. Did some shopping, water-taxied back to the ship to drop off our goodies and put our bathing suits on and water-taxied back to the beach. The one thing that really bothered us in St. Maarten which we didn't remember from our last time there was the hawkers in the street trying to get people into their shops. And the women on the beach trying to sell their goods--they were relentless. Even after we politely told them no thank you, they would still try to sell us stuff. We came within an inch of actually being rude. For a minute, I thought I was in Mexico, where that happened to us all the time. Actually, the highlight for us in St. Maarten was seeing the beautiful QM2, which was anchored in the harbor not far from our ship. She looks magnificent. In ST. THOMAS, we rented a jeep and drove it on to the Red Hook Ferry which took us over to St. John. We wanted to go to Trunk Bay, (thanks Tom K!) and it was worth the effort. What a beautiful beach, and what a beautiful island. Unfortunately, because it had rained there a lot recently, we were told that the snorkeling wouldn't be too good so we didn't even try. We did, however, love the beach and would recommend it to anyone going to St. Thomas. In ANTIGUA, we hired a taxi to take us to Hawksbill Resort, where we spent a lovely beach day (again, thanks Tom K!) This resort is actually an all-inclusive hotel, but the beach is open to anyone. We later found out that for $40 per person, we could have had an all-day pass to the hotel and all it offers. Antigua looked to us to be a very poor island, but we enjoyed it nevertheless. Everyone was very kind and welcoming. In NASSAU, we had another short day. We were there only from 12 noon until 6 p.m. It had been 10 years since we were there and we were very impressed with how well the island looked and how well it grew up. Bay Street was lovely and clean, and had lots of shopping opportunities, including the Straw Market. We were surprised and happy to see a Hard Rock Cafe again in Nassau (it reopened in 2000) and that gave us the opportunity to buy another Hard Rock Cafe shirt for David, who has amassed quite a collection from all over the U.S., Caribbean and Europe. After shopping, we opted to enjoy the ship while most people were in port. That's a nice experience, and I recommend it highly. We actually had two full sea days and two half sea days during our 8-night cruise. It was a nice balance of ship time and port time. While on the ship during those lovely sea days, David and I found ourselves spending most of that time on the Promenade deck, relaxing and reading in our lounge chairs. It's quiet and peaceful, and we prefer looking out on the ocean rather than a crowded pool area. And speaking of lounge chairs, I was very happy to see that RCI upgraded their chairs to very comfortable nylon canvas chairs, rather than the tubular plastic variety that we experienced on previous cruises. The debarkation process went easily and smoothly, and we found our luggage in the terminal very quickly. There were plenty of taxis waiting outside and we were at FLL within minutes. Our direct flight back to BWI wasn't until 2:45 p.m., so we did have quite a wait at the airport. I wouldn't, however, recommend anyone booking a flight much before noon, because you never know when there will be a delay with debarkation. That has the potential to be a little too stressful for me. This was a wonderful cruise experience and David and I loved it. Even though we'd been to most of these ports before, we enjoyed them all. Each time we go it's a new experience. And truthfully, the ship itself is the destination, more so than the ports. If anyone has any questions that I can answer, please don't hesitate to email me. Happy cruising! Karen Henelde Owings Mills, MD