Who are we: Two computer professionals in our early 40's from the Toronto area.
We had booked off the week of May 15th for vacation since May 14th was our anniversary and we were looking for somewhere special to go. I had looked at the Outer Islands of the Bahamas, St John, USVI, a sailing resort in Antigua, Barbados and possibly St Maarten. In March, we figured we better make up our minds soon or there would be nothing left. I suggested a cruise as a great sampler of Caribbean islands. I had cruised twice before, both times with Costa, and loved every minute of it. In years past, I could never get my husband on a cruise. Friends who had had bad experiences cruising were filling his head with many negatives. Always watching your watch to make sure you don't miss the boat! Being told when, where and who to eat dinner with. Plus even what to wear. Well, we did finally decide on the cruise, or should I say he finally gave in.
We booked through a travel agent at Cruise Holidays. They have several franchises in the Toronto area and only sell cruises, so they know their stuff. (I had used them on my last cruise 4 yrs ago.) I had figured we could afford the top inside cabins, Cat K, on decks 5-6-7. When my TA called, they had a special for Canadians where we would get a guaranteed Cat K for less than the early booking price of the lowest category - Q. We took it. We also let the cruise line book our airfare, only because it was to San Juan, which is not easy or cheap from Toronto. With a guarantee, you don't get your cabin assignment until the last minute and my husband was a little suspicious thinking we were sharing the closet with the brooms and mops.
A week before sailing, we got all our documents. We had been upgraded 4 categories to Cat F on deck 8, Cabin #8564. We were told this had an obstructed view and I must admit I was wondering what we were really going to get. (It turned out fine, as I will explain later.) Our flights were with US Airways leaving Toronto at 7:35am and flying to Philly with an hour until our flight to San Juan. We were excited about arriving in SJ just after two. We figured we could drop off our stuff on the ship and be checking out old Sand Juan by 3:30pm. Nope. I'll explain later. The only bad part of the air package was the flight home included a four-hour layover in Philly. Yuck! We tried paying extra to get better flights but our TA said nothing was better. There's not much flying Toronto to San Juan out of season.
Day One Our flight to Philly was uneventful. First time with US Air and it was okay. Sitting at the gate in Philly looked promising with the plane already there. Almost everyone was heading either to the Monarch of Carnival's Inspiration (?) and were very excited. Then things started to turn for the worse. US Airways announces that the plane we see at the gate is broken and not going anywhere. Neither are we. They will try and find a new plane. I was amazed that within half an hour, they're announcing that they have one coming in. They'll turn it around as quickly as possible and we will be an hour delayed. Not bad. Could have been much worse! Once we board the plane we find out that the plane's radio isn't equipped to fly over water so we have to fly down the eastern seaboard and then over the Bahamas and T&C to San Juan which will add another half hour. All in all, we arrive 1˝ hrs late in San Juan. The procedure to round us all up doesn't go too bad except for the drunk lady who kept trying to bud into the front of the line. (I believe drunk because US Air offered free alcohol due to the delay. They didn't announce this, but we heard this when the people sitting in front of us tried to pay. They originally were charging for the headsets but I refuse to pay (I guess I'm spoiled on airlines in Canada where they're free!) but then started giving them out free, like the booze, and even gave back the original guys their $5. Non of this was announced. You just had to find out by asking, I guess.
There were 4 buses to transport everyone. We were in the front seat on bus two but he passed the first bus so we ended up being the first people to check in. Empty terminal so it went fast but I was a little disappointed. No one to take our picture. (They were taking them - I guess we were too early.) Staff just kept pointing where to go. I kind of liked Costa's routine of having an officer to welcome you on board and then assigning you the next in line of white-gloved staff to escort us to our cabins. With Royal Caribbean it was "there's the elevator. Take it up to deck 8". Thank goodness I knew where we were going. (I'm one of those people who studies the ship's deck plans.) Our cabin steward was there to greet us and explain where and how everything worked in the cabin. Others we met later said they didn't see their steward until later that night or even the next day! I was surprised to find out that the ship isn't docked downtown were she usually is. We were out in the boonies in the industrial area. No explanation as to why this was. You have to take a cab downtown. Since we were late and wanted to move our dining assignment (we were still wait listed for the late seating) we decided to stay on the ship.
My husband's first impression of Royal Caribbean is not a good one. We are told when coming on board, to move our dining assignment, we have to ask at the Purser's desk for the Maitre ‘D. We do this at 5pm only to be told he was available between 2-4pm but not again until 5:45pm. But that's when we're suppose to be in the dining room for the early seating. (Times are adjusted the first night because of the Muster Drill.) We go to the table they point to and wait until he shows at 5:45pm. By then, there is a huge line, everyone pushing. But after standing 45 minutes I am first…only to find out that he is the M.D. for the upstairs dining room, not the downstairs dining room, which we are assigned to. Great! The Purser's desk sends us to the wrong place. The M.D. says he will put us on his wait list (way way down at the bottom) and will talk to the other MD. I asked what happened to the wait list for first come first serve in the order the cruise was booked. "oh, that one is thrown out once we're on the ship and we start again." Not good news. Anyway, we go to our assign table. One reason we don't want the early seating is because of the kids. (We don't have any - enough said.) Monarch sets is up nice in the dining room with all the kids at tables together in the back corner. Great idea as not to disturb the rest of the dining room but guess where our table is? Yup, right in the middle of it all. If we have to stay here I think we'll be eating in the Windjammer Cafe.
Our cabin is small but well laid out. Our window is just that, a window (approx. 3"x2") not a porthole. Only the top part is obstructed with the lifeboats. Great little room. Not on Deck 7 where the people walking on the Promenade deck can look in your cabin if your drapes are not always drawn and not on Deck 6 which is below the walking/jogging track on Deck 7. The only thing I didn't like about Deck 8 is everything seemed to be on Deck 1,2,3 or 4. You get on and off the ship on Deck 2 and 1. The dining rooms are on Deck 3 and 4. Plus the Shore Excursion Desk and Purser's desk are on Deck 4. Deck 8 is closer to Deck 11 for the pool and stuff, but we didn't spend as much time there and anyway, I can always push 11 in the elevator. I think I would have been just as happy on Deck 3 or 4. There is lots of cupboards and closet space. The only main problem is the one and only electrical outlet, which happens to be in front of the mirrored cabinet. We have an electric toothbrush and kept having to move it every time we needed something in the cabinet. The shower is small but great and only once did we NOT flood the bathroom floor. I guess this is a regular occurrence since there it is a raised floor with it's own drain. I spoke to several others who had the same problem. Became a bit of an annoyance having to push the water to the drain so I could put down the bath mat.
Sail away isn't as nice since we're starting out from the industrial part of the harbour. I had made plans to meet a fellow cruiser who I met through one of the Internet cruise forums. She had picked the fountain by the pool. Who knew that would be the location for the sail away party. We never did meet that night but I did manage a Caribbean line dance or two and got "lei'd". We didn't stay up too much later since we'd been up since 4:30am and had a full day planned in our first port. We were pleasantly surprised to return to our cabin to find a note slid under the door saying that we had been moved to the late seating for dinner. Great! This meant we could spend a full day in each port.
Day Two We woke up to look out the window (I learned to love that window) to find out we had already docked in St Thomas. We grabbed a quick breakfast at the Windjammer and then headed ashore. In St Thomas, we went on our own to the neighbouring island of St John. Two thirds of the island is National Park. Beautiful and very under developed. Ferry from downtown C.A. doesn't run every hour (the one from Red Hook does). We managed to have a taxi take us to town. $2.50 each. We then just caught the 9am ferry to Cruz Bay, St John. The ride was about 45 minutes (versus 20 minutes from Red Hook). Cost was $7 each one way. We then stopped by the Park office to get the "scoop" on the best place to snorkel other than at Trunk Bay. I wanted to avoid all the crowds. We finally got a taxi to take us to Lennister Bay ($12.50) on the other side of the island near Annaberg Plantation. We then hiked 20 minutes to Lennister Bay where we set up camp for the day. We actually should have walked all the way around the bay and started our snorkeling trip right at Waterlemon Cay since this turned out to be the only real place to see anything. There is a bit of a current so the Park ranger had advised us to snorkel counter clock wise. The snorkeling was great! We were rewarded with lots of big and beautiful coral, tons of fish, even a large size turtle. Back on shore we even saw a small (2-3ft) reef shark swim by. Not too sure how I'd feel if I happened to be in the water when I saw him. IMHO, this was the best snorkeling of the entire trip. We then hiked back to the taxi drop off where we were told we could easily grab a taxi back to the ferry. NOPE!!! It's kind of a dead end road going to the plantation. There were no tours going there that late in the afternoon. I wasn't panicking yet since we still had 3-˝ hrs to sailing. We started to walk up the road and about a half-hour later we caught the shuttle bus going between Maho Bay Campgrounds and Cruz Bay. Definitely worth the $8. I guess we walked off $4.50. We had missed the 2pm ferry and got a coke while we waited for the 3 o'clock. It was a pleasant ride back to Red Hook ($3 each) where we caught a taxi (van - $5 each) back to the ship. We then did a little shopping in Havensight next to the ship.
Back on the ship, we dumped our snorkeling gear and headed to the Windjammer Cafe. My husband wanted to take part in the "snacks". When he pointed out it was 4:30pm and dinner wasn't for another 4 hrs, I joined him too. The hamburger was just so-so, but the french fries were amazing. Skinny little things with some kind of spiced coating on them. Missing lunch and having the late afternoon "snacks" became a daily routine for us.
After eating, we went back to our cabin, where my husband took a nap while I planned our next day. We couldn't decide what to do so I went to check out the short excursions. The Bird Island snorkel trip was still available and I had heard good things on the Internet about it. I came back to ask my husband what he thought. We decided to go for it. My mistake was waiting until we went down for dinner. By then it was sold out so we picked another one. The Catamaran Snorkel & Sail.
We came down about half an hour before dinner to buy the shore excursion. We should have given ourselves more time as there were 4 "stations" set up for formal portraits. We waited a long time in one and got our picture taken before hurrying into the dinning room to meet our new dinner companions. As we're walking to the table, I remind my husband that they did move us to the late seating so we couldn't be picky about our tablemates. We had originally requested, and received, a large table for ten. I told him we had to take what we got. They turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It was a table for six and when we arrived only one other couple was there. One thing I should mention. My husband is Chinese. I'm Caucasian. This couple, Pierre & Dee, were inter-racial as well. She turned out to be Vietnamese and he's Caucasian. We said our hellos. Where are you from? They say Toronto. We say we're from Toronto too. Where about? They say Richmond Hill. We choke and say we're from Richmond Hill too. Where about? Turns out they live less than a mile from us. What a coincidence! I knew RCCL tried to match your dinner partners but this was uncanny. It turned out to be the best part of the cruise. We sat talking for quite a bit after dinner and finally were politely kicked out at 11:10pm. (Everyone else was gone by 10:30) We moved out to the couches right outside of the dining room where we continued to talk until I realized it was after 1am. We both had busy days planned so we said our good-byes and headed to bed.
Day Three Since we only had booked an afternoon shore excursion, we had a late start and enjoyed a relaxing breakfast in the dining room. My husband was surprised to find out we didn't get our own table. That we were herded into large tables for 10. I kind of liked meeting new people. One couple sat opposite my husband and when he said "hello, where are you from?", they abruptly said "We're from Columbia and we don't speak English!" That was the end of that conversation. We spent the remainder of the morning visiting the shops just off the pier in town. My husband bought a nice T-shirt for $9. Not many small sizes to choose from so his selection was limited. We found it funny that that was the only T-shirt we bought on an island and it turned out to be our least favourite island. We grabbed a quick lunch in the Windjammer Cafe and then got ready for our Catamaran Snorkel & Sail. The cat was docked right next to the ship so it was a short walk. I was disappointed when they herded over 60 people on board. The cost was $39 each and a waste, really. We powered out to a reef that was 90% dead, with rough waves and current. Not exactly the best place for beginners. Then they sailed to a private beach (also where the Jolly Roger boat goes) and are hounded by people selling stuff. Waste of money. ($78 US = $115) Enough said.
Back on the ship, we enjoyed our "snack" before heading back to our cabin where we enjoyed a Disney movie on the TV. Dinner was casual and the other couple showed up. It turned out they didn't want to dress up for formal night so they went to the Windjammer instead. They were very nice, from the Chicago area. Everyone enjoyed talking about their day. This time we left the dining room at a reasonable time. Found a nice lounge to sit in and again sat talking till almost 1:30am. We have so much in common with Pierre & Dee and plan to continue to see each other once we return home.
Day Four Next was Barbados where we had heard the snorkeling was just okay, so after Antigua, we decided to go touring ourselves. We hired a taxi for the day. His name was Barry Young and he was actually the supervisor getting taxis for everyone else. He first suggested we go with another couple to cut down on costs but they didn't want to go where we did and visa versa. When I went back to tell Barry, he said that it would cost $100 by ourselves. That was okay by us so he ended up taking us himself. We did the Wildlife Nature Reserve, which cost $24 for the two of us. Nice place but we thought a little expensive for what it was. Plus we didn't get to see the green monkeys. Seems they are wild and are free to come and go and they normally go from 11am-3pm. We were there around noon. Best time to see them is between 3-4pm. We then went to the Andromeda Gardens. They have 2 tours -20 minutes and 45 minutes. We took the shorter one. It was very pretty. Well laid out with informative signage. This cost $12 for the two of us. Much better value and they even took AMEX. We then went to St John Church and then slowly drove down the east and south coast. I had almost booked us a hotel for a week on the east coast and Barry said, lucky we didn't. It's now a dump. It sure didn't look like that on the Internet. Hmmm Anyway, he told us about another hotel that is really good so he dropped us off there to check it out. It's called the Causarina (sp?). It actually is another one I had heard good things about and had looked into. We walked around the grounds for 15 minutes and decided this is where we'll spend our next vacation. Nice thing about this cruise. It's a sampler of several Caribbean islands. In total we were out 6 hours. Could have pushed it to 7 but I was getting tired.
Back on the ship, we had our "snack" and then back to our cabin for a nap. I still couldn't decide what to do at our next port - St Lucia. My husband & I had spent a week there 2 years ago and we were hoping they would have been offering a snorkeling trip to Anse Chastenate, the best reef on the island. (That's where we stayed in 1998). But no snorkeling trip of any kind was offered. I guess they figured it was too far away. 90-min car drive. I think it's only 45-60 mins by boat. We decided to just take it easy and go to the beach.
Dinner was another pleasant evening with friends and ended up going to bed after 2am.
Day Five As planned, we got up late this day and grabbed a quick breakfast at the buffet. After getting our snorkeling gear together, we went to get a taxi to head to Renuit Beach, there was no one to share a taxi with. Cost was $12 each way. I had a problem spending $24 US for 2 hours at the beach. So we did a little shopping beside the ship, then took the $1 ferry ($4 total) to city centre and visited the market. (Where we didn't buy the chocolate sticks everyone kept talking about after.) Then we were back on the ship for a swim in the pool and relaxing reading a book for a couple of hours. I wouldn't suggest doing what we did if you've never been there. St Lucia is very lush and beautiful. Our friends did the 7 hr sulfur hike and even though it was long and tiring, they enjoyed seeing the island.
Dinner was another pleasant evening with new friends.
Day Six Last stop was St Maarten. Another favourite and possible vacation spot. Here we rented a taxi but this time Pierre & Dee joined us. The taxi driver wanted $150 all day for 4 of us but we negotiated it down to $130. First we stopped at Dawn Beach for snorkeling. The beach is very pretty and quiet but the snorkeling was lousy. Deck chairs were $3 each and she threw in the umbrella. We stayed for about 1˝ hrs. Next we went to Orient Beach. Very big beach with wall to wall lounge chairs, umbrellas, snack bars, and sport vendors. Here Dee & I went for a para-sailing ride, (2 for $80 or $45 each). (Tip: Don't pay the $12 for professional photos. They shoot a roll of 12 with a stupid little camera with no zoom. Only 2 pictures of us being pulled back into the boat were any good. They also hand you the film for developing so it ends up costing a lot more than $12.) We went together while the guys went and checked out the nude portion of the beach. One end is normal, middle is topless and the far right side is in front of a nudist colony so there was lots of it. We then had the driver take us to Grand Chase, a small town on the north shore known for fine restaurants. We went specifically for the outdoor restaurants selling BBQ lobster, chicken and ribs. We had a feast of lobster ($30), ribs (huge rack for $4), and shrimp kabobs ($4 each) Plus 4 drinks (Code & iced tea) - cost $47 + $5 for tip. A great value for $52. The other couple had a smaller lobster ($20), snapper ($5), baby stuffed crabs ($4 or $5 each) plus ribs and drinks too. Their total was $45. We thoroughly enjoyed this lunch, our only meal off the ship. We then slowly took the cab back to Phillipsburg leaving ourselves a 2˝ hours for shopping. This was not enough. There are sooo many stores. We started looking at Tanzinite rings and time just slipped away. We ended up catching the 2nd last tender back to the ship at 5:20pm.
Tonight was the second formal night and we took the advice of one of the photographers and arrived early and had our picture taken at all of the "stations". Better chance of getting one we like. We were pleasantly surprised to find our other dining couple, Becky & Scott did come to this formal. They were also celebrating an anniversary and received the traditional cake for dessert. (We received ours at the first formal night.)
Day Seven Today was the last full day of our cruise and we were at sea. I like this relaxing "holiday" at the end of a busy week. Some itineraries have them at the beginning or in the middle. The last day is best. Since there was no where to go, we slept till almost noon. We missed breakfast and only had to wait a few minutes before lunch was being served in the dining room. After eating, we ran into Pierre & Dee buying gold chains in the Atrium and ended up spending the afternoon together. Joe & Pierre played ping-pong at the bow of the ship, only losing one ball over the wall. Dee and I went to the casino where she lost $20 and I lost $6. (I had visited the casino earlier in the cruise to play roulette. My husband is not into gambling but said he's accompanied me to the casino while I lost $20. Huh! I actually won $70 on one bet putting me about $85 ahead. I set aside $60 and played till I lost everything above that. Then I was smart and walked away.)
Dee mentioned that she had packed in the morning and I realized that we should do that too. Luggage has to be out in the hallway between 8pm and midnight. Our dinner started at 8:30 and I didn't want to ruin our last night packing. So we went back to the cabin where my husband had a nap while I packed. We had only taken 2 suitcases and two small carry-ons. We had spare room coming down but all of a sudden I was having trouble making everything fit. No, we didn't buy anything, except for fridge magnets, which we collect from all over the world. It finally fit and we put the luggage out just before heading for dinner. Besides the two suitcases, I included one of the carry-ons. Saw no reason to haul it around on the trip back. I'm glad we packed early since we didn't get back to our room until almost 2am.
Day Eight This too turned out to be another long day. It started off with the surprise of our bill. We hadn't spend much and was only expecting about $200. Was very surprised to find out it was almost $500. It seems we had "bought" a painting at the art auction. I must admit we did register. We were interested in only one painting but the opening bid was too high. We never once even raised our number even though Pierre & Dee urged us too. (They had bought two paintings earlier in the week). Pierre and Dee arrived and we all went to Immigration, which was, opened 6-8am. (The ship cannot clear Puerto Rico until all non-US citizens are seen. We had been told there were 2500 people on board. 2,000 Americans. That meant that there were only 500 of us to be checked through. The line was long but moved quickly. We then went to the dining room for breakfast. Then it was back to our rooms to get our carry-ons. (You have to be out of your cabin by 8am). We met Pierre & Dee in the Dancin' Lounge where we picked a nice couch & 2 chairs combo for our long wait to disembark. It was actually pleasant with someone to wait with. Too bad there was no place to get something to drink. Actually my husband sat with P & D while I spent over an hour trying to get the bill fixed. We had to wait for the auctioneer to arrive. He did remove the item from the bill but he did make me feel like I was lying and had changed my mind about buying the painting. I told him we never even raised our number card once. I don't think he believed me.
Everyone left the ship according to their flight. P & D had a late flight so they were taking a San Juan tour and left before us. I should mention that they bought their cruise only 3 weeks before sailing and they ended up with better flights. While we had a 4-hr layover in Philly, they got to spend the 4 hours touring San Juan. My TA explained that it was just the luck of the draw when they called. Ya, okay. Next time I'll book my own flights.
Our flight was finally called and we left the ship. We were told to find our luggage and then go outside to catch the bus to the airport. When we got outside, we were asked who our airline was. We said US Airways and were directed to a long line at the end of the parking lot. We put our luggage with the rest and while we're standing there, this woman comes up and asks "Where are you flying to?" We say Toronto. "Ohhhhh! You can't put your luggage here. They won't take International flights." First we heard of it. We then had to carry our luggage all the way back over to the bus and take it with us to the airport. Also worth noting is the fact that there is no RCCL staff at the airport to help with check in. For example, we lined up at US Airways counter only to find out that we had to put our luggage through the scanner looking for plant material, etc. Finally got that figured out and checked in. The wait at the airport was uneventful. The new part of the San Juan airport is quiet nice and air conditioned too.
We arrived at Philly and set in for the 4 four layover. First we checked our one carry-on luggage into a locker and set out to visit the stores. Funny, we actually bought more here at the airport then on the entire cruise. We started to head back to the assigned gate only to hear that the gate had changed. We settled in for the hour wait. And wait we did. No plane. Delayed 20 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour. Some problem all along the eastern seaboard. We ended up flying one hour and 45 minutes later.
Flight home was short and sweet. Immigration was quick and painless. The ride home tiring. Thank goodness the Monday was a holiday for people in Ontario. It took us that day just to relax and recoup before heading off the work on Tuesday.
Good Points: Well laid out ship so it was easy to get around. Cabins are small but everything fits. Great itinerary with Barbados and St Maarten our favourites.
Bad Points: Dining experience not as good as we expect for Royal Caribbean. One thing I didn't mention in my report was the fact that most of the music/dancing entertainment was geared towards the Spanish speaking clientele. One evening the Host only spoke in Spanish totally ignoring the English speaking quests. This cruise did not live up to the Royal Caribbean reputation, unless that reputation is really slipping these days. My husband commented "If this is the best RCCL can do, how bad can Carnival be?" I replied, "Probably similar, not worse."
Will I sail again? Most definitely. Will my husband? Well, not probably in the Caribbean though he did say something about Princess offering open seating for dinner. (How'd he hear about that?) He's also talking about doing the Renaissance Tahiti cruise for our 10th anniversary in 4 years. He likes the idea of no smoking, no kids, two days in most ports plus no dinner assignments or formal nights.