Our party of 9 went on the East Caribbean cruise of RCI's Navigator of the Seas on August 28, 2004. The cruise was supposed to be 7 nights/8days but it ended up being a 9 nights/10 days cruise due to Hurricane Frances. So we got to stay on board for 2 extra days FOR FREE. THAT WAS AWESOME!!
We had to compliment our captain, Rick Sullivan, for keeping us away from the hurricane at all times. We were at least 200 nautical miles away from it so we did not feel any discomfort while on board. I must admit that at times it was quite windy especially during the times when we were having our morning jogs.
Although the original itinerary included 4 ports (Nassau in Bahamas, Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas, San Juan in Puerto Rico & Labadee in Haiti), we had to cancel most of them due to different routing. We were still pleased to be able to visit St. John's in Antigua (a very nice substitute) and St. Thomas. It was a pity that all water activities including the submarine, aqua park and BOB (underwater scooter) had to be cancelled but we had a great time doing land tours. The beaches were absolutely fantastic! I will talk about those ports in detail later on.
When we chose our cruiseship in January, we wanted to go for RCI's biggest ship. It was proven to be a very wise choice as we had so much to do on board on sea days that we never got bored even though we had to stay for extra days. RCI definitely had the BEST children's program as our kids (two 11 & one 15 years old) LOVED it! Disney is too young for them and all other cruise lines' are not as well-organized. Activities like ice skating, roller blading & rock climbing were all free (not even any charge for rentals) but make sure that kids (even teenagers) can find you whenever they want to go & play as parents/guardians have to sign waiver forms & be with them while they play.
Let's talk about our pre-cruise activities first!
Flying from Toronto to Miami & Car Rental It was great that we arrived at Miami 3 days before the cruise so we could enjoy SOBE before the hurricane attacks - another piece of luck! We arrived at MIA (Miami International Airport) at around 12:10 p.m., and got our baggage from Section G (flying from Toronto on Air Canada) at 12:30 p.m. Since we had booked a rental minivan (Thrifty's special deal for US$38.99 per day) in advance, our party of 7 (2 seniors were joining us 2 days later) boarded one of the many Thrifty shuttle buses (they run non-stop) right outside the terminal. The shuttle bus took us to the rental car office (all rental car companies are located outside of the airport) in 5 minutes. With 3 big suitcases and 6 carry-ons we had no problems to fit all 7 passengers and luggage in the Grand Caravan. We left Thrifty at 12:50 p.m. and started to drive to Eden Roc Renaissance Hotel in Miami Beach.
Eden Roc Miami Beach, a Renaissance Resort & Spa We were at the hotel for 2 nights and were absolutely impressed with the excellent service that the hotel staff provided. The check-in staff was helpful & efficient & upgraded our 2 rooms to Ocean & Bay view with no extra charge. The partial ocean & bayview rooms were the best as you got spectacular views of 2 stretches of water on both the left & the right side of your room. The extra bucks for a full oceanview room was totally unnecessary especially for us who will be going on a cruise. The concierge, especially Luis, gave us helpful and practical suggestions for dining options and useful info regarding our trip to Key West.
The hotel was easily accessible from the airport and the drive was only 15 minutes. Without a car, Eden Roc would not be a good choice as it's quite far from Ocean Drive & SOBE downtown. However, if you love night life & traffic jams, go for those fancy hotels like Crowne Plaza & Loews or the more economical ones like Holiday Inn (20 mins. walk to Ocean Dr.). The beach off Eden Roc Hotel was amazing. No one was near us when we swam at around 6 p.m. It was like a private beach. Umbrella & chair rentals, however, were not available for those late hours. The hotel outdoor pool & the whirpool were clean and well-maintained. Even more so, due to hotel renovation (4th floor only, but we stayed on Floor 10) during the time of our stay, the hotel sent us a $50 resort credit (which could be used for parking, food or other resort facility rentals) for each of our 2 rooms before we left for Miami, and we could also use the $100 Marriott Bonus Bucks coupons (around $30 through eBay).
The hotel lobby was classy and they offered free sampling of wine every evening we were there. Starbucks coffee was available even in the lobby bar, which was quite unusual. One thing you have to be careful was tipping. On top of the $20 daily valet parking fee, porters asked for tips when they unloaded luggage from our van just to the front lobby, then the luggage was transferred to the bell boy & we'd have to tip again when our luggage was delivered to our rooms. So if you can manage without the luggage cart, you'll easily save another 10 bucks.
SOBE (South Beach) Miami When we were there on Aug. 25 & 26, we wondered where the tourists were as we could easily find meter parking right in the heart of South Beach (only $1/hour, same rate as the big parking lot off Lincoln Rd. & 17th Ave.). Just make sure you have lots of quarters!! Parking for the weekend was $5 flat rate per day in public car parks without in and out privileges, go for meter parking if you need to use your car around for short trips. For dining in SOBE, I highly recommended the 2 restaurants we went to, Nexxt & Van Dyke, and they're both in the famous Lincoln Rd. Mall. If you have a small appetite, share your dishes as they're HUGE.
Key West The drive from mainland Florida to Key West was about 3½ hours each way and we went on 42 bridges before we were at the southernmost point of USA. Although we didn't have a lot of time to spend there, we did manage to stop at the Big Lobster on our way & took some pictures. The Big Lobster there was definitely less famous than the world's largest lobster in Shediac, New Brunswick in Canada, but it still looked quite real and more 'fierce'.
The Conch Train Tour in Key West was really worth it as you did not have to drive your own car around the little streets & got bombarded by tons of those trains. We bought the Miami/Florida Keys Entertainment Book for $10 in July and got 3 buy-one-get-one-free coupons all in one book, that saved us $66.
Shopping in Key West was unbelievable. Shells were beautiful & souvenirs were way cheaper than those in SOBE. My husband got a beautiful silk-like Caribbean/Hawaiian shirt with beautiful palm trees & beach print for $9 and a matching long sarong for ladies was only $10. Make sure you bargain & you could get really good deals. Another point to remember was the heat in August; it was so hot that even though you're in an air-conditioned shop you would still sweat non-stop. Think of that as free saunas and you'd feel much better.
Hyatt Regency Miami We switched hotels because Hyatt was way closer to the Port of Miami than Eden Roc and it was closer to Downtown Sheraton where we had to return our rental car from Budget. Originally, we planned to return our van from Thrifty right at Hyatt but the Thrifty office was closed a couple of months ago, so we had to switch from Thrifty to Budget. It was OK since I had to go to the airport to pick up my parents one day before our cruise, so it was alright to switch cars too. We got a really good rate at Hyatt; the senior rate was only $44.95 for a very spacious room. Upgrading to the Regency Club floors was only $32 extra & we had free buffet breakfast for 4 ($15 each if we had to pay). I reserved the hotel rooms way in advance in January, so the rate was absolutely unbeatable.
The front desk staff was not as helpful as those in Eden Roc & less friendly. When I asked for directions to go on the free Metromover (Miami's downtown skyrail) to Bayside Market, they told us to get off 2 stops earlier so we had to walk under the unbearably hot sun for 10 minutes. I personally did not like Bayside Market as the merchandise was not as cheap as SOBE's and the quality of food in the food court was only average. Basically, no one wanted to shop in the market stalls as there was no air-conditioning and even the air-conditioned food court was not cool enough. However, the air-conditioned Disney Store there had some excellent T-shirts for $5 and stuffed animals like a one-foot long Nemo was only $6.
Then the real excitement came when we had to board the famous Navigator of the Seas Embarkation Boarding the cruiseship at around 11:30 a.m. was quite easy for us. From past cruise experience, I found that since we always check-in according to deck levels, it's best to go for staterooms on the very top deck where the Royal Suite & other grand suites are located. Based on the fact that there're less passengers on that deck and most of them are Crown & Anchor platinum & diamond members that they don't have to wait in line, we could go to the check-in counter without a wait. It was awesome when you saw that other decks were packed with 50-100 people in line and we were the only group at the counter. We simply completed our check-ins in less than 10 minutes. One thing that didn't please me at all was the Welcome Picture that they took. You could see thousands of people behind you and beside you & it was not 'personal' or special at all.
Superior Oceanview Stateroom with Balcony Another good point about being on Deck 10 was the efficiency and superb service that you could get from the housekeeping team. At least one member of the team would be there for us whenever we needed them for anything, since they're always cleaning the suites beside us. Definitely the suites are more spacious but you have to pay an extra tip of $3 per passenger per day. However, the suite would be cleaned EVERY TIME when you stepped in & then left. What a service! For us, we got 3 superior oceanview staterooms with balcony side by side and 2 of the rooms were connected (the connecting door had to be unlocked by the stateroom attendant & will be left unlocked for the duration of the cruise), so it was good enough. I honestly believe that having a balcony stateroom was worth the money. Every one of us (even our pre-teen and teenage girls) felt so relaxed when we just sat and chatted on the balcony. After all, having some privacy while enjoying the gorgeous view of the Atlantic Ocean on a 3000-passenger cruiseship was a great way to relax and reduce stress, right?
Food on Board Many reviews have commented on the setting & food quality of various dining rooms and restaurants so I'm not going into great details. However, we found that we're constantly eating on board. Breakfast at 9:30 a.m. after our morning jog & swim, then lunch at 1 p.m. Dinner was at 6 p.m. and you couldn't be late as they still had to serve the 8:30 seating. We just couldn't have a chance to get hungry. The food in the Nutcracker Dining Room was above average & the food in Windjammer was great for the buffet style.
Kids dined at Johnny Rockets once since we got many coupons for being the Crown & Anchor members. They said that the food was mouth-watering and waiters' singing and dancing were very entertaining. They mentioned that even if they had to pay they would still choose to eat there, so the food must be very good. Besides, ice cream machines were available on the top decks close to Adventure Ocean (kid's program), and soda cards for kids were around $35 each ($52 for adult). Those were good as you only had to pay a few bucks each day for numerous drinks. If you only like juice, milk or ice tea, you could get those free when Windjammer on Deck 11 was open or from the Promenade Café (open 24 hours) on Deck 5 where there's always a line-up.
We didn't eat at the Portofino but Chops Grille was absolutely amazing. The cozy & romantic setting was great, service was excellent and the steaks were very tasty. It's definitely worth the extra $25 per person. Bear in mind that both specialty dining locations only welcome guests aged 13 or above, so pre-teens & little kids need to be taken care of elsewhere. We did it on the night that the 11 year-olds were having pyjamas party with Adventure Ocean and the adults & my 15-year old had an excellent time there.
Fitness, Spa & Salon The fitness centre was very well-equipped & there was no line up for any machine when we were there. The solarium pool and whirlpools were way less crowded than the main pools and the whirlpool inside the spa (free of charge) was always nice & quiet. Shipshape centre offered a lot of classes & some were easy workouts which were good for those who didn't usually go to gym.
I tried the facial on port day ($99 special) & my appointment was at 8:30a.m. so I could still enjoy my land tour after breakfast. Book early if you need one & they'd give you freebies like $40 eye treatment. The service was good, the atmosphere & music were soothing & relaxing. That's why you wanted to be pampered while on board. The aesthetician asked me to buy over $400 of products & I found her a bit pushy, so I only agreed to buy a cream that reduces the redness of my skin. I go to spa regularly so I have my own skin care products & really can't be bothered with others.
The salon was spacious & the hair dresser was very quick. A wash & blow-dry only took less than 30 minutes & it cost $50. I was hoping that some kind of scalp massage would be done & was quite disappointed when it was not applied. I guessed they were very busy on formal nights, that's why they're SO EFFICIENT.
1st Port of Call - St. John's, Antigua As the captain was trying his best to stay away from Hurricane Frances, we had to change our route so this stop was a bonus as we had to sail down to the West Indies which was further than where we planned to go. The merchandise there was very cheap but most shops did not have air-conditioning so it was boiling hot there. We managed to get a cab for all 9 of us for $100 & the driver was called Mr. Tie as he loved ties so much that we was wearing one with a T-shirt. In his van he had about a dozen of ties hanging down the mirror, we should have given him a tie to get a greater discount. The van was air-conditioned but we were still sweating like crazy, so we opened the windows instead to get more breeze.
Our tour was almost 3 hours long. First we went to a scenic lookout to the English Harbour, and then we drove to the other side of the island to Nelson Dockyard. Since we didn't have a lot of time we didn't pay to visit the historic fort, but the people there were kind enough to let us use the washrooms. There was a tourist info office with only a few brochures - not much help if you want to gather info. Then we went to Turner's Beach where the water was clear and the beach was lovely. Non-swimmers could relax in the breezy under-cover shelters overlooking the beautiful beach. Drinks there were reasonably priced and if you want to braid your hair, it's only $1 per braid. In St. Thomas it's $2 and $5 on the cruiseship. You could also bargain to get a cheaper rate.
2nd Port of Call - Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, US Virgin Island The next day we were at St. Thomas. The port was very nice and houses were better-kept and we could tell right away that the island was much better maintained than Antigua. We docked side by side with Holland America's new Zuiderdam. It was really spectacular to see 2 big cruiseships from the Mountain Top. It was a big shame that all water activities had to be cancelled because of the poor water quality after the storm as we were so looking forward to being on the BOB (underwater scooter). Even the tram going up the mountain was closed due to the strong wind.
We were absolutely appalled by the fact that cab drivers were bugging us so much. We were hollered by tons of them, each offering a cheaper price than the one before. They argued among themselves about who the first one was to approach us... and so on. However, when we asked them where they would take us, the route and the length of the tour varied so much that we had to bargain over and over again. We finally were able to get a cab for $140 to go to scenic spots and stop for swimming & snorkelling at Sapphire Beach, which was beautiful but not as famous as Magen's Bay, one of the world's top 10 beaches.
The cab was converted from a pick-up truck (most of the cabs in St. Thomas were like that) and it could seat 12 people, so it was quite roomy for the nine of us. As there was no windows, it was great to take pictures when we passed by attractions and the breeze was great. It was definitely a more enjoyable ride than the one in Antigua the day before. Although Budget and Avis Car Rental offices were right at the dock, it was not easy to drive in St. Thomas as they drive on the left side of the road with right-side driving; it's like using an English car to drive in N. America, how awkward! Taxi drivers were always zooming by or stopping suddenly, and there were always traffic jams near the dock, so we didn't go for a rental car although it's cheaper.
We went to the famous Mountain Top where we could see the pier with 2 cruisehips and shopping there was amazing. Just make sure you have enough time there. Definitely things were cheaper at stalls but the heat was quite unbearable. Nevertheless, St. Thomas was undoubtedly a shopping paradise.
The reason why we didn't go to Magen's Bay was because each person had to pay a few bucks to get in and with the very limited time that we had it was not worth it. However, we got to see the beautiful Magen's Bay from the mountain top and were really impressed by the long and beautiful U-shaped sandy beach. Swimming in Sapphire Beach was our alternative. We rented snorkelling equipment there for $10 an hour and had a lot of fun with the very clear blue water. There were lots of fishes around and the beach was not crowded. There were lots of rocks and pebbles as we were walking in the water, wearing aqua shoes would be perfect. We got those for $12 a pair in Antigua & it was $19.99 on the ship.
The girls wanted to get their hair braided so the cab driver dropped us off in a mall which was a 5-minute walking distance from the pier and we could have a nap in the air-conditioned hairdresser for 1 hour while the girls were having their hair done. It was only $15 per head. What a good deal!
Disembarkation The night before we got off the ship we were given colour tags to put on our luggage. Ours were orange (2nd group off) so we could get off pretty early at around 9:00. The baggage claim area was quite spacious and the luggage came out in carousels according to colour groups. We were very lucky that we didn't have to stand by for any flights as we originally planned for some post-cruise activities like visiting the alligator farm and going on an airboat. Although Hurricane Frances did cause us some kinds of inconvenience, we thoroughly enjoyed the extra 2 days on board. We were really thankful that it was a big ship with a very good cruise director, Becky, who was able to arrange extra ice shows and night entertainment so we never got bored.
In general, we were very pleased with our cruise and will definitely sail with RCI again.