My wife (48) and I (47) just returned from our Southern Caribbean cruise after spending 5 glorious days aboard Royal Caribbean's Serenade of the Seas (This cruise was shortened from 7 to 5 days as Serenade is scheduled to go into dry dock after this cruise for one week). This was our 12th cruise (10th on Royal Caribbean). Through this review, we hope to offer a little insight of what to expect or help you make a decision in booking your excursion(s).
To help people reading this review, I have tried to categorize the various areas of discussions so that you can read what you are interested in and ignore everything else. I will be as honest and up front in each of the areas.
Ship: This is a beautiful ship and offers all types of things to do. It is approximately 3 ˝ years old and has 13 decks. The Serenade is a Radiance class ship known for having so many rooms with adjacent balconies. The ship is a wall of glass with a spectacular view no matter where you are. The ship is decorated from top to bottom with exquisite art and statuettes. In the center of the ship is a beautiful atrium where various musical performances played at various times during the day and evening. The Serenade has a rock-climbing wall (33-ft high), a kid's pool with water slide, and a solarium with a heated pool and hot tub that is drop dead gorgeous. There is a library for leisurely reading along with a movie theater, casino, two specialty restaurants (Chops and Portofino), sports bar, arcade room, a Champagne bar, disco, a karaoke bar, a coffee bar, along with many leisure areas. There are several restaurants to choose from varying from formal dining to casual dining or snacking. It has a full service spa along with an exercise room containing the most modern exercise equipment. This ship has two computerized self-leveling pool tables, a 9-hole putt-putt course, golf simulator ($25/hour for up to 4 people), ping-pong tables, shuffleboard, a basketball court and a jogging track. It has a beautiful theater where entertainers perform, a shopping area with all types of specialty shops. The ship also has chess and backgammon tables, a small Hollywood memorabilia area, meeting rooms, and plenty of deck space for lying around. In short, if you want to be alone, there are places to hide, if you want activities and opportunities to socialize, you won't have to look far.
Departure: As they say, "Timing is everything". We usually fly in a day early. However, this trip we decided to fly to San Juan the same day the cruise departed (Saturday). This was probably a good decision as a winter storm caused havoc on flights departing from east coast cities (we flew out of Dulles in DC) on Friday. Our flight was scheduled to depart at 9:15 am and arrive in San Juan at 1 pm. We arrived at the airport at 6:15 am and while the airport was more crowded than usual (for this time of day), we arrived at the gate at about 7:20 am. We had a leisurely breakfast at a restaurant near the gate area and boarded our flight at 8:50 am. Once everyone was on board the Captain announced they were holding the flight as connecting flights were arriving. We finally departed just after 10 am and arrived in San Juan about 2:15 pm. Once we collected our luggage we grabbed a taxi ($27 including tip) and headed for the pier.
Embarkation: We arrived at the pier at 2:50 pm. After enduring an endless wait of about 2 minutes (this included dropping the bags at the curb, going through security and walking up to the counter) we handed the clerk our Sign and Sail paperwork, credit card and passports. Again, we had to wait forever (maybe 1 – 2 minutes) for our sea pass cards to be handed to us and off we went to board the ship. After getting our pictures taken for the sea pass card and then getting our obligatory boarding photo (for our photo album), we were on the ship and headed to our stateroom. Total time from pier to room – maybe 15 minutes. By far the smoothest boarding process we have ever encountered. Oh yeah, 2 of our 3 bags were delivered by 4 pm and the last bag arrived at 5:30 (plenty of time for dinner).
Cabin Info: As we were celebrating our 28th anniversary, we splurged on a Junior Suite room (1542) (deck 10). We have had rooms ranging from inside, promenade, outside and various balcony level rooms. All I can say about a JS room is WOW! This room is spacious with a walk-in closet (plenty of hangars; if you need more just ask), large (by cruise standards) bathroom with a tub, a large sitting area and decent size deck. The only thing missing was a flat panel TV (still has the old style TV). The bedding has been upgraded and the bed was much more comfortable than previous cruises. Plenty of storage space throughout the room. The rooms have hair dryers, shampoo/conditioner dispensers, soap and electric outlets for whatever you need (we brought a power strip for additional outlets). Each evening when we returned from dinner, the bed was turned down with chocolates on the pillows. Maria (our room steward) would deliver daily ship news flyers (Compass). She also did towel animals. Since my wife loves the towel animals, Maria made them every night and even arranged them during the day including a staged poker game complete with cards. There is a safe and a small refrigerator. TV channels included ESPN, CNN, Headline News, TNT, recent movies (in various languages), a channel on ship activities/news and PPV movies. There is a small desk for writing. Warning, if you open your balcony door, be careful of the vacuum created when you open your room door. It will slam the door in a heartbeat and, if you have kids, they could get hurt. Our advice is keep patio door closed when not on balcony.
Weather: We had decent weather this week. Sunny and mid 80's in San Juan, Partly Cloudy and mid 80's in St Thomas (we had about a 45 minute afternoon shower while on the beach), Mostly Sunny and high 80's in St Maarten, and Antigua. All ports we accompanied by gentle trade winds that made the warm weather tolerable. The water was comfortable and very clear (20 – 50 feet visibility).
Clothing: Since this was only a 5-day cruise there was only one formal night. We choose not to bring our formal wear. To help you decide what to bring here is the suggested dress for each night: (Sat) Casual, (Sun) Formal, (Mon) Casual, (Tue) Casual/Caribbean, (Wed) Casual. For a 7-night cruise, add a 2nd formal night (Thurs) and another casual night. The suggested dress for the specialty restaurants (Chops and Portofino) is Smart Casual (Jacket for men although this wasn't enforced). Based on the suggested dress code ties would be optional except for formal nights. Formal nights had a mix of Tuxedo's and Suits for men, Gowns, and dresses for women.
Life aboard Ship: There is plenty to do aboard the ship. The ship offers exercise classes, bingo, karaoke, trivia games, shuffleboard, table tennis, rock wall climbing, court games (volleyball, basketball, and dodgeball), wine tasting classes, cooking shows, art and sports memorabilia auctions, line dance classes, disco dancing, kids programs, pool activities, billiards, a stocked library, big screen TV's throughout ship, etc. Each day, there are 3 different movies shown in the movie theater. Each night, there is some form of entertainment in the Aurora Theater. We saw comedians, jugglers, and the RCI singers and dancers. Each day, a bulletin (Compass) is printed listing all the daily activities. Trust me, you won't be bored. When not in port, the Casino is open and stays open to the wee hours. The bars close down around 2:00 am each night. There is always a contest of some sort going on and they have various themes or parties scheduled. There are sock hops, Captain Welcome parties, Quest, Trivia games, etc. Whether it is kids or adults, you will find an assortment of activities to keep you occupied. For the pool area there are plenty of lounge chairs (although not all prime around the pool) so this should not be a problem. The entertainment quality aboard the Serenade was average to good. This isn't Vegas but many of the shows being presented were entertaining.
Concierge: For those of you staying in suites or who are Diamond/Diamond Plus members, you will be pleased to know that the Concierge (Maritza) is one of the best I have encountered. She is friendly, attentive and appears to go out of her way to please her customers. The Concierge Lounge is located on deck 10 and has a beautiful view of the ocean instead of a stuffy inside room. The only complaint I could make is that it is somewhat small but Maritza manages it very well. By the way, there are also two computer terminals in there for use instead of having to trek to other areas just to use the computer.
Food/Dining: The food in general ranged from average to excellent. The menu provided a variety of food choices and there is an alternate menu always available. We had a table for 4 but our tablemates were moved to another table as they were traveling with another couple who were delayed in arriving because of weather. So, we had a table to ourselves (which we had requested during our reservation so it turned out well for us). Our waiters, Julietta (she is going to Liberty after this cruise) and Kevin were excellent. They worked very well together and their service was spectacular. They went out of their way to try to make our dining experience a special one. Bottom line, we enjoyed coming to dinner. We were never rushed and they took the time to talk with us and get to know us. For service, I would give an A+. In fact, Kevin informed us the morning we departed that he was being promoted to waiter after this cruise. We had early seating and the dining room was never full any night we ate there (we missed nights 2 and 3). Formal dining is in the Reflections room (a two-story dining room on deck 4 & 5). Informal dining, buffet style, is in the Windjammer. The Windjammer is okay at best. The food was Ok but breakfast was always cold. We ate dinner there the 3rd night (Mon). The Mongolian Barbeque was very good. If you remember this is a buffet style restaurant you won't be disappointed. There is also the "Seaview Café". This restaurant was located on deck 12 and has a small menu. All items are cooked fresh and to order. They serve Reuben sandwiches, Hamburgers, Nathan's hot dogs, fish and chips, soups, salads, onion rings, etc. Not many people took advantage of this restaurant (my guess is because you have to look for it and most don't find it until late in the week). I highly recommend this café as a nice alternative. For all you Sushi lovers, the ship sports a Sushi bar that looked very good. It's not for me however. There are also two specialty restaurants—Chops and Portofino. There is a modest fee ($20/person that includes gratuity). Please see comments below regarding both of these restaurants.
Specialty Restaurants: Let me say this now. Spend the money. The difference between the food in these restaurants and the main dining room is night and day. There are two specialty restaurants aboard the Serenade. One is a steak restaurant called "Chops Grille" and the other is an Italian restaurant called "Portofino". We only ate at Chops (however, I have eaten at Portofino on Adventure, Radiance, and Navigator and all were excellent. If this had been a 7-night cruise or the service/food in the dining room had been poor we would have eaten here also). The service across the board not just at our table was outstanding. My wife had a Shrimp Cocktail (double the size served in the dining room), Caesar Salad and the Herb Crusted Halibut. I had the French Onion Soup, Caesar Salad and the Royal Pork Shank. We also ordered a 7 oz Filet Mignon to share. Everything was excellent. The Pork Shank tasted just like ribs without the mess. Once served it is removed from the bone and is so tender you won't need a knife. It melted in my mouth. The Halibut was tender, flaky and flavorful. The Filet was ordered medium rare and was very good (but we really didn't need to order it, as there is an abundance of food). The presentation was first rate. There is no rushing on this meal. Bon Appetite!
Casino: This casino is called "Casino Royale". It has a variety of slot machines, black jack tables, roulette, and various other Vegas tables. There is a slot tournament ($20 entry fee). Top 11 make it to the final round (my wife made it to the finals but alas her luck ran out in the finals. There is also a Blackjack tournament ($20 entry fee). They ran two tables simultaneously. I didn't fare well here either. Oh well, maybe next time. The dealers are patient and will help you learn the rules if you are a novice. Never crowded but if smoke bothers you, you will notice it here the most.
Photography: If you want a picture of you or your family, you won't have to look far. Many photo opportunities are offered aboard this ship. 8 x 10's will run you about $20 each while 5 x 7's run about $10. Featured pictures are Captains party, Welcome aboard pics, Formal nights, lifestyle portraits and pictures in every port. The ship also sells a commemorative DVD ($25) that features your week aboard the ship. Most of the DVD is stock footage but also contains events that happened on the ship the week you were on. Only runs about 30 minutes but if you are looking for memories, this may be an option.
Kids Programs: We didn't use the kids program but from what we saw, I'd say the kids (under 8) were very happy. Our previous experience with Adventure Ocean has always been excellent.
Ports of Call/ Excursions: Our ports of call were San Juan, St Thomas, St Maarten, and Antigua. (On the 7-night St Lucia and Barbados are included). I pre booked two excursions through RCI and booked one independently.
* San Juan: Departure Port. Didn't do anything this trip. However, from past trips to San Juan I highly recommend a tour of Old San Juan, Fort El Morro, and the El Yunque Tropical Rainforest (about 1 ˝ hours from San Juan). Just remember that the Pan American pier is about 20 minutes from Old San Juan.
* St Thomas: We pre booked the Caribbean Sail to Christmas & Honeymoon Coves (6 ˝ hour excursion; $98/person). The description provided is "Relax aboard the classic, romantic sailing schooner "BONES" during a scenic tour to Christmas Cove at Great St. James off the Southeastern coast of St. Thomas. After anchoring at this deserted island, your crew will provide all snorkel equipment, including friendly instruction and guide you as you snorkel, swim and explore the fantastic coral formations and tropical fish. Back onboard beverages, chips, and salsa will be served as you continue on your adventure with an exhilarating sail over to enchanting Water Island's Honeymoon Beach, a totally unspoiled island which is accessible only by boat. Upon arrival, the choice is yours. Relax on the soft sand, swim or enjoy more snorkeling while working up an appetite for a delicious lunch prepared by your own chef and served at Water Island. The great hostess and crew will make their famous banana benders and serve wine, beer, sodas, juices and water while you sail back to the cruise ship with a beautiful tour through St. Thomas harbor and the waterfront area. Don't forget your complimentary Pirate Tattoos (temporary!) and complimentary website photos at BonesUSVI.com. Once you are back in St. Thomas, the party doesn't stop! Visit the Company Store for more fun, free drinks and souvenirs. A true taste of Paradise to treasure forever!" There were 20 of us on this excursion. Because of conditions at Christmas cove, we went to Turtle Cove instead. The water was calm with great visibility. We saw Stingrays, turtles and various sea life. We then headed to Honeymoon cove for some beach time and lunch. While lunch was being served, it began to rain. The rain lasted about 45 minutes. We spent about 2 hours at Honeymoon cove. Overall, a beautiful and fun day. The only draw back to this excursion is there is not enough time to shop once you get back to the ship. We would do this again without hesitation.
* St Maarten: We pre booked the Captain Morgan's Sailing Adventure (4 ˝ hour excursion; $82/person). The description provided is "Join Capt. Serge and his professional crew on this traditional sailing experience around the Southern coast of St. Maarten. A BBQ lunch and time for swimming and snorkeling will be available on this exclusive sailing adventure. Minimum age to participate is 3 years old. Capt. Serge and his professional crew will take you to experience traditional sailing, on a discovery of the beautiful southern coast of the island. You'll see Cay Bay, Simpson Bay, and Maho. Also enjoy sailing to Baie Longue, one of the island's most beautiful and peaceful white sand beaches, where you will anchor for BBQ lunch and swimming or snorkeling (snorkeling equipment provided). Baie Longue offers total tranquility and with this stunning backdrop everybody can ‘de-compress' with the occasional dip in the crystal waters and regular visits to the floating bar. If your goal is simply to relax and do as little as possible, you can recline in comfort on Capt. Morgan's large on-deck sun lounges while sipping the special rum punch and soaking up the sunshine listening to the wonderful Caribbean music. Then you set sail and head back to Philipsburg being pushed along by the trade winds. Relaxing music, a complimentary bar and a tropical fruit salad gets you back to the cruise ship pier. Captain Morgan is not as big as the party boats. Leaving the crowds behind you, Capt. Morgan welcomes a maximum of 20 passengers to ensure an ambiance of private luxury. That leaves plenty of room on the deck with spots of shade and lots of sun. All cruises on Capt. Morgan are staffed by a friendly crew who will accompany you throughout your tour and treat you to fabulous service." There were 20 of us on this excursion as well. In my opinion, 20 people is too many for this boat as there is really not enough seating and really no place to lounge on the boat (except for a small cushioned area that will accommodate maybe 4 people max (2 sitting and 2 laying down). This was definitely more of a relaxed sailing and we definitely felt the waves and rough water as we sailed towards the French side of St Maarten. Don't get me wrong, it was a nice sail but if you are susceptible to seasickness you may want to reconsider this excursion (we actually had one person who spent the last 30 minutes of the trip "feeding the fish" from the French side to the Dutch side of the island). Once we got to Baie Longue, we anchored, swam, and snorkeled (not a great snorkeling site) (snorkeling gear, noodles and waist belts were provided). The water was calm, clear and cool in places. While we swam, lunch was prepared and after 30 minutes or so, we returned to the boat for a very good chicken lunch accompanied by a delicious potato salad and green salad. Scrapes were fed to the few fish that were in the area. Overall, a nice day and nice excursion. Having done it once, don't think I would do it again but if you are looking for relaxing sail this would fit the bill.
* Antigua: After hearing great things about Eli's Eco Tour, we decided to book this tour ($90/person) (www.adventureantigua.com). The tour is a 6-hour tour and provides a nice education of Antigua. It also explains how nature protects the island and how man can destroy the beauty of the island through selflessness. We were picked up near the pier at 10:30 am (about a 3-minute walk from the ship behind Exotica Antigua). There were about 25 of us on board (it arrived with a majority of the people already on board from the various resorts). We were the only ones from Serenade on board and 7 people joined us from Radiance. We then picked up 2 people from an All Inclusive resort about 15 minutes from the pier. After everyone was on board, we sailed around Antigua, exploring the warm, clear waters, protected by over twenty little islands, countless reefs, flats and mangrove nurseries. The crew talked about local flora and fauna and the interesting scientific turtle project at Jumby Bay, and entertained us with anecdotes and stories of local history and folklore. We sailed over to Great Bird Island. We enjoyed a spectacular view of the North Sound and the north coast of Antigua as we climbed the easy nature trail from the beach at Great Bird Island, up to the summit. Great view! We then enjoyed a nice lunch (BBQ chicken, Pasta Salad, Salad, Plantains and Banana Bread) while anchored at the beach. After lunch, we sailed over to Hell's Gate Island. In order to "go through the gate" you swim about 30 yards to the island and then very, very carefully begin a climb up to the top for a glorious view. If you can manage to handle a camera and climb at the same time, you will be rewarded with some great photo opportunities. To give you an idea of how challenging this is, only one person brought a camera with them. My wife regrets not brining hers so it is doable (it should be a waterproof camera just in case). We then headed for Welch Rock for a 30-minute snorkeling stop (lots of reef not a lot of fish). Local fruit juices like Passion, Tamarind, Guava, and Lime are available throughout the day. As the tour draws to a close and the boat heads home into the setting sun, Eli's "secret recipe" rum punch is presented to make a perfect end to a perfect day. The boat itself is extremely spacious and comfortable and has a fresh water shower and a restroom. While I would recommend doing this at least once, I don't think we would do this one again.
Shopping: We didn't do much shopping on this trip. I understand shops in downtown St Thomas closed at 1 pm (we were there on a Sunday). When we returned to the pier at 4:30 pm most shops at Havensight Mall at the pier were also closed. If shopping is important you may want to do that first (stores open around 10 am). In St Maarten, stores also open at 9:30 – 10 am. Antigua stores also open between 9 and 10 am. The taxi drivers and street vendors are the most aggressive in Antigua although they deem to accept "No Thanks" the first time without persisting.
Disembarkation: You hear many horror stories regarding disembarkation. Our experience on this trip was somewhat good (except for a missing bag, which I discuss below). On the last night of the cruise, you are given color-coded (these tags are used to help identify your luggage in the terminal but have nothing to do with when you depart the ship). For this cruise guests would depart the ship based on their scheduled flight time or if they were staying in San Juan. You will be given a customs declaration form, customer satisfaction forms, and tip envelopes for the various people who provided service on the ship. United, American and Continental airlines have begun a new program that for $10/person you can get your boarding passes and luggage tags preprinted on the ship. Once you clear customs, the appropriate airline personnel will then take your bag and the next time you see them (hopefully) will be at your destination airport. You must fill out a form and return it to guest relations by 6 pm on the 3rd day. You will be notified whether or not you are accepted by the airline. If accepted the fee is charged to your sea pass card. Let me tell you now that it is well worth it (we flew on United). You pack your suitcases the night before and put them outside your door by 11 pm (remember to keep out a change of clothes for the next day and maybe a small carryon bag for last minute items and toiletries). In the morning, we finished packing, went to the Windjammer for breakfast at 6:45 am and return to our room by 7:20 am. Since we are Diamond members, there is a separate departure lounge for Platinum, Diamond, and Diamond Plus members (they used the upper section of the Reflections dining room so there was plenty of room. Coffee, juice and pastries were provided as well. We went to the departure lounge at 7:35 am. Since we had an 11:45 am flight, we were in Departure Group 1. As Diamond members, we also had priority disembarkation so it really didn't matter to us. At 8:07 am, the Loyalty Ambassador escorted all the Diamond and Diamond Plus members off the ship. There were 4 lines for customs and we got through that in less than 5 minutes. Once inside the terminal we went to the area for our color tag (we had green) and quickly found 2 of our 3 bags. The luggage was neatly lined up and they used sufficient colors so as to not overload any one area. After walking up and down each line for our color, I couldn't find our 3rd bag. After about 3 minutes, I began to worry that we lost a bag. This feeling increased when another woman said her bags were also missing. So I found an RCI employee who began walking up and down each row. She told me colors get mixed up sometimes so I began searching the other colors. After about 10 minutes, I found the 3rd bag with the BROWN color tags. With a porter in tow, we proceeded to the customs officer who asked the usual questions, took the customs form, and allowed us to proceed. The porter asked where we were going and I told him we used the Airline service with United and he took us directly to where the airline reps were waiting. They removed the luggage tags that we placed on the bags, put new tags on and told us that was it. They would take care of the bags from there. It doesn't get any easier than that. We headed outside and grabbed a taxi for the airport. The ride to the airport was about 15 minutes (remember this was a Thursday and not a weekend so it took less time). When we got to the airport, we headed directly for the security checkpoint since we already had our boarding passes in hand. We were at the airport at 9 am and there was No ONE in the security line. We breezed right through and headed to the gate. There was almost no one at the gate area at this time. Once at the gate we discovered that our flight had been delayed almost 3 hours. Oh well. Almost a perfect return. Overall, this was a very nice cruise (even though only 5 days). Serenade is a beautiful ship and we look forward to sailing her in January 2008.