If there is a new ship in port, you can place a safe bet that Vincent will book a cruise on her. The sleek, beautiful Serenade of the Seas, the newest ship of the RCI Radiance class, fits that criteria and Vincent, champing at the bit, made reservations and we sailed on her just three months into her inaugural year. Captain Nikolaos Antalis, our friend from the Vision of the Seas, took her from Amsterdam, Holland to Boston, Massachusetts August 4-11, 2003 on her first Transatlantic voyage. We looked forward to renewing our acquaintance with him, but, alas he was on holiday. The Master at this time was the extraordinarily erudite Captain Stig Nilsen of Norway, who commanded his first ship at age twenty-four, and later heroically rescued fifty crew members off two Danish ships in danger of being crushed by dangerous ice floes in the Arctic. His historically oriented daily "talks from the bridge" put in context the many islands we visited or sailed close enough to view from the Serenade. It is refreshing to see how much he valued the culture of these island nations and the heritage that determines their modern status. He perfectly timed a sail-a-way from St. Lucia to allow passengers a view of the spectacular sunset as we exited the narrow harbor.
EMBARKATION We flew to San Juan, Puerto Rico from Ft Lauderdale, Florida; this short flight was painless (after we missed our scheduled flight, we were booked on the next one an hour later). San Juan has a new efficiently designed airport, and we used RCI's handy American Airlines flight and transfer. Personnel were stationed at the gate and the baggage claim area along with porters. A very short walk led to the buses just outside the door. Luggage is transferred separately by trucks, but have no fear it quickly gets to the ship!
This was very different from our last time in Puerto Rico, the renovated airport has made travel much easier. The forty-five minute trip across town to the port is brief, but offers a nice overview of this beautiful city. At the dock there were crew to assist us with the luggage and the wheelchair, and we were on board in twenty minutes. Check-in is much simpler for the repeat customers of RCI (Crown & Anchor Society members). For the Platinum (over 5 cruises) and the Diamond (over 10 cruises) there is a special waiting area with refreshments available: no long lines here! The more we travel, the more we realize that RCI really values repeat customers.
THE SHIP GTV (gas turbine vessel) Serenade of the Seas was built at Meyer Werft Shipyards, Papenburg, Germany; she is registered in the Bahamas and is the third Radiance Class ship, with the Radiance of the Seas and Brilliance of the Seas the other two sister ships. This class ship has over three acres of exterior glass, with the use of more windows to the sea, passengers see more of this exciting itinerary. We will not soon forget the panoramic view of Saba and other islands of the Lesser Antilles, which we admired as the ship passed by closely. Three of the Centrum elevators overlook the sea. Having sailed on the other two Radiance class ships, it was a de ja vu for us to go around and visit the various places on this ship, but we still enjoyed seeing the original art work and comparing the interior decoration with that of her sister ships. There are a lot of on board activities from Rock Climbing Walls to playing pool on gyroscopic (auto balancing) tables, to golfing simulators and mini courses. The Serenade is 962 ft. long; has a beam of 105.6 ft., and a draft of 26.7 ft. At a gross tonnage of 90,090, she has a top speed of over 25 knots. Her passenger capacity is 2,501 and she carries a crew of 859, yet the atmosphere is not crowded. The overall impression is of a huge yacht, but with the many amenities of a small city: theater, night clubs, gyms & spas, swimming pools, golf, and music everywhere in the lounges, dining room and on the open decks.
The nicest thing about this ship is that RCI has adopted a sophisticated nautical decor with a combination of colors (maroon, navy blue and gold) repeated throughout the ship, including the staterooms. This background effectively showcases the many works of art (a collection of over $5 million) which enhance the Serenade's beauty. We like the "wood, brass and sea" look throughout the ship.
There are twelve decks dedicated to either public areas or staterooms, with a total of nineteen wheelchair accessible cabins, all of them located near elevators.
Deck Two has some inside and oceanview staterooms, three of them are wheelchair accessible, two are oceanview and one inside.
Deck Three contains all inside or oceanview staterooms, four of them (two inside and two oceanview) are wheelchair accessible.
Deck Four forward has the first level of the Tropical Theatre and then a series of inside and oceanview staterooms, four of which are wheelchair accessible (2 inside and 2 oceanview); midship is the main floor of the eight deck tall centrum which has the Passenger Services desk and Explorations tour desk. There are balconies over looking the centrum on each deck. The ship was decorated for the holidays with each deck festooned with green balsam garlands and maroon and gold bows. High in the center is suspended a soaring work by Andersen & Lundberg (Norway) named "Bow" (rainbow). It is composed of a series of aluminum mesh sails which fill the centrum, but allow one to see through it. It shimmers with colors and lighting, thus it gives an airy sensation to the area.
The Centrum staircases have huge panels of floral art: Van Der Vegt's (Holland) "Anemones" is beautiful and graceful in its depiction of long stemmed flowers on repetitive panels ---- another stunner is Koestner's (USA) Iris Trilogy 1, 2 & 3." It shows bearded iris in lavender and blue with a botanical aspect to it. There is also Kivinen's (Finland) "Orchids," a study in yellow/green cymbidium orchids. We have mentioned only a few of the many floral works.
Aft is the Reflections Dining Room with a two deck high, midnight blue waterfall and a gracefully curved brass staircase (festooned for the holidays). It has a mahogany wood, curved balcony, gold drapes on the brass oversized porthole windows and a simple, but, elegant oval, colored glass fixture. There were green garlands and maroon bows everywhere.
Deck Five forward is the main level of the Tropical Theatre, a simple room with an excellent view of the stage from almost every seat. The fabulous curtain gives the impression of a tropical forest (shimmering green, blue and lavender). Midship are the Conference Center, the Photo Gallery and the ample on board shops. Aft is the balcony of the Reflections Dining Room.
Deck Six like Deck Five is all public areas: Forward is the balcony of the theatre; toward midship is the cinema (featuring recent movies), and the Pit Stop sports bar. Midship is the Casino Royale where are located several fine art works such as the following: Zsiba-Smolover's (USA) "Neptune's Muse," a graceful renaissance style sculpture, and "Oceania Rising" a sea nymph offering a giant pearl. You won't find anything "faux" on this ship, just interesting original art work.
Midship, at the centrum is the Champagne Bar (with intriguing designer shoe sketches). Toward aft is the Schooner Bar with the "Jenny Lind Galleon Figure" by Ab (Sweden). The famous "Swedish Songbird" holds a golden nightingale; there is an interesting story behind this figurehead which was made for the clipper "The Swedish Nightingale" and ended up as a scarecrow on a farm in Sweden. Now, this poignant all white statue is lightly gilt and stands beautifully in the middle of the Schooner Bar. The art work behind the bar is a series of "Military Uniforms" by Folkes (Britain) and they are very interesting. Specialty restaurants such as Chops Grill (wonderful grilled steaks and veal chops with unique side dishes) and Portofino (upscale Italian menu) are located here. All the way aft is the Safari Club with a nice combination of game rooms (pool, billiards, chess, checkers and other games) and a bar.
Decks 7, 8. 9 & 10 are all staterooms with the Explorers Lounge, the Library and the Concierge Club (with the wonderful Maritza in charge --- more about her later) clustered near the elevators. Here are the remaining 8 wheelchair accessible staterooms, all with balcony, six of them are on deck 7 (Categories E1 and E3) and two on deck 10 (Junior Suites).
Deck Eleven is all public areas starting with the Spa forward. The Solarium has a South Sea Island Bali theme. There are two huge gold gilt elephants with ivory tusks flanking a delicately carved wooden Temple gate set behind a curved bamboo bridge. The combination of trees and plants on the deck and up above gracefully surrounds the pools. This, adult only area, is pleasant for early morning or evening swims, or relaxing in the hot tub. Next is the open deck pool area with another pool and two hot tubs.
Aft is the Windjammer Cafe with many food stations for buffet lovers: main courses and meat carving stations, pizzas, sandwiches, salad bars and dessert displays are all eye-catching. The entry had a friendly hostess and a miniature Gingerbread town with its own railway, running train and station.
Deck Twelve has forward the Fitness Center and a jogging track (no cabins below it, thank heaven). There is the Crown & Anchor Lounge and aft is dedicated to the young cruisers with the Adventure Ocean and the Teen Pool. The Sea View Lounge, Golf Simulators and Sports Areas are also located here.
Deck Thirteen holds the Viking Crown Lounge with its circular bar crowned with a Chrome Star and 180 degrees of curved windows to the sea. It's wonderful to sit up here during the day, surrounded by the sea. At night this room is transformed by radiating shafts of light and fiber optic stars. The Crown & Anchor Society had a cocktail party here with a huge full moon perfectly framed in the center of the windows --- We think that Captain Nilsen planned that well!
Also located on Deck Thirteen is the Vortex Lounge with cyberspace art like the Swarovski-Crystal & Glass panels and the Savoy Studio's (USA) "Wave," with the many panes invoking images of ocean waves and ships ----Stunning. There is the Hollywood Odyssey Lounge, an intimate club which places the audience in close proximity to performers. Overall this ship is elegant and lovely in its decorations.
FOOD & SERVICE There is excellent service on board under the experienced eye of Hotel Director Francois Wache (France). This Parisian brings a personal touch to service; his international background and attention to detail shows up all over the ship in the quick and friendly attitudes of the crew. This is a tribute to Francois. Chief Purser Doug MacLennan is an old friend from the Vision of the Seas. He was top notch, both welcoming us and helpful in many ways, his staff reflects his efficiency. Asst. Purser Sinead Coll (Ireland) was especially courteous to us.
The dining room was under the supervision of Maitre D' Yusuf Cavdar (Turkey), whom we had previously met on the Grandeur of the Seas. And it was everything we have come to expect from Yusuf, perfection. He set a table for two especially for us in front of the staircase, where the grand piano was played nightly by Glen Stevenson. This pianist's repertoire included almost every beautiful melody we love! Our waiter Rajesh Singh (India) and assistant Zoltan Turscu (Romania) were excellent. The Assistant Maitre D' Orlando Rosa (Portugal) stepped up to the task, when Yusuf departed in Barbados. He circulated throughout the dining room, made helpful suggestions about the menu, and kept things running smoothly. Maitre D' Yusuf can be proud of his staff and their work. It is not easy serving more than 10,000 meals per day to about 3,500 passengers and crew members.
The food on board is quite abundant and varied. We enjoyed every meal, since there were many selections to choose from and all were plated elegantly. Room service was prompt every morning and served full American or Continental breakfast. Breakfast was also available in the Windjammer Buffet, or in the main dining room (where all the classics were served: Eggs Benedict, Pancakes, Waffles, Hot & Cold Cereals, Bagels & Kippered Herring and fresh fruits.
Luncheon at the buffet was plentiful and a sampling from the main dining room menu included Fruit Medley with lychee, papaya, grapefruit and grapes; two soups and entrees such as Chicken Caesar Salad, Sea food fettuccine, BBQ spare ribs, Quesadillas or a NY Burger. Desserts were apple strudel, cheese cake (optional sugar free desserts) or several homemade ice creams.
Dinner from the International Menu had Appetizers such as Australian kiwi, Shrimp cocktail, Thai spring roll, French lentil soup, Chef salad with Russian dressing. Entrees included Linguine alle Vongole (spaghetti with clams), Sweet & Sour Mahi Mahi, Roasted Tom turkey w/all the fixings, and Roasted Prime rib. There are also Ship Shape (calorie conscious) and Daily Alternatives of popular foods which are always available. Desserts were interesting and included Creme Brulee, Soufflés, Warm Chocolate cake and a multitude of pies cakes and cookies.
We had dinner on Formal Night as the guests of Captain Nilsen and his lovely daughter Lynn. The traditional Captain's meal was topped off with a dessert named "Chef's surprise," tantalizing! Captain Nilsen was very cordial and spoke of his project: renovation of a Swedish minesweeper/fishing boat, and his home town in Norway, only two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, where warm currents allow for swimming. Needless to say, we had a wonderfully interesting evening.
With the Concierge, Maritza Moolman service was very personal. This very adept young woman was helpful in booking tours, getting foreign newspapers for Vincent and the NY Times Fax for Mary. We cannot thank her enough for her kindness.
CABIN Junior Suite #1028 is wheelchair accessible with automatic wide doors and a mahogany archway leading to the sitting room. When entering, on the left there is a large walk-in closet with shelves, the personal safe, and many wooden hangers. Next, there is a TV, open bar and the mirrored desk/vanity with a velour chair, and then a blue and gold love seat. There are two maroon velour easy chairs with an ottoman and a large coffee table. There is a large bath on the right of the entry, with a 4'X4' shower with seat and safety rails, and finally a triple mirrored medicine cabinet.
There is a mahogany navy blue bench, a king bed with two night stands and reading lamps. The head board is maroon velour and the wall is mirrored. RCI has carried out the color scheme of blue, maroon and gold, even in the pictures selected for the walls. There were two scenes of white stucco homes with red skies (calling to mind the old adage, "Red skies at night, sailor's delight."). We had two excellent stewards Frederick in 7610 and then Pablo in 1028.
ENTERTAINMENT Cruise Director Allan Brooks is a seasoned "globe trotter" and understands that passengers hail from many nations. There is a variety of music from classical violin by Mr. Martin Lass, to a tribute to "Stage [&] Screen" by the RCI singers and dancers. Or, if you like Big Band music, the Serenade of the Seas Orchestra was featured at the Safari Club. There were variety acts like British Magical Champion, Mark Taylor a man who is never without an umbrella (He made dozens appear on stage!).
There are more than the usual shipboard activities: Seminars for health, Team Trivia, Sports Trivia, Exercise & Dance Classes, Bingo, Casino Tournaments, Afternoon movies, etc. and add to this Rock Wall Climbing ---- and Port tours ---- or you can just sit on deck and rest or read.
PORTS OF CALL 1. San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sailing: 10:00 pm This can be toured either before or after the cruise; it merits planning to spend a night or two here.
2. ST. Thomas USVI, Arrival: 7:00 am Departure: 5:00 pm Try the St. Thomas SNUBA (a combination of scuba & snorkeling) or a scenic ride to the famous Magen's Bay beach. Many passengers felt that this island has lost its "Best Shopping Port" title.
3. Phillipsburg, St. Maarten, Arrival: 7:00 am Departure: 5:00 pm Interesting excursion: America's Cup Sailing Regatta, 3hrs, $84; Butterfly Farm and Marigot, 3.5 hrs, $38.
4. St. John's, Antigua, Arrival: 7:00 am Departure: 3:30 pm Try the Jolly Roger Pirate Cruise (the Best party Boat with unlimited complimentary rum!), 3 hrs, $39. 5. Bridgetown, Barbados, Arrival: 8:00 am Departure: 5:00 pm We took the Beautiful Barbados & Francia Plantation House tour (tropical vegetation similar to Florida), 3.5 hrs, $39.
6. Castries, St. Lucia, Arrival: 7:00 am Departure: 5:00 pm This island has a very beautiful bay. Interesting tour: Island Splendor (scenic drive), 3.5 hrs, $36.
7. Day at sea.
CONCLUSION This was another great cruise. It seems that the more we cruise the better we enjoy cruising. By now we know what to expect from each line and particularly from each ship. We know exactly what we want and most of the times we achieve it. We frequently encounter people we have met on previous cruises and that facilitates acquaintances and friendships. We booked this cruise hoping to see our friend Captain Antalis; however, we had the opportunity of meeting Captain Stig Nilsen, the current Master of the ship. And now we have one more reason to look forward to cruising on RCI ships: the probability of encountering Captain Nilsen again as well as several other captains we have met before. Thus there are many more reasons for us to return. We have already booked three more cruises on RCI ships: The Mariner of the Seas, in February and two on the Brilliance of the Seas, the Transatlantic crossing in April, and the Mediterranean cruise in May. However, before these cruises, in January we are going on the new Costa Mediterranea for a Western Caribbean cruise. Happy Cruising!