We are a couple ages 55 & 61 from New Jersey; we have cruised more than a dozen times with various lines such as Princess, Disney, Norwegian, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean. This was our second RCI cruise; the first was about 10 years ago. I chose this cruise because of its full-day stop in Belize, as we had never been there; I read on the cruise boards about the river cave tubing and wanted to give it a try.
Special news on Royal Caribbean's Crown & Anchor & Celebrity's Captain's Club: It appears that the two clubs merged as of the first of the year, so we were automatically listed as "Diamond" level for this trip, since we have many cruises with Celebrity. That gave us a few nice perks, like 20 minutes free Internet each, a free fancy drink with souvenir glass each, matching Bingo play, free wine-tasting coupons (they cost others $9.95 each), lots of casino coupons, early debarkation tags, VIP tender passes, a travel tote bag, etc.
We flew in a day ahead, as we didn't want to gamble with Mother Nature's passion for January snowstorms in New Jersey. We stayed at the Tampa Airport Westshore Hilton and took its $5 per person shuttle van to the port. (The shuttle from the airport to the hotel was free.) Embarkation was a breeze; we arrived around noon, were second in line and were on the ship within 15 minutes. They did not have staff escort you to your cabin like some lines do, which is fine with us.
The Suite Life
The ship was built in 1996 and is beautiful, clean, easy to navigate and very well maintained. Our cabin (Owner's Suite #8000) was wonderful...the bathroom was bigger than some cabins we have had in the past! It had a Jacuzzi tub and glass shower, double sinks, toilet and a bidet. We booked the cruise back in May and the prices for suites were very reasonable at that time. We probably spend more time in our cabin than the average cruiser, so we went for the suite.
The cruise line had a chilled bottle of wine waiting for us upon arrival and would deliver a tray of goodies in the afternoon; we never seemed to be in the cabin when they were delivered to see who was bringing them. I was surprised that we did not have a butler (other cruise lines have butlers for the suite passengers), but our cabin attendant (his first name was Lukman) was wonderful. The concierge called us once to say hello and tell us to call if we needed anything...I guess if we needed restaurant reservations a concierge would come in handy; he could also book shore excursions, but we booked our own privately before we left home, and were very glad we did.
The ship's Sting Ray City tour in Grand Cayman was cancelled because of rough water. We booked ours with Captain Marvin; it was not cancelled and was fine. The water was a little rough, but in Sting Ray City you only stand in water up to your waist, so it was no big deal that a wave came by every few seconds. There was a woman videographer on Captain Marvin's boat who got into scuba gear and took photos of us from underwater while we snorkeled and interacted with the sting rays. She worked for a company called "VIP." We ordered the DVD version ($45 for VHS, $55 for DVD); we received it in the mail a few days after we got home and it is wonderful. It was sad to see how damaged Grand Cayman is from the hurricane. The port area is operating and most stores are open, but outside the port area it's very bad. We have been to Grand Cayman many times and were shocked to see the damage. The Westin Hotel looks like the only one open. Roofs are missing from many buildings and trees are down everywhere.
In Belize, the ship's cave tubing excursion was cancelled due to high rough water, as they had heavy rains in Belize the day and night before we arrived. The excursion we booked online with X-treme still went on, since the water receded enough by 10 a.m. to make it a go. In RCI's defense, their tour planners had to make the call the night before as to cancel or not, giving everyone enough time to make other plans. The cave tubing was great; my only complaint is that they took around 30 people and there were only 3 guides. Things were not as organized as they should have been, so we were basically "winging it" most of the time. We couldn't hear their instructions as the group spread out on the way down the river. The extra rain the day before rushed down from the mountains into the river, so it was more like cave "white water" tubing. we could only do one cave instead of the usual three because the water was so high in the other two caves that there was limited head clearance. (There were no bats in the caves -- I checked it out with my miner's hat light.) The hike to the cave tubing starting point through the jungle was about 40-45 minutes (carrying your tube and life vest). The jungle canopy gave you shade and made it comfortable. The only problem I ran into was some fire ants got my one ankle...ouch!
I thought Costa Maya was a waste, but that's my fault. I never did any research into what was available there. We didn't go into the town via bus, or check out any beaches away from the port area. The beach to the right (as you walked on the dock toward shore) was closed, and to the left was very crowded (Grand Princess was docked with us). We found an umbrella and chairs on the beach near a square pool right on the shore/rocks and spent an hour or so there. There was no swimming because the beach was all giant coral/rocks and rough waves, and the square pool near us had green slime on the bottom and was ice cold. The other, nicer pool was in the center of the mall-type restaurant/shopping area; I felt that if I swam there I would be the entertainment for the masses, so we passed. We shopped a little then just went back on board.
In Cozumel, we took a cab to Paradise Beach ($12 each way). We have already done a few of the ruins and tried Chankanaab Park on our last visit. Paradise Beach came recommended by some cruise board folks so we figured we'd try it. It was nice...it was free and they had nice beach lounge chairs (similar to those on the ship), nice umbrellas and clean rest rooms all free to use. They just expected you to buy a beverage or a bite to eat, which was fine; sodas were only $2, nachos $6. (They were never pushy; the waiters just strolled around carrying a menu.) There was snorkel equipment for rent and a nice bar. Also, you could pay $5 and get a wrist band good for all non-motorized water sport items (floating trampoline, kayaks, rafts, etc.) but the water was a little rough and a bit cold, so I just got my feet wet. We did get a quick rain shower and the afternoon was very cloudy, so we took a cab back to the ship. I shopped in the stores by the dock a little, and after extensive bargaining I got a nice gold bracelet with Australian opals in it.
The dining room service at dinner (late seating, upper level, table 17) was consistently good (our waiter was Adrian, the assistant was Brazilio). We had a great group at our round table of eight -- a perfect table size for easy conversation. The waiter would bring out extra dinners in the center of the table for us to try. The nightly dinner selections were OK. The service was smooth even when some of us ordered four courses and others only two. I did miss having fresh-baked breadsticks (not offered) and not having the basket of bread on the table. Instead, the assistant waiter would come around with a tray/basket of bread to choose from, and he would place your selection on your bread plate.
At dinner later in the week they again had nothing my other half would eat (he won't touch lamb, pork or fish). They always offered chicken breast or steak, but he already had resorted to that earlier in the week, so before anyone else arrived at our table I asked our waiter if he could have a filet mignon. The waiter seemed nervous and said he would have to check with the headwaiter. Then the headwaiter came over and said he would check and see. And he came back and said it would be okay. So he did get it, but they made you feel like you were really putting them out. In the past on Celebrity when we asked for something special, like shrimp cocktails every night, there was never a problem.
We ate in the main (King & I) dining room for breakfast twice and lunch twice, and I was surprised that the service was poor three of the four times. The servers seemed frazzled and understaffed. The lunch menu was the same all week, with one or two additions. I enjoyed a few of the lunch selections, but wished the menu had more variety.
The food at the breakfast and lunch buffets was not as good as it could have been (except for the lamb chops one day, which were quite good). The food was rarely hot and included some very strange combinations and selections. I was looking forward to those flakey croissants at breakfast that I grew to love on Celebrity, but theirs were terrible. After a few days I would have killed for a glass of orange juice at breakfast that wasn't watered down. The Windjammer Café's coffee machine was often empty, and the decaf and iced tea were very strong. The pizza in the solarium pool was pretty good, with lots of cheese. We never tried the hamburgers or hot dogs.
Public Areas & Entertainment
The water in the indoor Solarium pool was cold, and the outdoor pool was even colder. While we were relaxing on chairs in the solarium the first sea day, we watched many people put their feet in the water, saw their shocked expression and watched them turn around and leave. We didn't use the rock climbing wall or the miniature golf course, but many folks did. They held art auctions in the atrium area, but we passed on them. I lost a little money in the casino (tight slots). The comedy shows (Yakov Smirnoff Monday night, Tom Parks Thursday night and Chuck Gunter Friday night) were good ... at times I laughed so hard I was crying! The Jump Jive & Swing show (Sunday night) was fair. We didn't go to the Tuesday night show, which had a female singer (Elaine Lesley), or the Wednesday night production show (Make Mine Broadway), so can't comment on those. The pool area musical group was just average, with the exception of one singer who sounded like a bad Karaoke contestant.
We did not attend the Bingo sessions, but they pushed them constantly. Some folks complained about the price to play. In the hot tub one afternoon, we met the lucky couple that won the Caribbean Cruise for two. That was a great Bingo prize and they couldn't have been happier. The last night, the Bingo jackpot was over $5,000 and we heard that two people split it.
One improvement they could make was the luggage delivery system (or lack of it). Although we got our luggage within an hour of boarding (I'm sure the tags marked "Suite" made the difference), other luggage stood everywhere on carts outside the passenger elevator areas, blocking access to the elevators and stairs for almost the entire afternoon. Some folks didn't get their luggage until after 6:30 that night.
We attended the Meet & Mingle on Sunday night as scheduled (we had received an email before we left home with the date, time and location), but the ship's staff had not been aware of the event so they had nothing ready for us. We still enjoyed chatting with everyone we met on the cruise boards, and it was fun to match the names with the faces. To make up for it, the ship's staff planned another M&M later in the week and delivered invitations to our cabins. They had soft drinks and snacks and gave away a few prizes. Since we were traveling alone, it was nice to compare cruise notes with people around the ship that we had met at the M&M.
We had a 2 p.m. flight home, so we hung around on the ship and were the last ones off at 10:10 a.m.
All in all we had a good time and met many nice people, but I enjoy a few things about Celebrity better. Still, if I saw an extra-special itinerary on one of the larger RCI ships, I'd give them another try.