Party consisted of my wife and I with our 8 and 12 year old daughters, and two other couples, in 3 adjoining balcony rooms. All adults are "barely past our forties". Previous cruises include NCI Norway, Carnival Imagination (both adults only) and last 2 years on Carnival Spirit, with daughters. Comparison comments will generally relate to last 2 trips on Carnival Spirit. This was the third cruise we booked through vacationstogo.com, and have had nothing but positive results with them.
We flew from Rochester, NY to Tampa the day before, out of respect for winter weather in the Northeast. As one of our companions graciously provided overnight accommodations from her Marriott miles, we stayed at a Marriott Residence Inn. The Marriott properties close to the Cruise Port were booked so we ended up about 20-30 minutes from the port and airport. The Residence Inn was a great place to stay, we just hung around the pool, and that night ordered dinner delivered from Dine-One-One which offers selections from numerous area restaurants. The only downside was that taxi and limo/shuttle service in the Tampa area is relatively expensive and options are limited.
Embarkation: We arrived at the Tampa cruise port about 1:15 and waited about 15 minutes for the rest of our party to arrive. Due to the height of the causeway bridge, the largest cruise ships cannot get in, and the port is smaller and way less hectic than Miami. The various employees we encountered seemed significantly more pleasant and helpful as well. We had completed our RCI pre-boarding forms online and boarding proceeded very quickly, probably 20 minutes or less. We went directly to our balcony room on deck 7 to dump our carry-ons, then went to the Windjammer for some lunch. It was OK, but here was not much that the kids liked. The last piece of luggage arrived shortly before dinner.
Ship: The Splendour is obviously not brand new, but seemed well cared for. Less glitzy than Carnival , which is not a bad thing. I thought it had kind of an understated elegance. I liked the smaller size, as it didn't feel like a mile long hike to get from one end of the ship to the other. The pools, while not large, never seemed to get overly crowded, and I liked the "baby" section on the end of one as one could sit in it against the edge with a book when the sun got a bit overpowering. The solarium pool looked ok the couple of times I went in there, and very peaceful. It's nice they have a pool area that's adults only for those that can indulge. The solarium glass roof retracts, but was never open when I was there. The chaise lounges were definitely a step up from Carnival in quality. Clothes pins and those little black binder clips came in handy to keep towels in place. Other than the last day, it wasn't too hard to find at least a few chairs together to use. As usual, there were many chair hogs who would deposit something on the chair and disappear for hours. The ship policy said things would be removed after 2 hours but I never saw this actually happen. On the last day, there were articles left on some chairs next to us for at least 5 hours without anyone showing up. I was so, so sorely tempted to take all the stuff and just throw it overboard, but I managed to resist the urge.
The kids missed the water slide from the Carnival Spirit. I did the rock wall climb twice. I was a little surprised as I had been expecting more of a beginner's or kid's wall, but it has varying of routes, maybe 5 different degrees of difficulty. I had never climbed before, and it took me 2 tries to get to the top on the easiest route. The secret seems to be don't look up or down, just focus on where your hands have to go next. The one female instructor/spotter (Sarah?) appeared to be the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and could have a future as a drill instructor, as she's very motivating! The wall was generally open 3-4 hours a day, and it takes time for even a small group to go through. Other than the last day however, there did not seem to be a lot of people waiting. I played the golf putting course a few times including with my 12 year old. The bumps made it challenging. Again did not observe any long lines of people waiting.
Minor ship design notes: the raised doorsills had little diagonal risers to them so you were less likely to trip on them. It constantly bugged me on the Spirit that the handrails in the hallways had flat butt end caps on them, so if you weren't paying attention walking with your hand on the rail you'd frequently whack your fingers into the next rail (ok, more frequently in the wee morning hours). The Splendour, to contrast, had rounded wood caps on the end of each rail. I did find it strange on the Splendour, that there were no rest rooms adjacent to the dining room, the theater, or the casino. You had to go up or down one flight of stairs in each case. We never encountered a significant wait for elevators. The kids camp program seemed ok. Not as good as Carnival's in terms of the activities or counselors, but certainly acceptable. We were able to give permission for our 8 year old to sign herself in and out which was convenient. The unattended Library was open all hours, and was comfortably furnished. They only carried hardcovers, no paperbacks, so I didn't check out any books. I had bought a number of used paperbacks at home before we left and managed to get through 5 of them on the flight down and on the cruise. As anyone with kids can appreciate, reading 5 novels in a week is a rare pleasure. Since the books were all reasonably priced, I would just leave them out in the common areas when finished with a note that they were free to a good home. They all seemed to disappear pretty quickly.
Room: Highlight for us was probably the balcony. We liked having the sliding glass door, as opposed to the spring-loaded French door on Carnival. The balcony chairs were a step up from Carnival. I missed having a light on the balcony as I would sometimes use it to read late at night without disturbing anyone in the room. The privacy on the balcony was also not what we were used to, as the gaps on the edges of the side dividers made it risky to venture forth in one's underwear (or maybe less). Our two daughters had to share a fold-down couch which was not very large nor comfortable. We definitely missed the third bed that pulled down from the ceiling that we had on Carnival. This may have been available in other rooms based on some conversations I overheard. The bathroom was average, with the exception of the shower, which was pretty cramped. I had a hard time shaving my face, couldn't imagine trying to do one's legs in there. I liked the design touch of a small trough around the outside of the shower which drained away any water that escaped the curtain. The water pressure was strong, to the point that the water could splash out of the sink onto one's clothing, which of course I discovered on the first formal night. We were able to find enough storage space for the four of us (four large suitcases, a suit carrier, and 4 carry-ons), but it was tight, as expected. I thought there could have been more space designed into the cabin, for example, there was wasted space below the shelf under the sink in the bathroom, and there was a coffee table that took up a fair amount of floor space and constantly had to be moved, that could have had some storage space incorporated underneath. The ice bucket that comes with the room is pretty small and as I drink a lot of ice water, I asked our room steward, Carolina if I could get another one. She brought another plastic one which was standard size, and did a great job of keeping both of them filled, and her overall service for the week was excellent.
Food: Most days, we only had breakfast and dinner. Breakfast buffet in the Windjammer was just so-so. The scrambled eggs, which I thought was a meal impossible to ruin, were pretty bad, mealy and watery. Bacon was crispy, which is how I like it, sausages and omelets, etc just ok. The coffee stations seemed to run out fairly regularly, and the kids were disappointed there was no chocolate milk at any of the meals. My wife and older daughter usually ordered room service breakfast which they found quite good, and the service was invariably prompt. I felt bad that I didn't realize the first couple of times that there was no gratuity included for the person delivering.
We did have the lunch buffet once and it was alright. They don't seem to keep the food real hot at the buffet stations. I did like that all the stations were serve yourself, as opposed to some of the cafeteria style serving lines on Carnival. The burger grill by the Solarium was again just OK. The pizza there was nothing to write home about. Coming from upstate New York, where it seems there's a pizza parlor for every 15 residents, I was disappointed that I never once saw pepperoni or sausage on the offerings. Also missed the 24 hour availability on Carnival. The "Ice Cream" stations were limited to frozen yogurt, unless you wanted to spring for $2.89 a serving for Ben and Jerry's. Again, was not offered 24 hours.
Dinners were consistently excellent. We had been assigned a great table at the early seating, a table for eight just as you walked in on the lower level right next to the windows. The décor was classy, and the service outstanding. I have never been on a cruise where the headwaiter was as visible and involved as on the Splendour. He was constantly checking on how things were going, and if we needed anything extra would chase it down. The rest of our wait staff was great also. No one at our table ever had a complaint about a meal. I would usually combine two entrees for a Surf and Turf offering and they were all excellent. I liked that they would offer to put the second main entrée on the same plate, with just one set of sides. I am always impressed on these cruises as to how good the vegetables and other side dishes are, especially considering the volumes they have to produce in a limited time frame. There were two formal nights, which is two too many in my mind, but I was in the minority in out party. There seemed to be ample opportunities for photos, without having to stand in lines too long.
Entertainment: I did not attend any of the ship shows, (I'm just not really that into them), but the rest of our party saw most of them. Reports indicated they were fair to good. According to every single woman in our party, the cruise director, - Rico - was HOT, and by the way, very competent. We ended up sharing a cab with him (and his naturally HOT friend) on the way to the beach in Costa Maya and he came across as very friendly. He seemed to enjoy his job and did well at it. We liked the casino, with the exception of all the mirrored walls. I would guess it was an effort to make the casino seem larger, but I found it confusing as it always looked like there was another part to the room., It probably doesn't help that I have a terrible sense of direction. Almost all the tables seemed to be $5 minimum, which is unusual these days. There were a couple of Caribbean Stud and 3-card poker tables, but no Let It Ride. Dealers were generally friendly and helpful. A few liked to deal high speed, which I don't care for. There were no automatic shufflers (thank you) and the blackjack tables seemed to be using about 6-7 decks. There was one sit-down BJ table that used one deck, but the payout rules were a little different so I didn't try it. I ended up a few hundred dollars ahead which of course made me like the place a little more ;) My wife played the slots and thought the selection and payouts were limited There was a nice bar adjacent to the casino called Schooners, that had a Piano player/singer who did requests every night. I thought the volume was a little loud, but maybe I'm just getting old. I visited the disco a couple of time after the casino closed which was generally about 1:30. Very nice spot, with 360 degrees of windows at the top of the ship.
I was pleased to discover that a variety of beer in glass bottles was available throughout the Splendour, including not only Corona, but Red Stripe, Amstel Light, and a few others as well. Didn't do much for my vow to try and watch calories however. . .. We purchased pop cards (soda cards to non upstate-NYers) for the kids - about $35 ea including tip. They probably saved a few dollars but not a huge amount. My daughters just don't seem to drink that much soda on cruises for some reason. Unlike Carnival, pop is not included free at Dinner, so the cards helped there.
Excursions: Our general plan - or lack thereof - was to book excursions at each port as we arrived and pretty much play it by ear. The ship excursions always involve a premium price, and more importantly to me, usually involve large crowds and standing in line, two things I will go to almost any extent to avoid on vacation. As we're always happy snorkeling or beaching it we can always find somewhere to go. There's not a lot of risk involved as long as you plan plenty of contingency time to get back to the ship on time. I must say this trip reinforced my inclination to avoid tender ports whenever possible.
Georgetown, Grand Cayman (9-5): The ship newsletter had indicated that until 10:30, passengers would need to get tickets ahead of time by the pursers desk, and recommended that you get there early for tickets . Turned out that 10:30 was just an "estimate" and it probably wasn't until after 11:30 that you could get on without a ticket. We did go back to the purser's area for tickets and were able to depart a little after 11:00
Based on the favorable reviews I had seen on Captain Marvin's snorkel and stingray trip we planned to try them first for a family trip. Their office turned out to be a 5-6 block walk from our dock and naturally we missed their last boat that could have gotten us back on time by about 15 minutes. We then walked back to the dock and hooked up with Capt Harvey's boat. There were only about ten people on booked on the trip. On the short bus ride to the boat, it was easy to observe that there was still extensive amounts of damage from the August hurricanes, and this was on the leeward side from where they struck! The boat was a bit older, and the overall approach was pretty casual. There was no discussion of where the life jackets were located, and they did not close the rail openings for the gangways after we left the dock, so we had to keep a close eye on our daughters. There was a self-serve cooler on the front deck with some soda, water, small cups and ice. Captain Harvey claims to be the first person to start feeding the stingrays on the sandbar years ago. Both he and his first mate, a woman who had just moved from Boston to Grand Cayman late last year, were very helpful and friendly. They ended up having to resolve a dispute with some of the passengers, as a few had to be back early, while a couple of others claimed they were promised a snorkel stop in addition to the Stingray City excursion when they booked. The captain managed to make arrangements with another boat at the stingray sandbar to take back the couple that had the early departure time, so everything worked out. I had observed before that even though these boats are in competition for passengers, they usually cooperate in these types of situations which is nice. The Stingray City area was pretty crowded when we arrived, so the boat had to anchor in water 7-10 feet deep, then we swam maybe 20 feet to the sandbar. The water was clear and warm with nice soft sand on the bottom. The stingrays ranged up to about 4 feet across and would generally congregate around whoever had food. My 8 year old was pretty scared of them, but stayed in the water most of the time. The 12 year old was a little nervous at first but ended up having a wonderful time. This is definitely a worthwhile experience.
As we were able to transfer our early-departing fellow passengers to the other boat, we also made a short stop at a nearby reef for some snorkeling. It was pretty good, nothing outstanding, and the whole family was able to participate. Capt. Harvey set the sail for the return trip, and came up on the front deck with his guitar and sang and told stories about the islands most of the way back. It was a nice relaxing conclusion to the afternoon, and we got back in plenty of time for the tender back to the ship. The line at the dock was not too long. I noticed that on the Princess dock next to us they had waiters circulating with trays of cold drinks for the people waiting which is a nice touch (hint, hint to RC).
The other 2 couples in our group had taken a taxi to seven mile beach and enjoyed a relaxing day there in front of one of the hotels.
Costa Maya (10 - 6): The Splendour was the only ship in port this day, so we had the place pretty much to ourselves which was nice. The port area is new and clean, with numerous shops, a pool and manmade beach area. There was a shuttle service from the ship to the port, but most people were walking. We took a taxi van to the fishing village of Majuhual (also known as "downtown") for I think $4 per person. It was very hot, and the a/c in the taxi was pretty feeble. Thankfully it was a fairly short ride. I had heard you could walk it on a path from the port, but with the heat and various paraphernalia we were carrying, I don't think it would have been much fun. We also saw a number of people riding bikes on the road we took, and it looked like they were eating a lot of dust. Majuhual is basically a dirt/sand road, along the beach, with bar/restaurants and various vendors along each side. Very casual and laid back, although the vendors can be somewhat aggressive, but never threateningly so. Our friend tried to take a picture of the street, and a young man jumped into the picture and then proceeded to chase our friend down the street, claiming he was owed $10 for taking his picture! Our friend told the young man he owed us $10 for ruining his picture and just kept walking.
We ended up at a restaurant right on the beach, just before Tapas. It's called El Faro, but I'm not sure the name is displayed anywhere. It has a thatched roof, with yellow umbrellas over the beach tables. The restrooms were clean (although there was no seat on the toilet in the ladies room). The service and food were good and the prices very reasonable. Six adults and two children spent the day there for about $60 with a fair number of drinks, and a little bit of food. One word of caution, when you're in the water watch where you put your feet -there are a number of spiny black sea urchins, including in the sea grass. The water is very shallow, and stays no more than chest deep out to a reef which is probably 150-200 yards from shore. The water past the reef was pretty rough the day we were there, so we did not try any snorkeling trips, even though they were available for $20-35. One of our party did try a 30 minute massage for $20 and thought it was well worth it. We walked up and down the road and bought a few souvenirs, but nothing substantial. Overall a very pleasant, relaxing day. We would definitely return here given the chance.
Belize City (7 - 5): The tender situation again seemed to be not well communicated. My friend and I went down to the loading area some time after they were to have started open boarding and they were still just taking those that had booked ship excursions. We got lucky somehow, as we had taken the elevators that come out right at the boarding area, and one of the crewman let us on the second tender that came after we got there. It's a long, usually high speed tender trip to the dock. The cruise lines subcontract to a number of independents, so there is quite a varied flotilla between the ship and the cruise dock. The two of us had been considering the cave tubing, and we quickly found a representative from X-Stream tours who had been highly recommended on several cruise boards. The representative was friendly and knowledgeable. We would have had just enough time to make the cave tubing, but once he explained that between the 40 minute bus ride, the 20-30 minute walk thru the jungle, and the tubing itself we realized we were looking at a 5-6 hour commitment. It was a very hot day again, and visions of the broiling van ride on Costa Maya kept dancing thru my head. Neither my friend nor I had a strong preference either way, and we ended up deciding to just spend the day checking out the port for a little while, and then enjoying the ship minus the usual crowds. As there were only two sea days on the itinerary, this option had some attraction. We heard later that day that one of the cave tubing excursions - never heard which one - had 3 flat tires on the ride to the jungle walk, and after a combined 3 hours in delays, just bussed everyone back to town. So maybe our indecision was a sign from God. We heard mixed reviews from people that had taken the ship's cave tubing trip, some thought it was just OK, others loved it. I also heard from one woman later, that the snorkeling on the ships trip had been outstanding. The reefs off Belize are quite a ways from shore (hence the long tender rides). We spent a couple of hours exploring the port area, did a little bit of shopping, a little drinking, a little shopping, a little more drinking... In other words, shopping guy style ;) The shops right in the port area were nice, clean and low key., I commented as we were first looking around that it was a welcome change from some of the high pressure vendors in Costa Maya. But once we left the cruise port area and went into town, omigod what a difference. The vendors and "tour guides" - some of whom appeared less than savory - were extremely aggressive. Prices were very flexible, but we didn't stay too long or venture too far. Particularly if you were by yourself, I'd recommend staying in the cruise port area, or taking a reputable excursion. The ship's premium might be worth it here.
We had a nice time at two of the bars at the cruise port - The Wet Lizard (or Wet the Lizard I'm not quite sure), and the Iguana Bar. The local beer is good and cheap, and there were some appealing drink specials as well. (To the guy at the Iguana bar who bought a round of 3 beers, and then took the change from a $5 bill - there's a reason some people hate Americans). The rest of our party was leaving the ship on a tender just as the two of us were coming back. We all ended up meeting up midday back on the ship, and enjoyed hanging around the pool etc. with not too many people around. I took the opportunity to make my second assault on the rock wall without many spectators around to laugh at me!
Cozumel (7 - 11):
Our dock in Cozumel was not the one right in town, I don't recall the name of it (there was a "1/2 Senor Frog's" there), but it was maybe a 5-10 minute taxi ride into the main town area. Based on reviews that Dzul Ha was the best snorkeling spot and was accessible from shore, my wife and I decided to take our daughters there for the day. The cab ride was only a few dollars. It was nice little spot, there are a couple of small man-made beaches behind the breakwall with tables, stools and a few chaise lounges.
Vests, fins, etc can be rented right there for reasonable prices.. As I was getting ready to go in, one of the waiters asked me not to put on suntan lotion as it is harmful to the reef/fish. First time I had heard of that, fortunately my back was already pretty tan by then as I had done few visits to a tanning salon in the month before we left.
The (3-4) stairs into the water are along the wall, so you can it to help keep your balance. Bare feet are ok for getting in, I put my fins in after walking out to about waist deep. Fish are visible almost immediately, but the real reef is about 40 yards out. I'm not a strong swimmer and made it 3-4 times without a problem, including with my 8 and 12 yr old daughters. The reef is extensive, and you will tend to drift a bit so pay attention to where you are. We saw a myriad of small to medium fish, not many large ones though. I followed two tips I saw on a message board. The first was to use baby shampoo as a defogger, instead of saliva. This worked great, my mask stayed crystal clear for the entire time I had the mask on each time. The second tip was to bring a small bottle of mouthwash get rid of the salt taste, supposedly by pouring it on the snorkel mouthpiece while in the water. I didn't seem to have enough hands to do this, but did utilize it on shore to get rid of the salt taste in my mouth.
There is a open air patio with a thatch roof for shade with some couches etc underneath, and clean restrooms across the street.
Our daughters had some food there, and the total bill for the day was very reasonable. It was wonderful not having to rush back to the ship. We had a great time and would recommend this spot highly. The waiters did mention it was usually more crowded than it was on this day.
We went back to the ship for dinner, then back out to the for some souvenir shopping in the port area. Mostly the same goods in the different shops and prices were negotiable. When we couldn't find the right size of a light jacket for our older daughter, the sales person went from shop to shop to find the right one. Unfortunately we discovered after we set sail the next day that the zipper was defective. As usual, caveat emptor. The other members of our party had a Mexican dinner on shore and sampled the nightlife. Good times were reported.
Speaking of sampling the nightlife, one passenger apparently indulged in a few to many samples. The next day, I was in line at the pursers desk behind the person reporting him as missing. Known widely throughout the ship as " that dancing man", he had not been seen since the ship left Cozumel the previous night. The desk attendant insisted he had gotten back on the ship based on the computerized tracking of the ship IDs as you leave and re-enter the ship. All during dinner that night, he was being paged to call the purser's office, and people started wondering if he had fallen overboard or suffered some other mishap on ship.
Debarkation: We had a flight late in the afternoon, but were still off the ship by 9:15. We spent maybe 20 minutes in line before getting to customs. Customs itself was a breeze, only took a few minutes, and found all our bags with no problem. We found a shuttle service right at the cruise port that was significantly cheaper than the service we used to get there. I don't recall the name, but they had a small kiosk right by the exit.
We were at the Tampa airport by 10:30. We tried to change to an earlier flight but they were all booked. AirTran would not take our luggage until 4 hours before flight time, so we spent a couple of ours dragging 8 pieces of luggage around. The automated ticket kiosks for Airtran were out of order when we returned and the counter attendants seemed at a loss as to what to do. For starters, maybe take down the sign directing people to get in line there? I was disappointed that there was no wireless internet access in the airport unless you paid for it at the adjoining Marriott. While we were hanging around, who did we run into but the missing "dancing man"! Turns out he lost track of time at Carlos and Charlie's and missed the ship. He said it cost him about $2,000 extra to get back, between the 1 way air ticket, getting money wired to the American Embassy, etc. And that was with spending the night on the streets. The cruise agent in Cozumel emailed the ship, but apparently it was never received. It was reportedly the dreaded "computer glitch" that caused the ship's computer to show him getting back on board. Oh well, all's well that ends well.
Summary: Overall had a great time, loved the ship, the staff and the dinners, while the Windjammer buffets could stand some enhancement. Would definitely do another Royal Caribbean cruise again, but would give Carnival a slight preference. Will do everything in my power to avoid tender ports in the future.