This was the Chat Rats cruise. A large number of Cruisemates readers and friends got together to sail and meet each other. It was one of the most enjoyable cruises I have taken because of these people. It was great seeing old friends again, meeting old friends for the first time and meeting new friends. We had booked this cruise over a year before. This was the farthest out we had ever booked a cruise. I also give my thanks to Steve Surges for putting things together and arranging for some great amenities and parties for all of us to get together. The parties and amenities were a great addition to the cruise.
Pre-cruise: We booked the Hyatt Regency Downtown Miami via Priceline for our one night pre-cruise stay and were more than happy with the accommodations. We were given a corner room with two balconies. One was overlooking the river and downtown and the other looking north. The room was very spacious with all the amenities you expect from a 4 star hotel.
We had a pre-cruise bash at the Marriott Biscayne Bay. It was organized by Cher (Cruisenut1) and she did a wonderful job setting it up. We all had our name tags on and even though it makes you look like you are at a convention it sure helps people like me who has a hard time remembering names.
Embarkation: This was by far the fastest embarkation I have ever had on a cruise ship. We got to the pier early, around 11:00 AM. We spoke with a couple from Seattle who had disembarked earlier and were waiting for their transportation. There was no line outside the entrance and I thought it would be an hour before they would even start checking people in. We went inside at about 11:10 AM and showed our ID to the security person. As we were showing our ID, I heard over her radio that embarkation was beginning. We went up the escalator, walked right up to the Deck 10 check-in, showed our ID and within two minutes we had our SeaPass cards in our hands. We then proceeded to the embarkation line. There we waited about 5 minutes before the doors opened and we started boarding. We bypassed the embarkation photo and proceeded on the ship. We entered the ship on Deck 4 and headed aft through the casino towards the aft atrium elevators. We easily found our aft balcony cabin. The time from the time we arrived at the pier until we were in our room was less than 20 minutes. Our pre-ordered champagne and Asti were there along with a surprise gift of another bottle of champagne. It was a nice surprise.
The Cabin: We had booked a Cat C aft balcony cabin, 1694. The cabin itself was very large and well laid out. It had more than enough storage space for a 21 day cruise. There was a small but functional walk-in closet and plenty of cupboard and drawer space. Now for the part that was a negative for me, the balcony. Remember, what I may consider a negative may well be a positive to others. The balcony was very large with 3 chaise lounges, 2 chairs and a 36" round table that was very wobbly. However the biggest negative was that the balcony reminded me of a "pole barn". It was completely covered with a steel bulkhead on one side and Plexiglas partition on the other side. We had friends next door and were hoping to open the partition and found out that it could not be opened. I even tried to remove one of the Plexiglas partitions but when the glass started coming loose I gave up and tightened it back up. "I don't advise trying this." During the majority of the cruise there was no sun on the balcony and worst of all for me, no breeze. The final two days there was a bit of a breeze but still not what I like on a balcony. I like to smell the ocean and feel the wind.
Our cabin steward was nowhere to be found for most of the first day and we were without a Compass newsletter, soaps, any of the suite amenities such as; lotion, shampoo, q-tips, etc. I finally saw him before dinner that evening and told him that we were missing a number of things. He then gave me a Compass and when we returned from dinner we had all the things that we should have had, including the robes. One other thing that was a negative was when my wife tried to put one of our bottles of champagne in the refrigerator. She was appalled at how dirty it was. She set forth cleaning it and removing what looked like month of grunge. That was not a good thing.
Cabin attendant: Other than the problem on the first day he did his job but was rarely seen. He did provide towel animals on most evenings and kept the cabin neat and clean.
The Ship: This was our first time on a Mega-Ship and I will admit that I was a bit apprehensive. Overall I would say I liked the ship but I didn't fall in love with it. The ship itself was in good order, especially since it is scheduled for dry dock in a month or so. I personally found that once you were "inside" the ship you felt more like you were in a Hilton and not on a ship. It was hard to see the outside and other than the dining room you rarely saw the water. It was very well laid out and I never found myself wondering "Where the heck am I".
On the positive side: In my opinion this would be the perfect ship for families, especially with children from 5 to 15. The Adventure Ocean area for kids was about the nicest I have ever seen onboard any ship. The video arcade had a large number and variety of games including foosball and air hockey. There was also a miniature rock climbing wall for the young kids. Ping pong, miniature golf and the giant rock climbing wall were also available for those who wanted to give them a try.
There is a large amount of deck space and finding a place to lay in the sun or shade was rarely a problem. The adult pool was one of our favorites. The nude male statues seemed to be a favorite for a number of ladies in our group. <VBG> I did see rampant deck chair saving with towels and books put out early in the morning. I had to move a few of them that had been setting for well over an hour to get a place in the sun. We were sunning on the deck more on this cruise because of our "pole barn" balcony.
The casino was actually fairly small for the size of the ship but I can see why. There were very few nights that it was full and only on two nights did they open up the extra gaming tables to accommodate players. My luck started out well in the casino then took a turn for the worse but ended up almost even. So I have nothing to complain about. The dealers were friendly and most players were fun to share a table with.
The dining room was spectacular. It is divided into three levels with a center atrium. The three levels are set up as separate dining rooms. The Carmen dining room is on the lowest level. La Boehm is the second level and the Magic Flute is the third level. We were in the Magic Flute restaurant and had a nice table by the window. We had early seating so it was still light for most of the dinner and the view of the ocean could always be seen.
The theater is the La Scalla. It is set up very well with a few poles that obscure views but overall it had excellent acoustics and sight lines. It did seem that they didn't turn the air conditioning on until the performance started so the first 10 or 15 minutes were a bit warm.
I did not visit many of the bars or lounges so I can't really comment on them other than that they seem well laid out. There was a jazz band in one. (Sorry I can't remember which one) but they were overly loud for the size of the venue. They were good but I finished my drink and called it a night.
The Promenade: This is a unique area on Voyager class ships. It is designed to look like a main street with shops, bars and restaurant along it. The shops carry the standard cruise ship fare, watches, and sundries, gold by the inch, jewelry, liquor and clothing. The Captains welcome party was also held there and the Captain and cruise director stood on a bridge connecting the port and starboard sides of the promenade to address the passengers. This made things quite crowded and we left quite quickly because of the crowded conditions.
The Restaurants: As I said we had the Magic Flute restaurant on the third level. Our waiter Selcyuk was ok but was very nervous and looked like he really could have used a valium. He made his nightly recommendations for what was on the menu and they corresponded each time to what was marked as the "chef's recommendation" on the menu itself. He seemed to get overly frustrated when anything was a bit out of the ordinary. I don't think he liked it when I was talking to someone at another table when he brought my appetizer or entrée. It seemed like he needed to have the "presentation" part to make things right for him. One thing that really bothered me was wine service. I had pre-ordered two bottles of wine and each time I asked about it, I was told, "It would be there the next night." Not an acceptable answer. I finally went to our Head Waiter, Ashton who took care of it immediately.
Our Assistant Waiter, Vadim was excellent. However, he had too many people to cover. He was being shared by two other waiters. I found his service excellent and he was easy to talk with and was quick with a joke and a smile. I found his service very good but a couple of people thought he could have done better with keeping water and iced tea glasses full.
Our Head Waiter, Ashton was excellent. As I stated he handled the wine issue well. He also helped with any issues we had. What I liked was that I saw him filling water glasses, passing out extra lobster tails and helping the assistant waiter when he wasn't able to pull an empty plate off quickly. Ashton earned his tip.
The food: I found most things to be good but not too many things were "excellent". That would not have been evident with amount I consumed. I did find the desserts to be deliciously sinful.
The Buffet: I found the buffet to be well laid out and the service to be excellent, from the person giving you your plate and utensils to the staff bringing extra coffee, juice and iced tea. I also enjoyed some of the senior wait staff stopping by and chatting for a short time. The food was good but not great. I did enjoy the Tira Misu. The made to order omelet station was our standard on the mornings we visited the buffet. Otherwise I found most of the food to be luke warm and not really memorable.
Room Service: The room service breakfast was VERY good. You could order a full made to order breakfast. We did this on two mornings and on each morning everything was delivered promptly, accurately and hot things hot and cold things cold. It was very nice.
24 hour dining: The Promenade café is the 24 hour dining venue. It is not 24 hour. I awoke early on two mornings, each time around 4:30 AM. On both occasions every thing was shut down for cleaning. Not even a cup of coffee was to be had. One of the staff said that they usually did this each day between 4:00 AM and 6:00 AM. So if you are an early riser your only alternative is waking up your spouse or cabin mate and ordering room service.
Portofino's: We dined there on one evening. The food was quite good especially the fettuccini e funghi. The service was good but nothing better than I would expect at a regular dinner seating. I was actually very disappointed in the Tira Misu. It was overly sweet with no coffee liqueur flavor or lady fingers. It was more like a chocolate and whipped cream pudding. I guess I have been spoiled by the Olympic Restaurant aboard the Millennium. Since then no other specialty restaurant has come close.
The Shows: I am not a show guy. However I did attend 2 of the shows in the La Scalla theatre. One was Finis Henderson, an impressionist singer. I went in with an attitude that I was in for an underwhelming experience. I was dead wrong. He put on a fantastic show. He may not have hit a home run with each song and impression but he sure as heck got on base. He ended his show with Bruce Greenwood's "Proud to Be an American" and it hit home with the audience. I will admit that it may have seemed to be a bit cliché to do this but he pulled it off well.
The second show we attended was Duality and comic, Carl Strong. Duality is a duo who does some fantastic gymnastic ballet that is much in the venue of Cirque de Solei. Carl was somewhat funny but resorted to flatulence humor and while it gets laughs it is the easy laugh for a comic.
The best of all: The Ice Show is fantastic. It was the best show I have ever seen on a cruise ship. It is amazing how well the skaters do on such a short rink. The only negative thing I can say about the show was that the last part was "competition" between couples, women and men with selected members of the audience as judges. It was good but it was not as good as the first part where they did the group routines and special effects.
The Ports: We left the ship in Cozumel, Costa Maya, and Belize. In Cozumel we got off only to wander the streets looking for a greeting card. Do you know how hard it is to find a greeting card in the tourist section of town?  It had been a couple of years since we had docked in the downtown area of Cozumel and I was somewhat disappointed. The new pier area now looks very similar to the Carnival pier on the south end of the island. I find both of them to be basically another mall that you would find in Anytown, USA. The feeling of Cozumel is now gone unless you walk a number of blocks and get away from the main tourist areas. We did this in search of the greeting card and my wife ended up getting a manicure and pedicure for $10 and they did a pretty good job.
Costa Maya: Once again the pier area of Costa Maya is another mall. You can take a taxi into Majuhal and get a bit of local flavor but it is still the high pressure selling. I did find a couple of really nasty folks at the pier when I tried to get my own taxi and not use the "preferred" service and also when I tipped the "wrong" person at a bar in Majuhal. I responded back and the conversation ended. I can be quite nasty when someone treats me with disrespect. We did buy a couple of necklaces and I bought a silver money clip in Majuhal and was happy with both.
Belize: In Belize we went on a snorkel excursion that had been set up by one of our party who was kind enough to let my wife and I tag along. It was a nice excursion in which we swam with stingrays in one area and then did a deep water snorkel a few miles away. Regretfully, my snorkeling days are now over. A medical problem I have made it impossible for me to do the deep water snorkel. My wife said that a large number of fish were seen and it was quite a good experience. We then were taken to Caulker Cay for a good lunch and to do a bit of shopping in a non commercial area. We were then taken back to the pier where we took the tender back to the ship. It can be a long tender ride back to the ship but if the port tenders are used they cruise at about 30 knots and make the trip in a short time. I think it would be much longer using a ships tender.
Conclusion: The people that my wife and I cruised with are what made this cruise so great. I wish it could have been twice as long. As always, you feel you didn't get enough time with everyone. It looks like we all had so much fun that we are going to be doing it again next year. We don't know what ship and where but we will soon figure it out.
I don't think I will book another Mega-ship unless the itinerary or people are of special interest to me. However I would strongly consider it for family cruising. Otherwise there was nothing that I really disliked, other than the "Pole Barn" but there was nothing other than the ice show that really stands out in my mind. I think I will stick to the smaller ships from now on. One last thing, the Navigator and Adventure of the Seas ships no longer have the balconies built into the hulls so that could eliminate the "Pole Barn" effect.
I have pictures posted in the Cruisemates Cruise Photo Gallery at: http://www.cruise-forums.com/gallery/view.php?id=1753
If you have any questions please feel free to email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org