Paul & Cheryl Jakubowski
Number of Cruises: 6
Cruise Line: Royal Caribbean
Ship: Brilliance of the Seas
Sailing Date: February 25th, 2005
Itinerary: Panama Canal
There are many other excellent reviews here, and we found ourselves disagreeing with only the positive description of one shore tour in Panama. Those reviews were very helpful to us in planning our cruise, and we thank the writers very much. We were especially appreciative of all the pictures! So in an effort not to be redundant, here are some things which we would have liked to know in addition to what we read here...
Get to the pier early if you can. We got there at 11:00, and breezed right through the check-in process. Literally no queue anywhere to get aboard.
Staterooms won't be ready until 1:00, but there was a place to check hand baggage in the Minstrel Dining Room (Deck 5, port side; Guest Relations got the location wrong and we had to find it). But the Windjammer is open for lunch, and the ship is free for roaming.
If you have never been to the Panama Canal - don't book a shore tour for that day. Stay aboard. The best part of the cruise is the trip in and out of the locks, and the shore tour we took to the Gamboa Rain Forest ski lift ride was on a circular route in a rickety bus filled with graffiti over typically bad Latin (OK, Central) American roads. We spent a total of four hours in that uncomfortable bus with only a muffin, two inedible "sandwiches," a miniature bottle of water, and an apple for lunch (eaten on the bus) - all for a 30 minute treetop ride. Then, they deposited us at the Cristobal pier outside the canal with only a few stress-filled moments to spare before the ship sailed. Taking this tour means that you miss the return trip through the locks, and several people told us that the best view of the locks was from the stern of the ship during the passage out of the canal. But what will gall you the most is that after bumping over the Panamanian potholes, you get to the Gamboa park and find it next to the canal and the canal railroad! Why not do a tour up the canal to this beautiful place in either a boat or train? And this was the most expensive shore excursion we took! Since there is an alternative treetop tour on the itinerary in Costa Rica, take it instead if you are determined to do this kind of thing.
OK, a little redundancy... The best shore tour we took, hands down, was the "Swim with the Stingrays" in Grand Cayman. Even though the RCCL-sponsored excursion with two school bus loads of "friends" from the ship made you feel like you were in a crowded Wal-Mart aisle instead of personally served, it was the least expensive shore tour we booked (of four), but the best value and most fun overall.
Brilliance Of The Seas is BEAUTIFUL. The public rooms (including the public restrooms!) especially are awesome in fit and finish. But it was obvious that RCCL was still running a lot of programs as if this huge, beautiful ship was really a small ship with a lot of first time cruisers, instead of adjusting the experience to accommodate the fact that Brilliance is so large, and by now hosts a lot of repeat customers.
For example, the Crown and Anchor party for frequent cruisers was hosted in the Colony Club. The first time we were invited to one of these, on a smaller ship, the number of repeat cruisers was not as great. This time, it was a CRUSH of people, even in the large Colony Club lounge. I counted 18 ship's officers standing by, who were friendly enough if approached, but tended to talk to each other instead of the passengers. But they didn't DO anything, yet there were only four bartenders in two bars struggling to keep up with the mob, and the noise level was deafening. When the Captain gave his talk, he was barely able to make himself heard over the din. RCCL needs to break these gatherings up into much smaller groups, or have them in larger venues (as on Sovereign, where it was held in the theatre). Or, at least have a higher staff to guest ratio working them, with a PA system that can reach the whole room, if they are interested in making them the feel-good-about-RCCL events that they have been on past cruises.
There are no passenger laundry facilities on board, and the shipboard laundry charges are astronomical. (for example, $1.50US for one pair of underwear) So pack accordingly. The best strategy is to pack light, and buy casual clothes in the ports you visit for wear later in the cruise.
The ice buckets in the staterooms are miniature in size by default. No problem. We just asked for a real ice bucket the first night. It appeared immediately, and stayed refreshed the whole cruise. A small detail, but like no passenger laundry, there are no self service ice machines on this ship. And if you are like us, ice always seems to run out at the exact wrong time!
There are no rental cars at the Port of Miami, but Hertz, Avis, and Alamo rental car vans were plentiful when we disembarked. Unfortunately, our reservation was at Budget, which was nowhere to be found. If you want to rent a car for a day in Miami, instead of taking a transfer to the airport or shore tour, count on the vans taking you to the Miami airport to pick up the car anyway. We over thought this, thinking of using a downtown Budget location. Bad choice. There was no way "to get there from here."
Our last advice is to avoid cabins in the stern of Brilliance generally, and specifically on the port side of Deck 7, where we were. There are no elevators or public stairs in the aft section of this ship - a serious design flaw for a ship this large. And the cabin staff were ADAMANT on our cruise, despite what is written other places here, about passengers not using the crew stairs or pass-through to get around. So there was no alternative but to walk (and walk and walk) to mid ships to be able to navigate up and down the crowded elevators there. Our cabin (7172), along with those of our party (7168, 7166, 7164) were directly above the stage in the Colony Club. The live band which played there every night except one, the blessed Karaoke night, made a din so loud that it was impossible to turn in early or even enjoy a quiet evening on the terrace. We all left saying that these should be the staterooms given to the entertainers on board. They are by definition not in them at the time these staterooms are most affected by noise, yet they are wonderful accommodations otherwise. Conversely, there are elevators in the bow of the ship, and they got relatively little use except in the evening when the shows in the theatre next to them began or ended. Net, given a choice, choose forward cabins on this ship.