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Cathy Cole

Age: 45

Occupation:Technical Analyst

Number of Cruises: 3

Cruise Line: Royal Caribbean

Ship: Brilliance of the Seas

Sailing Date: December 19th, 2003

Itinerary: Eastern Caribbean

This Christmas cruise was my first on Royal Caribbean, and the first ever for my boyfriend Joe (hereafter known as the MI – Melancholy Italian). It took a lot of work on my part to convince him that he would enjoy a cruise, and by the time we got to the airport on the morning of December 19th, I was exhausted from forced perkiness and trying to get all my Christmas preparations done a week early.

Luckily our flights were perfect, and all luggage arrived with us in Miami. We took a cab to the Port Authority ($21), and I was amazed at the Embarkation process – we were on the ship within 20 minutes of getting out of our cab! Royal Caribbean has things beautifully organized; even with 3 security checkpoints we never waited more than a minute. We were in our room by 1:00, and went immediately out to explore the ship.

As many other reviewers have noted, the Brilliance is amazingly beautiful. All the public rooms have glass walls, and the whole ship is bright and clean. It was decorated from top to toe with Christmas and Hanukkah decorations; down to live poinsettias in all the restrooms. Everything was spotless, and we happily explored all the lounges, dining rooms, and public areas. We made our reservations for the specialty restaurants (Chops and Portafino), following the wise advice of Tom and Mary Milano from Cruise critics. We were glad we did, since when we tried to add another Chops visit later in the cruise, they were completely booked. We also checked our dining room table (table for 4). I asked for a table for 2, but was told that 4 was the smallest table size they had. This turned out to be a big lie, as I noticed when we went down to dinner for the first formal night. There were several cozy tables for two scattered about, and I was a little unhappy to have been fibbed to.

We checked out the gym and spa areas, and I signed up for the specialty classes that all the lines seem to charge for (Pilates and Yoga). They also offered kickboxing and spinning classes, as well as several free ones, like stretching, aerobics, and toning. Of course I picked up the spa list to see what would tempt my cruise card out of my pocket. I signed up for a pedicure and a total massage, an absolutely lovely nearly 2 hours of a full body massage and a facial. More on that later.

We were scheduled to leave port at 8:00, so we made dinner reservations for Chops at 8:30. By 7:00, my main bag had still not shown up, and I was getting nervous about having to dine in tennis shoes and blue jeans. Our lovely room steward, Raymond, suggested I check on level 4 where the luggage without tags was stored, and sure enough, there was my poor woebegone bag sitting waiting for its mommy. I snatched it up and wrassled it into an elevator (not an easy task) and got back upstairs. We made it through muster, and then changed and headed down to Chops. I would highly recommend scheduling one of the specialty restaurants for the first night, since the windows let you watch the lights of Miami fade into the night as the ship heads out to sea. It was a beautiful sight!

The food was excellent, the MI said the filet was the best he had ever had. Our waitress Maria was a doll, but I was expecting the level of service I had had in the Olympic on the Millennium and was quite disappointed. Both Chops and Portafino were like a nice restaurant on land, nothing like the exquisite tableside service I had received in the Olympic dining room. I missed the waiters in tails, the escort service to the ladies room, the tableside preparation for most dishes, and the leisurely pace of the meal. They did prepare our Caesar salads tableside, but it was just putting the lettuce and croutons in a bowl and pouring on prepared dressing. On the Millennium, the entire dressing was made from scratch, and assembled in front of us. We were out of Chops in a little over an hour, nothing like the almost 3 I had spent happily ensconced in the Olympic.

In general, I found the food on the Brilliance a good notch below both the Celebrity ships I have cruised in the past (Millennium and the Century). The dining room service seemed rushed, and the selections and preparations were not as extensive or as lovely as Celebrity. The MI and I did give very high marks to the buffet, however. The Windjammer individual stations made it easy to get what you wanted without having to wait on line, a real pet peeve of the MI. Even the egg stations never had more than a couple of people lined up, and the MI was able to get his beloved egg white omelets every morning without incident. We tried the Windjammer for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and always found the food to be nicely presented, fresh and good. The selections were wonderful, and the cookies were outstanding, I think I ate my share and probably several other people’s as well. I also enjoyed the soft serve ice cream, although there I did have to wait in line behind the 603 children (!) we learned were on the ship.

One of the MI’s biggest worries was the number of people on the ship, and I am happy to report that in spite of a full ship and the aforementioned number of children, there were many times that we felt like the ship was ours alone. We could walk from one end to the other and only see a few other passengers, nothing like the swarming hordes he was afraid of. The only time we saw most of the young children was when Santa arrived on Christmas day; otherwise they seemed happy to spend their time in the children’s camp at one end of the ship. There were quite a few teenagers roaming the halls, but for the most part they were well mannered and polite. The layout of the ship made it possible to always find a quiet corner to have a drink in and watch the sea go by.

Our Room
We had a category E2 cabin with verandah, booked through Online Vacations with American Express. We had paid for an E3 cabin, and were upgraded free to an E2 (just a higher floor, it seemed). The MI was surprised by the small size of the cabin, but I was prepared, having had a similar cabin on the Millennium. He had doubted the need for the verandah, but was a convert in about 2 minutes. I was delighted at all the storage, the large closet split down the middle with deep shelves was plenty large enough for all my evening dresses, shoes and other essentials (not an easy task). There were also plenty of drawers in the desk on both sides for socks, underwear and bathing suits, and 2 small drawers in the nightstands for anything else. All suitcases fit easily under the bed; and the bed’s rounded corners made it easy to get around when heading out for the verandah. The bathroom was small, but again had fabulous storage, a long shelf under the sink, a nice sized counter, and a huge cabinet behind the left side mirror. Another plus was that the arrangement of the mirrors in the bathroom and in the main room allowed you to see the back of your hair and dress with no problems! This wasn’t much of a plus to the MI, but I loved it.

The shower, however, was very small, and the fabric curtain did a poor job of keeping the water in the shower stall. I flooded the bathroom every time I showered. I’m small (5’4”) and I felt very cramped in the shower; I can’t imagine how anyone 6’ or taller would manage. I couldn’t even bend over to shave my legs, there literally wasn’t room.

Other than those couple of minor complaints, the room was lovely and very well designed. Our room steward kept it immaculate, and we hardly ever saw him.

Ports of Call
We stopped the first day in Nassau, Bahamas. The weather was sunny and cool (60’s) so we took a cab ($8 for 2 people) to Atlantis to see the sights. The driver was very entertaining and articulate with his block by block description of down town Nassau. He made it seem like a guided tour. We didn’t pay the $25 charge to get full access to Atlantis, since it was too cool to use the beach. The free aquarium was amazing, and so large I can’t even imagine how much bigger the other one was. The hotel was beautiful, and we enjoyed walking around. We had no problem finding cabs either on the way there or on the way back, so it made a pleasant way to spend the morning, and since we were only in port from 7:00 am to 2:00 pm, there really wasn’t time to do much more.

2nd day was a sea day, which we enjoyed. I spent a lot of time on this trip in the beautiful Solarium, both for its peaceful atmosphere and its childfree environment! There were two “family” times a day in the Solarium but otherwise it was off limits to children under 16. It’s a beautiful space, covered so it was always warm, with a wonderful waterfall that made a very soothing and restful noise. There is a salt-water pool and a Jacuzzi, and plenty of chairs, both facing the pool and facing outward towards the sea. There is also a little café and a bar, so you pretty much have everything you need. And, at regular intervals, a wonderfully scented cooling mist rolls out of the waterfall and over all the loungers relaxing poolside! It was my favorite place on the ship.

The MI decided to try a little gaming in the on board casino. The blackjack tables’ bet minimum and maximum were $5 and $100 respectively. Same for the craps and Caribbean stud poker tables. This is in line with mid level casinos in Las Vegas. The critical element for him was the dealer demeanor. The MI was not on a Vegas junket and this was not a gaming vacation for him, he was just passing time at the tables as recreation while having a drink. The dealers however were dealing cards at lightening speed rivaled only by the top casino dealers in Vegas. One dealer in particular would frequently fumble and drop cards on the floor due to his crisis like urgency. It made it look like he was trying hard to be better than he was. Since there was almost always a seat available at the tables the MI felt that this level of dealing was inappropriate for a cruise ship casino. The casino’s volume simply didn’t justify it and gosh; aren’t we all here to just have some fun? The casino will get your money all in good time anyway.

That evening was my massage, which was scheduled for 5:30. I got a call about 4:00 moving my appointment back to 6:15, which made it impossible for us to make our 8:30 dinner that evening in the main dining room. But it certainly didn’t make me enjoy the massage less – we just ordered room service that night. The massage was lovely, but I do find that shipboard massages are less therapeutic and gentler than the massages I get at home. I suppose they are trying to appeal to a broader base, but I have some problems with my shoulder, and prefer a firmer, deeper tissue massage. The facial was also lovely, but the young lady informed me that my skin was “Fed up” with my current skin care regime, and I would need to purchase about $500 of new products to fix the problem. We negotiated briefly, and I was able to escape with only 3 new items. The sales pitch is never fun, but she did a good job, and the products I did purchase are lovely.

The 3rd day we docked in St. Martin promptly at noon. I had my pedicure at 8:00, and it was well worth the money. I got a wonderful massage, and my toes looked like little jewels by the time she was done. She also didn’t try and sell me anything, so I tipped her a bit extra. The weather was warm and sunny, and I’ve never seen so many butterflies in my life. As soon as we docked, they began fluttering around our balcony, and the bushes and hills were full of them. The MI and I headed off the ship, and found a van to Orient Beach for $5 each (up to $9 each if you are the only ones in the vehicle). Orient Beach was glorious, and we had no problem finding chairs and an umbrella to rent. We just strode up to the nearest empty set, and within 2 minutes a gentleman appeared to collect our $15 for two chairs and umbrella. There were a few vendors walking the beach, but they were very polite and not pushy at all. In back of the beach was an area of little restaurants, rest rooms, and shops, so it was a very relaxing beach experience. I proceeded to take my leisurely walk down the beach and although I was aware of it ahead of time, I had put out of my mind that this was a “clothing optional facility”. I was sobered immediately to say the least when I came upon a rather elderly gentleman strolling along in his birthday suite. This sparked my return to the chairs where the MI (who had not forgotten about the “rules”) was certainly enjoying the sights (you see, the MI may be melancholy but he’s not dead). After a couple of hours, we caught a cab back to town for shopping. The cab driver for our trip back was even more colorful than the one in Nassau. He delightfully pointed out that a woman smiling in the stopped car next to us was his “ex” who had shot him in the groin about a year and a half ago. This made the MI nervous but slightly amused. The town wasn’t nearly as large or nice an area as in St. Thomas, but the prices were excellent, especially for liquor and resort wear. The MI purchased several cigars to enjoy on the balcony, and 3 tropical shirts for $20, which appeared to be the highlight of his trip so far. We were able to walk back to the ship, a little over a mile, and made it back in plenty of time before we left at about 7:00 pm. We had dinner that night in Portafinos and had a lovely meal. I love Italian food, and had the broiled lobster tail, the MI enjoyed his garlic shrimp in truffle oil. The deserts were the highlight, my tiramisu was served in a little chocolate cup with chocolate garnishes, and I was delighted.

Day 4 was Puerto Rico, and unfortunately, customs day. We were in port from 7-2 again, but couldn’t disembark until about 10:00 when everyone finally made it through customs. There was a good deal of the dreaded “Waiting on Line”, but the MI survived, and we headed off the ship to wander around Old San Juan. It was very hot (high 80’s) and sunny, so the narrow shaded streets felt good. We visited the Butterfly People, which I highly recommend. They have the most fantastic butterfly collections beautifully mounted in Lucite (www.butterflypeople.com) and I purchased a beautiful Indian butterfly as a gift for only $25. We also bought some liquor to take home, since they did take it from us when we got back on the ship and delivered it to us on the last day. The MI was a little disappointed at the short amount of time spent on San Juan and Nassau. We were only there from 7-2, and by the time you had breakfast and got off the ship you only had a couple of hours to enjoy the ports.

Day 5 was Labadee, Royal Caribbean’s private island off the coast of Haiti. The island was beautiful, very mountainous with beaches on both sides. The tenders were fantastic, large and comfortable, and we were ashore in just a few minutes. Beach attendants set us up in the shade in comfortable chairs, and I headed off for beach yoga – well worth the $10 charge. I’m a dedicated yogi, and had been disappointed to find only 2 yoga classes scheduled for the entire week, but doing yoga on the beach almost made up for the scarcity of classes. When I got back, it was time for lunch, and we headed to one of the picnic areas for a great barbecue lunch (ribs, hamburgers, hotdogs). We steered away from the “Artists Market”, the people were very aggressive and the goods didn’t look like anything special.

The only drawback of Labadee was the beach on the north side of the island. I have never seen a filthier beach in my life! An area was roped off for swimming, but you couldn’t have paid me to get in that water. The beach was littered with all kinds of garbage, from bottles to old shoes, and after a short walk I was so disgusted I headed inland to walk back. Since Royal Caribbean owns the island, there is no reason they couldn’t have had the beach cleaned up before we docked. It was a real sour note, and almost spoiled the day for me, since beach walking is my favorite thing to do on an island. The beaches on the other side that faced Haiti were immaculate, so it was just the Atlantic side that needed attention.

Day 6 was another restful sea day, and we puttered around, packing and revisiting our favorite places to take photos. It was also Christmas day, and after Raymond cleaned our room, we found a wonderful Royal Caribbean rolling suitcase as a Christmas gift, complete with a smaller bathroom case inside! Even better, at about 10:00. our captain came over the loud speaker to announce that Santa and his reindeer had been sighted, and would be landing on our ship shortly! All children (and childish adults) were requested to go to the main atrium and await his arrival. We headed right down, and sure enough, within a few minutes we spotted the man himself descending down the glass elevator. The crowd went wild, and he was quickly settled into a big chair and surrounded by his 4 elves. Apparently the reindeer were being fed and watered on the upper deck. He had a wrapped gift for every one of the 603 children on board, up to age 17! It was lots of fun, and a really nice touch.

We were in port right on time on Day 7, and had a quick breakfast at the Windjammer before we headed down to the public areas to wait until our color was called. We had notified them that we had a flight out before 2:00, so we were in the second group to disembark. Customs went smoothly, and we were looking for a cab in about 30 minutes once we retrieved our luggage from a carousel similar to the airport. Much nicer than the Celebrity jumble of bags in one big room!

All in all, it was a fabulous cruise. The Brilliance was so beautiful, and the staff couldn’t have been nicer or more attentive. We tried most of the lounges and restaurants, and enjoyed everything. Even the MI had a splendid time, although he did admit that on a future cruise, he would probably buck up for a suite. The rooms are small, but it didn’t hamper our enjoyment (at least mine) any.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to e-mail me.

Happy cruising!

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