Bill and Peggy Kiefer
Age: 60 and 56
Number of Cruises: doz
Cruise Line: Royal Caribbean
Ship: Empress of the Seas
Sailing Date: November 22nd, 2004
Itinerary: Western Caribbean
My husband, Bill, and I have lost count of the number of cruises we have taken on ships of several different cruise lines. We very much enjoyed the port-intensive itinerary of our November 22nd through December 3rd cruise on Royal Caribbean’s recently refurbished Empress of the Seas. In fact, it was to become our all time favorite Caribbean cruise. There were many reasons why this cruise was top-notch and able to outshine its prior competition. To put our cruise in a nutshell, I would say: Great ship, wonderful staff and crew, delicious food, outstanding itinerary, fabulous weather and the fun of sharing it all with the company of old and newly-met friends. For any one interested in a few more details, I invite you to continue reading!
First of all, the ship and its crew played a large role in our enjoyment of this vacation. The Empress of the Sea’s 48,563 gross tonnage is small by comparison to some recently built mega ships, a factor that pleased my husband and me. We don’t especially care for most of the impersonal mega ships. The Empress of the Seas has recently undergone a name change (formerly Nordic Empress) and a facelift. The ship is lovely with an intimate environment, it has amazing amenities like a rock-climbing wall, and its outstanding staff and crew were more efficient and friendlier than any we have previously encountered on other ships.
Our outside cabin, 4142, was well situated near the entrance to the dining room. As we were always running late getting ready for dinner, this was a big plus for us. Our friends from Minnesota, Cathy and Dean, were in a nearby cabin on the same deck. Royal Caribbean is known for its small cabins, but they are well laid out utilizing all available space. We had plenty of storage for our belongings and were comfortable throughout the cruise. Oscar, our always-smiling room steward kept our home away from home shipshape and made us a different towel animal every night after straightening up our cabin.
We were unhappy with our initial table assignment in the two-level Carmen Dining Room because it was located in a noisy area between two bussing stations. We talked to a very pleasant dining room manager who moved us to a quieter area. We were given table #156, which was ideal. This round table for eight was situated on an elevated platform directly behind an open-sided stage used for dinner entertainment that varied nightly and included a piano player, violinist, and a guitarist. We were within speaking distance of the performers who often asked us if we had any requests.
Some of the dining room entrees were out-of-this-world fantastic and most of the others were bordering on gourmet quality. Like many cruise ships, the Empress of the Seas served traditional entrees like steak and lobster, but their more original offerings like shrimp & scallop potpie, Thai pumpkin curry turnover and Chateaubriand were our favorites. These entrees were 10+ on a scale of 1 to 10. The salads served nightly were exceptional, with my favorite being a shrimp salad. I also liked the Thai Lemongrass soup and the blueberry chilled soup. Another item worth mentioning was the low calorie key lime pie that was surprisingly yummy.
All the bakery items onboard were fabulous. For example, the baklava served in the Windjammer Cafe one day was the best I ever tasted - - I thought I had died and gone to heaven it was so divine.
The food served in the Windjammer’s Cafe was also very good. Breakfast choices included an omelet station, waffles, smoked salmon, and the usual offerings of eggs, bacon, sausage, cereals, sweet rolls, etc. The lunch buffets were excellent, as well, with different choices each day. The Windjammer is also open for dinner and offers many of the same items that appear on the dining room menu. On the evening we ate dinner in the cafe, I devoured large portions of Picciuto ham, one of the buffet’s many offerings. The very friendly and efficient cafe staff always kept the tables bused and saw to it that we had everything we needed.
One day we enjoyed a delicious barbeque buffet served on deck. It was quite apparent to us early into our cruise that the kitchens and bakeries on the Empress of the Seas were among the best afloat!
Next, of equal importance in making this cruise so special was the itinerary of eight wonderful islands. Passengers, if they wished, could chose among a vast variety of well-planned shore excursions that were fairly priced. Originally, we were scheduled to visit a ninth island, Grenada. A second day at sea was substituted, because Grenada had recently been devastated by a hurricane.
There were plenty of activities to pick from if a person preferred to stay onboard while the ship was at a port. For instance, one could soak up some rays on the pool deck, especially since Mother Nature smiled on us, big time, by providing perfect weather throughout our cruise. Or other available choices included resting in a shady spot to relax; reading a good book in the comfortable library; playing a game of cards in the Card Room or a video game in the Arcade; enjoying a spa treatment; working out in the gym; or soaking in a hot tub with a frozen Caribbean drink, etc. Throughout the cruise the availability of numerous planned activities like BINGO, art auctions, wine seminars, contests, to name just a few, made it a good bet that no one experienced a dull moment, unless that was exactly what they personally wanted.
And, speaking of betting, when the Empress of the Seas was not in port the Casino would open, as well as the Shops Onboard. Most anything you may have forgotten to pack is available in the shops including toiletries, sportswear, sunglasses, etc., plus a large selection of jewelry, souvenirs, and gift items, as well.
And last but far from least, an important reason this cruise was so pleasurable was due to the company of our friends from Minnesota and the privilege we had of meeting many interesting people onboard and during our various island adventures.
We met a great couple, Jim and Audrey from Glasgow, Scotland one evening while waiting for the nightly entertainment to begin. The four of us hit it off immediately and decided to sit together over drinks prior to each night’s show. We also did some jewelry shopping together, as Audrey and I love this pastime. On one of our shopping excursions, Bill bought me a beautiful, natural Alexandrite ring in a white gold setting.
We met more non-American couples on this cruise than on any other vacation. They including a couple from Brazil, several couples from Wales, numerous people from England, a couple from Sweden, and our previously mentioned newly made friends from Scotland. Both the passengers and the crew on the Empress of the Seas were the friendliest we have ever met previously.
The first island on our itinerary was St. Maarten, which is half-Dutch and half-French. St. Maarten has been voted the best shopping destination in the Caribbean in magazines such as “Caribbean Travel & Life”, so our friends and we decided to spend the day shopping. The Empress of the Seas docked in the Dutch capital of Philipsburg located on Great Bay about a mile from town. Cathy and her family and Bill and I took a bus ($1.50 per person, exact change) to the French capital of Marigot that is less than a half an hour away. I hit the jackpot in finding Chanel Chance perfume, as well as a beautiful jar of Chanel Chance body creme for my daughter-in-law, Amanda. Having done some research on these products prior to leaving home, I knew the prices on St. Martin were substantially lower than in the States. I did quite a bit of my Christmas shopping on this cruise, and even bought myself an amber Daum turtle at Little Switzerland, which has stores throughout the Caribbean. I collect turtles but I never expected to own a Daum creation, as they are very expensive. When I laid my eyes on this beautiful turtle for 40% off the listed price, which is unheard of for Daum pieces, I had to get it. It now sits proudly beside some of my other prized turtle collectibles by Baccarat, Waterford, Herend, Royal Doulton, etc. After shopping, Cathy’s daughter and her husband walked up the hill to see Fort Lewis and the rest of us relaxed at a sidewalk cafe on the ocean promenade. Then we caught a bus back to Philipsburg and I bought various flavors of the islands famous Guavaberry Liquor at the Guavaberry Tasting Shop on the east end of Front Street where free samples are available of this purple bittersweet liquor made from rum and local fruit. I also stocked up at the Caribbean Liquors & Tobacco Store at the Pier, which has great, low prices on liquor and wine.
The “Happenings”, most famous for their hit, “See You In September” were the featured entertainers in the showroom that night. We were amazed that they sounded so great and moved so effortlessly after being together as a group since the mid-sixties! We bought their newest CD and spoke with them after the show. They gave us an autographed 8 by 10 photograph of the group performing.
On day three of our cruise, we arrived at the tiny, jet set Island of St. Bart's. We cooled off in the water at Shell Beach, which is only a five to ten minute walk from the pier. We saw quite a bit of topless and some completely nude sunbathing on this small beach, a practice that is common on many beaches on the French islands in the Caribbean. After soaking up the rays, we did some shopping. The prices were sky high in most of the shops, but I was able to find some unique toiletries for my daughter-in-law, Kristen, including a set of four beautifully shaped soaps of various fragrances made from the “world‘s oldest soap recipe from Mesopotamia” using olive oil. I also picked out a collection of “Marine” scented bath products including bath salts, shower gel, and lotion for her. Before heading back to the ship, we stopped at a nearby tiny bar, called Cantina, where I enjoyed a fantastic drink called a Colonel Glace Drink made with vodka, lemon glace and pulverized limes. It was amazingly refreshing.
The evening’s Latin-themed musical production in the Strike Up The Band Showroom was called “Viva”, which featured the Empress of the Seas high-energy singers and dancers with music provided by the ship’s fantastic band.
Day four of our cruise found us docked in Basseterre, St. Kitts, where we took a marvelous shore excursion that began with a drive to the Needsmust Train Station to board the Sugar Train. This experience became a highlight of our trip, and is a shore excursion we would highly recommend to anyone. If the weather is sunny you will be in for one photo opportunity after another as the specially built train follows the old sugar cane track that hugs the coastline of this beautiful island. In addition to the spectacular seascapes, you will see lush rolling countryside, volcanic peaks, rain forests, and fields of sugar cane bending in the wind. The recently built air-conditioned train cars have huge windows, spotless onboard facilities, and an excellent sound system over which the conductor describes the sites as you travel by them, adding interesting facts about the island and its history. There is also a comfortable sundeck on top of each car where the views are absolutely awesome. The cost of the shore excursion includes two seats per person - - one within the train itself, and one above on the sundeck. We had the pleasure of enjoying this enchanting train ride with a delightful couple, Paul and Leslie, from England, who we saw frequently throughout the remainder of the cruise. Refreshments and drinks (including frozen drinks) are included in the shore excursion’s price and they are served throughout the trip. A local ensemble of St. Kittian singers moved from car to car providing us with musical entertainment. After our return to the area of the dock, we did some shopping before heading back to the ship. The combination of the genuinely friendly residents of St. Kitts with the beauty of their island made it a place my husband and I would like to go back to for a lengthier, land-based visit.
The showroom’s performer for the evening was Bob Arno who gave an informative lecture/demonstration on the various techniques employed by pickpockets, with suggestions on how tourists can protect themselves. He utilized videos he had obtained throughout the world that captured various thieves going about their day’s work. Mr. Arno, who is an expert in this area, soon had the audience in stitches when he relieved several passengers of a numerous variety of their belongings without them, or anyone in the showroom being aware of it. It was the most unusual show we have ever seen on a cruise, and one we found highly fascinating and helpful. Mr. Arno gave the audience tips on things to look out for and strategies to follow that would help deter the unwanted theft of valuables or passports.
The next day, on St. Lucia, we saw the city sights of Castries during our North Coast and Beach Tour. We took photographs from the Morne Fortune Overlook that provided an awesome view of our ship far below us in the beautiful harbor. We visited Caribelle Batik where I bought a set of heavy bronze metal sea turtle bookends instead of the batik fabric items that were available. A short demonstration was given there on how this 2000-year-old art of fabric making is done. Next, we were driven around Pigeon Island Park before going to Reduit Beach. This resort area with golden sand was a perfect spot to soak up some rays for an hour and a half. The shore excursion included one drink (very limited selection) and the use of a chaise.
The evening entertainment following our day in St. Lucia was a magician/comedian named Nick Lewin who Bill and I had seen before in Las Vegas. His performance on the Empress of the Seas was totally different than his Vegas show, but equally good.
Day 6 was spent in Barbados where we docked at Deep Water Harbor, which is a mile from Bridgetown. We started the day by sleeping in late and ordering a room service lunch. The food was delivered promptly and was both hot and good. Our Snorkel with the Turtles Tour left at 12:30. I would rate this fun-packed excursion a 5 on a 1 to 5 scale, with a lot of the credit for its success going to the friendly crew on the boat. Even though Turtle Bay was a little murky with limited visibility during our swim with the turtles, it was still amazing to be near these large, yet graceful, sea creatures. We also saw one small hawksbill turtle. Our boat then moved to the first of two different wreck sites that were in clear water. Both sites had large varieties of sea life surrounding the sunken boats, plus numerous types of coral. Soft drinks were served during the snorkeling portion of the trip and then the bar was open with Banks beer and rum punch during the time we spent on a lovely sand beach near the soon-to-be-opened Hilton. A native Barbadian we struck up a conversation with while laying out on this picturesque beach told us a nice hotel to stay at if we came back for a visit was the Sandy Beach Hotel. He also mentioned two locations of Escape properties, which were all-inclusive resorts that he recommended as good values.
Tony B, accompanied by the ship’s terrific band, was the singer who performed in the showroom that evening. Tony B shared very interesting background information about the composers of the classic songs that he sang.
Our first day spent entirely at sea was day seven of our tropical adventure. In addition to sunbathing and generally just plain relaxing, my friend Cathy and I attended a “Color Me Beautiful” seminar given by a woman who had done the makeup for the movie, “The Pirates of the Caribbean.” Later that day, I attended an amusing cake decorating seminar that was given by the ship’s pastry chef. The Cruise Director had a table next to the chef’s table that was identically stocked, and he attempted to decorate a cake similar to the chef’s. His attempts and antics were very funny including the finale when the Cruise Director had his poor excuse for a cake smashed down the front of him. Afterwards, slices of the chef’s beautifully decorated and delicious cake were passed around to the audience. I spoke to this chef on deck one day and complimented him on the high quality of the bakery items on board, especially the pastries. He was a large, jolly fellow from Sweden.
Mario and David, two brothers from Argentina, were the evening’s entertainers. These guys were hysterical comedians with excellent timing and coordination. They included a terrific bolo performance within their act. We talked to the brothers, briefly, at breakfast the following morning and found them to be outgoing and charming.
On day eight of our cruise we visited the island of Margarita, 23 miles off the Venezuela coast. The swim with the dolphins shore excursion we went on became our all time favorite. The price of this shore excursion was a value compared to the price charged for other swim with the dolphin programs that we have previously experienced. The facility that hosted the dolphin swim also had a trained seal with horrible bad breath that posed for photographs with vacationers! While we swam and played with the dolphins, the staff constantly took photographs of all of us and these pictures were available for purchase afterwards. I was smiling ear to ear in every single picture, except the one where I was holding on to a dolphin’s fin while he pulled me swiftly through the water. I had to keep my mouth shut and my eyes closed because the dolphin was going so fast that the water was splashing up into my face! What a hoot! We also “danced” with the dolphins and got to rub their tummies and hug them. As a finale, the staff at this well run facility instructed the group we were with to form a line in the middle of the huge pool and to remain perfectly still as the dolphins swam towards us and then jumped over our heads. This is a not to be missed shore excursion for any one who loves animals. You don’t even have to know how to swim, as all participants are required to wear floatation jackets. Back at port, we shopped at the open-air vendor mall and I purchased two coral necklaces, a turtle magnet, assorted spices, and some coconut rum. Back onboard the Empress of the Seas, we caught a late lunch in the Windjammer Cafe and then watched a crew against passenger's volleyball pool game that Candace and Kevin (our friend’s daughter and son-in-law) were participating in. The crew won, but a lot of people questioned several of the rulings concerning scores during the game. Then we sat in the hot tub with Cathy and Dean until it was time to get ready for dinner.
We didn’t go to the Strike Up The Band Show Room to see the Argentinean Tango Show that night. We were too tired after our fun-filled day on Margarita Island. We heard from others the next day that the show was very entertaining.
In Curacao, we walked from the port of Willemstad to the living history Slavery Museum called Kura Hulanda and took a tour given by an excellent guide. Then we did a little shopping and I added another turtle magnet, a turtle teapot, and a turtle tee shirt to my constantly growing collection of all things turtle! In the afternoon, we went on a shore excursion that began with a 20-minute boat ride to Caracas Bay Island where we snorkeled in the crystal blue water of the Underwater Park of Curacao, one of the best snorkeling sites in the Caribbean.
That evening was a formal night, so we dressed up and had photographs taken. We saw the Empress of the Sea’s singers and dancer’s in a show entitled, Jump, Jive & Swing. We weren’t overly impressed by this production, but the band was great, as usual.
In Aruba we docked at the west side of Oranjestad which is less than 1/4 mile from the neat and clean town center. Our shore excursion was a dive onboard the Atlantis VI Submarine. The submarine went down into the outlying waters to depths of 150 feet. We saw numerous coral formations, sponge gardens, exotic fish and great views of a sunken ship.
During our Atlantis dive, we struck up a conversation with a couple who asked us if we would be interested in going on an evening shore excursion to see the Las Vegas style show called Let’s Go Latin. They had purchased tickets for this Crystal Palace extravaganza, but she felt ill, so they wouldn’t be going. We purchased the tickets from them and enjoyed seeing the biggest production show in the Caribbean. Afterwards, Bill and I had our pictures taken with some of the singers and the outstanding, and stunningly costumed Cuban dancers.
On day eleven of our cruise, we were ready for what was our second day at sea. After days and nights of non-stop activities, Bill and I were ready to slow down the pace, a little! We attended a very informative Digital Camera Seminar given by an Australian gentleman, who after the presentation very impressively answered the audience’s rather complex questions in a way that was easily understandable for even digital camera novices like myself. Then we spent the afternoon lounging on deck and soaking up rays to put the finishing touches on the best tans we have had in years!
The last show of the cruise was provided by Jay Downs, a multi-talented musician, formerly of the Benny Hill Show. I had my photograph taken with him after his performance and found out we were only a few months apart in age.
Our cruise came to an end when we left the Empress of the Seas in San Juan, Puerto Rico. But we still had one more shore excursion to take before being dropped off at the airport. We enjoyed our City & Bacardi Rum Distillery tour very much. We took fabulous pictures at San Juan’s San Cristobal Fortress (which covers 27 acres) and the Bacardi tour was much better than we expected. The Bacardi museum at the world’s largest rum distillery unveiled a very interesting Bacardi family history going back seven generations. The distillery grounds were beautifully landscaped with various colorful flowers everywhere. And the excellent free drinks offered were not turned down by anyone, as far as we could tell!!
Much earlier in this synopsis of our Royal Caribbean Empress of the Seas cruise, I invited you to continue reading as I shared our memories of this trip. I apologize for the length of this review, but because we had such an incredible time, I didn‘t want to leave out anything!!