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Shelley Askew

Age: 56

Occupation:Banker

Number of Cruises: 6

Cruise Line: Royal Caribbean

Ship: Empress of the Seas

Sailing Date: December 4th, 2006

Itinerary: Southern Caribbean

This was our fifth cruise with Royal Caribbean, having sailed on the Navigator twice, the Adventure and the Brilliance of the Seas. Our first three cruises were seven night cruises and we did an 11-night cruise on the Brilliance, visiting the Panama Canal and Costa Rica. While we loved the Voyager class ships, my husband was absolutely taken by the Brilliance of the Seas. He loved the ambiance of this ship and the solarium pool. I had wanted to take the Ultimate Southern Caribbean cruise on the Empress because I really liked the itinerary. My husband was leery of this cruise because he was afraid he would not like the small ship - that he would miss the solarium pool and that the restaurant service and shows would suffer because the number of passengers was so much less than on the larger ships. He worried that we would not enjoy our time at the pool since it would be loud with all of the activities. Well, our trip started out with a minor mishap on the airlines. Our luggage would have been left behind in Philadelphia if we had not had engine difficulties. After a delay of nearly two hours, we taxied back into the gate to pick up 60 bags that had not been loaded. Our bags were in the first 20 onto the carousel at San Juan, so clearly it was in the luggage that was loaded AFTER our delayed take-off.

After we landed in San Juan, we had nothing but wonderful experiences. Our check-in was efficient and speedy. We were in our stateroom within 20 minutes of arriving at the pier. Our junior suite could not compare in size to the one we enjoyed on the Brilliance, but it was beautifully laid out and the new linens on the bed were wonderful! Our next door neighbors were also our table mates in the dining room at the main seating, along with a couple from Sweden. This was the first time we had been seated with an international group and was very enjoyable. We were on the main level of the dining room beside the wonderful aft windows so that we could see the port as we left in the evening. We had a wonderful view of the grand staircase and the revolving white grand piano. The food was excellent and the service was better! The shows were every bit as good as on the large ships. The pool band was excellent, and we could even converse while sitting very close to them. They wore different Jamaican shirts each day, showing the sites of Jamaica.

The itinerary: San Juan -> St. Maarten-> Antigua-> St. Kitt's-> St. Lucia -> Barbados -> Margarita Island -> Curacao-> Aruba-> San Juan. We booked our first three days before we left Toronto, with a day at Orient Beach in St. Maarten, Antigua Highlights by sea and climbing the volcano in St. Kitts. The day at Orient Beach was wonderful (weather, beach, food, tour). As always, there was a strong trade wind, but this keeps you from feeling that it is too hot. The next day in Antigua, we joined our catamaran in St. John's and went all the way around Antigua, stopping at Green Island for swimming/snorkeling and a Bar-B-Q lunch to die for (we had the gray snapper, which is local to Antigua). The crew was amazing and they treated the passengers like royalty. We saw some wonderful sites from the sea. Caution: the portion of the sail on the Atlantic is quite rough, but only one passenger experienced any sea-sickness.

Day Three: we arrived at St. Kitt's and were on the pier at 7:15 to join our group for climbing the volcano. We were really looking forward to the view and photo opportunities from the top of Mt. Liamuiga. Unfortunately, there was significant fog so we got some really good photos of the group and the mist. Other spots on St. Kitts gave us better shots. The rock formations along the coast are nothing short of amazing.

Day 4: St. Lucia. We booked spa time in the morning - better than spectacular- and then wandered around the shops at the pier in the afternoon. There is pretty good shopping right there. We did not venture any further in St. Lucia. In Barbados, we took a coach tour. We touched all but one parish and the highlight was definitely St. John's where we visited an old church and could see the light house where the Atlantic and Caribbean meet.

Day 6 was a sail day and we enjoyed the ship. The activities all take place around the pool and they were quite entertaining. I think I already said that the pool band was stellar. The next day we docked at Margarita Island. As it is a rather short stay we did not book a tour. We went to the market at the pier. There are quite a lot of shops, some restaurants and a couple of beaches. All of the merchants wear identifying shirts. The dogs on the pier were clean and wore flea collars. The local beer was $2 and served ICE-cold. Well worth trying.

Day 8 we were in Curacao. We took the mixed Curacao tour and visited a local artist's home (absolutely breath-taking!), the caves and the slave museum. We had time to walk around Otrabanda and Willemstadt before heading back to the ship.

Day 9 took us to Aruba. We took the beach tour. Again, we had the local beer. Watch the cost of chairs/umbrellas here. Pay attention to your coach driver who will tell you who has the better deals.

Day 10 was our only other sail day. It was windy and cool, but the pool side bar-b-que was wonderful and the pool-side entertainment again was a lot of fun! There were very few children on this cruise, but those we saw were very well-behaved and seemed to be having as much fun as their parents. The cruise director, activities director and their staff were attentive and genuinely cared whether people were having a good experience. We had never tried room service on our other cruises but partook several times on this one. We were very impressed with the food and the service. One morning, when we had order breakfast for 7:00 to 7:30, the phone rang at 7:10. The kitchen was calling to let us know that our tray was on its way. We would not have considered it to be late until after the 7:30 time frame. We were truly sorry to leave for home on day 11, having made some very good friends. Our room steward was almost like family by the end of the cruise.

The things that we missed on a small ship - nothing! The friendliness of the crew and passengers, the cozy atmosphere, the first-class food, service and shows, not to mention the outstanding itinerary - made it a trip to remember as one of the best vacation we have ever experienced. Thank you, Royal Caribbean, for not abandoning the smaller ship experience, even though the trend is to build them ever bigger and more awesome where the ship is clearly the destination. Thank you, Jorge, our cruise consultant for the good advice and the great service! We are cruising on the Explorer in April and taking a transatlantic on the Brilliance in December. We will start 2008 as Diamond Crown & Anchor members. We will keep coming back.

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