Occupation:Speech-Language Pathologist/Doctoral Student
Number of Cruises: 2
Cruise Line: Royal Caribbean
Ship: Jewel of the Seas
Sailing Date: January 2nd, 2006
Itinerary: Western Caribbean
Getting to the Jewel. We used taxi service to be transported from the Fort Lauderdale airport to Port Everglades, where the Jewel was departing. This cab service, with tip (about $18 total), was cheaper than using the cruise line transport ($11 per person equaling $22 for the two of us) and definitely cut down on the hassle of boarding a motor coach and having bags slung about by the people loading them on the coach. Of course the price difference will depend on how close the airport is to the port. Even though we did not use the cruise-promoted transport, we did see an Royal Caribbean Interational (RCI) representative at the airport who kindly informed us of the ship’s berthing, which had changed. This was very helpful as it likely reduced the cab fare we would have paid to have the driver look around the port for our ship. One caveat though, our driver to the ship was quite reckless and tried to shortchange us. Our driver back to the airport after the cruise was very pleasant and we tipped him accordingly.
Embarkation Procedure. This was slightly better for this cruise than it was for our Carnival cruise that departed out of San Juan. The terminals in Fort Lauderdale have seats, where people can sit before being ushered into the lines. This was nice because it allowed for less standing during the wait. Unfortunately, though, there was no orderly process for deciding who was next to proceed to the lines. Therefore, people just walking in could congregate closest to the gate, preventing some those who waited in chairs in excess of 30 minutes from advancing to the lines. I think RCI should consider having designated boarding groups, as do the airlines, so there would be a more orderly and fair process. Everyone we talked to about the embarkation on this cruise had a negative experience and we all hoped we would somehow forget it by the end of the cruise. Alas, I am writing about it now, so I obviously didn't forget. Note: I do admit that the unpleasantness of waiting in lines is greatly enhanced when the people in the lines act rudely. Most didn’t but it only takes a few to raise the blood pressure.
The Ship. The Jewel of the Seas, the newest RCI ship (at least until April 2006) was beautiful and clean. We heard one couple complain of a slight mildewy smell in some of the stateroom halls, but I didn’t notice that near our stateroom. There did appear to be some water stains on the carpet on deck 4 outside the Tides Dining Room, but I didn’t smell any mildew there. The elevators were often full and sometimes took a while to arrive, but we only used them on formal nights. Because of the extra food we were eating, we committed ourselves to taking the stairs, which were never crowded and had interesting art featured after each flight. I was particularly impressed by the ship’s “Save the Waves” campaign emphasizing safeguards to the environment. There were recycling receptacles conveniently located on the decks and our room bill was printed on recycled paper. Way to go RCI!
Our Stateroom and Room Steward. Our stateroom was near the aft on deck 3. We opted out of having a room with a window or balcony, although we heard from other cruisers on this ship that the balcony for their stateroom was very nice for lounging and enjoying the fresh air. The stateroom, though similar in size to the one we had with Carnival, had an excellent layout, with lots of cabinets and nooks for our belongings. The shower was smaller than what we had with Carnival, but it had a cool cylindrical design. The room has a minibar fridge with sodas, water, and candy bars in it. Pitfall: The cruise line charges crazy amounts for these items if you consume them, so bring your own from home if you think you’ll have a craving for them. We brought a suitcase full of bottled water and kept them cool in the fridge. This was a real treat for us to have iced water in our room during the cruise, especially after a gym workout or time on the shore.
We had a very nice room steward who did a good job. He almost always kept the ice container full and replaced our towels (beach and room) daily. He made a towel animals, which are always fun, on three of the days,.
Food Service and Dining. As with our Carnival cruise, the food in the formal dining room was superb – 5 star quality. We did not try the Windjammer buffet because we heard others say it was basically like family-style buffet in the US. Some who had children found that it suited them best, with its more flexible hours and less formal atmosphere. All the meals we ate on the ship were in the Tides dining room, where the service was excellent.
A word about the menu: I read several reviews prior to our cruise that seemed to indicate that the dining room food was typical of that served in an ordinary family restaurant. The menu has items that range from the familiar chicken marsala to the less familiar tempura-fried mahi mahi. Bottom line: You get what you order. Order something ordinary, you’ll get something ordinary (though cooked excellently). Order something special, you’ll get something special.
We typically ordered the “Chef’s Selections” and took the recommendations of our waiter. The Chef’s Selections were the most unique and innovative meals created by the ship’s executive chef. I have never seen items such as roasted peach soup in anything but fine dining restaurants at home and there were some entrees that I’ve never seen anywhere else. The offering of these creative menu items that were all delicious is the mark of a superb fine dining restaurant – which is what we judged the Tides to be. The beauty of a cruise is that you can be daring and try these items (even one bite) without paying extra. If you decide you don’t like it, you can order something else with no additional expense.
Based on both of the cruises we’ve done, including this one, I discovered a fallacy about cruise dining. Many talk about how much food there is and predict weight gain with a cruise, but I observed that portions in the dining room were not the obscenely huge portions served in the restaurants in the US. They were portions that were reasonable and left room for several courses. I didn’t feel stuffed after these meals. There were also many vegetarian and low fat recipes that were excellent.
The ship also has two specialty restaurants: Chops (a steakhouse) and Portofino’s (an Italian restaurant). These cost $20 per person, but I’ve heard from others that they are worth it. Unfortunately, we did not book early enough and missed out on Chops (which some have compared to Ruth’s Chris). If you’d like to try it, book as soon as you embark. To be honest, although we were disappointed that we didn’t get to try Chops, I was glad that I didn’t have to miss any of the fantastic dinners in the Tides or dish out $40 for dinner.
Entertainment. The entertainment on the ship was superior to what we had on our Carnival cruise. Every night there was a show, which featured great talent, including a pianist, magician, and comedian. The RCI singers were extremely good (I’ve sung in choirs and productions and think I have a pretty good ear). We thought the magic show would be corny, but it was not a typical show and was really baffling and entertaining!
The only problem we had was that some of the trivia (e.g., name that tune) and other fun activities took place after 10:00 pm, at which time we wanted to hit the hay in preparation for port excursions early the next morning. Mostly, the activities offered during the day on the ship were opportunities to sell you something: art, beauty products, and so on.
The gym was very nice but not too crowded with exception of the ever-elusive elliptical machines, on which there was a 20-minute limit. My husband saw people trying to hide how long they were on the machines by draping their towels over the time meters.
In fact, people also used their towels (as well as books, etc.) to reserve lounge chairs on the upper decks. Essentially, people find the deck chairs they want early in the morning, drop their towels there, then go off for hours (playing Bingo and such) while others cannot find an available chair in the sun. This is despite the clear posting of signs that prohibit reserving deck chairs. There is no enforcement of this rule and people abuse it rampantly at the expense of other cruisers. One fellow cruiser handled this by politely asking someone sitting by some of the vacant but reserved chairs if he could use the vacant chair until the person’s family member returned. The people reserving the chair agreed and the person’s family member didn’t return during his time in the chair. I think this was probably the best way to get around people’s inconsideration, but I really think RCI, not guests, should be doing something to enforce the rules.
Ports of Call/Shore Excursions. The original itinerary of the cruise was Key West, Cozumel, Costa Maya, and Grand Cayman. By the time we boarded, we discovered that the itinerary had been reversed, with Key West being eliminated. Later in the cruise, weather and port conditions (due to damage from Wilma) at Cozumel required us to skip that port (due to unsafe tender boat operations in the past with similar weather conditions) and go to Key West instead. Thus, we ended up doing Grand Cayman, Costa Maya, and Key West (in that order). Though these changes were disruptive and disappointing, we felt that the captain had the safety and enjoyment of guests in mind.
Early in the cruise, there is a talk in the theatre given about the ports of call and shopping. Don’t go to this talk unless you are really interested in shopping on the ports. They really don’t provide helpful port information outside of shopping. They try to lure you there by saying you get a free tennis bracelet, but I left a little early and never saw them being handed out. Also, the ship provides a map for each port, which is part of their Discover Shopping Guide flyer. Unfortunately, though, these maps mainly show the shopping sites and hardly any of the other sites of interest if you were to explore the port on your own. Therefore, in Key West, which we did on our own, we had to find a map once we got off the ship. The Discover Shopping flyers did provide some helpful information on the back, including typical cab fares to certain locations.
There were many shore excursions offered through the cruise line. Although some book through independent vendors over the internet ahead of time, we found many advantages to using the RCI promoted excursions. First, we were refunded without question for the excursion we booked in Cozumel, which we were unable to make as we had to skip that port. I’m not sure of the policies of independent vendors. Maybe are also this flexible, but that information was not readily available to us. Second, the tours promoted by RCI have to be of a certain quality and the cruise line has standards for safety to which the vendors are required to adhere. Third, I had trouble finding these tours online before the cruise and it is difficult to find out if these excursions are any good. Fourth, the ship will not leave you behind if the excursions booked through them keep you later than time to set sail. This allows you to enjoy the excursion more, not having to worry about being left behind. Fifth and finally, everyone on the excursion is from the same cruise. We made acquaintances with fellow cruisers, with whom we socialized later on board.
That said, really think about the excursion you choose. For example, we saw an excursion offered in Key West called “Key West Pub Crawl” ($42 per adult). You certainly don’t need help to pub crawl in Key West and you’ll probably save money and do more to your liking if you go on your own. The best values are excursions that are packages of several activities that would be difficult to do on your own. Below is information about each particular port and the excursions we did.
Grand Cayman. We had to get on tender boats to get to shore. These were ok with exception of their bumping up against the ship during boarding, which jarred most of us on the tender boat. We did the Rays and Reef Combo with Lunch ($94 per adult). This allowed us to snorkel around a coral reef and then visit Stingray City, where we mingled with friendly stingrays. Then we were taken to a beach club resort (which didn’t seem like a resort) and had a lunch. The water and wildlife were really great for snorkeling. We saw eels and friendly sharks as well as some beautifully colored fish. The excursion staff were terrific and friendly. The stingray city was definitely a unique experience that is worth having. The lunch was advertised as “sumptuous” but was really wasn’t all that good (hamburgers, grilled chicken, pasta salad, etc.) The lunch’s only saving grace was that we were really hungry. After eating and lounging on the beach for an hour and a half or so, we were given transport back to the ship right on time for all aboard. In retrospect, we might have done better to do the combo without lunch ($66 per person) and found lunch at a beach club with better food that would let us use their lounges and gotten a cab ($5 per person) back to the ship.
Costa Maya. Here we did the Bike and Kayak Adventure ($48 per adult) through the cruise-promoted excursion. I was pleased that the biking was not strenuous and it allowed for cruisers to see the town of Mahuhal, which I think gives a flavor for a coastal Mexican village. The kayaking was also very nice and the tour staff were excellent. The staff spoke English very well and were very helpful. After the excursion we went on our own to a restaurant in Mahuhal (cab fare from port $2 per person) and ordered chips, guacamole, pico de gallo, and salsa with margaritas and beers. The proprietor was welcoming and honest and did all the work (made the food, served us, etc.) This was very inexpensive and delicious. We had to shield our eyes from the unseemliness of the kitchen and had to withstand a dirty bathroom with a nonflushing toilet, no toilet paper, and no sink (it might help to pretend you’re camping). This might have just been this restaurant. There was not much in the way of a beach there, but maybe we did not go to the right place for that.
Key West. We had a little more time here because of skipping Cozumel, so we spent some time after dinner walking around. Before anyone could disembark, everyone had to check with immigration on the ship. This was a very efficient process for US residents but not apparently for non-US residents, who we saw waiting in line for much longer.
Key West is definitely a port you can do without excursions because everything is walking distance (at least for us, maybe not for someone with mobility problems). We rented bikes from Keys Moped and Scooters (305) 294-0399 for $4 per person if rented from 9 to 5 (take a left onto Truman off Duval). We talked to some people who rented them for $20 per person per day, so beware! We visited the Little White House – vacation home of Harry S Truman ($11 per person). The tour guide was a fantastic storyteller and it was a very interesting tour. Then we went to the Hemingway house ($11 per person), more because of my love for cats (there are 6-toed cats there) than for my interest in the author. It was an interesting tour and tour guide was very nice and knowledgeable. The cats were very friendly and one let me pet her belly.
We also biked to the Southernmost tip of the continental US and had someone take our picture there. We met fellow cruisers who had gotten there by foot as well. Finally, we went to Zachary Taylor beach ($3 total, but regular admission is usually $3 per person). The beach was somewhat rocky, but still nice for a little lazy time. My husband spotted a woman there sunbathing bottomless (face down), so I suppose this was allowed there. It didn’t bother us, but might have bothered people with children along. There was a concession stand there where we got some Nachos and soda to share (total $8). The people there were very friendly and helpful. On the way back to the ship, we stopped at the Blonde Giraffe to share a piece of key lime pie (about $4). My husband is a key lime pie connoisseur and he thought it was great.
Disembarkation. We signed up early to do what’s called Express Walk-Off, something that I think only RCI is doing. This allows people willing to carry their own bags to get off the ship first and forgo the waiting in the lobby and then the process of reuniting with their bags. With exception of a little disorder in the lining up process, this went very well and we were to the airport very early. We were advised not to book a flight before noon, but we actually tried to fly standby for a 10:45 flight (they didn’t have room, but we were having to wait for our flight at that gate anyway, so it was no problem). In retrospect, we might have done better to book an earlier flight given how quickly we were able to disembark in the Express Walk-Off group. There is limited space for the Express Walk-Off program, so get on the list as soon as you can at the beginning of the cruise.
We had a very nice time on this trip and with this cruise line. We definitely saw a difference with being on a new ship and with RCI. The people on this cruise were a little older (fewer honeymooners) than the ones we met on the Carnival cruise. I think this might have been why we made many more friends this time. We’d definitely recommend RCI and the Jewel of the Seas for a nice and economical vacation.