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Greg Walden

Age: 48

Occupation:Retired U.S. military

Number of Cruises: 3

Cruise Line: Royal Caribbean

Ship: Mariner of the Seas

Sailing Date: July 18th, 2004

Itinerary: Western Caribbean

I have delayed submitting this for a week after our return from the cruise, because we had made a complaint to RCI and were waiting on resolution. Our complaint has been satisfactorily resolved, so here are some comments on the cruise.

This was the best cruise of the three I’ve sailed on out of Port Canaveral, and what we had to complain about doesn’t really detract from that “best” experience. I have previously sailed on the Carnival “Pride” and “Fantasy,” and while I thoroughly enjoyed the Carnival cruises, in my opinion the RCI cruise was better in almost every respect. The food (both in the dining room and at the casual buffet bars), the wait staff service, the room attendant service, the on-board activities and amenities – all these aspects were, to me, better than the Carnival cruises I’ve been on. I’ll give some more specific comments day-to-day below.

Embarkation – Port Canaveral, Sunday
We always try to embark as soon as the ship will allow, to see as much of the ship as possible. We arrived at 10:30 AM (it helps to live 20 minutes from Port Canaveral!) and were on board by 11. The in processing was much smoother and faster than on Carnival. The “Mariner” advertising literature mentions that “you won’t realize there are 3100 other passengers,” and in many cases that was true. Embarkation was an example – maybe we were just earlier than others, but it wasn’t crowded at all. The stateroom wasn’t available until 1 PM, so we were off to find the bars, sample the drink of the day, and get the soft drink cards for the kids (our boys, ages 12 and 16). It did not take long to learn this big ship, if you’re used to walking around cruise ships. We did eventually visit every bar, shop, sport/spa area, etc, if only to glance in (at least we think we saw them all).

When we went to the stateroom at 1 PM we got our first disappointment. We were in a junior suite on Deck 7, aft at the stern. Our travel agent had mentioned that these were really classy and enjoyable suites. On “days at sea” I enjoy relaxing on my private balcony, drinking beer and reading “Horatio Hornblower” books while observing the sea, other ships, etc. The suite had a nice balcony, but a lousy view. Instead of overlooking the water, our balcony overlooked a metal deck that jutted out about 30 feet to the very stern where the flagpole is. In addition, large superstructure railings seriously blocked the view to the ocean. You may have noticed that the sterns of Carnival and some other ships have a squared-off look, which isn’t pretty but makes it so that the stern staterooms overlook the water. RCI ships look much more streamlined, but the superstructure that gives that streamlined look blocks the view from the stern staterooms. Oh well; the balcony was large, the balcony chairs were comfortable, the beer was cold…

Day 2, Monday – At Sea
Sailing toward Haiti. Lots of stuff to do on this ship at sea – my wife and I started with an early morning walk on the fitness deck, which she followed by a trip to the spa; we did some exploring and shopping and played mini-golf, and at night took in a great show and a parade. The “Mariner” has evening themed parades with the show performers and other staff along the large open Promenade deck (the “shopping” deck). The two parades that we watched started at about 10:30 PM; I don’t recall if they were every night. Very colorful and entertaining. Our two boys took off on their own and found friends. They’re old enough that they don’t do many of the formal kids’ activities; they hang out in the arcade and the “kids’ lounge” and do their own thing. On this ship, our boys mentioned that the kid only areas (“Fuel” lounge and “The Living Room” hangout) were great. As parents we tried a new trick this time out for staying in contact – low power walkie-talkies. They didn’t work well, and one reason was the fact that of course every other parent on the ship had the same idea, so all frequencies were full. Perhaps our walkie-talkies (cheap ones) were also too small and weak; there seemed to be a lot of interference and the range was short. But we managed to keep in sporadic contact, enough to be safe.

If I recall correctly, this was the first of the formal dining nights. The three-level dining room on the “Mariner” is very classy. Your dinner seating instructions will say that you’re in the “Rhapsody in Blue” dining room, or the “Sound of Music,” or the “Top Hat & Tails,” but in reality they’re all connected by an open central area and staircase. You can see glimpses of the other dining rooms on the decks above or below you, without losing the “cozy” feeling of your own dining room. A good violinist accompanied by piano entertains during dinner every evening, not just during the formal nights.

Day 3, Tuesday – Labadee, Haiti

We ate breakfast in the Windjammer Café, one of the buffet areas on Deck 12. Lots of food selection, and they make omelets to order (with egg substitute as well). The Jade buffet is right beside the Windjammer, and also serves breakfast with an Asian flavor. The buffet dining areas are of course crowded for breakfast, but not overly so.

We debarked – again, you wonder where the other 3100 passengers are. It truly seemed to take a shorter amount of time to leave this ship than it did on the Carnival ships I’ve been on. Maybe that was my imagination, but it didn’t take long to get off the ship. A tender took us to the private RCI area at Labadee. This isn’t a “private island,” but a remote area on a peninsula where, as it was explained to us, RCI is 99% of the business. We selected kayaking as a shore excursion, which was fun, but the next time we go we’ll definitely switch to the water park. RCI has a fenced off “water park” with large trampolines, “rock climbing” slides, and other water sports. We were fortunate enough to get to add a couple of us and use the water park after kayaking. RCI has a free buffet lunch at Labadee. There was another part of the peninsula with shopping and hair-braiding areas that we didn’t visit. Since most passengers seemed to disembark it took a while to get back onto the ship (we stood in line maybe 20 minutes to get onto the tender), but not a problem!

Security in Haiti – because of the civil war in Haiti, some previous RCI cruises had been diverted to other ports of call. RCI and the local government had plenty of visible security at Labadee, and the area is a long way from the more settled parts of the island. My family didn’t feel threatened.

Day 4, Wednesday – Ocho Rios, Jamaica

Our shore excursion was a guided bus tour of Ocho Rios, ending with a trip to the Dunn’s River Falls park. The guide was very knowledgeable and agreeable, and taught us the mandatory Jamaican island phrases like “Yeah mon! and “No problem.” The Dunn’s River Fall park was quite beautiful with its lush tropical scenery. We opted not to do the full “river walk” up the falls; instead we splashed around in some of the pools. We would do the river walk and falls climb next visit. A word of warning – when you exit the park they try to get you to pass through a local “flea market.” If you don’t like hard sell, DON’T go through the flea market! I’ve been hustled in Cairo, Morocco, the Czech Republic, Tijuana, Acapulco and other places in Mexico, but the dealers in this flea market gave the best hard sell I’ve ever seen. It took a concerted effort to say “no” and make it stick; they often simply followed you and didn’t give up. One vendor followed another family all the way out to the bus! It would have been fun if their prices hadn’t been really exorbitant for cheap goods. If this sort of hard sell bothers you, take the “real” exit (the sign to the left as you’re leaving the park).

We spent the rest of the day on our own in Ocho Rios, sampling Jamaican jerk with Red Stripe beer, and shopping. Lots of interesting souvenirs to choose from. Our 12-year-old decided on a hat with attached dreadlocks, so we called him Ziggy Marley after that. Some of the shops had some really interesting “smoking paraphernalia,” but we said no to that! We ended up drinking margaritas in Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville. We couldn’t pass this up; Jimmy’s music is a family favorite, and we visit Margaritavilles wherever we find them. They had a great party going on.

Back to the ship to sail away and enjoy dinner again. Our waiter was Osman from Turkey and his assistant was Radoslava from Slovakia; both were very professional. For the first time on a cruise we decided to tip the headwaiter, as ours (Majik from Poland) always came around to make sure everything was OK and was nicely attentive. While getting ready for dinner we heard the captain’s daily announcements after sailing. He remarked that a couple of passengers would do well to get some of the nicer watches for sale in the ship and consult them while on shore, because a couple of passengers had missed the ship and had to make their way out in a private boat. The “Mariner” was still in the harbor and stopped to let them board.

That evening we got our second disappointment with the cruise. We were awakened about 3 AM by loud singing, apparently outside our balcony. Remember I mentioned that our balcony overlooked an extension of Deck 6 that stretched to the flagpole at the stern? Right beneath the flagpole there was an extension of Deck 5, with a small open area right at the “taffrail.” That small area apparently opened off of part of the crew quarters, because they had a table and chairs set up, and a crew member could usually be seen relaxing there. I didn’t have a big problem with that, even though it meant that no part of our balcony was truly private (a crew member in this break area could see into all parts of our balcony area). But I drew the line at singing at 3 AM. When we called the desk the singing ended very soon, and the next day the break table and chairs were removed. However, they were back on Friday, though there was no more singing. We also heard noises like clanging dishes from this area early some mornings, but the passenger relations people told us they could not determine what that was, and it stopped happening.

Day 5, Thursday – Grand Cayman, B.W.I. (British West Indies)
Grand Cayman is a gorgeous island. The 7-Mile Beach and ocean views are stupendous, even for a Floridian. We opted to sightsee on our own, and hired a taxi for $15 to take the four of us around Georgetown and the local area. We saw the local sights (7-Mile Beach, Government House, etc), and made stops at the turtle farm and rum cake factory. Just had to take one of those rum cakes home! Then we drove to one of my favorite stops: Hell! A small town on Grand Cayman is designated as Hell. I believe that’s the town’s incorporated name; anyway, there’s a real Hell post office. Theories on the name origin vary; the most plausible seems to be derived from a worn limestone rock formation that could be said to resemble “frozen flames” coming from the ground. One of the early governors is said to have remarked that “the place looks like Hell.” So the locals have capitalized on the name. You can drive down the road to Hell (paved with asphalt and not too many good intentions showing), mail letters and postcards from Hell post office, and buy your souvenirs in the Devil’s Hangout shop right beside the hellish rock formation. Of course, the guy minding the desk in the Devil’s Hangout tourist trap (I mean store) is dressed as the Devil. As I opened the door out of habit I said “How are you doing?” To which he replied (in an Irish accent), “I’m havin’ a Hell of a day!” I know, by now you’re thinking, “Gee, how corny is this?” But it was really a blast!

That night for dinner we opted to eat at one of the two reservation-only, extra fancy restaurants on board. We chose the Italian Portofino’s. The other choice is the Chops Grill. Absolutely superb!

Day 6, Friday – Cozumel, Mexico
I think Cozumel has something for everyone. The shore excursion possibilities are too many to list! We had snorkeled there before, so we decided to try introduction to scuba diving this time. The instruction was safety-oriented and we dove with a small group. We had always wanted to try diving, and now we’re out to get our certifications so we can dive again. This shore excursion was great. After diving we sampled the shopping downtown. We loaded up on our favorite tequila (Tequila Orendain from Guadalajara, for you tequila aficionados, which you can’t get in the States) and various other souvenirs.

Dinner at our usual seating again. I’ve read in other cruise reviews that RCI makes no claims to serve truly gourmet meals at the regular dinners, but the food on the “Mariner” is superb. However, I echo a remark I saw in another review: if you want a different entrée and choose to get one of the daily substitutes, don’t get the steak with herb butter.

Day 7, Saturday – At Sea
We sampled a couple of bars we had missed before, tried the slots in the casino, played lots of bingo, and visited the ice skating rink. The skating rink is unique to this class of RCI ship, and I believe the rock-climbing wall is unique as well. It would be pretty hard to get bored on the “Mariner.” We took in the final theater show, which was very nice. During times in our stateroom we made sure our on board account was correct through the menu on the television. That evening we also personally tipped our stateroom attendant, the headwaiter, and our two table waiters. They all greatly deserved it! Of course, if you wish, you can have the tips put on your account instead.

Debarkation – Port Canaveral, Sunday

I was up at 5 AM to sit on the balcony and watch us come home. I knew I was home to Florida’s Space Coast when I heard an osprey cry at Port Canaveral. As with other cruises, the night before the stateroom attendant had given us color-coded luggage tags. Our bags were picked up after midnight. We breakfasted one last time in the Windjammer and then waited in the main theater for our color to be called. We debarked about 10 AM. Of course, there were lines to go through Customs, but not too long. One aspect of RCI debarking that I found better than Carnival was the fact that your luggage is on conveyors, just like at an airport. It makes the bags much easier to find than the Carnival system of stacking them in the open bay areas.

So what happened to the resolution of our complaints about the stateroom obstructed view and the crew break area that looked into our balcony? The customer representatives on the ship were very helpful, though they couldn’t do anything about the view of course. We contacted RCI in Miami, and they apologized for the crew break area and the singing, and also for the obstructed view. They acknowledged that their literature should mention the obstructed view. They’ve given us a nice discount voucher for a future cruise, and we’re happy!

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