Occupation:Director of Finance
Number of Cruises: 12
Cruise Line: Royal Caribbean
Ship: Mariner of the Seas
Sailing Date: November 26th, 2006
Itinerary: Eastern Caribbean
Embarkation. We got to the Avis location at 10 AM to drop off the rental. We reserved two one-way rentals, airport to pier, then pier to airport a week later - worked great. The Avis shuttle took us and 4 other couples to the RCCL pier, we handed our luggage off to the porters by 10:30 AM. We then proceeded to the check in area to get our Sea Pass cards. This was our first time cruising out of Port Canaveral, so we were not sure what to expect. Being Diamond C&A members, we were given priority check-in, but we needed to be very observant to get it, it was not an overly organized check in and you really had to keep aware of what the RCCL agents were doing so that you would be in the right place. We were one of the first to check in and receive our Sea Pass cards. For this trip we booked a Suite Guarantee cabin - this guaranteed us at least a Junior Suite but it was possible that we would be assigned any suite - and as luck had it we were assigned a Grand Suite. We will probably book through this manner in the future. Just for the heck of it we did ask if there were any Owner's Suite available, but there weren't. After we received our Sea Pass cards we were told to wait in the center of the room, which was the make shift priority boarding area for Platinum and Diamond C&A members. This area was roped off with movie style velvet ropes, anyone could wander in. That was no big deal to us, but if people are expecting the privacy of the Chairman's Club Lounge like in Miami, they will be disappointed; there were also very limited seating. Once the wedding groups boarded, we were next. We got our security pictures taken and were on board Mariner by 11:45 AM. The cabins were not accessible until 1 PM, and for the first time we've ever seen, there was RCCL staff stationed at all of the elevator drop off points preventing passengers from going to their cabin early. It was an overall smooth embarkation, but we are spoiled and like the organization of the Port of Miami better - will most likely cruise out of there next time.
The Ship. Marnier of the Seas is a one of the newer Voyager Class ships. It was commissioned in November of 2003. We have been on Explorer of the Seas twice prior, so we had an idea of what to expect. Mariner was very clean and with a very colorful décor, sort of an art deco or retro look. I found it very appealing and somewhat bold and different from traditional cruise ship decorative style. I was apparently in the minority here as many passengers, mostly seniors, did not care for the style and made sure to voice those opinions to anyone within earshot. The Mariner deck layout can be seen on the RCCL website and it is fairly traditional. One highlight for us is the Grande Promenade on Deck 5 with all of the shops, bars and snacks. It also has a direct access to the Casino, which we used frequently. A very minor note - I was sorry to see the sports bar in the Promenade be replaced with a wine tasting bar, the wine tasting bar seemed very out of place and was almost always empty. Another attraction on the Voyager ships is the ice rink. We do not enjoy "the shows", but the ice show is worth checking out - get there at least 15-20 minutes early to get a seat.
The Staff. We give very high marks to all the RCCL staff we encountered. The Captain was Per Kristoffersen, we had met when we sailed on Majesty and he was the Captain earlier in the year. Captain Per is very personable and addresses the passengers daily at noon over the Public Address system. The Cruise Director, Becky Thomson, was one of the best we've been with. Her nonstop energy and constant smile was always refreshing -she also had a wonderful staff highlighted by "Dollar Bill" Phil. Our stateroom attendant was a professional, very nice and a hard worker. The bartenders and bar servers were efficient and not at all pushy. We are huge fans of live music and were disappointed to see that the steel drum/calypso band did not have a pan drum (steel drum) at all, and the show band was not as good as others we've seen on board other cruises. We very much enjoyed the Captain's Corner, a chance to talk with the Captain, Chief Engineer, Hotel Director and Cruise Director. Except for some rather ridiculous questions asked by the audience, this was very informative and interesting to learn about life at sea and the background and experiences of these maritime professionals.
The Weather. The temps were in the upper 70s to mid 80s for the entire week. It was sunny most of the week, and when it did rain is was brief little showers lasting 20 minutes or less, typical for late fall-early winter in the Caribbean - my family, a collection of sea-goers, refer to these brief downpours as "clearing up showers". On this trip the wind was strong for the first half of the cruise, some of the strongest wind we've experienced in the Caribbean, so much so that the Captain changed heading to get to more protected water so the seas would be calmer. At the height of the wind, we were in 20 foot seas with gusts of wind up to 45 miles per hour - this extreme lasted for one evening. This did cause some ocean motion, but the ship handled it well with its stabilizers fully extended. The Eastern route is normally rougher than the Western route as the Western route is more protected by islands and the ship is generally closer to shore. Even though everyone wants is sunny and calm all the time, when bad weather does occur the staff handles it as best they can by increasing shipboard activities; and, seeing storms at sea is very cool, if they are off in the distance!
The Passengers. We have cruised out of Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Galveston and now Port Canaveral. Port Canaveral is by far the most remote, with Galveston being 2nd most remote to a major airport. I'm guessing this has to contribute to the very high percentage of locals, in this case Floridians, on the cruise. This same phenomena occurred with locals, when we sailed out of Galveston, those locals being Texans. The very noticeable difference on this cruise was the amount of senior citizens, and specifically the senior-senior citizens on this cruise. Don't get me wrong, while I think it is great that these folks are getting out and enjoying cruising, I do believe shipboard activities and events were more skewed to accommodate an older crowd. Again, I don't have a problem with this, but I will remember it when we plan to bring our young daughters (ages 5 and 3) on our next cruise. We will most likely sail out of the more accessible Miami where there are more children and families, which, for us, makes for better activities on board. I believe this also contributed to the severe lack of nightlife on board. And, for what it is worth, the casino was empty all week - which was fine for us, but very strange to see it that empty, all the time.
Our cabin. We stayed in a Grand Suite on Deck 10 - it was fabulous! It had a large bed with a new mattress, large sitting area with a 3-cushion sofa, 2 soft chairs, coffee table, wet-bar, large desk and desk chair and lots of closet and drawer space. The bathroom had a bathtub, double sink, large vanity and the toilet. If was very spacious, even had a floor drain. The private balcony easily fit a chaise lounge, 2 chairs and a table. This cabin could have easily accommodated 4 people, that is, if they packed reasonably - more on packing later.
The Food. We have been listening to people whine and complain about RCCL's food for over 10 years and we just don't get it. We have never had a dish poorly prepared, we have tried new dishes that were not to our liking, and as soon as we told our waiter, he brought us another selection. The appetizers were excellent, the soups were some of the best I have ever had (especially the chilled soups - I highly recommend them even if "chilled soup" does not sound particularly appealing, they were wonderful), the salads were very good, the entrees were excellent and the desserts were delicious! The dinners followed a loose nightly theme, and if you did not care for the theme of the evening, there were always five or so traditional alternate entrees you could choose from, these were prepared very well. We were on Majesty of the Seas in January of 2006 and for the first time were forced to eat at the first (Main) seating (we were with a group). We were sure we were not going to care for it as we have always eaten second seating. We were wrong; we very much enjoyed the main seating and chose it again for this cruise - it really seemed to lengthen our day, and we did not go to bed quite as full. We ate all of our dinners in the main dining room. We do not care to spend an overly long time at dinner, we told our Waiter this on day 1 and he made sure we were served first all week long, keeping our dinners to about an hour long, which is how we like it. Both our Waiter and Assistant Waiter were from Indonesia and both were very polished and treated us like royalty. Our Head Waiter was one of the better Head Waiters we have had, he visited with us every night and assisted our Waiter when things got busy - some Head Waiters have been known only to come around on tip collection night, this was not the case this time. Although we did not eat any breakfasts or lunches in the main dining room, I heard many times that they were very good. We ate these meals in the Windjammer Café or in the Promenade; we also ate at the Johnny Rockets restaurant on board once, it was very good and fun to watch the severs sing and dance. We did not eat in the specialty restaurants Jade, Chops or Portofinos - they say to allow over 2 hours for the entire dinner, not our style. Again, I could not have asked for better quality of food from any of the above - I did the math on this once and it showed over 150 food options per day, and there are still people who say that none of it is good and they couldn't fine anything they like - all I say to that is "who has the problem here?!!?!" If you are used to having a private chef prepare fresh cuisine for you daily, and you are worried about RCCL's food quality, I suggest you book on a Radisson Seven Seas cruise, which caters to the most elegant and formal (albeit boring) dining pallets, and costs about 10 times as much at RCCL.
The Bars. We are not huge drinkers but do enjoy our frozen drinks while we are in the tropics! The drinks were always consistent, my wife would alternate alcoholic and virgin drinks and she liked them both. One tip - the bartenders/bar servers push the souvenir RCCL glasses, they are an extra charge and nothing special. We always asked for our drinks in a regular glass, we also avoid the pre-made drinks the bar servers carry around, we have found them to be not as good due to the melting and separation of alcohol. We strongly recommend the soda package if you plan on drinking any amount of coke, diet coke or sprite. It is about $6 a day for those unlimited drinks, for adults. It is easy to buy one package for 2 people and just share, the bartenders don't care and they often gave us 2 diet cokes for the one sticker. We enjoyed the pool bars and the Viking Crown lounge very much. The sports bar has been relocated to an area in the Viking Crown Lounge - we enjoyed that as well! We don't care for the Schooner as it always seems to be very smoky. There is a daily drink special, and many of the bars had additional drink specials - just keep your eyes open for them. The casino bar was surprisingly not busy, nor that smoky. As usual there were bar servers present at all the activities to take care of your beverage needs - all were very nice and polite even if you didn't order anything - the gratuities were automatically added on to the drink prices.
Cruise Compass. Every day the Cruise Compass is published and delivered to your cabin. This tells you all of the activities, eating options, entertainment, bar hours and gift shop/casino hours for the day. We suggest you keep one of these with you so you can refer to it throughout the day; they are very helpful day (we take a highlighter to highlight what we want to do so we don't forget). We have all of the Cruise Compasses from our Cruise - if anyone would like to see them, feel free to contact me.
On board activities - we are not sun worshipers. We have very fair skin and burn easily; so, while we enjoy the sun, we have to be careful. This cruise had 3 full sea days, plus Embarkation day; shipboard activities are greatly reduced while in port. That being said, all of the standard activities were offered - Bingo, karaoke, belly flop contest, sexy legs contest, parades, name-that-tune, trivia challenges, the obnoxious art auction, the very obnoxious horse auction and horse race, the Quest game, the Love and Marriage game, Captain's reception, fitness programs, production shows, the rock climbing wall, playing basketball, mini-golf, inline skating, movie theater, ice skating, line dance classes, various types of live music, the late night club DJs and so on. Keep your Cruise Compass handy and pick what you like and enjoy! I must recommend the Karaoke sessions - these are some very fun events that show some very talented, and some less talented people. I have not performed personally, yet, but I'm told next time I will! You really can do as much or as little as you want - don't feel that you have to do anything, or that you have to lie in the sun and "relax". (we hear this frequently). Also remember, you'll never see these people again so have fun!
The Casino. We get asked about the Ship's casino more often than I would have thought, so I'll throw out a couple observations here. Mariner's casino is relatively large, with about 25 tables and lots of slots and video poker machines ranging from 5 cents to 5 dollars per play. We enjoy playing at the tables when it is not super busy, so we would like to see more tables and less slots machines - again, we are in the minority, and on this cruise it didn't matter as the casino was deserted the entire cruise. The table games consist of craps, roulette, various forms of black jack (single deck, let it ride, wheel of fortune), Caribbean stud poker, 3 card poker and now variations of the currently trendy Texas Hold 'em poker. All card games have minimums of $5 to $25. There are some non-smoking tables. It has been our experience that the nice thing about cruise ship casinos is the friendliness of the dealers and most other players. It is not a hard core gambling environment like Vegas; it is much friendlier; the dealers help you, which make it relaxed and fun. The best time to go to the casino is normally during the shows. Most passengers like to go to the shows, which leaves the casino (and many other areas of the ship) virtually deserted.
Speaking of the dinner/evening shows - they are popular, but not with us. We have not been to an evening show since the one we walked out of on our first cruise. During the week there are a couple production shows by the cruise staff, a comedian or 2, maybe an animal act or acrobats or a plate spinner, a headliner and a good-bye show. Don't get me wrong, these are wildly popular with the passengers, but they are just not appealing or entertaining to us, and they are normally very crowded. We use the time to go to other places on board while they aren't crowded - the photo area comes to mind. The shows, and many of the shipboard events, are replayed on the ship's closed circuit TV; just in case you think you missed something! As I mentioned earlier, we have enjoyed the Ice Show.
Fitness. Mariner has an excellent fitness center with many strength and aerobic machines. There is also a marked jogging/walking track on the pool deck. The Ship Shape program caters to all levels of fitness experience with the different events such as walking groups, stretching classes, nutrition seminars, Pilates, line dances and more advanced workouts classes and events. There is also the basketball court, rock wall and mini-golf course. RCCL makes a big deal about Mariner's state-of-the-art spa, purchase with care here, the spa can be very overpriced for many services - just be careful. The way we look at it is if you must spend time walking on a treadmill, you might as well do it while looking at the ocean!
Kids programs. This was most likely our last cruise for a long time for just the 2 of us. We plan to take our daughters on the next one. As we have been planning this for a while, we have done plenty of research on programs for young kids. We have found that the Voyager, and presumably Freedom, classes of ship will best meet our family entertainment needs. While all RCCL ships have dedicated and professionally run kids/youth programs, the Voyager/Freedom classes have the most resources to offer. We talked with several of the counselors and were very impressed with their training and professionalism. There are numerous areas of the ship designated for various kids groups only - which is very cool. As the resources vary slightly between ships, we suggest doing some in depth research on the RCCL website to make sure you know what facilities are on what ships, particularly if you are looking for the Adventure Ocean program for young children.
Photos. Royal Caribbean loves to take your picture! From when you first board to the last dinner you are fair game to have your picture taken! Our advice here is to not buy your pictures until the last day - that way you can look over all of the pictures taken over the entire cruise and pick what you like best, as opposed to picking something and buying it on day 2 only to find out you took a better picture on day 4, but don't want them both. RCCL is automating photo review and purchasing - look for the kiosks in the photo display area, they are not very popular and give you a great way to beat searching for your pictures and you can even change the style of the photo if you like - this is very new and very slick!
Ports of Call:
CocoCay (Day 2).
As many people know, CocoCay is RCCL's private island in the Bahamas - it is called Little Stirrup Cay on the map. We arrived at CocoCay at 7AM. It was windy but we were able to tender to shore. We love to snorkel, and at CocoCay - during our last visit we saw 3 giant eagle rays and were hoping to see something as spectacular this time. Unfortunately with the wind, we could not get to the deep water snorkeling area like we were hoping. In fact, as I was making my way out to the deep water, it got very shallow, and there was a lot of marine life in close to shore, so I found myself in the middle of what appeared to be a school of barracuda, with a baby sting ray, flounder and an eel of some type. The current was moderately strong, and I did not want to end up with any of these critters slamming into my face, so I turned back. There are shallow water sights in the lagoon (a "shipwreck" and a sunken airplane), but we had seen them before and they only attract small fish, and they are a considerable swim out. If you have never seen them before, it is definitely worth it, in fact there are RCCL staff on hand to throw food in the water which attracts quite a crowd of marine life - that's pretty cool! We always bring our own snorkel mask and snorkel. We use the swim fins provided by the excursion. CocoCay also has a huge inflatable water park - this is something we will do when we take our daughters - it looks fun! They also offer a nature trail, parasailing and a mini-straw market. There are hundreds of beach chairs on the island, and it is a very pretty tropical setting - we got some great pictures of Marnier from CocoCay. There is BBQ lunch served on the island. This is very popular and the food is fine, we just prefer to eat on the ship in dry clothes. We spent about 3 hours on Cococay, snorkeling and swimming, took a short walk, looked at the mini-straw market (didn't buy anything) and returned to the ship.
St. Thomas (Day 4).
We docked at St. Thomas at 9 AM. As this is an American port, all guests must present themselves to U.S. Immigration by 10 AM. This is mandatory - go early for the shortest line. St. Thomas is our favorite port of call in all the Caribbean. This is one of the best places to snorkel. We met friends many years ago that did what we all dream of - sold it all, bought a sailboat, sailed to the Caribbean and have been living in the U.S. Virgin Islands ever since. We look forward to meeting up with them and snorkeling whenever we can! Their names are Gary and Gayle, they give snorkeling tours and a variety of sailing cruises; their website is http://www.jollymonstthomas.com/, they have our highest recommendation when it comes to snorkeling and sailing. They take you where the crowds don't go. You can either book a trip with them privately or through the RCCL excursion desk, be sure to ask for the Jolly Mon. This trip we booked a private tour with Gary and Gayle and went to an out-of-the-way reef and saw some tremendous underwater sights. Gayle is in the water with you the entire time, giving you a personal tour. After we were done snorkeling we sailed around the various islands near St. Thomas, ate some snacks and got dropped back off, right at the pier. It was great to renew our friendship again, and we're already planning to bring our daughters to meet them next trip! We spent a total of 4 hours with Gary and Gayle, which gave us plenty of time to enjoy other parts of St. Thomas. As a side note, Gary and Gayle do recommend going up the sky tram to check out the view from atop St. Thomas - it is supposed to be very pretty, we have not been able to do this yet, but plan to next time.
The other thing you will hear about St. Thomas is SHOPPING! It is true; St. Thomas can be a shopper's dream. There are rows and rows of stores selling all kinds of jewelry and watches, electronics, linens, china and anything else you can think of. My personal opinion, and I am in the minority here, is I don't think the deals are what they once were; and, we don’t come to the Caribbean to shop. You must be remember what you buy you also must transport home, and if you are getting home by airplane, that may be a challenge. If you pay to ship your purchases home, what you paid in shipping might bring the price up to what it may have cost domestically. Our advice is do your homework before you buy - everything is not a deal and make sure you are buying quality. Our other advice is to shop on board the ship - we have bought a lot of jewelry from the shops on the ship and the quality is excellent, and you get a warranty. You will hear a lot of hype about shopping on the islands, but don't forget to check out the goods on the ship.
St. Maarten (Day 5)
We docked at St. Maarten at 8 AM. We have been to St. Maarten many times and wanted to just take it easy this time, so we did not plan an excursion. We took the water taxi into town and just walked around the shops, we had never done that in St. Maarten. Unfortunately that only held our attention for about an hour, then we headed back to Marnier. This wasn't all bad as normally we pick a port that is not one of our favorites and plan to stay on board the ship that day. It is kind of fun and special to have the ship "all to yourself" as most of the passengers go ashore to the ports. That is what we did that afternoon, and we were fine with our decision. We have frequently taken the Golden Eagle snorkeling and sailing adventure excursion offered by RCCL. This is a very fun event that takes you on a huge catamaran to private beach for some very good snorkeling, swimming and beach lounging. Although we did not take it this trip - we highly recommend it.
A note on shore excursions. I hear all the time that people can find a better rate booking on their own shore activities than a RCCL shore excursion. While this is sometimes true (and I stress 'sometimes'), we normally book through RCCL for piece of mind - if something goes wrong on a RCCL booked shore excursion, the ship will wait for you. I hear at least once per cruise that someone booked a taxi tour of the island, or a fishing trip, or a trip to the beach on the other side of the island, for something like $10 less than the RCCL excursion, and they got stranded because the ship left without them. It happened on this cruise from St. Thomas, the group arranged for a taxi to pick them up, and it never showed up, the group had to pay for transportation to St. Maarten to catch up to the ship. Just keep that in mind when you are deciding what to do in port.
Connection options to the outside world. We did take our laptop and we did purchase the Cyber Cabin option for internet access for $100 for the week. This gives a dial up connection to the internet from your stateroom - this was more than adequate for what we wanted - email, weather and such. There are the normal RCCL online internet café and a Wi-Fi package, both at 50 cents per minute. And, the ship's satellite capabilities did allow for cell phone and data transmissions (GPRS) while at sea, for most service providers - this was a first. I have a Blackberry/cell phone through Cingular and I had a signal everywhere except Cococay.
Perks. Again, we are Diamond members of the Crown and Anchor society. This entitled us to priority boarding onto the ship as well as a private party (for Platinum and Diamond members) where we could talk with some of the Ship's officers and enjoy complimentary food and drink (we continually bring down the average age of this party). We were also given RCCL robes to use for the duration of the cruise, a gift from RCCL (this time it was a nice Marnier picture frame and slippers) and the Diamond version of the Ultimate Value Booklet. This consisted of free photos, complimentary drinks, casino credits, gift shop discounts, wine discounts as well as discounts for the spa, coffee and Ben & Jerry's ice cream. RCCL also sends various 'thank you' surprises like fresh covered strawberries, fruit basket and champagne during the cruise. We also had a private debarkation lounge available with a continental breakfast. It is a very nice perk that we appreciate and enjoy.
Debarkation. We took advantage of a new program this trip - the walk off priority departure program. Instead of putting our luggage outside the stateroom door the last night of the cruise, we kept it all and wheeled it down to deck 5 the morning of debarkation and carried it all off the ship ourselves. This was somewhat disorganized, I'm hoping because it is new; but it did allow us to disembark and get through US Customs very quickly, allowing us to get to the Avis pick up area to be shuttled back to the Avis location in downtown Port Canaveral to pick up our outbound rental car very early, which we needed. Once this gets a little more organized, it will be a great option for those who need an early departure. I never thought this option would happen - but it worked well for us!
What to pack. Three words - don't over pack! When you are new at this, it is very easy to over pack; to avoid this it’s best to plan your clothes by day - we figure a daytime outfit, shore excursion outfits and an evening outfit per day, plus swimwear, exercise clothes a couple extra pieces, just in case. Remember the lighting level is low in the dining rooms and most of the photos are from the waist up, so it is easy to wear shoes and pants more than once. This system has worked very well for us over the last 12 cruises, so feel free to contact us if you'd like any further opinions/information on what to pack and what the ship provides, such as hair dryers and power strips. We also keep our suitcases under the bed and fill them up during the week with used clothes; this makes packing less of a hassle at the end of the week and keeps the cabin cleaner too. We bring our own motion sickness pills, just incase, but you can also get some free of charge from the Purser's desk. This trip I brought my European outlet adapters, this doubled the amount of outlets we could use in the cabin - you can pick them up at a Radio Shack for a couple dollars and they come in very handy on the ship, especially if you take a laptop, cell phone(s) and camera(s) that all need charging power.
Parting thoughts - again, we very much enjoyed this cruise, as we knew we would. Personally we do wish there were more strictly non smoking areas of the ship, and that smoking should only be permitted outside - my wife has mild asthma and this does cause her some inconvenience. A minor disappointment was that Port Canaveral did not seem all that organized. The only other and somewhat standard disappointment was the minority of typical passengers that just "don't get it" - they seem mad all the time, at everything - those types of ultra self absorbed people I can do without. Everything was as close to perfect as you can get on this cruise, including the staff, the food, the services, the activities, the cleanliness of the ship and so on.
Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions about or would like to chat about cruising Royal Caribbean. We have been on 12 RCCL cruises, aboard six different Royal Caribbean ships, visited dozen or so ports through various Caribbean itineraries. I have all of the Cruise Compasses from this cruise and a ton of digital pictures. If anyone would like to see either or both, feel free to contact me, no mater if I touched on a specific in the review or not. I'm sure its obvious by now, we love to cruise and like helping other people to enjoy it as well. Looking forward to hearing from anyone who wants to chat.
Jeff and Deb