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Craig Ibbotson

Age: 42

Occupation:Software Engineer

Number of Cruises: 5

Cruise Line: Royal Caribbean

Ship: Voyager of the Seas

Sailing Date: February 1st, 2004

Itinerary: Western Caribbean

Thanks to everyone who has posted here in the past – your reviews were excellent and helped us make some wise choices regarding our cruise.

We cruised on Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas (VoS) on 2/1/04. This was our fifth cruise, and our second taking our four children and my parents. This review is written from the perspective of a family cruise. Our previous family cruise was last year on the Disney Magic, and we’ll make plenty of comparisons to that in this review. My wife and I have cruised three other times by ourselves: twice on Royal Caribbean, and once on Carnival. Our children are 13 (son), 10 (daughter), 10 (twin daughter), and 6 (daughter), My parents are in their mid-70’s. My children all agreed that they enjoyed this cruise more than last year’s cruise on the Disney Magic.

Pre-Trip Planning:
The VoS sails out of Miami, and quite frankly we’ve found Miami to be one of our least favorite departure ports. We always fly one day in advance of a cruise and stay overnight in the city of departure. In Miami, the hotel selection isn’t great, and they offer few perks such as shuttle service to the airport and the port. We much prefer Ft. Lauderdale. Preferences aside, the VoS sails out of Miami, so we had to find accommodations. There are a few hotels near the airport that offer free shuttle service to the airport and to the terminal (Days Inn, Fairfield Inn, Holiday Inn), but by and large they’ve received poor reviews (check out www.tripadvisor.com). A number of cruisers have had good luck using Priceline to find 3-star accommodations close to the pier, but given the number of travelers we decided that was not an option (Priceline only guarantees a room to accommodate 2 people.) In the end, we decided to splurge and book the pre-cruise package at the Marriot Biscayne Bay, overlooking the bay where the cruise ships dock. I say splurge because the rooms, which included a deluxe bayside view, breakfast, two drinks, and shuttle service to the pier, were $230/night.

We booked our cruise through Travelocity via telephone six months in advance. We booked our shore excursions well in advance through the RCCL web site. We booked our ATA air travel via the ATA web site.

Day Before:
Our ATA flight out of Midway was uneventful; this was our first try with ATA and we were quite pleased. It’s nice having a reserved seat assignment, especially traveling with a large group that includes children. We arrived at Miami International, claimed our bags, and proceeded to the ground transportation level. We had decided before the trip to use the Super Shuttle service available 24x7 in the airport. No reservations are accepted, but they guaranteed a short wait for a ride. We easily found a SuperShuttle representative, who politely took our reservation. In ten minutes, a private van showed up to take our group of eight to the Marriott. The quoted fare was $55, which seemed fair. After we drove for a mile, the driver pulled over to the side of the road. He asked where we were going, and we told him. He asked for the address of the hotel – luckily, I had it with me. Then he started pulling out maps. He told us he wasn’t from Miami and had no idea how to get around, and that he was afraid to ask for directions because the dispatchers yelled at him. If we weren’t in the middle of nowhere, we would have gotten out at that point. Now we felt like hostages. He examined the maps for almost 20 minutes before finally calling in for directions. What a nightmare! He was equally incompetent once we found the hotel – he couldn’t find the entrance and passed it twice. He also had difficulty running the charge through. I definitely do NOT recommend the Super Shuttle!

The Marriott was very nice. We were paying a premium to stay here, and our rooms had a wonderful view of the bay. The Marriott is connected to the DoubleTree via a small mall, and there are a few nice restaurants in the mall. The steakhouse and Chinese restaurants are quite fancy; we ate at the more casual Italian restaurant. The food was wonderful, and the service was fantastic. A great start to the trip!

Embarkation:
We woke up the next morning to see the Miami marathon runners crossing the bay bridge, and the cruise ships arriving in port. The Marriott is expensive, but the view is great! After a nice breakfast, we packed. The porters took our luggage to the lobby, and the shuttle driver loaded it in the van. If you book the pre-cruise package you need to reserve a time for the shuttle – the shuttle runs every 45 minutes but has a maximum capacity of 10, and it’s first come, first serve. Since we arrived late, we had to choose between the 10:30 shuttle and the 2:30 shuttle. We chose the 10:30 shuttle, since Royal Caribbean usually lets passengers on the ship quite early. The shuttle driver took us to the port, and we arrived by 10:45. A porter took our luggage (tip required) and we were off to the ship. We waited about 30 minutes before they opened the ship for check-in and boarding. We were on the ship by 11:30. In our experience, Royal Caribbean has the best embarkation process – minimal waiting and virtually no lines. What a pleasant contrast to the Disney Cruise, whose embarkation is best described as chaos.

First Impressions/Stateroom:
The ship itself is beautiful. Much has been written about the décor, so I won’t go into detail here. For families, they will register your children and give them armbands even if they aren’t going to participate in the children’s programs. This is designed to allow the crew to get the children to the proper muster station if there is an emergency and the children are separated from the parents. I think this is a great idea, and all cruise lines should adopt this policy.

RCCL indicates your stateroom won’t be ready until 1:00 p.m., but our rooms have always been ready early, and this time was no different. We had booked room 6200, a family stateroom. In the past, we have booked two adjoining staterooms but the VoS has a number of “family staterooms” that sleep six. These rooms are at the ends of the ship – ours was all the way forward and had two large windows. The room has a king sized bed (can be separated into two fulls), a queen-sized sleeper sofa, and a separate bunk room with bunk beds and a closet. There is also a privacy curtain that can be pulled between the king-sized bed and the rest of the room. I’ve never seen good pictures of these rooms, so I’ve uploaded some pictures at the following address:
http://www.ibbotsonfamily.com/images/Room/VoSroom.html

We were really pleased with the room. We were concerned that there might be a lot of movement since the room was all the way forward, but this was not the case. In fact, the VoS was the smoothest sailing we have experienced. There was only one negative aspect to the room. For those ports that required the use of the anchors, we learned that the forward anchor mechanisms were below our rooms. The lowering and raising of the anchors was quite loud! For this cruise, two ports required anchoring, and the room was noisy for the 15 minutes or so it took to get the anchors dropped or raised. This was really a trivial issue, though, and we would not hesitate to book the room again. From a value perspective, we definitely prefer the family stateroom to two adjoining oceanview staterooms. Another common tactic used by families, however, is to book one balcony room and one inside room across the hall. The balcony is very nice, so you’d have to weigh the tradeoff of separating the family at night against having a balcony. We really liked having everyone in one room. If you’re comparing the VoS with the Disney Cruise, Disney has one big plus in most of their rooms – they call it a “split bath”. There are two separate rooms for bathroom facilities. One has the shower and a large sink/makeup area. The other has the toilet and a sink. Our room had a single bathroom, very well layed out but not has convenient as the split bath on the Disney Magic.

Port of Call – Labadee
You can see pictures of the ports we visited at:
http://www.ibbotsonfamily.com/images/Ports/VoSports.html

Our first port of call was Labadee, Haiti. We have been to three private islands used by the cruise lines – Disney’s Castaway Cay, RCCLs Coco Cay, and now RCCLs Labadee. Labadee is the best of the three. Castaway Cay felt too crowded – you really felt like you were shoulder to shoulder with the other guests. Coco Cay was nice, but felt crowded at times. Labadee seems more expansive and feels more remote – perhaps it’s the mountains that separate Labadee from the rest of Haiti, and perhaps it’s because it’s more tropical, since the other islands are in the Bahamas. Whatever it is, we enjoyed Labadee more than the others. It’s wise to wear water shoes (aqua socks) because the beach area is coral-based, and the layer beneath the sand can be rough.

Port of Call – Ocho Rios
If you haven’t been to Jamaica before, prepare yourself – nearly everyone wants a tip, and the vendors are aggressive. It’s a good idea at all the ports to have a good supply of dollar bills for tipping – sometimes it’s simply easier to give a dollar than deal with the persistence of some locals. In Ocho Rios we signed up for a shore excursion that took us to the Brimmer Plantation, Dunn’s River Falls, and Dolphin Cove. The excursion included lunch at Dolphin Cove. We weren’t sure how this would be arranged, since these three locations were offered in a variety of combinations and tours. It turns out that people are grouped based on the combination chosen, and only 9 folks from the entire VoS (eight of them in our party!) had chosen this tour combination. We were assigned to a van, with our own tour guide and driver. This tour guide and driver would be taking us to the various sites today, but not giving us the tours at the various sites – each site has its own set of tour guides. The bus ride to the Brimmer Plantation is lengthy but interesting; the van tour guide did a nice job of giving us a glimpse of the tourist side of Ocho Rios as well as the local’s perspective. Arriving at the plantation, we were introduced to our plantation guide. The plantation tour is really nice; the plantation tour guide is not shy about asking for a tip about 3/4 way through the tour, and we had no problem tipping him as he was very informative. However, there was another local who rode on the plantation vehicle and did nothing. We did not tip him. After the tour, we headed for the restrooms. Each bathroom had an attendant who expected a tip before exiting. When we exited the bathroom, the local who had simply rode on the tour vehicle was waiting for us and would not leave us alone. Eventually we gave him a dollar; he was not impressed, but left us alone. As I said, some locals are quite aggressive.

Next was Dunn’s River Falls. The falls are beautiful, and we climbed the falls using one of the Fall’s tour guides. It’s an interesting system at Dunn’s River Falls; there is the head tour guide, who will take your camera and take pictures making sure your camera won’t get wet – this is a valuable service, as there is no way you could carry your own camera on this trip. There is a videographer, who takes a movie of your climb and offers to sell you a copy of the video at the end. And there is a climb leader, who leads the group up the falls. You typically travel in groups of 30 or so. This was the highlight of the day, and seemed more dangerous than I thought. I was glad we did not bring our six year old or my parents on this tour! My wife didn’t enjoy it, but the older kids and I had a blast. Once again, the tipping thing gets tense at the end. We had only brought $5 with us, since we wore our swimming suits. I tipped the tour guide, since he had taken pictures with our camera and provided this valuable service. I did not tip the climb leader, and he let me know about his disappointment with my lack of tipping. We did purchase the video (they come out to your tour bus). I was skeptical of how it would turn out, but it ended up being very well done and a nice keepsake. They charged $30 for the video, and I tipped the videographer. One tip for Dunn’s River Falls – when you are finished, exit back through the entrance. In the normal exit area, you are routed past a set of very aggressive street vendors. People on the ship complained that they were told the exit was a certain direction, only to find they were led down a street towards more shops. Some complained that the vendors followed them all the way out of the park. One couple indicated that vendors put things in their kids hands and then wanted payment for the items. All said it was a fairly unpleasant experience. Take our advice – exit back through the entrance.

Finally we went to Dolphin Cove. The van driver and tour guide drop us off here and we take the shuttle back to the ship. They were both excellent; we tipped them generously and headed into Dolphin Cove. We were pretty exhausted right now – it was after 2:00 in the afternoon and we hadn’t eaten lunch yet. We had a nice buffet lunch overlooking the dolphin area, and watched the end of the dolphin show. We walked down by the beach but we were toured out – we walked back upstairs and took the shuttle back to the ship. My advice regarding Ocho Rios is to make sure you go to Dunn’s River Falls. One trip that most on our cruise enjoyed was the catamaran or boat trip to the falls – they avoided the heavy sales tactics since they landed right on the beach below the falls. And don’t forget to bring a bunch of $1 bills!

Port of Call – Grand Cayman
Grand Cayman is beautiful. On Grand Cayman we chose the Seven Mile Beach Break, which is run out of the Beach Club Colony Hotel (or something like that). The beach is beautiful, but they do pack you in quite tightly on the beach – it was too crowded for our tastes. The facilities are nice, and there are plenty of extra cost activities (waverunners, parasailing, sea kayaks, etc.), but it would be worth it to see if you could find a less crowded area on this beautiful beach. The town looked charming, and the shopping areas looked good as well. We definitely want to head back to Georgetown on a future cruise.

Port of Call – Cozumel
We’ve been to Cozumel before, and we’ve always enjoyed it. This time we took the excursion to Passion Island. I’ve read in the past that people were unhappy with the crowds on the Island, but they now appear to be limiting the number allowed. There were only 30 people from the Voyager, and about the same number from the other 3 cruise ships in port. There were only a few over 100 people on the entire island, and there was plenty of room and privacy. The island is beautiful, and the service is outstanding. We were the only family on the island, but it was a great place to bring the kids – they played in the sand and the surf all day and had a great time. The three hours on the island went too fast! Our tour guides were fantastic. Be prepared to tip the chef, the tour guide(s), and the driver. You will also be offered the opportunity to purchase pictures taken of you on the island for $10/picture.

Dining
We were impressed that nearly all dinner guests dressed appropriately for formal nights. The dining room in the Voyager is stunning. It is impossible to not be awed at its magnificence. Our wait staff was excellent, as were all the staff on the ship. Our wait staff on the Disney Cruise was the best we’ve ever had, especially the creative things they did with the kids. Our wait staff on the VoS was just as good, and they also had lots of special things for the kids – riddles, games, and tricks that made each dinner interesting. Our room steward was the best we’ve ever experienced. You will not be disappointed by the service on the Voyager of the Seas.

The dining room food quality was good, but not excellent. Our server tried very hard to accommodate our every wish, but overall we thought the quality of all dining room food (appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts) was not as good as what we’ve experienced on other RCCL cruises. We were surprised that the quality of the food on the Disney Magic has been the best we’ve experienced – it was very good, and better than the VoS.

In contrast, we found the Windjammer / Island Grill buffet to be the best we’ve ever experienced. The food quality was good and always seemed fresh. There was plenty of seating, and servers walked around with drinks and coffee to serve you at your table. The two rooms have a nice, airy feeling and we only found them crowded one morning. They also had a wonderfully exuberant Asian women greeting you in the morning, and you couldn’t help but smile at her energy and warmth.

The other area where the VoS shines is in their promenade food service. Near the forward part of the ship was a café that served pizza, fruit, muffins, coffee, hot chocolate, tea, milk, water, and big cookies 23 hours a day. There was never a wait, and the food was always quite yummy. There is a bar attached the café as well, so it’s easy to get a beer with that late night piece of pizza. There are also ice cream machines located in a few places in the ship that provide soft-serve ice cream nearly all day. My favorite was getting two cookies from the café and making an ice cream sandwich with chocolate-vanilla swirl!

Entertainment
The shows on the VoS are of varying quality. We’ve found that you can skip the opening show on every RCCL cruise – it’s always a preview of the shows you will see later on the ship. No exception on this cruise – the first night’s show was a preview and somewhat disappointing. The Dreamscape show seemed a bit bizarre in the beginning, but ended up being great – the performers are wonderfully talented. The Beatle’s cover band Rain performed one night and had the entire theater dancing and clapping – they were great! The Broadway musical review was also very good. We skipped the comedian on the last night, because we’ve found most comedians tend to not be very family-friendly (the Disney cruise was a notable exception). The ice show is not to be missed – you will be awed at the performance!

Activities
This is really where the VoS shines. There is so much to do on the ship, and we tried to do it all. This is one of the reasons my kids enjoyed this ship more than the Disney Magic – there is much more to do on this ship, and it never seems crowded. The kids loved the rock climbing (quite challenging!). We did the in-line skating, ice skating, and mini-golf. They were all a blast. There is always something to do on this ship, either organized or not organized. My wife and I participated in the wine tasting, which was a lot of fun. My parents enjoyed themselves as well. I went with them to a big band dance, and they had a great time. It was fantastic to watch them dance to some of their favorite songs from the 40’s.

Debarkation
Debarkation was a breeze, some waiting but not too bad. Since we had signed up for a shore tour, we were the first off the ship. If you do sign up for a tour, be sure to check in at the appropriate place on the ship before debarking – they called our luggage tag color before we expected and we had not yet checked in for our excursion. We debarked and found out we were not officially registered for the excursion. Luckily, and RCCL rep came out and registered us at the pier – but it would have been much better if we had simply checked in on-board.

Miami
We took the Everglades Safari tour to finish off our trip. The trip was enjoyable, and the kids really enjoyed the airboat ride and seeing a variety of wildlife (especially the alligators.)

Conclusion
This is a long review, but I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface! You can’t go wrong with the VoS. It is especially nice for multi-generational groups – the activities are varied and appeal to a variety of ages. The service is great, and you really feel that every crew member wants you to have the best time possible. A great trip for families!

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