My family and I have just returned from Monarch of the Seas. We departed Port Canaveral November 30, 2009 and sailed for 4 nights to Coco Cay and Nassau. My wife and I shared an inside cabin with our 2 children, aged 2 and 4.
This was our first cruise, so I have no direct comparison to make relative to any other cruise ships. We have traveled throughout the Caribbean and Mexico, so most of our expectations were based on 4* all-inclusive resorts in these areas.
We got a fantastic deal on the cruise, and for what we paid I really cannot complain too hard about anything. Overall, we had a great time and would not hesitate to cruise on Monarch or Royal Caribbean again.
Our cabin: We found more than enough storage space for a family of 4 with 4 bags. We were on deck 7, and heard almost no noise inside our state room. Our state room attendant was very helpful in keeping things tidy, which was necessary with the size of the state room. The beds were surprisingly comfortable, including the upper bunk beds. My wife sometimes gets a sore back but had no complaints. All parts of the washroom and the shower worked very well, although in some places things looked somewhat worn. The water from the taps was completely clear, and I drank several glasses per day.
The food: The food was better than we expected. The quality of the food in the dining room was most impressive. The Windjammer buffet was slightly better than average, when compared to most buffets in Las Vegas. The pizza was fair, probably most comparable to frozen supermarket pizza, although it was prepared fresh. There was an ice cream machine upstairs in the Windjammer.
The service: The service was better than we expected. Almost everyone we encountered was friendly and seemed to make an honest effort to do their best for us. At no time were we ever asked for a gratuity (directly or indirectly), and we happily paid the recommended tips.
The ship itself: This was probably the low point of the cruise, although I have no real complaints. I think it's fair to say the ship is worn: not worn out, but somewhat dated and obviously well used. Absolutely nothing looked unsafe or ratty; however, you can only clean carpets so many times before they look like they need replacement. The ship reminded me of an old Holiday Inn. Everything was very clean, however.
The kids program: They were nice enough to take our 2-year-old (almost 3), who had a great time there. Our 4-year-old also had a fantastic time too. My wife and I were impressed by the quality and variety of the activities. The staff were friendly, and neither of our kids wanted to leave.
On board activities: We weren't tremendously interested in what was offered, although we were never bored. The main activities are centered around eating, drinking, gambling and shopping: we skipped most of these. However, we enjoyed the pools, gym, climbing wall and sundecks. The library wasn't great, certainly bring your own book. The wine tasting was not very good: very run-of-the-mill selections featuring several prominent supermarket brands.
Ports of call: Coco Cay was fantastic. We would recommend trying to catch an early tender to avoid lineups. There were plenty of chairs and lots to do. The snorkeling was fairly average, although the snorkeling area is reasonably large. The lunch served on Coco Cay was very good. Nassau wasn't that exciting, but the walk to the Queen's Staircase/Fort Fincastle was enjoyable.
My only real (mild) complaint involves the amount of selling that goes on. I'm told that mass-market cruise lines have to make money from add-ons (photos, excursions, drinks, shopping etc.), but sometimes I felt that there was a little too much hawking going on. This wasn't outright sales pressure, but sometimes we just wanted to be left alone.
In summary, our cruise was a lot like a visit to Target or Wal-Mart: it's not fancy, there's something for almost everyone and it's very reasonably priced. You probably won't brag to your friends and it's not a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but most people seem to get what they want.
Best parts of the cruise: The staff and the food.
Worst part of the cruise: The physical condition of the ship, but no serious complaints.