There's no argument that a Hawaiian vacation has the potential of being the most extravegant experience of a lifetime. I never dreamed that I would be taking such an incredible journey -- and frankly, all of it happened all so suddenly.
I'll tell you my story and in the process I hope to help some of you decide whether Royal Caribbean's LEGEND OF THE SEAS is the best way to enjoy your trip to the Hawaiian islands. I'm going to try to cover all aspects of the cruising experience so that I may familiarize those who have never taken a cruise before. Of course, since this is my third cruise with Royal Caribbean, I hope to give some sound advice to experienced cruisers.
<u>The Cruising Experience
So, the big question for all the novices who haven't gotten their sea legs yet is whether it's worth taking a cruise vacation.
The answer is a resounding YES! For most of my life I had avoided taking a cruise. I thought it was too expensive for its value and frankly, I didn't consider myself a sea person.
All of that changed two years ago when I took my first cruise to the Caribbean aboard VOYAGER OF THE SEAS. I loved it so much that a year later I found myself back in the Caribbean aboard EXPLORER OF THE SEAS. I loved the cruising experience so much that I promised myself that I would do this every year for the rest of my life.
Here is my review of last year's cruise aboard EXPLORER OF THE SEAS....
For those of you that feel taking a cruise is too expensive, I hope to prove you wrong. Think of a normal vacation -- the cost of a hotel, food, transportation and entertainment. It's costly. On a cruise ship, all of that is included in the price. You board the ship, unpack once and spend anywhere from 5 days to almost 2 weeks sailing from port to port.
I couldn't even imagine the cost of doing a Hawaiian vacation across 4 islands for less of a price of a cruise that takes you to a new port every day.
<u>My Last-Minute Hawaiian Hurrah! (or how to find the best prices)
I never expected to end up in Hawaii. A co-worker of mine just returned from a cruise aboard Royal Caribbean and was raving about the fact that she got a great deal by visiting a discount travel website. I went to the website and priced out a Mexican Riviera vacation aboard LEGEND OF THE SEAS. Soon afterwards, I found a great last-minute deal on a Hawaiian vacation for not much more. So, what would you do in this case? Damn Right! I went for the Hawaiian vacation deal. It was a last-minute deal at a great price since the ship was sailing in less than 2-weeks.
I booked the cruise through Royal Caribbean via an Internet website called LASTMINUTETRAVEL.COM (which incidently did an outstanding job). They booked the airfare and even added an extra day for us in Honolulu since I figured we would want to see some sites after we disembarked (more on that later in the review).
The secret to finding the best prices on these cruises is to scour the Internet. Oddly enough, I found the HOT PRICE for my cruise right on the Royal Caribbean site. Naturally, if you book a cruise within 90 days you are going to find outstanding deals.
We met this terrific couple who sailed with us on a Alamo Rental Shuttle. They both are heavy-duty cruisers. The wife gave us some great tips for getting the best cruise rates which included a visit to CRUISESBYJOHN.COM (Check out Happy Hour prices on Tuesdays). They booked with an on-line agency known as CRUISE411.COM and absolutely swear by them as being very efficient.
So, as you can see, the best way to cruise at a bargain is to plan your trip within 90 days when ships are hot to sell rooms that they could not fill.
<u>Legend Of The Seas
I have to tell you, even though my vacation to Hawaii was the best I ever experienced, I wasn't overly impressed with LEGEND OF THE SEAS. I should also tell you that this decision is mostly based upon my age and the fact that I previously sailed with VOYAGER and EXPLORER, Royal Caribbean's top-of-the-line Voyager-Class ships.
The best way to describe LEGEND OF THE SEAS in a single sentance is that it's an old ship full of old people.
I would estimate that 80% of the people aboard that ship were retired. There were scooters, walkers and wheelchairs to be found everywhere.
Now, before someone writes me an angry letter saying that I am badmouthing the elderly, let me explain my situation....
I am 40 years of age. I have nothing against elderly people. I will be one myself one day. However, this cruise was a disasterous experience for a fellow like me who is single and seeking to sail with women my age. I should have realized that a Hawaiian cruise not only best suits the pockets of the retired, but also the availability to have so much time away from work to be on a cruise like this one.
Let me just politely say that I didn't mind sailing with people my parent's age, but as a result, the cruising experience moved a little more slowly than I was used to.
LEGEND OF THE SEAS was inaugurated in (I believe) 1995. The ship is nearly 10 years old and it shows its age. Don't get me wrong -- it is still a beautiful ship but a real big step down from the VOYAGER class ships.
Let's first talk about the condition of the ship....
The carpets are worn, the walls and panelings have various scuff marks and the artwork is bland.
If you have sailed a Voyager-Class ship you will certainly miss things like the indoor skating rink; Johnny Rockets (which is fantastic!); the promenade street; and even the 24-hour Pizza/Snack Bar (which has been reduced to a measly Hamburger and Pizza stand at the Solarium Bar on LEGEND).
To make matters worse, there doesn't seem to be enough of anything. There aren't enough treadmills in the gym (you need to go at off-hours and are limited to 20 minutes); not enough whirlpools (they are ALWAYS crowded) and ALWAYS a slow-go at the Windjammer buffets (more on that coming up).
Worst of all, the suite cabins aboard this ship will guarantee you won't get a single night of peaceful bliss. Any rooms on DECK #8 are a guaranteed nightmare. More on that right now....
<u>The Noisest Cabins At Sea
Since my very first cruise I have always chosen the "C" (or as it is now called) "JS
" suite. It's a little pricier than the normal balcony decks but certainly a bargain compared to the general suites above it. It is the lowest class room to give you breathing room as well as a decent sized bathroom with tub and shower combined.
I would recommend if you are going to do this vacation right, book a "JS
" cabin. I understand that as of 2004 if you book any suite you get an additional voyage credit in your CROWN & ANCHOR membership. If I understand this correctly, this means that 1 cruise in a booked suite equals 2 cruises towards promotion in your CROWN & ANCHOR status.
Having said all these great things about the "JS
" cabins, let me warn you about the cabins on LEGEND OF THE SEAS....
Horrendously noisy! Our cabin was located on deck #8. The pool is on deck #9 and the runner's track is on deck #10. Every single night we experienced banging on the ceiling from the runners jogging two decks above us. We heard chairs being shuffled around and the crew rolling all sorts of supplies across the ship floors at all hours of night. In addition, the fixtures in the room creaked loudly as if screws were loose all over the place. It was just an ungodly experience sleeping at night, and from what we heard from other passengers that shared our floor, we weren't the only ones to lose sleep.
<u>Service with a Smile?
We weren't too happy with the service aboard the ship that didn't seen overly personalized. Our stateroom attenant, Barrie, never seemed anxious to make sure we were happy. When we found there were no bathrobes in the room and asked for some, he simply quirped, "If you aren't a Diamond or Platinum member you don't get any." Well, Barrie, the stateroom attendants who gave us bathrobes on EXPLORER and VOYAGER got a far better tip than you did. As a matter of fact, I remember a time when bathrobes were standard in all suites -- not just for DIAMOND and PLATINUM members.
I must admit that the crew was always friendly. There was hardly a moment that a RCCL staff member wouldn't pass you by without a smile or hello. At every dinner we enjoyed in the Windjammer our table was personally visited by the head manager who greeted
us by name and asked how our day was. A very nice touch indeed!
<u>The food! How was the food?!
Let me be frank. The best thing about cruising is eating. Take my word for it, eating will be your #1 priority throughout this vacation. You cannot avoid food. It is everywhere at all hours of the day and evening. Expect to put on up to 10 lbs. during your cruise.
On LEGEND OF THE SEAS you have two options for dining. Either eat in the dining room or at the Windjammer.
ROMEO & JULIET is the name of the two-story dining room aboard this ship. It's quite beautiful (though pale compared to the Voyager class ships), and offers equisite dining every evening. This is a great experience for those that want eat fine foods with personalized service. Your head waiter will get to know you from the first day you boar, learning your name and eating habits. There are designated formal nights, semi-causal and casual nights.
Personally, I grew tired of the dining room experience after my first cruise. You see, I like to eat. I like buffets. For that reason I chose to eat at the Windjammer.
Let me talk a little about the Windjammer Cafe....
Every RCCL ship has one of these cafes. It's the place where you can go most anytime of the day in casual mode for a buffet-style meal.
Breakfast is the same every morning. Hot foods include scrambled eggs, bacon, pork and turkey sausage, oatmeal, grits, corn-beef hash, pancakes, waffles and french toast. Cold foods include a wide assortment of cereals, yogurt and fruit. Breakfast is not my favorite meal. The eggs almost seem powdered. The pancakes and waffles are rubbery from sitting in a steaming hot dish. Worst of all, the RCCL staff feels the need to personally dish out your pancakes/waffles/french toast as if they don't trust you to do it on your own.
Lunch is quite good. During the days at sea there is always a lunchtime buffet poolside. They have a Mexican theme one day, a German on another, and even a pasta buffet.
Dinner at the Windjammer was my favorite. There was always some sort of steak, chicken or fish item on the menu and since it was served buffet style, I could eat as much as I wanted to. It wasn't uncommon for me to eat 3 four-ounce steaks a night. The food was always above average.
The two biggest problems with the Windjammer were the hours of breakfast operation while at sea and the long lines at the buffet. While at sea, breakfast would not begin until 7:30am. Many people complained about this as there were many early risers who were hungry at 6:00am. Really, to make people wait that long for breakfast was not very accomodating.
Then there were the buffet lines. Part of the problem was the amount of walkers, wheelchairs and strollers because of the age group. That's fine, I don't mind, but the staff should anticipate the needs of people who need a little more time to get through the line.
Secondly, you have this really nice african-American gentleman cooking steaks to order which is terrific - but he can't keep up. The line often came to a stand-still while people waited for their steak to be cooked to their liking. On VOYAGER and EXPLORER there was just a tray full of steaks that you can take and go. If you needed one especially prepared then you asked. Furthermore, as stated in my breakfast summary, the RCCL crew is too fixated on serving you the food on the buffet line rather than letting you do it on your own as a buffet should be. When you are a heavy eater like me (I only weigh 160 lbs.) it is quite embarrasing to make a pig out of yourself when you have a RCCL staff member serving the portions.
The highlight of our dining experience in the LEGEND OF THE SEAS Windjammer was a beautiful, young Phillipine woman by the name of June. She took care of us from the first day we entered the Windjammer. Of all the ships I have sailed I have never had someone attend to our needs as well as this woman did. She knew what we ate every night. She held our table when she saw us on line. She had our beverages waiting for us by the time we sat down. She even brought us seconds from the buffet line. If any of you ever see June in the Windjammer on any future LEGEND OF THE SEAS cruise, be sure to point her to this review. We'd love to keep in touch with her and never left her our email address. Look for her -- she usually tends the first few front tables against the window on the right side of the dining room as soon as you come off the buffet line.
One thing I should add here....the RCCL staff was verry attentive to the elderly who came in with walkers, scooters and wheelchairs. They helped them get food from the buffet line as well as getting to their table. We were very impressed with the amount of help that was given to these seniors. Bravo!
Okay....let's get on to the Itinerary....
<u>Day #1: Boarding in Esenada
Boarding and disembarking the cruise were the two most frustrating experiences of this cruise and I really hope that Royal Caribbean gets their act together on these two procedures.
There isn't much RCCL can do about boarding the cruise in Esenada. It's the law. You see, a ship cannot sail from one American port to another. It must touch foreign soil somewhere inbetween. From what I heard, this law was created to protect the U.S. shipping industry as well as to bring in more tax money.
We flew into San Diego airport around 11am. At baggage claim we found an RCCL representative holding up a sign. The rep told us to get our bags and drop them outside at airport curbside. This was easily accomplished as we laid our suitcases at a designated area of the curb as we watched staff members hoist them onto a small moving truck. We then went to another area of the airport where we obtained an identication sticker and then to a bus that was to take us into Mexico.
Okay, that part of the trip went rather smoothly.
The bus ride into Mexico was another matter. It wasn't the fact that it was a bad experience, but an inconvenient one. Here you are on the first day of your vacation and you are placed on a bus for a 90-minute minimum (3 hour max based on traffic) ride to Esenada that is 90 miles below the San Diego/Mexican border. The bus is large, well air-conditioned and has a bathroom. After 90 minutes, however, your back gives out. It's just an unpleasant ride through some of the the poorest territory in the country as well as some of the more wealthier coastal territories.
Once in Esenada you stop at the Coral hotel, get out of the bus and wait in line as you go through your check-in process. Have any special requests such as changing your dining or room priorities? Can't do it here. The check-in is all done on laptop computers and is severly primitive compared to the other check-in experiences I have had. After you check-in and receive your SEA PASS CARD you are placed back on a bus and brought to the pier located 5 minutes away.
You know, looking back on all of this, I couldn't help but to feel sorry for RCCL. They are stuck in a situation they can't really make better. By law this is the best port they could find on foreign soil. It's a rather inconvenient way for anyone to start their vacation.
<u>Day #2-#5: AT SEA
Four days with nothing but ocean around you. Be prepared. Since I am not an activities person (and most were geared towards the elderly) I spent most of my time in a deck chair either sleeping or watching movies on my portable DVD player. I must admit that it was a relaxing experience, but too much time on my hands lent to a good amount of eating. I had food in front of me at all time of the day. The buffets at the pool certainly didn't help the situation nor did the sweets that were constantly on hand at the Windjammer.
</u> The Big Island: Hilo/Kona
Let me begin by saying the two best Islands on this trip were the Big Island of Hawaii as well as Maui. We found the experiences here to be the most enjoyable.
The biggest tip I can give all of you is to opt to rent a car on these two islands rather than do the overly priced excursions. Sure, the excusrions are great for convenience as well as getting background information on all the sights -- but they are just terribly overpriced when you consider the profit that RCCL is making on them.
Rent a car. Furthermore, arrange it in advance. Most importantly -- DO NOT use Budget car rental. We had an awful experience with them after they promised we would be picked up by a Van to the rental facility on Hilo and then told on the day we arrived that no such service was available.
We used ALAMO. We also van pickups for NATIONAL, DOLLAR and AVIS and HERTZ. An economy car cost us $35 (plus another approx. $20 for prepaid gas + $10 taxes) for the day. We had a blast driving around the Island and found EVERYTHING that the excursions were attending. Furthermore, the roads in HILO and KONA (Route #19) are so very easy to drive on. Traffic is minimal and often you feel like you own the road.
What to do? When in HILO be sure to visit the Volcano National Park and take a walk through the Lava Tunnel and then on to the Kilauea volcano.
Now, I'll admit we took the EXCURSION and were not disappointed. You really do need to hear the history of this area so the excusrion is your best bet. However during our day in KONA we rented a car from Alamo and then headed SOUTH on Route #19 to the other side of the Island. A 2-hour drive on Route #19 will bring you to the Akaka Falls State Park gorgeous waterfalls that you MUST see! It's a really nice walk to take and the view is outstanding. Best of all, it's FREE just like most everything on the Islands as they are all State or National parks. As I stated, this is a great 2-hour drive from Kona airport car rental. Stay on Route #19 and you can't get lost. The drive around the winding roadways of the three major gulches are worth the trip alone.
<u>Day #8: Nawiliwili (Kauai)
You can't rent a car here so we took an excursion to Waimea Canyon which is actually quite beautiful to see. It's known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific and is very breathtaking. Another highlight of this trip was a stop at the "spouting hole" which was quite interesting.
<u>Day #9-10: Maui
Ahh, my favorite Isle. From the moment you arrive you'll know this is paradise.
Spend one day shopping and rent a car the next day.
Let's start with shopping. First of all, do most ALL your shopping here. The shopping is at its finest and cheapest here. Furthermore, it's most accessable.
There are always FREE shuttles that will take you to various malls and stores. HILO HATTIES is a must only for the fact that they are one of the only stores that sell authentic Hawaiian goods. All the other souveniers found elsewhere are shipped from other countries (mostly Taiwan).
We took a shuttle to Whaler's Village. It's a really beautiful shopping plaza at the foot of a resort. Great place to walk around with access to one of the most beautiful beachfronts on the Island.
We found all the same stores right on the ship's pier with prices that were significantly lower. Do all your souvenier shopping at these stores. Prices are VERY good -- especially Hawaiian shirts.
On our 2nd day in Maui we rented a car from ALAMO (we will never use BUDGET again) and took a drive down Route #30 towards Kahulai. Take this route and you'll run into the famous Maui Ocean Center Aquarium which despite its hefty $20 entrance fee is just awesome! Give yourself an hour to walk through it. Next, we found ourselves quite by accident heading towards the Iao State Park. You must absolutely find your way to this park where you'll have a breathtaking view of the Iao Valley, Needle, and the cascading waterfalls. Quite a treat. Be prepared for rain -- it usually is wet up there.
<u>Day #10: Honolulu (Oahu)
Our disembarking day was here. Our biggest mistake was arranging an extra night at a nearby hotel. It was sort of useless.
You see, you can't take any of the excursions (such as Pearl Harbor) if you are not leaving AIR that day as all the busses drop you off at the airport.
If you are not going on any of the excursions don't expect to get off the ship till around 10:30am. By the time you get your luggage (a real MESS - read on) and get to the hotel, the entire day is shot. You can't even get to Pearl Harbor because it closes at 3pm and the lines are very long from what I hear.
So, we spent an extra day in Honolulu doing basically....nothing. The BIG highligght was that since our hotel was arranged through RCCL, they put us up at the Hilton Hawaiian Village for only $120 for the night. Let me tell you, this hotel is an experience. If you can arrange RCCL to book this for you at $120 a night you will be staying at a first-class resort that you will never forget. If you are there on a Friday night don't miss the King's Jubilee show complete with fireworks on the beach.
You know, you would think that a company like RCCL would have their act together when it comes to disembarking in Honolulu. Be prepared for a hellish experience.
First of all, RCCL kicks you out of your staterooms by 7am. They turn off the TVs and you get the feeling they want you OUT. Passengers who sailed with other cruise lines were talking loudly about not having this rude experience while sailing on other lines.
You are asked to wait in a public area -- sometimes for up to 3.5 hours. Everyone is given a color tag which notes your order of departure. Thing is, unless you are sitting in the hot sun on the outside deck, you can't hear the announcements of which colors are being called. Despite numerous passenger complaints, they would not make the announcements any more audible.
We were the last group off the boat. We arrived at the pier warehouse to find luggage scattered in rows all over the floor. Passengers walked atop each other trying to find their luggage. It was an absolute zoo that was so poorly coordinated. To make matters worse, there was no securitry watching to be sure people didn't take the wrong luggage? You know whay this offended me? My luggage was taken by someone else before I got there. It took 30 minutes for them to find my luggage that a passenger took and returned (and in the process changed the color/name tage on). There was absolutely no security overlooking this process and RCCL did nothing to make the process convenient.
It doesn't get better....
Once you get your luggage you walk out to the sidewalk where dozens of people are scattered amongst the half-dozen busses that will take them to their final destination be it a hotel or airport. The problem? No signs. People have no idea which bus goes where. Ever want to see a crowd in chaos? Put them in all in a small area and have them try to find the right bus to their destination with no signs to guide them.
It's as if 7am came around, RCCL decided your vacation was over and that you were now out of their care and on your own. I felt like I was being hurried off the ship and then put in a chaotic unsupervised situation where I was forced to find my own way.
You know what? I got what I paid for. I traveled at a bargain price and to be honest, I got what I paid for. LEGEND OF THE SEAS is a ship due for a major overhaul. It's an old ship that is best suited for the older crowd. It has less of the pizzazz found on the newer Voyager Class ships, and getting a good night's sleep in an expensive suite cabin is just not going to happen.
On the other hand, I did manage to enjoy the cruise. It was relaxing. The food was good and there was always plenty of it. The RCCL staff was very friendly.
Look, RCCL is not the best cruise line nor is it the worst. It's basically the best bang for the buck. Most experienced cruisers I met gave nods to PRINCESS and HOLLAND AMERICA as being the better cruising experiences -- especially with dining. Problem is, unless you have money to burn you can't readily afford those cruise lines.
I'm sort of stuck with RCCL. I am a CROWN & ANCHOR member and I want to get 6-12 cruises under my belt to get some of the perks (which includes a bathrobe for God's sake).
I really feel that despite the problems I had, RCCL are pleasurable. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend an RCCL cruise to anyone. I'm just very dismayed that they don't have their act together when it comes to organizing things. They can't keep a buffet line moving. They can't make boarding or disembarking easy. They throw out of your stateroom and off the ship as soon as possible and let you figure out the rest.
In closing, I must say that Hawaii is the place to visit. It is far better than the Caribbean islands. In fact, compared to Hawaii, the Caribbean is downright seedy. Hawaii is more upscale and you never get the feeling you have landed in a tourist trap area where seedy vendors are calling you into their shops.
The Hawaiian Islands are paradise. It is the most beautiful place I have ever visited. You absolutely must experience them once in your life. The natives are very friendly and they go out of their way to say Malaho (Thanks) for the money you spend there. The people are so laid back. Nobody is in a hurry for anything. The songs they sing are full of love and it doesn't take long to realize that you are in the ultimate paradise.
Best vacation I ever had.
PS: Had no time to proofread this review. Please excuse me for any typing or grammatical mistakes. It took me hours to write this review.
Please, if this review was helpful to you drop me an email and let me know. Will be happy to answer any questions I can.