We just got back from our first cruise ever. It was on RCI's Adventure of the Seas. The itinerary was embarkation from San Juan -> Barbados -> St. Lucia -> St. Johns -> St. Maarten -> St. Thomas and then back to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
My wife and I traveled with a 2-year old so our perspective is different from most members on these forums so hopefully below you will find answers to some questions that I couldn't find anywhere on the newsgroup (at least not easily).
San Juan pre-stay hotel
- We would highly recommend the Marriott Stelaris Resort and Casino. It had fantastic service even when compared with other hotels that charge over $700 dollars a night. Our post-stay hotel
was the Ritz Carlton. I preferred the Marriott. What set it apart was that not only was the service timely and accurate, but it was "warm" and "friendly". They make you feel like family. For a more detailed review of these hotels see my post http://www.cruisemates.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=601693
Time to get to the pier
- We arrived at 11AM although there was a long line waiting outside by the curb. They only allow you into the air-conditioned check-in area at 11:30AM. So keep that in mind. If I had to do it again I wouldn't get there before 11:30AM, since its really hot and humid outside. We had a Grand Suite and were herded to the front of the line by "the men in blue" which was cool. "The men in blue".. very interesting.. there were a bunch of local guys with baseball-type blue shirts that said nothing about Royal Caribbean. They told us to leave our bags out by the curb where anyone could have driven off with them since cars are arriving and leaving all the time, while we went into the check-in area. They don’t even give you a luggage tag. So you don't even know if these guys are legit (They do have badges but not RCI badges) or whether your bags will make it on board. We found out later in the evening when the ship was way out of port that they were ok and our bags got on board safely. Very dis-concerting. The first person we saw that had a badge that said Royal Caribbean was the guy behind the check-in counter. RCI get your act together.
- You know this already, but make sure you check-in on line and have your Set-Sail printout ready.. it makes check-in a breeze. My wife and I dont have US passports, but we do have green-cards. They make a copy of the green-cards and thats it. No Visas required for the Caribbean
. They definitely do not take keep your passport or your green-card like some have indicated. I could find no information about this on the entire message board so hopefully this will help someone out there.
Yes.. confirming that you are allowed into your room no earlier than 2PM, so we went and had lunch at WindJammer. It was a pretty crappy lunch. Overall I was not at all impressed with the food at the Windjammer but then cuisine is a very personal thing. If we had a do-over we would stick with the sit-down restaurants as much as possible.
Things to do as soon as you board
- VERY IMPORTANT - get a copy of the Compass
. Its a daily newsletter that tells you all the things going on on the ship and read it carefully. Its a the best way (and probably the only way) of making sure you dont miss important shows/events etc. They should put a copy of the next day's Compass in your room every night. Also, if you are interested in book Shore Explorations, go to the desk as soon as you finish lunch and get that done though I would highly recommend you do all bookings online. Remember that shore excursions online booking closes a week before the cruise
so keep track of the dates leading up to your cruise. The line at the excursions desk is always long. Having a Grand Suite we were fortunate to have access to the Concierge where they will book tours for you in a couple of minutes. The Concierge service is great, they can get you tickets for shows that are "sold out" downstairs, last minute bookings for excursions..etc they are super efficient. Other than that, explore, explore, explore.
- The life-vest drill was at 5PM right at sail-away time. Really its a big joke. They just make you wear your life-vest, walk down to Deck 4 to your Muster Station, they take a roll call and then let you go. If you have toddlers like we do, they will let you go early, but you do have to go down. The one thing that did strike me was the small number of life boats compared to the 3000+ people on board. I've seen photographs of how people are packed onto these boats and its not pretty. Fortunately they are not used often in the history of cruising :-)
- If you have young kids, around 6 or below, be prepared for amazing service in the dining rooms focused on the kids. The waiters know that the way to your heart (and pocket book :-)) is through your kids. Anything and everything is available to them at their beck and call. Our 2 year old got too used to it, so much so that upon our return back home she asked my wife "Where is the Menu mama!". She also expects 2 desserts after dinner.
Kids in diapers and swimming pools
- Stay away from RCI - They do not have pools and any water features for kids in diapers so our 2-year old was pretty dissappointed. Carnival has a better program. I am not saying that such kids should be allowed in the adult pools, but the ship should at least have some alternatives for them.
Grand Suite Perks
- OTher than the fact the the room is large and it has a balcony there were a few interesting surprises. 1) the Concierge service as indicated earlier was very valuable as a big time saver. Not having to stand in line downstairs with the rank and file is worth its weight in gold 2) Interestingly the room had a great A/V system - Sony DVD player and Receiver, Bose Surround-sound speakers etc. Wasn't expecting that and ofcourse we didn't use any of it. You can borrow DVDs from the concierge if you are so inclined. Frankly we just didn't have time to do any of that. The remote does suck though. 3)Fruit baskets, chocolate strawberries, cheeses all complimentary. 4) The balcony was useful for drying clothes that we wanted to pack away although I was a little worried about clothes blowing overboard. Fortunately there was no wind at all. If you can find clothes clips (we couldn't) then you may want to consider those if you are worried about losing your clothes.
- We thought the laundry rates were pretty reasonable, and we regretted bringing so many clothes to serve us a week. We should have just used the laundry facilities. Thats probably the biggest change I would make to our packing if we were to do this again. ALso, 2 days before the end, they had a "$20 for a wash and fold for all the clothes you could fit in a bag". They provided the bag (ofcourse).
- Being hot and humid, be prepared to have to shower more than once a day which means multiple changes of clothes and you can't reuse shirts once you've been in the sun.. it stinks with sweat. Take lots of underwear and t-shirts. Also, get lots of shots/cargo-shorts.. long pants of any kind fo day use is a total waste given the weather. Sunglasses are a must for ALL members of the family. Stick to white cotton t-shirts and really any colors that do well with heat. There is a lot of it. Make sure you carry a knapsack as well for your excursions or a beach tote.
Things we took and didn't use
- After reading a lot of the "packing lists" on the forums we took a lot of stuff that we didn't use. So before you put all these useless things in your bag, instead of asking yourself "Do I really need this", ask yourself "What are the consequences if I don't take this and find that I need this when I am on board". You will find that you will end up packing a lot more smartly that way. We did not use: The Duct Tape, the Power Strip. We did use: the flashlight (used it for finding stuff that rolled under the bed), the Calamine lotion, the Nalgene bottle. The Nalgene bottle is worth talking about. We took a wide-mouth bottle, you know the kind that you can probably put a small apple through the mouth. They guys in the dining room will only fill bottles with large mouths at the cold-water dispenser. They WILL NOT fill the regular bottles, the kind that has a small mouth that holds bottled water due to health reasons. There is a big sign on the cooler that informs you about that. So if you or your family drinks a lot of water, get a large-mouth bottle and get it filled in the dining room. We did try filling it from the faucet in the room and the water tastes very chlorinated.. yuck!! You dont notice it at first, but you fill the water in the morning, and then open the bottle 2 hrs later to drink it and thats when you can smell the chlorine.
The Calamine lotion also came in handy - my wife got a strange itch on the last day of our cruise. I noticed there were Jelly-fish in the water at the beach in St. Thomas, but I have no way of knowing if that was the reason. Take the Calamine even though its kinda heavy.
Use the Zip-locs a lot, for the used diapers, to bring back white sand from St. John's for this little Japanese "move a rock around in a tray" thingy I have at the office on my desk. Its a daily reminder of the great experience we had.
Digital Camera - A pocket size camera is ideal. We used the Canon 870IS, an excellent wide-angle camera and I carried a total of 32GB of Secure Digital media, I only used 6GB
. Also took an extra camera battery and that came in very handy since I always had a fully charged battery at all times, although with teh 870IS is really difficult to drain the battery fully. Unless you are an avid photographer and plan on spending a lot of time with the camera I wouldn't recommend taking a DSLR just due to the weight. A camera that can easily fit into your pocket is best.
Binoculars - Took them but hardly used them, not worth the added weight.
The ports of call
- This could be a book by itself, but just a few tips and comments. The Caribbean is HOT and HUMID, so be prepared. Both my wife and I were born and raised in a very hot and humid climate and we struggled, so be very prepared. Make sure you have a hat and DEFINITELY have sunglasses (even for babies and toddlers). It was surprisingly hot even though our trip was in the 1st week of October.
Bridgetown Barbados - Nothing spectacular here.. the port looks unimpressive, the duty-free shopping at the port is very limited.. a couple of shops for gold/watches/diamonds. We did buy some locally made souveniers..pure mahogany cricket bat-ball set, and some very reasonable wire-frame figures which were very unique. Please don't buy the usual Made in China trinkets since they dont benefit the local artisans but more importantly they don't truly represent what the country/island is capable of making. We took the Tiami Catamaran cruise and it was well worth it. Yes, we took our 2-year old on this excursion and we had a great time. The Snorkel sites were not great though, not too many fish, but we did get to swim with turtles.
St. Lucia - By far the most prettiest port (the dock area itself). A larger selection of duty-free shops by the dock. Go to the downtown area where the handi-crafts market. We got some great locally made double-headed cloth dolls there. We went to Reduit beach, probably the most picturesque beach of all, but not the best for swimming. We got the lounge chairs for free and the beach chair for $10. Yes, $10 is the usual price for beach umbrellas. $20 for the chairs and umbrella package
. Interestingly I noticed that on at least two occasions, other guests were being charged $10 more for the same package, not sure why. This happened on a couple of islands.
St. Johns – Took the RCI Best of Antigua 3hr tour. It was well worth the money. We then took a taxi on our own to Dickenson beach which was by far the best swimming beach
of the cruise. That’s where we brought home the white sand from. Lots of duty-free shopping near the dock but not as much as St. Thomas. We were able to rend a float here for $5.. the best $5 we spent on the cruise.
St. Maarten – Again we took an RCI excursion that went to both side of the island, the French and Dutch side. We had a croissant on the French side.. nothing special. All prices on the French side are in Euros and some shops will give you 1-1 dollar-to-euro. Others give you the official 1.4 USD to one Euro. Ask before you make a big purchase. All stores accept US dollars in cash (and credit cards ofcourse). Our tour ended on Orient
beach which is a huge beach. Be prepared to spend at least an hour to walk from one side to the other and back. Yes, the far right side is a nude beach. Although all the tour material advertises this as a white sand beach, its not as white as the Dickenson beach in St. John’s. Also, its an extremely windy beach, which means lots of waves so you can’t really relax in the water since you keep getting hit with waves. Another $20 for the beach lounge chairs and umbrella package. In general be prepared to see a few random, shady looking characters walking around the beaches hustling tourists
St. Thomas – Lots of duty-free shopping by the dock. We didn’t go
downtown, but I heard there is even more there. We found the Butterfly Farm right by the dock interesting though expensive ($15 per person). Our 2-year old had a blast. Our biggest regret here was that we didn’t go to Magen’s beach which is voted one of the 10 most beautiful beaches in the world. We made the mistake of speaking to the lady at the Tourist Information booth by the dock and she advised us against going to Magen’s beach because its takes 30 minutes to get there and 1 hour to get back (on a Sunday), plus it costs a lot more by cab (not that we cared) and there is an entrance fee to get in. Instead she advised us to go to a nearby beach called MorningStar Beach which is right by the Marriott. What a waste. There was a lot of really painful broken coral by the edge of the water which made getting in and out of the water really bad. We left in under an hour. Make the effort.. go to Magen’s beach.
- What can I say.. these were simply awesome. The Beatles show was the best.. the Ice shows were great, so was the comedy. Just try to go to all of them. I believe they have them twice in the evening to accommodate both seatings. Oh, and sit a ways back form the stage unless you like REALLY LOUD speakers.
– Given we were travelling with a 2year old and as you know they are now the most well-behaved at any sit-down dinner, let alone one with 4 sets of place-settings we were tempted to book a private table for dinner. Our travel agent (AAA) advised against it saying that we would make a lot more friends if we sat at a large table and what a great tip that turned out to be. We were at a table with two other families that also had kids around the same age so our daughter had a blast. The other families were also around the same age group as us and we had a lot in common. Overall it was a great experience and we were always one of the last table to leave. Which brings me to the one complaint I have about dinner which is that I always got the sense that the the waiter staff wanted to get us through the dinner and out as quickly as possible, before 8PM even though the second seating started at 9PM.
The one reason we booked on RCI was because of the higher quality of the food and overall I think we were not impressed. Yes, there was a lot of it and the service was fast and friendly, the presentation was great but it was not tasty. Stay away from the Top Sirloin and other steaks, they were very disappointing.
We did do one of the formal nights, and if it wasn’t for the great company we had the table, I say it wasn’t worth the trouble and expense of taking all our formal clothes. Personally I think they should do away with the formal night since I don’t like the idea of having to eat at the crappy Windjammer just because I don’t want to dress up formally.
The waiter and assistant waiters are great as always, but the head waiter doesn’t do a whole lot other than walk around and give orders.
They had an Italian night and we liked that night’s food the best.
We didn’t use Portofino, just not our thing although I hear they will allow kids if you have an early reservation like at 6PM. I did hear that it was sold out for all days and people at our table couldn’t get reservations so if you plan to eat at the Portofino, book early or better still book online
. That and the evening Ice shows were the only events that we found to be ever sold out.
– We didn’t get this since you would really have to drink at least 4 glasses of coke etc per day to break even. Ice tea and Lemonade are the only cold beverages that are free on the Adventure OTS.
- If you are doing a pre-stay, make sure you buy all your toiletries the heavy stuff like shampoos, gel, toothpaste etc at a convenient store near the hotel. Save luggage space and weight by not carrying all the way from home.
side is definitely the better side as far as views go on this particular cruise. It was always the one facing the port, facing the islands as we sailed from one to the next etc.
Make sure you carry lots of change
. We carried about 100 one dollar bills, and 40 five dollar bills and spent most of it on tips, beach gear, cab fares etc. Yes, carry a lot of small bills.
Watches are really cheap - The price on watches at these ports is in fact as they say.. its fantastic. Its 44% below US retail. We made the mistake of not doing our research before sailing on the type and price of watch we wanted so were reluctant to buy because we didn’t know if we were getting a good deal. I checked the price of the watch when we got back to the US and, reputable online watch stores only give a 25% discount at best, plus you have to pay tax and shipping. Not so in the stores in the Caribbean. They say the diamonds and other jewelry are cheap too, and people were loading up but I have no way of knowing one way or the other.
Taking our laptop – We didn’t use it at all either during our pre-stay, post-stay or on the cruise. There was just not enough time or need.
Having to sit at the WinJammer and watch some people “pig out” – Clearly there are a lot of people that come on the cruise just to stuff themselves as if they are starving at home. There was this one night when we were forced to eat at the Windjammer because our 2-year old fell asleep and hence we couldn’t take her to sit-down dining. We had the (dis)pleasure of watching this 300+ pound woman shovel food into her mouth. I mean come on! As it is, America has more over-weight people than any other country on earth but at least keep your over-eating in check in public. It was disgusting! 3 plates of salad, 2 plates of entrees, 2 desserts, even her husband got bored watching her !!
Not ordering Room Service Breakfast and eating it on the balcony – The views when sailing into port in the early morning are fantastic. We just ran out of time. Breakfast is the only meal where the food served in room service is exactly what they would serve you in the restaurant. Lunch and Dinner room-service have a stripped down menu.
Would we cruise again ?
Absolutely.. but probably to some place cooler (like Alaska) or preferably a European cruise where there is more cultural diversity between the ports of call unlike a Caribbean cruise where most of the ports are very similar. Cruising is not for everyone. You are always have to keep an eye on the clock.. whether you are relaxing on a beach or having a shower.. you are constantly having to make sure you make your next “appointment”. To some, to a large degree that’s eliminates the sense of relaxation that a holiday should have. Maybe a cruise which some sea days in between would help. Our cruise had 5 islands in 5 days.