We were 14 in all on this cruise: my husband and I, my parents and five of my cousins and their husbands. Our ages ranged from 40s to 70s. This trip was planned more than a year in advance to accommodate everyone's schedule and have an itinerary that pleased everyone. (No small feat!) Royal Caribbean got the nod due to the Southern Caribbean route that included San Juan, Aruba, Curaçao, St. Maarten, and St. Thomas. Nine of the 7 couples had been on a previous cruise. We took the air/sea program offered by RCI and it worked just fine. We had direct, nonstop flights to and from Chicago.
Going Aboard & Our Cabin
Landing in a very warm San Juan, (it was in the twenties and very windy when we left) we were met by the RCI rep and escorted to our bus for the 15-minute ride to the pier. Check-in was very easy and this was the first time we have ever had to show our birth certificates and photo ID's before being issued our ship's passes. Before boarding, we also had our pictures taken and you "keyed" in and out every time you left or returned to the ship. They also had X-ray scanners just like the airport. I was very impressed with the security arrangements. They were not intrusive and the process was always quick and easy once everyone got the hang of it.
We were directed to our rooms and were pleasantly surprised by the size. They were well laid out and the bedroom portion was as large as Celebrity's cabins. I really appreciated the vanity/desk with the mirrors and lights on both sides and the outlets for your hairdryer and curling iron right in the desktop. That was very convenient. There was lots of storage for all our stuff -- we had two of those new boxy suitcases and were able to put them under the bed. My only complaints about the bed were that we never saw a bedspread (that was the case with all of us on that level), and my mattress was concave. I like to sleep on my stomach and that was impossible -- it was that bad. But, I never thought to ask them to change it either.
The bathroom, however, was a different story. It was big enough for 1 (one) person only and the shower was big enough for a child or a very skinny adult. I'm only 5' tall and I had trouble finding room to bend down to wash my feet! Some of our group was quite tall and/or heavy and it was quite a challenge to reach all parts without flooding the bathroom in the process.
Our cabin steward was Brian from Jamaica and he introduced himself to us right away. He kept the cabin spiffy the whole time and surprised us with pillow sculptures every day. I am trying not to make too many comparisons to Celebrity, but I was surprised that there was no water pitcher available. There was bottled water for sale and assorted soft drinks on the counter. I guess we were spoiled by having a small refrigerator in our Celebrity cabins. Also, the ice bucket wasn't insulated and the ice melted quickly. But we were hardly in the cabin and so it wasn't a big deal.
Dining, Food, & Service
We set out to gather everyone for some food -- we found my parents' cabin easily enough by the big decoration on the door. We had arranged beforehand to have their room decorated by RCI to celebrate their 56th anniversary. For $28.95, there was the door decoration, streamers and balloons in the room, and a small cake with "Happy Anniversary" written on it. Which was quite good, by the way. They were so surprised and very pleased by it. (I will mention the door decoration again.)
We met the rest of our group in the Windjammer Café for lunch. Another contrast with Celebrity was the buffet line being very poorly laid out with items all over the place, resulting in a lot of people crossing and re-crossing to find what they wanted. Needless to say, there were several collisions with spilled drinks. By the end of the cruise, the ramp connecting the two buffet areas was sticky enough that my shoes were making a sucking sound when I walked over it! It made me wonder if they ever used cleanser when cleaning the floor. We didn't eat much at that time, as we had early seating and dinner was going to be at 5:30 so they could have the lifeboat drill before we sailed.
When we all arrived in the dining room, we were faced with trying to straighten out our table assignments, as we were scattered at three different tables instead of two tables next to each other as requested. This is where our waiter Jose (Joe-zay) from Portugal stepped in and began a week of exceptional service for us. He reassured us that when we arrived for dinner the next day, all would be arranged. And it was, even though it meant changing the table arrangement just for us and re-doing it for the later seating.
(We had settled on early seating to accommodate the couple who had made the arrangements, but all agreed after a few days that later seating would have been better. It was just too rushed to get back from shore excursions to get ready for dinner without any down time to relax and/or get involved in any other ship activities.)
Jose was a master at making everyone happy, which was no small task with a group of 14. His helper was Iselein from Romania who had only been on the ship three weeks and needed a little prodding from time to time to remember items. But she was very sweet and tried very hard. Jose brought out extra appetizers (especially the shrimp cocktails), different soups than what was ordered so that everyone could try them, extra pasta and entrées just to try so that plates were really going up and down the table like a real family dinner! We all had as many lobsters as we wanted and my cousin's husband ordered a hamburger and fries the last night because that's what he had a taste for.
Mario the headwaiter was more visible and did more for us than any maitre d' I've seen on other ships. On different nights, he made a pasta dish which was delicious; he took the shrimp scampi and the lobsters out of the shells; and he made a Bananas Foster for dessert. There were alternatives on the menu if you weren't wild about the evening's choices. You could always get chicken breast, strip steak and Caesar salad. There might have been a few other choices, but I don't remember them.
The wait staff serenaded us with "O Sole Mio" on Italian night. There was also a Caribbean night and a French night. My husband tried escargot for the first time and ended up with a double portion. (Again thanks to Jose.) The bar staff wore pink jackets and made the rounds before dinner for cocktails and after dinner with "shooters," which were liqueurs in various combinations with a take-home glass. I think two of my cousins ended up with full sets! Any "complaints" (and I use the term loosely) were minimal and were mostly just observations and comparisons to Celebrity. As a whole, the dining experience was always wonderful, relaxing and a lot of fun. Only once did one couple opt for the casual dinner in the Windjammer, and that was because they slept through dinnertime. Or at least, that's what they tried to tell us.
A Ship with Problems
My cousin had a big gripe with the grill arrangement as she walked all the way back to the Solarium pool to get a hamburger and had to wait 15 minutes for them to grill it for her. Small potatoes, I agree, but it was lunchtime and maybe a few should have been ready. The grill served up decent hamburgers, hot dogs, fries and pizza, but it wasn't convenient; when a whole crowd came back from shore excursions after 2 PM (after the Windjammer had closed), they had a hard time feeding all of them. The line extended the length of the Solarium. This where I again noticed a casual approach to cleanliness: when picking up some trays off tables, if some food fell to the deck, it was just left there to be stepped on or kicked aside by assorted passengers and crew. Since I was in that long line, I had ample time to observe this.
I think the large number of families contributed to the crowding. It was February break on the East Coast and there had to be at least 200 kids. Which brings me to the part about the full ship. My husband and I had taken a Category H guarantee and had hoped for a nice upgrade. On RCI's web site, they showed cabins with balconies available up to one day before sailing, but alas, it was not to be. But we were on the same deck with the rest of the family and it really was quite convenient to everything by stairs.
Children, Seen and Heard
Well, of course they were calling Security constantly, so the ship was aware of the problem. The problem was catching them at it. The last night it happened, Bob was standing next to the door when the kids went by and he was out of the door in a flash. The kids saw him and took off, with one of them losing his shoe. Bob took the shoe and called Security again and they told him to bring it down to them. Before he could do so, the phone rang and the kid had the temerity to beg for his shoe back and could they leave it outside their door! Mind you, this was all going on at 2 AM. Bob waited for the elevator, and it arrived with the guilty party inside! He promptly took shoe and owner down to Security, where he ratted out the other two boys. Their parents were called and informed they would have to pay for the damage to ship's property, such as a dented door.
Our itinerary was: San Juan, Sea Day, Aruba, Curacao, St. Martin, Sea Day, St. Thomas, San Juan. They were probably some of the nicer islands we've been on. We felt very safe the entire time we were wandering around. The ship docked at every port, so there was no tendering at all. My mother and I walked the half mile into Willemstad, Curaçao and walked all over the downtown in search of a special Nao figurine that I have been seeking for two years. I found it in a little store not far off the main street. Everyone we interacted with on the islands was pleasant and wished for us to come back and spend more time there.
The End, Almost
Alas, it was over too soon and we waited in the piano bar for our flight to be called. The person calling the flights had quite the accent and it was difficult to understand her, but we were off by 10 AM. United Airlines (with other airlines) was available to check our luggage, and we put our coats in the suitcases to be unloaded at cold Chicago. (What we would have done if our luggage had been lost had never entered our minds.)
With 6 hours to kill until our flight, one of the husbands found a van driver who called himself "Puerto Rican Louie." For $15 per person, payable when we arrived at the airport, he took all of us on a tour of Old San Juan, dropped us off downtown for a little last-minute shopping (and potty break at McDonald's), lunch at his cousin's restaurant "Lupi's," and an hour or so at the Wyndham/El San Juan Hotel for a little gambling before we had to catch our flight. It was really worth it. He was a riot!
All in all, we had a great time, but if we do it again we will probably use Celebrity, if only for the small comparisons I made. Royal Caribbean did deliver a fine cruise vacation and we never felt shortchanged in any way. I would probably do this itinerary again.
For lots more SeaLetter photos and information on Grandeur of the Seas, click HERE.
Susan Hofer is a registered nurse whose husband works for an aerospace company. They do not cruise often enough for their taste but plan to rectify that when their last child is out of college. They are veterans of three Celebrity cruises and just experienced their first on Royal Caribbean. Susan may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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