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Cruise Ship Review
Sovereign of the Seas
By
John Harley

7 Night Eastern Caribbean Cruise September 28,1996

We cruised on the Sovereign of the Seas from Miami on Sept. 28, '96 and had a generally great time.

The most adventuresome part of this journey transpired before we ever got to the ship. This was our first experience flying Carnival Air and I'm not particularly looking forward to a second experience, at least in connection with a cruise. In fairness to Carnival Air, the flight attendants were all very nice, I felt the food served was above average for airline fare, and it was definitely a pleasure to be able to fly non-stop for a change from L.A. to Miami. The big drawback with Carnival Air was that they were the only airline, as far as I know, that didn't have trucks at the pier where you could check in your luggage for the return flight as soon as you got off the ship. Carnival Air also provided no transportation from the pier to the airport, so you were on your own in that regard. This really creates a hassle when you are off the ship before 10:00AM, your flight doesn't leave until 5:00PM and your wife, an experienced traveler, is of the school of thought that you should pack only what you think you will need and then double it. With some ingenious planning we solved the problem of getting back to the airport and doing it for free. More on that later.

But first, AIR FUN . . .

Our cruise package included vouchers from an outfit called Air Fun Tours for a pre-sailing stay at Miami's Airport Sheraton and a shuttle from the Sheraton to the pier. I was prepared ahead of time for the fact that I would have to provide for our own transportation from the pier back to the airport. On arrival at the airport, we took the hotel's free shuttle. On arrival at the hotel, Sheraton never heard of us and had no reservation for us in their computer. The name Sheraton does not appear on the hotel voucher provided by this Air Fun outfit. The hotel manager phoned Air Fun, who verified that they knew who we were and indeed had us in their records for a stay at Sheraton for that night. It would have been very nice, thought the hotel, if Air Fun had bothered to notify the hotel. I had to fork over my credit card and sign for the hotel room and was told that when and if they got any money from Air Fun, Sheraton would notify my credit card company to credit us for the amount.

The desk clerk told us that they had only one prior dealing with Air Fun and he told the people concerned the same thing he was now telling me, and that was to advise my TA not to use Air Fun. It seems that a couple of weeks ago a large group had shown up at the hotel with these vouchers and, like us, the hotel was completely unprepared for their arrival. Those people had to pay for their own rooms and it was several weeks before Sheraton got anything from Air Fun and was able to notify those guests' credit card companies. As for the Air Fun voucher for transportation from the hotel to the pier, it was worthless. The spokesperson for this larger group had called their particular cruise line, did some yelling and screaming, the desk clerk told us, and the cruise line had given in and sent a bus to the hotel to pick them up. I didn't think RCCL would do that for just the two of us so we were on our own in that regard. As for our hotel bill, when we checked out the next morning we were advised that an agreement had been reached between Sheraton and Air Fun regarding our stay and we would not be billed. We still had to get to the pier.

Since there are no shuttles from the Sheraton to the pier, we took the hotel's free shuttle back to the airport and found the shuttle buses that were running to the pier from there. Because they wouldn't accept Air Fun's vouchers, it cost us $10 apiece to ride the bus. That's a heck of a lot cheaper, I'm sure, than what a taxi would have cost us.

I want to say that I thought the people at Sheraton did a great job in helping us and I don't blame them for anything.

Now that I've vented my feelings of fun with Air Fun, I'll move on . . .

The Cruise

This was our 29th cruise, our seventh with RCCL and the first on the Sovereign of the Seas. I was impressed by many things. First of all, I was amazed at the speed and efficiency of the boarding process, considering the number of passengers that boarded. Everything seemed to move very quickly compared to the much smaller Viking Serenade on which we have cruised four times. The SOS people really had boarding procedures down to a science.

We had your basic, standard size cabin: category H, room 3100, centered lengthwise, an outside cabin, same deck as the Purser's desk. As anyone who has sailed with RCCL knows, their standard cabins are notoriously small. At his welcome aboard party, the captain joked that the cabins on RCCL's new ships were being made larger by making the bathrooms smaller. Cabin size is not a big thing in our cruising lives since we spend very little time there. A couple at our table had a two room suite and invited us there one evening for cocktails. Their suite was absolutely beautiful, no question about it.

This brings up a little piece of cultural-difference humor. One of the couples at our table was from Germany. The man and his wife got me aside on the day we were supposed to go to this cocktail party. They were in a quandary because in Germany, they said, when you are invited to someone's home for drinks, it is the custom to bring flowers to the hostess and there is no florist on the ship! Should they bring something else they wondered. I assured them that it was not the custom to bring flowers to someone's home in any part of America that I knew about just to have cocktails, and that you certainly weren't expected to bring anything when visiting on a cruise ship. They both seemed greatly relieved.

RIDE

This was about the smoothest Caribbean cruise I can recall. Every once in awhile I noticed a slight bouncing sensation which I would attribute to the relatively flat bottoms of these modern mega ships. Only a couple of times did I notice a slight rolling, and I doubt if I would have noticed it at all if I hadn't been standing. Hurricane Isadore had withered away to nothing before we got any where near it.

ITINERARY

Our first stop was San Juan. We were the only cruise ship in port. The sky was overcast all day, which helped to keep the heat at a reasonable level. About the only thing we enjoy doing there is strolling around Old San Juan. The low heat and humidity level made walking a pleasure. We walked up the hill as far as the old El Convento Hotel. I am sorry to report it is still not open, shows no signs of being close to opening, and there were no signs posted saying anything about an opening date. This is a nice residential neighborhood, and if I lived there I wouldn't be enthralled about having this hotel re-opening. That may be one reason it may never re-open.

We visited RCCL's hospitality center in Old San Juan and found not more than about a dozen people there. I guess that I had expected it to be packed. I hope RCCL doesn't shut these places down for lack of interest. These RCCL centers are a great idea and a comfortable place to relax.

 

Many readers here justifiably complain about the cost of soft drinks on cruise ships. San Juan is an ideal first stop to help solve that problem. At the duty free shop on the pier you can buy 24-can cases of various soft drinks for $8.95. Like the alcoholic beverages that you can buy there, you are free to carry these openly aboard the ship. The only alcoholic beverage my wife priced in the duty free shop was Tia Maria and it was cheaper in the ship's liquor store. I didn't notice whether or not you could buy cases of beer on the pier. Carnival's Sensation arrived at the pier moments before we left. No chance to sample San Juan's night life on the SOS itinerary.

Our scheduled stop at Labadee (Haiti)didn't happen. It was one of those Haitian national holidays celebrated by blocking the roads with burning tires and firing guns into the air. The captain said the agent on Haiti had advised the ship not to stop. My wife and I couldn't have cared less. It just meant another glorious day at sea. One of our friends on the cruise, a former travel agent in Scotland, remarked that this was her fourth cruise on this ship on the same itinerary, and the ship had yet to stop at Labadee on any of her cruises. It always amazes me that these third-world countries, where hardly anyone has a car, seem to have an endless supply of old tires to burn.

The next thing to amaze me was to arrive in St. Thomas and discover that we were the only cruise ship there. We've been to St. Thomas only twice before, but this was the first time we didn't see the harbor full of cruise ships. It was actually a pleasure for a change to walk around St. Thomas with no mobs of tourists. Another thing that stood out since our last visit was that the days of everyone in town and their uncle trying to play cab driver, thus creating massive traffic jams, seemed to be over. I saw no sedans at all being used as cabs, just clean, air conditioned vans. Only as I write this does it dawn on me that lack of jalopy style cabs may have been because we were the only ship there. We visited RCCL's hospitality center here and there were only six other people in there. A problem with this center is that it isn't easy to find in the first place. It is off on a side street and St. Thomasians don't believe in putting up street name signs.

Our next stop was CocoCay, and this was our first visit to this location. The main beach area is where the shuttle boats land, is beautifully landscaped and well maintained. Snorkeling equipment is available on the island, although you actually rent it at the ship's shore excursion desk. To maintain some degree of order, you are supposed to go to the excursion desk to get numbered tickets: group 1, group 2, etc., and then go to the shuttle boat when your group number is called. If you want to be one of the first people to the island, you would have had to go to the excursion desk when it first opened after you boarded the ship. Since the only thing we intended to do was to walk the island's trails, we didn't bother to get tickets and just waited until it was announced that anyone could now go ashore. Since my wife had come down with a terrible cold which made her in no mood for extensive walking, we just walked around the landing area, bought a coke, and sat in the shade for awhile watching other people on the beach getting sun burned. We headed back to the ship early so that we wouldn't have to stand in line in the hot sun waiting our turn to board the shuttle.

GENERAL IMPRESSIONS

Public Rooms

There would be no point in going into detailed descriptions of the public rooms. The ship is soon to go into dock for extensive internal remodeling. The Music Man lounge, a beautiful night club style lounge, is to be converted to the disco. The present disco will be converted to a teen center. Part of the casino is already walled off for the construction of a virtual reality center. The ship is to be prepared just for runs to the Bahamas and overhead bunks will be added to many of the cabins. That will mean adding more seating in the dining rooms, which I thought were already pretty crowded. Other similar internal changes will also be made.

Service

For what it is worth at this point, service was truly outstanding . Our room steward, Martin, not only spoke English, he spoke fluent English. You couldn't escape from Martin. Where many cruisers, including ourselves, often complain that they never see their steward, ours was always around. He seemed to have super-sensitive ears. If we opened our door and didn't see him in the passageway, he would quickly emerge from another cabin way down the hall and look in our direction as if wondering if we needed him.

Room service was unbelievably fast, although in all honesty we only called them once. I called one afternoon to order coffee and timed their response --- 2 min. 40 sec. before the coffee arrived at our door. We placed a card on our door every night to have coffee delivered in the morning within a specified 30-minute time frame. Service was always there within five minutes of the beginning of the time frame.

The dining room was the most efficiently run that we have ever seen on a cruise ship. Service was almost too fast. There was hardly any wait between courses. Instead of having to wait for everyone at the table to finish a course before the next course was brought, each guest was brought his next course when ready regardless of where anyone else was in the eating order. This may not be acceptable in a restaurant where you're dining with friends, but I for one think it is great on a cruise ship. We like to sit at tables for six to eight people, but don't like to feel we are holding up anyone else or that they are holding up us. You didn't have to worry about that on this ship. One reason for this efficiency was that the waiters and assistants didn't have an inordinate number of tables to wait on. Our assistant waiter was always there to keep glasses and coffee cups filled. The food was generally excellent. I was under the mistaken impression that all major cruise lines had done away with smoking in dining rooms. This ship either had never done away with the smoking section or had re-instituted it.

Entertainment

I can't say a lot about the entertainment. The theater was well designed and didn't appear to have a bad seat in it. It seemed to be plenty big for the crowd of passengers. We normally go to every show when we cruise, but this time we were so busy visiting with friends that we only got to the theater three times. The first time I fell asleep just about the time the first act started. I remember my wife shaking me awake twice, probably because I was snoring. We went to the big production show on the second formal night and quite a few people walked out. We went to the variety show on the last night, and that was pretty good. They did that "If I Were Not Upon the Sea" skit and it was the saddest rendition of it we've ever seen. It seemed as though the performers had never done it before and weren't even sure about the moves that each character must do to pull off the skit properly. If anyone reading this doesn't know what I'm talking about, I can't explain it. You MUST see it. I can't remember how many times I've seen it but I still find it hilarious when the performers put their hearts into it.

Staying Alert

Are there dishonest people on cruise ships? You bet. One of the photographers had his camera stolen in the midst of taking formal photos. He had set the camera down while he posed a particular couple and when he turned to get it was gone. The Rolex watch being shown by the "shopping advisor" was stolen while he was giving one of his talks.

Some Conclusions

As I said earlier, there isn't much point in my trying to describe a lot, since this ship is about to cease doing this itinerary and is to have a great many of its public areas and cabins redesigned. This cruise was not in our normal cruise planning schedule. We went on this cruise only because we learned shortly beforehand that friends of ours from Glasgow were going to be aboard to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. We had a great deal of pleasure spending our time visiting with them and four other couples from Scotland who came with them. The men were a very big hit dressed in their kilts on the two formal nights and many a lady wanted to have her picture taken with them.

The McNultys and the Harleys

My wife and I would not have chosen to go on this cruise just because of the itinerary. Flying 3,000 miles from Los Angeles to go on a cruise and spend two days at the beach doesn't really stir up a feeling of excitement in us. We are not enthralled by the big, new mega ships with their thousands of passengers, but realize that it won't be long before that is all there is, at least in our price range. There is something disconcerting to us to be on a ship for almost a week and still see scores or hundreds of people that you don't recall seeing on the ship earlier.

Getting back to the airport turned out to be a snap. Our friends were spending the night at the Airport Hilton. They invited us to the hotel since we had a lot of time to kill before our flight. I had our luggage loaded on a shuttle bus going to the Hilton and we climbed aboard. No one asked us for a voucher or for money. When we were ready to leave the hotel we just took the hotel's free shuttle to the airport.

I guess I should add that I was more amazed at how quickly we got off the ship and out of the terminal than I was at how quickly the boarding procedures were. We were at the bottom of the pecking order for disembarking because of our late flight. I don't think it took more than an hour from the time disembarkation started until our color tag was called and we were at the curb looking for a bus. Customs took our declarations as we were leaving the ship instead of waiting until everyone was burdened with their luggage trying to get out of the terminal.

My wife and I both enjoy RCCL and we will undoubtedly be sailing with them again, regardless of small cabins and big ships.

Photographs courtesty of Jim McNulty and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines.


John Harley is a frequent cruiser and contributor to the CompuServe Cruise Forum. He can be reached for questions or comment at: 72673.1075@compuserve.com.


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