Legend of the Seas December 1998 Ensenada to Honolulu Cruise
The following is a review of our cruise on Royal Caribbean's Legend of the Seas on the Ensenada to Honolulu 11-day itinerary. This itinerary is relatively unique as cruise itineraries go. Although we and others have been to Hawaii in the past, most people have never visited the Islands from the vantage of being a cruise ship passenger. I would therefore hope that some of our observations would be of value.
We also wanted to give our impressions of a Hawaiian cruise as compared to a Caribbean cruise on a similar ship. We've been on at least 9 Caribbean cruises: multiple trips on eastern, western and southern itineraries. Similar weather and at the same time of the year. Which is "better" and why? Very subjective of course, but we try to address these questions throughout the review.
Getting to the Ship:
This turned out to be somewhat of a logistical challenge. An archaic, protectionist US maritime law called the Passenger Vessel Act of 1886 (also known as The Jones Act), states that No foreign vessel shall transport passengers between ports or places in the United States, either directly or by way of a foreign port. This means a foreign-flagged cruise line (as just about all of them are) cannot sail from one American port directly to another. There must be a foreign port in there as a significant part of the itinerary. This presents no problem on a Caribbean cruise leaving from Florida or from San Juan where just about all of the islands are indeed foreign countries. However, it does prevent sailing from, in this instance, a California seaport such as San Diego, directly to Hawaii.
On the day we were to embark on this cruise, the Legend of the Seas had docked in the early morning hours at the San Diego Cruise Terminal, discharging passengers after just returning from a cruise through the Panama Canal. By 11 AM the ship was gone, sailing empty of passengers, on a 3-hour journey south to Ensenada to wait for us.
Ensenada is a small, smelly, undistinguished Mexican seaport & border town located approximately 75 miles south of the border, about 90 miles from downtown San Diego. Three and four-day RCI and Carnival weekend cruises from LA - San Pedro usually include Ensenada in their itinerary. The reason is, I think, to make the itinerary sound exotic. There can be no other reason. Ensenada has very little on its own to recommend it to anyone. It certainly isn't exotic.
We elected to start our journey from Los Angeles International Airport. We live in the LA area, and would be flying back into LAX at the end of the cruise. We opted for the RCI $75 bus ride from LAX to the ship. Most passengers flew in directly to San Diego International Airport and paid less for their shorter bus ride to the ship.
The first part of our journey, a 2-hour bus trip ended at the San Diego Cruise Terminal. This is a large, noisy holding area which was already filled with hundreds of waiting passengers, most sitting on uncomfortable plastic chairs, when we got there. These people were those who had been bused over from San Diego Airport. Many had been waiting for some hours. A few wisely flew in to San Diego the day before, stayed in a hotel at their expense and toured the city. Free sandwiches and refreshments were available.
RCI was set up at counters to check people in, take tickets and issue the cruise cards that would allow boarding of the ship in Ensenada later. Finally, around 2:30 PM, the first groups of people were allowed to board buses. Boarding was organized by color-coded tags which had been stuck on our shirt when we arrived.
We finally got on our bus to Ensenada around 3:30, about an hour and a half after we arrived in San Diego. The second portion of our bus journey to the ship was going to consume still another 2 hours, plus getting off the bus.
When we finally got to the Legend of the Seas we found ourselves at the end of a long line of about a dozen buses. The ship was tied up to a very marginal-looking dock, very narrow, with limited access. Each bus in turn was backed up alongside the ship. The passengers were allowed off and dock workers removed luggage from each bus belly, slowly, walking one piece at a time, all by hand. No dollies in sight. Each piece was then thrown onto a nearby pile of bags, now six feet high and growing. (We were now in Mexico, after all.) It was cold and raining lightly.
It would be about 45 minutes before we could get off our bus and finally take the gangway to board the ship, around 6:15 PM. The ship was due to sail at 9 PM but in fact left Ensenada more than two hours later. The delay appeared to be principally related to transferring the huge pile of luggage onto the ship. We watched this agonizing process from above, again one piece at a time. Many passengers didn't get their luggage at their cabin door until the early morning hours, long after the ship sailed for Hilo, 2200 nautical miles distant.
In summary, if there was one major negative in comparing a Hawaiian cruise to a Caribbean cruise it would be the requirements of the Jones Act.
The Legend of the Seas and its sistership, the Splendour of the Seas, are built for speed. We were on the Splendour in the summer of 1998 on the Scandinavia and Russia itinerary. A review of this cruise can be found in The SeaLetter's Master Index.
The Legend of the Seas makes the passage from Ensenada to Hilo in 4 days and 5 nights. Somewhat newer RCI ships in the Vision series take almost a full day longer to make the trip to Hilo. Because of the quicker passage, we were able to enjoy an extra day in Honolulu at the end of the cruise as compared to the same 11-day itinerary on, say, the Rhapsody of the Seas.
Most of the time we cruised at 22Kt. This speed is approximately 3Kt. under the maximum available. Most cruise ships sail at 17Kt.
We were on the Legend of the Seas three years ago at Christmastime, sailing from Acapulco to San Juan, through the Panama Canal. At that time, the ship was only a few months old. We enjoyed the ship then and we enjoyed it now. The ship is kept very clean and elegant and in our opinion has been maintained very well. It is indeed a beautiful ship and we feel it is the equal of any ship on the water today.
Crossing the vast swells in the Pacific in the middle of the winter is different than crossing the Caribbean at the same time of the year. The sea is more active, more stormy. There was "motion" throughout. We have taken many cruises and have owned a number of boats over the years. Thus the motion of the ship didn't bother us, but it was evidently a problem for others. At the outset of the cruise, we saw some folks literally hanging over the rail, and we almost stepped in a few "stomach discharges" here and there throughout the public areas. There was a lot of conversation going on about seasickness. Later, it seemed that people eventually got used to the motion and had a better time of it. All things considered, and although there were 8-12 ft. "moderate" seas most of the time on the crossing, we thought the ship rode the water very well.
The first few days out were quite cool. Air temperature on the first morning was 54 Deg. F. This was a real eye-opener for all of the passengers having to endure a 20 minute lifeboat drill on deck in a 23Kt. plus breeze. The air temperature rose about 5 degrees each day as we got closer to Hawaii. Also, once we got several hundred miles out to sea, we picked up the northeast tradewinds. This provided us with a breeze on the stern almost matching the speed of the ship. With a net wind of zero over the ship, being outside was quite comfortable even though the air temperature was still in the 60s. The poolside chaises started filling up fast by mid-morning. The last couple of days were really quite pleasant with temperatures getting well up into the 70s.
The direction of the tradewinds alone should be indicative of the fact that a one-way westbound cruise can be much more pleasant than going in the opposite direction. Also, in our opinion it's nicer to start out the trip with those several days at sea to unwind and enjoy the ship's facilities, before getting to the Islands.
Cruising as a Value Vacation:
Our 11-day cruise on the Legend of the Seas cost $113 per person per day including all taxes but exclusive of air fare and bus transfers. Our travel agent had been able to get us a 4-category upgrade when we booked more than a year in advance. Perhaps this accounted for much of the low rate. We always choose an inside cabin feeling that our substantial savings versus an outside allows us to cruise more frequently. Considering this cruise was at the highest season (Holiday) rate with a Hawaii destination, the cost for this vacation was incredibly low.
If you check out the cost of Hawaiian hotel rate brochures, car rental charges and other tourism-related issues, you discover there are essentially two seasons in Hawaii: the week between Christmas and New Year's and the entire remainder of the year. Since this cruise took place during the highest season in Hawaii, it further underlines what a bargain it was.
There were approximately 1950 passengers on board and essentially this cruise was a sellout.
Dressing up on a cruise:
There were three formal nights and two jacket-and-tie nights on this 11-night cruise. The ship has a notice in the cabin letting you know which nights are which when you arrive on board. People we spoke to seemed to feel the third formal night was unnecessary and excessive.
Tuxedos were available for rent. The number of men now wearing tuxedos to formal night dinner has diminished drastically in the last year or two that we've been eyeballing this...we would guess now much less than half. Also, some people don't even attempt to look as good as they can, basically making a statement to their fellow passengers to go to hell. We saw quite a few no-jacket, no-tie outfits on formal nights including one fellow wearing a pullover sport shirt with horizontal stripes! On another one of the formal nights, a husband and wife came to the table wearing the Hawaiian shirts they just purchased. Everyone else at their table was wearing formal clothes.
In our view, this trend towards "dumbing down" is becoming increasingly pervasive in all walks of life and not just on cruise ships. Although many women looked extraordinarily classy, they were seated next to others where the fashion statement for even semi-formal nights seemed to be Mervyn's markdown. We spoke to a headwaiter about this. He said that whatever may be lacking in the fashion consciousness on this holiday cruise is still better than what he typically sees on low-season cruises. In the off-season they get a lot of large affinity groups traveling, and few if any of these people dress up for anything. The inference was just that they don't know any better.
Las Vegas comes to mind. If people have the price of admission, they can look any way they choose, even in the finest restaurant in the Bellagio or the Mirage, and nobody is going to say or do anything about it. The only thing that matters to these businesses...and it certainly applies to cruise lines...is money in hand.
The advertising, the rate promos, the cruise value discussed earlier, and certainly the good US economy has made cruising much more of a Joe Six-Pack experience. I think Seabourn and Crystal would bar the door to someone not properly dressed on a formal night. At the other extreme, I think Carnival effectively sets an example for diminished expectations. However, on the mid-value cruise lines like RCI, Princess, Holland-America, etc. I think the cruise line operators are in a real quandary. They certainly can ill afford to turn away someone from the dining room, but on the other hand they create a completely unsatisfying experience for those customers wanting to look their best and share the experience with others.
Some things you won't find in the cruise brochure:
We've taken a cruise annually for the past ten years. We've been going more often lately. This particular cruise was the third of four cruises over a two year span of time. We tend to use Princess and RCI mostly, but we've been on other cruise lines as well. We feel we have a good vantage point to observe what's going on in the industry these days. In this light, we wanted to offer the following observations.
While cruise food should rarely be considered fine dining, it has always been reasonably good, certainly much better than what the average passenger would experience day-in and day-out on land. Having said that, we feel RCI food remains OK, but nothing special. The portions are definitely getting smaller, which is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, there is no shortage of food to eat on any cruise ship. Depending on your assigned waiter, the RCI dining room service can be very good. In this regard, nobody should be disappointed with the dining room experience on RCI when compared to a comparably-priced cruise line.
Our friends who usually get the so-called Drink of the Day say they are definitely smaller than they were in recent memory.
RCI now owns Celebrity Cruise Line. Over the years, Celebrity has prided itself on the quality of their dining experience. Michel Roux is the food designer, and all that sort of thing. Nevertheless, we learned that a typical dinner on Celebrity costs double when compared to an RCI meal. The betting line is that Celebrity will be slowly reducing their food costs (i.e., quality) in the near future, in order to be more consistent with what parent RCI is doing.
RCI has introduced a new "Wine & Dine Package". You can pre-purchase an 11-bottle package...one for each dinner on this particular cruise...for $129.00 (plus 15% service charge). Unless you drink wine with every dinner, it's really not worthwhile. If you skip a meal or two as we did, you have to catch up. I think it analogous to the car rental agencies selling a full tank of gas up front, a fairly recent policy which is also a moneymaker for them. Unless the driver returns the car on fumes, the rental company is the winner.
On the Splendour 6 months earlier, cappuccino with dinner was free. No longer. In fact, there is now a priced menu on the table listing all kinds of exotic coffees available, all at extra charge.
You get the feeling that any little extras now are considered revenue generators by the cruise lines. You are given the absolute minimum in amenities and everything else builds from there, all at extra cost. Even the bowl of mints that was always there as you exited the dining room is now gone. The ubiquitous Baked Alaska ceremony is now history. Instead, you have a few waiters carry around a fake Babalu rum dessert with a flaming candle stuck in the middle, strutting to the recording of "Hot, Hot, Hot". Then they bring out the real dessert later on a plate from the kitchen. The always enjoyable ceremony of the dining room staff all gathering to sing "Hey, look us over" to the customers is now a lip-sync operation to a recording.
The miniature golf up on Deck 10 is now free. Even at no cost, it seemed to us on this cruise that playing the game wasn't very popular. It probably cost RCI more to have a person up there to collect money than the revenue they got from the players. Golf is now an unmanaged attraction, and considering the number of children on this particular cruise the course seemed to have turned into a children's playground.
There is an ATM machine located by the purser's desk. A sign on the machine states that there is a $5 fee for withdrawing cash which would be in addition to your own bank service fee. Cashing a check at the Purser's desk may now be more difficult if not impossible; we had no reason to try to prove this one way or the other.
This particular Christmas cruise had a very large percentage of kids of all ages, more than we've ever seen on prior Holiday cruises. It most certainly must have something to do with the economy. Everything you have heard about permissive, disinterested parents on cruise ships is true and we saw a lot of it. We even heard a story about a drunk 18-year-old who started a small fire with a cigarette on a galley tour...quickly extinguished...and this was while the ship was 3 days out, in the middle of the Pacific, and a thousand miles from any land! We heard the kid was incarcerated in the ship's brig for a period of time.
Most ships now have a rule about "saving" pool chaises with towels. Most people ignore this. We saw a passenger hand tip money to a towel boy who then assisted her in saving 10 chaises in the front row from the pool. This was at 8 AM when few people were out yet and there were empty chaises all over the place. On every ship which is at sea on a nice, sunny day, it becomes almost impossible to get a chaise unless you're willing to play the game. In December, the Snowbirds need to get a trophy tan at all costs.
The purser's desk had a sign on the countertop that stated the ship was a sellout and no cabin changes were possible. This turned out to be a white lie. We changed cabins after 4 days because of excessive noise. (There was an impossibly loud creaking and banging sound all night long from the motion of the ship. One of the ship's maintenance people confirmed our complaint.) We learned that there are always cabins available, in most categories, even on this sold-out ship. They just don't want to be bothered by people nitpicking or looking for free upgrades.
The in-cabin television shows movies and promotional materials 24 hours daily. It also displays a real-time position map, weather conditions at the moment, and a view from the bridge. Some cruise lines still show first-run films in a theater. For example, newer Princess ships all have a cinema. In the past, RCI would compensate by showing an occasional film in their showroom. No longer. Apparently, showing movies to their customers as an entertainment diversion is not as profitable a use of facilities for RCI as bingo or art auctions. If you want to see a movie, you have to see it on the 15' cabin TV.
We found it easier to get satellite news coverage on the Splendour in the Baltic Sea than on the Legend of the Seas off the coast of North America. Once we got to Hawaii, satellite service improved somewhat but it was never anything special...just two outside stations at most.
We found it necessary to use the ship's dry cleaning and laundering services on a couple of occasions. We found the prices to be reasonable and the service good.
Tipping has always been a concern to prospective cruisers. The RCI rate sheet recommendations are consistent with the industry.
The cabin door and in-cabin safe locks on the ship are behind the times. On the Splendour the cruise card can be used to both lock & open the cabin safe and also to open the cabin door. On the Legend of the Seas a major credit card is used to set the safe lock. A separate magnetic-stripe card is needed to open the cabin door. The cruise card doesn't do anything but allow you to spend money conveniently. Thus, whenever you leave the cabin you have to carry three cards along with you.
This cruise occurring as it was over the holiday season, there were a lot of festive decorations on the ship, particularly in the Centrum area. The decorations were well done and added to the spirit of the season.
I carry a Garmin GPSIII with me. It's a small, portable device that, using satellites, can give the user a precise indication of position and speed. It's kind of fun to fire it up from time to time to check our position and assure that the captain is still steering the ship in the right direction!
Lahaina is less than 150 NM from Honolulu, and the Legend of the Seas could have pulled up anchor at midnight and got to Honolulu by 8 AM the next day with time to spare. Lahaina is a fun place and presumably a lot of people would have enjoyed the extra time there. Instead, we left the Maui nightlife behind at 6 PM, and, in my opinion, for just a single reason. That is, to get into International waters so that the money-making casino (and gift shops) could open up. Has anyone ever wondered why most cruise ships depart from most places around 6 PM, regardless of the distance to be covered overnight? I'm convinced that's the reason why.
Once again, a push was made at the end of the cruise by the dining room staff for us to give an excellent rating on the comment card. I have always felt the comment card is a scam perpetrated by the cruise line on the passengers to make them feel better by giving them a venue for registering complaints. It's possible that even the crew thinks the cards count for something. I for one don't believe anyone important ever reads or even tabulates the comments. I feel this way because I can't think of a single change that that cruise lines have done over the years to improve service for the customer that was not in turn revenue driven for the cruise line's benefit.
Hawaii vs. the Caribbean & Mexico:
The experience of disembarking at a port in Hawaii is much more satisfying than in the Caribbean or the Mexican resorts. You don't have the in-your-face onslaught of taxi drivers and hawkers as you step off the ship. It seemed to us that the people we saw, including shopkeepers, were far less aggressive. Other than in Waikiki, crime seemed nowhere near as pervasive as it seems to be in the Caribbean, especially in Jamaica and in St. Thomas. More importantly, the buildings, the stores, the hotels, the streets in Hawaii all seemed better made and far less crummy than you find in the Caribbean or in Latin America.
The terrain is much more beautiful in Hawaii. There is nothing like it anywhere. The beaches are as nice as anything we have seen elsewhere. We don't golf, but there are world-class courses everywhere in the Islands. We don't dive but do some snorkeling. Are there "better" extreme places in the Caribbean or Mexico? Possibly...we have no basis of comparison.
The weather was comparable to the Caribbean for this time of year, and in fact was extremely good throughout our visit. We had one showery day, the last day when we were already off-ship in Honolulu. As much as the Hawaiian Islands are similar, they are all every different from each other, each with their own character. Not so in the Caribbean. To us, the Hawaiian people who service the tourist industry (even in very commercial Waikiki) all seemed quieter, prettier, gentler.
And last but not least, we were still in the good old USA, not a trivial matter to us.
The following links to a website that Paul Jaffe maintains which includes panoramic pictures he has taken on this cruise and on some others. Paul uses a Sony Mavica digital camera and stitches the pictures together using software called PhotoVista. You may enjoy taking a look at these photos!
Paul is a frequent contributor to The SeaLetter and can be reached for questions or comment at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please