Grandeur of the Seas Eastern Caribbean Cruise March 1997
Like most people, I select my cruises based on a number of factors: the ship, the cruise line, the itinerary, the price, the time of year, number of days, etc. Different vacations result in different priorities. On this cruise, however, there was really only one major driving force in my selection: THE SHIP.
I've sailed Royal Caribbean International ships before (Sun Viking, Nordic Empress, Song of Norway) and like their product, so I was anxious to try out their new line of ships dubbed the Vision Class. And since Grandeur of the Seas was the newest of the new, it got my vote. My companion and I sailed on March 8, 1997 for the 7-day Eastern Caribbean itinerary (Labadee, St. Thomas, San Juan, CocoCay, two days at sea). This schedule was uninspiring, but it did offer some good at-sea time and was cheaper than the sister ship, Splendour of the Seas, on the southern itinerary. (Okay, price is always a factor, but not THE factor.)
My first glimpse of Grandeur of the Seas was flying into Miami where she was tied up at the pier. What a beautiful ship! Call me old fashioned, but I like my ships to look like ships, and the Grandeur was as elegant, streamlined and "ship like" as they come. By way of contrast, we docked in San Juan next to the Radisson Diamond; talk about beauty and the beast! I know all about RD's reputation, but that's one UGLY ship.
Interestingly, Grandeur of the Seas is not a "cookie cutter" image of the other RCI Vision Class ships. It is longer and heavier than its sisters, the funnels are more aft and separate from the Viking Crown lounge, and the upper deck space is laid out differently. There is no miniature golf course aboard this ship, but I get enough frustration from golf back at home, so that was no major loss.
At almost 75,000 tons and accommodating about 2,000 passengers, the Grandeur was the largest cruise ship I have ever sailed on. Consequently, I was curious if these numbers would create logistical problems such as boarding. Not to worry. Royal Caribbean had two boarding and check-in lounges (based on early and late dinner assignments) and permitted boarding far earlier than Celebrity and Holland America. We arrived at the pier around noon and were aboard the ship (and heading for the lunch buffet) by 12:30. On my two previous cruises, HAL and Celebrity didn't start boarding until about 1:30, and by then the holding area resembled a human stockyard.
As we explored the ship it was immediately obvious that this ship was as beautiful inside as she was outside. We entered the ship at the central atrium which made a dramatic impression, soaring nine decks up. The nickname "ship of light" was certainly accurate, as abundant, deck-to-deck full-length windows gave the Centrum an open and bright appearance. There was so much light I was able to shoot non-flash photos. A pianist was playing light classical music as we arrived, and more than a few guests had already discovered the Champagne Lounge at the base of the atrium. Let the relaxation begin!
I always try to get aboard early so I can check out the suites and verandah rooms that I'm too cheap to get. As expected, they were spacious and luxurious. This ship has a high percentage of outside rooms with verandahs, and surprisingly, they are not priced exorbitantly. For example, on our cruise, a category D room with verandah was only $100 more (per person) than an outside room, and $300 more than the larger inside cabins. And these are the brochure prices! So, if you've ever yearned for a splurge on a verandah, this looks like the ship to do it on.
Still, $300 is $300 so we eschewed the verandah for our usual inside cabin. How was it? Just fine. We had a larger inside cabin amidships on the Commodore Deck, which proved to be a great location. All the activity was either one or two decks below us or above us which proved extremely convenient. The room itself was larger than previous RCI editions and had ample storage and closet space. And boy was it dark! Believe me, you can really log some quality sleep when there's not a peep of light coming from anywhere. We finally had to set an alarm so we didn't sleep through the 10:00 a.m. deadline for breakfast at the casual dining room.
One major improvement in the rooms was the soundproofing. I think most cruisers resign themselves to hearing neighbors cough, toilets flush and rambunctious honeymooners play, but these rooms were much quieter. So you combine a dark room with a quiet room and what do you have? ZZZZZZZ
All the public rooms were beautifully appointed and attractively laid out. Sharon Jackson has an excellent description of the Grandeur's interior - along with pictures - in her review in the SeaLetter (http://www.sealetter.com/Jan-97/grsharon.html), so I will not duplicate her efforts. Suffice it to say, there were so many neat areas that we had to make a conscious effort to sit in all the public rooms at least once. Our favorite spots turned out to be the Schooner Lounge (decorated in a sailing motif) and the various nooks and crannies off the Centrum. Also noteworthy were the Library, with its own balcony, and the always popular Royal Caribbean signature Viking Crown Lounge situated high atop the superstructure with a panoramic view. Another interesting feature was a glass floor leading into the casino with "buried treasure" visible under the glass. (Perhaps this was symbolic of the treasures prospective gamblers were about to lose!)
Grandeur of the Seas has a fully equipped and modern workout room, strategically located on an upper deck with a sweeping view of the ocean. I like to exercise outdoors, however, and I really appreciated the two decks available for walking and jogging. The Promenade Deck was reserved for walkers while the Compass Deck was available to joggers. Both decks encircled the ship completely from bow to stern, making for a much better jog than on many ships where you can get dizzy from running in small circles. The only problem with jogging on the Compass Deck was interference from sunbathers who were constantly maneuvering their deck chairs onto the track area in search of perfect rays. After a few laps of dodge-em, I held off jogging until later in the day when many sun worshipers disappeared below to apply sun burn ointment or get ready for early dinner, and this improved the situation greatly.
How was the cruise itself? Very relaxing. The first day out of Miami, we encountered high winds and choppy seas, but the ship rode beautifully. The sun shone brightly and the brisk winds did not reduce the usual crowds around the swimming pool, relaxing and listening to the steel band. Maybe I'm mistaken, but it seems to me that RCI is one of the few lines that has a full-time steel band aboard that plays regularly throughout the day. For my money, you can't have a Caribbean cruise without a good steel band. Several of the cocktail waiters had become very proficient dancing and twirling their drink trays to the beats of the band and the delight of the poolside crowd (amazing how those umbrella drinks make everything amusing).
For those onboard who didn't want sun or wind but wanted to be by a pool, they had but to repair to the Solarium, a Greek-inspired area with whirlpool tubs, a pool, pillars, plants and a sliding glass overhead that can be opened or closed depending on the weather. At the risk of dating myself, I confess that this is where my companion and I hung out. There we relaxed in a comfortable lounge chair, watching the ocean, reading a book and nodding off after the rigors of getting up for breakfast.
Day three found us anchored in Labadee, Haiti. I had been to CocoCay before, but not Labadee, and was pleasantly surprised. The anchorage is a calm and beautiful spot, and the peninsula of land that RCI has staked out for its own use is quite lovely. There were a variety of beaches to choose from along with scenic walks and even some local vendors hawking their wares in a controlled fashion. A buffet lunch was served ashore, allegedly from 11:30 to 1:30, but we made the mistake of waiting until about 1:15 and found ourselves eating leftovers with crew members.
From Labadee we sailed to San Juan. We stopped by the tourist agency at the dock area to obtain a walking map of Old San Juan and struck out on our own. I love old forts, and El Morro is one of the best I've been to. It's also in the national park system now, so it is well maintained and very interesting, with great views of the ocean and entrance to the harbor. We also liked the special Crown and Anchor Society building that RCI maintains in downtown San Juan to provide a respite for weary walkers, shoppers and fort-lookers. The secret to sightseeing is effective time management, and we were back aboard Grandeur of the Seas in time for the afternoon ice cream and snack.
St. Thomas follows San Juan in the cruising world as surely as tip envelopes appear in your cabin the last night of the cruise. Since we've "done" St. Thomas several times, we decided to take our one and only shore excursion of the week to St. John. This was a good choice. The ferry boat left right from the cruise ship piers, docking at Cruz Bay in St. John about 35 minutes later. There we boarded an open air vehicle for a very enjoyable tour, stopping several times in scenic locations. Around every corner there seemed to be a pristine beach nestled into a secluded cove with graceful sailboats bobbing gently on crystal clear blue/green water. A large percentage of St. John is a national park, making it a welcome refuge from the traffic and congestion of St. Thomas.
We did do some obligatory shopping at St. Thomas in the afternoon. I realize I'm not a world class jewelry shopper (my companion Barbara vigorously agrees), but I just don't see the bargains everybody raves about in St. Thomas. We priced several emerald, tanzanite and ruby rings, and were not impressed. In fact, once back in the States we did some comparison shopping and found similar jewelry on sale at competitive prices. Prices are good on liquor, but who wants to haul 20 pounds of bottles back home to save a few bucks. So my conclusion is that St. Thomas is no shopping paradise. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Day five was back at sea, headed north toward CocoCay in the Bahamas. The weather was perfect! Sun worshipers crowded around the pool, walkers strolled the promenade deck, shoppers browsed the shipboard shops and the true degenerates like myself headed for the casino where I finally could get a seat at the blackjack table (more about that later). Barbara and I decided to have a leisurely meal in the dining room rather than at the buffet, and it was delightful; uncrowded, great view, a chance to chat with the waiter and of course, great food. That night was the second formal night of the cruise, with the farewell dinner featuring filet mignon, shrimp and baked alaska. In short, this was a perfect cruise day.
Food aboard Grandeur of the Seas was for the most part excellent but I was a little disappointed with the fish entrees. The seafood had obviously been frozen and was somewhat dry. On the other hand, the filet at the farewell dinner was nothing short of marvelous, and there was always a good selection of pastas, low-fat and vegetarian selections. I cannot comment on midnight buffets since our second sitting dinner didn't conclude until about 10:30 p.m. My hat's off to anybody from the late dinner that makes it to the buffet (my hat's off and their belt's loosened).
I don't know how Royal Caribbean does it, but they consistently find the friendliest and most efficient waiters (and now waitresses). These hard working young men and women provide superb service under demanding circumstances, week in and week out. I would suggest that the tip guidelines the ship suggests don't adequately reward the wait staff for the outstanding job they do.
Our last day was slated to be at Royal Caribbean's private island in the Bahamas, CocoCay. Unfortunately, some weather moved in bringing rains and high winds which curtailed activities. As they say in Jamaica, "No problem, Mon!" We seized the opportunity to explore parts of the ship we hadn't had a chance to visit. We browsed the Library, played backgammon in the Card Room, lost at bingo in the South Pacific Lounge, finished the book in the Solarium, rode the glass elevator to the Viking Crown Lounge for cocktails, and, unfortunately, started packing for the return home.
The off-load was as efficient as the boarding. We were off the ship by 9:15 a.m. and at the airport by 10:30 a.m. The most depressing part of the trip was watching the new passengers get off their aircraft and head with eager anticipation toward the RCI representative holding the Grandeur of the Seas card over her head. Like life and death, the new passengers come and the old passengers go. Such is the way of the cruise world.
I realize this article so far has pretty much sounded like something that would appear in a magazine that relies on cruise industry advertising for its income. Since I have no financial incentives for writing this article (unfortunately), I can be objective and also talk about the things I didn't like. I was disappointed in the Windjammer Cafe, which is the casual dining alternative aboard the Grandeur. The breakfast and lunch selections were somewhat limited (for a cruise ship), and did not offer much opportunity for custom orders. For example, breakfast everyday was scrambled eggs, bacon, English muffins, hot and cold cereal and fruit. There's nothing wrong with this, but in contrast, aboard Holland America, you could custom order how you wanted your eggs cooked, choose between bagels, toast, and English muffins (right out of the oven), and in general had a bigger and better selection at both lunch and breakfast. Also, the cafe seating was limited, often because vacant tables just weren't being cleaned fast enough.
I would also rate the entertainment as only average, which surprised me because all my other RCI experiences have been good. The headliner was Clint Holmes (?). Maybe I'm showing my age, but I've never even heard of him. Also, does anybody really like the dance extravaganzas that every cruise ship puts on? Give me a funny comedian, some jugglers, unicycle riders and some good solo singers and I'm happy. I would be remiss in not mentioning what a great lounge the entertainment was in, however. There were no obstructions to view, every seat had its own drink holders, the sight lines were great; in short, an absolutely great venue for live performances. I was also surprised that on a couple of occasions I actually had trouble finding a waiter to order a drink . This is unheard of on a cruise ship! Usually, someone is there soliciting a drink before you can find a seat. This may be a reflection of the size of the ship and the number of people on board.
Speaking of size, I think this is as big a ship as I want to sail on. I'm in the big ship school of cruising, but at some point, you start to lose the feeling that you are aboard a ship. I want to know that I'm at sea and not at a five-star hotel somewhere landside. I think if ships get much bigger, you might start to lose this distinction.
I think service suffers somewhat on the larger ships too, just because of the numbers of people. Also, it's harder to meet people and problems such as lack of seating at popular places appear. It was impossible to get a seat at a blackjack table anytime after the late dinner sitting and before about midnight. This may not be all bad from a financial standpoint, but if I'm in my tuxedo after dinner and want to fantasize that I'm James Bond playing blackjack, I want a seat at a table.
In conclusion, the positives far exceeded the negatives. Royal Caribbean International gets my vote as the top line in the "main stream" category. This was a very enjoyable cruise with many good features, but one stands out above all the others: THE SHIP.
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