Dec. 6-14, 2014
For many years Kim and I have considered taking a cruise. We got invited to Florida to attend our oldest grandson’s baptism, so we thought we might as well take a cruise while we were there since airfare is a large portion of the cost.
Royal Caribbean International
We talked with several friends that have previously gone on cruises to get some ideas on how to plan such a trip. I can plan river trips and motorcycle trips, but planning a cruise was outside my realm of experience.
According to friends, the first step is to determine which cruise line best matches your personality, interests, and budget. We soon narrowed it down to either Royal Caribbean or Princes Cruises. We decided to go with Royal Caribbean because they offered more sport activities on-board (which we never took advantage of).
8-Night Eastern Caribbean Cruise
The next step was to determine which cruise to take. Many suggest that our first cruise needed to be at least 7-nights so that we can fully appreciate the experience. We decided to try the 8-night eastern Caribbean cruise, which had stops at Philipsburg on St Maarten, Basseterre on St Kitts, San Juan on Puerto Rico, and on the private beach Labadee on Haiti. This cruise started off with two full days at sea, which would give us time to get used to the ship and learn our way around. The final day was also at sea.
Unfortunately, our first and last days had cold and rainy weather, so we were not able to spend much time up by the pools and hot tubs. In fact, we never even got in the pools the entire week – although we did enjoy soaking in the hot tub.
Independence of the Seas
We considered taking one of Royal Caribbean’s largest ships; the Allure or Oasis of the Seas, but I didn’t like the idea of going with such a large crowd (over 6000 guests). We decided on their second largest fleet and selected the Independence of the Seas, which holds just over 3000 guests and about 1500 crew members. It is still a very large ship – perhaps the largest of any we saw at any of the ports.
The ship had 13 decks. They had a deck map near each elevator, which really helped us find our way around.
Our state room was near the front of the ship on deck 8. Our restaurants were on deck 5 and 11 at the back of the ship. The promenade on deck 5 was usually the easiest way to get from one end of the boat to the other.
The pools and hot tubs were on deck 11, which also provided a quick way to traverse the ship when the weather was good. Poolside is also were we found the self-serve frozen yogurt machine – which was a highlight of the trip.
The state room was quite nice, but very small. We only had about 8” on either side of the bed. The bed was made by pushing two twin beds together. If you rolled into the middle of the bed, the two beds would separate, dropping you through the crack.
The room also had a small couch, TV, closet, and a very small bathroom with a claustrophobic shower.
We usually ate breakfast and lunch at the Windjammer buffet. It offered nice views of the ocean, but being at the far back of the ship it rocked quite a bit, making it difficult to eat if you were at all sea sick. They had 3 main buffet lines with a fairly good variety of food, although the food wasn’t great.
We ate dinner in the King Lear dining room on deck 5. They offered three coarse meals from a menu of selections such as lobster, shank of lamb, etc. These were fancier meals than I am accustomed too, but the food was quite good and it was nice to try things I don’t often get to try.
The crew provided excellent service throughout the ship, but we really appreciated the helpful suggestions offered by our head waiter. He quickly learned our tastes and would give us recommendations at each meal.
If you don’t drink, gamble, or buy expensive jewelry, there isn’t all that much to do on the ship. I was quite disappointed that they didn’t offer more activities – especially when the weather was too cold to be up by the pools.
We did go to the nightly variety shows. Most of them were fairly good, and they were all family rated. Our favorite was the Elton John impersonator. He was hilarious.
We also played one round of bingo, but it was far more expensive than I expected. It cost $55 for one set of cards, so Kim and I shared a set. On the fourth and final round I was one square away from winning the grand prize – an upgrade to a family suite with a balcony. That would have been nice!
We also attended a Big Bang Theory trivia contest. We got about half of the questions correct.
The ship had three main pool sections, one for adults, one for children, and one for everyone.
The ship offered several sporting activities, but we didn’t take advantage of many of them. We did play one round of miniature golf, but the course was very small and with a rolling deck, there wasn’t much chance of getting the ball to go where you aimed.
I wanted to try the Flow Rider surf wave, but never did. They only offered boogie board surfing from 1:00-3:00 PM each day, and we were usually involved in other things at those times. Standup surfing seemed too risky at my age.
They also had a climbing wall and various team sports like volleyball, soccer, basketball, or archery. It was usually pretty windy up on deck, so some of the sports were very challenging.
We pre-booked our excursions through Royal Caribbean. Booking through the cruise line is probably more expensive than going private, but it offers the guarantee that if your excursion is late, the boat will wait for you. Being our first cruise, this seemed like a good idea.
At St Maarten we decided to take the bus tour of the island so we could see both the French and the Dutch sides of the island. It was pretty boring, but at least we got to see the island.
My main disappointment with the days at port is that you have a limited time. You basically have time for one activity – and there are many activities at each port that would be worth the time.
St Maarten is a very popular port. I think there were seven cruise ships docked there, so it was very crowded. We had a little time before our bus tour, so we walked through the shopping district. I was a little disappointed that everything was fairly dirty and really packed in. We don’t really like shopping in tourist traps, so we tried to just get a sense of the place and avoid pushy salesmen.
Our next stop was St Kitts. I really liked this island. The streets were wider and well organized, and everything seemed to be clean. Many of the shops would let you use their WiFi if you bought something, so we could check our email and check in with the family at each port.
The highlight of our trip was the catamaran ride and snorkeling excursion we took at St Kitts. It wasn’t the best snorkeling spot, but it was a fun activity and the catamaran crew was very entertaining.
Our third port was San Juan, Puerto Rico. Being an American port, we could use our cell phones without international roaming charges.
We wanted to visit the old El Morro Fort, but from Internet research it looked like it would involve a lot of walking. So we decided to take the Segway tour. That was really fun, but your feet get really tired from standing on the machine for so long. It only takes a few minutes to learn to ride and control a Segway. They are really amazing machines.
Our final stop was at a private beach resort leased by Royal Caribbean on the island of Haiti. Labadee is on the north shore of the island. There is only room for two ships at the pier, so this stop was less crowded than the others.
We spent the day lounging in the shade on some beach chairs. We tried snorkeling in the swimming area, but we could not see any fish. It was a very relaxing day. They offer more adventurous activities like a zip line, a small coaster ride, a water slide, or you could rent wave runners, kayaks, or paddle boards. We didn’t want to spend the money, so we just enjoyed a day of relaxation.
Many people really love cruises. Kim and I enjoyed it, but it really isn’t our thing. We would prefer to fly to some destination and then spend a few days exploring that area. Traveling by ship was kind of boring and we both suffered from some sea sickness. Kim was nauseous the first morning, so she had to take sea sickness medication. I didn’t get nauseous, but the constant rocking of the boat did affect my sense of balance. In fact, weeks after the cruise I was still having balance issues.
Things we liked:
- The service from the crew was excellent.
- The dinners were nice.
- Having time to relax and not worry about work.
- The evening shows were enjoyable.
- The catamaran ride and snorkeling excursion was our favorite activity.
- Riding the Segway.
- Seeing the Caribbean.
Things we didn’t like:
- The constant rocking of the boat causing some sea sickness.
- Many of activities or specialty restaurants cost more money.
- The crowds – making it hard to get anywhere.
- There was a lack of activities for those that don’t drink, gamble, or enjoy expensive shopping.
- The small and cramped state room.
- Having an interior room with no window made it difficult to know the time of day or night.
- Having a room near the front of the ship made the sea sickness worse.
- The breakfasts and lunches were mediocre.
- Not sufficient time to fully enjoy each port.