After we cruised on Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas back in 2007 we said we would never go on another big ship with over 2500 passengers. Never say never – we just came back from a cruise on the Independence of the Seas which accommodates up to 3600 passengers!
We joined the Independence in Fort Lauderdale and sailed back to Southampton via Labadee, San Juan, St Thomas, St Kitts and St Maarten. With the exception of Labadee, we have visited the other four islands mentioned on previous cruises. Our daughter and son-in-law were also on this cruise.
We flew from Heathrow to Fort Lauderdale with Norwegian Air on one of their dreamliners. Never heard of them before until last year and now they are flying practically everywhere! We did not have to pay extra for our check-in luggage as they were included in our cruise package. In fact, we each had an allowance of two suitcases each! I would rather have had the usual allowance of just one suitcase each and not have to pay £25 to choose our seats online or £25 for our in-flight meals.
The plane left on time and we arrived before the scheduled time but it took ages to find our luggage on the carousel. We were on the verge of filing a lost luggage report when our luggage finally turned up. A short taxi ride took us to the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Marina where we spent the night before boarding the ship the next day.
We had a balcony cabin on Deck 6 which included a 3 seater settee and we were very pleased to find shower doors in the bathroom instead of a curtain.
The in-cabin TV programmes were disappointing. This was the first time on a cruise that BBC News was not available on the in-cabin TV. We do like to keep in touch with news from home when we are away from home. There was no “free” on demand films on the TV either. We like to eat late and we don’t take hours to get ready for dinner so usually find the hours between 5pm and 8pm a good time to catch up with the news and watch the films we have missed at the local cinema.
We would have preferred Anytime Dining but to ensure we have a designated table every night we opted for the fixed dining option, second sitting at 8.30pm. Food was, as always, plentiful. The quantity is still there but the quality has downgraded somewhat. If you want a good cut of meat you will have to go to one of the specialty restaurants, Chops Grille or Giovanni’s Table and pay $35 per person for the privilege.
After a day at sea we arrived in Labadee, Royal Caribbean’s private island in Haiti. It may be a small resort but there were many excursions available, most of which were water sports from Snorkel Safari, Kayak Adventure, Wave Jet Tour, to Parasailing. There is an Aqua Park on the island which offers a Splash Water Slide, a Dragon’s Tail Coaster and the Dragon’s Breath Flight Line.
There is a free 2 carriage “noddy” train which travels from one end of the resort to the other over 5 stops. A barbecue lunch was laid on at three locations. There is a small artisan’s market and an artisan’s village.
The next day, which was Easter Sunday, we arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico. A pleasant surprise for the children (and those young at heart), were mini Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies at the buffet and outside the main dining rooms.
Four other ships were also in port that day so the town was extra busy. There is a free trolley bus service in old San Juan. These are not sightseeing buses and have no commentary but a very good way to get an overview of the city. There are three routes and the City Hall/El Morro route travels around the main shopping area of old San Juan and heads up past Fort San Cristobel, then on to El Morro.
Needless to say it took ages to get on one of these buses as it was Easter Sunday with five ships in port, most of the shops were shut (apart from the jewellery stores) and the locals were enjoying their day off too.
In my salad days my tipple was Bacardi and coke so when I found out the Bacardi distillery was in San Juan I researched how to get there without paying $54 each for the ship’s excursion. As the Independence was docked practically next to the San Juan ferry, it was easy to catch the ferry across the San Juan Bay to Catano for the grand sum of 50 cents one way. From there a short taxi ride to Casa Bacardi . There is a choice of tours, Historical, Rum Tasting or the Mixology Tour. The Historical tour used to be free but now they charge $15 per person and you get one free drink and a commemorative Bacardi cup. The other tours cost more as more Bacardi is involved!
Easter Monday and we arrived in Charlotte Amalie, St Thomas. Once again, over half the excursions on offer were water sports. Whilst daughter and son-in-law went kayaking and snorkelling we took our time to get off the ship. Once again, the town was over populated by jewellery shops.
Basseterre in St Kitts was our next destination. Daughter and son-in-law decided on a guided hike through the rainforest and we nearly booked ourselves on a one and half hour tour by Segway, until we saw the price at $109 each!
Our final destination before we crossed the Atlantic was Philipsburg, St Maarten. We took a taxi to the famous “runway beach” on Beacon Hill Road to see the beachside airport traffic. En route back to the ship we stopped off in town at the Yoda Guy Movie Museum.
The next eight days was our transatlantic crossing back to Southampton. Bliss! No more jewellery shops.
We love the sea days and never get bored as there is always so much to do. As avid quizzers, there were no fewer than six trivia sessions daily and there was even eight on one day! We teamed up with a very nice couple from Berkshire for trivia who were just as keen as us.
There is a FlowRider which we didn’t try. However, I did try the Rock Climbing Wall but agoraphobia, and not vertigo, got the better of me and I only got halfway up the wall. I should have partnered my husband in the shuffleboard tournament on terra firma instead of scaling walls!
There were also two Ice Shows and a production of the musical Grease which lasted one and a half hours.
The rest of the entertainment was varied and the most memorable was the vocal group, Fourever from Spain. Four young men sang in the style of Il Divo.
During the transatlantic part of our voyage we had to adjust our clocks forward five times to make up the time difference. However, instead of putting our clocks forward an hour at midnight, which is customary, we had to put our clocks forward at 2pm in the afternoon. Therefore, 2pm became 3pm! I don’t think any other cruise line operates this system but Royal Caribbean.
One of the reasons we didn’t want to cruise on another ship with over 2500 passengers were the queues at buffets, queues getting on and off the ship etc. However, we found that by getting off the ship at ports a little bit later and getting to the buffet before/after the rush, we eliminated a lot of unnecessary queuing.
In conclusion, Royal Caribbean ships has a lot to offer families but we would prefer to cruise with their sister company Celebrity, and in particular the Eclipse, which offers a much more enjoyable cruising experience especially in the culinary department.