An insider's guide to cruising
Published: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, September 30, 2006 at 11:26 p.m.
When it comes to cruise ships, size matters.
People just aren't impressed anymore if you don't cruise on something big enough to qualify as a small town.
Admit it - you want everyone to say, "Oh my gosh," when you tell them you're running around the Caribbean on the Adventure of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean ship larger than most downtown office buildings.
We are talking about a 15-story ship here, with its own shopping mall, the equivalent of 10 restaurants - including actual eateries such as Johnny Rockets and Ben & Jerry's - a nine-hole miniature golf course, an ice-skating rink, a rollerblading track and a full-sized basketball court.
Yeah, you'd better say, "Oh my gosh."
And just think: It's not even the biggest passenger ship out there. That distinction goes to another Royal Caribbean ship, Freedom of the Seas. The Adventure of the Seas is merely a 138,000 gross tonnage vessel that holds 3,114 passengers and about 1,500 staff members.
My daughters and I took the Adventure on a seven-night southern Caribbean cruise that sailed from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Maarten and St. Thomas. We chose it after consulting with a cruise specialist, who gave us several choices based on the following criteria: We wanted sun, outdoor activities, a little relaxation and a ship that kids would enjoy. Beaches would be a nice bonus.
With this particular cruise, we got it all.
We also wound up with some nice dinner mates each evening in the Strauss Dining Room, where we experienced impeccable service and quite a few stellar meals (responding to increasing complaints over the years, RC has improved its sit-down meals considerably). The Muntz family - Barbara and E.R. and their daughter, Amanda, 11 - are from Waxhaw, N.C., and the parents were celebrating their eighth cruise, while Amanda was on her fifth.
The Muntzes confess that cruising is their favorite way to travel. "We get to see more places that way," said Barbara. "We never worry about where to eat or where to stay, which are always challenges for us. If you took the risk of booking a resort that you had never been to before, and it turned out to be less than expected, it could make for a long, disappointing week."
I know how that goes. On my cruise last year, my first, I went by myself and picked one that was very family-oriented; I also chose ports that turned out to hold little interest, especially since I'd been to similar parts of Mexico before. I was miserable.
This time, though, thanks to some assistance from a cruise specialist, the cruise was a much better match.
That doesn't mean, though, that a cruise specialist or agent is a must. In fact, the Muntzes never used one, booking instead through their membership at AAA ("Because we get perks such as free onboard soft drinks or onboard credits, and often better cabin selections," Barbara said) or online.
They have cruised other lines, but have become loyal to Royal Caribbean. The Adventure of the Seas is the largest the Muntzes have been on, though, and since they started cruising in 1992, they believe ship size is what has changed the most.
"I always said there was no such thing as too big, but now I'm not so sure," said E.R. "As an engineer, I am fascinated with the construction of such a vessel. Adventure is breathtaking in its size. But due to the great number of elevators, it was easy to navigate. On some other ships, we found ourselves waiting for elevators quite often."
The only thing we did find ourselves waiting for on a regular basis was the ability to get off the ship each day for the shore excursions and then to get back on again. Because of tight security - which increased in intensity because we were at sea when the alleged bombing-plot in the United Kingdom was uncovered - we had to put our souvenirs through X-ray.
We were off the ship a lot - this particular cruise had only one day at sea, but because the ship was so big, there wasn't much competition for activities. Besides the aforementioned ice skating and rollerblading, basketball and mini-golf, there was also the now-standard rock-climbing wall, a full-service spa and fitness center, multiple pingpong tables sprinkled around, an Adventure Ocean kids club complete with ridiculously expensive arcade games, and several swimming pools, including one with a giant slide. We couldn't possibly get to it all.
Each day we pulled up to a different island, like a floating Hummer on steroids looking to get our collective tanks pumped full of cultural gas.
On week-long trips such as this one, it's a bit of a Catch-22 as far as shore excursions go. You can try to do it on your own by racing around the island in an attempt to absorb as much of the atmosphere as possible in the eight or so hours you have at each port, or you can hook up with a tour through an independent company.
Or you can sightsee through the ship, either by signing up for some kind of historical tour that will focus on a couple of things or by engaging in an outdoors-oriented adventure activity that will be fun and groovy, but will leave you with barely an inkling of what the island is about.
For the most part, we opted for the latter in the mornings, then spent the few hours left each afternoon before the "All aboard!" call wandering the port areas, trying to dodge the persistent hair-braiders.
If we had any serious complaints on the whole trip, it was that it was hard to relax on the beaches because of the sales pitches. On Barbados, Day 3 and the first port of call, we spent our morning on a rather lame kayak trip followed by a glorious swim with giant sea turtles, lured to us by a dreadlocked snorkel guide bearing fish.
But our afternoon was spent repeating, "No, thank you," to hair-braiders, Jet Ski operators, banana boat guides, glass bottom boat captains and sellers of all manner of items woven, crafted and painted as we tried to enjoy the beach by a rum distillery.
Day 4 brought us to our favorite island, St. Lucia, a beautiful place with a lot of traffic but pristine beaches, from the white sand on Reduit Beach at the St. Lucian Resort to the black ash that surrounds the Petit and Gros Pitons, volcanic mountains south of Soufrihre. We found out what happens when a beach shore excursion is interrupted by a raging thunderstorm: Everyone runs for cover and sits there for hours until the buses come to get you.
But the rain didn't dampen our enthusiasm for Castries, the port town that offered a great market and shopping, and was easy to get around.
Day 5, Antigua, found us leaving the island right off the ship for our shore excursion, the Ultimate Snorkel Sea-Fari. The description said, "Enjoy your tour on a 35-foot powerboat for an exhilarating ride down the picturesque south coast to your first snorkel stop, Cades Reef National Park." First, though, our guide showed us an island where Oprah and Antonio Banderas have multimillion-dollar houses.
Then we went snorkeling, which several people on the excursion found less impressive than Oprah's house. "I'm used to scuba diving and snorkeling around the Caymans, and there are hardly any fish here," said one gentleman, and others murmured their disapproval. For kids and folks not used to intense waves and barracudas, though, this was a fairly low-key, gentle introduction to snorkeling.
There were no complaints at the Dolphin Discovery Swim in St. Maarten on Day 6 - although no one could tell if the dolphins were happy at this controversial site. Swim with and kiss the dolphins to your heart's content, and be sure to fork over the $15 for a photo or $35 for a video of the event.
The kids were ecstatic. The only downside is that this is an all-day event, so you don't get to see much of St. Maarten.
Water Island was the main focus of our last day. It's a small one near the port of St. Thomas, and we explored its hilly gravel roads on mountain bikes with a guide, followed by an invigorating swim on a stunning beach.
The bike ride wasn't Amanda Muntz's favorite - "I liked the kayaking in Antigua best," Amanda said. "It was windy and hard to paddle, but we did OK" - and even one of my daughters, fairly used to mountain biking, thought it was more of a workout than she had expected. All of the kids were pretty tuckered out on the pontoon boat ride back to St. Thomas.
As we pulled up to the dock, there sat the Adventure of the Seas, all 138,000 gross tons of her.
"I cannot begin to imagine the Genesis," said E.R., referring to the next ship Royal Caribbean has on order, scheduled to sail in 2009. It will weigh 220,000 gross registered tons and carry 5,400 guests and 2,300 employees.
When it elects a mayor and starts putting up parking meters on the rollerblading track, that's when we should start worrying.
You can book your flight to San Juan through your cruise consultant or travel agent, but that can often cost quite a bit more than booking yourself (for me, for instance, it would have been $725 per ticket as opposed to $494). On the other hand, if there are weather delays or other issues, the cruise line will take care of getting you to the ship no matter what. If you book the flight yourself and are delayed for any reason and can't board on time, it's up to you to get to the ship at another port, which could cost thousands.
If you book the flight on your own, pick up your luggage and head to the cab stand for a taxi, which will cost $19 plus 50 cents per piece of luggage to get to the pier. Then look for signs directing you through the laborious but not painful process of getting a SeaPass card to get on the ship. When you get off the ship, the cabs will be lined up waiting to take you back to the airport.
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