December 2016 - Empress of the Seas to Caribbean - Bahamas
We got a great discount rate on this cruise that we couldn't pass up as our Christmas present to each other. We realized this ship was the smallest ship in the fleet, and I think the oldest. It had a refurbish in 2016. We last sailed on RCCL on Allure in February and didn't have a great experience. As a result our expectations were set conservatively.
Given the rate we decided to book a mini-suite. We were on deck 9, and for those that have cruised before, a mini-suite on Empress is essentially a balcony stateroom on the bigger ships. We found the stateroom to be well appointed, clean and had ample storage (although it could have used a few more hangers). Our stateroom attendant was excellent. It seemed like he greeted us in the hallway every time we came or went and never once was a disturbance and the room was always tidy.
The ship itself is a smaller ship. As a result there are only three places to eat (Windjammer and Starlight Dining Room and the extra cost Chops); there are only 3 nighttime bars on the ship (Schooners, Viking Lounge, Boleros). We personally didn't find that to be a big problem. Given it was a 4 night cruise we were a little worried it would be a 'party cruise', but it seemed reasonably tame. Maybe the limited bar selection helped. We went to Schooners at midnight on Friday night and the piano man was playing to 6 guests. We found the food in the main dining room to be good, not exceptional. There were no WOW moments in the food itself. However our waiter (Dave) was phenomenal. He would recommend a dish each evening from the menu. In the past I was always skeptical about the motivation for their recommendations, but Dave actually sampled and provided good insight. He was always on his game, keeping us fed and happy. Windjammer was fine, we always found a seat whenever we were there (breakfast, lunch). The brunch in the MDR was by far the best meal we had. Sushi, excellent deserts, etc.
Our ports were Key West and Nassau, Bahamas. At Key West we took the trolley around the island. It was informative and we thought worth the $25 ticket price. You can get on and off at about a dozen stops. We did find the trolley's were quite full, so sometimes you might have to wait for another one if it's full. We also toured Hemingway's house and say the 6 toed cats. It was $14 and we felt again it was worthwhile for the price. In Nassau, we went to Blue Lagoon for a beach day. It's about a 30 minute boat ride to this private lagoon/island. They have segway tours, dolphin encounters, water slides/rafts, snorkeling, etc. We just did the beach day, which included a lunch (burgers, chicken, etc). We really liked the beaches, secluded from the wind if you need to be, nice sand, easy in and out of the water. Our only complaint is that for $80 we really only had about 3 hours on location and it could have easily been 4-5 hours.
Since it was a short trip and only one sea day, we didn't spend a lot of time poolside. There is only one pool and three hot tubs under the same canopy. The hot tubs were usually near full, but we could get a seat. Deck chairs were not easy to find, especially if you needed more than 1-2.
The entertainment was a notch lower than the bigger ships, but still enjoyable. We had a tribute to showgirls headline on the first and last night, a comedian on the second night and a Elton John impersonator the third night who was by far the best. Since the comedian was doing the main theater he had to be PG and I think it didn't really suit his normal routine, but he was ok.
All in all, this was a really fun cruise. On the last night the cruise director (Carlos) described Empress as the little ship with the biggest heart. We really thought that was an accurate description. The staff/crew seemed friendly and went out of their way to provide service. We would definitely sail on the Empress again.