December 2014 - Independence of the Seas to Caribbean - Western
I'd like to preface my review with some context. This was my first cruise, as cruising is not personally my ideal type of vacation. I prefer going somewhere and having time to explore -- maybe city- or country-hop if I can. But I'm not typically into tours or rigid itineraries. Still, I love tropical environs, water and sailing, and am ok with resorts in general even though they're not as authentic as the places surrounding them. So I tried to go into the cruise with a fairly open mind. In the end, I have decided that cruising is not for me. On the other hand, there are some people that love cruises. So the things that bothered me might not apply to everyone else. But I will try to be thorough and specific, so at least others can get a sense of what I experienced during 6-Night Western Caribbean Cruise on the Independence of the Seas with Royal Caribbean.
As a quick summary, I found that there wasn’t enough time to spend in the better port stops (Grand Cayman and especially Falmouth, Jamaica) and the other was completely artificial and run by the cruise line (Labadee, Haiti). Even in the stops that had some authentic culture, sights, and activities, Royal Caribbean tried to dissuade people from leaving the port area complexes where they take a cut of sales from vendors and luxury shops. They claim the towns and countries can be dangerous. If that was the case, why bother going? Why get off the ship? It’s just a money grab. On that note, there were LOTS of upcharges from the alcohol packages to the souvenir cups and the added-fee restaurants that were totally generic and not much better quality than the regular dining hall. The food quality and preparation in the dining hall and buffet were pretty atrocious – most dishes were mediocre at best, and some were appalling. There was also a lack of variety in foods, with one exception being the Singapore-Style Curry Noodles…unfortunately, while they tried to offer an ethnic taste, they were comically bad (they tasted like ketchup, French dressing, and sadness). In general, the foods were bland, drab, and not particularly fresh. Exceptions were some of the pastas and the steak. The ship, while large, felt confining. It was like we were confined to what Royal Caribbean felt like giving us as a vacation, rather than getting to enjoy ourselves and make the most of the time and the places we visited.
Now to get more specific…
I'll start with the positive:
*The staff members on the ship were incredibly friendly, warm, interested, and caring. They were the absolute best part of the trip. Whether in the dining hall, bars, lounges, or pools, they made us feel welcomed and taken-care of. They helped us enjoy the cruise as much as possible, and are a huge credit to Royal Caribbean for hiring and training them. They’re truly outstanding.
*The ship was well-maintained, clean, modern, and generally had a nice feel to its layout and in its venues.
*There was one night with a stand-up coming guest performer – the show was great, although she might not have thought the crowd was into it due to rough seas at the time. I wish there were more established artists with some broad appeal.
*Grand Cayman, while small, had some deliciously fresh seafood and lots of outdoor activities like snorkeling.
*Falmouth, Jamaica was a very vibrant place. The produce was so incredibly fresh and diverse. The people were friendly and hospitable. The mountains and sea were beautiful. The history was interesting and complex. The foods were tasty (we went on a culinary walking tour). Plus it’s close to Montego Bay and Ochos Rios. I wish we could’ve stayed at port for a night so we had more time to enjoy this stop.
*Onboard activities were fun, and facilities were nice – this applies to pools, hot tubs, the surf simulator, rock wall, etc. The time on the boat was generally enjoyable when we weren’t in rough seas or having a mediocre meal.
*The alcohol package made things that much better – we got the ultimate package, which paid for itself after 4 or 5 drinks a day. That was a good call for us.
And now for the negative:
*Most importantly, Labadee was horrible, inauthentic, and a waste of a day. The entire complex was set up by Royal Caribbean, and is fenced-in from the rest of Haiti. If you were to judge from Labadee, Haitian food must be burgers, hot dogs, and the “Labadoozie” frozen drink. True story: one guy tossed part of a burger to one of the stray dogs on the beach – the dog sniffed the burger and wouldn’t eat it! The beaches were crowded, and most of them were rocky with coral chunks. The ones that had nicer sand were near the boat, and smelled like fuel. We were not allowed to experience any of what actual Haiti had to offer in terms of culture and sights. Yet from the beaches at Labadee, we could only be teased by the beautiful rolling hills that lay beyond the resort area’s fence. And as a resort, it was poor – everything had an upcharge whether it was a floating mat or a cabana. And the facilities were dirty and run-down (stank bathrooms). They do let some Haitian residents work in the complex, which I guess is a decent job. But it’s not a good experience for tourists. Except for the landscape, there’s no reason to bother leaving the boat here. *Premium amenities and services were very expensive, for example massages and spa services. Royal Caribbean tried to squeeze more money out of passengers every chance they got. *The "cold" water in the stateroom was tepid and undrinkable. Of course, even with a drink package you could only get one bottle of water at a time. *The mini fridge was barely cool. So you kindof need a beverage package for a cool drink. *The curtains in the promenade stateroom were see-through and provided no privacy unless we used the blackout ones, which eliminated the view and any light from outside. They should’ve been sheer to let in light, but not prying eyes. It basically defeated the purpose of having the promenade window. *The food quality was very poor, and dining options were few and unsatisfying. I actually touched on this more specifically above. Everything tasted frozen (ok, it’s the best way to get food to last for 6 days), but was not prepared in a way that brought out any of its flavor. Things were bland, and drab. There were only a few ethnic foods, most of which were terrible. The sushi bar at the buffet was very disappointing (they had a variety of bad rolls, when they probably should’ve just had a decent California roll and called it a day). Everything was soggy. When we got off the boat, we’d always crave veggies and fresh foods. They should probably simplify the menu to more reliable things, and consider cheap foods that can hold up well and make people happy…why not have a decent lo mein or burrito bar? And the two premium restaurants were totally not worth it -- $25 per person for generic “Italian” food or $35 for a lousy steakhouse. They should consider getting a chain or established chef to set up a restaurant – if they can source some decent-quality food that a real chef would accept. *The drinks were a price gouge…but they have you by the balls. You can bring on wine, but not even a large-format beer. Basically if you enjoy drinking, you have to pay out the nose.
*WiFi was expensive and unreliable – if you expect dial-up speeds, you will be sorely disappointed. *There were incessant announcements on the PA loudspeaker system to announce “important” information like longitude/latitude, pre-scheduled port stops we already knew about, and opportunities to spend money at the overpriced duty-free and jewelry shops. These woke us up if we dared to relax during our “vacation,” and were obnoxious in content and volume. They woke us up at 6am on debarkation day even though many of us were not allowed off the ship until 10. Awesome! *The island stops were too short, and Royal Caribbean tried to mislead passengers that the only safe areas were the ports, where all shopping basically went back to the cruise line. I don’t see the point of taking a ship somewhere beautiful in the Caribbean, but not getting time to actually experience these places. For people who enjoy the cruising experience aboard the ship, why bother stopping? It seemed like a lose-lose proposition for me. *Finally, while they’re truly amazing people, the cruise staff are overworked, and abused by Royal Caribbean. While the option to work with a cruise line might be a better career choice than staying in their home countries, they should be treated fairly on par with American employment laws and not treated so horribly. It is depressing to see, and I felt ashamed that my family did business with Royal Caribbean. It was typical to learn that some staff members worked 15-17 hour days with no days off. And they are penalized without-pay if they happen to get sick. Sure, it’s just business. But I think a company should be judged not only by how profitable they are, but also by how decently they treat the people who work with them to help them succeed. For the absolute best part of this company, the staff was not properly appreciated by Royal Caribbean.
I hope some of this might help people make their cruise related decisions in the future – the bottom line is that if you already like cruising, you probably will enjoy this ship and itinerary with a few exceptions. And if you’re not sure about the cruise experience, there are some downsides that are probably worth being warned about in advance.
Overall, the most important thing I can say that should apply to everyone is that Labadee was, in my opinion, the absolute worst part of the trip--and a waste of time and money. Even if you’re gung-ho about taking a cruise with Royal Caribbean, I’d urge you to check out an itinerary that avoids this lame excuse for either a resort or a genuine port stop. I looked through their port brochure, and am intrigued by some other places they serve such as Puerto Rico and St. Maarten.