Before I get in to the story of our Independence Of The Seas cruise,
I want to start things off by introducing myself...
I'm Jim Zimmerlin (everyone calls me Jim Zim) and I always cruise with my wife, Kellyn. (Pronunciation tip: it rhymes with Helen.) We're from Grover Beach, California... a little beach town on the California coast about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. We've been cruising since 1996... and have now taken 30 cruises on 20 different cruise ships. Up until 2013, almost all of our cruises were with Carnival cruise line.
We were very happy with Carnival, but felt like we wanted to try some new experiences and see what the competition had to offer. So, in 2014 we made a point of cruising with some of the other cruise lines. We had very good experiences on two Princess cruises in 2014, and an outrageously great experience on the brand new Norwegian Getaway. Then we decided to try the largest ship in the world: Royal Caribbean's Allure Of The Seas. We had a nice cruise on Allure... loved some things about it, but felt let down by a few other things. You can read the full story of our cruise on Allure Of The Seas here.
One thing I've noticed in my previous cruises is that I've always enjoyed the newest ships the most. They tend to have the best features, most up-to-date styling, and you can easily see how bad design ideas from previous generations of ships are re-thought and improved upon with each new ship that comes along.
That brings us to this cruise. Independence Of The Seas made her debut in 2008, making her 7 years old when we sailed on her. Since there were things about even the newest Royal Caribbean ship that bothered me, my expectations for a 7 year old ship were fairly low. Boy, did Independence Of The Seas surprise me! In several different areas that are important to me, she turned out to be among the best ships I've been on.
An Introduction to "Indy"
Independence Of The Seas is one of three Freedom-class ships in Royal Caribbean's fleet. At the time those three ships were introduced, they were the largest cruise ships in the world. She carries over 4300 passengers.
Here's a little diagram, provided by Royal Caribbean, that gives you a general overview of her layout...
Onboard the ship, near the elevators, you'll find nifty 3D versions of that diagram to help you figure out where things are:
There are also very cool electronic interactive maps posted on the walls near the elevators that can help you find things. For example, you can type in your cabin number and the interactive map will display the exact route you should take to get to your cabin. Very handy on your first day on the ship! The interactive display is also really helpful with locating the nearest public restroom, or to find dining venues that are open at any particular point in time.
If you're going to be sailing on Independence Of The Seas, do yourself a favor and download the complete deck plans to your cell phone, tablet, or laptop. It's nice to be able to bring up a set of deck plans on your mobile device when you're wondering about some detail of the ship's layout... or when you're wandering around the ship completely lost!
Whenever I post one of these cruise reviews, people always ask if I happen to have copies of the daily schedules, which are known on Royal Caribbean as the Cruise Compass. We did two cruises back-to-back so that we could stretch our vacation out to 14 days. I scanned and saved the Cruise Compass newsletters in to two files: one from the 8-day cruise, and one from the 6-day cruise.
Swimming Pools & Jacuzzis
My idea of a great vacation involves a LOT of time in the water... either at a sunny beach on a tropical island, or in a swimming pool or Jacuzzi. So, let me show you around Independence Of The Seas, and let's start up on deck 11 where all the swimming pools and Jacuzzis are.
Officers versus passengers volleyball in the sports pool
On a day at sea in the Caribbean, there's no better place to be than on deck 11. There's plenty of sun, and several swimming pools and Jacuzzis to choose from, each with a little different vibe. The sports pool is located on the starboard side of the ship. It's home to the officers versus passengers volleyball games, as well as several other competitions such as the belly-flop contest and cannon-ball competition.
In this shot, you can see that adjacent to the sports pool you'll find another pool, which they simply call the main pool. It's open to people of all ages. You can also see that there's a big outdoor TV screen by those two pools, and underneath the TV is a bandstand that often features a Reggae band. Next to the big TV are two Jacuzzis that each have a big sunscreen above them to help you keep from getting sunburned. Over on the far right of that photo is a third Jacuzzi, but this one is open to the air with no sunscreen covering it. Here's a better look at that Jacuzzi, from a different angle:
You can see the "pool bar" is located right there... and because of its location next to the pools and the Jacuzzis, it's one of the most busy bars on the whole ship. If you just walk up those steps to the next level, you can get to a less-crowded bar, the Sky Bar...
Right in front of the sky bar is a nice little seating area with a great view of the big screen TV and all the stuff happening in the pools and Jacuzzis...
Make sure you're wearing plenty of sunscreen if you sit out in this area... there's no shade here, and the sun in the Caribbean will burn much more quickly than it does back home. Two things I really liked about sitting in this area were that it was somewhat wind-blocked by the Sky Bar and also that there were a lot of girls in bikinis walking around here!
If you like girls in bikinis, you'll love deck 11 early in the morning when they do aerobics by the pool...
Sarah Fretwell from the entertainment staff leads a poolside "dance fitness" class
Another beautiful sight I photographed in this same area of deck 11 was a beautiful sunset. If you look real closely at the picture, you'll see that there was another cruise ship sailing along side of us at that point...
As nice as all that looks, it actually wasn't my favorite place to hang out... because it tends to be a little noisy and rowdy out there, between the Reggae band, the athletic games, and a whole bunch of kids. My favorite swimming pool can be seen in the next picture. It's known as the Solarium pool...
The solarium pool is a much quieter, adults-only pool that is partially wind-blocked by that structure you see behind the little bridge. This was the pool for me! There was no music playing, and no kids. But what really sweetened up the deal for me was the way they heated this pool up on the second week of our cruise. As I mentioned earlier, we did two cruises back-to-back, for a total of 14 days onboard. For the first week, the solarium pool was about the same temperature as the other pools. But for some reason, on the second week, they heated the solarium pool up to Jacuzzi-like temperatures. I'm certain the water was somewhere around 95 degrees. I totally loved it in this pool during the second week. I have no idea why they heated it up the second week (or why they didn't the first week)... and I don't know whether or not they heat it on a normal week. But I sure did enjoy it that second week!
Here's a picture that Kellyn took of me relaxing in the solarium pool. It's one of my favorite pictures from the cruise, because I think it perfectly captures me on vacation, totally relaxed.
A lot of my friends have commented to me about the picture... several of them quite concerned for my watch! Not to worry... I consider a waterproof watch to be a "must have" item on vacation. There are so many things that happen at specific times on a cruise ship that wearing a watch is mandatory, as far as I'm concerned. With as much swimming and snorkeling as I do on vacation... I would never buy a watch that wasn't waterproof!
Here's another look at the Solarium pool, this time from deck 12 above...
You can see that it's a fairly small area, without a whole lot of loungers. These fill up early in the day, and it becomes impossible to get a lounger until close to dinner time. The way I ended up working around this was to just toss my towel and any other personal belongings on the deck by the base of those three copper-colored poles. It was a good place to safely stash my stuff, without hogging a lounger, while I spent time in the pool.
A couple of other things to point out in that previous picture...
The little bridge that arches over the solarium pool offers some nice shade. I liked to sit in the pool right under that bridge so that my shoulders would be in the shade and wouldn't burn. Also, notice those four dark circles in the water, under the bridge. Those are underwater stools, like you might find at a swim-up bar. It was a popular place for people to sit and chat while staying cool in the pool, and I found it to be a great place to meet people and make some new friends.
If you want to see a really nice solarium... take a cruise on Allure Of The Seas. They really came up with a great design for that ship. The solarium sits at the very front of the ship and is wind protected by glass panels. The glass panels are open at the top to allow hot Caribbean air to escape, so the temperature stays just right inside.
If There Was An Award For
"Best Cruise Ship Jacuzzi"...
...it would certainly go to the two Jacuzzis located on either side of the ship, adjacent to the Solarium pool. I spent a lot of time in these Jacuzzis!
These two Jacuzzis, one on the port side of the ship and one on the starboard side, had fantastic views... because they hang over the side of the ship! A picture taken from the pier shows it best:
These big Jacuzzis, cantilevered over the sides of the ship, are a standard feature on all the Oasis-class and Freedom-class ships... and I can definitely see why. They were big, warm, and the views were fantastic. And they're for adults only, too.
The only down side to these Jacuzzis is that they're pretty popular... so it's smart to time your visits to sometime "off peak" to miss the big crowds. I liked to come here early in the morning, or in the very late afternoon or early evening hours, to catch it when it wasn't crammed full of people.
The H2O Zone
The children's water park area on deck 11 is known as the H2O Zone. It's very popular with kids and families. Note the swimming pool with the waterfall, at the left side of that last picture. That's just one of several kids pools in this area. There are also FOUR Jacuzzis in this area, which tend to be popular with kids and their families. This next picture shows them late in the afternoon, when most of the kids had tired out and the Jacuzzis had become more popular with cruisers of all ages.
A very popular attraction in this area is the frozen yogurt machine. Help yourself... it's free, and delicious! However, this is one of those things that Carnival does better. Independence Of The Seas just has one frozen yogurt machine, and it's only open from 11 AM to 7 PM. At times, there can be 20 people in line to use it. On all of Carnival's ships, even the oldest ones, they have multiple machines around the ship and they offer both frozen yogurt and ice cream... 24 hours a day.
Sometimes, if I didn't have anything better to do, I would just take my camera up to the H2O Zone and shoot pictures of all the cute kids having fun. For a photographer, it's like shooting fish in a barrel... it never took long to find something (or someone) cute to photograph:
A funny thing happened to me when I was shooting pictures of the kids playing in the H2O Zone. I was using my largest camera lens so that I could get good pictures of the kids without having to be anywhere near them. This served two purposes: it kept me nice and dry, and it also meant that I was so far away that the kids didn't even notice me. This makes for good candid photos where the kids just act natural. However, me and my huge zoom lens must have looked a little suspicious to one of the ship's security officers! I think they thought I might have been a creep taking pictures of the girls in bikinis. So, one of the security officers took up a position behind me and watched me like a hawk. After about ten minutes, I guess he was satisfied that I wasn't a creep... and he went away. In a way, the whole thing made me feel a little weird... but I knew I wasn't doing anything wrong... and in another way I was glad that the ship's security officers were paying attention and watching out for weirdos!
This next picture shows the H2O Zone from a different angle. Towering over the area, almost as if a flying saucer was mounted on top of the ship, you can't help but notice all those big picture windows and wonder what's behind them. If you take the elevator up to deck 14, you'll find out... and you'll be treated to some spectacular views up there!
The "Olive Or Twist" lounge is up there, and it's a great place to watch the ship go in and out of port without being exposed to any wind. Here's the view from inside, when the ship was docked in St Kitts:
One word of caution, though, about the "Olive Or Twist" lounge. From about 5 PM on, the people that hang out there tend to be very nicely dressed. So, at that hour, if you're going to visit this lounge... don't show up in shorts and a t-shirt. Dress like you're going to an upscale charity event at a country club, and you'll fit in just fine. I learned that lesson the hard way the first time I visited!
From deck 14, if you take the stairs up to deck 15, you'll find the wedding chapel...
I had a funny encounter with a group of teenagers in one of the elevators one day. I'm assuming they had been exploring the ship and had discovered the wedding chapel. They were all giggling when I got in the elevator and finally they couldn't stand it anymore and one of them pointed to a boy and a girl in the elevator and said "they just got married!" I replied with "Really? Who performed the ceremony?" and one of the kids said "I did". I said "Hello, Reverend", and then turned to the alleged newlyweds and asked them if they would be consummating the marriage that night. There were giggles all around, and I left the elevator wishing I could have hung out with them for a while because they were a fun group!
As I mentioned, the Olive Or Twist lounge is a great place to see the view when the ship is in motion and it's windy on deck. If the weather is good and the winds are light, though, there's an even better place to watch the ship go in and out of port. It's the bow of the ship, on deck 5. Unlike every other cruise ship I've ever been on, the bow of the ship is open to all passengers on Independence Of The Seas. On all the other ships, it's been "crew only".
On the bow, you're standing on a helicopter landing zone that is used in cases of medical emergencies. Looking towards the back of the ship, you have a view of the navigational bridge and all the forward-facing cabins. There are many benches in this area, if you'd like to sit... but most folks just stand up along the railing for a nice unobstructed view of what's in front of the ship.
My wife, in the pink sweatshirt, checked out the city of Basseterre from the ship's bow
as Independence Of The Seas docked in St Kitts
I was really impressed with how the design of Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships allowed for passenger access to the ship's bow. It was really cool to be able to go right up to the front of the ship on a sea day and do the classic "I'm The King Of The World!" thing from Titanic.
Another good viewing area with a nice view forward is up on deck 12. Just follow the jogging track to the front of the ship. Here's a picture I shot of the crowd enjoying the view as several other cruise ships departed Ft Lauderdale just before we did.
We had a beautiful view of the harbor as we sailed out of Ft. Lauderdale...
People waving to Independence Of The Seas as she exited the harbor at sailaway
I shot a funny video as we were sailing away from Ft Lauderdale on the second week of our back-to-back cruises. I noticed during sailaway on the first week that the captain blows the ship's horn at a very specific part of the sailaway... and that it scares the hell out of the passengers who happen to be standing directly under the horn! So, for sailaway on week #2, I positioned myself in the perfect position and pointed the camera at the unsuspecting passengers standing directly beneath the ship's horn. Watch what happened:
(Click the triangle in the center of the picture to start the video playing!)
The forward viewing areas on deck 12 and 13 tend to be a bit crowded... because it's very obvious how to find those areas. The viewing area on deck 5 at the ship's bow is much trickier to find, so it tends to be less crowded. To get there, take the elevator to deck FOUR. Even though the bow viewing area is on deck five, access is via deck four. That's why a lot of people never find it!
On deck four, step outside on to this nice outdoor area:
From there, go towards the front of the ship and look for a stairway leading up. Take that stairway, and you'll end up on deck 5, and keeping walking forward until you reach the bow of the ship.
The Sports Zone
The Sports Zone, located at the aft end of deck 13, is where you'll find the rock-climbing wall, the miniature golf course, the Flowrider surf simulator, a basketball/soccer court, and the arcade.
I've never really understood the fascination with having a rock climbing wall on a cruise ship, but kids seem to enjoy it. I think Carnival's choice to have waterslides appeals to more ages. It was interesting to read recently that Royal Caribbean is going to put waterslides on her next generation of ships, and is also considering adding waterslides to Oasis Of The Seas and Allure Of The Seas.
Don't wear a hat if you're going to play miniature golf on a sea day. It gets real windy up there!
The "sports court" can be used for either basketball or soccer
The best feature of this area is the Flowrider surf simulator.
Sometimes, if I had nothing better to do, I would just go up there and watch the people surf.
At the back of the ship, just below the Flowrider, there are a whole lot of loungers that very few people ever use.
If you get annoyed by large crowds at the main pool, come back here for some peace and quiet.
After cruising a lot with Carnival, where there is no such thing as deck 13,
it was nice to see one on Royal Caribbean's ships.
I like to think of myself as slightly more intelligent and evolved than men of 500 years ago. I will walk under a ladder if I want to. I don't keep garlic around the house to ward off vampires. Black cats don't bother me. And I see absolutely no reason that the deck above deck 12 should be deck 14. I like knowing that rational people are running Royal Caribbean.
Here's another great Royal Caribbean idea that Carnival should steal... every night at midnight, they change out these little carpet sections in the elevator, to provide a little reminder to the passengers about what day it is. It's easy to lose track of the days of the week when you're on vacation!
I've been mentioning a few comparisons between Carnival and Royal Caribbean... and this is one where Royal Caribbean definitely loses. Carnival's "Guy Fieri Burger" absolutely beats Royal Caribbean's "Johnny Rockets" burger... both on taste, and on price. The Guy Burgers on Carnival are not only free, but they're much better tasting than the $5 Johnny Rockets burgers on Royal Caribbean.
Guy Fieri Burger on Carnival Cruise Line... it's absolutely DELICIOUS!
One of the things I've really enjoyed about having cruised on twenty different cruise ships is seeing how cruise ship designs evolve over time. For example, on Carnival, you look at the waterslide on their oldest ship and then take a look at the waterslides on each newer ship design and see how they got a little better with each generation. Taking that a step further, it's also interesting to see how some of the competing cruise lines will take an idea from a competitor and improve upon it. Using waterslides as an example again... Carnival gradually improved their waterslides over the years, culminating in the amazing "Green Thunder" vertical-drop slide... and then Norwegian Cruise Line did them one better by taking Carnival's vertical-drop waterslide idea and put it on NCL's newest ships... but not just one vertical-drop slide... they've got two, plus three conventional waterslides, for a total of FIVE on one ship!
So, I was somewhat amused on Independence Of The Seas to see the root of another idea that Norwegian Cruise Line has gone on to steal and improve upon in their newest ships. It's the idea of offering both indoor and outdoor seating at a specialty restaurant along the side of the ship. On Independence Of The Seas, you can eat your Johnny Rockets hamburger inside, or you can eat it outside in a covered dining area along the side of the ship:
Here's a picture I shot on Norwegian Getaway last year, of the same basic idea...
only instead of just offering it at one specialty restaurant like RCCL does,
NCL offers it at four different specialty restaurants and several different bars
in an area of the ship known as "the Waterfront"
"The Waterfront" outdoor dining on Norwegian Getaway
Now while we're on the subject of food and dining, I have to tell you something about my wife and I that may shock you! There's something we do on cruises that some people find a little bizarre... we eat just about every meal in the buffet restaurant rather than ever having a fancy sit-down meal in one of the main dining rooms.
Unless we go to one of the specialty restaurants, such as Chops Grille or Giovanni's Table on Independence Of The Seas, we totally avoid the main dining room and just eat all of our meals -- breakfast, lunch, and dinner -- in the buffet. There are several reasons for this:
First off, we both like to be able to actually see the food before we decide if we want it or not. In the main dining room, you might see "beef stroganoff" on the menu, but that doesn't tell you much about what's in it and whether or not you're going to like it. It's so much easier to decide if you want the beef stroganoff if you can actually look at it first.
Second, we both like being able to control the portion sizes. Maybe I'd like to try just a little of the beef stroganoff AND a little of the veal parmesan and then decide which one is best and go back and get some more. Or maybe I already know that I really like the lasagna and I want a gigantic portion of it. All of this is easy to do in the buffet, and I've had nothing but trouble in the main dining rooms.
The other thing is that my wife and I have been together for 35 years now. We don't have a lot to say to each other over dinner anymore! It was all said years ago. A typical dinner in the main dining room can last for anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours. We just don't have enough stuff to talk about anymore to fill 90 minutes a night for every night of a two week cruise! So, a quick twenty or thirty minute meal at the buffet works out much better for us.
Finally, and most importantly, there's one thing about eating in the main dining room of a cruise ship that just drives us crazy! It's the lack of any privacy. Here's an example of where they'll seat you if you ask for "a table for two" in the main dining room on Independence Of The Seas:
Look at how close those "tables for two" are to each other! You might as well just be at a table for 12, because you're going to hear every single word that the people at the next table say to each other, and they're going to hear every word of yours, too. I absolutely hate that, and it's the #1 thing that keeps me eating in the Windjammer buffet restaurant on Royal Caribbean... where there are real tables for two with some decent spacing from the next table!
We really liked the Windjammer buffet restaurant on Independence Of The Seas... and we didn't expect to, after our experience in the Windjammer on Allure Of The Seas last year. Whoever's running the Food & Dining on Indy is doing a much better job than their counterpart on Allure. The variety of food in the Windjammer was excellent. I always use Carnival as my frame of reference, since I've cruised so many times with them. At dinner in the Carnival buffet, it always irritated me that they would just serve baked potatoes every night. No matter what the main entree was, it was offered with a baked potato. And it wasn't even a very well cooked baked potato at that! I always wondered why Carnival didn't mix it up a little and serve baked potatoes one night, mashed potatoes the next night, and steak fries the next. Something to provide some variety. Well, I was certainly in potato heaven at dinner time in the Windjammer on Independence Of The Seas. Every night, there was generally three different varieties of potatoes available. Mashed potatoes every night, some kind of French Fries or steak fries every night, and then some other kind of potato like a baked potato or a an Au Gratin potato or a country-styled potato. This meat-and-potato lover was totally comfortable on Independence Of The Seas!
The only bad thing I can say about the Windjammer is that they opened for dinner way too late. Opening at 6:30 PM, it was the latest opening time I've ever seen on any cruise ship. And it totally messed up our evening! If they had opened at 5:00, or even 5:30... it would have been no problem to make it to the 7 PM show in the main theater. But because they didn't open until 6:30, we always had to end up going to the 9 PM show instead.
Kellyn and I don't drink a whole lot, but when we're on a cruise it's fun to have a margarita every now and then. Having been on 30 cruises now, we learned long ago that it's never inexpensive to get a drink on a cruise ship... except for perhaps at some special VIP party for frequent cruisers where the drinks tend to be free! But Royal Caribbean has seemed to set some kind of new record for sky-high drink prices with the new pricing they recently implemented. I didn't pay much attention to it when I first read about it on Cruise Critic... because I don't think of myself as being much of a drinker. But it definitely got my attention the first time we ordered Margaritas on Independence Of The Seas and the bill, including gratuities, came to $28.
$28 seems like an awful lot for a pair of margaritas! On Carnival, you can go to the BlueIguana tequila bar and get a PITCHER of margaritas for $25 plus tip. It certainly wouldn't cost anywhere near $28 if we ordered a pair of margaritas at our favorite Mexican restaurant here at home. Thinking about the fact that we were going to be onboard Independence Of The Seas for 14 days... let's say we each wanted one margarita every other day. That would be nearly $200 just for a margarita every other day. Seems high to me.
Eventually, we figured out ways around it. The best solution I came up with was to switch to rum & cokes instead of margaritas. Those were only about $8 each. The other thing was to watch the Cruise Compass newsletter for occasional margarita specials. Every now and then they would offer two-for-one margaritas at certain bars for an hour or two.
The Royal Promenade
The Royal Promenade is a unique concept to Royal Caribbean, as far as I know. It's one of those things that when you see it... you know you're on a Royal Caribbean ship. Kind of like Carnival and their signature whale-tail funnel.
If you've never sailed on a Royal Caribbean ship with a Royal Promenade, the best way I can describe it to you is to ask you to imagine a big-city shopping mall... but in the middle of a cruise ship... and with hotel rooms in the upper levels.
For the life of me, I really can't figure out why anyone would want to stay in a cabin that overlooked the Royal Promenade. I'd sooner book an inside cabin without any windows at all. The worst part is the fact that they have some 10:30 PM parties in the Royal Promenade, complete with VERY loud music... and the speakers are located right underneath the cabin windows. If for some reason you wanted to go to bed early that night and you were in one of those cabins overlooking the Royal Promenade, you'd be totally screwed.
Here's a photo of one of those parties that takes place in the Royal Promenade. You'll see it listed in the Cruise Compass as "Dancin' In The Streets"...
A still picture doesn't do it justice, though! You've absolutely
GOT to take a look at this short video:
(Click the triangle in the center of the picture to start the video playing!)
To avoid copyright issues, when the entertainment staff does their Village People impersonation, they don't call themselves the Village People. I believe they get around it by referring to themselves as the "Yillage People"... with a Y instead of a V. Funny idea, actually! I also got a good laugh out of seeing what a commotion the Yillage People caused among the ladies when they came down from their elevated stage and actually walked through the crowd:
As a dog lover, and someone who bred puppies for 15 years, I also got a kick out of a whimsical piece of artwork that overlooks the Royal Promenade...
Here's the back side...
Remember how earlier I was discussing how much I enjoy seeing a cruise line take an idea from an older ship and improve upon it with each new generation of ships? On Independence Of The Seas they have the big red dog overlooking the Royal Promenade. On Quantum Of The Seas it became a big red bear overlooking the rock climbing wall. And on Anthem Of The Seas, it became a big Giraffe!
Speaking of dogs... we always miss our Cocker Spaniel, Morgan, when we go on a cruise. We got a good laugh out of seeing this on Independence Of The Seas:
A 2008 Morgan Roadster on display in the Royal Promenade
My wife is totally in to embroidery, sewing, and quilting... so she got a real kick out of seeing this unique piece of art hanging in the atrium above the entrance to the Royal Promenade:
That photo is a little difficult to interpret at first glance, so let me explain what you're seeing. Look at the bottom of that last photo. That's the entrance to the Royal Promenade, as seen from above. Then, look above that and you'll see a curved grey wall with a piece of artwork on it. The artwork looks something like an embroidered picture of something involving a wine glass. The amazing thing is that it's not actually embroidered, although it is made of thread! If you could get way up close to that piece of artwork, you'd see this:
The lower-right corner of that big piece of art. It's made entirely of spools of thread!
My wife totally went nuts over this. Me too, actually.
Our Cabin, Stateroom 7386
Cabin 7386 on Royal Caribbean's "Independence Of The Seas"
We stayed in a regular balcony cabin... or, as Royal Caribbean calls it, a "superior ocean-view cabin with balcony". It seemed fairly roomy and compared well to the balcony cabins we've had in other cruise ships. The big couch was a handy place to sit to watch a little TV and was also great for spreading out our suitcases when unpacking or packing. The desk had plenty of room, and two electrical outlets... one more than Carnival ships of this era.
My only complaint about the cabin was that it was difficult to store our suitcases under the bed because the cabin steward had stashed a whole bunch of stuff down there (a big comforter, for example) which took up a lot of room.
The balcony was exceptionally roomy... comparable to an "extended balcony" on Carnival's Spirit-class ships. I liked the way the balcony dividers worked. If you're travelling in a group with multiple cabins together, you can have the stateroom steward slide the balcony dividers open to create a big balcony that your whole group can share. On Carnival, these balcony dividers swing open, and it's a little awkward. Here, the balcony dividers slide open... which makes more sense. Also, notice that the glass door to the cabin slides open and closed rather than swinging open and closed like it does on Carnival. Again, Royal Caribbean's design makes more sense, as it is easy to leave the balcony door open without needing a bungie cord or a door stopper to get the door to stay open.
Here's a look at the bathroom in our cabin:
The bathroom was adequate. Not luxurious by any means, but it got the job done. I liked the sliding glass door on the shower, rather than the shower curtains that Carnival uses in their showers. The shower was the bare minimum size that I can accept. I had an issue with the showers in the standard balcony cabins on Princess... they were just too small for me. I absolutely will not stay in a regular balcony cabin on Princess again, because of those annoyingly small shower stalls. Royal Caribbean's were just enough bigger that it was OK. They don't hold a candle to the super-luxurious shower I experienced on my cruise on the Norwegian Getaway, but it's not a fair comparison because that was a more expensive cabin.
I liked the styling of the cabin doors and the hallways on the Independence Of The Seas, too. Here's the door to our cabin:
Notice the pink tint to the door and the walls in the hallway. Also, the 3-dimensional pattern in the door. It was a minor thing, but I thought it gave a slightly-upgraded look to things in the hallway and that it was a nice little design touch. One other little design thing that I liked was that the hallways weren't just long straight corridors that ran perfectly straight down the entire length of the ship. There were curves to the hallways in a couple of places...
The shows on Independence Of The Seas seemed a little out of date to me... like something in the style of the shows on Carnival 10 years ago. The production values were certainly nowhere near as advanced as the shows I had seen on Allure Of The Seas last year, or as technically advanced as what Carnival does in the "Playlist Productions" shows these days. Where Carnival's new shows use electronic displays that can put backgrounds in to motion and move with the music, the shows on Independence Of The Seas utilized old-school physical sets. The shows were very much the traditional song and dance style of show that have been featured on cruise ships for years and years.
Sure, they have wireless microphones now... there are smoke machines, and lights that move all around... and a lot of the music is contemporary... but at their core, these shows were very traditional cruise ship song and dance shows.
The one thing I did see that wowed me was the set in this Pinocchio scene. The stuffed Teddy bears up on the top shelf danced to the music... something along the lines of the enchanted Tiki garden at Disneyland.
While I really enjoyed my cruise on Independence Of The Seas, and in some very important areas this ship was the best I had seen among the 20 cruise ships I've sailed on... I didn't think it fared very well in the areas of production shows, headliner shows, and general entertainment. There was a LOT that I liked about Independence Of The Seas, but the evenings... when I expected to be entertained... were a bit of a disappointment. I've seen far better headliner shows on Carnival and also on Allure Of The Seas.
One tip for you, if you attend any kind of musical show in the Alhambra theater: sit up in the balcony on deck four, not down in the lower seating area on deck three. The sound mix is much better up in the balcony. Down below, you're too close to the instruments in the orchestra... especially the drums. The drums really overpower the mix down in the lower seating area. Up in the balcony, the sound mix is much better.
I was delighted to see a feature on Independence Of The Seas that I had come to appreciate on Allure Of The Seas last year... the multi-purpose entertainment venue known as "Studio B". Some people simply call it the ice skating rink, but it's really much more than that. Really, it's a theater... with stadium seating... and a center stage. Pull away the cover to the stage, and there's a real ice rink underneath there... which allows them to put on some pretty cool ice skating shows!
Years ago, when I first read about cruise ships with ice skating rinks, it sounded like kind of a dumb idea to me. After reading lots of positive comments about the ice shows online, I decided to actually attend one on Independence Of The Seas. Wow! I get it now. It was a great show.
Not only was the ice skating Olympic-quality... most of the performers were former Olympic ice skaters... but there was really great music in the show, too. I definitely enjoyed it... and I was glad that this was one rare case where Royal Caribbean didn't try to nickel and dime the passengers. Admission to the show was free.
The pros aren't the only ones who get to use the ice rink. If you know how to skate... you'll be pleased to know that there are some times set aside for passenger skating, too.
As I mentioned earlier, Studio B is about so much more than just ice skating. When they cover the ice rink, the room becomes a big arena with a huge stage in the center. It becomes the most perfect possible venue for the late-night adults-only audience participation show known as Quest.
If you're easily offended, don't attend Quest! But if you've got a bit of a raunchy sense of humor, and you like to let loose and have some fun... this is the game show for you. Personally, I would never get on the stage and participate in this kind of thing... but I always get a few laughs from sitting in the audience and watching!
There was a little something for everyone as far as music was concerned on our cruise. There was a reggae band that played out by the swimming pool. There was a classical duo (piano & violin) that performed a very classy show up in the Olive & Twist lounge on deck 14. There was a Latin band that played in Boleros. A solo act (guy singing and playing guitar) performed in some of the bars. As usual on a cruise ship, there was the traditional piano bar singer. The stage shows and headliner acts had a real orchestra playing along. But my favorite musical act of all... which I thought was the best cover band I had ever seen in 30 cruises... was a four-person band called Synergy.
For you to really appreciate how good Synergy was at entertaining the passengers, I need you to watch two short videos which give you a glimpse in to their act. In the first video, we see the opening song from one of their performances. The lead singer plays it fairly straight and performs the song from the stage like most bands would... albeit with a lot more spunk and personality!
In the first video, you learn that the girl can definitely sing and put on a show. But in the 2nd video, you really see the true brilliance of her performing style. You see, this girl doesn't generally sing her songs from the stage. She loves the audience too much too stay up there! She likes to go out on the dance floor and perform with them... or to go in to the audience and sing from among them. Watch the 2nd video and you'll get a little taste of it...
I totally enjoyed Synergy and caught as many of their shows as I could. The frustrating thing for me was that I didn't discover them until almost the end of the first week of our two-week cruise. So, I missed most of their shows the first week. But it was a real joy to catch their shows that 2nd week. They were definitely the best cover band I've seen on a cruise ship. They beat the heck out of those Filipino cover bands they use on the Carnival ships!
Normally you wouldn't think of Haiti as a vacation hot spot. It's one of the poorest countries in the world, with a whole lot of political instability and about the worst living conditions you'll find in the Americas. But Royal Caribbean has developed a little portion of Haiti as their own little private vacation paradise. And paradise it is...
One of the best days of our 14-day cruise was spent right here under the palm trees of Columbus Cove.
For most passengers, a day at Royal Caribbean's private destination at Labadee will basically be a day at the beach. Swim in the warm Caribbean waters and relax on a lounger. Buy some drinks, if you'd like, or just enjoy a free barbecued lunch. For those interested in a little more excitement, rent a jet ski, go snorkeling, or play on the inflatable toys at the water park:
There's also a gigantic zip line, a bobsled ride, and a waterslide! If you'd rather take it easy and you're willing to shell out a few bucks to be served, rent one of the bungalows overlooking the water.
You've got to be careful about sunburn at a place like this. Even if you cover yourself with sunblock, you can get a pretty nasty sunburn after spending the day here... if you're not careful.
There are several distinct areas within Royal Caribbean's Labadee development. I recommend going to the one furthest from the ship... it's called Columbus Cove. The most important thing it's got going for it is a lot of trees and a lot of shade... to help you keep from getting sunburned. Also, because it's the furthest from the ship, it's the least crowded. The beach at Columbus cove is really nice. There are no waves, and the sand is soft and plentiful. No beach shoes needed in the water at all. There are bathrooms, and a restaurant serving a free barbecue lunch. It's not really that long of a walk from the ship... but there's a tram that can take you there if you don't want to walk it. Also, Columbus Cove is where that water park is located... so if you've got kids, this is definitely where you want to go.
One of the most popular beaches at Labadee is called Adrenaline Beach. It's the beach where you can watch the people come screaming down off the hill on the zip line. That's definitely fun to watch! The problem, as you can see from this next picture, is that the loungers are all out in the direct sun. So, wear lots of sunscreen, cover yourself up after a while... and if you can afford it, think about renting one of those luxurious day beds!
The rocks of the breakwater help protect swimmers at Adrenaline Beach from the strong currents.
We had been to Falmouth once before, and had such a good time on a shore excursion to an all-inclusive resort that we decided to do that exact same shore excursion again this time.
The main pool at the Hilton Rose Hall all-inclusive resort
We boarded a bus at the cruise ship terminal, which took us to the Hilton Rose Hall resort. It's a great place to spend the afternoon! It's all inclusive... so you can eat or drink as much as you want whenever you want. They had a breakfast buffet going when we got there, although we skipped it since we had eaten breakfast on the ship. At lunch time, there were several dining options. I drank rum & cokes for quite a while, but stopped about 90 minutes before we had to leave... because I've learned that lesson the hard way on shore excursions before! Never drink too much just before boarding a bus for a half hour ride back to the ship. That's a painful ride if you need to use the bathroom!
In addition to the main swimming pool which you saw in the previous picture, they also have a fairly big "lazy river". Grab an inner tube, and float around the river. It's fun and relaxing. Just be careful about sunburn. There's a beach, too... although it's not really a great beach. Too many little rocks and too much grass growing up out of the sand. The lazy river, the main pool, the restaurant, and the bar were all I needed. There are lockers if you want to lock up your stuff while you float around the lazy river, too. Last time we were here, I noticed a woman bathing topless at poolside. Must have been a European guest! There weren't any topless sunbathers this time.
Later, back at the ship, I snapped this picture as the ship sailed away from the port facility at Falmouth:
Grand Cayman is one of those classic destinations that cruise ships visit all the time. I've been there a whole bunch of times before, but this was the very first time I've been there when we were the only ship visiting that day. On my previous visits, it has sometimes seemed like there was a whole navy full of cruise ships docked off shore. But this time, we were the only ship there.
On previous visits, we've gone to Stingray City (twice)... gone snorkeling... did a Snuba excursion... visited the turtle farm... and explored the area around the pier. This time, we decided to try something that would get us out a little further, for a closer look at some of the rest of the island. We signed up for a Jeep tour.
Basically, it's four people to a Jeep. You can work it out among yourselves who is going to drive, or if you want to rotate drivers, or what. If you're just a couple, you're going to get paired up with another couple. Or, if you want, you can ride in the Jeep with the lead driver... which is what we elected to do. They drive on the left side of the road in Grand Cayman, and the last thing I wanted to do was to take any kind of risk that might lead to a vehicle accident and some financial liability. So, I was perfectly happy to just be a passenger. And I came to find out that riding in the lead Jeep with the pro driver is the most fun of all... because he drives like a crazy man! You'd think he'd be trying to set a good example for all the people following him. No. He drove like a maniac. And that made it fun!
The first stop on our little Jeep adventure was a very secluded beach within Barker's National Park...
Barker's National Park on Grand Cayman island
If we could have stayed here for an hour and done a little swimming... it would have been great. But all we did was stand around and look at it for a few minutes, and get lectured on the history of the island.
Next, we drove to a classic Grand Cayman tourist trap. A little part of the island called Hell. The primary thing to do in Hell is to send off a post card to your friends back home letting them know that you were writing from hell. I couldn't think of a more boring way to spend a half hour of my vacation. I guarantee you that I will not be returning to hell.
The one thing Hell had going for it was a large infestation of Iguanas. So, at least I got a good iguana photo out of the visit...
Our next stop was what was described in the tour literature as a visit to the "Tortuga Rum Cake Factory". I was excited about this, as I totally LOVE Tortuga rum cake. I thought it would be cool to see the actual factory and how they are made. Turns out that the real factory is in an industrial part of town and that's not where we went. We went to what was apparently the very first building that they started making the rum cakes in many years ago. Now it's been converted to a rum cake store... not really much different than the rum cake store we could have visited right next to the pier for free. Now you'd think that if you travelled all the way to Grand Cayman and drove all the way to the original location of the Tortuga Rum Cake factory, that you'd be able to get a good deal on some rum cake, wouldn't you?
Imagine my shock to discover that the prices were actually the same as what they were getting for Tortuga rum cake in the airport gift shop in Houston and the gift shop aboard Independence Of The Seas. Which, by the way, was a dollar more than the price of buying that very same rum cake at Amazon.com with free shipping included.
As far as I'm concerned, the Jeep adventure shore excursion was the biggest waste of $200 I've ever made in all of the 30 cruises I've taken.
San Juan, Puerto Rico
As our ship pulled in to San Juan in the early morning hours, I was delighted to see an old friend waiting for us at the docks... the Carnival Splendor. I had sailed on her in 2010, about nine months before a terrible incident in which a fire in her engine room totally disabled her and left her adrift off the coast of Mexico. The poor passengers on that particular cruise had to go without working toilets for several days before she finally got towed back to San Diego. The ironic thing was that, during the week that incident occurred, I was not very far away... on a different Carnival cruise ship. In planning my November 2010 vacation, I had to chose between the Carnival Splendor and the Carnival Spirit. I had just been on the Splendor in February, so I chose the Spirit. Damn good thing! I would not have wanted to be on that poop cruise.
The other thing I find interesting about the Carnival Splendor is that she is a sister ship to the Costa Concordia, which famously ran aground on Giglio island in Italy, thanks to the world's worst cruise ship captain, Francesco Schettino. The Carnival Splendor was originally designed and ordered as a Costa ship. She is nearly identical to the Costa Serena, Costa Pacifica, Costa Favolosa, Costa Fascinosa, and the ill-fated Costa Concordia. At some point during the construction, executives within the Carnival Corporation decided that Carnival needed a new ship more than Costa did... so the Costa ship under construction was handed over to Carnival and became the Carnival Splendor. Whenever I saw those crazy pictures of the Costa Concordia aground off Giglio island, I would think about my cruise on the Carnival Splendor... and wonder "what if?"
So, a lot of things came to mind when I saw the Carnival Splendor docked in San Juan that morning.
San Juan is another place I've visited several times before in my previous cruises. However, in all those previous visits I somehow never managed to do one of the most classic tourist activities one can do in San Juan... tour the historic forts that protected the city back in the old days. I'd seen the forts before... you sail right past them when you cruise in and out of the harbor at San Juan... but I had never gotten around to actually visiting them before. My vacation time is very precious to me. I mostly like to spend it in a swimming pool, a Jacuzzi, or on a very warm beach somewhere. Touring historic sites is not really how I normally like to spend a vacation day. But this time, I was going to do it.
One of the reasons I especially wanted to visit the historic fort known as "El Morro" is that I'm a big fan of the Greek composer/musician, Yanni. He did a concert there on the grass in front of El Morro back in 2011, and made it available as a PBS pledge-break concert as well as a Blu-ray and a DVD. I'm a fan, so I thought it would be cool to see this very unique place where Yanni did his concert.
Before the cruise, I did a little research online so that I could find my way around town and get to El Morro as easily as possible... and hopefully without incident! In a previous visit to San Juan, I fell for a con artist's story at the pier and ended up giving a guy $20. He had some abrasions on his face and approached my wife and I with a sob story about being an American visiting San Juan and getting mugged a few blocks away. He said he needed some money to catch a cab back to his hotel. I believed his story and gave him $20. Upon returning home and mentioning this story to some folks at Cruise Critic, I discovered that he was a well known con artist who had been working this same con for a LONG time at the pier with cruise ship tourists. That was a few years ago... I'm older and wiser now! But this time I was planning on venturing pretty far away from the safety of the cruise ship... so I was hoping some good research online would help prepare me for what was ahead.
It turns out that there are two historic forts in old San Juan, and both are part of the national park system. If you pay for admission to one (I think it was about $5) you can have free admission to the other. The best part is that there's a free trolley bus that will take you there... right from the pier where the cruise ships dock.
So, we got off the ship in old San Juan and went looking for the free trolley. I guess I should have researched it just a little more... because I was a little unclear on exactly where you picked up the trolley. I thought in our previous visits to San Juan I had seen it picking up people right there at the street next to the cruise ship pier. Turns out that was something else. It took me a confusing few minutes of walking around to finally figure out that the pick-up point for the free trolley is actually across the street from the cruise ship terminal... on Calle Juan Antonio Coretejas. It's marked as trolley stop #1 on this map.
Eventually, we found the trolley stop and within about a minute, the trolley showed up! Nice timing. We hopped aboard, and within a few minutes were dropped off at the closer of the two forts that I wanted to visit: Castillo de San Cristobal.
I think we got there somewhere around 9:45 AM and the fort didn't actually open up (remember, it's operated by the National Park Service) until 10 AM. So we found a shady spot (it was quite warm that day) and waited for the fort to open. Eventually it did, and we started poking around and exploring the various nooks and crannies. It was kind of fun! Not something I want to do on every vacation, but fun for this one time. Eventually we made our way up to the top of the fort and were delighted to discover we had a pretty good view of the cruise ships from up there...
The zoom lens on my DSLR makes it look like we were a lot closer to the ships than we really were!
From the top of San Cristobal, we could see exactly how to get to our next destination, the fort known as El Morro... which stands at the entrance to the harbor.
It looked like it wouldn't be much of a walk, but since it was a very warm day and I knew exactly where to pick up the free trolley in front of San Cristobal, we figured we would just catch the trolley. The only question was... how often did the trolley run? We didn't know, but we figured we'd find a shady spot and wait for a while. We could always elect to walk if the shuttle didn't show up for a while. So, we waited. And we waited. And we waited some more. No trolley. So, we decided to walk. I figured that Murphy's law of touring San Juan meant that about a minute after we walked away from the trolley stop, the trolley would show up. But surprisingly, we walked all the way from San Cristobal to El Morro, along the exact route the trolley takes, and we never saw a trolley the entire time!
So, finally, we made it to El Morro... a place I had seen from the deck of cruise ships several times when cruising in and out of San Juan... and also a place I had seen in the famous Yanni concert. Also, in my pre-cruise research, I had seen a million pictures of it. But actually standing there was pretty darned cool... I have to say!
In the foreground, the Cementerio Santa Marķa Magdalena de Pazzis... with El Morro in the background.
Note the lighthouse on top of the fort... added in 1909. El Morro dates back to the 1539.
Notice the white coloring of the structure at the cemetery. Now imagine the entire fort looking white like that. We see El Morro (and San Cristobal) now as dark, discolored brick structures... but back in the day, they had a beautiful white veneer on them. It's long since fallen off, and it would be too costly and difficult to re-do... so the forts look very different now than they did back in the day when they were a very beautiful white color!
This is the corner of El Morro closest to the harbor entrance. On the left, you can actually see
the red and green navigational buoys that the cruise ships use to stay in deep water when transiting.
Imagine all those breaks in the wall with cannons mounted beside them, back in the old days.
I won't bore you by sharing a whole bunch more pictures of El Morro. If you want to see more, Google is your friend. Or, better yet, take a cruise and go visit El Morro in person! I got a particular thrill out of standing there and imagining Sir Francis Drake attacking El Morro (unsuccessfully) by sea in 1595. The gunners at El Morro ended up shooting a cannonball through the cabin of Drake's flagship... and a metal chain was drawn across the narrow harbor entrance to prevent Drake's ships from entering. He was defeated and many of his ships sunk.
In 1898, during the Spanish-American war, US Navy warships actually attacked El Morro. They shelled El Morro for almost a full day. Six months later, after the treaty of Paris ended the war, Puerto Rico became US territory.
After exploring San Cristobal and El Morro, we made our way back to the cruise ship terminal, via the beautiful little streets of old San Juan. The forts sit up on a hill, and the harbor sits at sea level, so it's an easy walk down hill, as you can see in this next picture. The trick is finding that particular street that runs all the way down the hill to the harbor.
The streets of old San Juan are a little confusing, and Kellyn could tell that I didn't know with 100% certainty exactly how to get back. As we made our way down the hill, Kellyn said something that made me laugh so hard! All the street signs in San Juan are in Spanish. So as we were walking from the fort and trying to find the little street you saw in that last picture, which leads right down to the water, she spotted a sign that convinced her we were heading in the right direction.
Kellyn: "This must be the right way, because I remember seeing that street sign on the way here! This must be the way we came!"
Me: "That says ONE WAY STREET in Spanish!
Eventually, we made it... and later that day, as Independence Of The Seas sailed out to sea, I snapped this picture of El Morro standing guard over the harbor entrance, with San Cristobal in the background:
A Close Encounter With
Quantum Of The Seas
Once all the passengers made it back on to Independence Of The Seas after a day in Puerto Rico, the captain made an announcement over the PA system that rocked my world! He said that as we made our way out of the harbor, we'd be passing Quantum Of The Seas... whose arrival in San Juan had been timed so that they could dock at the pier that we had just vacated. This was big news to me, and set me in to a furious rush of gathering camera gear so that I could make my way up to a good vantage point on deck and get some photos and video of the newest Royal Caribbean ship. (Anthem Of The Seas was put in to service a week or two after that.)
Getting a look at Quantum Of The Seas was a big deal to me, because I had come pretty darned close to sailing on her that week! Remember that last year, I sailed on Allure Of The Seas. While onboard, I decided to take advantage of the special incentives that they give you if you book another cruise while you're still onboard. So, I booked a 12-day cruise on Quantum Of The Seas... the exact same cruise which brought Quantum to San Juan on this particular day. But when I got home from my cruise on Allure, there was something that just didn't sit right with me about the cruise I had booked for April 2015 on Quantum. It was one hell of a lot of money!
I've been on a lot of cruises and I'm pretty good about making sure I'm getting a good value for my vacation dollar. A 7-day Caribbean cruise in a balcony cabin on Carnival would typically be around $2000. Put two of those back-to-back to make a 14-day cruise, and let's say you're in for $4000 on Carnival. Time it just right so that you're sailing at an off-peak time of the year, and you could even get a much nicer cabin (such as an aft-wrap) for two weeks on Carnival for well under $5000.
But if you want to sail on Royal Caribbean's newest ship, don't expect any bargains. Prices for Quantum Of The Seas have been SKY HIGH. The 12-day cruise I booked for April 2015 in a regular balcony cabin on Quantum was going to be $8000. Eight thousand! That's a lot of dough... and the more I thought about it, the more I hated the idea. So, finally, I called up Royal Caribbean and asked to change my reservation over to Independence Of The Seas. I went from a 12-day cruise on Quantum for $8000 to a 14-day cruise on Indy for only $5000. Still... it was more than I had ever paid for a balcony cabin on Carnival, but compared to $8000 for Quantum, it seemed like a much better deal. So that's how I came to sail on Independence Of The Seas, and that's why I got pretty excited when our captain announced that we'd be passing Quantum Of The Seas on our way out of the harbor!
I put a little video together of our close encounter with Quantum Of The Seas. The truth is that it's really a video love letter to an amazing looking ship! Take a look...
For me, the coolest part about seeing Quantum Of The Seas in person was getting a look at that crazy red bear up on the top deck! It seems like a very strange design choice to me!
But if you want to talk about strange design choices on cruise ships, I have to refer you to the Carnival Spirit... and the big bird sculpture that sits out next to the swimming pool... looking like a big vulture ready to pick at the carcasses of any elderly passengers who fall asleep at the pool and don't wake up!
Weird artwork by the swimming pool on Carnival Spirit
I was excited about visiting St Kitts because it was the one port of call we'd be visiting during this cruise that was new to me. I'd been to all of our other destinations before, except St. Kitts.
Something that you probably don't know about me is that I'm a bit of a rail fan. One of the things I really liked about a vacation in Alaska last year was that we got to spend several days on the Alaska railroad. Just recently, I took my interest in railroads to a new level and spent several thousand dollars on a bunch of G-scale model railroad equipment that I sometimes set up around the house. (For short periods of time, until Kellyn and I get tired of having to step over them. We've got a very small house!)
So, when I saw a railroad excursion on the shore excursion list for St Kitts, it seemed like a fun idea to me! In fact, it turned out to be a pretty good way to see the island, as the tour literally takes you in a big loop all the way around the island... full circle. The train only makes it about 3/4 of the way around the island, and then you take a bus the rest of the way. But it's a pretty great way to see St Kitts, since you end up going all the way around.
I failed to capture a decent picture of the train, but I snagged this next photo off of their web site... so you could see it.
Picture courtesy of the St Kitts Scenic Railway
It's a double-decker car with an open-air section up on top with great views, and an air-conditioned lower section... in case it gets too hot on the top deck for you. There are also bathrooms in the lower section. There's a seat for each passenger both up above and down below.... so you do not have to choose either/or... you can sit in either place any time you want. It wasn't uncomfortably hot when we were there, so Kellyn and I ended up staying up on the top for the entire ride.
Like I said, it gave us a good look around St Kitts... and what I learned about St Kitts is that there's not much there for me! It's not one of those places like Jamaica where there's mile after mile of beautiful sandy beaches. It was quite mountainous, and where the land met the ocean tended to be quite rocky. I didn't actually see one beautiful beach on the entire loop around the island.
Out of all the ports I've visited in 30 cruises, and all the shore excursions I've gone on, St Kitts and the railroad tour would probably rank in the lower 20% of my list.
Upon returning to the ship, however, I did see something that was pretty cool! Celebrity Silhouette was docked next to us in St Kitts, and that gave me a chance to really look her over well.
I've never been on a Celebrity cruise, so I really don't know anything about them. But after taking a close look at the Silhouette, I discovered something that was really interesting to me! They offer a few special staterooms, called Royal Suites, which not only have a big comfy day bed out on the balcony... but a Jacuzzi, too!
Except for financially, I can totally imagine myself in a Royal Suite... enjoying that day bed and especially the whirlpool Jacuzzi out on the balcony. At least I can imagine myself using the Jacuzzi when we're out at sea! But if that was your suite, and you were docked next to another cruise ship, would you be out there on your balcony filling the tub in your bath robe? While a guy with a big zoom lens was shooting pictures from the other ship?!? I didn't stick around long enough to see if she got in that Jacuzzi... but I have to assume she did. Perhaps she was just showing off... trying to make all of us Royal Caribbean people jealous!
By the way, if you're wondering what it would cost to cruise in the Royal Suite on Celebrity Silhouette... I looked it up. A 7-day Eastern Caribbean cruise for two people next April in the Royal Suite will set you back $11,000. Or, in other words, you could do four different 7-day cruises on Independence Of The Seas for less than the cost of one 7-day cruise in the Royal Suite on Celebrity Silhouette. But I have to admit... I like the idea of my own private Jacuzzi on the balcony!
There are two different captains currently assigned to Independence Of The Seas, and they work a rotation so that one works while the other takes a vacation break. For our cruise, the Captain was Henrik Loy, known onboard as "Captain Henrik".
Certainly one of the youngest cruise ship captains in the world, Captain Henrik is a joy to sail with. He's from Bergen, Norway, and speaks English extremely fluently... unlike some of the Italian captains we've sailed with in the past. So, he spends a lot of time talking to the passengers. There are numerous events where you can meet and chat with him, including a Q&A session in the main theater where you can ask him anything you want. He's also featured in numerous videos that explain technical features of the ship and which fill you in on details of the ship's itinerary. These videos play on the ship's television network and can be seen in all of the cabins. He also does an announcement over the ship's public address system each afternoon, focusing on details of where the ship is going, any interesting things we'll see along the way, and what the weather will be like. Thinking back over all the cruises I've been on, Captain Henrik would rank as my #1 favorite captain.
Our Cruise Director was Jamie Fentiman. He's from the United Kingdom, and so I was very excited when I heard his first announcement over the public address system on the first day of the cruise. For my money, nothing sounds smoother over the PA system than a Cruise Director with an English accent!
That brings up a story from one of my Carnival cruises...
Some people couldn't give a hoot who their Cruise Director is... but I'm not one of those people! For me, having a good Cruise Director is important. It can make a big impact on the overall tone of the cruise and whether I look back on that cruise as a polished gem or a pig with lipstick. Most of the Cruise Directors I've sailed with have been really good at their jobs... real pros that knew how to set a fun tone. The absolute best of the best is an amazing lady on the Carnival Sunshine by the name of Jaime Deitsch.
On the other hand, there was a Cruise Director on another Carnival ship that just drove me up the wall... his announcements over the public address system were so annoying. It was like he was trying way too hard to be Chris Rock or Jamie Foxx or something. So, one day we were on a cruise with Mr. Annoying Announcements Cruise Director and we were in port, docked next to a Princess ship. Ship PA systems are quite loud, so when two ships are tied up at the same dock, you can easily hear any announcements from either ship's PA system. Our guy came on over the PA system and made one of his typically annoying announcements, thinking he was the next Fresh Prince Of Bel Air. Right after that, the Cruise Director from the Princess ship made an announcement... with a beautiful English accent and just oozing with class and smoothness. I was sure that the passengers on that other ship were rolling their eyes over our guy and how poorly he fared in comparison to their ultra-smooth English CD.
So, Jamie Fentiman on Independence Of The Seas pretty much had me at hello with that great English accent of his!
When our cruise was over and Independence Of The Seas tied up at the dock in Ft Lauderdale, we were treated to a very beautiful sunrise over the Atlantic ocean...
Looking back over the two weeks we spent on Independence Of The Seas, some things were the best we've seen in 30 cruises, and some things were far from perfect! Let's see if I can summarize it...
The buffet: We enjoyed it more than any other cruise ship buffet. It was perfect for us, at least at lunch and dinner times. Good food, with lots of variety. Bonus: fortune cookies at dinner!
Synergy: The most entertaining cover band I've ever seen on a cruise ship.
Ship announcements: Captain spoke excellent English and was easy to understand. Cruise Director never made announcements to the cabins or hallways in front of the cabins. A volume control at the desk ensured that it was easy to listen to an announcement if you heard one happening outside your cabin.
Our balcony: It was the biggest balcony we've seen on a standard balcony cabin. The only times we've had bigger balconies, we've paid extra for them.
Solarium: Pool temperature was kept wonderfully warm during our 2nd week.
Jacuzzis: The two big Jacuzzis near the solarium, cantilevered over the side of the ship with fantastic views, were among our favorite ship features.
Bow access: This was the only cruise ship we've ever been on where passengers had access to the bow of the ship. We loved the views from the bow when the ship was coming in and out of a port.
Cabin safe: The cabin used a keypad for access, rather than the magnetic card system used on older Carnival ships.
Electrical outlets: Two electrical outlets at the desk.
Balcony door: Sliding door versus conventional door design... so no bungie cord or door stopper is required to leave the balcony door open.
Deck 14: Excellent views from the Olive Or Twist lounge, and protected from the wind.
Gold card perks: Passengers in suites, or who have cruised with RCCL so often as to be among the elite, get some nice perks... like a reserved section of loungers overlooking the pool, a private beach area at Labadee, and a nightly cocktail party.
Casino: Least smokey cruise ship casino I've been in. They must have excellent ventilation in there.
Buffet staff: Extremely fast to clear tables. On Allure Of The Seas, we often had trouble finding a clean, empty table in the Windjammer.
Italian restaurant: Lunch at Giovanni's Table is excellent, and only sets you back $15 per person.
Afternoon snacks: The buffet opened at 3:30 PM for afternoon snacks. I liked being able to make a plate of nachos.
Internet access: It was horribly slow, and expensive. They need to install the same technology used for Internet access on Allure Of The seas.
Breakfast: Who came up with the bright idea to make omelets with Mozarella cheese? Mozarella is for pizza. An omelet should have Jack or Cheddar.
Laundry: No self-service laundry on Royal Caribbean ships.
Water slides: No water slides on Royal Caribbean ships.
Electrical outlets: No electrical outlet near the bed.
Reserved loungers: An entire section of loungers near the main pool were reserved for Gold card holders... and they went completely unused almost every day of the cruise. This is a waste. Other passengers would love to use those.
Buffet hours: Windjammer didn't open for dinner until 6:30 PM. Should be 5:00 or 5:30 at most.
Entertainment: Very little comedy, compared to Carnival. Headliners and other shows fared poorly compared to Carnival shows.
Johnny Rockets: The burgers are nowhere near as good as the Guy Fieri burgers on Carnival, and those Guy Fieri burgers are free, too.
Ice cream: Ice cream is served in the buffet at dinner, but is not kept in freezers or even packed in ice. Within a few minutes of the restaurant opening, the ice cream is melting. If you get there an hour or more after the restaurant opened, and the ice cream has been unrefrigerated that whole time, it's a total mess.
Food: An almost total lack of Mexican food onboard. What Mexican food there was, was a joke.
Steakhouse: On formal night, extra charge increases to $40 per person. Special aged beef on the menu is ridiculously priced.
Under the bed: There was so much junk stored under the bed (such as a comforter) that our luggage wouldn't completely fit without sticking out.
Drink prices: $28 including tip for two margaritas. On Carnival, that would buy you a whole pitcher.
No glass dome: None of the swimming pools or outdoor spaces have a retractable glass dome that can be closed during rainy or windy weather.
No ABC, CBS, NBC, or Fox on the televisions.
Jim, You IDIOT!
We have an acronym that we use with increasing frequency in my family. It's "JYI"... and it stands for "Jim, you idiot!" It seems that the older I get, the more frequently the JYI moments are occurring.
During our first few cruises, it was probably normal that I made a few rookie cruise mistakes. For example, on one of our first cruises, I somehow managed to forget to pack any socks! Luckily, I discovered it on embarkation day and was able to run to a Target store and buy some the morning of the cruise. That's only a mildly stupid mistake... I was just learning at that point... and after that I started using a very detailed packing checklist when preparing for a cruise.
But now, with as many cruises as we've been on, it's just plain embarrassing when I have one of those JYI moments. On some of our recent cruises, I've had some really stupid ones!
Over the last year, I've managed to break about three different pair of prescription glasses on cruises! At one point, after breaking my regular pair, I had to wear prescription sunglasses for the duration of a cruise... which is very weird. Imagine going to dinner, or a show, wearing sunglasses. Awkward! After that, I started packing a backup pair of prescription glasses with me on cruises.
That was just one of many JYI cruise moments, though! On the Carnival Sunshine, I dropped a $1500 camera lens on to the floor of my cabin... and thought for sure I had shattered the lens when I saw bits of broken glass on the floor near the lens. It turned out that I only broke a $50 filter that had been mounted on to the front of the lens... and the lens itself was undamaged. You'd think that would have been enough of a wake up call to make me more careful with my lenses. Nope! Last year, in Labadee with Allure Of The Seas, I managed to drop a $600 camera lens on to a cement patio... in plain view of a crowd of people, too! It's one thing to have a a JYI moment privately... much worse to do so in front of a crowd. Jim, you idiot! But once again, I got very lucky and only broke a $20 lens hood mounted on the front of the lens... and managed not to damage the lens itself at all.
I also managed to forget to bring my wallet on a cruise once! Left it at home, in a drawer! Now you'd think that would practically be a vacation-ending mistake... but it actually wasn't. I had a passport with me... and all the cruise documentation and airline boarding passes... and my wife had her purse with several credit cards... so we managed to make it through without any real problems. But that was certainly a close call!
So, that brings us to this cruise... and another very close call. At the Ft Lauderdale airport, the day before the cruise, I managed to drop my laptop computer... on to a cement walkway! Luckily, the damage was very minor and my computer continues working just fine to this day.
I also managed to forget that Royal Caribbean ships don't have self-service laundry facilities onboard the way Carnival ships do. When we do back-to-back cruises on Carnival, we just pack enough clothes for a week and do some laundry in the self-service laundrette after the first cruise. So, I didn't quite have enough underwear with me to last two weeks. Luckily, I was easily able to buy some at the CVS store across from the cruise ship terminal in San Juan.
The other bit of bad luck we had was with our flights to get home after the cruise. It was going to take three flights to get from Ft Lauderdale to the little regional airport near our house... and the first flight got delayed so much that we had to scramble and change our reservations for the other two flights. By the time we finally got home, it was after midnight... and our luggage didn't make it until the next day!
Need A Travel Agent?
Booking a cruise can be confusing, especially if you haven't been on many cruises before. There are lots of first-time cruiser mistakes that a travel agent can keep you from making.
If you're interested in booking a cruise with any cruise line... please feel free to use the services of my travel agent, Caitlin Gallagher. She's extremely pleasant to deal with, easy to talk to since she lives in the United States and speaks without any kind of an accent, and quite experienced and knowledgeable about different types of cruising. Caitlin is the owner of Ambren Travel. Visit her web site, check out the Ambren Travel Facebook page, or contact her using the information below.
Our Future Cruises
Perhaps you're wondering what we've got coming up.
Later this year, we'll be returning to our favorite Carnival ship... the Carnival Breeze. We'll be doing back-to-back Caribbean cruises in a spa balcony cabin.
After that, we're tossing around the idea of flying down to Cabo San Lucas and staying in an all-inclusive resort for a week. I just can't decide if I'd really like that or not! I really like the way a cruise ship takes you to multiple destinations during a week. I worry that I might get bored staying in one spot for the entire week. Plus, I doubt that an all-inclusive resort would have the kind of entertainment that I'm used to on a cruise.
In 2016, we've got some really cool cruises planned! In the first quarter, we'll be cruising on Norwegian Cruise Line's brand new ship, the Norwegian Escape... and to make it even better, we'll be staying in The Haven! We did a cruise in The Haven on Norwegian Getaway last year, and it was the best cruise of all the ones we've ever been on. So I'm REALLY excited about getting back in to The Haven on Norwegian Escape. I'd actually cruise on NCL a lot more often... except for the fact that they offer very little variety in their itineraries. If Norwegian Getaway did some different itineraries from time to time, I'd have surely been back by now. But it's pretty much just the same ports over and over, every week. Boring. But forgetting the itinerary issue... Norwegian Getaway is the finest cruise ship at sea right now, as far as I'm concerned. I can't wait to experience Norwegian Escape in 2016.
In the second quarter of 2016, we'll be returning to Royal Caribbean to finally experience the Quantum-class. We'll be on Anthem Of The Seas... for way less than it would have cost us to sail on Quantum Of The Seas this year. Waiting a year definitely paid off.
In 2017, I'm sure we'll be sailing on the brand new Carnival ship, the Carnival Vista. I think those Havana staterooms at the back of the ship, with their own private pool area, look pretty cool! I hope they're not all booked up by the time I'm finally ready to book.
If you're researching the idea of taking a cruise on the Independence Of The Seas,
here are a few documents you might want to download:
Independence Of The Seas Deck Plans
Cruise Compass daily newsletter - 1st 8 days
Cruise Compass daily newsletter - Final 6 days
Information for consecutive cruisers (B2B)
Departure information for the last day of the cruise
A word of caution about the deck plans:
Even though the deck plans included here were the latest version available from Royal Caribbean as of May, 2015... I still noticed that they are out of date! For example, they labeled the disco on decks three and four as "The Raven" when in fact the name of the disco was changed some time ago to "The Labyrinth". Also, I don't think the deck plans for deck 14 are correct. They show a "Viking Crown Lounge" which I don't believe exists anymore. Correct me if I'm wrong!
Packing List & To-Do List
Here's my official packing list.
Perhaps this will help you think of things to pack for your cruise.
On a few of the unusual items, I'll provide a link to the exact version I recommend at Amazon.com
Airline boarding pass
Cruise boarding pass
If driving, printed directions to the hotel & cruise terminal
Wallet (I actually forgot this on one cruise!)
Waterproof beach shoes
Underwear & socks (incredibly, I actually forgot to bring socks on one cruise)
One dressy outfit
Toothbrush & toothpaste
Travel-size Kleenex for the airplane
Lawry's seasoning salt
Laptop computer or tablet computer, including charger
Digital SLR Camera
Camera tripod, or selfie-stick
Wireless indoor/outdoor thermometer
6-outlet power strip
Cell phone & charger
Waterproof wrist watch
My pre-cruise to-do list:
Stop newspaper and mail delivery
Book shore excursions
Send an email to family members with my travel plans & itinerary
Turn off water to the house to prevent the chance of a pipe break
Turn down (or turn off) the water heater to save energy
Make sure garden sprinklers are on
Make sure house is locked and alarm system is active
On the last day at work:
Update voice mail message to indicate my return date
Update out-of-office email message, and turn it on
Make sure my temporary replacement has an updated desk guide
Put a sign at my desk indicating my return date
What Camera Do I Use?
Whenever I post these cruise reviews, I always get questions about what camera I used to take the photos.
For everything except any underwater photography, the camera I use is a Canon EOS-70D digital SLR camera. That's probably too much camera for most people... so if you're in the market for a very high quality digital SLR camera, the one I actually recommend for most people is the Canon Digital Rebel T5i. If you get one, make sure you get the T5i with the 135mm lens, not the cheap version with the 55mm lens.
I also like to have a Canon EF-S 10-18mm lens with me when I'm on a cruise ship. This is a wide angle lens, which is extremely useful when trying to shoot in small spaces (for example, those pictures you saw inside the cabin and inside the bathroom) or when shooting something very large (like a cruise ship, when you're standing on the pier next to it.)
I also bring along a tripod with me, to allow me to shoot long-exposure shots in low-light situations. It's also handy to have for shooting "selfies". I've got a tripod that is just the right size to fit inside my big suitcase but which is heavy duty enough to be stable. It also has a fluid head, which is something that's very important to look for in a tripod if you intend to use it when shooting video.
One important technique that I use, since I'm looking to getting the highest quality photos possible, is to shoot in RAW format rather than JPG. This preserves the photos with the highest possible quality, and gives me the greatest ability to tweak them after shooting them. However, it does require a lot of extra work. Any photos which I want to share (via email, Facebook, or on this web site, for example) have to be converted from RAW to JPG. This takes some time and effort, but it's worth it to me in order to get the best end results. Just about all the photos you see on this page have been tweaked to some extent to give them the best finished look. For most photos, I do some sharpening and color correction. On some photos, I have to do even more tweaking than that to get them to look just right.
The Cruise Ships We've Been On
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