Vacation 2018: Western Caribbean

23 November 2018

Synopsis

Notes and impressions from our November 04 – November 12, 2018 Western Caribbean cruise on the Royal Caribbean International Empress of the Seas.


This year, our Thanksgiving time cruise was taken on the Royal Caribbean International Empress of the Seas. This is our first cruise on Royal Caribbean International (RCI) and obviously our first on Empress of the Seas which sails out of Port of Miami.

Unlike most all of our cruises in the past, this time we made reservations on the spur of the moment mainly due to the fact that this ship made stops in Cuba, a place I wanted to visit before becoming overrun with tourists, and because another port of call was Santiago.

Additionally, since we are now Costco Travel converts, we booked through their website.

The Itinerary

  • Labadee, Haiti
  • Key West, Florida
  • Havana, Cuba
  • Nassau, Bahamas

Labadee or Labadi was our first port after a full day at sea. Labadee is one of Royal Caribbean’s private islands, the other being CocoCay in the Bahamas. Labadee is mostly a beach destination. Yes, there is a zip line and a coaster but for most folks it’s a beach day.

We spent most of our time on Nellie’s beach—on a beach chair, not in a cabana. Another nearby beach with a swim-up bar unusually named Adrenaline Floating Bar, had a somewhat rocky bottom so walking out was uncomfortable. All in all, I would say nothing special there.

Royal Caribbean did provide a barbeque lunch on the beach so we didn’t have to buy any food on our own. Lunch consisted of burgers, hot dogs, ribs, and chicken with the usual sides. There were long lines and not an overabundance of seating so it was once through the line.

After another day at sea, we arrived in Key West, FL. We didn’t sign up for any ship excursions, we just bought our own tickets near the aquarium for the hop on, hop off Old Town Trolley and the Hemingway Home and Museum.

We only rode the trolley to the Hemingway House so that we could get in before the crowds, which was a good decision. The tour was informative without leaving you overwhelmed with minutia. There was plenty of time to take pictures and to walk around on your own. The tour guides were very friendly, unlike some of the snooty ones we’ve experienced on other tours. Something that surprised us and probably many other visitors as well was the fact that there are some 60± polydactyl cats living on the grounds, that is, there are cats everywhere. Some of the cats are even descendants of the original cat given to Hemingway by a ship’s captain.

A few doors down from the Hemingway Home is the Moondog Café where we stopped to have pastries and refreshments. The Moondog Café was awesome, very friendly staff and great pastries. They also have large, clean restrooms.

After having lunch on the ship, we went back out and caught the trolley again in order to ride the full tour. We decided to get off at Key West’s most famous tourist spot that being the Southernmost Point Buoy. This is a total tourist trap but hey, why not join the crowd at least once. Everyone was taking selfies and photos even though the sun was shining directly overhead and behind the buoy—a photographer’s nightmare.

From the Southernmost Point Buoy, we walked a few blocks to the nearest trolley stop and caught one of the last trolleys of the day. After getting off the trolley, we walked around a little bit and decided to check out the oldest bar in Florida, Capt. Tony’s Saloon at 428 Greene Street.

Our ship’s original itinerary included a stop at Santiago, Cuba but Key West was substituted some time before our sailing date. This was a major disappointment since we had planned a nice excursion there. Instead, we departed Key West at 11:00 pm bound for Havana.

Key West is close to Cuba, correct? Well, it still took us 15 ½ hours before we arrived in Havana at around 2:30 pm. Given the time to clear the ship and get through Cuban immigration, there wasn’t a lot of daylight left. Nevertheless, they got us to our location where we transferred to our antique car taxi. Believe what you like, but this is one of the coolest things to do in Havana. Since our tour started late in the afternoon, we were able to catch a nice sunset along the Malecon on our way to the Hotel Nacional. The Nacional is one of the most elegant hotels I’ve ever visited. Most every major world leader and Hollywood star has visited this establishment including “The Duke” himself.

The last stop on our cultural tour was at a Santeria dancing demonstration. For those unfamiliar with the Santeria religion, note the following overview taken from a BBC website:

Santeria (Way of the Saints) is an Afro-Caribbean religion based on Yoruba beliefs and traditions, with some Roman Catholic elements added. The religion is also known as La Regla Lucumi and the Rule of Osha.

Santeria is a syncretic religion that grew out of the slave trade in Cuba.

Following the Santeria demonstration, we were taken to San Francisco de Asis Square and then back to the ship. We departed Havana at 5:30 am the following day.

Street Artist Caricature
Street Artist Caricature

After leaving Havana it was on to the Bahamas.

I like the Bahamas, I could easily spend a few days there at Paradise Island. For this cruise, we booked the Seahorse Sailing and Snorkeling excursion through Royal Caribbean at $70/person. When we booked it, we were under the naïve impression that we would be seeing sea horses. We later realized that Seahorse Sailing and Snorkeling is the name of the charter. Even so, it was a decent excursion. The sailing only takes about 30 minutes to get out to the reef off of Athol Island. The crew was helpful and fitted Putae with a full-on life vest because she said she wasn’t a good swimmer. We spent about an hour in the water, lots of fish, clear water without a noticeable current. The only difficulty was getting back on the boat since the ladder didn’t extend far enough into the water.

The Ship

The Empress of the Seas is 25-years old and is the oldest and smallest ship in Royal Caribbean’s fleet. Needless to say, if you have ever cruised on one of the larger newer ships then the Empress will be somewhat of a culture shock.

On this ship you will be able to find your cabin on your first night out. Compare this to the Norwegian Epic, where by the time you walk the length of the ship fore and aft, you can either hit the buffet or skip the fitness center altogether because you will get all your exercise simply by trying to find your cabin.

Got elevators! Waiting for elevators is always a pain on a large ship, not so on the Empress. Since the ship only accommodates 1,600 passengers, lines are almost non-existent. This is true except for debarkation on the last day.

The mandatory lifeboat drill was nothing like a fire drill.

Since we made our reservations close to the departure date, our cabin choices were severely limited. We have become spoiled by balcony cabins but on this cruise, we were booked in steerage, that is, Stateroom 3536 on Deck 3 forward. Even though we had a porthole cabin the glass seemed distorted and foggy so it was difficult see out. The cabin was very small with no drawers for clothing. The bathroom shower was criminally tight.

We ate in the main dining room for all but two of our dinners. Our first night’s dining experience was disappointing. Almost all the food served seemed cafeteria quality. Putae’s French onion soup was nearly the worst she’s ever had. Same for the Caesar salad. The head waiter made the mistake of asking how everything was, so we told him. The second night we had the head chef come out and ask how our dinners were which had improved significantly. Needless to say, we became friendly with our wait staff who went out of their way to accommodate us. By the end of the cruise, service and food were excellent.

Entertainment was ho-hum in my opinion. I wasn’t impressed with the shows except for the singer/comedian we had one night. I found the house band and performers uninspiring. I found it amusing that recordings and photos were not allowed during the RCI Headliner shows because of copyright issues. I thought no one would want to copy any of these shows. The nightly karaoke in Boleros bar provided most of our entertainment.

Since we seemed to have endless days at sea, we signed up for the galley tour and brunch during our second sea day. The $35/person charge included a brunch in the Chops Grille restaurant.

Speaking of days at sea, we overheard one guest say that she felt like she was on the cruise for two months when it was only two days. I felt like it was two weeks before we arrived in Key West. I attribute this to the lack of entertainment on the ship. Considering this ship’s configuration, I don’t recommend that it be at sea for more than one or two days per trip.

The Port

Port of Miami is…well, Miami. Instead of parking outside the port at a private lot, we parked at the parking garage closest to our ship. Getting in and out of the garage was easy but cost $176 for eight days.

Embarkation was a breeze.

Sailing in and out of Miami is very scenic affording lots of photo opportunities.

Recommendations

The Empress of the Seas is a good choice for first time or infrequent cruisers. However, I highly recommend that RCI modify their Cuba cruise itineraries to allow more time in Havana and less time at sea. I would have liked to have had two full days in port instead of the usual half-day. My perfect itinerary for this ship would be Nassau on the way out with two days in Havana followed by CocoCay on the way back. I can do without Labadee.

In a previous travelogue I mentioned that I would like to try Carnival’s Vista, but after doing some searching on the web, I’m now leaning towards Holland America’s newest Pinnacle-class ship, the Nieuw Statendam.

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Copyright 2018 Gerard Sczepura