The first time I ever went on a cruise was on one of those one day Bahamas cruises on the now defunct Discovery Cruise Line, an adventure that I quite enjoyed thanks to the company of close family and good friends despite the little time allowed to actually explore Grand Bahama Island before having to return to the ship. However, I quickly realized that this ship paled in comparison to a multiple day cruise and so, I decided to experience what a “real” cruise is like by booking an adventure on what is currently the largest cruise ship prowling the waters of this blue planet: the Allure of the Seas. Please note that this is all coming from someone who is basically a first time cruiser so a lot of stuff may be obvious (i.e.: fees charged) and redundant. Let’s begin.
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Booking and First Impressions
The booking process for the seven day Eastern Caribbean cruise I chose via the Royal Caribbean website was very straightforward but I found the prices listed for rooms to be very misleading and teetering very, very delicately on the borderline of overpriced. However, my booking was the equivalent of last minute when it comes to cruises so I knew I was going to pay a premium. I opted for the most inexpensive room option, the guaranteed stateroom where you throw caution to the wind and allow Royal Caribbean to decide where you will be sleeping for seven nights. I would eventually be given a “large interior stateroom” on the third deck which I thought was nice since, per the deck diagram, I would only have one person next to me and I also got to have the convenience of a couch and desk which would prove extremely useful since I decided to bring my computer along in order to stay in touch with my family.
I’m sure many have said it but pictures of the Allure of the Seas simply do not do it justice, this thing is gargantuan in its size and I couldn’t help but exclaim in exasperation and bewilderment at its size when I saw it as I drove into the port. The check-in process was surprisingly quick and straightforward and I was on the ship in less than thirty minutes.
All guests enter through the fifth deck, also known as the Royal Promenade, the sense of wonder and awe immediately envelops the first time Allure of the Seas adventurer. The assortment of bright, colored lights, the numerous shops, the elevators ascending into the upper floors, the restaurants, it all makes for an unbelievably stellar introduction and reinforces the whole feel of a city on the water.
Room / Cabin
I tried to figure out how to make it down two decks via the stairs instead of the elevators (something I would end up doing quite often as the days went by). After asking someone and then finding my room through the maze of cabins, I stepped into mine and I found the size to be much larger than what I originally had mind. I can see how the room might be a little cramped for two people but for someone who was sailing solo, it wasn’t bad at all. Yes, the bathroom is tiny and the shower especially leaves little space but I was comfortable, considering the slightly less expensive price I paid by choosing the most inexpensive room option.
Perhaps as a result of the fact that I chose a “cheap” room, I did have to endure a constant noise which I assumed was either the ship’s engine or the A/C unit running. Although it wasn’t annoying to the point where I couldn’t sleep, I was glad I packed earplugs.
Elevators: These attractive pieces of mechanical engineering and glass architecture are very convenient for getting around the ship but they can be very slow due to the sheer number of people and the many who use them to go down a single floor. I often found the aforementioned stairs to be a quicker, albeit physically exasperating alternative.
My suitcase had yet to be delivered so after getting acquainted with the room and the interactive television that allows you to order room service, make reservations and see account activity, I decided to explore the ship while making my way to the Internet cafe in order to get myself connected. Due to the enormity of the ship, actually finding the “card room” was easier said than done.
Staying connected on the Allure of the Seas would prove to be a rather costly convenience. All of the packages are sold by minutes and, though I somewhat understand the reasoning behind the prices, it’s a little steep considering the speeds provided. I opted for the $55 package which gave me 100 minutes. Contrary to what I’ve read, the speeds weren’t quite like dialup. You probably won’t be using it to stream HD videos on YouTube and it definitely won’t work for a high quality Skype chat but I found the speed very acceptable for general browsing. I made the most of my time by writing all of my messages offline and then going online once I was ready to send. I used my minutes wisely; they ran out the night before the ship made it back home.
I knew that the option of ship to shore calling is also available but from what I understand, the rates make the Internet pricing look like a major steal.
Food and Dining
After participating in the mandatory evacuation drill, I explored the ship some more but decided to go have some lunch at the buffet dining area, better known as the Windjammer Cafe. Nearly all of the reviews I read complained about how small the room is for the number of people on the ship and the poor quality of the food. I assume these are people who are pricey food connoisseurs of some kind, have gone on a number of more expensive cruise lines or are just plain difficult. The food tasted fine to me and though it did get a little crowded when the doors are first opened for breakfast, lunch and dinner, there was a never a point where I felt I was making a major effort to find an empty table. Unless you absolutely must have a meal when the doors first open, I suggest waiting a half hour or so for those early dining crowds to disperse a bit.
Although I chose the My Time Dining option in order to avoid eating at a specific time when it came to dinner in the main dining room (and therefore pre-paid my gratuities), I ended up never actually having dinner there. Unfortunately I have a very limited palate when it comes to food I’m willing to eat and the menus being served each evening always had strange names that did not sound the least bit appealing to me. Plus, I found the idea of having to dress up formally on two of the seven nights to be laughably ridiculous and I was not going to waste money renting a tuxedo. And lastly, considering all of the places there are to eat on this beast of a cruise ship, I certainly wasn’t going hungry either. Besides the Windjammer Cafe, there are several smaller places to dine at no additional cost. The one where I dined the most was the Sorrentos pizzeria. I think I probably consumed more delicious cheese slices during the seven days I was on the Allure than I have this entire year. Again, I read numerous reviews that said the pizza was less than stellar but again I beg to differ.
There is free coffee, desserts and pastries at the Cafe Promenade but sadly espresso is extra and there is, unsurprisingly, no such thing as the Cuban variety on board, something that I dearly missed. The Park Cafe has sandwiches and the Wipeout Cafe serves burgers, hot dogs, fries. The Solarium Bistro has a healthier menu and is reserved for adults only. Really, there’s no way you can go hungry on this ship.
There are also several “specialty” restaurants that cost additional money (conveniently charged to your SeaPass account) but I was fine with the free options.
The Cost of the Open Seas
The “for fee food” brings me to my next point: I was annoyed by how hard Royal Caribbean tries to push these extra costs on top of you. From the constant reminders to buy pictures and souvenirs, book your next cruise, eat at one of the “specialty” restaurants, use one of the spa services, buy watches and handbags by high end retailers, it can come close to ruining the whole vacation experience since you’re exposed to these “deal” opportunities for seven straight days. I know Royal Caribbean has to make their money somehow but since I am on vacation, I don’t need the relaxed ambiance to be disturbed by near constant pestering to increase my final SeaPass account bill. Speaking of pictures, there are photographers roaming the Royal Promenade at what appears to be all times, more than eager to snap a picture of you. I strongly suggest bringing an SLR or a good point and shoot and doing it yourself or asking someone to take a picture of you. The majority of guests on board will be more than happy to take a picture of you, as I myself did for a large group of Chinese tourists.
Perhaps my biggest complaint was the mini bar, otherwise known as the tiny fridge stocked with soda, snacks and Evian bottled water. I drink a lot of water at home so I enjoyed one bottle of water, a soda and the box of M&Ms and cookies that were provided. Some time during the week, I arrived back at my room and noticed a receipt on the desk. Sure enough, the items I had consumed had been conveniently restocked in my fridge and I was charged for them. I found this ridiculous for two reasons:
1) The sole fact that these cold drinks and goodies are provided to you in your room on day one and are readily accessible just seemed to me like another devious means of Royal Caribbean getting a few extra bucks out of their guests.
2) Although I did consume and enjoy the soda, water and snacks, I never asked to have the mini bar restocked yet they took it upon themselves to do so anyway and charge me for it.
Needless to say, I never touched the mini bar again and relegated myself to climbing the two decks up to the Royal Promenade and filling my Royal Caribbean souvenir cup with soda whenever thirst struck.
What’s that? A souvenir? Yes, I did invest in a souvenir but not for the reasons you may be thinking. You see, soda, juice, these appear to cost money everywhere else except when in the dining rooms. Before your sail date, there’s the option of buying drink packages which include bottles of Evian water in various pre-determined quantities, each more expensive than the other depending on how many you want, the same goes for juice. However, there is an unlimited soda fountain package which cost $52 and earns you a plastic Coca Cola and Royal Caribbean logo emblazoned souvenir cup that you can fill up with as much soda as you desire.
All alcoholic drinks carry a 15% gratuity, separate from the ship gratuities that must be paid. I enjoyed some concoction called Mango Lava the first evening which was great but I ended up sticking to my trusty soda souvenir cup and my carbonated drinks because my bill would have gotten expensive considering the amount of time I would end up spending in the various bars throughout the ship during the seven day adventure. I did however give my server an extra tip in the oh so convenient “additional tip” space provided for servers who give outstanding service, the dude was very friendly and even made an effort to try and talk to me about gadgets even though he nearly insulted me by automatically assuming that my HTC One X was an iPhone. Blasphemous.
I’ll end this section by noting that since my cruise, I have learned that most, if not all of these extra costs tacked on are standard and/or common among major cruise lines so my earlier gripes may be moot. Since this is being written from a first timer perspective, I feel it’s still important to make note of them.
Fun and Entertainment on the Allure of the Seas
Enough with the nickel and diming. The Allure of the Seas has a mindbogglingly exhaustive list of things to see and do, I can honestly say that there was never a moment where I was trying to figure out how to keep myself entertained.
The pool and sports deck is massive and there is always a lounge chair nearby. I spent two afternoons there and would often just hang out in one of the al fresco bars while listening to music. It’s here where you’ll find the Flowrider, which pumps out highly pressurized “waves” and passengers attempt to stand up on one of the boards and actually surf. There are bleacher style seats where you can sit and watch people make fools of themselves and crash spectacularly
One thing that did gross me out was the sheer amount of people walking around barefoot beyond the pools into the Wipeout Cafe, the elevator areas and even the Royal Promenade. I don’t care how much they may clean those floors; I questioned why anyone would expose themselves to whatever germs and possible infections may be lurking.
Going back to the bars, there are plenty of them with different themes for different folks. I spent most of my time in On Air and Boleros, a karaoke and Latin bar, respectively. On Air was always packed during the evenings, especially during the singing competitions. It was wonderfully lively and the host of the shows who goes by Key West Mike does a great job of keeping the crowd entertained.
Boleros had a live Colombian band playing a variety of Latin genres and songs that I grew up with. I get a kick out of watching people dance and have a good time so I’d usually spend my time waiting for a show to begin by jamming to the music and seeing the various people from all over the globe get their groove on. There is also a jazz lounge, the two story Dazzles club where I partied to a lively night of old school Michael Jackson songs along with a bunch of other strangers, the relaxed Viking lounge on the 17th deck with a great view of the park, the 21 and over Blaze club and well much, much more.
A notable sight on the Royal Promenade is the Rising Tide bar. It’s basically a platform that goes up to the eighth deck and back down every so often. After a few minutes the novelty wears off but it’s yet another bar that is usually packed due to its small size.
The Cruise Compass which is delivered to your room every evening has a huge list of activities and events taking place throughout the day and you can always use one of the interactive touch panels on each deck to find out what’s going on at the moment. I went to a number of various activities beyond the bars and lounges during the seven days so if you find yourself bored on this ship or without something to do, you really do have only yourself to blame.
I had made reservations prior to the cruise for all the shows which by the way are also free. The first of these was OceanAria, a sort of watered down (no pun intended) Cirque du Soleil of sorts that takes place in the ship’s Aqua Theater. It consisted of several people diving into the deceptively deep pool, dancing and general acrobatics, very entertaining stuff.
It’s worth getting to any show at least half an hour early if you want the best seats. The lines will quickly fill up and there is no reserved seating allowed even though plenty of people still did it anyway. There are also seats that are only for “Gold” members which are generally the ones located in the prime middle section.
My next show was stand-up at the Comedy Club, the comedians being some guy whose name I unfortunately cannot remember and Phil Tag who apparently makes regular appearances on Jay Leno. The venue itself is great, emulating the intimacy of a comedy club. The very adult material was quite funny though it may bother those who are easily offended or decide to roll the dice and sit in the front row. Both comedians also performed an all ages show of new, less risque material towards the end of the cruise.
Chicago was the next show and the one I was most excited about, being a fan of the film soundtrack. I enjoyed the show but it also made me understand what former American Idol and now X-Factor judge Simon Cowell meant whenever he deemed a performance like that of a cruise ship. The performances and production values obviously didn’t reach the levels of the film but they also didn’t match what I assume Chicago would be like on Broadway. I suppose my expectations may have been too high since my first exposure to Chicago was indeed the film version.
The headliner didn’t pique my interest so I skipped it. The next and final show was Blue Planet. This also had a very Cirque du Soleil feel but with much more elaborate acrobatics, dancing and sets as well as several singers performing a variety of popular songs from various decades like U2. Unlike OceanAria which just seemed like a collection of performances and water light shows strewn together, Blue Planet appeared to have a theme about appreciating the earth and its natural glory. That was what I was able to infer after the show was over anyway.
The Eastern Caribbean trip went to Nassau, Saint Thomas and Saint Maarten. I would’ve loved to spend more time exploring each island but with my low tolerance for the stifling heat, I explored on foot what I could before the temperatures became unbearable and I headed back to the ship.
Saint Thomas and Saint Maarten were astoundingly picturesque, full of homes of various sizes sitting atop lushly verdant hills and mountains overlooking the water. Nassau actually reminded me a lot of the city where my parents grew up and where most of my extended family lives. Two other cruise ships, the Disney Dream and Carnival Destiny also happened to be docked in Nassau and you could definitely see everyone staring at the Allure of the Seas, their ships looked minuscule in comparison. The locals I came across in all three islands were very friendly and I hope to one day be able to perhaps return and get better acquainted. The hours allotted during these cruises just don’t give sufficient time to fully appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of these islands.
My experience aboard the Allure of the Seas was definitely memorable. Despite my several yet mostly minor annoyances, the smorgasbord of activities, friendly staff and the thousands of people traveling with you provide countless opportunities to have fun and possibly meet new people from all over the world. I even ran into former American Idol contestant Melinda Doolittle a few times! However it’s definitely an experience that you’d probably do once with your friends or significant other and never do again. There is one grave problem that didn’t strike me until after I was back home which might jeopardize my potential to ever go on a cruise again: now that I’ve been on the largest cruise ship in the world, every other ship and cruise line just seems far too small and unappealing, at least until the next big thing comes around.