Serenade of the Seas is one of four Radiance class vessels from Royal Caribbean. She was built at Meyer-Werft in Germany in 2003 as were her sisters, Radiance, Jewel and Brilliance of the Seas. Having sailed on the Jewel of the Seas back in 2005, it was easy to get familiar all over again with the layout of this gorgeous ship! Radiance class vessels are medium class in size by today's standards at around 90,090 tons. When they were built in the early 2000s, they were considered the largest "Panamax" ships (large ships that can still "squeeze through" the Panama Canal, as Serenade's Captain Michel said, during our Bridge Tour). In many ways, the Serenade reminds me of the Celebrity Solstice, just on a smaller scale... and indeed, the Solstice and her sisters were built at the same yards as the Radiance class ships. Just like Jewel, Serenade is a masterpiece... a gorgeous sculpture afloat. She has some quirky things unique to this class, which this review will cover... but nothing that would prevent me from recommending this beautiful ship.
Where Oasis of the Seas is a floating city, Serenade is a small town, with all the things people like about a small town! It's crew is extremely friendly (again, you say this always, but this crew takes the prize)... even down to the painters stopping to say, "Hello!". Wow! I also have learned after all these years of cruising, that a great crew with great people skills always has a kind and warm master at the helm... and you couldn't ask for a better model of this than Captain Michel. (Note- the crew adores him and the other captain, a female captain (!) who alternates with him ... she was on vacation during our week). People truly love working on this ship and they all want to stay here! Another factor is the amazing Ricky, the Cruise Director. I stopped him at the main pool one day to congratulate him on the best pool dance party under the stars ever and to ask how many cups of coffee he drinks in preparation for this and everything else he does. He laughed a long time over this! His enthusiasm is truly infectious.
Our itinerary was a southern Caribbean route. We originally had planned a back to back trip; two seven night cruises together with different itineraries each week and we talked our close friends (and devoted cruise buddies!), Steve and Kim, into doing this with us... unfortunately, we had to back out of the second week for financial reasons. Kim and Steve continued on with the second week and I can't wait to hear their thoughts (I'll add their comments here later) on the second week. They seemed to feel the same way we did about the first week... a great time! Our route this cruise was round trip from Puerto Rico to St. Thomas to St. Kitts, a day at sea, Aruba, Curacao, a day at sea and then back to Puerto Rico... seven nights in all! We hadn't been to Aruba or Curacao since 2000... and a lot has changed for the better at these two locations. More on that below.
The title of this review is "Living the Sweet Suite Life on Serenade". This is because, for the very first time, we had a Junior Suite! So, let's start with that first.
Living the Suite Life... The Junior Suite is a hybrid cabin: half standard balcony cabin, half suite. While it does not get the full suite treatment (For instance, no Concierge Lounge, although being Diamond Plus members, we did get to use the CL) it has features never found in a standard balcony: about 33% more space (although it felt like double the space); a walk in closet (no really, two people could get changed in there!) and an amazing array of drawers and cabinets to store stuff in; a full bathroom with marble counter and a full sized bath tub (and yes, I took two bubble baths at sea while aboard!) and a couch and a chair with an ottoman. It also has a much larger balcony which could easily fit nine or ten adults standing side by side, end to end. We constantly marveled at the immensity of the junior suite. Our suite number was 1040, directly down the hall from the Concierge Lounge and surrounded by other Junior suites and Grand Suites (the next suite size up and "smallest" full suite class). We were incredibly lucky to get a junior suite for less than we paid for a standard balcony on Oasis! I always find photos of the junior suites to be somewhat limited in scope, so here's the best I could do (note, this was a cloudy day on embarkation, so I used Photoscape to bring out some of the features in dark pictures, hence some odd colors.). The following pictures are from different angles to give the best idea of the size of the cabin.
The bed linens are of the upgraded style that Royal Caribbean instituted a few years back along with the newer mattresses. These linens were extremely soft and comfortable. You did not want to get out of bed! The cover was a duvet that felt like egyptian or pima cotton. At the very least, it was a brushed cotton. The mattress was soft and gave excellent support. It would seem that Royal Caribbean is slowly upgrading their TVs in the cabins. Ours had a 19" old fashioned picture tube TV whereas our friends, Steve and Kim, had a smaller but sharper flat panel TV in their Junior Suite cabin, #1540. So it would seem to be the luck of draw as to which sort of TV you will have in your suite/cabin. I was comfortable with either, but if I was to spend a lot of time watching TV, I'd prefer the panel. (But then, there's not a lot worth watching on TV on a cruise!) Note: newer Royal Caribbean ships, like Oasis, have only flat panel TVs in the cabins.
In going from a lifetime of cruises spent in balcony cabins where space is miniscule (making simple things like getting dressed a choreographic challenge sometimes), the Junior Suite feels like a dance floor! I hope that these pictures give one the accurate feeling of just how big a room this really is. If you can afford it, DO IT!
In the picture above, Diane is in the vestibule between the walk-in closet (in front of her) and the bathroom (behind her). The desk serves as a make-up table as well, with powerful lights to the sides of it's mirror. There is a safe in the cabinet to the left of the mirror with several shelves inside. To each side of the mirror are angled mirrors which also have storage behind them. There's a cabinet at the floor (to the trash can's right) which has more storage (we never used it... we didn't bring enough stuff!) and three drawers to the right of that, then the chair then three more drawers then the rounded doors below the TV that houses a mini-fridge which is stocked with fee items for purchase. Above the TV is a cabinet with even more storage! Really, just the desk fixture or just the walk-in closet would have been plenty of storage alone! Royal Caribbean outdid themselves when it came to places "to put things" in a Junior Suite. Unlike Oasis' cabins, placement of the safe and plugs and data ports were all in comfortable, easy to use spots. The Junior Suite is just a wonderful place to live!
In the picture above, Diane is standing in front of the bathroom door. About a foot above her head (and above the thermostat) is something we've NEVER had in a cabin before... a DOORBELL! This was so cool. It featured a soft nautical theme when the hallway button was pressed. We rang this frequently. (Apologies to the people in cabin 1044 when I rang theirs by accident... I may have been drinking.) On the wall above the bed is some nice art and on each side of the bed are lights with reading spot lights that swivel in their bases. There's also a switch that turns off or on all of the lights in the cabin right next to the phone. There are small end tables on each side of the bed as well. There's also the sophisticated automated phone system which handled wake up calls, phone mail and intership calling. Royal Caribbean utilizes the messaging system to remind you of appointments or reservations you've made on board.
I kept reading about the Junior Suites having walk-in closets and I kept thinking, "yeah, right". Imagine my surprise when the walk-in closet turned out to really be... a walk-in closet! So, I took the picture above dead center and to my left. Note the shelving here as well. (you also get two terry cloth robes to hob-knob around the ship or cabin as you desire.)
Above is a view into the right side of the walk-in closet. Those metal arms fold down (if needed) for even MORE clothes. Above are the life vests, which you no longer take with you to muster drills. This is a great place for them. Your luggage easily fits in this closet as well, but being an old cruise hound, I still put my big suitcases under the bed (where there's ample room as well) but I did put the two carry-ons in here. By the way, there's a light in the walk-in closet as well.
The Junior Suite bathroom is very large compared to the bathrooms found in standard balconies. But what I found very appealing was the addition of a full size bathtub to the bathroom. Sometimes I just like to soak in a bath... and doing so on the high seas is decadent! I loved the tub, as did Diane. The picture I have of the tub is lousy (I kept meaning to take another shot, but just never got around to it), but I will include it here anyway. One peculiar thing about the tub: the bottom of the tub is higher than the floor outside the tub. So when stepping into or out of the tub to take a bath or shower, you are either stepping up or stepping down. This took some getting used to as tubs at home don't have this big a differential. There were much nicer amenities in this bathroom than those found in normal cabins as well. (better selections of soaps, shampoos and conditioners, etc)
In the photo above is a view of the bathroom's right side as seen from the doorway. Immediately to the left is the bath tub (out of the picture.) There is a large mirror over the sink, and to each side of the mirror is an angled mirror/medicine cabinet for (you guessed it) additional storage! Under the sink is more storage. The toilet flush switch (cruise newbies, take note... always close the toilet lid before flushing!) on this toilet was cracked as was the one for the toilet in Junior Suite #1540. (wonder what people are doing to these?) Also, the door to this bathroom would occasionally stick. Otherwise, this was a nice bathroom for a ship cabin!
Ok, so I did not take the best picture of the bathtub. In the tub is an unusual large silver knob below the faucet that opens and closes the drain cover to switch between using the tub as a shower or bath. I could not figure this out till my wonderful cabin steward, Amelia, showed me what to do. This knob just looked like the standard tub overflow drain to me. As I mentioned previously, the tub is a step up into it, but over the rim of the tub... your foot expects to go deeper when entering the tub but it won't. Once you get used to it, it's fine... but it could be dangerous, so take your time getting into and out of the Junior Suite tubs. Besides the faucet, there's the standard shower head on a hose arrangement found in standard balconies and a shower curtain that ... somehow ... kept the water in even though the curtain did not go down inside the tub.
The Junior Suite balcony is, of course, as wide as the suite itself. It could, by my own estimate, have 9 or 10 people standing side by side, from one end to the other. On the balcony were two nice chairs and a decent sized table for having breakfasts or wine and cheese. This is a very roomy, very nice balcony.
My only gripe is with design factors that force a HUGE over hanging roof that juts out over the balcony and extends another twelve feet or so blocking three-quarters of the sky! And as far as I can tell, all of the pricey suites and cabins on deck ten with the exception of those all the way forward will have this horrible sky block. Some said it was nice because it blocked the Sun from beating down on you or kept the rain off of the balcony, but I found the effect disconcerting... it was like being at the back of a cave and looking out the opening. (See the picture below to illustrate what I mean) Astronomers will want to go to the bow for best views anyway, but this was disappointing. Still, with all of the other creature comforts, the Junior Suite makes up for this design oddity. I suspect the reason for all this was the panamax-design which probably looks for narrow lower decks.
One more note about Radiance class ships like Serenade: on the lower balcony decks midship is a series of massive covers roofing over the lifeboats. This means that the balcony cabins on the lower levels have a severely curtailed view of the ocean- you can't even look directly down at the water from those balconies on the lowest level where these covers are (see my review of Jewel for more info). From our suite looking down this wasn't much of a problem because of the viewing angle... so, my recommendation is to get a balcony cabin on deck 9 or 10, or on the "bump out" or all the way forward or aft to avoid this problem.
Our Itinerary in Photos and Words, Day by Day:
May 14th, Arrival at San Juan, PR: As we always do, we flew down to the embarking port, San Juan, PR the day before our cruise. I mention this all over my cruise pages, but here we go again: NEVER FLY TO PORT THE DAY YOU SAIL! You are only inviting disaster. Fly to port the day before and unwind and be secure in the fact that you don't have to worry about canceled flights causing you to miss your cruise experience. We got up early and flew from Philadelphia to San Juan aboard USAir. Total flight time, about 3.5 hours. We let the yo-yos run off the plane and then we took a leisurely walk to the baggage claim. (I am always amazed how people think that by getting to a luggage carousel quickly, they will get their luggage sooner! Idiots.) We walked right up and found our suit cases circling the carousel with the yo-yos still scratching their heads looking for theirs. We wheeled out to a waiting taxi and we got to the Marriott Stellaris Casino Hotel in record time.
This gorgeous hotel has a very attentive staff (free rum punch while you wait to check in!)... a wonderful pool area... a nice spa... and two restaurants, one featuring a buffet where we had some lunch as thunderstorms moved over the area. Later that day, our friends, Kim and Steve arrived on a later flight from Philly. We shared a free room at the Stellaris using Marriott points that we acquired. This Marriott is located right on the beach and has a small casino and a gigantic lobby bar serving Mojitos (I had one... can't say I liked it too much. I felt like I was drinking a salad. Still, when in Rome...) The sun finally came out around 4pm and all of us ran down and jumped in the pool... then we ran down to the beach and enjoyed the rough surf! (Kim injured her knee, but the real pain didn't come till the next day. Fortunately, it seemed to be more of the sprain variety than anything broken. It bothered her off and on for the rest of the cruise week we had with them.) Later that night, we walked down the street and explored some shops and got a tip that for authentic Puerto Rican food, we should go to Orozcos restaurant. There we enjoyed some delicious combo dinners! Later, we hit Haagen Daz for some ice cream, did some light gambling and then Steve and I tried those Mojitos at the Marriott lobby bar. We all crashed early as it had been a LONG DAY of travel and our cruise adventure awaited us in the morning.
Marriott Stellaris Hotel's wonderful beach!
May 15th, The Embarkation: The day started sunny, then got rainy, then went back to mostly cloudy. This theme was persistent at all our ports with the exception of St. Kitts. The port at San Juan that Serenade uses was not the one that I have been used to using; it's sort of away from everything. I also have to say that the port staff aren't very helpful in telling you where to go and what to do; it wasn't until the people from Royal Caribbean opened the doors to the port check in building that there was any sort of organization. Once inside, and past security, check-in was a breeze. We got our boarding photo and got our SeaPass cards (your lifeline aboard) authorized and then we boarded the ship! You step aboard at the deck 5 promenade and enter directly into deck 5 where you are greeted by the Serenade staff who inform you that lunch is being served in the Windjammer, and that our cabins would be ready by 1pm. We poked around a bit (I bought my soda package), then took a glass walled elevator up to deck 11 and the Windjammer Buffet. The Windjammer buffets are the signature buffet across the Royal Caribbean fleet, and they always provide a wide enough variety that there's something even the most picky eater can find delicious. The Windjammer here is arranged as food stations, which has become the norm in most of the newer ships these days. Easier to navigate with a plate! I always like to get aboard a ship early so we can get some photos before people are all over... and getting to the Windjammer before it gets too frenetic. Within an hour, this place was hopping! Note- the Windjammer was full of Gluten-Free items; I didn't know what this means, but apparently it's very important to people with certain digestive disorders. So, if you are on a gluten-free diet, take heart that you can eat in the Windjammer on Serenade!
After lunch here, we went forward to the main pool to check it out, then we went down to see our Junior Suites for the first time. (See above for photos and comments). After settling in (I ran around snapping pictures for a bit for this review), we headed to the Solarium in our bathing suits (because, being the educated cruisers, we knew to pack them in the carry-on luggage that stayed with us, rather than the luggage we handed over to the porter curbside) and got in the cruise groove! (Drink in hand... enclosed pool with piped in bird chirping... heaven.)
At around 5pm we unpacked (our suitcases having arrived and placed in our cabin by the wonderful, Amelia, our cabin steward) and later around 8pm, we did the mandatory muster drill. Royal Caribbean has really improved this experience since Oasis came out by not requiring passengers to wear their life vests. All you need to do now is report to your muster station during the one and only muster drill. Here, you learn what to do in case of an emergency and where to locate your assigned lifeboat (you will probably be standing under it on this ship) and how to put on a life vest. It all takes about 20 minutes, depending on how quickly people get to their stations. After the muster drill, it was time for our first dinner. We had (as we always choose) the second seating at 8:30pm. There's an earlier seating at 6pm for those who don't like to eat late, but we prefer the greater ship/port time a second seating allows. There's also an open seating option for those that don't like an assigned time. (We've never done this last one, so I can't comment on it) Our waiters were the amazing wait team of Katrina and her assistant, Sonny! Katrina's quick wit kept me laughing all week.
Sonny amazed me by always keeping my Diet Coke glasses coming (I only asked him once... the first night when he asked me for my first drink! That is the mark of an excellent assistant waiter!) and amazed the four of us with some incredible tricks! Here is one in which he inserted a toothpick between two forks... which in turn was balanced point to point on another toothpick stuck in a bottle! I don't know how he did this (and I don't really care to know because he did this in front of us several times, and we could not replicate this at all... so it was MAGIC!)
After dinner, the four of us called it an early night. We were all very happy about having Junior Suites... having an excellent wait team in the restaurant... and having a gorgeous ship to get to know. We were also tired and ready to turn in. Diane and I placed a call for an early wake up call and breakfast to be delivered for our balcony in the morning and went to sleep.
May 16th, Arrival at St. Thomas: I got up early and hit the treadmill around 7am and got back to the room in time for our 8:30 am breakfast on the balcony. This day started out very rainy, so we decided to skip our typical day at Magen's Bay or do a hop over to Trunk Bay on St. John's. Diane and I spent the morning to noon at our beloved Solarium... the ship was empty, so we had lots of spots to choose from around the Solarium pool. Later, the clouds broke and the sun came out a few times, so we left the ship and walked through Havensite Mall and crossed the street to the Skyline lifts. We took the Skyline ride up the mountainside for some spectacular views of the ships in the harbor and of the surrounding islands. I had a "Bushwacker Daquiri" that definitely "wacked" me at the mountain top bar. Diane had a strawberry daquiri.
Last year, on the Oasis cruise for Diane's 50th birthday. I bought her a beautiful tanzanite ring on St. Martin. This year, she wanted to return the favor for my 50th birthday cruise here on Serenade, so she bought me a wonderful star sapphire ring in St. Thomas (it appeals to the astronomer in me!) Later that night, we had a dinner for just the two of us at Portofino's. The food was good, but our waiter was not attentive (pretty unheard of in our past experiences of Portofino's on other ships.) and the experience was just not up to the standard Portofino's par.
After Portofino's, we caught up with Steve and Kim looking dapper in their formal wear. Diane and I went to the first production show as this was one we had not seen before. (We skipped "Vibeology" as we've seen this one SO many times) The show was up to snuff with excellent singers and dancers. Later, we caught up with Steve and Kim again and we bar hopped. I mixed a Yellow Bird and Blue Hawaiian drink at two different bars and I paid for it with a queasy stomach (I never get queasy from drinks) all night and into half of the next day. (Note to me: don't ever mix these again!) Upon returning to the suite, there was our first towel animal of the cruise.
May 17th, Arrival at St. Kitts: The four of us got off the ship and proceeded to the taxi area. There's a nice little shopping area here. I asked one of the locals (who was handling the taxis) which beach was the best and without hesitation she recommended "Cockleshell" beach. So we decided to take her advice and we piled into a van with 6 rather loud and somewhat rude women from Quebec (I have nothing at all against Quebec, and I doubt they represented Quebec's finest...). The cab ride over was around 40 minutes over some rough terrain but with some spectacular views!
Our wonderful van/taxi driver, Selwin (more on why I remember his name), made a stop so we could take the photo above on the way to Cockleshell. It's an area on St. Kitts that narrows a bit then widens again. On this narrow strip, the Atlantic dominates at left in the photo (note the rough sea on the beach... swimming is NOT recommended here) and the placid Caribbean (behind the foreground rock) is on the right. In the extreme distance is the round island of Nevis with it's central volcanic peak shrouded in white puffy clouds! We continued on to Cockleshell beach and we were astonished to find that not only did Selwin agree to drive all the way back to take us to the ship at 2:30pm (much to the chagrin of the Quebec 6 who wanted to spend more time here), but he refused to take our money until he took us back to the ship later. That was "WOW!" number 1. Getting off the taxi and down to the beach, we were greeted by the kind staff there (this is similar to the setup at Orient Bay with one big arcing beach divided up amongst little beach restaurants that rent chairs and umbrellas for about $15) and we rented some chairs and an umbrella. About this point, Diane realized she left her purse in Selwin's van which had our passports, some money (I had my own) and a credit card in it. She ran up to the bar and they looked up Selwin's cell phone (out of a long list of taxi drivers) and eventually, they got in touch with him. He found her purse, and about an hour later, he came trudging down the beach with it! (everything was in the purse) That's "WOW!" number 2! The beach was cleaner and nicer (lots of shells where we were) further down, but the people at this location were so helpful, we decided to stay put. It wasn't the worst beach we've ever been to... gorgeous views all around. I spent most of the day trying to shake off the effects of the previous night's odd drink combo. (in most of the pictures, I don't look as bad as I felt)
Later in the afternoon, I started to emerge from my queasy stomach phase and actually got hungry. Diane and I went up to the beach bar restaurant and we ordered some delicious (but expensive) cheeseburgers and fries. (you can see the bar in the picture above at the far right). I changed into some dry clothes in the restroom behind the bar and Selwin, true to his already apparent honest nature, pulled up at exactly 2:30pm. To their credit, the Quebec 6 came up from the beach on time, however, they immediately voiced their dissatisfaction with the beach to Selwin (and these were the ones who wanted to spend a much longer time there.) Once back at the port, we were further astonished to find out that this entire trip (with lots of driving for Selwin!) was a mere $6.50/person... roundtrip! That's ridiculously cheap! We thanked him profusely, and I gave him a bigger tip (as did Diane earlier) for making the extra trip to return Diane's purse. We then did some light shopping in the port shops then we returned to Serenade. Steve and Kim came back later after some shopping here.
Later, Diane and I proceeded all the way aft (just below the mini golf) to some lounge chairs where we watched the ship's wake as we departed St. Kitts. The views of St. Kitts and Nevis were amazing (sorry... no camera with me at this point). I walked around the curve of the deck and into Serenade's upper deck aft (and often forgotten) Seaview Cafe and grabbed us some beverages and onion rings to enjoy as we watched the departure! Later we made way to the Concierge Lounge (which we frequented most nights before dinner) for some light snacks (no wonder I gained nearly nine pounds on this cruise!) and cocktails before heading over to the Welcome Back Crown and Anchor Member's party in the Safari Lounge for... more complimentary cocktails and hors devours!
At the Crown and Anchor Party, Captain Michel (a really down to earth, great guy) talked about Royal Caribbean's past, present and future, touching briefly on the next class of ships called "Project Sunshine" (there won't be a "Sunshine of the Seas"... it's just the project's name... I hope) which should come in a bit larger than the wildly popular Freedom class ships but way smaller than the also wildly popular Oasis class ships. We won't see this class before 2014.
Of course, after all this snacking and drinking, it was time for the giant nightly meal in the main dining room! Diane and Steve, who were out and about on Cockleshell beach with little or no sunscreen (Kim and I stayed under the umbrellas) ended up with pretty bad sunburns and Steve went back to his cabin rather early. Diane and I turned in early as did Kim that night.
May 18, Our First Day at Sea I arose at 7am for my 8am massage. Diane postponed hers till Saturday due to her bad sunburn. The massage was nice and relaxing with an excellent scalp massage as part of it. Loved that. My masseuse was not the best ever, but she was still very good. After the massage, I collected Diane and we had breakfast in the Windjammer buffet with Steve and Kim. Later, staying out of the sun due to Diane's sunburn, we scored some wonderful loungers (chairs near pools are always difficult to get on "Sea" days) in the shaded part of the Solarium that faced out to sea. We watched the flying fish below and swam in the Solarium pool. we met and spoke with a British couple (sitting next to us) about the Royal family (very illuminating to get their take!). Later, Steve and Kim got some chairs next to us. At around 1pm, we left the Solarium and went back to the suite to shower and change then we headed to the main dining room for lunch. The lunch there was a much faster affair than main dining room lunches of the past. They had a salad bar (where the chefs make a salad to order for you) and a lunch menu with some delicious entrees. I must say though that the salad prepared was huge, so that could have been a meal alone. Diane and I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the ship. We walked the promenade (something you still can do from stem to stern on Radiance ships. You can't do this on Solstice class ships or Oasis class ships as they don't allow you on the bow except under unusual circumstances.) outside and had a great time taking photos.
Radiance class ships (like Serenade) all have an enormous port side glass wall with glass elevators inside. You get magnificent sweeping ocean views from these... in the time it takes you to ride an elevator. This is a real cool elevator ride.
At 4:30pm, we met up with Steve at the main dining room for the Galley Tour that Diane and I had been invited to see. We brought Steve along as he owns his own restaurant, and we knew he'd be thrilled (he was) to experience the tour. Kim didn't join us, and the turn out was low for the tour (only one other couple showed up, Natalie and Frank who we got to know better after the tour)... only five altogether. Still, this made for a more intimate tour and the master chef who conducted it, proudly showed off his "home". Galley food preparation numbers on any cruise ship are just plain staggering... I won't pretend to be able to tick off a list. Suffice it to say, all the numbers (eggs/day, potatoes/week, gallons of milk/day, tons of flour, etc) are HUGE. Here are some photos from the Galley tour:
After the galley tour, I hit the gym for some fat burning (and with all the eating I'd been doing, this was like putting out a forest fire by spitting on it...) and then Steve joined me after in the sauna and steamroom. Someday, someone will explain to me why either is good for me. (Ok, the cedar wood in saunas smells good...) Dinner in the main dining room was magnificent! Katrina (our superb waitress) recommended the pork loin and she was right on the money.
After dinner, we headed up to what turned out to be a fantastic deck party under the stars! We spent hours there dancing and drinking and having an incredible time. Ricky, the cruise director, and his staff kept the party going into the wee hours of the morning. He and his staff KNOW how to throw a party! They were still going strong when we left around 1am.
The girls went to bed, and Steve and I went swimming in the Solarium (which serves magnificent pizza till 5am). I hit the hot tub, but Steve still couldn't get past his sunburn to get in the hot tub as well. We both returned to our cabins around 2am.
May 19th, Arrival at Aruba! Diane woke up with a major sinus infection this day; she had been fighting a cold of some sort since San Juan back on the 15th. She woke up and said she planned to spend the day in bed. I insisted that she go to the ship's hospital and get some antibiotics rather than spend her vacation in bed. So we got her down there and the doc said it was a good thing she came down as it was on the verge of becoming bronchitis (yikes!)... the Doc gave her antibiotics and other stuff to combat this sinus infection. After the trip to the ship's doctor's office, we headed up to the Windjammer where we ate some breakfast. I of course, opted for a purely healthy breakfast as seen in the picture below.
My healthy choices (in the picture above): home fries, scrambled eggs with mushrooms, chocolate donut, roll, French toast, and two mini boxes of Frosted Flakes (not in the picture but heaped with sugar, just the way I like them!)... oh, and a Diet Coke. Didn't want to over indulge... ahem.
It was rainy and miserable in the morning with thunderstorms; so a beach day in Aruba looked unlikely. Diane took her meds and went back to bed while Steve and Kim and I went shopping and sight-seeing in the incredible Oranjestad, Aruba! Here are some pictures of this wonderful island!
Exploring Aruba was fun... I wish Diane could've joined us. We even stopped at a casino and plunked some money into penny slots. After a few hours, we headed back to the ship. The sun had come out and the day was looking better. Since the ship was in Aruba till 8pm, I suggested we have a cab take us up to Palm Beach. I really wanted Kim and Steve to see Aruba's best beaches. Upon returning to the ship, I asked a cabby and he said the ride to Palm Beach was $18 for four one-way (ah, where were those St. Kitts cabbies?). So, we went up to our cabins to get our suits on and we found Diane up and looking a bit better after several hours of sleep and she decided to go to the beach as well. We got to Palm Beach after a fifteen minute cab ride around 4pm and we had two glorious hours there! What a beautiful place, right next to the Hyatt (where we were allowed to use the facilities)! We all rented chairs and umbrellas and got drinks. Had a great time! Note: Cabbies in Aruba have a particular dislike for wet bathing suits in their cabs, so be sure to bring dry clothes to change into or make sure that your bathing suit is really dry. Our cab driver was friendly on this trip (he came back for us later) but we had a downright rude driver on an earlier trip to Aruba.
Back at the ship, it was time for more working out, followed by dinner. Once again, Sonny performed his fork on the toothpick balancing act for us (Steve missed it the first time) and once again, we failed to see how he did it. After dinner, I took a cat-nap to recharge while Diane gambled some money in the Serenade casino. When she got back, I got up to go out and she decided to crash. So, Steve and I (as Kim crashed, too) explored the ship. First stop was the Vortex...
The Vortex is a great dance club... similar to the one on Jewel. But there were two huge disappointments here... one, on getting out of the elevators to enter the Vortex, you immediately are swamped with the smell of cigar smoke (coming from the cigar club next to the Vortex). It smelled like an old bowling alley from the 1960s up there. Two, the Vortex Bar is made to slowly rotate... something we loved on Jewel. But it was "broken" on Serenade. This was very disappointing. There was also a tendency to play way too much Latin samba music. I have nothing against this form of music, but there is usually a night reserved for each style of disco or dancing music, and on this cruise, every night had about an hour of samba. It was too much. They need more modern dance music, too.
From the Vortex (not much fun without the girls), we headed to the Schooner Bar for Martinis. We got the chocolate martinis here; not many bars can make them well, but the Royal Caribbean Schooner bars always make a fine one. (if it doesn't start with a swirl of fudge around the inside of the glass, stop the bartender!) There was a very talented piano player/singer here (as usual at the Schooner Bars).
From the Schooner Bar, Steve and I headed up to the mini golf course (it was empty at 1am) and, surprisingly, I beat him. Even got a hole-in-one... which I almost never do sober! We both went back to our cabins and crashed after this.
May 20th, We Arrive in Curacao! Started the day (along with Steve) doing some treadmill time. We watched a submarine being guided in for an event in Curacao... very cool! We had not been to Curacao since 2000, and we remembered it as a sleepy port with a walk to a cab stand/bus area. Now, it's completely transformed into a wonderful cruise stop with an incredible casino, a complex of shops and bars and restaurants called Rif Fort (converted from a fort built in 1828), and excellent lookout areas for photos! There are also street vendors right outside the fort complex.
We couldn't believe how much Curacao had changed for the better! Again, it was rainy in the morning and sunny in the afternoon... but this time, we decided to spend the day just exploring Willemstad, Curacao's port offerings.
Upon leaving the ship, you walk onto a pier which leads you past a welcoming band and some small kiosks with local vendors selling goods. You continue on a winding path to the right and through security (where you must present your Seapass card upon returning to get back in) to a nice walk that meanders alongside the ship (see photo above) and then into a resort complex with shops and a casino (where Diane and I plunked down some cash in a valiant effort to hit on roulette... alas, not to be).
Continuing past this you enter a very shaded area with more shops and bars and restaurants and you soon see the big stone walls of Rif Fort. Definitely go in there (no charge) for some fun views and just a real cool place to hang out!
For the perfect shots of downtown Willemstad, the lookout areas of Rif Fort can't be beat. In the shot below, I caught all four of us up at the top of Rif Fort with the city in the background. Not bad for a guess at pointing!
Here's a shot I took of the uber colorful buildings there!
After leaving the fort and continuing along the St. Anna Bay waterway, we stopped by the many booths where local vendors were selling various souvenirs to us tourists. We also got some more great views from this vantage point looking across the water. Here I am outside Rif Fort.
Later, we headed back through the fort and back to the ship (Kim and Steve decided they wanted to go directly back, and we took a little more time, shopping for pearls at one of the kiosks next to the Serenade. After returning to the ship, we got ready for the Bridge Tour!
We've been on bridge tours on other ships, but none of them as comprehensive as this! You can tell that Captain Michel loves his job. He talked to us for almost an hour on this tour and in great detail. He's a very warm and very approachable man, unlike many cruise ship captains who seem too busy to stop for a conversation (Captain Michel reminded me of Mariner's Captain Johnny). His sense of humor is terrific as well!
Captain Michel knew facts and figures about Serenade that were mind boggling. When there was a question that he did not have an immediate answer for, he got the answer he needed very quickly. He also answered questions in detail with visual aids in some cases (for instance, explaining why it was preferable to dock at the pier rather than at the one a little further up the waterway... yes, Serenade would fit, but just barely... using maps and scale overlays of Serenade. Awesome!).
After the Bridge tour, Diane and I went back to the suite and put on our swim suits then headed up to the upper deck above the Main Pool to watch the departure from Curacao.
It's always been my experience that the BEST sunsets are only seen from cruise ships. This night proved the rule with a spectacular sunset.
After sunset, we headed up to the suite and got ready for the night's festivities. Tonight, Diane and I stopped by the Concierge Lounge, then we headed down to the Safari Lounge where we joined Kim and Steve at the Crown & Anchor party for Platinum and up guests. We could only stay for part of this party as the four of us had dinner reservations together at Chops Grille for 8pm.
Dinner at Chops Grille was as sumptuous as always! Best steak house on the sea! I had the jumbo shrimp cocktail, the incredible onion soup, and a gigantic filet mignon. Along with this were the veggies we all shared from family style portion plates. To top it all off, some delicious red velvet cake! Although we weren't as pleased with Portofino's on Serenade, Chops Grille more than made up for this with an exquisite dinner experience.
Upon returning to our cabin, we found a stow-away hanging around... (I wonder how many extra towels a cruise line needs to keep on hand for these towel creatures?).
May 21st, Our Final Day at Sea, and Our Final Full Day Aboard! The last day of a cruise is always the worst for any avid cruiser; there's the depression of packing, saying goodbye to friends (especially hard since Steve and Kim had a whole new week about to begin as their cruise was two 7 night cruises back-to-back), and just realizing that tomorrow, after a ton of travel (along with all the hassles there) home, it would be back to reality. We began the day by going to a backstage Theater Tour! We never experienced this before, and it was really informative. There were only 3 of us, Diane and Steve and I, so the guides (two from the production crew and two of the dancers) could take much more time explaining how they made sure that the shows would proceed as flawlessly as possible. (Royal Caribbean shows are always spectacular, so it was interesting to see all the work that goes into the effort behind the scenes.)
We spent the balance of the day shopping and working out in the gym and just enjoying Serenade as much as possible. As always, that last day shot by, and before you knew it, we were at our last dinner aboard.
After our goodbyes (and tip deliveries) to our cabin steward, Amelia, our Concierge Maria, and finally our wait team, we were feeling the beginnings of Post Cruise Depression! (see my thread on PCD on the Royal Caribbean Forum on Cruise Critic for a laugh!) But Ricky, the cruise director, and his team were celebrating "Disco Night" as the Village People in the Centrum. It immediately perked us right back up. We all headed up to the Vortex for one last night of dancing before turning in for the last time on Serenade.
May 22nd, We Arrive in Puerto Rico, and Disembark (boo)! Departing the Serenade was a breeze. We said our goodbyes to Steve and Kim (who had to get their new Seapass cards for the following week and then proceed to a holding area from 10:30am to 11:30am. They chose their wonderful suite to wait for clearance to move about) and got off the ship without a hassle. We collected our luggage and breezed through security and customs and got into a taxi for the ride over to the airport.
Once at the airport, we discovered there was no curb side check in (what?!?) and an added security check of luggage by the USDA (oh, come on!) and then another line to check in at an automated check in kiosk (most of which were constantly crashing... and the USAir clerks weren't very useful here either), then another line to actually hand over your luggage to one of the harried clerks. Then, you go stand in another line to go through TSA. What a depressingly unorganized hassle some airports are (like this one in PR and the Ft. Lauderdale, FL airport) these days! You quickly miss the pampered service of Royal Caribbean. Back to reality.
The Dining Experiences: The Main Dining Room (the MDR) is beautiful. It's on two levels, and this cruise, we had an optimum location on the ground floor. We loved eating in the MDR, all our dinners here were excellent as well as the one day we had lunch here. (Note: coffee aboard Serenade, according to Steve and Kim, was the worst they'd ever had. Fortunately, our assistant waiter, Sonny, made coffee personally that Steve and Kim found wonderful all week. I don't drink coffee, but I hear this complaint a lot on Royal Caribbean ships. Maybe they ought to look at this?) The staff sang a belated Happy Birthday to me on our first night (as arranged by our incredible travel agent, Karen Beldner) out. Again, Katrina (with her easy smile and quick wit) was an excellent waitress and Sonny, an unparalleled assistant waiter.
The Windjammer food was consistently very good, the service here was also very attentive. At every breakfast at the Windjammer, there was a young lady who sang a fun little welcome to us coming in. I generally am not a breakfast foods person, but she always made you want to come in for a quick bite! The specialty restaurants (food attributes discussed above) were both beautiful, especially Portofino's. I would definitely recommend Chops Grille if I had to choose only one, but I'd probably give Portofino's a second shot. Also excellent is the much over-looked Seaview Cafe (topside aft starboard). This is a no-charge venue, far superior to the Johnny Rockets found on so many other Royal Caribbean ships. I loved their sandwiches and onion rings. It was almost always empty when we stopped there for a snack. Pizza and snacks are served in the Solarium. The pizza there is excellent. Room service was on-time and wonderful. (A must for at least one breakfast on the balcony!)
The Serenade Nightclubs and Bars and Casino: There are many bars aboard the Serenade. My favorites here are the Schooner Bar, and the Pool and Sky Bars, and the Sports Bar. The Casino Bar is also very striking. The Vortex Bar is a great place to grab a drink as well. The Schooner Bar has the most relaxed atmosphere; it's located right outside Portofino's and Chops Grille. The Safari Club is a place used for all of the major receptions, like "Welcome Back" parties for the Crown and Anchor members. I think it may have been the ship's location for BINGO as well. (We never played this trip)
While putting this review together, I realized that I never once gambled in this beautiful casino! This may be a first on a cruise! Wow! It might be because I gambled and lost in San Juan at the Stellaris Marriott, I gambled (slightly) in Aruba and lost, and I gambled in Curacao and... lost. Not that I was throwing money around like James Bond in all those places... I probably lost, over the week, about $71 ($1 on penny slots in Aruba... $20 on roulette at Curacao... and $50 on roulette at the Stellaris). Not a bad amount for a week on a cruise at all. (I usually plunk down around $100 on a ship with mixed results). So, I probably got it out of my system enough in those stops that I felt no gambling bug aboard.
On the other hand, playing roulette on Royal Caribbean ships always sucks. Royal Caribbean casinos do the unheard of on roulette: they stop the wheel between spins and spin it up in the opposite direction! No legitimate casinos do this. There's no arguing with them about this either (They will say, "it doesn't make a difference in the odds" to which I always say, "then don't do this stopping the wheel stuff" and they just shrug and keep doing it). I've given up. Since Roulette is MY game (on rare occasions, I'll play black jack), I just don't care about gambling aboard anymore, I suppose. Royal Caribbean, take note: the Casinos in San Juan and Curacao spun the roulette wheel the way all casinos do: in one direction... and they got my money. So, humor we roulette lovers and stop jamming the brakes on the roulette wheels!
The Serenade Pools and Solarium: Serenade has one Main pool with two adjacent hot tubs and the Solarium has one pool with one adjacent hot tub. There is a pool towel pickup/exchange station located at the Main pool. You can take however many pool towels that you want (well, at least 4, which is what we took) that are recorded to your Seapass account. Failure to return them before the end of the cruise will result in a charge to your account. So, remember to keep track of your pool towels at all times... you lose it, you bought it. You can exchange your pool towels at any time for fresh ones. You can take them to beaches on islands as well. There are plenty of loungers around the Main pool and on the deck above it. The Solarium loungers are nicer with cushions. Seats at the pools can be extremely challenging to get on "Sea" days, so get up early to get a good one! I found the hot tubs on Serenade to be refreshingly powerful compared to some on other ships... I enjoyed them a lot. As with all Royal Caribbean ships, at least one pool and one hot tub are always open around the clock, so don't forget a nice dip after hours of partying! (and as I said earlier, there's almost always great pizza in the Solarium)
To us, the best pool area aboard (and on most Royal Caribbean ships) is the adults-only Solarium. This was a serene and quiet place to really have a great day just laying around, away from the congestion and party-party-party atmosphere of the Main Pool (not that there's anything wrong with that though).
Unique to Serenade of the Seas: Well, unique at least, to all Radiance class ships: the self leveling pool tables. I did not play on these, but I did on Jewel, and it's amazing that these actually work. While the ship is at sea, your pool game will not be affected (although, I never checked to see what these tables could handle in really rough seas. Of course, in really rough seas, probably no one will want to play pool.) Alas, the self leveling tables will NOT improve your game one iota. That's what I need... a table that tilts my ball into the pocket!
Things Royal Caribbean should do to improve Serenade of the Seas: Serenade could use some maintenance and some TLC in certain areas. As I mentioned above, in our Junior Suite, the bathroom door would stick and the toilet flush button was cracked through. The glass on the balcony was streaked pretty badly as well.
Portofino's servers (at least the one we had) need to be retrained in service... they need to be brought up to the standards we are used to on Voyager and Freedom class ships' Portofino's. Food here was generally very good, but the great service is what you look forward to as well... maybe they just need to walk next door to Chops for a refresher in great service. Again, I blame our server for that night more than Portofino's. (On the other hand, my steak here was raw in the center rather than medium rare... and I would have sent it back had the server returned to ask)
They should find a way to clean up the cigar smoke odor coming from the cigar lounge (next to the Vortex) when you get off the elevators to go to the Vortex. Speaking of the Vortex, the rotating bar needs to be fixed. I was very disappointed that this wasn't working.
Finally, once more, I would like to see Royal Caribbean resume the ability of their guests to buy alcohol in the ship's General Store and return with it to their cabin for immediate use for an added surcharge. I understand that the cruise line needs their guests to buy drinks in the ship's bars... but they could increase their profits by merely putting a surcharge for in room use of the bottle(s) purchased for cabin use. Why not charge 25% for in cabin use of General Store purchased bottles? Or 30% more? I know back in the days where you could take ship-bought liquors back to your cabin, I was drinking just as much if not more out at the bars and clubs. (And if it's an issue about safety, then limit the guest to one bottle per week)
Why Serenade of the Seas should be your next cruise ship: Serenade is a beautiful ship... I suspect all of the Radiance class ships are, seeing that we felt the same way about her sister, Jewel of the Seas back in '05. She has a fantastic crew and a warm, small town feel. People seemed much more laid back on this cruise, both guests and crew. I heard no real or major complaints about the ship or crew all week (which is unusual; there's usually one or two grumbling about nothing in particular on a cruise) and I had none myself that would turn me against this ship. Serenade has a strong following at Cruise Critic as well, and we could see why! I would say that my biggest regret was that we had to cancel our second week aboard (had I known how much I was going to like this ship before hand, I may have thought a bit more about this). I heartily recommend this ship... I would not hesitate to cruise on her again!
Note: Kim and Steve had an excellent time on their second week aboard; they absolutely adored St. Martin and Orient Bay (they've been there before on other cruises with us)... so much so that they are thinking of a trip just there next year instead of a cruise! They had our wonderful waiter, Katrina, for the second week, and they sat at the two seater table that Natalie and Frank (who we met during the Galley Tour) had the week before! Unfortunately, Sonny was at another location in the MDR. We were surprised to find out that the Wait teams shuffle around to different stations and are not permanent teams from week to week. Talk about a challenging environment to work in! While waiting for clearance to begin their second week (they chose to wait in their Junior Suite) aboard, Kim and Steve walked down the hall and got a peak at the giant Royal Suite... all 1001 sq ft of it! Steve described it as "Breath-taking!" Wow!
~Cruise Review Menu~
All photography on this page done by Paul and Diane McCullough using a new Canon SD980 IS camera. Pictures edited using Photoscape.