This Best of MJ post originally appeared on November 13, 2011.

It’s no secret that I like to cruise. Frankly, if I ruled the world and had unlimited funds, I’d spend the majority of my time at sea…granted, on my yacht and not a cruise ship…but still! I love cruising. That’s why I was extra excited to finally have the opportunity to sail aboard the largest cruise ship in the world, Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas. Better yet, MrsMJonTravel and I would be sailing on Allure for not one, but two cruises, 14 nights total.

Suffice it to say, both of us have been anticipating our back to back (B2B) cruise for a long time as we booked it over 1 year before we sailed. Why 2 weeks? Well, we figured with a ship so large and so chock full of things to do, we would need that much time to sample everything. That idea proved to be a wise one. There was plenty to keep us entertained on board. In fact, there was a 7 day stretch that we did not leave the ship other than our brief “in transit” exit between cruises. No, I didn’t get bored. By the time the cruise was done, I was partying until 2am every night. Don’t laugh…I’m not 20 anymore so that’s an accomplishment! This ship was just so great in so many ways that I hardly know where to begin. But there is one thing I want to get out of the way at the beginning. I want to dispel a few myths, rumors, suspicions, fears, and made up worries about a ship so large.

I remember quite well sitting in the computer lounge of another RCL ship a few months ago listening to some crank gripe on and on about Allure. “I’ll never sail on Allure. Too many people. Too crowded….blah blah….” First, Royal Caribbean has obviously given some thought to crowd control. During our first week, there were over 6,300 guests, and nearly 2,200 crew onboard. Did I ever feel overwhelmed with people? NO! Not once. Did the elevators get a little busy after a show….sure! Were the promenade parades packed? You bet. But they always are. The public spaces on the ship are so well laid out, that crowding was never a problem in my experience.

The most amazing statistic from 2 weeks aboard this beautiful ship? For me, it was the fact that we never had trouble finding a pool chair. When was the last time you could say that on a cruise? Not only are the onboard spaces well designed for managing large numbers, but the embarkation/disembarkation process was well planned throughout. Terminal 18 in Fort Lauderdale is huge, with security lanes and check in desks as far as the eye can see. Curbside to cocktail time for us? 25 minutes. And 10 minutes of that was spent waiting in the wrong line behind some people with way too many questions. There, I feel better now that I’ve gotten that off my chest!! So let’s dive in.

Booking the Cruise

We booked with our Travel & Leisure A-List super-duper Virtuoso travel agent, Michelle Bemis, of McCabe World Travel in McLean, Virginia. You know how I feel about travel agents. Find one you like and stick with them. Can I book a basic 7-night cruise by myself? Sure! But wait until you see what we’ve got booked for next year! Work with an agent, even if it’s just a simple cruise. They’ll have your back, and when it’s time for a more extensive vacation, they’ll have a better idea of your tastes when you’re about to embark on a more complicated adventure.

Getting to the Cruise

We flew into Fort Lauderdale the night before on US Airways. Sometime between booking and travel, US Airways dropped the afternoon nonstop to Fort Lauderdale on Saturdays, and moved us to the 10am nonstop. That just would not work for us, so I called the airline and they put us on a connection via Charlotte departing Washington National (DCA) at 3pm. That worked fine, but we were just a tiny bit later arriving Fort Lauderdale than I would have preferred. In other words, our late arrival limited the time available to enjoy our great pre-cruise hotel, the W Fort Lauderdale. At least we were there. NO WAY would I ever risk flying in the day of for a trip like this. Do yourself a favor and fly to your port the day before you depart. That’s the cheapest kind of travel insurance you can buy.

Pre Cruise Hotel – W Fort Lauderdale

I’m not nearly pretty and cool enough to love W Hotels as much as I do, but somehow they just work for me. So when I was able to snag a reasonable rate at the W Fort Lauderdale, I jumped on it. After grabbing our bags, we cabbed to the hotel, arriving about 15 minutes after departing the airport. The place was hopping. No sweet suite upgrade for us, but we did get a pretty nice “Mega Room.” After dumping our bags we headed down to Steak 954 for dinner. We were both famished after our flight, with US Airways’ famous snack basket not really fitting the bill for dinner! I won’t review the meal, but suffice it to say that Steak 954 rocked! I can’t wait to go back. Since this is a blog about a cruise, I won’t spend much time on a hotel review, but here are a few shots of our room.

It’s Time to Cruise!

I reserved a car to pick us up at the hotel at 10:45am on the morning of October 23rd. It was a typical morning, slightly overcast, and not too warm. Regardless, we were about to see the biggest cruise ship in the world, Allure of the Seas!

I don’t know if my iPhone 4S does Allure justice, but I snapped a photo from the street as we drove by anyway! The anticipation was building. By 11am, we were unloading our bags, and walking inside Terminal 18 at Port Everglades. The terminal, obviously built for a crowd, was huge and handled our 6,300 guest sailing with relative ease.

Royal Caribbean has obviously made plans to deal with a crowd. The number of security lanes and check in positions is large and guests are processed very quickly. Everything is handled at your first check in point, including pictures for your SeaPass card. Once you check in, there’s no stopping (except for a welcome aboard photo) until you are onboard the ship. It was during boarding that I noticed the first benefit of our new Crown and Anchor Diamond Plus status. The lines getting onto the ship were starting to bog down just a tiny bit, so personnel were asking customers to have a seat in the waiting area for “just a few minutes.” When they saw our SeaPass cards with “Diamond Plus” on them, they just waived us on ahead. Within minutes, we were walking aboard the world’s largest cruise ship!

And then, it was time for the first cocktail! The world’s biggest margarita aboard the world’s biggest ship. How fitting. Came with a price to match, but hey, we were on vacation!

You can read more about day 1 here.

Our Stateroom

Our Central Park Balcony stateroom, 11197, was a standard balcony room. While efficiently designed and comfortable, I found it to be slightly smaller than other standard balcony cabins I’ve experienced. I’ve read about a lack of storage space onboard Allure (and Oasis), but I did not find that to be the case. Perhaps that’s because we’ve learned how to pack appropriately, or maybe storage space is like food, subjective. We had plenty of closet, shelf and drawer space to unpack our belongings, and we simply put our empty luggage underneath the bed. If you’re prone to travel with a super-sized bag, it might not fit underneath so laying it in the closet might be an option. I also noted a few bags stored on balconies. My favorite little feature? A dual iPod/iPhone charging dock and alarm clock. Here are a few pictures of the stateroom.

For the second week of our cruise, we chose to switch to a Boardwalk Balcony stateroom, 14325. The room itself was identical to the stateroom photographed here. Of course, the vibe from the Boardwalk is different, and a good bit more lively. If you don’t like a little noise, don’t book a Boardwalk stateroom. Central Park on the other hand was almost eerily quiet except for the piped in bird noise. The only exception to that rule was when the pool band was playing. The music wafted down, throughout the park, and frankly, I liked it. If you can’t stand cruise ship pool band music, keep your balcony door shut. Since the rooms were essentially identical, I didn’t bother with photographs. But here are a few shots of the Boardwalk.

The verdict on our staterooms is that next time, we will stick with an oceanview balcony. We wanted to try both of these options because they are something you can only enjoy on Allure or her sister ship, Oasis of the Seas. We enjoyed both staterooms, but if I had a complaint, it would be that you lose your connection with the sea. We could actually see the ocean from our Boardwalk balcony, but our Central Park balcony could have just as well been a room at the local Marriott looking down on a courtyard. Central Park was extremely quiet, and since the ship barely rocked at all, it would be easy for one to forget that they are on a ship at sea. Don’t let this scare you away from either of these stateroom types, just be aware of what you are getting. Either are worth trying once, and who knows, you may prefer them. One other note, if at all possible, from now on we will keep the same stateroom for a B2B cruise. Having to pack your stuff on the last night of cruise 1 takes away from part of the joy of a B2B.

Dining

There will be no lack of food aboard your Allure of the Seas cruise. There are over 20 dining establishments of some description on board, many of which are included in the price of your cruise. Others require a small, or sometimes not so small upcharge. Many disagree with me, but I always advocate at least one visit to a specialty restaurant when cruising on ship that offers them. For a reasonable fee you can enjoy a 5 star meal that would cost far more on land. In other words, our meal in Chops Grill which cost $30 dollars each plus a bottle of wine, would likely have cost $300 dollars at the local Morton’s Steakhouse.

During the first cruise, we were assigned to a table for 2 on deck 3. Our servers were very nice and obviously worked hard to deliver their service. During the meal on the first formal night, we both received appetizers of escargots and lobster bisque that were less than hot. I let the head waiter know. They weren’t so cold that I sent them back (should have in retrospect) but they just weren’t up to par. The head waiter certainly offered to replace them, but I really just wanted her to know that they had an issue moving the food from the kitchen to our table in a manner that ensured they arrived at the appropriate temperature. The next day, I received a call from the maitre’ de apologizing again, and even offering to move us to a different table. I let him know that was not necessary, but I appreciated the phone call. We did not receive any additional “cool” food for the remainder of the cruise.

The highlight of our main dining room experience came during the second cruise. Not only was the escargot hot, we were blessed to be served one of the best waiters we’ve ever had, Steve (Table 148, October 30, 2011 voyage in case RCL is reading). I can’t say enough good things about Steve and the service provided during our second cruise. You can bet we noted this in our survey at the end of the cruise too. My favorite dining room foods for the week were escargot, lobster bisque, lobster, and prime rib.

We tried 2 of the 3 “high end” specialty restaurants on board, Chops Grille ($30 dollars per person), and the uber chic 150 Central Park ($40 dollars per person). We just didn’t have time to get to Giovanni’s Table, the Italian restaurant. I know….14 nights just wasn’t enough. If you are a “foodie,” you will likely love 150 Central Park. Our 6 courses were expertly presented and tasted wonderful. I really loved our main course of venison. But for me, the highlight of our specialty restaurant experiences was Chops Grille.

I love me some steak, especially high quality cuts of beef expertly prepared to my liking, and that’s exactly what I received in Chops. Better yet, we were served by Sharlon, who must surely be one of the top waiters at Royal Caribbean. He happened to be on Voyager of the Seas 6 years ago when we sailed that ship, and I’m convinced he served is in the Portofino restaurant on board. He’s still great! Here are just a few pictures.

Yes, that’s red velvet cake. You might wonder what happened to the steak? Well, I was so excited I just dove right in without snapping a picture first. I figure you can get along without a picture of a half eaten steak on here. I’ll try to do better next time! :)

Another favorite spot of ours was the much less formal, but very tasty Rita’s Cantina. Open for lunch and dinner most days, we enjoyed our welcome aboard lunch on day 1 at Rita’s as well as that gynormous Margarita you saw earlier in the blog. Our best visit to Rita’s came on day 1 of the second cruise, also known as MrsMJonTravel’s birthday. We booked ourselves and the 4 cruising companions that joined us for the second half of our journey into Rita’s Fiesta for dinner on night one. Rita’s Fiesta is a package deal offered several nights of the cruise. For $20 dollars per person, you receive chips and salsa, and a 3 course dinner along with 3 cocktails. That might be the best deal on the ship that isn’t free. They turn up the party a bit, and it was a good way to celebrate a birthday. No, this isn’t me. I just watched from behind my margarita.

Another dining highlight of the cruise was our favorite drinking establishment, Vintages. While several Royal Caribbean ships feature the Vintages Wine Bar, Oasis and Allure were the first RCL ships to introduce a tapas menu at Vintages. Tapas are purchased a la carte at Vintages, but that did not dissuade us from trying them. In fact, we ate dinner at Vintages on 2 of our 14 nights onboard Allure. Here are a few pictures of the wine bar.

The service we received in Vintages was among our best on the ship. You can enjoy your wine inside the bar or outside at any of the several tables. We enjoyed at least one glass of wine in Vintages on most nights of our 14 night vacation.

The Cruise Experience

This blog will be structured a little differently than most of my cruise reviews as I actually managed to write a blog most days of the cruise about that day’s activities. Here are the links by day. Day 1Day 2Day 3Day 4Day 5Day 6Day 7Day 8Day 9Day 10, and Day 11. For the last few days of the cruise I decided to disconnect from “the grid” for a bit and really relax, so I’ll cover St. Maarten and our last sea days here. But really, this cruise was far more about the ship than the itinerary for us, so that’s where my thoughts are focused. But not to be forgotten, I did make it to my favorite little dive bar in St. Maarten, the Get Wet Beach Bar.

No, I didn’t just drink the Heineken at the Get Wet. MrsMJonTravel and I did a little shopping. In fact, we stopped by our favorite jeweler in town, Joe’s Jewelry International, home of both our wedding bands. We like Joe’s a lot. Quality and service have been excellent. Not to mention, they send us Christmas cookies every year. :) So do stop by Joe’s if you’re in St. Maarten.

After St. Maarten, the final 2 days of the cruise are spent at sea. Some people don’t care for sea time, but I love it. It’s a true opportunity to relax and enjoy yourself. Suffice it to say, there’s plenty to do aboard Allure of the Seas. MrsMJonTravel zip lined high above the boardwalk while I watched.

Then there was pool time…at our favorite…. the Beach Pool. Did I mention that we were always able to find a pool chair? Of course, a final glass of wine at Vintages, and a great dinner with our new favorite waiter Steve. Our 14 amazing nights on Allure drew to a close way too rapidly.

Disembarkation

Much like boarding, disembarkation was a breeze. We requested a later time slot as our flight wasn’t until 2pm. We spent part of the morning in the Concierge Lounge, and the rest in the Amber Theater. Sometime before 10am, our tag number was called, and we walked off the ship. Our bags were waiting, we collected them, and queued for Customs. In a flash, we were outside the terminal and in a taxi for the short ride to FLL. Once our tag was called, the exit process was approximately 15 minutes. Back to life, pouring my own wine, and waiting in line for a taxi home at DCA.

Parting Thoughts

I can’t close this post without mentioning our awesome AWESOME concierges, Marina and Rahim. Never before have I been so well cared for. Not that we had a lot of issues to tackle, but they graciously and expertly went about fulfilling any request we had. I can only hope we have the pleasure of sailing with them again. Also deserving of mention, our stateroom attendants Evelyn and Sen, Sarita in the spa. All of these fine people went out of their way to ensure we are happy. I wish service like that we experienced on Allure of the Seas existed everywhere, especially in Washington, DC. Oh well, all the more reason to cruise again soon!

If there’s one thing I could instill in anyone that reads this blog because they are curious about cruising on the world’s largest cruise ship, it would be this. Do not be intimidated by Allure’s statistics, size, and sheer awesomeness. OK…Silversea and Yachts of Seabourn, this is not. But open your mind just a little and go into this cruise knowing it won’t be like any other. Even if you find yourself preferring more intimate ships, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you tried something different. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Allure of the Seas is…..shockingly awesome!

I am in the midst of a rather intense few weeks of work and travel. I’ll be posting new content regularly, but filling in some spots with “Best of” posts from time to time. How does a post get qualified as “Best of?” Pageviews, comments, and intuition. This post originally appeared on November 13, 2011.