I’m enjoying a wonderful cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas this week. While I’m away, I’ve lined up some great guest posters, as well as reposts of my most popular content based on reader demand. Today, I’m reposting my review of Royal Caribbean’s fabulous Liberty of the Seas. Enjoy! I’ll have a review of Mariner of the Seas available as soon as possible after vacation.
Let me get this out of the way first. If you book this beautiful ship, you will NOT be disappointed! Mrs. MJ on Travel and I tend to favor Royal Caribbean’s smaller Radiance Class ships, and we still do. However, Liberty of the Seas is simply a fabulous ship, and I cannot wait to cruise on her again!
This review will be structured by booking method, how we got to the ship, where we stayed and then on with details of my experience on the ship. I will not spend a lot of time on penning many details about each port of call, but will certainly share my experiences. I would appreciate your comments on the value of that structure, and I will revise it accordingly in future cruise reviews.
Booking the Cruise
Our Liberty cruise was booked aboard another Royal Caribbean ship, Grandeur of the Seas. RCL offers some token benefits by booking on board. You receive up to $200 dollars of on board credit (money to spend when on board the ship), and they will immediately transfer the booking to your travel agent of choice if you have one.
This was our second cruise utilizing the services of a travel agent, and we intend to continue doing so in the future. Yes, I am capable of booking a basic Caribbean cruise on my own, but I am really warming up to the idea of building a travel agent relationship. I feel having a good agent on your side is especially useful for more complicated trips, one of which we already have on the agenda for next summer. In any event, our agent of choice is Michelle Bemis with McCabe World Travel in McLean, Virginia. McCabe is a Virtuoso agency, and I’ve been quite pleased with the services provided.
Getting to the Ship
American Airlines was our airline of choice as they offer several nonstop flights from our home airport, Washington Reagan National (DCA), to Miami International (MIA), and as regular readers already know, I am AAdvantage Platinum and feel that American’s AAdvantage is the best mileage program in the business right now. Our outbound flight was a bit late leaving due to some bad weather in Miami, but we were able to comfortably pass the time in the American Airlines Admirals Club courtesy of my American Express Platinum Card. The DCA Admirals Club staff is always fabulous.
I cannot over-emphasize the importance of arriving in the port city the day before your cruise. Do NOT fly in the same day of your cruise. You are only tempting fate and putting your vacation at risk (and inflicting unnecessary stress on yourself) if you depend on an airline to actually operate its published schedule. Too many things can go wrong, and they eventually will. To that end, I arranged a one night stay at the Conrad Miami. The hotel is in downtown Miami, not far from the pier, and is edgy enough to make for a fun way to start your vacation. I will post a complete review of the Conrad separately, but suffice it to say the hotel did the trick, and is only a $10 to $12 dollar cab ride to the pier.
In keeping with tradition, we arrived at the ship at noon to begin our vacation aboard the May 23, 2009, sailing of Liberty of the Seas. We handed our pre-tagged bags off to the porter, and proceeded into the terminal. I caught this shot of the ship before we went inside (no pictures in the terminal).
I had pre-printed our Set-Sail pass at home which took care of many of the check in formalities in advance. There was approximately a 5-minute wait for an initial document check, and then it was up the stairs to security. Once through security we proceeded to the Crown & Anchor Diamond Check-in Desk where we were immediately assisted. Our passports were scanned and we completed a small amount of paperwork. Within a few minutes we received our Sea Pass cards (room key and on board charge card) and were on our way for the welcome aboard photo. Total time from bag drop to walking on board this beautiful ship: less than 20 minutes!
On Board Liberty of the Seas
We entered the ship on deck 4, and immediately took care of our wine package for the week. If you like wine with dinner, I highly recommend that you consider purchasing the package rather than buying by the bottle. You’ll need to separate yourself from the reality that even at the package discounted price, you could still purchase the same wines for less at your corner store. You’re on vacation!
After taking care of the important stuff, we were off to explore the Royal Promenade, home to the Hoof & Claw Pub and Vintages Wine Bar, as well as several other shops and eateries.
My first reaction was “wow, this really is a big ship!” We have sailed on the slightly smaller Voyager of the Seas before, but there was something obviously different about Liberty’s Promenade, and it was more than just being bigger. It was better. Every crew member that we passed made it a point to smile and welcome us aboard. Within minutes, I knew this was going to be a very good cruise. My first stop was at the local barber shop, “A Clean Shave.” Yes, there is a barber shop on board offering not only hair cuts but honest to goodness hot shaves, and other spa services for men. I immediately booked an appointment! Royal Caribbean has turned things up a notch with Liberty and her other Freedom Class siblings. I can only imagine what’s in store for us aboard Oasis and Allure of the Seas!
After exploring the Royal Promenade we were off to book spa appointments and make dining reservations at Chops Grille, Royal Caribbean’s wonderful on board steak house. Cruising Advisory # 1: get on board the ship as early as you can and take care of your spa and specialty restaurant reservations as soon as possible. They do book up, and it’s best to book as soon as possible to ensure you get your preferred appointment times. (Boardingarea.com Blogger Dan Webb reminds me that you can book specialty restaurant reservations online as well. That’s a great option that I originally failed to mention in the review. I tried this, but could not get our preferred dining time. I did get the time we wanted on board.)
Lunch was being served in the Windjammer buffet, so we joined the masses and dove in. Food was standard buffet fare and of reasonable quality for what it is. I tried the chef-carved roast beef which was pretty good. The salad items are always a good bet as well, and did not disappoint. Some members of our traveling party felt the Windjammer was over-crowded. Personally, I found it to be the same as every other Royal Caribbean Windjammer buffet….busy but not quite intolerable. In any event, we only visited one other time during the entire 7-day cruise. A testament to the many dining options available on board. Cruising Advisory # 2: skip the buffet and enjoy a sit-down lunch in the ship’s main dining room when it is open for lunch.
After lunch, it was off to the stateroom to drop our carry-on bags. We booked a Promenade view inside stateroom for this cruise, our first 7-day without a balcony. The Promenade view rooms are interior staterooms which have a window that looks down on the Royal Promenade. We thought it would be interesting to try this type of room for a change, and to see if we could tolerate an interior stateroom for more than a 3-night weekender cruise. The room was compact but very well organized. We had plenty of room to store our bags, either under the bed or in the closet which was sizable considering our interior accommodations. Storage was adequate, but we could have used perhaps one or two more drawers somewhere in the room. Note to Royal Caribbean: I thought the area underneath the promenade window “couch” which was actually built into the cabin would be an ideal space for additional storage. The bathroom was standard issue cruise ship, small but functional.
Once we dropped off our bags, it was time to hit the pool and enjoy our first cocktail and a little sunshine. It was warm and a little cloudy, but still pleasant enough outside. Bar service was quick and the bartenders were almost uniformly excellent. At 3PM, I met some cruisecritic.com friends for a pre-sailaway cocktail at the Sky Bar. And then the sky turned black and the heavens opened so we took cover while the rain blew through. The sailaway party was moved inside due to the rain, but by the time we untied from the pier and departed, the rain had gone away and it was pretty decent outside. Liberty seemed to sail out a knot or two slower than most ships I’ve cruised on from Miami so there was a lot of time to enjoy the spectacular views of Miami and South Beach as we headed out to sea. Our cruise was off to a phenomenal start! Cruising Advisory # 3: Do NOT miss sail away, especially from a city like Miami.
Main Dining Room
We chose second seating dinner for this cruise as we always do. Second seating is at 8:30PM. While we do not normally eat that late, it just seems that having to go to dinner at 6PM everyday will result in a rush to get back on the ship from ports of call with no time to do anything but get ready for dinner. It should be noted that Royal Caribbean now offers “My Time Dining” on all of its ships allowing you to enjoy dinner in the main dining room on your schedule and not their’s. I think its a terrific option for many, but second seating works just fine for us.
There were six people in our traveling party, and we were seated at our own table. Our waiter and assistant waiter greeted us as we were seated. Both were wonderfully pleasant people and served us cheerfully, but somewhat slowly. Something about the service just did not click. Nearby diners were eating dessert while we waited for our main courses to arrive. I noted some improvement as the week went on, but to be honest, the main dining room service seemed a little off. Not awful, just off, and I cannot point to any one thing that seemed to be causing the problem. Maybe we were just spoiled by Peter and Valentin on our Grandeur of the Seas cruise last fall!
Over the course of the week we dined in both specialty restaurants on board, Chops Grille and Portofino. Chops Grille was first up, and did not disappoint. Our server was top-notch, and the food was incredible. Mrs. MJ on Travel got the jumbo shrimp cocktail while I enjoyed the mushroom soup which should not be missed! Sides are served “family style” at Chops so the table shared one of several different items including sauteed mushrooms and grilled asparagus. I dined on the 10 ounce filet mignon cooked medium rare. My steak was as near perfect as a steak can be, cooked just as I wanted and the flavor was excellent. We closed out the meal with a fabulous dessert. I chose the cheese cake which was beyond description. Others had the Mississippi Mud Pie which speaking from experience is even better than the cheese cake if you love chocolate. Reservations are recommended and a $25 dollar per person seating fee (which includes gratuity even though I’ve always tipped more) will be charged.
A few nights later, we enjoyed Portofino, Royal Caribbean’s Italian eatery. Let me say upfront that this was without a doubt, the finest meal I had on the ship. While all of us dined on different things, the final verdict was always the same, WOW! The first of many courses began with a salad accompanied by various Italian breads. After my experience in Chops I decided to try Portofino’s soup of the day which happened to be mushroom as well. It was excellent but did not measure up to that offered in Chops. Obviously, not a meal emergency. I dined on Portofino’s indescribably delicious filet mignon. Yes, I know…. two steaks in the same week. Sue me, I was on vacation. Accompanied by mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables, I can only say that I have not had a finer meal in any land-based restaurant anywhere. Our servers were the finest, and even though they were very busy with a large party, they did not miss a beat in taking care of us. Portofino’s $20 dollar seating fee is the best value on the ship! Cruising Advisory # 4: Do not miss either of these wonderful dining experiences if they are offered on your ship.
The ship has a number of dining opportunities outside of the main dining room and specialty restaurants. Sorentos offers deli sandwiches and pizza along with other Italian oriented deli food (no charge), while Cafe Promenade offers specialty coffees for a surcharge and pastries for free. There’s also a Ben & Jerry’s that serves….you guessed it, Ben & Jerry’s. Up on deck 12, you’ll find the seagoing version of your local Johnny Rockets. For a $4.95 seating fee, you can eat all the burgers, fries and onion rings you can stand. Of course, there is the Windjammer Buffet that you’ll find on all Royal Caribbean ships.
Diamond and Diamond Plus members of Royal Caribbean’s loyalty program, the Crown & Anchor Society, enjoy access to the Diamond Lounge located on deck 14 in the Viking Crown. We visited every night because we loved socializing with our fellow frequent cruisers. Light hors d’oeuvres and complimentary cocktails were served by the wonderful Diamond Concierge, Mario and his assistants. Continental Breakfast is also served during the morning hours. This is not to be missed if you are a Diamond or Diamond Plus cruiser. We’ve learned a lot about cruising and traveling in general from our fellow cruisers in settings like this and over numerous dinners aboard ship.
Ports of Call
There were three sea days and three ports of call on this itinerary. The cruise began with two sea days, and they could not have been more needed. Frankly, we both needed a vacation and just the thought of being on the world’s largest floating hotel with no need to be anywhere was relaxing! I doubt you care to read about every intricate detail of my time at sea but suffice it to say that Liberty offers plenty of activities to keep you occupied. My day began with a visit to Liberty’s exceptional fitness facility on deck 11. A ship so large has plenty of space for a full gym and boxing ring to boot! The remainder of my two sea days were spent relaxing by the pool, and enjoying the time we had dining, dancing and having a good time. Take a look at this photo of a street party held on the Royal Promenade.
St. Maarten was our first port of call. This was at least our third visit to the island, and we went there with a plan. Shopping in the morning and snorkeling in the afternoon. Our shopping trip had one purpose, procurement of a wedding band to replace the one I lost in February. Joe’s Jewelry served us well in November 2007 when we purchased Mrs. MJ on Travel’s wedding band, so we wanted to make that our first stop. It was our last as we found the ring we wanted within minutes, and at a very fair price. After such a successful shopping trip we had some time to spare before our excursion, which we spent at the Get Wet Beach Bar. The Get Wet is a favorite of ours, is very close to the ship, and we make it a point to stop there during every visit to St. Maarten.
The afternoon involved a snorkeling excursion booked through Royal Caribbean. The Tiki Hut Snorkel Park was a short boat ride from the pier. I don’t snorkel but Mrs. MJ on Travel does. We usually do these things on a catamaran and she snorkels while I enjoy rum punch and take pictures. The Tiki Hut Snorkel Park is actually a floating barge nestled in a cove not far from (but out of sight of) the ship. Mrs. MJ on Travel reports that the snorkeling was fabulous. One word of warning: if you plan to just sit around and enjoy the bar and the scenery, you have to swim to the bathroom (which is a marine head on a catamaran tied up not far away) or as the guide said, “do as the fish do.”
Our next port was San Juan, one of my favorite cities. Just my opinion, but the ship spends far too little time there. We arrived at 8AM and departed at 2PM. Given the short time, we booked a walking excursion through the ship. It included a walking tour of Old San Juan and ended near the major shopping area.
I enjoyed the tour very much, but it was a tad warm to be strolling around San Juan. Once the tour was over, we made a quick shopping trip to the Ralph Lauren outlet store and closed out the day with a few beers at Senor Frogs. The pier is a short walk from Senor Frogs, and thankfully so. We arrived there to find an extremely long line waiting to clear security at the pier entrance. It was moving at least, but the process still took about 25 minutes. For what its worth, that was the longest wait I experienced the entire cruise.
On to Labadee, Haiti, Royal Caribbean’s private paradise in the Caribbean. This was our first visit to Labadee since our January 2005 Voyager of the Seas cruise. We loved Labadee the first time, and we still do. Be advised that Labadee is a tender port until December. Royal Caribbean is constructing a pier in advance of the arrival of Oasis of the Seas, which will make for a more efficient embarkation/disembarkation process when complete. It was obvious that Royal Caribbean has invested more resources in the entire Labadee experience. There appeared to be more beach areas, certainly a few more dining/drinking areas, and most obviously, a pretty awesome looking zip line. No, we did not try zip lining this visit, but I did let Mrs. MJ on Travel talk me into parasailing.
To say that I didn’t want to parasail is a mild understatement. A few thousand piloting hours under my belt, and I still have no desire to jump out of a perfectly good airplane. I was no more thrilled to be pulled around by a boat and strapped to a parachute that I had no opportunity to inspect either. I am pleased to report that SeaTrek Parasailing was actually quite nice, and most of the complaining to Mrs. MJ on Travel that I did while flying 400 feet above the sea was in jest. After lunch and few hours on the beach it was time to head back to the ship. There was a bit of line waiting for the tender, but they run frequently enough to keep things moving.
The next day was spent at sea. I always love beginning and ending cruises with days at sea because they offer an opportunity to really relax and unwind, especially to begin your cruise vacation. Heck, this ship was so full of things to do, I think I could’ve spent 7 days at sea! The last day was spent relaxing by the pool, enjoying the enormous international buffet served on the Royal Promenade, and sadly, packing to go home as our fabulous vacation was coming to an end.
Cruising Advisory #5: Get packed prior to dinner on the last night of your cruise. That way you can enjoy dinner and a night out on the ship without worrying about the need to get back to your room and pack.
We met our traveling party for breakfast in the main dining room around 8AM and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast as the ship began clearing. After breakfast we went down to deck 4 and found a crowd waiting by the forward gangway which is where U.S. citizens were sent. Some of us waited in line while others had a seat in the Schooner Bar and chatted for a few minutes. It wasn’t long before the line started moving, and once the end of the line had reached our area, we jumped in. We were off the ship in minutes, and had cleared Customs and were standing in the taxi line in no more than 15 minutes. A very smooth process for us.
The Bottom Line
Frankly, I loved Liberty of the Seas! I had some concerns about crowds and all manner of issues surrounding the large number of people the ship can accommodate, but found everything to be relatively well organized and issue free. The crew was quite friendly, and bar service was reasonable. Our only hiccup was service in the dining room that seemed a little off track, but our servers were quite pleasant and seemed well-intentioned. None of our party complained to our head waiter, and I don’t know if it would have made any difference or not. This certainly did not negatively impact the overwhelmingly positive experience I found on this fabulous cruise vacation, and I am pleased to share the details with you. I wouldn’t hesitate to sail on Liberty again, and am looking forward to the opportunity to do so. If you have any additional questions, don’t hesitate to post a comment or send an email through the “Contact Me” link to the right.
Photos courtesy of Mrs. MJ on Travel