Many of you know that I recently completed a short 3-night Bahamas cruise aboard Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Seas.  This wasn’t a typical cruise in that I was celebrating my 4oth birthday along with Mrs MJ on Travel and 24 of our closest friends and family.  This was my first experience managing a group cruise, and I’ll speak to some of the details about how one goes about that in addition to my standard observations about the cruise.  I don’t have a great deal in the way of pictures from this trip.  It was my birthday party, and my 40th at that.  Suffice it to say, I had a good time, and I think everyone that attended did too.

Managing a Group Cruise

Let’s talk about setting up a group first.  I first started working on this about a year before the actual cruise.  The 40th birthday is a pretty big milestone, and I wanted to do something a little different.   As I’m sure is pretty obvious to regular readers, cruising is just about my favorite thing to do that won’t get you arrested, so I knew I’d want to cruise on my 40th.  All things being equal, I would’ve preferred a longer itinerary than the 3-night Bahamas run, but I settled on that for a few reasons.  First, the price point on the short cruises is one that I felt would enable the maximum number of people to join us.  Second, the Friday to Monday schedule of the cruise would not take people away from work very long.  And finally, Orlando and Port Canaveral where we sailed from, are blessed with a large amount of air service from the likes of JetBlue, Southwest and Air Tran which would keep transportation costs in line for those of us that would have to fly in.

Royal Caribbean (and probably just about every other line) requires you to set up a group cruise through your travel agent.  We contacted ours, Michelle at McCabe World Travel in McLean, Virginia, and she was wonderfully helpful.  I hope she likes us, because I emailed and called a lot over the course of the year leading up to the actual event!  An honest to goodness group requires at least 8 cabins, and that’s what we were allocated early on.  I’m not going to get into a lot of technical details, mainly because I’m not certain I’d be correct, and it doesn’t really matter anyway.  Work with your travel agent, and they’ll help guide you through.  Mrs MJ on Travel and I were the first cabin booked into the group, go figure.  That process was much like any other, you put down your standard deposit, and some modicum of time in advance, you make your final payment.

Royal Caribbean offers Group Amenity Points (GAP) that enable you to choose from a menu of amenities for your group.  These range from on board credit (OBC) to wine in the room to snacks for each cabin.  We chose the OBC so each cabin received a little on board spending money to help defray the cost of their bar bill.  I believe the larger your group, the more GAP points you get, so you could potentially choose more than one amenity if you’re hosting a larger party.  RCL will even throw you a little cocktail party if you’re a group of 100 guests or more.

Now that our group was established, job number 1 was getting people signed up.  Our travel agent assisted by preparing a brochure which included pertinent details of the cruise such as pricing and how to book.  Mrs MJ on Travel developed our own invitations using Kodakgallery.com, and we sent the travel agent brochures out along with our invitations.  Additionally, I set up an event on Facebook.  I’m not convinced that setting up the Facebook event was all that useful, but it did enable us to share information and updates fairly quickly with our fellow cruisers.

We successfully got our 8 cabins occupied, and ultimately wound up with 14 cabins.  But I did not do a good job of making sure everyone understood that we needed to get commitments on the cabins sooner, rather than later.  I don’t remember the exact date, but we needed to have our initial commitment of 8 cabins booked by mid August 2009 for our February 5, 2010 cruise.  Once we got everyone booked, our group was solidified and adding additional cabins as the cruise approached was no issue at all.  I think we had a couple of folks book within the last couple of weeks prior to sailing.  Group Cruising Tip: Make sure you understand your deadline dates, and communicate them early and often to your guests.

Booking your guests is handled much like any other cruise.  They contact your travel agent, and make their arrangements.  Your agent will ensure that they are included as members of your group.  For the most part, my job as party host was pretty much to answer questions from first time cruisers.  A couple of months before sailing, I contacted our travel agent for details on possibly hosting an onboard cocktail party.  She quickly provided a list of options available, and they range from a simple beer, wine and soda party all the way up to top shelf bar with food.  We made our selections and forwarded them to our travel agent, who in turn coordinated with Royal Caribbean.  We got our first choice of venue, the Viking Crown Lounge on embarkation day, one hour before dinner.  Given the amount of eating that takes place on a cruise, we just went with cocktails.  In retrospect, I suppose a couple of trays of passed hors d’oeuvres might have been nice, but everyone seemed happy.  We purchased the beer, wine, soda option, and I simply gave the bartender my onboard charge card (knows as Sea Pass on RCL) to cover any special requests.  It worked out fine, and was a great start to our weekend.  My welcome speech even went well.  🙂

Waxing Poetic Aboard Monarch of the Seas

There’s more to setting up a group cruise, but I think I’ve hit the highlights.  If you have questions, please comment to the blog, and ask.

And Now, The Cruise – Check in and Boarding

After waiting a whole year, the last couple of months prior to the cruise seemed to fly by.  Our cruise was preceded by 5 nights at Disney World, the details of which I will share in other posts.  Being that this was my 40th birthday, I wanted to do things up right.  I did a little judicious internet research and settled on Elegance Transportation of Orlando for limousine services from the Disney Swan Hotel to Port Canaveral.

The limo arrived at the appointed pick up time, and soon we were off to Port Canaveral, after picking up two friends traveling with us and staying at a nearby hotel.  I had bought a nice bottle of champagne in France, OK, Epcot’s version of France, the day before.  My uncorking capabilities are second to none, even in a moving vehicle!  It made for a nice ride to the port, although I should’ve purchased a second bottle.  Disney is west of the airport, so it’s a bit more of a ride from Disney to Port Canaveral than leaving directly from the airport.

Cheers

Soon enough we had the ship in sight and were pulling into the port area.  Our driver literally dropped us off at the front door where we were immediately met by porters who took our luggage.  Within minutes we were standing at the check in desk.  I had pre-printed our Set Sail passes several days before leaving for Orlando, which saves a few minutes of check in formalities.  A quick scan of our passports, credit card, and completion of the now obligatory health questionnaire, and we were on our way to the ship.

I walked off the gangway and onto the ship, and low and behold, my mother was waiting to take my picture.  Fabulous.  Not.  But oh well.  I was about to be 40 afterall.  She didn’t realize it but she was standing between me and the table full of Bahama Mamma’s!  After procuring my first cocktail, we made our way to the Windjammer for lunch as our staterooms would not be ready until 1PM.  I’m estimating 15 minutes from curbside to cocktail.  Pretty snazzy.

Lunch in the Windjammer was the same as always, adequate buffet food.  I’ve never really gotten into the debates about the quality, or lack thereof, of the buffet food.  It was fine, and it almost always is.  Not outstanding, but certainly good.  Monarch’s buffet seems to be set up in a way that makes it seem a little less nutty than some I’ve visited, and that’s a good thing.

The Cabin

Our cabin, 6008, was almost the farthest forward oceanview cabin on deck 6.  Typically, on short cruises, we just book an inside cabin.  We tend to be busy on cruises, especially shorter itineraries, but I thought we could spring for a window for my 40th birthday.  As usual, we were rarely in the cabin.  Probably a good thing, because to say that it was compact would be a mild understatement.  But there was plenty of closet space, room for our bags under the bed, and we had a place to sleep.  In short, it was perfect for this kind of trip.  Even though we were forward, you don’t have to walk a mile on Monarch to get to anything unlike her larger Voyager and Freedom Class sisters.  And I won’t even talk about Oasis of the Seas!  But if you’re like me, a little exercise on a cruise is never a bad thing.  The room was small, but I have no complaints other than the lack of a safe, which I prefer to have for storing passports and cash.

A towlie animal in 6008 🙂

Dining

The Main Dining Room on this cruise was typical Royal Caribbean, not 5-star, but pretty darn good.  Our group was assigned to 3 adjacent tables in Vincent’s Dining Room on Deck 3.  Our waiter and assistant waiter were unfailingly polite, good at their jobs, and no request went unmet.  Favorite items in no particular order and from no particular meal: Lobster Bisque (always good, but different on this cruise), Escargots, Tiger Shrimp, and (gasp) at the risk of alienating everyone on Cruise Critic, I sprang for the Chops Filet on my birthday.  Unlike my last experience trying this menu option in the main dining room, this cut of meat was noticeably better than the standard “free” steak available every night on the alternative menu.  It wasn’t quite the same as dining in an actual Chops Grille on those ships that have them, but it was pretty darn good, and I don’t begrudge the $14.95 I spent in trying this completely optional item one bit.

Even on what are now considered to be “small” ships like Monarch, Royal Caribbean has invested in making other dining options available.  Of course, there’s always the Windjammer buffet.  But in addition, there’s a Sorrento’s Pizza, and better yet, Jade Asian restaurant and Black Rock Grill.  Sharing the same space on Deck 12, they offer several Asian dishes, in addition to Sushi.  This is a sit-down restaurant, and reservations are recommended.  I did not dine there this cruise, but certainly will in the future.  The menu looked very nice, and dining here is subject to a surcharge which varies based on what you have.  I remember the sushi from Jade on a previous Monarch cruise a few years ago when she was ported in Los Angeles as being pretty good.

Ports of Call

Monarch calls on Nassau and Coco Cay Bahamas on her 3-night itinerary.  The first port is Nassau, and we arrived right on time around 12 noon.  We were actually in the area a bit earlier, but the docking process takes a while as you sail into port, then turn the ship around, and back in for docking.  I think the high winds in Nassau on our morning of arrival may have added some additional time to the process as Captain Karin was needing to be extra careful as we approached the pier.

Monarch spends about 12 hours in port in Nassau.  Arriving around noon, and departing at 11:30PM.  It actually makes for a nice day, with time to take care of some quick shopping and then head on over for the obligatory visit to Senor Frogs.  As you can see, I participated in making fun of myself by wearing a shirt denoting my “age.”

I can't believe she made me wear this shirt. I'm not sure who the old guy on the left is.

We were back on the ship by 5PM or so which gave us a little time to relax before dinner.  Saturday is actually formal night, and you dine while still in port, which was a little different than many (but not all) cruises I’ve been on.  Late Saturday night, the ship held a poolside barbeque as we sailed away for Coco Cay.

The next morning I woke up pretty early and looked out the window.  I noted many white caps on the sea, and based on past experience, that usually does not bode well for a tendering operation like we would have to do at Coco Cay.  Sure enough, about half an hour later, Captain Karin announced that we would indeed skip Coco Cay because the seas were too rough to safely tender.  Not unexpected based on my observation, but always disappointing.  Coco Cay is really a nice experience, and I always enjoy the beach there.

Oh well, life goes on, and so did our day.  Mrs MJ on Travel was sleeping in, so I started wandering around the ship.  I bumped into several of our guests hanging out in the Schooner Bar chatting, pulled up a chair, and a couple of Red Stripes later, we had a full-on party going.  🙂  Who says sea days are boring?!  Not me.  I think they’re great, and this one was even better as I got to spend it with friends.

Around the Ship

Monarch doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that her larger brethren have, but that won’t stop you from enjoying the ship.  From the signature rock climbing wall, to the sports court, and pretty decent fitness center, you will not suffer from a lack of activities.  Looking for a bit of people-watching?  Head to the pool area, equipped with 2 bars and plentiful bar service all around.  If getting out of the sun is on your mind, head to the 7-story Centrum for shopping or coffee at Seattle’s Best.  Our favorite night spot on Monarch was the Latin-themed Bolero’s.  A Royal Caribbean staple on many of their ships, Bolero’s is always a fun scene, with live Latin music and dancing along with the best Mojito’s around.  And there’s always the Viking Crown Lounge, site of our welcome aboard cocktail party, and home to the cigar lounge.  Diamond and Diamond Plus members should note that the nightly VIP event was held in the Viking Crown as well.  Long story short, I haven’t even scratched the surface of things to do on board, and Monarch is a small ship!

Disembarkation

The process was pretty painless.  By the time we finished breakfast, our tags had already been called.  We just got in line at the gangway and were off the ship in under 10 minutes.  I’d say we were in line working our way up to the Immigration desk for around 15 to 20 minutes.  Not rapid, but not the worst I’ve ever experienced either.

Our bags were waiting for us when we arrived at the claim belt, and with that, we were on our way.  We purchased transfers from Royal Caribbean back to the Orlando airport through our travel agent.  That process was pretty painless too.  We lucked out and got the last bus to the airport which was less than half full.  Other than being too warm on the bus, we have no real complaints.  This happens to be the first cruise in which we’ve ever used the transfer service from Royal Caribbean.

The Bottom Line

We had a great cruise, and I had a wonderful birthday party!  Monarch isn’t brand new, equipped with indoor shopping malls, or surfing simulators, but she’s a great ship.  The 3-night itinerary was an ideal introduction to cruising for many of my friends and family, and I think it’s safe to say some of our guests will be cruising again thanks to the great time we all enjoyed on Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Seas.  I wouldn’t hesitate to cruise on Monarch again, and I hope you enjoy your cruise as much as I did.  I may add some more pictures to the review as I get through them.  Thanks for reading.