Yes, the rumors are true. I, Marshall Jackson, am a cruise-a-holic. An avid cruiser. A cruise junkie. Take your pick. I love cruising and I don’t apologize to anyone for it. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I think it’s time to talk about my latest cruising adventure aboard Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas.

Several months ago, I was lamenting that I would really love to find a way to get out of DC during the cold winter months of January and February. As it turns out, our winter has been kind of weirdly mild, but that’s neither here nor there. Mrs MJ on Travel and I had a “Next Cruise” open booking just waiting to be used so I rang our great travel agent, Michelle, at McCabe World Travel in McLean, Virginia, and booked the January 15, 2012, Navigator of the Seas cruise from Port Everglades.

Finally, it was time to sail. Before we get going on the review, I should say that I informed a very small number of people that we were even going on a cruise. That was on purpose. I really needed to disconnect from the world for a few days, and that’s exactly what I did.

Getting There

It makes the most sense to fly into Fort Lauderdale (FLL) for a cruise from Port Everglades, I suppose, but hey…this was all about being different. I booked our flight into Miami International from DCA on American Airlines. Nothing against flying into FLL, it’s just that the fares were so cheap into MIA, $145 per person roundtrip. Even the hassle of getting to and from Port Everglades did not outweigh that fare. Turns out, getting to the port and back to the airport in the end was no hassle at all. More on that later.

We flew down on Saturday afternoon, the evening before the cruise. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, that’s the cheapest travel insurance you can buy. Better yet, even as a mere AAdvantage Gold, our upgrades cleared at the 24 hour window. Thank you Saturday afternoon flights! 🙂 I also want to take a quick opportunity to give a quick shout-out to ExecuCar, the sedan transportation arm of SuperShuttle. This is the 3rd or 4th time I’ve used them for airport transportation and I couldn’t be happier. Clean, late model cars, courteous drivers, and a reasonable price, hard to beat. They picked us up at home right on time, in fact, they were there early, and delivered us to DCA in fine form. I won’t hesitate to use them again. In any event, our flight down to Miami was great, and right on time. It was operated with a newish 737-800 with GoGo inflight wi-fi. Dinner was served, and our inflight crew was outstanding. Preflight, we enjoyed a couple of cocktails in American’s great Admirals Club at DCA. Marcos, you rock!

Pre-cruise Hotel and to the Port

Our pre-cruise hotel was the JW Marriott Miami. A classic Marriott family hotel, this was my second visit to the JW. We arrived late, ran out for dinner, slept, and left, so I don’t have anything in the way of pictures or an extensive review. Just know that I thought the hotel was fantastic. Great check in personnel, comfortable room, and all around great. I won’t hesitate to stay again.

I booked a 10:30am departure with Carey Transportation for the ride from our downtown Miami hotel to Port Everglades thinking the trip would take us 45 minutes or so. Our driver was waiting by the door when we exited the hotel, graciously greeted us, and then moved the car over to load our bags. With that, we were on our way to Port Everglades. On Sunday morning, the drive from downtown Miami to the Port took exactly 27 minutes!! Remind me to think about flying into Miami for our next cruise from Port Everglades.

Check-in

Arriving at Port Everglades, we were required to show our picture ID’s to enter. We both had our passports handy, so that’s what we used. Security required our driver to pop the trunk for a quick inspection, and shortly thereafter, we were on our way to Terminal 29 at Port Everglades. There was plenty of security to guide us to the right drop off point, and within a minute or two, we were handing our bags to the porter who pointed us towards a short line at the terminal. We followed instructions and camped out in line, not far from being inside there terminal. Our line quickly grew behind us, but we crept forward every few minutes. Finally we made it all the way to the door when when we were directed to move to another door that actually said “Entrance” over it. Not sure what the problem was or what happened to all the other people that actually made it inside the other door, but within a few minutes things “broke loose” and we were standing in front of the metal detectors. After making it through there, it was on to check in.

Our line was only 4 or 5 deep, and within a few minutes we were directed to check in with a gentleman who seemed nice enough, but was either suffering from technical issues with his computer or a lack of training…..or perhaps both. This was my 24th Royal Caribbean cruise, and I don’t think the check-in transaction has ever lasted more than 5 minutes. In this case, it took about 20 minutes, and by the end of it, I was kind of hacked off (silently). Seriously, I’m not all that demanding, but don’t put your least experienced employees in the line marked “elite check in.” The agent beside ours checked in 2 couples and was halfway through another before ours every got around to the point where it was time to go get our SeaPass cards. I’m a tolerant guy, but don’t be the person that delays my embarkation on a cruise ship. Just don’t do that. 😀 FINALLY, we had our SeaPass cards in hand, and were on our way to the ship. After getting through our struggling check-in agent, the trip from the counter to the ship was only a couple minutes.

We boarded, and went directly to Chops Grille to make our reservations for dinner. Then, we were off to the Windjammer. After a really good lunch (even if it was buffet), we headed down to our stateroom.

The Room

Our stateroom, 1690, was a port side aft balcony room on deck 10. While not as large as 1688 or 1388, the room was above average in most ways, especially the balcony. It was lengthy, had a near full size sofa, and the balcony was just huge. It was a great room, and really enforced the old saying that if you “cruise aft, you won’t go back.” I loved our first aft balcony, and believe me, this one just reinforced my positive perception. Other than the slightly more spacious stateroom and much larger balcony, our room was pretty standard Royal Caribbean. The bath was the same size as any other average cabin and included a circular shower. Here are just a few shots of the room.

Setting Sail

After a well-organized muster drill, we headed back upstairs for sail away. After hanging around outside for the slow sail down the long channel from Terminal 29, we decided to head upstairs to the Viking Crown to watch most of sail away. It was just a tiny bit chilly out, and it was nice to sit in the comfort of the Viking Crown and watch as we made our way out to sea. For those unfamiliar, the Viking Crown is the signature lounge on Royal Caribbean ships that sits up high and is surrounded by glass. Here’s a good shot of Navigator’s Viking Crown from the pool deck.

After moving upstairs, we had really great views. Here’s a shot of Allure of the Seas as she exited Port Everglades.

And here’s a shot of Port Everglades and Fort Lauderdale as Navigator headed out to sea at sunset.

Around the Ship

I did not take nearly enough pictures of Navigator, the Promenade, and the public areas of the ship. This is mostly because I really did what people should do on vacation. To be honest, I checked out. But I did snap a few photos.

The Itinerary

Our Western Caribbean itinerary included stops at Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Falmouth, Jamaica, and Labadee, Haiti, with a day at sea on each end. After 26 cruises, we usually no longer book shore excursions through the cruise line unless it’s something really special, but in this case, we booked them in 3 of 4 ports. Why? Because they were really interesting! So interesting, that I feel like I need to share some of the details with you here on the blog.

My favorite of the week was tequila tasting. Don’t laugh! We actually had to learn a little something about Tequila before we got to taste it, but what a great time we had. First, I’m totally impressed that the excursion even took place because only 3 of us booked it. Tequila Tasting at Discover Mexico (CZ05) was one of the best ship excursions I’ve ever taken. Not only was the entire Discover Mexico Park impressive in it’s own right, but our Tequila tasting seminar was just awesome. Our guide, Diego, expertly guided us through the history of Tequila. Frankly, I had no idea how Tequila was made, but I do now. What else did I have no idea about? I had no idea that you could sip Tequila like fine wine and enjoy it, but I do now! What a terrific time we had. Not only did the excursion include tasting several different kinds of Tequila, but we got a great authentic Mexican lunch too. If you are thinking about booking this excursion, don’t hesitate to do so. I’m even a certified Tequila taster now!

Diego presenting my certificate. Not sure why the picture is a little “slanted.”

After Cozumel, it was on to Grand Cayman. This was our 5th cruise to Grand Cayman, but only our 2nd actual success at getting there. The “harbor” at Grand Cayman is unprotected and there is no cruise ship pier. Basically, the ships pull in close to shore, and then you tender in. Tendering is always a pretty joyless experience and this particular tendering event was especially sucktacular. (More on that later). Skipping the tender drama, our shore excursion, the Cayman Bicycle Adventure (GC87), was phenomenal. For what it’s worth, this is the same shore excursion we’ve had booked on every cruise we’ve taken to Grand Cayman that we were unable to get there, so we were very excited to finally bike around the island.

Our 7.5 mile bike ride included stops at the Dolphin adventure park, the Tortugas Rum Cake store, and most importantly, Hell…..that’s Hell, Grand Cayman. Here’s why they call it Hell.

Apparently, Hell used to be underwater, and that is dead coral that takes on the color of fire in the right kind of heat. Just in case you were doubting they really call this place “Hell,” here’s another picture.

After Grand Cayman, it was on to Falmouth, Jamaica. Falmouth has really come a long way in the last year. Frankly, the port area is gorgeous. Our driver, Foster, referred to the area inside the fence as America and the area outside as the real Jamaica. Our shore excursion for this port was the Chukka Zipline Canopy at Rose Hall (FY12). Yes, I went zip lining through the tree canopy. After a 30 minute or so transfer from the port, we arrived at the zip line launch point. Be warned that the last few minutes of the trip are “off road” but you won’t regret it once you get there. After a thorough safety briefing and being outfitted with the necessary equipment, we were loaded up in an open air truck and transported higher up into the mountains for our zip line adventure. I’ll spare you the picture of me in my zipline gear, but the scenery was just beautiful.

After departing Falmouth, Navigator sailed for Labadee, Haiti, Royal Caribbean’s private island paradise, and a favorite port stop of mine. Thankfully, Royal now has a pier at Labadee, so there’s no worrying about tendering to shore. I first visited Labadee in January 2005, and I can’t believe the changes that have taken place in 7 years. It’s obvious that Royal has invested a lot of money in the island, and I really enjoyed our time there. We spent the day relaxing by the beach and nothing else. Sorry to be boring! Here’s a picture of Navigator of the Seas docked at Labadee.

MJ’s Favorite Things About Navigator

There was plenty to like. With Navigator, Mrs MJ on Travel and I have now sailed on 3 of 5 Voyager Class ships, and we are fans. Our dining room waiter, Darwin, was second to none. We enjoyed all of our meals in the dining room. No Royal Caribbean cruise would be complete without a trip to a specialty restaurant where offered and Navigator’s choices did not disappoint. Chops Grille and Portofino were both divine. Special shout out to Portofino manager Jennifer, for going out of her way to ensure some special dietary needs for Mrs MJ on Travel were met on short notice.

Other things to like, the Concierge Lounge. As Diamond Plus members of Royal Caribbean’s Crown & Anchor program, we have access to concierge lounges on all RCL ships that have them. Our Concierge, Karen, was great. And I have to give a special shout out to our Concierge Lounge bar server, BeBe, who was nothing short of awesome.

The Vintages Wine Bar is always a favorite spot for us, and this one was too. We did not have quite the caliber of service in Vintages that we enjoyed on Allure of the Seas, but we were reasonably well served. The complimentary tapas platter provided on some nights was excellent! Two Poets Pub was another great spot for enjoying the evening and people watching. One of our favorite servers was actually working there in the evenings.

Finally, I have to talk about the Connoisseur Club, Navigator’s cigar lounge. I don’t smoke often, but do occasionally enjoy a good cigar, especially when on vacation. I’ve wandered through the cigar lounges on a lot of Royal Caribbean ships, but I’ve never found one to match the experience on Navigator. What a great group of people hanging out there in the evenings. Chicago, Canada, New Jersey, Florida, North Carolina, Scotland, and of course, D.C., what a fun bunch we were. It wasn’t unusual for me to wander in there at 10:30pm, and then glance at my watch and find that it was 1:00am! I really enjoyed my time in that lounge. I’m sure our wonderful server, Olga, was a big reason that we had such a great time. So Olga gets an MJ on Travel shout out for being awesome!

MJ’s Not So Favorite Things About Navigator

The list is short, but a little constructive criticism can go a long way. Tendering in Grand Cayman was a bit of a pain. Sorry, but it just took way too long to get off the ship and then way too long to get back on in the evening. I’m obviously not an infrequent cruiser, and my expectations for tendering experiences are quite low. There were some noticeable swells rolling into port, and the gangway between the ship and the tender boat was jumping up and down. I also heard (could be a rumor) that we were one tender short from what was promised. All good reasons to explain why tendering SUCKED in Grand Cayman. Still, not acceptable.

I was less than happy with our check in experience in Port Everglades. We obviously arrived a little early, but once check in started, there’s no reason for it to last more than 10 minutes. Ours took at least 20, and it was because our agent either was untrained, or not provided with functional tools to process us. I don’t know which. Nonetheless, I would think that Royal Caribbean would place its best, brightest, and well equipped agents in the elite check in line.

I have to mention that some very nice people we met on board were very unsatisfied with certain portions of their cruise, especially the dining room. Fortunately, we had good food, and good service. I’m convinced that they did not. Furthermore, their suite balcony was rendered unusable during a portion of the cruise because of painting and cleaning. There may be more that was wrong, but that’s what I captured. For what it’s worth, our balcony had been painted the day we boarded, but that did not prevent us from using it.

Disembarkation

Sadly, our cruise, like all good things, eventually came to an end. I purchased transfers from Royal Caribbean for transportation from Port Everglades to Miami International. The cost was $30 dollars per person. When I purchased those, I was given the option of an early or late departure from the ship. With a 2:40pm flight, I picked late which meant a 9:45am departure from the ship. Within 15 minutes of that time, our tag numbers were called and we walked off the ship into Terminal 29. The baggage claim and customs area looked like a refugee camp but the look was worse than the reality. After queuing up in what seemed like an endless line, things started moving, and we were through Customs and headed for the bus within 20 minutes. Our ride to Miami International was a brief 26 minutes and with that, we went from cruise mode to flight mode.

The Bottom Line

I enjoyed our cruise on Navigator of the Seas. Overall, it was a great experience and I would not hesitate to sail on Navigator again. Good food, mostly great service, and an escape from the cold. Joy. The good things were great, and the not so good things were not enough to prevent me from enjoying myself. I’ll look forward to my next cruise aboard Navigator of the Seas.