For years, I had no interest in taking a cruise vacation, expecting that the boat would feel too confining and claustrophobic. Last summer, I took a Royal Caribbean cruise that changed my mind and offered some of the most surreal experiences of my life.
Beforehand, my niece and nephew urged me to join them. My nephew Justin’s mother, Juliet Morales, was the organizer and also encouraged me to get on board. Since 2000, Juliet had taken 18 cruises to celebrate graduations and coming of age — or just visit new places.
This cruise was to simply be a gathering of any interested family members. In early July, we embarked on a seven-day trip aboard Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas cruise liner to St. Maarten, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico and Labadee, Haiti. We set sail from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and enjoyed perfect weather during our trip. But less than a month later, Hurricane Irma and subsequent storms devastated these same places.
Allure of the Seas is one of four in Royal Caribbean’s top-tier, Oasis-class ships, which also includes Oasis of the Seas, Harmony of the Seas and Symphony of the Seas. The line’s 2018 cruises travel to ports of call in Spain, Italy and other parts of Europe, as well as eastern and western Caribbean islands.
At more than 225,000 tons, the boat is so massive that you barely know it’s moving unless you look over the deck railing into the ocean. I never noticed any sea-sickness.
The 18-deck ship accommodates more than 6,000 passengers and 2,000 crewmembers. Two of the busiest spaces are the pool areas on decks 15 and 16 overlooking the ocean, and the Royal Promenade, a main drag of shops, bars and eateries. But for my week on board, I never had a feeling of overcrowding.
Royal Caribbean offers vacationers scheduled activities, or you can do things at your own leisure. I chose the latter, but here’s an insider’s glimpse at different ways to approach a week at sea.
The enormous ship reserves Royal Suite decks for Oasis class guests on levels 17 and 18. The floors have exclusive access with a sun deck and lounge just above the main pool area, and an attendant catering to almost every need. The most lavish guest suites have multiple balconies and ocean views.
VIP members receive priority seating at entertainment shows, private beach access on shore excursions, and the option of customized recreational activities.
While VIP perks are exclusive, the ship sets a luxurious standard for all. I was solo in my cozy cabin with a king-sized bed, a wide closet and sofa seating area adorned with artwork and soft lighting.
Fun in the sun
Oh, the joy in being still, lounging quietly in the sun poolside with the ocean as a backdrop and a cocktail as a sidekick. The ship offers plenty of options for cruisers feeling lively, such as volleyball in the pool, surfing in the wave pool or riding a zip line across one of the pool decks.
The Solarium provides a serene, sunlit, glass-encased space for guests ages 16 and older with a pool, hot tubs, a bar lounge and dining area.
Attendants leave a daily program of events inside your cabin each day. While cruising, less outdoorsy passengers can enjoy a champagne art auction, take part in wine tastings, play the slot machines or hit the tables in the casino.
Bring on the night
When the sun goes down, the music turns up at piano bars, nightclubs, the casino and theaters that stage such musicals such as “Mamma Mia!”
An open-air Aqua Theater stages water shows. “It’s not something that you expect to see in the middle of the ocean,” Juliet says. “There are acrobatic dives and synchronicity.”
A themed party is held nightly in different parts of the ship. One night, the Royal Promenade held a 70s “Disco Inferno Street Party” that had everyone dancing no matter their taste in music. Filled with hundreds of people, the mall became a disco with white smoke and roaming colored lights as performers offered renditions of Donna Summer’s “Let’s Dance,” Heatwave’s “Groove Line” and more.
The showstopper, however, was the Village People act, whose “YMCA” inspired the crowd to sing along, complete with hand gestures.
Shore day: St. Philipsburg, St. Maarten
Our first stop offered nearly 40 different adventures from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Some people explored on their own or shopped before taking the St. Maarten Island Tour.
Options included exploring the landscape and enjoying the water. I signed up for a Mountain Top Downhill Trek, which promised an open-air safari truck ride to a mountaintop, then a downhill hike and tour of a ruined sugar plantation from the 1800s. Unfortunately, the excursion was canceled due to a lack of interest.
Instead, I went on a snorkeling trip lasting a few hours, which turned out to be fascinating. We swam in wide coves with spectacular rock formations, surrounded by brightly colored fish that looked like the ones I had in my aquarium as a teen. While looking down, one of the famous lines from “The Godfather” ran through my mind, and I thought, “I’m swimming with the fishes.”
About 28 feet below, a downed helicopter and a wrecked boat sat on the sea floor. I noticed rails had been set up to create a walkway and became very curious when suddenly, a group of people walked up to the rails — yes, underwater — wearing helmets for a guided tour of the wreckage.
Shore day: Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
This six-and-a-half-hour stop had nearly 20 different activities to enjoy, including a rainforest hike and a cooking workshop with beer tastings.
I explored on my own, walking through residential beachfront neighborhoods, visiting churches and having a look at Castillo San Cristobal, also known as the Old Fort, a national historic site built by Spain to protect San Juan. Nearby is the beautiful Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, a must-see with striking statues and devotions to the historic and notable figures buried there, including abolitionist Jose Julian de Acoste and actor Jose Ferrer.
Shore day: Labadee, Haiti
Labadee is a private resort island leased by Royal Caribbean, but any disappointment at not being able to explore real aspects of Haitian life was offset by an adventurous eight-hour day.
Before even leaving the ship, Haiti’s mountains are glorious to behold. And the beach has peaceful and secluded areas where waves crash against rock formations and make haunting sounds through narrow crevices.
It was here that I tried jet skiing for the first time, and I was a bold solo act as our line of skiers soared over the water. It was exhilarating to be on the ocean with the mountains so close, and terrifying to think that I would tip over if I released my grip on the accelerator and came to a stop.
The Labadee excursion offered more than 30 activities, and I regret missing the Dragon’s Breath Flight Line, a zip line that starts 500 feet up a mountain and about a half mile away from the finishing point. Zip speed is about 50 miles an hour over the ocean.
“That was freedom,” Juliet says. “You’re saying to yourself, ‘I can’t believe I am doing this. I sure hope I have the arm strength to keep holding on!’ It was fun!”
You will not go hungry on a cruise ship. Windjammer Café served buffet breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night cuisine.
For dinner in the ship’s main dining room, we had multi-course meals with excellent service. On our last night, the entire place erupted in a clap-along to a chorus of servers playfully serenading the dinner guests.
Our party was a little gluttonous that night and had a second dinner at Chops Grille in Central Park, a quiet central deck filled with trees, tropical plants and best of all, restaurants. These upscale eateries are priced outside of the cruise package.
Throughout the trip, we had been trying to fit in dinner at Izumi Hibachi and Sushi on the Central Park level. My nephew, Justin, had a friendly encounter with Chops’ chef while in Haiti, and he urged us to go there instead.
We had several different courses, including Branzino bass and prime rib, in addition to an abundance of appetizers and two bottles of wine, all of which was very reasonably priced.
And somehow, we didn’t feel overstuffed. Justin says, “I think that was the best meal I ever had.”
After the second meal, we all hung out in the casino before saying goodnight. I then went to the pool deck and looked over the rail at the ocean and the night sky for two hours, not wanting to let go of the image.
It was the best trip I ever had.
Juliet Morales managed our cruise logistics. “If you haven’t cruised before, get cruise books and look at various ships,” she says. “Figure out the kind of ship that you want to be on, even down to the cabin.”
Planning ahead can enhance your cruise experience while cutting costs. For instance, work out easy travel plans and accommodations in your departure city.
Complete personal information and baggage forms online ahead of time to speed up your boarding process.