|The Serenade of the Seas|
We drove to the embarkation port in New Orleans, LA the day prior to sailing and overnighted at the Hyatt Place New Orleans Convention Center, which is directly across the street from the cruise terminal for Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Lines. The accommodations were spacious and easily accommodated the three of us. The hotel offers a park and cruise package that includes the room, parking for the duration of the cruise, and transportation to/from the ship. The rate during our stay was $109 plus $10 per night for parking. The cost to park at the cruise terminal was $16 per night. Discounted nightly parking is available in the Fulton Garage for $12 per day on the day of arrival or can be booked for as little as $8 a day in advance at New Orleans Parking.
EmbarkationWe awoke on the morning of December 12 to a view of our ship docked at the terminal across the street. After a leisurely breakfast at the hotel and some down time reading it was time to head for the ship. We had to take our luggage from the hotel to the shuttle across the street as the shuttle is operated by the parking garage, not the hotel. We managed fine with just three suitcases for the three of us. The shuttle driver loaded our luggage and we set out for the pier, which required us to head a mile south to enter the terminal and loop back around to just across the street from our departure point. The shuttle dropped us off where the porters were sorting luggage and we had to walk back to the terminal to check in, which was about 1000 feet away. Not bad, but not as close as some cruise ports, such as Ft. Lauderdale. Check in was quick and we were done by 11:30am, though we were told boarding would begin at noon due to a Coast Guard inspection since the ship had just arrived from Europe. The cruise line actually began boarding their most loyal passengers around 11:45am and we were invited to board just prior to noon. Embarkation was smooth and we were onboard by 12:10pm. Unfortunately, the Coast Guard had not finished their inspection so lunch was not available until 1:00pm, nor were our staterooms. We waited on the pool deck until the inspection ended and the Windjammer Cafe opened for lunch around 1pm.
After lunch we dropped our carry on bags in our stateroom. We had booked stateroom 1558 on deck 10 as it looked like it had an oversized balcony compared with others in the same category. It did, but not nearly as large as the deckplan seemed to indicate. Nevertheless, it was plenty spacious for the three of us. We explored the ship for the next hour or so before proceeding to our assigned muster stations for the mandatory lifeboat drill. We 'mustered' in the Schooner Bar on deck 6 for the crew to demonstrate how to properly fasten our life jackets and where to meet in case of an emergency.
|The Schooner Bar|
The Serenade of the Seas was scheduled to set sail out of New Orleans at 4:30pm but did not leave until just after 5:30pm. The first night was spent sailing down the Mississippi River. We entered the Gulf of Mexico sometime after midnight.
Ports of Call
Our Caribbean cruise include four ports of call and four sea days, a perfect mix in my opinion. Our ports were Key West, FL; Labadee, Haiti; Falmouth, Jamaica; and George Town, Grand Cayman. The ship docked in all but George Town, where we were tendered in by large passenger boats that held about 500 people.
This was our second visit to Key West in less than a year. Our prior visit was on Holland America's Westerdam on December 22, 2012. It was a warm, sunny day when we arrived, though a midday shower cooled it down a few degrees.
|The Lazy Gecko in Key West|
We opted for the Old Town Trolley Tour and enjoyed it very much. We exited the trolley at the last stop prior to its return to the depot for a little strolling and shopping on Duval Street. Our shopping included a visit to the bar that bills itself as the Southernmost outpost of Red Sox Nation, the Lazy Gecko.
|Kate & Grace Labadee Pier|
Labadee is located on a small peninsula jutting out into the Caribbean Sea from the island of Hispaniola. The port is primarily a sun and sand beach stop for the cruise line but does have a well developed infrastructure. There is a water park for the kids, a zip line (overpriced), and a sheltered cove to enjoy a dip in the Caribbean.
There are also several bars and covered picnic locations where Royal Caribbean serves their barbecue luncheon. The pier can accommodate two ships but fortunately we were the only ship docked on our visit. We spent around 90 minutes in Labadee, mostly in the artisan market perusing the handmade Haitian goods available for purchase.
|Shopping in Falmouth, Jamaica|
Our next port of call was a new one for both of us, Falmouth, Jamaica. While the town of Falmouth has been around for centuries, the port is brand new. It was developed by Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines as an alternative to Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, the usual ports visited by cruise lines going to Jamaica.
|The new pier in Falmouth, Jamaica|
The pier consists of a gated shopping area with cafes and crafts shops along with the usual t-shirt, jewelry, and liquor shops built for tourists. There is even a Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville Cafe on the pier.
We chose to browse the shops here for a couple of hours and purchased some Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee ($25 a pound), a handmade wooden vase, a handmade wooden bowl (for the Jelly Bellies on my desk), and some Jamaican Jerk Sauce. Most of the tours leaving here required at least a 45 minute bus ride each way to Montego Bay or Ocho Rios so we opted not to venture further than the pier.
George Town, Grand Cayman
Our final port of call is my favorite in the Western Caribbean. George Town is rather crowded but has some wonderful duty free stores where I dream about buying a really nice wristwatch but never seem to be able to convince myself to go ahead and do it. I finally settled on a watch this time (Citizen Eco-Drive w/ Radio Control) that retails for $595. The discounted price in Grand Cayman is about $387 (about $70 less than Amazon). I still couldn't bring myself to buy it this time around but I figure by the next time I hit Grand Cayman I will. LOL! I rarely make impulse purchases so by the time I get it I will have been considering it for nearly two years!
|George Town, Grand Cayman|
We were scheduled to do a snorkel trip in Grand Cayman on a submersible bus of all things but we decided to cancel the day prior to arrival due to a foot injury. It turned out the tour operator canceled the excursion anyway so we spent a few hours browsing the shops, sampling Tortuga Rum Cakes, and restocking our liquor cabinet. Grand Cayman has the best prices in the Western Caribbean for rum and other spirits that I enjoy. We bought a 1 liter bottle of Jameson's for $15, a 1 liter bottle of 12 yr old Glenfiddich for $27, and 2 liters of Tortuga Rum for $26. Kate bought me a beautiful gemstone globe paperweight for my desk as an anniversary present.
As with all cruises, the entertainment onboard is generally good. Our 9 day cruise featured two comedians, three vocal performances, a comedic juggler, a vocal acrobatics duo, and two production shows.
The first vocal performance was a Motown show by the group Horizon, a trio that performed some of the best music from the Motown era. The highlight was when one of the singers came down into the audience and selected Kate to do the twist with him.
The second vocal performance was by a gentleman we had seen previously onboard the Explorer of the Seas in December 2011, Bobby Arvon, whose claim to fame is as the voice of the the theme song from the hit TV series Happy Days. Arvon puts on a high energy show that includes impersonations of several classic singers doing 'Happy Days', including Neil Diamond, Mick Jagger, and Ray Charles. He also included a great performance of Neil Diamond's 'Sweet Caroline' that had the audience swaying. One lady even yelled out 'Go Red Sox', a reference to the fact the Red Sox play the song in the middle of the 8th inning of every home game.
The third vocal artist was Zoe Tyler. Billed as the UK's top vocalist, she put on a great show featuring both original songs and covers from Barbara Streisand and Leonard Cohen.
The Serenade of the Seas singers and dancers also performed two shows during the cruise. The first was a musical tribute called 'Stage to Screen' celebrating great plays that made their way from Broadway to the movie screen, such as West Side Story and Chicago. The second show was a tribute to hit songs from the 60's to the 90's that featured elaborate choreography and excellent vocals from the lead singer, Marco. Both shows were well received and enjoyed by all.
Serenade of the seas has no lack of places to enjoy a good meal. From room service to the Windjammer Cafe there is a place for everyone. The ship has three specialty restaurants (Chops Grille, Giovanni's Table, and Izumi) for those willing to pay a little extra to enjoy an alternative to the main dining room or the buffet. We went to the dining room four nights and ate at the Windjammer buffet the other five nights. Service in the dining room was good but on the slow side, which is one reason we went to the buffet. The first night I ordered the prime rib medium rare and it arrived on the table still mooing! Okay, maybe not but it was way too rare for my tastes. My steaks the remaining nights were cooked as ordered.
The food in the Windjammer buffet was good on most nights and usually featured two or three of the items from the dining room menu. It was uncrowded and allowed us to attend the 7:00pm show most evenings as we could eat in about 20 minutes instead of the 90 minutes it took in the dining room.
Other places to eat aboard the Serenade of the Seas included the Park Cafe in the Solarium, Rita's Cantina aft of the Windjammer on the port side, and snacks could be had at Latte Tudes coffee bar on deck 5.
DisembarkationGetting off the ship (the saddest part) was relatively smooth. We did not return the departure information form so we were assigned departure tag 17, which was scheduled for 9:15am. After a leisurely breakfast we took our carry on luggage and liquor purchases to deck 6 and waited for our number to be called, which occurred around 9:00am. About 15 minutes later we were shoreside in sunny New Orleans. Grace and I took the shuttle to the parking garage and retrieved our car, then returned to the pier and loaded the luggage. We were on our way home by 10:15am. Going through customs was a breeze in New Orleans.
Overall, our 9 day Caribbean cruise aboard the Serenade of the Seas was delightful. The accommodations were as expected, our room steward, Agust, was exceptional, and the ship's crew were all very helpful. Our only complaint, and it is a minor one at that, is that all the cruise director's entertainment staff were European or South American. Several of them had very thick accents that made it difficult to discern what they were saying during trivia games or other events onboard, though they were very patient and repeated or spelled out words they could not pronounce clearly enough for the largely elderly American crowd. Most of the ships I have sailed on (this was my 15th cruise) have had Canadian or British entertainment staff. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our voyage so much that we booked the ship again for Spring Break 2015. Before then we are booked on the Navigator of the Seas in December 2014 and I may be doing some destination lectures onboard the Explorer of the Seas in May. We met some new friends onboard (Bill, Tammy, and Sue) that we played trivia with on most days, even winning some new Royal Caribbean hats and phone/camera cases. Hopefully, our paths will cross again on a future voyage.
The Cruise Doctor is a cruise and tour travel agency located in Starkville, MS. We are registered with CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) and handle bookings for all major cruise lines. For more information please visit our website at www.thecruisedoctor.com or contact Kate Mellen at (662) 694-1618 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org