Empress of the Seas
Itinerary: Bayonne, New Jersey - San Juan, Puerto Rico
Our photos from this trip are posted here.
We have to give credit to Princess Cruises for our selection of this itinerary. We were considering an email special from Princess that was very tempting, but at 17 days the itinerary was too long. But we spent so much time talking about it, we were really in a cruising mood. So I went browsing on the Royal Caribbean web site and found yet another bargain. This 9 day repositioning itinerary was just long enough, and quite a bargain. From Bayonne, the Empress would sail to Bermuda for 3 days, then to Saint Martin / Sint Maarten and Saint Thomas and finally San Juan. I was pleasantly surprised to find one-way airfare was also incredibly cheap.
We were a little concerned about booking on the oldest, smallest Royal Caribbean ship, after cruising in January on their newest, biggest ship (Mariner). I did a lot of web research, and found there are a lot of devoted fans of Empress of the Seas (Nordic Empress), as well as some disappointed cruisers. Those negative cruise reviews I read were not enough to dissuade me because I learned there's always someone unhappy on any given cruise. None of the specifics mentioned were bad enough to scare me. Sure, the cabin would be tiny, and the ship might show its age. But the itinerary was excellent, the time and price were right, and we always love a cruise.
We told some friends about the good deal we had found. Our friends Gil and Marci decided to book this cruise too and bring their three-year old son Tyler.
We booked directly with RCI over the phone (selecting an inside guarantee), and we booked the surprisingly cheap one-way airfare directly with Continental.
Drop-off at the new port in Bayonne was smooth and simple when we arrived around noon. It took about 20 minutes to check in, then we were ushered into a giant waiting room. Nobody had mentioned it to us, but apparently we could not board because they were still off-loading passengers. It wasn't until 2:00 or so that we started to board. Strangely, there were no announcements, and nobody was available to answer questions. They did provide sandwiches, hot dogs, drinks, live music and clowns. The reason for the delay was never given, nor was an apology.
Some might like to be warned that you will be asked to walk up several flights of stairs to board the ship. There was an elevator, but it was limited to those with a need (having three carry-ons would probably not qualify).
Sadly, there was no white-gloved crew member waiting to take us to our cabin. Heck, there wasn't even a cabin to go to. After waiting ten minutes for an elevator to our deck, we found the passageway to our cabin was closed and locked. While waiting another ten minutes for an elevator back to public decks, we persuaded someone to let us dump our carry-on bags in the cabin. Finally the vacation begins.
The Atlantic Ocean between Bayonne and Bermuda was rough. The tiny ship was tossed. The captain called it 12 foot seas, but it felt as rough as when we've had 18 foot seas on bigger ships. Sue took some Bonine as a preventative measure, but neither of us got sick. Other passengers did get sick, and sea-sick bags were placed in strategic locations.
As expected, our inside cabin on deck 3 was tiny. It showed its age, with some stains, chips and dents here and there. The bathroom had lots of storage space for personal items, but was otherwise unremarkable despite allegedly being rebuilt in the recent refurb. The biggest problem was the noise. Every time the ship rolled left or right, the wall would bang or creak 5-10 times. The noise is hard to describe. It was a sort of metallic banging, which echoed through all the walls and the headboard. I thought I would sleep through it, but boy was I wrong. The first night I only napped a couple times. I called maintenance 2 or 3 times, but they could not fix it.
I ultimately went to the purser and asked for a new room. The purser was very understanding and eager to help. He gave me a key to another room and asked me to check it out. He said if I decided to move, he'd send someone to do the moving. The second room was much quieter. It also had a much better shower head, a less aggressive shower curtain, and much cooler air conditioning. Unfortunately, the woman who was sent to help move us had a bad attitude about the whole thing, and didn't help nearly as much as was promised. But boy did I sleep the second night in the quiet room in the tiny ship in the churning ocean.
Many of the ship's public areas were refurbished just before our cruise. The first impression of the Windjammer cafe was that it was quite small. This is, of course, influenced by our recent memories of the Mariner of the Seas. However, the Windjammer was indeed big enough for the number of passengers on board. I liked that there was always a crew member offering to fetch or refill a beverage. There were nice places to sit near the entrance to the Windjammer. Some of these seats were overhanging the edge of the ship and were great locations to sit and watch the world go by on sea days.
The main dining room was bright and cheery during the day due to all the windows. We chose early seating, and were assigned to an excellent waiter and assistant. The assistant, Elwin, was also usually working in the Windjammer for breakfast and lunch. He just loved the Empress and asked if we'd be back on Empress in the future. We said probably not, but said maybe we'd see him on a different RCI ship. Elwin said that he loved the Empress so much he would try not to transfer to another ship.
The Schooner Bar was my favorite location on the ship. Unfortunately the bar stool area was usually too smoky for me but the new leather chairs in the non-smoking area were comfortable and still smelled nice. There was often a piano player here who thought he was hot stuff. We found him a little annoying, conceited, and quite possibly drunk.
Usually on cruises I like to find a place to listen to live music and have a drink before dinner. This was the first cruise I could recall where there was no live music between 5 and 6 o'clock. This shouldn't be a matter of ship size, I think it's just a poor choice of the cruise director.
The card room and library were more like sections of the atrium, but this turned out to be a good thing. They had a nice open feel, with views to the outside and inside of the ship. The game room was well stocked with cards and games.
In Saint George, we just took ourselves on a walking tour. We spent some time in a local history museum where a very friendly guide gave us a long guided tour.
We took a helmet diving excursion that turned out to be the highlight of the cruise. The marine life we saw was not terribly exotic or exciting but we enjoyed the whole experience, including the boat ride and the dive. The weather was absolutely perfect and the water was crystal clear.
The next dy, we took the local bus to Horseshoe Bay. Swimming was excellent, and we also enjoyed walking along the shore line. We paid $1 for a van ride up the hill to catch the bus. This was the best $1 we spent all week. Getting a bus back to the ship was a little difficult due to large numbers of cruisers.
Here we went shopping in Philipsburg in the morning. It was rainy and windy. The beaches in Philipsburg were experiencing rough surf. Since the wind was coming from the south, we took a chance and took a taxi to Orient Beach. I'm glad we did because the surf was calm and there was hardly a soul on the beach. We had no rain on the beach, and even had a few minutes of sunshine. It was very relaxing.
Looking for an option to Magen's bay, we decided to head to Sapphire Beach. First we spent the morning shopping, then we caught a taxi to the beach. It probably would have been a great beach for snorkeling but we just took a quick swim becuase it seemed there was a storm on the way.
It was a good vacation and I'm glad I went. However, I wouldn't really recommend the Empress unless it was an outstanding bargain (and it often is). I definitely would not recommend it to new cruisers. In 2005 the Empress has interesting itineraries that may interest experienced cruisers, and if those cruisers have reasonable expectations they will be met or exceeded. For those new to cruising, there's just so much more offered on newer, bigger ships, especially Voyager class ships.
It was a strange feeling in port when talking to passengers from other ships. They seemed to offer unspoken sympathy when they heard we were on Empress. I felt the need to shout "it was only $50 a day and I also cruised on the Mariner just six months ago. I have not been suckered!" But heck, even I made fun of the tiny Empress when we were docked near it in NYC when we were on the huge Golden Princess.