We took a four-night cruise in Royal Caribbean "Monarch of the Seas" in late May 2004. It was our second cruise (the first one had been an Alaskan cruise on RC's "Vision of the Seas") and we enjoyed it, though not nearly as much as our first cruise. We found the ship to be in good condition and relatively clean, the food to be somewhere between eatable and decent and the service to be fine. At $500 for a three-and-a-half day vacation we found the cruise to be an OK, though not great, value. What follows is a more detailed review.
The ship. The Monarch of the Seas is one of RC's oldest ships though it was refurnished in the last couple of years. To us, it looked like a smaller, more tired version of the Vision. It doesn't have much style to speak of, I would describe it with a Holiday Inn at sea with a few, apparently random, ritzy touches. Its major drawback is that Royal Caribbean allows smoking in the Monarch and the fabrics in the hallways and main rooms have all absorbed the smell of the smoke. Combine that with the salty humidity you find at sea and what you get is a rancid smell throughout the ship - not a good thing.
The monarch has several (smokey) lounges which are fairly comfortable if you are a drinker and a smoker - not being one, they don't have much allure. A tiny area in the center of the ship functions as the library, though it's too noisy and uncomfortable to sit there and read. There is a small computer area where you can send and receive e-mail at some outrageous sum and non-guaranteed speeds.
The Monarch has two pools (one open 24 hours) and two "hot" tubs. The pools have salt water and are not heated, they can be impossibly cold at night. The "hot" tubs feature luke-warm water, thus encouraging you to drink more alcohol to warm up. They were often full, however.
There is a rock-climbing-wall (bring socks!) which Mike enjoyed, check the ship's newsletter (The Compass) for its hours. There is also a small but nice gym and a spa charging large prices. We didn't use either.
On a positive note, there is plenty of deck space so that even in a nice day when everyone is out sunning themselves you can find yourself a nice, private area. You can walk (or jog) all around the ship on deck 7. The front of deck 7 is completely dark at night, and there is a little area against a locked door where you can hide a lounge chair if you are looking for some special privacy. For another nice, semi-private, area go to the back of deck 7 and climb the stairs to deck 8.
Elevators are quite slow, so we used the stairs a lot. Not a bad way to work out all that food.
The cabin. We bought a guaranteed-outside cabin (the cheapest outside cabin you can buy), which meant that we knew we'd get a window but we didn't know where on the ship. We were assigned to cabin 8512 in the eight deck. It had a large window (not a porthole) but a view obstructed by a sailboat. After seeing the ship I would prefer a cabin on decks 6 or below, where passengers can't peek into your room as they walk by.
We knew the cabin was small, but we felt it was adequate in size, specially for four days. The main problem with the cabin is that the two twin beds are not positioned in a way conductive to make a functional double bed. They are positioned in a L fashion, with the feet of one bed near the head of the other. To make a double bed, the attendant took the bed by the feet and put it next to the other one. The problem with that is that then there is no reading light for one person. We called housekeeping and we had them put the two beds so that the heads were against the wall with the window, and there were reading lights on both sides. That worked well, but I housekeeping seemed reluctant to do it.
Another minor problem is that all the lights are fluorescent - I hate flourescent lighting. I think that next time I take a long cruise I will bring a couple of light-bulbs with me. As with the hallways, our cabin had a not-too-pleasant aroma.
The food. We found the food at the Monarch to range from inedible to good, with most of it falling in the "OK" category. There are plenty of dining options and, except on your last night, you can get something to eat anytime during the day or night - though not necessarily something you'd want to eat. After 9:30 PM your only option for dinner is the all-day room service menu and everything we had from it was bad.
There are two dining rooms (you will be assigned to a specific table for dinner) serving breakfast and lunch. There are also two contiguous cafeterias in the 11th floor, the Windjammer and the Jade Cafes, serving buffet-style breakfast, lunch and dinner. Above the Windjammer you can find Sorrento's, a small pizza counter, and "The Deli". The Monarch has gotten in the "pay for food" bandwagon and offers a Coffee bar, a Ben & Jerry's counter ($4 for one scoop!) and a Sushi bar where you can spend your hard-earned money.
All the items available for breakfast at the dining room are also available at the Windjammer/Jade buffets, so unless you want to be waited on there is no reason to go to the dining room for breakfast. The breakfast buffets were large and included everything typical of an American or Continental breakfast: scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, sausages, bacon, biscuits with gravy, pancakes, French toast, pastries, croissants, oatmeal, cold cereal, pre-toasted bagels and English muffins, etc. The quality of the food was universally bad, though I thought the croissants were good with butter and jam.
Lunch was only available at the Windjammer Cafe and again the quality was quite low. On the couple of times we ate there, we liked (as in, could actually eat) the roast beef or ham being carved, but that's about it. In all, we'd say the quality of the food was below that of a Las Vegas' buffet. The dessert cakes, however, were quite good (supermarket quality).
Dinner was served at both the Jade Cafe and the main dining room. We never ate at the Jade but in our last night we went there to check it out, for the sake of this review. It serves a dual "Asian" and "American" menus. That night they were featuring an Indian chicken curry, an Indian noodle dish and a few other Asian things on one side, and roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, pasta and trimmings on the other. The curry tasted as if it came out of a jar (maybe it did) and the nan bread was pretty chewy. Many of the American items served, however, also appeared in the dining room menu (including the pasta which was good).
We had dinner at the dining room 3 out of the 4 nights. One night the food was actually good, though in general it was just OK. I had to sent back the Chicken Marsala I ordered the first night (it was inedible) and on our last night our steaks were not done medium-rare as I asked, but of the advantages of eating in a cruise is that you don't have to worry about sending back food and trying other dishes. Among the good things I tried were the strawberry bisque (though really, this is more of a dessert), the onion pie (though it was more like a quiche) and the prime rib. The mushroom ragout on puff pastry was also fine. When everything else failed, the sirloin steak always on the menu was perfectly edible. Desserts on the dining room were less successful than the cakes at the Windjammer but they were fine. We got in the practice of ordering one of each so we could find something worth eating. They have no-sugar desserts which were great for Mike.
We also tried the pizza at Sorrento's and the sandwiches at The Deli. The pizza was "blah", thin, not very cheesy, the type of pizza that you can expect to get at the zoo or in a school cafeteria. The deli sandwiches were small bits with too much bread.
We ordered room service a couple of times. Once for lunch we ordered the burgers (the same served at the Windjammer, inedible), the nachos (tortilla chips served with a cheez-wheez type sauce, also inedible) and a hot dog (I think Mike actually ate that). We didn't make that mistake twice. Room service for dinner was much better. I had a sirloin steak (the same they serve at the dining room) which was just fine, and some pasta in a spicy sauce which was actually quite tasty. A chocolate cake desert was just fine.
There were two midnight buffets during our voyage. The dessert buffet was good, though no better than the regular cakes served at the Windjammer and not worth staying in line. We were too full from dinner for the Mexican Buffet, but in any case it did not look appealing.
Most of the Royal Caribbean employees we encountered were helpful and cordial (then again, we made very few requests). Our dining room waiter Eddie was excellent, as was his assistant. Waiters don't earn a salary so they are completely dependent on tips, and they know that tips depends on service. RC recommends that you tip your waiter $3.50 per person per day, your assistant waiter $2 and your head waiter $.75. Given that the head waiter didn't do anything beyond asking us if we had a good time, I did not feel compelled to tip him. But we felt that the waiter and assistant waiter deserved their combined daily $11.
Such lesson was not learned by our stateroom attendant who did quite a bad job. He never changed our sheets, even when they were dirty, but that might have been Royal Caribbean policy. Still, dirty sheets are not conductive to tips. But he failed in other ways: he never brought us ice, he didn't clean the room very well, never picked up clothing or other things on the floor, didn't bring us new pool towels after taking the dirty ones away, in sum, he didn't do the basics you would expect a regular hotel maid to do (and you'd probably tip her $2 a night, no the $7 expected here!). More egregiously, he argued with us about the position of our bed (after we had housekeeping change it). I'm sorry if he didn't like it, but he seems to have never learned the maxim that a "customer is always right". Specially when that customer is the one paying your salary. On a final stroke, one afternoon we took a late nap and left the "do not disturb" sign on our door. Thankfully, he didn't barge in but he did call us on the phone (to make sure we didn't want our cabin made up) and awoke us! Needless to say we didn't leave him a tip.
Entertainment. We didn't go to every show, but the ones we went to were quite painful. I guess if the "entertainers" had any talent they'd be in better places (or at least better ships). There was a singer who made mean-spirited imitations of celebrities. Unfortunately she didn't sing that well, her jokes were not funny and they were completely disconnected from the world today. For example, one of the people she chose to parody was Ross Perot - I mean, who has even thought about him for the last decade?. The next day we saw a "juggler" (I put that in quotations as the guy could only juggle three things at the time), who also tap-danced badly and made inane jokes - his "acts" were broken by a pretty good dancer, who also chose to do extremely outdated routines like one from Cabaret. I think we walked out early from both shows.
RC's take on the Newlywed Show was pretty funny, and we did enjoy karaoke (Mike sang "Let it Be"), though we would have enjoyed it more if there was no smoking and if the idiot host would have shut up. The man kept making fun of the singers - including a woman who did an amazing rendition of Me & Bobby McGee. Apparently he had never heard of the song, Janice Joplin or folk music in general. It was also frustrating because not everyone who signed up got to sing, I don't know why they just couldn't extend it for longer.
In all, the entertainment sucked but, on the other hand, it did leave us wanting to go see some "real" shows. A few years ago we went to see Penn & Teller in San Francisco and now we want to see them again. Of course, you have to pay almost as much for a Penn & Teller ticket as we did for the whole cruise, but still, life is too short for bad entertainment.
Money Issues. It's not as surprise to anyone that Royal Caribbean doesn't make its money out of your cruise fare but rather out of the money they can get you to spend on other stuff. Their main sources of revenues are selling alcoholic drinks (average $6.50), excursions, photos and the casino. They are pushy but not terribly so - though it's not easy to resist everything.
Do resist the drink card. Sodas are $1.50 each (+15% gratuity) so an unlimited drink card for $24 (+15% gratuity) seemed like a good idea. That would be the equivalent of 16 drinks, and we figured we'd both use it. What we didn't figure is that we wouldn't spend enough time on the ship to actually drink that much. I think next time I'd skip the drink card and buy sodas by the unit.
Even though we managed to smuggle some Bailey's into the ship (just put it in my thermos in my backpack, they didn't question it), Mike still wasn't able to resist the mixed drinks. He also managed to lose $18 in the casino. All in all small potatoes, but we were trying to limit our expenses onboard.
RC also makes money by charging stores at ports to recommend them - be aware of that when you decide which stores to patronize. We didn't pose for or buy any photos or other stuff in the ship, and feel all the richer for it RC also keeps pushing you to pre-pay your tips. The way it works, you put them in your ship account, and then they give you vouchers to put in envelopes for the attendants. I see no reason why to go through that extra step - it's just as easy to put cash in those envelopes. Of course, RC wants to make sure you don't shortchange your attendants (lest they actually have to pay them salaries), but that's their problem, not yours. As I mentioned above, I feel that the recommended tip for the waiters are fair and on par on what you'd pay ashore ($11 is about 15% of $70 - and I can see paying about $70 for that type of meal ashore). But I think that $7 a day for the stateroom attendant is ridiculous. Ashore, you'd only tip them about $2-3 at most, and the stateroom attendants certainly don't do any more work than they would in a regular hotel. Stateroom attendants also vacuum the hallways and perhaps do other work and I wonder if RC is not just trying to make passengers subsidize their general work.
Embarkation & Disembarkation. We arrived at the port around 12:45 and the embarkation process went very smoothly (we had filled out our boarding documents online and brought along our passports). We didn't have to wait almost at all to see an agent, and then it was a short wait to go through security and get into the ship.
It took longer to disembark. You are supposed to leave your cabin by 8 AM, and breakfast is only served until 8:30. After that we had to wait for about half an hour in a lounge, until we were told that those with passports could go down to deck 4 to disembark. We had to stand in line but it was a much shorter line than the one for people without passports. It probably took us 15 to 20 minutes to get out of the ship and into our car.
Parking at the lot near the ship is $11 a day, paid in cash when you leave.
Our ship stopped in San Diego, Catalina and Ensenada. We didn't take any of the available excursions, though obviously you can do them for less yourself.
All the cool things to do in San Diego are kid oriented (the zoo, Legoland) so we figured we'll go back there sometime with our little girl. Instead we decided to go downtown (a 10 block walk) and watch a movie. We took an electric golf-car-like-thing back ($5) which was fun.
We'd never been to Catalina before. It wasn't any problem taking the tender to the island (though, of course, we had to wait a bit). Avalon is, of course, a tourist town and reminded me very much of other Southern California beach towns (like Newport Beach). The waters were very clear so I'm sure snorkeling is good. All we did, however, was walk through town, have some good burgers in a place downtown in the open air (much cheaper than the restaurants and probably better), and go parasailing ($65 - you can see a ticket stand with a parasailing sign as you walk from the port to town). Well, Mike went parasailing, I just stayed in the boat. He really liked it, though he thought it was very peaceful, like being in a large swing. Next time I may try it as well.
We did not like Ensenada. It looks just like any other ugly Mexican city (at least the part near the port), sad and disheveled. The stores were, of course, tourist oriented and quite expensive. A lot of their merchandise is made in China, I think you can probably get better deals in Chinatown (we'll test that theory soon). We had a very expensive lunch there (good food) and bought a couple of things, including little guitars for the kids.
Conclusion. In all, we had a good time. We took long naps every day, and probably wasted too much time going to ports (next time we'll skip San Diego & Ensenada) when we could have been reading on deck. It was a relaxing way to spend four days or so. As I said at the beginning, given all the extras (parking, soda card, drinks, lunches and activities on shore) I don't think it was any cheaper than a regular vacation, but it's nice not to have to worry about where you'll go next.
All this said, if we hadn't had a prior cruise on RC, the low quality of the ship and the food would probably put us off cruising.