How the mighty have fallen! When it launched in 1991, Monarch of the Seas and her sister ships were the largest cruise ships in the world, generating significant media attention and a new buzz in cruising. The second of a three-ship class that started with Sovereign of the Seas (which is no longer in Royal Caribbean's fleet), Monarch's multi-story atrium, two large swimming pools and sheer number of passengers made it innovative and daring. Ultimately, this class spawned the growth of the mega-ships that followed over the next two decades.
Today, though, this once-trendy ship has definitely slipped off the hip cruiser's map. It now doesn't even break the top 100 on the list of the largest ships in the world; the ship's newest fleetmate, Oasis of the Seas, is three times as large. You have to look at Monarch of the Seas now with almost a fond sense of nostalgia.
So why sail on Monarch of the Seas? In many ways, it offers a pleasant compromise, mixing some of Royal Caribbean's perpetual fun with more toned-down, quieter escapes. Well-maintained, the ship provides a good introduction to cruising for first-timers on its three- and four-night Bahamas itineraries out of Port Canaveral, Florida. For more experienced cruisers, Monarch provides an inexpensive, dependable and satisfying vacation.
While considered midsize today, Monarch of the Seas has many big-ship amenities (including a few alternative restaurants, a decent spa and a rock-climbing wall), as well as some classic touches, including a real wrap-around promenade deck. (And, to show how standards have changed, her profile -- once derided by some as "boxy" and "ugly when the ship was first introduced -- is now considered classic and attractive.)
But make no mistake -- Monarch of the Seas is a fun-in-the-sun ship. No more than 10 feet from the gangway, you'll be greeted by waiters pushing tropical drinks (and see plenty of people buying them well before they even reach their cabins). The pool deck is full of sunbathers with foo foo drinks during the day; by night, the nightclub pulses well into the wee hours of the morning. A quiet, staid cruise this isn't (although the four-night cruises are somewhat calmer and have an older clientele than the three-night weekend cruises).
Still, the ship is big enough to offer a variety of programs and settings, so you can seek out the experience you want. There are an ample number of sedate activities that range from cooking demonstrations to lounging on sunny beaches in the Bahamas. And, with discounted prices sometimes showing up for around $60 a night, why wouldn't you go?
First-time cruisers expecting copious quantities of food will not be disappointed. From the 24-hour buffet and late-night pool deck parties to a small pizzeria, you'll find plenty to keep your stomach full on Monarch of the Seas. While there is little that you'd call gourmet, the ship delivers mostly consistent, satisfying meals.
Most passengers eat their first meals in the Windjammer Cafe, a buffet venue located all the way forward at the top of the ship, spread out over two decks. Open virtually around the clock, this is the spot to visit when those persistent hunger pangs strike -- whether only an hour before dinner or at 3 a.m.! At every meal, there are a variety of food types, including Indian and Mexican themes, as well as a few soup options. Upstairs, a small pizzeria is popular at all times of the day. (Even well past midnight, expect to see a small line of slightly inebriated passengers heading there for some late-night comfort food.)
Annexed off the Windjammer Cafe is Jade, an Asian restaurant only open for dinner. Prices are a la carte, and it's often less crowded on the first night of each sailing. A fun alternative to the main dining room, it is definitely worth a visit. Of particular note was a sizzling black lava rock, which waiters bring to cook shrimp, salmon, steak, scallops or vegetables -- right at your table. The black rock surf and turf costs $14, and a selection of sushi is also available at $4 a serving.
The two main dining rooms, Vincent's and Claude's, are located lower down on Decks 3 and 4. Each accommodates approximately 700 passengers, and in comparison to the modern cruise ship dining rooms with their multi-level designs and striking architecture, these are somewhat bland, although not unpleasant, in their appearance. One restaurant serves the traditional two-seating dining at 6 and 8:30 p.m.; the other is split between "My Time Dining," RCI's flexible option, and traditional two-seating dining. The restaurant is open seating for everyone at breakfast and lunch every day. RCI's "Vitality" program offers a lighter, healthier option at every meal.
Introduced to Monarch in the fall of 2009, the "My Time Dining" option is quickly gaining popularity, with several hundred passengers usually opting for eating whenever they please. While the maitre d requested that reservations be made earlier that day, I felt planning in advance took away some of the reasons for "My Time Dining," so I simply showed up when I wanted to eat. Both times, I was seated without delay. (Note: Those opting for My Time Dining will need to pre-pay gratuities.)
Royal Caribbean's room service options are available around the clock, via 24-hour menus that offer a range of snacks and sandwiches. At breakfast, Continental dishes, along with a handful of egg entrees, are available both in cabins and suites. Items from the main dining room menu can be ordered at dinner. There is no charge for room service between 5 a.m. and midnight (though a dollar or two gratuity is recommended); late-night orders incur a $3.95 fee.
A product of the early 1990's, Monarch of the Seas is awash in champagne and pastel colors, with a healthy dose of brass, chrome and glass. Dramatically linking the ship is the seven-story Centrum. One of the first seagoing atriums, the room now looks muted in comparison to some of today's truly expansive interior spaces. Unlike many modern atriums, however, it functions well in addition to being visually impressive. A network of stairs throughout the Centrum links many of the public rooms, making traffic flow and navigation around the ship fairly straightforward.
Surrounding the Centrum are a variety of shops, constantly offering deals on perfume, liquor and cruisewear along with the ubiquitous gold and silver chains sold by the inch. Nearby is a sit-down coffee and ice cream parlor, Cafe Latte-tudes, which serves Seattle's Best Coffee, specialty drinks, tasty treats and multiple flavors of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream at prices similar to those you'd pay onshore.
Of all the public rooms onboard, none are as unique as the Viking Crown Lounge. Perched around the funnel like an impaled UFO, the Viking Crown Lounge adds a distinctive touch to the ship's profile and promises spectacular 360-degree views. With its floor-to-ceiling windows and detached location, this lounge has a real floating-above-it-all feel. It is one of the most dramatic spaces from which to watch the ship plow through the ocean below -- especially during sunset -- and its location keeps it out of the hustle and bustle. (Before dinner, the forward part of the lounge is reserved for passengers who are part of the Crown and Anchor Society, Royal Caribbean's past passenger organization.)
It's a good thing there's a view, as the lounge's dull colors are a bit reminiscent of a Holiday Inn. Unfortunately, like other spots on the ship (including the Windjammer Cafe and the Schooner Bar), a TV screen constantly spews forth news or sports and detracts from the otherwise quiet ambience.
An attractive and modest business center on Deck 7 features three individual meeting rooms -- Voyager, Explorer and Adventure -- which accommodate 240 people in total. Conferees can enjoy sun and ocean views from large windows that line the outer rooms. There are several computer terminals and a fax machine there. Ten more terminals are located at the Internet Cafe on Deck 4. The rate for both is 55 cents per minute, although better-priced package deals are available.
When Monarch of the Seas was built, the company followed a philosophy of building smaller cabins and leaving plenty of room in the public spaces for passengers. Accordingly, cabins are all fairly standard in size, and they are all pretty small.
Standard inside cabins measure a cozy 119 square feet each (small, compared to newer fleetmate Oasis of the Seas, whose minimum grade cabin is 149 square feet, with most inside cabins a substantially larger 172 square feet), and the chrome furniture and flimsy desk and mirror have more of a Motel 6 feeling than that of a reasonably upscale cruise ship. Closet space is limited, but all cabins have safes, hair dryers and small TV's.
Standard outside cabins are only slightly larger at 122 square feet, and the layout is pretty much identical. Be aware, though, that oceanview cabins on Decks 2 and 3 have portholes instead of windows. Note that cabins on Deck 8 all have views obstructed by the lifeboats, and those on Deck Seven look out onto the promenade deck, rather than onto a private view of the sea. (You are better off booking a cabin on Deck 5 or 6 for the same price.)
Choosing a superior oceanview stateroom gives you an extra 35 square feet -- which takes the form of a small sitting area -- but all cabins in this category look out onto the lifeboats and have obstructed views (which seems like a strange drawback for a cabin dubbed "superior"). You'll have to choose what you want -- a better view in a standard outside cabin or more space in a superior oceanview cabin -- unless you move up to a junior suite with a balcony. In all standard cabins, bathrooms are decidedly cozy and are shower-only, featuring basic amenities -- expect thin bars of generic soap, rather than name-brand luxury toiletries.
Junior suites each have a bathroom with a tub, a larger couch and separate sitting area.These junior suites are comparable to standard balcony cabins on newer ships, and they represent the one significant upgrade on this ship (with the exception of the top suites). The cabins themselves are 173 square feet each, all with 74-square-foot balconies. (Again, compare this to Oasis of the Seas: Junior suites on Oasis are 287 square feet with balconies that are 80 square feet.) For romantic couples just looking to have some quiet time to themselves or parents wanting an escape from the kids, the balconies, while lacking teak decking and featuring only minimal furniture, offer a nice reprieve from the rest of the ship.
Royal Caribbean passengers are charged $12 per person, per day ($14.25 for suite guests). Gratuities can be prepaid or will be added on a daily basis to passengers' SeaPass accounts during the cruise. Passengers can modify or remove gratuities by visiting the guest services desk while onboard. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.
The number of children onboard fluctuates with the school calendar, with the most kids expected to sail on holiday weekends and during summer vacation periods. The newly expanded Adventure Ocean youth area, located on Deck 10, includes a video arcade, computer terminals and TV's.
Activities are organized into six age groups: Royal Babies (6 to 18 months), Royal Tots (18 to 26 months), Aquanauts (3 to 5 years), Explorers (6 to 8 years) and Voyagers (9 to 11 years). Teenagers are treated somewhat separately in two age groups: (12- to 14-year-olds and 15- to 17-year-olds. Teens have two places to hang out, far from parents' prying eyes: The Living Room coffee bar and Fuel Nightclub. Another option is The Back Deck -- a shared outdoor space with a basketball hoop, located on Deck 11.
Family activities, including scavenger hunts, hide-and-seek and Nintendo Wii challenges, are offered. Activities offered ashore in CocoCay include water-balloon tosses and sand sculpture competitions, as well as kayak and swim shore excursions and volleyball games for teens.
Parents, who want to enjoy a meal without their progeny, can sign kids up for dinner with the staff. Group babysitting is offered in the Adventure Ocean area for $5 per hour, per child, for kids 3 years and older. In-cabin sitting is also offered, based on availability, for $12 per hour for one or two children and $15 per hour for three children.
Children younger than 18 officially have a curfew of 2 a.m., although this can be hard to enforce.
With its bargain rates, short itineraries and relatively easy access, Monarch of the Seas attracts a variety of cruisers -- from grandparents who bring their grandchildren onboard to Florida retirees who see good deals and sign up last-minute. The ship is very popular with families, especially as it sails from Port Canaveral and offers a cheaper alternative than pricey Disney Cruise Line. It isn't uncommon to have anywhere from 200 to 600 kinds younger than 18 on a given voyage.
While most die-hard party groups will naturally gravitate toward Carnival, you'll find plenty of 20-, 30- and 40-somethings (and maybe even older) grinding away, en masse, all night in the nightclub or packing away the drinks in the bars. The good part about Monarch of the Seas is that you can often escape the noise if you want to.
Like all other three- and four-night Bahamas ships, Monarch of the Seas is definitely casual. During the day, you'll see plenty of people walking around in shorts and T-shirts, enjoying the tropical weather. But on one evening, the dress code is formal, suggesting cocktail dresses for women and suits and ties or tuxedos for men. That doesn't mean that the dress code is rigidly enforced -- the number of men without jackets outpaced the number in tuxedos, but I was surprised to see just how many people did dress up for the occasion.
After dinner, however, few keep their formal attire on, and dress reverts back to Bahamas casual.
|Fitness and Recreation|
To work off that chocolate donut from breakfast, nothing beats the rock-climbing wall on Deck 12. Donning a helmet, suede climbing shoes and a harness, passengers scamper or huff-and-puff their way ten meters to the top, where they ring a bell in triumph. Located one deck below are two busy Ping-Pong tables and a popular basketball court, which is the site of free-throw shooting contests and pickup games.
The appealing ShipShape Fitness Center and Spa on Deck 9 is well worth a visit. In addition to a sauna, the day spa menu includes standard massages, as well as more unusual treatments like a seaweed massage, a hydra-lift facial and hot volcanic stone and aromatherapy massages. At the salon, passengers can get haircuts, manicures and pedicures. To avoid disappointment, schedule spa treatments upon boarding. Though there are 11 treatment rooms, appointments fill quickly. Several spa rooms have great views overlooking the sea.
In the gym, wrap-around windows deliver panoramic views over the Atlantic. There's a good selection of weights and cardio equipment, and personal training sessions are available (30 for $40 or 60 minutes for $75). Pilates, yoga, stretch and tone, indoor cycling and relaxation classes run throughout the day. (Relaxation and stretch and tone are complimentary; Pilates, indoor cycling, yoga and fit ball cost $12.) Bring your own water bottle. Tall people: heads up! If you're taller than 6'3", you will hit the ceiling while running on the treadmills.
Two swimming pools with an accompanying pair of crowded whirlpools on the top of the ship form the center of the social scene. While the forward pool is ostensibly reserved for those 18 and older only, enforcement is pretty lax.
Monarch of the Seas has a unobstructed wrap-around Promenade Deck, complete with shuffleboard, so passengers can have the old-fashioned pleasure of a full circuit around the ship. The tiered aft decks are great spots for getting away from it all and watching the wake disappear into a tropical sea. However, save for a small section, there are no deck chairs to sit on while enjoying the view!
There is no shortage of activities -- or announcements -- onboard. (I admit I was caught off guard, momentarily, when the cruise director come over the PA system unexpectedly and said in a very official voice, "Everyone stop what you are doing ... This is a very important announcement. Stop what you are doing. It is time for Bingo!")
In the Centrum, there might be a cooking demonstration or a towel-folding class. Scattered throughout the ship, you'll find games from "Name that Tune" to trivia. And, at the same time the movie matinee is playing, there will also be the "Men's International Belly Flop Contest" up by the pool deck. There are so many choices and so little time on a three-night cruise!
In the evening, there is a good variety of live music popping up as you walk through the public rooms. A pianist plays in the Schooner Bar in a convivial sing-along, and rock and roll, Latin or line-dancing music is played in Boleros. At some point during the trip, partying and entertainment will be everywhere. Even the Centrum hosts a big party one night, and deck parties by the pools spill over late into the evening.
One of the most popular nightspots onboard is the aforementioned Latin-themed Boleros, which rocks till the early hours of the morning. With a sunken, relatively large dance floor in the middle and comfortable chairs on an upper tier looking out onto the promenade, the room manages to be intimate and cozy without being excessively dark. Stylish and tasteful with a steady flow of Mojitos coming from the bar, this room is a great example of how a refurbishment can keep a ship relevant and attractive.
At night, beyond the bar scene, you'll find comedy shows (some for families, some not) and games like "The Marriage Show." Perhaps the rowdiest event is a game called "The Quest." Teams frantically search for (and do whatever is necessary to find) a variety of objects announced by the cruise director. Expect adult passengers of all ages to run around frantically, ripping various articles of clothing or emptying purses onto the deck in a mad, frenzied effort to win.
Of course, there are typical production shows in the Sound of Music Theater. (Again, don't expect the lavish production shows you find on newer ships. This theater and its shows are decidedly less sophisticated.) Nightlife will also be in full swing upstairs at the disco -- The Circuit -- with Karaoke earlier in the evening and a D.J. until the late hours.
At Casino Royale, passengers can try their luck at blackjack tables, starting at $5, as well as roulette, Caribbean stud poker, craps and slot machines. New gamblers can learn when to fold 'em and when to hold 'em during free gaming lessons. For a $20 entry fee, there are morning blackjack and afternoon slot tournaments.
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