Editor's note: Independence of the Seas is scheduled for refurbishment in April 2013, to include the addition of a cupcake shop, an Italian trattoria called Giovanni's Table and a Royal Babies & Tots Nursery. On the technology side, the ship will get digital signage, bow-to-stern Wi-Fi and a poolside movie screen.
The two-week, $7 million upgrade is part of Royal Caribbean's larger $300 million investment in its fleet.
"I thought we should take a Disney cruise," said a mom I met onboard Independence of the Seas. "But the kids wanted Royal Caribbean." It was an enlightening comment since her kids were 8 and 10, prime ages for Disney. Independence of the Seas, the third and final of Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships, may not have Mickey Mouse on tap, but there's so much offered for youngsters -- from kid-oriented entertainment and enrichment to recreational options that range from surfing and body boarding to ice skating -- that it's a superb choice for family travelers.
For all the emphasis on wholesome, family activities, as an adult without kids onboard, passengers will still find plenty of space for more mature pursuits. The fitness facility, complete with boxing ring, is excellent and always busy. Adults-only spots beyond bars and the casino ranged from the Solarium pool and boutique restaurants (which have a set age limit of 15) to a rather racy late-night comedy show. Travelers of many different stripes coexisted comfortably. (The ship even has outstanding facilities for disabled passengers.)
Another pleasant surprise is that the essentials of a good cruise experience, such as personal service and excellent food, were very much in place in spite of the size of the ship, which was at 100 percent occupancy on my trip. I didn't anticipate luxury cuisine or service, but quite pleasantly, my expectations were exceeded by consistently good meals in both for-fee eateries and the buffet venue, as well as very personal service.
Several crewmembers particularly stood out on my trip. One was a cabin stewardess who had served on numerous RCI ships and who had such a cheerful, positive and maternal disposition that she lifted my spirits with every encounter. Another was a bar waiter who pleasantly poured me a Diet Coke even though his bar wasn't yet open. The next day, as I filed into the Alhambra Theater with a couple thousand other passengers, the same waiter spotted me in the crowd and delivered a Diet Coke to my seat. I'd never even asked! You expect that kind of intuitive service on a small, luxury ship with just a few hundred passengers, but with 4,000-plus travelers onboard, that was genuinely a "wow" moment.
However, not everything is perfect on Independence of the Seas, and there's room for improvement in some areas. As a traveler who likes to connect with the ports I visit, I was disappointed with Royal Caribbean's lack of bond with any of the places on our itinerary -- at least via anything more than the banal shopping talks that highlight retailers who pay for the privilege. Sea days could feature a bit more substance in the lackluster enrichment department. (The chief workshop was advanced napkin folding.) The ship's vast sun deck, divided into three "neighborhoods," is colorful, whimsical and joyful -- but there's not enough effort to create events there after the sun sets.
Ultimately, Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas offers a wholesome cruise experience that deftly balances cruise traditions with contemporary innovations. The ship is best for cruise travelers interested in a low-key, ship-as-destination kind of vacation.
The undisputed hub inside the ship is Independence of the Seas' Royal Promenade. Spanning three football fields in length, it's lined with a range of shops, casual eateries, bars and even a men's barbershop. It's also the site of numerous special events; particularly fun are the Adventure Ocean parades, with kids dressed up in costumes and chanting or singing as they pass by.
I love the way the shops are all clustered on the promenade. They're visually appealing, and it's enjoyable to stroll along and browse the special sale kiosks that are brought out during peak traffic days. Unfortunately, the merchandise in the onboard stores is rather banal. A jewelry boutique, for instance, sells major brand names that you can find in any port of call, and a perfume shop carries a limited range of the usual duty-free names. The logo boutique offers all manner of Royal Caribbean-branded T-shirts and magnets.
Interestingly, when it comes to duty-free pricing, tariffs were higher in the ship's shops than in places like St. Maarten. For instance, a Tag Heuer Aqua Racer watch was several hundred dollars more expensive onboard than in St. Maarten, and a Chanel lipstick that cost $27 in port was $32 on the ship. Royal Caribbean offers a refund-the-difference policy that requires passengers to get written price information from onshore vendors, but it's nothing more than empty lip service. Can you imagine how cooperative port retailers would be about writing down their prices so passengers can buy elsewhere?
A library on Deck 7, aft, has a limited selection, but kudos go to Royal Caribbean for lining it with unlocked shelves of books. The Internet Cafe is on Deck 8 (just above the library) and offers a dozen or so terminals, along with a printer. The standard rate for accessing the Internet, via the cafe or through Wi-Fi (which was located all over the ship and worked really well from my cabin) is 55 cents per minute. Packages are available that bring down the cost. Disappointing is the lack of information and support provided to passengers who want to use the Internet services.
A small chapel at the top of the ship (above Olive or Twist) is mostly used for onboard weddings. Even on our Good Friday week cruise, there was no minister aboard.
Independence of the Seas features a subterranean deck with meeting rooms that, when not holding group gatherings, also serve as spill-over spots for crafts and other activities. There's also a small cinema that plays the same movies you'd find on airplane in-flight entertainment systems.
Independence of the Seas has only five genuine types of cabins: insides, promenade views, outsides, balconies and suites. A handful of cabins across all categories are particularly designed for families. Cabins are outfitted in a very pleasant nautical/natural blue-and-green color scheme. All standards, from insides to balconies, come with features like interactive flat-screen televisions, telephones, desks/vanities and easy chairs or couches. Beds, covered with duvets, can be configured as twins (narrower than American-style single beds) or as a queen. Closet space is more than adequate.
Bathrooms are pocket-sized and shower-only (though, fortunately, there are doors instead of the dreaded clingy curtain) and feature those odd bath towels that feel really soft but don't really do the job of drying. The only toiletries provided are a bar of soap for hand-washing and dispensers in the shower for shampoo and shower gel. Bring your own lotion!
Mini-fridges, stocked with for-fee items, are tucked into one side of each vanity. Tea-making facilities are tucked away in a closet. Cabin measurements are as follows:
Interior and promenade-view cabins measure 152 square feet and 149 square feet, respectively -- quite small for a new ship.
Ranging from 161 to 200 square feet, outside cabins feature a large porthole-style windows.
Balcony cabins come in two varieties. Deluxe is 177 square feet (balcony adds another 74 square feet) and Superior is slightly larger at 180 square feet (though, ironically, the balcony is slightly smaller at 68 square feet). Balcony furnishings are made of mesh and metal; there's room for two chairs and a small table.
Family options include 300-square-foot inside cabins with room for up to six. Family oceanview cabins are 293 square feet. Four Royal Family Suites (610 square feet, balcony 234 square feet) hold up to eight and feature a living area with a double sofa bed and two bedrooms with two twin beds that convert to queens. (One also features third and fourth bunks.) Also included are verandahs and two bathrooms with showers (one with a tub).
The Presidential Family Suite (1,215 square feet, balcony 810 square feet), which also exists on Independence of the Seas' sister ships Freedom of the Seas and Liberty of the Seas, is unique in the industry. The suite sleeps up to 14 and is made up of two master bedrooms with private baths, as well as two smaller bedrooms, each with two Pullman beds and two twin beds that convert to a queen. Moreover, there are two additional shower-only bathrooms (the same as you'd see in standard accommodations). The 810-square-foot private balcony is a destination in its own right and is outfitted with a hot tub, teak dining set (table and chairs) and padded loungers.
A variety of suite choices include Junior Suites (287 square feet with tubs, walk-in closets and 101-square-foot balconies), Grand Suites (387 square feet with tubs, walk-in closets and 126-square-foot balconies) and Owner's Suites (614 square feet with tubs, walk-in closets, separate sitting areas and 209-square-foot balconies). The one Royal Suite (1,406 square feet with a 377-square-foot balcony) also has a whirlpool marble tub and shower, entertainment center, king-sized bed, baby grand piano and a private hot tub on the balcony.
Grand, Owner's and Royal Suite guests have access to the Concierge Club lounge (Deck 10, midship, open 24 hours, but manned for only about half of that time), where they can enjoy complimentary pre- and post-dinner canapes and cocktails. You can also use the concierge that's on call to book your shore excursions, dining reservations, spa appointments, etc.
Like its Freedom-class brethren, Independence of the Seas also features the B & J cabin. This promenade-view stateroom overlooks the backsides of two cows that stand atop the Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlor (just underneath). Cruisers who end up in this obstructed view cabin receive complimentary ice cream at Ben & Jerry's every day of their cruise.
As contemporary and innovative as the design and programming of Independence of the Seas is, its entertainment offerings are, by and large, very traditional. Daytime staples include bingo, art auctions, films, trivia contests, arts and crafts (scrapbooking is popular), wine tastings, dance classes, karaoke and the like.
Special interest groups (Mah-Jongg, bridge, Friends of Bill W., Friends of Dorothy) can post information on informal gatherings outside of the cruise sales' office on the Promenade. A shopping "expert" dispenses info on retailers -- who pay a fee to be featured -- in each port of call; you won't learn much about other places on your itinerary, unless you do your own research.
The Casino Royale features some 300 slot machines (ranging from one cent to $25) and a range of table games, such as blackjack and Texas Hold 'Em. Beyond simple gambling, there are occasional events and tournaments.
At night, musical offerings range from Latin dance music and "name that tune" cabaret-style experiences to disco and pop tunes at the pub. All of the bars get pretty busy, including Vintages, the wine bar; the pleasantly musty, nautically themed Schooner Bar; Bolero's, with its Latin music and dancing; the Vintages Champagne bar; and the top-of-the-ship Viking Crown Lounge.
The ship's Alhambra Theater, a two-deck-high Broadway-like performance space, is home to song and dance shows (three different varieties on our trip) and also hosts a celebrity performer (in our case, a singer from the band Foreigner).
Skating performances take place several times throughout each cruise, both during the day and at night, and these are a must-see! In the Caribbean, the same program is performed at each show; European sailings merit two different programs.
The skating shows are held in Studio B, where the performers must maneuver around a pocket-sized ice rink. Although you won't see any Olympics-worthy quad toe loops or triple axels (there simply isn't enough room for the skaters to get up the speed and height necessary), the performances are still great fun -- more than making up in creativity, spectacle and energy what they lack in technical difficulty.
A highlight of any ship with Royal Caribbean's Promenade is evening parties with the vibe of street festivals. On our trip, both Rock Britannia and the Madhatter's Ball Parade featured costumes, music, singing and dancing by performers. Especially darling was a parade, mid-voyage, of a group of young passengers from the ship's Adventure Ocean youth program, who sang as they marched along.
The late-night crowd has options too, including disco-dancing at the two-level Labyrinth, a comedy show, a "millionaire game show," the occasional "dancing under the stars" deck party and a once-per-cruise midnight buffet.
Royal Caribbean shore excursions primarily emphasize group activities; it has not significantly embraced the trend of offering opportunities for more personalized -- and more pricey -- in-port experiences. I loved the vast range of active tours; these, on a Caribbean voyage, include helmet dives, scuba, kayaking, Segway rides, snorkeling, cycling, horseback-riding and golf. Also offered are more run-of-the-mill tours that focus on the ports' historic and touristic sites. There are a handful of out-of-the-ordinary possibilities -- I was intrigued by a chance to ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles around St. Maarten and the tour of artist workshops on St. Martin -- but Royal Caribbean could still feature more varied tours.
On Labadee, the cruise line's private beach resort in Haiti, the line offers "tours" that are centered on tropical activities like parasailing, powerboat rides, aqua park play and zip-lining.
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.
It's a testament to Royal Caribbean's far-reaching Adventure Ocean youth program (for kids ages 3 to 17) that, on our cruise, which took place firmly in the midst of a major school holiday period, the 1,400 (!) kids onboard were not only engaged but also proved a joy to be around, rather than a disruption. I can't tell you how many parents I talked to who said that their children were having so much fun in the program that they'd hardly seen them.
What stands out with Adventure Ocean is the breadth and range of activities, regardless of age. The program includes activities that are focused on enrichment and recreationally-inclined, occur during mealtimes, encourage family participation and offer creative outlets. Each of the five different age levels have dedicated facilities, yet the programs also make use of the ship's other features, from recreation to dining.
Aquanauts: For kids in the 3- to 5-year-old age group, activities occur in 15-minute intervals and range from beach games and hula-hoop contests to story time and the creation of fish kites via the ship's partnership with Crayola. Adventure Science makes learning fun with hands-on science experiments. I was especially enchanted with the day two opportunity for tykes to get their photos taken with the captain. To participate in Aquanauts, children must be potty-trained.
Explorers: The program for 6- to 8-year-olds changes in half-hour intervals and is centered on the Explorer room, where there's space enough for free play (cartoons, coloring, board games), AdventureArt by Crayola, dancing and even bingo. The occasional group meal takes place at either Windjammer or Johnny Rocket's, and the Royal Caribbean dancers even hold a dance class for the kids.
Voyagers: The 9- to 12-year-old set participates in activities that include a hula-hoop competition, AdventureArt, Crazy Tag and AdventureScience enrichment.
Note: A relatively new addition to the program for Aquanauts, Explorers and Voyagers is a "lunch and play" feature on sea days; for $7.95 per child, kids have a two-hour playtime (typically, the facility would be closed at lunch) that includes food and activities. All three groups participate in family-friendly play, like karaoke and scavenger hunts. Group babysitting, dubbed "Late Night Party Zone," is available during the evening; the cost is $5 per hour, per child, and it runs until 2 a.m.
In-stateroom babysitting is available for children from 1 year old onward. The cost is $10 per hour for one or two children, $15 for three or more from one family.
Teens, ages 12 to 17, are divided into two groups, though, in some cases, they do share activities and venues. Other times, they're separate, such as with disco nights in the Labyrinth. (The 12- to 14-year-olds are able to participate from 10:30 to 11:30 p.m., while the older group gets the 11:45 p.m. to 1 a.m. time slot.)
Teens (12 to 14): This group is supervised by Adventure Ocean Staff and is based in The Living Room. The program is far less structured; there are a handful of group activities, such as dodge ball competitions, mini-golf ball-driving, bingo, karaoke, "boogie boarding under the stars" at the FlowRider and clay-sculpting. But, there's lots of free time for just hangin' in The Living Room.
Teens (15 to 17): Home for these passengers is Fuel, a teens-only nightclub that's got a juice bar, a bunch of comfy chairs and not much else. There are a handful of activities, mostly recreationally inclined (teen ice-skating, Scratch D.J. Academy, Wii tournaments). Otherwise, there's no group counselor, and teens pretty much just do their own thing. Teens also have access to a specially-dedicated outdoor deck area.
A very popular destination on my cruise was the ship's vast games arcade. It's located right in the center of the kids facilities and was dominated, as a result, by young passengers.
Children younger than six months are not permitted to cruise on Independence of the Seas. Royal Caribbean has, fairly recently, implemented a program for the youngest passengers -- 6 months to 3 years -- that it calls Royal Babies and Royal Tots. Activities are in concert with Fisher Price. A parent must be present for the handful of activities that are planned each day.
Independence of the Sea offers My Family Time Dining. In this new initiative, aimed at kids, ages 3 to 11, families who choose the traditional dining option can enjoy special, expedited service for the kids; after 40 minutes, Adventure Ocean counselors pick children up, and they return to the age-appropriate facility while parents finish their meals leisurely.
The passenger make-up onboard definitely varies, depending on the time of year. On our Easter week Caribbean cruise, kids made up more than one-third of the passengers, and a significant number were teens. During periods other than school holiday breaks, the ship feels less like an all-family resort destination, though the ship's Adventure Ocean program operates year-round.
During the Caribbean season (late fall through early spring), Independence of the Seas' American passengers are in the majority, though on my cruise there was a strong showing of travelers from the U.K., Mexico and Spain, in particular. During its warm-weather cruises in the Mediterranean, when the ship is based in Southampton, expect Europeans and Brits to be significantly represented.
The ship makes an effort to accommodate travelers with special needs. There are cabins with roll-in showers, transfer lifts in one pool and one whirlpool, and lowered tables in the casino. A show room is equipped with an Infrared Assistive Learning System, and the ship's daily newsletter is available, upon request, in Braille.
Although the ambience onboard is conducive for a variety of passenger types, this is a tough ship for solo travelers. So many passengers travel in groups of family members or friends that all but the most gregarious may find it hard to connect with fellow singles. One suggestion: Consider signing up for Cruise Critic's Meet & Mingle gathering. Traveling alone on this trip, I made some new friends that helped make the cruise a really fun experience.
On our eight-night cruise, there were two formal nights; the rest were resort casual (tropical sundresses and pants outfits for women, khakis and collared shirts for men). On the formal nights, those who dined in the ship's main restaurant venue tended to be the most dolled-up; passengers not in the mood to dress in black tie (most men actually just wore jackets and ties, and few women sported beaded gowns) headed to the Windjammer buffet venue, Johnny Rocket's or to casual eateries along the promenade.
During the day, dress was plain ol' casual, though most wore bathing suit cover-ups and shoes when indoors.
|Fitness and Recreation|
The ship's sun deck, which consists of three distinct pool areas, is magically colorful, full of energy and comfortable.
The center pool with its attendant whirlpools is party-central -- at least during the daytime. It's the site of lighthearted fun, pool contests and music on sea days.
You'll want to be a kid again if only to be able to frolic in the whimsically decorated children-only H20 Zone, a water park that incorporates small pools (some slightly deep, some shallow) and all sorts of fountains and water guns.
The Solarium is a pretty, though small, adults-only pool area that includes two whirlpools that are cantilevered out over the ship (great spots for watching the sun set), a bar that opens only on sea days and swinging benches.
None of the pools is equipped with a retractable roof that can be shut in case of inclement weather. And, despite warning signs, sun deck lounge chair hogs proliferated to the point of ridiculousness. (Rather than leaving towels, which cost $20 apiece to replace, people would just leave one shoe on a chair to reserve it.) Little was done to enforce the rules.
Bar none, the ship's fitness facility is among the best in cruising (as are those of Freedom and Liberty of the Seas, Indy's sister vessels). It's the first fitness area on a ship that really looks like a land-based health club. Circuit-training machines ring the walls of windows and include treadmills and stationary bikes. There's also an area for weight-lifting and a group of cycles for spinning (individually or in group classes).
The facility has a dedicated room for a variety of classes, such as yoga, aerobics, Pilates, group cycling and water aerobics. Other, less standard options include "combat in motion," a workout that combines Eastern martial arts with Western aerobic conditioning. The ship's boxing ring hosts boxing lessons and even some good-natured fights. Classes, by the way, are mostly for-charge, and it is recommended that passengers sign up in advance. (You will be charged if you're a no-show.)
The Walk for Wishes effort is a daily one-mile walk that's a result of a Royal Caribbean partnership with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the organization that grants children with life-threatening illnesses a wish-of-a-lifetime. Participants are each required to buy a T-shirt; proceeds go to the foundation.
Royal Caribbean's Shipshape Day Spa offers a comprehensive range of services, but ambience-wise, it possesses the charm and character of a big-city bus station. The salon, tucked off to one side, features hair-cutting and styling, manicures, pedicures and teeth-whitening. The spa offers pretty much the usual range of treatments: massage (Swedish, hot stone and couples are among the varieties), reflexology, facials and body wraps. Independence of the Seas also offers acupuncture treatments, a relatively new program for Royal Caribbean that was introduced in 2007 on Liberty of the Seas.
Therapists and beauticians were rather brusque and impersonal but did a competent job; in one case, when my pedicure chipped a day later, my request for a re-do was handled properly.
An interesting new program on some Royal Caribbean ships, including this one, is the teen-geared YSPA program. Kids ages 13 to 17 can book treatments, such as "acne attack" and "surfer scrub." More standard massages, facials, manicures and pedicures are also available, and YSPA extends to the gym, where there are teen-only fitness workouts.
If you are on a cruise that calls at Labadee, the island massage is a lovely treat; the spa sets up a mini outdoor area on a hill, away from the crowds. Plan to wear a bathing suit under your robe if you're choosing this option.
Keep an eye out for spa discounts. On my cruise, they were fairly common and weren't even limited to sea days. I checked each day's program for a heads-up on what was on sale and generally saved about 20 percent.
And a warning: Royal Caribbean's spas, like with most other cruise lines, are operated by the U.K.-based Steiner Leisure, which insists that its therapists wind up each session with a hard sell on its pricey Elemis brand products. Do not feel shy about firmly saying "thanks, but no thanks" if you are not interested. In fact, I highly recommend letting your therapist know this at the beginning of the treatment, thus avoiding a product pitch altogether.
Beyond the spa and fitness facility, Independence of the Seas has superb recreational facilities. These include the FlowRider, a surfing simulator only available on Freedom-class ships. At specially designated times, ShipShape staffers are on hand to assist passengers who want to give it a go; you must be at least 52 inches tall to use a boogie board and 58 inches to try stand-up surfing. The FlowRider is free; passengers can also book private lessons ($75 per person) and rent out the FlowRider ($350 per hour).
Independence of the Seas' rock-climbing wall, which hovers some 30 feet above the deck and 200 feet above the sea, can accommodate two climbers at a time. There's no fee to use it. Other recreational facilities include a full basketball court (also pressed into use for soccer games and dodge ball), a running track, mini-golf, a golf simulator and the ice rink. (Skate rentals are free of charge.)
When in port, ask the staff at the ShipShape gym for a free, self-guided running map.
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