Empress of the Seas Live Blog

Empress of the Seas Live Blog - Day Four - Sea Day

In:
11Oct2017

Today was our last day of the cruise, a sea day as we head back to Tampa, FL. I spent most of the morning working on the Cuba blog post from yesterday. I really enjoyed reflecting on my day and everything I saw. Today was our last day on board and my plans for today were to do nothing!

From 10am – 1pm they have their sea day brunch in the main dining room. On sea days, Empress of the Seas does a very large brunch with free bloody mary’s or mimosa. You will see some classic breakfast items and some things you likely never had before.


I went with a beef burrito and bacon, which both were great. My friend Nick got a waffle and cake for dessert but I was too full. We sat here for a while just talking and enjoying our drinks.


While walking back to my cabin from brunch I came across the captain’s corner in the centrum. This is a Q&A session with the guests and the Captain. I’ve always enjoyed these and usually learn something new every time.

I spent some time just exploring the open decks and relaxing. I did go up to the pool deck but I just wasn’t in the mood to lay out there today. Usually not like me, but I think I was so focused on reflecting from the day before still.


Around 2pm I decided it was time for another snack in the Windjammer. They were closing down from lunch, so the sections were a little limited. That’s okay; I think we had plenty of food at brunch!

After lunch I decided to take a little nap. I usually don’t take naps on vacation, but I was pretty tired after the Windjammer. It’s crazy how that always happens…

Dinner tonight was back in the main dining room. For those of you catching on today’s theme is food! They had a show tonight; the Vegas themed show the created for Empress. I saw it last year and really loved it, but didn’t feel like going to see it again.


For the main course, I had the pork roast and we ordered shrimp mac-n-cheese to share on the table. I thought both were excellent and it was fun ordering different items than I would usually try. Also, Empress has some unique dinner menus that you won’t find across the fleet.

After dinner I went into boleros and they had the orchestra playing. They were outstanding to listen to. It almost reminded me being at Jazz on 4 on Oasis class ships.

Disembarkation

Since I live ½ a mile away form the terminal I thought I’d just relax on board all morning and get off at last call. They are usually calling the last group around 9:15am-9:30am. However, this morning they had a major delay getting off the ship through customs. I didn’t exit the ships until 10:30am, and it took an hour to get through the customs line. I never really figured out why the process was so backed up, but perhaps it’s a Cuba sailing thing. For those wondering I did walk home and it took me 10 minutes.



 

Thanks for following along on this quick four day cruise to Key West and Cuba. I had a lot of fun sharing and I hope you enjoyed also. Now I must go pack as my next cruise is in two day! That’s right, I’ll be bringing you another live blog starting Friday on Enchantment of the Seas. See you soon!

Empress of the Seas Live Blog - Day Three - Havana, Cuba

In:
10Oct2017

Today was our second port stop and the reason many of us booked this sailing, Havana, Cuba.

We were scheduled to arrive from 8am-8pm and they encouraged the guest to watch us sail in port from the top deck. They had a table set-up with coffee and water so you could relax and take in our first views of Cuba. I’ll be honest; it was one of those moments that are hard to explain in words. There were around 100 guests up watching us arrive, everyone taking photos and video, really a magical experience. It’s a must if you are cruising to Cuba. So plan on an early night the night before and make sure you are up there no later than 7am.



 

The night before, you will receive a letter in the cabin explaining where you need to meet, based on the excursion you book. They do this to help with the traffic flow trying to exit into Havana.

Since we had no excursion booked directly through Royal Caribbean, they let us leave at 7:50am or 11am. We met at the schooner bar, and walked right off in less than a minute. They really have this process down to reduce the lines backing up.

Havana, Cuba - Terminal

First you walk through their customs, they had 10 agents working and this took 3-5 minutes. You must have the Cuba Visa completed prior to this step and if you make an error filling it out, that’s another $75, so read everything first prior to putting an ink pen on it. They stamped my United States Passport and said, “Welcome to Havana, we are glad you are here, & enjoy your day!”


 

The next step was going through Cuba security checkpoint. Just like any scanning process, put items on the belt and you good to go. They are checking for weapons, as owning a gun in Cuba is not allowed.

The final step in the terminal was the money exchange. I was surprised to see no line for this, but they had about 10 windows open. I exchanged $200 US dollars for $174 Cuc’s. This is the Cuban convertible currency for travelers to use while in port. The exchange rate is .87Cuc to 1USD. Feel free to get more than you need, because when you come back you can simply transfer any funds back to US dollars.


 

Day in Cuba

My friend Nick used a private tour guide here before so we booked him again. I really feel like this is the best option to dive more into Havana. The cost was $120 CUC’s and that covered 2 hours walking into town, followed by 5 hours of car access to travel around with a driver. We tipped the driver and tour guide for a total cost of $160 Cuc’s (which was split 3 ways). For this cost you simply can’t beat it and really the only way to see non-tourist parts.

First, we walked through town and it felt like Old San Juan to me. Very old historic buildings everywhere and built very close together. But remember the Government owns these, so they have been well taken care of.




 

We continued to walk, and started getting into streets where citizens live. This was very eye opening to see, no A/C, wires running all over their house, and some homes falling apart. We walked into one of the homes to look around and it was in very poor condition.





 

At this point we met our driver to head over to Ernest Hemingway’s house. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to have air-conditioning! The drive here was 15-20 minutes, but once we arrived we noticed they were closed for repairs. Now we had to come up with a new plan.



We had heard of an old bar in the fishing village that Ernest Hemingway would visit. This drive was 20-25 minutes out that required us to get on their highway.

We noticed people walking up and down the highways, trying to get from point A to point B. In Cuba, the government “helps the people”, so they will often stop and give people rides. Remember owning a car here is almost unheard of for 95% of the citizens.



 

Okay back to the bar, it was called La Terraza in Cojimar – fishing village. They had Hemingway’s table roped off where he would always sit. It was also right on the ocean, so we enjoyed some really nice views while enjoying a few local beers. The cost of a beer was $1.5 Cuc’s, so a little under $2USD.



 

After a few beers we were ready for lunch, as it was after 1pm. Our tour guide recommend this place that was downtown Havana in someone’s home. It was considered very “upscale” for locals. The cost is $18Cuc’s to dine here, which is almost what locals make in a month. This is another perk of using a private tour guide, because we would have never found a place like this down in a residential area.

The name was “La Casa Restaurant” I highly recommend this place. It comes with a welcome drink (you pick), starter, main course, desert, and coffee for $18Cuc’s. I had a chicken soup for starter, chicken with rice and black beans for my main course. Really authentic meal, once we were finished our waiter set a bottle of rum on the table and said enjoy some our rum on me. In Cuba they usually sip on some rum after their meal, so we just helped ourselves.



 

After lunch, we headed into some shops to pick up rum and cigars. I couldn’t believe how cheap their rum was. They had some starting at 3 CUC’s and the famous Havana Club rum was 6Cuc’s. I picked up a variety of bottles to take home to enjoy. They do let you carry them back to the cabin once on board, so feel free to sip right away!

Our final stop was where local’s shop, it wasn’t pretty. People were coming in just to buy rice or bread, because they couldn’t afford to get both. I also saw their meat being sold that was just sitting on the counter, remember no A/C so just imagine the smell of this place.


 

Recap of Havana

My day here was very enjoyable and I’m very happy I came to Cuba. I felt like we were able to see the good, bad, and ugly parts of the city. We did bring supplies with us to hand out, such as soap, toothbrushes, and toothpaste.

My recommendation is, if you bring items don’t let them see the source where you pulled them out. Just grab the item out of your bag first, then walk over and hand it to them. We opened up our bag and people started flocking over to us, which was a little uncomfortable.

It was eye opening to think about the daily things we use at home, they are in great need of. Another thing that made me think about is we plan our vacations a year or more out and they are just focused on how am I getting food tonight. Its very much survival mode here, but everyone helps each other out. The government says they help their people, but could you live off 5 eggs, 1lb of rice, and a chicken for a whole month? That’s what they get here, but since the hurricane they haven’t received any of their eggs.

I would like to come back here for the overnight cruise and enjoy some nightlife in Havana. Surprisingly, they are offering guests on board to stay on for the next cruise at a discounted priced. For $299 per person (taxes included) they will put you in a junior suite for the 5 nights – overnight sailing to Havana. I wanted to do this so badly, but I already have Enchantment of the Seas booked for Friday the 13th.

Dinner tonight we dined in the main dining room. This was my first time eating in this dining room out of my 3 times on board Empress. I was really impressed with the food quality. I ordered the French onion soup and it was exactly like the one I used to order in Chops before it was removed from the menu. For the main course I had the prime rib and lobster. Our waiter just brought us two tails each to enjoy, I certainly didn’t turn them away! We were using my time dining and arrived at 8:45pm so they were finishing up with the night.



 

I know I didn’t cover everything, but I hope that gives you a good overview of my experience in Havana. Please feel free to comment below with any questions and I’ll be sure to respond. Next up we have a sea day as we head back to Tampa, Florida.

Empress of the Seas Live Blog - Day Two - Key West, Florida

In:
09Oct2017

Today was our first port day in Key West Florida; we were scheduled to arrive at 12:30pm – 7pm. This morning I woke up rather early for vacation, but I wanted to make sure I made the most of it and watch the sunrise. For many years, I never got up early to watch this and I can only think back on all the good ones I missed.


 

Since we had a few hours to kill this morning I decided to have breakfast at Chops Grill. On Empress of the Seas they have a special Diamond Plus & Suites breakfast in Chops. It’s like the one you would experience in the main dining room, but with much faster service.


 

I ordered a ham and cheese omelet and it came out much better than expected. They also have specialty coffees at no extra cost, which is an added benefit, because I’m usually buying them.


 

At noon the Cruise Director, Carlos, came over the speaker letting us know we would be arriving in Key West a little later than planned. I’ve noticed the winds are much stronger than I’ve seen in the past and it’s been causing us to slow down. We arrived in Key West at 1pm and we stayed an extra half hour to make up for the lost time.


 

My plans in Key West were actually nothing. I’ve been here a lot in the last two years, so I did want to try something new. I looked up a local brewery called The Waterfront Brewery. They had pretty good beer, but it wasn’t really what I was looking for. The venue felt very much like a chain at home, so I had my flight ($8) and headed out.


 

The next stop was Sloppy Joe’s, which is the most famous restaurant in Key West. I’ve been many times before, but it’s family friendly (for the most part) and I always get great service. I only had a few beers and skipped lunch to save room for Chops tonight. They had live music and it was very entertaining to just sit back and relax.


 

Key West was recently hit with Hurricane Irma a few weeks ago. I know they pulled ships out of here for week or two. But the last thing the locals need is the tourism dollars to be pulled out.

I didn’t really know what I’d see today, but for the most part they are up and running. On about every street they had old trees that were cut up and ready to be picked up. I saw a few places still boarded up from the hurricane, but I’d say they are 90% up and running.

The only stand out damage I noticed was all the boat docks at the pier were completely gone. Hurricane Irma totally wiped out all the docks, but I was happy to see they were already building new ones.



 

Evening on board, we saw the main production in the theater. The show was very different than anything I’d seen across the fleet. It was themed around Cuba and Latin dancing. It was very enjoyable and only last 35 minutes, which I tend to enjoy over long never-ending shows.


 

Right when we walked out they were just starting the parade of flags in the Centrum. This is when they highlight the countries the crew members are from. We just kept passing since we had reservations at Chops Grill.


 

Dinner tonight was back in Chops, I promise I’m not going to eat every meal in here. I decided to change it up a little and get a shrimp cocktail and a salad.



 

Main course I had the filet again, 9oz rare, with the red wine sauce. For dessert, I ordered the mud pie, it’s not on the menu but our waiter said they were bringing it back. For my taste, I thought it was too rich, and I was missing my ice cream Sunday from last night! 

Tonight I used my Diamond Plus BOGO coupon, so I paid the cover charge last night and tonight was free. 


 

After dinner I decided to get to bed, like most of the ship. They are recommending we be on the top deck to watch our arrival into Havana, Cuba tomorrow at 7am. Thanks for following my day in Key West!

Empress of the Seas Live Blog - Embarkation Day

In:
08Oct2017

It’s boarding day of my Empress of the Seas cruise to Cuba and Key West. In all my sailings, this morning was so different. I woke up very early and decided to go outside and watch Empress pull into the Port of Tampa. I hadn’t packed anything until this morning, so I took care of that. But I was able to leave my home and walk to the port in 11 minutes. I think it’s time I book more sailings out of my back yard.


 

Boarding itself was very easy, I arrived at 10:45AM and they had just started letting passengers board. They do require you fill out a Cuba Visa form and health form prior to approaching the counter. This is the help reduce the amount of time you are actually with the agent. Once I was on board I just explored the ship, and skipped my day 1 lunch at the Windjammer. I was started to get hot, so I thought why not just go for a swim. I carried my swim gear in my carry on bag and changed in a public restroom, since cabins didn’t open up until 1pm.


 

Right at 1pm they made an announcement that our cabins were open. Mine was on deck 4 – 4038. I had a standard ocean view cabin, which is fine for myself. When I arrived my luggage was already there. It was very nice to get settled in and unpacked.


 

The muster drill was at 3:30pm; it was a simple process and didn’t last too long. They do have you stand outside shoulder to shoulder, but it’s not too hot in Florida right now. Right after the muster drill they have a private sail away party for those Diamond Plus, Pinnacle or in a suite. This is an added perk on Empress, since they don’t have a diamond lounge. At the party they had cocktails and live music, but no food.



 

Since I have no drink package I made sure to use my 3 drink coupons at the schooner bar, while sitting there enjoy the ocean I saw the bridge! I jumped up and watched us sail under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Those of you wondering, it takes about two hours after sail away to reach this bridge.



 

Dinner tonight was in Chops Grills; this is the only specialty restaurant on board. They do have a small section in the corner of Chops for Chef’s Table. Our reservations were at 8:30pm and it’s $35 per person. From the start I could tell how enjoyable the experience was going to be. The service was outstanding; we never felt rush with ordering or enjoying our plates. For starters I had mushroom soup and a crab cake.



 

Main course was the 9oz filet and he brought out all the sides for us to share. Desert was a big hit, I’ve always wanted to try their ice cream Sunday. I absolutely loved it, and wanted to finish it all but didn’t. Once our meal was over the chef came out to our table to see how our experience was and if we enjoyed the food. Followed by the headwaiter to check on our experience. These are the little touches that makes the smaller ships stand out. On Harmony two weeks ago at chops, it was so busy it almost felt rushed the entire time.



 

After dinner we hit the casino for some late night luck. If you enjoy playing in a smoke free casino then you will love Empress. The casino here is multi-level with openings; so they don’t want smoke overflowing into sitting areas, thus make it smoke-free. While walking to bed they had a 70’s party going on in the Centrum, but I didn’t stop.



 

As I mentioned in my preview post, I didn’t get the drink package for this cruise. I decided since we have 2 full port days, I’d carry wine on board and use the drink coupons. I only bought one beer yesterday (used my BOGO coupon from Crown & Anchor) so drink bill so far is $7.

Well that’s a wrap on my day 1 live blog; tomorrow we are in Key West, Florida.

Live Blogging from Empress of the Seas - Preamble

In:
04Oct2017

It’s almost hard to believe I’m back with another live blog already, as we had so much fun on the Harmony of the Seas group cruise a few weeks ago. Last week, I was in the post-cruise depression looking around at sailings I could jump on. I already have Enchantment of the Seas booked for October 13th, but that’s over the weekend and I have that whole week off work. Then I came across an Empress of the Seas, sailing out of Tampa at an incredible solo rate.


 

Those of you that don’t know, I live downtown Tampa and can actually walk to the ship, so no traveling cost or parking. So I’ll have this four-day cruise, two days back at home, then I’ll head down to Miami for Enchantment of the Seas on October 13th.


 

Itinerary

The cruise leaves on Saturday, October 7th out of the port of Tampa. We sail to Key West, Florida, Havana Cuba, followed by a sea day back home.


 

I am excited to get back to Key West, Florida it’s always a fun day. We are docked in Key West from noon to 7pm, so I’ll be able to spend most of the afternoon around town.


 

The highlight of this cruise is Havana, Cuba. We will be in port from 8am to 8pm, so we have a full 12 hours to explore.

My good friend, Nick Vitani is on this sailing and invited me on his private car tour he had arranged. I’ll be sure to report back on the private excursion and information if you are looking to reserve it. I’ll also report back on the currency exchange process, and what to expect going through Cuba’s terminal into the city.


 

Cabin

Since I booked this sailing last week, the sale was on the guarantee cabins. Often when sailings get within a few weeks from sailing, they have special rates on guarantee cabins, if the sailing isn’t sold out. I booked at $479 solo rate for an ocean view cabin. Just a few hours later I noticed the cabin price had dropped to $449. I did some research and Royal Caribbean actually has a 48-hour price guarantee.

If you see a price drop within 48-hours after booking they will apply the difference + 10% more as on board credit. My price drop was $30, so I received $33 in non-refundable on board credit. My cabin assignment was given to me 3-4 hours after booking, Ocean View – 4038.


 

Drink Package and VOOM

For this sailing, I’ve decided not to purchase the drink package. I know, you must be thinking, ”he will give in on board and buy it!” Since we are in Key West all afternoon and Cuba for 12 hours, I’ve decided to pass. I do plan on taking two bottles of wine on board with me, plus I’ll have a bottle of wine in the room from Crown & Anchor. When I combine that wine with the three cocktails each evening, I think I’ll do just fine without the package.

As far as the VOOM Internet, I thought about buying it day two to save a few bucks. I usually purchase the VOOM on board with my Diamond Plus discount.


 

If you are planning to visit Cuba soon, please feel free to comment below if you have any questions.

Empress of the Seas Live Blog Day 5 - Sea Day

In:
25May2017

Today is a sea day, and the last day of our Empress of the Seas cruise to Cuba, and we've got the "ast day blues" in a big way. Being at sea was a welcome change, as somehow the days felt short this week and I didn't get to enjoy the ship as much as I'd have liked. This summary will be a short one though, as we worked hard to do very little but relax, a vacation within a vacation, but we did get to explore the ship some.

An Early Start, Relatively Speaking

Today we woke up around 9:00am after setting the clocks forward overnight, which means it was 8:00am in our brains and a very early hour compared to what we're used to. We usually find it easy to oversleep in an inside stateroom, but the excitement of a cruise full of friends heading to a new destination got us moving a bit earlier each day. Today however what got us up was the desire to live every minute of the last day.

For breakfast, we opted for the Windjammer, which was not anything special but it seemed a good way to get in and out quickly compared to the main dining room, which we'd already enjoyed for brunch a few times. I did notice that a couple of staple items in this Windjammer are different than they are on other Royal Caribbean ships. For example, the breakfast potatoes and the donuts are both completely different recipes – not bad, just different.

After breakfast, we took a walk across the pool deck and found that there were some people out early, but plenty of space left. From there we went to Boleros for espresso. I've been surprised that there haven't been longer lines at Cafe Royal, which is nice. That in mind the quality of the espresso seems hit or miss. It may be they're better equipped to make Cuban coffee, which has a ton of sugar. Either way I got my fix and we took a stroll.

All Walks Lead to Bars

Schooner bar has been the main meeting place and watering hole this entire cruise. I really like the venue, and the location is fantastic (midship, next to guest services and such), though I'd have thought we'd spend more time in Boleros. It was a bit early for a drink, but I'm on vacation, so we again found ourselves at the Schooner bar where Ashford, the barkeep, insisted we start and finish the second bottle of Ardbeg they brought on for us. This was the beginning of some serious peer-pressure from Ashford (who is awesome by the way).

As I sipped scotch I had a brief Twitter exchange with James Van Fleet, Royal Caribbean's meteorologist who pointed out some storms Empress was going to be cruising near. This is a nice reminder how many people work hard to make these trips safe and enjoyable.

Several drinks in and while waiting to meet up with friends I decided we are on a cruise and should probably see the outdoors and get some fresh air. Heading to deck 10 the "Sexist Man" contest was going on. Personally, I don't care about the belly flop contests and these other pool events, but they are crowd pleasers and I'm glad others enjoy them. This is when the weather started looking a little less than desirable as some the storms became visible, but folks were still enjoying time by the pool.

Heading back to the Schooner for some more time chatting with friends new and old we quickly realized it was time to eat, and the Windjammer called our names. By the time we sat down to eat there was a decent amount of rain that had moved in, and it was neat looking as the water ran off the windows of the Windjammer.

Notice by the way that the Windjammer on Empress is situated forward, where as the other ships in Royal's fleet feature the Windjammer to the aft. That rain on the glass, a nice lunch, and perhaps the four glasses of whisky I'd had left me fading fast, so we headed to the stateroom for a bit to begin packing and take a short nap.

Yes, we did more than just drink today.

Funny as it seems on such as small ship, we realized there were some spots we hadn't really explored and other spots we wanted to enjoy more time in. We walked around, listened to some live music in Boleros, and saw our new Aussie friend Luke (actually I think he lives in BC) who we threw an olive cover on and had him do his best Fidel impression. We then started walking all the way forward on the promenade and found that on several decks there are neat view of the bow. Nothing special, as it's just hardware, but it's a perspective I'd not noticed on other ships. These areas sit in front of stateroom windows, and there is a shortcut to get there if you're in one of these rooms, so while the area isn't private, you essentially have a secret/rarely trafficked area overlooking the bow. One of these decks through had some A/C parts stored there, but I realize they're actively doing A/C work in the Casino, so hopefully this is short-lived - I'd be annoyed if that was my room window in the picture, but perhaps it belongs to a contractor or officer.

It occurred to Larissa and I that we'd not seen any of the shows onboard, and we'd heard good things about tonight's show, "Three". I'm a sucker for mashups and such, which were the default shows on ships for years. I expected something similar to this, and the show was billed as having music from multiple decades, but it was bit different in that it was largely covers or mashups of pop-music, and I was having trouble figuring out if there was any attempt at weaving a theme in. The performers themselves were all talented, and from a choreography standpoint they were all in sync, which doesn't always happen. I did feel a few songs had performers singing outside their range, which seemed odd with so many singers to choose from. The back of the stage was also used for a number of scenes and effects, seemingly using rear-projection. It looked good, but in a few cases, may have been a bit distracting.

What I really enjoyed about this show however (not taking away from the talent at all), was the theater itself. There was a time that ship theaters had clusters of tables and chairs, neat layouts that made them feel like a lounge, and were conducive to drink service. Newer ships have turned to stadium/theater seating, which I understand from a logistics standpoints, but Empress has the layout of ships of the past, and I really liked that. Overall it was a pretty room, too, with nice accents and furnishings. I'd like to see this style come back, but I won't hold my breath, despite some recent changes I've noticed in ship design.

The Last Supper

In the last year or two Larissa and I started going to the buffet area of ships for dinner more and more often. Not that we don't like the main dining room experience, and we still go frequently, but the flexibility and variety of a good buffet is nice. Any trouble we may have had deciding which venue to enjoy tonight dissolved the moment we realized that it was Indian night in the Windjammer. Decision made, we love Indian food, and this helped me work through how upset I am about the cruise being nearly over.

The food was good, and they had more than just curries, which was nice. I was surprised though they didn't have rice, which seemed strange. I asked about getting some and they said they'd be glad to get me rice but it would be ten minutes. That's reasonable, but I told them not to worry about it as there was so much food to choose from already. After some Indian I sampled what, based on how I feel right now, must have been about 43 desserts. The Windjammer doesn't tend to have very rich desserts aside from their daily "feature", like the crepe station yesterday, but I found a few of the cakes to be good. Frankly, if the cakes were richer I'd not have been able to sample so many, so we'll call it a win.

Bags Out, Alarms Set

Once finishing dinner, we headed back to the stateroom to finish packing, frantically shoving everything we could inside the bags we're checking to make things as easy as possible tomorrow. We both have to work in the morning, so while we're not looking to be the first off the ship, we can't do what we sometimes enjoy, which is taking it easy on the last day and being the last ones off, walking off along with the consecutive cruisers. I'm hoping for a simple process tomorrow considering the low passenger load, though I've quickly become spoiled having Global Entry lines in PortMiami and Port Canaveral, a luxury we won't have tomorrow in Tampa. I'm also hoping I get to bed before we enter Tampa bay, as I do like these storms rocking me to sleep.

Stray Observations

  • Earlier in the live blog I mentioned that while you can tell the ship is older by its design, it seems in great shape. This is true, though over the days I've noticed some minor things that show age. Doorjams, a keyholder in the stateroom meant to hold an actual key, missing screw covers, etc. All minor things that don't in any way negatively impact the experience.

  • The muster info cards in the room are red, and while they look brand new, I wonder if they're from the ship's Pullmantur days.

  • Because this was our only sea-day they packed all the activities into one day. Multiple types of trivia, bingo, pool games, etc. It seemed a jam-packed day, but maybe it's just been a while since we took a cruise shorter than 7 nights.
  • There are sea-sickness bags taped to railings, though we really did seem to dodge the rough weather. It's quite pleasant right now.

I'm still working on fulfilling some requests for specifics on Empress, but if you have questions or comments don't hesitate to comment below or reach out on Facebook or Twitter!

Empress of the Seas Live Blog Day 4 - Cozumel, Mexico

In:
24May2017

Day 4 on our Empress of the Seas Cuba cruise had us in Cozumel Mexico. We've been to Cozumel many times before and it feels a little bit like home whenever we visit. Visiting a fun and familiar destination today softened the blow of leaving Cuba yesterday, which was of course a major highlight of our journey. We'll take a look at our arrival, where we went, and look ahead to our next day on board.

Before Arriving in Cozumel

We were not scheduled to arrive in Cozumel until 1:00pm today, which is the latest we'd ever visited. There have been a number of times in this and other ports where we come back to the ship at the end of the day and find a ship that wasn't there in the morning. This time, we were that ship to the folks on Liberty of the Seas, which was the other vessel in port today.

Because of our late arrival we were lucky enough to once again get to enjoy brunch in the main dining room. Arriving a few minutes before the dining room opened at 9:30am there were many people waiting, mostly because we turned back the clocks one hour last night, and many people failed to realize this, so the thought it was an hour later than it was. The doors opened a couple minutes early and everyone piled in. We sat at a large table with other guests, which is usually something we avoid, but we were in a hurry. We did the same on the day we visited Key West, and both days were fortunate enough to sit with some friendly folks. The selection was different from a couple days ago, but the overall layout and concept was the same. There was some bread art, which wasn't't going to win any awards, but was neat to see.

 

Arrival & Disembarkation

After eating we headed to the pool deck to grab a drink and enjoy the bright sun and views of the turquoise water of Cozumel. Empress' age, while of no detriment, seems to manifest in ways other than the physical structure. For example, as we moored in Mexico the pool band was playing classic Caribbean cruise songs like the "Dollar Shuffle" and "Hot! Hot! Hot!". I'm not a big "party person" but hearing these songs while sitting in the sun reminded me of cruises when I was a kid, and it really felt nice. I took a short video and then jumped on Periscope.

We chatted up an Aussie group we' encountered before and offered up some tips for Cozumel. As we did this, the Cruise Director informed everyone via the PA system that the island was experiencing a power outage. I was quickly glad I'd brought both USD and Mexican Pesos along, as it seemed credit cards and ATMs may not be an option. At this point we decided power or not, we should go enjoy the city, so we headed off the ship. Disembarkation was once again painless; in a no time we were in a cab heading to Parque Benito Juarez to get some espresso at Coz Coffee.

Our Time in Cozumel

Just before we arrived at the square we noticed some street lights on, and sure enough when we'd arrived at the square power had been restored. We got some great coffee and chatted for a bit. I've mentioned it before, but do try and stop by Coz, they roast coffee on site and have a nice establishment. Their location is nearby shops ad restaurants, but also an area that has some local flare, and we even saw some schoolchildren playing, then getting a soda at a shop next door.

Continuing with our day it was after 2:00pm and time to get food. Initially we walked the The Pub, another favorite spot of ours which is just a block or two from Coz, but we arrived to find they're closed on Tuesdays. Needing to find another spot to eat and relax I remembered that some time ago Matt and I researched a restaurant a ten-minute walk from The Pub, but hadn't enjoyed as it was closed that particular day. My mental map of Cozumel served us well and we arrived at El Palomar. The food was reasonably priced and was a bit more high-end (though not overly fancy) than some other places in the area. Among other items, we had a cold avocado soup that I'll be thinking of for time. I don't usually like cold soups but the flavor and texture was fantastic, and small cubes of queso fresco and tortilla strips made the dish something that really stuck out. Oh, and this may have the beginning of a lot of Mexican beer.

After a few drinks, we wanted to go for a walk and seek more adventure, and a grocery store. On this walk we went into a souvenir shop for $1 beers, and the promise of "different crap, better prices" by amusing shop owners, which was a common and funny line in the touristy areas today. I should have mentioned earlier than this entire trip we dragged our friend Ron along with us. When we travel, we love going to grocery stores to see how locals live, and you can often find some bargains. We'd visited the Chedraui grocery store before, but we wanted to show Ron what prices look like outside of touristy spots, though the store is only a couple minutes walk from the port. After seeing liquor for half of what it goes for at the port, tons of fresh vegetables, prepared and bulk items, etc we bought some ibuprofen (not for any special reason, we just needed ibuprofen) and I then realized that I had a mission to complete.

A good friend has terrible migraines, and the medication which helps he is almost $900 in the US, even with insurance it's hundreds per dose, so we offered to try and get some at a lower price. They didn't have it at the grocery store but they recommended a larger pharmacy down the street. The helpful folks showed us to the medication but they didn't have it in the right form unfortunately. For the record, it was however about a tenth of the price. We're going to see if we can order it ahead of time in the right for and get it the next time we visit Cozumel (which is rarely far off).

After our pharmaceutical excursion (which sounds far more exciting and nefarious than it was) it was time for another beer. We'd passed "Machete" a number of times in the past but hadn't tried it out. The restaurant has bright colors and an amusing staff. This is probably a gross generalization but I'm encouraged when shop, bar, etc has their prices in Pesos rather than dollars, that often represents a better deal (not that they won't take US dollars).

We sat down after checking the menu and I asked in Spanish if they accepted credit cards to which the gentleman replied, "tarjetas (cards), effectivo (cash), iPhones, cars, whatever you want". This is when a pretty epic Periscope started. This was another one of these zen moments. Locals were walking by, there was a nice breeze, staff was having fun with us, and we got to share with our friends online, and of course, beer helped as well.

I think we sat and chatted for almost two hours, but eventually the sun began to set and it was time to head back to the ship before the 8:30pm all-aboard. I really wanted to stay, and at many points during the day we talked about our often discussed thoughts about moving to Cozumel for some time and enjoying the locals and taking in island life. No wishing or planning changed that it was time to head back though, and a $2 cab ride later we were back to the pier in time to take some pictures of the Empress at night. Part of what made the shots unique is that despite being there 30 minutes before all-aboard, there was literally no one else on the pier, it seems that the darkness made everyone head back to the ship.

Back on Empress

Exhausted from a fun day, we showered and then headed to the Windjammer for dinner as we watched the city lights get smaller and smaller. This is when I realized that the next time we see land it will be Tampa, and our cruise will be over. Luckily we have another day left, so I'm enjoying it with friends in the Schooner bar as I type this. Once again the activity level on the ship is very low. Friends who have sailed on this ship recently found a lot of energy at night, but that doesn’t seem to be the case on this sailing, perhaps because the Cuba itinerary attracts a more subdued crowd.

Tomorrow: Sea Day

Two of my favorite things on cruisers are visiting great destinations, and going nowhere, so I'm perfectly happy to have a sea day where we can just relax, and hopefully enjoy Boleros a bit, which I've not spent enough time in. We've also not caught any of the onboard entertainment (except for in the Schooner Bar), so hopefully we can reconcile that, and maybe even enjoy the pool.

Stray Observations

  • I often have Mexican Pesos on hand, and while taxi prices are fixed from the cruise terminal, elsewhere they're quite negotiable, and much lower. Rates become even lower with an attempt at Spanish and Pesos in hand.
  • I've said it before, but it's always impressive how great Cozumel is when you just step a few feet off the main drag.
  • Usually in Cozumel the line I hear from shop-owners is "almost free!" but we only heard it once today. In a funny was I kind of missed this.
  • Everyone on the ship keeps talking about how great Cuba was. I'd love to see the repeat rate for Cuba sailings, I bet it's very high.
  • We changed time last night, which I prefer. Staying on local time, to me, avoids confusion. Last week the ship did not change time, which seems strange.
  • The Windjammer was good (especially the crepe bar), but I didn't realize until after dinner that there is a sign noting that there is vegetarian curry and other options available upon request. Is curry *always* available? I may move onto this ship and work remotely!
  • The drink card was available today for a price I'd not yet seen: 10 drinks for $59! That's a great deal, and I'm guessing the demographics and number of those with Diamond perks means they haven't sold many drinks.

Empress of the Seas Live Blog Day 3 - Havana, Cuba

In:
23May2017

Day 3 of our Empress of the Seas cruise took us to Havana Cuba, the highlight of the cruise for most guests, I'm sure. I've lived in South Florida my entire life, been lucky enough to travel much of the world, some of my closest friends were born in Cuba, and yet I was hopeful but never sure that I'd get to visit the island nation just a short distance away from my home. Summing up this trip and walking away would sell it short and so I'm sure there will be more to come.

Arrival in Cuba

We arrived in Havana around 7:30am and the tour for which we were booked met at 8:30 at Boleros. This is quite early for us, but for a new and exciting destination we were happy to start our day early. As we got breakfast and headed to Boleros, we saw the the Havana skyline. It was then that the reality set in that we were in Cuba, and we got so excited.

Arriving in Boleros, I was impressed as Royal Caribbean did a fantastically efficient job of making sure that all guests walking in to Boleros had their documentation. They then assigned you a number (which correlated to the group and bus you were on), so they made it clear to not ask for your group number until your entire party was present so that you could stick together.

In short order we headed off the ship, and for the first time in my life I was on Cuban soil. I've never been more aware of stepping foot in a new country. It's important to know that this isn't because of anything that was particularly different, it was just something for me personally that was of great significance.

Passport Control & Currency Exchange

I had no real reservations about this trip, but I was a bit concerned that the process of going through passport control, changing money, etc was going to be a pain, or at least take time. Not just because it's Cuba, but even arriving in the EU can mean long lines at immigration. I was pleasantly surprised to find that we simply walked towards numbered booths to present our passports and visas, they took our pictures with a webcam (just like when you check in for a cruise), and then we were set to go.

Walking from passport control, the building was quite modern, though a bit plain, and warmer than some might be used to, but not unbearable. Next stop is security, which was odd in that you go through metal detectors and such going into the country. They were efficient, and the process painless. Take a look at the women's uniforms while there, as I bet you've never seen anything like this in terms of government employee outfits. Skirts must be taxed based on length.

We proceeded to an area where we changed currency. I wrote up some tips for changing currency, as Cuba has a two-currency system, and the taxes can be high changing US dollars. I'm pleased to report this process was very quick. I changed some British Pounds to CUCs, the local currency for business and tourism and was on my way in less than a minute to meet back up with our tour group, who waited for everyone to change money.

Havana Walking Tour

In previous posts I mentioned that we changed tours because of schedule changes, and we ended up on the walking tour from Royal Caribbean, as it started early enough that we had time to explore on our own after the tour. We started in Plaza San Francisco, which is where arrive as soon as you leave the cruise terminal building. After an explanation of the history we were given 10-15 minutes to explore on our own before meeting back with the group. This pattern was standard fare for all four plazas we visited on the tour. Each had a story, a history, interesting buildings, and were connected by narrow alleys.

I won't go into the details of the tour here, because as mentioned, there is so much to unpack and I don't want to lose sight of my goal, which is to provide a summary of our day. This isn't in any way for lack of amazing information and experiences.

I will mention that in Havana Vieja, the area nearest the port, the streets are sometimes stone and uneven, but there are marble or concrete sidewalks in many areas. If I was going to rate the difficulty of walking in this area, on a 1-10, where Las Vegas sidewalks are a one and the uneven and steep cobblestone paths in Eze France are a ten, Havana Vieja was a five. That is to say persons with mobility issues will get by, but will want to use caution and may tire a bit more quickly than some other areas.

On our tour, we encountered a number of buskers, but for the most part there wasn't any pressure. There were a couple exceptions, such as the women n traditional dress who wanted money to take photos with them, and would give you a big lip-sticky kiss. That experience isn't on the top of my list, but I feel like if you make eye contact you may have some level of social obligation to throw them a few CUCs, or possibly marry them, I'm not clear on how this works.

As we walked from plaza to plaza we made a few stops. One of them was at the Museo del Chocolate, the Chocolate Museum. I. Love. Chocolate. Now, to call this a museum may have been a stretch unless there was another section I wasn't aware of. There were some display cases containing samples of different ingredients, agriculture tools, and factoids on placards. The highlight here was the chocolate. They had a menu, which a smarter writer would have taken a picture of, but I do recall that they have around 15-20 varieties of truffles containing rum, nuts, mint, and more. They ranged from $.40 to $.50, and larger plain chocolate pieces were $3-4. I bought $7 in truffles and while they melted quickly in the head, they were awesome.

Another stop was at a store which sold nothing but rum, cigars, and coffee, three items for which Cuba is quite famous. I always like to stock up on Havana Club, Cuba's dominant brand of rum, and we always bring some back from Mexico and other countries, so it was exciting to see it at its source. I opted not to buy any at this stop because I didn't want to carry it around and knew I could find it again. Cigars were a big hit with many guests, as was the coffee. One thing I noticed here was that there are far more Cuban rums than Havana Club, though it's certainly the most popular.

At this point we walked towards an air-conditioned bus, which was a welcome sight as it was a very warm day and everyone was ready for a break. The bus ride was very short however, but took us to a well shaded courtyard where we were to sample rum, coffee, and cigars (seems a bit out of order, no?). I enjoyed the rum and coffee. Larissa and I were both impressed that the coffee wasn't overly-sweet as is common in Cuban coffee back home in Miami. Guests who were so inclined were taught how to properly light and smoke cigars, and things got very social. Some guests were dancing with the tour guides (who were fantastic in every way, by the way), and I checked out one of the shops in the courtyard, buying an original photo of some murals in Havana. I fancied the picture and while I was hoping for a print, I was also quite happy to pay $25 for an original photo. We chatted with the shop keeper whose only son lives in Miami. It's incredible to think about how happy everyone seems to be (and I don't think it's a faced in any way), but that so many have family in the US. I could tell she missed her son but more than that it was clear that she was happy he had an opportunity to live in Florida. I left wondering if I'd ever met, or might one day meet him.

After the tasting, we got back on the bus and headed back to Plaza San Francisco right by the ship. I took this opportunity to chat up our tour guide again, inquiring about how to best get into town from the airport, because I was already planning on a return trip at this point. In case you're wondering, there is no easy way, so you either find a friend or take a cab.

Most headed back at this point, but we wanted to explore on our own. Walking around we found a restaurant where we had a snack and some local beer. The restaurant was on the second floor of a building in Plaza Vieja, where school children were exercising and playing, locals chatting, and tourists taking pictures of a naked women riding a giant rooster. It's actually a statue that has to do with female independence and the county's first female teacher, but describing it first was more fun. The cake we had was delicious, and the beer wasn't nearly as cold as one might be used to, but it was still refreshing. The bill came to $11, which I thought was reasonable, though I'll note that I saw places elsewhere advertising sandwiches for $2.50 and beer for $1, so shop around.

Also note that there are two types of restaurants in Cuba: normal/state run businesses, and private businesses, called paladares. The government owned establishments are probably more consistent (and the one we went to was perfectly clean, including the restrooms), and had clear pricing. Paladares, which I wish we'd have had time to try as well, may be great, though I get the impression you risk consistency. On the upside, you'd more directly supporting Cuban people at paladares.

Following our snack we headed to do some shopping. Larissa and I needed rum and our friend Ron wanted a hat. There are no shortage of stores to buy knick-knacks, though many are tiny and have limited selections. Don't be afraid to haggle though, as I was able to get the price down for every purchase we made but one, and was even able to help Ron and another guest get a better deal too. It never hurts to ask, though I'll admit that while I don't think non-Spanish speakers would have trouble in Havana Vieja, a bit of Spanish may help to get better deals.

Looking for a larger selection of wares we asked some employees at a restaurant where to find a larger shop and they directed us to a large indoor flea-market about a ten-minute walk from where we were. This short walk may have been my favorite part. Why? When I'm in a new place I like to get lost, away from the touristy spots, and this walk took us that route. Seeing locals chat, seeing the less-polished looking buildings, and feeling like I was experiencing the real Havana for a moment made my day. This quickly ended when we got to the flea-market, though it was in a beautiful area on the water.

The market had anything you could have possibly wanted. Rum, cigars, clothes, knick-knacks, internet access (which isn't free, read more on that here), another CADECA (currency exchange center), etc. We bought a number of items and would have liked to have spent more time here. If you've ever wanted to see the world's largest selection of Che Guevera t-shirts, this is your place. More than that though, they had some neat items, and we felt like they were less pushy than in many other countries. This was the place to get some deals. Frankly, it was cleaner, quieter, and there was less pressure than at flea-markets in Miami.

At this point it was time to head back, which we were bummed about, though excited at the proposition of air-conditioning and a shower.

Cuban Immigration & Getting Back on The Ship

Walking back in the terminal building you can now change your money back into whichever currency you prefer (out of the major currencies of course), and there is no tax for turning CUCs back in. Once again this area was quick. After this you go back through security, and then back to passport control where they stamp your passport once again. This whole process was very simple.

Back on Empress

Like that, our time in Cuba (well, at least standing on land in Cuba), was over. We enjoyed sail-away, and have a short video here, but then we had to run in as it started to rain. Better during sail-away than while we were touring.

At this point Larissa and I really needed to relax and shower. After this we headed up to the Windjammer to have an oddly-timed meal which ended up being the first of two dinners. There were roughly five types of hummus, which was awesome, along with corn-chowder, balsamic glazed, veggies, a Cuban vegetable stew, and a number of meats.

For dinner number two we headed to the main dining room and I had some more vegetarian Indian food, which was good, though not as good as last night. I'm now writing this while having a post-dinner drink or seven in the Schooner Bar. I'm quite tired but we I have a feeling it's going to be a late night based on the crowd and our schedules.

Tomorrow, Cozumel

Cozumel has started to feel like a second home to us, so we don't really have plans but are happy to be going. We're scheduled to arrive at 1:00pm, though we're also setting our clocks behind tonight, which makes the odds of a late night all the greater. This late night will make Coz, a great coffee shop in Parque Benito Juarez, all the more delicious.

Stray Observations

  • Guests walked right onto the ship with liquor from Cuba. I suspect that they'd need to run x-ray to properly find/hold liquor, and because the Cuba government did this right before getting on this ship they didn't want to impost on guests again.
  • The process associated with Cuba travel (immigration, currency exchange, etc) was far less burdensome than I'd have guessed.
  • There was more construction in Havana than I'd have guessed. Some sponsored by the EU or other governing bodies, others part of Cuban preservation and historic groups or government divisions.
  • There are no shortage of cabs or classic cars to get anywhere. Booking ahead is nice, but don't feel you're out of luck if you don't.

Empress of the Seas Live Blog Day 2 - Key West

In:
22May2017

Today was our first full day on Empress of the Seas, and we spent it in Key West. The timing of our arrival was a bit odd, and we broke away from what we usually do in this port. Let's review the day and look ahead to tomorrow, which is sort of the "main event" in Cuba.

Sunday Brunch

You may have heard about brunch on Empress of the Seas which includes a wide variety of options and complimentary mimosas. In the past I'd only seen this on sea days, but last night we were informed there would be brunch today, which made a lot of sense as we weren't scheduled to arrive in Key West until 12:30pm. The buffet-style meal is held in the main dining room, which I mentioned in yesterday's blog, is quite pretty. In the center of the room on the first floor had hot stations with various breakfast foods as well as cuts of meat. There was also several soups, a waffle station, pastries, fresh fruit, dessert items, and more. While there wasn't a menu present, they seemed happy to accommodate requests from several guests. For example, I asked for two eggs benedict without ham, and they seemed happy to help. Mimosas were offered up, which was a nice touch, though we purchased the drink package on this sailing, so it didn't move the needle for us. Overall I liked this a lot better than the breakfasts we had in the main dining room on other Royal Caribbean ships.

Waiting to Disembark

After brunch we headed to the theater to catch a presentation that was being given about the process tomorrow. It was largely about the documentation, Cuba's two currency system, and a few local tips. It was probably quite useful for many passengers, and we're just going to assume that Royal Caribbean did a great job reading our Cruising Cuba series where we covered a lot of this information.

The morning's leisurely pace continued as we waited to clear the ship in Key West, which didn't end up happening until 1:00pm. One nice thing about a small ship is that usually a late arrival in port would leave large crowds waiting at the gangway, but on Empress these crowds subsided very quickly - and about 15 minutes after being told we could disembark we walked down a few decks and strolled right into Mallory Square. The location was another win, as ships sometimes dock at the Naval Pier just down the way. This isn't a huge inconvenience, as shuttles take you right to the square, but docking right in the heart of Key West is really nice.

Key West

Usually when in Key West we buy tickets for the Old Town Trolley Tour. It's just been an easy way to get to all the hot spots, includes a bit of narration, and offers up some discounts to local attractions. As mentioned yesterday there are discounts available, but the cost I saw today was about $27/person. Today we didn't do this, not because I don't think it's a great way to get around, but because it was terribly hot, and we were pretty sure we were just going to grab a drink someplace with good a/c and head back. As we approached the cornucopia of bars we stumbled upon a garden of busts of people of historical significance to the Conch Republic (Key West). This was neat enough, but then another Empress guest said he was there to say high to his grandfather, John Lowe, who's bust was present. Below you see Charles Lowe (holding his SeaPass showing his name indeed matches up) standing next to his grandfather.

We first visited The Patio, a bar Larissa had been to in the past. They're largely known for their hand-crafted cocktails, but this section didn't open until 5:00pm. Luckily they had a good craft beer selection that was ready (as well as wine and such), and we enjoyed some local company who suggested we grab a bite just down the street at Mary Ellen's. We each had a beer and Larissa had a mimosa - the prices were quite reasonable as it was 2 for 1, and their beers were not "Key West tourist" prices, which was nice. Oh, this place had some great pop-culture references on the walls - it had neat character and we wish it would have been cooler so we could have enjoyed the outdoor seating.

Strolling a few blocks away to Mary Ellen's we were ready for a snack. The locals at The Patio promised good quality and creative grilled-cheese sandwiches and crispy fries with dipping sauces. This made me think of the potatoes you find in the Netherlands, so I was excited. We ended up having a few drinks there as well, and enjoyed fries and grilled cheese that lives up the the promise of the locals down the street. Definitely sneak in here for good bar service and great food.

Our next stop was Peppers of Key West, a store off the square which sells loads of interesting hot sauces, rubs, and other items for "chili heads". We've been fans of this place for years and always stop by. Don't be deterred just because you don't like spicy stuff - the staff knows their stuff and will guide you towards marinades and such that may not be spicy at all. They have many sauces which you can sample, so we did a bit of a tour and worked up to their hottest sauce they had available for sampling, and then William, the gentleman helping us, even had us try a capsaicin extract (the stuff that makes peppers hot) which comes in at 1,000,000 Scoville units. For a frame of reference jalapenos come in at between 2,500 and 5,000 Scoville units. We did this whole tasking on Periscope, and I recommend you check it out as we had a lot of fun - Kat from rcperiscopers.live even joined in on the fun!

I should mention that Kat and her family opted to visit the Key West Aquarium, which is right by the dock. They seemed to really enjoy it and I could see doing this sometime in the future - especially because it's so convenient.

Getting Ready For Cuba

Tomorrow we're in Cuba, so I took the time to fill out our visas, put them in our passports, etc. The ship was also getting guests ready as tonight's menu featured Cuban fare. Living in South Florida this wasn't the more novel concept, but guests seemed to enjoy it. I opted to have Indian food, which we requested last night, though I did enjoy the mango salad. I also enjoyed coconut flan for dinner, which combined two things I really love.

We're meeting at 8:30am in Boleros tomorrow for our "walking" tour. I put walking in quotes, as if a large portion of your tour takes place on a bus and in a restaurant...is is still a walking tour? We'll see. After the tour we'll be exploring on our own, and I'm really interested in conversing with some locals to find how different (or similar) it is to interacting with recent Cuban expats back home in South Florida. The architecture and history of Cuba of course interest me, but it truly is the interaction with locals that is the part of tomorrow which excites me.

Remember - we're sharing on Periscope, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram - so follow along! Tomorrow's updates may be a bit delayed because staying in touch in Cuba isn't as simple as elsewhere, but we''ll share as soon as we can! Have a question? Reach out or comment below!

Empress of the Seas Live Blog Day 1 - Embarkation Day

In:
21May2017

With every embarkation day there is a feeling of "vacation is finally here", despite the fact it isn't really a full day after checking in, muster, etc. Today however was all the sweeter after a rather eventful arrival in Tampa, which you can read about over on CruiseHabit.com. Adding to the excitement was the fact hat to us, Empress is a new ship, Tampa is a new port, and Cuba is a new destination.

Getting to the port

Ahead of the cruise we stayed at the the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina, which is about a ten minute walk from the port. The hotel was lovely, providing excellent views, and friendly service. For the price (a bit over $215/night) it was more than we needed, as we just worked on our laptops and slept, but if you'd like to enjoy downtown Tampa, Ybor City, and be close to the port, it's a great option (and the pool area is very nice). Our room faced the channel and port area, so when my alarm went off this morning (a very unwelcome alarm I should add, as we went out with CruiseHabitRic last night) my first thought was to get a glimpse of the ship from our balcony. Actually, the first thought was, "I drank too much last night, where's the Tylenol" - but wondering about the view was a close second. Once opening the curtains I wasn't disappointed, I was able to see the Empress of the Seas teasing me, and waiting for our arrival, which unfortunately would need to wait, as Larissa had some work to finish up and we had to pack up.

Empress of the Seas as seen from the Tampa Marriott Waterside
Empress of the Seas as seen from the Tampa Marriott Waterside

Once ready we opted to take Lyft to the port. We could have walked if we didn't have so many bags and it wasn't so hot, but I'm nobody's hero. I should mentioned that Michael Poole (who is live blogging at OasisOfTheSeas.live this week) said I could use Downtowner, an electric vehicle service in Tampa and other areas, and go to the port for free. Again though, with all that luggage I didn't want to add complication, so a $5 Lyft ride was an easy decision. We arrived at about 11:45am.

Checking in at the port

I'd heard great things about the port in Tampa, and it is small, which makes things convenient. Security was quick, the facilities were clean - all seemed well. Once through security we had to complete the health questionnaire (where they ask about recent illness). What was different this time is that because we're sailing to Cuba, this is when we were asked to complete the affidavit about our travel plans. This added a bit of time, but really wasn't a big deal. As you're required to retain a copy of your travel documentation to Cuba they give you a copy of these once you fill it out (though I just opted to take pictures with my phone). Up to this point, smooth sailing.

We went into the "Gold" Crown & Anchor line (for the last time, we become platinum after this cruise) which is fine. So far my Royal Caribbean check-ins had all been quite fast. This time things were a bit busier, likely because of our late arrival. The way the employees managed the queues however was a bit flawed, as the second someone walked into the Platinum+ line they'd take people from there - which meant we were waiting more than a few minutes before our line got a shot. Finally a port employee saw this logic was causing a major backup and changed things up, but we ultimately waited in that line for 30 minutes, which I felt was a bit long. Once up to the counter the process was quick and smooth, and we were also handed our Cuban visas. We were onboard Empress within 10 minutes of getting up to the counter.

First Impressions of Empress

I enjoy small ships, and the feel of Empress embodies much of what I miss from ships of the past. Lounges than span the beam of the ship, great views of the ocean, and tiny bathrooms. Okay, that last part I just live with. I found Empress to be in great shape, with most fittings and furniture appearing brand new. The style isn't outdated, but seeing a ship of this size and configuration in great condition was almost like being in a time machine.

We headed to the Windjammer for lunch, and it's obviously quite small, but we didn't have much trouble finding a seat - though you may have to queue up just a bit for food as they don't have the "island" configuration of most newer ships. After lunch I needed coffee, and attached to Boleros is Café Royal, which is the onboard coffee bar serving up Café Bustelo, a brand of Cuban coffee. The coffee was nice and strong and Larissa bonded with the barista, who is also Brazilian - so that's where I can find Larissa much of the cruise, I'm sure. Oh, and with the purchase of coffee you can get pastelitos, which are Cuban pastries. Whether they enforce the "you must buy coffee" requirement remains to be seen, but with the drink package, it doesn't make much of a difference to me.

Muster drill went as expected except for the crew and officers, who were very high energy - asking guests to chant the station number and other important into. I'm not usually into this type of thing, but I do see it as effective safety - I certainly remember that I'm station 6. I of course wore my muster drill shirt, which you can buy here (yes, I have no shame).

Muster drill shirt from CruiseHabit.com

We walked a bit and noticed that the Casino is split level (and non-smoking!) which is interesting. It was a bit warm in there and I know they had some A/C issues last week. We also passed through the Schooner Bar, which is quite large on this ship.

One thing I wanted to mention is that it seems that the shore excursions desk gets very busy on this ship. It may be related to some changes with available tours in Havana, but the lesson is to go make changes early if you need to. If you need help remembering the value of this, check out the line I waited in. Note however that the staff was really working hard and efficiently - there was just a lot of demand.

Sail-away from Tampa

We were excited to sail through the bay and under the Sunshine Skyway bridge, and in fact, before we knew we were taking this cruise, we'd booked a Brilliance sailing just to experience sailing out of Tampa. While I knew it was a long sail-away I didn't realize how long. I started a Periscope broadcast about 10 minutes after pulling away from the pier, and had some nice chats, but then signed off to do another broadcast once we got to the bridge - as my friend Brandon informed me it was going to be about two hours before we got to the bridge.

Once we sailed near the bridge it was no let-down. The bridge is quite long and there is something about a cruise ship going under a bridge that is just neat - something I'm not sure I can explain if you've not done it. We then headed back into Boleros, where we'd already spent some time. You can actually go outside from Boleros, which is all the way aft. There is a great patio area from which you can watch the ships wake. It's a great spot, though smoking seems to be permitted in this area. It was open enough though that the smoke wasn't a bother, so we relaxed with a beer.

Dinner and drinks

Tonight we opted to head to the main dining room (our deck is called "Starlight". I love this room. I'll get some photos when it's not full of guests, but there are massive windows at multiple angles, an elevated platform with a grand piano, and it feels very open. I'm excited to share this in the coming days. We had a truffle risotto and a few appetizers as it was Italian night. The food was good - perhaps a tiny bit salty, but I was satisfied. I planned on checking out the Windjammer afterward to see what the options were but got lazy. I will check it out for late night snacks though.

After dinner we headed to the Schooner Bar to see Billy, a pianist and vocalist who sings a lot of Billy Joel. These things combined with my name being Billy made for very confusing head turns for me every time someone shouted "Billy!". He interacts with the crowd a lot, and I have a hunch he knows how to work any audience. Our friend Ron was on the past several days in addition to this sailing, and seemed to enjoy Billy quite a bit. As I write this, I'm listening to Billy continue as I sip my scotch, Ardbeg, which they keep at the Schooner Bar for me.

Billy in Boleros
Billy in Boleros

Tomorrow - Key West

We don't arrive in Key West until around noon, which means, as a late riser, I may actually see our arrival. Brunch, which is usually only served on sea days, is reportedly being served tomorrow in the main dining room on account of our oddly-timed arrival. We haven't any plans, but usually when we sail into Key West we take Old Town Trolley Tours around, as it's an easy and economical way to get around to any of the town's hot spots. One tip here, is each time I've done this on Royal Caribbean or Celebrity, the price of this ticket through the shore excursions desk is actually a couple dollars cheaper than buying tickets directly. That in mind, there are always coupons for purchasing directly. I guess the real tip is that only fools pay retail...for Old Town Trolley. While we like the town, there is also a small chance we'll just stay on board, as Larissa and I have been longing for a lazy day - it's been a busy few weeks. We'll see what happens.

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