Empress of the Seas Live Blog

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.

Live blogging from Empress of the Seas - Preamble

In:
16May2017

This Saturday we're setting sail on Royal Caribbean's Empress of the Seas, and while we're excited to sail on Royal's smallest ship in the fleet, we're even more exited about our itinerary which takes us to Havana, Cuba! We'll also be visiting Key West and Cozumel, places we really enjoy, so this should be a treat. During our five night sailing we'll be blogging at EmpressOfTheSeas.live, for RoyalCaribbeanBlog.com. Be sure to follow along on the site, and stay tuned in on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and of course Periscope. Oh, and make sure to catch Michael Poole's live blog from Oasis of the Seas going on at the same time as mine. Mine is sure to be superior in every way, though if you dig photos of anything that happens before 9:00am you'll want to check with Michael's posts. Now, let's start of by looking at our itinerary, the ship, and why we picked this particular sailing.

Our Itinerary - Before & During the Cruise

This sailing is round-trip from Tampa, FL, and in fact, it is the first 5 night Tampa sailing to visit Havana, having recently reallocated from sailing out of Miami. Some of the times in port are a bit different than what we're used to and I'm not sure how much of this is because we're coming from Tampa, the routes were taking, or simply what port times were available. Either way it'll be neat to be in Key West and Cozumel a bit later than normal, even it the total amount of time in port isn't any different.

Because we're sailing from Tampa, but we live in the Fort Lauderdale area, we're going to come into town the day before. We're staying at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel and Marina, which is steps away from the port. This will keep us in the area to enjoy an evening of catching up with some friends and should make for a much less stressful embarkation day.

For Key West I'd imagine we'll again leverage Old Town Trolley, which I really enjoy as it's a cheap way to get around town easily with narration. We've been here a number of times so I don't know we'll have any big goals on our visit, aside from going to Peppers of Key West and stocking up. The sun is scheduled to set at 8:07pm, so we won't quite get Key West at night, but the sail-away should be beautiful (let's hope for the cruise pier, not the Navy pier).

In Havana we're taking a tour through Royal Caribbean called "Hemingway's Havana". The tour says we'll, "Explore the literary connections between Cuba and the late American novelist Ernest Hemingway on a dynamic four-hour tour that offers the chance to see where he lived, fished, dined and sipped his favorite cocktails." I'm going to assume this means drinks will be served - right? The four hour tour will have us up earlier than normal but we'll want to take advantage of every moment we have in Cuba, so it'll be worth it. After this we're going to meet with a friend's relative who lives in Havana.

Cozumel has become a very familiar port to us over the years, and in a weird way it feels like a second home. We're on a first name basis with some restaurateurs, know where to find what we want in the supermarket, etc. No real plan here, but you can be you'll find us at Coz Coffee at some point.

Day Port of Call Arrival Departure
Saturday, May 20, 2017 Tampa, FL -- 4:00 pm
Sunday, May 21, 2017 Key West, FL 12:30 pm 7:00 pm
Monday, May 22, 2017 Havana, Cuba 7:00 am 4:00 pm
Tuesday, May 23, 2017 Cozumel, Mexico 1:00 pm 9:00 pm
Wednesday, May 24, 2017 Sea Day -- --
Thursday, May 25, 2017 Tampa, FL 7:00 am --

The Ship - Empress of the Seas Excites Me

Empress of the Seas used to be called the Nordic Empress, and she's actually Royal's oldest ship, originally sailing in 1989. She left to sister-company Pullmantur some years ago, but was completely redone in 2016 and brought back to Royal Caribbean specifically to sail to Cuba. She's also Royal's smallest ship, at just 48,500 gross tons, carrying a maximum of 1,840 passengers (with all berths full, including uppers/bunks) and 668 crew. In contrast, Harmony of the Seas is 227,000 gross tons and carries a maximum of 6,780 passengers and 2,300 crew.

Empress with her Pullmantur livery
Empress with her Pullmantur livery

If you're a frequent reader/viewer/listener or receiver of my telepathic signals, you'll know that I'm partial to what we now consider smaller ships. Have I enjoyed my time on Voyage, Freedom, and even Oasis class ships? Of course - they have so much to offer! I like knowing I'm at sea though, and this can be tricky on mega ships (though I'm hopeful that this is changing with newer designs). Beyond this, there is just something about the intimacy of these ships that I love - something we got spoiled with when we sailed Oceania's 30,000 gross ton Regatta to Alaska in 2015. Take a smaller ship, which we've not sailed but has been recently refurbished, and send it to a port we've been waiting to visit and you bet we chose Empress of the Seas.

Why This Sailing

Obviously Cuba is the influencing factor for this trip, but why this particular sailing? When Royal Caribbean opened up it's Cuba sailings and I saw the prices I knew they were going to climb quickly, so I booked right away - and I'm glad I did. In fact, about a month before we leave, the cost of our same stateroom category had doubled. Remember to book early and re-price often. Further, we looked the Norwegian Sky, as she too goes to Cuba, but the prices were much higher than we we snagged on Royal Caribbean this time. I did have several to chose from though, and while it would have been nice to sail from Miami (much closer to home), this sailing was a bit cheaper than those leaving from Miami, and we needed to sail over the weekend to save vacation time (gotta reserve it for more cruises, of course).

Several months ago Royal Caribbean did release some more itineraries where Empress was overnighting in Havana, and this sounded amazing. The prices weren't bad, but every one of these sailings was Monday through Friday, and to be honest, I can't get myself to take five days off work for a five night cruise when I could take five nights off for a seven night cruise.

Oh, there was one more consideration - the Tampa sail-away. I've seen many great videos of cruisers leaving the Port of Tampa and sailing under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, it looks beautiful. So beautiful that we booked a sailing out of Tampa before we knew we'd be taking this cruise - just so we could enjoy that sail-away. We've since changed that other sailing, scheduled for early 2018 so sail the Celebrity Equinox instead.

Wrap Up

As you can tell we've got some special reasons to be excited about this sailing, and hopefully it will be the first of many cruises to Cuba for us. If you're planning a cruise to this island nation however, know that there are some additional considerations in terms of changing money, keeping in touch, travel restrictions, etc. Check out CruiseHabit.com's Cruising Cuba series to get clarity on these topics and reach out if you have any questions. We'll see you in a few days from Empress of the Seas!

Have questions? Have you cruised to Cuba and have any tips to offer up? Let us know in the comments below!

Empress of the Seas Live Blog Day 5 - Sea Day

In:
17Sep2016

Well friends, it is day 5 already, these shorter cruises just go by so fast.

Today I planned to enjoy Empress of the Seas, but try to do something different activities. I woke up and saw that the Oasis of the Seas was actually sailing beside us, so I ran up to the top deck to check her out. We both traveled back home together for most of the day. 

At 10AM they were doing Royal Caribbean trivia in the Schooner Bar, they had some pretty hard questions, I was surprised. I learned that Empress has the largest Schooner bar in the fleet, which I always thought it was Majesty.

After the trivia game I had been invited to the Galley tour for being Diamond Plus.

This was my first Galley tour on a cruise, so I was very excited. The Galley was actually quite smaller than I thought it would be, but everything was so clean.

Royal Caribbean spent $20 million building this new galley during the Empress dry dock. In the tour I was able to see the Chops section and they were working on the shrimp cocktail for the evening so that was pretty neat to see. They did prepare a special lunch for those on the tour, but I decided to skip it and head to the pool deck. 

Afternoon on board 

The pool deck had really come to life today; I haven’t seen it like this all cruise. Everyone was just enjoying themselves and their wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

I watched the belly flop contest and it was quite entertaining. The assistant Cruise Director hosted the party and she did a nice job, she tried to create a dance party after the game.

However, the ship had to turn around due to a floating man-made raft out in the ocean. This caused everyone to run over to the side of the ship to look over; thankfully no one was in the raft.

Great job by Royal Caribbean for turning the ship around to make sure it was clear. 

After we received the all clear from the raft, I decided to grab some lunch in the Windjammer. Today I went with chicken wings and ribs, almost like being in Coco Cay. I have never seen chicken wings on board before, so this was new for me.

Once lunch was over I thought it was time to start packing up the cabin. This is never as much fun as packing up, but I like to do it early so I can enjoy my evening. 

Evening on board 

Tonight, I decided to go see the show, I know that’s two shows this cruise! The show was outstanding! The theme was past, present, future and a Las Vegas themed show.

The show only last 35 minutes so it was a nice short activity before dinner. I’m very happy I went and highly recommend the shows on Empress.

For dinner, it was back to the Windjammer for a quick meal. Again the place was pretty empty but almost 8:30pm, so perhaps most people eat earlier. The options for dinner were a little different tonight; I went with pasta and fish.

They had a large cake for desert that said, thank you for sailing with us, I passed on the cake. 

After dinner, I went to the Viking crown lounge and it was pretty full, everyone taking full advantage of their last evening. I just enjoyed one last drink before wrapping up my last day. 

Wrap up 

The Empress of the Seas is a great value for those looking for a quick getaway. The ship on the inside feels very new in parts and older in others. She is a very relaxing ship, so if you enjoy a slow paced cruise this is for you. All the crewmembers get to know you, I think just about every one of them knew my name when they saw me. The cabins are small, so just be ready for that but not a deal breaker for me.

I was able to peek into an Owners Suite to take pictures. 

The Voom high speed Internet worked great, I never had any issues with it. From in my cabin to the pool deck it was fast Internet. The staff was very friendly; they are trying so hard to create a good experience for the guest. 

Thank you so much for following along this week, it was a really fun cruise! 

Until next time, I’ll see you at sea!

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

In:
16Sep2016

Good morning from beautiful Cozumel, Mexico!

It is always a great day when you are in Mexico and the weather could not have been better. Last night I was thinking about not having any plans in Mexico, so I booked Nachi Cocom on my phone. They do require you to bring the printed confirmation email, so I asked the Loyalty Ambassador to print it for me.

The cost for the all-inclusive Nachi Cocom is $55 per person. This covers all the drinks & food you want, but you still need to get transportation to and from. The cost for a taxi is $17 (up to 4 people) per way and you can usually just share a ride back to cut the cost in half. 

I knew the Oasis of the Seas was coming to Mexico today too, so I wanted to get up to make sure I could watch her dock. I guess I should add that the Empress of the Seas was docked beside the Oasis of the Seas today.

Let us just say we did not even come up halfway on the Oasis, but that is okay Empress is just perfect. I was able to take some pictures of the two of them together. 

There were five ships in port today, so the lines for a taxi were long. I also saw some competition going on with runners and bikers, not sure what it was but they had people from all over the world. My taxi ride was a van with another family they were going to Mr. Sancho’s so we stopped there for a quick dropped off, then Nachi is right beside there.

I was greeted to take my photo and was showed to my seat. I got there around 9:30am, but they are on central time, so bar service did not start for an hour – I know the struggle is real. 

My afternoon at Nachi Cocom was very relaxing and they did not have very many people here today, which surprised me with the number of ships in port.

I had them bring me some guacamole down to my beach chair for my pre-lunch. I went up to sit in the hot tub for a while to enjoy the swim up bar and made some new friends.

For lunch I went with shrimp fajitas and well more guacamole. They can either bring it down to the beach or you can eat it up by the entrance with tables and chairs. When you look at their menu, you will see prices on everything, not sure why they are there but just order away it is all included. 

I decided to head back to the ship at 3pm just to avoid getting close to that all on board at 4:30 time.

Of course since we were in Mexico we had a family of 5 that was running late. The Captain made an announcement that we would wait 5 more minutes. Sure enough 2-3 minutes later they were running down the pier to get back on board, they were lucky we waited. 

Evening on board 

Tonight, I was feeling sleepy all ready from all that sun in Mexico. I went casual again for dinner in the Windjammer. It was not my favorite meal again, but fine for a quick dinner.

I have noticed at dinner they are only using about half of their set-up and it is always empty. I had grilled fish and french fries, got to love that combo.

After dinner I went out to the pool deck and they were showing a movie. At the bar they were selling popcorn for $2 a bag for the movie. The pool was empty and a man was cleaning down in there. I tried to take photos of this for the blog but a bartender rushed over and said no pictures or video, this was a first for me. 

By around 10PM I decided to call it a day, all those drinks in Mexico and sun had me beat for the day.

Tomorrow is our last day, we have another sea day and I have a few new things planned to share!

Empress of the Seas Live Blog Day 3 - Sea Day

In:
15Sep2016

Today was my first sea day and I was really looking forward to it. I did manage to sleep in until 8AM, if you call that sleeping in. I did not have many plans today other than just enjoying Empress. 

Brunch 

On Empress of the Seas they have a brunch on sea days in the main dining room, from 10AM-1PM. This is something you do not want to miss because they also serve free Bloody Mary’s and mimosas. Yes, you read that right, free drinks!

The options for food are also very large, from made to order omelets to grilled salmon.

The brunch is something you do not want to miss on Empress, its really nicely done and very casual style. 

Afternoon on board 

Most of the day I just hung out by the pool and listened to the live music, which was very relaxing. The band started playing at noon and into the afternoon.

I took full advantage of my drink package today, and why not when you are on vacation. I forgot to mention they are now printing the drink package on the SeaPass card if you purchased it online. I suppose they made this change because the stickers would always rub off. 

Also noteworthy, I always saw open deck chairs, so no need to rush to the pool deck on Empress.

Around 3PM, I noticed the ship starting to rock a little and noticed the clouds were turning darker. We were actually headed into a very large storm and heavy rain.

The rain was coming in so hard I thought I was back in Florida. The pool deck cleared including myself and I decided it was time for a nap. 

Evening on board 

Tonight, I decided to keep it casual and just eat in the Windjammer for dinner. I used my drink coupons at Schooner Bar and headed up to grab dinner.

Perhaps I am very spoiled from the Windjammer on Brilliance of the Seas, but the options for food were very limited to what I have seen. That being said, the ship is not nearly full so I know they don’t want to waste a large amount of food.

I decided to go with chicken tacos and just pretend I am at Sabor. I walked away from dinner just not very pleased, but I kept thinking about that steak at Chops.

As far as the service in the Windjammer, it is the best I have ever seen, they always come around and bring you drinks and sometimes-even cookies!

After dinner, I went to see the Battle of the Sexes game, which pits the men versus the women. I have never seen this show before and would compare it to a mini Quest in a way. 

I headed to the top deck for a while after the game to enjoy some open air and decided I would call it a night.

Not a lot going on today, but no worries tomorrow is going to be action packed in Cozumel, Mexico.

Empress of the Seas Live Blog Day 2 - Key West, Florida

In:
14Sep2016

Today we are in Key West, Florida, which is our first port stop on this five-day cruise.

I woke up this morning at 5:30AM, I do not know why, but I decided to enjoy the ship while I was awake. I went around many of the public areas and able to capture some great pictures without people in them. I will admit it was kind of weird at points feeling like you were the only person on this ship.

I went into the Windjammer at 6AM when they opened. However, they only had breads and coffee available, no bacon until 7AM, bummer. I decided to head to the back of Boleros where they had that day one welcome party, to watch the sunrise.

I ended up staying well over an hour just taking in the views; it was absolutely breathtaking to watch. 

Docking in Key West, Florida 

I was able to see the local pilot board our ship to help us sail into Key West. For those wondering what that is, every port a cruise ship docks in, a local pilot boards the ship to help guide the captain to dock. They know the port and help provide the Captain some guidance along the way, however the Captain is still in control of the ship.

Since the Empress has recently added these short sailings to fill time before Cuba, the main pier in Key West was already booked by Carnival. Today we docked at the United States Navy training facility.

I actually thought were going to have to walk all the way into town and went back into my cabin to put tennis shoes on. However, once we got off they had rows of trolleys to take us into town. This was a different Key West experience and I really enjoyed the short 10-minute ride through the base and into town. They asked that we take no pictures of the base on our ride; so sorry I don’t have any. 

Once I got into town, my mission was simple find some Key Lime Pie! A few friends recommend I try Kermit’s pie, so off I went. The walk to their shop was very short, I just plugged it into my GPS, but it was around 2 blocks.

When I arrived I noticed it was empty, but I guess that’s because it was 10AM. I went inside and ordered their classic Key Lime Pie, those wondering it cost $4.80. I’m not a huge sweets guy and it was early in the morning for pie, but it was amazing!

The staff here was really nice too, they actually asked if I wanted a sample of their other pie. Who turns down free pie? They brought out a chocolate covered froze pie, which was also good but I preferred the classic version or maybe I was just too full. 

After, I headed to Sloppy Joe's for a beer. They did not have live music playing yet, so no real excitement there today on my visit.

By this point it’s 11AM and I’m getting tired and decided to head back to the ship. Well what an adventure that was, since we took trolleys into town you had to take one back. Let’s just say I got on the wrong one, not once but twice. The second one was an actual tour of Key West, so off I went.

They made a stop at Sloppy Joe's on the tour and I jumped off, and walked back to the bus area again. Now on my third try I asked the driver if we were headed to the ship, I can only laugh at myself on this one. 

 Afternoon on board 

I wanted to take a nap but they were running test on the ship, which caused them to turn off power (including air conditioning) for a half-hour, so off to the pool deck I went. Not really a big deal since there were very few people on board, but I did notice how the temperature rises quite fast without running air conditioning.

I made some new friends in the hot tub and made good use of my select drink package.

I went into Windjammer for a small lunch; I was still full from all that pie in Key West. The options today were not as great as yesterday, but I usually just get rice and fish anyways.

Around 4PM I left the pool deck to get ready for the evening, still going with no nap. 

Evening on board 

Right at 5PM, I went down to Schooner Bar and used my Crown and Anchor drink coupon and noticed the bar was full. This was the first time I’d seen it so full like this, but I don’t think I usually go around this hour. Almost everyone was using their 3 free drinks loaded on their card, since this is pretty much the only place to do so.

Around 6PM I was starting to get hungry, my Chops dinner was not until 7:30 but I went early and they seated me right away. I was the only person in the restaurant when I arrived and there were 3 tables when I left.

The service was outstanding and I got to know my waitress during the meal. I decided to order shrimp cocktail, mushroom soup (which I can’t decide if that’s better or French onion) and a salad to start (if you were counting that is three starters!).

For my entree, I went with the 16oz New York Strip and let me tell you this was the largest steak I have ever seen. It was almost falling off the plate; once again the NY strip surprised me with how great it is compared to the filet. Which do I prefer? I am going to say I enjoy them both, but if you are really hungry, get the NY Strip. 

After dinner, I decided to go the headliner show in the main theater.

I do not usually attend any shows unless I’m on an Oasis-class ship, but I wanted to try something new. We had Finish Henderson hosting the show. He sings all types of music and his voice sounded exactly like singer he was singing, no idea how he does it.

I looked on his website looks like he is headed to Anthem of the Seas next, and Allure/Oasis this fall. If you get a chance, go to the show. He received a standing ovation at the end of the show for quite a while. 

Tonight is the white pool deck party; dancing under the stars they call it. It started raining and they moved it inside the Viking Crown lounge. I will say the event was packed, almost everyone wearing all white. I even saw a guy down their in his white crown and anchor robe, points for being creative. I stayed for an hour talked with the Cruise Director Elvis for a while really nice guy. Around midnight I called it a day, what a full day of events. 

Tomorrow we have our first sea day, and I’m really looking forward to it.

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