Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Brilliance of the Seas Review 2014

My wife and I returned recently from our February 10th, 5 night western caribbean cruise out of Tampa aboard the Brilliance and I wanted to give you a brief summary of our experience and explain why we love this class of ship.  The Brilliance is a part of Royal Caribbean's Radiance class of ships.  Back in the day, the Radiance class would have been considered a very large ship (weighing in at  90,000 tons), but compared to today's mega ships, the Radiance-class will look and feel more like a midsize vessel.  This was our second cruise aboard this class of ship.  Our very first cruise ever was aboard the Radiance of the Seas so this cruise held a lot of nostalgia for us.  While so much was still the same, RCCL has added some great features due to the huge refurbishment in May of last year (2013).

It is an easy ship to get from point A to point B which cannot be said of some ship designs and sizes.
The decor is still what I call modern, but elegant which is why I think Royal Caribbean as a whole appeals to a broader clientele.  They tend to not be as flashy (Vegas-like) as Carnival, but also not as dark and stately as Holland America.  But back to the Brilliance.  The additions of Vintages to the Centrum was a nice addition.  I loved the decor.  For wine-enthusiasts, this will be your favorite hangout on the ship.  The new restaurant called Izumi was also a new-addition home run.  I was a bit disappointed in the location of the "library" because it is not really a library anymore; it is more like a area used for photos that happens to have some shelves of books back behind it.  But that was really the only change that I saw that I was not fond of compared to the way it was pre-refurbishment.   I will post a link to the pictures so you can see the decor yourself and I won't have to blather on and bore you with details.

Let's get to the important things that most want to know about in a review:

1) Pre-cruise stay.  We drove to Tampa since we are only about 12 hours away.  It is hard to justify flights these days when you look at the overall cost compared to driving.  We enjoy our leisurely drives to various places in Florida.  So we arrived actually two days early because we were staying at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel and Spa.  We really wanted two days at this awesome hotel.  It is located just steps away from the pier.  By steps I mean it is walkable.  Our room was a standard room but had a great view of the city and was plenty big and comfortable.  There is a Starbucks on the first floor that offers free wifi in its seating area which beats the expensive wifi offered in the rooms.  The best thing about this hotel is its location.  You can arrive, park your car and not have to drive to any shopping or eateries before you head out on your cruise.  I particularly loved waking up early the morning of our cruise and standing by the waters edge as I watched our ship return back to port.  For sports fans, the hotel is across the street from the home of the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning.  One of the hotel's staff members let us know that one of the stars of that team uses their hotel for his pre-game nap which we thought was quite funny.

2) Embarkation.  I had heard mixed reviews of Tampa's port.  Most of the negativity was directed at disembarkation, which I will get to in a minute.  But as far as embarkation is concerned, we left our hotel around 10:30am, drove the whopping 5 mins from the hotel to the pier and opted for the valet parking service.  For about $20 extra, you drive up, give your bags to the porter and watch your car get whisked to the lot that is right there next to the terminal.  I am all about convenience and I highly recommend their valet service.  You pre-pay for the valet parking right at the bottom of the escalator that takes you up to the check in area.  It took no more than 5 mins to pre-pay and and no more than another 10 mins to get through security and checked in.  We waited another 10 mins or so for our boarding group to get called and we were on the ship by 11:00am.  30 mins from the time we left our hotel until the time we were looking at the decor of the ship...not bad at all.

3) Stateroom. We were in a Category D2 which is the deluxe ocean stateroom with balcony.  One of the highlights, other than the balcony, was the abundance of storage.  We could not fill up all of the storage areas in our room.  The stateroom was spacious and very comfortable.  We were on deck 9 in #9614.  Not too far from the stairs and only 2 decks away from the pool deck and the Windjammer which is the main buffet eating area on the ship.

4) Food and Dining.  Seems like the food is becoming more and more bland in the main dining
rooms and the buffets these days.  We just found the food to be OK.  Breakfast was...OK.  Dinner in the main dining room was...Ok.  The highlight as far as the mass-produced food goes continues to be Royal Caribbean's french fries.  They are awesome!  And if you have had them, you know what I mean.  Our best meal by far was in the new Izumi Restaurant which is near the back of the ship in the area that used to be the Seaview Cafe.  It is a made-to-order Japanese/Asian restaurant and it was excellent.  We did not make any advance dining reservations before we boarded and we were able to call the day we wanted to try it and we got right in.  Great new addition and I highly recommend it. And for the first time, we tried the "My Time" dining option for the main dining room.  Unlike NCL's "Freestyle" dining, RCCL's version is a little more structured, or at least it can be.  With "My Time," you can still pre-select a set dining time for each night of your cruise.  You can select the same time for each night or mix it up a little.  Or you can simply opt to show up at the "My Time" level of the main dining room and wait for the first available seating.  We opted for 6:30pm every night.  We had the same table every night and the same waitstaff, but we had different table mates every night.  Nice option and we may opt for that again on a future cruise.

5) Entertainment.  The comedian was great.  The juggler/comedian was great.  The guest singer was great.  But some of the other musical groups throughout the ship left something to be desired.  If it had not been for the main performances in the main theater, we might have felt a bit bored at night after dinner.  RCCL has added some new acrobatic shows in the Centrum and they were OK, but you need to get to the Centrum early if you wanted to be able to get near the railing so you could have a good view of what was going on.   Our cruise director was good, but not the best compared to our other cruises.

6) Ports of Call.  Since this was only a 5 night cruise, we had two ports of call; Grand Cayman and Cozumel.  This was our 3rd visit to each of these ports.  We hired a taxi driver in Cozumel and negotiated a private tour of the island.  For $35 per person, we had an entire van to ourselves and a nice tour of the entire island including at least 4 stops at various areas of the beach so we could get out, take some pics, get a beverage, shop etc.  It was a great way to see so much of beautiful Cozumel.  One of the stops was at the new area call Paradise Beach which is an area really built for the day tourist.  You pay a one time fee and you are given access to a nice pool and also a great stretch of beach including lounge chairs and hammocks.  Food and beverages can be purchased at an additional cost.  While in Grand Cayman...we opted again to do some shopping and enjoy a day at leisure.  We did happen across a great Thai restaurant for lunch which happens to offer free wifi if you are a patron.  It appeared to be a popular spot for cruise line employees to eat and chat with their family back at home.  We also had to stop in at Breezes and enjoy a cool beverage on their open air balcony before heading back to the ship.

7) Disembarkation. is where some of the negative reviews about Tampa's port were correct.  This has nothing to do with Royal Caribbean.  Royal Caribbean is at the mercy of the customs department when it comes to how quick guests can actually get off the ship.  The customs area at the pier is chaotic at best.  They just don't seem to know how to organize everyone.  The Getting off and getting your luggage is the easy part.  But then the line to get through customs just seemed to be a mess as if no one seems to know what to do.  Employees were trying to get people to follow a certain line path, but nothing was marked very well and the lines were backing up fast.  So here is a very important tip; when it is your time to disembark, grab a porter as soon as you get into the baggage claim area.  Porters are allowed to escort you to the front in a different line and you can be out of there in no time at all.  That is what we did and it took no time at all and we were off the ship and in our car in about 15 mins.   And this is where having your car valeted helps. We walked out, handed our claim slip to an attendant and our car was quickly brought to us curbside.

Regardless of what some might consider negative comments, the cruise was awesome.  Can't say enough about the beauty of the ship.  Our stateroom was kept spotless and our attendant was there if we needed him.  Our service staff in the dining room was wonderful.  Everyone we came in contact with on the ship was friendly and helpful.  The public areas, including the restrooms (keep in mind that this cruise was shortly after the big moro-virus news aboard another RCCL cruise), were spotless.  The weather was ideal...lots of sun and warmth.  The Brilliance is, well, Brilliant.

If you have any specific questions about any part of the cruise or the ship that I did not address, please leave a comment and I will make sure I respond.

For more photos of the can click on these links:

Brilliance of the Seas Part 1
Brilliance of the Seas Part 2

Caribbean Cruise 2014 from Oeshpdog2 on Vimeo.