May 19, 2017

The Third Leg On Empress

Today I repeat the process of leaving the ship, passing thru customs and re boarding. Everything goes very smoothly. There are 15 passengers staying on for the next cruise, and we are escorted off the ship, checked by the same customs agent as last time, and back on the ship in less than 30 minutes.

In a separate group there are a number of contract workers that also disembark and re board the ship in the same manner as the back to back passengers. About 50 crew members leave the ship this week to begin their much earned vacation. They exit as a group right behind the contract workers. Those few I asked will all be returning to the Empress this fall.

Once on board we are restricted to the Schooner bar for a few minutes while the ship conducts a test closing of all fire and water tight doors. The slamming of so many doors at the same time sends a mild shudder throughout the ship. At least one door didn't pass the test, and workmen were quickly addressing the issue.

I take advantage of a ship mostly devoid of passengers to take pictures, even sneaking into one of the suites, the only cabins with a balcony. Throughout the ship there is lots of subtle elegance that is mostly missing from modern vessels. Pictures should be posted by May 22, a good a guess as any.

While the theater is very small, and really doesn't have room for flying any sets, they do have a modern digital background for the stage with impressive brightness and resolution. The backgrounds they create for the shows are impressive.

Despite the age of the ship, it is very accessible for those with walkers, wheelchairs, or scooters. I have not encountered any area of the ship that isn't with the exception of the fitness room above the Viking Lounge which is only accessible by spiral staircase.

There were about 600 passengers under 30 on the last cruise. Most were well behaved, and I experienced no issues, but in several cabins down the hall from me they were having to make repairs this morning. Light fixtures had been ripped from the cabin walls along with other damage. I hope they are charged appropriate repair fees.

For this trip the passenger manifest is similar.

This morning I met a UCF senior in the dining room at breakfast. He lives about a block from the train club. This was his second cruise, having been on the Empress last year. A very pleasant young man, studying Business Administration and Health Services Administration. Not only did he have a good time, he was offered a job by a person he met at the blackjack table. He said he is going to take it as it was a very good offer and just what he was looking for. I won't go as far as to suggest cruising is the pathway to your dream job, but It is another valid reason to cruise.

I am sure this happens occasionally, but after we left Tampa it was revealed that we had a stowaway on board. First she was spotted in the pool area, and then in Windjammer buffet. The staff wasn't overly concerned with catching her, but a number of teenaged passengers decided to take things into their own hands and attempt a capture. After about an hour the villain was trapped between the elevators on deck 10, and the little bird was captured and released outside on the pool deck. Whether it flew back to Florida or found a better hiding place on the ship to continue its journey to Mexico I don't know.

Security was called to the Schooner bar to remove two drunken and disruptive passengers last night. The passengers were not of the younger generation as you might expect, but I would guess to be in their late 50's or more. This didn't even happen after a long evening of drinking. The passengers were begrudgingly escorted away about 7:00 pm in the two unrelated incidents.

The weather and seas continue to be 100 percent cooperative. Our sea day again found the temperatures in the high 70's or low 80's under mostly sunny skies. So far the seas have been too slight to rock even this small ship. But of course that doesn't stop some passengers from feeling otherwise, and complaining about how rough it is. This can can be found on any ship, and often when we are still tied to the dock.

This trip we have 15 Pinnacle members and 30 Diamond Plus. Barbara is again the top cruiser with about 2600 points. (Think days on a Royal ship). She is one of several passengers that sailed on the Nordic Empress when she was a brand new ship 27 years ago. At the time the largest cruise ship, but now the smallest for Royal Caribbean.

We again berth at the International Pier in Cozumel. Two Carnival ships are close by. I stay on the ship and watch the crew launch some lifeboats and test all the fire and watertight doors again.

Since I am now confident that I will live, I will admit that I have been fighting allergies, a sinus infection and a nagging cough much of trip. It all started several days before leaving home when the weather was so nice that I left the doors and windows open for two days. The watery eyes and sinus issues eventually developed into a sinus infection and a nagging cough. The first time in many a trip that I have had to dig into my stash of cold medicines and antibiotics that I always bring with me.

The production shows and the headliners are the same this trip as they were on the previous two, but since we have one more day, there will be one new show. Both the comedian and the magician have actually varied their routine quite a bit for each show. A nice twist that doesn't often happen.

One of the things Royal does is try and treat their best customers a little bit better than the average guest. One way of doing this is by offering us more or special food. Each departing day I find a plate of cookies, many bottles of water, and a can or two of sprite zero. A day or so later I find a basket of fruit or chocolate covered strawberries in my cabin. Now do keep in mind that fruit, and cookies for that matter, is available nearly 24/7 in the Windjammer. As always it is the thought that counts.

Each morning we also have the the option of breakfast in Chops, the premier speciality dining room. Today they are also treating us to a special lunch with the officers in the dining room. I often forgo such activities, but will attend this time as I have encouraged Libby to go.

Often I find myself writing about some strange passenger behavior, or some mishap whether personal, mechanical or environmental. It is much more pleasurable to write about a neat person I have had the honor of meeting and getting to now a little about. Libby is such a gal.

For the last year she has been dealing with some difficult medical issues, finally she was going to get a prognosis on what the rest of her life might be like. Report day was a few days before we left Tampa on this voyage. A few weeks ago she decided to book the cruise, but she wasn't sure if it would a cruise of celebration or possibly the last adventure she would experience.

Libby has had a very full life, and is an interesting person to get to know. She has been a sky diver for many years, and holds a world record in women's sky diving. But sky diving hasn't been enough to satisfy here desire for a challenge. She is also a certified diver and diving instructor and has donated her talents to teach hundreds of kids the sport of scuba diving, a sport that has advanced immensely since I earned my certification years ago.

To facilitate her diving ambitions she is also a USCG licensed captain for vessels up to 200 tons. Though she admits to having grounded at least one vessel, I would feel comfortable with her at the helm.

We spent a few hours together, and when we looked we were the only people over 25 in the Schooner bar listening to the Piano player. Actually a good piano player, but Kelly will always be my favorite.

Anyway I drift off the subject. Libby's medical report was good, and this was able to be a trip of celebration. She dove in both Cozumel and Costa Maya, even spotting a turtle she was unable to yet identify but will research when she returns home. I think Libby has permanently packed her parachute for less risky adventures, but don't be surprised. Thank you Libby for allowing me to tell a little of your story.

Tonight is our last night on The Empress of The Seas. Alyssa will pick me up at the port in the morning and I head back to reality. I should have images posted in a few days.

May 14, 2017

A Closer Look

Now that I have been here a few days, I have a better understanding of some aspects of the Empress.

I mentioned before that the A/C in the casino doesn't work. Walking thru on disembarkation day, no only doesn't it work, but it would appear that heat is being poured into the area. It easily was over 100 degrees, when the outside temperature was a very comfortable 80. Had all the slot machines been running I'm sure it would have been even warmer.

This issue is certainly high on the priority repair list as the casino is closed more than usual while workmen are busy at work. They can be seen carrying sections of 4 inch flanged iron pipe, probably for chilled water, duct work, and other supplies while the noises of various power tools can be heard coming from the area.

There are piles of 8, 10 and 12 inch A/C duct, elbows, and couplings piled in various locations on the outside promenade on deck six. Most interesting is that all this material was shipped by Air Freight from Denmark to Tampa. Not a small expense considering both the weight and bulk of the materials.

I can only assume RC realizes how much revenue they are losing in the casino, and feels the expense is justified.

The Casino A/C isn't the only item that isn't functioning properly. Another is the soft serve ice cream dispenser, but this one most passengers won't even notice because of the clever work around that has been put in place.

On most RC ships self service soft serve ice cream is available for guests for 6 or 8 hours each day. Often there is a line, and the machine, or machines on the biggest ships, crank out soft serve or frozen yogurt non stop.

This machine is on its last legs and no longer freezes as efficiently as it should, so instead of just turning it off and offending some passengers, they have placed a staff member at the machine to dispense the product for the guests. In doing so, there are several very deliberate but subtle changes that have been made.

First she works very s l o o o w l y, making small talk conversation with the guests before and after she lifts the dispensing lever. The amount of product that is dispensed is certainly sufficient, any amount would be as it's free, but probably is about half of what most passengers would dispense themselves.

Yes, this is a deliberate plan shared with me by the Food and Beverage director to give the machine more time to freeze the product. A classic case of making sweet lemonade out of sour lemons, and I give them credit for the solution.

There are always maintenance issues to take care of, and this morning there were several access panels open to the plumbing and air conditioning for several cabins. Yes everything looked 20 or 30 years old, but everything was also clean. No dirt and most importantly no mold as I have observed on a ship of another line.

Once an engineer, always an engineer and I will always make such observations.

There are 9 pinnacle members on this cruise and 32 diamond plus. Only 5 pinnacles showed up for the Crown and Anchor party. I can't say how many other Diamond plus, but total attendance was between 25 and 30. Must have been very disappointing for all the officers and the dancers that entertained us. In fact the total number of Royal employees in attendance exceeded the number of guests.

The crown and Anchor reception was held in the Viking Crown Lounge. Since the second floor is now the gym, other guests had to pass thru the party on their way to or from the gym. Passengers that were on the outer deck near the rock climbing wall found themselves locked out during the reception, and they had to walk around the outside of the ship to get back inside. Just another of those little inconveniences of an older ship that has been remodeled.

I had observed that there are many design elements on the Empress that also exist on newer Royal ships. Today I learned why. This was the first ship by the designer responsible for all Royal ships through the Freedom Class, and a contributing designer on the Oasis class ships. If I were a student of naval architecture I probably would have been able to recognize some of the specific characteristics that he always includes in his designs. Now it all makes sense. Some of the elements are rather obscure and insignificant like non functional rotating wheels on the atrium elevators, others are bold like the windows on many decks, the Viking Crown Lounge, and the atrium that extends the height of the ship.

Sanitation and curbing the spread of illness is near the top priority on any cruise ship. On every ship there are constant reminders to wash your hands, Royal even has cartoon characters singing a "Wash Your Hands" jingle. Chemical sanitary solution dispensers are found throughout every ship, but the Empress has another line of defense that I haven't seen elsewhere. As you enter the buffet, there are a number of plain old fashioned sinks with soap, running water, and paper towels. Hand washing compliance is actually pretty high, and personally I think a better approach.

My second arrival in Cozumel finds the skies quite cloudy, with a few scattered showers. I take advantage of the reduced sun to wander ashore for a few hours. The Senor Frogs here is rather small and calls itself a half Senor Frog. The newer international port area continues to expand with more shops being added each year. Nearly everyone gets off the ship today, mostly headed to the beaches I assume as the shops are nearly vacant.

The magician from London is the headliner show for the evening. Having enjoyed him a few days ago I decided to attend again. Much to my surprise 30% of his show was different. Delta had mishandled one of his bags and he was missing some of his props for the first chow. He had little choice, but like many experienced traveler he split his goodies between multiple suitcases just in case. Had the CD not told us, the audience would have never known.

May 11, 2017

Random Observations From The Empress

I am quickly reminded why I won't book just a single 4 day cruise. We have hardly left Tampa and paper work is delivered for disembarkation. A negative side effect of cruising often, the four day trips just aren't long enough.

So far there have been only a few surprises. Being so small there is no Diamond Lounge or Concierge Lounge. A limited number of free beverages at any of the bars between 5 and 8:30 will have to suffice.

The schooner bar is the largest I have encountered on any Royal ship. Several musicians rotate playing throughout the afternoon and night. As is often the case this is also the location for various trivia contests, and several large screen TV's serve as this also being the Sports Bar for those so inclined. Definitely one of the major gathering spots on the ship, second only to the pool.

The casino has been closed during the day, even during sea days when they usually are quite busy. Workers are feverishly replacing the entire air conditioning system in the casino as the previous system had completely failed. It is rumored that casinos on all the smaller Royal ships are going to become non-smoking. Certainly a good move as the smoke from the casino often wafts throughout other nearby areas of the ship.

We were the first ship into Cozumel, and the last to leave. Actually leaving later than scheduled as two passengers didn't make it back to the ship on time. The captain obviously felt generous as he waited about 45 minutes for them. There was no indication they were on a royal Excursion, usually the only circumstances under which the ship will wait for late arrivals.

So far the weather has been perfect. Temperatures in the mid eighties, with mostly sunny skies. A brief shower when we arrived in Cozumel was insignificant.

Many of you will probably remember issues I have had with cabin keys in the past. This time I encountered a new one. When I boarded the ship for the first time, security was unable to read the bar code on my sea pass card. A detour was required to guest services to get a new card. An extra check in step for me and nearly all other passengers. About a quarter inch gap existed in the bar codes on nearly all the sea pass cards. Hard to imagine someone printed over a thousand cards and didn't notice part of the bar code was missing.

The headliner entertainer last night was a magician/comedian from England. He was good. I haven't seen it yet but we have been told the main production show with the singers and dancers is a scaled down version of the production show that was produced for the Quantum of the Seas.

My intentions were good to see the production show, but I went to the dining room with friends instead. Prime rib, three cheese tortellini, and lobster tail were the favorite choices. I restricted myself to the tortellini as an appetizer and prime rib. The others all had two or three lobster tails each! I have two more chances to see the show. I am learning I am not the only frequent cruiser that usually goes to the buffet instead of the dining room. Every frequent cruiser on board this trip usually goes to the buffet, lobster night being an exception.

Sailing back to Tampa was very smooth, the sea was like glass with barely a ripple on the surface. The disembarking passengers were off the ship by 9:30, and had all cleared customs by 10:00. There are about 20 of us staying on board for the next four day cruise to Cozumel, and we were escorted as a group to clear customs and re-board the ship. A process that took about 30 minutes. We were allowed early into the Windjammer for lunch before other passengers began to board. On larger ships they often have a special lunch in the dining room for back to back cruisers.

My free internet should have expired this morning, but the built in timer says I still have over a day of service left. I will only speculate that the internet connection is so slow, that the internal timers in their software also run extra slow. Technically unlikely, but it is the only explanation that comes to mind at the moment.

We are expected to leave port at 4:00. We are again the only cruise ship in Tampa.

May 09, 2017

First Impressions of Empress Of The Seas

As I drive through Tampa headed to the port, the ship can be seen berthed behind the Aquarium. Alyssa proclaims "such a tiny ship", Scott says she's not even a ship but a "boat". I'm not sure that argument has ever been resolved as to what constitutes a ship and what is a boat. It doesn't matter. I will not only call her a "ship" but make her my home for the next two weeks.

There is no doubt she is small. Only barely 10 decks tall, and just over 600 feet long. About half the length of newer ships. Shorter than the Amsterdam that I spent 4 months on, but much slower and built to carry 50% more passengers.

Boarding is a breeze and I am on board just minutes after leaving the car. The Windjammer is relatively sized, small, but there is no pushing and shoving to find seats, they are plentiful. My cabin is ready before the scheduled expected time of 1:00 PM, and I dump my carry on bag to more easily explore.

My initial impression is that they did an excellent job during refurbishment. There are no visible run down areas. Except for design elements there are no obvious clues to her age. The $60 million spent or refurbishment is more than the ship initially cost to build. She retains much of her original charm with teak decks and railings, real wood paneling with lots of brass, chrome and glass.

The theater reminds me of the Vegas showrooms of the 70's and 80's with tables, chairs, and booths instead of the now common cramped theater style seating.

The dining room ceiling is several stories high with elegant crystal chandeliers. Seating is plush and comfortable.

Teak, not rubber, decking surrounds the entire outside of the ship on deck 6. Abundant lounge chairs are stacked about, and the extended deck aft has tables and seating for guests. The welcome party for top tier guests is held here just after sailing. I soon run into a number of passengers I know, all of which will be here for the three cruises over the next 13 days.

The crown lounge appears to has suffered the same fate of many of the Crown Lounges on the Royal fleet. Half of it has been converted to a spa and exercise gym. Much more profitable than a scenic lounge seating area.

The Crown and Anchor party is held on day two, a sea day. For the record there are 7 Pinnacle guests, and 32 diamond and diamond plus guests on board. About 50 Crown and Anchor guests of all levels attend the party. Over half of the passengers on the ship are first time cruisers, not unexpected for a four day cruise. The future cruise manager asks, and I am the only passenger booked on the newest ship, The Symphony Of The Seas.

It has been quite awhile, but I decide to go to the dining room the first night. I am seated with a family of five. Grandparents, daughter and son in law, and 3 year old grand daughter. The menu reflects the ships size, it is very small. I order a steak and it is excellent. The service is good.

Our only port of call this trip and next is Cozumel. I will be here three times before returning home. We are docked next to the Liberty of the Seas which has sailed from Galveston. The weather is perfect after a brief shower in the morning. I stay on-board with many other passengers to write this post.

May 06, 2017

A Different Reason To Cruise

I leave tomorrow, May 7, 2017 for a different type of cruise.

I often cruise for the cruise itself, to be on a ship for a few days or weeks. To be waited on, 24/7. To indulge in foods that I won't bother to make at home, and probably can't even find in a local restaurant. To have a beverage when I want, and to not be concerned about traffic or driving. No laundry, no cleaning or cooking. A major decision is whether or not to attend the evening show, or maybe listen to the piano player.

Sometimes I cruise not so much for the cruise itself, but cruise because of where the ship is going. That was definitely the case when I spent four months circumnavigating the world stopping at numerous countries I had never visited before, and now knowing of a few that I don't care if I never visit again.

Tomorrow's cruise is neither of these. I embark on The Empress Of The Seas certainly not for the destination as I have been to Cozumel and Costa Maya numerous times. And I don't have high expectations of this being a very glamorous venture. The Empress is one of the oldest cruise ships still in service. Not from the era of the Titanic, but from an era long before wave riders, ice rinks, robotic bar tenders and sky diving simulators.

Launched in 1989 she was renamed and christened as the Nordic Empress in 1990 under the Royal Caribbean brand. At the time she was one of the grandest ladies on the high seas built specifically for the 3 and 4 night Caribbean market. Since then she has survived a major engine room fire, and has been sold and renamed several times, finally returning to Royal in 2016 to fill the need for a ship small enough to visit Cuban ports. She underwent a major refurbishment last year and in a few weeks will begin service to Cuba from the Port of Tampa.

Many cruisers have fond memories or The Nordic Empress, and I am going to be spending two weeks with her just to remind me what the grand ladies were like 30 years ago. I never was on the Nordic Empress but did sail on several ships of her generation and older in the eighties and nineties. I promise to post pictures when I return home.