We decided to do a cruise to Cuba on Royal Caribbean Empress of the Seas some time ago. It seems that only small ships cruise to Cuba, and we found out why…there is an automobile tunnel under the channel. If a larger ship passed over, it could damage the tunnel, and cause a huge problem. We just got back from our cruise, and this is my review of Empress of the Seas after her recent drydock.
We sailed out of the Port of Miami on Monday, April 1, 2019, for this cruise. We left our motel near the airport at around 10:00 am on a shuttle. Arriving at Terminal F at the Port of Miami at approximately 10:30 am, we walked right into the terminal. The agent at the door looked at our sailing documents and passport and then we were guided to the escalator to take us upstairs. Upstairs we were immediately shown to an agent. We handed her our passports, our sailing documents, and the two filled out copies of our Travel Certification paperwork to get our Cuban Visas. She checked everything, took our pictures, and left for a minute.
The agent then came back with our sea pass cards, and two blank Visas and explained gave us printed instructions on how to fill them out. And that was it! I don’t think it took 15 minutes total. And then we went straight onto the ship. I’m pretty sure that this was the fastest we’ve ever gone through the terminal and boarded a ship. No waiting at all.
Empress of the Seas is the oldest and smallest ship in the Royal Caribbean fleet. Her maiden voyage was back in June of 1990. Gloria Estafan is her Godmother. She’s only 100 feet wide, compared to Oasis of the Seas, which is more than double the width. Empress is 692 feet long, compared to Oasis at 1,187 feet long. Empress carries 1,602 guests, and 668 crewmembers, Oasis carries 6,780 guests and 2, 200 crew. There are 11 decks on Empress and 18 on Oasis. Empress has only 795 staterooms total, and Oasis has 2,742. You can see that Empress is a very small ship, compared to today’s mega-ships. She may be a small ship, but she has a large heart. And a great crew.
Our first impression of Empress of the Seas was that she was a very pretty ship. We walked in through the fifth floor and straight into the Atrium. There are not a lot of places to explore, but we walked around. One of the things that we really liked about Empress is that there are small seating areas all over the place. There are lots of places to just sit, look out at the sea, and just relax. She is a very smooth sailing ship, at least at the speeds she was traveling while we were onboard. We had a day and a half to get from Miami to Key West, so it was very slow and the seas were calm. This is not a ship to do a ton of activities on, it’s a ship to relax on.
There was a lot of work going on as we sailed. First day they were putting up a canvas roof on part of the sitting area. As the week went on we saw painting and heard hammering. There were no bad smells anywhere that we noticed.
We were some of the first on the ship, but our luggage took forever. We got one of them around 4:15. The other around 4:45, but we saw it in the hall and got it ourselves. They were undamaged.
Some of the Muster Drill areas are outside on deck 6. We were lucky enough that ours was in the theater (Muster Station #2). It went smoothly and didn’t take long.
One of the first places that we went when we boarded the ship was the Windjammer Buffet for lunch. On the first day, it didn’t open until 11:30 am, so we found a table outside on the deck and put our backpacks down. During the five days that we ate at the Windjammer, we never had a problem finding a table. On that first day the buffet is usually packed with people hunting down a seat, but for a long time on day one there were empty tables all over the place. The one thing that you’re going to take away from the buffet is the term “washy washy”. Every single time you enter the Windjammer, you’re going to hear the hostess say it. It kind of became a joke on the ship. There are sinks at each door, and also Purel, and they are pretty strict about you going in with clean hands. The area could be a bit warm at times, especially near the windows.
Food in the Windjammer
The food wasn’t spectacular, but it was good. It’s a very small buffet, and not as many selections as you’d find on a larger ship. There are sections on both sides, the side to the far right as you look at the buffet always seemed to be the least crowded. They have hotdogs and hamburgers to the right of the main buffet. They have chicken hamburgers and beef hamburgers. My husband tried the beef and didn’t like the taste. I had the hotdogs twice, and thought they were very good. The fries were good also.
You’re going to find selections of breads, sandwiches, pizza, salad, fruit, different meats and potatoes, rice dishes, pasta dishes, etc. There wasn’t a lot of variety, but you’ll find something that you like. And of course you’ll find plenty of desserts, regular, sugar free, and gluten free. Once in a while they’ll have someone scooping out ice cream for a sundae bar. There was also a small gluten free section of different types of dishes. Breakfast included eggs made to order, waffles, pancakes, French toast, bacon, sausage, cereals, oatmeal, and grits. Outside the Windjammer towards the pool deck is the soft serve ice cream. You cannot serve yourself, someone will make your cone for you. This is also a drink station.
Complimentary drinks include water, sugar free iced tea, sugar free mango flavored water, strawberry kiwi flavored water, hot coffee, and hot tea. And Royal Caribbean doesn’t skimp on the tea bags. You’ll find numerous flavors from the London Tea Company, including lemon ginger, peppermint, and chamomile. Assorted sweeteners are provided. We did not pay for any drink packages.
You can get into them that first day at 1:30 pm. We managed to get pictures of both an interior cabin on deck 3, and a balcony cabin on deck 9.
Interior cabins on this ship are exceedingly small compared to other ships. If you want to sail to Cuba, probably any ship that you take is going to have small cabins since only the smaller ships can sail there. The cabin itself only has room for the two twin beds, either separated or pushed together. There are two small nightstands beside the bed. There is a very small vanity on one side, and a small set of drawers on the other. The television is small and over the drawers. It has a smaller closet than normal, and a safe.
There is enough room to store your clothes, and your luggage should go under the bed for storage. Robes are provided. There is no fridge, but you can ask for ice. The bathroom is very small and the shower has a curtain, not a door. There is plenty of storage with shelves in the corner. Four containers of toiletries are provided. Shampoo, Conditioner, Shower Gel, and Lotion. If you use them up, they’ll give you more. There are two small shelves in the shower itself. This cabin is completely adequate if you’re just going to be out enjoying the ship anyway. I don’t think that I’d want to try it with more than two people though.
Balcony cabins, which are actually booked as Junior Suites on Empress are comparable to a regular balcony cabin on any ship. It had the Queen bed, a small sofa, a TV, a light up vanity, and a stool. Refrigerators are not included in the room, but you can request one. You can also request ice. The only thing that makes this a junior suite is that it has a coffee maker and a hot water pot, along with coffee, teabags, sweeteners, cups, and spoons. It has a larger closet than the interior, almost like a small walk-in, which has a safe and robes in it.
The bathroom is a bit larger than the interior room, but still has a shower curtain instead of a door. The shower head moves up or down, depending on what height you like it at. The water got hot fairly quickly. The four containers of toiletries mentioned above are included. There are shelves on the mirror for your things.
The balcony is small, but it’s still a balcony. The door is not a sliding door, but opens out. There are two chairs and a small table on the balcony.
Main Dining Room (My Time Dining)
We used the My Time Dining option when we booked this cruise. The dining room is the upper dining room on deck 5. We actually made our reservations online before we left for 5:30 pm each day. We never really saw much of a line waiting to go into the dining room. If you made reservations ahead of time, you use the area to the left, if you didn’t make reservations, use the area to the right. You give them your cabin number, they print out a receipt and give it to a host. The host will then take you to your table. We had the same window side table each night, and the same waiters, Govind, and Wahyu. They were great. They always used our names, and remembered what we liked. Very nice guys.
Food was very good every night. See some of the menus here. We were on the 5 day Key West and Cuba Cruise, and elegant (Dress to Impress) night was on the first full sea day. People really didn’t dress up as much as they do on other cruises, but we dressed up.
On elegant night we were lucky enough to be invited to join the Hotel Director, John Denton, and Guest Services Manager, Jorge Pedrosa, to join them at the Hotel Director’s Table, similar to the Captain’s Table. It was quite an honor, and quite an enjoyable evening. The wine was excellent, and the Surf and Turf was the best I’ve ever tasted. This is the same meal that is on the bottom of the menu as an upcharge meal. It may be worth the extra charge, it was that good. Executive Chef Reddy is a wonderful chef!
We went to the Seaday Brunch on deck 4 of the Main Dining Room one time. They take you in and seat you at a large table with others. Then you can go over to the buffet and get what you want. You can special order eggs or omelets, but I wouldn’t advise that. One gentleman at our table was still waiting for his omelet when we finished and left. There was a large variety of food, including breakfast foods, and luncheon foods. And a large variety of desserts. Mimosas and Bloody Marys are complimentary at the brunch. We also had orange juice and coffee. I ended up with Cheerios, which are kind of strange with a Mimosa, eggs, bacon, and potatoes.
We didn’t use it. There is an upcharge, except for the Continental Breakfast, which is complimentary.
The theater is small, but it was never hard to find a seat. And there are few poles blocking the view like in some other ship theaters. I particularly liked the chandeliers. The only problem was that instead of just having sofas across the width of the theater, there were sofas and also tables and chairs in the same row. I think that they’d make better use of space if they got rid of the tables and chairs, and just used long sofas, adding more rows. Some of the seating is very tight and hard to get to. The stage area is small.
The shows were all very good. There was an entertainment team called Royal Caribbean Singers and Dancers that did three shows. I liked the first two the best, the last one on the last sea day wasn’t as good in my opinion. The orchestra was very good. There was also a comedian, Darrell Joyce, who was extremely funny. There was a juggler, Victor Zuniga, who was okay, but I’m just not all that into juggling. He did have some funny bits though.
My favorite from the entire five days was the group, Harmony, a Motown group who performed a lot of the old Motown songs. They are one of the best acts I’ve ever seen, and as an added bonus, they were really funny. Check them out on Facebook! Acts will be different on different cruises, so you’ll probably see something different.
Elvis Pinto Robles was our Cruise Director. I have to admit, our last cruise on Carnival Sunshine had the best cruise director ever, Mikey. Mikey was great, and tried to get to know everyone personally. But we just weren’t as impressed with Elvis. He was funny, but we never saw him around just trying to get to know people. And this is a pretty small ship. I guess I’d put him in the middle of my list of cruise directors. My favorite Royal Caribbean one is Tim Connor. Some others were so unimpressive that I don’t remember them at all.
Staff on Empress of the Seas we wonderful. Our room steward, Ismail, did a wonderful job. Plus, they actually still make up your room morning and evening. You don’t have to choose one or the other. Our waiters, Govind and Wahyu, were very friendly. I’d see Wahyu in the Windjammer at lunch, and he’d come over to talk to us. Everyone was friendly and happy in the Windjammer.
You’ll hear “washy washy” every time you enter the doors, spoken by some very charming hostesses. They have to get tired of that, but they were always cheerful. Hotel Director John Denton was such a nice guy, he’d always talk to us when we saw him. Jorge Pedrosa was very nice also, as was Andy Asorio. We did meet Captain Diego and he seemed nice. This was his last cruise before some well-deserved time off. He did a great job.
We didn’t participate in many of the activities. We did go to the Excursion show. At the end Elvis instructed everyone on how to do Cuba. Also, the shopping show. They didn’t give away many prizes, so if you don’t intend to shop a lot, it’s a waste of time. They did have some other activities. Dance classes, Bingo, trivia, Sudoku, audience participation game shows. And of course the hairy chest contest. They also have a shuffleboard court on deck 11.
Rock Climbing Wall
There is a small rock climbing wall in the very back of deck 10. It looked like it would be challenging. We didn’t try it.
The gym is located in a really strange place on this ship. You have to go into the Viking Crown Lounge, and then up a spiral staircase to get to it. It’s a small gym, but it was adequate for me. I normally do a 30 minute circuit at the gym, and this gym had almost all of the weight machines that I’m used to. Plus, it has a few bicycles, treadmills, and elliptical machines. It has mats and free weights also.
It is not a large gym, so you may have to wait your turn. There is a 20 minute limit for using each machine. They do have antibiotic wipes to wipe your machine down after you use it, but I didn’t see many people doing that. And people were hogging the weight machines, using them as seats. That is a pet peeve of mine.
There aren’t as many public restrooms on this ship as on larger ships, and the restrooms tend to be small with two or three stalls. They were kept clean.
There aren’t as many elevators on this ship as normal. They really didn’t seem to be too full though. The elevators at the back of the ship near the main dining room were easier than the Atrium area elevators. We used the stairs as much as possible. It’s better for you anyway and frees up the elevators for those who really need them.
Pools & Jacuzzis
There is a very small pool in the center of deck 10. Right next to the pool is a raised section with 3 jacuzzis on it. On the other side of that is a small but cute, children’s splash area. There are lifeguards and swim vests for the kids. You get your towels at the towel station near the pool. Check them out, then check them back in when you’re done. Be sure to return them or you will be charged.
Adult lounging area
This ship didn’t have an official adult lounging area. If you go onto deck 10 and up the stairway to deck 11, you’ll find a large area with hammocks and chairs. This is where the shuffleboard court is. I did see some kids on this deck, but not many. It seemed to be a great place to relax. It’s also treat for taking pictures of sail away and the sunset.
Bars & Lounges
The only bar that we were in was the Schooner bar. It’s a very nice place. However, the acoustics were not good. A singer was singing John Denver songs, which I enjoyed, but it was impossible to carry on a conversation with others around us. It was just way too loud. The Viking Crown lounge was large, and a good place to relax during the day.
The guest services line was never very long. We walked right up a number of times. You can get your sea pass card hole punches here so you can hang it on a lanyard. The televisions on this ship are not interactive, so you can check your account here. Andy Osorio was exceptionally good at his job.
We were amazed when we walked through the Casino. No overpowering smoke smell. This is a non-smoking casino. From one who is allergic to cigarette smoke, this was a welcome change. It may not be a welcome change for everyone. But consistently through the week, we were able to walk through the Casino on the way to whatever we were doing. The Casino is small, and it has two stories, with a small lower section in the center. It has blackjack tables, slot machines, and just about anything you need in a casino.
We only saw two smoking areas on this ship. One side of deck 6, the wrap around deck, had ashtrays. Also, deck 6 in the very rear of the ship had a very nice area with chairs and tables where you can smoke.
I thought that the atrium area was a beautiful area. There is no atrium bar. The lighting is stunning.
Deck 9, atrium area
There are some books in the library. You can borrow and return them in the provided box. You can leave a book in another box that you’ve already read if you want to share.
Deck 7 atrium area
They had a number of computers for your use. It wasn’t crowded any time that we saw it. You’d have to pay for wifi to use them. We did not get wifi this time, but normally Royal Caribbean has pretty good wifi.
Deck 7-9, atrium area and dining room area
This ship has quite a few little seating nooks that look out over the ocean. Wonderful places to sit and read and just relax. They make up for the ship having so many interior rooms. You’ll find them on the decks above the atrium area. Also there are some in the rear area of the ship on certain higher decks.
There is really just one big shop on this ship. It sells Cuban merchandise, liquor, and souvenirs. I believe that there were small kiosks on the floor above that sold watches and jewelry. They have the usual sales of watches and T-shirts. I did manage to get an ornament of the ship. I try to collect them from every ship that I sail.
Promenade wrap around deck
The wrap around outside deck on deck 6 is a great place to walk. One trip around the ship equals ¼ mile. It is rather windy as you walk around the front part of the ship, and that’s where you feel the most movement. Be aware that part of this deck is a smoking area. I really didn’t smell much smoke at any time anywhere though.
We didn’t use the children’s areas (Adventure Ocean). We did walk by, and they seemed to be having fun. Royal Caribbean no longer has Dreamworks characters or parades. We saw the older children outside the area quite a bit playing ping pong.
It’s a small arcade, but we walked through and everything seemed to be working. No out of order signs.
We did not check out or use the spa, so I can’t comment on that.
Debarkation wasn’t quite as smooth and organized as embarkation, but not horrible. We had gotten a number 8 debarkation tag for our luggage. We needed an earlier start, so we went down to guest services, and got a number 2. Remember that you can do that. You can also self – disembark and carry off your own luggage, which we did not want to do.
They called out self-disembark at around 7:45 am. We had luggage tag number 2, which was supposed to disembark at around 8:15. At 8:15 they hadn’t called us so we went down and asked where to wait. We were directed to the Schooner lounge, but Andy Asorio from Guest Services directed us to get in line. The line was long and wrapped around all the way through the theater and back. It moved slowly considering we were just getting off the ship.
Once we got into the Terminal, the line stayed slow. The Port of Miami was much more confusing getting off the ship than getting on. Instead of your luggage sitting in an area marked with your luggage tag number, it’s on a rolling baggage claim carousel. There are two of them, and a clerk can guide you to the right one. This time we got smart and used bright red pompoms on our luggage handles, so we found our luggage rather quickly. So much of it looks alike. After that you get in line to the Customs area. That didn’t take long for us, and it was time for us to go home.