Our third cruise - we must like something about them... Our previous cruises were on the Norwegian Sky and the Carnival Paradise. I will make a few comparisons as I go for those who may be looking for some contrasts between the different cruise lines. Much as we were when we elected to cruise three different lines in 12 months.

We did not use air travel arrangements from RCCL -- didn't trust them to find the best deal. We got a pretty good fare on ATA (Which, we discovered, really stands for A Terrible Airline) and, although the flight left late, we had plenty of time to make the ship as departure from San Juan isn't until 10 PM. Here's a brief description of ATA for those who may be interested: They seem to be the busline of airlines. Lousy gate service at the airport, NO meal served, even on a 4 hour plus flight, surly attendants, and leg room that will only be comfortable if your legs were manufactured by Victorinox (you know - the manufacturers of the Swiss Army knife). I guess if you apply the 'get what you pay for' axiom, it's understandable. My advice is to pack a sandwich lunch for yourself. We got Subways to eat coming back and it worked out much better.

Embarcation: Really the best part of this or any cruise -- the nasty air travel is behind you, and the full expanse of the week long adventure is just ahead of you at the end of the gangplank. An entire ship to discover, new people to meet, new places to see, new things to do. The anticipation is almost palpable. Anyone who complains about the embarcation process just doesn't have their head on straight. Actually, I would ALMOST prefer that it took a little longer...

Although we didn't make air arrangements through RCCL, we did buy transfers from the airport. They sent out some 'special' luggage tags with our tickets. After we finally got to San Juan, we were met at the airport by RCCL people and advised that we didn't even have to LOOK at our luggage - it would be picked up at baggage claim and delivered to our cabin. Now that's service! And, no porters standing around with their hands out. We were loaded aboard a waiting bus and taken to the dock. Check in took only a few minutes and we were aboard. One little hiccup here: we asked about possible cabin upgrades and were told that we needed to see the purser on board. But, once we got on board, the purser said that as long as we were in port, we needed to see the on-shore supervisor. Since we got back off the ship to wander around town a little prior to departure, we checked back on-shore again. Apparently there was nothing available since we never heard back from our wait-list, so I guess it didn't really matter that they were a little confused as to procedures.

The ship itself is very nicely designed and appointed. We were put in mind of the Norwegian Sky we had been on about a year before. It is definately a BIG improvement over the Paradise. Well laid out, nice open, airy feel, well coordinated colors and materials, etc. The only bad thing about the ship is its slightly run-down condition. We didn't notice quite so many people going around constantly cleaning and polishing as we did aboard the Norwegian and Carnival ships. And it shows. In some areas the carpets are stained and seams are stretched or broken. A LOT of the fabric upholstery is soiled and stained. Some of the wooden surfaces needed to be resurfaced. It's still a very nice ship -- just needs a little re-do here and there. Our cabin was (of course) small, but well designed and comfortable. Lots of built-in cabinets and places to put things. It included a small couch, desk/dresser with chair, and a small round table. No hair dryer. But -- two outlets where there is usually only one. I had taken along a 4 outlet strip anyway - be prepared folks, you will probably need one. We forgot to take a night light (inside cabin), but found that leaving the bathroom light on let enough light leak out around the door to navigate by in the dark. Kids - don't try this at home! Your parents will undoubtedly beat you for leaving a light on all night. The twin beds had already been shoved together and made up as a queen before we got there. NOT as two twins shoved together like on the Paradise. Much better. In-room safe worked fine. No refrigerator, but a selection of pop and bottled water was provided. Not necessarily gratis, but readily available. Our cabin steward made an effort to introduce himself, and always addressed us by name when we passed him in the hallway. VERY impressive. Big tip. He took very good care of our cabin. Instead of towel animals, he made creative pillow arrangements each day. Rather elegant, don't you know dahling.

We elected late seating for dinner. Our waiter was very good, as was his assistant. The food was very good to excellent most times. Soda pop is INCLUDED on the menu at meals. No extra charge; very nice. The last night aboard it seemed to slip though -- my turkey dinner wasn't too good, and my wife's prime rib looked sort of grey/green and was inedible. I don't know if the regular cook jumped ship in St. Thomas or what...but all the other meals were fine. And they DO have fall-back items on the menu if you don't care for the fancy stuff. Just like Norwegian did, but Carnival did not. We ate in the dining room every night except one (wife not feeling well). The lunch buffet on the pool deck was pretty good. Hot dogs, hamburgers, fries available most of the time in the solarium cafe. Now there's an area for improvement. The fries were often left too long in the warmer, the buns were stale, the dogs weren't really hot, and the burgers could easily have been used for hocky pucks. I didn't try the pizza. I can't successfully digest pepperoni and they never (to my knowledge) had sausage pizza available. They did have plain cheese and some fancy concoction, but I didn't ever have a need to eat any of it. PLENTY of other food to keep eating, and eating and... The breakfast buffet was good, but somewhat boring. I guess there isn't too much you can do about it. They switched potatoes every day and alternated between french toast and pancakes. It all tasted good though.

The on-board entertainment was a big improvement over what was presented on the Carnival Paradise, and on par with the Norwegian Sky. Very professional, well executed. The cruise director was OK, but didn't seem to be quite as ... I don't know, just something about him seemed a little odd. Looked like he should be working as a Santa, not a cruise director. Did a fine job though. The theater was pretty good, although the chairs could have been redesigned. I had a tendency to slide out of them. The ports of call were very nice.

First stop, I guess, would be San Juan. It was the port of departure, but we didn't leave until 10PM so there was time to get back off the ship and wander around some. We did that -- but found the local stores mostly closed up about 6PM, so we made it back to the ship in plenty of time for the 'welcome aboard' presentation and dinner. After a day at sea, we had a full day at Aruba. Into port in the morning, and didn't leave until about 100AM the next morning. This allowed time for some nightclubbing ashore for those so imclined. I went on a morning dive tour (very nice) and my wife dawdled around the ship. After lunch, we went to see a bit of the town and made a couple of small donations to the local economy. Later on in the afternoon, my wife started to feel poorly. By evening, it had turned pretty nasty. I suggested she visit the ships infirmiry, but it had already closed. We went down the next morning after breakfast. The waiting room was a little crowded, and the nurse (male) allowed as how it was the busiest it had been in quite a while. Just our luck. But, after an hour or so, my wife was consulting with the doctor. They actually ran blood tests right there in the infirmiry. Determinded she had a sinus infection, NOT just a cold; prescribed AND delivered up some antibiotics and nasal spray on the spot. We were quite impressed with the competence of both the physician and the medical equipment that was aboard. We would like to change our HMO primary care physician to the Grandeur, but it turns out they are not on our plan. Sort of a bad commute anyway. I will warn however that this first class medical treatment comes with a first class price tag. In excess of $200 for this excursion, which our HMO will probably NOT reimburse since it wasn't quite a life-threatening emergency. (Let's all take a moment and bow our heads to pray for the eternal damnation of the person who thought up HMOs)

Tuesday we hit Curacao. We took an excusion to an Ostrich farm. Very nice. Sounded a little odd, but it was informative and interesting. Also a little privately held herb garden. Somewhat interesting, but I could have skipped it I think. Later we checked out the local shops. Plenty of opportunity to buy the local liquer of the same name, but we didn't -- not real big drinkers.

Thursday was St. Martin. We went to a butterfly farm. Again, sort of odd but informative and interesting. We also went to the French side of the island for a little look see around the French Capitol. Lots of native market stalls, some other shops, sort of typical caribbean island -- very picturesque. After lunch, we visited the shopping district on the Dutch side of the island. We heard from our dinner companions that the 'clothing optional' beach wasn't exactly the thrill-of-a-lifetime you may be thinking it would be. Some 'older' citizens apparently make use of the facility -- when clearly God intended that they should stop doing so years earlier.

Friday in St. Thomas. There was a lot of wind and a lot of wave action that day - several of the morning snorkel tours were cancelled and ferry service to St. John was suspended. Some of the beaches were closed. Our snorkel tour to Turtle Cove in the afternoon was NOT cancelled however. About a three mile sail on a catamaran to the little offshore island, about an hour to look at all the pretty fishies, sail back powered by complementary rum punch. Very enjoyable. Of course, the rows of stores just off the pier are happy to relieve you of your excess travelers checks.

Disembarcation: What could be worse? Everthing that is going to happen, has happened; everyone you are going to meet, has been met; everything you are going to do, has been done; all the remarkable new experiences have now been committed to an imperfect memory, and it's time to return to the ordinary. Saturday and disembarking in San Juan: As usual, we put colored tags on our luggage and set it in the hallway the night before. We had a quick bite of breakfast and waited around for about and hour and a half until our AIRLINE FLIGHT was called -- NOT our color. A goofy way of doing things. I suppose it makes sense to get the people with early flights off first, but on other trips that was handled by assigning those people a COLOR that was going to debark first. I suppose that since RCCL did such a nice job of handling baggage between the ship and the airport that maybe this was how they were best able to keep it all straight. Dunno. Anyway, RCCL has a -- I don't quite know what to call it -- a clubhouse, I guess, that they maintain a couple blocks off the pier for the use of their passengers. They took our baggage to the airport, and we went to the 'clubhouse' to drop off our carryons and cruise old San Juan for a few hours. Very convenient. Very nice amenity. Particularly since we had 6 or 7 hours until our flight.

In summary, we have decided that of the three lines we have cruised, we prefer Norwegian. Royal Carribbean runs a VERY close second, and Carnival a distant third. I would have tied RCCL and NCL, except NCL had popcorn aboard ship and RCCL (nor Carnival) did not. On this cruise, one of our dinner table companions was so desperate for some popcorn that she went to K-mart in St. Thomas and bought some. I damn near did that myself. Amazing that a cruise line would fail to have the MOST prefered snack food aboard ship! Also, if memory serves me, NCL was just a bit less expensive. Anyway, we were overall quite happy with RCCL and the Grandeur and would not hesitate to sail them again.