Royal Caribbean’s Empress of the Seas
WHEN: 5-20-17 TO 5-25-17
DESTINATIONS: Key West / Havana, Cuba / Cozumel, MX
This was the family’s 2nd time on Empressof the Seas and my third. We booked this trip as a surprise for our youngest family member. It was the third time Royal Carribean docked in Havana Bay.
Day 1 – Embarkation in Tampa
We arrived at the cruise terminal around 1030. Luggage drop off with a porter was curbside, it is a pretty painless process as long as you have your cruising luggage tags. A quick elevator ride up and we were in the terminal. Check in went rather smoothly. At the time we were Platinum members and there was no line so we were assigned the next agent.
The only thing different from any other check-in was required paperwork the US Government made us fill out; we have to retain it for 5 years and also fill out the Cuban Visa Request. You have to sign paperwork on receiving the Visa. The clerk was instructed by management to tell passengers, “DO NOT MAKE A MISTAKE OR YOU WILL HAVE TO PURCHASE ANOTHER VISA FOR $75.00”. More on that later!
Boarding took place at 11 A.M. Starting with Pinnacle, Diamond+, and Diamond. Followed by Emerald, and Platinum. Then Gold and everyone else.
We had prebooked the beverage package which also included VOOM before hand. It cost $54 a day and was called the Sip & Stream package. Anyone below diamond plus loyalty level and taking any Royal Caribbean cruise who wants either the Ultimate Drink package or Internet should always prebook the drink package and Internet at least 3 days prior to departure to fully get the savings. Both are a lot more once onboard. In case you didn’t prepurchase a drink package, the staff was more than willing to hook you up as walked onboard. In addition, Shore Excursions, and a representative from CHOPs was visible. Rooms are not accesible till 1 PM but you had the option of checking a carry on bag in the Royal Theatre, till that time.
Most people will head to Deck 10 and check out the pool deck, and hit the Windjammer for an early lunch.
Empress of the Seas Ship Tour
While the ship was pretty empty, I did a 360 Periscope of the lower decks, Pool deck and Windjammer, and a Cabin Tour of Forward Oceanview cabin 8002
Random Picture Ship Tour
Decks 4 & 5
Cabins were available after 1pM. Most folks will stop down drop any carry on items and check out their cabin. The Cookingyo family was no exception. Forward facing Ocean view cabin 8002 was just what we were expecting. We booked this cabin on the first day the Cuba sailings became available. We wanted a Jr Suite but they almost sold out immediately and those that remained were well above our budget. On a previous Solo sailing I stayed in Cabin 8502 which is 3 doors down, so I knew what to expect. This was the family’s first time encountering a Pullman bed. If you checked out the 360 Periscope of the room tour you would see the cabins are tiny. Cruise ship design has changed a lot since she was launched as the Nordic Empress back in 1989. Anyway the room was a little tight with 3 people but not unbearable. Previously we stayed in a JR suite on Deck 9. They are slightly larger and are the only class of cabin that have a balcony with the exception of the Royal and Owners suites.
NOTE: Please research carefully before booking a Deck 7 Ocean view cabin. Many have a lovely view of a life boat and not much else.
There was a RCPeriscopers meetup at the Pool Bar. We even had a special visitor. World famous periscoper and giveaway guy @Rich_Triplett along with his lovely bride. They were onboard for a ship tour, had lunch and hung out with us till their name was called to GET OFF THE SHIP.
Sail Away from Port of Tampa was at 4 PM.
Empress of the Seas – Main Dining Room Day 1 “Italian Night”
We chose “My Time Dining” for this cruise, for those that aren’t framiliar with it, that means a reservation is made everyday for dining at a time of your choosing. Or you can just how up and they will accomodate you shortly thereafter. Since Empress is such a small ship, to make up for the lack of ammenities, Royal Caribbean has made sure the food is a cut above. Our Servers for this trip were Julio & Benford.
Day 2 – Empress of the Seas docked in Key West, Florida
The itineary for this trip was a little different from the norm. Arrival times outside of Havana were much later in the day. Empress of the Seas docked in Key West at around 11 AM with a 7 PM departure. We docked in Mallory Square and were the only cruise ship in port. It was a bright and sunny Sunday with a light breeze and tempereatures in the high 80’s, there was some humidity. My game plan for this stop was pretty simple. I wanted to Periscope a walk down the world famous DuVal St. and then swing on by the Southern Most Point in the Continental U.S.A. The Mrs. & Bubs went to the Mel Fisher museum and hit the lighthouse, then we would meet up and hit Kermit’s Key Lime Pie.
The Periscope of Duval St is a little long but includes the Southern Most Point. In addition I have a seperate scope of just the Southern Most Point.
Some Pictures taken around Key West:
All good things must come to an end. We finished up walking the streets of Key West and headed back to the ship to enjoy a rather empty pool and some relaxing drinks. The ship departed Key West at 7 PM with the 90 mile journey to Havana ahead…
Empress of the Seas – Main Dining Room- Dinner Day 2 “Cuban Night”
Day 3 Empress of the Seas docked in Havana, Cuba
First things first. Let’s talk about the Visa required for Citizens of the United States of America. When you check in at Terminal 3 in Tampa for the Empress of the Seas, the clerk will relay this tale of doom and gloom about messing up on the visa application. Try and print ledgibly. The instruction sheet that Royal Caribbean gives are pretty lacking, (and is available at the bottom of this page), and you will feel like a jackass if you mess up. Guess what? It’s no big deal. A lot of people I talked to made the same damn mistakes. A simple cross out and writing it ledgible next to where the required information goes will suffice. Let’s just say there was a lot of angst in the Cookingyo cabin followed by the walk of shame to get a new Visa only to be relieved that a simple correction is O.K.
Again let me say the visa is no big deal. Just use the information off of your passport. If you make a mistake, cross it out and put the correct information down. The biggest errors reported were reversing the month and year and putting the date of birth in the passport number section. I have supplied a sample for fictional passenger Jennifer A. Tutone who was born on November 16th, 1981 and she is a citizen of the United States of America with a passport number of 008675309. I hope this helps.
You will need your Seapass, Passport, and this Visa and some money to leave the ship. Getting through Cuban customs was pretty easy. Just remember it is by individual. Children may accompany an adult. Remove any head gear, glasses and don’t smlie. If accompaning a child do not refer to them by their nickname. The customs lady was like who is this person you called Bubs…. Keep it to formal names only. They took both copies of the Visa, unlike the literature that was put out before about having to hold the second half and if you lost it. Yep, you would have to pay another $75. So no worries there.
Once you clear customs there is a money exchange at the other end of the terminal. It was super easy and straight forward. Please exchange your money here. It only took a few minutes. I have heard tales of great angst of trying to exchange in town. So you might as well do it when it is conveinent.
A couple of key take aways:
There are 2 different currencies in Cuba. One domestic and for tourist. The one a traveller will be dealing with is the CUC or convertable currency. The CUC basically mimics the dollar. So if an item cost 30 CUC well then you are paying around $30 dollars. Here is the kicker. If you exchange dollars you will be given a rate of around 87 cents on the dollar. So for every $100 you will only get 87 CUC. Now if you exchange Canadian dollars or Euros you will get a much favorable rate. For Example, we exchanged 150 Euros and got over 160 CUC.
Also when the day is done, you can exchange CUC back to another currency but they don’t take coins, so make sure you spend them or be prepared to put them in the change jar at home.
Empress arrived pre-dawn in to Havana Harbor. The first site that is easy to make out is the Havana Lighthouse. As the ship makes its way to the pier there are sites on both sides of the harbor. Eventually the ship will make it to the pier and docking procedures will begin.
Contrary to popular belief you are not required to take a Royal Caribbean sponsored tour to get off the ship in Havana. My family did chose to take the 4 hour Havana Walking Tour. We felt it was a good safe introduction to the people and culture of Cuba and it did not disappoint.
Empress of the Seas staff used Boleros as the launching off point for tours. It is highly advisable to get your friends and family in a group and go together to begin the tour. We were group 33, there were around 30 of us in a group. When your group number gets called then you would exit Boleros and work your way to deck 2 and off the ship. There was a small delay getting through customs followed by a quick stop to change money. Then our group assembled by our guides and out the terminal we went.
The photo above is actually a 360 picture of the cruise terminal. On the far left is the bathrooms, on the left side is the money exchange. Towards the middle are the stairs to the street and Plaza de San Francisco. The right is the long hallway back to the ship and customs.
It wouldn’t hurt to carry a small package of tissues or even an almost finished roll of your favorite toilet paper. TP is a luxury that is really hit or miss in Cuba. Also hand sanitizer is a must because soap isn’t always provided especially in government public areas.
Pro-tip. Travel liquid soap, tooth paste and other essential toilettries that we typically get in hotels and throw away in Western society are highly prized items in Cuba. Whereas there aren’t an over abundance of beggar types hounding tourist, there are a few. A gift of soap would be an acceptable gift as opposed to hard earned money.
Havana Walking Tour 5-22-17
Here is the quick and dirty on the Havana Walking tour. Then I will post a bunch of photos and panoramas. The tour begins right outside the cruise terminal. The first stop is the Plaza de San Francisco which included aspects outside the Basilica of San Francisco de Asis. The guide will talk for a few minutes and then give around 10 minutes to explore before moving on to the next section. The stops included Plaza Vieja, A walk down Calle de los Mercaderes, which included a stop at the Chocolate Museum to purchase delicious chocolates. Next we headed down to the Plaza de Armas. It was here the State run coffee, rum, and cigar store was. Time was given to explore the plaza or purchase Cigars. For example guarenteed Cohiba Cigars were going for around 18 CUC a piece or 3 for 45 CUC. Next we walked over to Plaza de la Catedral. Time was given to explore the church. Note: men were required to remove headgear and ladies were given cover ups if the staff felt their attire was not appropriate. We then walked past the Castillo de la Real Fuerza to a waiting bus. The group was bussed what in all reality was around 5 blocks to the final stop. A Cuban coffee, Rum, and cigar tasting event. Then the bus brought the group back to the Cruise terminal where you could go back to the ship or explore the town on your own.
Plaza de San Francisco
By the Basilica of San Francisco de Asis
Sights along the Calle de los Mercaderes
Plaza de Armas
Plaza de la Catedral
Castillo de la Real Fuerza and Cigar Tasting
The Cuban Coffee, Rum, and Cigar tasting was a great cultural event. We were instructed on the proper way to enjoy each item and a complimentarty cigar was given to everyone. We were told to really only purchase cigars from the Government store, but at the tasting, boxes of Romeo and Julieta cigars were for sale for 10 for 30 CUC. Since many of my friends smoke them I figured I’d give them a gift from my trip. I know you can bring up to 100 Duty Free Cigars back with no hassel. We finished the Havana Walking Tour and then had free time. We grabbed some local knick knacks. We chose to get a bite to eat and a beer. Our tour guide did tell us there were two types of restauraunts. Government run and paladares restauraunts or family run places which litereraly could be in someone’s living room. We chose a government run joint in the far end of Plaza Viejo. It was a very simple meal with a local beer. Over all my family really enjoyed our day in Havana.
Getting through customs was a breeze and Royal Caribbean had frozen towels to refresh yourself after a long hot day. We spent the rest of the day at the pool. The ship departed on time and we slowly exited Havana. The local chidren were playing in the water by shantys at the base of the fort. They were feverishly waiving goodbye and it was a lovely gesture and much appreciated. The last real sight was the one that greeted us first thing in the morning and that was the Havana Light House.
Empress of the Seas – Main Dining Room – Dinner Day 3 “American Classics” Night
Note: We were craving Chops Grille Filet Mignon
Day 4 Empress of the Seas docked in Cozumel, MX
Day 4 was in Cozumel. The ship arrived around 1 pm. That meant that the Beach clubs were pretty much not worth going to, we figured we would be beat from the heat of Havana the day before. So we hit the tourist market which also includes Margaritaville and Senior Frogs. We spent a couple of hours walking and shopping in the secure zone before an enjoyable afternoon by the pool back on the ship.
We also had company this day. Liberty of the Seas was docked next to us.
The only good thing about having such a late arrival on a port day was we got to play BINGO in the morning at the Boleros lounge and then had a nice relaxing lunch at the Windjammer. It was specialty burger day so I was a little adventureous.
Special Note: The drink card was available today for the very reasonable price of $59 for 10 drinks. You may ask what is this? Basically on some sailings Royal Caribbean will choose to put a special where for a set amount you can by a voucher card that is good for 10 alcoholic drinks. This is for those who do not have the drink package but may want a better deal then buying one drink at a time. I have never seen it at as low as $59. It might have a lot to do with the volume of diamond, diamond plus, and pinnacle that were on this sailing. If you are not a heavy drinker or want multiple or want to buy some friends a drink this is a great deal. So always be on the lookout for the drink card.
Empress of the Seas – Day 4 – CHOPS Grille – Dinner
We decided to treat ourselves to CHOPS Grille for dinner on Day 4. There was no special occation other then we were all craving steak. CHOPS did not disapoint.
CHOPS GRILLE Menu
Soups & Salads
After a long night of drinking and listening to fine music in the Schooner Bar, I decided to try and take some pictures of the Milky Way. Note it is real hard to take a 25 second exposure in to the darkness on a moving ship but it can be done with o.k. results and with the right equipment.
This shot was taken of the Aft by the rock wall on Empress of the Seas, I was closer to the center of the ship where there was a “shady” spot from all of the brightness and lights of the ship.
Day 5 Empress of the Seas – Sea Day
One of the nice things about Empress of the Seas on sea days is the buffet spread in the Main Dining Room.
Since this was our first sea day. That meant they had to cram in all the usual pool deck activities that are spread out on a longer 7 night cruise. So, the Sexiest man compition and the Bellyflop contest were held on the pool deck. Day 5 was the only time we actually had compition for pool chairs. It wasn’t bad but the upper deck was always an option and available at all times.
Bingo was held today in the Royal Theatre. Three games were played with the third game prize being a Free Cruise Certificate.
Empress of the Seas – Main Dining Room – Dinner Day 5 “Gala – Chef’s” Night
RCPeriscopers were in the house for “The Quest” show. Since this wasn’t my first time on Empress of the Seas I knew that it could be a little raunchier then say a Quantum class ship. The show is very entertaing, participating is fun, and it is a woot to watch. Needless to say, there was much alcohol to be had. If you are of legal age, and are a little bit open minded then please check out “The Quest”
I haven’t high lighted most of the shows in this review becsause honestly we were content to listlen to the wonderful talent of Billy Pando the piano player in the Schooner Bar. If he is ever the piano man on a sailing then check him out.
We chose to disembark via self depart. We woke up, had breakfast at the Windjammer. Grabbed our suitcases and walked off the ship. Customs had about a 20 minute delay to get through. We called an UberXL and we were at the Airport by 9 AM.
Everything about this cruise was was CUBA. Key West was nice to see again, and Cozumel is Cozumel but Havana is special. My whole family thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and would most deffinitely love to go back at some point in the future. Empress of the Seas is a tiny ship but she has a big heart and that is displayed through the customer service of the staff on board. Till we sail her again.
Day 1 Pre-Boarding
Day 1 – Departure
Day 2 – Key West
Day 3 – Havana Cuba
Day 4 – Cozumel, Mexico
Day 5 – At Sea
Bonus Havana Maps
Official Empress of the Seas – Cuba Tips
Offical Empress of the Seas – Cuban Visa Instructions
Empress of the Seas – Command Staff