It was a warm Thursday noon when we boarded the shuttle bus from our airport hotel towards the port. The Empress was waiting at Terminal G, the closest to downtown Miami and I was surprised how tiny she actually looked in direct comparison with the building itself and the other ships in port. We had sailed on the larger Majesty of the Seas a few years ago, so this would actually be a small ship experience for my partner and me.
Officially built as Nordic Empress back in 1990, the ship spent long time in service for Royal Caribbean Cruises before being transferred to its Spanish subsidiary Pullmantur Cruises, sailing there as Empress. In May 2016, Royal decided to reclaim the ship into the fleet in order to replace the parting Majesty at its home port Miami.
In other words, she was one of those classic liners that carry quite some history and I fell in love with her instantly.
Right after the driver dropped us off, we conveniently checked in at the Platinum desk and had to wait just for a little while before the official boarding process was announced. As we normally cruise in a balcony stateroom, this time I decided for an interior cabin down on Deck 3 for this four nights shorty. In my eyes, every extra dollar spent would have been wasted as these cruises sell highly as booze cruises for party people. The rest of the crowd pretty much divided into youngsters, lots of families with children, larger groups and quite an amount of bachelorettes. So NOT FANCY!
The cabin itself was in pretty good shape, even though the general appearance and style revealed the true age of the ship. But for a mini cruise an absolute reasonable accommodation. Highlight was Suzette, our stateroom attendant, who had always a huge smile on her face and a bright and witty mind that instantly won our hearts.
After settling in, we took a quick tour of the ship itself and made halt at the main restaurant to get our seat assignment changed into a table for two. I love it when things work out and your loyalty is being acknowledged.
The remaining period before the safety drill was used for a quick snack up at the Windjammer buffet restaurant. And as time seems to fly by as soon as you boarded your ship, there was just enough moments left to quickly drop the life jackets back in the cabin before heading up again to experience the lovely sail away from Miami.
Being only 210 meters long, Empress was easy to find our way around and we quickly identified our personal hotspots onboard. One thing we both loved right from the beginning was the fact that the boat deck promenade was completely done in teak. Something you hardly find these days on any of the modern mega liners.
It was wide enough to offer space for runners/walkers and arm chairs and formed a great hideaway when looking for a bit of peace and quiet from the hustle and bustle of the sun deck and the public lounges and bars. I loved running my errands here and enjoy the gorgeous vistas onto the ocean.
Empress also has two accessible outside observation decks at the front of the vessel underneath the bridge. These can be accessed by a staircase which is located all the way at the front of the boat deck promenade. There were no seats available and it could get quite windy, yet the view over the bow was spectacular. It almost felt like as if you were the captain yourself.
The rest of the evening, we spent with a sumptuous dinner at the main dining room which was just down the hallway and one deck up. Compared to premium cruise lines such as Celebrity Cruises, Holland America or Windstar Cruises, Royal Caribbean serves a rather down-to-earth product, but of good quality and in immense quantity.
I remember our two lovely waiters always trying to offer us yet another course, even when we were so full that people would have had to move their chairs in order to make room for us.
Something that had truly surprised us and that we had not expected at all on this mini cruise was a very extensive brunch buffet which was held on the sea day. A wonderful selection of food was served inside the main dining room along with COMPLIMENTARY Mimosas and Bloody Mary´s (and boy, both were simply delicious and had quite an amount of alcohol inside).
This is where I become quite German, lol. I do not bother for complimentary things when they are not good. But in this case, I was speechless to find this kind of offering and quality on a ship that sails year-round to the Bahamas when details like these have been long abolished aboard the Celebrity fleet.
We concluded the night (as the others to come) with a stroll over the boat deck, watched the sunset and listened to the sound of the waves that made way to the ship as Empress headed straight for our first port of call: Key West.
That is where the secluded location of our cabin came very handy. Most people aboard were in the mood to party and so the lounges, bars and night clubs from Deck 5 upwards were busy. But no noise reached down to our little hideaway. And while the rest of the ship seemed pretty much hung over the next morning, we started refreshed and full of energy into the day.
If you have never been to Key West (like me), go pack your bags! This gorgeous island town has won my heart instantly (you can read about it here) and I can highly recommend it to be included in your next cruise planning.
All sightseeing may surely be marked off the list after you have visited once, I personally loved the relaxed and truly friendly atmosphere of the island. I have few times felt so warmly welcomed and truly appreciated as a tourist elsewhere while finding so many lovely restaurants, cafés and shops in one location. Definitely a place I will come back to soon!
Ok, and I admit, we even took the chance to stop by TJ Maxx and Ross before heading back to the ship. I got goosebumps when the ship´s horn sounded and Empress slowly moved away from the pier. This truly had been my absolute highlight of the cruise in terms of shore experiences.
Still being well-fed by the Key Lime Pie we enjoyed shortly before returning to the port, it was time for a poolside movie on the newly installed LED-screen. Onboard Holland America´s Koningsdam, popcorn was served during these events, but here, we just nestled on one of the sun loungers all wrapped up in towels. Enjoying a movie underneath the Caribbean sky is not the worst thing to do, really!
The next day was completely to our likings. No obligations, no timing, no appointments. After being fattened once again last night by the dining room personnel, I thought it was time to squeeze some physical education into the daily program (which mostly consisted of lying lazy on deck, getting a drink and retiring back onto the loungers again while trying to get the best tan possible).
So a little after the wonderful brunch I went for an intense workout to the rather small fitness center located on the top level of the aftdeck lounge. While the machines and the variety left lots to be desired, it was just fine for the few days that we spent aboard. If I was to stay for a longer cruise though, I knew that my mood would turn from smooth to grumpy in one day. This is one spot where the size of Empress truly outlines the barriers of the ship.
While the animation team had the entire pool deck under control during the afternoon (call me boring, but belly flop contests and the search for Mr. and Mrs. “Empress of the Seas” accompanied by a cracking and over-steered sound system do not impress me at all), we settled once again on the top forward deck where comfortable sofas, sun beds and hammocks had been installed during the ship´s latest refurbishment.
Later that afternoon, I took a chance to check out the prices of a few watches that I had seen in the boutique down on Deck 5, but I decided to wait until Miami. Our evening entertainment consisted of the obligatory sunset gathering and a comedian who literally rocked the small stage of the onboard theatre. It is a shame that I forgot his name, but it was an Adult only show that truly made us laugh our heads off!
The next morning, a very misty Nassau welcomed Empress of the Seas to the Bahamas. We had an early rise and I squeezed in a short run on the treadmill before we headed to the dining room for breakfast. This is something we began practicing a few years ago, because we were tired of the constant search for a seat in a completely overcrowded buffet venue.
It is so much more relaxing to have a set table with sit down service and you do eat automatically less than if you unconsciously refill your plate a second or third time before your stomach decides to finally be full.
By early noon, the mist had finally disappeared and it was time again to settle down at our favorite spot on the forward sun deck for a few hours. I hardly read when at home or on the road for work, yet on a cruise my body and mind seem to finally come to rest and I am able to actually concentrate on the words that my eyes absorb from the pages.
I always note this form of relaxation by the time I start to gain weight, irrespective of the fact that I always include fitness in my daily routine. Once your body and mind begin to let go, your metabolism does automatically, too. So that might answer the question for all of you, who are afraid of gaining weight during a cruise! You will! But not necessarily just because of overeating, but also because of regeneration.
As time passed, we spontaneously decided to head ashore for a quick visit to a local supermarket. Nassau itself is not that spectacular and once you have been, there is not much of a reason to really go again. I am shocked time and time again how many people (old and young) return to the ship with their hair braided, which can be done on almost any street corner.
Another popular leisure destination is the water park of the Atlantis Resort or riding horseback by the beach. Nassau is a fab port of call to actually stay onboard and enjoy the tranquility that once prevails around the ship. After discovering that the supermarket did not care to take a credit card for payment (that definitely seemed dependent on the mood of the person behind the cashier), we had no reason to stay longer in this tourist trap city and rushed back onboard.
Having just unpacked the amount of clothes actually needed for these four days, packing went by swiftly and we had our bags outside the door before 8 pm. As we would be changing ships in Miami on the following day, we decided to have a casual dinner in shorts in the Windjammer buffet on the last night aboard. Breakfast would be taken once again in the dining room, so we could say goodbye to our waiters and staff that had taken so good care of us during our stay.
Normally, the last night on a ship is overshadowed by a little melancholia, but as we had the main cruise coming up right afterwards, this time we had no reason to be sad that the trip would come to an end the next morning.
Miami welcomed us warm and windy. We had to vacate our stateroom by 8 am and spent the remaining time with breakfast and then reading on the boat deck promenade before finally disembarking around 10 am.
As we had boarded the ship four days earlier with no high expectations in terms of the general cruise experience, we definitely agreed that the staff and the service offered onboard had absolutely surprised us! In direct comparison with the Majesty a few years ago, I personally liked the size, the layout and the fittings of the Empress much better. The service attitude of the entire crew was highly motivated throughout and we felt well taken care of at any moment. Something we had missed on a few of our recent premium ship experiences in direct comparison. Also, the quality and variety of the onboard catering were absolutely pleasing for the length and the type of cruise that the Empress is currently used for.
In my opinion, a very recommendable ship for a quick getaway from Miami and absolutely suitable in terms of price and performance. I would always choose her in favor of a week in Miami Beach! Her different itineraries make her a great choice for ship hopping before or after another cruise, even if the hardware product does not comply with lines such as HAL, Princess or Celebrity.
I will see you again, Empress. Safe sailings!