If it’s been a while since the last time you went on a cruise, well, things have changed. Gone are the days of set mealtimes at shared tables in the main dining room as your only dining option; nowadays ships have ample “freestyle” dining options, including restaurants from some of the world’s best-known chefs. And if you’re not able to spend a week (or more) on the ship, cruise lines like Royal Caribbean are providing more and more opportunities to take a weekend cruise that’s just as fun and relaxing as one more than twice that length. Royal Caribbean recently launched three- and four-day cruises from Miami on their Mariner of the Seas, which has undergone a $120 million renovation, and we jumped at the opportunity to check it out.
Our cruise departed from Miami on Friday, spent Saturday at Royal Caribbean’s private Bahamas island (Coco Cay), docked in Nassau on Sunday, and was back in Miami on Monday morning. It was a whirlwind to be sure, but we had ample time to explore the ship and check out all the exciting new amenities on board.
Our room, like most of the outside-facing staterooms on board, had a nice-sized balcony. The bed and couch were comfortable, there was plenty of storage space, and the bathroom and shower were surprisingly spacious.
Upon boarding, we grabbed lunch at Windjammer, one of the included dining options; the large buffet offered everything from burgers and hot dogs to salads, a carving station, soups, sandwiches, pastas, and some Asian options. The spacious buffet is at the rear of the ship, so large windows provide a spectacular view.
Boarding day is a great time to explore the ship, and there’s a lot to see onboard. Deck four is home to the onboard casino (stocked with plenty of tables and state-of-the-art slots), the nautical-themed Schooner Bar, a Starbucks, a Latin-themed bar and lounge called Boleros (the live music at night is great), and a new hibachi and sushi restaurant called Izumi (more on that later).
The fifth deck is home to the ship’s “Royal Promenade,” and it’s really the beating heart of the ship. Along the multi-level promenade (which some interior rooms look out onto), you’ll find retail shops, an ice cream parlor, a 24-hour café, a full-on English pub, a brand-new tiki bar called The Bamboo Room, and a new sports bar and arcade called Playmakers. The Bamboo Room is a must-visit; it’s a low-key and inviting tiki bar (one of the only ones at sea), and its menu of cocktails like the Royal Zombie (two rums, passion fruit, Luxardo Maraschino, Cointreau, cinnamon syrup, pineapple juice, Angostura, and lime) and On the Run (Bacardi, watermelon juice, lime juice, guava syrup, allspice dram, and mint) and small plates including Hawaiian barbecue pulled pork sliders and ahi tuna poke are well-made and a ton of fun. These are some of the most ornate cocktails you’ll find on any cruise ship, and the ones we sampled were delicious. The drinks understandably took some time to prepare, but overall, it’s a really smart and well-executed concept.
The fun continues up on Deck 11, the pool deck. Up here, you’ll of course find a variety of pools, water slides, and whirlpools, along with the fitness center, pool bars, the included Boardwalk Dog House (which serves a variety of hot dog and sausage styles, but was sadly out of most of them when we visited), Windjammer, and two restaurants, the new Jamie’s Italian and Chops Grille (more on those later as well). On decks 12 to 15 you’ll find the Sky Bar, a Johnny Rockets, kids’ and teens’ clubs, an arcade, a swanky jazz club and lounge, an escape room(!), a basketball court, a FlowRider surfing simulator, and a “SkyPad” — a virtual reality game played while harnessed and on a trampoline.
The first night, we had dinner at Izumi, the hibachi restaurant. If you’ve ever been to Benihana, you know the drill: There are a few teppanyaki tables, the chef puts on a show while cooking your food, and the end result is a tasty selection of fried rice, grilled vegetables, fresh sushi and sashimi, and grilled meat and seafood. Like all good hibachi restaurants, our meal got a little raucous, and we had a great time.
Dinner Saturday was at Jamie’s Italian, an outpost of the popular England-based chain from chef Jamie Oliver. The restaurant is beautiful, and a glass wall looks right out over the ocean. To start, we sampled the cured meat plank (which was loaded with salami, mortadella, prosciutto, cheeses, and pickled vegetables); fried calamari; crab and avocado bruschetta; and tomato and ricotta bruschetta.
Each of these was elegantly plated and prepared with a deft hand. Pastas are made in-house, so for your entrée we recommend you try one of those; we especially enjoyed the prawn linguine and the tagliatelle Bolognese with beef and pork ragù. If you’re looking for something creamy, you can’t go wrong with the truffle-loaded creamy truffle tagliatelle or the penne carbonara. Other entrée highlights include baked salmon, lamb chops, and chicken cacciatore. For dessert, don’t miss the Raspberry Rippled Pavlova, a mound of baked meringue with raspberries and honeycomb candy.
Our final night’s dinner was at Chops Grille, an elegant and upscale steakhouse that’s a Royal Caribbean hallmark. The sleekly–designed space is full of dark woods and classy art, and like at Jamie’s there’s a full wall of windows. Our meal started with a crispy goat cheese salad with green apples and candied walnuts and giant shrimp cocktail; both were delicious (other classic steakhouse appetizers include French onion soup, carpaccio, and a Dungeness crab and shrimp cake). There’s a wide variety of steaks (including 28-day dry-aged strip and porterhouse), braised short rib, grilled branzino, and roasted organic chicken breast.
My New York strip was perfectly cooked, with a deeply burnished crust and a perfectly medium-rare center. Gruyère tater tots and grilled jumbo asparagus were standout sides, and a liquid center chocolate cake rounded out the meal nicely.
All of these restaurants (as well as the super-VIP “Chef’s Table”) are available for an additional fee, but the Main Dining Room certainly doesn’t get short shrift. It’s a gorgeous multi-level space, and while we didn’t have the opportunity to dine there, one night I took a peek at the dinner menu and spotted plenty of luxurious dishes including crab cakes, escargots a la Bourguignonne, slow-roasted prime rib, New York strip steak, and crème brûlée. A different menu is served each night, and you can eat at the same table and time every night or make a reservation for a different time.
Another wonderful and unexpected perk was daily in-room breakfast; like at many upscale hotels, we were given a door tag on which we could check off preferred breakfast items and have them delivered to the room at a chosen time. Continental breakfast items like toast, pastries, cereal, fruit, juice, tea, and coffee are included; eggs, pancakes, hash browns, breakfast meats, and cocktails are available for an additional fee.
Another good thing to know about in advance is the Deluxe Beverage package, which is very reasonably priced. This package provides unlimited drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, as well as drinks on Coco Cay. If you’re planning on having more than a few drinks per day (if purchased onboard they average around 10 bucks each, so the tab can quickly add up), we strongly suggest you spring for it. Dining packages also allow you to visit specialty restaurants like Jamie’s and Chops, and are also a great value.
We imagine that you’re going to want to get off the ship at some point, and the two ports of call are fabulous. Coco Cay is a gorgeous private island with spacious beaches, relaxing bars (including a swim-up one offshore), snorkeling, an offshore kids’ play zone, and private cabanas; for lunch there’s a nice spread of burgers, hot dogs, chicken, ribs, salads, sides, and desserts.
Coco Cay is undergoing a massive $200 million renovation at the moment, and next year they plan on unveiling a huge addition dubbed “Perfect Day at Coco Cay” that includes the largest freshwater and wave pools in the Caribbean, super-tall water slides (part of a massive new water park), a zip line, a tethered 450 foot-high balloon ride, over-water VIP cabanas, additional bars and restaurants, and plenty of additional activities for kids.
While docked at Nassau the following day, instead of exploring the city we took a private boat to the nearby private Pearl Island, which in many ways is the perfect little island: It was uncrowded, and had a great little beach and cove for swimming, an outdoor bar, an al fresco lunch of fresh grilled fish and lobster, a lovely old lighthouse, and guided snorkeling over a protected reef. If you’d rather spend another day on the beach instead of attempting to navigate the bustling Nassau, we’d highly recommend this excursion.
In the competitive cruising industry, cruise lines have to be constantly upping their game to stay on top of the latest trends and ahead of the curve. After spending a few nights aboard Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas, I can safely say that it was very wise on their part to invest in weekend cruises, as they’re a fabulous way to get away from it all for a few days and experience the full Bahamas cruise that usually requires a weeklong investment. The ship’s brand-new features, which include The Bamboo Room, the SkyPad, the escape room, Jamie’s Italian, Izumi, and Playmakers Sports Bar, are fun and exciting, and the entire concept goes a long way to not only attract families, but also younger couples and millennials. And we can’t wait to see what Coco Cay looks like once it’s renovated!
The cruise that was the subject of this review was provided at no cost to the writer.