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Cruise Ship Review

Mariner of the Seas - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

After cruising on Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships, I was worried that the Voyager-class ships (which include Voyager of the Seas, Adventure of the Seas, Navigator of the Seas and Explorer of the Seas) would be a disappointment. It's true that they were once touted as the most revolutionary ships afloat, with their novel rock-climbing walls, ice-skating rinks and Royal Promenade shopping-and-dining venues. But, then came the Freedom class, with even larger ships and even more outrageous amenities, such as onboard surfing, the H2O water zone play area and family suites that sleep 14 people.

Yet, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Mariner of the Seas, the last of the Voyager-class ships to make its debut, did not feel like a disappointing second to its newer siblings. The ship -- really only 15 percent smaller than the Freedom-class ships -- can still keep an active cruiser engaged for hours on a sea day. You don't miss onboard surfing when you're busy rollerblading, playing miniature golf, relaxing in the thalassotherapy pool, catching a parade on the Royal Promenade or playing poker in the casino. Kids have an enormous warren of play rooms (including an arcade and exclusive outdoor deck space), diners have five restaurants and a cafe from which to choose, and the onboard staff plans to increase shipboard activities during port days on seven-night Mexican Riviera sailings, figuring the ship is so attractive that people will likely skip Cabo San Lucas or Puerto Vallarta for more time onboard.

As well, Mariner of the Seas benefits from being the last in the Voyager-class, with enhancements not found on the first three ships. This ship, as well as Navigator of the Seas, offers these additional features:

Balconies are built outside the vessel's superstructure, rather than inside, as they were with the first three in the family. The difference? Balconies are less cavelike and more light-filled, and cabins are three feet wider and airier, as well.

The addition of Chops Grill gives Mariner and Navigator of the Seas two alternative restaurants each. (The first three in this class just have Portofino.)

Vintages, a wine bar designed to resemble a cozy wine cellar, has replaced the sports bar found on the first three Voyager-class ships (though the 19th Hole, upstairs, still offers a sports theme).

The Windjammer Cafe is slightly larger than on the original Voyager-class ships. You might not notice the extra space, but you will benefit from less crowding when navigating between food stations and dining tables during peak dining hours.

That's not to say the ship isn't feeling a little bit of its age. We noticed some wear and tear around the ship, specifically in heavily trafficked areas like the hallway carpeting, miniature golf course and kids' club. The drawers in our cabin needed a good greasing, as they didn't open smoothly. And, the narrow rollerblading track is so late 90's -- though it looked like it could be entertaining for an hour in a retro sort of way.

But, in reality, you'll be too busy having fun to notice if the Solarium chair covers are faded or if the wood trim in Chops Grille could use a polish. And, if these miniscule and mostly unimportant signs of age dramatically lessen your cruise experience, then perhaps you should be on a more luxurious and expensive line than Royal Caribbean in the first place!

Ultimately, one of the best things about the ship is that, despite its size, Mariner of the Seas just didn't feel that big. The ship's design makes every effort to create a smaller-ship feel. What was fun about discovering Mariner was that you could pretty much divide the ship into neighborhoods -- the promenade and the sports and recreation area. (Hmm, perhaps this layout was one of the inspirations for Royal Caribbean's newest ships, Oasis of the Seas, which has been designed around a neighborhood premise.) Another reason: Activities, whether during sea days or in the post-dinner evening hours, were so well-scheduled and organized that passengers really were spread out on all parts of the ship. We never felt crowded.

Dining

Mariner of the Seas' elegant main restaurant spans three decks and features a music-themed design. Each of the three levels has an appropriately musical name (such as Deck 3's Rhapsody in Blue, Deck 4's Sound of Music and Deck 5's Top Hat & Tails), and the von Trapp family tableau at the bottom of the grand staircase adds a charming element to the room. Live music on the upper landing of the staircase is a nice touch -- although many of the tunes we heard were either bizarre versions of Broadway showtunes or oddly chosen pieces. (The bombast of "Phantom of the Opera" during dinner?)

Architects did a great job of carving out dining niches throughout the room, so the only time you really feel the size is if you're sitting at or near the captain's table, located in the atrium on Deck 3. For the best people-watching, request a table in the atrium on Deck 4. Most are set for four, six or eight. Tables for two are very hard to come by.

Mariner of the Seas now offers Royal Caribbean's flexible My Time Dining program at dinnertime. Passengers can choose between assigned early (6 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) dining with pre-determined tablemates, or opt for flexible dining, in which you pick a preferred mealtime (anytime between 6 and 9:30 p.m.), but can change your reservations on a daily basis. Cuisine is generally well-prepared, if not innovative. (Royal Caribbean doesn't pretend to be a gourmet-dining cruise line.) Each menu includes healthy fare options, vegetarian dishes (at least one, like vegetarian chili, but sometimes there's an Indian vegetarian dish in addition) and a standard in-case-nothing-else-appeals selection of entrees (rigatoni with marinara sauce, Atlantic cod, chicken breast and black angus top sirloin).

Breakfast and lunch are open-seating, though you shouldn't take that to mean that you can snare a quiet little table for two. In fact, the on-duty maitre' d, on several occasions, seemed to regard passengers who made such requests as nuisances. The ship's best-kept secret may be that lunch in the dining room is one of the better meals onboard. The salad bar is staffed by chefs, who create salads according to your instructions; the ingredients (fresh vegetables, meats and cheeses) are fresher and more varied than in the Windjammer, and the heaping plate of veggies can easily stand alone as a full meal, especially for vegetarians. Plus, the Brasserie30 option, which allows you to choose two menu items and finish your meal within 30 minutes, is a terrific choice for those who want to get back to the pool or other onboard activities.

The Windjammer, Mariner of the Seas' buffet restaurant, is open for breakfast and lunch, and it features mediocre, steam-table cuisine. Kudos must be given, however, to the egg station at breakfast (where you can request a variety of prepared-to-order dishes) and the carving station at lunch. Baked goods are consistently excellent. Somewhat appalling was the buffet's grill at lunchtime, which, instead of the freshly grilled burgers and chicken you might expect, just handed over steam-table fare. Vegetarians will do much better in the main dining room at lunch.

The Windjammer is also open for dinner and is an option for those nights when flexibility is preferred. The buffet features the same items as are on the main dining room menu, but be forewarned: quality was especially mediocre. On our visit, the "roasted tom turkey," served that same night in the dining room, was dried out and lukewarm.

Jade is the ship's Asian-influenced buffet area. It's located adjacent to the Windjammer and features selections representing Chinese, Indian and Japanese cuisines (sometimes an eclectic mix of all three). Its biggest draw, at night only, is sushi, and there's no extra charge for any of the food there.

The primo dining experiences onboard occur in Mariner of the Seas' two alternative restaurants. Chops Grille features a steakhouse atmosphere (the 10 oz. filet mignon is the standout here), and Portofino is a Northern Italian-themed restaurant (offering risotto, three types of pasta, Caprese salad and other Italian favorites). Service and cuisine is exceptional at both. Dinner generally lasts two and a half hours or so. While these are reservation-preferred restaurants (and can book up early, especially since reservations can be made online, pre-cruise), the first night of any cruise tends to be very slow, so walk-ins are accepted. Otherwise, peak times occur between 7 and 8:30 p.m.; if reservations seem tough to snare (and they can be), go earlier or later. Portofino levies a $20 surcharge; Chops Grille is $25.

Not to be missed, either, is Johnny Rocket's. (On our cruise, particularly around noon, it appeared that most of the passengers on the ship were attempting to eat there at the same time!) Sit inside, and enjoy impromptu wait staff song-and-dance performances with your burgers and onion rings. Outside, in Mariner's only outdoor dining arena, you can sit in red booths and admire the view. (But, you'll miss the show.)

There's a $4.95 cover charge to eat Johnny Rocket's food. (No matter how much you order, the fee is still the same, and iced tea, milkshakes and draft beer are a la carte.) A couple of hints: If you don't like to wait in line, aim to arrive at 11:30 a.m., just after it opens, or after 3 p.m. (and anytime at night). Another tip: You can order food "to go," and there's no additional charge, beyond the cover.

You can order room service around-the-clock on Mariner of the Seas. The "main" menu is relatively unimaginative, but offers the basics (Caesar salad, pizza, burgers). Breakfast items include hot dishes, as well as continental fare. At meal times, some of the main restaurant entrees are available, though the full dining room menu is only available to suite guests. Service was consistently efficient and pleasant. There's a $3.95 fee for ordering room service between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m. (excluding breakfast orders).

Another great source for quick, round-the-clock snacks is the Cafe at the Promenade. Its central location makes it ideal for grabbing a snack on the way to a show or activity, as well as a fun place to sit and people-watch on a more leisurely break. In the morning, you can get croissants and danishes; otherwise, there are sandwiches, pizza, cookies and cakes. Seattle's Best coffee is served; there's no charge for the basic brew, tea or hot chocolate from a mix at a self-service station, but espresso, cappuccino and iced coffee drinks are sold at the bar for an extra fee ($1.95 to $4, or $6.25 for caffeinated beverages spiked with liquor). Ben & Jerry's ice cream is adjacent (for an extra fee of $2.50 to $4).

There's also free frozen yogurt at the Arctic Zone, tucked away in a corner of the pool deck.

Royal Caribbean offers all-you-can-drink soda cards ($28 per week for kids, $42 for adults), but the price is so outrageous it converted this Diet Coke aficionado to iced tea for the duration of the trip. Without the card, a glass of soda is $1.95.

Public Rooms

You need more than a week -- and perhaps an all-at-sea itinerary -- to experience all of Mariner of the Seas' public rooms! The main focus, especially indoors, is the ship's fabulous Promenade. It's the pulse of the vessel. It's lined with shops (the usual cruise-style boutiques that sell logo items, duty-free liquor, perfume and cruisewear) and bars like the British-esque Wig & Gavel pub, the cave-like Vintages wine bar and the somewhat-elegant-but-mostly-bland Champagne Bar. However, the highlight is the 24-hour Cafe at the Promenade, which is a great place to snack and people watch.

Off the main promenade, in various directions, are the Lotus Lounge (the ship's secondary theater with entertainment ranging from line-dancing classes to cooking workshops) and the Connoisseur's Lounge (a very elegant, cozy cigar bar). Connected to the Promenade, via various stairways, are additional entertainment arenas, including Casino Royale, the Schooner Bar, Bolero's, the Savoy Theater and the Dragon's Lair disco. Tucked away a deck lower -- easy to miss -- is the ship's intimate cinema.

Casino-lovers will find everything from penny slots to 16 gaming tables (including roulette, various versions of poker, blackjack and craps). Put your key card in the machines to win extra prizes as you play. You can charge your card to get cash to play, but there's a three percent surcharge in the casino (no charge if you've arranged to pay your onboard bill in cash).

Studio B is located on Deck 3, with access only from the aft end of that deck, by the dining room; it houses the ship's ice-skating performances and activities, as well as occasional adults-only comedy shows. Arrive early for the best seats, as the theater is fairly small (though sightlines are good throughout).

Other public areas include a very well-stocked library -- and kudos to Mariner of the Seas for leaving bookcases unlocked throughout the entire cruise. The CyberZone is one of the more inviting onboard Internet centers we've seen, and it never seemed over-crowded, though many folks reported problems connecting with America Online. The cost for Internet access, via Wi-Fi or at a work station, is 55 cents a minute, or you can buy packages of 60, 90 or 150 minutes for $28, $38 or $55, respectively. The Photo Gallery on Deck 3 is the place to giggle over silly photos of your shipmates and buy your own for outlandish prices ($19.95 for 8x10's, often a smaller photo of you surrounded by generic ship images).

For a great view, the Viking Crown Lounge area, sitting atop the main pool, is divided into four rooms. Ellington's, which transforms into a jazz club at night, is almost as popular during the day as a spot for quiet reading (and a bird's-eye view of the scene around the pool). Other areas include the 19th Hole sports bar and two game/crafts rooms.

We loved Vintages wine bar -- a new addition to Voyager-class ships, beginning with Navigator of the Seas -- with its cozy, wine-cave feel. You can purchase wine flights to do your own tastings of California wines. The fabulous and colorfully electric Bolero's (on Deck 4, under the Champagne Bar) was unfairly bypassed by many cruisers, and it seems as if its lively ambience would be more appropriate for the Promenade.

Cabins

Mariner of the Seas continues the Voyager-class tradition by offering a large number of reasonably priced balcony staterooms ((707 of 1,557 fall into this category). Otherwise, there are four other stateroom categories -- suites, outsides, insides and the unusual atrium-view (looking onto the Promenade).

Standard cabins are decorated in light, primary colors and feature light woods. All staterooms come with convertible, queen-to-twin beds; televisions, offering interactive services like room service ordering (though we found it easier just to pick up the phone); pay-per-view flicks and numerous channels. (RCTV does an outstanding job, featuring everything from news and sports channels to a Promenade-cam, which shows the action inside the ship, and the "Retro TV" channel, which features classic sitcoms).

Cabins have mini-fridges that are minimally stocked with soft drinks and juices; the charge for mini-fridge items is the same as in the bars (e.g., $1.95 for soda or bottled water). We found there was plenty of room to stash our own sodas and such (or you ask the room steward to remove the contents). Other features include desk/vanity areas and seating areas with loveseats or full-length couches (some fold out). In our cabin, the desk/vanity drawers did not slide easily -- perhaps a sign of the ship's age. Cabins with balconies are each equipped with two basic chairs and a small table. The balconies have glass panels.

Bathrooms are basic and only suites have tubs. The showers, however, have those wonderful, half-round sliding doors, a fabulous improvement over icky, clingy shower curtains. Soap and shampoo are provided (suites get mini-bottles of Royal Caribbean's Vitality shampoo, conditioner and lotion). Hair dryers are located in the vanities, rather than in the bathrooms.

Mariner of the Seas offers 26 accessible staterooms in a variety of categories. Features include wider doors, closet racks that can be pulled down to lower heights and accessible showers and toilets. These cabins are set aside for cruise travelers who can prove they need the accessible amenities; the cabins only enter the regular inventory close to the sail date, if they haven't sold out by then.

Suites come in a variety of configurations. The 1,325-square-ft. Royal Suite is the ship's prime suite, featuring an elaborately furnished living room -- wet bar, dining table, entertainment center and even a piano -- and a separate bedroom with king bed and its own balcony. The bathroom is spacious and ultra-luxe and includes a whirlpool tub, separate shower and bidet. The suite's 248-square-ft. balcony is furnished with wicker lounge chairs and a dining table.

The 618-square-ft. Owner's Suites are also quite luxurious, with queen beds and living and dining area. However, these suites are more open, with the sleeping areas separated from the rest of the living quarters by large, rotating, flat-screen TV's (rather than actual walls). The balconies are big enough for a lounge chair.

The 390-square-ft. Grand Oceanview Suite offers a bedroom, sitting area, bar area and bathroom with tub, in addition to an 89-square-ft. balcony. The 299-square-ft. Junior Suite is basically an expanded version of a standard verandah stateroom, featuring a sitting area with chair and couch, a walk-in closet and a bathroom with a tub.

The 512-square-ft. Royal Family Suite, which can sleep up to eight people, has two bedrooms (a master bedroom and a smaller, inside bedroom with two regular beds and another two that pull down from the ceiling) and two bathrooms (one with a tub, one with a shower). The suite also offers a living area with a pullout couch and a 208-square-ft. balcony with a dining table. A smaller, 328-square-ft. Family Oceanview Stateroom looks a lot like a regular outside cabin but also has a small second bedroom with bunk beds.

All suiteholders are entitled to use the Concierge Lounge on Deck 9. This windowless room features continental breakfast and a cocktail hour. Upon request, the concierge on duty handles special requests for reservations -- alternative restaurants, spa, etc. However, on our trip, she made a point to tell us "it is just as easy to make the call yourself."

Entertainment

Where do you even begin? It can be very hard to relax on Mariner of the Seas -- even on sea days -- because of the head-spinning array of activities that run from dawn to dusk and beyond! The ship's entertainment staff offers an intriguing blend of options, and everyone, from the most traditional passenger to the completely contemporary traveler, will find something to do.

Highlights? During the day, you'll find plenty of traditional cruise activities, such as bingo, dance lessons (line-dancing), horse racing, art auctions, seminars (on everything from healthy eating to gemstones), Mr. Sexy Legs contests, bridge pairing, art and craft workshops and films in the tiny cinema. More unusual activities include rock-climbing wall competitions and "Ice Under the Big Top" -- the ship's ice skating show. Poolside, throughout the day, a live band plays a blend of Caribbean and American songs.

Royal Caribbean does not offer much in the way of onboard enrichment. On Mariner of the Seas' Mexican Riviera cruises, you'll find, at most, some ballroom-dancing lessons and crafts instruction in scrapbooking and beading.

Throughout the day and night, there's often some type of performance along the Promenade, such as the "Enchanted Knights Parade," performances by Krooze Komics, instrumental trios or mini-comedy shows.

At night, the lounges swing into full party mode (at differing decibel levels). And, while Royal Caribbean offers the usual lavish, Vegas-style, main-showroom music and dance extravaganzas ("Pure Energy," starring the Royal Caribbean Singers & Dancers), what really captivated the crowd on our cruise was the audience participation programming. Chief among them was "Karaoke Idol Search," which was a series of auditions throughout the week, culminating in a well-attended "finals." And, all of Royal Caribbean's ships offer the Love and Marriage Show (a take-off on television's "The Newlywed Game"), and it is, indeed, hysterical.

Beyond performances, lounges all offered trademark-style entertainment at night. At the Wig & Gavel pub, a mournful guitarist-singer sang mellow tunes and rock classics. Bolero featured Latin dance music. The Schooner Bar's pianist played pop and torch songs. Ellington's is the place for jazz. The Lotus Lounge, when not otherwise engaged in karaoke competitions, was the prime dance venue, and the Dragon's Lair -- the ship's wannabe-goth disco (that didn't even open until 10 p.m.) -- was the destination for late-night reveling and featured a D.J.

Mariner of the Seas offers a wide array of shore excursions in each of the three Mexican ports, though Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta have nearly twice as many options as Mazatlan. Excursions range from every type of active pursuit imaginable (hiking, kayaking, snorkeling, golfing, scuba-diving, zip-lining, sport-fishing, off-road jeep-driving, horseback-riding) to sightseeing tours, beach breaks, dolphin encounters, Mexican cooking classes and pleasure cruises. There's truly something for every taste -- just watch out for the typical cruise-ship price markup. It's always best to price out various options before booking a tour.

Fitness and Recreation

Voyager-class ships -- and Mariner of the Seas is no exception -- are famous for their "get out there" philosophy, when it comes to onboard recreation. As such, a huge area (aft) is dedicated to the pursuit of athleticism. There is, of course, the rock-climbing wall (instruction is available), along with a golf simulator (for an extra fee), full-court basketball, Ping Pong, a rollerblading rink and miniature golf. The ship also offers a handful of ice-skating opportunities on sea days at Studio B.

The ship's main pool area -- decorated by Romero Britto, a South Florida artist, known for his colorful, exuberant designs -- looks like a fabulous scene from St. Tropez. The outdoor deck is a scene in its own right and features two adjacent pools, jumbo, tea-cup-shaped whirlpools (and normal ones, too) and stadium lounge seating. One interesting note: One of the pools and a whirlpool have hydraulic lifts for the disabled.

The solarium pool is an adults-only area. It's lovely; lounges are outfitted with cushy, blue-covered cushions. The only downside: The area is in shadow for long periods of the day, due to its placement; sun worshippers are pretty much limited to high noon. And the area itself is fairly small (and, alas, quite popular); on sea days, we saw quite a bit of unmonitored chair saving from 8 a.m. onwards. The pool -- the only one onboard with actual steps, rather than just ladders -- is flanked by two larger whirlpools. The adjacent bar serves up "power smoothies" in addition to the more typical sodas, beer and cocktails.

We loved Mariner of the Seas' "ShipShape" Center. A two-level fitness facility/spa, it features a group exercise room for fitness classes (some, like spinning and yoga, charge a $10 fee), an indoor thalassotherapy pool (free of charge), plenty of fitness equipment (we never saw a crowd) and the spa itself.

The facility features men's and women's locker rooms with a steam room and a sauna.

The spa and beauty salon, operated by the ubiquitous Steiner Leisure, Ltd., offered an excellent range of treatments (massages, facials, Ionithermie Algae Detox). There's even a Rasul room, a private steam and shower room, which couples can book to spend an hour slathering each other in exfoliating lotion, mud masks and moisturizers, while steaming their pores open. Service in the spa was outstanding -- and the quality of the treatments themselves was very high.

A couple of caveats: The "relaxation" room, where customers wait for their treatments (and which was frequently the site of spa-related classes and lectures), is anything but calming. (Just replacing the hideously uncomfortable iron chairs would be a start.) And, the prices for treatments have risen to breathtaking levels, with a basic 50-minute massage now costing $120 or more. (The industry average is $99.) A manicure is $45; a pedicure is $65. The spa did offer "discounts" on port-of-call days (and as the cruise wound down), but that just brought the prices down to industry-normal levels.

And beware: Treatment employees will engage, way too aggressively, in the much-loathed "Steiner Product Pitch" at the end of your appointment. The products are also over-priced. Just say no.

Family

Mariner of the Seas is an outstanding choice for family cruisers. The facilities on this ship are among the largest in the industry -- encompassing 22,000 square ft. -- and include computer stations, arts and crafts workshops, science areas and a video arcade. The ship is making a real effort to court families with teenagers; these young folks have three rooms to call home, including a nightclub (Fuel), a hang-out (The Living Room) and The Back Deck, which is a teens-only outdoor area.

We missed having a kids-only pool area like those on Royal Caribbean's Radiance-class ships, however.

Royal Caribbean's excellent Adventure Ocean Youth Program divides kids into age-appropriate groups. For instance, Aquanauts (the program for ages 3 to 5) may feature activities like "Alphabet Scavenger Hunt," story time and Adventure Theater acting classes by Camp Broadway. Explorers (ages 6 to 8) play backwards bingo, make their own surfboards and engage in basic science activities. Voyagers (ages 9 to 11) play foosball and capture the flag, as well as engage in science experiments that range from earthquakes to hailstorms. Even the teens are divided into two groups. Navigators (ages 12 to 14) have "open-mic" karaoke contests and a rock-wall challenge. And, the coolest group (ages 15 to 17) -- so cool, they don't have a kitschy name -- has its own dance parties and arcade competitions. In addition, Royal Caribbean has partnered with Fisher Price, Mattel and Crayola to offer a variety of kid- and family-friendly games and activities for all ages.

Generally, activities at Adventure Ocean cease during lunch and dinner times, but there is the occasional organized meal outing (to Johnny Rocket's, for instance). On sea days, you can leave your kids (ages 3 to 11) at Adventure Ocean for a noon to 2 p.m. lunch-and-play for a cost of $7.95. Plus, new My Family Time Dining (rolling out, fleetwide, by July 2009) offers an option that lets kids finish dinner in the main dining room in 45 minutes, then get escorted by Adventure Ocean counselors back to the kids' club to play (letting Mom and Dad enjoy a more leisurely meal).

Late-night group babysitting in the kids' areas (for ages 3 to 11) is available from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. for $5 per hour, per child. In-room babysitting for kids over the age of 1 costs $10 to $15 per hour and requires a 24-hour advance reservation.

Fellow Passengers

While most passengers hail from the U.S., the ship does attract folks from other countries (and publishes the daily "Cruise Compass" in a variety of languages). Mariner of the Seas appeals to a wide variety of ages. (With so many kids onboard, the average age is typically younger than 40.) Regardless of age, passengers tend to be very active in spirit.

Dress Code

During the day, dress is casual. The ship has two formal nights (many men wear suits, rather than tuxes) and one "smart casual" night (jackets and ties for men, dresses or pantsuits for women); the rest are casual. That is, of course, if you're dining in any of the ship's main restaurants. Dress at the alterative eateries is always smart casual, and dinners at the Windjammer buffet are casual.

We noticed that, on formal nights, passengers really did get into the elegant spirit of the evening -- for dinner, anyway -- then rushed back to cabins to change into more comfortable clothing for the evening's activities.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.50 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $3.50 per person, per day to the cabin steward (or $5.75 if you're in a suite); and $2 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. Royal Caribbean also recommends $0.75 per person, per day to the headwaiter, but we don't necessarily tip him or her unless the service was special. Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance, added to your onboard bill or paid in cash at the end of the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief; updated by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor

Dining

Mariner of the Seas' elegant main restaurant spans three decks and features a music-themed design. Each of the three levels has an appropriately musical name (such as Deck 3's Rhapsody in Blue, Deck 4's Sound of Music and Deck 5's Top Hat & Tails), and the von Trapp family tableau at the bottom of the grand staircase adds a charming element to the room. Live music on the upper landing of the staircase is a nice touch -- although many of the tunes we heard were either bizarre versions of Broadway showtunes or oddly chosen pieces. (The bombast of "Phantom of the Opera" during dinner?)

Architects did a great job of carving out dining niches throughout the room, so the only time you really feel the size is if you're sitting at or near the captain's table, located in the atrium on Deck 3. For the best people-watching, request a table in the atrium on Deck 4. Most are set for four, six or eight. Tables for two are very hard to come by.

For dinner, passengers can choose between assigned early (6 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) dining, or opt for RCI's My Time Dining, in which you pick a preferred mealtime (anytime between 6 and 9:30 p.m.), but can change your reservations on a daily basis or simply walk in when you're hungry. (Note: Those opting for My Time Dining will need to pre-pay gratuities.) The restaurant is open seating for everyone at breakfast and lunch every day. Cuisine is generally well-prepared, if not innovative. (Royal Caribbean doesn't pretend to be a gourmet-dining cruise line.) Each menu includes healthy fare options, vegetarian dishes (at least one, like vegetarian chili, but sometimes there's an Indian vegetarian dish in addition) and a standard in-case-nothing-else-appeals selection of entrees (rigatoni with marinara sauce, Atlantic cod, chicken breast and black angus top sirloin).

Breakfast and lunch are open-seating, though you shouldn't take that to mean that you can snare a quiet little table for two. In fact, the on-duty maitre' d, on several occasions, seemed to regard passengers who made such requests as nuisances. The ship's best-kept secret may be that lunch in the dining room is one of the better meals onboard. The salad bar is staffed by chefs, who create salads according to your instructions; the ingredients (fresh vegetables, meats and cheeses) are fresher and more varied than in the Windjammer, and the heaping plate of veggies can easily stand alone as a full meal, especially for vegetarians. Plus, the Brasserie30 option, which allows you to choose two menu items and finish your meal within 30 minutes, is a terrific choice for those who want to get back to the pool or other onboard activities.

The Windjammer, Mariner of the Seas' buffet restaurant, is open for breakfast and lunch, and it features mediocre, steam-table cuisine. Kudos must be given, however, to the egg station at breakfast (where you can request a variety of prepared-to-order dishes) and the carving station at lunch. Baked goods are consistently excellent. Somewhat appalling was the buffet's grill at lunchtime, which, instead of the freshly grilled burgers and chicken you might expect, just handed over steam-table fare. Vegetarians will do much better in the main dining room at lunch.

The Windjammer is also open for dinner and is an option for those nights when flexibility is preferred. The buffet features the same items as are on the main dining room menu, but be forewarned: quality was especially mediocre. On our visit, the "roasted tom turkey," served that same night in the dining room, was dried out and lukewarm.

Jade is the ship's Asian-influenced buffet area. It's located adjacent to the Windjammer and features selections representing Chinese, Indian and Japanese cuisines (sometimes an eclectic mix of all three). Its biggest draw, at night only, is sushi, and there's no extra charge for any of the food there.

The primo dining experiences onboard occur in Mariner of the Seas' two alternative restaurants. Chops Grille features a steakhouse atmosphere (the 10 oz. filet mignon is the standout here), and Portofino is a Northern Italian-themed restaurant (offering risotto, three types of pasta, Caprese salad and other Italian favorites). Service and cuisine is exceptional at both. Dinner generally lasts two and a half hours or so. While these are reservation-preferred restaurants (and can book up early, especially since reservations can be made online, pre-cruise), the first night of any cruise tends to be very slow, so walk-ins are accepted. Otherwise, peak times occur between 7 and 8:30 p.m.; if reservations seem tough to snare (and they can be), go earlier or later. Portofino levies a $20 surcharge; Chops Grille is $25.

Not to be missed, either, is Johnny Rocket's. (On our cruise, particularly around noon, it appeared that most of the passengers on the ship were attempting to eat there at the same time!) Sit inside, and enjoy impromptu wait staff song-and-dance performances with your burgers and onion rings. Outside, in Mariner's only outdoor dining arena, you can sit in red booths and admire the view. (But, you'll miss the show.)

There's a $4.95 cover charge to eat Johnny Rocket's food. (No matter how much you order, the fee is still the same, and iced tea, milkshakes and draft beer are a la carte.) A couple of hints: If you don't like to wait in line, aim to arrive at 11:30 a.m., just after it opens, or after 3 p.m. (and anytime at night). Another tip: You can order food "to go," and there's no additional charge, beyond the cover.

You can order room service around-the-clock on Mariner of the Seas. The "main" menu is relatively unimaginative, but offers the basics (Caesar salad, pizza, burgers). Breakfast items include hot dishes, as well as continental fare. At meal times, some of the main restaurant entrees are available, though the full dining room menu is only available to suite guests. Service was consistently efficient and pleasant. There's a $3.95 fee for ordering room service between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m. (excluding breakfast orders).

Another great source for quick, round-the-clock snacks is the Cafe at the Promenade. Its central location makes it ideal for grabbing a snack on the way to a show or activity, as well as a fun place to sit and people-watch on a more leisurely break. In the morning, you can get croissants and danishes; otherwise, there are sandwiches, pizza, cookies and cakes. Seattle's Best coffee is served; there's no charge for the basic brew, tea or hot chocolate from a mix at a self-service station, but espresso, cappuccino and iced coffee drinks are sold at the bar for an extra fee ($1.95 to $4, or $6.25 for caffeinated beverages spiked with liquor). Ben & Jerry's ice cream is adjacent (for an extra fee of $2.50 to $4).

There's also free frozen yogurt at the Arctic Zone, tucked away in a corner of the pool deck.

Royal Caribbean offers all-you-can-drink soda cards ($28 per week for kids, $42 for adults), but the price is so outrageous it converted this Diet Coke aficionado to iced tea for the duration of the trip. Without the card, a glass of soda is $1.95.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.50 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $3.50 per person, per day to the cabin steward; $2 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. Royal Caribbean also recommends $.75 per person, per day to the headwaiter. Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance (and must be if you opt for flexible dining), added to your onboard bill or paid in cash at the end of the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief; updated by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor

Dining

Mariner of the Seas' elegant main restaurant spans three decks and features a music-themed design. Each of the three levels has an appropriately musical name (such as Deck 3's Rhapsody in Blue, Deck 4's Sound of Music and Deck 5's Top Hat & Tails), and the von Trapp family tableau at the bottom of the grand staircase adds a charming element to the room. Live music on the upper landing of the staircase is a nice touch -- although many of the tunes we heard were either bizarre versions of Broadway showtunes or oddly chosen pieces. (The bombast of "Phantom of the Opera" during dinner?)

Architects did a great job of carving out dining niches throughout the room, so the only time you really feel the size is if you're sitting at or near the captain's table, located in the atrium on Deck 3. For the best people-watching, request a table in the atrium on Deck 4. Most are set for four, six or eight. Tables for two are very hard to come by.

Mariner of the Seas now offers Royal Caribbean's flexible My Time Dining program at dinnertime. Passengers can choose between assigned early (6 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) dining with pre-determined tablemates, or opt for flexible dining, in which you pick a preferred mealtime (anytime between 6 and 9:30 p.m.), but can change your reservations on a daily basis. Cuisine is generally well-prepared, if not innovative. (Royal Caribbean doesn't pretend to be a gourmet-dining cruise line.) Each menu includes healthy fare options, vegetarian dishes (at least one, like vegetarian chili, but sometimes there's an Indian vegetarian dish in addition) and a standard in-case-nothing-else-appeals selection of entrees (rigatoni with marinara sauce, Atlantic cod, chicken breast and black angus top sirloin).

Breakfast and lunch are open-seating, though you shouldn't take that to mean that you can snare a quiet little table for two. In fact, the on-duty maitre' d, on several occasions, seemed to regard passengers who made such requests as nuisances. The ship's best-kept secret may be that lunch in the dining room is one of the better meals onboard. The salad bar is staffed by chefs, who create salads according to your instructions; the ingredients (fresh vegetables, meats and cheeses) are fresher and more varied than in the Windjammer, and the heaping plate of veggies can easily stand alone as a full meal, especially for vegetarians. Plus, the Brasserie30 option, which allows you to choose two menu items and finish your meal within 30 minutes, is a terrific choice for those who want to get back to the pool or other onboard activities.

The Windjammer, Mariner of the Seas' buffet restaurant, is open for breakfast and lunch, and it features mediocre, steam-table cuisine. Kudos must be given, however, to the egg station at breakfast (where you can request a variety of prepared-to-order dishes) and the carving station at lunch. Baked goods are consistently excellent. Somewhat appalling was the buffet's grill at lunchtime, which, instead of the freshly grilled burgers and chicken you might expect, just handed over steam-table fare. Vegetarians will do much better in the main dining room at lunch.

The Windjammer is also open for dinner and is an option for those nights when flexibility is preferred. The buffet features the same items as are on the main dining room menu, but be forewarned: quality was especially mediocre. On our visit, the "roasted tom turkey," served that same night in the dining room, was dried out and lukewarm.

Jade is the ship's Asian-influenced buffet area. It's located adjacent to the Windjammer and features selections representing Chinese, Indian and Japanese cuisines (sometimes an eclectic mix of all three). Its biggest draw, at night only, is sushi, and there's no extra charge for any of the food there.

The primo dining experiences onboard occur in Mariner of the Seas' two alternative restaurants. Chops Grille features a steakhouse atmosphere (the 10 oz. filet mignon is the standout here), and Portofino is a Northern Italian-themed restaurant (offering risotto, three types of pasta, Caprese salad and other Italian favorites). Service and cuisine is exceptional at both. Dinner generally lasts two and a half hours or so. While these are reservation-preferred restaurants (and can book up early, especially since reservations can be made online, pre-cruise), the first night of any cruise tends to be very slow, so walk-ins are accepted. Otherwise, peak times occur between 7 and 8:30 p.m.; if reservations seem tough to snare (and they can be), go earlier or later. Portofino levies a $20 surcharge; Chops Grille is $25.

Not to be missed, either, is Johnny Rocket's. (On our cruise, particularly around noon, it appeared that most of the passengers on the ship were attempting to eat there at the same time!) Sit inside, and enjoy impromptu wait staff song-and-dance performances with your burgers and onion rings. Outside, in Mariner's only outdoor dining arena, you can sit in red booths and admire the view. (But, you'll miss the show.)

There's a $4.95 cover charge to eat Johnny Rocket's food. (No matter how much you order, the fee is still the same, and iced tea, milkshakes and draft beer are a la carte.) A couple of hints: If you don't like to wait in line, aim to arrive at 11:30 a.m., just after it opens, or after 3 p.m. (and anytime at night). Another tip: You can order food "to go," and there's no additional charge, beyond the cover.

You can order room service around-the-clock on Mariner of the Seas. The "main" menu is relatively unimaginative, but offers the basics (Caesar salad, pizza, burgers). Breakfast items include hot dishes, as well as continental fare. At meal times, some of the main restaurant entrees are available, though the full dining room menu is only available to suite guests. Service was consistently efficient and pleasant. There's a $3.95 fee for ordering room service between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m. (excluding breakfast orders).

Another great source for quick, round-the-clock snacks is the Cafe at the Promenade. Its central location makes it ideal for grabbing a snack on the way to a show or activity, as well as a fun place to sit and people-watch on a more leisurely break. In the morning, you can get croissants and danishes; otherwise, there are sandwiches, pizza, cookies and cakes. Seattle's Best coffee is served; there's no charge for the basic brew, tea or hot chocolate from a mix at a self-service station, but espresso, cappuccino and iced coffee drinks are sold at the bar for an extra fee ($1.95 to $4, or $6.25 for caffeinated beverages spiked with liquor). Ben & Jerry's ice cream is adjacent (for an extra fee of $2.50 to $4).

There's also free frozen yogurt at the Arctic Zone, tucked away in a corner of the pool deck.

Royal Caribbean offers all-you-can-drink soda cards ($28 per week for kids, $42 for adults), but the price is so outrageous it converted this Diet Coke aficionado to iced tea for the duration of the trip. Without the card, a glass of soda is $1.95.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.50 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $3.50 per person, per day to the cabin steward (or $5.75 if you're in a suite); and $2 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. Royal Caribbean also recommends $0.75 per person, per day to the headwaiter, but we don't necessarily tip him or her unless the service was special. Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance, added to your onboard bill or paid in cash at the end of the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief; updated by Erica Silverstein, Senior EditorAfter cruising on Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships, I was worried that the Voyager-class ships (which include Voyager of the Seas, Adventure of the Seas, Navigator of the Seas and Explorer of the Seas) would be a disappointment. It's true that they were once touted as the most revolutionary ships afloat, with their novel rock-climbing walls, ice-skating rinks and Royal Promenade shopping-and-dining venues. But then came the Freedom class, with even larger ships and even more outrageous amenities, such as onboard surfing and family suites that sleep 14 people. And then came the 225,282-ton, 5,400-passenger Oasis-class ships, which added a foliage-filled Central Park, zip-lining and an outdoor AquaTheater for Cirque-style performances.

Yet, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Mariner of the Seas, the last of the Voyager-class ships to make its debut, did not feel like a disappointing second to its newer siblings. The ship -- really only 15 percent smaller than the Freedom-class ships -- can still keep an active cruiser engaged for hours on a sea day. You don't miss onboard surfing or zip-lining when you're busy rollerblading, playing miniature golf, relaxing in the thalassotherapy pool, catching a parade on the Royal Promenade or playing poker in the casino. Kids have an enormous warren of play rooms (including an arcade and exclusive outdoor deck space), diners have five restaurants and a cafe from which to choose, and the onboard staff plans to increase shipboard activities during port days on seven-night Mexican Riviera sailings, figuring the ship is so attractive that people will likely skip Cabo San Lucas or Puerto Vallarta for more time onboard.

As well, Mariner of the Seas benefits from being the last in the Voyager-class, with enhancements not found on the first three ships. This ship, as well as Navigator of the Seas, offers these additional features:

Balconies are built outside the vessel's superstructure, rather than inside, as they were with the first three in the family. The difference? Balconies are less cavelike and more light-filled, and cabins are three feet wider and airier, as well.

The addition of Chops Grill gives Mariner and Navigator of the Seas two alternative restaurants each. (The first three in this class just have Portofino.)

Vintages, a wine bar designed to resemble a cozy wine cellar, has replaced the sports bar found on the first three Voyager-class ships (though the 19th Hole, upstairs, still offers a sports theme).

The Windjammer Cafe is slightly larger than on the original Voyager-class ships. You might not notice the extra space, but you will benefit from less crowding when navigating between food stations and dining tables during peak dining hours.

That's not to say the ship isn't feeling a little bit of its age. We noticed some wear and tear around the ship, specifically in heavily trafficked areas like the hallway carpeting, miniature golf course and kids' club. The drawers in our cabin needed a good greasing, as they didn't open smoothly. And, the narrow rollerblading track is so late 90's -- though it looked like it could be entertaining for an hour in a retro sort of way.

But, in reality, you'll be too busy having fun to notice if the Solarium chair covers are faded or if the wood trim in Chops Grille could use a polish. And, if these miniscule and mostly unimportant signs of age dramatically lessen your cruise experience, then perhaps you should be on a more luxurious and expensive line than Royal Caribbean in the first place!

Ultimately, one of the best things about the ship is that, despite its size, Mariner of the Seas just didn't feel that big. The ship's design makes every effort to create a smaller-ship feel. What was fun about discovering Mariner was that you could pretty much divide the ship into neighborhoods -- the promenade and the sports and recreation area. (Hmm, perhaps this layout was one of the inspirations for Royal Caribbean's newest ships, Oasis of the Seas, which has been designed around a neighborhood premise.) Another reason: Activities, whether during sea days or in the post-dinner evening hours, were so well-scheduled and organized that passengers really were spread out on all parts of the ship. We never felt crowded.

Dining

Mariner of the Seas' elegant main restaurant spans three decks and features a music-themed design. Each of the three levels has an appropriately musical name (such as Deck 3's Rhapsody in Blue, Deck 4's Sound of Music and Deck 5's Top Hat & Tails), and the von Trapp family tableau at the bottom of the grand staircase adds a charming element to the room. Live music on the upper landing of the staircase is a nice touch -- although many of the tunes we heard were either bizarre versions of Broadway showtunes or oddly chosen pieces. (The bombast of "Phantom of the Opera" during dinner?)

Architects did a great job of carving out dining niches throughout the room, so the only time you really feel the size is if you're sitting at or near the captain's table, located in the atrium on Deck 3. For the best people-watching, request a table in the atrium on Deck 4. Most are set for four, six or eight. Tables for two are very hard to come by.

For dinner, passengers can choose between assigned early (6 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) dining, or opt for RCI's My Time Dining, in which you pick a preferred mealtime (anytime between 6 and 9:30 p.m.), but can change your reservations on a daily basis or simply walk in when you're hungry. (Note: Those opting for My Time Dining will need to pre-pay gratuities.) The restaurant is open seating for everyone at breakfast and lunch every day. Cuisine is generally well-prepared, if not innovative. (Royal Caribbean doesn't pretend to be a gourmet-dining cruise line.) Each menu includes healthy fare options, vegetarian dishes (at least one, like vegetarian chili, but sometimes there's an Indian vegetarian dish in addition) and a standard in-case-nothing-else-appeals selection of entrees (rigatoni with marinara sauce, Atlantic cod, chicken breast and black angus top sirloin).

Breakfast and lunch are open-seating, though you shouldn't take that to mean that you can snare a quiet little table for two. In fact, the on-duty maitre' d, on several occasions, seemed to regard passengers who made such requests as nuisances. The ship's best-kept secret may be that lunch in the dining room is one of the better meals onboard. The salad bar is staffed by chefs, who create salads according to your instructions; the ingredients (fresh vegetables, meats and cheeses) are fresher and more varied than in the Windjammer, and the heaping plate of veggies can easily stand alone as a full meal, especially for vegetarians. Plus, the Brasserie30 option, which allows you to choose two menu items and finish your meal within 30 minutes, is a terrific choice for those who want to get back to the pool or other onboard activities.

The Windjammer, Mariner of the Seas' buffet restaurant, is open for breakfast and lunch, and it features mediocre, steam-table cuisine. Kudos must be given, however, to the egg station at breakfast (where you can request a variety of prepared-to-order dishes) and the carving station at lunch. Baked goods are consistently excellent. Somewhat appalling was the buffet's grill at lunchtime, which, instead of the freshly grilled burgers and chicken you might expect, just handed over steam-table fare. Vegetarians will do much better in the main dining room at lunch.

The Windjammer is also open for dinner and is an option for those nights when flexibility is preferred. The buffet features the same items as are on the main dining room menu, but be forewarned: quality was especially mediocre. On our visit, the "roasted tom turkey," served that same night in the dining room, was dried out and lukewarm.

Jade is the ship's Asian-influenced buffet area. It's located adjacent to the Windjammer and features selections representing Chinese, Indian and Japanese cuisines (sometimes an eclectic mix of all three). Its biggest draw, at night only, is sushi, and there's no extra charge for any of the food there.

The primo dining experiences onboard occur in Mariner of the Seas' two alternative restaurants. Chops Grille features a steakhouse atmosphere (the 10 oz. filet mignon is the standout here), and Portofino is a Northern Italian-themed restaurant (offering risotto, three types of pasta, Caprese salad and other Italian favorites). Service and cuisine is exceptional at both. Dinner generally lasts two and a half hours or so. While these are reservation-preferred restaurants (and can book up early, especially since reservations can be made online, pre-cruise), the first night of any cruise tends to be very slow, so walk-ins are accepted. Otherwise, peak times occur between 7 and 8:30 p.m.; if reservations seem tough to snare (and they can be), go earlier or later. Portofino levies a $20 surcharge; Chops Grille is $30.

Not to be missed, either, is Johnny Rocket's. (On our cruise, particularly around noon, it appeared that most of the passengers on the ship were attempting to eat there at the same time!) Sit inside, and enjoy impromptu wait staff song-and-dance performances with your burgers and onion rings. Outside, in Mariner's only outdoor dining arena, you can sit in red booths and admire the view. (But, you'll miss the show.)

There's a $4.95 cover charge to eat Johnny Rocket's food. (No matter how much you order, the fee is still the same, and iced tea, milkshakes and draft beer are a la carte.) A couple of hints: If you don't like to wait in line, aim to arrive at 11:30 a.m., just after it opens, or after 3 p.m. (and anytime at night). Another tip: You can order food "to go," and there's no additional charge, beyond the cover.

You can order room service around-the-clock on Mariner of the Seas. The "main" menu is relatively unimaginative, but offers the basics (Caesar salad, pizza, burgers). Breakfast items include hot dishes, as well as continental fare. At meal times, some of the main restaurant entrees are available, though the full dining room menu is only available to suite guests. Service was consistently efficient and pleasant. There's a $3.95 fee for ordering room service between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m. (excluding breakfast orders).

Another great source for quick, round-the-clock snacks is the Cafe at the Promenade. Its central location makes it ideal for grabbing a snack on the way to a show or activity, as well as a fun place to sit and people-watch on a more leisurely break. In the morning, you can get croissants and danishes; otherwise, there are sandwiches, pizza, cookies and cakes. Seattle's Best coffee is served; there's no charge for the basic brew, tea or hot chocolate from a mix at a self-service station, but espresso, cappuccino and iced coffee drinks are sold at the bar for an extra fee ($1.95 to $4, or $6.25 for caffeinated beverages spiked with liquor). Ben & Jerry's ice cream is adjacent (for an extra fee of $2.50 to $4).

There's also free frozen yogurt at the Arctic Zone, tucked away in a corner of the pool deck.

Royal Caribbean offers all-you-can-drink soda cards ($28 per week for kids, $42 for adults), but the price is so outrageous it converted this Diet Coke aficionado to iced tea for the duration of the trip. Without the card, a glass of soda is $1.95.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.75 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $5 per person, per day to the cabin steward (or $7.25 if you're in a suite); $0.75 per person, per day to the headwaiter; and $2.15 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. This totals $11.65 for those in standard cabins and $13.90 for those in suites. Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance (and must be if you opt for flexible dining), added to your onboard bill or paid in cash at the end of the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.Royal Caribbean's 138,279-ton, 3,114-passenger Mariner of the Seas, launched in 2003, is the fifth and last vessel in the company's game-changing Voyager class. Mariner is largely identical to its siblings -- Voyager of the Seas, Explorer of the Seas, Adventure of the Seas and Navigator of the Seas, but it was the first of its class to get the Royal Advantage upgrade treatment as part of a $300 million initiative designed to create uniformity across the Royal fleet and add signature elements first introduced on the 5,400-passenger Oasis-class ships. As such, travelers who have sailed on a Voyager-class vessel will experience a number of twists beyond the signature ice rink, rock-wall and Royal Promenade.

Mariner of the Seas' Royal improvements, added in April 2012, include the Royal Babies & Tots Nursery, a dedicated space for the under 3's (boosting the family-friendly appeal for a ship that's already extremely family friendly); the addition of the casual, surcharge-free eatery, Boardwalk Dog House; a new family-style Italian restaurant, Giovanni's Table (which replaced the more elegant Portofino); a giant outdoor movie screen by the pool; shipwide Wi-Fi; flat-panel TV's in every cabin; a new Diamond Club for the line's Diamond loyalty members; and an interactive digital Wayfinder system that lists onboard activities, customized directions, as well as ship factoids.

Still, after cruising on Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships, we were worried that the Voyager-class ships would be a disappointment. It's true that they were once touted as the most revolutionary vessels afloat, with their novel rock-climbing walls, ice-skating rinks and Royal Promenades, a shopping mall-esque shopping-and-dining space. But then came the Freedom class, with even larger ships and even more outrageous amenities, such as onboard surfing and family suites that sleep 14. And then came the 225,282-ton, 5,400-passenger Oasis-class ships, which added a foliage-filled Central Park, zip-lining and an outdoor AquaTheater for Cirque-style performances.

Yet we were pleasantly surprised to find that Mariner of the Seas, the last of the Voyager-class ships to make its debut, did not feel like a disappointing second to its newer siblings (and the Oasis-style updates certainly help). The ship -- really only 15 percent smaller than the Freedom-class ships -- can still keep an active cruiser engaged for hours on a sea day. You don't miss onboard surfing or zip-lining when you're busy rollerblading, playing miniature golf, relaxing in the thalassotherapy pool, catching a parade on the Royal Promenade or playing poker in the casino. Kids have an enormous warren of play rooms (including an arcade and exclusive outdoor deck space) and diners have five restaurants, a cafe and a hotdog counter from which to choose.

Ultimately, one of the best things about the ship is that, despite its size, Mariner of the Seas just didn't feel that big. The ship's design makes every effort to create a smaller-ship feel. What was fun about discovering Mariner was that you could pretty much divide the ship into neighborhoods -- the promenade and the sports and recreation area. (Hmm, perhaps this layout was one of the inspirations for Royal Caribbean's newest ships, Oasis of the Seas, which has been designed around a neighborhood premise.) Another reason: Activities, whether during sea days or in the post-dinner evening hours, were so well-scheduled and organized that passengers really were spread out on all parts of the ship. We never felt crowded.

Dining

Mariner of the Seas' main restaurant spans three decks and features a music-themed design. Each of the three levels has an appropriately musical name (such as Deck 3's Rhapsody in Blue, Deck 4's Sound of Music and Deck 5's Top Hat & Tails), and the von Trapp family tableau at the bottom of the grand staircase adds a charming element to the room. Live music on the upper landing of the staircase is a nice touch.

Architects did a great job of carving out dining niches throughout the room, so the only time you really feel the size is if you're sitting at or near the captain's table, located in the atrium on Deck 3. For the best people-watching, request a table in the atrium on Deck 4. Most are set for four, six or eight. Tables for two are very hard to come by.

For dinner, passengers can choose between assigned early (6 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) dining, or opt for RCI's My Time Dining, in which you pick a preferred mealtime (anytime between 6 and 9:30 p.m.), but can change your reservations on a daily basis or simply walk in when you're hungry. (Note: Those opting for My Time Dining will need to pre-pay gratuities.) The restaurant is open seating for everyone at breakfast and lunch every day. Cuisine is generally well-prepared, if not innovative, with options like pasta with a tomato sauce or broiled fish -- Royal Caribbean doesn't pretend to be a gourmet-dining cruise line. Each menu includes healthy fare options, vegetarian dishes (at least one, like vegetarian chili, but sometimes there's an Indian vegetarian dish in addition) and a standard in-case-nothing-else-appeals selection of entrees (simple pasta dishes, chicken breast and black angus top sirloin).

Breakfast and lunch are open-seating, though you shouldn't take that to mean that you can snare a quiet little table for two. The ship's best-kept secret may be that lunch in the dining room is one of the better meals onboard. The salad bar is staffed by chefs, who create salads according to your instructions; the ingredients (fresh vegetables, meats and cheeses) are fresher and more varied than in the Windjammer (buffet), and the heaping plate of veggies can easily stand alone as a full meal, especially for vegetarians. Plus, the Brasserie30 option, which allows you to choose two menu items and finish your meal within 30 minutes, is a terrific choice for those who want to get back to the pool or other onboard activities.

The Windjammer, Mariner of the Seas' buffet restaurant, is open for breakfast and lunch, and it features mediocre, steam-table cuisine. Kudos must be given, however, to the egg station at breakfast (where you can request a variety of prepared-to-order dishes) and the carving station at lunch. Baked goods are consistently excellent. Somewhat appalling was the buffet's grill at lunchtime, which, instead of the freshly grilled burgers and chicken you might expect, just handed over steam-table fare. Vegetarians will do much better in the main dining room at lunch.

But if it's hot dogs you're yearning for, head over to the Boardwalk Dog House, take a seat at the counter and load up on frankfurters, brats and sausages. There is no extra charge for the wieners. The Windjammer is also open for dinner and is an option for those nights when flexibility is preferred. The buffet features the same items as are on the main dining room menu, but be forewarned: quality was especially mediocre. On our visit, the "roasted tom turkey," served that same night in the dining room, was dried out and lukewarm.

Jade is the ship's Asian-influenced buffet area. It's located adjacent to the Windjammer and features selections representing Chinese, Indian and Japanese cuisines (sometimes an eclectic mix of all three). Its biggest draw, at night only, is sushi, and there's no extra charge for any of the food there.

The primo dining experiences onboard occur in Mariner of the Seas' two alternative restaurants. Chops Grille features a steakhouse atmosphere (the 10 oz. filet mignon is the standout here), and Giovanni's Table (which replaced Portofino) is an Italian trattoria-themed restaurant (offering herb foccacia, Caprese salad, pasta, braised meat dishes and other Italian favorites). Meals are served family style. While these are reservation-preferred restaurants (and can book up early, especially since reservations can be made online, pre-cruise), the first night of any cruise tends to be very slow, so walk-ins are accepted. Otherwise, peak times occur between 7 and 8:30 p.m.; if reservations seem tough to snare (and they can be), go earlier or later. Giovanni's levies a $20 surcharge ($15 for lunch); Chops Grille is $30.

Not to be missed for lunch or dinner is Johnny Rocket's, the old-timey burger joint found throughout RCI's fleet. (On our cruise, particularly around noon, it appeared that most of the passengers on the ship were attempting to eat there at the same time!) Sit inside, and enjoy impromptu wait staff song-and-dance performances with your burgers and onion rings. Outside, in Mariner's only outdoor dining arena, you can sit in red booths and admire the view. (But, you'll miss the show.)

There's a $4.95 cover charge to eat Johnny Rocket's food. (No matter how much you order, the fee is still the same, and iced tea, milkshakes and draft beer are a la carte.) A couple of hints: If you don't like to wait in line, aim to arrive at 11:30 a.m., just after it opens, or after 3 p.m. (and anytime at night). Another tip: You can order food "to go," and there's no additional charge, beyond the cover.

You can order room service around-the-clock on Mariner of the Seas. The "main" menu is relatively unimaginative, but offers the basics (Caesar salad, pizza, burgers). Breakfast items include hot dishes, as well as continental fare. At meal times, some of the main restaurant entrees are available, though the full dining room menu is only available to suite guests. Service was consistently efficient and pleasant. There's a $3.95 fee for ordering room service between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m. (excluding breakfast orders).

Another great source for quick, round-the-clock snacks is the Cafe at the Promenade. Its central location makes it ideal for grabbing a snack on the way to a show or activity, as well as a fun place to sit and people-watch on a more leisurely break. In the morning, you can get croissants and danishes; otherwise, there are sandwiches, pizza, cookies and cakes. Seattle's Best coffee is served; there's no charge for the basic brew, tea or hot chocolate from a mix at a self-service station, but espresso, cappuccino and iced coffee drinks are sold at the bar for an extra fee ($1.95 to $4, or $6.25 for caffeinated beverages spiked with liquor). A Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlor is adjacent (for an extra fee of $2.50 to $4).

There's also fee-free frozen yogurt at the Arctic Zone, tucked away in a corner of the pool deck.

Late night dining is available in the Cafe Promenade for small bites and sweets or room service.

Royal Caribbean offers all-you-can-drink soda cards (prices are determined by length of cruise with an average daily cost of $6.50 for adults and $4.50 for children, plus gratuity), but the price is so outrageous it converted this Diet Coke aficionado to iced tea for the duration of the trip. Without the card, a glass of soda is $1.95.

Public Rooms

You need more than a week -- and perhaps an all-at-sea itinerary -- to experience all of Mariner of the Seas' public rooms! Thankfully, you can use the digital WayFinders to navigate your way around the ship.

The main focus, especially indoors, is the ship's fabulous Promenade. It's the pulse of the vessel. It's lined with shops (the usual cruise-style boutiques that sell logo items, duty-free liquor, perfume and cruisewear) and bars like the British-esque Wig & Gavel pub, the cave-like Vintages wine bar and the somewhat-elegant-but-mostly-bland Champagne Bar. However, the highlight is the 24-hour Cafe at the Promenade, which is a great place to snack and people watch.

Off the main promenade, in various directions, are the Lotus Lounge (the ship's secondary theater with entertainment ranging from line-dancing classes to cooking workshops) and the Connoisseur's Lounge (a very elegant, cozy cigar bar). Connected to the Promenade, via various stairways, are additional entertainment arenas, including Casino Royale, the Schooner Bar, Bolero's, the Savoy Theater and the Dragon's Lair disco. Tucked away a deck lower -- easy to miss -- is the ship's intimate cinema.

Studio B is located on Deck 3, with access only from the aft end of that deck, by the dining room; it houses the ship's ice-skating performances and activities, as well as occasional adults-only comedy shows. Arrive early for the best seats, as the theater is fairly small (though sightlines are good throughout).

Other public areas include a decently stocked library. The CyberZone is one of the more inviting onboard Internet centers we've seen, and it never seemed over-crowded.. The cost for Internet access, via bow-to-stern Wi-Fi or at a work station, is 65 cents a minute, or you can buy packages of 60, 100, 150, 250 or 500 minutes for $35, $55, $75, $100 or $150, respectively. The Photo Gallery on Deck 3 is the place to giggle over silly photos of your shipmates and buy your own for outlandish prices. BR>
For a great view, the Viking Crown Lounge area, sitting atop the main pool, is divided into three rooms. Ellington's, which transforms into a jazz club at night, is almost as popular during the day as a spot for quiet reading (and a bird's-eye view of the scene around the pool). Other areas include the 19th Hole sports bar and a dedicated quiet area.

We loved Vintages wine bar -- a new addition to Voyager-class ships, beginning with Navigator of the Seas -- with its cozy, wine-cave feel. You can purchase wine flights to do your own tastings of California wines. The fabulous and colorfully electric Bolero's (on Deck 4, under the Champagne Bar) was unfairly bypassed by many cruisers, and it seems as if its lively ambience would be more appropriate for the Promenade.

Cabins

Mariner of the Seas continues the Voyager-class tradition by offering a decent number of reasonably priced balcony cabins (775 of 1,557 fall into this category). Otherwise, there are four other cabins categories -- suites, outsides, insides and the unusual atrium-view (looking onto the Royal Promenade). (Editor's Note: One difference between Mariner [and 2002's Navigator] and its Voyager-class siblings is that balconies are positioned outside the vessel's superstructure, rather than inside, as they were with the first three in the family. The difference? Balconies are less cavelike and more light-filled, and cabins are three feet wider and airier, as well.)

Standard inside, oceanview and balcony cabins are decorated in light, primary colors and feature light woods. Standard balcony cabins range in size from 184- to 199-square feet (with 50- to 65-sq. ft. balcony), while oceanview cabins range from 160-square feet for a standard to 293-square feet for a family-sized room. All cabins come with convertible, twins-to-queen beds; and flat-screen televisions, offering interactive services like room service ordering (though we found it easier just to pick up the phone), pay-per-view flicks and numerous channels. (RCTV does an outstanding job, featuring everything from news and sports channels to a Promenade-cam, which shows the action inside the ship, and the "Retro TV" channel, which features classic sitcoms). Other features include desk/vanity areas and seating areas with loveseats or full-length couches (some fold out). Cabins with balconies are each equipped with two basic chairs and a small table. The balconies have glass panels.

Windowless inside cabins and atrium-view promenade cabins differ by just 10-square feet, with the standard inside coming in at 150-square feet and the promenade cabin at 160-square feet.

Cabins have mini-fridges that are minimally stocked with soft drinks and juices; the charge for mini-fridge items is the same as in the bars. We found there was plenty of room to stash our own sodas and such (or you ask the room steward to remove the contents).

Bathrooms are basic and only suites have tubs. The showers, however, have those wonderful, half-round sliding doors, a fabulous improvement over icky, clingy shower curtains. Soap and shampoo are provided (suites get mini-bottles of Royal Caribbean's Vitality shampoo, conditioner and lotion). Hair dryers are located in the vanities, rather than in the bathrooms.

Mariner of the Seas offers 26 accessible cabins in a variety of categories and sizes (from 256-square feet to 276-square feet). Features include wider doors, closet racks that can be pulled down to lower heights and accessible showers and toilets. These cabins are set aside for cruise travelers who can prove they need the accessible amenities; the cabins only enter the regular inventory close to the sail date, if they haven't sold out by then.

Suites come in a variety of configurations. The 1,325-square-foot Royal Suite is the ship's prime suite, featuring an elaborately furnished living room -- wet bar, dining table, entertainment center and even a piano -- and a separate bedroom with king bed and its own balcony. The bathroom is spacious and ultra-luxe and includes a whirlpool tub, separate shower and bidet. The suite's 248-square-foot balcony is furnished with wicker lounge chairs and a dining table.

The 583-square-foot Owner's Suites are also quite luxurious, with queen beds and living and dining area. However, these suites are more open, with the sleeping areas separated from the rest of the living quarters by large, rotating, flat-screen TV's (rather than actual walls). The balconies (157-square feet), are big enough for a lounge chair.

The 390-square-foot Grand Oceanview Suite offers a bedroom, sitting area, bar area and bathroom with tub, in addition to an 89-square-foot balcony. The 299-square-foot Junior Suite is basically an expanded version of a standard verandah stateroom, featuring a sitting area with chair and couch, a walk-in closet and a bathroom with a tub.

The 512-square-foot Royal Family Suite, which can sleep up to eight people, has two bedrooms (a master bedroom and a smaller, inside bedroom with two regular beds and another two that pull down from the ceiling) and two bathrooms (one with a tub, one with a shower). The suite also offers a living area with a pullout couch and a 208-square-foot balcony with a dining table. A smaller, 328-square-foot Family Oceanview Stateroom looks a lot like a regular outside cabin but also has a small second bedroom with bunk beds.

The smallest of the suites is the 297-square foot Junior Suite, which features a 75-square foot balcony and sitting area.

All suiteholders, except those in Junior Suites, are entitled to use the Concierge Lounge on Deck 9. This windowless room features continental breakfast and a cocktail hour. Upon request, the concierge on duty handles special requests for reservations -- alternative restaurants, spa, etc. However, on our trip, she made a point to tell us "it is just as easy to make the call yourself."

Entertainment

Where do you even begin? It can be very hard to relax on Mariner of the Seas -- even on sea days -- because of the head-spinning array of activities that run from dawn to dusk and beyond. The ship's entertainment staff offers an intriguing blend of options, and everyone, from the most traditional passenger to the completely contemporary traveler, will find something to do.

Highlights? During the day, you'll find plenty of traditional cruise activities, such as bingo, dance lessons (line-dancing), horse racing, art auctions, seminars (on everything from healthy eating to gemstones), Mr. Sexy Legs contests, bridge pairing, art and craft workshops and films in the tiny cinema. More unusual activities include rock-climbing wall competitions and "Ice Under the Big Top" -- the ship's ice skating show. Poolside, throughout the day, a live band plays a blend of Caribbean and American songs.

Throughout the day and night, there's often some type of performance along the Promenade, such as the "Enchanted Knights Parade," performances by Krooze Komics, instrumental trios or mini-comedy shows.

At night, the 15 bars, clubs and lounges swing into full party mode (at differing decibel levels). And, while Royal Caribbean offers the usual lavish, Vegas-style, main-showroom music and dance extravaganzas (starring the Royal Caribbean Singers & Dancers), what really captivated the crowd on our cruise was the audience participation programming. Chief among them was "Karaoke Idol Search," which was a series of auditions throughout the week, culminating in a well-attended "finals." And, all of Royal Caribbean's ships offer the Love and Marriage Show (a take-off on television's "The Newlywed Game"), and it is, indeed, hysterical.

Beyond performances, lounges all offered trademark-style entertainment at night. At the Wig & Gavel pub, a mournful guitarist-singer sang mellow tunes and rock classics. Bolero featured Latin dance music. The Schooner Bar's pianist played pop and torch songs. Ellington's is the place for jazz. The Lotus Lounge, when not otherwise engaged in karaoke competitions, was the prime dance venue, and the Dragon's Lair -- the ship's wannabe-goth disco (that didn't even open until 10 p.m.) -- was the destination for late-night reveling and featured a D.J.

Casino-lovers will find everything from penny slots to gaming tables (including roulette, various versions of poker, blackjack and craps). Put your key card in the machines to win extra prizes as you play. You can charge your card to get cash to play, but there's a three percent surcharge in the casino (no charge if you've arranged to pay your onboard bill in cash).

Fitness and Recreation

Voyager-class ships -- and Mariner of the Seas is no exception -- are famous for their "get out there" philosophy, when it comes to onboard recreation. As such, a huge area (aft) is dedicated to the pursuit of athleticism. There is, of course, the rock-climbing wall (instruction is available), along with a golf simulator (for an extra fee), full-court basketball, Ping Pong, a rollerblading rink and miniature golf. The ship also offers a handful of ice-skating opportunities on sea days down in Studio B.

The ship's main pool area -- decorated by Romero Britto, a South Florida artist, known for his colorful, exuberant designs -- looks like a fabulous scene from St. Tropez. The outdoor deck is a scene in its own right and features two adjacent pools, jumbo, tea-cup-shaped whirlpools (and normal ones, too) and stadium lounge seating. A poolside jumbotron movie screen displays inspirational scenery, as well as movies and sports. One interesting note: One of the pools and a whirlpool have hydraulic lifts for the disabled.

The solarium pool is an adults-only area. It's lovely; lounges are outfitted with cushy, blue-covered cushions. The only downside: The area is in shadow for long periods of the day, due to its placement; sun worshippers are pretty much limited to high noon. And the area itself is fairly small (and, alas, quite popular); on sea days, we saw quite a bit of unmonitored chair saving from 8 a.m. onwards. The pool -- the only one onboard with actual steps, rather than just ladders -- is flanked by two larger whirlpools. The adjacent bar serves up "power smoothies" in addition to the more typical sodas, beer and cocktails.

We loved Mariner of the Seas' "ShipShape" Center. A two-level fitness facility/spa, it features a group exercise room for fitness classes (some, like spinning and yoga, charge a fee), an indoor thalassotherapy pool (free of charge), plenty of fitness equipment (we never saw a crowd) and the spa itself.

The facility features men's and women's locker rooms with a steam room and a sauna.

The spa and beauty salon, operated by the ubiquitous Steiner Leisure, Ltd., offered an excellent range of treatments (massages, facials, Ionithermie Algae Detox). There's even a Rasul room, a private steam and shower room, which couples can book to spend an hour slathering each other in exfoliating lotion, mud masks and moisturizers, while steaming their pores open. Service in the spa was outstanding -- and the quality of the treatments themselves was very high.

A couple of caveats: Be prepared for sticker shock, with a basic 50-minute massage now costing $119 or more. A traditional 25-minute manicure is $29; a 45-minute pedicure is $45. The spa did offer "discounts" on port-of-call days (and as the cruise wound down).

But beware: Treatment employees will engage, way too aggressively, in the much-loathed "Steiner Product Pitch" at the end of your appointment. The products are also over-priced. Just say no.

Family

Mariner of the Seas is an outstanding choice for family cruisers. The facilities on this ship are among the largest in the industry -- encompassing 22,000 square feet -- and include computer stations, arts and crafts workshops, science areas and a video arcade. The ship is making a real effort to court families with teenagers; these young folks have three rooms to call home, including a nightclub (Fuel), a hang-out (The Living Room) and The Back Deck, which is a teens-only outdoor area.

We missed having a kids-only pool area like those on Royal Caribbean's Radiance-class ships, however.

Royal Caribbean's excellent Adventure Ocean Youth Program divides kids into age-appropriate groups. For instance, Aquanauts (the program for ages 3 to 5) may feature activities like "Alphabet Scavenger Hunt," story time and Adventure Theater acting classes by Camp Broadway. Explorers (ages 6 to 8) play backwards bingo, make their own surfboards and engage in basic science activities. Voyagers (ages 9 to 11) play foosball and capture the flag, as well as engage in science experiments that range from earthquakes to hailstorms. Even the teens are divided into two groups. Tweens (ages 12 to 14) have "open-mic" karaoke contests and a rock-wall challenge. And, the coolest group (ages 15 to 17) -- so cool, they don't have a kitschy name -- has its own dance parties and arcade competitions. In addition, Royal Caribbean has partnered with Fisher Price, Mattel and Crayola to offer a variety of kid- and family-friendly games and activities for all ages.

For the youngest set The Royal Babies Nursery (ages six - 18 months) offers interactive enrichment activities developed by the experts at Fisher Price; while the Royal Tots program (ages 18-36 months) offers 45-minute interactive playground sessions. A parent or caregiver must accompany all youngins during activity sessions.

Generally, activities at Adventure Ocean cease during lunch and dinner times, but there is the occasional organized meal outing (to Johnny Rocket's, for instance). On sea days, you can leave your kids (ages 3 to 11) at Adventure Ocean for a noon to 2 p.m. lunch-and-play for a cost of $7.95. Plus, new My Family Time Dining offers an option that lets kids finish dinner in the main dining room in 45 minutes, then get escorted by Adventure Ocean counselors back to the kids' club to play (letting Mom and Dad enjoy a more leisurely meal).

Late-night group babysitting in the kids' areas (for ages 3 to 11) is available from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. for $5 per hour, per child. In-room babysitting for kids over the age of 1 (up to four children) costs $18 per hour and requires a 24-hour advance reservation.

Fellow Passengers

While most passengers traditionally hailed from the U.S., with the ship's move to Asia the line does expect to attract a significant percentage of Asian passengers. Mariner of the Seas appeals to a wide variety of ages. (With so many kids onboard, the average age typically hovers around 40.) Regardless of age, passengers tend to be very active in spirit.

Dress Code

During the day, dress is casual, as is evening dress except on formal nights (the number of which depend on length of itinerary). However, even on formal nights many men wear suits rather than tuxes. Dress at the alterative eateries is always smart casual (cocktail or summer dresses for women and nice shirt and/or sports coat for men), and dinners at the Windjammer buffet are casual.

We noticed that, on formal nights, passengers really did get into the elegant spirit of the evening -- for dinner, anyway -- then rushed back to cabins to change into more comfortable clothing for the evening's activities.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.75 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $5 per person, per day to the cabin steward (or $7.25 if you're in a suite); $0.75 per person, per day to the headwaiter; and $2.15 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. This totals $11.65 for those in standard cabins and $13.90 for those in suites. Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance (and must be if you opt for flexible dining), added to your onboard bill or paid in cash at the end of the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

Effective March 1, Royal Caribbean passengers are charged $12 per person, per day ($14.25 for suite guests). Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance or will be added on a daily basis to passengers' SeaPass accounts during the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean passengers are charged $12 per person, per day ($14.25 for suite guests). Gratuities can be prepaid or will be added on a daily basis to passengers' SeaPass accounts during the cruise. Passengers can modify or remove gratuities by visiting the guest services desk while onboard. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

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