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Cruise Ship Review

Jewel of the Seas - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

Having already sailed on Royal Caribbean's Brilliance and Serenade of the Seas, two similar vessels in the line's Radiance class of ships, I was already pretty well primed for what to expect on Jewel of the Seas. Jewel, which debuted in spring 2004, is the fourth and last limb on this Royal Caribbean family tree.

At 90,090 tons (which counts on the high end of mid-size these days), Jewel of the Seas, like its siblings, has just enough space for some of the storied Royal Caribbean innovations, such as a rock climbing wall, gorgeous solarium pool, expansive Adventure Ocean kids facility and two lovely alternative restaurants. At the same time, its layout is so well designed I hardly ever was reminded that the ship carried 2,100-plus other passengers.

That's why, before embarking on a recent six-night Western Caribbean cruise, my expectations were on the high side. I anticipated that Jewel would be a beautiful ship in a physical sense, with lovely dark woods throughout that were countered by an infusion of glass and light. I surmised that service would generally, for such a large vessel, be quite good -- if a tad uneven. And I assumed that the cuisine, in true Royal Caribbean style, would be adequate when you considered that the ship's culinary staff caters to several thousand folks -- but not necessarily superb.

The big surprise to me was that Jewel of the Seas did not only meet my lofty expectations -- it also exceeded them. So many elements of the trip were truly exceptional that I found myself comparing the cruise to those taken on luxury lines that sail smaller ships -- and charge significantly higher tariffs.

Among the pleasant surprises:

Cuisine had markedly improved and I'm not referring to the alternative restaurants (which I've always thought were pretty good) as much as the main dining room, particularly at dinner, where roughly half the ship is ordering and eating simultaneously.

Entertainment ranged from the fabulously ridiculous (like the always funny Newlywed Game) to the elegantly sublime (the Rosario Strings).

The ship was indeed beautiful. I have never been a fan of over-hyped art collections, and yet there were some pieces that were so gorgeous (particularly a series of hauntingly beautiful photographs on the main staircase landing between Decks 5 and 6) that I made it a point to take the stairs several times a day just to admire them.

Service was consistently top-notch in all areas. On a couple of occasions, my cabin steward, seeing me return to my cabin with arms full, ran, literally, half a corridor ahead of me to open the door. At dinner in the main dining room, waiters remembered us -- even though we only attended intermittently. Staffers at the purser's desk were unusually helpful and attitude-free.

As a result, for the first time in a long time at Cruise Critic, a ship that's firmly planted in the mass-market category receives an overall rating of five -- which places it in the lofty firmament of only a handful of luxury ships (such scores have heretofore only been bestowed upon small, luxury-oriented ships whose lines charge a heftier price tag). Jewel earned the rating particularly for its top-notch entertainment, family facilities, and better-than-usual cuisine and service -- and for offering exceptional value for money.

We do offer a caveat, however: Our Jewel of the Seas trip was an exceptional experience but it still should not be measured against luxury lines. That's because it is a big ship. Which means you may have to fight for a deck chair on a sunny sea day and pay out of pocket for a myriad of expenses, from fancy coffees to soda. In tender ports you'll have to line up for a ticket. Standard staterooms (with or without balconies) are pretty small and bathrooms offer fairly basic amenities. And on embarkation day passengers are expected to vacate cabins by 8 a.m. -- and wait in public areas for color tags to be called.

Even so, there were times when I had to remind myself, when listening to the elegant Rosario Strings in the Champagne Bar or dining sumptuously at Portofino (Jewel's alternative, Italian-themed restaurant), that I was traveling on a ship where a cabin could cost as little as $100 per person, per night.

On my last night, dining at Portofino, I overheard a fellow passenger make what seemed like an audacious request -- the type of thing you could get away with on an $800-per-day cruise -- but not, certainly, on this one. "I would like my tiramisu delivered to my cabin precisely at midnight," she barked. I waited for the waitress to offer a "that's impossible," the standard big ship line. But she didn't. She just replied "yes, madam." Perhaps the waitress misunderstood? When the snippy passenger repeated the demand a second time -- and got the same affirmation -- I was frankly stunned. For a moment, I felt as if I'd entered another cruise universe -- that of a clubby small luxury line.

At the meal's end, the couple stood up to leave, and the waitress returned -- with the tiramisu wrapped in a "to go" box! So much for the midnight delivery.

In a way, I was relieved. Jewel of the Seas may offer a superb cruise experience, but its greatest strength is that it's a ship that blends laid-back and informal into a quality experience. And that it appeals to all sorts of folks. Just not, perhaps, the imperious ones.

Dining

The Tides Dining Room is a gorgeously decorated, two-level main restaurant. It is open daily for open-seating breakfast and on sea days for open-seating lunch. At dinner, Tides offers Royal Caribbean's flexible My Time Dining program. Passengers can choose between assigned early (6 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) dining, 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.

The dining room -- especially if you snag a table on the first level (or a ringside seat on the second) -- has been decorated with a romantic moonlight and tide theme. More significant, though, is the service (consistently excellent) and the food. Of particular note, at dinner in the main dining room, a tenderloin of beef ordered medium rare was cooked perfectly medium rare. Breakfast proved equally appealing: Eggs benedict -- ordered lightly cooked -- arrived just as requested.

During the day, there were plenty of other options. The Windjammer Cafe, the ship's buffet venue, features an innovative and, frankly, brilliant design pioneered on earlier Radiance-class ships by creating a number of food stations (divided into hot dishes, salads, desserts), so diners don't all wait in one long line. The room is elegant for such a casual place, and whimsically nautical in decor. Behind the Windjammer, toward the aft of the ship, is a covered, outdoor area (it's claustrophobic) and beyond that is a much nicer outdoor seating area that's partially covered. Breakfast and lunch were pretty much the usual cruise fare (plus a hot egg station for breakfast, and a pasta station for lunch). The Windjammer offered casual dinners, generally featuring menu items also being served in the dining room.

Junk food junkies: Don't miss the fabulous Seaview Cafe. It's tucked up toward the back and top of the ship and easy to miss but it's a great spot for fish and chips, burgers, Reubens and chili. The onion rings are superb as are the "feathers and fingers" (chicken wings and nuggets). It's usually not open until about 1 p.m. and then closes at dinner time, reopening for late-night noshing. The Solarium Cafe offered so-so pizza and, far more interesting (and also quite delicious), a "crepe of the day."

Chops Grille is the first of two alternative restaurants onboard Jewel of the Seas. It's a steakhouse-style restaurant modeled after on-land places like Morton's (though the fact that waiters push the veal chop instead of the filet is curious). It's got an open kitchen and service teams of two wait on each table. Enjoyable as it was, the real highlight of onboard dining was Portofino. The menu was the same both nights I ate there (and I happily would've squeezed in another visit if possible). Favorites included tiger shrimp risotto (which you could order as an appetizer or an entree) and spaghetti with lobster sauce. And don't, whatever you do, bypass the tiramisu for dessert. The interpretation was fantastic -- it was set in a chocolate cup and layered on the bottom were crushed raspberries. Best tiramisu ... ever!

In both Chops Grille and Portofino there's a per-person service fee ($20 in Portofino and $25 in Chops).

There's a coffee bar with specialty, a la carte priced coffees (and free pastries).

Royal Caribbean's room service options are available around the clock via 24-hour menus that offer a range of snacks and sandwiches. At breakfast, continental dishes, along with a handful of egg entrees, are available both in cabins and suites. Items off the main dining room menu can be ordered at dinner. There is no charge for room service (though a buck or two gratuity is recommended) between 5 a.m. and midnight; late-night orders incur a $3.95 fee.

Public Rooms

First impressions count and the initial reaction to Jewel's airy and light nine deck high atrium (here called a Centrum) is "wow!" It was definitely a passenger magnet; areas around the Centrum, whether on its ground-floor level or five decks above, were constantly in use (during the day there were cooking demos and art auctions, at night dancing to a live trio), with passengers hanging over banisters to watch the scene down below.

Other features include a very desultory selection of shops selling logo wear, a lot of cheap jewelry and duty-free perfumes. There's a casino, natch, and the two-deck Coral Theater -- the main show venue.

The real action, though, takes place in the ship's plethora of bars. In fact there are so many that even on a six-night cruise we didn't manage to hit them all. On top of the ship is the Vortex Disco (which used to be known as the Viking Crown Lounge); the funky bar revolves. It's primarily the ship's spot for late night revelry but we loved it, too, for a pre-dinner cocktail at sunset. Also up top is the Hollywood Odyssey. One of our favorite spaces, it is romantic and cozy -- and a great spot for lovers of torch songs. One gripe: Though we know that cigar smokers have rights, the incessant smoke made this a less than perfect place.

In the evenings before and after dinner, the bars surrounding the atrium were vibrant and lively, particularly the Champagne Bar and the Lobby Bar. No doubt, the standing- room-only crowds were drawn by the sounds of Rosario Strings.

Off the main path a bit was Royal Caribbean's trademark Schooner Bar -- it's in the space between Chops Grille and Portofinos. And the Safari Club was the secondary showroom.

One bar we never quite cottoned to was the Pit Stop bar; ostensibly the ship's sports bar, its location was right off the casino and it was hard to hear any of the coverage on the handful of televisions because of the ringing of the slot machines.

The ship has three different areas with cyber-connected computer terminals (we loved to use the computers in the coffee bar area). Cost per minute was 50 cents (with packages available for heavy users). Internet access is also available in staterooms; there you must pay a flat rate that's dependent on the length of your cruise.

There's a tiny library with a desultory collection of books (bring your own). The ship also has a small cinema.

Cabins

On the whole and with the exception of suites, Jewel's cabins run on the smaller side of industry average (insides from 165 square ft. to outsides at 170 square ft.) though they are pleasant and compactly laid out. Outside cabins have a porthole (nice touch) but are otherwise not at all different from standard balcony staterooms. There are cabins to accommodate disabled passengers in many categories.

Standard, in all cabins, are two twin beds that converts to a queen, a mini-fridge (that's filled with a few sodas), television with an interesting assortment of channels (including classic flicks and nostalgia sitcoms), a desk/vanity area and a safe. Balcony staterooms also feature a love seat sitting area. The verandahs themselves are very pleasant, with comfortable nylon mesh furnishings.

In the suite category there are a handful of options. There's a quite-expansive Junior Suite (basically the size of two cabins) but the fancier Grand Suites have marble bathrooms, dry bars and sound systems, Owner's Suites have flat-screen televisions and whirlpool baths, and the top-of-the-line Royal Suite has, beyond all of the above, a baby grand. All but the Junior Suites offer concierge lounge access.

Entertainment

While Royal Caribbean continues to carve out its reputation as the "Get Out There" action/adventure cruise line, it doesn't stint on onboard entertainment, whether by day or by night. Daytimes (particularly sea days) the options are pretty run-of-the-mill -- bingo, country line dance classes and trivia contests.

Evenings, though, were a veritable six-ring circus. After dinner, you'd start off at the Coral Theater -- shows specializing in Broadway-style ensemble singing and dancing were big hits there -- then maybe catch a movie or join in on the Battle of the Sexes competition, or hit one of the bars for a variety of musical performances.

Fitness and Recreation

The main pool area is vibrant and well-used (just try to find room in one of its two over-crowded whirlpools before 8 p.m.!). Ironically, because of shade issues, sun loungers on the deck overlooking the pool were in more demand than right by it.

Jewel's fabulous glass-domed solarium -- decked out in a Thai theme, complete with a bronze tiger -- features an 18th-century Temple Bell from northern Thailand. Even more impressive: We loved the wooden deck chairs, with cheery magenta-colored chaise pads that surrounded the pool. There's a whirlpool here -- it, like the others on the pool deck, was always crowded.

In keeping with Royal Caribbean's focus on activity, the two-level fitness center and spa offered comprehensive equipment and services. The spa, in particular, offers a full range of treatments -- one new service is tooth whitening! It's got a thermal suite which features steam, aromatherapy steam, a sauna and fog showers, plus heated tile loungers. On our cruise it cost $15 a day to use it -- even if you bought a body treatment. The spa is operated by Steiner Leisure -- and we always advise that staff therapists are guided, at the end of a treatment, to try to sell you their quite expensive beauty products. Not interested? Just say no before you even get started! There's also a beauty salon, offering haircuts, colors, manicures and such.

In addition to state-of-the-art workout equipment, the fitness center offers the usual gamut of exercise classes; aside from aerobics, most were available for a fee of $10. There's also the ubiquitous rock-climbing wall, sports court, mini-golf course and golf simulator.

Family

Adventure Ocean, Jewel's family program, is housed in a sprawling facility that extends outside (to a pool with slide). First, know that Kids are divided into five groups: Aquanauts (3 - 5); Explorers (6 - 8); Voyagers (9 - 11); Navigators (12 - 14); and Guests (15 - 17).

Kids must be toilet trained in order to participate.

Key components of the program (for the 3- to 11-year-olds) include Adventure Science, Adventure Art by Crayola, Sail Into Story Time and Adventure Family. The last invites parents to participate in planned activities, like scavenger hunts and talent shows.

Teens have "Fuel" -- their own facility -- which consists of an area called "The Living Room," a disco, a juice bar and its own Internet-connected computers (at half the price of the terminals in the cyber-centers).

Fellow Passengers

What was fun about Jewel on our trip was that the ship attracted so many different types of passengers -- older, younger (although not too many kids as it was a school's-in-session time), active, laidback, etc. One note though: Royal Caribbean, particularly in off-school-holiday months, does a roaring trade with meetings and convention business and that can mean, as it did on our voyage, that some 50 percent of passengers are actually part of business groups onboard. It does change the dynamic somewhat.

Dress Code

Dress is casual during the day. On our six-night cruise we had one formal night; on the ship's eight-night sailings there are two formal nights. In that case most folks wore dark suits (men) and cocktail dresses (women). Otherwise, country club casual pretty much dominates in the evenings (even on casual nights).

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 $0.75 per person, per day to the headwaiter, but we don't necessarily unless the service was special. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs. You still hand out your tips the old fashioned way (though you can charge them to your onboard account and receive "coupons" that you personally give to waiter, cabin steward, etc.).

Dining

The Tides Dining Room is a gorgeously decorated, two-level main restaurant. It is open daily for open-seating breakfast and on sea days for open-seating lunch. At dinner, Tides offers Royal Caribbean's flexible My Time Dining program. Passengers can choose between assigned early (6 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) dining, 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. (Note: Those opting for My Time Dining will need to pre-pay gratuities.)

The dining room -- especially if you snag a table on the first level (or a ringside seat on the second) -- has been decorated with a romantic moonlight and tide theme. More significant, though, is the service (consistently excellent) and the food. Of particular note, at dinner in the main dining room, a tenderloin of beef ordered medium rare was cooked perfectly medium rare. Breakfast proved equally appealing: Eggs benedict -- ordered lightly cooked -- arrived just as requested.

During the day, there were plenty of other options. The Windjammer Cafe, the ship's buffet venue, features an innovative and, frankly, brilliant design pioneered on earlier Radiance-class ships by creating a number of food stations (divided into hot dishes, salads, desserts), so diners don't all wait in one long line. The room is elegant for such a casual place, and whimsically nautical in decor. Behind the Windjammer, toward the aft of the ship, is a covered, outdoor area (it's claustrophobic) and beyond that is a much nicer outdoor seating area that's partially covered. Breakfast and lunch were pretty much the usual cruise fare (plus a hot egg station for breakfast, and a pasta station for lunch). The Windjammer offered casual dinners, generally featuring menu items also being served in the dining room.

Junk food junkies: Don't miss the fabulous Seaview Cafe. It's tucked up toward the back and top of the ship and easy to miss but it's a great spot for fish and chips, burgers, Reubens and chili. The onion rings are superb as are the "feathers and fingers" (chicken wings and nuggets). It's usually not open until about 1 p.m. and then closes at dinner time, reopening for late-night noshing. The Solarium Cafe offered so-so pizza and, far more interesting (and also quite delicious), a "crepe of the day."

Chops Grille is the first of two alternative restaurants onboard Jewel of the Seas. It's a steakhouse-style restaurant modeled after on-land places like Morton's (though the fact that waiters push the veal chop instead of the filet is curious). It's got an open kitchen and service teams of two wait on each table. Enjoyable as it was, the real highlight of onboard dining was Portofino. The menu was the same both nights I ate there (and I happily would've squeezed in another visit if possible). Favorites included tiger shrimp risotto (which you could order as an appetizer or an entree) and spaghetti with lobster sauce. And don't, whatever you do, bypass the tiramisu for dessert. The interpretation was fantastic -- it was set in a chocolate cup and layered on the bottom were crushed raspberries. Best tiramisu ... ever!

In both Chops Grille and Portofino there's a per-person service fee ($20 in Portofino and $25 in Chops).

There's a coffee bar with specialty, a la carte priced coffees (and free pastries).

Royal Caribbean's room service options are available around the clock via 24-hour menus that offer a range of snacks and sandwiches. At breakfast, continental dishes, along with a handful of egg entrees, are available both in cabins and suites. Items off the main dining room menu can be ordered at dinner. There is no charge for room service (though a buck or two gratuity is recommended) between 5 a.m. and midnight; late-night orders incur a $3.95 fee.

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 $0.75 per person, per day to the headwaiter, but we don't necessarily unless the service was special. 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 the old-fashioned way at the end of the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

Dining

The Tides Dining Room is a gorgeously decorated, two-level main restaurant. It is open daily for open-seating breakfast and on sea days for open-seating lunch. At dinner, Tides offers Royal Caribbean's flexible My Time Dining program. Passengers can choose between assigned early (6 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) dining, 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.

The dining room -- especially if you snag a table on the first level (or a ringside seat on the second) -- has been decorated with a romantic moonlight and tide theme. More significant, though, is the service (consistently excellent) and the food. Of particular note, at dinner in the main dining room, a tenderloin of beef ordered medium rare was cooked perfectly medium rare. Breakfast proved equally appealing: Eggs benedict -- ordered lightly cooked -- arrived just as requested.

During the day, there were plenty of other options. The Windjammer Cafe, the ship's buffet venue, features an innovative and, frankly, brilliant design pioneered on earlier Radiance-class ships by creating a number of food stations (divided into hot dishes, salads, desserts), so diners don't all wait in one long line. The room is elegant for such a casual place, and whimsically nautical in decor. Behind the Windjammer, toward the aft of the ship, is a covered, outdoor area (it's claustrophobic) and beyond that is a much nicer outdoor seating area that's partially covered. Breakfast and lunch were pretty much the usual cruise fare (plus a hot egg station for breakfast, and a pasta station for lunch). The Windjammer offered casual dinners, generally featuring menu items also being served in the dining room.

Junk food junkies: Don't miss the fabulous Seaview Cafe. It's tucked up toward the back and top of the ship and easy to miss but it's a great spot for fish and chips, burgers, Reubens and chili. The onion rings are superb as are the "feathers and fingers" (chicken wings and nuggets). It's usually not open until about 1 p.m. and then closes at dinner time, reopening for late-night noshing. The Solarium Cafe offered so-so pizza and, far more interesting (and also quite delicious), a "crepe of the day."

Chops Grille is the first of two alternative restaurants onboard Jewel of the Seas. It's a steakhouse-style restaurant modeled after on-land places like Morton's (though the fact that waiters push the veal chop instead of the filet is curious). It's got an open kitchen and service teams of two wait on each table. Enjoyable as it was, the real highlight of onboard dining was Portofino. The menu was the same both nights I ate there (and I happily would've squeezed in another visit if possible). Favorites included tiger shrimp risotto (which you could order as an appetizer or an entree) and spaghetti with lobster sauce. And don't, whatever you do, bypass the tiramisu for dessert. The interpretation was fantastic -- it was set in a chocolate cup and layered on the bottom were crushed raspberries. Best tiramisu ... ever!

In both Chops Grille and Portofino there's a per-person service fee ($20 in Portofino and $25 in Chops).

There's a coffee bar with specialty, a la carte priced coffees (and free pastries).

Royal Caribbean's room service options are available around the clock via 24-hour menus that offer a range of snacks and sandwiches. At breakfast, continental dishes, along with a handful of egg entrees, are available both in cabins and suites. Items off the main dining room menu can be ordered at dinner. There is no charge for room service (though a buck or two gratuity is recommended) between 5 a.m. and midnight; late-night orders incur a $3.95 fee.

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 $0.75 per person, per day to the headwaiter, but we don't necessarily unless the service was special. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs. You still hand out your tips the old fashioned way (though you can charge them to your onboard account and receive "coupons" that you personally give to waiter, cabin steward, etc.). Having already sailed on Royal Caribbean's Brilliance and Serenade of the Seas, two similar vessels in the line's Radiance class of ships, I was already pretty well primed for what to expect on Jewel of the Seas. Jewel, which debuted in spring 2004, is the fourth and last limb on this Royal Caribbean family tree.

At 90,090 tons (which counts on the high end of mid-size these days), Jewel of the Seas, like its siblings, has just enough space for some of the storied Royal Caribbean innovations, such as a rock-climbing wall, gorgeous solarium pool, expansive Adventure Ocean kids' facility and two lovely alternative restaurants. At the same time, its layout is so well designed I hardly ever was reminded that the ship carried 2,100-plus other passengers.

That's why, before embarking on a Caribbean cruise, my expectations were on the high side. I anticipated that Jewel would be a beautiful ship in a physical sense, with lovely dark woods throughout that were countered by an infusion of glass and light. I surmised that service would generally, for such a large vessel, be quite good -- if a tad uneven. And I assumed that the cuisine, in true Royal Caribbean style, would be adequate when you considered that the ship's culinary staff caters to several thousand folks -- but not necessarily superb.

The big surprise to me was that Jewel of the Seas did not only meet my lofty expectations -- it also exceeded them. So many elements of the trip were truly exceptional that I found myself comparing the cruise to those taken on luxury lines that sail smaller ships -- and charge significantly higher tariffs.

Among the pleasant surprises:

Cuisine was consistently excellent, and I'm not referring to the alternative restaurants (which I've always thought were pretty good) as much as the main dining room, particularly at dinner, where roughly half the ship is ordering and eating simultaneously.

Entertainment ranged from the fabulously ridiculous (like the always funny Newlywed Game) to the elegantly sublime (the Rosario Strings).

The ship was indeed beautiful. I have never been a fan of over-hyped art collections, and yet there were some pieces that were so gorgeous (particularly a series of hauntingly beautiful photographs on the main staircase landing between Decks 5 and 6) that I made it a point to take the stairs several times a day just to admire them.

Service was consistently top-notch in all areas. On a couple of occasions, my cabin steward, seeing me return to my cabin with arms full, ran, literally, half a corridor ahead of me to open the door. At dinner in the main dining room, waiters remembered us -- even though we only attended intermittently. Staffers at the purser's desk were unusually helpful and attitude-free.

As a result, for the first time in a long time at Cruise Critic, a ship that's firmly planted in the mass-market category receives an overall rating of five -- which places it in the lofty firmament of only a handful of luxury ships (such scores have heretofore only been bestowed upon small, luxury-oriented ships whose lines charge a heftier price tag). Jewel earned the rating particularly for its top-notch entertainment, family facilities, and better-than-usual cuisine and service -- and for offering exceptional value for money.

We do offer a caveat, however: Our Jewel of the Seas trip was an exceptional experience but it still should not be measured against luxury lines. That's because it is a big ship. Which means you may have to fight for a deck chair on a sunny sea day and pay out of pocket for a myriad of expenses, from fancy coffees to soda. In tender ports you'll have to line up for a ticket. Standard staterooms (with or without balconies) are pretty small and bathrooms offer fairly basic amenities. And on embarkation day passengers are expected to vacate cabins by 8 a.m. -- and wait in public areas for color tags to be called.

Even so, there were times when I had to remind myself, when listening to the elegant Rosario Strings in the Champagne Bar or dining sumptuously at Portofino (Jewel's alternative, Italian-themed restaurant), that I was traveling on a ship where a cabin could cost as little as $100 per person, per night.

On my last night, dining at Portofino, I overheard a fellow passenger make what seemed like an audacious request -- the type of thing you could get away with on an $800-per-day cruise -- but not, certainly, on this one. "I would like my tiramisu delivered to my cabin precisely at midnight," she barked. I waited for the waitress to offer a "that's impossible," the standard big ship line. But she didn't. She just replied "yes, madam." Perhaps the waitress misunderstood? When the snippy passenger repeated the demand a second time -- and got the same affirmation -- I was frankly stunned. For a moment, I felt as if I'd entered another cruise universe -- that of a clubby small luxury line.

At the meal's end, the couple stood up to leave, and the waitress returned -- with the tiramisu wrapped in a "to go" box! So much for the midnight delivery.

In a way, I was relieved. Jewel of the Seas may offer a superb cruise experience, but its greatest strength is that it's a ship that blends laid-back and informal into a quality experience. And that it appeals to all sorts of folks. Just not, perhaps, the imperious ones.

Dining

The Tides Dining Room is a gorgeously decorated, two-level main restaurant. It is open daily for open-seating breakfast and on sea days for open-seating lunch. At dinner, Tides offers Royal Caribbean's flexible My Time Dining program. Passengers can choose between assigned early (6 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) dining, 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. (Note: Those opting for My Time Dining will need to pre-pay gratuities.)

The dining room -- especially if you snag a table on the first level (or a ringside seat on the second) -- has been decorated with a romantic moonlight and tide theme. More significant, though, is the service (consistently excellent) and the food. Of particular note, at dinner in the main dining room, a tenderloin of beef ordered medium rare was cooked perfectly medium rare. Breakfast proved equally appealing: Eggs Benedict -- ordered lightly cooked -- arrived just as requested.

During the day, there were plenty of other options. The Windjammer Cafe, the ship's buffet venue, features an innovative and, frankly, brilliant design pioneered on earlier Radiance-class ships by creating a number of food stations (divided into hot dishes, salads, desserts), so diners don't all wait in one long line. The room is elegant for such a casual place, and whimsically nautical in decor. Behind the Windjammer, toward the aft of the ship, is a covered, outdoor area (it's claustrophobic) and beyond that is a much nicer outdoor seating area that's partially covered. Breakfast and lunch were pretty much the usual cruise fare (plus a hot egg station for breakfast, and a pasta station for lunch). The Windjammer offered casual dinners, generally featuring menu items also being served in the dining room.

Junk food junkies: Don't miss the fabulous Seaview Cafe. It's tucked up toward the back and top of the ship and easy to miss but it's a great spot for fish and chips, burgers, Reubens and chili. The onion rings are superb as are the "feathers and fingers" (chicken wings and nuggets). It's usually not open until about 1 p.m. and then closes at dinner time, reopening for late-night noshing. The Solarium Cafe offered so-so pizza and, far more interesting (and also quite delicious), a "crepe of the day."

Chops Grille is the first of two alternative restaurants onboard Jewel of the Seas. It's a steakhouse-style restaurant modeled after on-land places like Morton's (though the fact that waiters push the veal chop instead of the filet is curious). It's got an open kitchen and service teams of two wait on each table. Enjoyable as it was, the real highlight of onboard dining was Portofino. The menu was the same both nights I ate there (and I happily would've squeezed in another visit if possible). Favorites included tiger shrimp risotto (which you could order as an appetizer or an entree) and spaghetti with lobster sauce. And don't, whatever you do, bypass the tiramisu for dessert. The interpretation was fantastic -- it was set in a chocolate cup and layered on the bottom were crushed raspberries. Best tiramisu ... ever!

In both Chops Grille and Portofino there's a per-person service fee ($20 in Portofino and $30 in Chops).

There's a coffee bar with specialty, a la carte priced coffees (and free pastries).

Royal Caribbean's room service options are available around the clock via 24-hour menus that offer a range of snacks and sandwiches. At breakfast, continental dishes, along with a handful of egg entrees, are available both in cabins and suites. Items off the main dining room menu can be ordered at dinner. There is no charge for room service (though a buck or two gratuity is recommended) between 5 a.m. and midnight; late-night orders incur a $3.95 fee.

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.

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.Jewel of the Seas, which debuted in spring 2004, is the fourth and last limb on Royal Caribbean's Radiance-class family tree. At 90,090 tons, Jewel of the Seas, like its classmates, has just enough space for some of the storied Royal Caribbean innovations, such as a rock-climbing wall, beautiful solarium pool, expansive Adventure Ocean kids' facility and two lovely alternative restaurants. At the same time, its layout is so well designed it's easy to forget the ship carries 2,100-plus passengers.

Jewel is a gorgeous ship, with lovely dark woods throughout countered by an infusion of glass and light. The art collection is striking, and a nautical theme is apparent -- without being overstated -- throughout the ship's public areas.

Service was consistently top-notch. Our cabin steward was particularly delightful, greeting us by name whenever we met her in the halls. Dinner service in the main dining area, Tides, was strong, with waiters remembering our likes and dislikes, even though we ate there only intermittently. Passenger relations staff were helpful when needs arose, addressing them quickly.

Cuisine was consistently good, from the main dining room to the alternative restaurants, particularly at dinner, when roughly half the ship is ordering and eating simultaneously.

Entertainment ranged from the fabulously ridiculous (such as the always-funny Newlywed Game) to the pleasantly subdued (various vocal and instrumental offerings).

We do offer a caveat, though: Jewel of the Seas is an exceptional experience, but it's still a big ship, which means you might have to fight for a deck chair on a sunny sea day and pay out of pocket for myriad expenses, from fancy coffees to soda. In tender ports, you'll have to line up for a ticket. Standard staterooms (with or without balconies) are pretty small, and bathrooms offer fairly basic amenities.

Even so, Jewel of the Seas blends laid-back and informal into a quality experience.

It's worth noting that Jewel of the Seas is scheduled for dry dock in 2016, when it will get a number of upgrades and modern amenities, including several new restaurants, a new bar and the line's signature Royal Babies & Tots Nursery. Cabins will gain flat-screen TV's, and a movie screen will be installed poolside. Wi-Fi, currently limited to select areas onboard, will be vastly improved.

Dining

The Tides Dining Room is a gorgeously decorated, two-level main restaurant. It's open daily for open-seating breakfast and on sea days for open-seating lunch. At dinner, Tides offers Royal Caribbean's flexible My Time Dining program. Passengers can choose between assigned early (6 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) dining or opt for flexible dining, in which you pick a preferred mealtime (anytime between 6 and 9:30 p.m.). With My Time Dining, you can change your reservations on a daily basis. Those opting for My Time Dining will need to prepay gratuities.

The dining room is decorated with a romantic moonlight and tide theme. More significant, though, are the service and the food (both consistently excellent). Of particular note at dinner in the main dining room is a perfectly cooked, fall-off-the-bone lamb shank. Breakfast proved equally appealing: Eggs Benedict, ordered lightly cooked, arrived just as requested. As with other ships in the line, diners onboard Jewel of the Seas can order certain extra-fee entrees, including Maine lobster ($29.95), surf and turf ($37.50) and a Chops Grille filet mignon ($14.95).

During the day, there are plenty of other options. The Windjammer Cafe is the ship's buffet venue, which serves breakfast from 7 to 11 a.m., lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and dinner from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. It closes between meals. It features a number of food stations, divided into hot dishes, salads and desserts. The room is elegant for such a casual place and whimsically nautical in decor. Behind the Windjammer, toward the aft of the ship, is a covered, outdoor area and a much nicer outdoor seating area that's partially covered. Breakfast and lunch were pretty much the usual cruise fare, plus a hot egg station for breakfast and a pasta station for lunch. The Windjammer offers casual dinners, generally featuring menu items also being served in the dining room. Food was typically mediocre, with a so-so salad bar and few highlights.

Junk food junkies: Don't miss the fabulous Seaview Cafe. It's tucked up toward the back and top of the ship and easy to miss, but it's a great spot for fish and chips, burgers, Reubens and Cuban sandwiches. The onion rings and chili are superb, as are the "feathers and fingers" (chicken wings and nuggets); if you're hungry, order two, as portions are appetizer-sized. It's usually not open until about 1 p.m. and closes at dinnertime, reopening for late-night noshing. The Solarium Cafe offered so-so pizza.

Chops Grille and Portofino are the ship's two alternative restaurants. Chops is a steakhouse-style venue modeled after on-land places like Morton's. It's got an open kitchen, and service teams of two wait on each table. Try the rib eye or the mixed grill, and split the red velvet cake for dessert. (You won't be able to finish it by yourself.)

Enjoyable as Chops was, the real highlight of onboard dining is Portofino. Favorites included tiger shrimp risotto (which you could order as an appetizer or an entree) and spaghetti with lobster sauce. And don't, whatever you do, bypass the tiramisu for dessert. The interpretation was fantastic -- it was set in a chocolate cup and layered on the bottom were crushed raspberries.

Both Portofino and Chops Grille levy a per-person service fee ($20 in Portofino and $30 in Chops).

Cafe Latte-tudes, a coffee bar on Deck 5, serves up specialty, a la carte priced coffees and free pastries.

Royal Caribbean's room service options are available around the clock via 24-hour menus that offer a range of snacks and sandwiches. At breakfast, continental dishes, along with a handful of egg entrees, are available both in cabins and suites. Items off the main dining room menu can be ordered at dinner. There is no charge for room service (though a buck or two gratuity is recommended) between 5 a.m. and midnight; late-night orders incur a $3.95 fee.

Public Rooms

First impressions count, and the initial reaction to Jewel's airy and light eight-deck high atrium (called the Centrum) is "wow!" It is definitely a passenger magnet; areas around the Centrum, whether on its ground-floor level or five decks above, are constantly in use. During the day, there are cooking demos and art auctions; at night, there's dancing to live music, with passengers hanging over banisters to watch the scene below.

Other features include a selection of shops selling logowear, a lot of jewelry and duty-free perfumes.

The ship has a small Internet Cafe, where you can use provided computers to check e-mail or surf the net. The cost per minute is 65 cents, or 44 cents if you log on between 7 and 9 a.m. Prepaid packages are available, from $35 for 60 minutes to $150 for 500 minutes. You can also connect wirelessly, though only in select few "hot spots" (including the Internet Cafe). You won't find Wi-Fi in your cabin.

There's a tiny library with a disappointing collection of books (bring your own). Game-players can venture over to the Serengeti Card Club on Deck 6, just off the Safari Club. The Card Club has a selection of board games and cards in addition to large tables for playing.

Cabins

On the whole and with the exception of suites, Jewel's cabins run on the smaller side of industry average, though they are pleasant and compactly laid out. Inside cabins are 158 square feet. Outside cabins, which come in at 169 square feet, have portholes but are otherwise not at all different from standard balcony staterooms. There are cabins to accommodate disabled passengers in many categories. Family oceanview staterooms also are available. At 319 square feet, they can accommodate up to six people.

Those looking for balconies can choose from the 160-square-foot deluxe with 27-square-foot balcony option or the 184-square-foot superior with 53-square-foot balcony option.

Standard in all cabins are two twin beds that convert to queens, a mini-fridge that's filled with a few sodas and some snacks (for a charge), a television (flat-screens aren't standard in most cabins) with an interesting assortment of channels (including classic flicks and nostalgic sitcoms), a desk/vanity area and a safe. They also include hair dryers and a variety of Vitality amenities, such as a shower dispenser and bar soap. Each balcony stateroom also features a sitting area with a love seat. The balconies themselves are pleasant, with comfortable nylon mesh furniture; two chairs and a table are standard.

Jewel of the Seas has five suite categories. At the smallest end is the 282-square-foot Junior Suite (basically the size of two cabins), which has a 74-foot-balcony. At 382 square feet, Grand Suites have marble bathrooms, dry bars, sound systems and balconies that stretch 110 square feet. Owner's Suites, at 581 square feet and with 188-square-foot balconies, have flat-screen televisions and whirlpool baths. The top-of-the-line Royal Suite has a baby grand piano. It comes in at 1,233 square feet and features a 328-square-foot balcony. Those booking Grand Suites or higher will have personal concierges, luxury bath amenities, bathrobes, 24-hour-a-day room service, dedicated suite attendants, invitations to exclusive cocktail parties, reserved V.I.P. seating in the main theater and priority departure.

Entertainment

Royal Caribbean doesn't stint on onboard entertainment, whether by day or by night. Daytimes (particularly sea days), the options are pretty run-of-the-mill -- bingo, dance classes and trivia contests.

Evenings, though, are a veritable six-ring circus. After dinner, you can start off at the two-deck Coral Theater -- shows specializing in Broadway-style ensemble singing and dancing were big hits there. Then maybe catch a movie, join in the Battle of the Sexes competition, or hit one of the bars for a variety of musical performances. Check the daily schedule for karaoke, which takes place at night in the Safari Lounge.

The real action, though, can be found in the ship's numerous bars. On top of the ship is the Vortex Disco, a funky bar that revolves. It's primarily the ship's spot for late night revelry, but it's also a great spot for a pre-dinner cocktail at sunset. Also up top is the Hollywood Odyssey, a cozy spot that is a favorite for cigar-smokers.

In the evenings before and after dinner, the bars surrounding the atrium are vibrant and lively, particularly the Champagne Bar and the Lobby Bar. Off the main path a bit is Royal Caribbean's trademark Schooner Bar -- it's in the space between Chops Grille and Portofino. You can tuck into comfy booths or hang at the bar. Just past the Schooner Bar is the Safari Club, which hosts private events and serves as a secondary showroom.

To get a different perspective, head to the Crown and Anchor lounge on Deck 12, where you can peer straight down (through reinforced glass, of course) to Deck 4.

There's also a very smoky casino with the usual slots and gaming tables. Located right off the casino, the Pit Stop is ostensibly the ship's sports bar. It's hard to hear any of the coverage on the handful of televisions because of the ringing of the slot machines, and it's quite smoky, even on the nonsmoking side.

The ship also has a small cinema on Deck 6, which is nonsmoking but fills with smoke from the nearby Pit Stop.

On port days, Jewel of the Seas offers a variety of excursions. In Key West, excursions lean toward tours, while the Caribbean ports -- including Cozumel, St. Kitts and St. Maarten -- tend to be water-based and, therefore, more active.

Fitness and Recreation

The main pool area is vibrant and well used. Because of shade issues, sun loungers on the deck overlooking the pool were in more demand than right by it. Two whirlpools flank the pool.

Jewel's fabulous glass-domed solarium -- decked out in a Thai theme, complete with a bronze tiger -- features an 18th-century Temple Bell from northern Thailand. Wooden deck chairs with rust-colored chaise pads surround the pool. There's a whirlpool here, too.

In keeping with Royal Caribbean's focus on activity, the two-level fitness center and spa offer comprehensive equipment and services. The spa, in particular, offers a full range of treatments, like teeth-whitening, Restylane and various massages. It's got a thermal suite that features steam, aromatherapy steam, a sauna and fog showers, plus heated tile loungers. It costs $20 a day to use it, even if you bought a body treatment. The spa is operated by Steiner Leisure, and staff therapists are guided, at the end of a treatment, to try to sell you their quite expensive beauty products. Not interested? Just say no before you even get started. There's also a beauty salon, offering haircuts, colors, manicures and such.

The fitness area is large, with the usual assortment of cardio equipment -- treadmills, ellipticals and stationary bikes. It also has a decent selection of dumbbells and strength equipment. Classes are a mix of free and for-fee, with a $12 charge for most spin, yoga and Pilates offerings. A jogging/walking track is located on Deck 12. Six laps around equal a mile. There's also the ubiquitous rock-climbing wall, sports court, mini-golf course and golf simulator.

Family

Adventure Ocean, Jewel's family program, is housed in a sprawling facility that extends outside (to a pool with a slide). Kids are divided into five groups: Aquanauts (3 to 5), Explorers (6 to 8), Voyagers (9 to 11), Navigators (12 to 14) and Guests (15 to 17).

Kids must be toilet trained to participate in Adventure Ocean activities and to use the kids' pool.

Key components of the program (for the 3- to 11-year-olds) include Adventure Science, Adventure Art by Crayola, Sail Into Story Time and Adventure Family. The last invites parents to participate in planned activities, such as scavenger hunts and talent shows.

Teens have "Fuel," their own facility, which consists of an area called "The Living Room," a disco, a juice bar and Internet-connected computers (at half the price of the terminals in the cyber-centers).

Fisher-Price Playgroups are available for children 6 months to 36 months. Parents must attend with their little ones.

My Family Time Dining is open to passengers who select first seating in the main dining room. Children have 40-minute dinners before the Adventure Ocean staff pick up the kids and bring them to the youth spaces so parents can enjoy leisurely meals.

Royal Caribbean offers in-cabin baby-sitting for children, ages 1 and older within the same family ($19 per hour for up to three children), between the hours of 8 a.m. and 2 a.m. This service is based on availability, and you must book it at least 24 hours in advance at the Purser's Desk. Group baby-sitting for ages 3 to 11 is available from the youth staff from 10 p.m. through 2 a.m. nightly. The rate is $6 per hour, per child.

Fellow Passengers

What is fun about Jewel is it attracts so many different types of passengers -- older, younger, active, laid-back and, when school isn't in session, kids.

Dress Code

Dress is casual during the day. On weeklong (or shorter) cruises, there is one formal night; on the ship's eight-night sailings, there are two. On formal nights, most folks wear dark suits (men) and cocktail dresses (women). Otherwise, country-club casual pretty much dominates in the evenings.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean passengers are charged $12 per person, per day ($14.25 for suite guests). Gratuities can be prepaid or added on a daily basis to passengers' SeaPass accounts during the cruise; those opting for flexible My Time Dining must use the prepay option. Passengers can modify or remove gratuities by visiting the reception desk while onboard. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

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