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Cruise Ship Review

Independence of the Seas - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

"I thought we should take a Disney cruise," said a mom I met onboard Independence of the Seas. "But the kids wanted Royal Caribbean." It was an enlightening comment since her kids were 8 and 10, prime ages for Disney. Independence of the Seas, the third of Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships, may not have Mickey Mouse on tap, but there's so much offered for youngsters -- from kid-oriented entertainment and enrichment to recreational options that range from surfing and body boarding to ice skating -- that it's a superb choice for family travelers.

For all the emphasis on wholesome, family activities, as an adult without kids onboard, I still found plenty of space for more mature pursuits. The fitness facility, complete with boxing ring, is excellent and was always busy. Adults-only spots beyond bars and the casino ranged from the Solarium pool and boutique restaurants (which have a set age limit of 15) to a rather racy late-night comedy show. Travelers of many different stripes coexisted comfortably. (The ship even has outstanding facilities for disabled passengers.)

Another pleasant surprise on my eight-night Caribbean cruise was that the essentials of a good cruise experience, such as personal service and excellent food, were very much in place in spite of the size of the ship, which was at 100 percent occupancy on my trip. I didn't anticipate luxury cuisine or service, but quite pleasantly, my expectations were exceeded by consistently good meals in both for-fee eateries and the buffet venue, as well as very personal service.

Several crewmembers particularly stood out on my trip. One was a cabin stewardess who had served on numerous RCI ships and who had such a cheerful, positive and maternal disposition that she lifted my spirits with every encounter. Another was a bar waiter who pleasantly poured me a Diet Coke even though his bar wasn't yet open. The next day, as I filed into the Alhambra Theater with a couple thousand other passengers, the same waiter spotted me in the crowd and delivered a Diet Coke to my seat. I'd never even asked! You expect that kind of intuitive service on a small, luxury ship with just a few hundred passengers, but with 4,000-plus travelers onboard, that was genuinely a "wow" moment.

However, not everything is perfect on Independence of the Seas, and there's room for improvement in some areas. As a traveler who likes to connect with the ports I visit, I was disappointed with Royal Caribbean's lack of bond with any of the places on our itinerary -- at least via anything more than the banal shopping talks that highlight retailers who pay for the privilege. Sea days could feature a bit more substance in the lackluster enrichment department. (The chief workshop was advanced napkin folding.) The ship's vast sun deck, divided into three "neighborhoods," is colorful, whimsical and joyful -- but there's not enough effort to create events there after the sun sets.

Ultimately, Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas offers a wholesome cruise experience that deftly balances cruise traditions with contemporary innovations. The ship is best for cruise travelers interested in a low-key, ship-as-destination kind of vacation.

Dining

The vast, three-deck-high dining room (called Romeo and Juliet on Deck 3, Othello on Deck 4 and King Lear on Deck 5) is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Daytime meals, which are open-seating, are limited to Romeo and Juliet, and there's rarely a wait for a table.

At breakfast, a standard American menu offers cruise basics, from eggs Benedict and pancakes to granola and omelets. There's always a special; chocolate-chip pancakes and almond-crusted French toast were among them. Kudos to the staff for not forcing passengers to dine communally, though the more sociable could be seated at big tables.

At lunch, there's a new twist with the introduction of RCI's Brasserie 30. Borrowing liberally from European cruise lines for whom a buffet/menu combo is a staple, Independence of the Seas has added a buffet setup to Romeo and Juliet for the midday meal. It features a make-your-own-salad bar (actually, you pick your toppings, and a crewmember mixes it for you) and a wonderful antipasti selection for those who want light fare. It's a terrific choice if you want a quick lunch in the quiet and elegant atmosphere of the dining room, and it's one of the better lunchtime offerings for vegetarians.

And, of course, still offered is a menu of lunch entrees, featuring hot dishes, soups, salads, sandwiches and desserts.

For dinner, passengers can choose between standard two-seating arrangements (6 and 8:30 p.m. on my cruise) or My Time Dining, a flexible option where you choose your own dining time each day. Either way, the food's the same, and largely, so is the ambience. I chose the My Time option, which is still relatively new to Royal Caribbean, and had a consistently outstanding experience. What you give up with My Time is the chance to have the same waiter and tablemates every night -- but the service was exceptional, no matter where I sat. (Waiters from previous nights who passed by my table would make a point to say hello.) You can pre-reserve My Time Dining on the Royal Caribbean Web site. If you wait until you embark, you must choose My Time on the first day by reporting to the dining room on Deck 5, and you can't switch between traditional seating and the flexible option during the cruise. With both the online and onboard options, you must pay all gratuities (including cabin steward) up front. They're added to your onboard account, and you can't opt out of paying them later.

Menus offer a list of starters (salads, soups, appetizers), entrees and desserts. An "every night" series of selections includes vegetarian pasta, broiled salmon, chicken breast and sirloin. Overall, food quality in the dining room was quite good for banquet-style dining, bearing in mind that it's produced in mass quantities. The fruit soups were standouts (light, delicious, flavorful), pancakes were fluffy and served hot, and the aforementioned lunchtime antipasti offerings were delicious. Dinner in any of the three main restaurants is a lovely, elegant affair; I loved the fact that musicians played classical music throughout the evening.

The controversial "Chops Grille filet mignon" -- which has raised the ire of many Cruise Critic members because one must pay an additional $14.95 to order it in the dining room -- is, indeed, on the menu. It seems that the wait staff is just as confused about its merits and purpose as are travelers. (I asked half a dozen different servers throughout my cruise why it was on the menu and what the benefit was and got a different answer every single time.) I tried it, and frankly, it was delicious -- cooked perfectly to order and accompanied by a better quality mashed potato side than the usually-very-dry versions that had come with other dinners.

Food quality was generally good for cafeteria-style fare and was best when sticking to the basics.

Somewhat disappointing is the fact that there's no outdoor seating in the Windjammer. (The room stretches all the way to the back of the ship.) Also, the only grill fare available is steam-table stuff. It would be nice if the ship had a casual poolside grill.

Off to the side of the Windjammer is Jade, its Asian-themed buffet. The offerings vary between Thai and Chinese, primarily. Quality is fair.

Also good options for very casual dining are two Promenade-based cafes. Sorrento's (generally open from 11:30 a.m. – 3 a.m.) serves thick, doughy pizza along with antipasti and Italian desserts. (The tiny tiramisu was divine.) The Cafe Promenade, the ship's only 24-hour restaurant, offers breakfast pastries, mini-sandwiches and desserts, and it serves specialty coffees. There's no fee to dine in either restaurant, though coffees and other drinks do incur a charge.

You can snack on soft ice cream at the pool-adjacent Sprinkles (no charge) or splurge on Ben & Jerry's in the promenade.

Johnny Rocket's is the only eatery onboard to offer outdoor seating. This 1950's diner-style national chain eatery features its trademark gut-busting hamburgers, chili dogs, onion rings, fries and milkshakes. (The Oreo sundae is worth trying!) If you hear the Bee Gees starting to rev up on "Saturday Night Fever," you'll know that the wait staff is about ready to break into a dance. Linger over your meal, and you'll be treated to several versions! Most of the time, the staff looks rather bored while dancing. (Perhaps the music selection could be mixed up a little?) But, on one visit, passengers, from teen girls to dads who probably should know better, got up and danced along, and it was a lovely, joyful scene. The cost to dine at Johnny Rocket's is $4.95 per person (no matter how much or how little you order) and does not include drinks, such as sodas, beer or milkshakes. It may be that the hefty cover charge is limiting Johnny Rocket's popularity. I was surprised how easy it was to find a seat there -- even on sea days. On a previous cruise on a Voyager-class ship, it was almost always tough to score a table.

One oddity: On my first visit, the restaurant was nearly empty, and all but one outside booth was unoccupied. But when, dining solo, I asked for an outdoor table, the host told me those were saved for families. I insisted, and he gave in, but it was a rare moment of poor service on Independence of the Seas. (Interesting, too, that his influx of families never materialized; the booths remained relatively unoccupied throughout the time I sat there.)

The ship has a pair of more upscale restaurants: Portofino's and Chops Grille. Portofino's is the better of the two. The Italian restaurant is also the most romantic onboard, and service is as excellent as the cuisine. The cost is $20 per person, and dishes include starters like risotto with tiger shrimp, caprese salad and soups. There's also a pasta course, and though the menu varies, choices on my visit included spaghetti with lobster, penne pomodoro with prosciutto and pappardelle with mascarpone and mushrooms. Entrees are rich and substantial, with choices like tenderloin (and truffle mashed potatoes), saltimbocca, halibut and chicken. The tiramisu is, as would be expected, exceptional as a dessert choice, but you can also order panna cotta and other Italian favorites, or opt for a cheese course.

Portofino also offers a once-a-cruise wine dinner. At $54.50 per person, the five-course meal was fantastic. It started with tuna carpaccio, moved on to pan-seared scallops with a sweet-and-meaty chunk of lobster, a light salad and beef medallions, then finished with mascarpone and strawberry crepes. Each course was matched with a different wine (included in the price), though the pairings seemed rather disconnected; there was no significant explanation about why we were eating each course with the chosen wine. Ultimately, what was fun about the event was the chance to meet fellow passengers who were enthused about food and wine.

Chops Grille was a disappointment all around. It's the ship's steakhouse restaurant, and it's the most expensive alternative eatery with a service charge of $25 per person. The menu is steakhouse-influenced with starters like shrimp cocktail -- nice, fat ones! -- and Caesar salad; various cuts of meat, including filet mignon, lamb and pork; and family-size side dishes, such as succotash and mashed potatoes.

The menu is fine but the quality of the service was appallingly bad on my visit, beginning with a chilly greeting on arrival and proceeding downhill from there.

Dithering between ordering lamb chops or braised short rib, I asked the waiter for his recommendation. "One's grilled, and one's braised, so what you order depends on the preparation," he said rather curtly. Actually, no: One's lamb, and one's cow. On his way out, another diner stopped at the maitre d's station to calmly express his disappointment about the experience, calling the night "diabolical." And yet another complained about his romantic table-for-two that was slammed right up against a boisterous group of a dozen people who overwhelmed the room.

Note: You can make reservations at both Portofino and Chops Grille before your trip, via Royal Caribbean's Web site. (If you have a special date in mind, I highly recommend you do so, as both restaurants regularly "sell out.") A heads-up, though: When you book pre-cruise, you're required to guarantee with a credit card, and the charge is put through immediately, rather than being added to your onboard account.

Room service is available 24 hours a day, with a $3.95 charge for orders placed between midnight and 5 a.m. The breakfast menu (you fill out a card and hang it on your door before going to sleep) is rather more generous than some of RCI's big-ship competitors, going beyond Continental fare to offer "country breakfast" items like eggs and bacon. It's available for delivery between 7 and 10 a.m. The rest of the time, the selection, though limited, offers a blend of healthy and fast food choices, such as fruit plates, salads, sandwiches, burgers, pizza and chili, along with desserts.

Worthy of note is the ship's Vitality menu -- dishes created for passengers with healthy lifestyles. There are ample vegetarian options in most eateries, as well (save for Johnny Rocket's). The Vitality offerings are available in the main dining rooms and the buffet venue.

A relatively new offering that blends entertainment and dining is the ship's Murder Mystery Dinner. It's kitschy fun! On our trip, the show was called "The Curse of the Dark Star Diamond," and members of ship's dance troupe handled the acting roles. Diners gathered at the Olive or Twist lounge for glasses of sparkling wine and watched the first scene. Then, we moved on to Portofino's for a multi-course, set-menu dinner. While the writing and performances will never win an Oscar Award, the event, which attracted about 70 passengers, was simply good fun. The cost is $49.50 per person, including wine, and you can book, pre-cruise, via Royal Caribbean's Web site.

Public Rooms

The undisputed hub inside the ship is Independence of the Seas' Royal Promenade. Spanning three football fields in length, it's lined with a range of shops, casual eateries, bars and even a men's barbershop. It's also the site of numerous special events; particularly fun are the Adventure Ocean parades, with kids dressed up in costumes and chanting or singing as they pass by.

I love the way the shops are all clustered on the promenade. They're visually appealing, and it's enjoyable to stroll along and browse the special sale kiosks that are brought out during peak traffic days. Unfortunately, the merchandise in the onboard stores is terribly banal. The General Store, for instance, is 90 percent focused on duty-free alcohol. A jewelry boutique sells major brand names that you can find in any port of call, and a perfume shop carries a limited range of the usual duty-free names. The logo boutique offers all manner of Royal Caribbean-branded T-shirts and magnets.

Interestingly, when it comes to duty-free pricing, tariffs were higher in the ship's shops than in places like St. Maarten. For instance, a Tag Heuer Aqua Racer watch was several hundred dollars more expensive onboard than in St. Maarten, and a Chanel lipstick that cost $27 in port was $32 on the ship. Royal Caribbean offers a refund-the-difference policy that requires passengers to get written price information from onshore vendors, but it's nothing more than empty lip service. Can you imagine how cooperative port retailers would be about writing down their prices so passengers can buy elsewhere?

A library on Deck 7, aft, has a limited selection, but kudos go to Royal Caribbean for lining it with unlocked shelves of books. The Internet Cafe is on Deck 8 (just above the library) and offers a dozen or so terminals, along with a printer. The standard rate for accessing the Internet, via the cafe or through Wi-Fi (which was located all over the ship and worked really well from my cabin) is 55 cents per minute. Packages are available that bring down the cost. Disappointing is the lack of information and support provided to passengers who want to use the Internet services.

A small chapel at the top of the ship (above Olive or Twist) is mostly used for onboard weddings. Even on our Good Friday week cruise, there was no minister aboard.

Independence of the Seas features a subterranean deck with meeting rooms that, when not holding group gatherings, also serve as spill-over spots for crafts and other activities. There's also a small cinema that plays the same movies you'd find on airplane in-flight entertainment systems.

Cabins

Independence of the Seas has only five genuine types of cabins: insides, promenade views, outsides, balconies and suites. A handful of cabins across all categories are particularly designed for families. Cabins are outfitted in a very pleasant nautical/natural blue-and-green color scheme. All standards, from insides to balconies, come with features like interactive flat-screen televisions, telephones, desks/vanities and easy chairs or couches. Beds, covered with duvets, can be configured as twins (narrower than American-style single beds) or as a queen. Closet space is more than adequate.

Bathrooms are pocket-sized and shower-only (though, fortunately, there are doors instead of the dreaded clingy curtain) and feature those odd bath towels that feel really soft but don't really do the job of drying. The only toiletries provided are a bar of soap for hand-washing and dispensers in the shower for shampoo and shower gel. Bring your own lotion!

Mini-fridges, stocked with for-fee items, are tucked into one side of each vanity. Tea-making facilities are tucked away in a closet. Cabin measurements are as follows:

Interior and promenade-view cabins measure 152 square feet and 149 square feet, respectively -- quite small for a new ship.

Ranging from 161 to 200 square feet, outside cabins feature a large porthole-style windows.

Balcony cabins come in two varieties. Deluxe is 177 square feet (balcony adds another 74 square feet) and Superior is slightly larger at 180 square feet (though, ironically, the balcony is slightly smaller at 68 square feet). Balcony furnishings are made of mesh and metal; there's room for two chairs and a small table.

Family options include 300-square-foot inside cabins with room for up to six. Family oceanview cabins are 293 square feet. Four Royal Family Suites (610 square feet, balcony 234 square feet) hold up to eight and feature a living area with a double sofa bed and two bedrooms with two twin beds that convert to queens. (One also features third and fourth bunks.) Also included are verandahs and two bathrooms with showers (one with a tub).

The Presidential Family Suite (1,215 square feet, balcony 810 square feet), which also exists on Independence of the Seas' sister ships Freedom of the Seas and Liberty of the Seas, is unique in the industry. The suite sleeps up to 14 and is made up of two master bedrooms with private baths, as well as two smaller bedrooms, each with two Pullman beds and two twin beds that convert to a queen. Moreover, there are two additional shower-only bathrooms (the same as you'd see in standard accommodations). The 810-square-foot private balcony is a destination in its own right and is outfitted with a hot tub, teak dining set (table and chairs) and padded loungers.

A variety of suite choices include Junior Suites (287 square feet with tubs, walk-in closets and 101-square-foot balconies), Grand Suites (387 square feet with tubs, walk-in closets and 126-square-foot balconies) and Owner's Suites (614 square feet with tubs, walk-in closets, separate sitting areas and 209-square-foot balconies). The one Royal Suite (1,406 square feet with a 377-square-foot balcony) also has a whirlpool marble tub and shower, entertainment center, king-sized bed, baby grand piano and a private hot tub on the balcony.

Grand, Owner's and Royal Suite guests have access to the Concierge Club lounge (Deck 10, midship, open 24 hours, but manned for only about half of that time), where they can enjoy complimentary pre- and post-dinner canapes and cocktails. You can also use the concierge that's on call to book your shore excursions, dining reservations, spa appointments, etc.

Like its Freedom-class brethren, Independence of the Seas also features the B & J cabin. This promenade-view stateroom overlooks the backsides of two cows that stand atop the Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlor (just underneath). Cruisers who end up in this obstructed view cabin receive complimentary ice cream at Ben & Jerry's every day of their cruise.

Entertainment

As contemporary and innovative as the design and programming of Independence of the Seas is, its entertainment offerings are, by and large, very traditional. Daytime staples include bingo, art auctions, films, trivia contests, arts and crafts (scrapbooking is popular), wine tastings, dance classes, karaoke and the like.

Special interest groups (Mah-Jongg, bridge, Friends of Bill W., Friends of Dorothy) can post information on informal gatherings outside of the cruise sales' office on the Promenade. A shopping "expert" dispenses info on retailers -- who pay a fee to be featured -- in each port of call; you won't learn much about other places on your itinerary, unless you do your own research.

The Casino Royale features some 300 slot machines (ranging from one cent to $25) and a range of table games, such as blackjack and Texas Hold 'Em. Beyond simple gambling, there are occasional events and tournaments.

At night, musical offerings range from Latin dance music and "name that tune" cabaret-style experiences to disco and pop tunes at the pub. All of the bars get pretty busy, including Vintages, the wine bar; the pleasantly musty, nautically themed Schooner Bar; Bolero's, with its Latin music and dancing; the Vintages Champagne bar; and the top-of-the-ship Viking Crown Lounge.

The ship's Alhambra Theater, a two-deck-high Broadway-like performance space, is home to song and dance shows (three different varieties on our trip) and also hosts a celebrity performer (in our case, a singer from the band Foreigner).

Skating performances take place several times throughout each cruise, both during the day and at night, and these are a must-see! In the Caribbean, the same program is performed at each show; European sailings merit two different programs.

The skating shows are held in Studio B, where the performers must maneuver around a pocket-sized ice rink. Although you won't see any Olympics-worthy quad toe loops or triple axels (there simply isn't enough room for the skaters to get up the speed and height necessary), the performances are still great fun -- more than making up in creativity, spectacle and energy what they lack in technical difficulty.

A highlight of any ship with Royal Caribbean's Promenade is evening parties with the vibe of street festivals. On our trip, both Rock Britannia and the Madhatter's Ball Parade featured costumes, music, singing and dancing by performers. Especially darling was a parade, mid-voyage, of a group of young passengers from the ship's Adventure Ocean youth program, who sang as they marched along.

The late-night crowd has options too, including disco-dancing at the two-level Labyrinth, a comedy show, a "millionaire game show," the occasional "dancing under the stars" deck party and a once-per-cruise midnight buffet.

Royal Caribbean shore excursions primarily emphasize group activities; it has not significantly embraced the trend of offering opportunities for more personalized -- and more pricey -- in-port experiences. I loved the vast range of active tours; these, on a Caribbean voyage, include helmet dives, scuba, kayaking, Segway rides, snorkeling, cycling, horseback-riding and golf. Also offered are more run-of-the-mill tours that focus on the ports' historic and touristic sites. There are a handful of out-of-the-ordinary possibilities -- I was intrigued by a chance to ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles around St. Maarten and the tour of artist workshops on St. Martin -- but Royal Caribbean could still feature more varied tours.

On Labadee, the cruise line's private beach resort in Haiti, the line offers "tours" that are centered on tropical activities like parasailing, powerboat rides, aqua park play and zip-lining.

Fitness and Recreation

The ship's sun deck, which consists of three distinct pool areas, is magically colorful, full of energy and comfortable.

The center pool with its attendant whirlpools is party-central -- at least during the daytime. It's the site of lighthearted fun, pool contests and music on sea days.

You'll want to be a kid again if only to be able to frolic in the whimsically decorated children-only H20 Zone, a water park that incorporates small pools (some slightly deep, some shallow) and all sorts of fountains and water guns.

The Solarium is a pretty, though small, adults-only pool area that includes two whirlpools that are cantilevered out over the ship (great spots for watching the sun set), a bar that opens only on sea days and swinging benches.

None of the pools is equipped with a retractable roof that can be shut in case of inclement weather. And, despite warning signs, sun deck lounge chair hogs proliferated to the point of ridiculousness. (Rather than leaving towels, which cost $20 apiece to replace, people would just leave one shoe on a chair to reserve it.) Little was done to enforce the rules.

Bar none, the ship's fitness facility is among the best in cruising (as are those of Freedom and Liberty of the Seas, Indy's sister vessels). It's the first fitness area on a ship that really looks like a land-based health club. Circuit-training machines ring the walls of windows and include treadmills and stationary bikes. There's also an area for weight-lifting and a group of cycles for spinning (individually or in group classes).

The facility has a dedicated room for a variety of classes, such as yoga, aerobics, Pilates, group cycling and water aerobics. Other, less standard options include "combat in motion," a workout that combines Eastern martial arts with Western aerobic conditioning. The ship's boxing ring hosts boxing lessons and even some good-natured fights. Classes, by the way, are mostly for-charge, and it is recommended that passengers sign up in advance. (You will be charged if you're a no-show.)

The Walk for Wishes effort is a daily one-mile walk that's a result of a Royal Caribbean partnership with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the organization that grants children with life-threatening illnesses a wish-of-a-lifetime. Participants are each required to buy a T-shirt; proceeds go to the foundation.

Royal Caribbean's Shipshape Day Spa offers a comprehensive range of services, but ambience-wise, it possesses the charm and character of a big-city bus station. The salon, tucked off to one side, features hair-cutting and styling, manicures, pedicures and teeth-whitening. The spa offers pretty much the usual range of treatments: massage (Swedish, hot stone and couples are among the varieties), reflexology, facials and body wraps. Independence of the Seas also offers acupuncture treatments, a relatively new program for Royal Caribbean that was introduced in 2007 on Liberty of the Seas.

Therapists and beauticians were rather brusque and impersonal but did a competent job; in one case, when my pedicure chipped a day later, my request for a re-do was handled properly.

An interesting new program on some Royal Caribbean ships, including this one, is the teen-geared YSPA program. Kids ages 13 to 17 can book treatments, such as "acne attack" and "surfer scrub." More standard massages, facials, manicures and pedicures are also available, and YSPA extends to the gym, where there are teen-only fitness workouts.

If you are on a cruise that calls at Labadee, the island massage is a lovely treat; the spa sets up a mini outdoor area on a hill, away from the crowds. Plan to wear a bathing suit under your robe if you're choosing this option.

Keep an eye out for spa discounts. On my cruise, they were fairly common and weren't even limited to sea days. I checked each day's program for a heads-up on what was on sale and generally saved about 20 percent.

And a warning: Royal Caribbean's spas, like with most other cruise lines, are operated by the U.K.-based Steiner Leisure, which insists that its therapists wind up each session with a hard sell on its pricey Elemis brand products. Do not feel shy about firmly saying "thanks, but no thanks" if you are not interested. In fact, I highly recommend letting your therapist know this at the beginning of the treatment, thus avoiding a product pitch altogether.

Beyond the spa and fitness facility, Independence of the Seas has superb recreational facilities. These include the FlowRider, a surfing simulator only available on Freedom-class ships. At specially designated times, ShipShape staffers are on hand to assist passengers who want to give it a go; you must be at least 52 inches tall to use a boogie board and 58 inches to try stand-up surfing. The FlowRider is free; passengers can also book private lessons ($75 per person) and rent out the FlowRider ($350 per hour).

Independence of the Seas' rock-climbing wall, which hovers some 30 feet above the deck and 200 feet above the sea, can accommodate two climbers at a time. There's no fee to use it. Other recreational facilities include a full basketball court (also pressed into use for soccer games and dodge ball), a running track, mini-golf, a golf simulator and the ice rink. (Skate rentals are free of charge.)

When in port, ask the staff at the ShipShape gym for a free, self-guided running map.

Family

It's a testament to Royal Caribbean's far-reaching Adventure Ocean youth program (for kids ages 3 to 17) that, on our cruise, which took place firmly in the midst of a major school holiday period, the 1,400 (!) kids onboard were not only engaged but also proved a joy to be around, rather than a disruption. I can't tell you how many parents I talked to who said that their children were having so much fun in the program that they'd hardly seen them.

What stands out with Adventure Ocean is the breadth and range of activities, regardless of age. The program includes activities that are focused on enrichment and recreationally-inclined, occur during mealtimes, encourage family participation and offer creative outlets. Each of the five different age levels have dedicated facilities, yet the programs also make use of the ship's other features, from recreation to dining.

Aquanauts: For kids in the 3- to 5-year-old age group, activities occur in 15-minute intervals and range from beach games and hula-hoop contests to story time and the creation of fish kites via the ship's partnership with Crayola. Adventure Science makes learning fun with hands-on science experiments. I was especially enchanted with the day two opportunity for tykes to get their photos taken with the captain. To participate in Aquanauts, children must be potty-trained.

Explorers: The program for 6- to 8-year-olds changes in half-hour intervals and is centered on the Explorer room, where there's space enough for free play (cartoons, coloring, board games), AdventureArt by Crayola, dancing and even bingo. The occasional group meal takes place at either Windjammer or Johnny Rocket's, and the Royal Caribbean dancers even hold a dance class for the kids.

Voyagers: The 9- to 12-year-old set participates in activities that include a hula-hoop competition, AdventureArt, Crazy Tag and AdventureScience enrichment.

Note: A relatively new addition to the program for Aquanauts, Explorers and Voyagers is a "lunch and play" feature on sea days; for $7.95 per child, kids have a two-hour playtime (typically, the facility would be closed at lunch) that includes food and activities. All three groups participate in family-friendly play, like karaoke and scavenger hunts. Group babysitting, dubbed "Late Night Party Zone," is available during the evening; the cost is $5 per hour, per child, and it runs until 2 a.m.

In-stateroom babysitting is available for children from 1 year old onward. The cost is $10 per hour for one or two children, $15 for three or more from one family.

Teens, ages 12 to 17, are divided into two groups, though, in some cases, they do share activities and venues. Other times, they're separate, such as with disco nights in the Labyrinth. (The 12- to 14-year-olds are able to participate from 10:30 to 11:30 p.m., while the older group gets the 11:45 p.m. to 1 a.m. time slot.)

Teens (12 to 14): This group is supervised by Adventure Ocean Staff and is based in The Living Room. The program is far less structured; there are a handful of group activities, such as dodge ball competitions, mini-golf ball-driving, bingo, karaoke, "boogie boarding under the stars" at the FlowRider and clay-sculpting. But, there's lots of free time for just hangin' in The Living Room.

Teens (15 to 17): Home for these passengers is Fuel, a teens-only nightclub that's got a juice bar, a bunch of comfy chairs and not much else. There are a handful of activities, mostly recreationally inclined (teen ice-skating, Scratch D.J. Academy, Wii tournaments). Otherwise, there's no group counselor, and teens pretty much just do their own thing. Teens also have access to a specially-dedicated outdoor deck area.

A very popular destination on my cruise was the ship's vast games arcade. It's located right in the center of the kids facilities and was dominated, as a result, by young passengers.

Children younger than six months are not permitted to cruise on Independence of the Seas. Royal Caribbean has, fairly recently, implemented a program for the youngest passengers -- 6 months to 3 years -- that it calls Royal Babies and Royal Tots. Activities are in concert with Fisher Price. A parent must be present for the handful of activities that are planned each day.

Independence of the Sea offers My Family Time Dining. In this new initiative, aimed at kids, ages 3 to 11, families who choose the traditional dining option can enjoy special, expedited service for the kids; after 40 minutes, Adventure Ocean counselors pick children up, and they return to the age-appropriate facility while parents finish their meals leisurely.

Fellow Passengers

The passenger make-up onboard definitely varies, depending on the time of year. On our Easter week Caribbean cruise, kids made up more than one-third of the passengers, and a significant number were teens. During periods other than school holiday breaks, the ship feels less like an all-family resort destination, though the ship's Adventure Ocean program operates year-round.

During the Caribbean season (late fall through early spring), Independence of the Seas' American passengers are in the majority, though on my cruise there was a strong showing of travelers from the U.K., Mexico and Spain, in particular. During its warm-weather cruises in the Mediterranean, when the ship is based in Southampton, expect Europeans and Brits to be significantly represented.

The ship makes an effort to accommodate travelers with special needs. There are cabins with roll-in showers, transfer lifts in one pool and one whirlpool, and lowered tables in the casino. A show room is equipped with an Infrared Assistive Learning System, and the ship's daily newsletter is available, upon request, in Braille.

Although the ambience onboard is conducive for a variety of passenger types, this is a tough ship for solo travelers. So many passengers travel in groups of family members or friends that all but the most gregarious may find it hard to connect with fellow singles. One suggestion: Consider signing up for Cruise Critic's Meet & Mingle gathering. Traveling alone on this trip, I made some new friends that helped make the cruise a really fun experience.

Dress Code

On our eight-night cruise, there were two formal nights; the rest were resort casual (tropical sundresses and pants outfits for women, khakis and collared shirts for men). On the formal nights, those who dined in the ship's main restaurant venue tended to be the most dolled-up; passengers not in the mood to dress in black tie (most men actually just wore jackets and ties, and few women sported beaded gowns) headed to the Windjammer buffet venue, Johnny Rocket's or to casual eateries along the promenade.

During the day, dress was plain ol' casual, though most wore bathing suit cover-ups and shoes when indoors.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean offers a prepaid gratuity plan that specifies a charge of $9.75 per person, per day, that is charged to your onboard tab. The breakdown is as follows: $3.50 for dining room waiter, $2 for assistant waiter, $3.50 for stateroom attendant and 75 cents for the head waiter. Those passengers opting for My Time Dining must enroll in this plan, and the tips are nonrefundable; for all others, it's optional.

It is considered sporting to tip 15 to 20 percent for spa treatments. (I always tip on the lower end of the scale if I've gotten a hard product sell as part of the treatment.) Gratuities are automatically included in drinks, from sodas to cocktails.

--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief"I thought we should take a Disney cruise," said a mom I met onboard Independence of the Seas. "But the kids wanted Royal Caribbean." It was an enlightening comment since her kids were 8 and 10, prime ages for Disney. Independence of the Seas, the third of Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships, may not have Mickey Mouse on tap, but there's so much offered for youngsters -- from kid-oriented entertainment and enrichment to recreational options that range from surfing and body boarding to ice skating -- that it's a superb choice for family travelers.

For all the emphasis on wholesome, family activities, as an adult without kids onboard, I still found plenty of space for more mature pursuits. The fitness facility, complete with boxing ring, is excellent and was always busy. Adults-only spots beyond bars and the casino ranged from the Solarium pool and boutique restaurants (which have a set age limit of 15) to a rather racy late-night comedy show. Travelers of many different stripes coexisted comfortably. (The ship even has outstanding facilities for disabled passengers.)

Another pleasant surprise on my eight-night Caribbean cruise was that the essentials of a good cruise experience, such as personal service and excellent food, were very much in place in spite of the size of the ship, which was at 100 percent occupancy on my trip. I didn't anticipate luxury cuisine or service, but quite pleasantly, my expectations were exceeded by consistently good meals in both for-fee eateries and the buffet venue, as well as very personal service.

Several crewmembers particularly stood out on my trip. One was a cabin stewardess who had served on numerous RCI ships and who had such a cheerful, positive and maternal disposition that she lifted my spirits with every encounter. Another was a bar waiter who pleasantly poured me a Diet Coke even though his bar wasn't yet open. The next day, as I filed into the Alhambra Theater with a couple thousand other passengers, the same waiter spotted me in the crowd and delivered a Diet Coke to my seat. I'd never even asked! You expect that kind of intuitive service on a small, luxury ship with just a few hundred passengers, but with 4,000-plus travelers onboard, that was genuinely a "wow" moment.

However, not everything is perfect on Independence of the Seas, and there's room for improvement in some areas. As a traveler who likes to connect with the ports I visit, I was disappointed with Royal Caribbean's lack of bond with any of the places on our itinerary -- at least via anything more than the banal shopping talks that highlight retailers who pay for the privilege. Sea days could feature a bit more substance in the lackluster enrichment department. (The chief workshop was advanced napkin folding.) The ship's vast sun deck, divided into three "neighborhoods," is colorful, whimsical and joyful -- but there's not enough effort to create events there after the sun sets.

Ultimately, Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas offers a wholesome cruise experience that deftly balances cruise traditions with contemporary innovations. The ship is best for cruise travelers interested in a low-key, ship-as-destination kind of vacation.

Dining

The vast, three-deck-high dining room (called Romeo and Juliet on Deck 3, Othello on Deck 4 and King Lear on Deck 5) is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Daytime meals, which are open-seating, are limited to Romeo and Juliet, and there's rarely a wait for a table.

At breakfast, a standard American menu offers cruise basics, from eggs Benedict and pancakes to granola and omelets. There's always a special; chocolate-chip pancakes and almond-crusted French toast were among them. Kudos to the staff for not forcing passengers to dine communally, though the more sociable could be seated at big tables.

At lunch, there's a new twist with the introduction of RCI's Brasserie 30. Borrowing liberally from European cruise lines for whom a buffet/menu combo is a staple, Independence of the Seas has added a buffet setup to Romeo and Juliet for the midday meal. It features a make-your-own-salad bar (actually, you pick your toppings, and a crewmember mixes it for you) and a wonderful antipasti selection for those who want light fare. It's a terrific choice if you want a quick lunch in the quiet and elegant atmosphere of the dining room, and it's one of the better lunchtime offerings for vegetarians.

And, of course, still offered is a menu of lunch entrees, featuring hot dishes, soups, salads, sandwiches and desserts.

For dinner, passengers can choose between standard two-seating arrangements (6 and 8:30 p.m. on my cruise) or My Time Dining, a flexible option where you choose your own dining time each day. Either way, the food's the same, and largely, so is the ambience. I chose the My Time option, which is still relatively new to Royal Caribbean, and had a consistently outstanding experience. What you give up with My Time is the chance to have the same waiter and tablemates every night -- but the service was exceptional, no matter where I sat. (Waiters from previous nights who passed by my table would make a point to say hello.) You can pre-reserve My Time Dining on the Royal Caribbean Web site. If you wait until you embark, you must choose My Time on the first day by reporting to the dining room on Deck 5, and you can't switch between traditional seating and the flexible option during the cruise. With both the online and onboard options, you must pay all gratuities (including cabin steward) up front. They're added to your onboard account, and you can't opt out of paying them later.

Menus offer a list of starters (salads, soups, appetizers), entrees and desserts. An "every night" series of selections includes vegetarian pasta, broiled salmon, chicken breast and sirloin. Overall, food quality in the dining room was quite good for banquet-style dining, bearing in mind that it's produced in mass quantities. The fruit soups were standouts (light, delicious, flavorful), pancakes were fluffy and served hot, and the aforementioned lunchtime antipasti offerings were delicious. Dinner in any of the three main restaurants is a lovely, elegant affair; I loved the fact that musicians played classical music throughout the evening.

The "Chops Grille filet mignon" is available for $14.95. I tried it, and frankly, it was delicious -- cooked perfectly to order and accompanied by a better quality mashed potato side than the usually-very-dry versions that had come with other dinners.

Food quality was generally good for cafeteria-style fare and was best when sticking to the basics.

Somewhat disappointing is the fact that there's no outdoor seating in the Windjammer. (The room stretches all the way to the back of the ship.) Also, the only grill fare available is steam-table stuff. It would be nice if the ship had a casual poolside grill.

Off to the side of the Windjammer is Jade, its Asian-themed buffet. The offerings vary between Thai and Chinese, primarily. Quality is fair.

Also good options for very casual dining are two Promenade-based cafes. Sorrento's (generally open from 11:30 a.m. – 3 a.m.) serves thick, doughy pizza along with antipasti and Italian desserts. (The tiny tiramisu was divine.) The Cafe Promenade, the ship's only 24-hour restaurant, offers breakfast pastries, mini-sandwiches and desserts, and it serves specialty coffees. There's no fee to dine in either restaurant, though coffees and other drinks do incur a charge.

You can snack on soft ice cream at the pool-adjacent Sprinkles (no charge) or splurge on Ben & Jerry's in the promenade.

Johnny Rocket's is the only eatery onboard to offer outdoor seating. This 1950's diner-style national chain eatery features its trademark gut-busting hamburgers, chili dogs, onion rings, fries and milkshakes. (The Oreo sundae is worth trying!) If you hear the Bee Gees starting to rev up on "Saturday Night Fever," you'll know that the wait staff is about ready to break into a dance. Linger over your meal, and you'll be treated to several versions! Most of the time, the staff looks rather bored while dancing. (Perhaps the music selection could be mixed up a little?) But, on one visit, passengers, from teen girls to dads who probably should know better, got up and danced along, and it was a lovely, joyful scene. The cost to dine at Johnny Rocket's is $4.95 per person (no matter how much or how little you order) and does not include drinks, such as sodas, beer or milkshakes. It may be that the hefty cover charge is limiting Johnny Rocket's popularity. I was surprised how easy it was to find a seat there -- even on sea days. On a previous cruise on a Voyager-class ship, it was almost always tough to score a table.

One oddity: On my first visit, the restaurant was nearly empty, and all but one outside booth was unoccupied. But when, dining solo, I asked for an outdoor table, the host told me those were saved for families. I insisted, and he gave in, but it was a rare moment of poor service on Independence of the Seas. (Interesting, too, that his influx of families never materialized; the booths remained relatively unoccupied throughout the time I sat there.)

The ship has a pair of more upscale restaurants: Portofino's and Chops Grille. Portofino's is the better of the two. The Italian restaurant is also the most romantic onboard, and service is as excellent as the cuisine. The cost is $20 per person, and dishes include starters like risotto with tiger shrimp, caprese salad and soups. There's also a pasta course, and though the menu varies, choices on my visit included spaghetti with lobster, penne pomodoro with prosciutto and pappardelle with mascarpone and mushrooms. Entrees are rich and substantial, with choices like tenderloin (and truffle mashed potatoes), saltimbocca, halibut and chicken. The tiramisu is, as would be expected, exceptional as a dessert choice, but you can also order panna cotta and other Italian favorites, or opt for a cheese course.

Portofino also offers a once-a-cruise wine dinner. At $54.50 per person, the five-course meal was fantastic. It started with tuna carpaccio, moved on to pan-seared scallops with a sweet-and-meaty chunk of lobster, a light salad and beef medallions, then finished with mascarpone and strawberry crepes. Each course was matched with a different wine (included in the price), though the pairings seemed rather disconnected; there was no significant explanation about why we were eating each course with the chosen wine. Ultimately, what was fun about the event was the chance to meet fellow passengers who were enthused about food and wine.

Chops Grille was a disappointment all around. It's the ship's steakhouse restaurant, and it's the most expensive alternative eatery with a service charge of $30 per person. The menu is steakhouse-influenced with starters like shrimp cocktail -- nice, fat ones! -- and Caesar salad; various cuts of meat, including filet mignon, lamb and pork; and family-size side dishes, such as succotash and mashed potatoes.

The menu is fine but the quality of the service was appallingly bad on my visit, beginning with a chilly greeting on arrival and proceeding downhill from there.

Dithering between ordering lamb chops or braised short rib, I asked the waiter for his recommendation. "One's grilled, and one's braised, so what you order depends on the preparation," he said rather curtly. Actually, no: One's lamb, and one's cow. On his way out, another diner stopped at the maitre d's station to calmly express his disappointment about the experience, calling the night "diabolical." And yet another complained about his romantic table-for-two that was slammed right up against a boisterous group of a dozen people who overwhelmed the room.

Note: You can make reservations at both Portofino and Chops Grille before your trip, via Royal Caribbean's Web site. (If you have a special date in mind, I highly recommend you do so, as both restaurants regularly "sell out.") A heads-up, though: When you book pre-cruise, you're required to guarantee with a credit card, and the charge is put through immediately, rather than being added to your onboard account.

Room service is available 24 hours a day, with a $3.95 charge for orders placed between midnight and 5 a.m. The breakfast menu (you fill out a card and hang it on your door before going to sleep) is rather more generous than some of RCI's big-ship competitors, going beyond Continental fare to offer "country breakfast" items like eggs and bacon. It's available for delivery between 7 and 10 a.m. The rest of the time, the selection, though limited, offers a blend of healthy and fast food choices, such as fruit plates, salads, sandwiches, burgers, pizza and chili, along with desserts.

Worthy of note is the ship's Vitality menu -- dishes created for passengers with healthy lifestyles. There are ample vegetarian options in most eateries, as well (save for Johnny Rocket's). The Vitality offerings are available in the main dining rooms and the buffet venue.

A relatively new offering that blends entertainment and dining is the ship's Murder Mystery Dinner. It's kitschy fun! On our trip, the show was called "The Curse of the Dark Star Diamond," and members of ship's dance troupe handled the acting roles. Diners gathered at the Olive or Twist lounge for glasses of sparkling wine and watched the first scene. Then, we moved on to Portofino's for a multi-course, set-menu dinner. While the writing and performances will never win an Oscar Award, the event, which attracted about 70 passengers, was simply good fun. The cost is $49.50 per person, including wine, and you can book, pre-cruise, via Royal Caribbean's Web site.

Public Rooms

The undisputed hub inside the ship is Independence of the Seas' Royal Promenade. Spanning three football fields in length, it's lined with a range of shops, casual eateries, bars and even a men's barbershop. It's also the site of numerous special events; particularly fun are the Adventure Ocean parades, with kids dressed up in costumes and chanting or singing as they pass by.

I love the way the shops are all clustered on the promenade. They're visually appealing, and it's enjoyable to stroll along and browse the special sale kiosks that are brought out during peak traffic days. Unfortunately, the merchandise in the onboard stores is rather banal. A jewelry boutique, for instance, sells major brand names that you can find in any port of call, and a perfume shop carries a limited range of the usual duty-free names. The logo boutique offers all manner of Royal Caribbean-branded T-shirts and magnets.

Interestingly, when it comes to duty-free pricing, tariffs were higher in the ship's shops than in places like St. Maarten. For instance, a Tag Heuer Aqua Racer watch was several hundred dollars more expensive onboard than in St. Maarten, and a Chanel lipstick that cost $27 in port was $32 on the ship. Royal Caribbean offers a refund-the-difference policy that requires passengers to get written price information from onshore vendors, but it's nothing more than empty lip service. Can you imagine how cooperative port retailers would be about writing down their prices so passengers can buy elsewhere?

A library on Deck 7, aft, has a limited selection, but kudos go to Royal Caribbean for lining it with unlocked shelves of books. The Internet Cafe is on Deck 8 (just above the library) and offers a dozen or so terminals, along with a printer. The standard rate for accessing the Internet, via the cafe or through Wi-Fi (which was located all over the ship and worked really well from my cabin) is 55 cents per minute. Packages are available that bring down the cost. Disappointing is the lack of information and support provided to passengers who want to use the Internet services.

A small chapel at the top of the ship (above Olive or Twist) is mostly used for onboard weddings. Even on our Good Friday week cruise, there was no minister aboard.

Independence of the Seas features a subterranean deck with meeting rooms that, when not holding group gatherings, also serve as spill-over spots for crafts and other activities. There's also a small cinema that plays the same movies you'd find on airplane in-flight entertainment systems.

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.

It is considered sporting to tip 15 to 20 percent for spa treatments. (I always tip on the lower end of the scale if I've gotten a hard product sell as part of the treatment.) A 15 percent gratuity is automatically included in drinks, from sodas to cocktails."I thought we should take a Disney cruise," said a mom I met onboard Independence of the Seas. "But the kids wanted Royal Caribbean." It was an enlightening comment since her kids were 8 and 10, prime ages for Disney. Independence of the Seas, the third and final of Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships, may not have Mickey Mouse on tap, but there's so much offered for youngsters -- from kid-oriented entertainment and enrichment to recreational options that range from surfing and body boarding to ice skating -- that it's a superb choice for family travelers.

For all the emphasis on wholesome, family activities, as an adult without kids onboard, passengers will still find plenty of space for more mature pursuits. The fitness facility, complete with boxing ring, is excellent and always busy. Adults-only spots beyond bars and the casino ranged from the Solarium pool and boutique restaurants (which have a set age limit of 15) to a rather racy late-night comedy show. Travelers of many different stripes coexisted comfortably. (The ship even has outstanding facilities for disabled passengers.)

Another pleasant surprise is that the essentials of a good cruise experience, such as personal service and excellent food, were very much in place in spite of the size of the ship, which was at 100 percent occupancy on my trip. I didn't anticipate luxury cuisine or service, but quite pleasantly, my expectations were exceeded by consistently good meals in both for-fee eateries and the buffet venue, as well as very personal service.

Several crewmembers particularly stood out on my trip. One was a cabin stewardess who had served on numerous RCI ships and who had such a cheerful, positive and maternal disposition that she lifted my spirits with every encounter. Another was a bar waiter who pleasantly poured me a Diet Coke even though his bar wasn't yet open. The next day, as I filed into the Alhambra Theater with a couple thousand other passengers, the same waiter spotted me in the crowd and delivered a Diet Coke to my seat. I'd never even asked! You expect that kind of intuitive service on a small, luxury ship with just a few hundred passengers, but with 4,000-plus travelers onboard, that was genuinely a "wow" moment.

However, not everything is perfect on Independence of the Seas, and there's room for improvement in some areas. As a traveler who likes to connect with the ports I visit, I was disappointed with Royal Caribbean's lack of bond with any of the places on our itinerary -- at least via anything more than the banal shopping talks that highlight retailers who pay for the privilege. Sea days could feature a bit more substance in the lackluster enrichment department. (The chief workshop was advanced napkin folding.) The ship's vast sun deck, divided into three "neighborhoods," is colorful, whimsical and joyful -- but there's not enough effort to create events there after the sun sets.

Ultimately, Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas offers a wholesome cruise experience that deftly balances cruise traditions with contemporary innovations. The ship is best for cruise travelers interested in a low-key, ship-as-destination kind of vacation.

Dining

The vast, three-deck-high dining room (called Romeo and Juliet on Deck 3, Othello on Deck 4 and King Lear on Deck 5) is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Daytime meals, which are open-seating, are limited to Romeo and Juliet, and there's rarely a wait for a table.

At breakfast, a standard American menu offers cruise basics, from eggs Benedict and pancakes to granola and omelets. There's always a special; chocolate-chip pancakes and almond-crusted French toast were among them. Kudos to the staff for not forcing passengers to dine communally, though the more sociable could be seated at big tables.

At lunch, there's a new twist with the introduction of RCI's Brasserie 30. Borrowing liberally from European cruise lines for whom a buffet/menu combo is a staple, Independence of the Seas has added a buffet setup to Romeo and Juliet for the midday meal. It features a make-your-own-salad bar (actually, you pick your toppings, and a crewmember mixes it for you) and a wonderful antipasti selection for those who want light fare. It's a terrific choice if you want a quick lunch in the quiet and elegant atmosphere of the dining room, and it's one of the better lunchtime offerings for vegetarians.

And, of course, still offered is a menu of lunch entrees, featuring hot dishes, soups, salads, sandwiches and desserts.

For dinner, passengers can choose between standard two-seating arrangements (6 and 8:30 p.m. on my cruise) or My Time Dining, a flexible option where you choose your own dining time each day. Either way, the food's the same, and largely, so is the ambience. I chose the My Time option, which is still relatively new to Royal Caribbean, and had a consistently outstanding experience. What you give up with My Time is the chance to have the same waiter and tablemates every night -- but the service was exceptional, no matter where I sat. (Waiters from previous nights who passed by my table would make a point to say hello.) You can pre-reserve My Time Dining on the Royal Caribbean Web site. If you wait until you embark, you must choose My Time on the first day by reporting to the dining room on Deck 5, and you can't switch between traditional seating and the flexible option during the cruise. With both the online and onboard options, you must pay all gratuities (including cabin steward) up front. They're added to your onboard account, and you can't opt out of paying them later.

Menus offer a list of starters (salads, soups, appetizers), entrees and desserts. An "every night" series of selections includes vegetarian pasta, broiled salmon, chicken breast and sirloin. Overall, food quality in the dining room was quite good for banquet-style dining, bearing in mind that it's produced in mass quantities. The fruit soups were standouts (light, delicious, flavorful), pancakes were fluffy and served hot, and the aforementioned lunchtime antipasti offerings were delicious. Dinner in any of the three main restaurants is a lovely, elegant affair; I loved the fact that musicians played classical music throughout the evening.

The "Chops Grille filet mignon" is available for $14.95. I tried it, and frankly, it was delicious -- cooked perfectly to order and accompanied by a better quality mashed potato side than the usually-very-dry versions that had come with other dinners.

Food quality was generally good for cafeteria-style fare and was best when sticking to the basics.

Somewhat disappointing is the fact that there's no outdoor seating in the Windjammer. (The room stretches all the way to the back of the ship.) Also, the only grill fare available is steam-table stuff. It would be nice if the ship had a casual poolside grill.

Off to the side of the Windjammer is Jade, its Asian-themed buffet. The offerings vary between Thai and Chinese, primarily. Quality is fair.

Also good options for very casual dining are two Promenade-based cafes. Sorrento's (generally open from 11:30 a.m. – 3 a.m.) serves thick, doughy pizza along with antipasti and Italian desserts. (The tiny tiramisu was divine.) The Cafe Promenade, the ship's only 24-hour restaurant, offers breakfast pastries, mini-sandwiches and desserts, and it serves specialty coffees. There's no fee to dine in either restaurant, though coffees and other drinks do incur a charge.

You can snack on soft ice cream at the pool-adjacent Sprinkles (no charge) or splurge on Ben & Jerry's in the promenade.

Johnny Rocket's is the only eatery onboard to offer outdoor seating. This 1950's diner-style national chain eatery features its trademark gut-busting hamburgers, chili dogs, onion rings, fries and milkshakes. (The Oreo sundae is worth trying!) If you hear the Bee Gees starting to rev up on "Saturday Night Fever," you'll know that the wait staff is about ready to break into a dance. Linger over your meal, and you'll be treated to several versions! Most of the time, the staff looks rather bored while dancing. (Perhaps the music selection could be mixed up a little?) But, on one visit, passengers, from teen girls to dads who probably should know better, got up and danced along, and it was a lovely, joyful scene. The cost to dine at Johnny Rocket's is $4.95 per person (no matter how much or how little you order) and does not include drinks, such as sodas, beer or milkshakes. It may be that the hefty cover charge is limiting Johnny Rocket's popularity. I was surprised how easy it was to find a seat there -- even on sea days. On a previous cruise on a Voyager-class ship, it was almost always tough to score a table.

One oddity: On my first visit, the restaurant was nearly empty, and all but one outside booth was unoccupied. But when, dining solo, I asked for an outdoor table, the host told me those were saved for families. I insisted, and he gave in, but it was a rare moment of poor service on Independence of the Seas. (Interesting, too, that his influx of families never materialized; the booths remained relatively unoccupied throughout the time I sat there.)

The ship has a pair of more upscale restaurants: Portofino's and Chops Grille. Portofino's is the better of the two. The Italian restaurant is also the most romantic onboard, and service is as excellent as the cuisine. The cost is $20 per person, and dishes include starters like risotto with tiger shrimp, caprese salad and soups. There's also a pasta course, and though the menu varies, choices on my visit included spaghetti with lobster, penne pomodoro with prosciutto and pappardelle with mascarpone and mushrooms. Entrees are rich and substantial, with choices like tenderloin (and truffle mashed potatoes), saltimbocca, halibut and chicken. The tiramisu is, as would be expected, exceptional as a dessert choice, but you can also order panna cotta and other Italian favorites, or opt for a cheese course.

Portofino also offers a once-a-cruise wine dinner. At $54.50 per person, the five-course meal was fantastic. It started with tuna carpaccio, moved on to pan-seared scallops with a sweet-and-meaty chunk of lobster, a light salad and beef medallions, then finished with mascarpone and strawberry crepes. Each course was matched with a different wine (included in the price), though the pairings seemed rather disconnected; there was no significant explanation about why we were eating each course with the chosen wine. Ultimately, what was fun about the event was the chance to meet fellow passengers who were enthused about food and wine.

Chops Grille was a disappointment all around. It's the ship's steakhouse restaurant, and it's the most expensive alternative eatery with a service charge of $30 per person. The menu is steakhouse-influenced with starters like shrimp cocktail -- nice, fat ones! -- and Caesar salad; various cuts of meat, including filet mignon, lamb and pork; and family-size side dishes, such as succotash and mashed potatoes.

The menu is fine but the quality of the service was appallingly bad on my visit, beginning with a chilly greeting on arrival and proceeding downhill from there.

Dithering between ordering lamb chops or braised short rib, I asked the waiter for his recommendation. "One's grilled, and one's braised, so what you order depends on the preparation," he said rather curtly. Actually, no: One's lamb, and one's cow. On his way out, another diner stopped at the maitre d's station to calmly express his disappointment about the experience, calling the night "diabolical." And yet another complained about his romantic table-for-two that was slammed right up against a boisterous group of a dozen people who overwhelmed the room.

Note: You can make reservations at both Portofino and Chops Grille before your trip, via Royal Caribbean's Web site. (If you have a special date in mind, I highly recommend you do so, as both restaurants regularly "sell out.") A heads-up, though: When you book pre-cruise, you're required to guarantee with a credit card, and the charge is put through immediately, rather than being added to your onboard account.

Room service is available 24 hours a day, with a $3.95 charge for orders placed between midnight and 5 a.m. The breakfast menu (you fill out a card and hang it on your door before going to sleep) is rather more generous than some of RCI's big-ship competitors, going beyond Continental fare to offer "country breakfast" items like eggs and bacon. It's available for delivery between 7 and 10 a.m. The rest of the time, the selection, though limited, offers a blend of healthy and fast food choices, such as fruit plates, salads, sandwiches, burgers, pizza and chili, along with desserts.

Worthy of note is the ship's Vitality menu -- dishes created for passengers with healthy lifestyles. There are ample vegetarian options in most eateries, as well (save for Johnny Rocket's). The Vitality offerings are available in the main dining rooms and the buffet venue.

The Murder Mystery Dinner show blends entertainment and dining. It's kitschy fun! On our trip, the show was called "The Curse of the Dark Star Diamond," and members of ship's dance troupe handled the acting roles. Diners gathered at the Olive or Twist lounge for glasses of sparkling wine and watched the first scene. Then, we moved on to Portofino's for a multi-course, set-menu dinner. While the writing and performances will never win an Oscar Award, the event, which attracted about 70 passengers, was simply good fun. The cost is $49.50 per person, including wine, and you can book, pre-cruise, via Royal Caribbean's Web site. However, Royal Caribbean is phasing out all Murdery Myster Dinner shows, with the last shows performing in November, 2012.Editor's note: Independence of the Seas is scheduled for refurbishment in April 2013, to include the addition of a cupcake shop, an Italian trattoria called Giovanni's Table and a Royal Babies & Tots Nursery. On the technology side, the ship will get digital signage, bow-to-stern Wi-Fi and a poolside movie screen.

The two-week, $7 million upgrade is part of Royal Caribbean's larger $300 million investment in its fleet.

"I thought we should take a Disney cruise," said a mom I met onboard Independence of the Seas. "But the kids wanted Royal Caribbean." It was an enlightening comment since her kids were 8 and 10, prime ages for Disney. Independence of the Seas, the third and final of Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships, may not have Mickey Mouse on tap, but there's so much offered for youngsters -- from kid-oriented entertainment and enrichment to recreational options that range from surfing and body boarding to ice skating -- that it's a superb choice for family travelers.

For all the emphasis on wholesome, family activities, as an adult without kids onboard, passengers will still find plenty of space for more mature pursuits. The fitness facility, complete with boxing ring, is excellent and always busy. Adults-only spots beyond bars and the casino ranged from the Solarium pool and boutique restaurants (which have a set age limit of 15) to a rather racy late-night comedy show. Travelers of many different stripes coexisted comfortably. (The ship even has outstanding facilities for disabled passengers.)

Another pleasant surprise is that the essentials of a good cruise experience, such as personal service and excellent food, were very much in place in spite of the size of the ship, which was at 100 percent occupancy on my trip. I didn't anticipate luxury cuisine or service, but quite pleasantly, my expectations were exceeded by consistently good meals in both for-fee eateries and the buffet venue, as well as very personal service.

Several crewmembers particularly stood out on my trip. One was a cabin stewardess who had served on numerous RCI ships and who had such a cheerful, positive and maternal disposition that she lifted my spirits with every encounter. Another was a bar waiter who pleasantly poured me a Diet Coke even though his bar wasn't yet open. The next day, as I filed into the Alhambra Theater with a couple thousand other passengers, the same waiter spotted me in the crowd and delivered a Diet Coke to my seat. I'd never even asked! You expect that kind of intuitive service on a small, luxury ship with just a few hundred passengers, but with 4,000-plus travelers onboard, that was genuinely a "wow" moment.

However, not everything is perfect on Independence of the Seas, and there's room for improvement in some areas. As a traveler who likes to connect with the ports I visit, I was disappointed with Royal Caribbean's lack of bond with any of the places on our itinerary -- at least via anything more than the banal shopping talks that highlight retailers who pay for the privilege. Sea days could feature a bit more substance in the lackluster enrichment department. (The chief workshop was advanced napkin folding.) The ship's vast sun deck, divided into three "neighborhoods," is colorful, whimsical and joyful -- but there's not enough effort to create events there after the sun sets.

Ultimately, Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas offers a wholesome cruise experience that deftly balances cruise traditions with contemporary innovations. The ship is best for cruise travelers interested in a low-key, ship-as-destination kind of vacation.

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.

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. It is considered sporting to tip 15 to 20 percent for spa treatments. (I always tip on the lower end of the scale if I've gotten a hard product sell as part of the treatment.) A 15 percent gratuity is automatically included in drinks, from sodas to cocktails.

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.Editor's note: Independence of the Seas underwent refurbishment in April 2013, to include the addition of a cupcake shop, an Italian trattoria called Giovanni's Table and a Royal Babies & Tots Nursery. On the technology side, the ship got new digital signage, bow-to-stern Wi-Fi and a poolside movie screen.

The two-week, $7 million upgrade was part of Royal Caribbean's larger $300 million investment in its fleet.

"I thought we should take a Disney cruise," said a mom I met onboard Independence of the Seas. "But the kids wanted Royal Caribbean." It was an enlightening comment since her kids were 8 and 10, prime ages for Disney. Independence of the Seas, the third and final of Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships, may not have Mickey Mouse on tap, but there's so much offered for youngsters -- from kid-oriented entertainment and enrichment to recreational options that range from surfing and body boarding to ice skating -- that it's a superb choice for family travelers.

For all the emphasis on wholesome, family activities, as an adult without kids onboard, passengers will still find plenty of space for more mature pursuits. The fitness facility, complete with boxing ring, is excellent and always busy. Adults-only spots beyond bars and the casino ranged from the Solarium pool and boutique restaurants (which have a set age limit of 15) to a rather racy late-night comedy show. Travelers of many different stripes coexisted comfortably. (The ship even has outstanding facilities for disabled passengers.)

Another pleasant surprise is that the essentials of a good cruise experience, such as personal service and excellent food, were very much in place in spite of the size of the ship, which was at 100 percent occupancy on my trip. I didn't anticipate luxury cuisine or service, but quite pleasantly, my expectations were exceeded by consistently good meals in both for-fee eateries and the buffet venue, as well as very personal service.

Several crewmembers particularly stood out on my trip. One was a cabin stewardess who had served on numerous RCI ships and who had such a cheerful, positive and maternal disposition that she lifted my spirits with every encounter. Another was a bar waiter who pleasantly poured me a Diet Coke even though his bar wasn't yet open. The next day, as I filed into the Alhambra Theater with a couple thousand other passengers, the same waiter spotted me in the crowd and delivered a Diet Coke to my seat. I'd never even asked! You expect that kind of intuitive service on a small, luxury ship with just a few hundred passengers, but with 4,000-plus travelers onboard, that was genuinely a "wow" moment.

However, not everything is perfect on Independence of the Seas, and there's room for improvement in some areas. As a traveler who likes to connect with the ports I visit, I was disappointed with Royal Caribbean's lack of bond with any of the places on our itinerary -- at least via anything more than the banal shopping talks that highlight retailers who pay for the privilege. Sea days could feature a bit more substance in the lackluster enrichment department. (The chief workshop was advanced napkin folding.) The ship's vast sun deck, divided into three "neighborhoods," is colorful, whimsical and joyful -- but there's not enough effort to create events there after the sun sets.

Ultimately, Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas offers a wholesome cruise experience that deftly balances cruise traditions with contemporary innovations. The ship is best for cruise travelers interested in a low-key, ship-as-destination kind of vacation.In April 2013, the ship underwent a $7 million upgrade as part of Royal Caribbean's larger $300 million investment in its fleet. The new features included a cupcake shop, an Italian trattoria called Giovanni's Table and a Royal Babies & Tots Nursery. On the technology side, the ship got new digital signage, bow-to-stern Wi-Fi and a poolside movie screen.

The digital way finding systems are an excellent addition -- especially for new-to-cruisers who get lost on huge ships such as this. They offer maps and directions to everywhere on the ship using a board with a number keypad on which a passenger can enter their room number to find their way to their room. There are also features that display the menus for the ship's restaurants, lists of entertainment options and other onboard facilities. The large writing and quick responsive touch screen makes navigation around the ship so much easier than squinting at a laminated map.

"I thought we should take a Disney cruise," said a mom I met onboard Independence of the Seas. "But the kids wanted Royal Caribbean." It was an enlightening comment since her kids were 8 and 10, prime ages for Disney. Independence of the Seas, the third and final of Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships, may not have Mickey Mouse on tap, but there's so much offered for youngsters -- from kid-oriented entertainment and enrichment to recreational options that range from surfing and body boarding to ice skating -- that it's a superb choice for family travelers.

For all the emphasis on wholesome, family activities, as an adult without kids onboard, passengers will still find plenty of space for more mature pursuits. The fitness facility, complete with boxing ring, is excellent and always busy. Adults-only spots beyond bars and the casino ranged from the Solarium pool and boutique restaurants (which have a set age limit of 15) to a rather racy late-night comedy show. Travelers of many different stripes coexisted comfortably. (The ship even has outstanding facilities for disabled passengers.)

Another pleasant surprise is that the essentials of a good cruise experience, such as personal service and excellent food, were very much in place in spite of the size of the ship, which was at 100 percent occupancy on my trip. I didn't anticipate luxury cuisine or service, but quite pleasantly, my expectations were exceeded by consistently good meals in both for-fee eateries and the buffet venue, as well as very personal service.

Several crewmembers particularly stood out on my trip. One was a cabin stewardess who had served on numerous RCI ships and who had such a cheerful, positive and maternal disposition that she lifted my spirits with every encounter. Another was a bar waiter who pleasantly poured me a Diet Coke even though his bar wasn't yet open. The next day, as I filed into the Alhambra Theater with a couple thousand other passengers, the same waiter spotted me in the crowd and delivered a Diet Coke to my seat. I'd never even asked! You expect that kind of intuitive service on a small, luxury ship with just a few hundred passengers, but with 4,000-plus travelers onboard, that was genuinely a "wow" moment.

However, not everything is perfect on Independence of the Seas, and there's room for improvement in some areas. As a traveler who likes to connect with the ports I visit, I was disappointed with Royal Caribbean's lack of bond with any of the places on our itinerary -- at least via anything more than the banal shopping talks that highlight retailers who pay for the privilege. Sea days could feature a bit more substance in the lackluster enrichment department. (The chief workshop was advanced napkin folding.) The ship's vast sun deck, divided into three "neighborhoods," is colorful, whimsical and joyful -- but there's not enough effort to create events there after the sun sets.

Ultimately, Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas offers a wholesome cruise experience that deftly balances cruise traditions with contemporary innovations. The ship is best for cruise travelers interested in a low-key, ship-as-destination kind of vacation.

Dining

There are two new eating venues on Independence, following its upgrade: an Italian Trattoria, Giovanni's Table and The Cupcake Cupboard, which follows the current trend of installing cafes and bakeries onboard (Norwegian Breakaway, Royal Princess.)

Giovanni's Table (6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.), on Deck 11, is a new for fee, family friendly place with a relaxed theme and good, hearty if not outstanding cuisine. The waiters greet you with a warm welcome in Italian and guide you to your seat. Neat and simple tables and decor -½- ideal for a family with young children who may fidget during the meal. The food is beautifully presented and still maintains a rustic charm in its blend of Italian herbs and seasonings. One of the starters, focaccia della casa -½- a flat bread with potatoes, marinated artichokes, olives and pesto -½- is a perfect example of well cooked, homely food. The oven baked, almond crusted scallops with red bell pepper are a more delicate starter and a lighter option, which is good to know if you wanted to choose from some of the more hearty, carb-filled mains. There are dishes for vegetarians and those with a specific dietary requirements. Dinner is $20 p.p. and $15 p.p. for lunch (on the last sea day, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.).

The Cupcake Cupboard has been added to the main thoroughfare of the ship, the "High Street", offering a cute display of gourmet cupcakes. It has regular cupcakes at $2.75, Minis at $1.50, Cake Pops at $1.50 and Giant Birthday Cakes at $24.95. Decorated with soft yellow, wooden panelling and mint green finishes, it is the perfect spot to sit and enjoy a coffee and a cake. There is also a display by the entrance selling an assortment of cupcake themed trinkets like greeting cards, pens and other small souvenirs that are a perfect memento for children and those who love all things sweet. The shop also offers design classes for the budding culinary enthusiast. These are priced at $22 for adults (11 years-up) and $15 for children (five years-10 years). Each class has a maximum of 10 people so it is best to turn up early to make your booking. The Cupcake Cupboard is open on late arrival from 2:00 p.m. to 10:30p.m., early arrival from 3:00p.m. to 10:30p.m. and sea days from 10:30 a.m. to 10:30pm.

The vast, three-deck-high dining room (called Romeo and Juliet on Deck 3, Othello on Deck 4 and King Lear on Deck 5) is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Daytime meals, which are open-seating, are limited to Romeo and Juliet, and there's rarely a wait for a table.

At breakfast, a standard American menu offers cruise basics, from eggs Benedict and pancakes to granola and omelets. There's always a special; chocolate-chip pancakes and almond-crusted French toast were among them. Kudos to the staff for not forcing passengers to dine communally, though the more sociable could be seated at big tables.

At lunch, there's a new twist with the introduction of RCI's Brasserie 30. Borrowing liberally from European cruise lines for whom a buffet/menu combo is a staple, Independence of the Seas has added a buffet setup to Romeo and Juliet for the midday meal. It features a make-your-own-salad bar (actually, you pick your toppings, and a crewmember mixes it for you) and a wonderful antipasti selection for those who want light fare. It's a terrific choice if you want a quick lunch in the quiet and elegant atmosphere of the dining room, and it's one of the better lunchtime offerings for vegetarians.

And, of course, still offered is a menu of lunch entrees, featuring hot dishes, soups, salads, sandwiches and desserts.

For dinner, passengers can choose between standard two-seating arrangements (6 and 8:30 p.m. on my cruise) or My Time Dining, a flexible option where you choose your own dining time each day. Either way, the food's the same, and largely, so is the ambience. I chose the My Time option, which is still relatively new to Royal Caribbean, and had a consistently outstanding experience. What you give up with My Time is the chance to have the same waiter and tablemates every night -- but the service was exceptional, no matter where I sat. (Waiters from previous nights who passed by my table would make a point to say hello.) You can pre-reserve My Time Dining on the Royal Caribbean Web site. If you wait until you embark, you must choose My Time on the first day by reporting to the dining room on Deck 5, and you can't switch between traditional seating and the flexible option during the cruise. With both the online and onboard options, you must pay all gratuities (including cabin steward) up front. They're added to your onboard account, and you can't opt out of paying them later.

Menus offer a list of starters (salads, soups, appetizers), entrees and desserts. An "every night" series of selections includes vegetarian pasta, broiled salmon, chicken breast and sirloin. Overall, food quality in the dining room was quite good for banquet-style dining, bearing in mind that it's produced in mass quantities. The fruit soups were standouts (light, delicious, flavorful), pancakes were fluffy and served hot, and the aforementioned lunchtime antipasti offerings were delicious. Dinner in any of the three main restaurants is a lovely, elegant affair; I loved the fact that musicians played classical music throughout the evening.

The "Chops Grille filet mignon" is available for $14.95. I tried it, and it was delicious -- cooked perfectly to order and accompanied by a better quality mashed potato side than the usually-very-dry versions that had come with other dinners.

Food quality was generally good for cafeteria-style fare and was best when sticking to the basics.

Somewhat disappointing is the fact that there's no outdoor seating in the Windjammer. (The room stretches all the way to the back of the ship.) Also, the only grill fare available is steam-table stuff. It would be nice if the ship had a casual poolside grill.

Off to the side of the Windjammer is Jade, its Asian-themed buffet. The offerings vary between Thai and Chinese, primarily. Quality is fair.

Also good options for very casual dining are two Promenade-based cafes. Sorrento's (generally open from 11:30 a.m. -½ 3 a.m.) serves thick, doughy pizza along with antipasti and Italian desserts. (The tiny tiramisu was divine.) The Cafe Promenade, the ship's only 24-hour restaurant, offers breakfast pastries, mini-sandwiches and desserts, and it serves specialty coffees. There's no fee to dine in either restaurant, though coffees and other drinks do incur a charge.

You can snack on soft ice cream at the pool-adjacent Sprinkles (no charge) or splurge on Ben & Jerry's in the promenade.

Johnny Rocket's is the only eatery onboard to offer outdoor seating. This 1950's diner-style national chain eatery features its trademark gut-busting hamburgers, chili dogs, onion rings, fries and milkshakes. (The Oreo sundae is worth trying!) If you hear the Bee Gees starting to rev up on "Saturday Night Fever," you'll know that the wait staff is about ready to break into a dance. Linger over your meal, and you'll be treated to several versions! Most of the time, the staff looks rather bored while dancing. (Perhaps the music selection could be mixed up a little?) But, on one visit, passengers, from teen girls to dads who probably should know better, got up and danced along, and it was a lovely, joyful scene. The cost to dine at Johnny Rocket's is $4.95 per person (no matter how much or how little you order) and does not include drinks, such as sodas, beer or milkshakes. It may be that the hefty cover charge is limiting Johnny Rocket's popularity. I was surprised how easy it was to find a seat there -- even on sea days. On a previous cruise on a Voyager-class ship, it was almost always tough to score a table.

One oddity: On my first visit, the restaurant was nearly empty, and all but one outside booth was unoccupied. But when, dining solo, I asked for an outdoor table, the host told me those were saved for families. I insisted, and he gave in, but it was a rare moment of poor service on Independence of the Seas. (Interesting, too, that his influx of families never materialized; the booths remained relatively unoccupied throughout the time I sat there.)

The ship has a pair of more upscale restaurants: Portofino's and Chops Grille. Portofino's is the better of the two. The Italian restaurant is also the most romantic onboard, and service is as excellent as the cuisine. The cost is $20 per person, and dishes include starters like risotto with tiger shrimp, caprese salad and soups. There's also a pasta course, and though the menu varies, choices on my visit included spaghetti with lobster, penne pomodoro with prosciutto and pappardelle with mascarpone and mushrooms. Entrees are rich and substantial, with choices like tenderloin (and truffle mashed potatoes), saltimbocca, halibut and chicken. The tiramisu is, as would be expected, exceptional as a dessert choice, but you can also order panna cotta and other Italian favorites, or opt for a cheese course.

Portofino also offers a once-a-cruise wine dinner. At $54.50 per person, the five-course meal was fantastic. It started with tuna carpaccio, moved on to pan-seared scallops with a sweet-and-meaty chunk of lobster, a light salad and beef medallions, then finished with mascarpone and strawberry crepes. Each course was matched with a different wine (included in the price), though the pairings seemed rather disconnected; there was no significant explanation about why we were eating each course with the chosen wine. Ultimately, what was fun about the event was the chance to meet fellow passengers who were enthused about food and wine.

Chops Grille was a disappointment all around. It's the ship's steakhouse restaurant, and it's the most expensive alternative eatery with a service charge of $30 per person. The menu is steakhouse-influenced with starters like shrimp cocktail -- nice, fat ones! -- and Caesar salad; various cuts of meat, including filet mignon, lamb and pork; and family-size side dishes, such as succotash and mashed potatoes.

The menu is fine but the quality of the service was appallingly bad on my visit, beginning with a chilly greeting on arrival and proceeding downhill from there.

Dithering between ordering lamb chops or braised short rib, I asked the waiter for his recommendation. "One's grilled, and one's braised, so what you order depends on the preparation," he said rather curtly. Actually, no: One's lamb, and one's cow. On his way out, another diner stopped at the maitre d's station to calmly express his disappointment about the experience, calling the night "diabolical." And yet another complained about his romantic table-for-two that was slammed right up against a boisterous group of a dozen people who overwhelmed the room.

Note: You can make reservations at both Portofino and Chops Grille before your trip, via Royal Caribbean's Web site. (If you have a special date in mind, I highly recommend you do so, as both restaurants regularly "sell out.") A heads-up, though: When you book pre-cruise, you're required to guarantee with a credit card, and the charge is put through immediately, rather than being added to your onboard account.

Room service is available 24 hours a day, with a $3.95 charge for orders placed between midnight and 5 a.m. The breakfast menu (you fill out a card and hang it on your door before going to sleep) is rather more generous than some of RCI's big-ship competitors, going beyond Continental fare to offer "country breakfast" items like eggs and bacon. It's available for delivery between 7 and 10 a.m. The rest of the time, the selection, though limited, offers a blend of healthy and fast food choices, such as fruit plates, salads, sandwiches, burgers, pizza and chili, along with desserts.

Worthy of note is the ship's Vitality menu -- dishes created for passengers with healthy lifestyles. There are ample vegetarian options in most eateries, as well (save for Johnny Rocket's). The Vitality offerings are available in the main dining rooms and the buffet venue.

The Murder Mystery Dinner show blends entertainment and dining. It's kitschy fun! On our trip, the show was called "The Curse of the Dark Star Diamond," and members of ship's dance troupe handled the acting roles. Diners gathered at the Olive or Twist lounge for glasses of sparkling wine and watched the first scene. Then, we moved on to Portofino's for a multi-course, set-menu dinner. While the writing and performances will never win an Oscar Award, the event, which attracted about 70 passengers, was simply good fun. The cost is $49.50 per person, including wine, and you can book, pre-cruise, via Royal Caribbean's Web site. However, Royal Caribbean is phasing out all Murdery Myster Dinner shows, with the last shows performing in November, 2012.

Family

The big change onboard following the ship refurbishment in terms of kids' facilities is the addition of Royal Babies and Tots Nursery, which caters for, as the name suggests, for six to 36-month olds. Previously, although six-36-month-olds were welcome onboard, there were no designated facilities for them and parents had to be present during activities. In the new space, there are dedicated Youth Staff at a ratio of 1:4 kids. Activities are in concert with Fisher Price. Meals are served in the nursery on a designated table, and there are chairs attached for babies. The Nursery is open 9:00 a.m. to midnight on a sea day, and 30 minutes prior to docking to midnight on a port day.

It's a testament to Royal Caribbean's far-reaching Adventure Ocean youth program (for kids ages 3 to 17) that, on our cruise, which took place firmly in the midst of a major school holiday period, the 1,400 (!) kids onboard were not only engaged but also proved a joy to be around, rather than a disruption. I can't tell you how many parents I talked to who said that their children were having so much fun in the program that they'd hardly seen them.

What stands out with Adventure Ocean is the breadth and range of activities, regardless of age. The program includes activities that are focused on enrichment and recreationally-inclined, occur during mealtimes, encourage family participation and offer creative outlets. Each of the five different age levels have dedicated facilities, yet the programs also make use of the ship's other features, from recreation to dining.

Aquanauts: For kids in the 3- to 5-year-old age group, activities occur in 15-minute intervals and range from beach games and hula-hoop contests to story time and the creation of fish kites via the ship's partnership with Crayola. Adventure Science makes learning fun with hands-on science experiments. I was especially enchanted with the day two opportunity for tykes to get their photos taken with the captain. To participate in Aquanauts, children must be potty-trained.

Explorers: The program for 6- to 8-year-olds changes in half-hour intervals and is centered on the Explorer room, where there's space enough for free play (cartoons, coloring, board games), AdventureArt by Crayola, dancing and even bingo. The occasional group meal takes place at either Windjammer or Johnny Rocket's, and the Royal Caribbean dancers even hold a dance class for the kids.

Voyagers: The 9- to 12-year-old set participates in activities that include a hula-hoop competition, AdventureArt, Crazy Tag and AdventureScience enrichment.

Note: A relatively new addition to the program for Aquanauts, Explorers and Voyagers is a "lunch and play" feature on sea days; for $7.95 per child, kids have a two-hour playtime (typically, the facility would be closed at lunch) that includes food and activities. All three groups participate in family-friendly play, like karaoke and scavenger hunts. Group babysitting, dubbed "Late Night Party Zone," is available during the evening; the cost is $5 per hour, per child, and it runs until 2 a.m.

In-stateroom babysitting is available for children from 1 year old onward. The cost is $10 per hour for one or two children, $15 for three or more from one family.

Teens, ages 12 to 17, are divided into two groups, though, in some cases, they do share activities and venues. Other times, they're separate, such as with disco nights in the Labyrinth. (The 12- to 14-year-olds are able to participate from 10:30 to 11:30 p.m., while the older group gets the 11:45 p.m. to 1 a.m. time slot.)

Teens (12 to 14): This group is supervised by Adventure Ocean Staff and is based in The Living Room. The program is far less structured; there are a handful of group activities, such as dodge ball competitions, mini-golf ball-driving, bingo, karaoke, "boogie boarding under the stars" at the FlowRider and clay-sculpting. But, there's lots of free time for just hangin' in The Living Room.

Teens (15 to 17): Home for these passengers is Fuel, a teens-only nightclub that's got a juice bar, a bunch of comfy chairs and not much else. There are a handful of activities, mostly recreationally inclined (teen ice-skating, Scratch D.J. Academy, Wii tournaments). Otherwise, there's no group counselor, and teens pretty much just do their own thing. Teens also have access to a specially-dedicated outdoor deck area.

A very popular destination on my cruise was the ship's vast games arcade. It's located right in the center of the kids facilities and was dominated, as a result, by young passengers.

Adventure Ocean does not serve food inside of the facility, but offers Windjammer dinner every night of the cruise and lunch during Port Days only as part of its program.

Independence of the Sea offers My Family Time Dining. In this new initiative, aimed at kids, ages 3 to 11, families who choose the traditional dining option can enjoy special, expedited service for the kids; after 40 minutes, Adventure Ocean counselors pick children up, and they return to the age-appropriate facility while parents finish their meals leisurely.

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