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This review was written by our friend and avid cruiser, Jennifer. Jennifer is a full-time mom and wife and part-time traveler. Born with wanderlust in her soul, she never misses an opportunity to head out on a new adventure. Her travel staples include a good book, a corkscrew and lots of ziplock bags.
When I booked our Spring Break trip six months ago, I was psyched. No airport security! No flying! A quick hour and a half hour drive to the port! A brand new ship! A family junior suite with two bathrooms! Is that a choir of angels I hear singing?
As our trip approached and word of Norovirus outbreaks and damage from hurricane strength storms filled the news, my anticipation began to wane.
Anthem of the Seas did have one thing going for her: she’s a Royal Caribbean ship. We’ve been “loyal to Royal” ever since our honeymoon in 1993. We’ve logged 20 cruises with Royal Caribbean all of which we have enjoyed. Why should this one be any different?
Driving to Cape Liberty in Bayonne, NJ couldn’t be any easier from the suburbs of Philadelphia. My husband, two daughters (ages 8 and 13) and I stuffed our luggage into the trunk and off we went. Who cares how much luggage you have when you’re not flying?! An hour and a half later at 10 am we pulled up in front of our ship.
A porter took our luggage, and we drove to the parking garage. The garage is so close to the ship, even a toddler could make the trek back to the terminal easily. Sure the $20 a day hurts the wallet, but the convenience is worth it, especially when you are in your car driving home after the cruise while a hundred other people are waiting for cabs or rides.
As we entered the terminal, employees with iPads and smiles greeted us and completed check-in. We sat in a holding area anticipating a long wait only to be told it was time for suite guests to board. Suite guests? “That’s us! A junior suite is still a suite, right?” For boarding purposes, yes it is.
Off we went through a maze of plexiglass, past the photographers (after 20 cruises we no longer do the boarding picture) to my favorite part of the first day on board a ship: the ding! Those of you who have cruised with Royal Caribbean before know what I’m talking about. The moment security scans your boarding pass (or ship ID card) a “ding” sound announces that you are officially on the ship! Let the vacation begin!
Anthem is most impressive. Greeting us on Deck 5 was a massive light bulb chandelier. Below it is a podium with instructions. Place your hands on the podium and your heartbeat is echoed in the lights! After a few seconds, your heartbeat is mixed in with the heartbeats of others who have done the same and a dazzling light show dances above you.
Hidden gems like this one are all over Anthem. They aren’t publicized, but if you look closely you’ll find them.
Anthem is different than any other ship I’ve cruised on. It’s a large ship, similar in size to Royal’s Freedom class ships and larger than the largest Disney ship, but it has a small ship feel. This is because Anthem is broken up into different areas. The Royal Esplanade hosts shops, restaurants, cafes, and bars similar to the Promenade on other Royal Caribbean ships, but it isn’t a “straight shot” like other ships. Instead, it’s broken up and zig zags. I liked this design. It feels less like a mall and more like an upscale resort.
Of course cruising wouldn’t be cruising without stuffing our faces as soon as we board, so it was off to find lunch! With so many places to choose from, I wasn’t sure we’d be able to hit them all in one day – uh, I mean one week – so we go the traditional route and visit the Windjammer Marketplace. The Windjammer is the buffet restaurant that serves it all – breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’m sure it closes at some point. Lunch here has everything you could possibly want except for what our youngest daughter wants, chicken nuggets. The quest for chicken nuggets would become an integral part of our cruise.
We visit the salad bar, anitpasto station, design your own pasta, “American” fare – hamburger, French fries, etc., international cuisine, dessert station, and several other food options and return to our seats with full plates. There is one food station devoted entirely to bread. Yes, it’s heavenly! Oprah would love it.
Nugget girl eats a hot dog and French fries and is just fine. Phew! Must find nuggets later.
Other options for lunch on day one included Solarium Bistro (in the adults only pool area – kids are welcome to eat there), Café@Two70 and Michael’s Genuine Pub (extra $). If you are in a Grand Suite or above you can also eat in Coastal Kitchen for lunch. Peons in a Junior Suite are only allowed there for dinner; they don’t want riffraff like us in there for lunch.
After lunch I came to a terrifying realization…I’d been on the ship for at least an hour and didn’t have a fun drink in hand! It’s not hard to find one on Anthem. Throw a Royal Caribbean souvenir cup and you’ll hit a bar.
The Bionic Bar sees the most traffic on boarding day. Belly up to an iPad and order your favorite drink. Watch as robot arms grab a clean cup and fill it with liquid goodness. They shake, they stir, they serve perfectly measured drinks! They don’t give you a dirty look, they don’t ignore you, they don’t short you, they have plenty of non-alcoholic options, and yes, you tip them. I don’t want to be on their naughty list when they take over the world.
Since we purchased a beverage package (Ultimate for my husband and me, Royal Replenish for the kids), the bill was $0. We debated quite a bit about whether or not to purchase a package, but in the end we decided to try it. I do think that we drank more because we had the package, and my waistline showed it by the end of the cruise. However, it was nice to have all of our drinks covered so we didn’t have to be concerned about finishing something we didn’t like.
Drinks in hand, we were off to explore! Cabins weren’t available until approximately 1 pm, so we had some time to see what Anthem offers. SeaPlex, the indoor sports complex on deck 15, offers indoor sports (soccer, basketball, etc.), bumper cars, trapeze school, and Puzzle Break. Just outside SeaPlex is IFly (skydiving simulator) and FlowRider (stand-up surfing). SeaPlex would quickly become one of our favorite places on the ship.
We found the line to sign up for Puzzle Break and booked a time for later in the cruise. Puzzle Break’s premise is simple: You and your fellow passengers have to find a way out of a locked room. Unfortunately, kids have to be 14 or older to book a reservation, so our kids were out of luck. Our “so close to 14 she can taste it” daughter was not a happy camper.
Here’s the thing about SeaPlex – you absolutely need to book reservations either at home or within the first few hours of boarding for activities that accept them. We spoke with several passengers who were unable to participate in some activities because they didn’t book ahead. Keep checking the website at home for available reservations. Some might open six months before boarding, others 60 days or even a week before sailing. As of today, there doesn’t seem to be any consistency with when bookings are offered online, so monitoring the website is the best way to ensure you don’t miss out on these activities.
Other activities, such as bumper cars and roller skating, don’t take reservations. Just show up approximately 30 minutes beforehand to get in line (times are listed in the daily Cruise Compass). One tip: You will not be allowed to participate without having signed a waiver ahead of time, so get in that line on the first day. On our sailing we signed a waiver on an iPad at a non-descript podium on the side of the SeaPlex court and were given a colored wristband to wear (proof we had already signed the waiver).
Before we knew it 1 pm had arrived. Off to find our cabin! A Family Junior Suite located mid-ship on deck 9 would be our home for the 8-night cruise. The main reason I booked this cabin was the two bathrooms. In case you missed it in math class, 3 women + 1 man = 2 bathrooms. Only one of the bathrooms had a shower, but two toilets and sinks softened the blow. The cabin had an ample amount of space and storage. The kids liked the fact that they didn’t have to share a bed. One slept on the sofa bed and one on the Pullman bed above it. I found that our mattress felt like Fred Flintstone’s, but we were so exhausted at the end of the day that I slept like a Bedrock Beauty anyway.
Dinner brings many choices on Anthem. Some venues are complimentary and others charge an extra fee. Jamie’s Italian was our favorite, and we ate there twice. At $30 per person (kids are less expensive) you can pile your table high with cured meats, cheeses, pasta, steak, salmon and many other choices. One price covers all! The servers go out of their way to please, and it was here we discovered the holy grail of kid cuisine – chicken fingers! Not just any chicken fingers. We’re talking hand breaded, real chicken. No preformed nuggets here. It’s not on the menu though; you have to ask for it.
Chops Grill is another fee venue ($39 per adult here). The service here was impeccable and the food was yummy, but one night was enough for us. We also enjoyed our meals at Coastal Kitchen and Chic, both of which are complimentary. Our least favorites were American Icon Grill and Silk. They weren’t horrible, but not worth a second visit.
There’s never a shortage of food and drink on a cruise, and Anthem offers something for everyone. The wine bar Vintages was a regular stop for us. It’s proximity to Café@Two70 allowed us to have snacks with our glass of wine and challenge our kids to a game of Rummy. We never travel without a deck of cards, and if nothing else our kids will be able to make some money as card sharks when they are in college.
If Starbucks is your addiction, visit La Patisserie on deck 4 to indulge daily in your morning caffeine fix. Crave a mimosa with your breakfast? The bar at Windjammer Marketplace will create a scrumptious mimosa with fresh squeezed orange juice. Pool bars serve up your favorite fun drink and yummy virgin cocktails for the kids. Just think, your kids can consume all the high fructose syrup they want! Trust me, they’ll be thrilled to be able to belly up to the bar and order their favorite liquid sugar fix. You’re on vacation. Few rules apply here.
When the sun goes down, the party begins on Anthem. From family karaoke in Music Hall or Spectra’s Cabaret in Two70, to outdoor movies by the pool, there’s entertainment for everyone. Tickets for shows can be booked in advance from home, so if you enjoy live entertainment be sure to book before you board. Standby lines are available, but the leftover choice of seats may not be the best.
I highly recommend The Quest, Royal Caribbean’s adults only scavenger hunt. When they say adults only, they mean adults only. Those who have experienced Quest know the first rule of Quest – don’t talk about Quest. Therefore, that’s all I am allowed to say. Do actively participate and don’t miss it.
Daytime brings pool days and ports. The daily Cruise Compass left in your room each evening by the stateroom attendant lists all onboard activities for each day. If relaxing by the pool is on the to-do list for your family, you have several to choose from. We never had trouble finding seating at either the outdoor family pool or the indoor pool, a great option when the weather is uncooperative. If your kids are spending time in Adventure Ocean (the kids’ club) or burning through your money in the arcade, a chair by the adults only Solarium pool is heavenly! Seating here goes fast, so dump those kids early to ensure your spot.
On port days Anthem offers shore excursions that can be reserved at home or on board. If there is an excursion that is a must do for you, book it at home before it sells out. Our cruise makes stops at Port Canaveral, Nassau and our favorite, Royal Caribbean’s private island Cocoa Cay.
Port Canaveral might seem an odd port to visit, but those of us with kids know that name is a secret code word for one place: Walt Disney World. The ship offers excursions that include transportation to and from the most magical place on earth, but we decided to rent a car and drive to the one Disney park we have never visited – Typhoon Lagoon. We spent the day conquering water slides, relaxing in the lazy river, and trying to not to fall in the wave pool (seriously, that wave is strong).
We chose to stay onboard during the Nassau stop because we have “been there, done that, bought the t-shirt,” literally. At 9 am we arrive at IFly ready to soar into oblivion! Well, not really. IFly is a skydiving simulator that allows you to get a taste of what it’s like to jump out of an airplane at 13,000 feet without thinking that you are going to die. The staff at IFly is truly the best on the entire ship. After a brief safety/instructional video, our guide reviews hand signals, hand and leg positions and other information before we suit up. Then it’s our group’s turn to climb the stairs and wait in the wind tunnel.
At first it’s challenging to remember all of the body positions and hand signals, but once you relax IFly is a breeze! We loved it so much that we stood in the standby line for the next time slot. Since most of the passengers were in Nassau, we were able to fly again with the next group.
North Star is another Anthem feature that we took advantage of on our Nassau day. Essentially, it’s a large round pod suspended from an arm on the top of the ship. After boarding, the arm lifts into the heavens for a spectacular view of the ship and sea. As the arm rotated North Star over the side of the ship I began to wonder if there were life jackets under the floor in case I needed one. If you have a fear of heights, you might want to skip it. A drink might be in order after the ride, but the views are worth it!
The next day brought relaxation and paradise in the form of Cocoa Cay, Royal Caribbean’s private island. If you take only one piece of advice from me, let it be this: If you want a seat on the beach, arrive on the island by 10 am or after 3 pm. I have no sympathy for people who hop off the tender at noon and complain because there aren’t enough chairs. At times I felt like I was watching that Hughie Lewis and the News video where the family wanders around the crowded beach all day looking for a place to put their stuff.
Lunch is served on the island, though I wasn’t impressed with it. Hamburgers, hot dogs, picnic salads, fruit and cookies pale in comparison to the food offered onboard. Drinks from the bar were decent, but limited (not all varieties of alcohol are available).
For those kids who can’t get enough of the new friends they made in Adventure Ocean, the kids’ club staff hosts activities on the island throughout the day. There’s also a beach-side waterpark complete with slides and trampolines. Our kids were fascinated with the miniature hermit crabs they found at the shoreline. Nugget Princess was almost in tears because she couldn’t bring Shelly home with her. I assured her that Shelly would be much happier on a tropical island than in a box at home.
We enjoyed our last few days at sea roller skating, driving bumper cars into strangers, and playing pool in Music Hall only to arrive to a dreary and cold Cape Liberty on Easter morning. Finding our luggage in port was easy, and we walk to our car in the garage for our ride home.
Looking back on our nine days on Anthem, a few things are certain. Boarding/debarking this ship was the easiest and smoothest we have ever experienced. The IFly guys are outstanding, and Ariel in Boleros has an open invitation to Christmas dinner. Lemon drop martinis before dinner might not work on school nights. And chicken fingers really do exist on Anthem of the Seas, even if you don’t see them.
Ready to book your cruise on Anthem of the Seas?