The 2016 return of the 1,602-passenger Empress of the Seas to the Royal Caribbean fleet marked a break from the company's flashy, gigantic ships, and took travelers back to a time when cruising was all about the sea. Those who are used to sailing Royal Caribbean's ships for the innovative amenities (skydiving simulators, ziplines, ice skating rinks and constant flow of activities) will likely be disappointed in Empress -- the smallest (and oldest) ship in the fleet. Empress is not a floating theme park, and in many ways doesn't feel like the modern Royal Caribbean line at all. Yet, many of Royal Caribbean's signature experiences, like "Quest" scavenger hunt, Viking Crown Lounge, Windjammer Cafe and the friendly, genuine crew members, are reminders that -- despite its small size -- Empress still wears the Royal Caribbean crown.
Empress of the Seas entered the Royal Caribbean fleet in 1990 under the name Nordic Empress (it changed its name to Empress of the Seas in 2004), but was transferred to Spanish cruise line Pullmantur Cruises in March 2008. (Both Royal Caribbean International and Pullmantur are owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd.) In 2015, Royal Caribbean announced that Empress would return to the fleet in spring 2016, following an extensive $50-million renovation.
Visually, the ship's revitalization is evident in some spaces more than others -- like the new Boleros. A beautiful, Cuban-themed lounge with colorful decor and paintings of Cuban culture, it's the best iteration of the space of all the line's ships. And it is perfectly paired with Empress' itinerary, which, as of April 2017, comprises four- and five-night cruises to Havana, as well as Key West, Florida and Cozumel, Mexico, from its Tampa homeport.
Other parts of the ship still maintain elegance from the early days -- like the Royal Theatre that showcases white marble entranceways, crimson curtains and supper-club-style seating with individual tables. The smaller size of the ship makes it easy to navigate and passengers can quickly walk from one end to the other without worrying about being late for events. The lack of a need to "sign up" in advance for most onboard activities adds an element of spontaneity to the cruise.
While the start of meal times -- especially on the final day of the cruise -- can produce a wait in the restaurants and at the guest relations desk, overall, the ship is uncrowded and has an airy, sunlight-soaked atmosphere. Many secluded seating areas face floor-to-ceiling windows and the promenade on Deck 6 provides ocean views and even more peace and quiet. The pool area and sun deck has plenty of loungers and chairs so finding a nice place to curl up with a good book is not a concern on Empress. For many cruisers, it is a refreshing change to the busier, larger vessels.
Although there is still room for improvement, Empress delivers an affordable and relaxed cruise experience. The ship is ideal for first-time cruisers, budget travelers or simply those who enjoy a more intimate voyage where the crew treats you like family, instead of a cabin number.
Cabins on Empress are simple, traditional (with the exception of suites) and smaller than staterooms on other cruise lines. In particular, rooms with pulldown bunk beds can feel especially cramped.
The ship's 2016 revitalization saw brand-new carpeting, fresh bedding and modern lighting fixtures in all cabins, but the majority of staterooms have the same furniture as before the dry dock. In general, room decor in all cabins is very basic, and consists of white walls and a small ocean/beach painting.
A whopping 91 percent of the staterooms are interior or ocean view, so those interested in an open-air balcony should book early since options are limited. The same is true about wheelchair-accessible cabins: there are only four.
Another item worth noting is that Empress of the Seas utilizes the Centrum (main atrium) as a music venue. Although hosting the DJ booth there is a creative idea, those staying in staterooms next to the Centrum will be subject to loud music echoing throughout the hall.
All cabins include hair dryers, flat-screen televisions, reading lamps, clotheslines (in the shower), safes and alarm clocks (on the phones). For storage there are closets with plenty of hangers, vanities and nightstands with drawers. Each cabin has two U.S.-style 110-volt and two European-style 220-volt outlets in the cabin, as well as one U.S.-style outlet in the bathroom that can be switched between 110 or 220 volts.
Interior: These cabins range from 109 to 131 square feet with a simple layout of two twin beds that can be converted to a queen, and typically face the entrance (although layouts may differ). Some cabins have pulldown beds to accommodate third and fourth guests (making it a very tight squeeze). Private baths have small showers with curtains, and shampoo and bath gel dispensers mounted on shower walls. The bathroom has several glass shelves for storage, along with bar soaps and drinking glasses on the bathroom counter. Besides a few small drawers in the vanity, clothes and luggage will likely be stored in the closet (luggage can also fit under the bed).
Oceanview: These cabins include square-shaped porthole windows about 3-feet wide with adjustable curtains. Ocean-view rooms range from 111 to 126 square feet (small ocean view) or standard ocean view (111 to 206 square feet). Like the interior cabins, layouts vary slightly but many have the options of pulldown bunks for additional passengers. Ocean-view cabins on decks 7 and 8 forward overlook an underutilized deck space, so they're not exactly private. When booking, keep in mind that some ocean-view cabins have obstructed views.
Balcony: There are no standard balcony staterooms on Empress of the Seas.
Junior Suite: In the Junior Suite category, which is where you'll find most of the balconies on Empress, two twin beds convert to a queen and the stateroom size ranges from 112 to 155 square feet (small for a "suite"). Balconies on Empress do not have glass railing walls but instead have vertical, metal rails. The balconies range from 40 to 120 square feet and feature a small table and two reclining chairs. There is small desk, and a sofa bed facing the large vanity with shelves, drawers and ottoman chairs.
In some cabins, there appears to be a track where a curtain or temporary divider between the bed and living area might once have been installed to allow some separation between the two, providing a more "suite like" atmosphere.
There are 63 junior suites in total. Passengers staying in the junior suites receive special perks like an included bottle of Moet Champagne, fruit baskets, evening canapes, bathrobes, Evian water and priority boarding and departure. There is a single-cup coffee maker, hot water heater and teacups, but no mini-fridge.
The baths in junior suites have more counter and mirror space, added shelves and individual bath products consisting of lotion, conditioner, bar soap, shampoo and body wash. Showers are angled but still have basic shower curtains.
Owner's Suite: The layout of the Owner's Suite can vary dramatically depending on its location on the ship. The forward suites have less interior room but larger balconies (184 square feet inside and 288 on the balcony), while the aft suites have smaller balconies but more interior space (238 inside, 140 on the balcony). Owner's Suites have new furnishings like sofa beds, coffee tables, cushioned armchairs, balcony tables with four wicker cushioned chairs, and the same added services that the Junior Suites have, with the addition of complimentary concierge service. Owner's Suites also have separate living areas (separated by a curtain), mini-bars, larger vanities and closets, showers with bathtubs, an ocean-view window in the bedroom and two twins that can be made into a queen. There are five of these staterooms onboard Empress.
Royal Suite: There is one Royal Suite on the ship that offers 587 square feet of space with a 288-square-foot balcony. The master room has a double bed, plus separate living area with a refrigerator and wet bar, and bathroom with whirlpool bathtub. Services are the same as for the Owner's Suites.
Dining options on Empress are limited to three main choices -- one of which (Chops Grille) is a specialty restaurant with an added charge. Food quality was average to slightly above. During our cruise, there was never an item that truly stood out as "Wow! You have to try this" but overall it was satisfying. If Empress of the Seas plans on sailing longer itineraries, another dining venue would be a welcome option to allow more variety, but for short sailings the choices are sufficient. There is an ample amount of vegetarian options at the Starlight Dining Room and Windjammer Cafe. The crew is trained to accommodate special needs, but it is advised that passengers provide dietary information before they sail.
Starlight Dining Room (decks 4 and 5): The two-deck venue matches the "look" of the Royal Theatre with marble stairwells and a grand, regal atmosphere. A piano player provides live entertainment at the base of the stairwell during dinner, and service is prompt and efficient. We actually preferred this venue to Chops Grille, the specialty restaurant. The Starlight serves a changing dinner menu of American fare; expect appetizers like corn chowder, Maryland crab cakes and Cobb salads, with mains such as grilled salmon, buttermilk fried chicken and braised short ribs. Vegetarian choices are always available on the menu. Desserts were a cut above those in the Windjammer, with options like tarts, pies, mouse and a rich chocolate cake.
Breakfast in the Starlight lasts from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m., with menu items like steak and eggs, French toast, malt pancakes, eggs Benedict, pastries and fresh fruit.
Dinner operates on the flexible "My Time Dining," schedule so guests can call ahead and reserve a dining time of their choice. (Dinner starts at 5:30 p.m. with the last seating at 9 p.m.) Cruisers can also just show up and wait for a table or ask to be seated with others if they'd like to mingle. For those who prefer a more traditional cruise ship dining experience, passengers can also request an early or late set seating.
Although Empress does not offer a daily breakfast in the Starlight dining room (leaving the Windjammer as the only option for that), on sea days, Starlight is the location for a brunch buffet, a new addition on Empress of the Seas that features bottomless mimosas and Bloody Marys at no extra cost. There's also a fresh-squeezed orange juice machine (at an additional charge), potatoes, rice and vegetables, chicken, a waffle station, scrambled eggs and a salad bar. We very much enjoyed this dining option, and, in true brunch fashion, lingered for a while chatting away with other guests. Brunch runs from 9:45 a.m. until 1:15 p.m.
Windjammer (Deck 10): The Windjammer is Royal Caribbean's signature buffet, a sprawling space that includes both indoor and outdoor window-lined dining adjacent to the pool area. There is also a small counter bar station where guests can order sodas or alcoholic beverages. If you arrive at the start of lunch or dinner you might find a line, but otherwise we had no problem going right to the buffet or getting a seat.
Continental breakfast starts at 6 a.m., followed by a robust breakfast assortment, including fresh cut fruit, French toast, oatmeal, grits, sausages, cereal and omelets made to order.
Lunch includes burgers, fries, salad bar, pizza, fried fish and other typical American fare -- much of which was similar each day. Vegetarian items are labeled as such. Afternoon snacks, consisting of cold cuts, breads and cheese (for make-your-own-sandwiches), chicken salads and other deli salads, only runs until 5 p.m. But dinner doesn't start until 6:30 p.m., so there is a gap between meals when the only food available is room service. Unfortunately, this falls during the period when cruisers are returning from shore, so expect a queue when dinner begins.
During dinner, in addition to an impressive assortment of artfully displayed cheeses and breads, typical options are similar to those at lunch including pastas, carving stations, chicken and barbecue ribs. Each night features a different international cuisine at dinner to add some variety (Asian-inspired dishes, and Cuban classics such as ropa vieja). Overall the quality of food at Windjammer was above average for a buffet, and food trays were rotated frequently to keep food fresh. Desserts were fairly good, with a warm fruit crumble option each day, chocolate mousses and other cakes. The coffee station is open 24 hours, and during mealtimes a crew member serves soft ice cream from a machine (although passengers can also help themselves when its not attended; open hours are 11 a.m. to midnight).
The Windjammer also serves hot late-night snacks from 10:30 p.m. to midnight with options like hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken breasts, with cold sandwiches on offer from midnight to 2 a.m. However, dinner ends at 9:00 p.m. so there is another gap in mealtimes between 9 and 10:30 p.m.
Free brunch mimosas and Bloody Marys are available at the Windjammer on port days, although this was not clear in the daily Cruise Compass schedule, so some passengers were not aware of this.
Room Service: A limited but adequate room service menu is available around the clock; a $7.95 per order surcharge applies. Cheese plates, Cuban sandwiches, wraps, burgers, chicken wings and pizza, are a few of the items available as well as breakfast items (beginning at 6 a.m.). Vegetarian and gluten-, sugar- or lactose-free items are noted on the menu.
Chops Grille (Deck 5); $35: One of the most popular specialty restaurants on any Royal Caribbean ship is Chops Grille, a steakhouse open daily for dinner (vegetarian options are limited here). The sleek, elegant space is known for its well-prepared New York strips, filet mignon, grilled chicken and seafood entrees, as well as family-style side dishes like asparagus, mushrooms and potatoes. Service here takes longer than in the Starlight Dining Room, so allow ample time to dine. A smart casual dress code is recommended, and reservations are required.
Cafe Royal (Deck 6); a la carte: This specialty coffee shop located in the Boleros lounge serves Cafe Bustelo-brand Cuban coffee for when you need something a little stronger than the typical American filter coffee. Prices range from $2.00 for a small espresso to $5.25 for an iced mocha. Each coffee purchase includes a complimentary sweet or savory Cuban pastry (pastelitos and empanadas) from a heated self-serve countertop display case.
Empress of the Seas does not require a formal dress code for dinner, so T-shirts and flip-flops are just fine, however many passengers still "dressed up" for dinner with cocktail dresses or nice blouses for ladies and button-up shirts for men. Passengers should also consider packing a white item of clothing for the white parties on the pool deck.
The crew of Empress delivers enough music, dance and activities to keep cruisers entertained for a few days. Most events are well-attended onboard, but keep in mind that this vessel is less of a massive "floating city" with neighborhoods and over-the-top entertainment and more of a traditional cruise ship where lounging and mingling with other passengers keep guests busy.
The Royal Theatre is a dazzling, two-deck theater that feels part opera house, part comedy club, with white marble stairs, a curved balcony and glass cocktail tables. The theater hosts a main event each evening, such as a performance from a comedian or a musical impressionist to shows like "Bailamos," featuring talented ballroom dancers, and "Three," a musical celebration about the showgirls from different eras. Each of the main events has two show times. The theater also hosts other occasional events like bingo, daytime shopping highlights and Quest, Royal Caribbean's hilarious, adults-only scavenger hunt.
The cruise director and entertainment crew do a nice job with the roster of activities and getting the passengers involved to build a sense of onboard comradery as well as excitement about the Havana call. During the day, there's dance classes, napkin-folding lessons, health seminars and yoga, line dancing at the pool, liquor tastings, and snorkeling demonstrations (in preparation for days in port). Cuba-appropriate activities include basic Spanish lessons, salsa dance classes and cigar-rolling. For some friendly competition among passengers, the crew hosts scavenger hunts, shuffleboard challenges, plenty of trivia, belly-flop contests and speed climbs up the rock wall.
In addition to all the activities happening in the bars and lounges (don't miss the salsa dancers and band in Boleros), cruisers will find poolside movies on the big screen, dance parties on the pool deck, blackjack tournaments and lotto in the casino, and night climbs on the rock wall. While the constant dance music playing from the Centrum (main atrium) during the day can be a bit much, at night when the activity staff takes to the floor and gets the crowd involved it transforms into a fun, temporary dance club. The Casino Royale has numerous slot machines and table options like blackjack, roulette and craps.
Bars and lounges on Empress tend to be busiest right when the main show in the dining room lets out, but fizzles out fairly early in the night. Schooner Bar is the most obvious choice since it is right next to the Royal Theatre and Centrum. A fairly good crowd keeps things lively in the evening, but with limited options the music winds down around midnight to 1 a.m.
Schooner Bar (Deck 5): Located next to the Centrum, the traditional, nautical-themed bar is a staple on many Royal Caribbean ships. Dark woods, ship wheels and paintings of sailboats make up the decor, and a piano player belts out favorites in the evening. The bar itself can get crowded at times and the bartenders know how to whip up just about any drink imaginable -- from mojitos and martinis to rum runners and cosmos. During the day, it is a popular place for trivia, Spanish classes and seminars.
Boleros (Deck 6): A main hub for activities, Boleros is a fresh, new Cuban-themed bar and lounge that hosts Latin dance classes, game shows, trivia, karaoke, daiquiri-making classes, tequila flight tastings and Latin dance music (so you can show off those moves you learned). During the day, the Cafe Royal serves up specialty coffees -- making it a great spot to get the morning started. The lounge spills out onto a quiet section of the promenade (where smoking is permitted) at the aft of the vessel.
Viking Crown Lounge (Deck 10): Featuring a dance floor with disco ball dangling above it, the Viking Crown Lounge serves as the ship's dance club. The second story balcony (once part of the club) is still visible, but it now contains the fitness center. Even without the balcony, the space is still large, but features a rather unexciting decor -- it has no real character to it at all. During the day, the bar and lounge hosts a handful of health-related seminars but is otherwise a quiet place to relax.
Pool Bar (Deck 10): Grab a tropical cocktail on sea days or join one of the outdoor dance parties held here. The bar can get crowded at times, but the bartenders are efficient.
Empress only has one main swimming pool (Deck 10) and it is very small -- too small for the number of passengers lounging in chairs nearby. There are three equally small whirlpools covered by tent-like shade structures, and a children's splash pool that's easy to miss. For those seeking watersports onboard -- Empress is not the best choice.
Other outdoor recreation is very limited on Empress but includes shuffleboard and table tennis on Deck 10 and a rock wall on Deck 11. The ship has no dedicated jogging track.
There is no shortage of places to relax on Empress of the Seas with plenty of chairs and loungers on the pool deck (Deck 10). Many chairs and tables are also under Biminis for those who need some shade. There is no adults-only area, but on Deck 11, a handful of wicker chairs and hammocks provide additional lounge options that are more secluded. However, there is no break from the sun here. Chairs and loungers can also be found on the wraparound promenade on Deck 6, including the spacious smoking area outside Boleros at the aft -- but here you'll be in the shade.
Deck 5 is home to the guest services and shore excursions desks, just next to the Schooner Bar, while the library is located on Deck 9 next to the main atrium, and includes small bookshelves with a handful of books and sleek, modern furniture. The main draw here is the dazzling floor-to-ceiling windows they face. These panoramic windows and new furniture are found on both sides of the ship, including in the Deck 8 card room, which features Jenga, checkers and dominoes. The loyalty desk is opposite on the starboard (right) side. Deck 7 is home to the internet cafe with eight computers, a printer and work desk. You don't need to be in the business center to use the internet, Empress' VOOM Wi-Fi is one of the better cruise ship internet systems we've come across. Prices are $12.99 per day, per device to surf, or $17.99 per day to surf and stream.
The Royal shops for jewelry, perfume, souvenirs, liquor and duty free items are located on Deck 6 next to the centrum, and the photo gallery is located on Deck 5 next to Chops and the "Picture This" photography studio.
There are no self-service launderettes onboard but laundry services are provided at an additional charge.
Royal Caribbean ships are known for being family-friendly, and Empress of the Seas continues this tradition with the Adventure Ocean kids club. However, additional kid-friendly amenities are much lighter on this ship than on others (the newest ships have water parks and costumed characters, for instance). Teens and kids will find an arcade with around 15 game machines like air hockey, car racing, the "crane" game and shooting games that charge around $1.25 to $1.50 each.
In terms of family-friendly accommodations, there are no staterooms specifically designed for families, however the majority of cabins onboard include pulldown bunk beds. Empress of the Seas also has special programing for children with autism -- just speak to the staff at Adventure Ocean.
Adventure Ocean is broken up into different age groups with separate rooms: Aquanaut for ages 3 to 5 (kids must be toilet trained); Explorers for ages 6 to 8; and Voyagers for 9 to 11-year-olds. Kids seven years or older may sign themselves in or out of the youth program so long as their parents have given permission via a waver for them to do so.
Aquanauts will participate in games like face painting, "unbirthday" card making, story time, obstacle courses and science activities. Explorers and Voyagers activities include Jenga, Lego challenges, long jumps, silent speedball and other active competitions.
Families can also sign children up for Adventure Dining, which lets kids eat dinner with the kids- program staff. The kids club is open from early morning until 10 p.m., but a late-night party zone until 2 a.m. is available for $7 per hour (per child). On sea days, the club has a little more time in between sessions (breaks for lunch) than on port days. Parents may leave their children (older than 3) in the kids club on port days while they get off the ship to explore.
Kids can also join parents at dinner (highchairs are available) and children who are old enough to attend evening kid's clubs events can be picked up right from the dining room for activities with "My Family Time Dining," which gets the kids served first so they're ready to go when the kids' crew come to pick them up.
Empress of the Seas does not have a dedicated teen's club, however, scheduled activities are available. During the day, expect things like Ping-Pong and air hockey tournaments in the video arcade, scavenger hunts and teen-only trivia sessions. At night, there are teen dinners, teens-only discos, rock climbing under the stars and capture the flag. There's a 1 a.m. curfew in effect for teens under 17. In the port of Coco Cay, a "Teen Adventure Pack" tour is offered for ages 12 to 17 and includes snorkeling and access to water floats and slides. However, there are no other dedicated teen activities in other ports of call. Despite the number of teenagers onboard, there was an overall lack of options for this age group.
The Tampa-based ship is a melting pot of North Americans from all cultural backgrounds; the majority of adults are baby boomers or younger. On our summer cruise (when most schools are not in session), there was a notable number of families with teenagers or young adults traveling together -- a bit surprising since the ship doesn't have a teen center.
The Vitality Spa is located on Deck 10 near the Viking Crown Lounge and Vitality Gym, and is open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. There is no steam room, sauna or whirlpool for guests to use; with the absence of an adults-only area onboard, these would have been a welcome addition.
However, there is an extensive amount of individual treatments available for an additional charge. The spa and salon offers acupuncture, anti-aging facials, Botox, teeth whitening, hair treatments for men and women, manicures and pedicures. There are several massage options including couples' massages, bamboo, hot stone therapy, reflexology, lime and ginger salt glows, seaweed treatments and Swedish massages. There is also a daily special for a more affordable option; the minimum massage treatment time is 50 minutes.
The fitness center on Empress is difficult to find, and awkwardly located above the Viking Crown Lounge. Those accessing the gym have to do so through a winding staircase in the lounge, and those exercising overlook the dance floor and bar patrons.
The gym is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., and has eight treadmills, three bicycles and a handful of weightlifting equipment and machines. Several classes are offered including yoga on the beach (at select destinations), body sculpting boot camp, Pilates, stretching and wellness presentations. Most fitness classes carry an additional charge (around $12), but presentations are usually included in the cruise fare. Joggers can also enjoy the promenade on Deck 6 -- an unofficial jogging track.
An 18 percent gratuity is added to bar and spa bills, plus there is an option for passengers to give extra if they'd like. A $14.50 per person, per day gratuity is automatically added to the final bill for housekeeping and restaurant crew ($17.50 per person, per day for suites). All major credit cards, as well as pre-paid cash, can be linked to your Seapass spending account. Daily gratuities can be reduced by visiting the guest services desk on your last day onboard.
Note: Australians and New Zealanders do not have the stateroom service charge added to their account; fares automatically include this gratuity as long as the cruise was booked in AU or NZ dollars.
Those visiting the casino can take cash out, in the form of chips, directly from their Seapass account, however a 5-percent fee applies. An onboard ATM charges around $6.50 (but varies depending on bank).
Date Refurbished: 2015
Country of Registration: Bahamas
Regular Capacity: 1602
Maximum Capacity: 1840
Number of Crew:668
Crew Nationality: International
Officer Nationality: International
Language(s) Spoken: Spanish, English
|Empress of the Seas (formerly the Nordic Empress) may be smaller than the other Royal ships, but don't let its size fool you. You'll find everything you've come to expect onboard a Royal Caribbean ship, like panoramic ocean views from the two-story ShipShape Day Spa and Fitness Center, romantic dinners in Portofino, our specialty Italian restaurant and dancing in the Latin-themed bar, Boleros. Its unique combination of smaller size and amazing amenities has put Empress of the Seas in a league of its own.|
Health and Beauty
No. of Dinner Sittings: 2
No. of Dinner Sittings: 6:15pm & 8:30pm
Special Diet: Available Upon Request
Dress Code: Varies each nightGratuity Policies
Suites (GS & Above) $17.50 per guest per day
Standard (JS & Below) $14.50 per guest per day