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.
Miami, Labadee, San Juan, Tortola, St. Thomas, Miami
Miami, Labadee, San Juan, Tortola, St. Thomas, Miami
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.
Daytime:Casual clothing is the norm during the day and you'll see plenty of T-shirts and shorts.
Evening:The dress code on Liberty of the Seas is relaxed throughout the week; no formal dress code is ever required though many passengers still "dressed up" for dinner with cocktail dresses or nice blouses for ladies and button-up shirts for men.
Not permitted: Tank tops are prohibited in the main dining room and specialty restaurants at dinner. Shoes must be worn in all dining venues at all times.
For more information, visit Cruise Line Dress Codes: Royal Caribbean.
One of Royal Caribbean's smaller ships; highlights include rock climbing, bungee trampoline, three pools, eight bars and a Ben & Jerry's at sea; holds less than 3,000.
Older ship carrying fewer than 3,000; highlights include rock climbing, two pools, outdoor movie screen and several specialty dining venues including Ben & Jerry's at sea.
Offers three- and four-night cruises; features a rock climbing wall, Johnny Rockets at sea and smallish aqua park; can carry a bit over 2,500 cruisers.
An older ship carrying less than 3,000; features rock climbing, two pools, for-fee nursery, eight bars and lounges and more than half a dozen dining venues.
When Vision of the Seas launched in 1998, it was the last in a class of vessels whose design represented the most innovative for Royal Caribbean.
Megaliner packed full of amenities such as a TV studio, 3D movies, ice skating, virtual balcony cabins, and life-size Dreamworks characters to entertain the kids
Mid-sized ship carrying 2,100 passengers, known for its food, self-levelling pool tables, poolside movie screen and an African-themed solarium.
The second in the revolutionary Voyager-class series, Explorer of the Seas has a wealth of facilities, activities and entertainment.
Bustling atmosphere; features two-slide water park, simulated surfing, rock climbing, ice skating shows, 15 bars and the line's signature Royal Promenade; can carry upward of 4,000.
Brilliance of the Seas' mediumish size -- 2,112 passengers -- allows cruisers to feel they have the best of both worlds: a vessel with ample activities and attentive crew.
Carries some 4,400 passengers and features surf simulators, rock climbing and ice skating, 11 bars and lounges and the lively Royal Promenade.
A Chinese-orientated mega ship holding close to 3,000 passengers; features onboard surfing, zip lining, thalassotherapy pool and kids clubs.
Highlights on this smallish ship include rock climbing, mini-golf, three pools, and 16 bars and lounges including a wine bar and English-style pub; holds some 2,500.
One of Royal Caribbean's smaller ships; attractions include rock climbing and mini-golf, kids' water slide, half a dozen or so dining venues and family-specific cabins.
Can hold some 5,000 passengers; offers simulated surfing, rock climbing, a mini-golf course, dedicated karaoke bar and 10 dining venues.
The first megaship to hold more than 6,000 cruisers; features high-energy activities like zip lining, surfing and the high-diving AquaTheater.
Carries more than 4,000; features a three-slide water park, surf simulators, rock climbing wall and "Saturday Night Fever: The Musical."
A ship of wows including rock climbing, surfing, virtual reality enhanced trampolibe, laser tag, puzzle break and mini-golf, plus "Grease, the Musical" onstage, ice skating shows, kids' water park, 22 bars and 10 eateries.
Mega-ship holding upwards of 6,400 passengers; features zip lining, surf simulators, rock climbing and an open-air Central Park with shops and restaurants.
Quantum of the Seas dares its passengers not to have fun. It's a bold ship that screams for your attention via its innovative features.
Carries nearly 4,500 passengers and features surf simulators, vertical skydiving, 16 dining venues and some of the largest suites at sea.
World's largest cruise ship featuring high-energy attractions including zip lining, water slides, surf simulators, rock climbing and 18 dining venues.
Royal Caribbean's newest ship will be one of the largest in the world when it launches in spring 2018; high-energy highlights include zip lining, water slides and surf simulators.
The largest cruise ship to ever visit Australia; has an iFly skydiving simulator, bumper cars, observation capsule, Broadway-style and high-tech shows, and robotic bartenders.
Royal Caribbean's Cuba ship with stops in Havana; features the Cuba-inspired Boleros lounge and a free mimosa or bloody mary at the daily "Sunday" brunch.
The first Quantum Ultra-Class ship will launch in the spring 2019. The class will be the next evolution of Royal Caribbean's Quantum Class, though the line has not yet said what its size will be.