The Empress of the Seas is Royal Caribbean’s smallest ship, yet provides a great cruise experience. We sailed on her recently on a five-day itinerary out of Tampa to Mexico, and enjoyed the good food, excellent service and entertainment. In this post I’m discussing our trip down to Tampa Port.
A Mother’s Day Cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Smallest Ship
Early in the spring Mom told me she was ready to take another trip. Since she hasn’t been on a cruise in a couple of years, I decided that I would take her on a Mother’s Day cruise. I’ve outlined how I chose the cruise in the post A Cruise For Mom–Five Nights on the Royal Caribbean Empress of the Seas.
I had read some very mixed reviews of this ship. Some said that the ship was small but the crew was great. Others said that their teenagers were bored. Even more disturbing were reports of unpleasant smells in the lower decks. But everything about the cruise ticked our boxes. We like small ships and we could easily drive to the departure port of Tampa.
Empress of the Seas is Royal Caribbean’s smallest ship at 48,563 tons and can accommodate 1602 guests. Compare that to one of Royal’s midsize ships, the Mariner of the Seas at 138,000 tons and 3114 guests. I remember when I first sailed on the Mariner about 10 years ago, and I thought it was WAY too big. But even the Mariner is dwarfed by Royal’s largest ship–the Harmony of the Seas– at 226,963 tons, and a maximum passenger capacity of 6780 guests. There is an even bigger ship in the works–Symphony of the Seas. Where will it all end?
So with some (very slight) trepidation we booked a port-hole cabin on the Empress on deck 4 on an itinerary that visited our much-loved ports of Cozumel and Costa Maya. I am pleased to report that the cruise was delightful, and the crew, entertainment, and food exceeded our expectations. Over the next few blog posts I’ll give details on all of aspects. In this post I’ll discuss our car trip down to Tampa, embarkation, and parking.
Driving to Tampa Port
I always like to arrive near the departure port one day ahead of time if I’m sailing from a U.S. port. (And two days ahead if I’m sailing from a foreign port.) We live about 350 miles north of Tampa Port in Georgia. I booked us a room at the Country Inn and Suites off of I-75 in Ocala, FL using the last of my Club Carlson points. Ocala is about an hour and a half drive from Tampa, and we hadn’t visited it before. The Country Inn was not a great redemption–28,000 points for a hotel room that retails for about $125 a night, but I’d been holding on to those points for years and decided it was time to spend them. We arrived in Ocala in the early evening, and toured the historic district before enjoying our margaritas and taco salads at the Mexican restaurant in nearby Restaurant Row.
The next morning we enjoyed the Country Inn’s free breakfast and headed south on I-75 towards Tampa. I had prebooked our parking at Park4Cruise for $8 a night (Tampa Port charges an extortionary $15/night). We arrived at the parking lot at about 1:00 pm, and immediately got on the parking lot shuttle for the ship. We were able to get in the priority check in line because we have Royal Caribbean Emerald status, but it really didn’t matter because there were no lines. That is one wonderful advantage to arriving at the cruise port in the afternoon–you avoid the lines, and you can enter your cabin right away to drop off your luggage.
The Windjammer wasn’t crowded when we got there (another advantage of late boarding), so we had a leisurely lunch before the very efficient and short muster drill. We found deck chairs on the Promenade deck, and I joined Mom for cocktails while we watched our sail away out of Tampa Port. You must be out on deck as you pass under the Sunshine Skyway bridge–it looks the smoke stacks just clear the bridge as the ship passes underneath!
In my next post I’ll talk about why the Empress of the Seas is such a great ship!