What’s there to do in any big city? Pretty much whatever you want. What’s there to do on a ship that’s considered a floating city? Turns out even more – and you get taken to places to boot! Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to sail on Royal Caribbean International’s Allure of the Seas, one of the largest passenger ships in the world.
It was nothing short of incredible.
On 7-14 May 2017, The Lady and I were invited by Royal Caribbean International to sail on one of their flagship itineraries: a seven-day cruise to the Eastern Caribbean islands. Our Caribbean adventure started in sunny Fort Lauderdale, Miami (hello, Ariana Grande) and included three port stops: Sint Maarten/St Martin; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Labadee, Haiti. Please note that the trip was fully sponsored and I was compensated, and so The Usual Disclaimer applies.
‘A floating city’? you say, a twinge of skepticism in your voice. Have you seen one of these things up close? To take in the Allure of the Seas’ full majesty was an eye-opening experience – literally. A floating city is the only way one can describe Royal Caribbean’s Oasis Class ships, of which the Allure is one. There are three of these ships in existence (with a fourth on the way), and hold the absolutely mind-blowing record of being the largest passenger ships in the world. With a passenger capacity of nearly 6300, plus an extra 2300 crew, calling the Allure a ‘floating city’ is not exactly far from the truth.
Prior to this cruise experience, I’d have confidently declared that I’m not the cruising type. I always thought that the target audience for cruise liners were in a wholly different world to my own. As yours truly considers himself a food and landscape/nature buff, spending a week on a ship – even one as large as the Allure – didn’t seem like the most appealing way to spend seven days of my hard-earned annual leave. Sure, I might have imagined some nice sunsets over the ocean and chillaxing by the pool with my fifth glass of sparkling *ahem* water, but as a trip for a foodie? Surely not so…right?
Having traveled over 16 000 km (that’s 10 000 miles for non-British colonized people) from Sydney to embark on this Caribbean trip, I obviously wanted to be proven wrong. And boy, I sure was – in a spectacular, gluttonous fashion.
Just like the Allure, this trip and thus this post is sizable. Thus, I’ve divided it into three sections – the ship itself, the dining, and our port excursion days.
You’ve already seen some photos I took of the ship: it’s big. For many veteran cruisers, the ship itself is the destination. A number of regular cruisers that I spoke to confessed – much to my shock – that they don’t even bother disembarking at the port stops. But then again, when it’s a ship like the Allure of the Seas with seven distinct neighborhoods, I shouldn’t be too surprised: I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – it’s a big ship, and there’s lots to do. With a daily cruise compass itinerary that is literally packed with over 50 activities every single day, there will definitely, definitely be something for you whether you’re 15 or 50.
Given my food and adventure focus for this trip, I eschewed the bingo nights, salsa classes and the 1800 square metre casino for the more adrenaline-inducing end of the spectrum, with activities such as the Flow Rider surfing machine, dual 18 metre high (that’s 60″ for my American readers) rock climbing walls, and a cross-ship zip line. While I can’t claim I mastered surfing (I got close, I swear!) on the Flow Rider, I did manage to successfully rock climb to the top – not bad for my first ever serious attempt!
And a video of me at the top below, because I also wouldn’t have believed it if I told myself I could rock climb 😉
Ah, the awkward moment when all your video is in portrait mode :’)
I made this point earlier, but to labour the point: foodies and cruise ships generally don’t intersect. Why be stuck on a ship when you could be on a gastronomic tour in Spain or cafe-hopping in Melbourne? Well here’s the thing: while I can’t speak for cruise ships & operators in general, I can say that I greatly underestimated just how good the food on Allure of the Seas would be.
Allure of the Seas boasts twenty five distinct dining options, with many of them being full-service restaurants. These are split into complimentary (free) options and specialty dining that incur an out-of-pocket cover charge. Those on a budget can easily have a great eating experience without ever paying an extra cent.
There’s the familiar and almost iconic Windjammer Cafe, with what is probably the best free buffet you can have in international waters, Park Café (amongst salads and panini sandwiches, this place features an awesome roast beef sandwich), the Boardwalk Dog House (yes, hot dogs with your choice of 6 types of sausages and a variety of toppings), and many more. On a budget but seeking a fancier dining option that isn’t a buffet or cafe? The Main Dining Room is the opulent answer. With three levels of distinctly-furnished eating spaces, this is where you can dress up and go the distance, without making your wallet do the same.
Windjammer / Wipeout Cafe
Then we come to specialty dining for a no-holds-barred dining experience: dedicated restaurant spaces, impeccable service, and food that walks the walk (or sails the waves?) On the Allure, most major cuisine types were covered, though oddly enough there wasn’t a dedicated Chinese restaurant.
I tried my gosh-darned best to sample as many places as I could without subjecting my stomach to a gastric bypass, I failed. The Allure has just too many delicious eating options for this one hungry gentleman. That’s surprising in and of itself, but even more surprising is that I didn’t have one bad specialty dining experience. I guess when there are paid dining options on a ship where so much of it is already free, it had better impress – something the staff and kitchen on the Allure lived up to. Here’s the full bonanza, in pictures:
Solely focused on refined Japanese cuisine this was, unsurprisingly, our favourite restaurant. They also offer a theatrical teppanyaki dining experience, but we didn’t try that out as fresh fish seemed a more apropos option for when one is in the middle of the Caribbean.
Izumi Sake Pairing Dinner
We loved Izumi so much, we decided to go again for their sake pairing dinner, which matched sake with five courses of sushi.
A Mexican feast is what you get at Sabor, the guacamole was, for the lack of a better term, ‘to die for’. Dangerous. So very dangerous. The novelty-sized margaritas were also a highlight!
In what universe do two medium-sized Asians tackle three steaks and a plethora of sides and expect to survive? My stomach received its hardest workout in living memory at Chops Grille. We somehow powered through a loaf of fresh bread, 1kg porterhouses, grilled salmon, filet mignons, shrimp cocktails, beef carpaccio and desserts (shoutouts to an amazing Valrhona chocolate cake! drools) to boot leaving very little on the table.
When it’s so good, it’s worth shortening your life expectancy. I changed this 3 columns…
150 Central Park
The Allure’s flagship restaurant, 150 Central Park is the place you take your newly-met cruise date to. You know what’s particularly special? The fact that bread is served with six types of salt.
But if you’re on the aforementioned (and possibly hypothetical date), resist the temptation to try the volcano salt: think boiled eggs 😉
A one-off intimate dining experience hosted in a section that is usually accessible only by high-status Royal Caribbean cruisers, the Chef’s Table is an intimate dinner degustation that guarantees a special night will be had. This is the pinnacle of what the Allure has to offer in terms of food, with a high price tag to match its fine dining atmosphere.
If the meal we had were served in a Sydney restaurant, that restaurant would be hatted.
The Port Stops
Oh that’s right, the Allure actually stops at islands! I wasn’t paying attention – I got distracted by the free donuts which were calling my name from my seat on the merry-go-round.
When you hear ‘tropical island’, you typically think of sipping on mojitos & pina coladas while taking in the crystal clear turquoise waters and pristine white beaches while reclined on a deck chairs. Heck – the more cynical might even be picturing a legion of tourists during high season 😛
There is a reason these stereotypes exist: the Caribbean Islands are the postcard-perfect embodiment. While we only stopped at three major ports, there are more than 7000 individual islands that comprise the entire region. If you were to visit one island per day, it would take you 19 years to see them all! Holy schmoly.
With our week-long cruise, visiting three islands made for an ideal ratio of ship days to port days. All three of our stops – St. Martin, San Juan, & Labadee – possessed a common Caribbean-esque base in look and feel which was accented by their unique landscapes and people. Friends of mine know that I hate – despise – the heat, and while heat was definitely an inescapable part of my port days, that wasn’t enough to stop me from thoroughly enjoying my time on these islands.
There may be no pirates in the Caribbean (*snigger*, and uhh thank goodness), but there’s plenty of fun – and food!
St. Martin / Sint Maarten
An island with a split personality, whether you call it St. Martin or Sint Maarten, both will be correct. But perhaps go with St. Martin on the northern side, and Sint Maarten on the south – for this is an island that is divided 60/40 between France and the Netherlands. Though as tourists, you are unlikely to notice much of a difference unless you speak French and/or Dutch. We did joke about having to go through customs when crossing; however, other than French/Netherlands flags denoting the border, we wouldn’t even have known.
With only 34,000 residents and 34 square kilometres of land, St Martin may be small, but golly, is it beautiful!
Stunner status: confirmed.
However, an aspect that sets St Martin apart is being able to try Creole Cuisine – a mishmash of cooking styles that escapes solid definition. At St Martin, it is expressed through the use of one key ingredient: cajun spices. Pretty much any traditional Western dish can be given the Creole treatment, and I guarantee you it’s not something we Sydneysiders have enough of.
On the French side (hence my usage of the St Martin spelling) lies a small town called Grand Case, which punches well above its size on the culinary front, as its twenty or so Creole eateries are considered the gastronomic centre of the entire island. As we were short on time, we visited just one restaurant that I thought captured both the spirit of the Caribbean – seafood – as well as being representative of Creole cuisine. That restaurant is Le Soleil.
Fresh Caribbean lobster, scallops, and prawns were all absolute bangers; the addition of Creole spices were the key touch that was as novel as it was delicious. The cajun-heavy, Mediterranean-esque flavour palate were a surefire solidification of what I now associate with the best of Caribbean seafood.
These days, it’s once in a blue moon for me to be honestly impressed by something different. In some ways, this was almost going to be inevitable: I mean, when was the last time I tried authentic Creole cuisine, on a tropical island where Creoles make up the largest minority group?
Yeah, St Martin/Sint Maarten was awesome. I really did wish Royal Caribbean would schedule a longer port stop here – from early morning to only 3pm just doesn’t do enough justice to this amazing island.
Especially when you get the feed the local iguanas 😉
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Often stereotyped as crime-ridden, impoverished, and run-down, Puerto Rico doesn’t get the best rap. It’s a real shame that this is the domineering view as, despite some nuggets of truth, my all-too-short time on this island was actually my favourite out of them all; an impressive accomplishment considering the competition.
To be fair, we only spent our time in the area of San Juan (or old Puerto Rico, as it’s known). It’s very touristy, no doubt. But puts out a good vibe, plenty of historical points of interest, and colours in abundance – San Juan’s buildings are a literal riot of colour.
But none of this, to me, makes San Juan itself an attraction that can’t be missed. In news that will surprise no-one, it all came down to the food. As the token food blogger extraordinaire for Royal Caribbean (self-proclaimed title), my brief was to showcase some of Puerto Rico’s signature eats. We were appointed a private tour guide from the Flavours of San Juan Food & Culture Tours company, which meant no research needed on our part – win! Shoutouts to Juan our local tour guide – thanks a million for your service!
Casa Cortés ChocoBar – Puerto Rican Hot Chocolate, La Mallorca Sandwich
A family-run operation that’s been churning out chocolate made from local ingredients for over 80 years, Casa Cortés is obviously doing something right to stay in business. We were first treated to a Puerto Rican hot chocolate. While marshmallows with hot chocolate is the de facto tried-and-true combination for us Australians (and indeed Americans), Puerto Ricans go an extra fatty mile with the substitution of marshmallow with cheese. Specifically, a high-melt variety such as cheddar. A creamier hot chocolate with a slight salty edge is definitely not too far of a stretch for my palate – it’s about as delicious as it is decadent.
We followed up with a Mallorca sandwich: a classic Puerto Rican breakfast dish in which ham & cheese is sandwiched between a sweet, fluffy bread that’s gloriously dusted with icing sugar. The sandwich is named after the island of Mallorca in Spain, though whether the origins of this sandwich can be traced back to the eponymous island is unclear.
However, you know what is crystal clear? The addictiveness of this sandwich. For those who’ve been, think Breadtop, and you’ll know exactly what I mean. Mmm mmm – It was a pity we had to share.
Señor Paleta – Paleta Ice Pops
Puerto Rico has two seasons: hot, and hotter. Enter Señor Paleta’s ice pops (also known as ‘paletas’), made with real, locally-sourced fruit. These go a long way to combating San Juan’s oppressive heat.
Rosa de Triana
There was a recent news story where New York Times food critic Sam Sifton reportedly ‘lost his shit’ over discovering pork souvlaki wraps (also known as yiros/gyros) while in Melbourne. Greeks and Melbournians alike shrugged, laughed a little, and moved on with their lives – after all, Greek food culture has been a bedrock of Melbourne for what seems like ever.
In San Juan, I had my own proverbial Sam Sifton moment where I lost my marbles over a dish that is surely as pedestrian in Puerto Rico as fried rice is in China: mofongo. It’s a quintessent Puerto Rican dish, with fried plantains as its primary ingredient. Primer: plantains are basically sugar-free bananas that can’t be eaten until cooked.
These plantains were deep-fried, and then combined with butter & garlic in a traditional wooden mortar & pestle called a pilón for the diner to plug away at it. The experience is satisfying in a way words can’t fully describe: the aroma of butter and garlic wafting out with each movement of the wooden mortar is barely short of euphoric. The taste? Incredible.
I’m not exactly sure why my first experience of mofongo was so transformative: it’s a carby, sugarless banana that tastes like mash with a bit of a backbone, with only garlic, butter and salt as seasoning. Yet, the balance was nigh on perfect. A staple dish had never tasted so good before, it was the best thing I had on the entire trip, and probably one of the best things I’ve eaten all year, and perhaps in my life.
I now know what Sam Sifton went through – who’d have thought losing my goddamn mind would be so rewarding.
Our mofongo was easily good enough to eat by itself – in fact, it was a real struggle not to finish eat it straight. However, we were also served an excellent chicken in a Creole sauce, with perfectly tender shredded chicken and tomato-ey & cajun flavours. In actuality, this was also perfect on its own, due to the lightness & sweetness of the Creole sauce. Some rice & beans, the bread-and-butter staple of Caribbean cuisine, was also served to absolutely ensure I wasn’t going to walk out of Rosa De Triana hungry. I never thought how good ostensibly pedestrian rice and beans could be, but there we go – mushy crack on a plate.
Yeah, this meal was a bloody stunner.
Princesa Gastro Bar
Our last stop was fittingly dessert, at the Princesa Gastro Bar. Given that Puerto Ricans have a heavily Spanish-influenced history, it is only fitting that one of its culturally significant desserts is the flan. While you can find flan in pretty much any region that the Spaniards have exerted its authority in the course of history, Puerto Ricans’ spin incorporates something a little bit special.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably already guessed it: it’s cheese. Specifically, deep fried cheese cubes on the side. At Princesa Gastro Bar specifically, the flan is a flan-cake-hybrid known as chocoflan – custard-like flan on top, moist chocolate cake on the bottom; coconut flavours throughout. The cheese and candied papaya served on the side imbue the Puerto Rican way. Possibly the best thing to eat on the muggy day we experienced after ice cream.
And all this my friends & readers, is why we freaking loved Puerto Rico. I wasn’t asked to do this, but our time with Juan was nothing short of excellent. I’m more than happy to recommend, from the bottom of my heart, the cultural and food tour we took – link here.
Yah, Puerto Rico was pretty amazeballs. Not an easy one to top.
Our only itinerary item that wasn’t food-focussed, Labadee in Haiti had far more to do with what most people would associate with being ‘touristy on a tropical island’. Think adrenaline-inducing activities such as the world’s longest zipline over water, parasailing above the pristine waters of Haiti, and sunbaking in our own private cabana.
Kind of hard to ask for more!
Dragon’s Breath Zipline
The one time I wish I had a GoPro, I was unable to record my experience of Dragon’s Breath Zipline as I couldn’t risk handholding my phone. Watch the below video from YouTube and you’ll see why!
A similar issue regarding safety meant that I also couldn’t capture my experience parasailing for the first time, though there is video of us taking off! Despite our terrified expressions, I can tell you that parasailing is far less scary than it looks: it’s so calm while sdup in the sky, I could have had a tea party. An incredibly relaxing flight above Labadee.
A guided cultural tour, this one’s for those who wish to learn a bit more about Labadee itself. Most people don’t consider Labadee a true part of Haiti due to its heavy bias towards tourism. While I don’t disagree with the accusation, the cultural tour goes a respectable distance in dispelling the notion that Labadee is just a tourist trap with no soul of its own.
For once, we didn’t stuff ourselves with food and instead did many things that I previously thought were out of our comfort zones. Just as well – Labadee was a fittingly relaxing conclusion to our trip that ended in the best possible cliche: drinks by the beach on a perfect day.
Many thanks to Royal Caribbean and Allure of the Seas for taking us around the Caribbean Islands for seven days. We had a blast on and off the ship with amazing company. It’s definitely one of the best holidays I’ve ever had, a highlight that will be remembered for many years to come!
This post is based on my experience sailing with Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas on their 7-day Eastern Caribbean cruise. The trip was fully sponsored by Royal Caribbean and I received compensation in the production of all related content.
Didn’t think cruising was your thing but perhaps keen to give it a go? Reach out with any questions you may have in the comments below!