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Saturday, January 6, 2024

Christmas Cruise on Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas - Southern Caribbean - Cruise Review

Ahoy! I'm here with another cruise review!

If you're a longtime follower of the blog, you probably know that it is Shinglebell family tradition to cruise over Christmas. In 2020, my sister Rachel and I started alternating Christmases with our boyfriends' families, and we went on our first cruise as the Shinglebells + Boys on the NCL Encore in 2021. Last year, I spent Christmas with Aaron and his parents at sea on the Celebrity Summit. Which means....

It's a Shinglebells Christmas cruising year!

Jewel of the Seas

In case you're new to my trip reports or just need a little refresher, meet the Shinglebells:

Me/Victoria - I'm 32 and live in Los Angeles. I'm an Architect, and I also love a good DIY (check out my YouTube channel, designSHING if home decor is your thing)! I've also been sticking a camera in everyone's face to document and meticulously share our family vacations for well over a decade. I've recently made some fun additions to My Camera Bag that I'll be sharing throughout this cruise review.

Sister/Rachel - She just turned 30... the day after she got engaged!!! I'd love to share more about her engagement story later, but for now, know that it was a complete surprise to her when Landon pedaled up on a Surrey Bike at Disney's Boardwalk in the humid afternoon heat on October 13 while she was wearing a Hocus Pocus t-shirt. And yes, we'll be cruising for her Bachelorette Trip!

Mom/Sharon a.k.a. Judy is actually the most-cruised Shinglebell. She enjoys the peace and quiet, so on a sea day, you may find her smocking in the Crown Lounge.

Dad/Boyd a.k.a. Stove is living his best life with my mom in South Carolina. He's still leading the pack.... and we're also pretty sure there's a photo of him in the employee area or something... more on that later.

Aaron (my boyfriend) is also an architecture professional in Los Angeles. I introduced him to cruising in 2018, and luckily he's also a cruise fan. He's sailed Disney (his favorite ship is the Disney Wonder), Celebrity, and Norwegian. This was his first cruise on Royal Caribbean.

Landon (Rachel's FIANCE) is a lawyer who typically spends his cruises working, so he's the best person to go to if you need someone to look something up on the cruise when you don't have an internet package. Landon has also become well-cruised since his first cruise in 2021 and has sailed Disney, MSC, Norwegian, and Carnival (his favorite cruise line). This was also his first cruise on Royal Caribbean.

This year, we were feeling a little uninspired by the itineraries of the larger cruise ships. When I suggested a Southern Caribbean cruise from San Juan on Jewel of the Seas, I was honestly surprised that everyone agreed! We were interested in the new-to-us ports Trinidad, Tobago, and St. Vincent, and also the improved likelihood of warm weather sailing out of San Juan (verses Florida). I hadn't sailed on a Radiance Class ship since Serenade of the Seas in 2012, but with six ports of call, I wasn't really worried about the smaller size of the ship.

[Day 1] San Juan Embarkation

[Day 2] Christmas Eve at Sea

[Day 3] Barbados

[Day 4] Trinidad

[Day 5] Tobago

[Day 6] St. Vincent

[Day 7] St. Maarten

We booked Guaranteed Balcony Staterooms. I received a few "Royal Up" offers, but none of them were really appealing to me.... minimum starting bid for a "Spacious Ocean View Balcony" was $50 per person, and the Junior Suite bid started at $150 per person. We decided not to bid on an upgrade.

Rachel and I waited way too late (the week of the cruise) to attempt to purchase Specialty Dining. We were first going to purchase a 3 Night Package, but could only purchase for 2 people, not 6. Tried again with to book the Chops+1 package, but it was the same - no availability for 6 people. I could book the Chops Holiday Dinner for 6, but that didn't really seem like a great value (same price as the 3 specialty dinners). Since the good deals were all booked up, we decided not to pre-book any specialty restaurants.

Stove pre-booked three excursions through Viator. He had used Viator to book excursions on my parents' recent New England cruise and had great experiences. We had looked at the Royal Caribbean excursions, but there weren't many being offered for Trinidad, Tobago, or St. Vincent. Of those that were being offered for Trinidad and Tobago, many of them had a maximum age of 60 - which meant that neither of my parents were eligible to book. The age requirements are set by the tour operator, but Royal Caribbean enforces them as they can by restricting who can book through the booking portal. By "as they can," I mean that they know how old you are, but they wouldn't know any of the other requirements like height or weight. I understand that the tour operators set these requirements with safety in mind, but I was a little surprised to see that the maximum age for a bird watching excursion is 60.

Now packing and traveling...

My goal was to start packing well in advance. Aaron and I planned out all of our dinner outfits with coordination try-ons and all a week before the cruise. Believe it or not, coordination is Aaron's thing, and I appreciate that. We're not matchy-matchy, just have to make sure that we've got the same vibes/level of formality. It's actually super helpful. Then I packed all of my swimsuits and casual clothes a few days before the cruise, and Aaron's two days before, so all that was left the day before the cruise was tetrising all of the packing cubes into our suitcases and packing my camera gear. (In hindsight, I should have packed my camera gear earlier.) This may sound excessive or over-the-top, but it's a necessary structure for the infinity loop of chaos that is the inside of my brain.

Let's talk camera gear! This summer, I started looking into new camera gear, considering the switch to mirrorless. Then I realized that now is a great (as in affordable) time to make the jump to full frame because so many photographers are selling their DSLRs as they upgrade to mirrorless. I bought a used Nikon D750 camera body from eBay, as well as a Nikkor 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens and Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D lens. I carried it all around Walt Disney World when we visited in October (I had to have my camera on me at all times so Rachel wouldn't be suspicious if I pulled it out for her engagement), and not gonna lie, the thing is heavy! But I also loveeee its low light capabilities and the quality of photo. I could really see and feel the improvement over my trusty Nikon D7100.

Nikon D750

My next trip was to New Orleans, and again, I carried the Nikon D750 with the 28-300mm lens. Then we drove up to Cleveland, Mississippi for my cousin's wedding. In Cleveland, we visited the Grammy Museum, and my D750 started glitching. When turned on, it would work fine, then after one shot, I could no longer adjust the autofocus or view anything on the rear LED. After some troubleshooting, I realized it may have been that the eyepiece wiggled loose causing this glitch. I removed the eyepiece, and all seemed well again.

During all of this troubleshooting, I started to wonder if I really needed to upgrade to the D750. Would I have been just as happy with my D7100 if I had started by upgrading my lenses? I had, afterall, been shooting with a Tamron 17-50mm lens for the past ten years. I really love Ken Rockwell's lens reviews, so after thorough research, I went back to eBay and bought a Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G DX lens and a Nikkor 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G DX VR lens for my D7100.

For the cruise, I definitely wanted to bring my D750 as my primary camera, but I was worried about it glitching. I made the (heavy) decision to pack my D750 and my D7100 as a back-up body.

Camera Bag

Camera Gear for this trip (it was excessive):

We packed one shared checked bag (my Away The Medium), and each one carry-on bag (our Away Bigger Carry-Ons), and each one personal item (my Brevite camera backpack and Aaron's duffel garment bag).

The bummer of flying from west coast to east coast is that you lose an entire day to travel. Our first flight from LAX to ATL was at 5:20 AM. We coincidentally ended up on the same flight from Atlanta to San Juan as Rachel and Landon. Aaron and I had a very short 40 minute layover, and I was hungry but couldn't decide on what to eat (and the lines were long), so I settled on some overpriced pretzels and hummus, and Rachel kindly brought me chips and crackers from the Delta Sky Club.


We arrived in San Juan at 6:30 PM, about the same time as Stove and Judy. We were all there! Everything except..... our checked bag.

For the first time ever, I stuck an Apple Airtag on our checked suitcase just in case. I made the mistake of checking the Airtag location when we were on the plane and realized that if it had updated recently enough, our bag had made it to the gate but wasn't loaded onto the plane. I also didn't receive a confirmation from Delta that our bag had made the flight (and Rachel had).... so when we didn't see our bag on the carousel in San Juan, I wasn't surprised. We went to luggage service and were told that our bag would be on the next flight out and delivered to our hotel tomorrow.

We took a 6 person van cab from the airport to our hotel, Aloft San Juan, located in Distrito T-Mobile, by the convention center.


We were all hungry, so we headed to La Burgesia, located in the Distrito T-Mobile behind our hotel. It was very loud in there... they were really pumping club bangers the entire time, but the burgers were good. After dinner, Stove and Judy headed back to the hotel, and the rest of us grabbed beers.


NEXT: [Day 1] Embarkation in San Juan

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