I've read most of the RC reviews on here over the past 6 years and I have to say I was really shocked to read so many negative reviews about the 11 night Spain & Canaries cruise, during the lead up to our holiday.
We have sailed with Royal Caribbean 7 times now, making us 'Diamond Members' of the Crown & Anchor Society. I say this not to brag, but because it's an important point to remember throughout this review, and it will become evident why. I'm 21 by the way, and sailed with my Grandparents (both 74) on this cruise, our second aboard Independence of the Seas. 11th April -- 23rd April.
We had some real concerns about what we were going to encounter. Had standards fallen SO badly?? Was the attitude of the staff now THAT bad??
We arrived at the port at around 1pm, aware that we might be told, as has been reported in many preceding reviews, to return to the ship later in the day for boarding due to a deep clean being carried out. However this was not the case. I can only assume the much reported Norovirus has now been brought under control onboard the Independence, judging by the emphasis that is put on regularly washing your hands. Upon entering any restaurant, the theatre, ice rink, casino, various lounges, etc there is always at least one staff member present handing out antibacterial wipes.
Anyway, getting back to the arrival at the dock, we drove up to the port gate, were greeted by a friendly old chap who looked at our parking documents and then directed us to the relevant entrance. It's a very smooth system, whereby you park up in a 'loading bay' where a luggage porter is waiting with a trolley to take your 'check in' luggage from you. You then drive to the car park, secure your vehicle and join the queue to board the ship.
Much has been said about the queues, which admittedly can long, with some people left standing outside the terminal, however this is only at the peak boarding time, which from experience is from 2pm onwards. Try to get there early and it shouldn't be too bad.
Being Diamond Members, we were ushered into a separate queue, which was much, much shorter. You have to go through the airport-like security scanner, which, just like at the airport causes hold ups, followed by another wait to 'check-in' at the boarding desks, but from parking up initially, we were onboard and in our cabin within about 15 minutes.
A lot of people will have experienced a much longer wait, perhaps around an hour and a half in total, but what do you expect when there are over 4000 people to check-in.
Once onboard, head up to your cabin to dump your carry-on luggage and then get up to the Windjammer cafe quickly. As the afternoon progresses, and more and more guests board the ship, this buffet-style restaurant can fill up quickly and often it can be difficult to find a table at peak times.
Next stop I would recommend is the dining room to check the location and size of your table (only if you intend to eat there of course).
We have in the past been put right next to the entrance to the kitchen, and you could be at a table for two, or a table for 12, so depending on if you want to meet other people or not, approach one of the waiters and request a move, which they will be happy to do for you.
It might be worth going along the first night and meeting your 'table-mates'. A lot of people do this, then decide if to request a move or not. And on a ship of this size, it's unlikely you will ever see those people again anyway!
The ship itself is fantastic, with all the facilities you could want and more, as well as all you can eat food, nearly 24 hours a day. I've read some nasty reviews about the quality of food, and the 'carry on' in the Windjammer cafe. On all our 7 cruises we have never experienced anything like this. Having gained my qualifications in the Hospitality Industry I know a thing or two about good food and good service. The food was, for the most part very tasty and plentiful. I regularly had two starters, two main courses and two or three desserts. The service in the dining room, although very good, was by no means the best we have experienced. Attention to detail was lacking, but then I was only aware of this because I knew what to look out for. My only criticism is that the menu has changed little in 6 years, and there are a few odd combinations, such as beef gravy with a mixed grill, but overall it's really nice. Bar prices aren't any more expensive than you'd expect to pay in a city centre pub or nightclub on a Saturday night. As for the Bar Service in the theatre, admittedly you do get asked two or three times if you require 'bar service', but that's what their getting paid to do, and once the performance begins they all disappear, so what's to complain about!
Equally the staff are all very friendly and helpful. I cannot think of one time in 12 days, when I passed a member of staff onboard, whether that be a stateroom attendant further down the corridor, a waiter in the Windjammer cafe, or an officer patrolling the ship, who didn't smile and greet me with a 'Hello sir, how are you today?'
I think there has been a lot of unfair criticism of staff on this ship, and it's really uncalled for. Try to remember that a lot of these men and women are thousands of miles from home, working long hours, seven days a week for months on end and all for a very basic wage. They do a fantastic job, and nothing is ever too much bother, or at least that's what I have always experienced. Our Stateroom attendant was very friendly, and attentive. On the day of Grans birthday he made a cake out of folded towels and left a note wishing her many happy returns. In the restaurant that night, the waiting staff were also aware it was her birthday and made a big fuss of her, which was nice.
The entertainment onboard was, for the most part first class. It ranged from a comedian, a professional singer (Brenda Cochrane), royal variety act, tribute act (The Backbeat Beatles), and of course a number of stage shows performed by the Royal Caribbean singers & dancers. The Ice show was also really quite a spectacle, even if the music (classical composer type) isn't your thing, the acrobatics performed on an ice rink at sea is quite something. Cruise Director Luke was very energetic and enthusiastic about his job.
The destination on this cruise weren't particularly special, apart from Madeira. Royal Caribbean always include Vigo, in Spain as a port of call. This is a major industrial port, with little in the way of visitor attractions or culture. It's well rumoured amongst clued up cruisers that this is a cheap port to dock in, hence it's always included on their itineraries.
Gran Canaria and Tenerife were admittedly nice places to visit. (I had assumed we would be docking somewhere full of 'British pubs' offering a 'pie and a pint', etc. However we docked far from any touristy areas, and experienced the culture of these magnificent islands, even if the weather wasn't up to much.
The excursions at each port of call weren't really up to much, and I would recommend just spending some time walking the streets soaking up the atmosphere, or buying a ticket for the 'open top buses' which will take you round all the sights for around 15 Euros. (Note: If you purchase 'open top' tickets in one port of call, you can use these to get a discount on the 'open tops' in the next port) 'Panoramic' tours are available which is basically a narrated bus journey around the famous sights, for those who find walking tiresome.
In Madeira however, the ship is only in port for a short period of time (8am-2.30pm) so I would recommend an excursion here. The famous toboggan ride down the steep slopes of Monte is a must, together with a trip on the Cable Car and a visit to the local farmers market in Funchal, where you can sample many of the exotic fruits.
The weather for much of the cruise was overcast, windy and chilly. Gran Canaria was the only destination which was warm (21C). However this was probably due to the time of year, perhaps in the summer months it will be a lot warmer. Sailing through the Bay of Biscay was a bit unsteady at times, but with a ship of this size, most of the time you aren't even aware that you're sailing in the middle of an ocean.
As for the clientele on the ship, it was a pleasant surprise on this voyage, as we have noticed a steady transformation over the past 6 years as more and more Brits try out cruising, to something beginning to resemble a Butlins holiday camp at times (i.e. belly flop contest, etc.)
However the ship is so big that you don't have to even be aware of these activities, preferring if you do to relax in one of the quieter lounges or open deck areas.
When it comes to disembarking, we chose an early time slot since we had a 500 mile drive ahead of us. You are asked to have your cases packed and outside your cabin for 11pm, in order that the crew can have your luggage assembled in the designated zone in the terminal on the quayside the next morning. This is done to avoid unnecessary queues. (Can you imagine 4200 people trying to get off the ship with their entire luggage??)
On the morning of departure, a statement will be sent to your stateroom (often attached to the outside of the door, so check for it!) detailing your onboard spending. Check this with a fine toothcomb as we have never in our 6 years received a statement which is correct. There is always an overcharge, such as a bottle of water at $2.00 which may just be coincidence, or as I suspect might be a profit boosting scheme. Can you imagine if they add this to all 4200 bills, every week???
According to the timeslot you picked, you will have been given coloured luggage labels, i.e. Green No. 6. When this is called, you make your way to the gangway, swipe your card (their way of checking that you've paid your onboard bill) then your off. Depending what time you chose (peak time tends to be between 8am-9am), you will be off the ship, have collected your luggage and be in your car within about 15 minutes.
As for tipping, we tend to avoid the 'prepaid gratuities', instead preferring to see how the service throughout is, and then give an appropriate tip at the end of the cruise.
A few negative points to mention, or warn you of. Firstly the internet connection on this cruise was really poor, with a lot of people complaining throughout. Also, make sure you are defiantly logged off when leaving a computer, as I was nearly charged $250 ($0.65 per minute) until I explained at the Guest Relations desk this must be a mistake and they refunded it from my account.
Also, the toilet in our cabin (9298) was troublesome from the day we boarded the ship. When you went to flush it, there was a delay of sometimes 10 minutes before it would actually flush. We phoned the Maintenance crew, who informed us they were having trouble with part of the pipe work and were trying to sort it. This continued right throughout our cruise!
The staff in the various eating venues (primarily Windjammer cafe) do their best to keep tabs on kids touching food rather than using the tongs provided, but occasionally this does happen.
My only other negative comment surrounds the opening times of some of the sports facilities i.e. Rock Wall and Flowrider. When out at sea it's understandable that due to the occasional motion of the ship and unpredictable weather, the activities can't always run to schedule. However I really think the sports staff should have these activities open from dawn to dusk when in port. A lot of people only venture off the ship for a short while and some not at all. If the opening hours were extended like this, the queues at peak times, such as just after setting sail from a port in the late afternoon sun, would be much less.
Overall a very enjoyable trip. Will definitely be sailing with Royal Caribbean again in the near future!