We were to board Rhapsody Of The Seas (ROTS) following it's month long dry-docking in Singapore. Upon arrival at the Singapore Cruise Centre there was no sign of ROTS, only Pacific Princess alongside. Check-in with RCI was smooth and relatively fast and we were then directed to a bus. We had heard that ROTS was berthed at a nearby wharf. After a 20 minute ride we turned into the Pasir Panjang container terminal and drove for another 20 minutes or so. After passing several million containers and hundreds of gigantic cranes (the size of this port is unbelievable) we eventually pulled up next to ROTS.
I was expecting it to be looking all sparkling new from its much publicised refit but it looked like any other ship bearing plenty of scuff marks and rust stains along the hull and windows. OK, so they didn't have time to do that bit! We waited in the bus for another 20 minutes to keep us in the air conditioning as the final clearances were being conducted in a large marquee on the wharf. This marquee did have quite a few desk fans suspended from the ceiling to keep everyone cool though! After another half hour wait in line, our passports were taken from us (RCI were arranging Indonesian visas for most passengers) and we climbed aboard onto deck 2.
First impressions ..... I though this ship was built in 1996, not 1976! The decor was very dated, tacky and shabby. One enthusiastic American staff member promptly directed us to our room (2096) which he thought was on the other side of the cordoned off 'exclusion zone' where cruise cards are scanned and ID photos taken. He told us to walk to the other end of the ship and come back around. Turns out, he sent us the wrong way as our room was basically next to where he was standing and not cordoned off at all. Our state room (it's a cabin, nothing Stately about 4 berth cabins on any ship!) like the rest of deck 2 looked a bit tired but it did have a sparkling brand new bathroom .... with a litre or so of dried urine on the floor in front of the toilet! So with three bad first impressions we soon met our Steward who apologised sincerely for the bathroom and he quickly cleaned it for us. I guess a staff member must have snuck in and used it a few days prior.
Things improved thereafter, we did the muster drill which was taken seriously and quite well organised. It was the first we had done without life jackets though. We were looking forward to the sail-away party at 6:30 but only about 10 people turned up and they dissipated long before we finally sailed at 9:30. We watched the brilliant red sunset through the equatorial smog as we sipped a Singapore Sling on the rear deck. There was some really cool music playing through the PA and my son and I seemed to know every song. This could be a good sign of the entertainment to come. Wrong!!
To put things into perspective, during this cruise we were comparing ROTS to other ships we had sailed on .... Sun Princess, Pacific Dawn (P&O Australia) and Celebrity Millennium. The downside to this trip was more to do with RCI or onboard management as opposed to the ship itself.
ROTS is quite a nice ship but our expectations were somewhat higher. It's similar in size and facilities to Sun Princess but lacks the more refined decor and appointments. During the 15 nights sailing from Singapore to Sydney the seas were dead flat except for the last two nights when the Coral and Tasman Seas were whipped up to 3 -- 4 metres by a strong southerly wind. ROTS handled these conditions really well, the only noticeable movement was in the Windjammer (buffet) which is forward on Deck 9. The movement was barely noticeable in our mid-ship room, just the occasional slight shudder.
Edelweiss dining room is quite grand and spans two levels. We often had dinner at a balcony table looking down to the lower level where a piano and viola duo performed (the same repertoire!) each night. The waiting staff were excellent, very entertaining, amusing and friendly. Any special requests we made were answered with "Certainly". If something was out of the ordinary, like hot milk with coffee (as the coffee was often just warm) it just took a little longer. Although the plates were usually hot, some meals were often barely warm. Most meals were always really good although I had a chicken dish one night which wasn't cooked completely through and my wife had three disappointing experiences with hair in the meal. That aside, cruise ship restaurants will always beat those on land for service, quality and ambience and you get to dine in a very nice restaurant 15 nights in a row!
Drink prices were quite fair, soft drinks (sodas) were $2.50 each, cocktails around $8.00 and wine was $8.00 per glass or from $26.00 per bottle which is slightly cheaper than our experiences with other cruise lines. We had the added bonus of Australian dollars being worth more than US dollars. The bathroom in our room was brand new, it was larger than those on some other ships and everything functioned well (e.g. the toilet always flushed!). We didn't need to ever wait long for an elevator, even with one out of action in the aft group of 6. The elevators do need a makeover though, the gold trim is looking very worn and tarnished and the backlit transparencies above the doors have the appearance of View-master slides from the 70s!
I used the gym a few times, it was quite large and well equipped (with plenty of mirrors for the Narcissists!) but always very busy. We spent many hours in The Solarium pool area, aft on deck 9. It has a class canopy (not sure if it still opens), an Egyptian themed pool, 2 hot tubs, sun lounges, a bar, a cafe serving free snacks and a well equipped drink station. It's really good when you can serve yourself tea, coffee, hot chocolate, lemon drink or iced water at anytime, day or night. It wasn't too difficult finding a table or sun lounges in The Solarium as ROTS was not full to capacity.
Our room steward did a good job and although his English was fine, he had trouble understanding us sometimes so we needed to slowly repeat some request. But he went above and beyond a few times and we gave him a cash tip on the last day. He was very persistent in encouraging us to complete a satisfaction survey. A good report must mean a lot to certain staff so we reported his service was of an excellent standard. But I hate filling out those things ... I'm on holiday! We saw a few of the headline guest entertainers in the main theatre some evenings, they were all really good (magicians, ventriloquist, hypnotist, juggler/comedian). The shows are always really short, around 40 minutes. I'm glad they had these guys on board because the other entertainment wasn't too good at all.
There were plenty of maintenance activities taking place throughout the cruise, especially window cleaning and painting. One of the nice features of ROTS is the abundance of windows and they seemed to be cleaned every few days. Just one day at seas can render them cloudy with salt splashes.
It was a combination of boring guests, repetitive bands and a lack of interactive entertainment that made this cruise much less enjoyable than others, especially with so many sea days. Like most longish cruises in 4+ star ships it's going to have plenty of very old people. This cruise had its share of younger families too but it seemed like nobody was keen to try to enjoy the night life. Some of the most interesting people we met were a couple aged 68 and 70, a 90 year old chap and another about 85. They all were full of life, funny and interesting. So it's not an age issue. The 90 year old had been on ROTS five times before and was very unimpressed with the refit. His words were "they raped it"! A common complaint from everyone who had sailed on ROTS before was the absence of the library. It had been replaced by a fee charging restaurant and has been whittled down to a mere bookcase next to the concierge desk. Not many happy campers again!
The main problem was the live entertainment. There were three bands, a calypso band who played on the top deck each day (the same set), a Filipino band playing modern standards (the same set each night) and a piano/keys/drum trio who ..... played the same set every night. I'm sure the RCI ploy was to have a band playing in the brand new R-Bar every day and evening and guests will buy drinks to pay for the refit!!
Although there were interesting activities like trivia comps each day, many clashed with dining times. One of the most fun activities on a cruise is nightly Karaoke but it only seemed to be on every second or third night. Therefore, the karaoke crowd didn't snowball into a bigger group each subsequent night like on other ships. And early on, the PA system wasn't working properly as once again, it apparently wasn't dealt with during the dry-docking. On the highest deck is the Viking Crown Lounge which is meant to be a night club. It opened at 11:00 pm each night, then they closed it down at about 5 past! There was only ever a dozen or so people hiding in dark corners or gazing out windows and no encouraging cruise staff to be seen anywhere. The top level had been recently converted into the Izumi restaurant so the nightclub smelled like fish! Major fail.
The TV options in the cabin were also poor. There were one or two RCI channels to sell you more stuff, a really bad live map of the ship's position which was virtually indistinguishable and one new release movie in a constant loop (overdubbed in Spanish and German) that wasn't even in English. Even the 3 star P&O Australia ships have a wide selection of satellite channels ..... and, a fridge in the cabin! There were only 4 or 5 movies played on the new outdoor screen on the top deck including awesome titles like The Muppets, Casablanca and ... it only gets worse. The midday screenings were at 1:00 pm, during most people's dining time in Edelweiss.
RCI kept trying to flog us the specialty restaurants that had just been fitted during dry-docking. For our anniversary we went to Giovanni's Table which had a $20 surcharge. The head waitress was an abrupt Hungarian woman who warmly greeted everyone with 'Buena Sera' and bode them farewell with 'Ciao'. So too did the other waitress we had. Their English wasn't good and they definitely didn't speak any Italian except for their greetings. The waitress was rude and basically told us what we'd be having as that's how it's done in this restaurant. The risotto was really good, but the rest wasn't even as good as the buffet upstairs. To me, if you need to have 5 specialty restaurants on a ship, it doesn't instil much faith in their free restaurant. Giovanni's didn't come close to the complimentary dining in Edelweiss.
Although the overall appearance of ROTS was that it was very clean and well maintained, the decorators must have been having a joke. Most of the decor was tacky, very Vegas and poorly coordinated. I mean, there were 4 different types of carpet on the floor outside our room in the open stairwell area on deck 2. It was a proverbial dog's breakfast. One couple we met said their bathroom wasn't completed until about 10 days into the trip because there apparently wasn't time to finish it before leaving Singapore!
All of the shore excursion prices were ridiculously expensive, most were well over $200 per person. Most of the concierge staff were difficult to understand and had trouble understanding all English accents (Australian, American, Canadian, British, NZ, South African etc) but I've experienced this before on other ships with eastern European staff. Although you can eventually communicate the issue it's not done with a smile! We often heard other guests complaining about various things, much more on this cruise than others before. Each time we went to the concierge desk, we'd often need to wait for someone in front of us giving the staff a good serve of complaints. So although this review has some negatives, there were many passengers who fared a lot worse than we did. And unlike P&O Australia or Princess ships, they don't even offer a self serve laundry. I think their 2 day laundry service was about 4 buck per sock!
One of the most uncomfortable aspects was confusion surrounding tipping, especially on the last night. Our gratuities were included in our fare. That's great because in Australia, we don't tip. People are paid fair wages and tipping only occurs in extreme circumstances of exceptional service. We were given envelopes and several pages of documentation about tipping. As I said earlier, I don't want to read stuff on holidays! It included suggested amounts for all your service staff (room steward, head waiter, waiter, room steward's cabin boy, waiter's dog, etc) and it amounted to over 600 bucks. You can get a whole other cruise for that! It appeared to us that RCI were attempting to hoodwink unsuspecting guests into parting with more cash on top of what they had already paid with a voucher system (charge your credit card after you disembark!). The way it was written was very convoluted and discouraged giving cash tips. On the last night in the restaurant, some of the guests were having photos taken with their waiting staff and discretely passing them envelopes. This was really uncomfortable as we had already prepaid it and we felt like we had to give yet again.
For quite a few days there were a few Bulgarian electricians in our corridor attending to cabling in the ceilings and walls. Access was often partially blocked by ladders and trolleys etc. and it often got very noisy with conversations, shouting and banging. Makes it very difficult to rest in your room. They weren't the most polite gentlemen if you needed to get past either. Not much leadership here.
The cruise director often made mention of some Centrum spectacular in his announcements, a show to take place on the last night. Throughout the cruise there were continuous rehearsals and technical checks being done from the trapeze set-up, down six levels to the floor. This included lighting tests, rigging being raised (large areas closed off), noisy sound checks while you're trying to communicate with concierge staff, more rehearsals and dress rehearsals etc. So by the time they were doing their final run through, we'd seen it a dozen times or so. The main thing is, they got it right before the summer season in Alaska. Those Aussies were good guinea pigs to annoy and test it out on!!
The night before we were to arrive in Brisbane, a printed note was left in our room advising that the water would be turned off ship-wide for maintenance from 9:00 am until 3:00 pm the following day. I thought that this must have been an error because you cannot deny basic sanitation to nearly 3,000 people, especially in a hot-bed of potential infection like a cruise ship ..... everyone knows that. Sure enough, it was turned off the next morning. So how do you control things like Norovirus in a situation like that. There were people coming out of public toilets looking confused and disturbed as there was nothing to wash hands with. Surely the maintenance should have been done during dry-dock. Big fail RCI, if we wanted to go on holiday without water then we'd go camping!!
It was bad luck for us that most embarkation took place from portside on deck 2, just along from our room. The embarkation point is a bit of pot-luck as it depends on the tides, the gangway configuration at each port and the berthing direction. So it can be on the other side of the ship or on another deck altogether. Unfortunately for us, for the duration of the 36 hours we were berthed in Cairns, the x-ray scanner and card reader were positioned right outside our room. Access was all hours so it seemed like a continual beeping and whistling of scanners, noisy conversations, shouting and drunk staff coming back to the ship in the middle of the night. So some idiot in management on board didn't even consider who might be disturbed by having the scanners outside their room and didn't even mention it to us beforehand or offer a solution.
After several hours of noise and the inability to even get in and out of our room easily, (yes, security stopped us every time until we physically shifted their stupid velvet rope!) we complained to the concierge. Finally they 'got it' and offered us an inside room (we'd paid for an outside room) on the other side of deck 2. So we packed up our things to move for the night, dragged them all around to the new room and were getting ready to settle in when we found that the toilet had back-flushed and the bathroom floor was awash with ...... no wonder the room didn't smell too good. So back to our original room we went after we politely returned (like a ninja star) the room card to the concierge desk!! A second big fail RCI!!
It appeared to me that there was a lack of leadership on ROTS, from the Captain down. When the commander of your ship is short in stature and has a speaking voice like Michael Jackson, it must be difficult to command any respect?! He's probably an exceptionally good master mariner and took us through some of the most treacherous coral reefs in the world but he's probably not a very formidable character. Apart from the waiting and cleaning staff, most of the crew didn't seem to care at all. It felt like they were thinking, "Lets get rid of these darned Aussies in Sydney so we can head back home to Seattle for the Alaskan cruise season". There also appeared to be a real ignorance of the region. For instance, the printed flyers for the Australian ports of call that are distributed to state rooms on the night prior included examples of some ridiculous local sayings that they considered were appropriate to use whilst ashore. Yeah, they might have been 100 years ago and most weren't even politically correct. Some maps were blatantly wrong. The Brisbane map had some landmarks (e.g. museums, art galleries etc) on the wrong side of the river! To top it off, another flyer made mention of an onboard lecture where you could learn about PNG and the Taurus Strait!! Listen idiots, it's Torres Strait ... you know, named after the explorer LuÃs Vaz de Torres. It has nothing to do with astrology!!
Now to the ports of call ......
An amazing place! Big, modern, clean, sophisticated and very interesting. It's a very expensive place to stay but quite cheap to get around. Our travel agent recommended not staying there as it can easily get to $500 per night for a family. So we arrived at around 8:30 am on an Emirates (they're brilliant) flight from Brisbane. We had a tour van pick us up at the airport and we chose to go to Raffles, Chinatown and Marina Bay Sands Sky Park. Using the van meant we could keep our luggage with us and then get dropped off at the cruise terminal. This ended up costing us only $45 as we cashed in some credit card points when we booked it. Raffles was very interesting and a charming hotel. We wanted to have a sling in the Long Bar but we were there about an hour before it opened. We then went to Chinatown and had a look around the streets and shops. Once again, very interesting, non-threatening and everyone is very polite and speaks perfect English. Prices on some things were very cheap and some were much the same as in Australia. Marina Bay Sands has an amazing view from the Sky Park. Admission was about $16 each but for a 200m+ vantage point it was worth every cent. Plenty of photo opportunities here. At each place our driver Kadir waited patiently for us. He then took us up to a vantage point in Mt Faber park where you can see the cruise terminal (no ROTS though) before taking us back there. I'd love to spend more time in Singapore, although it's often very hot and humid, it's fast, exciting and everything seems to be 10 times bigger .... Especially the ports and the thousands of ships waiting to dock!
Having been to Bali before, I wasn't keen to go ashore. Members of my family wanted to buy some cheap stuff so off we went. Last time I was here I stayed in Sanur Beach in a bungalow style resort hotel. It was quite well shielded from the pestering commercialism that Bali is annoyingly renowned for. Not so in the surrounding streets and on beaches. But this time, we were going to Kuta Beach which is a whole different ball game. The port of Benowa is accessed by the ships tender, the gangway was nicely decorated in Balinese fare, flags and tinsel of all things! The terminal is a small building smelling of incense and humidity! Just outside where cabs and buses pull up, there were hundreds of people oozing through a wire fence trying to peddle all sorts of stuff (carvings, perfumes, watches etc). It looked like a leper colony desperate for a cure! Somehow, a driver directed us to a dodgy little beamo (mini-bus) which didn't have a side door! Then he sped us at several hundred kph into Kuta for an agreed rate of about $20. It was total chaos, you can't take one step without dozens of people forcing stuff on you that you don't want. And if you don't haggle the price it's apparently bad luck. There first bid is about 11 times greater than the price they settle on! It's like a shopping equivalent of a commando course with live ammunition. After 10 minutes, you need pain killers for the headache. To cut along story short, leaving Bali is the highlight in my book!
We managed to wake up before dawn just as we were approaching Darwin. Being on deck at that time was a great experience and Darwin looked bigger and more impressive in its neon glow before sunrise. Tropical sunrises and sunsets are really worth the effort if you get the chance. We had to wait until about 6:00 am for Windjammer to open for breakfast but at least we were off the ship early. RCI offered a shuttle service into the CBD for $7 per person, each way. We just waited for the first cab to arrive and it was less than $7 for the two of us into the Smith Street Mall. It was quite dead at that time as the shops hadn't opened yet but it wasn't long before it got busier. So being the smallest capital city in Australia all the shops were in easy reach so we could stock up on a few things at the supermarket etc. It's a compact but nice CBD and the surrounding parks are clean and well manicured, there seems to be a lot of pride in the place. The new waterfront precinct adjacent to the wharf was very impressive. New apartment blocks, cool surf shops, a huge wave pool, crocodile proof lagoons, a large breakwater pathway to the wharf and a lift up the cliffs to the CBD level. The walk back to the ship took only 10 minutes. Darwin is full of history and there were plenty of landmarks and memorials etc detailing the Japanese bombing from 1942 and cyclone Tracey. It's amazing to see the old town hall and a church (both stone buildings) that survived 64 bombing raids but were destroyed by a cyclone! As we were having lunch in Windjammer that day we looked down and could see a small crocodile swimming only a few metres away in the harbour.
I didn't have any high expectations of Cairns. I thought it might be a bit of a redneck city but I was pleasantly surprised. It was far more sophisticated than I imagined and seemed to be a Mecca for backpackers and overseas tourists. We walked up to the main shopping mall, met some distant relatives there and had a coffee. We didn't do any of the tourist things or excursions here, they are quite expensive. But we checked it all out as we were coming back here on a P&O cruise two months later. That afternoon I walked up to the huge marina for a good look around and to take a few pictures. ROTS is the largest ship to ever dock in Cairns. I later learned that there's only a one metre clearance below the hull here.
It appeared that RCI had contracted three large catamarans to perform the tendering process. Four of the ships tenders were lowered and tethered together in the distance but possibly just for maintenance of their gantries. Airlie Beach is a pretty destination in the Whitsunday Islands area. RCI were offering a shuttle service into the main street from the marina for $7 per person each way. It was only a 15 minute walk along a boardwalk so I assume the buses would be more for those who couldn't walk far. Like most towns in the Australian tropics it had a large lagoon pool at the beach as stingers can be a problem in the sea water. Someone appeared to stuff up the tender arrangements as one of the catamarans headed off to South Molle Island to pick up some tourist and left the ROTS passengers at the marina. We had to then wait about 45 minutes until the next one, then another 15 minutes on board while it loaded up. Although it didn't really bother us and we had some shade under the marquees, hundreds were stuck out in the sun and plenty of complaints were flying back and forth.
ROTS has a Gross Tonnage of barely 2% more than Sun Princess but cannot berth at the suburban Hamilton wharf, possibly due to its ability to pass under the Gateway Bridge. So the larger ships berth at the Fishermans Island grain wharf (not pretty at all). This is a long way from anywhere and is likely to cost $70 by cab and is not serviced by public transport. RCI provided bus travel into the Brisbane CBD for $27 per person each way. This is our local port so we treated it as a sea day and stayed on board. Not many people stayed on so we had must of the ship to ourselves.
We were up before dawn to sail into Sydney. Many others on board had the same idea, then went back down to get warm clothing .... It was a cold April morning. Sydney Harbour is stunning, even more so before sunrise. After docking at Circular Quay we had our last breakfast in Windjammer and watched Dawn Princess sail past the Opera House on its way into Darling Harbour. Disembarkation was quite quick and easy, then it was a half hour wait for a cab. To ease back into normal life we had booked a 4 hour lunch cruise around the harbour. I don't think you could ever get sick of the sights here. Later that day we took a cab to the airport (cheaper than the train for 4 people) for the flight to Brisbane and thoughts of the next cruise.
In conclusion, I wouldn't go out of my way to cruise with RCI again. They have been receiving quite a bit of bad press of late regarding their lack of customer care and stories like a couple having their cruise cancelled for bringing herbal tobacco on board or a recent situation where two men were jailed in the brig for their 7 day Caribbean cruise due to apparently untrue assault allegations. Apart from the novelty of perhaps going on Allure while it's still the biggest cruise liner on the planet, I'd be inclined to stick with the lines in the Carnival group. At least they have tangible rewards and try really hard to encourage you to come back.