My husband and I had looked at doing a Mediterranean cruise for a few years running. I wanted an itinerary that predominantly focused on Italian ports of call and, due to political instability, ruled out any stops in Greece or Egypt. Due to our respective businesses, we were limited to sailing dates in either mid-April or mid-May. The best itinerary in this time frame was the May 17th sailing of Serenade of the Seas. I was so excited to see a 36 hour port of call in Venice that I didn't realize we hit Rome on a Sunday and that the main site I wanted to see - The Vatican - would be closed to the public.
We booked over a year in advance primarily because we wanted a specific aft cabin on the 9th deck. Also, the trip was contingent upon us being able to use air miles for our travel which needed to be locked in 11 months in advance. I thought the price was quite reasonable and with this being such a port intensive cruise, couldn't see spending the money on, perhaps, a more upscale cruise line given we'd be off the ship more than on it.
We came into Barcelona a day earlier and were met at the airport by Barcelona Day Tours for a 1/2 day private tour. Fabulous overview of Barcelona and worth the money. We stayed at the Marina View Bed & Breakfast. We had the harbor view Captain's Cabin room for both a one night pre and post cruise stay. I think it's a perfect location for cruisers. Terrific location directly across from the marina and easy walking distance to Las Ramblas, the Gothic Quarter, and everything the Marina area has to offer. 5 minute walk to the cruise ship shuttle(the RCCL is not walkable.)
Given our close proximity to the ship, I was talked out of arriving at the terminal early. Good call! Shuttle ride was quick and cheap. We arrived at the terminal about 1:45pm, baggage handlers took our luggage, no one was in the security or check in line so we practically walked right on to the ship. I asked were the crowds were and was told I had missed them. This was the easiest embarkation ever.
On to the ship...
We knew the Serenade of the Seas was going to be a smaller ship than a few of the Carnival ships we had been on (Victory and Spirit). In that regard, we liked this size. It was quite easy to navigate. Even though this ship is scheduled to be refurbished later this year, I will say that the overall decor in public areas was less glitzy and more tasteful than on Carnival. The theater did not seem to have any blocked views and was never crowded at the few 9:00pm shows I attended.
Cabin: We chose the aft cabin because of the view and a larger balcony. We liked this balcony better than on the Victory because more of it was covered, a great feature when it rains.
Our cabin steward was friendly, kept the cabin clean, and made daily towel animals. The layout was very similar to Carnival however there were some features that I think made the Carnival cabin better. The bed frames were so low on the Serenade that it was difficult to get our luggage to slide underneath. Even though each of the two closets contained two bars for hanging clothes, it was poorly designed. If you lowered the second bar, you couldn't hang the longer articles of clothing - i.e. suit, dress, blazer, shirts..you get the picture. And on a 12 night cruise with a dress code that included formal nights and alleged business casual nights...you get the picture.
There was plenty of room for two people. One positive for the Serenade was there is curtain that could close off the little sitting area from the bed. Didn't recall that on Carnival.
But where were the amenities? Although it's been a few years since our last cruise, on 4 previous Carnival cruises, our cabins always included bathrobes and a little basket of hand soap, lotion, toothpaste, a razor. Not on RCCL. And no little chocolates on the pillow at turndown service either! Our room steward said except for suites RCCL stopped all that a few years ago as a cost cutting measure.
The other thing I didn't like was that the all the pillows smelled stale. On a positive note, we thought the mattress was comfortable and neither of us woke up with back or hip pain any time during those 12 nights.
As to the food: Folks, I have to say I think Carnival's main dining room was better. I had always assumed that RCCL's dining experience would be a step above so in that regard I was disappointed. There wasn't anything particular bad about Serenade...lamp chops and prime rib were delicious. But there was nothing very exciting or outstanding on the menu and,on a few nights, the menu selections were so uninspired that I regretted not having listened to my husband and just gone to the Windjammer deck. We'd peruse the Windjammer deck after dinner and it always seemed they had an infinitely more interesting and varied selection of dishes than were offered in the main dining room. Alas, it appears that lobster is not offered unless you're willing to pay an upcharge. I thought surely it would be offered gratis on at least one formal night. Nope. As for desserts. Mediocre. They were like desserts we'd find at all-inclusive resorts - pretty but lacking in flavor. Everyone in my family still raves about Carnival's chocolate pots, just a sinfully rich and decadently delicious molten mousse.
We did order a Platinum wine package in advance of our cruise. Most of the actual selections were fine, a couple selections were not up to the quality we expected for the price.
As for service: Our maitre'd was charming and quite personable. Our main waiter was always quick to suggest we order a second appetizer or entree to split when we vacillated on a selection. Both of these gentlemen were very kind when I arrived solo in the dining room when my husband was not feeling well. They insisted on bringing me soup and other items to take back to the room for him. Our assistant waiter was inconsistent in bringing bread or coffee. Speaking of which...on Carnival, an after dinner espresso or cappuccinos were offered at no charge in the dining room. Not so on RCCL. Another upcharge.
Other food: We used room service for breakfast almost all mornings. Delivery was prompt, especially important on those days we had early excursions booked. Husband used room service for dinner he was down for the count with a cold. We enjoyed Windjammer for lunches and like the onion rings at whatever they called the deli -type restaurant above the Windjammer.
Entertainment: I'm not the right person to review entertainment options. The musicians I heard while walking through areas of the ship sounded great but we didn't linger to drink or dance. Most of the days we had early excursions and only saw a couple of shows but the ones I saw were just fine. They had trivia games galore on a daily basis (yes!) but only seemed to offer karaoke a couple of times during the cruise. The cruise director and his assistant were a hoot and I liked watching their promos on the CCTV. The library on our deck was a nice touch and kept open 24/7.
Dress code: This was frustrating. RCCL stated on a 12 night cruise there were 3 formal nights and I can't remember how many "business casual" nights, and then simply "casual" nights in the main dining room. I had my husband way over pack accordingly (no tux but suit, dress slacks, shirts, ties and blazer). I'm here to tell you that there were only 2 dress codes: Formal and casual. And even on formal night, there were more than a few men who only wore long sleeve shirts (no jacket) and quite a few men dressed in just a sports coat with our without tie on formal night. Frankly, it appears no one is going to be denied entry to the dining room on formal night because they are not wearing a coat, tie, or tux. Maybe RCCL is quietly following suit with some of the luxury cruise lines have done away with formal night and replaced it with business casual. There were some passengers in tuxes and gowns but they seemed to be in the minority. So if you want to dress up, dress up but you won't be out of place if you choose not to.
Solarium: This was a nice, peaceful area but smaller than I expected. It fills up quickly and gets mobbed if there is rain.
Gym: Ample treadmills and other equipment during non-peak times.
Excursions: We booked all of our shore excursions through RCCL primarily because I didn't want to stress over what would happen if our long tours into Rome or Florence were delayed getting back and we missed the ship. I know RCCL excursions got priority on tenders leaving the ship. I was pleased with the caliber of tour guides we received. We opted for what was probably the most expensive excursion to Pisa and Florence but I think it was well worth it. This 10-1/2 hour semi-private tour (8 of us) also included admission to the Uffizi and the Accademia. Our sit down lunch was held in an exquisite hotel and the caliber of the meal more than exceeded my expectations. One one of our tours Florence there WAS a major traffic delay on the way back to the ship due to the streets being closed off for a race. The tour guide was getting nervous but I didn't stress because it was a ship sponsored excursion. That alone was priceless.
Private Excursions: Through the Cruise Critic roll call board, there are a number of folks who get other passengers to share their private or semi private tours through reputable companies. For the most part it seems that the PP cost is exceptionally reasonable when joining someone's group. When I learned I had to spend an extra day in Barcelona, I contacted Barcelona Day tours again and inquired about their full day Montserrat/Cava tours. I learned that if I became "tour leader" and we were able to get another 2 people to join us, it would be considered a small group at half the price. If we got a total of 6-8 people, the tour leader's fare would be paid for. So..this is something to consider if you're booking early and want an alternative to ship sponsored shore excursions. I was pleasantly surprised to find when the mini bus arrived that that BDT added another couple to our group tour bringing the total up to 6 people which meant my fare was comped. What a deal!
Disembarkation: Our original flight home was cancelled and I did not believe we would be able to make a 10:00am flight so we opted to spend an extra night in Barcelona. We had a tour company meeting us at the dock at 8:30am. I asked the purser's office what time we needed to be ready to leave the ship. He said disembarkation was quick and that 8:00am would be sufficient. I didn't believe him and opted for 7:30am. We were at the front of the terminal, luggage in hand by 7:45am. Didn't see a customs agent so guess the don't clear customs at this port. At 6:00am we saw a long line of taxi cabs waiting at the dock so for people willing to haul their own luggage off the ship, disembarkation started at 6:15am so there is a possibility you might make that morning flight. The disembarkation was also the smoothest I've ever encountered!
All in all, I was pleased with the Serenade of the Seas and it certainly met my basic expectations. However, it wasn't an exceptional enough experience to warrant my devotion to this particular ship or cruise line.
For next cruise (possibly Panama Canal, return to Alaska, or transatlantic) I'll keep my eye out for itineraries, prices, and other cruise reviews.