This was our first ever cruise and it was booked by my parents to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary;as well as my two parents we were travelling with my sister and her two children plus myself, my wife and our two children. To be honest nobody but my mum and dad were looking forward to the cruise as it just isn't the kind of holiday the rest of us would normally choose. Sadly it lived up to our expectations!
We took our car and had a wait of about 30 minutes to drop off our bags; once dropped off we had to move the car to the nearby car park and walk to the terminal (not valet parked as expected). Then the queuing started in earnest -- a queue to get in the building, then a queue to check-in (even though we had checked in online which apparently means nothing); then a queue for customs/security, then a queue to get on the boat.
Once on-board our cabin was ready but we were shocked at the size of it -- we were on deck 3 in an outside cabin with a porthole. The room was tiny, just the width of a double bed, then a small area with a 2-seater sofa, a dressing table and chair, a small wardrobe and the integral shower/toilet room. The kids beds pulled down from the ceiling above our bed but the attendant told us the kids under 6 could not use the bunk beds meaning that, had we abided by the rules, either myself our my wife would have had to use the bunk and the other share a bed with our son. With the beds down it was very claustrophobic. The attendant put the beds up and down each day for us though. We could not fit all our clothes in the wardrobes/drawers and although we squeezed one case under the bed there was no storage space for the other, further reducing the space in the room. We also got noise from drunks using the open deck above ours to smoke until the early hours of the morning, often shouting or singing. The sheets were not changed during the 14 days were there.
Our first meal was in the Windjammer and initially we were pleased by the array of different foods on offer -- by the end of 14 days though it had all became very 'samey' with the same choices regularly on the menu for lunch and dinner. It was also often crowded in there too, with tannoy announcements encouraging you to eat quickly and vacate the tables for other guests.
Cleanliness is an obsession on-board and I guess Ithis is a good thing with so many people on-board. Everywhere you go there are sterilising fluid dispensers for washing your hands and upon entry to any restaurant you are given a wipe or a squirt of sterilising fluid.
Taking your photograph is another obsession -- they take your picture at every opportunity, and without permission, even of the kids at the swimming pools. Pictures are then put on display for you to buy (circa Â£12 a pop btw).
We really didn't want to go to the formal dinners and I hadn't taken a suit (I wear one every day for work and do not want to wear one on holiday thanks) however my parents were keen so I donned a shirt and tie and went along for a couple of dinners in the main restaurant. Whilst there were many who went the whole hog with dinner jackets, kilts and ballgowns etc. the dress code was only 'recommended' and there were others less formally dressed and some in jeans, even on the official formal nights.
Food in the restaurant wasn't impressive, mashed potato seemed to be the only potato dish available (and it tasted like Smash to me), food was luke warm and everything very bland. The service was over the top and, to me, cloying, others may like that level of pandering but it made me feel uncomfortable. We were on the MyTime option and had no problem booking a table at a suitable time.
Whilst my parents ate in the restaurant every evening we took most of our meals in the Windjammer which was ok, self-service so portion size and choice of what goes on the plate is up to you -- the main problem here was the number of people, although we always seemed to be able to find a table somewhere. Like many places on the boat there was no restrictions on unsupervised kids and several times we saw groups of kids messing about in the Windjammer, throwing food, taking over tables even though not eating or being noisy.
We didn't try any of the speciality restaurants because there was an extra charge of $30 per person each time you wanted to do so.
The first two days were at sea and we found little to occupy ourselves, quizes, bingo and art sales seemed to be all that was on offer and the weather wasn't suitable for using the pools. The ages of the children in our extended family group were such that each would have been in a separate kids group had they been interested in joining but to be honest none of them were -- the activities on offer seemed rather playschool like -- crayoning seemed to feature a lot.
Evening entertainment for younger kids was almost non-existent, or for families with younger kids really. Most nights the theatre show didn't start until 9:00pm so we only saw two shows on the couple of days when it started at 7:00pm. One of them was a comedian who was ok but the other was a Queen tribute band who, although seemingly loved by everyone else, I thought were terrible -- Queen but made 'safe' or without an edge if you know what I mean. There was no cinema but films were shown occasionally in various locations but again the times were too late or were in the middle of the day when you were on-shore. We did catch both ice shows, which I am sure were good if you are into that kind of thing but to me it was rather dull. Most evenings we ate our dinner and were back in our (tiny) cabin by 8 -- and it wasn't even like you had any decent tv channels either, perhaps why I managed to read three novels.
There were bars but beer and wine was ridiculously expensive and we refused point blank to be ripped off. The cheapest wine in the restaurant was $10 USD a glass. You couldn't take drink on board with you and any drink purchased onshore was taken off you when you got back on the boat and held until the end of the holiday. Even stuff bought at the boats duty free was held until the last day.
The swimming pool area was ok although every day all the loungers were reserved with towels despite signs everywhere saying this wasn't allowed. There were no life guards and nobody supervising the pools so nobody was taking any notice of the do's and don'ts -- dive bombing was common place, and I even saw kids eating ice creams in the jacuzzis and pools. Many of the H2O area features were often not working which was disappointing. When the weather was good enough our eldest did try the climbing wall and the flowrider which were good (although you had to queue) but at 5 our youngest was too small -- there was a mini golf which he liked when it wasn't too windy.
Towels were provided at the poolside but were charged at $25 usd each to your ship pass should you fail to return one.
Information about the ports of call was very poor -- no help for those wishing to make their way independently, just really trying to sell the ships excursions or shuttle bus services. I would encourage everybody not to use the shuttle buses as they are a total rip-off. Often only transporting you a short distance from the port to the town centre they are charged at $14 usd each, including children. In at least one instance (Malaga) the bus they put you on was a public bus which the ticket via the driver was just 4 euros return.
Tips in our instance on the MyTime package had been pre-paid but rather than being given vouchers to hand out as you felt justified you got a letter saying the tips would be distributed to our waiter and room steward equally but we only used the restaurant a couple of times so would have preferred the room steward got more. They still give you some envelopes should you want to give extra gratuities. Gratuities are charged at the same rate for kids and adults alike -- I think it was something like 5$ usd per person per day minimum, over $600 usd in total for the 9 or us.
Of course on the last day there is a guest survey to complete with questions carefully structured to tell them what they want to hear and just 2 or 3 lines available for free comment -- a waste of time. Nothing asking about value for money which if asked I would have to say is extremely poor for the amount we paid.
In summary -- everything is expensive, the room is pokey and basic, and there is little to do in the early evening or on sea days. There is plenty of food but it's rather bland. Ports are OK but not enough time to see much and if you want to travel on local buses then research it beforehand. Dress up for dinner if you want to but don't be surprised if others don't bother. And finally 'don't forget to wash you hands' (its a phrase you will come to hate as its a talking reminder activated on motion sensors in all the toilets on-board),