We are back from our Norway/Transatlantic adventure on Vision and Brilliance. We had a terrific time, in spite of missing two of our four ports on Brilliance, some service issues (also on BR) and some really rocky weather along the way (both ships). What follows is a review of the Brilliance TA, starting with our day in Copenhagen pre-cruise. I'll review the Vision cruise separately. There was a lot of good and a fair amount of annoying, but not much bad.
We booked this cruise because it commenced in Copenhagen, which we had visited on a port day on our Jewel Baltics cruise in 2007. We loved what we saw and wanted to have a couple of days to explore the city. We then saw the Vision 5-night fjords cruise and added that on for a chance to see a bit of Norway as well. The price was set very low when bookings opened, and we were able to snag a JS on BR and a D-1 on Vision for less than the cost of a JS on Jewel, and for 3 more nights (counting the hotel in between).
Brilliance was returning to the US for the first time in 5-6 years. The staff and crew were extremely worried about the pending health inspection, and of course the navigation crew was very concerned about getting us to New Jersey without going through the storms that kept cropping up. I think that some of the lapses we saw were the result of those two events. Nothing happened that ruined our cruise, but the experience wasn't what we've come to expect from RCI. I am confident that a few sailings in the U.S. market will turn things around.
We had one night in between the two cruises, which RCI considers to be a B2B. So they paid for our transfers to and from our hotel and the hotel itself, a perk worth about $300. We had a large number of cruisers taking advantage of this promotion. We stayed at the Scandic Palace, which is a short stroll from Tivoli Gardens. The hotel is an older one, but the rooms are completely modern, if a little oddly laid out (the shower was on the opposite side of the room from the sink/toilet, and the towels were all stored in the sink/toilet room). There is free Wifi and a coffee/tea setup. There's also a mini-fridge.
Our room overlooked a square that bustled all day, especially on the second day when a farmers' market was set up. Although it was a little noisy, it was fun to open the French doors that led out to a mini-balcony and watch the street scene below. We slept like rocks, so it couldn't have been that noisy.
Our rooms weren't ready until 3:00, so we dropped our bags and did a little more exploring of Copenhagen. This time we walked -- down the Stroget (the main shopping street), across the canal to Christianhavn, then over to Nyhavn for lunch at an Indian buffet. We then took a canal ride, which we had done in 2007. There was quite a bit of new stuff to see -- the opera house and the royal yacht being the two that stand out in my memory.
In the evening we had dinner at the Nimb Hotel in Tivoli (we got tired of looking for a place, and they had tables available). It was good, not as pricey as we had feared it would be, and we were finished in time to get to the Biergarten to meet up with Danish Viking, who has been so helpful on the Copenhagen thread. We enjoyed a few beers with him and a couple of other Cruise Critics, then headed back to the hotel to bed.
We arose early, took advantage of the included buffet breakfast and then took another long walk, ending up in a sculpture garden not too far from the hotel. The bellman came to our room and collected our luggage, and we went down to the lobby to wait for our bus. In short order we were headed back to the pier.
We had left our luggage tags at home, but of course they had them handy for us, and we were in line to go through security in minutes. The entire process took a little longer than it had on Vision, in part because we had arrived about an hour earlier. But we were still onboard the ship about 40 minutes after getting off the bus.
Brilliance is the second-oldest of the Radiance class ships, and she is looking pretty worn around the edges. Our cabin was in great shape (other than a really beat-up balcony floor and a very worn-out sofa), but we noticed a lot of wear and tear around the ship. The worst to me was the carpeting on the Centrum stairs, which was worn to the point of being threadbare on many steps, and there are some ragged edges that are a tripping hazard. She's still a pretty ship, just not as gorgeous as her sisters Radiance and Jewel (We haven't been on Serenade since 2006, so can't throw her into the comparison mix). I just thought it was a shame that they have let maintenance slide. She is scheduled for a makeover next spring, so I'm sure all of those things will be fixed by then.
1100 (corner aft JS portside) is my favorite cabin on the ship for the money and it was ours for almost two weeks. The has a spacious interior, and the balcony is fabulous. We had two loungers (newer fabric), two chairs (old slatted kind) and two of the newer wood-topped tables. Both were cocktail height. The cabin was equipped only with a hot water kettle and tea supplies. When we met our cabin steward, he confirmed that we should have a coffeemaker, but since we bring our own instant, we told him not to bother finding one for us. Rosen (from Bulgaria) was terrific -- he started out slowly, sometimes not finishing up until 2:00pm, but we found out later that he was instructed to start later in the morning to allow people to sleep in. We observed the "make up room" cards in most of the doors across the stern early in the morning, so it appears that the order was ill-advised. But he kept us supplied with towels and toiletries and always had a cheerful demeanor -- if he ever was having a bad day, he didn't let it show.
A note for those who want to hook up their own videos: There is a Samsung brand flat screen TV in the cabin, and the input feature is disabled. The remote control is the generic RCI one, not the Samsung model, so we couldn't change it with our cheap little universal remote. At our lunch with an officer late in the cruise, we had the chief housekeeper at our table, and suggested that they allow people to change the inputs to watch movies or whatever. He thought it was a great idea and wrote it down; let's hope that he is able to persuade whomever disabled the inputs to re-enable them.
One service rant related to the cabin (not Rosen's doing): on the next to last day of the cruise, we came back to the cabin to find that our vanity chair had vanished. Apparently, maintenance was refurbishing them, but I had to hunt down Rosen to find that out. He hadn't gotten advance notice, either. A note would have been nice. I did try using the ottoman to do my hair and makeup, but my chin was just about hitting the vanity, and the ship was moving just enough that standing while holding hot appliances wouldn't have been a good idea. The chair came back around 5:30, looking exactly the same as it did when it vanished. It was formal night, and I'm just glad we weren't planning to go out early. One would think that they have a spare couple of chairs that they could swap out.
Dining Room and Beverage Service
I generally don't like Radiance class dining rooms at dinnertime -- they are crowded and chaotic, the tables are too close together and the waitstaff is really pressed to provide good service. We chose My Time Dining, and ended up in the MDR only three times during the cruise. The menus were a mix of the familiar and some, well, different is the charitable way to describe some of the menus. Service was harried, the food was lukewarm and not very tasty. I might have thought that we just picked three bad nights, but others who ate there more frequently didn't seem to like the food any better. The waitstaff tried really hard, but they were spread too thin. That issue isn't confined to Brilliance, as we've seen it on Radiance and Jewel as well. We brought our patience along with our appetites and made the best of it.
We did have breakfast and lunch in the Diamond area a few times. The food was very good, and, although there was a buffet option, we were never pressured by our servers to go get our own items (we did because it was close, convenient and good). Fortunately the ship had re-provisioned in Reykjavik, so I didn't notice them running low on anything except for Don's beloved raisin bread. The salad bar had the usual selection of lettuce, veggies and meats, and I took advantage several times.
One day as we were leaving, we heard one of the waiters coaching the others how to tell passengers that they have to sit a large table. I realize that it's easier for them to serve a large table rather than several small ones, but it kind of frosted me that, instead of finding a way to accommodate passengers, they are training the crew to refuse their preferences. Not exactly a Gold Anchor Service moment. IMO, it's the wrong attitude, but in any event, that kind of thing shouldn't be carried on in front of the passengers.
We ordered a 7 bottle Diamond wine package because we enjoy the four bottles on the Diamond list. It turned out that they didn't have one of them at all (Charles Krug Merlot), ran out of another (Ferrari-Carano Fume Blanc) by day 3 and ran out of the other two (Conundrum and Spy Valley Pinot Noir) with 4-5 days left in the cruise. It was inexcusable to sell those packages knowing that they either didn't have or were critically short of the wines. In the MDR they would not offer another comparable wine, just made us order off the Platinum/Gold list, but in the Windjammer the cellarmaster offered another comparable (actually tastier IMO) Pinot Noir on the last night, which I think should be the policy fleet-wide. They ran out of quite a few other wines as well, including the Veuve Clicquot that I had hoped to indulge in for my birthday. Big boo!
We split the rest of our evening meals between the specialty restaurants and the Windjammer. I really enjoyed the Windjammer at night -- it was relatively quiet and the selection was pretty good. One station offered different cuisines at night -- Mongolian stir-fry, "American grill," Italian, etc., had a crepe station one night and sushi every night. The sushi man prepared a plate for us every night, and earned a Wow card for his efforts (Rosen got the other one). I really enjoyed the Indian food options.
Portofino was, for us, sublime -- we ended up dining there 4 times. Others reported having bad service, but Rajeev and [can't remember the other guy's name] gave us great service, and we enjoyed every bite. Chops was not up to snuff. On the first night, they overbooked the restaurant, and simply couldn't keep up. We had a 7:00 reservation, and I think it was close to 10:00 by the time we left (but we drank an entire bottle of wine, so I'm pretty fuzzy on the exact timing). The food was great, but the staff was overwhelmed. Most people were using their D+ 2:1 coupons, and whoever took the reservations just booked up the place without considering the result, which was chaos. I hear that things settled down and that it got better, but we were hooked on Portofino by then.
The second Chops meal we had was the wine pairing dinner. I'm just going to quote what one of our tablemates said on our Roll Call, because I agree with it: "one "experience" we would NOT choose again was the wine pairing dinner in Chops. The wines were wonderful but the food was terrible. We rejected the so called crab cake that smelled very fishy and tasted even worse....the filet was cut into pieces (weird) and the "creme brulee" dessert was a square of some tasteless goo and was ice cold....... It seemed that their only intent was to pour wine and food was only thrown in......not worth the price paid." I would just add that I think that the filet they served us was the MDR filet, not a Chops filet, as it was much thinner. The manager did quickly offer up salads instead of the fish cake, but it just wasn't worth the upcharge ($74.50pp).
Chops was also available to suite and Pinnacle Club guests for breakfast (we weren't informed of it, but knew to ask after Vision -- it would have been nice for the Concierge to let us know). They keep a list of suites guests who are entitled to eat there, but not of Pinnacle Club members, so we (and others) had to explain for about 4 mornings in a row that we were entitled to eat there -- perhaps PC members could be added to the list in the future. The menu was completely different from the MDR, which we enjoyed. The service was pretty bad most mornings -- it took a long time to get orders, and whenever we asked for cappuccino, we got the same, "it will take me 10 minutes because I have to go down to Deck 4." That went on for the first week, and the manager even told us that they would rather not bring us cappuccino because of how much time it took. You know what? I don't care. It's not my fault, and it should not be my problem, that you don't want to use the machine in Portofino. They finally got another waiter in there just to bring specialty coffees. And the crew fought with each other every day for the first few days -- we could see them bickering, which I thought was completely inappropriate -- at least come closer so I can hear what you're fighting about! Seriously, their obvious animosity should not have been expressed in front of the passengers.
We ate in the Seaview Cafe once. I had a pasta dish that was far too salty but otherwise ok and Don had a pizza that was a little better than the usual icky RCI pizza. It would have been nice if they'd offered a salad or other vegetable, but pizza, pasta and panini were it. Another CCer said that they basically ran out of ingredients by the end of the cruise and he was served a panini with 2 slices of pepperoni and maybe a pickle inside. The Solarium Cafe served up some good-looking salads and sandwiches, but somehow we never made it there for lunch.
European bar pricing seems to be about 15% higher than US pricing, but that doesn't stop them from adding another 15% gratuity on top of that. The result was that we did our livers a favor and didn't purchase that many beverages onboard other than wine (which is similarly marked up). In Australia, they mark up the drinks but don't add another charge on top of it.
We couldn't get into the CL at the cocktail hour, even after 6:00 when the early dining folks left, but we did sit in the Yacht Club a few times, and Melissa was very good about coming out to check on us. The Hollywood Odyssey, used for CL overflow, was also crowded most nights, and we had often trouble getting anybody's attention for a drink, so most nights we ended up at the Diamond Event in the Starquest, where the service was tremendous. They would pour drinks for D+/PC/Suites upon a showing of our Seapass, so we weren't limited to wine, champagne and soda. They RAN OUT OF LA TERRE by the end of the cruise, yippee! So we had some slightly upgraded wine choices.
So, that's food and drink.
Anna Bass is the CD, and I thought that she and her staff did a wonderful job. There were many activities planned for each day, and Cuddy (sp), the Activities Director, ran the best Meet & Mingle I've seen. I won the "scavenger hunt," and the prize included a day in the thermal suite, $50 of short excursion credit and one all-access tour. I gave away the first two to my teammates and DH went on the all access tour. There were other prizes awarded as well, but I don't recall what they were.
We don't usually go to a lot of shows, but we did attend the two productions shows. Now and Forever was one, and I may eventually remember the other. We hadn't seen either before, and thought the singers and dancers did a credible job. The house orchestra is fabulous (the small combo groups that played around the ship were also really good). We also went to see Marty Allen. Bless his soul, he is 90 years old and just had hip replacement surgery. I can't say he is my favorite, but I've seen a lot worse. We didn't see the Celine Dion impersonator, the they guy with the Swarovski crystal violin or the various other acts.
There was also a "Dancing With the Stripes" competition, where the dancers teamed up with officers. We missed the two preliminary rounds, but attended the finals, which were a hoot. I napped during a lot of it, but managed to wake up for the routines. I fell asleep before Quest, so have no idea how it worked given the passenger mix.
The casino was pretty tight. I ended up being a penny slot player because I could hang on to my money a little longer. They had an almost daily slot tournament, where the top two took home the pot, no free cruise, but it was fun. I won one tournament for $90.
Announcements were usually limited to a 10:00 and 2:00pm rundown of activities, a noon announcement by the Captain and an incredibly annoying bingo announcement. Music around the ship was great, and dancing opportunities plentiful.
Betsy Medrano is the Concierge. She seems like a nice woman, but we didn't have much interaction with her. We asked for reservations to Chops and the wine pairing dinner before the cruise, and she confirmed by email that they had been made. But I always double check with the restaurant, and we weren't on the list for either. We had other reservation snafus, so I'm not convinced that it was her fault.
The cappuccino maker died about 7 days into the cruise. We discovered only by word of mouth that we could go to Lattetudes for complimentary NA coffees. It would have been a simple matter to put a sign on the broken machine.
I think it's time that Pinnacle Club members get their own welcome letter -- there are a few perks to which we are entitled that D+ are not, and I think that the Concierge should mention them. Or add us to the suite welcome letter, since the onboard amenities more similar for PC and suites than they are for PC and D+. That's not just Brilliance, but all of the ships. Just sayin'.
We were acquainted with Diana, the LA, from a prior cruise on the Jewel, and know that she is a capable representative. On this cruise, however, the department simply was not up to snuff. We, and several others on our Roll Call, were at the point of getting crystal blocks, yet none of us was on the list that was sent from Miami. The assistant LA told us that there were no more on the ship. She insisted that we didn't get the block until after the cruise was over, on our next ship. Diana knew otherwise, and got us our block right away after we mentioned it to her. She seemed to spend a lot of time putting out fires.
I think that the real issue was that Brilliance hasn't seen 400+ Diamond and up members, probably ever (unless there was a members' cruise in the past few years), since she's been in Europe for 5 years. Two people simply could not handle the crush of us plus book future cruises (our Next Cruise certificates were incorrect, and others reported being booked on the wrong cruise). This isn't a problem unique to BR - RCI needs to separate the loyalty and cruise booking functions, to allow the LA to see to the needs and wants of the repeat passengers. We did not receive the little perks that we've become accustomed to -- fruit plate, cheese plate, invitations to the bridge, galley and backstage tours -- because, in the Concierge's words: "there are too many of you to accommodate." We were supposed to ask the LA and then we would be allowed to go. Um, no.
We did have lunch with an officer that was a lot of fun. Our table was hosted by the inventory manager (who got an earful about the wine supplies) and the chief housekeeper. As far as we could tell, there were no hosted tables in the MDR -- the Captain's table was shoved into a corner and those who ate in the MDR most nights said that it was never set. We did sit next to the Captain in Portofino one night when he hosted a young couple and in the WJ another night when he dined with the CD and GSM, but that was as close as we got.
We only had 4 ports scheduled on this voyage: Lerwick, Klaksvik, Reykjavik and St. John's. We made it to Lerwick and Reykjavik, but missed the other two due to weather and (possibly, just an opinion not confirmed by any fact shared with us by the Captain) Jewel's mishap while sailing into Klaksvik the week before (she took out a power line). It was disappointing, but we knew that was a risk when we booked the cruise, so we grumbled a bit and got over it. Some people received a refund of about $9pp for the missed ports; we got nothing.
We loved both ports -- Lerwick is impossibly charming. We tendered over early, walked around the town and watched the kids trudging off to school. We found a care with good cappuccino and free Wifi and checked in with the home front. We then took a boat ride with Seabirds and Seals and learned lots about the history of the area, the industry that keeps it going. The highlight of the trip was a visit to Noss Island, where thousands upon thousands of gannets make their home. It was The Birds times a billion, although thankfully they were indifferent to us. They also dropped an underwater camera to show us some of the gorgeous sea life (and had a bit of an adventure retrieving the camera as the cable had wrapped around something). After the tour, on our guide's recommendation, we had lunch at Fort Fish & Chips (in the shadow of Fort Charlotte right in town) and had some of the best fish & chips ever fried. We then walked in the other direction and took in the old architecture and quaint feel of the town. I found a really adorable knitted sheep and named him Bo. I was going to find him a Peep in the Faroe Islands, but sadly that didn't happen, so he spent the cruise snuggling with our towel animals (after a 5 day drought we got 7 in a row) and is now a California dude.
In Reykjavik we had two nights and two days (although we didn't arrive in port until 11pm because the Crystal Symphony couldn't get away from the pier due to very high winds). On the first day, we took an independent tour of the Golden Circle. It was cold and raining for much of the trip, but we still took in some wonderful sights and managed to get in quite a bit of walking. Our group was 24 people, so the little van was packed -- in hindsight we should have tried to book an 8-passenger van, as that is the most people I like to tour with. Oh, well, perhaps we will return some day, in which case we'll rent a car and argue about what the road signs say. After the tour we went up to the Windjammer for a snack (lunch was a box of local delicacies served on the bus, which was good but not quite enough to make it to dinner) and then out to the pier shop, which offered Internet access for $5/hour.
On the second day we braved the elements and walked into town, about a 45 minute walk from the ship. It started out partly sunny, drizzled a bit, and then stopped again. Along the way, we passed the house where Reagan and Gorbachev met, an interesting sculpture garden, and a friendship statue. Our first stop was at the concert hall next to the old harbor -- very cool architecturally with good cappuccino and free Wifi. As much as we would like not to be connected to home when we're halfway around the world, it just isn't possible these days. We then wandered into the Old Town section, which is simply gorgeous. Our guide the day before had recommended Italia restaurant, so we found it and had a great lunch. Our waitress either hated Americans or had just been dumped by her boyfriend (I suspect the latter since she never broke a smile at any of her tables), but the beer was good and pasta & pizza are half price for lunch, so we had a tasty meal (lasagna for me and a pizza for Don) without breaking the bank.
Then we went souvenir shopping, which was our only disappointment of the two days. Most of the stuff seemed either to be made in China or was hideously expensive. I think we may have had better luck if we'd stayed in the older section of town instead of heading for the "main shopping street." So we walked away empty handed other than a T-shirt for a friend of ours, or so I thought. Don snuck away and got me a wool scarf for my birthday. Made in Iceland, even.
On the sea days, we usually woke up early (we had 6 time changes), had some coffee in the cabin, went to breakfast and then settled in somewhere to read. We would walk 3 miles at some point, usually around the Promenade Deck as the upper deck was pretty windy, then read some more, work in a nap and/or a slot tournament and then go to the Diamond Event and dinner, followed by a show, dancing or losing money in the casino. Such a stressful schedule!
If I am remembering correctly, there were about 600 Americans onboard. Danes made up the largest contingent, with 800, and there were 400 Germans. The Captain's announcements were made in 4-6 languages -- since he is Danish, he took care of English and Danish, then the International Ambassador got a workout. Fortunately the Bingo announcement was only made in English.
We had an opportunity mid-cruise to leave our comments and suggestions for improvement. We complimented the Captain on his informative announcements, asked for our cabin service to start a little earlier and noted our disappointment with our Chops dinner. The next day received a call from the manager of Chops/Portofino, asking for further information and offering us a complimentary dinner in Portofino. That was very much appreciated. Rosen also started coming by about half an hour earlier (I made sure to note that we were aware that he wasn't just late to the job but was acting under orders). I haven't seen one of those comment cards on RCI before (and we've had cruises this long before), and I thought it was a good way for us to let them know of our concerns and compliments.
Don had a massage one day, said it was good but not great. He wasn't subjected to a sales pitch. The spa wasn't doing very well on this cruise, and they were offering sea day specials daily.
Don is retired from the Navy, and spent a lot of time in engineering, so we have developed a habit of asking the Chief Engineer and a companion of his choosing to dine with us in Portofino one night (we pay). We understand that they are sometimes too busy, but have always been refused graciously. Actually, we've never been refused altogether -- they will sometimes meet us for a cup of coffee instead. Well, this Chief replied that he was far too busy and that, if we wanted to meet him, we could pay $50 for an engine room tour. Yeah, no thanks.
The Champagne Bar was a great place to hang out and read on a sea day when the weather was nasty. We didn't order many drinks there (we usually left when it started filling up after opening) because the wine prices were insane. We did have champagne on my birthday and a few nightcaps, which were more reasonably priced.
We had priority disembarkation, which meant disembarking after about 1000 other passengers -- Albatros Travel seemed to have half of the passengers booked in their groups, and they got to disembark before anybody but the express departures. Gold card holders were due to disembark at 8:45, but to nobody's surprise they were running late. We left the ship about 9:30, got on the shuttle to take us 50 yards to luggage claim/immigration and then sat on the shuttle for 15 minutes as they were doing some traffic control there (one wonders why they called us to disembark). We found our luggage quickly, discovered that there is no express line for porters and waited with our friendly porter for about 10 minutes in the immigration line. The US line moved much faster than non-US. line, which wasn't a surprise.
We booked a car service to JFK with Carmel Limo. Our driver was prompt and got us there in about 30 minutes (not much traffic mid-morning on a Friday). The total cost was about $115 for the trip. Our flight on American Airlines was not affected by any pilot action, and we took off on time at 3:45 and landed a few minutes early.
As I said at the start, we had a great time on the cruise, other than my having a bit of cabin fever on the third sea day of 6 straight sea days. Once the sun came out and my birthday arrived on the next sunny day, I settled back down. There were enough service lapses that I can't say that Brilliance is a favorite ship -- in fact, she trails behind every other ship in the fleet that we've sailed on. I got tired of so many people telling me how hard it was to do the simplest thing (Rosen never did, nor did many of the other fine crewmembers we met, but we often felt that we were swimming upstream against a flow of no).
I have no regrets -- if we hadn't booked this cruise, we wouldn't have spent three fabulous days in Copenhagen, we wouldn't have re-visited our old friend Vision, we wouldn't have seen our dear friends in Norway, we wouldn't have seen the Shetlands or Iceland and we wouldn't have made a boatload (pun intended) of new friends.