This was our first Transatlantic cruising with 3,500 very experience, world class travelers. A good number, perhaps a majority, were from Texas and most were active, mature cruisers. This sailing attracts very few children and we only saw perhaps a dozen.
We had booked this cruise 16 months before sailing and because the itinerary was so good, the prices kept going up and up. The roll call was perhaps the largest one in CC history and a number of people arranged private excursions and shuttles. This all made for an exciting time for those of us who joined in.
This sailing could have been really a disappointment for many because Hurricane Sandy impacted a lot of flights going to Rome, but most people managed to get rerouted or came in early. Lesson learned: get travel insurance and be proactive! We had our first connection changed and would have missed out on two days in Rome if I hadn't taken action. Cruiseair was a bit disappointing here and I doubt I would ever use them again. I needed to do all the calling to United.
Hotel: We stayed at the Hotel Sonya which seemed to be filled with many knowledgeable Cruise Critics and it was great fun talking at breakfast and enjoying Tony's wine parties in the late afternoon. Also, a big thanks to Bill "Watchhog" for building the fabulous website for our sailing. Hotel Sonya was a very good choice and close enough to many sites. The hotel had free wifi, very nice rooms with modern facilities, a funky, yet reliable old cage elevator and a fabulous breakfast buffet. My favorites were the crostatta, pineapple upside down cake, croissants and fine choice of fruits and yogurts (so much more than I listed). The service was very efficient and kind. Highly recommended.
Rome: Late Oct. in Rome can be a bit chilly and rainy, so prepare for all possibilities. Traveling in Rome is covered in many other places and I highly recommend Rick Steve's books for spot on advice.
I had two main impressions about visiting Rome. One, Rome is somewhat confusing to navigate as many streets aren't labeled. We decided that the lack of signage in Rome was to purposely make it difficult for the independent traveler so that you would feel the need to use a tour guide. I like doing my own research and going at my own pace. We downloaded Rick Steves' free, very helpful apps to my Kindlefire and used a splitter so that we could both hear the narration. He has photos on the apps and we could start and stop as we wished. This was especially helpful in the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica. BTW- try to schedule the Scavi tour a few months before your trip. I tried 6 weeks before and it was full.
My second impression is that I am amazed that so many visitors don't do any research. For example, if you are spending the day at the Vatican, go to their website and get your tickets online. You can just walk ahead of hundreds of others who must wait in line to get their tickets. The guard scans your voucher; you walk ahead and get your real tickets. Easy enough. Also, don't worry about the exact time that you schedule your tour in the Vatican Museum. Ours said "12:00" and they gave us a ticket for 10:30.
Another piece of advice is to take the short cut to St. Peter's Basilica from the Sistine Chapel. This tip will save you an hour. If you go out the regular exit, you will have a 30 minute walk to St. Peter's and then get in another line to go through security again. Here's how to do it: Find the wall opposite the last Judgment. The door THEY want you to exit is on the left. There is a "secret door" that is supposedly for tour groups on the right. Be cool and try to blend in with a group and just go out that door. Once again, Rome is made for the tour groups! You just keep following the signs and there is St. Pete's. He would be proud of you.
Be vigilant about the pickpockets. We knew some people personally on this cruise who were victims. We took the metro to the Vatican and would never do that again just because of the sardine experience and the possibility of problems. The pickpockets work in teams and have it down to an art form. I had a scottevest so felt that my property was pretty safe. Personally, I would only take a taxi if I returned. IMHO.
One of our best experiences was taking a countryside tour to see the Appian Way, the catacombs and the Aqueduct Park. We used a tour company for that which I can't really recommend. The guide was not respectful of the catacombs ("I have to spend the day with dead people" -- uh, there are no bones or dead people left) and the tour bus was dirty. The driver didn't communicate with the guides and we thought he had abandoned ALL of us. He asked a random driver to come tell us that we had to walk farther up the road to find the bus. I had heard negative reviews on the Archeobus and getting to the Aqueducts isn't feasible unless you get a taxi to take you there, stay with you and take you back. The Appian Way and the Park are pretty much out there in the country and you don't exactly have taxis waiting to take you back to Rome. Still, a very worthwhile experience.
The National Museum of Rome which is located next to Termini was really wonderful. Once again, some reviews had reported that all you see are a bunch of busts of old Emperors, but it is so much more than that. I highly recommend it after seeing your A list places.
One word of caution about National Holidays. We were there on All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and while some places aren't affected, others cause significant concerns. The Vatican Museums will be closed and even the day before had limited hours. The Pantheon closed at 1:30 and all we saw were the locked doors.
Port of Civitavechhia: I had arranged a shuttle for 8 with Limounsine Systems. They were efficient in every respect and probably were the lowest cost of any other CC shuttle: 22euro PP. We arrived around 11 AM and embarkation and check in was prompt and quite efficient. I'm lowly RCI gold, but was still pleased.
Ship Info: The Mariner of the Seas had received some updates in April, 2012 and the ship was spotless with no wear and tear. I had heard that the previous sailing had some norovirus, but this problem was minimal with ours. There was a ship cold/cough and that was the problem we had to deal with. There were no restrictions, just the daily reminders about hand washing. We loved the new interactive boards that are all around the ship near the elevators. Really helpful.
Stateroom: We had a balcony on deck 6. The daylight hours are more limited on a TA and we just didn't use it as much as we had hoped. The Mediterranean was pretty port intensive and then the six days on the Atlantic often didn't produce enough opportunities to sit outside. I wouldn't be too sad if we didn't have a balcony on a future TA. The pools and hot tubs were not used much on most days.
The cabin was very roomy and comfortable. Lots of storage and our service was impeccable with Lee Zhang as our steward. The shower was a good size and I had no trouble getting around and even bending over. The design makes sense. The new flat screen TV's are really nice but the channel selection is so limited on a TA. We both loved the comfortable mattress.
Service: Overall, the staff is outstanding. I received a friendly greeting 99% of the time and they all worked so very hard. Everyone did their jobs very well. An A+ rating here. The captain is very amiable. The one disappointment was the head chef who seemed to think he was very funny with a sarcastic wit. During the cake demonstration, he set up a contest between him, a woman and a man who he drafted. The ladies' cake was lovely and the man's, well- good try. The chef then spun the guests' cakes on the cake spin/decorating table and their cakes were ruined. Chef won. What a jerk! I suppose you would like him if you enjoy people with puffed up egos who like to insult others. I am surprised that the lady's husband didn't punch the chef.
Dining: We ate lunch and dinner in the MDR. For dinner, we had two other very nice couples who came every evening and one couple never showed up. The fifth couple came about 25% of the time. A group of 8 at a table for 10 is awkward. Fortunately, our regulars were delightful and great conversationalists. I don't know why RCL left the no shows at the table since others would have liked to have moved from late dining.
Our waiter, Oliver, was very pleasant and efficient. The service was wonderful and most of the food items were very good. I have to say that nothing stood out, but that might be because I'm getting spoiled with cruising. The others commented that the steak on the surf and turf was excellent but most people weren't impressed with the other steaks ordered. I typically had chicken and fish main dishes. I generally like anything that I don't have to cook. None of us felt the need to dine in the specialty restaurants but I heard they were superb.
We ate most of our breakfasts in the Windjammer. This is one area that needs improvement. First, this is a TA where you gain an hour for seven days. People's body clocks are waking up a bit too early and there are many people in the WJ before 7 AM. The staff keeps much of the Windjammer off limits and the guests are required to fill up the areas opened before they open a new section. I can understand keeping the food areas closed off, but guests should be able to sit where they want instead of scrambling for tables in a crowded area. The selection of foods didn't change from day to day although there certainly was plenty. For example, there were two types of pastries each day- the same ones day after day. It was pretty much "get up and get your own coffee/juice as there were not many servers. I did love the fresh fruit, esp. the pineapple.
The ship seemed to lack a good place to dine outside. I missed that experience. I didn't try the new hotdog place, but it looked interesting for those who like hotdogs/brats.
I am learning sensible eating on a cruise. I only gained one pound during our 22 days! Success! We quickly decided to eat a small breakfast in order to not be full 24 hours a day I also didn't eat bread in the MDR, but had two appetizers and a dessert at lunch and dinner.
Activities: The ship did a great job of lots of entertainment all day long and the cruise director, Carly was excellent. I wish I had attended more of the dance classes offered by Gordon and Janice Smith. They had lots of interest and were very skillful at teaching. RCL seemed to know the population that was sailing and accommodated most people. Not your typical Caribbean cruise atmosphere- no steel drums here!
There were weekend religious services for Christians , Sabbath services and daily mass for Catholics. A group had a praise and worship time each sea day in the chapel.
The internet service was a bit weak and quite expensive. It seems that a text package may be the smartest idea. A simple email sometimes took me ten minutes. I noted that early in the AM or later at night was the best for a more rapid transmission. I didn't want to waste my port time huntingn for a wifi place.
Entertainment: Soul Inspiration- really rocked the house; Hanna Starosta (violin)-talented but mildly entertaining; David Deeble- only one we missed- the comments were overwhelmingly positive;; RCL dancers and singers- they were okay but the sets were outstanding; Ice Show- a ship favorite; Craig Dahn -- wonderful pianist and a ship favorite; Joey Van (another not memorable) ; Tracey Shield- imitated Celine Dion and only show where many people walked out in the middle; Christopher Caress- hypnotist- entertaining but the effect left you wondering- I wouldn't go again and I would never participate to be hypnotized; Tom McTique- cute and endearing- worthwhile ; a few others and I just can't recall. The lounge acts were fine but none were exceptional. The young ladies who were the "Fleur de Lis Trio were always very good. The final day's finale was pretty weak. It is hard to keep things interesting for everyone and I appreciated the variety and effort.
Fitness: Loved the walking/running track and the fitness areas. I never noticed that they were crowded and they were well maintained and machines were plentiful. The promenade deck is a bit of a letdown as it is not continual. You have to walk up the stairs to get all the way around. Not sure why the ship was built this way. There were plenty of chairs and loungers, but this wasn't the type of cruise where you got that tan. The adult solarium is a wonderful place and is somewhat protected from the elements.
Fellow Cruisers: This cruise was majority Texans and I thought they were a hoot. Texans tell the best stories! It was a sad day for them when the presidential election results were clear. Most of the ship was in a sad mood in the AM.
I was so enthralled with the level of cruising so many of my fellow passengers had logged and learned a lot from their experiences. I would estimate 85% USA, 5% Canadians and the rest from all over. Love those Australians! The average age of the cruisers was perhaps a young 70- this group takes good care of themselves and knows how to live life. They also know how to party into the night. Overall, a very pleasant and friendly bunch.
Most of our fellow passengers had advanced status in the CA and were diamond and above. I understand why RCL wants to maintain loyalty, but the venues set aside for these categories don't really seem to be used all that well. I understand that the former sports lounge was turned into a venue for the more elite passengers. I didn't notice passengers making a big deal out of their status, maybe because they were all the majority on this cruise.
I learned that the MOS has a jail- heard about a disturbance that resulted in the use of it and then the couple was put out at port. Ouch. I appreciate that the decision was made to do this as you can't have violent people onboard a cruise. Thanks, captain and security. I also learned that they have quite a medical facility onboard with two doctors and three nurses. I understand that they were kept quite busy and the stories made me pleased to know that things appeared to be handled very professionally. They have a "cooler" in this unit and I heard it was used, sadly.
Shopping onboard: I heard some complaints but there was lots of activity and bargains. One piece of advice: bring your own pharmacy as the medicines in the general store are minimal and pretty $$$.
Ajaccio, Corsica- Cute port that was very walkable. You have to be really into Napoleon to think it is great. The market was adorable- near the port, but that is about it. Lots of nice little shops.
Palma de Mallorca- We did the HOHO "sightseeing bus" (15 euros for both of us- you see it right outside the port terminal and buy the tickets from the driver) and just loved the LeSeu Cathedral and the Bellver Castle (it was free on Sunday). We bought an adorable flamenco dress for 12 euro for our granddaughter right outside LeSeu. Beautiful port!
Cartagena- The town is lovely for a walk and well laid out. The Roman theater was recently excavated and really worthwhile. Clean and lots of nice shops. We found Barcelona football/soccer jerseys here- and made lots of people very happy!
Lanzarote- a CC member set up a 5 Â½ hour tour of Timanfaya National Park- absolutely sensational with the opportunity to ride a camel. Just 25 euro pp. What a deal! I think that is the best bet for a tour. The island is very dry and rugged. Buy some of the volcanic rock at the Black Sand beach. That is part of the mantle of the earth!
Tenerife- this island is the opposite- lots of rain and lush. We took the ship tour (first one we ever did) and the highlight wasn't the main "cultural tour" but the wine tasting. What fun and great wine. The tour guide needed an interpreter to be understood. Oh, well.
Nassau, Bahamas- too cool for much beach time and the port is just run down and depressing. Such a beautiful climate with such poverty. We just walked around and found a wifi place.
We never grew tired of the days at sea. The ship did a good job of entertaining and feeding us. The waters were relatively calm except for maybe one day where you could feel some movement. I thought the Atlantic would be choppier but those stabilizers are amazing.
Cruise Critic events: The mix and mingle was so large that it was held in Studio B, the ice rink. Not very conducive to a gathering. Someone tried to get a luncheon together and that just didn't work out well. The staff just didn't understand that we all wanted to be somewhat near one another or they just didn't care to accommodate us.
There is a notice posting board near the Promenade Cafe and you should get in the habit of checking it daily. It was nice to run into the CC family onboard and their experience was so helpful in planning.
Disembarkation: I understand many were not happy with this, but we had no big issues. We were assigned for the 10:30 departure but our shuttle was leaving before that time so we were advised to just leave the ship when we wanted. Once we made it off the ship, we had to wait just a bit and then were allowed in the terminal to find our luggage. All four pieces were right there and we walked right up to customs and left two minutes later. I would advise people to try to arrange transportation as late as possible and to leave when they kick you off...
Summary: Overall, this cruise met and exceeded my expectations. A TA is usually a great bargain and RCL kept the standards high in every area. I highly recommend that you do your homework through cruise critic to maximize your experience and get top value!