First, the good. The ship is, for the most part, a pleasant ship. The staff are, for the most part, friendly. Most of the entertainment and food was very good. Our room steward was great. Overall, I had a good time. I would not say a "great" time, though, and the following critique is mostly what I did not like about the cruise.
** Crowd Control **
It is hard for me to believe they designed this ship with Freestyle Dining in mind. There is no more room in front of the main dining room than there is between any of the elevators and staircases on any other floor in the ship. We stayed on the 8th floor, and each time we walked down to the 7th floor for dinner at Grand Pacific, we had to carefully step over an electric cord they strung across the stairs for a stand where you give your stateroom number and number of guests, and they either let you in or give you a beeper. You cannot even make a reservation to eat at Grand Pacific at a particular time; I don't see why not.
As for the buffet, I like it less each time I cruise. This cruise was not even full, and it was terribly crowded in the buffet. The way this ship is built, there is barely enough room for three people between the dessert bar and the wall, which is also the only major thoroughfare on Deck 12: one person getting dessert, one person walking one way, and another person walking the other way. In between are people who stand there wondering what they want to do next. It's very difficult to find a table, and there is no staff to guide you to one or refill your drinks, as I have experienced on other cruises.
Disembarkation was a mess. They kept making announcements in English to non-US-citizens to process through immigration. After a half-hour or so, they finally started announcing in Chinese, which they did for another half-hour or so before they called the first disembarkation for passengers without connections. When we went down to disembark, there were still non-US-citizens crowding the exit area who were not cleared to get off. On a related note, not only did people seem not to listen to announcements; they seemed not to read any of the instructions in the disembarkation literature -- English-fluent readers included. We went down to get luggage tags the day before disembarkation, and I saw a line of people, most of whom seemed to be asking questions about their bill. I asked the woman at the dining reservations desk where to stand in line to get luggage tags, and she directed me "to the other side." I went to the other side, which was -- I forget. Anyway, as I waited patiently for the other lady to help someone, a man cut to the main front desk and asked the manager, "Could I just get some luggage tags." I tried to get the manager to do the same for me, but he was gone before I could get them. Finally, when I asked the lady on the right side of the counter what to do, she said I had to wait in line. Frustrated, I went back to my stateroom and called the front desk to see what the protocol really was. They told me I had to stand in line, but there was someone walking alone the line asking who needed luggage tags. I had not noticed that, but I went down to get it over with. While I waited in line, the cruise staff woman walking the line explained the instructions in detail to the two parties in front of me -- exactly what I had already read in the literature left on the bed in every stateroom. Meanwhile, a man cut in line saying all he was looking for was luggage tags, and the woman turned to help him. I told him, "That's exactly what I'm standing in line for, sir," and he didn't even apologize or defer to me. The woman helped him, and after explaining the process to someone else who couldn't be bothered to read, she finally turned to me. I said, "Three gray luggage tags please," got my tags, and that was that. It took me 30 minutes and a lot of hassle to do something that should have taken 30 seconds.
** Dining Service **
I never thought I'd eat something on a cruise and say, "That was the worst _____ I've ever had," but it has happened on more than one cruise, and on this cruise, it happened more than once. First, the onion soup. It had one tiny crouton with the barest whisper of melted cheese on it. No delicious baked gruyere covering the bowl and running over into browned cheese drops. When I complained about this, all the dining room manager said, was, "They keep changing the menu. We used to cover the soup with gruyere and bake it in the oven, but we don't do that anymore." Well, great. Let's just keep up that downhill slide. If it wasn't bad enough to have onion soup without cheese, another night I ordered the calzone and it had no cheese. You heard me right. No cheese. It was a specialty that night, and it was described as "Roasted Vegetable Calzone - Mozzarella and Marinara." It had roasted vegetables inside, but the marinara was served *outside* what looked like an outsized empanada, and there was no mozzarella to be found. I told the dining room manager about this, too, and he said, "I do not know how it is supposed to be made, but I am sorry." For these two complaints, we got a tray of chocolate covered strawberries and a bottle of champagne. That's great, but it makes no sense at all to serve a calzone with no cheese to a ship full of passengers who embarked in New York -- many of whom are New Yorkers themselves and know exactly how a calzone is supposed to be made. They didn't have to serve calzone at all; it was not a regular menu item. That they would go out of their way to offer up something absurd like cheeseless calzone baffles me.
I should reiterate here that most of the food was good, and some of it was excellent. I was head over heels for their Chocolate Decadence, which I wish they served more than just one night. They did a very nice salmon fillet as well, and this was one of their regular items.
As much as I didn't like the crowds at the buffet, I sat in the Grand Pacific most mornings and lunches twiddling my thumbs waiting for the simplest things like coffee, sugar, cream, butter, and water. When I did look around to see where all the wait staff was and what they were doing, it seemed like they were always busy putting away dirty dishes in drawers at the little stations they have throughout the dining room. They spend more time at those stations than a server spends behind the counter at a diner. And don't get me started on how Denny's has better service than any cruise ship restaurant I've ever experienced on a cruise ship. At Denny's, they bring you water, coffee, and food quickly, they get your order right, and you never want for condiments. At Grand Pacific, it was like requisitioning supplies just to get some salt or pepper. God help you if you ever actually take them up on the offer they make in every single menu and order a specialty Lavazza coffee. Every time I ordered one, they acted put out and told me they would have to run and get that for me from the Java Cafe. First of all, they shouldn't put it in all their menus if they don't want patrons to order it, and second, I don't care where you have to run and get it from. If you offer something on a menu and you have to run down to the corner store to get it, that's your stupid business. They have espresso machines in passenger suites, yet they don't have one in the Grand Pacific, the Magenta, or the Blue Lagoon. All of their menus advertise Lavazza espresso coffee drinks, yet none of their dining rooms have espresso makers and every server makes a point to tell you they have to get that for you from the Java Cafe. I have had the same experience on the Gem and the Pearl the last four years, and they still haven't fixed the problem. :-(
I am becoming disillusioned with cruising. I will keep giving it a try, but it only seems to be getting worse, not better.