This was a first time cruise, involving my wife and I and our 3 children, aged from 16 to 21. We booked everything online via the Royal Caribbean site, which was a relatively easy process - our needs were adjoining staterooms, with one sleeping 3, and we were able to secure this at the time of booking using the online process to pick exactly where we would be on the ship. Despite booking in January for a December cruise, we were not able to secure balcony staterooms due to existing bookings, but never regretted having interior staterooms. The cost was significantly cheaper, our rooms on Deck 9 were very quiet and guaranteed of darkness for an 'anytime' nap or sleep-in, and observation showed that most balconies never seemed to be used on our cruise.
We boarded in Sydney from Circular Quay, and this was a surprisingly smooth and quick process, taking less than 40 minutes from bag drop-off to boarding. The staff were friendly and efficient. Once aboard, we headed to our staterooms for another surprise - they were larger and more 'upmarket' than we anticipated - we had read reviews of shoddy fittings and tiny showers etc, but this was not the case. Everything was clean, functioning and attractively presented. An initial tour of the ship, and the subsequent 8 days of cruising confirmed this standard of maintenance and presentation - the Radiance is essentially a floating 4 star hotel, with high quality fittings, food, service and entertainment.
As first-time cruisers, and with family togetherness as our goal, we were not concerned with the island destination visits as much as the general cruise experience itself, and were not disappointed. We initially had pre-booked My Time fixed dining each night at Cascades restaurant - this is essentially like dining in an upmarket (if slightly crowded) restaurant, complete with silver service etc. Whilst the food and service were excellent, we quickly tired of this, and instead frequented the Windjammer Cafe buffet. We loved the variety of foods on offer (which changed at every mealtime), the freedom of self-service, and the ability to turn up whenever we felt like it. The presence of the Windjammer Cafe, combined with the Park Cafe in the Solarium, meant that food and drink was on tap from 6am to 1am each day, which very much suited our activity and dining style.
In relation to activity, I should point out that the Radiance of the Seas is not really a 'party ship', if that is the experience a cruiser is after. Cruisers of the 25-35 year age group, looking for constant organised drinking games etc will be disappointed. There are plenty of organised activities on the Radiance, but catering for a wide range of ages and tastes, so no particular age group will always find what they are looking for at every moment of the cruise. Cruisers do need to entertain themselves at times, by taking advantage of the pools, the bars and lounges, the well-equipped gym, the sun decks etc. My family spent most of their time gravitating between the gym, the Solarium pool, playing board games in the Windjammer, or reading and sunbathing. At night, and in some daytime sessions, we also took in the excellent shows provided in the Aurora theatre. The Royal Caribbean dancers and singers are of the highest quality, and their performances very professional. Also of great interest and entertainment is Captain's Corner, a live session in which the ship's captain explains the running of the ship and answers any questions cruisers may have. Our captain, Captain Sindre, proved as excellent a showman as a seaman.
As explained earlier, the island destinations were not a real focus of our cruise. Our cruise took in Noumea, Lifou and The Isle of Pines. After 2 days of 'bumpy' seas from Sydney to Noumea, our arrival in the calm waters of Noumea was a welcome event, though Noumea itself was nothing special. The ship docks at a container terminal, across the harbour from a coal terminal, so first impressions aren't great. Disembarkation was well-organised and easy. Having been swamped by tour company reps as soon as we hopped off the shuttle bus to town, we settled on the $10 one hour tour of the city, and this was enough for our family to realise that the Radiance was the preferred location to relax for the rest of the day. Lifou and The Isle of Pines more suitably lived up to our expectations of tropical islands, and we enjoyed swimming and snorkelling at these locations, but again in each case we were happy to spend the majority of these days just relaxing on the the ship, especially with less people aboard. The ship truly was our home for 8 days, and there is no place like home.
Our return to Sydney in calm waters was very relaxing, and the early morning entry and docking in Sydney harbour was as breathtaking as the departure had been. Final disembarkation was very well-orchestrated, unrushed despite the volume of people involved, and very quick.
Our overall impression of the cruise on the Radiance of the Seas is that it represented exceptional value, particularly in comparison to staying at an upmarket hotel or purchasing an overseas airfare or holiday. We were housed in excellent accommodation, had unlimited high-quality cuisine on tap at no extra cost, had access to entertainment productions and facilities at all times at no extra cost, were cared for by very efficient and friendly staff and at the same time travelled to exotic locations. We could have comfortably lasted the entire cruise without spending an additional cent had we so chosen to do so, but did purchase some alcoholic drinks and specialty coffee on the cruise. The prices of these were not excessive, comparable to or less than bar and nightclub prices at any land-based venue, so not unreasonable. We also pre-purchased soft drink packages for the cruise - in hindsight, these were unnecessary, as iced water, iced tea, orange juice, apple juice and lemonade, together with tea and coffee, were always freely available.
Some Australian cruisers may be concerned about the gratuity factor associated with cruising on an American ship, but this concern is unnecessary. We prepaid all gratuities when we booked, and never thought about it again, other than to give our stateroom attendant a little extra at the end. If you don't prepay gratuities, you still don't have to pay any gratuities until the last night, when recommended amounts are only suggested. It is ultimately up to you to decide if and what you pay. From my experience, based on the high standard of service throughout the ship, the staff deserve to be rewarded handsomely.