This was our 6th cruise, the first with Royal Caribbean and we were keen to see how it compared. On all other cruises, fellow travellers have RAVED about RCI, so I read all the reviews from those who'd sailed just ahead of us with interest.
A common theme from recent reviews is that that check in was difficult. The thing you need to understand with cruising, is that everyone races to get on in the first hour so they can hit the buffet. Of course it's going to be chaos! Understanding that the buffet is not going anywhere, we always arrive 60-90 minutes towards the end of the checkin time and have always had a civilised welcome of no longer than 30 minutes. This one was no exception.
Our interior stateroom was fine, same as all the other boats we've been on. Housekeeping staff were charming and addressed us by name and did a great job throughout the whole cruise with the towel animals.
Rhapsody takes approx 2000 passengers so she's not a big boat. On one hand it's good, as we went on the EPIC, (4000+), where it took 10 mins to get an elevator and we spent the whole cruise getting lost. The downside with a small boat is that facilities are limited. After 10 days we were pretty sick of the bars and dining areas, but if you love familiarity, this is the boat for you.
The staff were friendly, the entertainment good and the activities ok. On this cruise, everyone got involved and the dance classes were particularly popular. It was a younger crowd than usual (I understand RCI target the 35-55 demographic) and it had a noticably more lively atmosphere than we're used to. People went to town on the 3 formal nights, with great cocktail dresses and suits.
The one thing we really did not like was the dining. Previous reviewers have bagged the buffet: stating that it was boring, dry and uninspiring. We are buffet snobs so we approached this with some trepidation but were pleasantly surprised. It was the best we've seen. LOADS of fresh salads, healthy options and variety. Even the fatties who cruise purely to gorge piled their plates high and seemed happy.
However, the main dining room was really disappointing. There was only 1 'free' dining room and we were stuck on a noisy table for 10. It took 90 mins - 2 hours to complete a 3 course meal. The same guys who took our orders also had to run out the back to get wine, so if you ordered a bottle of wine at the wrong time, your food order was delayed 20 minutes. More than once we gave up waiting for our glasses to be refilled and grabbed the bottle ourselves. We also would order a bottle of wine with 6 glasses, the waitress would massively overfill 4 of them and then declare the bottle empty. Whether this was just lousy training or a cunning ploy to sell more, we aren't sure but it was completely unacceptable. Food was good,although generally matched whatever was in the buffet, just with better presentation. The exception was New Years Eve, when they told us they were doing something special and actually delivered a really great menu with standout service and quality. (It was so notably different to the rest of the cruise that I dropped the manager a 'well done' note.)
With no other 'free' dining options, we started to look at the paid restaurants. Again, on all other cruises we've done there's been a simple $10-$20 fee and then you can have whatever you want. On Royal Carribean, it was over complicated and a bit stingy comparatively. Izumi was $5 to get in, then you still had to pay for each dish. It ended up costing us $177 for 4 once we'd included wine, so we may as well have just gone out in Sydney. In Giovannis we paid $7.50 a head lunch cover charge and were then told we could only choose from 3 dishes from a set menu. On every other cruise, once you're in a specialty restaurant you can sample whatever you like. So for us as foodies, this was a significant let down to the whole experience.
The martini and the cocktail tasting were good value: 5 samples for $11.75. The wine tasting on the other hand was a bit steep: $23 bought us just 4 samples, although we did get 4 bites of cheese to go with it. We also attended the bourbon/whiskey tasting which was $20, but we got 9 samples of top shelf products to try so it was worth it.
Bring a converter plug: the boat has USA fixtures. Also the 15% compulsory gratuity gives Aussies the irates, but even considering this, the cocktails were still mostly <$10 so are ok value. Also even if you choose to prepay your gratuities, they still leave envelopes in your room and you feel guilty if you dont use them.
It is worth noting that our friends bought a 6 year old with them and complained loudly. Compared to Princess, where Kids Club runs pretty much non stop with lots of activities and is coordinated around the shows/dining hours, on RCI, their distinct impression was 'bring little kids if you have to but dont expect to relax whilst we do the babysitting for you - unless you want to pay extra for a babysitter.' They had to leave all the shows early and missed dessert as the creche closures were not coordinated with the adult acitivites. However on the bright side, if your idea of a cruising holiday does not involve fighting hundreds of little kids in the pool, this is an ideal boat for you.
Isle of Pines was pretty but no real village to speak of. If you aren't going to take a van to the other side of the island, we recommend heading to the beach on the right as you get off the boat. Swim out past the resort to the other side of the little island for good coral. Highlight for us here was the locals cooking BBQ crayfish on the beach for $20.
Vila/Luganville - when you get off the boat you are assailed by a mob of locals with bongo vans trying to sell you taxis. There is a price board up by the gate that tells you the going rate for key destinations which is very helpful but you can still negotiate. A note: if you negotiate with a tout, ensure the driver understands what's been agreed. Four of us agreed to $50 for 3 hours/2 stops with a tout, but the driver thought he was getting $50 for 1 stop. Overall they are honest so it's not stressful like in Bangkok. Also make sure you know your driver's name and photograph the number plate so you dont lose him amongst the hundreds of other bongo vans in the carpark.
Another key suggestion for Vanuatu, is to get off really early and hit the key attractions before your fellow cruise passengers start jostling for space/views. The Cascades in Vila is a classic example. Narrow path, little rock pools. Quite charming with 20 people, not so with 2000. The best activity in Vila is the Zipline (as per Trip Advisor). The Cascades are nice too but the price hike to $25 a head on cruise days is highway robbery. Particularly as they do no crowd control so you may not even be able to get to the waterfall because there're too many people.
In summary, it was a nice boat with fun staff who knew what they were doing (except in the main dining room ). For a general purpose 3.5-4 star cruise with a relatively sophisticated, lively crowd, it's a good choice.