Our Australian family of 5 (daughters 18 and 11; son 12) sailed on Rhapsody to the South Pacific for 10 nights 28 Dec to 7 Jan. Whilst we lived in Asia for 10 years and have travelled extensively, only two of us had cruised before (son and me with HAL to the Rugby World Cup in NZ 2011). We had a great time and would do it again in a heartbeat.
This review is long as I've tried to cover off items that I was interested in pre-cruise and I wanted to put something back for all the helpful reviews I read in organising the cruise. If you are only interested in some aspects check out the headings below.
All ship board prices shown below are in $A and incl the obligatory 15% gratuity which is 'embedded' in the list price.
We live 30 mins or so drive from OPT so I drove in at 8am and dropped luggage off at the baggage handling service - very easy and efficient. This meant we could avoid booking 2 taxis and so caught the train in for boarding at @11. Whilst our tickets suggested boarding from 12, there was no issue with doing so early. The check in and immigration process took about 30 mins. Security queried our 4 bottles of wine/champagne but were fine when I explained we had 2 cabins. Incidentally, we had no problems discretely drinking these during sail away and by the pool during the cruise, and even managed to conjure a couple of champagne glasses from the bar.
We were in the Windjammer for lunch by 12 or so. Park Cafe in the Solarium did not open until 1.30 and the MDR was not open for lunch (it is only open for lunch on sea days, 12 -- 1.30). We thought the food variety and quality was very good. No, it's not the buffet at the Bangkok Peninsula Hotel, but for a family holiday, met and exceeded any reasonable expectations. The WJ was busy but seating was not a problem. Everyone was well satisfied and the kids gave the free soft serve machine a heavy work out. There is also tasty free lemonade, sugar free fruit drinks and ice tea available from machines all over the WJ and in Park Cafe.
We were given access to our rooms by about 1pm and bags were delivered to our rooms by 2pm or so.
Heading out of Sydney Harbour and the Heads is an experience not to be missed. It can get a bit chilly on deck once the sun goes down, so grab a warm top as well as your camera and champagne.
When we cruised last year, my son was seasick for the first 24 hours. This time I made sure we were down low and in the centre of the boat. We booked two interior cabins on level 2, one with drop down additional bedding that is lowered/raised by the attendant each day. The cost differential to get a window cabin was around $500 per person and balcony around $1000 pp. For 5 people, that adds up to quite a few Mojitos, plus we had experienced interior cabins on the RWC trip and found that we slept wonderfully without daylight streaming in at 6 am. We also spent little time in the cabins other than sleeping.
Cabin size was fine for 2 adults and the kids were happy in theirs. Plenty of hanging space - take extra hangers - though not a lot of luggage storage. That said, we only found the space under the beds on the day we disembarked! We had 2 suitcases per cabin, one of which fits inside the other, so we only had to navigate around one on the side of the bed. The bed itself was very comfortable. The bathroom was small but more than adequate. We took advice from a previous poster and hung a clear shoe carrier on the back of the bathroom door. This was invaluable for storing and accessing the various minutiae of daily existence, esp with three kids asking where to find the 'X' several times a day. Toiletries are limited to soap and industrial strength shampoo so you might want to take your own.
There was a kettle and teabags, but no coffee satchels. Hot choc sachets were ubiquitous in the WJ so the kids regularly took these back to the rooms to make up. One small surprise was no bar fridge in the cabin. Not much of an issue, but it meant we had to source ice for our wine / champagne through our wonderful and ever helpful cabin attendant, Igusti. Mini bar was virtually non existent - a few cans of soft drink and some snack box items.
The new flat screen TV worked fine and had cruise info and room service menu (no printed copy provided) on rotation. There were a number of cable channels, but we don't go on hols to watch tele so I can't tell you much about the quality of programming. There was also a bow camera channel so you could see what the weather was like before venturing out and/ or leave it on at night if you want "natural" light in the morning. Personally, I like the dark for a rare opportunity to sleep in! It is handy though to have a phone or a watch with a back light so you can tell what time it is.
Note that sockets are adjacent two flat pin US variety and two round pin European ones. Take converters and a power board. There is a hairdryer provided and towels are changed seemingly every time you use them.
There are no self-serve laundries, though rates for getting individual items washed and pressed or dry cleaned were reasonable ($9 for a suit compared to $19 at my local cleaner in Sydney). We were twice offered a $15 bag wash for underwear, socks, t-shirts and shorts, the first on day 4 and again, not so helpfully, on the second last day. The bag is a good size but the turn-around time is 36 hrs or so and our gear came back pretty scrunched up. No drama for your jocks but not so good for t-shirts.
As indicated above, we thought the WJ was very good, at least for breakfast and an occasional quick lunch. We generally ate breakfast here and the omelettes were great, though you do need to line up for 5 mins or so. My wife and I like our coffee and thought that the house brew was generally fine, certainly no worse than I've had in many US diners, and widely available 24 hrs. One tip for those who want specialty (Starbucks) coffee is to buy it at the bar in the Solarium. It has the same offerings as Latte-tudes but without the 30 min queue, at least earlier on in the cruse before others discover it.
We ate dinner in the MDR on all bar one night when we went to Giovanni's Table. We had My Time Dining, which is not quite as flexible as it sounds, at least on a full ship. We ended up sticking to the 7.45 booking time allotted when we checked in on line several months before the cruise. We did look to change it on board, but getting an alternative time after 6 and before 7.45 was not possible. You could turn up any time without a booking, but this could mean a wait of 20+ mins. 7.45 turned out to be quite convenient as we could enjoy a sundown drink by the pool, have time for shower/change, catch the first 45 mins of the 7pm early show - typically ran until 8pm - and then be finished dinner in time for most of the later evening activities.
We thought the MDR food was also very good and did not have any issues with food quality or quantity. It may not be a Terry Durack 3 Hat candidate, but think solid neighbourhood restaurant. There was good variety and healthy choices aplenty. And you're getting a linen table cloth, friendly service - our waiters Antonio and Eric were superb and nothing was too much trouble -, time with the family, no shopping, preparation or cleaning up. My wife in particular thinks it's pretty hard to beat.
The one suggested improvement we have for the MDR is that the no. of drinks waiters is increased or the coordination with food waiters is enhanced. We found that our food order would be taken promptly, but that we would often wait for 15-20 mins for a drinks waiter. I had a wine package, which was always served pronto by our food waiter, but my wife and children were after "bar" drinks, which was everything other than wine, even non-alcoholic beverages. Given that the food is included but drinks are extra, hence profit for RCCL, this seemed an unlikely outcome, but proved the case for several nights until we developed a rapport with one of the few bar waiters (helped along by a few judicious tips).
Formal nights - 2, 4 (for NY eve) and 7- were respected for the most part, with suits worn by the majority of us blokes. It was great to see the number of young guys in particular making the effort and looking sharp in slim cut suits and narrow ties. No-one would say anything if you didn't dress well, but I can only imagine you would feel like the proverbial pig at the Bar Mitzvah if you weren't.
Giovanni's Table ($20 pp cover charge for dinner) was a mixed experience. The food when it finally arrived was mostly excellent (the crab ravioli and veal tenderloin were stand outs, the desserts a fizzer) but it took a looooong time - 55 mins for the appetizers and then over 30 mins for each subsequent course. We also discovered a flaw in the wine package system (see more below). Most of the wines on the list are only available from the MDR cellar, so if you order from a specialty restaurant, it will take a while (30 mins for us) to be retrieved. The compounding food and drink delays left us a bit fractious, but the staff ultimately handled it all well and comped us a lunch for later in the cruise. We didn't try Chops Grill, Izumi or the Captain's Table.
Park Cafe in the adults only Solarium pool area - kids could order food so long as they didn't enter the pool - was a family favourite. The roast beef rolls were as yummy as others have described, and the other pre-made sandwiches and focaccia were really good. There were also salads, cookies, cakes and packets of potato chips. At breakfast it offered bacon and egg muffins, granola/fruit/yoghurt cups and other pre-packaged breakfast fare. PC was the only option open on mid-afternoon returns from port days, and would get busy. Staff were always efficient, if a little disinterested, and we never waited more than @ 5 mins. It was open until 10am for breakfast, 11.30 - 6 for 'lunch' and then 11.30pm - 1am for late night snacks - pizza and the like.
Latte-tudes had a range of Starbucks coffees and free cookies and other baked items. No coffee purchase is required for these free items as the teen contingent quickly discovered. There was a perpetual 10+ min queue at Latte-tudes and only one barista on duty. This turned us off buying coffee there on a number of occasions. As with the shortage of Bar waiters in the MDR, this was illogical staffing for a high profit margin part of the business and RCCL should re-assess this.
Ben & Jerry's is adjacent to Latte-tudes. We never saw anyone buying from there, which I think reflected the extremely limited range and poor placement. As a father, I was very pleased that the decision had been made to locate a pay-as-you-go ice cream shop in the dark recesses of deck 6, but I have no doubt that business would have increased 10-fold if it was located in the pool area, where 95% of kids spent most of their waking hours, and stocked with a decent selection.
Ah, few things seem to excite the passions of some cruisers more than drink prices. But seriously, how many hotels have you been to that will sell you a bottle of Peroni for $5.50 incl gratuity at a pool side bar? Frozen margaritas at $7.25 - make sure you ask for a "House Margarita" as the default is a $10.50 premium one and this happened on several occasions so you need to be very clear when ordering - and Daiquiris for $8.50 are also very competitive. Draft Becks/Stella was $6.95 for 500ml. G&T was $6.25. Very good virgin cocktails were $4.50. Cans of soft drink were $2.50. Prices are the same in all bars throughout the ship, though availability of certain items varied (eg, draft beer was only available in the Pool Bar and Schooner Bar)
Wolf Blass Wine could be had for $10 per 500ml carafe in the WJ. I can't comment on the quality as we purchased the "Diamond" 5 bottle wine package for $205. At $41 a bottle this may seem a bit steep, but it included a NZ Pinot I quite like that is on the main wine list for $61 and that retails in Sydney for @$25, so a reasonable mark up to $41 imho. Many others in the package were less than $41 on the main list, so it pays to do your homework. Ultimately we saved a few $, but I'm not sure we would order it again as there were limited decent selections - most of the reds were mass produced US options. The main list is much larger and has some reasonably priced Italian and other offerings that we would have liked to try but having pre purchased the package felt constrained not to. Note that there was no Aust/NZ wine package offered as I understand there was on some previous ROS cruises. I asked a number of ROS staff and no one seemed to know why.
As we opted for My Time Dining, we were required to pre-pay gratuities, which ran to around $120 per head. Whilst we do not have a tipping culture in Australia, I had no issue with paying them on the Rhapsody. The room attendants/waiters/bar staff and others we came across on the cruise were, almost without exception, incredibly friendly, helpful, hard-working and above all, patient. They typically sign on for 8 month contracts during which they don't see their families, work 10-12 hours per day with ZERO days off (on disembarkation/embarkation days, our room attendant started work at 4.30am and would not finish until well into the evening), get paid an extremely modest salary and manage to keep smiling throughout.
The staff do rely on gratuities to support families left behind in the Philippines, Indonesia, Africa, Eastern Europe etc, but this is not charity, it is a well-earned reward for going the extra mile that makes the difference between you having a great or poor cruise experience. In addition to pre-paying gratuities and the built in 15% for bar orders, we tipped our room attendant and waiters in cash at the end of the cruise and left additional tips for good bar service throughout.
For those who object that tips are used to make up for low cruise wages, you are probably correct. But if the wage structure was higher, this would be directly reflected in your cruise price. And I have no doubt that being incentivised by tips is the primary reason service on board is as good as it is.
Perhaps we were lucky, but for the most part we thought the staged entertainment was pretty good. The comedian, Simon Palomares (ex-Acropolis Now), is one of the funniest I have ever seen. "Celine Dion" was also talented, if not really my cup of tea. The 'house' dancers and singers were also reasonably good, though variable. My daughter rarely missed a show and even when not great, it was a pleasant enough 45 mins of pre-dinner entertainment. There was also a Rock n Roll show in the Centrum. This was good but suffered from the venue, as once the show was under way many people wanted, and were encouraged to, dance, but dancing room was very limited.
There was also a dance night on the pool deck - the perfect venue with abundant room, but far too much staff direction, trying to 'lead' a large contingent of enthusiastic would be party goers in complicated 'line' dance step routines. After 45 mins or so it ended abruptly leaving many people frustrated. A note to the Cruise Director - just supply good music, a bar serving drinks and a dance floor - people on holidays will go for it. If staff must be involved to show people how to have fun on a dance floor, then at least let the party continue once the 'show' is over.
Afternoon movies were shown first couple of sea days and were also very good. They were repeated several times on the pool screen at night. The pool deck was potentially a great night time venue for both movies and other entertainment that was not utilised enough.
The Quest adult's team event on penultimate night was a lot of fun. Participation is mandatory with everyone required to join a team. But from there the shy hung back a bit and the extroverts did most of the heavy lifting. It is amazing what a bit of team affiliation will do to inhibitions (women in particular -- the reaction to the Cruise Director's request to "show me a thong" was extraordinary). Do try and get actively involved as it is a lot of fun and no one is put on the spot to 'perform'.
One event not to miss is the Captain's informal Q&A. If you didn't know that the ship's anchor weighs 10 tonnes, that RCCL spends $550m on fuel annually or that Australian cruises provision for double the amount of beer ordered on the US counterparts, then here is the place to find out.
The formal dinner was nothing special food wise, but the night got better from there. There was a mass balloon drop in the Centrum and staff handed out champagne to guests. A quick dash up to the pool deck followed where Sydney fireworks were shown on the large outdoor screen. This was also the only night on the cruise when there was an outdoor party that was just allowed to run. People loved it. The deck was full of revellers dancing until well into the early hours. I imagine that bar sales were stellar - more profit for RCCL. Everyone we spoke to afterwards commented on what a fantastic night it was and how it should be a regular feature, at least when the weather is good. There was a designated nightclub, the Viking Lounge, on Deck 11, but the music was frequently overwrought doof doof and the dance floor empty. There is a real missed opportunity here.
Our 11 and 12 year olds -- both tall and mature so for all practical purposes teenagers - went to the Teens club on day 1 and, apart from us making family dinner in the MDR compulsory each night, we barely saw them again throughout the cruise. The club activities are listed on a Teens 'flyer' available from the teen centre and Guest Services each day, and appear on paper to be impressively structured. In practice, they were a bit loosely organised, so that often the teen centre became more just a place to hang out with the group of 20 or so fellow teenagers who had also made it home. Given organizing teenagers can be harder than herding cats, this was understandable and they had a fantastic time.
A couple of points for parents to note. First, whilst the teens are supposedly separated into 12-14 and 15-17 categories, this did not happen in practice and so the 'group' was aged from 11-17 (being the youngest of three, our 11 yr old is well socialised for her age and there was no way she was going to be 'stuck' with the 9-11 yr group). We were OK with this given our two kids were in there together and are comparatively sensible, but I might have been concerned if I had an 11 or 12 yr old daughter going by herself. Second, the activities run very late. Some of the parties in the teen centre started at 11.30pm and did not finish until 1.30am or so -- the u18s midnight curfew does not apply if involved in teen centre activities. Again, we were OK with this given the two were together and were sharing a cabin with our older daughter, so we were always able to keep tabs on 'check-in' time, but it could put some people off.
Our 18 yr old did not have such a positive experience. Whilst there were 18-20yr meet n' mingle activities organised, she did not participate, a big mistake in our view, and tended to hang out with us or take herself off to the shows and other activities. There were a reasonable no. of 18-20 yr olds on the cruise and with a bit of effort to meet others I think that cruising with that age group would be fine.
ROS has a well-equipped Gym on Level 10 that we used regularly without any crowding issues. There are six or so treadmills, four stationary cycles, a cable-weights machine with pull-up bar, free weights, assorted other weight machines and steppers. Hand towels are provided without charge and there is a water fountain. There are spin and boot camp classes available at a price which we didn't use or see.
Deck 10 also houses a 400m jogging/walking track and the rock climbing wall. We used the track for running every second day at around 9am and again never experienced crowding issues. It can be quite a challenge running into the inevitable headwind towards the bow of the ship, but you fly down the sternward leg!
The rock climbing wall is a bit of fun, but according to my kids, not very challenging compared to the average rock climbing centre in Sydney. You sign up for a time and sign a waiver for kinds to climb. The system seems to work pretty well and we never saw crowds.
One disappointment on ROS was the absence of a basketball court. We had used this extensively on the RWC cruise and perhaps foolishly assumed this was standard, so brought with us on ROS a basketball and plastic cricket bat/tennis ball which we did not use at all.
We had cause to use the medical centre late one night when our eldest daughter suddenly developed laboured breathing -- cause unknown but perhaps be dust or mould spores. Located on Level 1, the centre is apparently very well equipped to deal with just about any situation and there are 2 doctors and 4 nurses employed to staff it. As it was a late night call out, which was quickly answered, the visit ended up costing $111 for the consultation plus $54 for an athsma puffer. Ironically, our youngest daughter suffers from very occasional athsma and we have puffers at home, but had not brought one along. Oh well, that's what travel insurance is for.
There did seem to be quite a few particularly elderly people on board, who suffered a broken limb at some point - wrists and arms being the most common. Even though we had smooth seas for the most part, a ship is an inherently unstable and shifting platform requiring constant rebalancing at times and I guess accidents are inevitable. I would think twice though about taking anyone on a cruise who was at all frail unless they were confined to a wheel chair.
Isle of Pines was first stop. Tenders seemed to work well, with early bird first-come first-served until 9am, tickets 9 - 11 and then free boarding back and forward all day. At all tender stops we waited until after 11 to avoid queuing.
Snorkelling on the reef was wonderful (take your own gear though as hire options were very ordinary and sales price on the ship was expensive). Ultimately though you can only snorkel for so long and after a 30 min walk there was not a lot else to do and so we were back on board by 3 or so for a relaxing lunch in Park Cafe.
Pt Vila was next stop and our first port, where we tied up to a wharf rather than anchor offshore and take tenders in. This was very efficient. We walked straight off the boat, out of the port and haggled a $120 price for a 4 hr tour with a local driver, Gavin. His van when we reached it had me a bit worried - bald tires, not a straight panel to be seen and when asked about AC, Gavin deadpanned "sometimes we just lets (sic) the fresh air come in". Despite a shaky start he was a lovely bloke - very laid back and happy to chat about life in Vanuatu. He took us to Cascade Falls, Hideaway island beach, the coffee 'factory', and we stopped at a village where he knew some people and they kindly showed us around and told us about village life. Suffice to say my kids were not all that keen on swapping.
We also went duty free shopping. Fung Kwei seems to be the largest and cheapest - eg, 1L Gordon's Gin and Smirnoff Vodka were $12 each. It is also located right next to an open air Bar on the bay that sells delightfully cold draught Tusker, the very quaffable local beer. On the way back to the ship Gavin stopped at a Kava 'bar' to satisfy my wife's curiosity as to taste and affect. She concluded quickly that the latter did not compensate for the former.
One thing to note is that petrol in Vanuatu is very expensive (around $1.70 a litre) and so none of the guides seem keen on going any further distance than absolutely necessary. Everything we saw in our 4 hrs was within 10k of the wharf. If you are keen on heading further than this -- apparently there are some beautiful spots further around the Island -- be very specific when negotiating.
Due to a cyclone in the area we were unable to stop at Noumea, but the captain organised alternate stops in Luganville and Champagne Bay. The former is barely worth getting off the boat for and, due to many passengers and far fewer vans of any size, groups in particular were subject to some major price gouging.
Champagne Bay by comparison was breathtaking and the highlight of our stops. There was little to do but snorkel off the stunningly beautiful beach (the reef at far end is best), go on a short van tour to Blue Lagoon ($10 per head -- we didn't go but others said it was worth seeing), eat lobster under the trees ($20 for half) and drink cold bottles of Tusker ($5 each). Yet everyone loved it and we were sorry to have to leave.
Arrival back into Sydney Harbour at 6am was bittersweet. It is a beautiful location, but knowing that the party was over made it hard to truly enjoy. We were given an 8.50am disembarkation for which bags had to be in the hall by 11pm the night before - if you want to carry your own bag off you leave at 7am - so had plenty of time for one last leisurely breakfast in the WJ. The disembarkation process itself was very smooth with no delays encountered. There is no Immigration checking passports, though there are Customs officers, and so you essentially just walk straight out, into the lift or escalator and down to street level.
Despite the several areas highlighted for possible improvement, I think the RCCL people do a great job keeping 2200 people with different personalities and preferences happy most of the time. If there is better value for the family holiday $ I've yet to find it. Our trip cost about the same as renting a decent Sydney beach house for the equivalent peak season period. Considering that on ROS you get international transport to various destinations, only unpack and pack once, 10 nights comfortable accommodation, entertainment on tap, 30+ good meals each plus snacks, your room cleaned, bed made, sheets and towels replaced, friendly efficient service, sunshine, a pool, a gym, jogging track, rock climbing wall, self-serve ice cream, free child minding, a relaxed wife and happy kids, it'll do me.