It's a biggie. I will attempt to bring my review on a timeline, so please forgive me if I get a bit sidetracked.
Firstly, we flew in from NZ to Aussie via Air NZ. Arrived in Sydney the evening prior to embarkation, mainly because I am a huge planner and want to avoid any risk of missing the ship due to an airline issue. We were greeted by the driver that my brother had arranged to collect us from Sydney International Airport and taken to our hotel, The Grace, in York Street.
Check in at The Grace was very straight forward and we went to our rooms to enjoy a bit of space prior to meeting my brother for a late dinner. Had dinner at a late night restaurant in the Darling Harbour area and watched the inebreated people stagger past. All very harmless. Considering the large amount of people out and about order was maintained. I might note at this point that this was the last Friday prior to Christmas. Breakfast was included in our rate so we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast in the reastaurant at The Grace the following morning. Some of our party even took a break from brekkie to meet another member of our group at the local train station, Wynyard, then they were able to resume their meal. The rooms at The Grace are lovely, spacious,and the furnishings so comfy and inviting. The bathroom ammenities were of a very high standard, yes, cleared out the little bottles and soaps as we left. Check out was straightforward, even with a split bill and the wonderful concierge, Troy, even arranged for our luggage to be held securely so we could explore Sydney after check out and before boarding.
We wondered around Sydney a bit, went to the Paddys Market in the China Town end and took the monorail back to the CBD area. Then nipped into the local Coles supermarket about 100m from The Grace to purchase some wine for the trip, we were allowed 2 bottles per cabin at embarkation.
The lovely young man on the Concierge desk at The Grace then hailed us a taxi and we, with our copious luggage, headed to the wharf. The taxi ride was about AUD $15, but the driver did such a great job that we gave him $25 for his trouble.
Our suitcases were dropped off to the white tent area, labeled and the lovely porters then loaded them into cages and took them for loading onto the ship, very easy. I did note some fell off the top of the open cages, so pack studiously, no red wine in the bag to be safe...
Check in was a breeze. Our check in time was 1-30pm, we didn't get into line until about 2-15pm, just wound our way down the line, filled in a health form and moved to a new line, then another line and so on until we got to check in.
The people ushering you from one area to another were really nice and communicated well. They advised us what was needed for the next area, declarations, passports, customs forms, tickets etc. Lines moved, sometimes slow, sometimes quickly, but they kept moving, we were hardly stationery at all. A big shout out to the OPT staff, great job. The counters were a bit of a squeeze, couldn't really get two people standing abreast at a time per OPT staffer though. The friendly and efficient staff made up for it. Total time to get on board was less than a half an hour.
Had prepaid a drinks and a photo package so once we were onboard we headed to the Customer Services area to sort out our cards and to get the kids drink stickers etc. A b-i-g line here, but we perservered. The staff here were sweet, mostly young asian ladies, some language issues, but they work oh so hard with some not very amiable passengers.
The notice over the PA that rooms are ready was about 4-30pm and we stayed in the Windjammer with our cc family meet and greet to avoid the rush. Eventually we ambled down to deck 8, we had connecting Promenade cabins, one for us DH and DW and one for the kids DS, 16 and DD, 12. This worked out really well.
We found these to be big enough for 2 and even 3 or 4, if everyone was sitting down. The bay window seat was huge and we had a two seater couch too. The 'fridge' is a chiller only, get a bucket of ice and you will be fine to keep your milk etc cool, not cold. Full of junk food and soda, we asked for this to be taken out, it wasn't, so I put the stock into the mirrored cupboards for the trip so we had a fridge for our milk and our cheese plate. Having a jug, cups and tea making facility was a nice surprise too. Got some hot chocolate sachets and had our hot chocolate in cabin before bed most nights. Our bed was awful, really hard, but the kids had soft beds. Our steward was Frederick from the Philippines. A real honey, we just had to ask and he would help. You can adjust the air con in your room. The bathroom is small but functional with lots of storage space. The telephone kept flashing that I had voice mail, I didn't. Asked for this to be fixed three times, was told maintenance would come, sailed for 14 days, still not fixed as at debarkation. Close your curtains at night! Cabin 8301 is just above the arch in the Promenade and 8303 is over the customer services and cruise tours desk. Also looks over the stairwell so you get to see, a little, into the Champagne Bar and the Aquarium Bar down to the photography area and the queue for the ice skating.
The first night we had the pleasure of being seated in the Majic Flute dining room, as we had My Time dining, placed at table 21 with the amazing Thiek (pronounced Trey) and assistant waitress Hazell. We simply loved these incredible ladies we booked their table, by the window, for 6pm every night of the cruise. They really made us feel like family, it was very sad to leave them. The food was very nice, I think I had a luke warm soup once, other than that, if something didn't work for you then the ladies would change it for something else. I am very fussy about my steak being cooked, it was medium to well whenever I ordered it. The bar staff in the restaurant are fabulous, Dipak, sorry, I know the spelling is wrong, learned our kids names straight away and anticipated their orders, mocktails, on a nightly basis. Even talked us into shots...
The Windjammer was interesting. A bit hit and miss. Often the food had been out for a while and the waffles in the morning were often more like toast, really crisp to the point of inedible, my daughter just smothered them in the fake maple syrup until they were easier to chew. Not much change in the menu there but you could easily find something nice to eat. The first few days we were served due to a lingering Noro outbreak. From about day 3 we could serve ourselves. The iced tea, lemonade and the strawberry/kiwi drinks are refreshing. Coffee way too strong for me, everywhere. Just hot watered it down and it was fine. I did find that the times that the Windjammer was closed were a bit funny, afternoon tea etc. Cleanliness was an issue here. Although passengers were encouraged to use the hand sanitiser one could sneak past. Also, the wiping down of the tables was either really good or terrible.
Nice, but the food there was bite sized and the plates were plastic and tiny. The crossants and the paninis could be heated if you wanted. Staff were lovely. Teens took over at night, grabbing booths and enjoying pizza etc before curfew, not complaining, just an observation. This is where I often picked up the hot chocolate sachets for later in the evening. No strawberry/kiwi or lemonade here.
Did the obligatory visit here while going through the Milford Sound region, lovely. Sat in the outside area. The staff were fabulous, the food was burgers, fries, onion rings with an ice cream sundae and a milkshake to wash it down with. I liked it. A novel experience with singing and dancing waiters who were sweet, kind and funny. Happy to go there again. Thought the USD$5 price tag for a milkshake was a bit steep. Yummy milkshake though.
A nightmare trying to book this prior to cruising. Wanted the embarkation special. As I was booking a party of 12 from 5 cabins had to go through RCI in Australia, was told by the lady on the telephone that they would contact the ship and I would get an e-mail reply, didn't happen, followed up, told I had to e-mail RCI bookings, did this, reply came after I phoned again. Too close to sailing, book onboard can get the same deal, although restaurant likely totally booked out. Printed email correspondence, checked with Portofino on embarkation, no booking, lots of space available, made the booking. On arrival for our dining time I spoke with the maitre de who advised that the special deal only applies to bookings prior to cruise, I showed him the correspondence and he allowed our booking at the special rate on this occaision. Really put the dear fellow on the spot, he was very nice about it. Meal was lovely but I really don't understand why people rave about this restaurant.
Poolside BBQ These were fantastic, but they were not advertised! At all! Please RCI, put something in the daily calender, mention it on the PA system or on Gordon's show. I noticed the one on the last day at sea had a 30 minute queue. Very nice food though. Just watch out, the one queue is for the meal including the pudding line.
Entertainment Saw one comedian show, it was on the tv. Didn't really go to any shows, just not my style. Some said they were great, others horrible, I can't say yea or nay. There were three 3D movies screened in the big theatre in the evenings over the 14 day trip, yay, except I wear glasses and 3D just doesn't work for me. What annoyed me was that these movies weren't shown in 2D elsewhere. The 70 seat screening room was often full, but the variety was pretty good as far as generes goes. The queue for bingo was shocking. How about selling the books from various outlets during the day, or selling them over a longer time? I heard the artist was very popular but his painting time often clashed with things people wanted to see or do. Gordon, the cruise director is wonderful. Really don't know how he stays 'on' as fluidly as he does. Sorry Gordon, I hardly partook of any of the events, but I enjoyed your dailys with the Captain, the tour people and your assistant cruise director. Now remember, Tau (towel) raung (wrong) a (a), Tauranga. Yes, elecution lessons from NZ, who would have thought.
Had one session in the spa. Very nice, watch for those specials. Felt a bit invisible while waiting for my treatment. Reception was nice, but while waiting for my treatment the staff didn't relate with the waiting clients. The beautiful attendant Rachel who did my treatment was fabulous. She asked a lot of questions to ensure I was getting what I wanted and checked that nothing she was going to use would have a reaction with my skin. What a lovely, positive and elegant young lady.
Were always tidy and the staff were nice. Tipped very happily here. If the wine list is a bit owie for you there is a half carafe, so 500ml of Wolf Blass blended white or red available for US$10. Can take this to dinner with you if you like. Drinks were generous in the alcohol content. Major issue for me was that the sports available in the Scoreboard bar and on the tv was Gridiron and USA basketball. Really! Put some local content on, you will keep the locals in the bar a lot longer then.
My two were in the younger and the older teen activities. They enjoyed these, attended some and not others. There were some activities for the whole group but most were in the age divisions of 12 - 14 and 15 - 17. Please note that certain activities for the 12 year old require supervision, the rock wall, in line skating and ice skating all require adult supervision if the child is participating in these unless he or she is with the youth group.
If you like your photos get a package! We paid USD$399-96 for the unlimited package and got 180 photos with a full disk copy of these and stock photos. We found the photographers so much fun and very obliging. We collected our photos from the boards and had them placed in our folder daily. The package covered us and our children. Also included any photos that the kids were in with their friends, our Johnny Rockets photos, Dreamworks breakfast photos, dinner table shots, formal photos and any of the around the ship photos. The photo boards have title, Dreamworks, formal 1st sitting, special events etc, this makes the photos easier to find. Pictures with the Captain posing was available for about 30 minutes, advertised in the daily compass.
Not advertised that you could register from day 1, grrrr. We almost missed out. Was great fun, somehow we managed to get in twice. Take your own camera though as the photographers were there for the first breakfast but were not there on the last one, not sure why. Was really fun. Usually three characters per breakfast. Don't rush the characters as you get called up a table at a time. Can order off the standard menu if chocolate everything isn't your style.
Another hit or miss area. Ordered a light lunch on a sea day, took 2 hours and 3 telephone calls to arrive, and stuff was missing. Tried again with preordered breakfast, stuff missing but on time, tipped anyway.
Often full of people, fine by me. Mostly soaked, yes, not swam, in the adult area, the Solarium. Very boyant, think they add extra salt to the water. Had a beautiful spa one evening, just DH and I in the Solarium watching the sun set, ah, sigh. Plenty of deck chairs available in all pool areas and bar staff taking and delivering orders. Ensured my pool towel was checked as returned.
Rock wall, Ice Skating, In Line Skating
Really sad, didn't get around to doing these myself but the kids had fun. Yes, some queing, but people got to enjoy the facilities.
Mini Golf Yes, did this one. Was open 24/7 and was a lot of fun. Not the usual mini golf I am used to but there are definite rocks and paths etc to negotiate.
Card room I think it is called the seven of hearts. This was a regular place for me, ok, now I might get labelled as boring. It was nice to go up to a covered viewing area and play cards or scrabble at night. Took the daily crossword up too. Many people used this area. A variety of games to play and a communal jigsaw puzzle that got a lot of attention.
Library Yes, now I really sound like a fuddy duddy, don't care. Is on two levels, has computers on one deck and a table with the daily Suduko, Crossword and Quiz on the other. Some said not a lot of books, others were happy, I thought it was ok. Also, there is a table with a sheet to register for the weekly Jewish Sabbath.
While on board one of our party had a call to advise her mother had collapsed was in hospital and that the Police had to break into her house to get to her mother. My friend was, understandably, quite distraught. The customer service staff arranged telephone calls, internet access and assisted so much to help my friend through this awful, unanticipted situation. We certainly thanked them for this. They were caring, kind and generous.
Too easy. Usual story, bags collected the evening prior to debarkation, take a corresponding sticker to your luggage with you. Go to your meeting place when called, get off when directed to, very easy.
Could have done with an interdenominational service for Christmas, Catholic Mass was available. If anything spoiled my cruise it was fellow passengers. Seriously, I thought Aussies, yes, I am an ex pat Aussie, were warm and easy going. Many I encountered on board were rude, drunk or both. I saw one guy ripping a dear sweet maitre de a new one because he couldn't sit at his usual table for dinner that one night. A quater of the planet is going hungry and you can't have a different chair? Get a grip. Also, there were people complaining about kids on board or too many people, uh, this cruise is in the school holidays and the ship takes over 3000 passengers, read the brochure. The staff had some language issues but did their best. They were warm and welcoming. I even saw the Captain speaking with the plebs as he walked through the Promenade one evening. As for the noro, we washed our hands and managed to stay safe, I know you can take the precautions and get sick, but I figure you can get sick anywhere. We ensured we had travel insurance.
Ports were all fabulous, been to most of them before. Do your homework and book tours privately if you want to save some cash or book the same tours with the cruise line to ensure you arrive by departure time.
Would I cruise RCI again, yes. This ship, possibly. Our preference for cruising is somewhat more sedate, but even on a ship this size you can find a quiet area. For families I think this is a neat ship.