Let me be clear from the outset - This was the second cruise my wife and I have been on, and the last one was 15 years ago on the Thomson Topaz which is best described as a rowing boat with staff. So if you're looking for a review that compares the Thomson Dream with the Oriana, you're likely to be disappointed. What I can do is to compare my all-inclusive 7-night experience with other all-inclusive or caribbean holidays we have been on.
Firstly, when you get to the airport, they will tag your case with your cabin number...so have a plan of the ship with you and you'll see where you are (sad eh?). the next time you see your cases is when they arrive at your cabin, not long after you do. We flew into Barbados, got off the plane, straight onto a bus and to the ship...no airport customs.
I won't mention the Thomson flight (cramped if you don't pay for an upgrade) and the poor selection of movies (Marley & Me....in Jan 2013 - really??), and I will ignore the fact that our bus was hit by a car in Bridgetown - Put it down to experience. The flight home was the normal overnight, nightmare return journey from a long haul coupled with landing at Manchester in a blizzard dressed only in deck shoes and budgie smugglers.
The Ship - Was spotless. I believe it had not long been re-furbished so it's in very good condition. It's not the biggest ship but we saw that as an advantage. It's big enough without you ever being worried you're likely to get lost. There's plenty of space to avoid people if you want to, but similarly the size makes the whole experience a more personal one.
As it was a winter tour and a bout of Norovirus was hitting many cruise ships, hygiene was a top priority on board. There were antiseptic dispensers all around, as you got on/off, at every doorway and at every restaurant. The staff were forever wiping down hand-rails, doors and pillars to ensure there was no outbreak - and there was none !
Wi-Fi was poor on board - We had to pay for wi-fi and it wasn't great. We only had 2 criticisms and this was one. Wi-fi whould be good quality and free of charge.
The Cabin - We paid for a standard outside cabin and we were pleasantly surprised with how spacious it was. There was plenty of room for clothes and again the cabin was spotless - We were in 7011 and had Cristina looking after us.If you're the size of Giant Haystacks I can imagine that sitting on the toilet may be uncomfortable, but we just about got away with it. One piece of advice - There are only 2 plug sockets in the room so if you have phones, ipads, hair straighteners etc, take a 4-gang extension - We were grateful we did!
The Drink/Bars - We paid Â£200 each for the all inclusive drinks package and we got our moneys worth, even though we were off the ship all day, most days. Clearly you need to make your own calculation, IE how much do you drink x the amount of time you will be on ship x what you will be drinking. The package will not be for everyone, but we worked on 2 drinks at Â£9 (beer, G&T, Pimms, Malibu & Coke) and house wine in the restaurants are Â£3.90 a glass.
There were lots of comments on this website about mixers being charged for but we didn't find this at all. Mixers are included and the only stuff you pay extra for is clearly marked (Disaranno etc) which was Â£1.20.
There are plenty of bars,inside and outside so you'll never go thirsty.
In summary, we got our worth from the AI package and we would have more-so had we spent the odd day on board like most people did. What was really good was the fact that you didn't have to go to the bar....just hold up your hand and a nice Filipino lady or gentleman will come and take your order....just give them your on-board card and they will ask you to sign...no waiting and no having to tip (in fact you are encouraged not to tip as they are not alllowed to be in possession of cash.
Restaurants - There are 2 buffet restaurants that between them serve food 24 hours a day, so whether it's breakfast, brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, snacks and burgers, dinner or late night curry's and stir fry's, you'll find something to eat ! - all buffet's are served to you and the staff do not understand the phrase "just 1 please". Again, these are spotless and the heads of dept are meticulous to the extent of straightening the napkins or yoghurt pots. The variety of food is exceptional and the quality of the food we found really good - however there were a couple of people complaining that it wasn't to the standard of the QE2 which was a little unfair.
There is a "Grill" restaurant for special occasions that charges Â£20pp. The menu looked good as did the setting but we never got to it. We chose to eat in the Orion restaurant in the evenings - You have to have trousers and some sort of collar but it's still informal. The menu changes daily and you choose from appetisers, soup, salad, main course, dessert and coffee....or have it all. We used to arrive at the restaurant at 8.15pm and it did get busy, but if you had to wait for a table you only waited a few minutes. Many couples were happy to share tables with others which was fine, but if you want to sit as a couple you may wait a couple of minutes more but they will seat you, even if it's on a larger table. My second and minor piece of feedback for the ship would be to invest in more smaller tables and get rid of some of the larger. Many people are cruising as a couple and wish to dine that way too.
When the rush subsides, the staff come into their own....the staff in the Orion are professional, meticulous but also FUN. When they are busy it's all hands to the pumps, when it all slows down, they are entertainers, singers, impressionists and if it's your birthday, be prepared to be serenaded by a Filipino Tom Jones or Robbie Williams.
The Staff - For me they made the holiday really special. They work so hard, but they are very well drilled and organised. They never complain, and always have a smile and a welcome. There are over 600 staff for 1500 passengers so a member of staff is never far away...I've spoken about the guys in the Orion but all the staff, from deck-hands to waiters to the bar staff to the cabin maids and entertainment are first class, and I would imagine many people go back on this ship because of them !
The Entertainment - Without exaggeration (and I have no family member within the entertainment team), the shows these people put on are West End quality. They are busy all day doing various things, but they come to life in the Theatre (show-lounge)from 8pm. They do 2 shows, at 8.30pm and 10.30pm so whenever you choose to eat, you can catch a show. The shows only last for 45 minutes but their choreography, dancing and vocals really are very, very good.
Special mention to Paul Fisher, Cruise Director who seemed to be at the centre of everything from 9am through to midnight.
So the ship was great - But I thought i'd write a couple of lines on each port, what we experienced and what others told us of their excursions.
First night "Sail Away" party was good....although the body clock wasn't sure if we should have been in bed or having a curry....So we did both.
Day 1 - At Sea - When i'd gotten over the initial disappointment of realising "Atsea" was not a caribbean island I relaxed on my deck-chair and got burnt. It's a good time to explore the ship properly, but space on both outside decks is cramped on this day (as everyone is there funnily enough) so get up early and get a seat.
Day 2 - Margarita Island - We took a Thomson excursion "Rhumba on the Chivas" and it was fantastic ! - You get on an open sided bus (there are 2 of them) and the driver and guide (Cesar) take you on a sightseeing tour of some of the island as you go up to a beach for a few hours...You're on the bus for about an hour and a half with chances to stop and take photo's of the beautiful island but it's also very informative. There is an open bar but everyone seems to be sensible. Then you get to the beach and you can relax for 2 hours....they ply you with beer, rum punch and food....Then they get you back on the bus and take you home.....and it all kicks off.....The music gets turned up, the rum punch kicks in and the dancing in the aisles and around the poles starts. It was like a Club 18-30 excursion for the elderly and infirm. The average age of people on our bus and ship was around 60.....there was dancing, grinding, water throwing, heavy petting and when the 2 buses go side to side on the road, there are breasts and bottoms on show...A really fun day, and my wife is expecting to be a star of a Youtube video, (teaching the old dears Gangnam Style) !
Many people took snorkelling or boat tours and all looked with some regret as our bus arrived back in port....Many people on our bus had said they had been on the cruise before but not done this excursion....but it had been recommended by others. I would really recommend this !
Day 3 - Tobago - We had originally planned to do the www.being-with-horses.com trip but Veronika e-mailed us to say the sea had changed and therefore we couldn't work it into our revised schedule. A shame but we hope to do it again and the comms from Veronika was first class.
So instead we went to Pigeon-Point beach and it was beautiful. Thomson offer an excursion for around Â£30 that takes you up there by bus, and brings you back. Entrance is included but you have to pay for loungers. Do not do this !
My wife and I walked into the taxi office with many others and shared a taxi (4 of us) up there and back $40 return between us, then $3 entrance and $3 for a bed....this works out at half of what Thomson charge per person and you can have as long there as you want....A beautiful place, well worth visiting but go it alone.
Day 4 - Grenada - i wasn't looking forward to this, but what a beautiful island. Again, lots of Thomson excursions, all of which feedback suggested was expensive for what you got. We booked with AJ Meddy Tours in advance and for $140 had a small mini-bus (Neil was excellent) take us all around the island, waterfalls,national park, spice plants, coffee, chocolate and banana plantations and then he dropped us off at the beach at 2pm. A small mini-bus is so much more personal and informative. This can work out expensive if you go as a couple, but if (as we did) you can find someone off the ship to share the cost, it's a bargain. The beach in Grenada was lovely but the sea was quite rough, which I think was a little out of the ordinary for January. A water-taxi back to the ship was $4 per person.
Day 5 - St Vincent - We decided on a beach day and took the "Pirates" water taxi to Villa Beach.....The water taxi (speedboat) was an experience in itself. People initially complained about the $15 pp return cost, but you have to remember this is a much smaller island than Grenada with fewer tourists, so the locals will make hay while the sun shines.....They're real characters and well worth a journey ! - The beach isn't great here, but the water is perfect for snorkelling. If you want a better beach, there is one 2 minutes away in the water taxi and you will pay a $5 pp premium to use it.
Day 6 - St Lucia - We pre-booked a tour with "Cosol" for $65 each and this was exceptional value for money. Our driver was "Yellow-Bird" and he took 10 of us out from 8.30am until 4pm, during which time we visited waterfalls and swam in them, , a volcano, the rain-forest...we had breakfast laid on for us at a house of a local chef who had prepared lots of local food and we enjoyed hot bread and cheese on the way back....There was an open bar throughout and he had rum punch, water, coke, beer etc....we took a water taxi over to the spectacular Sugar Bay beach and spent an hour in the shadow of the Pitons....A beautiful setting and we stopped on the way back to see where Dr Doolittle was filmed... Yellow-Bird was a real character and as EVERYTHING was included this was excellent value for money and something everyone on our bus would recommend.
Final Day - Barbados - We spent the morning and afternoon on Carlisle Beach where the sand was just perfect....the beer was expensive but the football was on the TV if you were interested...Many people had recommended the "Boat-Yard" next door as there was more going on with trampolines and jet-ski's but this wasn't popular with the majority of OAP's on our cruise.
Your cases are taken from outside your cabin the night before you fly home, which is good but a pain in the bum at the same time, so ensure you have stuff for the beach, and stuff for the plane in your hand luggage.....and limit the deodorant and toothpaste etc as you'll need to throw these away at the airport. Again, no need to check in your bags...this is all done for you so when you get to the airport, you're whizzed through the scanner and into departures.
SO in summary.....
Simply - It's the best holiday we've ever been on.
The ship, food, drink and staff are fantastic.....accommodation is good too. Waking up every day in a different port in the caribbean is somewhat different to your normal all-inclusive hotel. It's great coming back from an excursion and seeing your ship in port and it's hassle free, baggage free transfer from airport to ship too.
Wherever you're travelling to, do your homework....Thomson excursions were widely regarded as expensive and there is no issue with the locals and planning your own day. All the locals we met on the islands were friendly and informative and couldn't do enough for you.
Value for money - For a week, all inclusive and drinks package....plus excursions, we spent around Â£1500 each. Expensive compared to an average all inclusive, but this was just a more special experience.
I would recommend this ship and the "Tropical Delights" cruise to anyone, but remember - if you've been on the QE2, it will likely be a disappointment.....but also remember how much you paid for that QE2 cruise before you start criticising !