My husband, JR, and I took our first cruise on RCI's Vision of the Seas, which left Vancouver on September 2, 2005. I had thoroughly enjoyed reading these reviews before I went on my first cruise and used some of the tips offered here, so I hope to share some of what I learned and what worked and what didn't. We took advantage of the US Direct program that was offered by the RCI. Overall, I would say it's a good thing to do, but you have to arrive on the day your ship leaves and that makes you sweat airport delays. Also, while you skip going through customs and you don't have to worry about getting to the ship, there is a definite feeling of being herded like cattle through the entire process.
Once we arrived on the ship we were able to relax. We were met by the music of a string quartet and we were sent to our rooms and told about the buffet at the Windjammer that was ready for arriving passengers. It was a great first impression of the ship, the views from the Windjammer are spectacular and it was a warm, sunny day and a band was playing by the pool. On many of these reviews people write that the "vision" is worn out and needs maintenance, but I didn't find that to be true at all. We thought the ship was beautiful and was kept clean at all times. I also want to say up front that I found the staff to be extremely friendly and efficient.
The Room: One of the first things we did was ask to have our beds separated in order to make more room and it was done by the time we returned from dinner the first night. While the room was small, by week's end, I found that we had been extremely comfortable and there was plenty of room to store everything. Our attendant introduced himself on the second day, but was unobtrusive. We received our candies at night and of course, the towel animals that everyone writes about. We were on deck 3 and could feel the vibration of the ship. But it didn't bother us at all and was somewhat comforting when sleeping. I don't know why some found it so bothersome. We had read about the importance placed on receiving bathrobes, but we weren't interested in them. It was funny to see a few people who seemed to wear the robe everywhere in the ship and seemed to strut around in them in areas where it didn't seem appropriate.
The Food: I'd read so many reviews about the food being terrible, but we don't consider ourselves gourmets, so we were looking forward to trying some new things and didn't want or expect anything too fancy. We were pleased with the food and the meals we received. Some reviews described breakfast at the Windjammer as too routine. I can't imagine what more anyone could want! There was every kind of breakfast food you could want and while the same things were offered every day, you could have a different meal each day based upon the variety that was offered. I especially liked the passion fruit/orange juice and the pre-made omelets. The only breakfast complaint we had was the biscuits and gravy. It was horrible and should be taken off the menu. Considering the international staff, I can understand why they didn't get it right. Anyway, if you're from the south, you can get biscuits and gravy anytime and if you're not, you'll be immediately turned off the dish if you ate it for the first time on the ship. We only ate lunch in the main dining room once and the rest of our lunches were in the Windjammer. I enjoyed having the daily salad bar and the variety of foods. My only request would be to have a catalina-style French dressing, but that's just a personal preference. The windjammer can be crowded sometimes at lunch so plan accordingly.
For dinner, we ate in the main dining room twice and in the windjammer the other nights. On the first night, I LOVED the watermelon gazpacho and so did another lady at our table. We also went to the main dining room on night six for the lobster dinner. It was disguised on the menu as the "fisherman's platter" and our waiter wasn't allowed to recommend it, but everyone on the ship knew it was lobster night. We found the lobster was good, but it was our first time eating it. My husband also tried duck and lamb for the first time while on the ship. Our waiter scolded us in the main dining room when we came back the second time for not having been there most of the week, but we really liked the Windjammer better. The Windjammer has gorgeous views, flexible meal times and seating arrangements, a salad bar that's not available in the dining room and they serve most of the same entrees and side dishes that are served in the dining room. My husband really didn't like having to sit with strangers and we were assigned to a table of 10 and only four people showed every night, we showed up two nights and four other people never showed up at all. In the Windjammer you eat at a table by yourself and have a great meal and view. Which leads to my biggest gripe.
I turned in my prepaid gratuities form as I went to lunch one day and I asked our waiter in the Windjammer if he received any of it. He said he did not. He said the Windjammer staff receive tips if they are left at the tables or are paid to the purser for them and all tips are pooled and split by the staff there. I went back to the purser and asked to designate some of my gratuities to the Windjammer staff and was told I would have to pay cash and couldn't use my seapass to do that. I wish there was a better way to tip those staff.
The Ship: I found the Vision of the Seas to be a beautiful ship and it seemed to be in excellent repair. There were polite, friendly staff constantly at work cleaning, fixing things and waiting on people. I loved that there were so many places to sit comfortably and watch the scenery go by. We never felt crowded and if it got a little crowded, there was always someplace else to go for a great view.
We spent a lot of time on deck 9 near the outdoor pool sitting by the windows, watching the views. Isn’t that what we come to Alaska for? Make sure and bring binoculars, we were glad we did. During the day, the “some enchanted evening” lounge is often empty and I would go in there and enjoy the panoramic view from the back of the ship by myself. The “showboat” lounge also seems to have fewer people in it and is a good place to go for some privacy.
I took advantage of the trivia games and won a few little RCI trinkets, which was fun. There usually weren’t very many people playing. Bingo apparently was a big deal, but I didn’t play or gamble. We were able to get in the hot tubs in the solarium on two different mornings by ourselves. We noticed that these would be more busy in the afternoons. Some people used the outdoor pools and hot tubs and seemed to have a great time even though temperatures were in the 50’s and 60’s.
We went to four of the evening shows and enjoyed them. My favorite was “Boogie Wonderland” and I was surprised by the quality of the production values in the show and found the singers were great. My husband’s favorite was “Los Gauchos” an act that’s hard to describe, but is energetic and entertaining. On the last day at sea, we went to the theater and saw a movie and that was a nice way to spend an afternoon at sea.
I had read reviews that said that Captain George would get away from Hubbard Glacier sooner than scheduled and that was what he did on our cruise. We were awakened at 7 a.m. that morning in our room by the Captain’s announcement that we were approaching the glacier. We got up and got dressed and went and viewed the beauty of it until about 9 a.m. and then the Captain announced we were going to leave early to go to a place and maybe see some bears, but it didn’t happen and he never mentioned it again. The itinerary says you’ll be at the glacier till 11 a.m., but don’t count on it.
The Towns: Ketchikan--It was fun watching the ship dock at Ketchikan. You have a great view of the town and we plotted out our route while watching the ship pull in. We didn’t pay for any ships excursions and found we could get a better deal by doing some research on the internet. If you’re reading this review, you can probably do the same thing. I soon came to understand about the cruise line shops that are featured in these towns and tried to stay out of those. We mostly walked through town and hit Creek St. and admired the waterfall at the beginning of Creek St. and were excited to see all the salmon that were running in the creek. My husband wanted to fish, but the tide was too low. The shops on Creek St. were nice and several of them had signs noting that they weren’t featured by the cruise lines because they didn’t pay “kickbacks”. It was a small town and we walked around and looked at the boats, visited a few shops and wrote postcards. In front of the Native Heritage Center was a mini-van with a sign that said “free shuttle to Wal-Mart”. If it had been earlier in the day, we probably would have taken the ride. We also went to the True Value hardware store on the docks and found it very interesting. It has two levels and all kinds of gear and stuff the locals would need, as well as touristy stuff. Take the back stairs to the upper level and look at the old photos of the town and the history of the store.
Skagway--Our ship had to park way out from town, it was probably a half-mile hike to town. Once we got there I immediately got tickets for the 12:45 trip on the White Pass railway. Then we had time to hit all the shops on Broadway. The town is really just made up of that one street and it was an easy walk. We reported back to the depot for our rail trip and we had saved $9 each by buying our tickets ourselves and if we had bought our tickets on the ship, there were many announcements that we would have had to go back to the ship in order to get on the train, so we saved money and a walk by buying tickets on our own. If you’re worried you might not get tickets at peak times, you can reserve them online. The train trip is great, just like everyone said and it was interesting too. My husband was fascinated by the gold rush era and loved hearing the stories and seeing the original trail. We also posed for photos at the commemorative statue that’s behind the depot. There wasn’t much to the town except the shops and the train. We did go look at the salmon running in Pullen Creek, which was even smaller than the creek in Ketchikan.
Juneau--It rained heavily all day we were in Juneau. Again, we hit the shops and stayed in the touristy area near the docks. The Juneau library is nearby and I had read that they had excellent views of the water and free internet access, so we took the elevator up to the library. The library was closed (it didn’t open till 11 a.m.) but we found a gorgeous stained glass window of salmon running in a stream. There were six ships in town while we were there and the town was crowded. We stopped at a McDonalds to get a pop and see what was different and went into a little drug store to get some chap-stick. Town was too crowded and too wet and we debated on whether or not to go out to Mendenhall Glacier. The ship charged $39 each to go out, but we easily grabbed one of the many school buses that run out there for $5 each way. We got to see a little more of the town on the trip out and got to view the glacier on our own time frame. It was our first glacier and I admired Nugget falls that come out next to the glacier. Since I discussed Hubbard glacier earlier I won’t write any more than to say it is much more spectacular than Mendenhall. Again, we had lousy weather that day and town was too crowded, so we headed in shortly after noon.
Icy Strait Point--I had trouble finding info on this place, but I did find out that it only started receiving cruise ships in May, 2004 and the rule is that only one ship per day will land there. Icy Strait Point isn’t really a town, there is a nearby town called Hoonah. We had made reservations for a fishing charter with John Ericsson for that day. My husband wanted to halibut fish, but John said there wouldn’t be any and took us and 4 others, salmon trolling. My husband caught five salmon, we had a great time talking to John and his son, Chris. They really worked to make sure we got some fish and told great stories about real life in Alaska. They said they had gotten in a pod of orca whales the day before and while we didn’t see any whales, we saw a number of bears and eagles. When we got back to the ship, one of our table mates had taken the bear trip with the cruise line and didn’t see any bears, so we found our fishing charter was a great deal.
Disembarkation--The disembarkation process was no problem at all. Things were handled efficiently and we had no problem finding our luggage once we were off the ship. I won’t go into detail about the rest of our trip, I will mention that I found the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward was disappointing and not worth the money and the trip on the Seward Highway was gorgeous. Overall this was a great trip for us. We really enjoyed the cruise and will probably cruise again. You definitely get used to being pampered. As many others have written, it can be as good as you want it to be. I’m sure I could find more things to complain about, but I felt like the ship worked to give good service and was a good value. I enjoyed meeting the many people from different places on the ship, both staff and passengers.