My husband and I have sailed on Norwegian, Holland, Princess and (primarily)Carnival; this was our first experience with Royal Caribbean. We always end up having a wonderful time on our vacations, no matter what mishaps occur along the way -- we always try to go with the flow. This vacation was no different; we had a great time. However, to be subjective in this review, I will present the things we loved and didn't love about RCL , the Brilliance, and this itinerary.
Our first impressions, unfortunately, were not so good. At curbside, in the middle of the afternoon, with few fellow passengers arriving, there were no porters in sight. We (and the other passengers) had to struggle with multiple bags to haul them hundreds of feet over to the area where the porters would take them 3 feet further and toss them on tall carts full of luggage. Then, they boldly reminded each passenger to tip. When we didn't immediately produce money, we were directed (3 times) to the tip case -- literally a tool box with a slit. Although we always tip porters well, this seemed akin to tipping the baggage handlers for loading your bag on the plane. We felt pressured, so we tipped $5 for 4 bags; we would gladly have tipped double for help from the curb. We kept our carry-ons, as usual -- recommended, so that we had swimsuits and changes of clothes until our bags were delivered.
Our arrival time made for a very smooth and easy check-in. There were several staff members lined up outside the ship to welcome us. One stop was for our picture; all the rest were selling something (photo packages, RCL merchandise, etc.) Past that gauntlet, there was no one to show us the entry to the ship; no open entryways. We found a door which led into a hallway (no beautiful lobby entryway) and no one to welcome or direct us anywhere. We honestly first thought we'd gone in the wrong way!
The ship itself is beautiful; a midsize ship that wears its age well. Our balcony stateroom was a bit smaller than other ships, but otherwise nice. Lots of nooks and cabinets for storage. We were disappointed that the "mini-bar" was not actually a refrigerator, but a cooler with no cooling ability. No ice bucket -- we had to ask, and no twice daily refills to which we are accustomed. No robes -- we had to ask. No pool/beach towels -- we had to fetch them from the one and only towel exchange ourselves. We had to exchange the towels ourselves after every use as well. Our room attendant was charming and sweet, and complied with every request, but it just seemed that the room amenities we have come to expect from Carnival and other lines were missing on RCL. I also do not like the rounded ends of the beds. While this may allow the beds to fit in a noticably smaller stateroom, it left both my husband and I (5'6 and 6'1) with feet hanging off the bed. I do prefer the sliding glass door to the balcony vs the slamming doors on Carnival's balconies that must be bungied to stay open. We slept most nights with the door open, listening to the sound of the waves. Nice.
The public spaces on the ship are lovely. We found many small out-of-the way nooks with seating, tables, etc. around the ship. The solarium, especially, is gorgeous -- a glass domed adults-only retreat with a soothing atmosphere, beautiful decor, a pool, hot tub, cafe and bar. We never did actually get in the hot tub, as it was nearly always full, with groups staying in for as long as an hour at a time. A shame, since our only time in the hot tubs near the main pool were always crowded with small children splashing and playing. Hot tub rules are clearly not enforced, just as the lounge-chair saving policy is not enforced. I realize this is a problem that is not unique to RCL, but there were nowhere near enough deck loungers for the passenger load. Luckily only one day at sea.
The Windjammer Cafe, the ship's buffet was nice. The food was comparable to other cruise lines, though there seemed to be a smaller selection and very little variety from day to day. There are some comfortable spaces both inside and out with terrific views. We especially loved the comfy wicker seating in a few areas. We LOVED that the cafe was open, in some capacity, all day long! In the late afternoon, as we were re-embarking after a day in port, they had scones and a delicious bread pudding, as well as snack items and desserts to hold us over until our 8:30 pm dining room seating.
We thoroughly enjoyed our dining room experience. We thought the food was decent -- some dishes were outstanding and some disappointed. We happened to have a great table of dining companions and an exemplary wait team (Virgil and Douglas) who made it a fabulous dinner every evening. Virgil went above and beyond on many occasions and always kept us informed about the evening entertainment and the next day's agenda. Our maitre d' was also very attentive, helpful, and never missed a night checking in with us. The first night on board, the late seating for dinner was delayed by approx 45 minutes for reasons that were not stated, so again, a poor 1st impression, especially since 8:30 already seems late, even for a late seating. But as the week progressed, our good experiences onboard far outweighed the bad.
My only real complaint with the dining service on RCL had nothing to do with the food. After a season when many ships in several fleets experienced problems with noro-virus, the powers-that-be are taking a proactive approach on the Brilliance -- there are Purell dispensers scattered throughout the ship, with a few at every dining room entrance. I can appreciate that, and I might add that no outbreaks were reported on our cruise. My problem is that I have a hand condition - an allergy of sorts that prohibits me from using alcohol based products on my hands. It would have been fine; I simply declined to used the alcohol-based sanitizers as we passed them. But the staff was militant about it -- each time I bypassed a Purell dispenser entering the Windjammer, a staff member posted there accosted me and insisted that I "sanitize" even when I told them I had washed my hands and was allergic. Once, I was told I must "sanitize" when I simply got up from my table to go get dessert. After a few days of sour looks from the staff and arguments with the staff at every single breakfast, lunch or snack, I complained to the Windjammer head waiter. He was not sympathetic and claimed that it was mandatory that we use the Purell -- direct orders from the captain, he claimed. Later, when I took my complaint to guest services, I learned that it was a *simulation* to train staff in case of an outbreak of some kind. No such order had been issued from the captain. I was given a hand-written "pass" that I had to show staff when I entered the Windjammer to avoid being harassed each time. I suppose it was a solution of sorts, even though one really shouldn't have to explain to anyone whether one chooses to use a chemical product or why. I was offered a free dinner for two in the specialty restaurant as a compensation, but I declined it because I wanted them them to know that my complaint was not registered for the purpose of getting something for free -- I just wanted them to stop harassing me. And it did stop.
We had some truly enjoyable moments onboard the Brilliance. One of the best parties we've attended on a cruise ship was the "Silent Party" in the night club. Near the dance floor: two DJs ready to play different dance tunes. Each participant was given a set of wireless earphones with two channels; one for each of the two DJs. You could choose which channel to listen and dance to, and could easily switch between the two. To the rest of the nightclub patrons, no music could be heard. But those of us with headphones flocked to the dance floor! It was kind of funny to watch, since people were dancing to very different music sometimes and when you took off your headphones, you could often hear people singing along to the non-audible songs. Quite entertaining; there must have been 50 or more of us on the dance floor and in the aisles at any given time.
The 70s party in the Centrum Lobby was also a blast. The entire lobby swayed to disco and funk; dancers in 70s costumes swirled and hustled and passed out blinking rings... but the highlight was the group of dancers meticulously costumed as the Village People that led hundreds of us through their dance hits, including, of course YMCA. What a hoot!
The regular evening shows were often sub-par: a comedian that wasn't funny, amateur acrobats, the usual singing and dancing and that old standby that is truly getting a little old: the marriage game. The few attempts at entertainment in the dining room (trying to copy Carnival?) was lame. The deck band, playing reggae was consistently good, however, and a few of the other musicians were better than the average cruise ship musical fare. There were many things to do that I can't rate, simply because we didn't pursue them. We had a nice quiet room and took every opportunity for R & R. Unfortunately, in this day and age, sometimes down-time includes relaxing online, but on this ship, at least, the only wifi available was in the internet cafes or designated "hot spots" -- no internet in the rooms! This was a big minus in my book. We didn't buy a big internet package as we usually do and were still left with extra minutes because it was a hassle to use them. We always need internet to keep on touch with employees at our business and like to stay in touch with family, so a fast 5 minutes online is easily accomplished in your room (Carnival & Princess).
Overall, we had a nice time. The weather didn't always cooperate, so we missed a couple of dives we had scheduled, but there is always something fun to do if you look around. We thought it was a good itinerary over all. Not sure if any of the things I mentioned about RCL would be a deal-breaker in the future; if the itinerary was unique, I would probably use RCL again. But I wouldn't go out of my way to cruise with them again. We had specifically chosen Royal Caribbean because we hadn't tried them and there seems to be some buzz among RCL loyalists that it is sooo much better than Carnival, which we enjoy. Now we know: most of the lines are very similar. Certainly there was nothing about RCL that justifies choosing it over others we've used, especially at a higher average cost and similar itineraries. However, the bottom line is this: we came home happy -- we would recommend this ship and this itinerary.