We are unseasoned at cruising, so consider these comments with that perspective. Our previous cruise experience was limited to a 50-passenger trip though the Greek isles on the Sea Cloud -- a wholly different experience than that offered by a "traditional ocean liner." But we had been looking for the right opportunity to dip our toes in the water of large passenger ship cruising, and the Top Chef theme cruise -- only 4 nights 5 days on a highly regarded "luxury" line-- seemed an attractive introductory experience from which we might forecast our cruising future.
Sadly our experience was very mixed.
First, the Top Chef themed activities were simply wonderful. Cooking demonstrations, Quickfire "competitions," Q and A's with 10 years of fan favorites and winning "chef-testants," and Tom Collichio playing lead guitar and singing Creedence at the poolside stage-- we could not have enjoyed the themed events more. Bravo to Bravo and Top Chef for a well-planned and well-executed experience. And it bears saying that the Top Chef chefs and staff were all about the ship, interacting with the passengers, spending real time and making real connections. Every single Top Chef person -- and most notably Gail Simmons and Hubert Keller-- was as cordial, gracious, and engaging as one could imagine. A class act by a classy group in every respect.
If only the ship and its staff had lived up to the standards of the reality TV folks.
I don't want to nitpick, and we are seasoned travelers if not cruisers, so I have no problem rolling with the unexpected, but these seemed to us to be serious lapses in the cruise line's core functions:
1. Our "veranda suite." Oh, please. There is nothing "suite" or sweet about the suites. They are single rooms, with the tiniest bathroom you can imagine. The presence of a small upholstered love-seat in addition to the bed is evidently the defining feature of a "suite" on this line. For shame! We are not price-sensitive when it comes to accommodations and we booked the best available suite months in advance. Even so, one person must sit on the bed to allow the other to move anywhere in the room. The sound of the toilet flushing is enough to wake the dead. The shower delivers nothing warmer than room temperature water (but curiously, the water in the bathroom sink is hot). The veranda is a plastic-enclosed postage-stamp with 2 miserable plastic chairs. The TV cannot be viewed from the seating area, only the bed -- whose genius is behind that failure of space/function? The hallways are endless and narrow and laundry carts and food service carts are left parked permanently in key spots along the way.
Suffice it to say that I have stayed in budget-priced Travel Lodges that were better designed and better appointed. The vaunted "Concierge Class" turns out to be three stems of Peruvian lillies (alstomeria) and three pieces of fruit. They were, all six of them, there when we moved in and they were there when we left.
Requests for daily ice were hit and miss.
2. The food. Yikes! Awful in the Main Dining Room (San Marcos). The rib-eye was like pot roast; the duck was flabby and fatty and unrecognizable. Everything was unseasoned, overcooked, and bland. The onion soup was fine, and my husband had an appetizer of himachi one evening that was good. But even the vaunted Sunday brunch was cold bacon, toaster waffles served room temperature, and the same canteloupe, watermelon and honeydew that we had seen at every service for four days. Waiter service was fine, but entry and seating service was an ugly and unpleasant frenzy at every meal-- bossy and over-bearing staff, indifferent to guest sensibilities and preferences.
The buffet was just dreary. Endless pans of curries and over-baked sludgy pasta casseroles. The rolls and pastries were stale every single day. The pizza was doughy, tough, flavorless, served room temperature. The sushi was unimaginative and unexceptional. The omelets were fine but took forever as that station was never adequately staffed.
The hamburgers at the poolside grill were like frisbees in their lack of flavor or other recognizable meat-like qualities.
We tried two of the specialty (extra price) food options, with good results. Bistro on Five had very nice panini, if an absurdly limited menu, and the bar across from Bistro on Five served a marvelous 7-item tapas platter for $19.00 that was a tasty and sufficient supper for two one night when the MDR menus was so dreary that we simply got up and left without ordering. The ship makes a big deal of its ice creams and gelatos, but both were sub-par, The ice cream, which I tried 3 different times, was full of ice crystals and inadequately flavored. The gelatos were no better. Pastries at the coffee bar were days past their sell by deadline.
Drink service -- wine, cocktails, beer, sodas -- was very strong. No complaints at all although in retrospect the all-inclusive beverage package is over-priced but very convenient.
3. Ship entertainment. Way way way too much thumping pounding "music" -- everywhere, all the time. The passengers are mostly 45+ and even more. Why are we enduring hip hop and rap and disco music constantly? The comedian was unfunny and hostile to the (admittedly sparse) audience. The lectures and programs were almost all sales opportunities. The "art" auction was astonishingly huck-sterish and uninformed. Oh, I could say more, but what is the point?
Truth be told by Day 3 we were looking forward to being done with this luxury vacation; by the 4th day we were avid to get off the damn boat; and by the time we docked, I was grateful to the point of tears that it was finally over.
Embarkation and disembarkation are very well-organized and we were grateful for the ease of departing.
I have tasked myself with the assignment due diligence and investigating whether our experience was typical, or was based on a bad choice of cruise line. If we need to spend more to have a good experience, I'll bite again. If what we had is what you get, then no -- never, never, never again.