I returned last week from my first cruise on Island Escape and had an amazing week on this ship.
It was a last minute booking and managed to get a fantastic price on an all-round great value for money, all-inclusive holiday. My expectations were not high as I knew this was a budget ship and had read the very mixed reviews. The biggest shock was seeing the cabin (an inside on deck 7) for the first time, which is even smaller in real life than in photos, but I have to say that after the initial shock I was completely comfortable in there and really didn't care that there wasn't room to swing a cat! It was actually the most comfortable I've been on a cruise, despite having been in bigger and "better" cabins on other ships. Best of all I did not experience any seasickness at all, which I usually do as I'm very prone to nausea and even have anti-emetics on prescription for this. I had been worried about the location of the cabin after reading that you are more likely to feel motion higher up the ship, but on a deck 7 forward cabin I was absolutely fine.
Decor-wise the cabin is very basic and outdated -- especially in the bathroom with its 70s coloured porcelain! But it was a very powerful shower with ample room and that's all you need really.
Embarkation was very swift and efficient, as was disembarkation on the last day. Island Escape doesn't just get it's reputation as the "casual & informal" cruise ship for the absence of formal evenings and dress code -- unlike on other ships, on the last day and when going out on excursions you are expected to just make your way off the ship at the required time where your coaches are waiting, rather than having to gather in a specific place and await calls over the tannoy system telling you what to do and when to move.
The entertainment team make much more of the sailaway party on the first night than you get on other ships where it can be a bit lacklustre. There was a genuine party atmosphere on the ship right through the week. At this point I should give a HUGE commendation to Ross Roberts, Cruise Director, who is by far the best CD I've experienced! You can tell he genuinely loves his job and everything he does, he does with great enthusiasm. It's especially good to see him fully involved with the activities, be it taking a role in the shows in the Ocean Theatre or out on deck taking part in the poolside fun and games. On other cruise ships the CDs seem to take a more managerial role, overseeing things and popping up at the end of shows etc to make announcements, but Ross seems to be everywhere at once and is fully involved in all aspects of the entertainment.
I'm going to give a little run-through of the activities taking place throughout the ship over the week as I always find when I'm reading reviews of cruises that people say the entertainment was great and shows fantastic, but they don't give specifics which I know is of interest to people thinking about booking a cruise but maybe not sure:-
Daytime activities were plentiful -- lots more going on during the day than on other ships I've been on. There is constant activity out on the pool deck throughout the day -- quizzes, bingo, music, games such as darts, bean bag boules etc, other entertainments led by the hosts such as Gladiators (crew vs guests), and demonstrations on ice and fruit & veg carving etc. The sailaway from Ajaccio was fun with Ross leading party dances such as YMCA & Gangnam Style! One thing my husband thought he was going to miss was having an onboard cinema, but on the day at sea the Ocean Theatre held a screening of 'Lincoln' to a completely fully house. To those who haven't cruised before and are maybe not aware of what you get in terms of TV -- channels are very few as on other ships (just news channels like BBC Worldwide and Bloomberg) but you do get 2 channels which screen a current film six times a day.
Elsewhere on the ship there are daily seminars on beauty, weight loss, detox, hair etc, more quizzes, daily dance lessons (salsa, line dancing, merengue, jive, cha cha) and exercise classes. The salon & gym are open till late and prices at the salon are cheaper than on other ships so this time I was persuaded to try ionithermie inch loss treatment -- I never usually do this kind of thing!
In the evening there was a nightly show in the Ocean Theatre. Four productions were by the ship's showteam. A welcome show on the first night which was a whizz through all the genres of music we could expect to see during the rest of the week, which contained a very funny rendition of Gilbert & Sullivan's 'Three Little Maids' with Ross Roberts dressed as a Geisha! The other shows were 'A Night at the Musicals', 'Rockin' All Over the World' and 'Rock This Ship'. The shows were of high standard as you usually find on cruises, although I have to say I found these particular shows a bit samey to shows I've seen on past cruises. The low point for me was having to sit through a tribute to the Lion King again, which has been done on every cruise I've been on and I really hate it!! The rest of the audience seemed to appreciate it though, judging by the gasps of amazement when the lion came out! 'Rock This Ship' was a bit random in its choices of songs -- going straight from 'Pie Jesu' to 'Proud Mary' seemed a bit strange! To be honest I wish I'd been on the ship the following week, as they have a 2 week rolling programme of shows and I think I would have preferred the ones I didn't see.
The other shows were a soul singer (who I didn't see), a Scottish comedian called Johnny Mack and an Abba tribute act called 'Reabba'. The comedian was fantastic, and was the highlight of the week for me in terms of the evening entertainment. 'Reabba' on the other hand were awful -- or maybe that's just me feeling bitter because I missed out on the Queen tribute act I was expecting! Again, I seem to have boarded the ship on the wrong week!
Other nightly entertainment included live music in the various bars -- Mardi Gras in the Lookout Bar were very good. Not so keen on the so-called 'pianist' in the Sundowner, who seemed to play every song in the style of Chas n' Dave! The Bounty Lounge hosted other evening entertainments such as nightly bingo and quiz, gameshows such as Millionaire and Mr & Mrs, a very popular race night and karaoke on 3 evenings (very funny!). For those who like to gamble, the Casino was very busy every single evening and hosted Black Jack tournaments etc. There are also lots of fruit machines and a video arcade next door.
Value for money on Island Escape is second to none, especially as it is now an all-inclusive ship. Of course premium drinks etc are still charged and as a cocktail drinker I was expecting to have to pay for some of my drinks, but actually there is a really good selection of cocktails included in the all-inclusive. Overall, prices onboard the ship for extras (salon, shop, internet etc) are very good and I was impressed at how much cheaper certain things are than on the Thomson ships, given Island Escape is essentially the same company. For example, putting an announcement in the Island Chat (nightly cruise newsletter) was only Â£6 compared to the Â£40-odd that my husband was quoted for the same on our last cruise!! Odd things can be ridiculously expensive though, such as Â£3.90 for a mini tub of Pringles!!
Ports of Call & Excursions --
We were on the 'Spirit of the Med' itinerary, which called at Ajaccio, Civitevecchia, Livorno, Toulon & Barcelona.
Ajaccio is a lovely place and a lot more to it than I was expecting. The highlight of the trip for me was going to be Livorno (for Pisa), but I probably enjoyed the day at Ajaccio most of all! We did the Tortoise Protection Centre shore excursion, which is a little gem of a trip and highly recommended if you want to do something a little different from just looking at scenery. Also included is a drive around Ajaccio, stopping at the Napoleon monument. When we got back to port I went out on my own for a look around town while hubby went back to the ship -- I don't normally go out on my own, but felt perfectly comfortable in Ajaccio. It's a small town and easy to navigate your way around. There is no long walk from the port -- you just come off the ship, walk through the port building and there you are. It's a lovely little town with a nice market and nice range of shops and cafes -- lots of clothes and shoe shops for the ladies and some nice souvenir shops to browse in. The whole place smells strongly of cheese (their main export is cheese made from sheep's milk!) which hits you almost as soon as you leave the port building! As Napoleon's birth place, as you can imagine almost everything is named after him, and they have a Napoleon museum in his former house which is very easy to get to. Ajaccio harbour is quite small and uncommercial so there is a lovely panoramic vista from the ship which makes a nice change from industrial ports such as Civitevecchia & Livorno. The sailaway is beautiful.
We didn't leave the ship in Civitevecchia (port for Rome) as we didn't want to do a long, full day excursion on this holiday. It's a pretty ugly, industrial port but I think most people probably would want to take advantage of a visit to Rome when docked here.
From Livorno we did the Easy Pisa trip. I chose this one as I'd read that there is a long walk to Miracles Square from the coach park, but this trip takes you on a mini trolley train to the main sights. I highly recommend this trip, not only if you have mobility problems but also because you get a wee drive around Pisa too so get to see the rest of the city. Not that there's a great deal to see, as the main sights are all concentrated in Miracles Square, but it's still interesting. At Miracles Square you get 2 hours of free time to look around, take your photos of the Leaning Tower, go into the church if you want to, and have a browse around the souvenir stalls. Two hours is ample time here -- it's not recommended that you go inside the Leaning Tower as there is a long queue and there might not be time. I'd say at this time of year it might have been possible, although may not have left time for anything else, but probably not during the summer. The ship's photographers are there taking photos and I have to say they were a lot of fun in helping me to get the perfect picture I wanted!! Just a word of warning about Pisa -- beware of the annoying 'looky-looky' men selling watches and umbrellas! Felt like I was in Egypt for a moment!
At Toulon we didn't do any excursions but went for a look around. There is a bit of walk from the port into town and so there is a mini train waiting outside the ship which will take you on a tour around and you can get off at the town and beach. We got on as I thought it would be the easiest way to get around and wanted to save my legs for Barcelona the next day, but this idea backfired on me as we got off at the beach but although we were waiting at the exact place we were dropped off the train kept driving on past us and not stopping so we ended up having to walk all the way back to the ship!! Wasn't amused at all at this so didn't have a very enjoyable time in Toulon, but it's a nice enough place -- not a great deal to do or see, but a nice beach and plenty of eateries if that's your thing.
At Barcelona we wanted to visit the zoo, and again we thought the easiest way to get around would be to get on one of the hop-on-hop-off buses that stop at the zoo. Our ship got the prime berthing location outside the World Trade Centre, which meant no walking or shuttle buses to get out of the port. We just had to walk through the port building and you are practically at the bottom of Las Ramblas (near the Columbus column) where you can get on a HOHO bus. The zoo was good but for some reason the hippos weren't on display which was disappointing as they were our reason for going. After a morning at the zoo we got back on the HOHO bus and saw the Sagrada Familia, which is definitely worth seeing although you may be surprised at just how much scaffolding etc is around it -- work has been ongoing since the 19th century, but when you see photos of it you don't see all the cranes and scaffolding. It's not quite as picture perfect in real life, if you were hoping to get some amazing holiday snaps of this masterpiece! The weather in Barcelona was absolutely scorchio, even at this time of year, so make sure you have sun cream on, especially if you are going to be sitting on an open-topped bus for hours driving round the city if you don't want to get a burnt head (I talk from experience!). A note about the HOHO bus -- it takes hours to get around the city as the traffic is crazy in Barcelona. We only got around half the route in about 3 hours and had to get off at Placa de Catalunya and walk back down Las Ramblas to get back the ship, or we would never have got back there on time to sail!!
The weather during the whole week was very good for the time of year (9th-15th April). It was lovely day in Palma when we arrived, then the day at sea was very pleasant -- warm enough for sunbathing but not too hot. We had fab sunshine in Ajaccio too. Civitecchia was meant to be the warmest day with highs of 20 but actually turned out to be the coldest and greyest -- was shivering with cold in the afternoon. Livorno was sunny and warm, as was Toulon although quite a high wind. Barcelona was very, very hot!! Evenings were cool but it was comfortable enough most evenings to walk around on deck without a jacket or coverup.
With regard to the ship photographers, they are everywhere and anywhere during the whole cruise -- much more so than I've noticed on other cruises. They will be taking your photo as you disembark at each port and have at least one if not two set-ups outside the bars/restaurants each evening so you have plenty of chances to get photos taken with various backdrops. Some people may find ship photographers irritating, but I have to say I didn't feel pressured into buying any photos. They were very friendly and not at all pushy. They took some I really liked and ended up buying, which I don't normally bother with.
Overall, this was a brilliant holiday. The only problem I had, other than an issue with excursion tickets that weren't delivered (but easily resolved by Shore Excursions staff) was with the food. Admittedly I am a fussy and unadventurous eater, which is often a problem for me when on holiday but one of the things I have loved about cruising in the past is that I've always found the restaurants to have a good selection and choice of food and have always managed to find something I like. The buffet in the Beachcomber restaurant is laid out almost exactly as those on Thomson Spirit & Celebration, but the menu is very limited. Several lunchtimes and evenings there was nothing I could have and had to live on plates of chips or crackers and cheese until the midnight buffet was laid out! The whole week I didn't even have one pudding, as there was never any I fancied. I also didn't like the fact that the main course dishes are kept covered and you have to ask for what you want. I like to be able to see what I'm getting and help myself - I found the helpings to be very, very small on the Island Escape. If you wanted the chicken, for example, you would get 1 piece. If you asked for fries you would get the smallest helping ever -- maybe 10 or 12! Part of the fun of being on holiday is being able to eat like a king but it was quite hard on the Island Escape!
We didn't bother with the Island Restaurant as the menu was the same, just with waiters and set opening times, whereas the Beachcomber is open 24 hours. There is also the Oasis a la carte restaurant, which had a cover charge of Â£14.99 I believe, but we just stuck with Beachcomber as we prefer to dine informally.
I would also like to see the late night menu in the Beachcomber being brought forward to say 11pm, as if I hadn't been able to have dinner from the evening menu it was a long time to wait till midnight!
But despite the issue with the food, I absolutely loved my week on Island Escape and the entertainment and everything else more than made up for the lack of choice in this area. Would I recommend the ship? Definitely -- if you want laid-back, informal cruising then this is the ship for you. Would I go back myself? Absolutely -- I was planning my next holiday on Island Escape before I even left the ship!!