Not first time cruisers, but this was our first transatlantic crossing. We were not sure what to expect. We had read so many reviews and scoured the internet for information. Here's the BIG PICTURE summary:
Fantastic cruise that was not boring or too long by any stretch of the imagination. Mariner of the Seas was a great ship with fantastic service. We don't think we could ever take a cruise shorter than 7 days from this point forward.
Activities were available all day/evening if you wanted or you could be lazy and lounge around. Either way, there was something for everyone.
Ports of call were great and surprising as they were not on "the beaten path" other than Nassau. We would not normally stop at these locations in our travels, which made the decision to take this cruise all the more easier.
Passenger mix: Generally an older crowd on transatlantic. Majority seemed to be retired. Certainly not all US citizens or for that matter not all from Texas. Quite a nice international group. Only 16 children on the whole ship.
Would we do it again? YES
Now for the DETAILS.....
GETTING THERE: We are based in the Dallas area so it is a fairly easy drive to get to Galveston. Because this was a one-way cruise with a flight back to the US, we drove to BUSH Intercontinental airport in Houston and dropped the car at the airport economy lot. With a 20% off internet coupon, our parking costs were less than $4 per day. Quite a bit cheaper than parking at the port. Plus we now had a car waiting for us upon our return. We then arranged for a one-way car service to take us from BUSH to Galveston. We used the executive car service division of Super Shuttle (Execucar) for around $130 for the 2 of us. They were on time (actually early), polite, no hassles, and even included bottled water for the ride down to the port. No luggage issues or crowded shuttle bus for not a whole lot more than the shuttle bus cost.
EMBARKATION: Once at the port, that is another story with embarkation. Only 4 security screening lines for 2,500 passengers coming in at relatively the same time. You don't have to be a genius to do the math. Long lines and hour long waits. Modern cruise ships have been sailing out of Galveston for over the last 10 years and you would think they would figure the process out by now. Many other reviews complain about embarkation and they are correct. Is this the port's fault or the cruise line's? Either way, they need to get their act together. Once past security, they had quite a few cruise line agents ready to go. There is still some confusion, as they have separate lines for gold, platinum, emerald, etc. cruisers. The people directing traffic at the end of the line would take platinum passengers from the platinum line and allow them to cut in front of the gold passengers line. Really pissed off quite a few customers. I can only imagine how the first time cruisers felt. Not a good way to make a first impression for RCI.
Once on board, cabin was ready and we didn't have to go to the "holding pen" buffet. It was as we were unpacking, that I glanced at my set sail pass (this is the card that works as your room key, charge card, ID, etc.) that I noticed they had changed our dining time to the late seating. Another line to stand in to change back to our original seating time. Can't believe RCI does this against our specific wishes and confirmed written reservation. Did they think we wouldn't notice?
Speaking of RCI, all of the negative issues I had revolved around the corporate office and customer service. Notifying some passengers about the construction on board and not notifying others? Calling in to customer service to have a simple question answered only to be told that since we used a travel agent, they couldn't talk to me and I had to call the agent so they could call RCI and ask the very same question? Changing our dining time without notice? Once on board, taking three days to confirm and deliver that we had a complimentary bottle of wine and a premium dining certificate? Come on RCI, get it together. COMMUNICATE!
SHIP: Large ship that never really felt crowded, except at the Windjammer. Ship showing its age with minor but obvious issues including visible rust spots in public areas, broken hand rails in the hallways, etc. Just needs a little more TLC in maintenance.
CABIN: Small but efficient. Bed not as comfortable as I have had on other cruise lines. Mold and missing caulk in shower. Chips in sink area. Once again, a little TLC by the maintenance staff would take care of this.
STAFF OVERALL: As far as the ship is concerned, staff went out of their way to make us feel welcome and comfortable. Many were new employees signed on for the transition to the Asian market. MDR staff really good. Cabin steward good as well, but was one of those quiet stealth kinds of stewards. Always polite, but he worked his magic when we were gone. Issues mentioned in other reviews about aggressive tipping requests seemed to have been smoothed out with the implementation of the automatic gratuity billing. Only ran into one rude employee. It was a female eastern European security guard who gave me the third degree on our last night on the ship as I went to weigh my bag on a scale to make sure it was below airline weight limits. The scale was originally in the health club and the staff told me it had been moved to deck 1 because the original scale on deck 1 broke. They instructed me to go down to deck 1 forward where a very helpful staff member said the scale was actually deck 1 aft, but I would have to go up to deck 4 and back down to get to deck 1 aft. The is a "public" area easily accessed by the elevators. After getting off the elevator, the scale was 10 feet from the elevator. I was rudely confronted by the guard wanting to know the names of who sent me there and told me about the scale. She then told me I couldn't use the scale, even though it was used by the public for the last 15 days in the health spa. When I persisted that I only wanted to weigh one bag, the security guard relented when other staff members arrived and said no problem. So much for the scale Nazi!
FOOD: Overall the food was decent. Not fantastic, but not bad. We ate almost all of our dinner meals in the MDR. Fish entrees always seemed a little dried out as if they had set too long under a heat lamp. Steak Diane entrEe was tough as shoe leather. Other entrees were good. Menu varied every night even though we were on board for 15 nights. Waiter and assistant waiter were fantastic. Had a few breakfast and lunch meals in the MDR. Waiter service and smaller crowds just made sense to me.
Hidden gem was the cafeE promenade. Great small sandwiches and fresh baked cookies for a snack. Even had hot chocolate. It was tasty enough that my wife wants their tuna salad and coconut cookie recipes.
Ship ran out of tomato juice mid-way through the cruise. Who knew there would be a tomato juice crisis? OJ both in the MDR and Windjammer was pretty watered down. Not sure if there were actual oranges used in the OJ. Ship restocked OJ when we got to Madeira and the quality noticeably improved. Must have been a better supplier.
The Windjammer buffet was standard buffet food. Only issue there was not enough seating available during peak breakfast and lunch times. Once again, do the math RCI.
Had one meal at Chops steakhouse because of the certificate from our travel agent. Great food and service. Was the type of food they use to serve in the MDR. Would have a very hard time paying an additional $60 to eat there. Just not worth it in my book. To each his own.
ENTERTAINMENT: Ice show was really good. No I mean it, really good. Most of the other entertainment was above average for a cruise ship. A few misses, such as the rat pack show.
BEST KEPT SECRET: The free health spa. Always took a steam and sauna every afternoon. Need a little extra room from your cabin shower? They also have full size showers in the health club.
Outdoor movie screen by the main pools a nice touch. Could watch a movie even in daylight. Pretty decent HD for such a large screen.
Ice cream machine and hot dog house on the pool deck are a little hidden, but once you find them, worth checking out. Matter of fact, I had to inspect the ice cream machine every afternoon.
DRINKS: A little on the pricey side. Not too bad, but when you add in the automatic gratuity, it gets up there. I see now why some people smuggle in alcohol. Alternate is to look for daily drink and happy hour specials.
PASSENGERS: Only real incidents of bad manners game from a few passengers. Lady screaming loudly at the dining staff about not getting "her table" for dinner. Done in front of a large group of passengers waiting in line to make dining room changes on the first night. This went on for 30 minutes. I would not want the staff's job in dealing with people like this. They handled it as well as could be expected.
Several people piling food so high on their plate at the buffet that it falls on the floor. For gods sake people, you can go back. It's a buffet.
Some passengers needed a lesson in elevator manners. They kept trying to get on a fully loaded elevator without allowing passengers to get out first. This happened multiple times.
And a very small percentage of passengers who can only talk about their Crown & Anchor status level and their next/last cruise. Most of really don't care about your "status".
PORTS OF CALL: Nassau, Bahamas was the same as it had been for the last 30 years I have been visiting. Know my way around and even helped guide a few of my fellow passengers around. Went down to the Poop Deck restaurant (past the Paradise Island bridges) and had my conch fix. Free Wi-FI in the building immediately at the base of the dock.
Funchal, Madeira was a picture postcard kind of town. The only stop I said I would specifically fly back to stay and explore longer. Old and European with a slight tropical feel.
Gibraltar, UK - we took a ship sponsored tour and were glad we did. Upper Rock walking tour labeled as "strenuous". Unfortunately about a 1/3 of our tour participants had no business going on a strenuous tour. All they did was complain and slow the group down. One passenger even commented that "I had no idea there would be so much walking." Not sure why she didn't understand that a tour called Upper Rock Walking Tour would involve walking. Tour itself was very good and provided historical information that we would not have received on our own.
Alicante, Spain was a surprise. From the dock it looked kind of bleak. Once you walked into town, the shops, sidewalks, and beach areas were very nice. The castle provided a fantastic view. It took a little work finding it, but there is a pay elevator that takes you up to the top of the castle. Well worth the price.
DISEMBARKATION: No issues at all. We chose to carry our own bags (they were all wheeled duffles)and exited the ship to customs to taxi in about 30 minutes.
Barcelona, Spain is an artistic kind of city. My wife said it was "Austin, Texas on steroids". Subway system makes it easy to get around once you understand how the system works. Smartest move I ever did was to buy my tickets in advance on the internet for the Sagrada Familia. Literally thousands of people milling around the site with hundreds in line to wait hours for admission. Special entrance for internet purchasers. Only 3 people in line. What a breeze!
As I said earlier, would do it again!