Travelling as a group of 12 with ages from 3 to late 60's, we embarked smoothly at Southampton, and were able to unpack prior to the mandatory lifeboat drill.
We had all previous cruised twice on the Independence of the Seas and were looking forward to seeing the changes made after the recent refurbishment. Other than the change of the Close Shave to the CupCake cupboard, the installation of the information boards on each deck (fore and aft and both on port and starboard sides) the big change was the installation of the outdoor screen on decks 11/12.
We choose an interior room (funnily enough the same cabin that we had last year!!) as we only use the room to sleep and shower in. (Although I do note other reviewers comments regarding the disorientation regarding the daylight). Within our party, we had another interior cabin and two balcony rooms. All were in close proximity of each other. The balcony rooms (when the sofa bed was out didn't seem to be especially larger than the inside rooms.
Food - the food was amazing (in my eyes) we choose My Time Dining (King Lear) and were fortunate enough to have in Jason and Jayme two attentive and polite waiters. It should be noted that they seemed to be looking after more guest that on previous visits - maybe a RCI cost cutting exercise.
The windjammer was up to its previous high standards, and the family also used the various resturants throughout the ship (Sorrentos etc)
We did not try Johnny Rockets this time - but other guest were full of praise for the staff in JR
We did not try either of the premium resturants so I cannot comment.
Two of our party (both of whom had 24th birthdays onboard) took advantage of the Premium Inclusive drinks package. At $55 dollars a day, they had their moneys worth! The rest of the party paid as we went with regards to drinks, which we found generally reasonable when you account that the ship is a captive market with regards to drinks - to be honest, the drinks were around London prices.
Service - one of the things that really stand out to me with cruising is the attentiveness of all of the staff onboard. Personally I could not fault them at all.
Activities - travelling with a family of mixed ages, we were able to throw ourselves into the majority of the activities offered. (more on the Childrens Club below) but of the adults we were always enjoying the sports facilities, the well equipped gym, partaking in the quizzes etc. The sports staff and the cruise directors team were always available to help/chat and entertain.
Children's Clubs our youngest son (6) would never have left the childrens club if it were upto him! whenever we went to collect him, we were struck on how happy all of the children were. He throughly enjoyed the club and activities and especially when he volunteered to be part of the Fairy Tale show (the only one of 500 children onboard!!) - so much he did it for both performances!
Our elder son (11) and his cousin (10) also both enjoyed their club - and especially their new found freedom to check themselves in and out of the club.
Entertainment - having been luckily enough to have Joff Eaton as our Cruise Director for our previous two cruises, we were all delighted that he was back on board again. I love his humour - especially during the progressive quiz - and despite being an obviously busy man he was always available to stop and chat. His activites manager - Tim - was a significant upgrade to the previous side kicks!
A highlight of the trip is always the 70's and Rock Britannia nights, so smoothly done and a joy to see so many people enjoying themselves.
Port & Shore Excursions - we only booked two trips - Pisa and Beach, and Rome on our own tours - but our thoughts on the eight ports:
Gibraltar - we self arranged with a local minivan a trip up the rock and as well as seeing and holding the monkeys, marvelling at the views we were very lucky to find a local guide who entertained us the whole way round. Other than the trip we strolled the high street and enjoyed the shops and cafes/bars
Toulon - knowing that we had two full days coming up, we decided to stroll into the local town (La Seyne-Sur-Mer), and spent an enjoyable time in the local provencal market. With young children, we enjoyed ice cream in the park whilst they played. If we were fortunate enough to return to this port we would take a water taxi across the bay to the main town of Toulon. But we had an intentionally relaxing day.
Livorno - we had pre-booked a trip to Pisa and the Beach. The trip was well organised and a 30 minutes journey to a coach park was enlighted by our tour guide's (Claudia) take on the relationships between people from Livorno and Pisa! Arrival in Pisa and a 10 minute or so walk took us to Miracle Square, where we had around an our (ample time) to take photos and enjoy the sights. Back onto the coach for a 40 minute or so trip to the resort of Viareggio, a beautiful resort town with a long and sandy beach. The trip had arranged for facilities (changing/toilet and a pool) to be available for us all, as well as sun loungers. This was a very clean and organised beach, which left a very positive impression. We also enjoyed our first ever game of beach volleyball (with mixed results!) A 45 minute journey back through the beautiful Tuscan countryside finished off a lovely day.
Civitavecchia - We had pre-booked the Rome on our own trip, and the early start was smoothly managed by RCI (as almost everyone must have gone on a trip that day) In fact there were 8 large cruise ships in port that day, and the Roman organisation meant that it all went smoothly. In fact, one of our party managed to lose thier ticket somewhere between the theatre and the coach - but not a problem for the RCI team!
A fairly long (60/70 minutes - quicker than advertised as it was a Saturday) coach transfer from the port to the eternal city was again enlightened with plenty of historical chat from our tour guide (Riccardo) who was happy to speak to everyone on the coach with hints and tips of places to see and how best to manage our time. Were parked in the massive underground coach park, shown our meeting place near St Peters square and given 6 hours to explore this wonderful city.
We took a taxi (well three taxis actually) from St Peters Square down towards the Colosseum - but due to protests scheduled that day - were dropped at the Capital for a walk down the Imperial Way (Via dei Fori Imperiali). This actually worked to our benefit as we a) quickly realised that it wasn't all that far to walk and b) we found the experience much more enjoyable on foot. After a walk around the Colosseum and Constantines Arch, we mapped our way and walked to the Trevi Fountain, taking in the sights and sounds of Rome on the way. After the photos and coins in the fountain, we headed towards the Pantheon, stopped at a cafe to enjoy the people watching. Lastly (with a stop for ice cream) we headed back uptowards the Castel Sant'Angelo, across the Tiber and back up for a wander around the Square and back to our meeting place.
A slightly longer drive back out through Rome (with more enlightening commentary) and back to the boat was the end to an unforgettable day
Cartagena - after a much needed relaxing day at sea, we arrived at the Mediterranean port (home to the Spanish Navy). We again chose to explore the town on foot and after wandering around the harbour front, headed up the main street enjoying the shops and bars.
Cadiz - a beautiful city with just enough to see, we again explored the town on foot, finding hidden squares, before finding the main centre. We spend an enjoyable time exploring the market stalls before heading down towards the Cathedral and the main square. After refreshing ourselves ;-) we head upto the city walls and strolled our way back towards the ship.
Lisbon - having been fortunate enough to have visited Lisbon twice before, we eschewed the older part of the town and headed left off the ship along a the river Targus. After a stroll we arrived at the monument to the Portugeese explorers crossed the road and enjoyed the gardens and architecture of the National Archaeology Museum and the Maritime Museum. Back towards the boat, we met up with teh younger members of our party - one of whom was 24 that day who was enjoying the bars immediatelty near the ship.
As mentioned, we had explored Lisbon previously and would recommend that you firstly get up early to watch the ship squeeze in under the bridge (Ponte 25 de Abril) when arriving (or when leaving!) and to take advantage of the hop on hop off buses that stop immediately in front of the port - agreat way to see any city in my opinion.
Vigo - similiarly to Lisbon, we had already been to Vigo twice previously, so we chose to explore the area (old town) across from the ship, enjoyed bartering with the street merchants, found somewhere for some Sangria and also stopped to try the world famous sea food of Galicia. The large shopping centre next to the port was perfect for last minute gifts.
It won't come as much of a surprise to those of you who have made it al the way through this review that we are massive fans of the style and content of the Independence of the Seas. Every part of our family holiday was perfect, and we can't wait to return to the boat as soon as we can! Hopefully the coins that we tossed into the Trevi Fountain will mean that we return to Rome as well!