I am going to focus on the negatives first, just to get it off my chest, and then we'll get into all the good stuff!
Royal Caribbean is cutting corners. Since I last cruised with them a year ago, they have gotten rid of the Assistant Cabin Stewards. Now the Cabin Stewards have to do double duty on their own. Also gone are the chocolates on the pillow, the stationery in the drawer and the pen (they couldn't keep the plastic pens?) And most unfortunately, there is no longer any lobster in the dining room on formal night. If you want lobster, you have to shell out (no pun intended) $34.95. They instead serve jumbo shrimps on formal night. Food costs are so low now that a salad is a dinner entree, as are beef sliders! (My advice: double your appetizers; they're really good!)You want to cut costs? Keep the lobster and cut out the towel animals; you'll save towels, water and electricity, as well as give the cabin stewards more time to make up the rooms without their assisants.
Activities onboard are mostly geared to sales -- the ones that do not carry a charge, that is. Apart from trivia and dance classes, there were, in my opinion, too many "health lectures" sponsored by the spa and fitness center, all geared toward getting you to try acupuncture or buy items to help ease back pain or restore youth.
I was disappointed in the ship's lax attitude toward dress codes. This is what I saw: a man wearing shorts, a T shirt and flip flops in the dining room on formal night. Children (not babies or toddlers, but older kids) wearing pajamas to breakfast. And a woman in the jewelry shop in a bathing suit without a cover-up.
Here is the most annoying aspect of the Serenade. They put on different kinds of shows, including aerial acts, music performances and the captain's toast in the Centrum. This is especially unfortunate for those who have late seating, because by the time you get to the Centrum you have all the early seating people taking up all the very limited balcony space. We had to jockey for position to see over the balconies into the Centrum, or even run from floor to floor to get a decent view, if at all. One of my fellow passengers suggested I watch the mirrored ceiling to view the performance. Children would grab the computer chairs from the internet area and bring them over to the balconies to watch the Centrum shows, leaving practically no space for anyone to stand or see. Making matters worse was the fact that the photographer would take up valuable Centrum viewing space (as well as hallway space) to use the Centrum as a backdrop. It would be a much better idea to utilize the empty theater to put on some of the Centrum performances. I prefer the big open space of the Promenade on the Explorer of the Seas to the small and congested Centrum.
So, now that you've heard me vent, let me tell you all the good stuff.
Background: This was my 27th cruise, and first to the Mediterranean. My husband and I are in our 50s, and we traveled with two teenage daughters (who have been on nearly 30 cruises each) and my mom, who is in her 80s. We have sailed on Norwegian, Holland America, Carnival and Royal Caribbean.
We flew into Barcelona the day of the cruise (July 30). Barcelona has a beautiful, modern airport. We purchased the shore excursion that takes you from the airport to the ship. It is a decent orientation to the city, but it is mostly viewed from a bus window. For instance, do not expect to visit the Gaudi cathedral; you will view it from down the street as the bus passes by. The tour included two stops, a beautiful panaromic view and about 15 minutes of free time in the Gothic Quarter, just enough time for us to grab a cup of hot chocolate with churros.
Embarkation was easy, but unusual. They took our passports from us and held them for the rest of the cruise. Also, they took our security pictures and validated our Sea Pass cards outside on deck 5 before we entered the ship.
Our stateroom had ample space, and our cabin steward, Jimnie, was both hardworking and caring. She even sang in the housekeeping show, and was really good!
The ship is well-kept and clean. The beds are new and very comfortable. As a word of advice, don't book a room near the Centrum -- the loud and echoing music will be unbearable if you need to go to sleep before midnight.
Dining was very good. We took advantage of one upcharge restaurant, Izumi, and the sushi was excellent. By the way, whereas alternative restaurants used to just involve a cover charge, Izumi, and I believe, Rita's Cantina, make you pay a cover charge plus a la carte! The buffet on deck 11 served a variety of good food, including American and English breakfast items. All the meals in the main dining room were very good, especially the lamb, pork chops and fish dishes. There is a different choice of breads every night. Our waiter, Corwin, and his assistant, Fabio, took excellent care of us.
Activities on the ship were just OK, nothing truly special. We hardly ever saw the Captain -- not during the Walk for Wishes to benefit the Make a Wish Foundation, nor at the farewell show. Also, because one-third of the passengers were from Spain and Latin America, there was a large amount of Latin music onboard, as well as a member of the cruise staff, who acted as a translator for the cruise director during the shows and announcements.
The pool was always crowded and the deck chairs were always taken. It was even hard to find room to lie down in the Solarium.
Kids' Club. My younger daughter, who is 15, did not use the kids' club. She would much rather hang out in the piano bar or listen to the singers belt out a jazz number rather than hang out with kids their age, who all congregated during the late night hours, at the Park Cafe, which is next to the Solarium pool.
The service was outstanding. In my opinion, people could not do enough to please you.
Entertainment was not as excellent as on other Eoyal Caribbean cruises I have taken. There were only 2, not 3, production shows in the span of 12 days, and the rest of the acts consisted of singers, a magician, a juggler, and Cirque du Soleil type performers. We also saw the gaucho act we've seen several times before on Eoyal Caribbean. The aerial acts in the Centrum are breathtaking ... if you can actually watch them through the throng of spectators! I really wish the Serenade had a rollicking piano bar instead of the pitiful old gent they stick at the piano who complained about how dead it was there, and ended up singing to me because no one else was listening to him.
The ports were what made this trip truly amazing:
In Cannes, we did not take a shore excursion. We took the "Petit Train" for a touristy little ride through Cannes, and then explored on our own. Do not miss a store called Jean-Luc Pele. They sell wonderful French macaroons, and to see these multicolored treats so beautifully displayed was irresistible.
In Livorno, we took a shore excursion called "Pisa and Florence on Your Own.: It is quite challenging to try to see everything in such a short span of time, so we ended up seeing the outsides of the most famous sights, but not the insides of the museums or churches. The guide suggested a restaurant for lunch, which cost just 17 Euros with wine and gave me an amazing lasagna with pesto.
The same happened in Rome, where we took a tour called "A Taste of Rome." This tour took us to the exterior of the Coliseum,St. Peter's in Chains (the Moses statue by Michaelangelo), the outside of St. Peter's Basilica and other sights, and gave us some time to explore on our own.
In Athens, we took an afternoon tour of the major sights with shopping in the Plaka. This included a stop to view the Acropolis, but not a tour through it -- which was OK, because the sun was hot and my mother is 85!
In Santorini, we were on our own. The island was choked with tourists (3 ships were in). We took the cable car up, enjoyed the lovely views, and did some shopping. I recommend a store called Athens Protasis for beautiful, inexpensive jewelry including necklaces made from Santorini lava rock, which make great gifts.
Kusadasi, Turkey was my favorite port. We skipped the tour of Ephesus for a more cultural experience. We heard the Muslim call to prayer, bargained for silver jewelry in the bazaar, and went to Ladies' Beach, where we enjoyed the warm water. By the way, we had glassy seas and clear blue skies for all but one day of the entire cruise! Before we went back to the ship, we stopped by a Turkish candy store for Turkish delight, halvah, sugared nuts and the best baklava ever. (Turkish baklava is better than Greek baklava, I think.)
In Salerno, my mother and younger daughter took the shore excursion "Leisurely Amalfi by Motorlaunch." They enjoyed their boat ride and stop in Amalfi, where they enjoyed gelato and bought all kinds of foods made with lemons. My husband, older daughter and I did the tour of Pompeii, which was fascinating -- wait until you see the brothel!
The places we passed during the cruise were beautiful, too: the volcanic island of Stromboli, with steam rising from the top ... the Strait of Messina, with Italy on one side and Sicily on the other ... the strait between Corsica and Sardinia ... and watching the double rainbow as the sun set over Capri.
We certainly snacked our way through Europe -- French macaroons, gelato, a prosciutto and parmagiano cheese sandwich, lemon soda, churros, hot chocolate, horchata, baklava, gyros, strong Greek coffee, espresso and more.
Disembarkation must have been so easy, I don't remember it. We purchased a transfer for $31.50 each that took us to the airport in Barcelona.
To sum it up, it was the best way to see the most famous places in Europe while enjoying all the amenities of cruising!
I would definitely recommend this cruise to everyone!