Just a word of warning this review is quite long, but if you're interested in a detailed account I might be able to provide some good insights.
I've just returned from my first ever cruise with a party of 8 including my boyfriend, MIL, family and a family friend, and we had a wonderful time. It was a great experience for a party of first time cruisers.
We got to the ship at about 1:30 on departure day, and the line looked long but moved quickly. It would be no small task to get 2,500 passengers onto an international ship, and we were very impressed with the process. We were greeted by lots of smiling crew members, set up our folio easily and in about 40 minutes we were at our room meeting our Stateroom Attendant, Tarfiq (who was amazing! More on that in a bit). About 10 minutes after that we were enjoying our lunch and views of the harbour from the Windjammer cafe. What a life!
Tarfiq, our Stateroom Attendant, was wonderful! We were delighted to learn that he would be servicing our room TWICE a day, not once as we expected, and he did this without fail. He was quick to learn our names and was always friendly if we saw him in the hall, often asking how our trip was going and making sure we were having a laugh. He was very attentive of our needs, never disturbing us if our Do Not Disturb card was in the door slot. On day 3 of 4 I left a note asking if we could please have 2 more harder pillows if they were available, but if they weren't not to worry (and I did not expect them to be) but at the next service there they were on the bed. We enjoyed the towel animals that were left every few days, always decorated with our sunglasses. Fabulous service!
The Stateroom was actually bigger than we expected it to be. There's a lot of storage space, including floor space in the cupboards for suitcases if you wish to use it (we chose to keep ours out in the corner). The bed was very comfortable and pleasant to sleep in, and our port hole was massive, so it was nice to wake up and see the port we were in on shore days. There's a 2 person couch, a small stool-sized coffee table and a TV mounted to the wall near the surface of the dresser. We usually had our TV on in the background when we were getting ready to go out (usually on Parks and Recreation) but there are informative channels with information on the cruise if you wish to watch it and we also got signal of both channel 7 and 9, so we could catch up on the tennis, cricket and snippets of the news when we wanted a few minutes of downtime. The bathroom is SMALL but got the job done. It's hard not to flood the bathroom when you have a shower, but there's a drain for the excess water, and it gave us a good laugh. Use the bathmat and you'll be fine. And make sure you push the toilet flusher in hard and hold it down for 3 or so seconds or the toilet will not flush (learnt this the hard way). The bathroom was an experience in itself, but to be honest if you're going to be too fussy about these components of the room this holiday's probably not for you. Get out of the room and explore the ship!
Our dining experience was amazing! We dined every night at Cascades with the MyTime dining option. Every night except night 2 we were seated at the same table and our wait staff, Pely the head waiter and Raju the assistant waiter, were phenomenal! Their energy was always exciting and they made us feel welcome each evening. Our chosen drinks were brought to us without us even having to order them and we were offered several rounds of bread. We were allowed to order what we liked off the menu (mains as entrees, entrees in main sizes as mains, sides of other dishes to accompany the entree, side dishes of vegetables to accompany the mains). One evening we let Pely know we were itching for a dish that wasn't on the menu, and the next evening it was prepared by the chef just for our table. No request was too much to ask and the level of service was unlike anything we've experienced. There was no need to eat at Windjammer or the specialty dining options and we knew we were getting the best at Cascades. Although we had an 8:15pm booking each night, we were told by the wait staff to arrive at 7:30pm and we would be seated soon after, which would allow us to get the same table each night. All nights except night 2 we did this and we waited no more than 15 minutes to be seated.
Breakfast at Windjammer is sufficient with more variety offered than in the dining room and for lunch Windjammer and Park Cafe have everything you need. The food is great and rotated often with lots of variety - both hearty and lighter options. For 2 of the days on our cruise they also put on a barbeque which was delicious!
The onboard activities and shore visits are what you make of them and there's everything you need to tailor your holiday to your needs. There's plenty for kids and teens to do (although our party was all 18+ so we had no involvement in these). If you're into fitness the Shipshape Centre is great with plenty of cardio and weights machines as well as a big floor space area where classes and seminars are run. They provide clean towels and a drinking water fountain. There's also a walking track on deck 12 and when it's quiet you can make good use of the stairs in the forward lobby.
The pool was relaxing but it's a very popular area so the deck chairs are often taken quite early. If you just want to lay out go up to deck 12 (quieter, better sunlight) or deck 5 (little sun exposure but very quiet). Drink waiters are buzzing around the pool area to take drink orders. If you choose to go to the bar at the Pool Deck on 11 or Sky Bar on deck 12 you can be waiting quite a while during busy times. You can always get a drink from Centrum deck 4 or the bars on deck 6 which are very quiet during the day and take it up with you to get around this. A movie screened on the outside screen everyday and most days there were activities on the Pool Deck starting around 2pm. The Outsiders Duo playing on the Pool Deck provides great, light afternoon entertainment.
Before dinner we enjoyed having a drink at Centrum on level 4 where there was always musical entertainment. We also enjoyed the pianist in the Colony Club in the evenings who took requests and also let guests come and sing with him. I caught 2 of the after dinner shows, some people in my party caught more of them. They're always enjoyable - a great way to unwind and relax - and we're amazed at how the performers do what they do and make it look so easy with the motion of the ship! The evening activities with the Cruise Director Amy and her crew provided us with some great laughs. We didn't have a lot to do with Amy - we were usually more spectators in the activities although her Zumba class was excellent and a lot of fun - but we found her to be pleasant, very energetic, good at getting the crowd going and when we did see her she was very polite and happy to have a quick chat. The Activities team have certainly got spunk and energy.
In terms of onshore activities, we stuck to doing our own thing and had an amazing time! At Noumea we got a taxi to the Aquarium and walked along the beach. The Aquarium staff called us a taxi back and then we walked around the city centre and did a bit of shopping before returning to the port and doing most of our shopping there. You'll need French Pacific Franks for Noumea. AUD or USD are both fine for Mystery Island and Isle of Pines.
Mystery Island is small so you can walk around the whole island and the water is beautiful, warm and crystal clear. I had my hair braided by a local and 3 of us split a lobster for lunch, which was freshly cooked and we were all fine. This is a good island to get some of your smaller souvenirs such as bracelets.
At Isle of Pines we caught a bus tour run by a small local company. It was exactly the same as the one that RCCL organises, but these had to be cancelled because of local bus strikes. It was $25pp for 2 hours and we saw a lot of the island that we would have missed otherwise. The bus driver was reliable and had a working mobile phone, and even if something had gone wrong at the time of the tour (11:30am) we would have had time to work out how to get back to the port. We got back at about 1:40ish and had time to get lunch from one of the local marquees (I had 2 crepes and my boyfriend had chicken, rice and papaya salad - both great and thoroughly cooked) and a swim in the ocean, which again was crystal clear and beautiful.
You need to take the Tender boat to Mystery Island and Isle of Pines, but you usually don't have to queue too long and it's a 5-10 minute ride there and back.
In terms of drinks packages, we were fine with the Soda Package which we purchased on day 1 for the special price of US$60 (roughly US$7.50 per day). Unless you're a big drinker, you might not get your value out of the alcoholic beverage packages. The basic beer, wine and mocktail package is US$45 per day. Drinks can be easily bought and added to your account for payment at the end of the cruise.
If you're capable of carrying your own bags and aren't taking a RCCL arranged transport option upon departure, take the express departure option. You're the first to depart, it's quick and easy, and from lining up to shore (including going through customs) it took about 20 minutes.
Overall I highly recommend anyone to try cruising at least once in their lifetime and this 8 night cruise was the perfect first cruise experience. For those choosing what cruise company to go with, I think you're going to get a great experience with RCCL.