We have just returned from a short, 4 night cruise on Independence of the Seas to Cork and back. We have cruised before but this was our first time on RCI and we thought this short trip would be an ideal taster of the RCI experience. My husband and I were accompanied by my mother who is disabled, though not a wheelchair user.
Embarkation This was our first time leaving from Southampton. We drove down and it took about 4 hours from our home in Nottinghamshire including a short stop. There were very bad traffic jams leading into Southampton as there are road works on the approach roads. We cut through the town center rather than following the motorway route and avoided the worst. We had prebooked car parking and it was very straightforward. We arrived just after 11am and followed the signs. A porter came and took our cases from the car and we drove round to the departures entrance where we were able to stop to let my Mum and I out. As we had completed our SeaPasses online and registered our credit card check in was very quick. I had requested assisted boarding but when I mentioned this at the check in desk I was told that we should have asked when we first entered the building. This created some confusion while they decided what to do. We eventually got fed up with waiting and my mum decided she would walk and just take it steady. This was okay because we were early and the terminal was very quiet but it would not have been so good if it had been busy. After having our photos taken for security we entered the ship on deck 4 by 11.45am.
First Impressions We have been on big ships, but Independence is massive, towering over the dock when you look up. This ship has clearly been designed to impress and it certainly succeeds. The dEcor when you enter the ship is beautiful, clean, fresh and bright without being garish, with specially commissioned art work adorning the walls. On our other cruises we have been given small cards with basic deck plans and we would have found this useful, but we soon get used to referring to the deck plans and models of the ship placed near all the lifts. Although this is a large ship we actually found it was very easy to navigate, once you realized that you can't make you way from one end of the ship to the other on decks 2 and 3, because of the ice rink, and that there are glass doors on some decks separating the port from starboard sides. This caught us out at first and we know others found it frustrating. There are 2 lift positions, midships and forward, with lifts on both the port and starboard sides. These go to all decks from 1 to 14. Some lifts are fully enclosed and others glass sided with views through the ship. Accessed on deck 5, running almost the length of the ship, is the Royal Promenade. On first sight rising 4 decks this is really spectacular, and it is hard to believe you are actually on a ship. The Promenade is lined with shops, an English pub, pizza restaurant, cafe and a wine bar. The lighting in the promenade changes during the day to create different effects and 'sky bridges' are lowered to provide entertainment platforms. It was from one of these that the captain gave his speech and introduced senior officers on the formal night. Very clever and very impressive. Duty free was not available on our cruise as we did not enter international waters; in fact 17.5% vat was added to shop purchases.
Cabins This was our first experience of an inside cabin and we have now decided our last. If we can't have at least an outside we would rather not go. We were on deck 10, the highest passenger deck, and also the deck with the most expensive suites. The cabin was very cramped. When we first arrived the beds were in a twin configuration and we asked for them to be changed to a queen. The steward asked if she could do this later when she turned the bed down for the night. Unfortunately the cabin is not really designed for this bed layout. There was insufficient room to move to the side of the bed without climbing over the bed end. We now know why the beds in outside cabins and balconies are actually rounded at the ends! If the cabin had been just a few inches longer or wider this problem would have been solved. The corridor on our deck was so wide I'm sure this would have been possible. I don't think someone who is physically challenged or on the large side would be able to manage. We had a look in an outside cabin and there was a little more room round the bed but not much. The narrow width of the cabin also caused problems when accessing the wardrobe. Apart from this the cabin fittings were well designed and the dEcor was very tasteful and relaxing. The shower, though small, was excellent. There was adequate storage and hanging space for our short cruise but we don't travel light and I think we would have struggled on a longer cruise. We also struggled to stow our case under the bed, I'm not sure where we would have put it had it been any deeper? We had a look in the Royal Suite, which was just along the corridor from our cabin. It was very, very big and beautifully decorated with a grand piano and massive balcony stretching the length of the hump. My mum was on deck 2 and had an inside cabin for the disabled. This was very big and very well adapted for someone in a wheelchair. The bathroom was designed as a wet room with a seat in the shower area and telephone for emergencies.
Food We only used the Windjammer buffet restaurant twice and did not like it on either occasion. The tables are tightly packed in places which results in you being constantly knocked as pax try to walk through. There was a reasonable selection of food available which was well presented but the taste and quality was not as good as we were expecting. We have been on Ocean Village and both of us thought their buffet was better!
One thing we noticed was that RCI tried to cater for British tastes - steak and kidney pie, British style bacon.
We were on late 8.30 club dining; we requested a table for 8 and were allocated a table in the Romeo and Juliet dining room on deck 3. There were 2 further balcony levels on decks 4 and 5 to this very large dining room. The dEcor is once again beautiful with crystal chandeliers and art work on the walls. We had 2 lovely dinner companions but the 2 further seats remained allocated but unfilled, perhaps they didn't like the look of us! The first night's food got off to a bad start. We were very hungry but it was nearly an hour before our first course arrived. We were very disappointed with this meal. 3 of us had pork and it was too tough to eat. The other 2 had steak and it was very ordinary. When the head waiter introduced himself and asked if we had enjoyed the meal we told him of the problems and he said no one else had complained (not the right response!). We later found out this was not the case. He said he would make sure we enjoyed the remaining meals and he did. The service improved considerably as the cruise went on with the waiters remembering our likes and dislikes. The food was good, but fairly ordinary, not as good as we had on Carnival Destiny last year. I love prawn cocktail (its my age!) but it was very poor, just 3 small rather dry prawns on a few leaves. We were surprised that there was no fish course offered just 3 courses plus standard coffee. We ordered wine evening. A good selection was offered but not all of it was available. I think there were some on offer at about $25 but we normally paid $38 - $45 for a reasonable bottle. There was also a connoisseur selection available closer to $100. We also took breakfast in the Romeo and Juliet dining room as it was easier with my mum than using the buffet. The quality of the breakfast generally was very good with a wide selection available. The exception was the toast which was either soft or like cardboard. I like grapefruit juice but there was only orange or if you were quick enough asking, apple. There was also a small buffet set up if you wanted to help yourself. The service was variable with some items failing to arrive as ordered. We also used this dining room for lunch on our second day and it was relaxing. Once again a small buffet for salads was available with lovely smoked salmon and juicy prawns. We had a very nice lunch. For our other lunches we got either got sandwiches from the Promenade Cafe or pizza from Sorrento's, both on the Royal Promenade. Both were very good and fresh. We did not eat at either Chops or Portofino. Our diner companions tried to book when they first came on board at 2pm on the first day and were unable to get a table. It would probably be best to book online to be sure of a table. It was our table companions' wedding anniversary the last evening and the waiters sang them a special song.
Cobh A street market had been arranged by the local council and this together with the ship docking on a Sunday resulted in a very large number of local people coming to Cobh. This combined with a full ship meant Cobh was packed. We visited the local heritage center by the dock, partly to escape the rain and the crush. The displays, mainly about emigration to the new world, were very interesting. We found out when we got back on the ship that we would have got in for half price if we had shown our SeaPass. We stayed overnight in port and on the next day we went on a ship's excursion, a scenic ride to Kinscale. We chose this excursion because it was advertised as suitable for disabled but I was disappointed that no consideration was given to my mum who had to struggle to the back of the coach as she could not keep up with others determined to sit at the front. This made a nice outing but we did not think the scenery was as nice as where we live so would not wish to go back. We did go in a local bar and had Irish Coffee and Murphys beer which went down well. We did not buy very much as we thought the prices were high compared with the UK.
Entertainment The shows in the theatre were outstanding, particularly the 2 production shows. We went to the shows every evening, there were 2 performances and for late dining we went twice before dining and twice after. The Cruise Compass newspaper delivered to the cabin each evening advised the best time for each sitting. All the shows were accompanied by an extremely good live band. For the production shows it was necessary to get to the theatre about 10 - 15 minutes before the performance to ensure a reasonable seat. We generally sat in the balcony accessed from deck 4 as we found the view from the lower level not so good. This is a lovely comfortable theatre with a very large stage but the view from some seats is impeded by columns. There was also live music in various bars round the ship mainly in the evening. We also went to the ice show which was brilliant and well worth making the effort to see. Although there is no charge it is necessary to get tickets for the ice show prior to the performance from tables set up near Sorrento's. The time for this was announced in the theatre and also advertised in Cruise Compass, though the start times were different by 30 minutes. My husband got there about 10 minutes before the earlier advertised time and was first in q very long queue. They have 700 tickets available for each performance and they did 4 on our cruise. On the second evening a parade was held along the Royal Promenade at 11pm. This was rather like the sort of parade you expect at Disney. It was entertaining but too busy with over 3,000 people in the same place at the same time. Using the lifts afterwards was interesting!
Dress codes There was 1 formal night and the others casual. On the formal night the majority of people dressed up and most men were in tuxedos. We were surprised, we like dressing up but heard before hand that this is patchy on RCI, well not on this cruise, and although men removed ties people did not change to go to the shows. In fact every evening there were women in full length evening or cocktail dresses and they did not seem out of place. We had photos taken on the formal night but they did not take as much care as on our previous cruises. This was not because of the long queues as they were fairly short. Nonetheless my mum still bought 4 photos which came with a nice album for $19.95 each. Photos were only taken once in the dining room.
Sports facilities We only used the crazy golf; we had a game everyday and really enjoyed it. The roll of the ship combined with the wind made playing interesting! There is also a large games court and a very high climbing wall. There is no charge for these activities and only once did we find a short queue for the crazy golf. You just picked your sticks, balls and score cards up at the entrance. The flow rider is good to watch with relatively short queues but few managed to surf, most crashed straight into the back wall! We had a brief look in the fitness area and spa but did not use these facilities either. There really was not time on such a short cruise.
Debarkation As usual cases were put outside the cabin by midnight, though you could carry off yourself if you wanted to. Times were allocated from 6.15am with everyone off by 9am. The time for our cabin was 6.15 - 6.45 and for my mum's cabin 8.30 - 9! We thought is unwise to desert her so we had breakfast in the dining room and then left the ship at about 8.30. We found our cases easily laid out according to the color of luggage tags delivered to the cabin the previous evening. Collecting the car from the car park was straightforward as the car park was right next to the ship. We were given permission to bring the car close to the terminal to avoid a long walk for mum. We got lost coming out of Southampton as we missed the turning, but apart from that the drive home went well taking under 4 hours including a short stop.
Good Bits The production shows with live music. The décor, particularly the glass bridge on deck 5 near Customer Relations Nice seating areas, particularly Olive and Twist on deck 14 and the library on deck 7 Beautiful art - look out for being watched as you leave Romeo and Juliet! Evening dining service waiter
Bad Bits Waiting for lifts - we walked when mum was not with us Very cramped inside cabin No toiletries provide in cabin, only shampoo and soap Long queues for dining room breakfast Too many people in one place, particularly Royal Promenade Windjammer buffet - cramped tables, cold plastic plates, soggy burgers Having to pay in Johnny Rockets to get decent burgers etc. Charge for good coffee and ice cream 15% service charge on bar Obligation to tip - constant reminders, we don't mind tipping but like to make our own choice. Some were even having their photo taken presenting their tip envelope, weird!