This Southern Caribbean cruise departed Cape Liberty, NJ on November 30, 2008. This was our eighth cruise; fourth on RCI, three on Celebrity, and one on Azamara Journey. So far, we have been loyal to the RCI family of cruise lines. After this cruise, we are thinking of eliminating Royal Caribbean from the choices.
Our first cruise was on RCI in 2000. We were ecstatic at the spectacular food quality, from appetizers to desserts, in every dining venue. The ship, the Nordic Empress, though about ten years old at the time, looked brand new and spotless. The crew and staff were exceedingly accommodating and gracious. We were amazed at the quality of the entertainment, and could not wait to see the shows each night. I mention all this to compare to the current cruise.
Our second RCI cruise was on the same ship, in 2003. The decline in caliber of some food choices was marked, but preparation was still excellent. We were perturbed.
In 2006, we sailed Freedom of the Seas in its inaugural season. The food was again spectacular, and we were thrilled. However, we wondered if RCI was playing their "A" game since the Freedom class of ships was a major float out for the cruise line.
In the between years, we tried Celebrity cruises, and last year, Azamara. At first, Royal Caribbean was equal in quality. Now, not so much.
EMBARKATION: First, a word about Cape Liberty. What others have said is true; it is crowded and not well organized. There are narrow "chutes" in which cars/vans/limos unload passengers and luggage, and it is noisy and chaotic. It is still much better than departing from Manhattan, where the cars cannot even get close to the curb, and where we unloaded our luggage by ourselves in the middle of the street, because cars were quadruple-parked. Since we've attained Diamond Club level through our loyalty to RCI's lines, our admission to the ship was quick. However, we recall our first and second RCI cruises, where at the terminal the cruise company provided refreshments, small sandwiches, and cookies for all waiting passengers. Now, nothing for anyone.
CABIN: We booked a D-1 mid-ship balcony cabin. Upon arrival, we were very surprised to find that the wooden furniture was beat up, and the couch was stained and dingy. The bathroom was in good shape, and everything was in working order. And this ship is only six years old! If you book cabin 9612, be aware that the balcony is smaller than the rest of the D-1 balconies, because it is on the curve of the ship. I wish we were advised of that, since we had booked 13 months in advance, and had our choice of cabins. The deck layout did not depict the balcony as smaller than the rest. So the lesson is to ask a lot of questions when you book.
DINING: Here was the biggest decline in quality. On the first RCI cruise, and all Celebrity and Azamara cruises, we looked at all five to eight entree choices, and could not easily pick one because we wanted all of them. Now, we had a difficult time choosing, since we really did not want any of them. After each trying a different fish entree at dinner, my husband and I would not choose fish again, as both tasted like dried-out, frozen fish. Other choices were mostly cheaper cuts of meat, whereas previously there was a quality beef entree every night. This dinner menu had a sirloin steak, which DH said was "good", and I tried the Shell Steak when it was offered, and it was also "OK". Each night a pasta and marinara sauce was offered, which to me is a cheap "throw-away" choice for those who won't eat anything else. That should have been a separate optional selection, not using up one of the entree choices. Also, there were one or two entrees that were Indian on every menu, using up two more choices if you don't care for that cuisine. The same was true in the Windjammer buffet restaurant, thereby further restricting choices for the typical diner. The quality of breakfast choices and preparation in the Windjammer fell to cafeteria-level quality, and was really disappointing. Surprisingly, the lunches there actually tasted better than they looked, and I would recommend to the food service that they work on presentation. A new addition in the dining room at lunchtime is a generous salad bar, and the lunch choices were quite good. The "Brasserie 30" concept, which provides lunch within 30 minutes, worked very well
One of the major dinner differences was that instead of separate "Appetizer", "Soup", and "Salad" menus, the first course was lumped together into "Starters", and most people were therefore steered into one choice as a starter, instead of three separate courses. That was particularly upsetting to me, as it was very clear the cruise line was maneuvering to cut back. On most nights, we still asked for one appetizer, one soup, and one salad, as we were previously accustomed, and our waiter gladly accommodated. A veteran waiter admitted that there was a definite and deliberate decline in food quality, and that veteran cruisers were both aware and unhappy. Also, the size of the plates was much smaller than previously, so that entrees looked larger than they normally would. However, most choices we made were fairly well-prepared, and if you chose carefully, there were still some good entrees. As another CC member who was on our cruise said in his review, the soups were salty, and so were the salad dressings, but we have found that to be true on every single cruise we have taken. Another major decline was in the selection and preparation of the dessert course, although there was usually one good choice hiding in the bunch. Again, previously it was nearly impossible to choose because all were fantastic choices. The ice cream was excellent.
Regarding "Portofino", this specialty restaurant was not up to the par of "Ocean Liners" on Celebrity's Constellation, or Freedom of the Seas' "Aqualina". The menu choices were appropriate, but the preparation was sub-par. Again, the menu lumped together the first three courses, thereby steering most diners to choose only one. The atmosphere was lovely.
On a personal note, if you don't like small talk and dining with people who tend to be braggarts, blabbermouths, or will foist their own political opinions on you, attempt to reserve a dining room table for two. We normally do because of such people, but through a mixup on this reservation, our table for two was given away, and we were forced to dine with another couple. This couple were normally Holland America cruisers, and we were forced each night to listen to constant criticisms and comparisons on how much better "The Holland" is, to the point that the wife even complained that the coffee was too strong (it wasn't), and that portions were too big on this cruise. She regaled us with stories about how the other cruise line has washers/dryers onboard so that she didn't need to bring home her underwear dirty, and how the previous night's Escargot made her puke as soon as she reached her cabin, complete with what it looked like as it exited her mouth. It did not matter to her that three of us at the table ate the same, and only she was sick. All while we were attempting to eat. She even made aspersions about other peoples' nationalities, including mine. If this experience is not an argument on why you should dine alone, I don't know what is.
ENTERTAINMENT: The production shows were still as excellent as they were previously, and I appreciate that RCI still maintains a full high-quality orchestra, and not "canned" music and productions, as I have heard that other cruise lines do. We thought that Merill Osmond and some of the other "name" performers were over-the-hill and had lost their voices, and these entertainment selections were probably "bargain" headliner choices for the cruise line. Previously, every nights' entertainment was top-notch. Both ice shows were spectacular and not one performer missed a jump or a trick, even when the seas were rocky. As in all RCI theater and ice shows, the costumes and sets were fantastic.
SERVICE: We were surprised to have a problem here. There seemed to be less crew available onboard. The Excursion Desk constantly had a long line because it was hardly ever open. We were encouraged to book excursions via the in-room TV, but we and many others had specific questions that were not addressed via the TV, and needed to wait on line. There were only three reps at the excursion desk, and one had an annoyed expression on her face and a nasty attitude on the one occasion when we actually reached the front of the line. She was completely unhelpful. One evening when we were waiting, there were 30-40 guests still waiting when the desk was scheduled to close, and this same excursion rep came out from behind the desk and told everyone on line that the desk was now closed and to leave. I have never in my life, anywhere, seen a line close to those already waiting on it! All of those guests walked away steamed! It would seem that the cruise line makes a good deal of money from selling excursions, and if anyone was monitoring the management of this cruise, they would keep the desk open and sell more excursions. We booked less excursions because of this situation.
That was the very observation that my DH made about this cruise. It seemed the "head was cut off" of the cruise company and the crew and staff were operating without any direction or monitoring. Most were exceedingly helpful and polite, but there was no ownership watching what was happening. A display holding brochures that sell fitness services became empty on the first day of the cruise, and it was never refilled and no one knew what I was talking about when I asked for a copy.
DISEMBARKATION: Exiting the ship was fast and efficient. However, upon reaching the pier, the same "Cape Liberty" experience was had.
Onboard a previous cruise, we spoke with a travel agent who said he never books clients on Carnival Cruise lines, because they are "the McDonald's" of cruise lines. It seemed to us that RCI wishes to go head-to-head with Carnival to compete for the mass cruise market. I guess if now you want a higher level experience, they have Celebrity and Azamara to offer. In our opinion, we would rather see the price rise, if necessary, than watch quality levels slip. We may try one more RCI cruise, and if the experience is the same, we'd rather sail with Celebrity or Azamara.