13 April 2009 Sydney to Honolulu Hawaii - 16 Nights
Via Raratonga, Raiatea, Papeete, Bora Bora and Maui
NB This was a repositioning cruise which runs every year at this same time, and in the reverse direction about Oct. We paid about $900 USD per person.
We set sail from Sydney, and among our party of 5 people, only two had cruised before, and none with Royal Caribbean.
I might add that my partner party had a history of 'extreme' motion sickness (eg they get sick looking too closely at a G&T) and this was a cause of great concern. Additionally some or our group who had never been to sea expressed apprehension about the cruise summed up by the words "We're either going to love it or hate it". Hence, as I had organized the whole adventure, I was equally concerned about what lay ahead when we got to sea.
After much research I found a product from the states called Bonnie - unlike patches that can have bad side effects, and other products that cause drowsiness and can't be taken with alcohol (YUCK) Bonnie is an over the counter medication that you take once a day which was about $10-15 for a pack of 24/30. This was the best money I have ever spent. Sadly as I understand it you can not purchase it here in Australia.
On the couple of days out of Sydney we had very high seas - 4-5 metres (that's taller than a two story building) and even old sea dogs were feeling the rock and roll, yet no one in our party of land luggers got sick. I've never been seasick in my life, but there were 2 days there when I took them just to be sure. Once you are sick it's too late for any thing to work.
RC reception onboard can supply, on request, a pack of three pills free of charge, which I believe are the generic version of bonnie. Regardless of this, I would never risk cruising with my partner in tow without a full supply of Bonnie, just in case the ship ran out of supplies. Why risk spoiling a holiday for 15 bucks?
I think from memory the documents from RC stated boarding would not commence until after 2 pm. We stayed at Quay Grand which over looks Circular Quay where the ship docks (not cheap but highly recommended - best view in Sydney - www.wotif.com has the best discounted rates by far). I headed out about 11am to check out the dock to see when we might be able to check in. Ran into some of our cruise critic group who had already had their bags tagged and loaded by RC staff.
So we quickly checked out of the hotel, raced back to the ship and were on board by about 1130 am! The check-in itself was very smooth, as was customs. Naturally our rooms were not ready so we assembled at the Windjammer Cafe to have the first of our meals on board. This was a pleasant surprise, having read several negative comments prior to our departure.
We had two inside cabins - which were on deck 2, (2039 and 2057) these were the cheapest ones available. My mum had a Junior Suite with balcony on Deck 8. (8042)
While small, the inside cabins like the food were a very pleasant surprise. They were extremely comfortable and well designed. There was simply tons of storage space, with one large wardrobe, large draws either side of the desk, as well as beside tables. The bathroom, although again compact, was well designed and very clean, and also provided lots of storage. The beds were high enough to stow our large suitcases underneath, and anything else we didn't need easy access to.
We had a small corner sofa as well, and perhaps the best feature was a blackout curtain that separated the bed from the rest of the cabin - this meant that if someone wanted to read, watch TV or shower they wouldn't disturb someone sleeping.
The beds were some of the most comfortable we have slept in, and as we had an inside cabin they were pitch black when the lights were out. Combined with the motion of the ship and the very effective sound proofing we slept soundly every single night. Indeed our sleep was so good that we have decided to only book inside cabins on future cruises - not only do we get better sleep without sunlight creeping in, the money we save will let us go on more cruises!
Our cabin Attendant Alan was always on hand with a welcoming smile and did a superb job cleaning our room twice a day (such a luxury).
Mum had a handicapped cabin, which was simply huge, double the size of a normal junior suite, as large as a Grand Suite. Naturally we had pre dinner drinks there most nights, along with a cheese and fruit platter we would put together each day from the afternoon buffet.
The main dinning room.
This was a great space that worked well. And like the rest of the ship was very well designed. On the first day I checked our table allocation as soon as I got on board and managed to change from a table of 12 to one just for us 5 of us. Initially I wasn't sure where it would be best to be seated, upstairs, by a window, or close to the entrance? - I needn't have worried because when I went exploring during the meal I realized that apart from a couple of tables close to the kitchen door, there weren't any 'bad' tables that I could see.
We couldn't have asked for better waiters than Morgan Marques and Michael Doronila. Their attentive and professional service was a highlight of our cruise. Even when we were a tad tired and considered skipping dinner in the main dining room, these two were enough to ensure we made the effort to go to dinner there and not the Windjammer.
I had read numerous accounts of how cost cutting had adversely effected the quality of the food. Again we were surprised on the upside. The presentation, choice, taste and quality of the food was simply fantastic.
This was true too for the Windjammer Cafe which was our preferred choice for lunch and breakfast. Buffets can be hideous things, with slabs of unappetizing food that has been picked over by the ravenous hoards. It didn't matter what time you got there, even right at the end of the meal service, the food always looked as if it had just been put out just moments before. Quite an achievement when you consider 2000 may have grazed there before you.
The solarium bar served up a very basic array of fast food such as hamburgers, pizza, chips and sausage rolls. This was the only area of food service onboard that seemed on the cheap side - but then again it was only fast food, but as this was the only option after dinner until dawn it is an area that could be improved - one of the few on the ship. There was free flow soft serve ice cream here and by the main pool during the day.
Personally I find the soda packs a rip off. Unless you drink litres of this stuff a day it's simply not worth it. And as you are allowed to take a reasonable amount of soft-drink on board with you - we took a dozen bottles - this can save you up $100 per person. And as there is complimentary American Lemonade, Iced Tea and water we never needed to buy a soft drink.
We were a bit shocked prior to departure to see that a dozen bottles of wine would cost us close to $500 Aussie bucks - (that's when the Aussie dollar was close to 60 cents - today that would be closer to $350 at 90 cents to the dollar), especially when we are used to spending just $10-15 per bottle at home. That being said the wine we had with our dinner was fantastic and it really would have been a shame to spoil such good food and service with cheap plonk. And as we have discussed since our return, the $35-35 we paid for the wine on board is pretty comparable to what you would pay in a good restaurant. Certainly RC are making a huge margin on all drinks they sell on board as they buy duty free and sell at normal retail, but we figure as the cruise was so cheap - (for us about $50 per night) that we are willing to spend a bit more on the wine if need be. That doesn't make such a high mark up right by the way!
The pools were great. We especially liked the adults only solarium - particularly on those days at sea when there was little sun or the wind was too strong - we could sit in luxurious warmth watching the passing swell. The pools are salt water, pumped fresh from the sea and heated. Some people said they would prefer chlorinated water - which to me is absurd as it's a ship after all and we were at sea. Go figure!
The ship is well maintained and all the public areas work well with high passenger flow.
Water and Coffee
The ship as with most now now days desalinates its own water for drinking - the water out of the taps in the cabins was perfect for drinking. RC provided kettles in all cabins fro cruises in Australian waters, an accommodation for us Aussies that are used to such things in our hotel rooms. However because of an exclusive agreement with Seattle's Best Coffee no instant coffee was provided on board. Coffee in point of fact seemed to generate more complaints onboard than almost anything else, most seemed to dislike the taste. Personally I thought it was OK, not great. Take instant coffee if you want it in your cabin.
We had a group of 100 cruise critics onboard and consequently had a large group for our meet and mingle. It was great that captain Mike Sullivan and the cruise director Carly Boileau both managed to attend. Incidentally we couldn't have asked for two better people in these roles. Both did an outstanding job. One of our group group (on ya Suzie!)organized a gift exchange and I did the traditional cabin crawl. We also organized our own talent show entry - a song from Mamma Mia which we rehearsed for half an hour every second day - this was great fun and stole the show. Additionally we also organized our own day trips in Raiatea, Bora Bora and Hawaii, on each occasion saving about $100 each per day. It's an easy thing to do by searching the various treads here at CC.
A few tips re the ports on this cruise:
These are all, with the exception of Hawaii, very small island communities that have to import almost everything long distances at considerable cost. The locals although they access to modern conveniences like TV and some to air conditioning, in general they live a very simple, subsistence existence. And this is the sheer joy of the South Pacific.
Because, although they have suffered because of the tyranny of distance, this conversly at the same time is the one thing that has protected them from over development.
Now on our cruise we had a certain number of 'whiners' who simply hated most of these ports - one was heard to say 'It aren't the Bahamas or Mexico'. Now that to me is precisely the point! If it was Iike Cancun I wouldn't want to go in the first place - not that I don't want to go to Cancun, but rather I don't want Cancun in the South Pacific. Ignorant comments such these really make me cringe and I really have to bite my tongue and stop my self from saying aloud - people like you really shouldn't travel.
The South Pacific to me is paradise sublime, pure and simple. To have the waves crashing ashore as you snorkel off sandy beaches with schools of colorful fish and to finish the day drinking tropical cocktails as the sun sinks into the blue pacific and spinner dolphins jumping in the wake of the ship .... life doesn't get much better.
Certainly that idyllic picture can be illusive at first in a city centre like Papeete but if you take the time to get out of town that romanticized notion of a tropical paradise still awaits in abundance.
Cook Islands. We were lucky and arrived on local market day - complete with beautiful and way too sexy local dances who seem to capture all the very best of a tropical paradise in their magical moves and heavenly music. I suggest if on, you visit the market first as if we had left this until after lunch it would have been closed. We hired a van for about $60 NZ and drove to the Rarotongan for lunch, about a 20 minute drive. This is a great hotel with a fab beach bar and restaurant. We chose to eat at the tables just up from the beach and had delicious local fish and cocktails. You can hire snorkeling gear from the dive shop - I think from memory I had emailed the hotel and asked if we could use the pool and facilities if we had lunch there and they said yes - so we may have got the snorkeling gear for free - just can't remember. The snorkeling was great being surrounded by hundreds of fish. After lunch we drove around the island .... this takes about an hour. Then a short stroll through town and back to the ship. A very relaxing day but one that gave us a sense of the whole island. I guess you could do all of the above with a taxi if need be. Things are very cheap in the Cook Islands as they use NZ currency. If you prebook a car and it is in town I'd suggest you get off the ship quickly and walk in, as it is only about 5 minutes walk, otherwise you have to wait for the mini buses to fill up which can take a while.
Papeete. Initially we were simply shocked at the price of hire cars in Papette - something like $500 per day. Simply ridiculous. I'd been there a few times before and knew that Papette really still feels like an old pirate town - instead of hijacking ships they now hijack passengers with outrageous prices. $50 for a hat made out of palm leaves that would take minutes to make.
Anyway we were one of the first off the ship and managed to get to one of the hire car companies with a mini bus waiting on the dock and they said they would rent us a mini van for half a day - the van would have taken 7 if you squeezed them in.
They drove us to the airport - about 10 minutes away - did the paper work and then headed out - first to the paul Gauguin museum which is run down but if you love his art, and Van Gogh's, it really is a must see as it puts his work into sharp perspective. Just don't expect too much and read up before you go.
Then we drove down to the very bottom of the Island on the far side which is the most untouched part and very beautiful. Simply stunning and a spectacular drive.
We drove back around the other side of the main island and stopped at Captain Cook's landing place. Again a few history books prior to departure help make for a more enriching experience. Then back through town with out stopping and back to the airport. That was almost exactly half a day so we really got our money's worth. And at about $250 - divided by 5 meant it turned out to be probably the cheapest day we could have had.
The car company dropped us back in town where we had lunch and then had a quick look at the very very silly prices in the market. Lunch was very average and not cheap and if you wanted to save money next time I'd go back to the ship and then go for a walk after lunch - not that there was much to see in town.
NB I'd book a van before hand as we were lucky, rather than well planned.
Raiatea. Probably one of the most unspoiled islands visited by cruise ships in the South Pacific. But again being unspoiled also means that usual level of infrastructure that some expect on a cruise is missing - my advice again if you are looking for Disneyland you Florida is calling your name.
I emailed Vahine Private Island resort and organized a day trip that included boat transfers for 20 people, along with a magnificent Tahitian feast and the use of the Island's facilities for day. This was one of the highlights of the trip and worked out at about $100 USD each instead of other options offered by RC for more than double that. The Island is one of the most beautiful in the world and pictures and words simply can't do it justice. The Island of Bora Bora sits on the horizon and the snorkeling is fantastic. It is very exclusive with only 3 over water bungalows which rent for over $1000 USD per night, and that is without food! So $100 is a fantastic deal. If you want to do the same email Sylvie and tell her I referred you and you want to book james' magical mystery tour to paradise and back!
Bora Bora. One of our fab CC group organized with a local operator, Patrick for one of the best day trips you could ever hope to do. We set out with 30 people in three outrigger canoes - first off to snorkel with literally thousands of fish, then to swim with sting rays and sharks. Truly several once in a life time experiences - all in one day. I know that when we returned to the dock we were met with many forlorn jealous faces.
Maui - is a delightful old town with great restaurants and we preferred to sit and have a long lunch than race off to see the island which we had seen before.
Hawaii - We have always loved the grand old dame of Waikiki the Moana Surf Rider, here you can sit at the beach bar under the banyon tree and order a single cocktail and sit for as long as you want - often with live music. You can also sit in the rocking chairs out front for as long as you want and watch the $2000 a night pros working the other side of the street.
A fun cheap place is Tiki's first floor up near the zoo - great happy hour prices and fab view. http://www.tikisgrill.com/
Another great local feed and view is Dukes - on the beach. http://www.dukeswaikiki.com/
For designed stuff at crazy prices - eg guess jeans at $20 - Waikele Premium Outlets 94-790 Lumiaina Street, Waipahu, HI 96797 (808) 676-5656 Waikele Outlets http://www.premiumoutlets.com/outlets/outlet.asp?id=29
Also Ross Dress for Less is a must for designer clothes at ridiculous prices.
If you like vintage old world hawaii, on road up near the zoo is Baileys - the largest range of vintage hawaiian shirts in the world and what is even better browsing through the display cases of vintage hawaiian statues and souvenirs.
Just up the road is Peggy's place for vintage nic nacks and furniture.
So to sum up, simply a perfect cruise across the beautiful pacific. From my experience the best advice I can offer is to throw yourself into the Cruise Critic thread for your cruise. Don't just be a passenger! Get involved. Ask silly lame questions, start discussions and suggest ideas like meeting for a game of shuttle board or a drink. We had many who came to our Meet and Mingle that we never saw again - perhaps I scared them off (!) But I'm sure from those active members in our group - they missed out on many many highlights.
The tread for our cruise can be found at http://boards.cruisecritic.com/showthread.php?t=646751
As of today it there have been nearly 3000 pots and it has been viewed nearly 35000 times. I'll be posting a link to my videos of this cruise on you tube in coming days on the above thread, around page 128.
One final thing. Be cautious in taking 'onboard' every thing you read in reviews here at Cruise Critic. (Mine included) My advice don't read them isolation, don't take them as gospel, and the bottom line seek and you shall find ... meaning if you start your cruise and each day thinking I'm going to have a great time - you generally will. And if things go wrong - big or small - take a big breath - build a bridge and get over it as quickly as possible so that you can get back to enjoying your cruise.
I've started another tread (http://boards.cruisecritic.com/showthread.php?t=1071922) on this very topic.
If you are worried about some of the reviews you have read, I'd suggest you take the time to peruse it.
PS It's such shame that we can't attach photos or videos to these reviews. It really would make them so much more interesting and relevant.
Happy Cruising people!