My 20th cruise with a four day pre-cruise jaunt, two days in Istanbul followed by two days in Barcelona. I will be writing more details on each city in my blog. Prior to the cruise I had communicated with about 20+ people through the cruising boards, what a great group of folks; it was like sailing with good friends.
Embarkation: Lightning fast, I did the online registration printed one piece of paper (thank goodness none of these old fashion cruise documents) and I was ready. Your luggage is collected prior to terminal entrance and your passports are collected (make sure you get your receipt) at the check-in desk, you are asked to sign the Credit Card voucher and presto you are headed for the ship. Stopped at the "My Dining Time (MDT)" desk which was setup as you walked towards the ship and arranged dinner time. Once past security as you are heading towards the ship, you will walk through a small shopping area where you can buy different beverages and take them on board, a very nice touch.
Cabins: I had an Inside Cabin on deck #3 mid ship (got a great price and saved a ton of money that I spent in port). My cabin was a little smaller than other ships I have sailed, the cabin was equipped with a small fridge, a combined his/her's closet and an easy to use room safe and TV. In the shower you are supplied a shampoo dispenser but NO other amenities such as toothpaste, shaver, etc, the bed mattress left a lot to be desired. TV had very limited programming and the same program is shown in different languages. In addition, you are able to view your on board account, make excursion reservations but unable to view the daily dinning menu (hard to figure). Considering how little time you spend in your cabin, I have no complaints except for the bed mattress and the occasional load noise at midnight from the ceiling; my cabin was located below the dinning room. A big plus is there are very few announcements piped into your cabin, thank you RCL.
Dining/Food: I ate all but one evening meal in the main "Minstrel" dining room; I also ate at the Windjammer Cafe and at the small Seaview cafe located on deck 12. Food quality, taste and presentation "I THINK" is RCL's biggest weakness. I will admit that both the Windjammer and main dining room food has improved over my last two RCL's cruises (3 of my last 4 cruises have been on RCL). However, I still think that RCL food is not as good as other lines I have cruised. At dinner it is a hit and miss, no lobster, some of the fish dishes were very dry, and some of the meat dishes lacked flavor. At the Windjammer cafe, I found the food very unimaginative, basically standard middle of the road buffet food. A nice surprise was the food at the Seaview cafe on deck 12; I would urge everyone to pay a visit this little gem, it has a limited menu but a very good tasty selection of sandwiches and pasta. MDT is the new concept on RCL where by you can choose your own dining time; however, you must prepay your ship gratuities in advance. MDT worked GREAT, I showed up every night at my requested time, never waited for a table and was seated immediately. To insure that MDT worked smooth, as I left the dining room every evening I stopped by the maitre desk and requested my next evening dining time, I even requested a table size and sometimes location, all requests where met and I would highly recommend MDT to everyone. In addition, this was a port intensive cruise therefore adjusting your eating time to match when you returned from your excursion was very convenient. On two sea days, a Mexican fiesta and BBQ where held on the pool deck, the weather was wonderful and this added a nice touch to the cruise and was a break from the usual fare.
Public Rooms: The Brilliance is a few years old but everything on board is very well maintained and appears brand new. As a non smoker I encountered very little smoke/smoking issues except on deck 13. The ship was designed with the 5th and 6th decks as the main hubs of activity, i.e. shops (located in the middle aft area), photo gallery, meeting rooms, etc. The Casino is located on deck 6 near the sports bar (only one sport was ever shown on the numerous TVs), I played in three Texas hold'em tournaments, I was not crazy about the house take but the tournaments where well run and everybody playing was friendly which added to the atmosphere. The duty free shops were well stocked and I enjoyed window shopping. I did not use the gym but every time I walked by, there where plenty of empty exercise machines and free weights. A nice hangout area in the evening was the "Champagne Bar" located on deck 6, this particular bar has a lovely viewing window and offered small munchies to compliment your drink. The bar tending team at this bar are perhaps the best on ship, they seemed to remember every customers name from day one and even remember what you like to drink. Ship drinks where fairly priced and the quality was good. There where a few occasions where a daily drink special was offered and happy hour had limited selection.
Entertainment: In the evening, you have three areas to hangout and listen to music, a piano player, a band in the Schooner bar area and another in the central area on deck 4. I enjoyed the music played on deck four (two different groups rotated play), however, the area on deck 4 is very small and there are only a few tables. This area was also used as the main venue for one of the theme nights, but due to its size, it was extremely difficult to see or even dance. The same can be said for the Masquerade party on deck 5, the area was just too small to accommodate the throngs of people and it was impossible to even find a seat yet a table. I was extremely disappointed at only having one night of the "Karaoke", while there was there some kind of nightly game every night that was lightly attended. On a few occasions I visited the Disco it was a tad smoky but the music was fine and the DJ accommodating. A variety of shows were featured in the main theater, some better then others, I missed the "juggler/comedian" show that everyone said was superb. A "Beatles" and "Frankie V and the Four Seasons" where two shows that where fun to watch/listen and the "cirque" show was nice. A pleasant feature that was offered where the educational talks regarding the history/background of different ports (do not confuse this with the shopping talks) I found this to be very interesting and provided some excellent background, the only challenge is finding the room where these talks where held and sometimes there were numerous errors printed in the daily cruise schedule.
Activities: A variety of activities are offered throughout the cruise. From the usual trivia to Bingo, to the popular not-so-new marriage game, I missed not having the margarita and martini tasting sessions that have been held on previous cruises. There was a limited number of athletic activates offered such as; volleyball, 3 on 3 hoops and soccer, the climbing wall was open for use on a daily basis, but overall I thought that during sea days there was not that much organized sports offered at different times, they seemed to be bunched at one time. The entire cruise staff was great and very accommodating. Excursions/Ports: As I had earlier mentioned, prior to the cruise through "Cruise Critic boards" I I had made contact with about 20+ folks and had arranged private excursions to be taken at different port stops. Cost of each excursion was equally divided and it was a great experience, a neat way to meet and create new friendships. BARCELONA; I used local transportation from the airport to the hotel and everywhere else, it is a lovely city and easy to navigate, all you need are good notes, no need for the Hop on/Off bus, and the subway is cheap. The highlight of my trip was the 4hr bike excursion I arranged, it was a great way to see the sights and save your feet. I did a Montserrat day trip but in retrospect I should have stayed in the city and seen more of Barcelona. VILLEFRENCE; a tender port with much to see in the local area, happened to be in town during a celebration and got to see a small reenactment of the town under Nobility rule. Stop by the tourist information booth at the cruise terminal and you can get all the information you need, they are very helpful. Catching the bus to "Nice" is a short walk from the port. LIVORNO; I arranged everything through Guido "Tuscany wine tours", Guido is a blast, he is a wealth of information and will accommodate all your changes, Guido met us at the ship gangway and we did not have to pay the rip-off 12 Euros to leave port so that in itself was a savings. We visited the lovely town medieval of San Gimignano, got there before the throngs of tourists started arriving, then drove through Tuscany country which was magnificent, stopped at one of the best vineyards to sample wine and then stopped at another vineyard where the group had a delightful lunch with the vineyard owner, we drank as much of the fine wine as we could and then where taken Pisa which was a terrific ending to our tour. Wow what a day. ROME; Another different group of folks and I arranged our excursion through "Romecabs", we where met at the terminal and had an unbelievable whirlwind tour of Rome, the Vatican museum and many other sights, we also had a guide and pre booked our Vatican museum entrance. Romecabs did everything promised and went above and beyond; my head is still spinning from visiting all the sights. NAPLES; perhaps my only disappointment, a very dirty busy port. Walked to the Circumvesuviana (it was about a 20 minute walk/avoid the bus and tram walking is faster) rode the train the Pompeii and rented the headset tour. I was not impressed with the condition of the Ruins. I then headed back to the city and rode the metro to the National Archaeological Museum, if you see the ruins at Pompeii you MUST go to the museum; almost everything that was excavated from Pompeii and the other sites is on display and ties your Pompeii trip together. If you are not planning on visiting the museum then I personally would NOT recommend the Ruins of Pompeii or Herculean. On the way back to the ship my wife and I stopped and ate Napoli Pizza (not as good as New York pizza). VENICE; This can be a very intimidating port as there are hundreds of tourists everywhere, but once you get used to this it is a lovely port. I had a plan to avoid the crowds and long lines. Upon arrival I headed directly to the fascinating Correr Museum (on the Piazza San Marco), at the Museum I bought the "Doges" Palace combined pass, which covers the museum and the Palace. After visiting the museum I walked over and got to see St. Mark's Basilica (it was going to be closed the next day so I was lucky), I though that St Marks' Basilica was one of the loveliest places I have ever visited so far on my trip. Once I finished visiting St Mark's I bypassed the Campinile tower as the ship was moored very close to St Mark's Square(a rare treat) and I had gotten to see the town from up high, I went over to visit Doges Palace and walked right in. Rode the Vaporetto to different places (be warned the Vaporetto makes NY subways seem like luxury). Navigating the streets of Venice is pretty simple and since I had spent so much money and wanted to experience a gondola trip and not get rip off by the high prices I took a "traghetto" ride. A troghetto is an old gondola stripped of the trimmings, they traverse the Grand Canal, it cost 1 Euros for the wife and I, the journey only takes a couple of minutes, but is a genuine gondola experience and you do not have a hundred tourists peering down at you from every bridge. SPLIT; a tender port with limited time. I just went to the town square picked up a "Diocletian Place" walking tour and then had lunch at a local place. Split is a lovely town but you have very limited time and if you arrive on Sunday many places are closed. In addition, you will have to change money to local currency. CORFU; Our final stop, there were six couples + 1 and I had arranged with Vanessa co owner of "daily cruise Corfu" (the U-tube video on this outfit does not do them justice) to have a private boat charter. The boat picked up the entire group at the port about 100 meters from where our ship docked. Irakus the fabulous ship captain was a wonderful host, we cruised the lovely and calm north part of the island coast, stopped at two lovely small underwater caves in crystal blue waters, went to an isolated beach where we have a fabulous fish and meat BBQ to include all the drinks we could consume. On our way back we went to the village port of Kassiopi (rated #1 village on Corfu by numerous websites) followed by a final swimming spot at the top diving location in Corfu. This excursion was a fabulous ending to a lovely cruise, prior to this everyone in the group was pretty much "ruined, church-ed and museum-ed out". Back on board many passengers I spoke too envied our excursion not to mention our cost.
Disembarkation: Everybody needs to be off the ship by around 9:30am. There where very few disembarkation announcements (what a pleasant surprise) and it seemed to go very smooth. Breakfast buffet is open till 8:00am and the main dining room till 08:30. Prior to disembarking - a day before - specific luggage tags color based on your transportation connections are left in your room. You wait in designated areas and can only pickup your luggage at the terminal only after your color is called to disembark. You are also given the self embarkation option should you choose to carry off your luggage. Overall disembarkation was smooth and quick - we were off the boat in less than 10 minutes and easily found a cab that took us to the airport.
Overall Thoughts: I have traveled worldwide, if you want to see many places in a short period of time without having to spend tons of money on accommodations and avoiding the unpacking hassle while never having to worry where your are going to eat every night then cursing is the only way. I had a blast, loved this itinerary and I would highly recommend it, but be advised it is port intensive and you will need to plan your excursions as not to be totally exhausted everyday. Bottom line, I would not hesitate to recommend this ship and itinerary to anyone, so start packing! www.cruisinbob.com