We are Josie & Al, mid-sixties, essentially retired, living in Houston TX. This was our fifth cruise together in just over two years; the previous four were with Princess. I've been on approximately 40, although my last Royal Caribbean voyage was in 2002. Now that they've become more competitive, we were anxious to try them. We booked the cruise a year prior to sailing, and anticipated this adventure from that time on. We had always wanted to experience a transatlantic cruise, and at under $1000/pp including airfare, it was an offer we couldn't turn down. This will be a pretty comprehensive review, so please bear with me. Each component will be rated from * to *****.
EMBARKATION ... ****. With approximately 3700 passengers to process, the terminal at Southampton was large and well-staffed. We arrived about 3:00, two hours before departure, and snaked through the line in about twenty minutes. We were a bit apprehensive about leaving our luggage outside virtually unattended, but it all got aboard, and was delivered to our stateroom promptly. The cruise was essentially sold out.
THE SHIP ... ****. The Independence is a Freedom-class vessel, one up from the Voyager class, and below the new Oasis of the Seas. It was launched last year, and is in pristine condition. Despite its size, we found it easy to get around, and had it figured out in about an hour. The Royal Promenade (Deck 5) makes it feel less crowded, although passengers were really packed in during scheduled events there ... you can only disperse such a mass of humanity so far. There are two quaint eating establishments, the Promenade Cafe (pastries, sandwiches, etc.) and Sorrento's (pizza, Italian salads and desserts). Coffee, tea and snacks are available 24/7, and there is no additional charge for food. They're both wonderful. The pool deck (11) is massive and very pleasing aesthetically, including two cantilevered hot tubs extending 12' beyond the ship, and a large area dedicated to children's use. We discovered two glaring omissions, however. One was the lack of an indoor pool (or at least a retractable dome), which precludes use in cold and inclement weather (Europe in November certainly falls into this category). The other was no outdoor food venue, save for a self-serve frozen yogurt machine. With the adult pool area forward and the Windjammer Cafe (buffet) aft, one has to traverse the length of the ship in order to grab a bite, then take it all the way back. The Sports Deck (12) contains the rock wall, mini-golf course, basketball court and the new Flo-Rider.
OUR STATEROOM ... *****. We booked an inside guarantee (generally a Cat. Q, the least expensive accommodations) and were pleasantly surprised at an upgrade to a Cat. N ... still inside, but in a terrific location. We were in #3615, on Deck Three, mid-ship, close to the art gallery, the main floor of the dining room (where sit-down breakfast and lunch were served daily), the ice rink (Studio B, also used for other activities ... the ice is covered with a removable floor) and the On-Air Karaoke venue. We were concerned with the proximity to these potentially noisy places, but heard absolutely nothing. It's a great area (just a few staterooms, in a location where the ship's movement is minimal) ... and it connects to 3613 (again, we heard zero). So if you're planning to travel on the cheap, and will have need for adjoining staterooms, book these! They're away from the rows and rows of cabins on the upper decks, and just a few steps from pretty much everything. We often walked the two flights up to the Promenade and theatres.
THE PASSENGERS ... *****. Americans were definitely in the minority. The majority were British, with significant numbers of Canadians, Asians, and Europeans. It was an exhilarating experience sailing with such a diverse group of people. This being both a lengthy trip, and a time when children are in school, the number of kids was limited to 128. Most were pretty much invisible, and those who were seen were hardly heard ... a total non-issue.
THE STAFF ... *****. I've excluded the dining room employees here, as I'll cover them when I address the food-related matters. We found everyone to be congenial and eager to help. The folks at Guest Services were as good as I've ever encountered, and our stateroom steward(ess), Desena, a lovely Jamaican gal, was absolutely perfect ... available when needed, in a stealth mode when appropriate. No complaints whatsoever with any of these folks. The Cruise Director can play a huge role in the overall enjoyment of a voyage. Ours was Joff Eaton ... probably the best I've ever come across (the memory is fading, but I don't remember anyone quite as good ... perhaps Graham Seymour; but if there's any difference, it's minimal). In addition to the usual qualities, we found him quite approachable, eager to please, efficient and very much in charge. We saw him every morning at our progressive trivia contest, and continued to return solely because of him ... we had absolutely no shot at winning. He actually made losing fun! His staff likewise performed flawlessly. If there's something that needs a bit of work, it's the daily telecast that runs continuously from midnight to noon. Joff and the Activities Director, Katie, summarize the day and preview what's ahead. Granted, they both have a sense of humor; but their schtick is just plain silly and immature ... this comment coming from a fan of The Three Stooges. It was an effort to watch it.
ENTERTAINMENT ... ***. We've never been fans of cruise ship productions, and none of the three programs did anything to change our minds. The singers and dancers are talented kids ... but the content of all the shows was inane, as usual, probably in an effort to please 3700 passengers. The scenery and costumes, however, were dazzling, and their creators deserve high praise. As for the guest performers (lots of them ... remember, it's a 13-nighter), this is as subjective a topic as food. A quartet of tenors known as Teatro was adored by the crowd. We thought their voices were thin, the repertoire stale, and the harmony (what there was of it) elementary. By contrast, the impressionist, Sean O'Shea, received many negative comments ... we really liked him. The other entertainers were the usual nondescript singers, comedians, hypnotists, etc. There was also a pianist, Tian Jang, who brought down the house. Josie thought he was wonderful; my impression was that the masters didn't write their concertos to be backed up by a big band. If you liked Liberace, you'd love this guy. But in any event, we had something to see each evening. Unlike cruises in warmer weather, there was no Calypso/Reggae deck band ... with winds up to 108 mph across the bow, that's understandable. But those musical groups on board were outstanding, especially a Latin trio called Clave. The house orchestra (10 pieces) was excellent. There were also two ice shows, both really great. It still amazes me how those kids can work so well on the "small ice."
DINING ... **. As usual there was plenty to eat in many venues. The Windjammer buffet was by far the best we've ever come across, both in terms of variety and quality. There are two mirror-image serving areas, each divided into many components ... meats (including a carving station), cold, hot, a "burgerama," desserts, salads, all with many choices. Adjoining each side is Jade, food with an Asian flair, including sushi, fried rice, stir-fry, curry ... pretty good stuff. After being introduced to such an array in the self-service area, one would expect it to carry through to the Main Dining Room. Unfortunately, such was not the case. We're veteran cruisers, and know full well that dinners are not the "gourmet feasts" as advertised, but rather good banquet-quality food. Still, we were disappointed. With an exception here and there, we found the menus very limited and lacking imagination. Preparation and presentation were at best ordinary, with most dishes exceptionally bland (which might explain why the wait staff was pushing the "fresh-ground pepper" whenever possible). Even the signature lobster dinner (actually a tail, served with shrimp) was subpar ... overcooked and delivered at close to room temperature. We actually had to ask for drawn butter. Desserts lacked creativity, and we often found nothing appealing enough to order. Ice cream was largely vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, most likely a concession to Ben & Jerry's, which has a shop on the Promenade. Service was inconsistent, at times bordering on the inept. Even when the station was not at capacity, there were inordinate waits between courses, salads brought before appetizers, soups and main dishes served lukewarm, long waits for tables to be cleared, staff whizzing by the tightly-packed-in tables, which proved very distracting ... in short, hardly the "Gold Crown Service" touted by Royal Caribbean. We were informed by a travel agent/passenger that about 40% of the staff was moved to the new Oasis of the Seas prior to this cruise, and that much of the kitchen personnel were new. Based on what we experienced, this would seem correct. Breakfast and lunch menus in the Main Dining Room were identical each day, but a buffet table was available at breakfast, and a manned salad bar was present at lunch. The augmenting of the rather ordinary daily menus with these selections is a nice touch ... if not for the fact that they kept running out of the more popular lunch choices such as shrimp, it would have worked perfectly. It's a great concept, but the execution needs work.
PORTS OF CALL ... *****. I'm not going to devote much space to the stops. After all, what could be bad about Paris, other than the two-hour ride each way? But the tour was wonderful, and we did get that fabulous panoramic view from the Eiffel Tower! There was an issue upon our return to Le Havre, which literally and figuratively put a damper on the day. When we arrived back at the ship (along with at least 25 other coaches) we found exactly one gangway open ... and that was a pretty steep climb. There were people with physical disabilities who could not even attempt the embarkation. To make matters worse, it had become cold, windy and rainy. Only after a half-hour or so did two other gangways open. We did fill out a complaint form, and were credited with half the cost of the excursion ... a fair compensation; but it never should have happened. Our visits to Cherbourg, France and Vigo, Spain were lovely. We got to see the major attractions, and learned much about the cultures. But by far, the biggest surprise came at Funchal, Madeira. This is a Portuguese island, west of Casa Blanca, Morocco and north of the Canary Islands ... roughly the same latitude as Fort Lauderdale. If you think that it's tough driving in St. Thomas, it will feel like a straightaway in comparison. But every hairpin turn, curve, and close call with oncoming traffic was worth it. The views were absolutely incredible, the people as accommodating and welcoming as possible ... just a wonderful day. We stopped at a mountaintop restaurant to sample local wine, cheese and bread ... magnificent ambience. Madeira is a vacation destination for Europeans ... we can certainly understand why. The stop was an appropriate prelude to the upcoming six consecutive sea days.
ABOUT THOSE SEA DAYS ... ***. If anything, it provided the opportunity to readjust from the jet lag, as we gained back an hour for five days, passing through the various time zones. We just wish that there were a few more activities ... but the weather gradually became warmer and calmer, and the deck was alive and rocking by the time we reached Fort Lauderdale. There was one huge nighttime party up there, which we enjoyed very much. The late-night buffet was spectacular.
DISEMBARKATION ... *. There's nothing like enjoying a wonderful cruise, then having to wait over two hours past your scheduled departure time, with pretty much nothing to do. It does wonders for those with flights to catch and excursions to take. Royal Caribbean assessed total blame on US Customs, citing, (1) a necessary thorough health inspection, since the ship had not been in US waters for over 6 months, (2) the large number of non-US citizens needing to be processed, and (3) only ten agents on duty. I can accept all of that ... but this is hardly the first time that an RCI ship has encountered this set of circumstances. A simple caveat about possible delays for these reasons would have at least mitigated the anxiety experienced by many. We were being picked up by a dear friend ... thankfully, he's still that, although he was seriously inconvenienced. For the record, we were due off at 9:00 and reached our luggage at 11:15.
CONCLUSION ... This deserves a mention: kudos to Royal Caribbean for its policy on smoking. In addition to the usual places, it is prohibited in staterooms (except on balconies), open bars (i.e. those direct walk-in venues), and even the casino (there's a small area of slot machines where puffing is permitted on certain days from about 9:30 to 11:00 a.m., but that's it). We often had to pass through the Casino Royale on our way elsewhere, and it was wonderful not to breathe in that stench. Overall, the trip was a marvelous experience, and we'd certainly do it again ... although likely with another cruise line. Royal Caribbean has brought us the concept that bigger is better ... but they need to tweak some procedures, all related to the number of passengers they attempt to accommodate at any given time. Lines for shore excursion assignments and ice show tickets (complimentary and ultimately unnecessary) were interminable ... and with a little thought and advance planning, these issues could easily be resolved. There were also two bookkeeping errors that took what seemed like an eternity to rectify. We opted for My Time Dining, which requires that all gratuities be prepaid, since RCI does not add them to your account as other lines do ... not a problem, except that they had no record of us paying them (about a year in advance, I might add). Only after I showed the Guest Services Supervisor the invoice from my travel agent did they notify corporate (everything goes through Miami) and correct the problem. The other involved a charge of $4.54 for a bottle of water from the mini-bar. We never took a thing from the fridge, and filed a dispute with Guest Services about five days before we disembarked. As of our leaving, the charge was still on our account. We were far from the only ones with similar problems ... inexcusable, given today's sophisticated accounting programs. Add to this our disappointment with the dining room food and service, and a look at another carrier is certainly warranted. If you've gotten this far, thank you. I trust that you've gleaned some valuable information ... but if you need more, please feel free to e-mail me at ... email@example.com. Smooth sailing!