We arrived at the Overseas Passenger Terminal in Sydney at around 11.30 on 7th January 2010, and there was a fairly long queue to board the ship. I was happy to just gawk at how magnificent the ship looked berthed in Sydney harbour and whiled away 15 or so minutes taking photos. Not a bad backdrop - the ship looming in front of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. There were plenty of porters to take our luggage when we arrived so we were left with only hand luggage. Before we knew it (about 25 minutes in all) we were walking up the gangway and heard our first "ping" of the seapass checking us in. We entered the ship straight into the Centrum, which definitely has the Wow factor! Cabins weren't ready and it was still a little early for lunch, so we explored the ship and found our way around.
The ship - The ship is beautiful with plenty of space for the 2450 passengers on our sailing. We sailed completely full and my concerns at having so many passengers were unfounded as we never once struggled to find deckchairs, chairs in any of the lounges or bars, or a quiet spot to read or watch the ocean go by. The Viking Crown Lounge was a favourite spot for us when we wanted to be indoors and read or have a cocktail or just soak up the view, and was a rocking disco at night. Even in the theatre you could turn up 5 minutes before the show and easily find seats. We never stood in long queues for anything, or had much trouble getting an elevator (although we did try to use the stairs as much as possible to get a bit of exercise!) The ship is beautifully maintained and spotlessly clean, we frequently saw maintenance crew painting and polishing and repairing anything that was needed. We had a loose board in our cabin ceiling and we called maintenance and someone appeared and fixed the problem within half an hour.
Windjammer - We ate Breakfast and lunch every day in the Windjammer and found the choices plentiful and the food excellent for such a large buffet. Breakfast choices were the same every day but there was something for everyone and you could have something different every day. Waiters were constantly checking to see if we needed anything, bringing around juice and coffee and clearing plates. Lunch varied every day and had a great variety of salads, meats, fish, asian dishes etc. Everything we ate was fresh and of a really good standard. The Windjammer could be crowded at peak times, but we ate breakfast only at about 10am, and lunch after 2 so we never struggled to find a table. A few times we had people join our table and it was really nice to meet people and chat while we shared a meal. Afternoon tea was laid out from 3 till 5 and again the variety and array of foods, sandwiches, cakes, pies and scones was wonderful . The view from the Windjammer was spectacular as its at the top of the ship right in front with huge windows.
Edelweiss Dining Room - We ate dinner at the late seating (8.30pm) every night in the Dining room with the 10 of us at a table for 10 right next to the window . We loved the 8.30 dining time as we were always able to watch sailaway and have a cocktail before getting showered and changed and getting to the show at 7pm. We were never hungry by 6pm (could have something to do with afternoon tea and/or icecream every day). We had the most wonderful waiters - Erwin from the Phillipines and Dalibor from Serbia, nothing was too much for them and they could not do enough for us. Whatever we wanted magically appeared and by the second night they knew all our names and preferences. I had read many reports that the food was only fair to average but all 10 of us agreed that it was excellent, don't miss the Vidalia onion tart, the asparagus soup and the Grand Marnier Souffle. If there had been other restaurants and food venues we would still have gone to the Dining room each night as dinner was such a treat and we felt like royalty every night. Samuel our head waiter regaled us with stories from his homeland Jamaica and Dalibor kept us entertained with his anecdotes. In fact all the staff on the ship was incredibly friendly, helpful and eager to please.
Other food options - Snack food such as pizza, hot chips, cookies, cake , burgers etc are available in the solarium at all times. There is a free soft serve machine at the pool deck with delicious soft serve, as well as tea and coffee stations, and ice water dispensers. Lemonade and Iced tea is available all day in the Windjammer and each cabin has a kettle and tea and sugar. There is also a Ben and Jerry's and Seattle's best coffee on deck 6, which you need to pay for, a coffee there was $2.95, and I had one every morning as the Windjammer coffee is undrinkable (in my opinion) and the dining room not much better.
Drinks - We are not big drinkers but we had the occasional cocktail and glass of wine and the kids had mocktails. We found them all reasonably priced and the bar staff all have a heavy hand with the alcohol.
Cabins - We had 5 inside cabins for the 10 of us, on deck 4, and found them comfortable and cozy with plenty of storage. We spent very little time in them, but would be perfectly happy to book inside cabins again to save money as an oceanview was $1200 per cabin more for this cruise. If the price was only slightly more I would book OV or balcony but at the price we paid they were perfect. Wilton our wonderful stateroom attendant was always around with a smile and kept our cabin pristine. He presented us with gorgeous towel animals every night and gave us advice on all sorts of things we would not otherwise have known. Deck 4 was quiet, even though we were on the same level as the Champagne bar and Dining room we never heard a thing from there.
Entertainment - Every day was action packed with things to do if you wanted them - our kids were well entertained in the teen club and made friends that they will keep in contact with and already miss terribly. As it was school holidays we had many kids of all ages. My 11 yr old son was a little bored with the 9-11 age group so we were allowed to sign him up for the teen programme and he was happier there. Funny though, as he hung out with a few other 11 year old kids who had also moved up. (They spent most of their time laying table tennis). I think they just liked 'feeling' older at the teen club although my 11 yr old daughter was unimpressed to have him there. Some of our group took part in the Gotta Dance show, taught to us by the wonderful Rhapsody dancers (thanks Tawni and Sam!!!) We rehearsed on all the sea days and performed on stage on the final night. So much fun! There were lectures and line dance classes, movies and trivia, bingo and art auctions to name a few. We had 3 theme nights and pool barbecues and discos outdoors. Each night there was a show at 7pm for late dinner seating and 9 pm for early, and each show was professional , different and of a great standard. I expected cheesy cruise ship type shows and was amazed by the calibre of shows put on every single night. 3 productions featured the Rhapsody dancers and singers and were sensational and other nights had a mix of comedians, impressionists, singers, illusionists,all very good. After dinner at 10.30 there was usually something on in one of the lounges and there was a variety of music all around the ship from Disco to Big Band, Jazz to Ballroom dancing and a piano bar. Cruise Director Carly Boileau and her sidekick Frankie were excellent and managed to run all the poolside and evening events without being lame and cheesy and with a great sense of humour. I give them credit in this area as it was the enthusiasm they show when running the programs that made them work. I loved the Caribbean band around the pool (when the weather was good) and sitting in one of the lounges listening to music in the afternoon and evenings. We spent an hour here and there in the casino a couple of nights, not very successfully, but its a good casino with blackjack, roulette, poker and craps tables and all the usual slots. We played $5 minimum Blackjack and the croupiers were world standard.
There was a well stocked library which looked a nice place to read with a view of the ocean, and a card room and internet cafe which seemed well used, but I didn't use them so can't really comment. My son climbed the rockwall and had fun, and we used the treadmill in the gym a few times, but it was usually fairly crowded at the times we went. It was a well equipped gym with all the usual equipment and a variety of classes which were generally run at about 8am, too early for me on holiday!
Laundry - There is no self serve laundry on RC ships, but we had a special twice during the cruise where you got a decent size bag with all the underwear, t- shirts, pajamas, socks you could stuff into it for $15, and it was returned washed and folded the next day. Very good value, and anything else I washed in the sink and hung on the washline in the shower. Anything else could be sent out for normal laundry service or pressing.
Seasickness - this was a concern of mine as I get sick on anything that moves, but I had read on Cruise Critic about Bonine, and managed to get some from the US as it's not available in Australia (but was available on the ship). It worked like a charm, even when the ship was rocking and rolling on our last day and I will never cruise without it.PORTS BAY OF ISLANDS We did the Mack Attack Jetboat ride to the Hole in the Rock and loved it! Loved speeding along with the spray hitting our faces and watching the gorgeous scenery fly by. We were originally booked on the Dolphin swim, but as the ship came in late they wouldn't wait for us. We were booked for 12:30 and we called them from the ship in the morning to let them know we would not get there before 1pm as the ship was delayed and they promised they would hold it for us until 1pm. We got there at 12:50 and they had left (even though we were a group of 10 that had prepaid.). It turned out great in the end as we saw dolphins from the Mack Attack, and drove by the dolphin swim boats that had not waited for us, and it turned out they could not swim as the dolphins had calves. We thumbed our noses at them as we roared past. AUCKLAND We had been to Auckland before so just strolled around, but the friends we cruised with did the Harbor Bridge Climb and loved it. They booked it on the day by calling the I-site centre and a shuttle picked them up from the ship and dropped them back. They also did the Skytower and one of them did the jump off the skytower and loved it, but he is a braver soul than me. No need to book, just turn up at the skytower.
TAURANGA Most people would opt to go to Rotorua but we have been before and spent a few days there. I would highly recommend Rotorua, but the highlight for us is the Luge (http://www.skylineskyrides.co.nz/) which is great fun for adults and children of all ages. We were in Rotorua for 4 days the year before and went back to the Luge every day. As we didn't go to Rotorua, we spent the morning climbing (some of us walked around) the mount in Mt Manganui where the ship docks, which is really pretty, and wandering around the shops. We intended going to the beach in the afternoon, but the weather did not cooperate, so we instead did the helicopter ride which was wonderful. We had seen a helicopter ride advertised in Bay of Islands for $215 per person for 20 minutes (which was out of our budget), but when we got off the ship in Tauranga there was a stand right at the port advertising $39 flights for 6 minutes or $69 flights for 11 minutes. They take you on a shuttle to the airport 10 minutes away and bring you back, and it was well worth it. The kids loved it too!
NAPIER Went into town with free shuttle and did the 1 hour walking tour of the Art Deco highlights. Booked at the I-site, it is guided by volunteers who are well informed and give you a lot of background about the earthquake and the rebuilding of the town. We enjoyed it and found it fascinating, but our 11 yr old son was with us and was bored and irritable. So not really for kids. Our teenagers hired Segways and zoomed around the beautiful seafront. Wandered around town and shopped for the rest of the afternoon, and two of our friends went to the Aquarium for a swim in the shark tanks (the same ones who jumped off the Skytower in Auckland, are you seeing a pattern here?). They said it was perfectly safe and enjoyed that.
WELLINGTON We prebooked a 2 hour tour with Wellington Rover, and they picked us up right next to the ship as we docked. Nathan was a very informative and knowledgeable guide, really friendly and passionate about his city, and tried his best to give us a great tour despite the miserable weather. All the great views were obscured by cloud and fog, but Wellington is a beautiful city. They charged us $30 each for the 2 hour tour as there were 10 of us and some were kids. Good value for money. I see that somewhere else on this website someone did not have a good experience with Wellington Rover, but we thought they were great. We requested for them to drop us at the top of the cablecar and we then caught it down in to the city and went to the Te Papa Museum which was good for Maori culture and info on emigration into NZ, but by then the kids wanted to go back to the ship so we didn't do it justice.
CHRISTCHURCH The ship offered a shuttle into town for $18 per person, but as there were 10 of us we found it far more economical to get the free shuttle into Lyttelton, which drops you right at the bustop for the number 28 bus into Christchurch for $4 return each. Unfortunately another miserable cold day, so we walked around the city for a bit and then booked at the I -site to go to the Antarctic Centre, which was well worth it. A shuttle picks you up at the I-site and brings you back. It's a very interactive centre, with a simulated windstorm, Hagglund ride (a lot of fun) and a penguin experience.
DUNEDIN Caught the $18 ship's shuttle into town, as it was a Sunday and public buses were erratic at best. Did the Cadbury Factory which was only offering a shortened tour as it was a Sunday and the factory was closed. It was still very entertaining and informative and would be well worth doing the full tour on a weekday. Lots of fun, and free chocolate. It was quite crowded though, so email in advance to reserve your place (no payment necessary in advance). In the afternoon we did the Speights Brewery tour which we found a waste of time, unless you really love your beer. The kids were bored stiff. Some may find it interesting but that was our opinion. Again, if you do want to do it, reserve via email in advance.
A note on the ports - we are Australian so have many opportunities to see nature, seals, penguins, and albatrosses, but many of the overseas visitors we spoke to did tours that incorporated all these things specifically in CHristchurch and Dunedin, and loved them. See the Australia/New Zealand board for more details on this.
Disembarkation - this is done by coloured tags, although we were still having breakfast when our colour was called. We took our time getting off and sailed through customs and our bags were waiting for us in the terminal. It took us less than 20 minutes from walking down to the gangway ship to getting into a taxi. Everyone was off the ship by 9.30am.
All in all we had the best most relaxing holiday ever and are now hooked on cruising. I have never felt as spoiled as we were during this vacation. We were treated first class by the staff and crew on the ship, we had a lot of fun with the activities offered, we ate very well (too well...), and just had a blast. Would we cruise again- absolutely! Would we cruise Royal Caribbean again - without a doubt!