We are a family of 4. My 2 kids are 3.5 year old twins. I did cruise when I was a child with my parents (on the Eugenio C and Royal Viking Sky) but this was my first modern cruise with my family as an adult. My wife had never cruised before and thought cruises were boring, plus she was afraid of sea sickness.
So, this January while looking for summer vacation offers, I found what looked like a good deal for this 4-night cruise. It fell on a holiday weekend, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to check on cruising. I talked my wife into it, and booked it directly from the RCCL page. Special pricing for kids was the cherry on the cake.
Living in Madrid, we tried to use the "Puerto de Atocha" service, only to find that it was not very well understood by Royal Caribbean travel agent nor by Renfe. In theory, it will give you a discounted price on the train to Barcelona, but it is not as cheap as buying a standard ticket online. It should also allow you to check-in your luggage in Madrid, a convenience I was willing to pay for. But the RCCL agency could not get us the tickets and told us to buy directly at RENFE, who on their side were not aware of such service at all. In the end, we bought a standard train ticket on the web and carried our luggage to Barcelona.
We arrived at port around 12:00 PM. It was peak boarding at that time. There were lines for luggage drop (under the hot sun) and lines for security control (partly covered). And then, huge line inside for checking-in. We waited more than one hour until we got our sea pass cards and were told that we could proceed directly to the cabin.
Before boarding, we did a quick stop at the duty-free in the port and were given the colored plastic bracelets for the kids. These bracelets allow the ship personnel to identify and bring them to our evacuation station in case of emergency (in case the kids are not with us at such time).
We entered the ship and were not given any instructions on how to go to our cabin. We went to deck 2 only to find that the deck is cut into 2 non-communicated areas. And our outside cabin was on the other side, for sure. So, we went up to deck 5 as we were told the reception was there. I had read about the Royal Promenade and knew what to expect, but while we walked through it, my wife was in awe. It suddenly hit her that this cruise would be something unexpected. The wow factor had set in.
Our outside cabin was ready. It was small, but perfectly ok. The bathroom surprisingly roomy. We left our things and decided to go for lunch, as it was already 2 o'clock. But we decided to pass on the Royal Promenade again, as I wanted to buy my Unlimited Soda package. We also wanted to check the wines, but decided not to go for it, as 3 bottles seemed too much for only 3 nights we planned do eat on the MDR. For the kids, we decided on lemonade as it was healthy and free. This ended up being a very good choice, as most waiters would give them coke, if they wanted, on my unlimited soda account.
We went to the WindJammer for lunch. What a beautiful place, with gorgeous views of the port and city. However, getting a table was impossible. We asked a waiter and he shrugged. No tables were available, there was nothing he could do. We had to look for people about to leave and secure a table, trying to outsmart other people on the same situation (looking for tables like us). The WindJamer cafe is one of the most popular places on the ship and it should be twice as big. Really. It is very stressful to get a table at peak time on lunch and this situation repeated during the entire trip.
The food buffet was quite good, although not sophisticated. Burgers, french fries, pasta, salads and more. Everything tasted good and was uncomplicated eating. Specially good for my kids. They even got Shepard's Pie that they love. I liked the Sushi but also tried a little bit of everything.
During our trip, we ate breakfast and lunch in the WindJammer every day. At night, we ate at the main dining room. We were seated with a Spanish family and they were enthusiastic to see us and the kids every night. The food there was quite good actually. Not the best gourmet food in the world, but who cares. I have read some comments here of people who didn´t like the food, but can´t understand why. There was always choice and most of what I tried was perfectly ok, served hot and tasted good. The service was really great and the servers were always there for us. When my kids didn´t eat the pizza, they brought another dish. We got a bottle of wine that lasted and was served through the entire trip.
One night we decided to check the Johnny Rockets. I have mixed feelings about this one. While the place was cool (a bit empty the night we were there), the burger was soaked in oil. The paper wrapping the sandwich was so wet with oil that it stick to the bread. I don't know if this is standard Johnny Rockets fare, but to me it was a bit disgusting. The Milk Shake we ordered for the kids was nothing special either (but not bad). But my kids loved to see the waiters dancing and in no time they were up and trying to follow the dance as well.
We spent a lot of time on the pool with the kids. The pools were kind of small, one of them was reserved for adults. But they were perfectly ok. The pool area is usually crowded, but there is always some place to sit (sometimes very far from the pool itself). It has a bar that only serves drinks and is always crowded. I would love to see some tapas served there as well. This is surely missing and a suggestion for RCI. Please, give us a pool bar that serves some food.
Some people would bring food from the WindJammer and sit on tables by the pool deck. Of course, if you don´t get the tables early they are never available.
To be honest, I was disappointed with shopping in the ship. The stores on the Royal Promenade had lots of jewelry and also perfumes/cosmetics. They were not duty free, which kinds of defeat the purpose of these stores (I understand that in most cruises they are tax free, but not in the European Union cruises). Non residents could reclaim VAT though.
The souvenirs on the souvenir shop were dull. I expected more and would surely had bought a lot of trash (I always do). But it didn´t have anything that caught my attention. They should check real souvenir stores around the globe to get interesting items. Stores like Why!!! in Paris or even VIP's in Madrid have lots of interesting trash. My kids wanted chewing gum and it was not available. Also, I forgot to bring razors and they only sold a pack of 6 horrible BIC razors.
We did enjoy the overall feeling of the promenade though. The cafes and the people watching, the parades and the parties. We spent a lot of time there.
We used the Adventure Ocean program for our kids. And they loved it. We went on 2 off-ship tours alone, leaving the kids playing. When we were planning the cruise, the kids program really helped us decide to go for it, as we needed some time for us alone. Having a place with supervised activities for the kids has become a requirement for our vacations. And it is the reason we are going to do it again and again. Pirate night was the most amazing thing. My kids loved to invade (parade through) the Royal Promenade. They still talk about it today. I have it on video, and they want to watch it again and again. Not to mention that they want me to buy pirate costumes for them.
We did run into a number of minor issues that I think should not have happened. They will not prevent us to come back, but I do hope that RCI will improve on them.
The first one was related to our pre-booked (and paid) tour of Bormes Le Mimosa in Spanish. This was programmed on day 2 of our trip. I got a call on day 1 evening (phone message) and a card in my room telling me that the tour had been cancelled for lack of interest. I went to the Explorer´s desk and was told that only the English tour to Bormes would happen. So I told him to book us there. In fact, I thought they should have just transferred us to this tour first, and later give us the option to cancel if we didn´t speak English. Well, of course we do, but the person in the Explorer´s desk was unable to book us in the tour. He told me it was full, sorry. I was quite unhappy, thought about taking the bus to Toulon instead, but decided to check from my room later the other tours available. And there, the surprise. We were able to book the Bormes tour though the TV system (the same one I was told was full). The next day, on the bus, there were at least 10 empty seats. And the tour was in both Spanish and English.
Our second issue happened when we wanted to leave the kids on the Adventure Ocean for the first time in order to leave the ship for the tour. They are small kids, 3.5 years old. When we were going to drop them off, they started crying. Well, really, I think that every kid of this age will cry the first time they go to an unknown place and their parents leave. I've seen this happen at first day at school, at day care centers, at skiing clubs, even at their grandmas home. But we were told that we could not leave the kids if they were crying. Now, I understand this policy for older kids. But really, for 3 year old kids? I am sure that every kid will cry for 5 minutes and then will play. Anyway, we spent one hour trying to calm down our kids, but in the end, after almost losing our tour, we called the supervisor who let them in crying. Later he told us that in five minutes after we left they were playing. Obviously. I think this policy should be revised for smaller 3-5 year old kids.
The third issue was at the end of the cruise. The last evening, I checked my bill on TV and everything was ok. We were leaving the next morning at 8:00 AM. So, everything went smooth, but before leaving I grabbed the printed bill that was slid under the door in the early morning and found out I had been charged US$ 70,00 for pool towels. Well, we had taken new towels every day, and every day before we left the pool we gave them back at the towel station. All towels. So, I went to the reception to complain. There was a huge line, but I waited. A few minutes later, a woman came out and asked if anyone on the line had billing problems. About 10 people, I included, raised their hands. She said "Towels?". And we all replied "Yeah" in a chorus. Seems like that they do not have the towel issue well controlled. She proceeded to remove the charge for everyone of us, but I wonder how many people only noticed too late that they had been charged. Honestly, I hope RCI improves this methodology so they don´t keep mistakenly charging people like this.
Other annoyances we found was that the speaker system announcements on the corridor that could be heard from the room. There is an in-room switch to turn off announcements, but it doesn´t help, as we can hear from outside. On day 2, announcements started at 7:00 AM when the ship docked in Toulon and they repeat it in 100 languages (maybe 4 or 5). Also, when cruising, there was a constant vibration in the room that was quite perceptive. It did not prevent sleep, but was annoying. I don´t know if this is specific to our room location (deck 2, aft) but we felt it in other places on the ship as well (specially strong on the Main Dining Room).
But don´t get me wrong. These issues were really small compared to the amount of good time, relax, enjoyment and happiness we got from this small trip. My wife, who did not want to cruise before, came back asking me to book another cruise this year. And she told me that she wanted to go on the same ship for at least 7 days.
We loved the service on the ship. Even with the issues I mentioned above, I have to say that they were all solved in the end. And the waiters were great to us and to our kids. And the cabin guy was also very nice and efficient. Our room was always ready and cleaned. He helped us on everything we needed and quickly. We tipped extra to everyone of them.
Bottom line, we are planning our next cruise already. With RCI again. My wife wanted to go on the same ship, but I am trying to convince her to switch to the Liberty of the Seas next year. Prices are higher, so we will see.
I gave it a lower note because I am sure that RCI could have a larger number of excursions here. What about beach/sea sports? Or glass bottom tours (there was a ship on port offering that)? Why not take people to Cafe del Mar for the famous sunset.
We can do these things on our own, but it would be better if RCI offered organized tours as well.
We took the Alt Villa tour and it was great.
There are several interesting excursion from this port, but because we did not want to leave our kids for too long, we chose the quick Bormes tour. A cute little provence village, with picturesque streets and beautiful flowers.
I am a lover of France, so will probably be happy with any excursion there. The port was clean, not crowded and even had a small fair of local stuff on sale. I am quite happy.