FIRST IMPRESSIONS The benefit of sailing from Southampton is there is no limit to the amount of clothes and shoes you can pack The downside of sailing from Southampton is that you tend to pack too much! Laded with 3 cases and 2 carry on's we arrived at the dock at 10.50. They made an announcement that the check in system was down just as they were checking us in - and we were on board by 11.30.
Anything that has already been said about this can and must be said again - she is simply the most beautiful, stylish, stunning ship afloat today. The layout is clever, no spaces feel crowded and the number of eating, drinking or just sitting with a book venues are plentiful. The art was eclectic, weird and wonderful. The sinks in the public bathrooms were beautiful! The use of diverse and unusual fabrics and materials throughout the ship also contributed to the luxurious feel. The cushions, curtains, chairs and carpets were all lovely (OK perhaps not the yucky brown carpet on the stairs!) -the chairs in the solarium were just to die for and I am sure many wanted to have the swinging hammock in their back garden too.
We had booked this cruise in March 09 so had 18 months to prepare and plan! There were over 100 on our roll call who had been 'chatting' for most of this time. Not all of us were issued invites for the official CC party on board (including us) so we never got to meet all of them sadly.
Our room was a balcony just off the hump- with one of the largest balconies on the ship - I estimated that the balcony was 13ft deep on the longer side. It was very large and very empty with just two solitary chairs and a small table - no sun loungers or foot rests - I was tempted to nip over the road to Ikea and buy a sun lounger for the trip but DH wouldn't let me! Our steward bought us two small low height tables for us to use as foot rests. By contrast our neighbours on the 'flat' of the hump had a balcony depth of barely 6' - hardly room to recline the chair!. The room itself was compact - we are used to far larger rooms on RCI. The storage was limited- just 5 small drawers in the dresser, and a double cupboard. The drawers tended to be 'warm' as it was right next to the fridge; the items in the safe were also kept at a warmer temperature as this was above the fridge. The over-bed storage lockers were useful. The white sofa was possibly the most uncomfortable thing I have ever sat on. Or 'that b****y sofa' as it became known as, as we constantly were stubbing our toes or heels against the wooden surround as we were getting clothes in or out of the cupboard. The bathroom was a very good size, fabulous curved shower, fixed shower head, and a good selection of lemongrass scented toiletries. There was a selection of small drawers and a glass shelving cabinet for storage. No clothes line to hang out your swimmies but we bought our own with suction pads on so would easily attach to the mirror in the bathroom or the glass on the balcony. The constant low level lighting was a great idea so you could see where you were going in the middle of the night, if you get what I mean! .The bath towels were very small though, and DH did wonder what the handrail for leprechauns was doing in the shower......
You still get chocolates on the pillows at night, and the daily news paper which has been dropped on RCI. There was a large 32" flatscreen tv in the room, where we could get Sky or BBC News. There were also a good range of movies you would watch - free choices included: Australia, Changeling, Benjamin Button or The Hangover. Pay movies included Shutter Island or Up in The Air.
FOOD OK a subject that always gets varied comments but IMHO the food on the ship was superb, in presentation variety and consistency. I think some people complain for the sake of complaining, I heard of tables sending their food back every single night of the cruise as they were not happy with it. A man complained that he didn't get his roast Sunday lunch and Yorkshire pudding - whilst we were standing in 30C in the sweltering heat of Palma - I suggested he may want to pop into town for some authentic tapas instead but this fell on deaf ears!; I heard another complain that the fully laden breakfast buffet didn't have what he wanted.... - what on earth do they eat at home? The special brunch they put on one sea day was a feast for the eyes - it had everything from ice sculptures of bears holding prawns in their paws, to all breakfast items, breads, chocolate fountains, cottage pies and curries! We were on Select Dining which has always worked like a dream on RCI. We prebooked a table for 2 at 7.45p on line several months before sailing. At the desk the lady asked if we wanted to share. No, we replied, we have prebooked a table for 2, after much tapping on her keyboard we were lead to a a table which was already occupied. We stood around like lemons until a table could be found. This happened for the first 2 nights so we were not impressed - some glitches to iron out we think. The Sommelier Randy was excellent with his wine recommendations and we especially liked the pairing of the waiters Raul (get him to sing!) and Denville. We only dined in the main dining room on 7 of the 14 nights on this cruise though. We had also prebooked the 3 speciality restaurants before boarding - with the intention of returning to our favourite on the last night. Tuscan Grille ($30pp) was excellent with the best onion soup I have tasted anywhere, fact. Murano ($35pp) was also good but I think once you have seen the 'show' of the service delivery once it seems a little false after that. And Qsine ($30pp) - what can you say about Qsine apart from the fact that it is simply superb. It is like no other restaurant you will ever have been to - menus are on iPads, food is served is a variety of weird presentations - flashing bowls, on sticks, in cabinets, all tastes and flavours are available here from spring rolls to meze to curries to cupcakes! Yes, this was the restaurant that 'won' and we visited again!. The other hidden gem was the Bistro on Five ($5) which was open all day for crepes, panini, soup and salad and cakes. We actually dined here on 2 evenings when we didn't want to go through the 'hunt the table' experience in the main dining room or when we were simply just full of food and couldn't face another 3 course dinner! This place was superb and we are glad they are putting it as an option on all the M-class ships too now. Food in the Ocean View cafe was varied and plentiful and never ending! Hand on heart I can honestly say that we never ever had to stand looking for a table whilst our food went cold, as often is the case on RCI. We always got a table immediately we looked often out at the back in the sunshine. One day we were seated and a couple stood there saying that there was no where to sit - well the table next to us was empty, the table 2 down was also empty.... We always got a plate of suchi to enjoy on our balcony in the early evening and we got some very strange looks in the lift carrying this down to our cabin - 'you wouldn't get me eating that' was one comment we overheard.
After much deliberation we had prebought one Classic All inclusive drinks package for £395. For this you get all soda, waters, speciality coffees and teas, beers up to $5 and wines and cocktails up to $8. My card was pre-printed with the code CALL (Premium packages had PALL) - and contrary to previous postings we did not have any issues with tardy service, or attitude problems because we had the package. Most waiters asked if you had the package before you even ordered. One restaurant didn't charge us for DHs digestif because I had the package which was nice of them! One evening I wanted a Bellini which was $8.50 a glass - the waiter made me several special $8 Bellinis so I did not have to pay. However on reflection I will not buy the package again - whilst it was wonderful not having to sign for anything, we did feel it was a bit restrictive and I always had the niggling feeling that I wasn't having my 6-7 drinks a day to break even. We do not drink cocktails by the pool during the day, and we don't even go to the Captains Club complimentary drinks hour between 4-6 as this is too early for us. In Murano's there was no wine I liked for the $8 limit - they only had a Reisling - but they did get the French rose for me from another bar. The French Rose was delicious by the way and was my staple drink during the evenings! I think they had run out by the end of the cruise though. DH always ordered a bottle of red to keep him going across 2 evenings - usually in the $50-$60 price bracket but there were several under this range and he said that the house La Crema Pinot Noir was excellent for only $39. As we sailed to Spain we had the elusive 8% Spanish VAT to contend with - this was supposedly charged whenever we were in Spanish ports or within 12miles of the coast. This seemed to be hit or miss depending on which bar you went to - the pool bar charged where as the Passport Bar did not! They did also have a few drink specials such as a beer offer of buy 5 and get 6; and in the aft Oceanview bars and the Sunset bars you can buy 355ml carafes of wine for $.9.95 which I didn't see offered elsewhere. There are several bars on board - our favourites were the Martini Bar, where we ordered the Martini Flight one evening - a great show- and the Sky lounge at the front of deck 14. We never went to the Molecular Bar, or Cellar Masters despite our best intentions - just not enough time!
CAPTAINS CLUB As Diamond members of C&A we are automatically grandfathered in as the top Elite tier on CaptC. There was no separate line at checkin for Elite members, which was unusual, so we joined the one for concierge. There was a list of special events for us such as wine tasting seminar, back stage tour, senior officers cocktail party and an elegant tea. I heard that there were over 280 Select and Elite members on board. We went to the cocktail hour just once, and we also used the Michael's Club breakfast a few times when we were leaving the ship early in ports. They had a good selection of salmon bagels, meats, cheeses and pastries as well as fresh squeezed juices and smoothies on offer.. On the first formal night we got flowers and also two super large beach towels as a gift. The sheet of vouchers included 30 items washed/folded for free, complimentary dry cleaning of one item, 90mins complimentary internet access and $15 casino vouchers.
ENTERTAINMENT Around the ship there was always music of some sort - there was an acappella quartet who were superb and by far the best, classical violinists, a guitarist, a party band and the gentle songs and quiet musings of Lloyd in Michaels Club. As for the 'headliners'- most we had not heard of so we didn't go to many of the shows I'm afraid - but they tended to repeat the acts so one night we got to see the magician, comic and singer who had been on the previous evenings as a 3-in-1 deal! There was an excellent young violinist who had the only standing ovation of the cruise. The only other show we went to was 'Eclipse The Show' which is very like Cirque de Soleil and visually stunning.. They also had a series of lectures and talks - we went to two by a historian, on Lisbon and on Seville/Cadiz which were interesting; there were also talks on the Titanic (doh!) and on how the ship is environmentally friendly. There were also the usual quizzes, bingo, language lessons and dance classes to keep you busy. The Lawn club area was always packed with people playing boules, or croquet, on this unique area of the ship. The Hot Glass show was very good too. We also did the art tour - they have iPads loaded with a deck-by-deck tour of the art on board with descriptions - this took about an hour and was a good way to cover the whole ship!
PORTS This is the first cruise I have ever been on where the port information actually admits there is public transport as well as the shuttle on offer! VIGO - (docked right in town) - we had booked a private tour with 2 other couples on the roll call with Brendan of http://guidedgalicia.blogspot.com/p/blog.html - he was a charming young man, (also very easy on the eye ladies!) The tour took us to Santiago del Compostella and then to a couple of fishing villages for lunch and to see the sights. The weather was terrible - it poured and poured whilst in SdC but it didn't diminish from the enjoyment of the day. He charged €400 for the 6 of us and he does not take tours larger than 6. Highly recommended. LISBON- months of planning in how and where to catch the trams from, were wasted as we did not dock under the bridge as usual but further along past Black Horse Square. We strolled to Black Horse Square in around 15 minutes and caught the #15 tram out to Belem for €1.45pp per trip. We saw the tower and the statue but unfortunately there was some formal event going on in the monastery so we could not enter. We caught the #15 back and then swapped to the #12 to go around the old town and see the cathedral. After a very good lunch we strolled back to the ship. A very easy port to DIY in but I was quite surprised how shabby and old fashioned it felt. GIBRALTAR - I cannot comment as we did not get off! It was the first fully sunny day and some serious sunbathing was needed. Friends who went ashore did say they enjoyed it though. BARCELONA (ships shuttle $4pp return) - we caught the shuttle and walked to the nearest metro Drassanes which was just a short way up Ramblas.. A single ticket was €1.40pp. As we had visited Barcelona many times before we were going to spend the day by the sea. From the train station Sants, we caught a train to Sitges which is a small resort about 30 mins south. The train left from platform 9-10 at 11.06am. Sitges is rather a gay resort so it is packed with fabulous restaurants and good looking men! We had a lovely day by the sea, a great lunch before we caught the 3p train, then the metro and bus back to the ship. The train ticket was €6pp return. TOULON ($12pp for the shuttle) we had booked a car hire via Hertz in Toulon, the only issue being that we didn't actually dock in Toulon but in La Seyne sur Mer which is about 30 mins away - we learnt this via Cruise Critic several months prior but I do suspect that there were several people on board who did not know of the port change until we sailed. We were first off the ship and caught a cab into Toulon for €20 - we had completed formalities at the agency and were on the road by 8.30a. We drove to Cassis which was picture postcard scenic in its beauty, and then to Bandol for lunch before returning the car back to Toulon. The only issue being that the Hertz office shut for lunch between 12-3!!!! How this can happen in one of the biggest cities in the country I do not know, there was no key drop off facility, and no where to park - I was severely tempted just to leave the car but thankfully the lady returned from her lunch 'early' at 2.50 so we just left the keys with her! We walked quickly through the old town to the pier where we caught the 8M ferry for €2pp from pier #3. The ferry left at 3.10 or 3.40 and it was a simple stroll back to the ship. PALMA ($15pp for a 2-day pass on the ships shuttle) - we caught the #1 bus from the port to town for €1.25pp. It dropped us right at the train station where we took the Ferrocarril de Soller - a wooden train up to Soller. The train left at 1.30p from it's own station which is to the left of the main station as you look at it though the art-nouveau style entrance arch. (there was an earlier one at 12.15 and if you rushed by cab from the ship you may just make this if you are off as soon as you docked at noon). The train cost €10pp one way (€17pp return) and took an hour up through the hills to the pretty town of Soller. From there we took the tram down the hill to the port area for €4pp where we had a great lunch by the sea. We then caught the #211 fast bus back to Palma for €2.90pp which ended at the bus station which is directly under the train station! Back on the #1 to the ship - time to freshen up and then we went out again that night for a spot of tapas in town. Back on board there was a pool side party and disco. We were docked overnight and the next day, despite our best intentions to go to Valldemossa we did just stroll around the old town and look at the shops in Palma that day again utilising the very efficient #1 bus service. CADIZ - we were docked right in town - only a few hundred meters from the cathedral square. A charming old town, easy to walk around - they have 4 routes marked out for your to follow to see the historic sights of what is meant to be the oldest town in Europe.
HOHO busses were also readily available at the ports of Vigo, Palma, Cadiz and Lisbon. They left from the bottom of the Ramblas in Barcelona.
After 2 final days at sea it was time to pack and disembark. In summary this was one of the best cruises we have ever taken, the itinerary was good, the ports interesting, the food and service excellent. OK, there were a few niggling items such as Select Dining not being as smooth as it should be but once they get these sorted out then this is probably as good as cruising is going to get.