Stormy North Atlantic crossing on the Jewel
We had cruised on the Jewel before - through the Baltic s in 2006, so we knew what to expect. However, our expectations were exceeded. If anything, RCCL have upped their game since our previous Jewel experience and our first trans Atlantic crossing was overall an exciting adventure.
From the highly visible Master of the vessel Captain Stig Nilsen, through his Officers and crew, we enjoyed a quality cruise experience marred only by the disappointment in not being able to dock in Newfoundland.
As the cruise was scheduled to sail around Iceland and through some notoriously unpredictable North Atlantic seas, we were comforted when we learned that the Captain had been born and raised in Nordic waters! His experience of North Atlantic waters proved to be particularly beneficial when in the interests of passenger safety and comfort, the Captain had to change course and skillfully navigate the ship around the fringes of a major storm that had developed off Greenland shortly after we left Reykjavik.
We had pre-arranged an RCI transfer from Heathrow airport to Harwich. We were met by an RCI representative in the arrivals hall. Ours was a relatively early flight so we were asked to wait in a waiting area with our luggage until sufficient other passengers arrived to connect with the transfer bus. After about a ninety minute wait we were directed to a coach for the two hour journey to Harwich. On arrival at the pier we were ushered through to a priority embarkation area reserved for Platinum, Diamond and diamond Plus Crown and Anchor members. Embarkation formalities were speedily processed and we were on board within fifteen minutes of arriving in Harwich.
The Jewel is a beautiful ship. Now over six years since it's launch in 2004, she is still in remarkably good condition showing only few signs of wear and tear. She is spacious, clean, well appointed and well maintained.
Although we had booked some ten months prior to the cruise, we had only managed to secure a balcony cabin virtually at the front of the ship starboard side. We were a little apprehensive having such a forward cabin especially as we had been warned of potentially high seas as we crossed the Atlantic. We normally prefer a much more centrally situated stateroom. We need not have worried as, even while sailing through the storm after leaving Reykjavik and the high seas that ensued for the following three days or so, the ship proved to be remarkably stable and we did not experience any more notable rocking and rolling in our forward situated cabin than anywhere else on the ship.
Our balcony cabin was what one would expect on a ship of this nature. The bathroom is incredibly small but ingeniously designed and once one gets used to the cocoon like effect of shower, it is more than adequate. However, we are amazed that some of our overly obese fellow passengers who sailed on this specific cruise, could even fit in the shower which effectively is not much bigger than the capsule used to rescue the trapped miners in Chile.
We did not get much use out of our balcony this cruise, partially because of the inclement weather during the latter half of the cruise but also because we were surrounded by chain smokers - above, below and to both the left and right of our stateroom! We really recommend that RCI reconsider its current smoking policy that prohibits permits smoking in a stateroom yet, inexplicably, permits the habit on balconies! For reformed non-smokers such as my wife and I, it effectively negates the benefit of a balcony stateroom when there is a constant stream of cigarette smoke wafting across the balcony as we experienced on this cruise.
For a mass-market cruise line, we found the food on the Jewel to be generally good to very good. We understand dinner menus on RCI ships are pretty standard but apart from the typical fare that did not vary from day to day, we always found there to be sufficient alternatives to keep us interested.
We had elected the "My Time" dining option in the Tides dining room for evening meals. The special area set aside for My Time diners was well managed and organized. We generally like to dine fairly late (after 08h00 p.m.) which means we usually miss the rush and we only had to wait more than a couple of minutes for a table on only one occasion of the twelve nights we dined there. Meals generally were well prepared, attractively presented by attentive waiting staff. The only downside of My Time dining is that one can never be guaranteed a seating in the same area each night which makes tipping a bit of a problem as one is often served by different teams of waiting staff. We had four different teams during our 14 night cruise. Still, we assume the waiting staff pool their gratuities. If not, we guess if all diners gave to their last set of waiting staff, tipping would even out in the longer run.
In the Windjammer, the alternate buffet style restaurant, we found the food to be more than satisfactory in range, quality and presentation. It tends to be a bit of a scrum at breakfast and lunch times unless one is prepared to dine either very early or very late to avoid the crowds. Seating is always a premium at peak times. Even when we only went to lunch well after the peak dining period, we found seating to be very scarce - often exacerbated by somewhat selfish diners who continued to occupy tables to read or play cards after they had clearly finished their meals. We had dinner in the Windjammer on two nights and were surprised to find how many people seemed to prefer the very casual dining option. Meals were generally OK but when items run out a no replacement policy seems to prevail. On the one evening we noticed a lovely prime rib being carved medium rare just the way we liked it. However, by the time we had finished our starters, the prime rib had run out and no alternative was provided.
There were three formal evenings on the cruise but we found that the majority of diners tended to ignore the recommended dress code often pitching in casual attire even on formal nights. We really believe all cruise lines should reconsider their formal dining policies and go the way many of the more up market cruise lines, such as Oceania and Azamara, have gone by adopting a smart casual dress code throughout their cruises. Passengers who like to dress up should be encouraged to do so whenever they like leaving the rest of to enjoy the casual ambience of a country club casual atmosphere.
In particular, for those of us who have to travel long distances to link up with a cruise and therefore have restricted luggage capacity, the option of not having to pack formal wear would be very helpful!
For the first time on a cruise (this was our seventh), we actually thought the entertainment on offer was pretty good! The hard working entertainment team under the able direction of an energetic and affable Cruise Director could not be faulted for effort and enthusiasm. Nightly shows were invariably better than we have come to expect on cruise lines and some shows, in particular the female impressionist and a musically versatile country and western singer, were especially good. The show orchestra was excellent and one could almost always find an entertainer, singer or ensemble performing at various places on the ship.
Fitness and Recreation:
We made good use of the fitness centre particularly on the additional unscheduled cruise days necessitated by the change in course to bypass Newfoundland. The centre was well equipped and maintained and one seldom had to wait for a treadmill or exercycle, even at peak times. However, we were disappointed there were no change room facilities at or near the fitness center. We found such to be welcome facility on other cruise lines as after an early morning workout, one could then proceed directly for a shower and clean up prior to breakfast without having to schlep back to one's stateroom - often at the other end of the ship.
The main purpose of our vacation was to visit relatives and friends in Canada. We had a choice of either flying direct to the States (very long and exhausting), or to break our journey by flying first to London. We were then faced with the no brainer dilemma of deciding whether to fly or cruise across the Atlantic. Needless to say, it did not take us too long to discern that a cruise would be the better, more relaxing and enjoyable option!
We chose the Jewel primarily for it's itinerary and were not disappointed.
We only took one ship excursion - in Reykjavik, and, as we enjoy touring new destinations on foot wherever possible, we did our own thing in the other ports of call. We find this generally to be a good way to get the "feel" of a place we have not visited before.
In Le Havre and Cherbourg, we just walked the quaint city centres. We have been to France many times before so did not find any of the tours offered to be of much interest. Of course, we would have loved to revisit Paris (one of our favourite cities) had we docked for a longer time. However, the day excursion to Paris that was offered, half of which was to be spent on a tour bus, just did not seem to be attractive!
Cove was delightful. We took a train to Cork but frankly found Cove to be of much more interest with, inter alia, its beautiful cathedral and famous Titanic walk. The obligatory black stout (in my case a Murphy's as we wandered into a typical Irish pub that served the local brew in direct opposition to the more famous Guinness) was especially enjoyable after a long walk through the town.
In Akureyri, we were met by a niece who had emigrated to Iceland some twenty years ago. She gave us the grand Akureyri tour including visits to the beautiful, if small, Godafoss Falls - literally the Falls of the Gods and then the interesting Laufas turf covered settlement that has recently been restored that gives a good indication of how the settlers in the 18th/19th century lived. We thought Akureyri was a particularly beautiful part of the world, an area that reminded us a lot of Scotland.
The ship's tour of Golden Circle outside Reykjavik was both good and not so good. The highlights were the Strokkur geysers that erupt on average every four to five minutes (very impressive), and a visit to the Gulfoss (Golden) Falls - apparently the highest Falls in Europe with a double cascade of 105 feet. It reminded us a little of a mini scaled version of the more famous Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. The negatives were a grossly overcrowded bus (55 passengers!) and sub standard refreshments that consisted of half a polony sandwich, a dried out pastry and a cup of undrinkable lukewarm coffee - this after the ship's tour brochure publicized that the tour included a lunch. We complained but got a distinctly hostile reaction from an unhelpful guest relations desk. We subsequently did get an apology about the misrepresentation of what the tour offered from the Guest Relations Manager, which was appreciated.
Disappointingly, we missed docking at St John's in Newfoundland. As a result, our next port of call was Sydney, Nova Scotia. We had booked a ship's tour of the Cabot Trail but we cancelled this after our negative experience in Reykjavik. It rained quite heavily during the day we were in Sydney so we were not too unhappy that we had cancelled the short Cabot Trail trip. Sydney is a lovely little town that one can easily walk in a couple of hours. It has a strong Scottish heritage. One van see the Scottish influence everywhere but, somewhat incongruously, it has adopted the fiddle as it's musical instrument of choice. The bagpipe still abounds but definitely plays second fiddle to the fiddle!!
Service throughout the ship was friendly, courteous and efficient. Our cabin attendant, a delightful West Indian lady Michelle, kept our stateroom clean and well equipped at all times with unobtrusive attention to our needs.
Disembarkation was an absolute shambles, quite the worst we have ever experienced on any cruise anywhere. Despite the valiant efforts of the guest relations department to pre-plan and schedule what was always going to be a tricky process, many passengers completely disregarded the guidelines that had been fully communicated to them to facilitate a smooth disembarkation procedure.
The chaos started with a requirement by the US immigration authorities to complete immigration procedures for all staff and passengers on board prior to authorizing the disembarkation process to commence. To ensure that the authorities saw those passengers who had early flights etc first, passengers were asked to present themselves in accordance with a pre-assigned numbered sequence. Needless to say this did not go according to plan with passengers generally pushing and shoving to get to the front of the queue regardless of the number they had been assigned. The result - inevitable congestion and frustration. The same problem reasserted itself when the go ahead to commence disembarkation was finally given.
When we finally were allowed to disembark some ninety minutes behind schedule, we then experienced a further incomprehensible delay of almost an hour in the luggage collection area of what must be one of the worst cruise terminals anywhere. The nett effect was that, even though we had booked a ship transfer from pier to the airport, we only arrived at Logan International barely in time for check in for our midday flight to Canada.
Since our previous cruise on the Jewel in 2006 we have sailed on the other two brands in the RCI stable viz, Celebrity and the semi luxury Azamara, both of which are marketed at the more discerning traveler. We were thus expecting a cruise experience of somewhat lesser standard in terms of quality and service than that we had enjoyed on RCI's so called premium brands. However, even though it is clear the Royal Caribbean brand is pitched at a more mass market level, we were more then happy with our overall cruise experience on the Jewel, an experience that despite the stormy weather we encountered in the latter half of the cruise, in most respects exceeded our expectations.
When we booked the cruise we had no appreciation that the crossing would be at the height of the North Atlantic hurricane season! We were somewhat astonished to see a chart on board that indicated we would be most likely to hit the back end of a hurricane off the cast of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland in September. Had we taken the trouble to research the historical weather patterns more closely it is highly probable we would have opted to cruise the North Atlantic a month or two later.
It is sobering to reflect that our specific crossing fell directly between two major storms; one that hit Nova Scotia about ten days before we docked at Sydney and the other that devastated St John's in Newfoundland a week after we completed our crossing. We can thus be all the more thankful that due to the skill of the Captain and crew, we completed the crossing safely and in retrospect, with minimal discomfort. Overall a most enjoyable cruise.