We had debated a special trip to celebrate my half century and it came down to a choice of a guided tour to Egypt or a cruise. Everyone raves about Royal Caribbean and we wanted to go with them. My favourite was a cruise taking in Venice, Dubrovnik and Kusadasi, as we were keen to visit Ephesus. However, we could not get a deal that suited our budget and I was not impresssed by the Egypt tour that added 'taxes and charges' of €250 each! So I was surprised to get an email from RCCL in May advertising the Venice-Kusadasi cruise at a price I thought was reasonable. So, I rang my wife, I checked connecting flights, rang her again and then decided to go for it. However, in the intervening hour or 90 mins, the price had moved up significantly. I rang RCCL in England but got no satisfaction. Heartily diasppointed, I went to lunch. Thinking about it over lunch, I decided to go back onto the web and see what the other offer had been. It was a 7 day cruise from Malaga, returning via Sardinia, Rome, Corsica and Majorca. Better still, even with a balcony stateroom, it came in under €1,200 including gratuities. As this was a first cruise, we agreed it was more important to go on the cruise than what cruise it was! So, I booked the cruise and the connecting flights from Belfast to Malaga and counted down the days, courtesy of the online cruise counter! On October 2nd, after a week of birthday celebrations, I was carried calmly by Aer Lingus to Malaga for our first cruise. We had booked a transfer as there were two couples and associated check in bags etc and I had feared that a standard taxi might not cope. The transfer company supplied a minibus and for €52 we travelled in comfort to the port. The return journey was a different experience, see later.
First impressions were - "Wow-that ship is huge!" Arrival at the terminal and embarkation was very smooth as we had checked in online and printed our Setsail passes. Just a minor form to fill in and hand over the credit card and we were on. We entered the ship on deck 4 just outside the Vivaldi main restaurant and saw a queue formed outside the dining room. We enquired what it was for and were told that it was for changing dining arrangements. As we were travelling with another coupe and had not been seated together, we queued for ten minutes or so and the head waiter arranged for us to sit together. Off to the windjammer which was already crowded and we managed to get some lunch while sharing a table with some very noisy passengers from some part of Scandinavia, I think. The sheer luxury of the ship was stunning, with panoramic lifts to all decks, the Royal Promenade and the pool deck with spa and sea water swimming pool. One reservation I had was the carpeting of the pool deck. This was wet and unpleasant to the touch of bare foot and people were wearing deck shoes and sandals on this deck. Unhygienic in my opinion.
We soon found our stateroom and despite a somewhat stuffy smell, once the balcony door was opened the room was fine. Huge bed (two large singles pushed together and plenty of storage and an adequate ensuite promised a very comfortable trip ahead.
We dined in the MDR(main dining room) on level 4, the Vivaldi restaurant. This was formal type dining, very good waiter service. I must say that our waiters, Chetan from India and Eugenio from Panama, were excellent although the spiel about the next day's stop, from waiter and head waiter both, was a bit tedious. The food was generally excellent and was served in a 'cuisine' style, i.e. towering high but not overly generous portions. This suited us, as I like to eat early and little before bed. We dined at 6.45pm and we four shared our table with a lovely couple from Yorkshire, Beryl and Brian.
This meant we caught the early show most nights except two when we dined in the Windjammer. While the food in the Windjammer was plentiful and most nights we managed to get a table to ouurselves, it could be crowded. I did not like the melamine plates and bowls but it was quite adequate. Overall the food was excellent although my wife was disappointed that there was not more, varied seafood. Eventually, we had to cut back or skip lunch to ensure we were ungry for dinner.
The entertainment on the ship was excellent. The RCCL singers and dancers were of the highest quality and the cruise director, Anthony Richards, was very slick in English and Spanish. The shows were well produced and lasted only 45-50 minutes so you did not get too much. A couple of nights the entertainment continued on the Royal Promenade with a 70s night one night, featuring a YMCA tribute etc. On three nights the acts were 'imported', a Beatles tribute band, a Gypsy Kings tribute act and , on the last night, Las Gauchos, an 'Argentinian' act with drums and boleros, very funny and entertaining. There was also a puppet show fetauring fluorescent puppets which was excellent. Well done to all the entertainers!
Service on the ship was excellent, no doubt inspired by the culture of tipping. Our stateroom attendant, Jose, was very attentive, every night a different animal shape from towels and even conjured up a maintenance man when I casually asked if he had a screwdriver to fix my bag handle. Having said that, the usually ubiqitous Jose was nowhere to be seen when I went looking for him on the lst night, after gratuities had been dispensed. I finally surprised him the next morning when I went to try and sort out our Seapass account (more later..).
Our final day at sea saw us sail very slowly back to Malaga. The ship was full but we always got sunbeds. That might be due to the fact that nearly half the passengers were Spanish and they may have thought that the weather was nice for strolling in but not warm enough for sunbathing. Got a bit burned on the last day but it could have been worse! As a regular checker of my Seapass account, I was stunned to see that I had been charged $72 for shuttle bus tickets to Palma, Majorca and $20 for minibar charges which we had studiously avoided using. To get this rectified took 6 trips to Guest Relations, 4 that evening and 2 the next morning. At last it was fixed up to an amount that tallied with my own reckoning.
Disembarkation was almost as smooth as embarkation had been. We had chosen a relatively late time of 8.30 to 9.00 for our preferred time of disembarkation but were allocated 8.00am. The night before, we had to leave our luggage outside the stateroom to be retrieved in the terminal. This went very smoothly.
I had worried about getting a taxi from the port to the airport and had pre-booked a transfer but I had failed to phone them 24 hrs in advance. So, when I rang them at 8.00 on the last morning, I was told no one was available to do the pick up! I need not have worried. There were loads of taxis outside the terminal and the driver had no trouble stuffing our luggage and us into a Seat Leon! The fare to the airport was only €30. Lesson learned.
Overall, we enjoyed the cruise experience. Drink onboard seemed quite expensive, being charged in dollars doesn't help.
Having gotten the first cruise over, the next time I will pay more attention to the itinerary. It is a lovely way to travel. On the downside, I don't like the constant nibbling of Royal Caribbean in terms of service charges for drinks, for the wine package we bought which went from $180 to $221 when they added IVA and 'service charge', not to mention the prices of their excursions. There was also the mix up with my Seapass account! We had company with us and we met a lovely English couple at dinner. Had we not, then there would have been few English speakers to socialise with as half the passengers were Spanish.
We will definitely consider another cruise with Royal Caribbean.