Firstly, let me say that this blog started as a commercial review of Royal Caribbean and their Holy Land Cruise aboard Vision of The Seas in October 2010. The review is not to be published as my integrity as a journalist would be compromised if I were to put into print the disgusting treatment my wife Lucy received at the hands of the senior officers of Royal Caribbean. The story started in Venice where the 110 Euro ride from the airport to our hotel ended several Piazzas short of our hotel due to the phase of the moon, a high tide and an onshore wind. The water taxi could not get under some of the bridges so dropped us at a hotel some blocks away from our own hotel. Smiling, dragging and bumping both of our 66 pound suitcases over bridges through the maze of backstreets of Venice was an excercise and an adventure but eventually we arrived at our hotel. Exhausted but determined to enjoy.
Finding the hotel "Relais Venezia" was difficult as we were expecting a grander entrance and water taxi access. As stated, we arrived at high tide with an onshore wind and St. Marks Square flooded so the bridges were not high enough for taxis to get under. The hotel is known to both water taxis and Gondoliers and is at the canal end of Cassellaria. It is in a prime location unless nature conspires against you. We arrived in good shape, both well exercised and in good spirits and found the hotel. What a jewel. Spartan but nevertheless a jewel. The staff were more than accommodating and full of helpful tips. This hotel is a small hideaway in Venice midway between St. Marks Square and the Rialto Bridge within five minutes stroll from each. Tastefully renovated with silken draperies, exposed 17th century beams and Murano lighting fixtures, the overall impression of the hotel was really good and it's proximity to many inexpensive eateries was convenient. We were even given a Murano glass rememberance of a restaurant close by at the end of our memorable meal. Beer is more expensive than wine in Venice so go without your Bud Light and go for a good Merlot instead. If we return to Venice, this is where we'll stay, if they will have room for us, as it is a very small hotel. The elevator only goes up to the lobby from street/canal level and I believe I counted 53 white marble steps between the lobby and our top floor room. The top floor gave us a view over the rooftops of Venice to the Dolomites on the horizon. Thankfully our hosts carried our heavy suitcases both up and down for us but we managed the climb to our room several times a day and considered it a useful cardio-vascular workout as we are in our sixties. Overall we rate this hotel highly and would reccomend it to anyone who doesn't expect or demand the Waldorf Astoria.
After a couple of days exploring Venice it was time for us to head to the ship for our "dream cruise" to Egypt, Israel, Greece and Croatia. We took our suitcases and rolled them merrily to the Rialto Bridge where for a few Euros each we caught a vaparetto (water bus) to the docking area for cruise ships. The sun was shining and all was well with the world.
On first entering Vision of the Seas, one couldn't help noticing the tired condition of the ship in general, rusty windows and ports, stained carpets and a general lack of attention to the details we have become accustomed to on Royal Caribbean. The last R.C. cruise on Serenade of the Seas was far more impressive, even the Norwegian Cruise Lines "Western Mediterranean Cruise" on Norwegian Gem was a far more up market upon boarding.
Speaking of boarding, and I shall, at length, it was abysmal. Several hours in a large warehouse style terminal building without even a hint of a cup of coffee. The choice was water or lemonade and a selection of cookies and a cake or two. This was set up at two or three stations around the terminal which lacked even sufficient seating for all the guests. Washrooms were at a premium, perhaps four double washrooms shared between, what was confirmed as two thousand one hundred guests, which was far worse than the ratio of guests to facilities aboard an economy airline. There were lineups at each facility and the entire terminal was a massive seething body of discontent. Boarding took upwards of three to four hours, frayed nerves were abundant and I have nothing but compassion for the poor passengers that arrived that morning from far away. I spoke with people that had just arrived from as far away as British Columbia, Canada and Australia who had spent the best part of a full day traveling, only to sit and wait, unwashed, unfed and uncomfortable, for an unacceptable length of time before boarding a ship that was far less well maintained than would have been expected.
Our cabin was small but comfortable and our female cabin attendant had a ready smile and a very friendly manner. She happily attended to any of our immediate needs speedily and efficiently. She cleaned, tidied and kept us well informed daily and I have no complaints about this area of the ship's maintenance although other guests had complained to me about dust, dirt and dirty toilets when they eventually boarded. The window in the cabin was not clean and had rust stains running from the top to mid way down and the bronze frame was very corroded indicating the dampness and condensation within the cabin.
There was however a severe hygiene problem aboard as there was feces splattered on the men's washroom wall, midships on deck four. This I reported but the problem still existed twenty four hours later. I found it necessary to contact a senior officer aboard and report the problem a second time. It was dealt with in only a matter of hours. The delay of over a day to correct such a poor sanitation problem falls far short of the standard of hygiene expected in the Western World.
The shore excursions must be a logistical nightmare for the crew to deal with. Getting two thousand impatient and irritated passengers through customs and into cramped coaches must strain their organizational abilities to the limit and there must be a more customer friendly method of affording the passengers a simpler less uncomfortable way to begin their trips ashore.
The tour companies try their best to show you everything on the itinerary but are hampered by the late arrival of passengers back from the short periods of free time allowed at some of the locations, but they always seem to squeeze in at least forty five minutes to an hour at the gift stores where they get their commission. One can buy all types of unnecessary cheap tacky souvenirs at outrageous prices, and most people leave with something as buying is an activity and relieves the boredom of the "Made in China" little plastic pyramids and plaster models of the Madonna and Child. If they took us to a local market, we could all see what we really came to experience in the Middle East, local culture. One sign in the Via Dolarosa in Jerusalem said it all, "Buy your souvenirs here. Save the 35% the tour guide gets paid by the gift shop". The figure may be slightly inflated but one would have to be rather naive not to accept that it is the custom and supported by the cruise line.
Speaking of custom, I have to mention that in the Duty free Shop on board "Vision of the Seas", they were selling a particular wristwatch at 40% off. The very same wristwatch was on sale at Macy's three weeks ago for twenty dollars less, including all taxes. Beware! Duty free does not mean profit free and most items can be bought ashore in either retail stores or duty free shops for considerably less than on board a Royal Caribbean ship. I was sitting one afternoon and overheard one of a number of passengers traveling together suggest that they get a picture of the whole group and have it copied at home to avoid the thousand dollars it would cost them to buy a single copy each. A digitized image was to be saved and shared with the entire party. Those folks from Utah knew a rip-off when it was offered. I had to smile as a cruise is not for the budget minded. The cruise line claims to be a five star hotel afloat and it certainly is in some regards but in other areas it only rates as a two star Egyptian hotel.
Somehow, sitting on deck in the warmth of Haifa Israel, The San Francisco of the Mediterranean, under a starry sky by an empty swimming pool with a decent scotch in one's hand and enjoying the gentle night breeze after a day at the Sea of Galilee can alter one's perspective of a cruise and also of the cruise line providing it. This indeed is the case today, as my wife and I have been relatively harsh in our assessment of Royal Caribbean so far. This is not to excuse them in any way for the way in which the ship is maintained but more a matter of the seduction of our senses by their choice of ports of call. Venice was magical, Alexandria and Cairo were exciting. Each cruise has its own personality and this cruise appears to be checking all the boxes so far and exhaustion permitting, from four 12 hour shore trips, when we reach the mid point of the cruise as we sail away tonight, my mind could possibly be changed.
"As you were!" On the change of mind.
Leaving Israel left us with wonderful memories of the Middle East, but nothing like the miserable memories of things that we were subjected to the following day.
My wife Lucy is diabetic and we kept her insulin refrigerated on board. We requested that a small freezer pack be kept frozen for her shore excursions but this proved to be a logistical problem for the ship's hotel staff. Her insulin pack was therefore subjected to Egyptian desert temperatures and Israeli desert heat. She has previously noticed a loosening of the bowel due to poor storage of her medication, but this has previously been corrected with a small dose of the retail drug Imodium.
On our day at sea Oct.26th 2010 some time after mid-day, between Haifa and Piraeus, she noticed the symptom and went to the drug store on deck 6 to buy Imodium. This was not on sale there nor was any substitute stomach medication. Only laxatives were available. A medicine hardly needed aboard this ship. She went to customer relations on deck 5 to try and get some Imodium but it was not available there either. She was directed to the sick bay, amidships, on deck 1. The medical facility was closed by then but Customer Relations advised her that they would have the nurse open the room for her although the nurse was not on duty. My wife was grateful for that service so she proceeded to the "Sick Bay", where a form was thrust at her by a disgruntled nurse that had been called back to duty.
It was at this time it occurred to me, while resting in the cabin after lunch that she had been gone for a long time so I went in search of her. I found her in the Sick Bay arguing with the nurse about her being confined to her cabin for twenty four hours. This would have denied her the joy of Formal Night for which she had bought a new gown and visiting the splendors of Athens. I reiterate, she was not sick at this time, she only wanted some Imodium. The quest for and the difficulty to obtain the medication that she needed made her feel compelled to exaggerate the number of bowel movements she had experienced in the previous day. As we sat there two other women came in for treatment with a diarrhea complaint and were sent away by the nurse as not being sick enough.
The nurse insisted that my wife go to her cabin immediately with suspected Norwalk Virus and remain there quarantined. Myself, on the other hand, I was allowed to freely roam the ship. The nurse's attitude was domineering, rude and unnecessary, so we both left the Sick Bay in time to go on deck for what was left of the afternoon still without any Imodium or medical attention.
Immediately upon our return to the cabin, the telephone rang and my wife was summoned to sick bay. We assumed it was to collect her Imodium, so I let her go alone. Some time later I had a call that I too should report to the medical facility immediately as my wife was being detained there. I first went to Customer Relations complaining loudly that my wife was being held against her will. A senior officer appeared and escorted me to the closed door on deck 1 behind which my wife was being held. Upon arriving there I could not believe what I saw. My wife was cowering in a chair crying, with officers of the ship looming over and surrounding her menacingly. This was not acceptable to me and I immediately went into protective overdrive. I argued forcibly against their treatment and for cooler heads to prevail. This was not an option allowed by the Royal Caribbean officers who now outnumbered us completely, still surrounding and standing over my frightened wife.
I asked to see the form my wife had signed and was advised it was the original and there were no copies. I crumpled it in my hand and suggested once again that my wife was not sick and asked what could be done to make this situation go away. It could have been as simple as destroying the form. It was at this point that the officer in charge became extremely belligerent and threatened to have us put ashore in Athens as I had destroyed ships property and my wife was confined to her cabin for 24 hours. The threat of being put ashore hung over us for the remainder of the day until the Captain had made his decision if we could remain aboard and we were advised that a security guard would be placed outside our cabin if we did not comply. Still in tears and disbelief at the ruination of her holiday my wife and I returned to our cabin. She, suspected of having Norwalk Virus, me free to roam the ship and generally spread the disease. At this time I must point out that I am not the type of husband nor journalist that would abandon his wife to her confinement and continue my cruise alone. Her punishment was my punishment too. We were confined at six p.m. against our will and without even a consultation with the ship's doctor.
We awaited the outcome of the Captain's decision until well into the evening when we received a call to tell us that my wife was quarantined until 8am the next day, only 14 hours after her arrest and imprisonment. At that time, it was suggested we were free to go ashore and enjoy Athens. All enjoyment of Royal Caribbean, Vision of The Seas and our vacation had by that time disappeared completely. The breaking of their own twenty four hour quarantine rule in our case proved beyond a doubt that my wife had been grossly mistreated and without any medical evidence.
Vision of The Seas was not a well maintained ship and was not clean. We firmly believe that the senior officers' paranoid attitude towards a believed or fictitious Norwalk Virus was also likely due in part to the unsanitary conditions that existed on the ship and a desperate need to protect the cruise line, at all costs, from outbreaks of their own making similar to the food poisoning occurrence that they caused in Buzios, Brazil earlier this year.
This cruise will not go down as one that we enjoyed at all. We sailed on Splendor of The Seas in 2007 and had hoped for a similar experience in Vision Of The Seas. This was denied to us by the attitude of the officers and medical staff of Vision of The Seas.
We have written to Royal Caribbean demanding an apology from the company and a personal apology from both the "senior officer involved" and the nurse who spoiled any further enjoyment of our vacation on Royal Caribbean's "Vision of the Seas", without even extending to us the courtesy of a consultation with the ships doctor who was no doubt busy with sickness elsewhere on board.
W. Barry Gilbert-Morris