For those that would be concerned about getting on and off the ship with so many passengers vying for vital places in the variety of lines – it not could not be easier or faster. The huge airline hanger sized building accommodated everyone in sections depending on how many cruises you had been on. The suite guests had a small cordoned off area with comfy seats and coffee, just close enough for the diamond plus guests to chunter away about how much they had given the company for the same style of chair as the first time cruisers. Although to be fair, not one of the 6,000 or so guests would have been kept away from their buffet lunch for too long. As for getting off at the end – I used the self disembarkation process which saw me in a taxi within 15 minutes.
First impressions of the ship, after what seemed like a full day of exploration were simple – it is quite simply the best cruise ship in the world. All of the public areas were either classy, or suitably gimmicky to satisfy anyone’s needs. But the real winner was the undeniable fact that it simply has more on it and more to do on it. What will probably surprise some will be the negatives that I will have to attach to that statement. So much so, that I should re-iterate first – this is the best cruise ship in the world.
Living accommodation – our standard balcony room on the 6th floor seemed tiny, but it may have been an optical illusion because the couch appeared bigger than any I have seen before, but the bathroom smaller. The bathroom layout was acceptable, but it is really the smallest space any mathematician could come up with that a human could fit into. The closet was cramped in by the bed, but as an amateur contortionist I was able to reach anything in there with the help of a neatly constructed coat hanger grabber. Sadly the safe was clearly too small to fit in the diamond ring I promised to buy DW in St Thomas. The balcony was, as usual, large enough to host the Philharmonic Orchestra on. So big in fact that we wished we had brought our cat along to swing it around. There was a room highlight though – the flat screen TV had all the interaction you could ever dream necessary. It will become the industry standard, shortly followed by the Internet equipment that is so difficult to use you can’t help but part with money before you have worked out how to use it.
The 4th Floor – The home of the largest ocean going casino I have visited: Something for everyone and easy enough to navigate, and with smoking and non-smoking areas. There was also a nightclub, which was well designed and large enough for the youngsters to pack in. The comedy club was a great addition as was the jazz club. All were adequately sized for their purpose and had enough character to suggest the designers had been in. The Ice Show rink was also here, and looked a great venue for the shows I sadly missed.
The 5th Floor – Home of RCI’s signature Royal Promenade. How it differs from their smaller ships is the money extraction operation is somewhat better organised. Oh, and it is very big. Sorrento’s Pizza place and the Promenade Cafe were always brimming, but as the only bits that were not paid for it was perhaps unsurprising. There were lots of shops, one of which had two headache pills for three bucks and lots of overpriced consumer goods. Obviously. The Cupcake shop had lovely cakes and $2.50 was acceptable but the adult classes for $22 was all a bit unnecessary. The Starbucks was always full, but the unpaid for coffee was not erm, the best – and, yes, this is most definitely deliberate. The champagne bar was always virtually empty. The entertainment venues included a Karaoke bar which was used as a presentation venue for a variety of things, the Pub was just as good as any, and Boleros, the Hispanic aimed venue, was also well designed. The crowds were bearable for most of the day, especially at around 6am. Unfortunately, the peak periods of when people are not in bed are often more reminiscent of the migration of Tanzanian wildebeeste. Fortunately the only crocodiles on hand are the type wearing RCI uniforms poised with hands over tablecloths, ready to rip them off at the first second of pulling out of a port. The desperation of RCI passengers to own two poorly designed T-shirts for $20 never ceases to amaze me. The Rising Tide Bar was novel, but the accompanying water jets are a little deafening while you’re sitting in the Schooner Bar. Having said all that, despite being the hub of the ship, it was never as crowded as some ships I have been on. The absolute best thing on the whole ship was the running track around deck 5, which worked out at about half a mile – it was good because it was used for its purpose and stopped the golden oldies walking at snail pace around your top deck lounger as if it was bone fide exercise. Interestingly, there were less people using it because of this.
The 6th Floor – Home of the spa, which I visited just twice. The first time was for my lifeboat drill, the second was to find out there was no public sauna, but you could use a variety of facilities for the bargain price of $30 a day. I did not see coin operated treadmills, but I have a suspicion they will be coming soon to a future RCI gym. Also on the 6th floor, but effectively part of the 5th floor is the photo place, which is really well designed with books with all your pics in. You could even have the whole lot for just $350.Yes, amazing. Just $350. Sadly, the Schooner Bar was also included here after the designers clearly forgot to put their best bar somewhere.
The 7th Floor – The Boardwalk was my favourite bit of the ship. It featured Rita’s Cantina and Johnny Rockets, both of which were used. Johnny’s made up for the dried up old burgers in the WipeOut Cafe (as the only other burgers on the ship, this is also suspiciously deliberate) and we had a great night at the beautiful Rita’s Fiesta. The food was cold and really not very good, but the music was fun, we all got flashy light necklaces and a sombrero, plus three drinks for $20. Not enough was made of the doughnut or hot-dog places, but there was never anyone around, so we happily hung around here. Most importantly the 7th Floor was home to the Aqua Show. A brilliantly designed venue, with two giant screens (neither of which showed a movie all week, for some reason), and plentiful bench style seats for the show. Someone obviously had a few Halloween sheets left over, because they were draped over the back of the ship after the designers realised it was such a terrible wind trap.
The 8th Floor – Central Park - Undoubtedly the ship’s proudest achievement. It has made the paid for restaurants inviting indoor/outdoor venues. There is a bar, a couple of somewhat pointless shops, and most spectacularly, the Park Cafe which was sadly found by the rest of the ship by day three, which presumably left the Windjammer empty. Breakfast muffins, lunchtime salads and afternoon cakes made it a must stop stop for DW and I at least once a day. Dazzles, the main nightspot was also here, which was difficult to get into but once you squeezed through the toothpaste tube entrance there were always full tables to look at.
The pools and stuff – Golf, Flow-Riders, Zipline, Pools (one of which had a really cool beach style design on a slight slope so the beds are in the water), a couple of bars and the Wipeout Cafe. Despite the numbers on the ship, and although there were literally several thousand people around, there were more available beds here than on most ships. The most remarkable feature were a few giant Jacuzzi pools which always had lots of strangers mingling about in, which I found uncomfortably strange. I think the only time there were less than three people in one of them was when the young married couple (revealed at the love and marriage game show) had it away in there. Ooh.
The other upstairs places – The Windjammer was not particularly big and was always full. The Sky Bar was my favourite bar on this ship and as soon as you managed to avert you eyes from the (RUDE PHRASE ALERT – do not read if easily offended) giant plastic sperm dripping from the ceiling, you could see it was really well designed. I think it was supposed to be like the inside of a coral reef, but I’m not entirely sure. The Brazilian restaurant and the Solarium and associated bar was also here, although it was a bit like a Jurassic Park style greenhouse, we liked it. There were also a couple of secret rooms around here somewhere for the rich folk. There is also allegedly a library and maybe even an internet venue somewhere, but, I didn’t bother looking for them.
Dining – If you can afford to eat in the premium eateries you will have a grand cruise experience, of that there is no doubt. If you have a noisy family and feel more comfortable in the Windjammer you will find adequate food, but a limited selection which really didn’t stack up against any other cruise I have been on. If you want to use the dining room be prepared for a shock (RCI CHEERLEADERS ALERT – do not read if easily offended), it really is not suitable. The menu seems shorter than usual, the service is far longer and the whole affair is like a poorly run food court. We selected My Time Dining and pre-arranged all of our dining times, only to be greeted by huge queues every night we used it. All of the staff were incredibly overworked and this led to long delays and sometimes cold food. Park Cafe was great for us because its limited menu was ideally placed for us, but the Spa Cafe, on the other hand, was not aimed at us – healthy eating on a cruise ship is a bit of an oxymoron for us.
Entertainment – Chicago was good, not quite the Broadway Chicago that was promised, but I enjoyed it. Oceanaria was also good, and as these open air pool shows evolve, they will improve further. The comedy show was very good; I had even seen one of the comics on TV. Blue Planet was similar to the Cirque shows that seem to be the latest cruise ship trend. The jazz singer was good, the show band was okay and the violinist was excellent, if you like that sort of thing. Overall, I would say the shows were better than on most cruise ships, but not nearly as good as some have already posted on these boards in my humble opinion.
The experience – Okay, I have two things to say first, one is the unmistakable fact that there are more people on this ship than any other in the world. For those that feared a shopping mall at sea – and I scoffed at them – you were right. It is impersonal and lacking any sort of community feel, which is often a great benefit of cruising. The second, I believe, sums up this new RCI experience perfectly: In my little platinum member booklet was a coupon for 10% off a beer or wine drink. I ordered a beer and a wine in one order. The 10% was taken off the beer. I asked why not off the wine and the bartender said it was company policy to deduct the 10% off the cheapest drink. So, on one hand RCI have given me something for free, but on the other it feels like someone handing you dollar bill while you try manfully to drag out of their cold, dead hand - 40 cents!!! Getting off at ports of call was easy enough but getting back on could take an age – the Bahamas stop saw a 40 minute wait to get back in as the line snaked through the terminal. It was certainly the most cosmopolitan ship I have been on out of America, but as the most spoken about this is hardly surprising. I would say this cruise experience is best for those using the premium restaurants regularly. It would also be great for larger groups and perhaps especially the Diamond and Diamond Plus guests who get nice dedicated lounges etc.
Staff – Guest Services features a new company trial (I asked). Individual lines like for a bank teller, rather than a cordoned line – which means longest there, first seen. It is very annoying to see your line take longer than those queuing for less time. The helpfulness varied depending on who you saw and who they had dealt with before you! The stateroom attendants were as good as ever. The bar staff were great, presumably because they rotate bars every two weeks that keeps their experience varied. I felt a little uncomfortable to see how hard the dining room staff were having to work during peak times. For some reason all the cruise activity staff were instructed to dedicate whatever they were doing to the cruise director Ken Rush, who really did think he was a bit of a star.
Getting around – There are electronic boards to help those that cannot find their way around, which are an amazing addition, and will hopefully become industry standard. However, despite its size, this is by far and away the easiest ship to navigate that I have been on. All of the best bits are in large sections. It might be a long walk from one end to another, but you won’t have to do that unless your cabin is at one end of the ship.
Overall – As I said earlier, this is the best cruise ship in the world. Sadly, this does not equate to the best cruise in the world – it is, as always, up to you to make it that - and if it is something that bothers you, as you can see it does me, RCI have refined their pecuniary activities to such an extent that it’s gonna cost you to enjoy this shopping mall experience to its fullest.