As exprienced travellers in Brazil and having read a few reviews, we went into this coastal cruise prepared for some of the differences from the normal cruise experience.
First the numbers - of 2200 passengers, over 90% were Brazilian plus 5% from other S.American countries. It was also noticeable that very few were from the usual "grey haired" age demographic of cruises. I'd say the average age was 25-35.
After hearing poor reports of Santos, we decided to board at Rio. Our party of 4 plus baby took two taxis to the port from the downtown airport. Despite having got a reasonable fare indication before getting in, we were told en route by the taxi driver that there was a R$5 surcharge per bag on Rio taxis and were charged R$55 for the short trip. Our Brazilian friends (with the same number of bags but no baby) were charged a quarter of the price. Welcome to Rio! Not RCI's problem, of course, but it neatly explains why many in Brazil can't understand why we foreigners seem to focus on this city when there are so many better experiences in Brazil.
The baggage drop off sheds stretch for a few hundred metres down the quayside -other cruise lines had signs over the relevant doors, but not RCI, so we met numerous passengers dragging bags around in the heat searching for the right entrance. Check in was smooth but no shuttle bus for the 400m to the ship in the 32 degree heat. Again, we could see why this wasn't to be a trip for the elderly!
Our Owners' Suite was fine, but the service was nothing special (certainly well short of our last Celebrity experience in S.America). Our friends were in a so-called deluxe balcony room on deck 7 which stank of sewage throughout the trip despite numerous complaints and visits by maintenance. Their room attendant was so worried that this smell would jeopardise her service report that she wrote a long and sorrowful letter to our friends before the final night saying that it was awful and detailing her failed attempts to get other staff to resolve.
As far as the non-standard items are concerned, here are a few:
1) We received a note detailing Suite privileges which assured us that we would be invited to a Captain's cocktail event. There was none.
2) Main (Aquarius)restaurant food was pretty mediocre and often extremely salty (to Brazilian taste) to the point that several courses were uneaten. Because of this we seldom ate in the main restaurant and used the Windjammer self service where we could sample before eating.
3) Despite having a pram, we had to fight to get out of the elevators on several occasions because of the inrush as soon as the doors opened. Brazilians are an exhuberent bunch but the shoving and lack of queueing courtesy could be a shock. This climaxed on our return to Rio, where the mob from 4 arriving ships scrabbled and pushed for the few available taxis. We had no chance with a pram so were forced to walk out of the port and find a cab on the street in order to (just) make our 3.5 hour flight connection.
4) We had been warned about abuse of the no-smoking regulations on these cruises but were pleased to find no problems here. At times the pool deck (& very small pool) seemed to be one endless party, but it was good humoured and fun to watch. With the exception of the queueing cultural blank spot, our fellow cruisers were generally delightful & good company.
5) We prepaid tips but the promised vouchers for the staff never arrived.
It seemed strange to be tipping staff in the main restaurant when we only used it twice on the first and last nights, and the last night table staff were different people, but we did so anyway.
6) The entertainment was entirely in Portuguese, as expected, but we were disappointed that the Cruise Director's welcome & introiuction each night wasn't translated.
7) RCI seemed to be fairly unconcerned about boarding and disembarkation, especially given the substandard port facilities. At Salvador the shi was again berthed a long was from the port entrance but the shuttle bus driver had disappeared on our lunchtime return so again a long walk in the heat, casually watched by the RCI staff in their gangway tent. At Santos, the bus to the terminal took 25 minutes due to having to use the traffic-jammed main roads to get from the berth to the terminal. At Rio on our return, the shuttle bus dropped us outside the wrong baggage building (as with departure, RCI was the only cruise line with no sign), so more confusion. A pity, as first & last impressions are enduring...
After Rio, the en route ports were not high on the wow factor and a lot of passengers didn't get off - we guessed that was because apart from Salvador, every place was within a short drive of their joining points in Sao Paulo or Rio anyway, and because tourism wasn't really the reason behind their cruise choice.
In summary, unlike our friends in their appallingly smelly cabin, we had a good
time on board, and the local crew were friendly and generally helpful, though clearly still, in many cases, in training mode.
Would we recommend to non-Brazilians? Probably not,and definitely not to seniors. The RCI cruise experience itself was somewhat ragged - more party boat than floating 5 star hotel, and as frequent visitors to Brazil who appreciate the great sights and experienes of this country, we'd argue that there are better places to see in Brazil than the large port cities, and better ways to tour and stay. Beautiful Rio is still let down by its crime and poverty. Whether this will change before the tourist influx of the Olympics.Sao Paulo with its traffic jams and 20m people is not a place that one can find much to love on a day trip. The World Heritage money poured into Salvador to restore the colonial buildings has clearly gone astray, and if anything, there are more collapsing glories than on our last visit 5 years ago. Ilhabela is pretty but the mosquitoes can ruin your day at this time of year (no warning from RCI but most of the locals were well prepared). Buzios was the pick of the bunch, but again, it's driving distance for Rio based passengers & the exotic sounding "Buzios trolley" was actually a truck. One had the feeling that the ports of call are incidental to the choice of cruise. Go for the on board partying, but if it's gourmet food, great service & interesting ports of call you're after, there are better choices, and if you wan't to see the best of Brazil, there are far better itineraries for a week.