As "pay back" for all the great advice I get on Cruise Critic, I've made this a pretty long review. I tried to put headers and review by subject rather than my date so that you can navigate and ignore anything that isn't interesting for you.
A bit of background: I'm a middle-aged (!) professional and very well travelled mom, and my duaghter is a very well travelled 11 year old. I'm American, and my daughter is American-English and we are living in Switzerland. She caught the cruise bug after we went on another Med cruise last summer on NCL. She's been working very hard at school this year, and so has her dad, who retired recently and is retraining to become a teacher. To give him some space to work on his dissertation, to reward her for her hard work, and to give me some downtime to spend together, I decided to book a cruise as a surprise spring break mother-daughter trip. Doing some basic research quickly showed that there weren't many choices for a Europe based trip which fit within her holidays, so the RCCI choice was more or less made for us.
My daughter knew we were travelling, but not to where. I managed to keep it a secret - even when we checked in at the airport at the Swiss desks which manage a number of flights, she didn't know our destination. She only found out we were travelling to Barcelona when we got to the gate. Even then, she assumed we would be spending the holidays in Spain. My husband had written out the port directions in Spanish for the taxi with a request not to disclose them, so she thought we were in a cab to our hotel. I got the expected reaction as she slowly realized we were pulling up to the port where a number of ships were docked and she understood we were cruising that week!
Arrival/Embarkation: We arrived very early in Barcelona. The airport is very easy to navigate and we soon had our luggage and were on our way to a taxi. I noticed a number of signs for "cruises" but didn't pay much attention as I didn't want my daughter to ask any questions, so I was quickly steering her the other way to "Taxis", but I am guessing if you had booked a transfer, you would follow the Cruises signs. There were plenty of taxis available, and we were soon on our way. The taxi fare was 45 euros which included at 5 euro tip - a bit more than I had expected, but I think there are additional charges for the airport and/or cruise terminal.
We arrived at the terminal at about 9:00 am and it was busy with people who had just disembarked. There were plenty of RCCI personnel to assist, and we quickly were directed to a stand for luggage check in. There were a few others waiting, but no line, and after a bit of sorting out and minor confusion by the very polite baggage guys, we were able to check in our luggage, having waited only about 10 minutes. It was too early to check in for the cruise, although I was told it would open at 10:30, so, thanks to info from these boards, we took the shuttle bus which stops right outside the registration area and dropped us off a few minutes later at the Christopher Columbus column at the bottom of La Ramblas. It was easy to find the bus, and I think it was about 8 euros for the round trip tickets for the two of us. You could definitely walk it instead, but it's a longish walk and not all that attractive, and I certainly wouldn't want to do it in the heat of summer.
We took a long walk all the way up La Ramblas, which wasn't really so great, other than the weather was nice and it was good to stretch our legs. It was Easter Monday, so some of the shops were closed, including the great food market, which I had really wanted to stop at. Or maybe it was just that we were there too early in the morning. In any event, nothing particularly noteworthy - there are a number of outdoor cafes, but in the shade which made it chilly that morning to stop for a drink. The famous living statues were not really out in force and the few that were there were still setting up, as were a number of stalls in a small market. It was really best for the walk and some architecture siting, but in hindsight it might have been better to stick to an earlier plan I had and either take the HOHO to enjoy the sites of this attractive city, or to have a taxi take us up to Park Guell or another nice site for a wander.
In any event, after our walk we took the shuttle back to the pier at about 11 am and were able to check in right away. Check in was easy with numerous counters open, but I imagine it got busy later. In any event, it was a smooth experience for us and we walked right onto the ship for a good explore. The cabins wouldn't be ready until 1pm, but we had a good time walking around the ship and stopping for lunch at the Windjammer buffet which was the only open food venue. By the time we had done all that, it was time to check out our cabin.
The cabin: We had a D2 balcony, and I thought the cabin was typical of this type of cruise and more than comfortable for the two of us. Unfortunately, we had an enormous cabin on the NCL cruise last summer, so my daughter was not as favorably impressed as I was! In any event, the lay out made a good use of space and provided comfortable seating. The bathroom was tiny with a shower (no bath), but well laid out. The water pressure was decent and plenty of hot water. There were two small bars of soap and a shampoo/conditioner dispenser in the shower, but I was very happy I had brought my own nicer stuff.
The bed was very comfortable, though on the firm side. Pillows were very firm, and if I did this again, I'd be tempted to bring one of my squishy down pillows! There was a large flat screen tv with ample channels - mostly Spanish and British but also a Dreamworks channel which showed nonstop Shrek etc. which made my daughter VERY happy. The cabin decor is UGLY in my opinion with muddy color schemes and an odd combo of curtains and carpet patterns which seemed to clash. I would have preferred something calmer and brighter, but it wasn't significant.
There is amazing amounts of storage in such a small space, so we were able to put everything away in draws and cupboards which helped a lot. The balcony was nice enough with two comfortable chairs and a small coffee table. The partitions between balconys are opaque glass and pretty private, but you could hear EVERYTHING between balconies and also a lot through the walls of the cabin, which are very thin. We were lucky with relatively quite neighbors, but I could see this could be a problem. Also, one of the partitions on the balcony was loose and rattled very noisily one windy night. When I informed the cabin attendant, he told me to find some paper to jam into the join to stop it rattling - effective, but I had hoped for someone else to take care of the problem which clearly is a recurring one.
There are two good bedside lamps with reading lights which was handy when one of us wanted to stay up and the other wanted to sleep. We also found that leaving the bathroom light on with the door closed let in plenty of night light for navigating in the dark.
Our cabin was located very far forward on the port side. The port side was nice on our itinerary and gave us a chance to view the ports in most places. Also, not too sunny for the balcony. The forward position was not so great when a lot of what we wanted was in the aft section (restaurants, library, kids club etc) as the ship is BIG and we had to walk a fair way to get where we wanted. I could see that a mid-ship location might be preferable ... no real problem, though, especially once we figured out good routes (e.g., going up and walking the length of the ship outside on deck instead of navigating the narrow corridor on deck 7).
Food: I'm not going to be a very useful reviewer here - we ate at the Windjammer almost all the time, with a couple of exceptions: one night in the dining room and one night at Johnny Rockets. The dining room was perfectly fine - a nice set of menu choices, friendly and attentive waiters and quick service. We passed on the desserts, though, and went for cupcakes instead. If the dessert selection was representative of the dining menus, I can understand previous comments that RCCI needs to pay more attention to this part of the menu - they just weren't that appealing.
Johnny Rockets was good - I'm not a burger person, but it all seemed fresh, and the food is plentiful - you get onion rings and fries and a burger or other choice (they had chicken, grilled cheese and veggie burgers) as well as a choice between an ice cream sundae and apple pie. We were STUFFED! The apple pie was good, by the way ...
There were three reasons we didn't use the main dining room more: first, we were in port a lot of the time and the main dining room was not open for lunches if you were on board (which we were a couple of times); second, I had pre-booked shows for times which conflicted with our assigned dining time of 7pm in the interests of not going to very late shows which my daughter would not have enjoyed, so we conflicted ourselves out of the dining room those nights; and third, when I did try to go to the dining room the first night, they told me that even though I had an assigned seating, I had not been assigned a table - we were directed to a long line at the restaurant reception which was managed by a very stressed matire d' trying to sort out all sorts of dining issues. I can only imagine how complicated the logistics are for dining arrangements, but we waited about 20 minutes and got frustrated with what looked like another 20 minutes wait. I got out of line, told the head waiter that we would be eating in the buffet that evening and didn't want to wait, but that they should get us a table assignment and leave a message for us with the number for future evenings. It was never taken care of, which is one of the few complaints I have about what was otherwise a very well managed ship. Due to conflicting show times, it wasn't really important in the end, but was annoying. We did manage to get into the restaurant the evening we were in Civitavechhia as it was pretty quiet, but even then the head waiter grumbled and huffed and puffed and made us wait 10 minutes before finding us a table. Oh well. For those interested, formal night was the second night of the cruise.
As to the Windjammer, well, we were pretty tired of it by the end of the cruise since we ate nearly all our meals there, but it was decent enough for a cruise buffet. Good efforts were made to keep varied options and plenty of them. There was a carvery option each lunch and dinner which probably offered the best quality option if you eat meat (which I don't). Burgers, including veggie burgers, and hot dogs were always available, as were salad fixings and sandwiches and cold cuts at lunch. Soups were pretty good. There were always varied curries and other dishes, so the choice should have been ample for most people. Breakfasts were also decent and included smoked salmon, eggs, sausages, cereals, etc - a good tip if you like waffles: there is one station which has the waffle machine - get your waffles there as they tend to be pretty freshly made while at the other stations they were clearly made in advance ... The coffee was surprisingly good, and oj was offered at brkfst while at lunch and dinner there was iced tea and lemonade. Iced water was always available. Waiters would take and fill drink orders, including soda cards.
It was sometimes hard to find a table, but the crew did a decent job at clearing tables when available, and we never waited long. Desserts were ok, though not great, with several sugar free options available. The cookies were my favorite - great oatmeal cookies, and ice cream with limited toppings were on offer in the evenings.
We did get cupcakes a couple of times at the cupcake cupboard, and they were ok - not bad and not great. Ben & Jerry's was also a good option a couple of times, although the range of flavors was limited. We got frozen yogurt by the pool a couple of times - ok, but not great. We didn't go to the pizza place at all, since pizza was always on offer in Windjammers.
One thing I only "discovered" on our last day was that the coffee place on Deck 5 offered free sandwiches, cakes and cookies and complimentary regular coffee/tea in addition to the paid specialty coffees. Since had only stopped by at the end of the counter to pick up paid coffees on occassion, I hadn't paid attention and thought that the food items in the glass case were also for sale, like in a Starbucks. It would have been a good option for light meals in lieu of Windjammers had we paid attention earlier...
Ports: We stopped at Cannes, Livorno and Civitavecchia on this cruise. I chose the cruise for relaxation and sea air more than for itinerary so we didn't make supreme efforts at the ports and didn't organize any excursions in advance. Because we live in Europe, Florence and Rome are easy weekends aways for us, so scrambling to see them in day with transfers wasn't an appealing option. I will say that without exception the ship handled ports very smoothly, whether the easy tender service in Cannes or the bus transfers in the other two ports. I was a bit annoyed to have to pay 20 euros for roundtrip bus transfers in Livorno which I felt should have been offered for free as we were so far out of the town. Additionally, I was annoyed that the bus only went to the town center and not to the train station, which was another public bus ride away. I have enough Italian to manage, but it would ben pretty confusing otherwise.
In any event, if you're interested, I have included some port reviews separately.
Entertainment: There were two events we were very interested in on the first day of the cruise: How to Train Your Dragon 3D Movie and the Dreamworks parade - both appealing to many kids. We did not manage either of these - why not? Because the movie started at 9:30pm and the Parade at 11pm. We were tired from travel and my daughter's normal bed time is 9:30 anyway. What stupid timing choices for kid-friendly entertainment! Neither the movie nor the parade was repeated during the cruise. Very disappointing. The Dreamworks characters did appear a few times: at the very lame sailaway party (think amateur singing and dancing by crew and Shrek characters), Character breakfasts (which we didn't bother with) and a few photo ops. I was really surprised that the movie was never repeated although other movies (most notably, Sorcerer's Apprentice) were shown multiple times.
There were three other major shows during our cruise - a pretty impressive selection given the short five nights we sailed. We went to all three. First, the ice skating show, which was pretty good and the best of the three in my opinion. It was an "around the world" theme, as far as I could tell, although it seemed to start off as a showtunes theme - so that was a bit confusing, but the costumes and quality of the setting was very good. Next, Saturday Night Fever - the stage sets were amazing - really West End or Broadway quality and I was incredibly impressed. Unfortunately, the singing and dancing abilities of the main characters didn't match that, and there were a couple of painfully off-key duets. A number of people left mid-performance. That was too bad, and some stronger lead singers would make a big difference. The third show was the Up in the Air, which was quite short (about 45 minutes) and had a few relatively ok but mediocre dance/song numbers with mild acrobatics, but two clearly professional couples who performed more robust and very impressive routines making it an enjoyable evening. I give a B+ to the ice show, an A+ for set design but a C for performance for Saturday Night Fever and a B for Up in the Air. We pre-reserved seating on the RCCI website, which was a good move for the ice show and let us avoid lines, but maybe not so necessary for the other two where there were empty seats.
Spa: What a disappointment! Very mediocre services and high prices. I do not recommend this! Particularly disappointing was the mother-daughter pedicure which I thought was the perfect activity for our cruise - it cost nearly $200 with taxes and tips and was a very ordinary pedicure done by two grumpy ladies who spent more effort trying to sell us product than on the pedicure. We did not get the promised included back massage and nail polish and it was not a "fun" activity. The polish is already chipping two days after. The quality of the polish was not good - a brand I'd never heard of and not the same brand they try to sell you, and the choice of colors was the WORST I've ever seen. We ended up with bright orange (daughter) and bubble gum pink (me). There were no "complicated" colors like rose (my usual preference) nor "fun" colors like blue or green (daughter's preference). There's a MUCH better selection and quality at the walk in $20 places in NY and the quality of the service wasn't any better. The facial I had was so-so, with no effort made to examine my skin under a brighter light to adjust the facial accordingly, and again, quite an effort to sell product. I definitely do not recommend the spa!
Library: This has a decent selection of leisure reading in English and comfy chairs. There were a couple of shelves of foreign language books and also some children's books. Nothing special. There were shelves available for book exchange which was handy - I left several books and was able to snag one for the trip home.
Disembarkation: We booked late departure, which was about $60 for the two of us. Since our flight was at 3pm, I thought this was a better option than training around with our luggage (no luggage storage at the pier) for several hours. In retrospect, I probably wouldn't do this again. While RCCI bills this as a great way to extend your holiday on board, in reality, it is a real limbo day with people milling about in the morning waiting to get off and new passengers milling about waiting for their cabins when they get on. In the interim, the crew is very busy getting the ship ready, so as early as 8am the partitions on the balconies were opened and a guy was wandering up and down outside our cabin washing down the deck - so much for quietly enjoying the cabin until 9am! There is no room service breakfast that morning, and the breakfast service stops at 8:30, so you have to get up early for breakfast, even though you're staying on board a while. (We only discovered the breakfast pastries available most of the morning at the Deck 5 coffee place later, but this would be a good option!) The pools and hot tubs were also closed most of the morning, and the spa had only very limited services available and only from 11am (and, as mentioned above, probably not worth it!) There Flowrider and climbing wall are closed, and you can't use the arcade since your key cards stop working. There were a couple of movies shown during the day, but nothing that appealed to us. Only the Windjammer is open for lunch and quickly crowded with new passengers who aren't yet the seasoned buffet users we were so they clogged up the flow! Anyway, we ended up disembarking a bit earlier than we needed to, as we felt so much at 6s and 7s on board. We easily found our luggage and a taxi and had an easy ride to the airport.
I hope I haven't left out too much - it was a short cruise, but very restful and enjoyable and no more nor less than I expected. I will hang out on the RCCI boards for a little bit to answer any questions about anything I might have missed ...