My husband & I have always been independent travelers - over the last seven years, we've only used a tour company, and even at that, it was a private tour for just a day while in Mexico. The idea of being stuck on a boat with 3500 others terrified me, but for $150/day, there was no way we could come close to matching the value land touring from Rome to Israel. I went in with low expectations; I told my TA that I'd be okay as long as it was like a Motel 6 and Applebees, but was pleasantly surprised with a wee Hampton Inn and restaurant food that was honestly better than a lot of $150 dinners we've had. A very nice surprise.
Dining: 4/5 stars. Disliked the Windjammer for all the reasons I dislike buffets. Food is never hot or fresh enough, even at peak hours. But you can always find something decent. Stopped often at the Cafe Promenade for a sweet treat or a ham & cheese croissant (these were delicious!). We ate every dinner in the main dining room; I felt that the food was awesome considering what we were paying. Was every dish perfect? No, but they were apologetic when there was a mishap. I only sent back one plate over 12 days, so I thought they had a good track record. Lee from St Lucia was our head waiter with Danillo from Brazil as our assistant waiter. Both took very good care of us during our time aboard. Skipped the specialty restaurants since we were so happy with the main dining room food. Rather enjoyed having breakfast & lunch in the main dining room when available (though they rotate two lunch menus the entire sailing, the soup of the day, catch of the day, and pasta of the day do change).
Room: 4/5 stars. Paid for an inside guarantee and ended up upgraded to a Promenade Stateroom. It was nice to have the extra few square feet & the look out to the promenade. Some noise when bands were playing, but they all stopped before it got too late. The Mariner must be approaching a renovation (some of the furniture in our room was starting to get more than its fair share of rubs & nicks), but again, for $150/night including food, entertainment & transport, you can't expect perfection. Bathroom was actually larger than I expected. Bed linens were always great, but the bath linens were hit or miss. Our stateroom attendant got to know our schedule within a few days and we rarely saw him since he'd sneak in when he knew we were gone.
Drinks: 4/5 stars. You have to know which bars to go to. I had some not so great drinks in the Lotus Lounge and at the Cafe Promenade, but much better drinks & service at the Pool Bar, Solarium & Champagne Bar (my favorite). Drink pricing seemed a little high (over $10 for a margarita in the book), but they start with higher end spirits (Patron is the std for margaritas in the menu). Ask for lesser spirits (I'm okay with Cuervo) and the price goes to reasonable. They have a nice enough wine list (by the glass or bottle), and if you order a bottle with dinner, they will keep it for you for the next night. We stuck to glasses to get more variety.
Entertainment: 4/5 stars. Some of the nightly shows were really good - I greatly enjoyed the spotlight guest performers. The Royal Caribbean Singers & Dancers ranged from good to bad, but they put on a decent show. Also enjoyed some of the trivia, game shows & karaoke. Plenty of pre and post dinner music, all ranging from good to bad. We learned which groups we detested and avoided those bars. Sometimes I wish that there was "more" entertainment though. Maybe I was expecting too much, but I never felt a bustle of activity on board. But, then again, our ports of call were super action packed so I think most people appreciated the time to rest.
Staff: 5/5 stars. We felt that every RCI employee we came into contact with went above and beyond. Everyone said hi to you in the hallways. Plenty of folks asked us how we were doing, and our wait staff was always checking on our dining experience. Had a chance to chat with the Restaurant Manager in the Main Dining Room more than once and enjoyed hearing how they were tailoring the menus due to customer feedback (we were only the second sailing on the current menus - due to complaints on previous sailings). The Cruise Director (Kieran "John" Buffery) and his staff were outgoing without being annoying (except maybe the Bingo girl...her announcements on the PA could make you nuts). The Captain did his rounds constantly.
Itinerary: 5/5 stars. We picked this specific cruise over a few others due to the ports of call. We originally looked at a Greek Isles cruise, but the opportunity to see Israel was too great to pass up. Several parts can be easily done on our own, and only Ashdod was really impossible to do on your own. Ashdod is a working port; taxis can't go to the ship (only tour group buses) and you aren't allowed to walk on your own from the port entranace. We met more than one person who had chosen to overnight on shore and was met with that surprise at the Ashdod port. Our dinner mates had that issue and waited nearly an hour for a tour bus to agree to bring them to the ship (most refused). I'm not sure what they would have done otherwise.