Finally home from the June 25 LOTS sailing from Barcelona. (We stayed for a few extra days in BCN and then had to recover from the vacation. :)) For background, I traveled with my husband, 23.5 month old twins, 14- and 15- year old sons, my nanny and her husband.
Ship: The ship herself is FANTASTIC. Absolutely gorgeous, clean, shiny, pristine. The cabins were sparkly clean and comfortable, and we didn't see evidence of wear everywhere like we did on our Princess cruise a few years ago. There was more than enough stuff to do to keep everyone entertained; we barely even scratched the surface of what was available. We didn't do a single show, didn't turn on the TV in the room, but we spent a lot of time by the pools.
Babies LOVED the Splash Zone. The only complaints I might have about the pool area were that 1) the Splash Zone closed at 6 PM every day, which was a disappointment after being out touring in the hot sun all day. Luckily we had a bathtub and the babies love that too, but it would have been more fun for us to sit by the pool with them. The other complaint I'd have about the Splash Zone is that there is a deep pool in the area - not terribly smart for a pool area designed for the diaper set. We were constantly on guard because our babies would make a beeline for the deep pool (there was a waterfall that poured into the pool and bigger kids would jump into it; they thought that looked like great fun!). Other than that, the Splash Zone was perfect for us.
Cabins: We had three cabins booked - GS 1556 and two connecting Promenade inside cabins (8287 and 8289). The GS was fantastic. Tons of room, beautiful bathroom with tub/shower combo, a kitchen/bar area that had a refrigerator, huge balcony and tons of storage space. The GS was really important for our family as we were such a large group. The GS ended up being our regular meeting place because it had so much room. Well worth the (steep) price paid.
Beds were SUPER comfortable - we were pleasantly surprised at how comfortable our "king" bed was. (On our Princess cruise the "king" bed - two twins pushed together - was miserable because the mattresses were old and droopy, so it was impossible to sleep together anyway.) Linens were soft and cozy and the temperature in the room was easy to adjust. I was amazed at how the A/C was just totally silent and the room just seemed to cool down instantly. (Usually you can hear it start and feel the wind blowing on you.)
The inside cabins were basic. In hindsight, I don't think we'd spring for the Promenade cabins again as the view is very busy and bright - lots of neon signs, flashing lights, and extra noise when the parades occurred (some as late as 11:00 PM). The kids and the nanny mostly kept their curtains shut, so it didn't offer much advantage and the extra cost (around $200/person) wasn't at all worth it. Since I didn't stay in one of those cabins I don't have much to say other than the fact that I wouldn't want to stay in one (but I am a totally spoiled princess who travels too much to stay in economy digs anymore. It was fine for my kids though!).
Crew: We found that the crew was generally polite and nice, but not overwhelmingly so. This actually suits us just fine, because we aren't the sorts of people to interact much with strangers and we don't thrive off the familiarity that others seem to like about the crew. It was a bit surprising to me that the one person who we had the most contact with (our cabin steward, Richard) was a bit reserved - usually they are very involved with their passengers. However, as I indicated above, this wasn't an issue and he did a great job (when we let him - being that we were traveling with little ones, we spent a lot of time in the cabin so he didn't get to always do his job. We only got towel animals once. ) ;)
We did MTD, so we didn't expect or get the same waitstaff. Those who did serve us were friendly and polite, but we never developed a "relationship" there. The older kids ate most meals at the WJ and the babies had most meals in the cabin with us or the nanny. (We tried the MDR twice with them but trying to keep two 23.5-month olds from pulling all of the tableware off the table, throwing food on the floor, yanking at the tablecloth, etc. was more than I wanted to deal with very often.) I will say that room service was a pleasant surprise in terms of the food quality (more on that in the food section) and it certainly made life easier on everyone involved. The servers who helped us on the days the babies were with us in the MDR tried to make it work for them, but room service was a much better option.
Food: Of everything on the ship, the food was the biggest disappointment. The MDR and WJ fare was average at best and sometimes downright AWFUL. (The shrimp, for example, were just completely inedible every single time. All the seafood - overcooked and mushy. Most foods were underseasoned and drowned in sauces. Steaks were overdone or underdone and poor cuts. )
That said, I do understand that cooking for (and pleasing) 5,000 people isn't the easiest thing in the world to do. We did Chops one night and Portofino the last night. Chops wasn't much better than the MDR - slightly better, but not worth the upcharge. Portofino was really good - I'd go as far as "excellent", but that was in comparison to all of the other offerings, so I'll stick with "very good" and a much better value than Chops.
Wine selections were really decent for my tastes (spendy). I enjoyed some of my favorites such as the Caymus Reserve Cab in the champagne bar. I was sad to note that the good wine selections were not available everywhere; it would have made dinners in the MDR a little better if all the venues had the same wine selections available. They did allow you to bring your own glass from other locations, though, so that worked in a pinch.
Room service was, as referenced above, really surprisingly good. Being that we were in a suite, we were able to order off the MDR menu as well as the regular room service menu. The MDR food that room service brought was similar in freshness and hot-ness as the food in the MDR itself, which was a nice surprise. Since we availed ourselves of it so often due to our babies, I am pleased that it worked out so well.
One thing that was odd was that we'd prepared for the onslaught of room service by having cash for tips for the servers. Without exception, the servers accepted the tips, but they seemed uncomfortable doing so, as though it wasn't standard practice for them. On the few occasions that we missed tipping someone (like because one of my kids received the food instead of us) the servers never seemed to mind. I'm not suggesting that people NOT tip the servers, but it did seem to make them feel uncomfortable to receive them.
Oh, and the Cupcake Cupboard was WONDERFUL. I love cupcakes and they always had a great selection.
Ports: We didn't do any ship-based shored excursions.
In La Seyne sur Mer (Toulon), we got off the ship and walked around for awhile. It was a beautiful walk by the water; we originally planned to walk into town and check out the market but my family was jet-lagged, so we cut the walk short and headed back to the ship mid-day. We took advantage of the ship that afternoon - kids got tons of time on the Flowrider, so that worked out perfectly.
In Cannes we did a self-guided walking tour and shopped. I love Cannes and was perfectly happy with the port choice. We planned to take one of the ferries across to the small islands off Cannes to visit the forts there (my husband loves forts and castles) but my husband wasn't feeling well from the jet lag and the heat, so we headed back to the ship mid-afternoon.
In Florence, Rome and Naples, we did Rome in Limo tours. These were fantastic and I would highly recommend them. Our drivers in Florence and Rome were excellent guides in addition and they helped us to see as much of these three wonderful cities as possible given the short time we spent in each. I couldn't imagine doing a ship tour in these cities, and given the cost the RIL tour worked out great for the eight of us as we had our own vehicle. They even provided carseats for my twins and cold bottled water for everyone.
The last day was a sea day. The seas were a bit rougher than expected (they had been glassy and perfect up till then) so lots of people were looking a little green. It was also very windy on deck so we didn't spend time by the pool with the babies, because they get chilled in the wind when they are wet. Kids still did the Flowrider and the big pools, though.
Although I saw the usual contingent of "chair hogs" (especially around the adults-only solarium pool chairs with the nice padded loungers) it was always possible to get a chair in the sun and near the pool. :) No one ever used the suite-only/gold card area, as it was on the highest (and thus windiest) desk of the pool area and there were always plenty of chairs elsewhere.
Spa: I had a pedicure which was fantastic and fairly priced. My hair-obsessed son got his hair cut, which was really reasonable ($25) as well. My only complaint about the spa was that they double charged me for the Bliss lotion I purchased afterwards, but that was due to a computer error (it just meant that I had to go to Guest Services the morning of departure to fix it, and that was a cluster#&$@. Ultimately the concierge in the concierge lounge fixed it for me; I should have just started with her!
Concierge lounge: We didn't use it much, but I did have Oana Popa (our concierge) make dinner reservations and spa reservations for us. She was friendly and efficient and got us every reservation we asked for. The lounge always had snacks and coffee available - the machine offered fresh brewed coffee as well as espresso drinks (except my husband's beloved mochas; for those we had to go to the Promenade Cafe, which was fortunately open 24/7 for my jet-lagged man.)
Shows: My husband and I didn't do any shows at all (c.f. traveling with babies; plus, he didn't really care about them). The older kids saw a few of the movies and really enjoyed them.
Activities for older kids: The older kids were totally enamored of the ship. We hardly saw them the entire time we were onboard. I liked that they could have relative freedom but we felt that they were safe. They spent lots of time in the arcade (as I discovered at checkout, finding about $200 worth of arcade time on the bill, LOL). They loved all of the food options - Johnny Rockets and the smoothie bar were perennial favorites. They did the Flowrider every day and played ping-pong, shuffleboard, cards, and other games. They had a fantastic time; in fact, my 14-year old probably would have been happy to stay onboard every day and skip the ports.
Barcelona: We did a post-cruise stay in Barcelona for another 5 days. Stayed at the Hotel Claris (5*) which was wonderful. We had two interconnecting junior suites which worked perfectly for our group of 8. Overall we enjoyed BCN but probably won't be in a hurry to go back; not like Rome and Florence where we plan to do an extended vacation in the future.
That's about all I can think of for now