Background- I was traveling with my husband and our 18-year old daughter. This was our 6th cruise overall, fourth on Royal Caribbean. We chose this itinerary largely because of the ports. We'd only been to one (Copenhagen) previously. This was a part of Europe I'd always wanted to explore further, and a recent "big" birthday provided the perfect excuse for this trip. This was the longest cruise we've ever been on, and the cost seemed reasonable given the season, length of the trip, and the ports. The airfare for us from the U.S. to London was, however, relatively costly. We booked through a travel agent we'd used for our previous Royal Caribbean cruises.
Hotel Info- We flew to London on August 7- we wanted to have a couple of days there before the cruise began. We'd been to London before, so we were going to use the time to see some of the sights we'd missed previously. We were fortunate to be on a daytime flight. It was late in the evening by the time we got to London, but we prefer this to trying to sleep overnight on a plane. We stayed at the Marriott Park Lane Hotel. We ended up being very satisfied with this choice of hotel. The hotel was offering a 30% discount on stays of 3 nights, and we also had Concierge Lounge access. We enjoyed this very much- not only for breakfast, but as a respite at the end of the day as well. We were within walking distance of several restaurants, and almost immediately on top of the Marble Arch tube. Yet, despite the central location and busy street, the room was quiet and we were able to sleep. The room was a bit small, but that's what we expect in Europe, and since it was for a short stay, we were OK with that.
Travel to Port of Embarkation- We had previously arranged for a car service to take us to Harwich. This worked very well. The cruise line's transfer fees were outrageously high- it was a better deal to get door-to-door service in a private vehicle than to be on a large bus to which we would first have to travel by train or taxi. Our transfer was very smooth. The driver met us at 10:00, and we arrived at Harwich about 12:00 noon. At other ports, we have sometimes experienced a rather hectic arrival process. That was not the case here. We were met immediately by a helpful porter, and there was no line to speak of at the check-in desk. We were on the ship by about 12:15.
Stateroom- Our stateroom was a midship balcony cabin on Deck 9. We were very happy with this location. As was to be expected, it was on the small side, and felt particularly cramped when the sofabed was open. It definitely helped to have a balcony. Although the weather was cool, windy, and sometimes rainy, we enjoyed the extra breathing room a balcony provides.
Ship- Of the 4 Royal Caribbean ships we've been on, I was probably the least impressed with the layout of this one. We'd been on smaller ships that felt more spacious. On this one, the public spaces were chronically crowded. It was sometimes difficult to make our way through the shopping area. Eventually, we learned that if we really wanted to see or participate in something, we'd have to arrive early in order to avoid standing. The Windjammer, in particular, was always overcrowded and busy. The Centrum felt cramped, and, of course, despite the signs forbidding the reserving of deck chairs, there were plenty of towels enjoying a nice rest in the Solarium.
Dining- On the first night, we attended the opening show in the theater at 7:45 (this was the only show for that evening). When it got to be 8:30 (the time for our second seating dinner), the cruise director assured us that they would not begin serving dinner until after the show. Consequently, we stayed for the whole show and did not arrive at the dining room on time. It was clear that dinner was already in full swing by the time we got there, although we went straight from the theater. A waiter gestured vaguely in the direction of our table, but we could not find it in the massive space, and ended up standing around for a while until another waiter took pity on us and showed us the table. It was a somewhat awkward beginning to the dining experience. After this evening, however, things were much better. We had a wonderful time getting to know our great dinner companions, who were lots of fun to be around. Our dinners became a highlight of the cruise for us. This was not because of the food- which was OK, but generally nothing special, but because of the great conversation and fun atmosphere, as well as the excellent service provided by the waiter (Christian) and the assistant waiter (Kasa). The waiters were extremely professional and efficient, but also very welcoming and gracious.
We ate one night at Chops- we had been there on a previous cruise and loved it. Once again, this was the best food of the trip. It is well worth the surcharge and I'd definitely go back.
Children's Clubs- Our daughter had aged out of the kids program, which she had enjoyed very much on previous cruises, so I can't really comment on this. In general it did seem that although there were plenty of kids on the cruise, there was probably a lower percentage than of kids than we had seen in our earlier, shorter cruises.
Service- As mentioned, our waiters were great and did a lot to make dinners a special event. We also had an outstanding stateroom attendant, Pia. She was always pleasant and did a great job. One time I called to let her know we had some laundry, with the idea that she could pick it up at her convenience, as there was no rush. I had barely hung up the phone when she knocked at the door to collect the laundry. In general, service on the ship was excellent.
Entertainment- We skipped the production shows, which are not really our cup of tea. We did see a few of the headliner shows, which were OK. Generally the shows for late seating were scheduled for 7:00- I would have preferred shows after dinner instead, and I didn't feel like I loved the entertainment so much that it was worth the effort it would require to be ready early. I also got tired of the constant exhortations from the entertainers to cheer, applaud more, and in general show more appreciation for their efforts.
Port and Shore Excursions- The ports were the primary reason we chose this cruise, and on the whole they were great. The only port that I did not really care for was St Petersburg- I am glad I saw it, but have no strong desire to go back. Unless you are willing to get a visa independently, you have to be part of a group tour at all times in St Petersburg. This got quite tedious. In particular, I did not enjoy being taken to a cheesy souvenir shop (one of RCCL's approved vendors). We did, however, see a fabulous folkloric show in the evening, which was really fun. We also enjoyed the medieval streets of Tallinn, the beauty of Stockholm, some excellent salmon in Copenhagen, and a huge and delicious lunch in Gothenburg. I felt very fortunate to be seeing these amazing ports.
Disembarkation- This was incredibly quick and smooth. We were off the ship by 6:30 a.m. We were met by a private car service for the transfer to Heathrow (again, this was less expensive than RCCL's transfers). It did take about 3 hours to get to Heathrow from the port, due to traffic, but we had plenty of time built in to our schedule, so that was fine.
Summary- It was an amazing trip, and I feel very lucky to have been on this cruise. Whatever negatives I have mentioned here were minor- I mention them only to give a full picture of our trip and to provide information. For me, though, the positives far outweighed the negatives