Firstly, let me reassure British cruisers that Independence of the Seas is not "Butlins on Sea" as I have heard it accused of being. We chose Indy from Southampton because (a) no transatlantic flights and (b) for the two week itinerary, because we had found that on Freedom of the Seas, a week simply wasn't enough.
Embarkation: Having never cruised from a home port before, it was a real novelty to not be restricted by airline baggage allowances (if it could fit in the car, it was packed), and to be able to have a leisurely drive down to Southampton the day before the cruise. We stayed in the West Quay Premier Inn, highly recommended because of its proximity to Hollister in the neighbouring shopping centre (we have a daughter - need I say more). We shopped until we dropped, checked into the hotel where we had a peaceful night's sleep, and after a very busy breakfast on Saturday morning (4 cruise ships in port!), we checked out and were at the terminal within 5 minutes.
Here we were directed to drive to the luggage drop off point, where helpful luggage handlers took the luggage directly from the car boot, and then drove to the car park. We carried our hand luggage into the terminal and then checked in. We were reasonably early so the whole process only took 45 minutes, and we were on board before lunch!
On board: Having cruised on Freedom, the beauty of Indy is that it's almost identical; the layout is identical, only a few names (dining room, theatre etc.) differ. This meant that we knew our way around immediately, so saved a lot of time getting lost and exploring.
The cabins weren't ready until 1pm so we headed for the Royal Promenade to Sorrentos for some free pizza and a cold drink whilst people watching. The Promenade is like a miniature shopping mall and contains gift shops, jewellery shops, a cosmetic and perfume shop, duty free shop, bars, the "English" pub, Ben & Jerry's ice cream (a small charge but worth it), a Close Shave men's barbers, Cafe Promenade (free ice water, tea and coffee, cookies, cakes, sandwiches and a separate counter for lattes and other speciality coffees which you pay for), and Guest Services.
We had to re-register a credit card at Guest Services as - like a plank - I had forgotten to bring the card I'd pre-registered (!). Mathieu from France served us and was exceptionally helpful and friendly and very efficient. We then booked an excursion at the neighbouring "Explorations" desk, and headed off upstairs as by this time it was almost 1pm.
Cabin: Doors to the cabins were opened bang on time so we dropped off our hand luggage in our mid-deck balcony cabin (D1) on Deck 9. This time, we knew that the sofa bed would be made up later on in the evening by our room steward, so we weren't surprised to find the room spotless and ready for daytime use. The room was plenty big enough for three of us and - the best bit for me with a severe back injury - the bed was *heavenly*. Larger than our King-size at home, with no gap in the middle and no rolling-together. It seemed to have about three different mattress toppers and was the most comfortable bed I have ever slept in.
The only drawback to the room was that this time we had a connecting door between us and the neighbouring stateroom, and either the door wasn't very well soundproofed at all, or our neighbours were *really* loud. I will try to avoid this next time as it did disturb us at times. Apart from that, the cabin was fantastic.
Food: I enjoyed the Food on Indy even more than I had on Freedom, as they made a fantastic effort to cater for British tastes. As the majority of guests onboard were Brits, this was well received. So as well as American bacon at breakfast, they had grilled back bacon. Cocktail sauce at dinner was Marie Rose sauce (called "Brandied Cocktail sauce" on the menu), i.e. pink as opposed to what looked and tasted like tomato ketchup. This aside, the food was great; a fantastic range of lunchtime choices in the Windjammer cafe (anything from carvery to pasta to burgers to wonderful Indonesian curries). We ate lunch in Windjammer almost every day. At breakfast and lunchtime Windjammer can get exceptionally busy when the ship is full, but restaurant staff were doing their utmost to get the tables cleared quickly and to find tables for us.
One lunchtime we ate in Johnny Rockets for the first time. I had known about the $4.95 or so cover charge per person, so that was fine, but I hadn't done my research thoroughly because I wasn't aware that milkshakes and drinks aren't included in the cover price. My fault and we did in fact have a 2 for 1 milkshake voucher in our Gold Crown & Anchor booklet which was delivered to us in our room.
When you go into Johnny Rockets, the staff all shout "Everybody say HELL-OOOO", which can be somewhat surprising. We found that the Johnny Rockets staff were just as friendly and helpful as all the other staff onboard Indy, who were all exceptional. They bring you fries and onion rings while you browse the burger menu, and made a burger exactly to my daughter's requirements. By the time we'd finished a burger each and some more fries, we were so full up that we couldn't manage dessert, much to the waiter's dismay. I don't think they are used to people with small appetites! To shouts of "Everybody say BYE!" we left and tottered up the stairs for a quick game of mini-golf up on the sports deck (free clubs, balls and scoresheets, but take your own pencils) to try to burn off a few calories. Needless to say we couldn't manage much dinner that evening.
Main Dining Room food was great; my only slight problem was that "medium" to the Chef means "rare" to me, so I had to ask for my beef "medium to well" to get "medium". Other than that, it was all delicious, particularly the lamb t-bone, the prime rib, and the lamb shank. If you'd like alternative vegetables then the fantastic waiters will oblige. If - like my daughter - you don't fancy the starters from the adult menu, the waiters will bring you fresh fruit salad. Children can mix and match from the child and adult menus with no problem.
Some desserts were average (the tiramisu for example), some were delicious. Even the average ones were fine, particularly as I hadn't cooked them and I didn't have to wash up. The food in the MDR was so good that apart from Johnny Rockets, we didn't feel the necessity to pay to eat in any of the speciality restaurants.
Our waiters, Riemos and Michael, were wonderful. Even though we had pre-paid our tips in advance, and were My Time Dining customers, we had the same table every night except two nights, when we were still in their section. It was fantastic to see them every evening and hear Riemos's recommendations for dinner. After a couple of nights buying bottled Evian, we soon realised that we could simply request ice water from the jug, so were brought that every night thereafter. If - like us - you are slow wine drinkers, you can have your bottle re-corked and brought out again every evening until it's finished.
Drinks: As pricey as other cruise lines ($40 for a bottle of Wolf Blass; $9.00 for the most delicious chocolate martini). Around $2.50 for Sprite or plain fruit juice from the bars. $7-8 for a cocktail (but they are *strong*, no watering down here). In Lisbon we bought a bottle of Port for my Dad and they spot it at the X-ray machine and simply ask you to hand it in at the neighbouring table. It was labelled and delivered back to us on day 13 with no problem. So drinks aren't cheap, but remember, you can ask for ice water with dinner, and in Windjammer, apple and orange juice (with the exception of freshly squeezed) is free at breakfast, and all other times, ice water, fruit punch (cordial) and lemon squash is all free. It's possible to quench your thirst on Indy without totting up a huge bar bill. You can also take ice water from Cafe Promenade to your room with no problem.
Entertainment: was excellent. Unlike Freedom, we made the effort to see most shows on Indy, particularly the production shows by Indy's own singers and dancers. My goodness, these guys work hard. You would be delighted to see these guys at work even if you had to pay extra for the theatre tickets. The theatre itself is huge (1500 seats) with two showings each evening. It's so big, and the shows are so professional, that most of the time I forgot I was onboard a ship. Of the non Production shows (i.e. those by outside entertainers), the one you absolutely *must* see is a group of four string players called "Graffiti Classics". Outstanding and hilariously funny.
Entertainment elsewhere was mostly fantastic, notably by Wavelength, a Candian rock band who I suspect are actually secretly Aussie surfer dudes. We saw several sets by them in the Pyramid Lounge at the front of deck 5, and they were great each time. The only band I didn't really rate were "Prestige band" who played at several sailaways up on the Pool Deck. Just not my cup of tea and the vocals were a bit grim. However, I simply put my ipod on and tuned out so it wasn't a problem.
Pools: Speaking of the pool deck, this is one area where RCI fall down slightly. There's nothing wrong with the actual pools (from the wonderful H20zone fountains, whirlpool and sprinklers at the back of the ship) through the main pool area with hot tubs and two pools, to the beautiful adult-only solarium pool at the front. The water is fine; a comfortable temperature, and a good depth for swimming. So the pools themselves are great. The problem is twofold - behaviour of other passengers, and lack of supervision by RCI staff.
One morning, despite signs everywhere, a baby in a swimming nappy was in the main pool for hours. This is strictly against RCI rules and precisely why there is a baby splash zone in the H20zone which is shallow and can be quickly cleaned and disinfected should babies have a little accident. There were no pool staff to point out to baby's parents that baby was not allowed in the main pool.
The other problem was - again, despite signs everywhere AND half-hourly announcements - running (I saw several children fall over and bang their heads after running around the pool), diving, bombing, splashing, and jumping on top of people. I have to say the worst culprits were boys - both younger and older teenagers. My daughter was underwater and some teenage boys jumped in on top of her, hurting her back and giving her a real shock.
If RCI are going to have these rules - which are needed for safety - then sadly they cannot trust children or parents to enforce them and they're going to have to have staff, with whistles, at the pools to supervise behaviour. I'm disabled and wanted to go into a quiet corner of the pool with my daughter, but this became simply impossible as I was constantly knocked, splashed, and bumped into. Eventually, we retreated to the H20 zone which was populated by younger children with their parents. It was the only time that I wished my daughter had been old enough to come into the Solarium into the quiet and tranquil pool there.
I've no doubt that outside the school holidays the pools are a much quieter place where you can actually swim, but on this holiday the two main pools were intolerable. The only real problem on an otherwise lovely holiday, but I do feel that RCI need to enforce their rules, because sadly, there are an awful lot of passengers who completely ignore them.
As always, the daily announcements by the Captain were largely completely unintelligible, which we are now used to and is part of the entertainment. :-)
Sports: Although this time neither my husband or daughter used the rock climbing wall or Flowrider (they had done both on Freedom), my daughter did make use of the Ice Rink in Studio B by having a skating lesson on Day 13. For safety reasons only 15 children are allowed, and the lessons are free, so it pays to arrive at the entrance to the rink at least 40 minutes before the time of the lesson. Those who hadn't done this were given tickets to the next open skating session, but obviously this wasn't the same as having a lesson. All started well, with two of the Professional Skaters assessing the children as they went round the rink, and splitting them into two groups (complete novices and slightly more advanced).
The lesson itself was good; the skates fitted well and the staff insisted that every child wore a helmet. The children weren't however given protective gloves to wear (which my daughter had been given on Freedom) which proved to be a drawback when daughter fell over and cut her hand badly on the skate blade. This resulted in an unexpected trip down to Deck 1 to see the Medical staff as the hand was bleeding badly, and the end result was five stitches by the very kind and efficient ship's Doctor!
Adventure Ocean: This time my daughter was in the 12-14 teen age group. Sadly she didn't enjoy the teen activities very much at all and refused to go into Adventure Ocean after a few days of trying it out. She had fitted in so well into the 9-11 group on Freedom that we were surprised, but after all it was her holiday too so we didn't make her join in the teen activities. We worked out that it was because although the actual activities are split between 12-14 group and 15-17 group, the actual teen rooms in Adventure Ocean are unsupervised and frequented by mostly older teens. For my shy 12 year old daughter, hanging out in an unsupervised "Living Room" area with mostly 15-17 yr old was intimidating and not enjoyable.
Fortunately, she made a friend after a few days with another girl of her age who also didn't enjoy the activities, so they had fun together, but having enjoyed the 9-11 room and activities so much on Freedom, I think she was sad and disappointed at the unsupervised teen space and the big age range. I can't help thinking that RCI would be better to use "Fuel" as a room for 15-17s and "The living room" for a separate, more supervised, room for the 12-14s. I think this would work much better.
In conclusion: Indy still looks great, despite the fact that she will probably be next to go into drydock. The ship is spotlessly clean and the staff do an exceptional job at trying to keep Norovirus off the ship, constantly reminding people about using soap and water to wash their hands, cleaning lift buttons, handrails etc. all the time, and insisting on the use of alcohol gel before entering Windjammer. They succeeded as we all had a Noro-free holiday. Although very busy on sea days, there are always little nooks that you can find for a bit of peace and quiet. Staff are exceptional, the beds are literally the most comfy anywhere, and the food was great. Entertainment was fabulous. I had wondered if two weeks onboard would be a little too long, but nope - as always it wasn't quite enough and I was so sad to leave. As the Captain had said, we had been friends and shipmates for over 4000 miles. Give us a few years to save up for the next cruise and we'll be back.