Our family of 7 adults took the 12-night Holy Lands cruise on Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas. Two of us are repeat cruisers and the rest were newbies. Here are our observations:
PRE-CRUISE: We arrived at the Fiumicino Airport in Rome two days before our cruise. We used tourshuttle.com to book transport to our hotel by a company called SAR Hire (you can book with them directly too on their website www.sarhire.it. It may be cheaper but the only thing is their English is limited). The driver was there waiting for us at the agreed time. He had a big van with plenty of room for us and our luggage. He was an excellent driver and even though he didn't speak English, he had a printout of our reservation and knew exactly where to go. It costed 60 Euro for our entire group, which is a deal compared to what other companies were quoting us.
We stayed at Hotel Florida in Rome (address: 243 Via Cola di Rienzo, 00192 Rome-Italy, Tel: 0039-06-3241872). We used Venere.com to book one triple room and one quadruple room. One room was average and the other small but both were absolutely spotless. The cost for 2 nights was 576 euro (not including breakfast or the 2 euro pp Rome hotel tax). Sounds pricey but I checked many hotels in the area and that was the best deal. Great location, about a 5-10 minute walk from the Vatican, also near bus stops to go to the Colosseum.
On the day of our cruise we took a 5 minute taxi ride to the San Pietro train station and bought tickets to go to Civitavecchia (8.4 euros per ticket). It was about a 45 minute ride to Civitavecchia and a 15-20 minute stroll to the port gate where we took the free shuttle to the ship.
By the way, we booked the cruise through an Internet company. We booked it during the RC "Wow" promotion and received $250 shipboard credit per cabin. It was a pretty good deal. Keep in mind though that if you are planning to use the shipboard credit for gratuities, you must give the full suggested gratuity amounts, you can't decide who gets what. It's all automatic and comes to $140 per person for a 12-day cruise.
EMBARKATION: was a breeze. It only took about 10 minutes. TIP: Make sure you have your luggage tags from the cruiseline on your luggage before you get to the port. That way you can just drop off your luggage and get in line right away to embark.
THE SHIP/CABINS: were in great shape. Everything was spotless. We had an inside cabin (#6371) and we found it roomier than expected, very comfortable bedding. It was also quiet. However, since it was towards the back of the ship, there were a few nights when it was very shaky, as if we were right above the engines. Next time we will choose a room more towards the middle of the ship. Shampoo and soap are provided, no conditioner.
DINING: was mostly good. The Windjammer had a nice variety of food. We usually went there for breakfast and lunch. On port days it was super crowded in the morning so the better option on those days is to go to the dining room for breakfast. You can order from the menu or eat from the breakfast buffet there. The buffet is not as varied but it's better than circling the Windjammer for 10 minutes looking for a table. The lunch menu in the dining room is the same everyday now and some complained about that. We never went there for lunch.
We had dinner in the dining room the first night and we all ordered prime rib. It was terrible, very dry. We discovered that if you order your beef medium rare, it was much more tasty and tender. After that the rest of the dining room dinner meals were pretty good. Our waiter Mary Ann and the assistant Ramzi were excellent. By the way, they no longer have midnight buffets (or even a gala buffet)and they no longer serve lobster (replaced by giant shrimp). Kind of disappointing.
One thing we thought was strange was the seating arrangement. Our group of 7 was seated with another couple. Why would you seat 7 people who are in one family with two strangers? Wouldn't it make more sense to seat them with other couples that don't know each other? Fortunately the couple was extremely nice and patient but we felt bad for them. Our parents don't speak much English so we would often speak to them in our native language and this poor couple didn't know what was going on. So if you are in a group and would prefer your own table, arrange it with the maitre d' as soon as you get onboard. On the other hand, if you are on your own, it may be good to check to see if you are seated with a group travelling together.
We didn't go to Chops or Portofino's but did try Johnny Rockets. The burgers, hot dogs, onion rings and fries were all-you-can eat and were good. The Oreo Sundays and apple pie were delicious as well. There is a $4.95 cover charge pp but we thought it was money well spent.
The Cafe Promenade is open 24 hours and had a nice variety of sandwiches, desserts and pizza.
PORTS OF CALL: We went to 7 ports of call: Naples, Ashdod, Haifa, Rhodes, Ephesus, Athens and Crete. The details are in the port reviews. They were all great and we were docked in each port.
ENTERTAINMENT: We thought the RC production shows were terrible, although older passengers seemed to enjoy them. The Ice Show was good though, amazing what those skaters can do in a small ice rink. They passed out tickets on the 2nd day during a 2-hour window and we didn't realize ALL the tickets for all 6 shows were passed out at once (which is goofy) so we didn't get any. If you don't have tickets, you can come 10 minutes before the show and if there's room they'll let you in. We were able to get in for the last show. We saw the magic show, it was ok. We wanted to see the Beatles tribute but forgot all about it. Heard it was 4 guys that were flown in and were very good. There is a small movie theater but the picture isn't very clear and they don't have popcorn available like on other cruiselines. The Sports deck has ping pong, a full basketball court, rock-climbing wall, small in-line skating area and miniature golf. Tried everything but the in-line skating and it was all good. They have a great gym onboard too. We didn't use the pools or the jacuzzis. It was sunny but cool (60's & 70's) during our cruise.
DISEMBARKATION: This is where we had trouble in Paradise. It was a total NIGHTMARE. On other cruises we've been on, they pass out a survey a few days into the cruise to find out your travel plans so they can figure out who should get off the ship first. On this cruise there was no survey. They just assigned you a colored tag with a preset time. You had the option of "express departure" where you lug your own luggage off the ship(which means you don't leave it out the night before) anytime after the ship is cleared by port authorities. That's what we opted for. Our ship was cleared at 6:45 am and everyone and their mother seemed to be on the elevators to get down to deck one to get off the ship. There were people who didn't have a flight until 2:45 pm (ours was 12:15) and they were trying to get off the ship early. It took us a good 20 minutes before we were able to get on an elevator. When we got down to deck one, there was total gridlock because they weren't letting anyone off the ship yet. Why would you make an announcement that the ship was cleared and then not let anyone off the ship?! Ridiculous! People were packed like sardines all the way up the staircase. We had to wait 30 minutes before they started letting people off the ship. It was raining really hard and that just made it even worse. There was no one directing us where to go once we got off the ship. We just followed the crowd into the cruise terminal where the luggage was but when we came outside, there were NO ONE to direct us on where to go to catch the shuttle back to the port gate. We had arranged for a driver to pick us up at 7:30 but we didn't see him among the tons of confused people everywhere. Our group was separated so that worried us too. In the end, we asked a bus driver if his bus was the free shuttle and when he said yes, we hopped on. Fortunately we were united with the rest of our group at the port gate but our driver was no where to be found. We ended up asking a very nice girl at the train ticket kiosk if we could use their phone and called the shuttle company (the same one we used to pick us up from the airport). Turns out he was waiting for us back at the cruise terminal. Had it not been so chaotic we probably would have found him before getting on the shuttle. He came to pick us up where we were at. Thank goodness, he really saved the day by not taking off even though we were 35 minutes late. However, the whole disembarkation process was so horrible that we're not sure if we will take another RC cruise for that reason alone.
One more tip: On the morning of disembarkation, if you are leaving early, don't use the safe for your cash or other valuables. It's better to bring them with you when you go to eat breakfast. We used the safe and when we returned, we couldn't get it opened. We called Maintenance and were panicking because we didn't know how long it would take to get someone to open it. We kept on trying to open it for the next 5 minutes and it finally opened. Phew. Another lesson learned...
Overall, we enjoyed the cruise and the itinerary but hope RC will make major adjustments to the disembarkation process or they will lose a lot of business.