It would be incorrect to say that our recent voyage aboard Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas was the worst cruise experience we have endured. That honor still belongs to a Carnival cruise to Mexico that we took a few years ago. This trip, however, was a far cry from the fabulous cruise experiences offered by some of the better cruise lines such as RCI's sister company, Azamara.
To be fair, RCI does not pretend to be in the same class as Azamara , Oceana or some of the other premium cruise lines. On the other hand, RCI should recognize that many of its passengers are really turned off by their al-la-carte pricing approach, by which just about everything available on board, other than the cabin and basic meals, costs extra. I spoke to dozens of passengers who felt the same as I on this subject. Also missing on this ship are some of the little things, such as having hand cream, shampoo, etc. in the cabins. This is surprising because even the lowest priced budget motels commonly make these necessities available. The ladies in our group particularly missed not having a chocolate morsel on the pillow every night. Sadly, this customer comfort is not feature that is offered on the Jewel of the Seas.
I can understand charging extra for a meal in the specialty restaurants, ($40 per person), or for a glass of beer or wine at the bar, ($7 plus 15% mandatory gratuity), but charging for a cup of espresso at dinner seems downright ridiculous. Even bottled water in the cabins was an extra charge item, ($3.95). The cruise line did come through with some free drinking water, however, when the folks in the cabin next to ours discovered that the water coming out of the faucet in their bathroom was black and foul smelling.
Another nearly universal complaint from most of the passengers I spoke with has to do with the RCI policy of strictly enforcing their ban against passengers bringing their own liquor on board. The goal is obviously to make the guests spend money in the bar but frisking passengers who come on board after a day ashore is pretty low class and does not contribute positively to a guest's cruise experience.
My wife and I like to have a glass of wine in our cabin from time to time. (On other cruise lines, we bring our favorite wines on board at the start of the cruise or pick up something interesting in the ports of call.) RCI offers some overpriced wine packages intended for guests who want wine at dinner. We purchased one of those packages but had the waiter bring us our daily bottle at the end of the meal so we could take it to our cabin. Our $135, 5 bottle package contained several wines that I have purchased previously at my local discount wine store for less than $4 a bottle. Quite a markup if you ask me.
The last three or four cruises that my wife and I have been on all provided complimentary wine or beer with lunch and dinner. The wines were not expensive but they were quite good most of the time. I think that I speak for many who cruise regularly when I say that I would prefer to pay a few dollars more for the cruise if it meant including the features mentioned above and minimizing the number of times that I have to reach into my wallet while onboard.
Our week on the Jewel of the seas was not all bad. I would like to make it very clear that while many of RCI's policies are objectionable, the staff on this ship was excellent. Almost without exception, every crew member I met was friendly and happy to do just about anything to help ensure their guest's comfort. The ship itself was spotless and well maintained. Our cabin was small and spartan, but comfortable. There were plenty of onboard activities designed to keep the campers busy.
I have been told that the evening's entertainment was very good. Unfortunately, since we had the 8:30 seating for dinner, by the time we were finished eating, we were usually too tired to go see the shows. This ship offered two meal seatings, 5:30, which is too early and 8:30 which is too late. It was somewhat disappointing that this ship did not offer an "open seating" option in the dining room.
I did get to enjoy some of the other shipboard entertainment, however. Several excellent musicians and bands played throughout the day in the small venues. Some of these entertainers were so good that I would have happily paid to see them perform on land.
Our cruise traveled from Boston to Halifax, Nova Scotia, the last week of October. We had hoped that we would be treated to some spectacular fall foliage while visiting the ports of call. Apparently 2011 was a subpar year, foliage-wise. The locals said that the warm wet weather just prior to the foliage season caused many of the trees to go from green to brown without putting on much of a show. Every now and then we would run into a tree or two that did not get the memo about this being a muted color year. These trees were spectacular. I can only imagine what this region must look like during a good foliage season.
We stayed in Boston for two days prior to boarding the ship. I had injured my leg a couple of days before this trip so waking around Boston and the other towns we were going to visit promised to be a bit of a challenge. While in Boston, we purchased a two day pass on the Old Town Trolley, which allowed us on and off privileges anywhere along the tour route. Given my gimpy status, this was a lifesaver. We were able to tour Boston at our leisure, getting off the trolley to check out individual sites whenever we wanted. This trolley even has a route that goes near the cruise terminal. The driver was kind enough to take us and our luggage all the way to the ship. Very impressive. I highly recommend that anyone visiting Boston consider including an Old Town Trolley tour as part of their visit.
Even without the fall foliage, we enjoyed our visits ashore in most of the ports. Fortunately, just as in Boston, we discovered some excellent and reasonably priced "Trolley" tours in Portland and Bar Harbor. The drivers took us around the towns and to places far beyond walking distance for even the healthiest of tourists. Throughout the tours the drivers pointed out the interesting and historical places while providing an entertaining narration.
As is the case with all vacations, this one eventually came to an end. The last night we went to the onboard shops looking for a suitable gift for the neighbor who had been watching our pets while we were away. We settled on a nice bottle of Scotch. Not being Scotch drinkers we asked the shop keeper for a recommendation. He was quite helpful and given that they had signs all over the place guarantying that their prices were guarantied to be the lowest anywhere, we felt good about our purchase.
When we returned home we went shopping at our local Trader Joes and were surprised to find that this store sold the same bottle of Scotch for about 20% less. Costco was even lower, beating the Trader Joe's price by several dollars. So much for the "Lowest Prices Anywhere". It was only about ten dollars but I really hate getting ripped off. If you get nothing else of value out of this review, hopefully you will learn from our mistake and stear clear of the shipboard vendors on RCI cruises.
So how would I rate this cruise? I would give the ports of call a solid 7, interesting but not anything that would blow you away. The exception is Boston, which deserves a 10+. We will certainly be returning to Boston again one of these days as landlubber tourists. The other ports are a bit touristy, especially if you limit your visit to the places close to the cruise terminal.
The Jewel of the Seas is a decent ship. A little big for my taste, but other than no open seating at dinner, it was OK. I would give it a 7 as well. The staff and crew get solid 10s, as does the shipboard entertainment that we were able to see.
The food was variable, sometimes excellent and sometimes barely edible. At one dinner the chef's recommendation was French onion soup. Most of the people at our table ordered it. No one ate more than a couple spoonfuls. If you like your beef medium rare, be sure to order medium, as the kitchen's idea of medium rare is basically slightly warmed up raw meat. Not once during the week did a baked potato arrive at our table fully cooked.
On the positive side, most of the fish entries were quite good as was just about everything served in the Windjammer buffet. I particularly enjoyed the simple fish and chips served in the the snack bar on the top deck at the stern of the ship. I am not much of a desert fan but for those who are, this ship will be heaven. The reports I received from the desert eaters was that every offering was better than the next. I even tried a few and they were great.
Assuming that all the ships in the RCI stable exercise the same passenger unfriendly policies that we experienced on this trip, I have to give the RCI line a 3 and that is probably a bit generous. With all the great cruising options out there, it is highly unlikely that we will find ourselves on another RCI ship anytime soon.
This is by far the most negative cruise review that I have ever written. That is unfortunate, but I call 'em as I see 'em. Hopefully someone from RCI will read this and take note.